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The annual trip to Le Mans is quite simply MAGIC. This year was my third trip and I looked forward to it all year. The French are so enthusiastic about cars and they are not afraid to show it. People come out of cafés and wave as you go by, old ladies in black walking down the road will stop, smile and clap as you roar past.
For me one of the highlights of the week is the "Grand Parade des Pilotes" in the centre of the city of Le Mans. The parade is organised by the "Classic Automotive Club" in conjunction with the Automobile Club de L'Ouest (that organises the Le Mans Race). All the drivers in the race parade through the pedestrian area in the centre of Le Mans in vintage cars in front of thirty to forty thousand people. While the 24 Hour race is, in many ways, a very English affair - the Grand Parade des Pilotes is very French and most of the spectators are from Le Mans itself. It is the town's way of paying tribute to the race and each year they try to have new attractions to please the crowd. It is unusual for anyone to be invited to take part in two parades running, so we were very pleased and honoured when we were asked to take part again this year - for the third year running. We were told that the invitation was "by popular demand."
The parade is a stress test for the cars. The route is no more than a mile long and the parade takes over an hour - so the cars are running almost stationery for an hour. Not only that but everyone wants to hear them roar - and how can you say no! Probably more than half the time and money I spent last year on development of my car was geared to keeping the car cool for that sixty minutes.
This year the parade organisation was brilliant because they timed the different sections going off so that we spent more time moving and less time just waiting for the car in front to move. It also opened up a gap of maybe 100yards every now and again so that each car in turn floored it and spun the wheels to the delight of the crowd.
The parade started with each car coming over a ramp with a red carpet and being introduced to the crowd by an announcer who exclaimed "Here comes my dream! And another dream! And another!" He was in ecstacy.
It was well over 30 deg C so we all got very hot and so did the cars but to squeeze through a press of people all cheering and clapping makes it all worth while. We drove with the doors open to try to keep cool - sometimes the people were kept behind barriers (so we could accelerate for a few yards) but mostly they were crowding in and bending right over the cars so you had to nudge your way gently through a sea of legs. All the cars made it round and everyone returned with a happy glow and broad smiles to the marshalling area.
How hot we all got is best illustrated by the fact that Ken Saunders had melted the rear window on his car along with one of the rear anti-roll bar mounting blocks and the throttle cable. The anti-roll bar mount was a small green puddle and the throttle cable cover had flowed through the asbestos tape that he had wrapped round it to try to keep it cool.
Happily we all went off to the Mayor's reception for some champagne, orange juice, snacks, speeches and presentations.
As I said, the Le Mans trip is fantastic - mainly because of the care and hard work put in by Ken Saunders in organising it. He and Mike and Margaret Osborne spend a great deal of time during the year researching locations, making contacts and arranging all the little details that make the trips go smoothly. The trip is something of a stress test for the cars and occasionally for the drivers - it is remarkable testament to the high standard of build quality of the cars that so little goes wrong with them. There are the usual small problems and occasionally a more major one like Geoff Master's gearbox - the story of which is related elsewhere in this issue. But these problems are seen as challenges and it is remarkable what can be achieved with everyone working together as a team.
Occasionally, however, fate conspires to destroy even the best organisation. That Friday evening was such a time. It turned out to be a true "Night to Remember."
It all started as we left the Mayor's reception late in the evening with the Chairman of the "Classic Automotive Club." In France it is normally difficult to eat late. This is particularly true on the night before the race if there are 56 people in your party! The Chairman had arranged with Ken a restaurant just outside town where we could all sit down together. Unfortunately only he knew where it was and so we set off back to the marshalling area to pick up the cars and he was then going to show us the way.
As we walked back the heavens opened and it started to rain. Not a gentle summer shower but a torrential downpour.
We jumped into the cars, I took the Chairman in my car and led off with the others following. We drove through the town at 20 miles an hour - firstly to keep the group together and second because it was very difficult to see where you were going in the pouring rain.
Eventually we arrived at the restaurant - by which time the rain had decided that a torrential downpour was kids stuff and was trying to copy Niagara falls. My car is normally completely waterproof but it ended up with a half inch of water on the floor. The restaurant staff were great and helped us to park as close as possible but we still got soaked just running the few yards to the door.
The van and trailer had got lost but a quick call on the mobile phone and some directions from Le Patron and they soon arrived. However a lot of people who had booked dinner had looked at the weather and thought better of it so when we finally sat down there were only 24 of us. The restaurant was not amused - they had 32 empty places laid on one of the busiest nights of the year.
The meal was delayed for almost an hour while lengthy discussions took place. Eventually the food arrived but everyone sat looking at it embarassed to start until the problems were resolved. Finally Ken Saunders, who had been talking to the Patron, came back to the table. He was very upset and the problem was still not resolved - but at least the meal got under way and the atmosphere began to lighten up.
The mood was improved considerably by the fact that in the next room, separated by a glass partition, was another group of tables around a dance floor. There were six or seven large groups, sixty or seventy people in total - all ladies with very few men. When they saw us through the glass they came through and tried to pursuade the men on our table to dance. Several did get up and dance - but others were reluctant. One lady even stole someone's dessert and threatened to keep it unless he would dance with her!
Another lady took a shine to Matti, our backup driver from Sweden, and kept trying to get him to dance but he kept refusing. She sent friends to try to pursuade him, she came herself but still he refused. Eventually he retired to the car park in the rain to escape her attentions! As the meal progressed a couple of us went to see the Patron and settled out of court for the empty seats for £10 per head. Over the following days, those on the trip who were supposed to come but didn't paid their £10 each (so if you were supposed to be there but weren't and haven't paid then please send £10 per head to the editor).
When we came to leave the rain was still pelting down. Some people had to get back to the circuit so the van took them and it was arranged that it would then join the Autoroute for the 60 mile drive down to Angers where we were staying the night.
Ken Saunders car had an alternator problem - which meant that we had to bump start it every time. It also meant that he had virtually no lights. We arranged that I would lead with Ken tight in behind and then Mike and Margaret Osborne in the rear. As I was on my own and Ken's car was playing up, we gave all the maps to Margaret Osborne so she could map read us back to the Hotel which was a long way off the Autoroute.
We had a couple of false starts getting to the Autoroute as the rain was still making it difficult to see - but eventually we made it and stopped at the first service station for fuel. Poor Mike was having great problems because his windscreen wipers had packed up and of course he was driving behind Ken in his spray with just two tiny red pinpoints of light on Ken's car to guide him. Nick and Linda Jenkins from New Zealand and Steve Davis and Gail went on ahead and Ken, Mike and I went in convoy.
With Ken tucked in close behind and the darkness and the rain I couldn't see backwards very clearly, but soon it became apparent that we had lost Mike.
I stopped and Ken told me that he had just had a call from Mike who had lost a fan belt. He didn't feel like replacing it on the roadside in the rain and in the dark but luckily the van had arrived just as he stopped so they were putting the car on the trailer and would follow on.
Ken and I continued on and eventually caught up Steve and Gail who slotted in behind Ken.
When we left the motorway it dawned on us that Mike and Margaret had all the maps so we had no idea where we were going. We knew the Hotel was in Angers Sud - but the signs only said Angers Centre and Angers Est. We headed for Angers Centre hoping to pick up signs for Angers Sud. There were none. We ended up going on the road to Saumur. We turned around in the middle of the road and stopped a passing motorist who just pointed us back into town.
The cars were getting hot, we were hot and tired, Ken's oil pressure started to go down as his blood pressure went up, and Steve's car started making a funny noise. We seriously contemplated going to sleep in the cars at the roadside.
Suddenly Richard Osborne, who was in Ken's car, announced that he had found one of the booklets that Ken had given to each car with all the maps in it and the Hotel locations. Hastily this was given to Gail who, bless her, finally lead us all back to the Hotel. We never did see a signpost to Anger Sud.
We arrived back at 2:00am in the Hotel car park but our problems were not over. Bill and Pam Wren, Adie's parents, had joined us in Le Mans along with Adie and Amie. Ken and the Osbornes had given them their rooms as they had gone back earlier. Ken had arranged another two rooms and the keys were supposed to be waiting for him. The two keys that were left were for rooms that were already occupied. Luckily the Hotel had an automatic key dispenser - so with the use of a credit card we got another two rooms and they headed for bed.
I stayed up for a while as there were three very drunk English people wandering around the cars. It turned out that they were staying at the Hotel and were harmless although close to being brain dead. One asked me why the cars are called GT40s and I told him that it was because they are 40 inches high. A few minutes later in a deeply serious and conspiratorial voice, that only a true drunk can manage, he whispered to me that someone had once told him that the reason that they are called a GT40 is because...
At about 2:30 the backup van arrived with Mike's car on the trailer. They had found their way back alright but they had problems getting the car onto the trailer. They had jacked up the front of the trailer to get the car on - but when the weight of the trailer had come back down onto the van they found that the back door of the van was open over the armco at the side of the road and the door got severely bent. Although they tried to straighten it out the hire company ended up taking the insurance deductable (Ouch!).
At this point there was still no sign of Linda and Nick who had driven off ahead of us. They eventually turned up at about 3:00am having got thoroughly lost. They had stopped and asked directions and had been directed to the wrong Camponile Hotel on the other side of Angers! So eventually we all got back - if a little late and very tired. But what of those people who decided that the weather was to bad and decided to go straight back to the Hotel? Did they fare any better?
Geoff Masters in his car with the splendid new pilot bearing and reassembeled gearbox got so hot and sweaty during the day that he blinked out a contact lens. He looked for it without success. When the reception after the parade was over he decided to drive back to the Hotel while it was still light as he didn't fancy driving at night with only one eye.
As he pulled out of Le Mans he changed from third to fourth - and nothing happened. The gear lever just flopped about in his hands. Both the knuckle joints on the gear stick end of the cables had sheared off. He had no gears. Geoff drove up onto the Autoroute and then drove the 60 miles back to Angers in third. The car got very hot but otherwise went OK. However, when he turned off the Autoroute he too got thoroughly lost and didn't arrive back at the Hotel until after 11:00. By that time the Hotel bar and restaurant was closed so he ended up with no food at all that night.
Nick and Phil Rutherford didn't fare much better. They have a beautiful black Mk3 of which they are justly proud. The finish on it is perfect and they polish and clean it until it gleams. They are very protective of their car - at the barbecue on Saturday evening at Le Mans (which went on until the wee small hours and demolished a fantastic amount of Ackerman's finest champagne) I forgot myself so far as to sit on the wing of their car. I was rapidly told to "Find a chair Robin!"
Nick and Phil ran into a hail storm. Not just a few bits of hail but a deluge of chunks of ice the size of marbles. They stopped the car at the side of the road because they couldn't see where they were going - and just sat and waited for the windscreen to go. The thought of Nick and Phil sitting inside their lovely car while Mother Nature threw large chunks of ice at it doesn't even bear thinking about.
Happily the car and its windscreen survived and after a nerve racking wait they continued on to the Hotel with hardly a dent to show for it.
The following morning everyone was up at 7:30 for an early start to the circuit - a little bleary eyed but happy to have survived the night.
Ken's low oil pressure turned out to be just a lack of oil in the sump. Mike fitted a new fan belt and even Geoff managed to replace the broken knuckle joints with the ones from the fixed link at the rear and to make up a new rear fixed link. He went to Le Mans on the trailer but by that night the car was fixed again and ran fine for the rest of the trip.
Despite Ken's usual efficiency and excellent organisation, that night almost everything that could go wrong - did go wrong. But we still enjoyed ourselves and, looking back on it, we can all laugh. But still it really was a "Night to Remember."
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