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Troubles Abroad - Part II

Lea Thermallet

We set off to Hull in trepidation as the weather forecast was not good. We made it tin the dry and met several vintage cars in the lanes waiting to board. They all seemed to be heading for the Vintage weekend at Troyes, the same dates as our Reims do. An inconvenient coincidence I thought, couldn't they alternate? I found out later that there is a long-standing rivalry between the cities.

The rain started as we reached our cabin and was waiting for us as we disembarked in Zeebrugge.

After a hideous drive for 5 hours in pouring rain we stopped for petrol in a small village.

Re-fuelled we set off again and had gone about a kilometre when the engine stopped just past a small cafe.

At the side of the narrow road I established that there was no spark. As it was still pouring with rain and we were on a narrow stretch of road I pushed the car to the other side of the road and onto a wide pavement. Enquiries at the cafe revealed there was neither garage, hotel, chambre d'hote or restaurant for miles in either direction. While fiddling with the thing a woman in an estate car stopped and asked if we needed help. I explained the need for somewhere dry and she offered her garage and would go and get her husband. She drove off and we waited. I asked where she lived at the cafe and was given direction but no address. We rolled down the hill towards her home but she didn't re-appear nor could we find her. Strange, to offer help and then vanish.

I'd had the engine re-built and fitted with electronic ignition after last year's spark failure see Troubles Abroad part I so I called Steve Scrimminger who gave me a test to try the unit and I had decided it was dead. Having had a 1000 mile run to Caux-Retro in July I had confidence in the electronic set-up but I was very glad I'd packed the old bean-can points/condenser ignition, just in case.

I walked back to the cafe and the young proprietrice offered to open out the marquee over the entrance to give some shelter and I pushed the car back to the cafe. Christian, a mechanic called in on his way home from work having been alerted by another customer. I stripped the covers off the motor and fitted the original ignition, aware that the marquee overhead was filling with rain in a rather worrying manner. With Christian's help and a piece of his wire I fired it up and it ran. Adjusted the timing and after settling our coffee and his beer tab we were away.

We still had 150km to go to reach the gite and the misery of driving in the rain changed our plan to the next hotel, B+B, or anything!

After about 10kms a Routiers came into view but, despite my cutting a pathetic drowned rat figure, it was full. The barman said we had passed a chambre d'hote so we turned back and found it a couple of kms down the road. After rousing the proprietor, we were soon in a charming old-fashioned French bedroom in a small manoire, Pam in the shower and me making the requisite cup of tea on the camp stove. No kettles in French hotel rooms!

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Breakfast was a pleasant start to the following day sitting at a large table with 4 other guests, with much discussion of the car. The opening question after the "Bonjours" was

"est a vous le bolide?" Naturally I thought of Mike M!

Dry and fed we resumed our route towards Villers-sous-Chatillon in bright sunshine, the only reminder of the previous day's rain being the fact that we were sitting on a leather-clad sponge so a wet backside was inevitable.

Dave and Nicki Parr and Mikes M & B with respective spouses were installed when we arrived at the gite and we were welcomed with a fine lunch, having missed the special veggie stew they had made for us the previous evening. Tom, Keith, Don and Lynda arrived in the mid-afternoon and our party was complete.

We decided on a run to Reims as a part of Friday's entertainment and had a fine drive along the "Route de Champagne". On one stretch of particularly bumpy road my "sabot" kissed a lump, much to my consternation. I must improve my ground clearance!

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We had an interminable wait for an indifferent lunch which ended in an argument about the bill. A quick look at the cathedral was all we had time for before we returned to the gite and a tour of the "caves". We saw about 350,000 bottles of champagne in rows in the cellar, being guarded by a toad. Traditionally they are seen as a beneficial presence. We were invited for aperitifs with the patron and madame and while we were forcing down more champagne Vincent Mouton arrived in his immaculate Capri. A good dinner (with the obligatory pink champagne) followed by somewhat raucous banter late into the night ensued.

Saturday took us to Eparnay to visit the market and buy interesting local produce for the evening meal. We made our separate ways back to the gite and four of the cars formed a line-up for some publicity photos for the Maison and for our trouble we received a magnum of champagne. Don prepared a wonderful dinner which included a peach and apple crumble, served with real custard made by Nicki.

An early start was agreed for Sunday and, having left our orders for champagne with the patron we were all ready to roll at 10.00. No problem finding the village of Gueux but there was not one sign pointing to the track and car park entrance. I leapt from the car into a Gendarmerie to ask directions and the Gendarme pointed to the right road and as we turned around I realised we had almost run onto the circuit as we could see some cars whistling by at about 75 yards distant.

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Once inside the car park area we were directed to the "vehicules de collection" spot and formed up in a line, despite huge pot-holes in the field.

A crowd of photographers and lookers gathered and while the personnel changed, there seemed to be a constant crew of 6-10 interested parties hanging around, studying and photographing our cars for most of the day. I would love to know how many pictures of Pembletons exist on phones and computers throughout the world. It must be in the thousands!

Inside the event there was a wealth of interesting machinery to look at, drool over and generally admire. The smell of "white gas" pervaded the air in intoxicating levels and the noise of powerful engines was wonderful.

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Unfortunately, dark clouds loomed and I discovered I had left my tonneau cover behind so plastic bags were pressed into service to try to keep the seat dry. It rained for about 3 hours as we did the "hang around and wait" routine, familiar to those who were at Le Mans last year. Doing nothing for a day is much more tiring than hard work in my opinion. At last the time for the closing parade approached and I went to ask the Directeur du Circuit about our place in the parade. I was given a cursory "All are welcome" answer so we decided to get as close to the track entrance as possible. Nicki was deputed to charm the security guard into getting us in in good time and he complied. As we waited however, a French driver in a Teal Bugatti sidled up on our starboard beam and jumped the queue! Definitely Not Cricket.

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We were eventually admitted to the track and the Directeur seemed suitably impressed by our turnout in white Pembleton overalls and period gear.

The track itself was not what one might call a real one as there were barriers used to create chicanes every kilometre or so. Still, a judicious "hang back and accelerate" policy seemed to work and as we came into the final straight past the Grandstand and Directeur we were given a grand wave of approval. Don had his tyres smoking to impress the crowd which went down well.

As we left Gueux my sat-nav set me on the wrong road again! I discovered eventually that its position on the dash in the shelter of the scuttle causes a delay in the signal relay. At least I hadn't thrown it away in frustration before I discovered the cause of the problem.

We had a pleasant dinner of all the leftovers from the week including a wonderful soup created by Eileen. More slightly raucus amusements and then an early night.

Monday morning saw the collection of the trolley-full of champagne and, with ours strapped to the grid we set off towards Laon. This is a fine mediaeval city sitting atop one of the few hills on the plain of Picardy with a splendid view to the North. Dave 'n Nicki Parr arrived shortly after us and we had a good look at the cathedral which is quite stunning in the detail of the carving of huge animal gargoyles. We set off leaving them to lunch in the square and we headed for Valenciennes hoping to find a hotel in St.Amand-les-eaux. As the "waters-cure" season was in full swing we had to head north to Mortignan to a small hotel which was very welcoming.

My minor altercation with the bumpy French side road not only bashed my "sabot" but also loosened my sump bolts which now had turned a small drip into a progressive oil leak. I topped it up regularly rather than start grovelling under it trying to tighten the bolts without a torque wrench. We reached Brugges by 11.30 giving us time for a wander and some lunch before we headed out towards Zeebrugge and the ferry home.

In the terminal car park there were 10 interesting classic cars DB6, Corvette (Pam called it a Courgette), Lotus Elan, Healey, MGA etc. on their way back from the "European Classics" rally which had taken them to Brno and 10 other classic circuits including the Nurnbergring and Salzburg where they had the tracks to themselves. A rather nice Jaguar XK had had a minor prang which involved a tractor and a Merc from their group. The Merc. was a write-off unfortunately. Strangely they all seemed fascinated by the Silver Surfer, despite looking down their noses a little.

We arrived 2 hours late in Hull and although we were to be first off the ferry, we had had to wait in the draughty loading bay for 40 minutes or so. I topped up the oil again and headed West towards home. We arrived at 1.20 pm and when I parked outside the house I left a good oil slick!

Despite the foul weather and electrical breakdown at the start of the trip we had a very pleasant week on the D and N roads of France.


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