BIG READ: Meet the motorists with a need for far more than speed

Jo and Rhys Williams competing in a nighttime navigational competition in East Hampshire
Jo and Rhys Williams competing in a nighttime navigational competition in East Hampshire
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Kick-started in 1931, Southsea Motor Club has evolved into one of the most highly-regarded clubs of its kind in the country  

There it goes, inconspicuously humming along one of the many byroads which sew rural Hampshire together. 

Jo Williams with the Maybury Trophy for overall driver of the year at Southsea Motoring Club

Jo Williams with the Maybury Trophy for overall driver of the year at Southsea Motoring Club

To fellow motorists, this modest, 17-year-old Rover 25 is simply another car rolling from point A to point B. It's adhering to the speed limit – it's not screaming for attention. 

But inside its steely, silver shell sit husband and wife team Rhys and Jo Williams, who are members of the popular Southsea Motor Club (SMC). 

It's just after 7pm and this outing, says father-of-two Rhys, 35, is a 'date night with a difference'. 

Unlike their counterparts off to the supermarket, the pub or their local curryhouse, this pair are competing in one of the club's many navigational events. Jo is driving, Rhys is navigating. 

Elegantly-dressed members of Southsea Motor Club on Southsea Common in 1952

Elegantly-dressed members of Southsea Motor Club on Southsea Common in 1952

An hour ago they were handed a sealed envelope by one of the fixture's organisers, inside is the motorist's equivalent of a broker's tip-sheet. 

Often comprising instructions in the form of grid references, co-ordinates or cryptic sets of Roman numerals, this is their guide for the night as they trudge not merely from A to B –but from A to L, with 12 checkpoints along the way. 

Their goal is to decipher and follow the outlined route using their clues and an Ordnance Survey map, all the while maintaining a constant average speed dependent on legal, local limits. 

They mustn't visit any stretch of road twice, they have to follow their paper guidance to the very fine print and – with their 11 fellow competitors setting off on the same journey at different intervals throughout the evening – they won't know if they've secured victory until the adventure draws to an end. 

'We always say you never know how you've done until it all comes out in the wash,' says Rhys. 

'The excitement of a navigational event doesn't come from travelling at breakneck speeds, it's all about anticipation. Speed is relative here.

'It's like trying to complete a quiz in the car while orienteering in the dark. It's highly tactical. 

'Some sections of motor sport are very financial and winners can be decided by whoever has the biggest budget – but this throws that out the window. 

'If you've got the skill to succeed, I truly believe you can win in any car.' 

This mantra is what earned the couple back-to-back navigational triumphs at the tail end of 2017, as well as the accolades they have picked up as individuals – including Jo's 2016 overall club driver of the year award. 

In earning it, the 34-year-old became one of, if not the very first woman to have her named etched on to the coveted Maybury Trophy – which has been around for the best part of the SMC's life, since it began in 1931.  

Its six founding stalwarts, long-standing members believe, kick-started it to impress women working at Handley's – a bustling Southsea department store where Debenhams now straddles Palmerston Road and Osborne Road. 

And while events like those Rhys and Jo enjoy travel at a sociable speed, these young enthusiasts built their passion on the pursuit of sheer velocity, particularly as spectators through fixtures like the first Southsea Speed Carnival in 1922 – which saw the seafront play host to a coastal sprint. 

Among the competitors that year was 27-year-old Count Louis Zborowski and his 23-litre Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which later had its exploits immortalised in a movie and an Ian Fleming tome of the same name. 

Sadly, while the Count only lived to see two more years after that – dying when he hit a tree during the 1924 Italian Grand Prix – legacies like his only inspired the SMC to grow. 

What started early as organised sprints along the early Highbury Grove estate in Cosham (helped by the fact the club's president was also Portsmouth's chief of police), has now evolved into a limited company with a calendar jam-packed with events – enjoyed by families, couples, youngsters and motor sport lovers from across Hampshire and beyond. 

So inclusive and bright-eyed is its output, that it was even crowned Club of the Year by the Motor Sport Association in 2017. 

That achievement, 63-year-old club chairman Keith Shepherd will be among the first to say, is one of 'immense pride'. 

'When we were first told we'd won in early November, we really couldn't believe it. It was a great feeling', he says. 

'There is a lot of criteria you have to match up to to be in with a chance of securing victory and we had a really good go at achieving that. 

'We've had a few cracks before and not really known where we've ended up. So to get it under our belts now – not least up against nearly 700 other clubs – is quite amazing.' 

And what is abundantly clear, even as club members relish in their collective spoils, is that complacency is not on the cards. 

With the majority of its events now staged across East Hampshire – testament to its outgrowing of humble Southsea – the SMC is only banking on getting bigger and better. 

Thomas Alderton, 19, joined the club two years ago. He says: 'I'm relatively new to the mix, but what is clear is how focused the club runners are on recruiting families, couples and keen younger drivers like me signed up, and that's the way forward. 

'That inclusive aspect is what makes the SMC so much more than just a group of people who like cars – and I'm really excited to see what it will continue to grow into and achieve.'

Annual membership fees for the Southsea Motor Club start at £12 for under-21s, £18 for adults and £25 for families and couples. 

Go to  southseamotorclub.co.uk. 

Pedals to the metal now, ladies  

Since then she has scored herself an array of victories – including the highest solo honour of all   the Maybury Trophy for the overall driver of the year. 

Now, with her name etched into the history of the SMC, she wants to see the club shatter social constructs and produce more female champions. 

'There's a certain expectation that women should be in the passenger seat and men should drive,' she explains. 

'But my husband knows I would never have done this as a navigator. 

'My grandmother was a rally driver   one of the founders of the Tavistock and District Motor Club, in fact –  and so was my auntie. So I suppose this is in my blood. 

'I love what I do and it would be fantastic to see more women get involved.' 

But given there is no 'I' in team after all, the 34-year-old revels in the wins she has sealed with her partner's help too. 

'When we first started we did argue quite a bit,' she explains . 

'But we know each other really well, so it was only a matter of time before we built up a certain standard of teamwork.' 

Rhys, an electrical engineer, takes a mutual pride in what he has achieved by his wife's side. 

He says: 'Jo is a very competent and competitive driver and it's great fun to be able to enjoy my passion for motor sport with her. 

'It has been testing at times, but that's all part of the fun of it.' 

What other events do members of Southsea Motor Club enjoy? 

Enthralling as they are, the club calendar is about much more than navigational rallies alone. 

Members lap up opportunities to take part in hill climbs, autotests, trials, sprints and autocross fixtures –  stemming from a grassroots level right up to the international stage. 

And it's not just the competitors who keep these outings ticking over. Marshals and officials play a crucial role in getting the SMC show on the road throughout the year.

Additionally, the collective as a whole socialises at 8.30pm on the first Monday of every month – meeting to talk tactics over a brew at The Roebuck Inn at Droxford Road, Wickham.

To learn more, contact SMC  secretary Shane Dennis on  (023) 9259 5498 between 9am and 9pm.