Report on the 1996 Trip to Le Mans
by: Ken Saunders
from: Fortification - August 1996

Fortification is the Club Magazine of the GT40 Enthusiasts Club
Copyright: GT40 Enthusiasts Club 1996

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Report on the 1996 Trip to Le Mans

I am not sure if I want to recount the first day of our trip but you are bound hear about it from others and therefore I will tell my account of the day. We had arranged that Richard Craven in his GT40 and Steve Davis in my Volvo Estate complete with trailer, the backup vehicle, would meet up at my home ready to leave at 7am. All duly arrived and I went to get my car out of the garage only to find that for some unaccountable reason I had air in the hydraulic clutch circuit and had to set about dissembling the exhaust system to gain access to bleed the clutch. With help this was all fixed by 8am and we finally set off for the Channel Tunnel.

The journey was uneventful with my car running well, the M25 was a bit of a pain and I was later told it was perhaps something to do with a football match at Wembley. We stopped for a break at services on the M25 and met up with Mike Osborne and family. After our break we set off again and about 30 miles from the tunnel on the M20 I spotted John Edwards parked up on the hard shoulder on the up ramp to junction 8.

I stopped and discovered that John's GT40 had thrown a fan belt and that the AA were on their way to fix it, we therefore set off again up the ramp to the round about and then squirted it down the other side to rejoin the M20. As I changed from fourth into fifth gear I realised that I had lost all drive and on further stirring of the gear stick discovered that I had a box full of neutrals. It was obvious that this would take some time to fix and was therefore terminal as far as taking the GT40 to France.

After calling the AA and explaining the problem and waiting some two and a half hours for a low loader to turn up my GT40 was dispatched back to my home in Gloucestershire whilst I set off in my Volvo Estate the backup vehicle which had stopped when I had. I cannot adequately express my feelings at this time and I had even considered going back with my car and forgetting the wholetrip. By the time we arrived at the Channel Tunnel the rest of the group were already in France and well on their way to our first stop at Rouen. We found our contact at the Eurotunnel Exhibition centre who told us that the rest had gone on and that the publicity photo call had gone off well.

The group had left all their luggage at the Exhibition centre and after loading this into the estate and trailer we set off to Rouen arrive around 8.30pm. When we arrived I was provided with several glasses of the house red by Mike Osborne and family which made it possible for me to forget the events of the day. I was so relaxed that I nearly forgot to phone home to warn that my car would be delivered back in a couple of days. When I finally figured out the payphone and got through I discovered that it had already arrived there about 7pm. At least it was back home and not parked up somewhere where it could get vandalised and that also helped to lift my blues.

When I got up in the morning and went to breakfast I was told by several members of banging that had gone on late that night but had been ignored as it was thought to be someone changing a wheel. After breakfast my passenger Adrian Wren went out to the car to get something and came back in with a battered and drilled padlock in his hand. The night before I had taken the trailer off the back of the Volvo estate and had chained it to some nearby railings in the car park, on seeing the padlock I immediately thought that all the tools and spares which I had left in the trailer would be gone but on checking I found them all intact. I assumed that whoever had done this had been disturbed and had fled empty handed.

Later after takling with the hotel manager I discovered that the railings that I had chained the trailer to were in fact a motorised sliding security gate for the car park and that my chain had prevented it from being closed. The police had duly been called and as they could not identify the culprit, they had hacked it off so that the gate could be closed. I was told that if I wanted the chain back I would have to go to the local police station to claim it. As I had no idea of where the nick was and that I would probably not be welcomed with open arms, I decided to donate the chain to their collection and we all set off immediately for Le Mans, our next port of call.

It was a bright sunny day and when we arrived in Le Mans we all went off our different ways to look around the circuit, the museum and town. Ian Braker told me later that he had used a tank full of petrol driving around the public road sections of the circuit and I must admit the section down through the Porsche curves and Indianapolis is absolutely brilliant, its a pity that we could not use the full width of the road but I guess that might have cause some slight problem with the two way traffic system.

The following day, Monday, we moved on to Tours stopping at Vouvray sur Loir to visit the caves which were hewn out of the limestone cliffs and used to store and mature the local vintage. After sampling this and the water which filtered through the lime stone and was collected in a large sump we moved on to our hotel in Tours. Some of the GT40's and most of their occupants had suffered badly from the heat as it had been up around 30C, the cars suffered from fuel vapour locks and general overheating as we had been held up in traffic a few times.

We spent that evening replacing some of the liquids that we had lost during the day and set off early on Tuesday for Poitiers. One or two decided to visit Futuroscope which is located on the outskirts of Poitiers whilst the rest of us went onto the Val de Vienne circuit which is located about 25-30 miles south of Poitiers. At the circuit we were given from about 12 noon until 2.30pm on the track exclusively.

The circuit was superb if a little twisty for the GT40. Because of the temperature, it was another 30C day, the cars were being taken out for two or three laps and then returned to the pits to cool down and provide their occupants with an opportunity to restore liquids. We of course made good use of our time, posing for the cameras, mock Le Mans starts and parade laps. We were given full use of the pits and complete access to the circuit. The circuit was being used by two racing teams to set up their cars and for general practice and at 2.30pm they decided to continue their track usage.

We could have stayed on until after 6pm to play some more but as we had met up with a very pleasant lady who had brought her Westfield Seven to the circuit and had asked us if we minded if she went onto the circuit for a couple of laps, which of course we were pleased to grant. She also asked if we would mind her having a few photographs taken of the cars which we were also pleased to agree to. She told us that she was the co-owner of the local Val de Vienne hotel and invited us for a cool drink and the use of the swimming pool at her hotel and about 4pm we decided to move on and accept her kind invitation.

The hotel was about 2-3 miles away from the track and was newly built and set in a valley with gently rolling grass slopes down to a lake. The hotel was very pleasant with a large airy lounge / bar and wide shaded terraces and with a very welcome filtered swimming pool which many of the group took advantage of. We were provided with towels, changing facilities, iced orange juice, cool beer and any other drinks that we asked for. Needless to say we spent a very pleasant couple of hours here.

It turned out that the owners husband, who was away at work in the UK, recently became the owner of a GT40 which was of course his pride and joy. I wasted no time in setting about recruiting a new member. Before we left we posed the cars and then the whole group outside the hotel for the cameras and I suspect that we will see a few of these pictures on the walls at the hotel and in the hotel brochures. This is certainly a hotel where you could spend a few very relaxing days and one which I am sure we will be visiting again.

On Wednesday we set off in small groups down the Loire valley. Late morning we stopped for a while at one of the many picnic sites meeting up with some of the others who had similar ideas. This site had a very nice cafe and shop. We arrived at Saumur and meet up with even more of the group in the town centre and in the Chateau car park on top of the hill. After suitably sunning ourselves and sampling the refreshments we move on along the southern side of the river towards Angers where we were to spend the night.

We called into the Ackerman caves just outside of Saumur, these are caves which have been hacked out of the limestone cliffs and provide a year in year out 12deg C. environment ideal to store and mature wines. There are many caves systems along this area and the Ackerman caves extend to some 7 miles and currently house around 4 million bottles of champagne style wine. We were given a conducted tour of the caves and then were invited to sample the end product which we reluctantly agreed to. Having purchased a few bottles so that we could give it a fair assessment we moved onto Angers.

That evening I had made reservations at the Restaurant L'Hoirie which we had first discovered on our trip last year. We did a similar thing to last year and lined the cars up Le Mans style outside the restaurant and posed for photographs. The owner is a motor sport enthusiast and he and his chef rally a Renault Alpine. I arranged with Stuart Watson-Davis to take him for a short spin around the block in the GT40 and he appreciated this greatly. There were thirty two people in our group and so we virtually took over the restaurant. We had a magnificent meal finally leaving around midnight. It was certainly the best meal that I have had for a while.

The following day we spent until around 2pm in Angers looking around the shops and enjoying walking around a very pleasant city. Under most circumstances the last place that I like being is in a city wherever it may be but I enjoyed my time in Angers last year and again this year. In the afternoon we motored up to Laval where we were to stay for the following two nights and after settling in we set off for Le Mans to watch the third and fourth qualifying sessions which were between 7pm - 9pm and 10pm - 12pm. It was good to get back to Le Mans and hear the sounds of the cars competing for their grid positions. I think those in the group who had not been to Le Mans before soon realised that GT40's are not so noisy after all!

In the morning, Friday, after our now usual and well received continental breakfast, we set out in small groups to return to Le Mans. We had discovered on Thursday evening that the main road route into Le Mans was to be avoided as we had been stuck in traffic for three quarters of any hour on the ring road. The best way into the circuit was via the motorway coming off on the Angers road (N23) and then directly into the circuit on that road. Last year when we stayed in Angers for the whole time we had not encountered a problem with traffic and had therefore been lulled into believing that all routes into the circuit would be the same. We had certainly proved this wrong and would not make that mistake again. We arranged to meet up with the rest of the group in the White reserved carpark which we used as our meeting point whenever we were in Le Mans.

We met up with one or two other members who had come out on Thursday and Friday and then set off to meet up with others at the Chinese cafe on the Mulsanne straight, it being a notorious meeting point for Brit's. We lined the cars up along the hard shoulder with the lotus 7's and a few other cars that were there. Soon traffic was starting to build up as the passing traffic was all slowing to a walking pace to look at the cars and people were dodging in between the traffic to cross the road. The Mulsanne straight is part of the public road system and is the main road between Le Mans and Tours. I was to hear later that soon after we left the police arrived to move everybody on as the traffic was backing up into the centre of Le Mans.

I met up with my contacts for the Grand parade which we were to take part in later and discovered that we had to be in the cathedral square car park by 4pm. Unfortunately they were unable to tell me any more about what was expected of us or indeed what was going to happen and my impression throughout the event to come was that very few, if any, knew what was going to happen. We duly arrived at the car park and were ushered into one of several barriered off sections. As the temperature was around 30C and the car park was in bright sunshine we soon abandoned the cars and took shelter in the shade of som e trees. Whilst we watched various marching bands arrive and set up and then about 50 vintage open top cars arrive, Robert Logan (The Irish Australian) got out his balls or should I say Boules, and suggested that we played that well known Irish game Boule. We set about entertaining and teaching the French to play this very skilful game but they seemed to think that we were messing about!

We tried several times to find out what was going to happen next and what our part in it would be but without any success. After about one and a half hours the drivers from the cars competing in the 24 hours event arrived and each group of usually three drivers got into the open top classics and the convoy started to move off. We were told to follow a Porsche owned by one of the Automotive Classic (the organising body) members and so we set off. Mike Osborne and family had twisted my arm and persuaded me to go in his GT40 as passenger, I needed a lot of persuasion of course. The rest of our group had insisted that Mike and I took the lead of the group and so we set off directly behind the Porsche with Ron Farmer our official video recorder following us and in turn followed by the remainder of the group now totalling sixteen cars.

We moved about 10 yds and stopped and then waited for about 10 minutes and then another 10 yds followed by another stop. This continued until we were all getting a little hot and eve rso slightly miffed. We persevered and after what seemed an eternity we were out of the car park and in the main square in front of the cathedral. After another short stop we moved off only to find that the chap in the Porsche in front and which we were following had taken a wrong turn as he didn't know where to go either.

Following the usual three point turn that you can easily achieve in a GT40 we were back on course and we turned into one of the main roads leading off the cathedral square and into what at first sight appeared to be a riot. We continued at a walking pace and for a few minutes Mike and I were not quite able to come to terms with what was happening. It appeared as if the whole population of Le Mans had turned out, all the men folk of course but also their wives, mothers, grand mothers and of course their children. We were virtually running over their feet as we crept forward and they were cheering, clapping and taking so many photographs of us I think we were all totally stage struck. We were being asked for autographs and to shake hands. We soon got into the swing of it and Mike was blipping the throttle of the GT40 which the crowd enjoyed even more.

All the cars had the doors open as it was extremely hot in the cars although I'm not to sure if anyone noticed that as the adrenaline was so high you could have cut my arm off and I would not have noticed. We travelled through several main roads, don't ask me exactly where as I could not tell you nor I doubt could anyone else in our group. At various street corners on route they had stages with an announcer on the public address system explaining about the replica cars and introducing each car.

Each time a car was introduced the crowd responded with great roars and clapping. I can safely say that none of us in that parade had ever experienced such a reception and the enthusiasm that was shown. As we proceeded alone the route we met the classic open top cars with the Le Mans drivers returning on the other side of the road and many of the drivers waved to us and gave thumbs up signs to signal their appreciation of the cars. We had already tried to talk to people but had found that to be useless as the background noise of the crowd was far too high to hear anyone. When we finally got to the end we were turned around at a roundabout and sent back down through the crowd following the Classic cars.

After a while we came across Robin Sundt whose car was stopped as it had a vapour lock on the fuel line due to the temperature and he provided us with a well needed cold drink from a nearby cafe, thanks Robin. We ended up back at the car park where we all tried to come back down from the high that we were all on. After a while we discovered that we could go up to the official reception held a couple of miles away in the grounds of an abbey.As we were not sure of its locationone of the officials agreed to guide usand jumped onto his moped to take the lead, needless to say some got lost on the journey and some had minor breakdowns caused by the overheating during the parade.

Mike and I finally got to the reception just as the classic cars were leaving but fortunately not before the champagne had run out. By this time it was nearly 10pm and we then realised that in all the excitement of the day we had not eaten and were suddenly feeling quite hungry. My thought was that we would be very lucky to find anywhere to eat at that time of night in France as my experience was that unless you had pre-booked you did not stand a hope. We decided to set off back towards Laval and our hotel and look for somewhere to eat on the way. We got well out of Le Mans and about two thirds of the way back to Laval we saw a light up ahead and as we approached discovered that it was a transport cafe with several thirty eight ton lorries parked outside.

We thought "greasy spoon" but we were all so hungry by then and had given up on finding anywhere we would have eaten most things. We went in and were shown what we first thought was the food on offer which in fact turned out to be the starter counter. It was full of various salads, coleslaw, meats, fish and god knows what else which we all dug into as if we had been deprived of food for a week. As we were finishing this we discovered that the main course was to come and where duly presented with the menu together with two litres of wine and a vast basket of French bread. We had the pork which turned out to be a large chunk with all the trimmings. We were then offered cheese and a sweet and coffee, as by this time we were all starting to bloat we left out the cheese and sweet and finished off with a coffee. This whole meal which was certainly very well prepared and probably rates second to the meal that we had in Angers cost just 6OF (8) each. I shall certainly look out for the transport cafes on my future visits to France.

The following morning we checked out of the hotel in Laval and set off for Le Mans and the race which this year was to start at 3pm instead of the usual 4pm because of Euro '96, football has got a lot to answer for. We had our reserved parking spaces in the white car park directly behind the grandstands and had no hold ups getting in on the Angers road. We had arranged for seats in the Jaguar Grandstand which is directly in front of the start/finish line and also opposite the pits entrance and presentation platform and we therefore had some of the best seats to view the coming event.

I am sure that I can't adequately describe the 24 hours of Le Mans and the only way you will know that is to attend yourselves. The pre race parades, presentations and the like just build up the tension and excitement as the time approaches 3pm when the spectacle of the cars on their rolling start and the accompanying noise of the crowd and the cars is something that you can never forget. After the first hour or so people start drifting off to look around the village, the various stalls and the fun fair. All have walkman radios plugged into their ears to listen to radio Le Mans which provides a minute by minute commentary on the progress of the race.

As it started to get dark we decided to venture out down the country lanes to try and find some vantage points around the eight and a half mile long circuit. We started off and found our way to the Hotel next door to the Chinese cafe on the Mulsanne straight and after having a meal we watched the cars passing at well over 200 MPH and with the complete exhaust system on the turbo charged Porsche glowing red as they disappeared into the darkness. We wandered off around the countryside and found one or two other places to view but it was either very difficult to find somewhere to park or it meant a hike through the woods to the circuit.We saw several people making thistrip and by all accounts at least some reached the circuit without incident. We opted for the drive and returned to our reserved places in the car park and grandstand.

We had arranged to meet up with the rest of the group at midnight in the car park. The meeting turned into a champagne party thanks to Mike Osborne who broke out the bottles that he had purchased at Saumur earlier in the week. During the night most of the group grabbed a couple of hour rest, if not sleep, in the cars and then as the new day arrived the whole place came alive and the tempo stepped up until again the whole of the many grandstands where filled as were every other track view point.

The reception that every finishing car received was tremendous and the officially orchestrated track invasion by the fans was amazing. There was a sea of people to cheer and clap the presentations and even more people running from all corners of the circuit. Our view point in the Jaguar stand was brilliant as we could see all this unfolding directly in front of us. After the presentations we took our time going back to the car park to try to avoid the initial rush, we had booked into a hotel in Le Mans which was only a couple of miles away from the circuit and after the first quarter of a mile the traffic was quite light, probably because the hotel was closer to the centre of Le Mans and most of the traffic seemed to be battling to get out of town, probably heading for the ferries. We were all totally exhausted and had a very well needed and enjoyable showers, baths etc. before meeting up again for our evening meal at the hotel. I think all disappeared to their rooms early that night.

We set off back to the tunnel in the morning with one or two of the group zooming off at the crack of dawn to get back for business appointments. I'm really glad that I gave all that up a few years ago. The first part of the journey back was a bit of a pain as it seemed that we had picked up all the traffic that had stayed overnight in Le Mans and was now wending its way back to the ferry ports. Once we had got past the Le Havre turn off the traffic thinned out. just before this we had caught up with Robin Sundt who's car had broken down and was in bits by the time we turned up.

The problem had already been diagnosed, one of the push rods had collapsed and was about a quarter of an inch shorter than it should be. After some discussion it was decided to remove both push rods on that cylinder and try running the engine on seven cylinders, we were not sure if this would work as I had expected the cam follower (lifter) to pop out of its guide and open up an oil way that the pump would not be able to cope with. To everybodies surprise the engine ran fine and Robin set off for the tunnel ahead of us. Later quite a few miles further on and after we had stopped for a snack we again caught up with Robin, the cam follower had popped and the oil pressure had disappeared. Robin had stopped immediately without further damage to the engine and had admitted defeat and called for the RAC recovery service which arrived a few minutes after we arrived. The car and its occupants were soon loaded up and on their way back home via the Dover / Calais ferry and a further RAC low loader. As things worked out they were to get home before us.

I had booked the main group onto a shuttle at 4pm British time (5pm in France) but we were still 80+ miles away from the tunnel and it was already 6pm. We finally got there around 7.45pm and found several cars waiting for the back-up car and the luggage it was carrying, sorry lads. We finally got home around 1am Tuesday and it must have been around 2.30am by the time Richard Craven got home from my place.

For my part even though my car had broken down before we even started the holiday I enjoyed the trip even more than last year's trip and I thought that was pretty good. Several people had suggested on our last night in Le Mans that instead of returning the following day we should set off on another circuit of France and perhaps even try to persuade them to put on another 24 hours at Le Mans next weekend. I hope that everybody enjoyed the trip and from the comments that I have received I believe that they did. Now comes the hard part, I have got to get back into the way of life in this country and that is going to be hard but I can dream and look forward to next year's trip. Oh yes I'm a glutton for punishment I am going to sort it all out again and next time I'll get it right!!!

I look forward to reading the reports of the trip from others but must point out at this stage that any incriminating photographs of me that are published are complete fakes, totally produced by trick photography. I would certainly never be seen on a rocking horse late at night in a state of mild inebriation. (Ed. it wasn't mild).

Epilogue: The problem with my GT40.

I stripped the gearbox out of my car and after splitting the box discovered that the sleeve between the main gear shaft and the drive shaft from the engine which normally has splines was now nice and smooth. The gearbox shaft was not marked but the splines in the sleeve had been completely torn off. I have recently fitted a new stronger clutch as I had been having trouble with clutch slip and had also fitted new knock on 17" wheels fitted with 335/35ZR17 Pirelli P Zero tyres which are about 14" wide treads. I could not find any problem of alignment and can therefore only assume that the new clutch and the extra grip put additional load onto this sleeve which could have already been partly worn (from a previous existence).

I have now replaced it and the oil seals which were all ripped apart by the roll pin that had shattered into pieces when the splines had ripped out. I am watching the gearbox for any signs but so far all is well, time will show if I have any additional problem. I still have a very heavy right foot so I can only hope.

Thank you:

Many of you who came on the trip have thanked me for organising the trip. I thank you for your appreciation. It is very gratifying to know that my efforts have achieved the desired effect. I must admit to being a tad self motivatedin organising the trip, particularly after the super time I had on last year's trip. This year proved to be even better for me although initially dampened a bit by my car breaking down. The members of the group all helped to make this year's trip a memorable one and I cannot think of a better group of people to spend such an enjoyable time with. I know that many of you have expressed a desire to come on next year's trip and I look forward to that and hope that I am able to provide an interesting and enjoyable trip in 1997.

Ken Saunders


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