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Le Puy-Notre-Dame 2016


Duncan Grimmond

Having had an itch to have a go at a French GP Retro for some time, I had to scratch it. I made a reconnaisence trip to le Puy Notre Dame in 2015 in my Pembleton Supersports driving 60 miles from home to the Hull/Zeebrugge ferry and then following the French "routes departementals" to PND in leisurely stages stopping at Neufchatel-en-Bray, Orleans and Saumur.


The regulations of the GP Retro call for pre-war cars so I had to finish my Austin Seven project, hand-built carrosserie in the style of a Benjamin cyclecar, "Petite Voiture, Grande Marque" as the 1928 advertisement has it.

As soon as I heard that the applications were open I downloaded the forms, filled them in and sent them off with a cheque in late March. I heard absolutely nothing from the organisers and so had to rely on French friends telling me that I was "inscrit" eventually in the last week of June! Apparently this is the normal procedure. I did find an email address and sent several mails explaining that I would like to know so that I could take advantage of early booking/price discounts for ferries. I think the delay in replying might have cost me about £140.00. Heigh-ho. At least I had my B&B near to PND booked well in advance.

This time I could not face driving all the way in the Austin 7 at 40mph as it would probably take four full days and much roadside fettling. Mathilde was loaded onto her trailer and I drove the 300 miles to Dover to catch the 14.00h ferry to Calais. The last 4 miles took almost an hour and I arrived at the Port of Dover at around 12.30, just within the recommended 90 minute leeway


Unfortunately the tragic incident at le Boulevarde des Anglaises in Nice had triggered a serious French Customs/Police operation and I didn't get to embark until after 3.00 clock and with a change of destination to Dunkirk. I eventually reached my B&B in Neufchatel en Bray at 9.45 that evening.

A friend had lent me his Sanef windscreen-mounted toll transponder which makes using the peage Autoroutes simplicity itself. You coast slowly into the ticket lane and just as you come to a stop the barrier lifts and you're away without having to get out of the car.

I became a Francophile in 1965 when I fell in love with Francoise Hardy so, to try to tune my ear in I found a French radio station on which they speak slowly enough for me to understand, France-Musique : FM 89.8. A little like Classic FM with the addition of French chansons by the likes of Trennet, Brassens and Brel and jazz, which made the long and tedious journey to Saumur much more bearable. By the time I got back to Boulogne on my return trip I found I could understand almost every announcement, except the news.

BSA three wheeler ex Duncan

Having found my B&B I took the car to the football ground at PND where a fair-sized crowd of the Morgan Three-Wheeler club was already installed and I took up a site where I'd arranged to meet my French friends with the BSA three-wheeler that I'd sold in 2011.

I unloaded the trailer, parked it with the others and took Mathilde for a ride around the circuit at a modest speed to familiarise myself with the layout. Straw bales were being unloaded and stacked in preparation and there were several waves of welcome from the locals.

Velorext cyclecar

The "Stade de Foot" was filling up with a wide variety of cars including Amilcar, Bugatti, Darmont, Fiat, Gali, Hotchkiss, Irat, Lagonda, Majola, MG, Morris, Raly, Riley, Rosengart , Sandford in 3 and 4 wheel varieties, and one of my favoutites, a fabric Velorex chuffing out those lovely 2-Stroke fumes.

The Morgan TWC made me most welcome as a solo Brit abroad, complete with ukulele to accompany Bruce, a Welsh biker riding a rigid-frame 1943 Triumph T100 special who was playing his uke and singing skiffle numbers from the early 1960s.

Friday morning bought the registration which involved a long queue, perhaps exacerbated by the apparent lack of any filing system. I had been allocated no. 2 , first name in the Cyclecar class on the programme, perhaps because I was the second applicant? If only they had let me know but it appears that this is their usual practice and has been so since the start of the event 20 years ago.

ready for the 'off'

There were several other Austin Sevens on the programme but there were more that were inscribed too late for inclusion. The "randonee" (a tour of about 160km with a lunch stop) was about to start when a call went out for a spare seat and so I was lucky enough to get a "navigatrice" to help with our course as she checked off the tulip notations in the Road Book. I don't think I could have managed without her. A good proportion of the route was on very badly-maintained country roads which gave me some cause for concern as I've only ever driven the Benjaustin on reasonable Yorkshire surfaces and I felt as if it was being shaken to pieces. However, the scenery and towns/villages were all enchanting and the weather was, if anything, a little too hot for me!

When we stopped for lunch I spent some time going round the car with spanners for the engine and Allen keys for the bodywork. Some oil had fallen out and the heat had evaporated some water but everything else seemed OK.

The first 25 km of the post-prandial run went fairly well but gradually performance was falling off. I set the SatNav for PND and unfortunately it took us for 1 km. on a very rough track across a recently harvested field.

By the time we hit tarmac the car was not at all happy and when we stopped to refuel I looked under the bonnet to find that the carb was very loose and all the unions were peeing fuel everywhere. Added to this inconvenient mess and having tightened everything up, the battery was flat! A push start got us to a bank and supermarket, sloping park, gravity start, and then to the football field where my navigatrice thanked me warmly and disappeared.

I had to spend some time fettling which included tightening the positive terminal on the battery, re-tightening all the carb nuts, bolts and unions and buying a complete SU carb from the autojumble to replace the screw-cap and plunger lost on the road somewhere.

A recharged battery, courtesy of some borrowed jump-leads, and Mathilde was ready for another trial spin round the track.

evening out

The Friday evening "Grande Regalade" is a "Diner-Concert" served to a couple of hundred people out of one small restaurant on the main street, on two 50 yard long tables made up from a lot of trestles. Five courses, E16.00 and E5.00 for a bottle of the excellent local Rose d'Anjou. A good atmosphere, a good welcome, a band and some pals from last year made for an excellent evening.

Instead of joining the Saturday randonee I spent the day checking and tightening everything else I could think of and emptying the grease gun into all the nipples in preparation for the Saturday afternoon and evening "races". These are in fact not races but "demonstrations".

dressed in 30s gear

Then a change into white overalls, a white cap and goggles, newly waxed moustache and I was posing with the rest of the "flaneurs"!

dressed in 30s gear

Many drivers/riders go to the trouble of finding period kit, leather gaiters with bone-dome helmets were much in evidence, along with knee-britches & weskits, white overalls and flame-proofs.


There were some displays in the yard by the Salon des fetes, notably by the Alcyon Club who showed a fine collection of motorcycles, sidecars and a fairly rare cyclecar with a horizontally opposed twin 2stroke engine.

This unfortunately fell over during the Sunday afternoon demonstration, doing some damage to the car but although it landed upside down, the driver was helped out and walked away. I think this was the only accident during the weekend.

I happened to be at the front while we waited for the track to be cleared and had I not waved on a couple of faster cars (including the stunning blonde in the Amilcar) I might have been placed third…in the demonstration of course.

Having never before driven the car in anger it was quite a revelation that I could scream around the circuit in third gear with enough to pull away from corners but not enough to justify the wait required between third and fourth as, by the time the engine and gearbox speeds matched it was time to go back down to third.

round the bales

It went round the corners better than I expected even though the heat of the sun had made the tarmac a bit slippy. The cool of the evening demonstrations was more conducive to good road-holding and in the dark I had more fun than in the daylight.

Sunday was another day of fun with more demonstrations, lunch, lounging around in the heat and picking over the well attended "Bourse" where I could have spent a fortune had I had room for a couple of auto-cycles.

For those with a couple of hours to spare and anotion to see more images of entrants, a quick search on YouTube for Puy Notre Dame 2016 will afford several films of the various classes taking part.

The week I spent in France was a real treat and I was made very welcome everywhere I went. My hosts at the B&B were absolutely charming and could not have been more helpful and "tres sympa". As I drove north on the D roads I couldn't help but look for somewhere to live and set up a sheet-metal business for my retirement ....

Duncan Grimmond

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