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Pair o'Knees, Silly Philip and Lemons


Mike Meakin

It all started back in 2008, when Phillipe Pasteau wrote to Phil Gregory offering free entry for a "Team of Pembletons" in to La Grande Parade des Pilotes, the pre-Race celebration for the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hour Race. That then trickled on to the Forum, where momentum gradually picked 10 Pembleton owners daft enough to participate in the le Mans venture. THEN, news of the last Pyrenees Rally (organised by French resident Nick and Anna Poll) came to light just over a week before. It didn't take much mental activity to work out that if you were going to do one, you might just as well do the other AND generally enjoy swanning about rural France in the interim.

Having decided that we would go, ferry bookings/car recovery/insurance/green card cover and a host of related things were set up. Since it was clear that the whole trip was going to be an escapade, Duncan and I floated the idea that some Team Corporate identity for le Mans would be good. White coveralls, printed with the Pembleton logo, badges, flying helmets and goggles would be the order of the day - and so it was.

We set off for Dover - it was overcast, but turned to drizzle, rain and (by Braintree) torrential downpour. Lunch in the car, under a large golf umbrella was clearly entertainment for spectators in their "Euroboxes" in a Service area en route. Since the rain was not going to abate, the first resolution of 'no motorways/dual carriageways' was tossed aside and we bounded along to Dover, arriving so much earlier than planned, that we were loaded on to the sailing 2 hours earlier than that booked. An easy, calm crossing put us in Dunkirk - when the rain that had been in Kent, caught us up and continued the saturation until we reached our first booked Auberge near Abbeville, some 90 miles on (so 280 miles on Day 1!). A hot bath and clean clothes did wonders, but not so much as the food and wine that followed: absolutely superb.

We had decided that with a tank range of 200 miles, 180 miles a day (refuelling at lunch-time) was a respectable distance and so booked ahead at places roughly that far apart. Day 2 was more tropical rain, but again, the Auberge was marvellous. Having decided that we could not be drowned out, the weather changed to cloudless 30 degrees - that was glorious, save for the fact that we had no space left in the car for the all-weather gear. It had to be worn, together with the crash helmets! It was like sitting in one of those steam-bath cubicles. We passed many signs advertising "Ball Trap Nocturne" for Friday evening and were intrigued as to what sort of entertainment this might be - Hen Night Emasculation perhaps? We were able to press on quickly in the hot dry weather. Someone appeared to be rolling out incredibly smooth, fresh tarmac ahead of us - arrow straight roads for ages, with only undulations. Suddenly, we passed in to another Département, which had obviously run out of straight road tokens, instead having a surfeit of curvy road tickets complete with crawler lanes for the many trucks. And yes, truck drivers there also try and overtake each other despite little or no greater speed capability. This was when the dashboard indicator warning lamp (and it's accompanying "squeaker") stopped working - I could see the front winker and repeater flashing, so it had to be the rear unit at fault. Because turning right in France is the easy turn and people could see us approaching, indicating right, we pressed on. I reminded myself that we had a box of spare bulbs, some spare wires, assorted connections, a small, butane soldering iron and solder stashed away in the "Leccy locker" - should be an easy fix.

Next morning, sure enough, the rear right indicator lead had fatigue-fractured at the bullet connector (someone hadn't left enough slack in the cable to allow for vibration!). That's when I realised that a gas soldering iron is as useful as a stick of licquorice, if you've no means of lighting it. The best-laid plans……….! Not knowing the French for 'gas soldering iron' I managed to cadge an "allumette, pour ça!" On we went, total winking/squeaking restored.

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Day 4 we arrived at Malbernat, home of the French-resident saviour David Stevenson, where David and Jan Stephenson (he being "Spike" of Beverley) had already arrived. Here we were to spend several days of complete tranquillity, in traditional, rural France - a "bubble" in a normal domestic environment. Here there were wild orchids in the field - assorted machinery in the outbuildings, partially faded splendour in the fabric of the buildings, but above all else a sense of "I must do something about that - tomorrow…".. A wonderful centre for relaxation. Duncan called to say that a blocked fuel-line filter had caused his engine to run weak and overheat, melting the insulation where his points lead went in to the BMW points "can", cooking the condenser. He was with Claude Laubret who had helped restore normal function to the car. Later next day, Duncan rang again. He was some 20 kms from Malbernat but thought the condenser had gone again. David and I went out with the trailer to collect him. Inspection at the side of the road confirmed 'no ignition', but all was revealed when we took the bonnet off - one of the two coils, wired in series, had fractured its mount bracket, dropped down and tugged off one connecting lead. Another easy fix, which included insurance - cable tieing the coils to each other AND to the frame.

A number of David's friends appeared in Lomax / Blackjack cars and we wandered off to taste a local Sunday Market and on to an "Exposition de Vehicules Anciennes" some 20 miles on (sorry, don't do kilometres easily!). Looking for somewhere to park, we were positively waved in to the display area and directed to "appear" (how do you explain, in rudimentary, schoolboy French that this isn't actually a "vehicule ancienne" - I only finished screwing it together some months ago ! ?) The most frequent question was " Is it legal - do you have approval to drive it on the road" - initially, I thought this offensive, until I realised it was virtually impossible to obtain "certification" in France for what we would class as 'open to SVA approval' in the UK. For the remainder of that day, the car was absolutely besieged by admirers, full of questions in many languages, few of which I speak with any fluency! I did however find out that a "Ball Trap Nocturne" was no more than clay pigeon shooting in the dark! Nothing sinister at all.

Day 7 and it's leave the Haven of Malbernat for Aventignan, "Pair of Knees" Rally base. Yet more Lomax , Blackjack, MG "A", real 2CV and a Triumph TR3 join our 'road snake' (even more co-incidental, I know the owner of the TR 3, Tony,as an Alvis man, some years back). A pleasant and uneventful journey found us at the lunch stop pre-Rally. Replete and re-fuelled we were soon at the rally base site.

First surprise was the site location, isolated, with a huge and picturesque lake. Second, was that our bedroom contained 4 beds (and all beds had been booked!). Good news was that we were to share with Dave and Nicky Parr (of Silverfish), if sharing at all was good news. Mental notes to self ? need to wear something in case of nocturnal need to relieve and to suck in stomach. All was most discreet (and I don?t believe I snored any more than Dave - I?m sure we equally got blamed by respective spouses for transgressions not always of our own making!). Boy, did it thunder/lightning/rain and hailstorm during the first night!

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There were some 66 people on this Rally incorporating the most curious of cars produced over the last half century. A bevy of Lomax cars were all fitted with ?bull horns?, a chorus of which, over the stillness of the lake made for an amusing chorus ? not at all automotive. I recall feeling ?how ordinary? the Pembleton seemed, against this backcloth of 50s and 60s eccentricities.

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Day 8 was to take us up in to the Pyrenees, visit some Caves, have a great al fresco picnic lunch and then on to the highest point. Travelling in convoy, you obviously have to keep the car in front and behind you, in sight. We quickly learned to be everso polite after a stop, to allow the 1922 Morgan (running in a blue haze of Castrol 'R') and some of the Austrian, 2 stroke microcars (blue haze of a different smell, but just as pungent to the eyes!) to run well ahead. Following 4 stroke cars was much more pleasant.

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The second stop was the harbinger of "bad news" - my oil cooler (specifically fitted to counter southern France heat and Pyrenees' driving) was showing signs of seepage - pressure was good and temperature fine, so no problem, but a weather eye was kept on the gauges. Very hot day. Extreme gradients, hairpin bends (too tight for 'one-pass' negotiation) meant hill-starts and lots of 'sitting on the back of the engine braking', rather than brake and brake, inducing possible fade. A few miles from rally base changing from 3rd in to 4th - no drive at all. Select any gear you like (clutch in or out), but no movement. No indication of anything from the speedometer, so obviously the gearbox wasn't turning: clutch failure.

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Trailered back to the rally site (thanks to Dave Parr!), the Pembleton was quickly dismantled (Duncan Grimmond and Dave Parr forfeiting a day's driving to help) and the clutch problem revealed. Clearly the torque reaction of the BMW engine through the 2CV clutch friction plate had neatly chopped off the rivet heads of the friction plate, leaving no connection between the input shaft mandrel and the friction linings. Fransisco - the Rally "Outrider" came to the rescue - he would ride off on his Honda to a local Citroen dealer and pick up a clutch plate. He was gone longer than expected, but had been unable to resist an offer of a nibble at lunch-time (AND something to eat). The friction plate for a Citroen Visa Special (48bhp as standard) was fitted and engine and gearbox reunited. I opted for pressing on with the fine tuning and adjustments, whilst Dave Parr and Duncan sped off to join the rest of the Rally chez M. le Mayor for drinks and canapés. Come supper-time, VIA 768 was up and running again, with drive, brakes and a decent tickover.

Next morning, many of the Rallyists left for the second leg in Manresa, Spain. I understand this was a splendidly arranged venture, complete with Police motorcycle outriders, through passage and sumptuous accommodation. An account will appear separately.

For our part, we motored on to friends further West, the first 120 kms being with some trepidation having reassembled the car on the grass, beside a lake! However, it was an uneventful journey - only a cupful of oil seemed to have been used - and we settled down to 5 days of non-motoring. We did spend a day in the Dordogne - when we got all the way up to Domme, it literally rained in torrents.

On the Wednesday (Day 14 now) we left friends en route to le Mans, to overnight in Montoire-sur-Loir, again driving through torrential rain (roads were awash) and then blazing sun. Refreshed after hot showers, superb food, wine and a good night's sleep, I checked the car whilst Eileen repacked the holdalls (by now a familiar routine). Oil seemed low, so I put in 1 litre and fired up the engine. What must have been almost the entire contents of the sump spurted out of the oil cooler - the seeping gallery had "let go". The choice was by-pass the cooler and carry on, or invoke the "trailer me home" facility. We chose to press on getting further North. By-passing the cooler (feed the flow directly in to the return) took less time that expected. Having bought 5 litres of oil (no room for it to be stowed, so it joined the maps and lunchbox on Eileen's lap) we set off. Oil pressure was fine, but inevitably oil temperature was on average 30 degrees up.

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We arrived in Sillé-le-Phillipe where (courtesy of much effort as our "Man-on-the Ground" in France, Paul Dufour) we had rented an 11 person gite - a splendid, 17thC agricultural cottage in the middle of nowhere, but only 18 kms from Le Mans. It made sense to "self-cater" rather than all trail off in assorted Pembletons, to find somewhere that would take 11 diners spontaneously. A bulk shop at a nearby supermarket was effected, whilst we foraged for wood, in and around the cottage outbuildings, to light an enormous fire in the outdoor "cheminéé BBQ", which had burned down to a glowing red bed of embers ready for the arrival of the food.

It was to prove a most entertaining evening, with much levity and ready ability by some of the Team to really entertain. Duncan, in particular who had surprised everyone by being able to be entirely himself in a variety of languages, suddenly turned in to Jake Thackeray, recounting lengthy monologues. I don't think we had ever laughed so much before, as we did that night.

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Friday 12th was the day of "La Grande Parade des Pilotes". Cars were sluiced down, cleaned, polished and generally fettled. David (Spike) Stephenson sorted Ray Lloyd's Keihin carbs and between us we "sealed" Ray's oil pressure warning light switch, which had decided to leak around the dome. Cars were lined up for formal photos, together with the 'corporate image' clobber - white Pembleton coveralls, badges, assorted silly motoring hats and flying goggles. Much levity!

We made our way in to le Mans in convoy - it was chaos, with a Friday Market in full swing near the Cathedral. Parked vans and lorries connected with the Market had reduced the road to a single lane, but fortunately, we were waved through a No Entry sign, directed up a one-way street and in to the Display area, where the cars were to sit, displayed, until the Parade started in the evening. Fred Carnot is alive and well, working that day in le Mans. We were joined by Nigel Davey (dark green Brooklands with Minilite wheels) and Claude Laubret (silver Super Sport, beautifully presented with exceptionally attractive, clear glazed headlamps). The Team was complete. Security was in the form of African giants, who took no prisoners and ensured no one touched ANY car (there were some seriously valuable exotic cars). It was safe to leave our Pembletons.

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We trooped off in our obvious, white regalia to a first floor brasserie, from where we could view cars as they arrived. Food was good, but expensive ( a large beer Sir, yes of course, that'll be €7.60! It was good beer but we managed with just the one). At the end of the afternoon (have they forgotten about us?) we set off through the now barriered streets, lined with thousands of cheering people and in to the Paddock Jet d'Eau, where all the Parade cars were parked in groups. It was clearly going to be some time before our "Parade" as 'the exotics' went first. A local Harley Davidson Club was acting as Display Board heralds, each different group being preceded by a somewhat scantily clad girl holding a Board, perched on the back of an enormous Harley.

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By this time, photographic interest (both private and commercial) in our cars in particular, became really apparent, with much demand for information. Frequently, locals just shook their heads in disbelief at the notion of a car being a 2CV in a different suit.

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The Parade got under way, loud public address commentary in animated French welcoming each car. The slow pace of the Parade and the heat clearly affected the first "exotics", with the Zonda and Gumpert smelling much of burning clutch linings. Eventually, we were off just after 8 o'clock, picking our way slowly through the old town through throngs of cheering spectators -"les voitures exotiques de Pembleton". The reality of running slowly with no draught of air over the engine saw the temperature gauge rise and the oil pressure gauge fall - at 9.45, safely back in the Paddock, the oil temperature was showing 145°C. Half an hour later, the cars had cooled in the evening air. My oil pressure was restored, but an ominous ticking from the right exhaust valve suggested all was not well. By now it was dark and we threaded our way back to "Silly Phillip" for a late supper (and a drink or three). My right hand rear light had stopped working, but the brake light was OK - another task for tomorrow.

Saturday morning and we were all clearing up in the gite, packing cars and generally preparing for the home run My absent rear sidelight was another fractured cable at the bullet connector - again, an easy fix. The mechanical ticking however, was not a rogue tappet, but a pulled thread on one of the long cylinder studs that screw in to the crankcase. Being one of four through studs with a further 2 short studs holding the head, it seemed like compression was still being contained and since we were heading for home, we could see how far we got, before calling for the low-loader. Since the car was actually running well, we broke another resolution and ventured on to the péage, which saw us suddenly covering ground quite quickly. Oil pressure and temperature were holding satisfactory readings, but the smell of hot oil and a check at one of the Motorway "Aires" showed that the pressurised feed to the rockers was oozing round the pulled stud at the cylinder base. Needless to say, that oil tracked back in the slipstream - straight on to the right hand disc calliper. Light, check braking was OK, but any reasonable stopping pressure pulled the car left.

Again, with trepidation, we carried on. It rained again, slowing traffic down (which suited me - engine braking alone was sufficient) and eventually, we got back home, heads buzzing from the tension (brake and turn right simultaneously/off brakes and steer left made for wiggly progress!) and the le Mans euphoria. Never mind, we had done it! All the cars made it home - all breakdowns were repaired and I'm sure the name of "Pembleton" will have been raised considerably.

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The Team comprised
Duncan GrimmondBrooklands 800 BMW "Silver Surfer"
Dave and Nicky ParrSuper Sport Aero 1100 Moto Guzzi "Silverfish"
David (Spike) Stephenson and JanLWB Super Sport 602 Citroen
Ray LloydSuper Sport "Rapscallion" (previously 'The Hornet') 602 Citroen
David Stevenson and PeterSuper Sport 602 Citroen
Paul and Iuliana DufourSuper Sport 602 Citroen
Claude LaubretSuper Sport 602 Citroen
Mike and Eileen MeakinBrooklands 980 BMW
Steve Whiter was a confirmed team member
but had to call off for business pressure reasons
Brooklands 950 Moto Guzzi

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