Any Brit with even a passing interest in the great outdoors or PE will have heard of the National Three Peaks Challenge. Nowadays it’s championed by squads of ruddy-faced ramblers with predilections for primary colours and plastic jackets aiming to trudge Blighty’s highest hills in under 24 hours. But back in the 60s and 70s, when the media had a more Laissez-faire approach to road safety and speeding, keen fell runners hoped to tick off the peaks in half that time. You see the key problem in any record attempt wasn’t the climbs themselves, it was the 500 miles of dreary tarmac that your support driver would have to blat through.

In 1971 legendary fell runner, Joss “hard as” Nailer, teamed up with rally driver Frank Davies who just happened to have the keys for an AutoVita Developments 3.0 litre V6 mk1 Capri fitted with a 100 litre long-range fuel cell, racing seats and precious little else. And thanks to Frank’s high-speed taxi service Joss conquered the three peaks in just 11 hours 56 minutes, a record that still stands to this day.

Fell_run_1971

Nowaday, for obvious reasons, Guinness won’t touch it; but we wouldn’t let that stop us reinventing a petrol-powered equivalent as an excuse  to stretch the shapely legs of the 3.7-litre Morgan Roadster we’d blagged for the week. Could we complete the Three Peaks Challenge – driving the highest roads in Scotland, England and Wales – back to back, non-stop, in just a single day?

At 8.00am, on what the forecasters had promised to be a bright July morning, the weather was decidedly dreich. Leaning on the long louvred bonnet of our mist-bound Morgan, nursing the tepid teas we’d panhandled from the Antipodeans in the VW Camper parked next to us, we couldn’t see much above the roof of the Glenshee Ski Centre where a flaccid banner declared that it had been “Going downhill for 50 years.” Amongst the assembled groups of cagoule-clad outdoorists we both felt conspicuously urbane; Rich, who proudly asserts that “he doesn’t do sports” was starting to feel the cold as the relentless drizzle seeped through his tank top, ‘angry olive’ corduroys and began to fill his racing brogues. Sated with tea we agreed it was time to seek sanctuary in the dark cosseted interior of the Moggie, whacked up the heater to gas mark 8 and set forth to conquer Britain’s loftiest highways.

The pistes of Glenshee flank the highest public road in Britain, as the new A93 Braemar road rises to 670m above sea level through the Cairnwell Pass. Climbing to the road’s summit presented no problem for our Roadster; the Cairnwell Pass is now a broad, well-surfaced artery winding through desolate U-shaped valleys (if you’ve seen Skyfall then you’ll know exactly what I mean). However, as we were here, we decided to one small detour to track down the ghostly remnants of the old military road that was the only way through here until the late 1960s.

Sneaking through a gap in the new road’s Armco, we tiptoed the Roadster around the potholes, scree and weeds that peppered the broken old tarmac. With necks craning around each apex, even though the last traffic passed through decades ago, it was great to get a taste of what must have been one of the most treacherous stretches of road in the British Isles. With gradients nudging 1 in 3 in places, vintage buses often had to shed weight by chucking off their passengers who then trudged to the top on foot. There was even a well built nearby, maintained by AA patrolmen, just to cool overheated engines. The most notorious section of this old route was known as the Devil’s Elbow; its tight steep-sloped hairpins even featured in postcards, often showing the same poor bloke in a pre-war Morris beached at a crazy angle.

To comfortably cover these big distances and climb Britain’s highest roads in style, we’d borrowed the flagship in Morgan’s traditional model line-up: their 3.7-litre Roadster. Part classic Morgan, part Ford Mustang; we’d christened our handbuilt two-seater the “Morstang.” The Sport Red left-hand-drive demonstrator was, pretty much, basic factory spec; this worryingly meant no stereo … Rich’s hummed version of the Mull of Kintyre bagpipe solo was already starting to grate! Even the most diehard Morganorak will admit that a factory- fresh Moggie is still a ‘work in progress,’ and when we started to see one side of our engine cover lifting slightly at speed we thought we’d better stop to investigate. Typically, muggins was left to scavenge a bolt from a Land Rover dealer and fix the wobbly bonnet catch, while Rich grabbed a Scottish breakfast (i.e. microwaved pasty with a Kit Kat chaser) and perused the garage’s “art pamphlets.”

It was a long slog from the Cairngorms to the heather-clad hills of the North Pennines. Two days earlier, I’d piloted this 280bhp tail-happy Roadster around the greasy streets near Morgan HQ with all the bravery of an Italian cruise ship captain. Now that we had dialled ourselves in to its quirky handling, old- school ergonomics and its lazy low-down torque we were flying through the Cumbrian fells as the sun finally broke through the clouds. I think Clarkson got it just about right when he said that the traditional Morgan was “As fine a British institution as cold showers and buggery, and about as comfortable … it’s an antiquated indulgence that you shouldn’t want but absolutely will the second you step aboard.”

In the past I’d been rather dismissive of the Americans’ sledgehammer approach to engine building; as a boy in the early ‘80s, when my technical knowledge was limited to what could be gleaned from a set of Top Trumps, I could never understand why things like the Camaros’ 5.0-litre V8 only belched out 165 asthmatic horses. Fortunately, times have changed; Ford’s new high-tech V6 is their first six-cylinder capable of 300bhp and 30mpg. The Roadster sits neatly in the Morgan range in terms of power, performance and price. £45,900 buys you the basic two-seater; if you absolutely must bring the ankle biters on your Sunday morning blasts, for an extra five grand, the chaps at Pickersleigh Road will whittle out two additional rear seats. Personally, I’d trouser the savings and encourage the kids to have a lie-in.

By early afternoon we had reached our planned lunch stop in the pretty cobbled streets of Alston, Northumberland. At about 300m above sea level Alston is the highest market town in England. However, chatting with the landlord over our bar meal we discovered that Alston’s more surreal claim to fame, as featured in a Channel 4 documentary, is that its male to female ratio was the UK’s most disproportionate. According to surveys started in one of the town’s boozers (admittedly, never the most accurate statistical source) the lonely local lads were, at one time, competing for ladies at a ratio of 17:1. This then sparked a heated debate among the half-cut regulars, who’d clearly been enjoying an extended liquid-lunch; the local butcher, a self proclaimed ladies-man, dismissed this story as utter sweetmeats, boasting that he’d “got married just last year…” adding, several seconds later, without a hint of humour “… to a woman!”

It was only a short drive up through Alston Moor to the watershed of Cumbria and Weardale. At the Killhope Pass a medieval stone cross marks the old county border and England’s highest public road at an altitude of 627m. The gentle ascent and rolling hills makes this the least dramatic of the three peaks. However, it is the descent that really makes this drive worthwhile. The series of tight Alpinesque switchbacks begin near “England’s Highest Cafe” – a Mecca for local motorcyclists; perched 580m above sea level on Hartside Top, the A686 then snakes down the Hartside Pass in a series of sweeping blind bends, allowing a breathtaking view across to the Solway Firth and back towards Scotland. Throughout the descent the Morgan’s exhausts popped and gurgled on overrun; at idle the Roadster’s twin oval tailpipes burble with a restrained basso profundo, but as the road flattened out and we wound the V6 towards its 7000rpm redline, it became a harsher, more metallic, howl. We loved it; the sheep didn’t.

After some concessions to the EU’s smog cops the Morgan’s V6, in standard specification, pumps out a hearty 280bhp. However, this Morgan is more than 600kg lighter than the Pony Car the engine was liberated from; a quick bit of Googling tells me that’s the same as an F1 race car, a fully grown polar bear or four Greggs employees. If you gave the old girl ‘all the berries’ she’d hit 60mph in just 5.5 seconds, and on to a top speed of 140mph if you could stand the wind-noise. As Rich pointed out, the last time the Yanks lent the Brits this much firepower the Nazis lost their gîtes in Normandy.

By late afternoon we knew that reaching our final Welsh peak in the mountains of southern Snowdonia, before we completely lost the light, was going to be tight. Hugging the north shore of Bala Lake we eventually found our way up the single-track lanes towards, what the English once called, the Hellfire Pass (due to the hordes of leek-wielding bandits that once roamed these parts). Better known by the locals as Bwlch-y-Groes, meaning Pass of the Cross, the damp scree-strewn track rose quickly with gradients touching 1 in 4 in places. In the Middle Ages this was part of the Pilgrims’ Trail from North Wales to St. David’s in the south; an iron cross just beneath of the summit commemorates where the penitent masses would have passed.

Parked at the 545m summit of Bwlch-y-Groes we reflected that our pilgrimage to Britain’s three highest passes had also come to an end. In stark contrast to our medieval forefathers our greatest concerns were poor lighting for photos, mildewed corduroy and a depleted stock of Pringles. The Morgan had performed magnificently – it might not have been the most luxurious grand tourer we could have chosen, but I’m certain it was the prettiest. Also, forget what I said earlier about our Morgan’s lack of in-car-entertainment; with the benefit of hindsight we wouldn’t have specced a stereo anyway, because, let’s be honest, nothing the wireless could ever offer would have competed with our Morstang’s glorious V6 bellow as it echoed off the sides of Britain’s highest glens, valleys and cwm.

RoadtoLakeVyrnwy

(Photos by Dr. O)

2 Responses

  1. Kimberley

    A proper Automotive Adventure. More please fellas. What’s the recond north to south or east west?

    Reply
  2. John S

    Been wanting an excuse to do Lands End to John O’Groats for years! We’ll give it some thought

    Reply

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