In retrospect, my timing was wrong.
Suggesting that we go to the 24 hour race, half way through one of our landlord Nigelís Speckled Hen promotional evenings at the Cock Inn resulted in overwhelming enthusiasm. Eight months later it was only Nigel and I who set forth from the pub to meet up with Bruce Morgan and friends at a hotel in Portsmouth prior to an early morning ferry to Caen and onwards to Le Man.
Le Mans, just before start
As I hadnít visited the 24 hour race before, I thought it was a good idea to contact an "old hand". Bruce has been visiting Le Mans with his TF for some time, in fact, he and some of his friends are members of the Automobile Club de líOuest, and so get to sit in the members grandstand. He kindly agreed to get tickets for the race, seats and car park, suggested that if we preferred to stay in a hotel, we could join those who were, or, alternatively about half the group were staying at a camp site close (but not too close) to the race.
And so it came to pass that in the fullness of time we set off.
On the new luggage rack just fitted to the TC was an old cabin trunk, purchased nearly twenty years ago to hold childrenís toys, now full of camping gear. In the car was a huge number of spares, (what not to take is the problem, the logical extreme would be to tow a spare TC behind). The car was heavily laden but the sun was up, the hood was down and our spirits were high.
We stopped briefly in Abingdon to photo the car next to Kimberís office and collect a couple of bricks from the recently demolished MG factory. In Portsmouth we met Bruce and crew, mostly from the Bristol area and mostly in MGs. About 20 in total, travelling in a TA, a TD, MG Midgets & Bs.
It was such a good idea to be a member of this group. Bruce briefed us on the ferry that, as it was difficult to plan when various cars would disembark, there was a petrol station just after the port (less expensive fuel in France than the UK now, how times have changed), and just after that, a lay-by where we could meet up. And so we did. Next was a smart drive to Argentan, to go into the town rather than to bypass it, and park the cars next to the cathedral and have a rest and coffee break in a nice bar opposite.
EUY 455 in touring mode, by D Day landing -- Comemoration Caen, June 98
We were one of the last to arrive due to the TC brakes starting to play up. First the pedal became very hard, all the play having disappeared, and then it was obvious the brakes were binding. As we were very close to our stop, after a quick check we carried on and at the stop the adjustment at the master cylinder was loosened off. The problem did not reoccur until August, again on a hot summer day (you must remember that day in August!). I think I know what the problem is, and by the time you read this it should have been sorted out, but any suggestions would be gratefully received. This was the only problem we had with the old car - quite a surprise as it had only recently returned to the road after twenty odd years of "resting". I donít know when the engine had last been overhauled, other than having an unleaded head fitted, but it was prior to 1965!
Later the group split up and we stocked up with local sea food, bread, butter, cheese, pate' and other essentials at a supermarket. Thus it was that two MGs, Bruceís son, Russell in his Midget and our TC came to get lost in Le Mans. Well, get lost is not quite what we did, as we had a good idea where we were, and knew where we wanted to get too, it was just the middle bit that was rather confusing.
Le Mans seems to be, for me, one of those towns that I always get lost in, rather as I tend to do in Wolverhampton. Birmingham on the other hand is delightfully easy as soon as you get the hang of navigating by the Balti Houses. "left at the Star of Bengal, then straight on to the Handsworth Tanduri" kind of thing, dead easy.
Having seen quite a lot of the town, certainly more than planned, we were still able to achieve one of the trips objectives - to drive that part of the circuit that is a public road, before its closed off for the race. What can I say other than WOW!!
Driving onto the ferry were a good collection of "nice" cars. At our stop in Argentan the car park was full of Healey 3000s, MGBs etc., but here was some very serious machinery. Red Italian jobs, two lovely Healey 100s with screens wound down, German things with their engines at the wrong end abounded. And how well the TC fitted in with these exotic beasts. Screen down, in its original 1945 black, it was noticeable that even when surrounded by modern vastly more valuable stuff, one of Abingdonís best was the centre of attention all of the time we were in France.
The camp site was just fine, close to the circuit on the South side, away from some of our nosier countrymen (not all but most), good showers etc. and a friendly local baker forcing us to buy fresh croissant in the morning.
At the site we noticed that Russell, being an "old hand" not only had an electric pump for the air beds, but also a refrigerator in the Midgetís boot!
Race day dawned - OK we didnít actually see the dawn, but it must have. "White" car park was very well situated for ease of entry and exit. Nigel and I had decided to be soft and not to stay at the circuit all night, so, other than some cooking gear for a nice hot meal & drinks, we were travelling light.
At the circuit we split up and did not see some of the group again for a while, in fact I next met Bruce at the MGCC Silverstone weekend. Not surprising as there were a reported 185,000 visitors to the track that weekend, some 50,000 of which were from the UK. In fact the event is strangely British. The camp sites within the circuit contained contingents from most of the UK car Clubs you could think of, some seemingly trying to out vie each other in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most obvious, other than the double decker buses, marquees or huge camper vans, were the walls of empty beer bottles that started to grow. By Sunday afternoon, some of these could probably been seen from space.
Our seats were opposite the pits, so we had a good view of the pre-race "personality girls" wandering up and down getting lots of attention from the photographers and sitting by drivers, on cars and such. Renault had a couple of rather smart topless Espace vehicles that were rushing about, but pride of place were the course cars.
I wont say much about the race, whilst it was reported as a "truly vintage" race, "Quite simply the best" (Daily Telegraph) its almost a side show to the whole experience. After walking the course a bit we went back to the car and in the late afternoon sun cooked up a meal.
Now I had been unaware of "All day breakfast in a can" before this weekend. Beans, bacon, sausage and small "scotch" eggs in one can. The wonders of modern technology. Filling, hot, and all washed down with some rather good coffee. A substantial lining to the stomach for the forthcoming night!
Walking the car park to and from the track had its own delights. This is really an event to travel to in "interesting" cars. Pre war Rolls & Bentleys, a couple of super Rileys, appropriately, a Singer Le Mans Special, Austin Sevens, one very early Triumph Spitfire 4, Morgans lots of TVRs, almost everything imaginable.
During the race the announcements were all in French. Now to say that my French is vestigial would be a compliment, so this was of little use. Fortunately, as the event is so popular with those who understand English rather better than French, Radio Le Mans is at hand. This outstanding facility transmits news of the race, interviews from the pits and supplies general facts and chat from early Saturday, all through the race and into late Sunday Afternoon, by which time they sound like they all need a well earned rest.
We bought our Le Mans T shirts. It seems to be "cool" as my son would say, to be seen wearing these from races of the past, the older the better. Its a good idea to get one so it can be stored for a while and then worn to prove youíre an "old hand".
As night fell the fun fair started up. We had been told that there was a tent where "Ladies of Negotiable Virtue" removed their clothing, but didnít find it - honest. Not that we looked for it of course.
In the dark, the race took on an almost surreal appearance. As the cars approached a corner, some would spout twin tongues of flame from the exhaust. As the brakes were applied, the discs were immediately bright orange-red hot. The darkness seemed to accentuate the speed, I canít begin to image what it must be like to drive one of those monsters.
We left just after two a.m. and found our way back to the camp site, agreeing to get up early and strike camp. This did not happen, due to comfortable sleeping bags, a refreshing hot shower, good coffee and the afore mentioned fresh croissant. Arriving back at the grandstand at nearly eleven oíclock, we met some of the hardier members of our group who had stayed all night. I am convinced that a few hours good sleep was the right thing to do. Maybe not exciting, but I for one enjoyed Sunday more than if I had stayed up all night.
Lots of drama on the circuit and as the afternoon progresses, it was clear that Porsche was going to win the race this year by dint of sheer reliability. The last few laps were spent with the various teams ensuring that they could cross the finish line together for PR photos. To keep the spectators happy, the French announcers were doing there own thing, whilst Radio Le Mans were entertaining us Brits.
Those who were listening, about 30 to 40 percent of each grandstand population, were badgered into Mexican waves that spread from one grandstand to another, much to the confusion of the French, who were not listening to the radio.
Nigel and I were booked on the early morning ferry from Cean, so had decided to leave soon after the race ended and make our way north as we had heard the traffic could be heavy. As soon as the drivers awards had been made we were back at the car and missed most of the heavy traffic out of the circuit.
It took a little longer than we had planed to get on the main road north as somebody had moved the town of Le Mans and we seemed to go around the east side rather than the west as we had planned, however we were soon north bound. Nigel was introduced to "MG speak" as in "if we go fast enough the rain will go over the aero screens" which then became "when the rain gets harder we put the windscreen up" right up to the "look there, a bridge under the main road, we can shelter for a bit". In fact our bridge soon became quite popular with various other Brits in open cars seeing us and thinking it was a good idea. You can meet some very interesting people under a bridge in central France. It didnít rain for long and soon we were on our way again.
Some of the French roads point straight towards the Normandy coast. Cresting a hill we could see a long line of cars proceeding North, and a few South.
It was an extraordinary drive, one that I will remember for many a year. The TC went "like a train" cruising at about 4,000 revs and not missing a beat despite the rather non aerodynamic trunk on the rear.
At towns, road crossings, and even in the country, the locals seemed to make it a holiday and drive out to see the procession of cars. The TC was met with cheers and waves wherever we went. At traffic lights people came up to us and told us how they liked the car. Older people gave us the victory sign. Last years Le Mans was held a week early, so as not to clash with the World Cup football, and so we were going home on the anniversary of the D Day Landings. It was a very special drive, the welcome was quite outstanding.
Finding a campsite on the coast about five miles west of the ferry port we spent the last evening at a very pleasant restaurant, the TC outside, next to a memorial of the Landings.
Up early on Monday and queuing for the ferry, once again in company of most interesting cars, a Porsche driver came up to us and asked me if the TC had a standard engine (it has). He owned a TC and was surprised to see us cruising at 70 mph the previous day. It would seem that my speedo reads a bit slow. It had been commented during the weekend that we had been going at a rather brisk pace -I thought it had been a wind-up.
On the ferry, homeward bound, I glanced down onto the vehicles at the back of the car deck. Not a "eurobox" in sight. An E type, and XK150, a Jensen from the early 60s, a couple of Lotus/Caterham 7s, a brace of Porches. Rather summed up the weekend. We were entertained on the ferry by the Parachute Regiment D Day veterans massed ukulele band and had the opportunity to speak with some of the men who went in on the first wave on that day over fifty years ago.
Back in Blighty and approaching Newbury the clouds opened and did it rain. Not the gentle French rain, this was professional. We saw a petrol station with a welcoming canopy and stopped to put the hood up. All right, Iím sorry, but it REALLY WAS RAINING, so up it went. Nigel had doubted we had a hood, as he had never seen it on my car before - we even put the side screens up. By the time we had left after buying a bit of petrol as a thank you to the nice petrol station ladies who had made us welcome and let us use the loo, the fore court was full of cars putting weather gear up. A Ford GT40 special filled up and the driver asked Nigel if he could seal the doors with masking tape as it was the only way to stop it filling up with water!
Northwards to Blenheim and a stop at the Bear Hotel - its really great to travel with a restaurantere as Nigel "knew" about it. We had a super old fashioned cup of tea, china cups, the works. Keeping off the motorways we approached Brum through Kenilworth, past the Castle, and skirting the side of city through the lanes through Balsall Common and Coleshill, to the pub. This was still there despite Nigelís misgivings, and in one piece.
What an experience! Iím going again, next year if finances allow. Its on the weekend of 12th & 13th June. Iíve already called Bruce Morgan. He will be going - of course, as will many of his MG friends. We will be having a few cars starting from the Cock Inn.
Abingdon MG Works by Kimbers Office
The sights, the smells, the friendship, the cars, and of course, the race, reported as "this years race showed what a truly exciting and cerebral sport motor racing can be".
Want to join us? I would be most surprised if you regretted it.
Part of the above will be included in the soon to be published story of TC Ownership / Storage / Rebuild & Use.
"0 to 60 mph in Twenty Five Years!". Copyright S.T. 21.10.98
MG Car Club Silverstone 98