Gentlemen Prefer Scotch: Spirited Rally

  • Malcolm McKay

The roads range from tiny, twisting, uneven single-track mountain passes to smooth, deserted highways that sweep through the heather. The mountains reach above the clouds and are reflected in deep gray-blue lochs. Sandy beaches are empty and glorious in the warm sunshine, and fairy-tale white castles glisten in that same sun as pipers play their bagpipes to wandering peacocks. Guests are welcomed into homey local hotels where they are treated more like family than passing visitors.
Five days of rallying through the Scottish countryside convinced us that this land is the most wonderful place in the world to enjoy driving a classic car. It is no wonder, then, that the Scottish Malts Reliability Trial (or simply, the Malts), an event renowned for offering a high level of competition and a first-class social agenda, has become such a mainstay on the U.K. historic rally calendar since its inception in 1998.

The event, which took place in May this year but will be held in September in 2004, is hosted by the Historic Endurance Rallying Organisation (HERO). It invites all of the two-person crews who participate to test their driving skills and to enjoy two of Scotland’s finest attributes: the aforementioned incomparable scenery, and single-malt whisky.

Of course, malt whisky and driving do not mix, and the event regulations strictly forbid the consumption of any alcohol during the day. Instead, evening receptions—this year’s included a dinner at the imposing Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and a Highland banquet at Scotland’s premier ski resort, Aviemore—ensure that all have ample opportunity to sample the malts when away from the wheel. An innovation at this year’s rally was the presentation of commemorative malts racks, in which participants can display the miniatures they collected from each distillery along the rally route.


Although fewer than 100 malt whisky distilleries remain operational in Scotland, their output is astounding. Indeed, it is said that if all of the whisky stored in bonded warehouses in Scotland were sold at once, the duty from it would pay off Britain’s national debt several times over. Among the distilleries visited by the Malts rally this year were Glenturret, the oldest working distillery in Scotland and home of The Famous Grouse; Glenmorangie, which produces Scotland’s most popular single malts; Dalmore, located on the Cromarty Firth where oil rigs are moored; Glenfarclas and The Macallan on Speyside; and Royal Lochnagar, located within the British royal family’s Balmoral estate.
 
Many of Scotland’s distilleries date to the 17th century, and rally participants were offered additional tastes of Scottish history with visits to the pure white Blair Castle, the ancient residence of the dukes of Athol and home to Europe’s only permitted private army, and Scone Palace, the traditional site for the coronation of Scottish kings.

Primarily, however, the Malts is a competition: Miss one checkpoint during that day’s 200- to 250-mile drive, or arrive at a checkpoint later than your maximum time allowance, and your chances of winning a major trophy virtually evaporate. Although the event is perfectly suited to novices, experienced hands usually take the top honors because they have honed the required skills.

Anyone with a driving license can compete in the Malts; no competition experience is required. For the 2004 edition, cars must have been built before the end of 1975. Although the cars should be in roadworthy condition, no special preparation is required. In fact, the cars cannot be significantly modified from their original specifications. For drivers, a stopwatch is essential, and a supplementary trip meter (either a period Halda or a contemporary Brantz or one similar) is a huge benefit.
The lineup of cars that competed in this year’s event ranged in age from a 1924 Bentley from Wales to a 1974 Alfa Romeo Montreal. There was a Morris Minor and a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud drophead coupe as well as a number of Jaguars, MGs, Triumphs, and Austin-Healeys. Only the true car cognoscenti would have been able to identify the Malts’ rarest marques: a Frazer Nash Targa Florio and a Denzel 1500.


At dawn on a mid-May day, the lord provost dropped the starter’s flag as 95 of these magnificent machines departed Edinburgh Castle and headed out through the imposing surroundings of the Royal Mile, Princes Street, and Edinburgh’s Georgian terraces toward the Forth Bridge and rural Fife. Soon we were enjoying our first taste of competition: driving at set speeds through the lanes and flat-out on private roads. Moving at a cracking pace over the next five days, the rally headed north into the Highlands, dropping in at distilleries and castles on its way to Aviemore, then to Wick and Thurso on the far north coast, then via the far northwest coast back to Inverness. We traveled on to Aberdeen through the Spey valley, home of more distilleries and salmon than anyone can imagine, before returning southward to the finish at Scone Palace near Perth.

During each day’s journey, competition takes place in the form of time trials and driving tests. The time trials require drivers, governed by checkpoints at unspecified spots along the route, to maintain a predetermined average speed—usually around 30 mph—through twisty mountain roads or mazes of tiny lanes. With times recorded to the second, penalty-free runs are virtually impossible, but the most skilled crews expect to average one second above or below the allotted time for each checkpoint. A driver who arrives at a checkpoint more than 20 seconds outside of the due time—just once—forfeits his chance to garner a gold medal, the event’s ultimate accolade.

The driving tests may be located on the grounds of stately homes, on private farm roads, or around distilleries and warehouses—wherever a complex, fast, and safe route can be laid out with the aid of cones, barrels, and stop-astride lines. During these tests, cars are assessed only against others in their class, with the fastest scoring zero and the others receiving a score that reflects the difference between their time and the fastest car’s time. The so-called gold standard (usually 10 to 20 seconds) is the margin within which a crew must finish to retain its chance of claiming a gold medal. It may sound easy, but after five days, only two cars remained within the gold standard. An average of three time trials and three driving tests a day keep the competitive pressure high, but the strategically chosen route allows plenty of opportunities during the day to stop for lunch or for a quick coffee and cake.


As for the wee drams, however, those must wait until the evening.

September Trial For 2004, the Scottish Malts Reliability Trial will be held at the end of the summer, as it was in 2001. The dates are September 12 through 17.

For those who prefer more shopping and sight-seeing time, the Scottish Malts Classic Car Tour, an event introduced in 2003, will again be held concurrent with the reliability trial. The classic car tour will cover a shorter route and will not include any competitions. Last year’s inaugural tour drew 18 cars, from a 1929 Lancia Lambda to a modern replica of a Jaguar XK140. It even included one couple in an MGA enjoying their honeymoon.
 
Complete details about the Scottish Malts and HERO’s other events, including the Irish Trial and Tour, a new addition for 2004 that will be held April 19 through 24, can be found at www.hero.org.uk or by calling +44.1886.833.505.

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