Up, Up and Away
Britain’s first ever off-road expedition happened years before 4x4s were invented. It turned the Ford Model T into the car that climbed Ben Nevis… and inspired intrepid off-roaders to mount assaults on the highest peak in the land for generations to come
If you’ve been living in a cave for the last few months, you may have managed to avoid hearing the news that this year is the hundredth anniversary of the Ford Motor Company. Big deal, you might say: what has Ford ever done for off-roading?
In America, of course, the famous blue oval badge has appeared on any number of massively popular 4x4s and pick-up trucks. Over here, however, the company’s biggest contribution in recent times has been to get together with Nissan in the badge-engineering exercise that created 1993’s near-identical Maverick and Terrano II.
The Terrano lives on even now, but today’s Maverick is an anonymous soft-roader designed in tandem with Ford’s stablemate Mazda. It’s not the contents of its showrooms, however that tell the story of the company’s contribution to the history of off-roading in Britain – a contribution which, when it happened, was as pioneering as it was unique.
As part of Ford’s centenary celebrations, the company commissioned a set of seven hand-made replicas of the famous Model T, which were unveiled earlier this spring. The vehicle’s place in motoring history is assured, of course; but among all its achievements, the Model T has an off-road pedigree its 4x4 brethren in Ford’s century-long model line-up would be proud of.
Thanks to the Model T, Britain’s first-ever off-road expedition happened decades before the term ‘Jeep’ was coined. The first Land Rover was still more than 35 years away. In fact, Queen Victoria was still fresh in people’s memories. Yet the event was originally contrived as nothing more than a publicity stunt.
The man behind it was one Henry Alexander, owner of a Ford dealership in England. Whether the thought was his alone, or suggested to him by friends, colleagues or customers, is something that is likely to remain forever shrouded in the mists of time. Either way, however, Alexander came up with the idea of driving a Model T up the highest peak in the United Kingdom.
Rising to 4406 feet in height, Ben Nevis stands about four miles inland from the town of Fort William. Look on a map of Britain, and you’ll see that although it’s in the Highlands, it’s not actually all that far north. It’s by no means the most savage of Scotland’s mountains, either – though every year, unwary hillwalkers get into life-threatening danger after failing to treat it with enough respect.
Being so close to the sea means that scaling the Ben is not just a business of striking out from some high-level base camp. You really can climb from zero altitude to the top of Britain, should you want to – though many walkers follow the road up Glen Nevis that leads to a car park from which every year, thousands set off to follow the rough track that zig-zags up the mountain’s southern flank.
This track is occasionally, erroneously referred to as a ‘road.’ Even when it was new, it was no such thing – although it did service the observatory that once stood at the top of the mountain, the materials for whose construction were carried up the same track in an era when powered flight was still many decades in the future.
Instead, the ‘road’ is little more than a rocky footpath, and certainly not the sort of place you’d want to take even a well prepared 4x4. Apart from the extreme nature of the terrain, there’s the small matter of a sheer drop to one side – go over the edge here, and you won’t stop rolling until you get to the bottom of the valley below. Yet long before off-roaders were invented, and more than three and a half decades before the first Land Rover saw the light of day, Henry Alexander Jnr resolved to pit a Model T against what must then have been the ultimate off-road challenge; he was, he declared, going to drive up the Ben.
To this day, there have only been eight successful attempts to put vehicles on the summit of Ben Nevis. Each has taken a slightly different route, and the first challenge for Alexander was to decide exactly how he should attack the mountain. Not on its upper slopes, where the treacherous little track is emphatically the only option, even if you’re on foot. No, Alexander knew how he was going to try and get up the mountain – but first, he had to try and get to the mountain.
Although the ‘road’ up Ben Nevis starts west of the mountain near Achintee, the majority of vehicular attempts have started north-east of Fort William and approached from the north. That’s because the track is just too severe as it zig-zags sharply back and forth to gain height on the mountain’s lower slopes; the only answer is to cross the valley between Ben Nevis itself and the smaller peak of Meall an t’Suidhe to its west, joining the track somewhere south of Lochan Meall an t’Suidhe (a small lake in the valley) before girding your loins in preparation for your final assault on the summit.
The problem is, however, that in keeping with much of the flat ground in the Highlands, the area around the lochan is wet and marshy all year round. Just as the rocks on the track further up will put tremendous pressure on your vehicle’s suspension, the soft peat will ask searching questions of its tyres.
There’s some debate over the exact route Alexander took on his epic adventure of 1911. Some say he started at Inverlochy, just outside Fort William, while others maintain that his quest began at Torlundy, about two and a half miles further up what’s now the A82. The latter route would have required a couple of river crossings, which might have been rather off-putting at the time of year (the attempt took place on 15 April); some may have confused Alexander’s starting point with that used by the Scottish Land Rover Club in its successful attempt of 1963.
Either way, what’s known is that Alexander aimed to keep the lochan to his left as he gained height, taking advantage of the drier ground on the eastern slopes of Meall an t’Suidhe. Even so, the Model T got bogged twice, each time requiring a team of helpers to drag it out of the soaking peat.
Finally, Alexander reached the track. It’s likely that the Model T put its wheels on the roughly prepared surface just south of the lochan; and from here on, its suspension came into its own.
Even today, transverse leaf springs are used to extraordinary effect on some of America’s top rock-crawling specials. On the Model T, they provided it with the ability to ‘twist and clamber on all fours catwise,’ as the records say – despite only having 20bhp, the Ford managed to keep moving until, after 27 hours’ driving, Henry Alexander Jnr became the first man to put a car in the summit of Ben Nevis.
It’s reported that when he returned to Fort William, he was given a hero’s reception. The normally reserved Highlanders had taken this incomer to their hearts, and clearly the feeling was mutual – because seventeen and a half years later, he was back to try again.
This time, the vehicle he had to promote was the Ford Model A. And this time, perhaps sobered by the experience of getting stuck in the marshy land by the lochan, he decided that he was going to stick to the ‘road’ all the way from ground level.
Of course, Alexander already knew that the lower reaches of the couldn’t be driven. But he wasn’t about to let a little thing like that get in his way. So, with a team of thirty navvies and horses, he set out to turn the undriveable track into a road fit for a new Model A.
Thus 13 September 1928 might go down in history as Britain’s first lane clearance day. Rebuilding bridges, filling gullies and even blasting corners, Alexander’s team prepared the road as they went, allowing their illustrious master to pilot his new vehicle to the top in ten hours flat.
Once again, Alexander’s return to Fort William was greeted with celebrations. But the following month, George Simpson travelled north in a middle-aged Austin Seven and, taking advantage of the work done by Alexander’s crew, drove straight to the top in a time of just under seven and a half hours. The story is still told today that the vehicle was virtually carried to the summit by crowds of hillwalkers, but this seems highly unlikely given the presence of George Douglas, an official timekeeper from
the Scottish Western Motor Club. Photographs of the ascent do show that the tiny vehicle was pushed by its navigator on some of the steeper sections, but there’s no evidence to suggest any greater level of assistance, and it would have been somewhat peculiar for Douglas to let this to go unrecorded in his report.
The stage was now set for Ben-bagging to become a craze, but for some reason it never happened. Perhaps Simpson’s achievement had made it look as if driving the Ben was no longer a challenge, but there were no further intrepid drivers ready to step up and try to scale Britain’s highest peak – and as time went on, the condition of the track started to deteriorate.
By the time of the next attempt, indeed, the route around Lochan Meall an t’Suidhe was once more the only feasible way of getting to the upper slopes. Three decades of ferocious West Highland weather had done their worst, and the track was no longer in any fit state to accommodate vehicles – not even the new breed of four-wheel drive off-roaders that had started to appear in the wake of the American army’s vastly popular Jeep.
As it was, however, the Ben was conquered twice in a week in June 1962, first by an Austin Gypsy and then by an Austin Champ, before the Scottish Land Rover Owners Club managed to put an 88-inch Series II on the summit at the second attempt the following year. Since then, only two further successful attempts have been made; Iain Sutherland scaled the mountain in an 80-inch Series I in 1984 and Mick Doherty (who served as Clerk of Course at the recent Highland Military Challenge) broke George Simpson’s record by putting a heavily modified 90 on the roof of Britain in just over four hours in 1992.
Thus the modern era of vehicular assaults on Ben Nevis came to an end. With local landowners normally unwilling to grant access, and the track getting worse all the time, it’s probable that Doherty’s attempt will be the last.
Still, never say never. The mountain has recently become the property of a trust set up to maintain it for all, and charities with influential patrons can open doors that seemed locked shut when it comes to setting up what would be the modern equivalent of Henry Alexander’s original publicity stunts.
Besides, who would have thought that in 2003, to celebrate its centenary, Ford would put the Model T back into production? It might be pushing the point somewhat to say that that’s what’s happened, but those seven new vehicles are not replicas – they’re real Model Ts.
Each of the new Model Ts is identical in every way to the car in which Alexander first scaled Ben Nevis. Each is of course also priceless, so you won’t be seeing one crawling catwise up Britain’s highest slopes. But the very existence of these vehicles shows that you should always expect the unexpected.
And besides, there’s no such thing as impossible. If there had been, on the 15th April 1911, Henry Alexander would have spent the day at home.
Words Chris James