Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Those Magnificent Men In Their Driving Machines

My good friend Neil has owned his Lotus Sunbeam for 18 years. For those readers not acquainted with the wide variety of slightly rubbish British cars of the 1970s and 1980s, this was actually a half-decent version of the otherwise iffy Talbot Sunbeam (with apologies right at the start to all Sunbeam owners who might read this. I’m sure one of the brethren I’m about to write about is even now saying to his screen, “aye, but it managed 2000+ miles round Europe without missing a beat did it not?!").

When I say half-decent, clearly that doesn’t extend to aircon, power steering, ABS, or any other driver aids, but with 199 horsepower on a car weighing unless 1 tonne, there are compensations.  

Anyway, in Neil’s 18 year ownership, and the car’s 37 year existence, it had clocked up the not-very-heady sum of 35,000ish miles at the start of the trip I’m about to describe – but not as a diary, don’t fret. That’s obviously less than 1,000 a year. It – and it is an it, not a ‘her’; no anthropomorphism here – covered 2,300ish in a week on our trip.  A trip organised by ‘ASOC’ (the Avenger & Sunbeam Owners Club) that I became aware of last summer, when Neil invited me to join him. And I love a road trip, so, I thought, why the heck not?

In the end, there were five cars on the trip. Well, five at its peak. Four at the start, due to a late joiner, five for 1 glorious day, and then back to four when a catalogue of problems forced a withdrawal. Three were Avengers, two were Sunbeams. A quick namecheck for all the participants: your correspondent, Neil, Mike, Roy, Russell, Catherine, Phil and Alison. Fair to say that of the seven participants, six had a greater interest in the cars than me. Not that I had none – a small part of the reason for saying yes to Neil was that I spent a happy summer (1983) driving Peugeot Talbot cars between their dealerships, including said Sunbeam.

So while I like a roadtrip, normally I like to trip in vaguely reliable, vaguely comfortable cars, which these, compared to modern cars, most assuredly were not (cue more protests from their owners). It was inevitable, therefore, that I had to ask all the owners the question “why?”. Why do you own these things, why do you spend money on them, and why in God’s name are you undertaking a multi-thousand kilometre trip round Europe in them?

The answer appeared to be straightforward in most cases: it’s the car of my youth/that was the first one I owned/that I passed my driving test in. And yet I think there’s a bit more to it than that, and the pattern of our days gave me some clues as to what those extra bits were/are:

Day 1: Zeebrugge to Metz, via Spa motor-racing circuit
The highlight of the day was undoubtedly a fabulous 3 hour visit to Spa, where as well as a guided tour of all the bits you see on telly (podium, pits etc), we got to do 2 laps of the deceiving hilly circuit in our vehicles.  But it was our tour guide at Spa that gave me the hints as to why my lot loved the whole car culture so much. We never did know his name – even his email was just (or something similar) – international man of mystery, ageing lothario, ex-racing driver, current-louche, possibly couch-surfing, probably never washing up, and trying to kill himself with fags as the racing had spared him.  Anyway, his tour captured the history of the place, with its danger, glamour, money and excitement. There was a heroism about motor racing in its early days (even Hemingway said “there are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games”) that doesn’t feel present in the modern era, and owning a classic car goes some way to reminding you of that glorious era, when racing turned the mundane into the marvellous.

Day 2: Metz to Weesen (Switzerland), via Le Cite de l’Automobile (Mulhouse)
Apart from a wonderfully nostalgic run up the Ballon d’Alsace, which became the first mountain pass of any note I’ve both now driven and ridden my bicycle up, the highlight of the day was undoubtedly a trip to the literally incredible Cite de l’Automobile museum at Mulhouse in France.  It has hundreds of vehicles, and from all eras. Its earliest cars aren’t really cars at all, they’re horseless carriages, and it has everything from then to the present day, with the latest Bugatti Veyron being an example of that. Ah, Bugattis – they’ve been an unusual sight on the roads through the years, but this place has dozens and dozens of them. The most expensive is allegedly worth 10-12m€, and all of them are worth comfortably more than 100,000€.

But these were not the cars that provided the day’s insight to me as to why so many people love their cars – their old cars – so much. And nor was it the F1 cars exhibited, nor the Porsches, nor the Ferraris. It was the Citroens, the 2CVs and yes, the Rolls Royces. In a world of undiluted maleness, these were the cars that made it ok for blokes to be a little bit starry-eyed and romantic about the past. Their flowing lines, their moulding of form with function, their downright character – all made it ok to be slightly irrationally attached to a car, and sowed the seeds for the modern day love affair with outdated machines.

Day 3: Weesen to Turin (via the Klausenpass, Lukmanier Pass, Lugano and the outskirts of Milan)
This was our difficult day. It was the day one of our Avengers broke beyond roadside repair, that we had traffic jams, a missed appointment and a very late finish. It was the day the satnavs played up, roads were closed for no apparent reason, vegetarian food arrived adorned with lumps of ham the size of small boulders, and general tiredness occurred.

And yet, and yet….the first half of the day was utterly glorious. Getting a two hour headstart on our fellow travellers meant Neil and I got to drive up and down the Klausenpass (Neil) and the Lukmanier Pass (me). More than that, we got to appreciate them. Klausen was, in particular, fantastic. It had only been open two days, and the snow walls at the side of the road at its highest point were over 8 feet tall.  We had coffee and almond croissants just after its peak, and I can confirm that thin air does nothing to diminish their deliciousness. We saw marmots in the bushes and kites in the sky. We saw things other people will never see…

…but equally, we saw things that we might not have done had the motor car been invented, and with it the passion and skill to build paved roads where they’d been absent before. I’d look up at a mountain last week, as I do when I’m about to ride up them, and I think “how the hell am I going to get up there?”. But thanks to the work of hundreds of visionaries, engineers and labourers in decades past, I manage it, in car or on bike. Both of them, but for many lacking the mental and physical fitness to pedal up, the car give the mountains, and many humdrum things besides, an accessibility previously lacking. Cars gave us news and views we hadn’t had before; another reason the old ones provoke such dedication among their owners – they were pioneers.

Day 4: Turin to Dijon (via the St. Bernard tunnel and Lausanne)
I didn’t enjoy Italy.  Its superfast wifi and peerless coffee didn’t compensate for the rubbish road surfaces, the three idiots who completely ignored give way signs to nearly consign us to oblivion, the never-ending search for 98 RON unleaded fuel needed to keep a high performance engine going, and the high proportion of fantastically self-regarding Italian males. (I of course completely exempt the two completely delightful Sunbeam owners Steve and Andrea who we met on Friday. They were – there’s no better expression – top blokes). But we left Italy on Saturday morning to head back first into Switzerland, via the St. Bernard tunnel (rather than pass, which was, disappointingly, still closed following winter snowfall), for a most agreeable lunch on the shores of Lake Geneva, and then into France.  Mont Blanc and Verbier were the day’s scenic delights, and rural roads through France the day’s driving highlights.

So what was it about today that was great? Comradeship, companionship, and bonding. Poor old Roy had the day from hell on Day 3 trying to keep the stricken Avenger on the road, and we were determined he wasn’t going to suffer alone again on Day 4. So we travelled, for the most part, as a convoy.  That presents some challenges when trying to navigate short cuts with large scale maps (sorry all), but gives that sense of shared mission that perhaps we’d been lacking on the previous days. It was fun, it was good, and it made the end-of-day beer taste bloody excellent. Talking of which, who’d’ve guessed a modest Ibis hotel restaurant could provide a) such tasty food (including snails; respect to Phil), and b) such a convivial occasion – improved, it has to be said, by the constant footage on French TV of the Royal Wedding and the subsequent analysis thereof. Though I have to say I was reminded of the company I was in when the biggest debate centred around the merits of the floorplan design of the E-type in which Harry drove him and Meghan to their reception.

Day 5: Dijon to Le Mans (via Michel C, near Orleans)
A pretty boring day on the roads, being 90% motorway, a fabulous day in most other ways. We were treated to French, monied hospitality at its finest, an immersion into an incomparable private collection, and a glimpse of the sweaty masses leaving a Moto event at Le Mans.

We arrived at Michel’s house at 2pm. I say house, as that what it looked like from the front, but it hid the kind of semi-rural paradise with its manicured gardens and impeccably chosen adornments that the French do so well. Two hours of linguistic difficulties, tasty amuse-bouches and chilled rose, but no little entente cordiale, were the prelude to a look at Michel’s private collection of cars. Half Rally Sunbeams, half other treasures, he was clearly and rightly proud of it. Even to a semi-enthusiast, it was awesome. Though it did include a mint 1972 white 2CV, which is more my bag than a red and rude-looking Maserati.

We asked Michel why, as a Frenchman, he liked these comparatively unknown British rally cars so much. Apart from the exoticness of their foreign-ness (and I’ve never heard anyone talk so reverentially about Coventry before), it was the fact the team was small, the budget smaller, but the talent and character large. It was a monument to a time when skilled amateurs could take on the professionals – and win. Again, the car was the vehicle (pun intended) for trying something new and different, and all the romanticism that entailed. Less romantically, we also helped him compete SORN forms on the DVLA website, for which he was hugely grateful. And amazed that you could do it both on a website and on a Sunday. Bless the French.

Day 6: Le Mans to Le Millet (via 2 TGVs)
Not much to report. My car-conveyed miles ended mid-morning, when I swapped Lotus Sunbeam for something even faster – a French TGV. And then another. I was back home before you could say “sorry I haven’t validated my ticket”, leaving my travelling companions various lengths of journey home. I think some are still going.

It was, even looking back only 48 hours later, an epic trip. It was certainly one that’ll always bookmark 2018.  We saw sunshine, rain, hail and snow. We saw good driving and bad driving, and had great conversations and awkward exchanges. But best of all, we had fun.

Thanks to Neil for the organisation and route-planning, and to all the rest of you for being such good sports. I hope you all enjoyed to something like the extent I did.  I'm sorry I haven't captured every incident, every challenge, every plate of food and every conversation - but hopefully those things will live on in your minds.

But the last word goes back to the theme of this – why some of us love our cars so much. Because they’re evocative, practical and exciting all at the same time. Because they’ve changed how we live our lives in ways unimaginable 150 years ago.  And because the good ones are just so damn sexy.

1 comment:

  1. Great insight Stuart! For those who prefer a less intellectual view of the trip, some words and many pictures here:


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