Sunday July 21 at er, late o'clock
I’m sitting on the sofa in the DFDS Dunkirk-to-Dover ferry, weary and a bit hungover, with black grease under my fingernails and a touch of sunburn. Below on Deck 5 Yoo Hoo, my 1960 Triumph TR3a, is packed to the rollcage with all our gear and a few additions. What a ride it’s been over the last 11 days...
I didn’t get much sleep two nights ago in Bretten in Germany, tossing and turning with worry about the brakes, or lack of them. John Smallwood, my co-driver, and I had been nursing the car for two days with brake problems and both of us had quite near misses. We had talked to Simon Courtney and Mike Collins from the RAC and we’d deduced the front-brake master cylinder was sucking air into the system and was failing, but I hadn’t brought a spare.
John and I decided to get up at 5am to bleed the system once more and then make a decision. We could continue to nurse the car, but the problem was getting worse and, as Courtney said: “It’s getting to be a road safety issue.”
The security men hired by the mayor of Bretten to keep an eye on the cars were out there when we walked out at daybreak, along with some friendly but noisy drunks, who looked like they’d been there all night. We jacked her up and began to pump at each brake caliper, air continually spat and spluttered out of the pipe and the pedal was on the floor; this was hopeless.
We didn’t speak, just packed up the old car, both of us knew we were through. All that hard work, all the efforts of friends and family, the kindness of strangers and all that money, all for nothing.
“How’s it going,” asked Neil Revington, fellow competitor, rally sponsor and Yoo Hoo’s former owner, at breakfast. I stared into my tea, not daring to look up as I told him.
“I’ve put a few spares in the RAC van and I’m pretty sure there’s a master cylinder to suit your car,” he said. When Courtney hoved into view I asked if he would ransack the box of spares. And there it was.
“What’s the situation if I accept this from the box,” I asked.
“The rules are clear, you can use the spares and I can even lend you tools, but if I so much as touch the car, there’s a big penalty that’ll put you out of contention,” he said. I snatched the master cylinder from his hand and while competitors revved and disappeared off to the regularity trial at the local kart track, John and I worked feverishly. It was 40 minutes later that Yoo Hoo’s angry exhaust note crackled across the square, we were last at the track, but still in the game...
The Americans were having mixed fortunes. Jeff and Jeffrey Givens in joint second place had a military snap to their efforts to drive the TR3 he’d owned for much of his life around the small circuit in exactly the allotted time, while Mike and Frances Grace’s TR3 was already having problems after its head-gasket change in northern Italy, it was running rough and RAC men Courtney and Collins were preparing for a busy day.
The Givens pairing gave a virtuoso performance, lapping on scratch with no penalties, which confirmed them in solo second position. I worked the stopwatch and John drove superbly giving us only a two-point penalty for being one second down, as it was for Liz Wakefield and Mike Jones in their TR4a.
Make no mistake, this was a big day. To be in with a chance you had to hit all of the correct roads first time, keep sharp in the formidable heat and extemporise a route through a maze of German umleitung (diversions round blockaded and dug-up streets), all the while coping with a load of maps that had seen better days bouncing around in hot and often wet cars.
“We need better maps and better packed lunches,” said Jeffrey Givens over his fifth pint at supper that evening - that man has hollow legs.
It wasn’t easy. The Givens tried to get round one umleitung by driving across a farm, only to find a locked gate and a farmhouse from which emerged a distinctly hostile farmer in a state of some déshabillé.
“He came out of there with his tackle hanging out in a seriously bad mood,” said Givens.
Timing was tight and the roads confusing. Signposting probably removed during the Second World War appeared not to have been put back in quite the right order. Some things didn’t change, though. We arrived at one control only to find Nick Sharp and Kate Handley sitting on a bench looking cool as cucumbers eating their picnic - how do they do that?
There was a bus stop on the route, not hidden, but which had all the competitors spinning noisily round a small German town. And it was hot, most cars had the heaters on to try and get some heat out of the engine and we all drove with one eye on the clock and another on the temperature gauge.
While RAC men Courtney and Collins put the finishing touches on the Graces’ TR3, we were into the final stages of the rally travelling through a quite charming part of West Germany between Aachen and Trier, past vineyards, small towns, with lovely switchback roads. This is where the final controls lurked to ensure we kept to the route of the original 1958 competitors.
“We’ve got 15 minutes to make the final control so you’ll be wanting to push on here,” said John, with considerable understatement. Yoo Hoo’s solid rear axle took a bit of pounding as I put my foot down and we followed Mike and Liz into the courtyard of the Abbaye de Stavelot where the original Liège-Brescia-Liège event finished 61 years ago.
Just in time, Liz and I walked up to chief marshals (and previous winners themselves) Mark and Jane Smith to have our route cards stamped and cameraphones checked for the photo controls.
“I’ve been taking several shots at each one, just in case,” said Liz. So had I.
The wait was interminable as Mark checked each one carefully. Eventually he looked up.
“Well congratulations,” he said shaking my hand. “You’ve won.”
We’d led the Authentic Class (for cars of the type that would have rallied in the period of the original 1958 event) from start to finish which, given that I’d been lying under the car fixing it on the eve of the rally, seems unbelievable. Yoo Hoo has won a lot of silverware in her 59-year life, but to be honest anyone who got their car over that 2,200-mile-plus course, over eight Alpine passes, interminable hills and confusing routefinding, is a bloody hero.
In the Authentic Class, the Givenses were second and Iain Paul and James Butler in an immaculate 1957 ex-works rally car were a thoroughly deserved third. In 1958 competitors did this route in only three days; the roads were empty and they took Benzedrine to keep them awake, but I still wonder.
OI srganisers Malcolm and Helena McKay did a brilliant job as usual, chief marshals Mark and Jane Smith were friendly and supportive, but this is rally to take you out of your comfort zone. Everyone had worked hard to get there and I was just another, though my brother William has just sent me a text to tell me that Luca the alternator, which had provided such sterling electricity on the rally, had actually been seized not so long ago and had been lubricated with WD40, which at least explains Luca’s fondness for the stuff; I’m going to engrave him along with the trophy.
“I didn’t tell you,” said William, “but I’ve been having kittens it wouldn’t last the distance.”
Everyone had a journey to get the to start ramp, though.
“I suppose I’ve been preparing for this for about 18 months,” said Jeff Givens. He’s used to long trips, once driving a round trip of 2,400 miles from Kansas City to Cottonwood in Arizona in his TR3 for a family party, and detouring another 800 miles to California to drop an aunt off at the airport...
We left Yoo Hoo ticking as she cooled in the courtyard and walked around the lovely Spa-Francorchamp circuit museum in the Abbey’s basement and had a beer; a Leffe. “It’s 6.7 per cent,” said Mike Jones with lurid wink. I shook his and Liz’s hands; no doubt theirs had been the drive of the rally.
I’d had little sleep over the last 11 days, and hadn’t drunk or eaten much all day. The sun might have got to me a little and that Leffe went straight to my head. We drove back in convoy with the Givenses, Mike and Liz, and Graham and Catherine Hills in their TR4a; four TRs roaring up the empty motorway into Liège, in the evening sun, exhausts spalling and splintering off the steel barriers like fighter aircraft returning from a sortie.
I laid my head against the head rest and looked up at the azure blue sky swirling with mares’ tails with a gulp of swallows flying close escort. Like fellow competitor Vincent Paccellieri, I thought of my father who died 10 years ago this month, of my brother William and friend John without whom none of this would have happened, and of my wife Philli and family who’d given so much support, had kept faith in me and had been frantic with worry about us in an old car without any brakes so far from home.
“You and John are the most driven and determined people I know,” texted my daughter Scarlett. “I am so proud.”
A tear rolled down the dust on my cheek and I closed my eyes.
John turned from the wheel. “All right Ing?” He said; it’s what he used to call me at school.
I opened my eyes and grinned.
“Yeah, I’m all right,” I replied.
Saturday July 20 at 23:32
Two pairs of clean socks left and today we ate the last of the Fox’s Glacier Fruits - things are getting tough in the cockpit of YooHoo, my 1960 Triumph Tr3a - and my co-driver John is also finally convinced of the awfulness of hotel apples.
Few crews are without issue, though. The beautifully presented 1957 TR3 of Mike Wing and Caroline Metcalf, currently lying fourth, has developed an interesting jangly note from the clutch, not quite Johnny Marr when he was in The Smiths, more as he is with The Healers.
“If it comes to the worst I’ll just drive it up the motorway,” said Mike, “we should be OK today provided there’s not too much crawling through towns.”
Turns out there was a fair bit of that, though you’d struggle to believe the pair had a problem. Unshowered, dishevelled and without supper (we got in at 20.45hrs), I met them both replete, tripping down the high street.
“We just kept on going, it was OK,” said Caroline. “We were in at five pm.”
I might have gulped like a goldfish.
We are staying at Bretten this evening, which is a quite lovely and little known (in the UK) German town with a beautiful cobbled main street. The cars are all parked in the main square as allowed by the mayor - has this man any idea how much oil a hot TR will drop in the course of an evening? They do look great, though.
Vincent and Arthur Paccellieri in the 1953 TR2 have been suffering, too, with a dead generator. In a fine gesture, Iain Paul in the ex-works TR3a have donated his spare.
“I said I will buy it from them,” said Vincent, “but they said, ‘Non, send it back to us when the rally is finished and you are at home.”
I also caught up with Arthur on his way back to the restaurant.
“Tout va bien,” he said, “but it rains so hard, in five minutes we were soaked.”
In all we’ve been pretty lucky with the weather, but clearly some have been luckier than others.
Talking of which, Luca, my brother William’s Triumph GT6 alternator, which is on tour under YooHoo’s bonnet, has been sending postcards to its owner. “I’ve been to more places than Johnny Cash,” it wrote. “It’s been hard to run up that big fan, especially coming up out of Innsbruck, but they gave me a polish with some WD40 last night - life is sweet.”
Things gone right today included the idyllic countryside of the German Tyrol as we drove along with the sun on our head and, unlike the Paccellieris, also managing to skirt the worst big thunderclouds. Lately the hotels have been lovely, too, not that we’ve spent much time in them.
Things gone not so great include the poor grass snake we accidentally ran over, which I’m still upset about. There’s been a distinct lack of information on muskrats at high altitudes from posters or emailers, oh and our brakes appear to be on slow working - perhaps that’s an Italian lunch hour.
The distinguished motoring writer (and good technical man) John Simister has always said that silicone brake fluid is less slippery than conventional fluids and is consequently harder on brake seals. I’m beginning to think he might have a point. YooHoo’s front master cylinder is sucking in air despite having new seals and being in pretty good nick. We lost the front brakes again on the way into Bretten and I think we’ll have to bleed them again before the special test tomorrow.
Another thing that didn’t go so very well was a cancelled control at a lake in southern Germany. Along with several other competitors we drove around the lake several times in both directions, then retracing our steps and doing the route again, spending over an hour not finding the place. Like others we didn’t see the rally plate which was hung from a roadside pole to inform us of its cancellation. It seemed a shame as we were then too late to see the Automuseum at Wolfegg, which had laid on a fine spread of afternoon tea and a guided tour at one of Germany’s biggest car collections.
I wasn’t alone in wondering if in the age of mobile telephones an easily missed, improvised road sign is the most efficient way of informing competitors of changes to the route.
Sorry watchers in Kansas, there’s no Givens TR3 news today, though I’ve heard that the father-and-son crew are at a local chapel having a night of silent prayer and contemplation like medieval knights before the final big day.
For those at home concerned about John and Kim Durden and their TR6, we can confirm their arrival in Bretten as we did Martin and Dorothy Goodall in their TR6. Nick Sharp and Kate Handley in their TR3a remained enviously cool even when lost in the maze of minor-road closures the Germans call a transport network and a big shout for Liz Wakefield and Mike Jones. They’re not regular rally folk yet going into the final day comfortably led whole caboodle as well as the Spirit Class in their nicely prepped and tough-looking 1966 TR4a - it’s the version with independent rear suspension so you don’t need to pay a chiropractor quite as much as those in earlier cars.
Pat Moss used to say that if she and Ann Wisdom got lost they’d open the window as listen for the TRs. It’s almost midnight, but out of my open window I can hear the sound of Mike and Frances Grace’s TR2 throbbing in the night air, repaired and ready to go for tomorrow’s final day of the Liège-Brescia-Liège rally.
Friday July 19 at 23;24
Three clean pairs of socks left and I awoke to the sound of my co-driver John impersonating a dove on the hotel balcony; he should soon be taken home..
After the great excitement of seeing a muskrat yesterday, we saw a black squirrel today, which was equally exciting partly because I’d never seen one, partly because it was in Germany and as every schoolboy knows a sure-fire way of uncovering German spies is to get them to (mis) pronounce ‘squirrel’ - and also because we so nearly ran it over.
No one, least of all the squirrels, seems to have figured that we really have had no brakes from this morning. We ran in convoy with Liz Wakefield and Mike Jones today and taking a picture of one of the photo controls, Liz stepped out into the road while we virtually put our feet through the floor to stop. They kept a healthy distance from us after that, though were incredibly helpful on one of event organiser Malcolm McKay’s fiendish treasure hunt-type controls at the end of the day. Is this what the last great navigation rallies were all about?
So last night in Marlinghof, Italy, we thought the lack of rear braking was due to a leaking wheel seal on the axle. The spilled oil didn’t smell strongly of EP additives, which usually gives away such leaks (and I am aware that I am talking about sniffing domestic automotive lubricants here, a subject from which I should move rapidly), but it didn’t smell that much, or should I say not enough.
Anyway today’s section took in one of the most scenic and unsung Alpine passes, the 2,211-metre Passo di Pènnes, a lovely unspoilt road that links Innsbruck with Bolzano, two cities which probably don’t need a link. As a result it is clear as a whistle, without endless switchback hairpins, has a decent cafe restaurant at the top and is quite movingly beautiful.
Or at least I thought so when we reached the top. Up on the cam, with the radiator whistling merrily, we’d been keeping up with Paul and Jan Gerring in their TRS Le Mans tribute car for a while, which is rapid indeed. Their wings have been clipped, though, as their radiator has sprung a leak which is only partially plugged. I’d seen Jan had breakfast and she’d had an equally nightmarish regularity test yesterday when her stopwatch had run out of battery power half way around the lap to set a bogey time on which subsequent laps are judged.
“He [Paul] yelled, ‘Sort it out’,” said Jan, “but if you haven’t got a time for the first lap there’s nothing you can do...”
We compared notes on co-drivers’ horrified expressions.
So coming down from the Passo, the brake pedal was sinking low enough for a Sixties Alfred Hitchcock in-jeopardy movie where the heroine starts to stamp on the brake pedal on the French Corniche while filmed through a day-for-night filter. I started to change down early. By the end of the pass, I stopped, as I simply had no brakes.
There was clearly something wrong and John and I discussed further action. The brake fluid level was OK, but the Revington front-rear balance pedal box pushed our brake pedal movement to the back to attempt to achieve the balance it had been set up to preserve. In other words, although the front brakes were in fine condition, we weren’t getting enough pressure to them.
“It’s a rear slave cylinder,” said Neil Revington in Innsbruck - of course he was right. John reckoned he could nurse the car through to the hotel in Bernreid and with a few hair-raising moments en route it was there that we changed the wheel cylinder, which took a couple of hours. We now have brakes and are both exhausted...
News from fellow travellers includes the Durdens, John and Kim, who today enjoyed a fine day’s running in their 1973 TR6, Vincent and Albert Paccellieri who have run their simply gargantuan battery down on their 1953 TR2, but seem to be still starting albeit off the RAC van’s slave battery. The Givens from Kansas got caught with us on a fiendish climb out of Innsbruck to Zirl. Something had slowed everything to a walking pace and the TRs all started to boil.
Other than that it’s been a good day for father Jeff and son Jeffery, although we understand that members of the Kansas City Triumph Club have been reading this blog in awe of how Jeff, whose 1959 TR3 has a legendary reputation for mechanical reliability, has been managing. Greetings to you all in KCTC and we can assure that some of this mechanical reliability has been smoke and mirrors. Apart from fixing an entire exhaust system back on to the car yesterday, we have seen the bonnet up and at times a wrench in Jeff’s hand - just so you know, we'll try and get more photos.
My brother’s alternator, Luca, pressganged like some 18th century sailor into this adventure, has been spinning merrily and keeping our battery full, all the drivers of early cars have black hands stained by the grip of the pointlessly huge handbrake that lies alongside the transmission tunnel and poor Mike and Frances Grace, who came over from America to do the rally, still have their car still stranded in Italy. Today the garage informed them that its workers’ two-hour lunch break "is the law in Italy".
Apparently black squirrels were introduced to America by Will Keith Kellogg, the founder of the eponymous cereal company. I think we need to know more, and about this Italian two-hour lunch break.
Thursday, July 18 at 2307
Today we headed back to Belgium northward from Italy through the fearsome Gavia and Stelvio passes. I can’t say I was looking forward to it, or the potential threat such 2,500-metre plus climbs posed to my car. Our first ascent of the Stelvio from the (northern), Austrian side was bloody, breaking both Stelvio rules; never run from the Austrian side, and never run in mid-morning.
It’s at times like this you recall laying on the cold concrete floors in the middle of winter preparing the car, the selfless help of strangers, as well as that from my brother Will, Jeff Marks at Moss and of course John my co driver - well, that and the endless questions that often start: ‘Well, when is it going to be finished?’
I can’t say I’m sorry to be headed home at this stage. I’ve got four pairs of clean socks left. The cars are starting to look a little battered, with smoking, raucous exhausts (some of which will have been due to the enriched running at high altitude) but partly from them falling out of tune - and you might say the same of the crews.
The appeal of this type of regularity rally is one that escapes most drivers, but it is an art nevertheless. The ability to maintain precise speeds over defined periods is often scorned by racing types, but it demands teamwork and good driving, as well as quick thinking. They were bought into road rallying in the Fifties as a way of slowing the increasing speeds of the cars.
In some rallies they are now terrifyingly complex with many speed changes, different hazards and night sections, timing to the tenth of a second and sneaky secret controls. Liège-Brescia-Liège organiser Malcolm McKay’s are more simple, taking place on a circuit where competitors pit themselves against the track and often their self control. The temptation on a motor racing circuit is to go like dingbats and that doesn’t engender precision.
A couple of stopwatches helps, as does a navigator who can tell the driver if he or she is up or down at key places on the previous lap. Above all, go slow, which is what John and I did when we arrived at the autodromo franciacorta guida sicura - if this was in Kent they’d call it Lydden.
Wow, how badly can one man ruin our day? Half way through the first lap I simply and utterly cretinously pressed the wrong button on the stopwatch and in a second we had no bogey time, nothing to reference against the two subsequent (and hopefully matching) times and no result - I Am A Complete Idiot. And wow did I ever get some stick. Arthur, fellow competitor Vincent Paccellieri’s son, asked me how it had all gone. I told him. He then explained how even the simplest, cheapest mobile phone did all this with a simple series of buttons. As his father is wont to say: “My morale was low.”
We got over the passes, and how. Coming up from Italy is always good, late afternoon when the tourists aren’t around is even better. YooHoo got into her stride, up on the cam and held on to the climb, and John drove her superbly. None of Malcolm’s photographic aide memoires seem to match what exists on the ground so we had to stop - and in the low air pressure the coolant foamed out of the radiator, but we did it.
We ran in convoy up the passes with Nick Sharp and Kate Handley in their red hard-top 1960 TR3a. They are quite the most stylish couple on the rally; Kate climbs out to take route-passage pictures with a fuscia-pink handbag... Enough said.
It was nice running all together, sort of protective, and a Norwegian in a Porsche Boxster and his significant other were enthralled. He flagged us down after the summit and handed us his card: Bil Verksteo from Norway. “I have lots of TR4 bits,” he said - am I being chased by second-hand car parts salesmen?
And we saw a muskrat. It came screaming across the road in front of us and disappeared into the ground like the Thunderbirds mole. I’d never seen one before. What on earth does it eat 2.5km in the sky? Answers on a postcard, please. Oh and we also saw three BMW GS touring motorcycles tip gently over on three consecutive hairpins, which was very funny especially when a load of geezers on Lambrettas rolled up and helped them get their tough-looking adventure bikes upright - this shouldn’t happen to a BMW rider, but it’s hard not to smile when it does.
A quick update on the Durdens, as friends and relatives are apparently very worried about John and Kim’s erratic progress in their 1973 TR6. With their umpteenth clutch slave cylinder rebuild by Simon and Mike, RAC men extraordinaire, John was heard to mutter: “I just wish I could have one blasted day when I didn’t break down.”
There was news of the other stricken TR6, that of Martin and Dorothy Goodall, who had stayed in the hotel where they had stopped with a driveshaft issue, had a conversation with the head of the TR Register in Italy who might be called Federico Zaffalon, who arranged for their driveshaft joint to be sorted out with large amounts of enthusiasm and small amounts of money by MG Autofficina in Treviso.
There is no Givens news today and mine will have to wait until tomorrow. Goodnight.
Wednesday July 17 at 23:05
Ah, the Stelvio Pass or, as the Austrians call it, the Stilfser Joch. It’s the highest paved eastern Alpine pass, linking Austria with Lombardy in Italy, but lying so close to Switzerland that during the First World War shells fired between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian lines landed in neutral Switzerland and they had to agree to shell each other only on strict angles of attack.
Its 2,757-metre summit, with a total of 75 hairpins on both sides, were created almost 200 years ago to link Lombardy, which was then owned by Austria, with the rest of the country. The chief engineer was Carlo Donegani and he did a fine job with the stone-walled corners – each and every one numbered.
Yet somehow it has entered popular imagination as a great driving road. Alfa Romeo produces an SUV known as the Stelvio, although on its launch the Stelvio pass was closed by snow so they had to cross the Alps via the Brenner Pass instead, which doesn’t roll so lightly off the tongue. Moto Guzzi produce a motorcycle called the Stelvio and when Jeremy Clarkson, Compo and Clegg did BBC’s Top Gear, they thought it was the world’s best driving road.
It isn’t, not by any measure. These days it’s a tawdry, overcrowded festival of human endeavour, internal combustion, bad driving and avaricious tat. Baden Baden Sunshine Tours coaches (which aren’t strictly allowed on such mountain roads) mix with huge motor caravans that require three-point turns at each hairpin, puffing cyclists, wheeled skiers, classic cars (including what seems like half the world’s surviving population of original Minis), supercars growling and yelping, bikers of all descriptions (there is a rumour that every BMW GS motorcycle ever built has been up the Stelvio) and us on the Austrian side.
And when you get up there you struggle to park, there are queues to buy Stelvio fridge magnets and overpriced ice cream, and people wander around like zombies not entirely sure why they came in the first place, before going down the same side as they came up on.
A measure of its pointlessness is that barely 500 metres down from the peak on the Italian side is a fine restaurant that struggles to make a living because it isn’t at the top (although it enjoys better views) and there are other hostelries further down the slope which are entirely derelict.
If you want to see what Liège-Brescia-Liège leaders Honore Wagner and Abbes Donven saw on 19 July 1958 through the screen of their Fiat 500 Abarth, you need to get up very early before the gaudy circus arrives on the slopes of the pass. We didn’t – and anyone who tells you that crawling up an Alp behind a smoky Mercedes van with ‘one life, live it’ printed on the side is a great driving experience needs hitting repeatedly with a frying pan. It’s a horrible experience and I said as much to organiser McKay, saying he should re-plan the rally get on the Stelvio early.
I simply can’t believe we’ve got to do it all over again tomorrow. It’s 11:30pm but I’d leave right now if it meant we could have a clear run at the Gavia and Stelvio passes.
Poor YooHoo, my Triumph TR3a, boiled three times getting up the mountain behind this nonsense, unable to get the revs up on the cam and choking on her own exhaust gas. Thin air is a disaster for car cooling and even the fan, which spins more readily because of the reduced resistance, pushes less cooling air through the radiator.
An illustration of this phenomenon was gained at breakfast in the charming Hotel Adler (email@example.com), when the manager asked my how I would like my boiled egg.
“Oh five minutes,” I said.
“At this altitude, that will be raw,” he said.
The result is that YooHoo’s radiator boils much earlier at higher altitudes, she blows out much more water and so when you get back down to sensible levels you have to fill her up – it’s a process we’re beginning to learn, as well as stopping when the temperature moves into the death zone above 95 degrees C.
“Put in a higher pressure radiator cap,” said my brother William, probably anxious at the scaling bath his alternator (Luca) is getting at every summit (it’s not enjoying its European holiday), but I’m already running double the poundage and if you stress the system any more you can end up bursting a radiator.
Talking of stressed to bursting, the “missing in action” list grew today: Kim and John Durden’s TR6 hasn’t been seen although we did send Simon and Mike, the ever-cheerful and long-suffering RAC mechanics, back to them with a brand-new clutch slave cylinder out of our spares box to try to solve the problems.
The Goodalls in their TR6 are rumoured to have elected to have withdrawn, poor Mike and Frances Grace in their 1954 TR2 have had a torrid time with various issues which now appear to have been joined by head-gasket failure – we understand the might of the TR Register back in the UK has been deployed to get their car back on track.
Oh, and talking of mighty effort, Jeff and Jeffrey Givens managed to remove the entirety of their 1959 TR3a’s exhaust over a bump, which took some doing (and fixing).
“I want you to know that we fixed it all, made every control and we got here on time,” said Jeffrey, Jeff’s son, as he quaffed a well-deserved pint in the Piazza Mercato in Brescia. He was much too polite to mention that it was his dad who was driving when the exhaust came off...
I should also say that my co-driver John Smallwood has made some blinding navigation decisions today, so perhaps I’ll take back any comments I might have made previously about his abilities on that front...
Tuesday July 16 at 22:46
I have been informed of a remarkable film of the original 1958 Liège-Brescia-Liège rally for cars of up to 500cc (yes, really) made by Clacton garage proprietor Burt Westwood, who was an amateur racer and clearly something of a home movie buff as it’s in colour which was rare (and expensive) at the time.
Curated by the Eastern Counties Motor Club, Westwood’s film is an idiosyncratic take on the rally but all the better for it; the fashions, the hairstyles, the fairly rudimentary roads and a look at Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom, who drove for the Berkley team of motorcycle-engined microcars. Most will recall Moss as being Stirling’s sister and a gifted horsewoman, but she was a very fine driver with a light touch on all the cars she drove, including the Austin Healey 3000 in which she and Wisdom won the 1960 Liège-Rome-Liège road rally.
I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing her on a couple of occasions and she was a joy; straight speaking, hospitable and rather kind. She was married to Erik ‘on the roof’ Carlsson, the hugely successful Saab works driver. At the beginning of my career you’d often find Erik at Saab launches helping to unload journalists’ bags from test cars with most of them not knowing who on earth this tall, shambling man was, or that he could have driven them all out of the park with his eyes shut.
Pat Moss-Carlsson (as she became), after a successful career with the British Show Jumping Team, started her driving career with a Triumph TR2, but foolishly Triumph wouldn’t pay her rally expenses so she was picked up by MG and subsequently the British Motor Corporation (BMC) team - it was Triumph’s loss.
The film shows an innocent time, with Moss and Wisdom grinning into Burt’s camera lens and looking carefree and quite lovely. The organiser of our recreation event, Malcolm McKay, who also interviewed Moss several times, said he understood that BMC thought the original Liège-Brescia-Liège was a good warm-up for the longer Liège-Rome-Liège rally and were rather disappointed with the early demise of the Moss/Wisdom Berkeley, which struggled to keep itself cool.
You can probably see the reason for this history lesson now, but we returned to the mountains today, with a vengeance. We drove virtually due east from Slovenia into Italy and after some fiendish navigation stuff on the river plains we took in the Passo di San Osvaldo (827 metres), Passo Staulanza (1,763 metres) and Passo di Pordoi (2,239 metres).
Old cars, with old cooling and old suspension systems, aren’t really at their best in these circumstances. I thought murderous thoughts as we crashed along a far-from-as-smooth-as-described gravel road, thinking that if I wanted to do this sort of rally I’d have taken a seam-welded, roll-caged Mk2 Ford Escort with a World Cup front end, baby Atlas rear and a big old Millington engine under the bonnet, plus of course a couple of Ford Transits filled with burly mechanics. So murderous, in fact, that we missed a photograph control and had to retrace our steps across the blasted road all over again. As the unfortunate Vincent Paccellieri said yesterday: “My morale was low.”
The mountain passes are problematic. The main issue is camper vans, two or more abreast cyclists and fantastically slow locals who won’t overtake anything, therefore forming gastrapodic queues up the mountains which come to a halt at every hairpin.
Given her head YooHoo, my 1960 Triumph TR3a, would clear the summits; blowing a bit of coolant, yes, but coping. As it is the water temperature gauge heads south and we have to stop to let the near-60-year-old girl cool down. If you want to see the passes as Moss and Wisdom experienced them, you need to get up extremely early, but no one is going to do that on a holiday tour and so there we are.
We just about made it through some epic traffic jams to the three-way split hotels for tonight. Others weren’t so lucky. Poor John and Kim Durden had their 1973 TR6 towed in by RAC mechanics, Simon Courtney and Mike Collins. We’ll find out the problem tomorrow. Martin and Dorothy Goodall called Eurocover for their stricken 1976 TR6 and elected to stay in a hotel somewhere along the route in. Old cars, huh.
I got to the hotel and surveyed my old car, dirty, with coolant blown all over the engine bay. It’s been fun, but you need to be ready for an event like this and that means more than simply spending thousands at preparation specialists.
Tomorrow the famed Stelvio Pass. Not my favourite road, but if we get there early enough...
I’ll let you know.
Monday July 15 at 19:07
Triumph TR2s appeared in 1953, produced by the Standard Motor Company. While its Walter Belgrove design was ungainly (or good in parts), much of the chassis structure and suspension design could be seen all the way through the subsequent TR3, TR4, TR5 and even TR6 designs. There were differences, however, as Liège-Brescia-Liège competitors Vincent Paccellieri, an aircraft engineer, and his son Arthur found out...
On the first day of the rally, father and son were on their way to Bitburg in Germany in their lovely 1953 Triumph TR2, when Vincent turned into an uphill right-hand hairpin. The hub, a noted early-car weakness, cracked and the front wheel folded under the body. As you can see, it wasn’t a pretty sight.
“We were lucky with the speed, it was only about 20kph,” said Vincent, who lives near Mulhouse in the French Alsace region, close to the Swiss and German borders
“When I saw this with the broken hub, brake drum, the Lockheed fluid on the road and the wheel like this, for me the rally stopped there,” said Vincent. “This is my first rally, I am with my son Albert and this is my first day; my morale is very low.”
People stopped and rally organiser Malcolm McKay parked behind to protect the stricken old car. Everyone shook their head, it looked awfully like the end of the road for the Passellieris.
Then inspiration. Vincent’s father was an Italian who came to Alsace for work and stayed and raised a family.
“He’s been dead 12 years now,” said Vincent. “He was a strict man, but he always said ‘If you are on the ground, you have to get up and move. I can help you, but I can’t do it for you’.
“I was in tears, embarrassed about my car, about the failure in front of my son and so many people,” said Vincent.
I was in tears in the retelling, too.
“Then Arthur came up and embraced me and said, ‘Come on Papa’.”
Vincent telephoned his wife Sabine in Mulhouse. There followed a process familiar to anyone who has broken down in an old car, where Sabine took photographs of the contents of drawers and boxes until the spare hub, purchased years ago in a box of spares from the Beaulieu autojumble, was located. Vincent then telephoned his friend Richard.
“He’s an English guy,” said Vincent. “He picks up the phone and I am very embarrassed and I say OK, before I ask, you need to tell me, yes or no. But before I ask this, he says yes.”
Richard had agreed to driving 380km on a Friday afternoon with the parts to get the old Triumph going again and then return home, a round trip of about 800km taking at least nine hours. Vincent carefully told him the parts he would need and after a work meeting, Richard drove to Vincent’s house and he and Sabine loaded the car.
Richard was on his way, but despite Vincent’s entreaties event organiser Malcolm and his wife and their eight-month-old daughter were determined to stay in place until Richard arrived. His estimated time of arrival was put at about 6.30pm. The RAC crew pulled the car to a safer position and Malcolm and family eventually got on their way. In the meantime many German drivers stopped and offered help, including two mechanics on their way to work who said they would come back the same way when their shift ended.
Time ticked by. Vincent scoured the road for the tiny parts that had been spilt after the breakage: the drum-brake shoe springs, the pistons and their seals; all tiny but crucial pieces. He cleaned them all and reassembled as far as he could.
It rained, it stopped and then rained again. They were exhausted and while Arthur dozed in the car, Vincent crouched by a tree. By the time Richard arrived, the two German mechanics had returned and they all mucked in to reassemble the hub, the brakes, bleed the system and drive it up and down to check it worked. At 8pm they were reasonably confident the repair was good, but before they got under way, one of the mechanics handed Vincent a box containing his uneaten lunch for Vincent and Arthur.
Away in Mulhouse Sabine had been frantic with worry about her son and husband. She’d been texting Arthur for news all day.
“I called Malcolm,” said Vincent, “but we still have four hours to go. Richard is following us and we stop at the checkpoint after 4km and I go to reverse and the gearlever, it comes off in my hand.”
Early two-piece gearlevers are another weak point, but fortunately Vincent packed a spare and changed it in 20 minutes. In driving rain Richard shepherded the two men in the old car for another half an hour before turning for home.
“When he left, we embraced and I cried with gratitude,” said Vincent. “Then the route had traffic deviations, the rain was terrible, the wipers are terrible [all TRs have terrible windscreen wipers], it’s low speeds and I am tired and it’s difficult to concentrate, but I keep going.”
Finally at 12.30pm, the brave crew in the white car turned into the hotel parking area.
“I had a shower, I stayed in there a while,” said Vincent. “I thought of my son and my anxious wife. Of what we had been through, the kindness of people, my father and Richard and how we’d got back going. My TR is my passion, but so many people have helped me realise it – there might have been a few more tears.
“Then I called Sabine and said, ‘Darling...’.”
You really do meet the nicest people on a classic car rally.
It’s been a rest day today, though not for the crews. We spent three hours in a super-heated multi-storey car park under my 1960 TR3a and I’ve had a horrible headache all day. Still six days to go – and we’re back into the mountains tomorrow...”
Sunday July 14 at 20:27
I’ve got lots to tell you, but this is America day. No idea why, but it is. So we talked to Jeff Givens, senior member of the crew in a 1959 TR3a currently lying in joint fourth place alongside Andrew and Gill Haywood’s TR3. Jeff is co-driving with his son Jeffrey (it’s an American thing) and they are both originally from Leavenworth, Kansas - Jeff’s a former infantry colonel and it shows, he’s one of the good guys, but when things don’t go to plan they take names and kick ass.
So how far have they come? “From my home it’s 1,400 miles to Savannah, Georgia,” Givens Senior said, “but I had to make a stop in Memphis, Tennessee for barbecue and beer at the Barber Motorsports park.” That’s in Birmingham, Alabama so it’s a fair detour. Anyway Jeff popped his lovely red car on the Wallenius Wilhelmsen car transporter and flew off to see his son in Stuttgart where he’s working. They spent some time together then caught the train to Zeebrugge to collect the car.
“This is the first foreign rally I’ve ever done and it was the first time I’d shipped the car, so it scared me half to death,” said Jeff.
It cost about $1,800 each way for the car to come over, so this was a big deal. There were 4,000 US-built BMWs being imported to Europe on board as well (ironic, since BMW owns the Triumph car brand) and (Jeff hoped) his TR.
“The captain of the ship took pictures of the car in Savannah and in Zeebrugge and there was a lot of excitement,” said Jeff. “For the handover the Wallenius port manager came over, too. So they bring the car up on the dock and there’s this great-looking green TR with a tan hood.”
As you can see, Jeff’s car is a vivid red.
“I sort of swallowed and said: ‘If you go down again, I hope you might find another one in there’.”
Of course they did and the green one (a lovely 1954 TR2) belonged to Mike and Frances Grace, fellow Americans running well in 11th place.
Today has been 193 miles over the quite lovely Dolomite Mountains, although it sorely tested YooHoo’s cooling system and my brother’s alternator (now called Luca and sending its own e-mails, which might be the subject of a future diary), which was forced to supply current for dipped headlamps (a Slovenian requirement), plus heater and radiator fans for pretty much the whole day - I think it will be glad to return home to a quieter life.
Worst (and best) by far was the Vršič Pass or passo dell Moistrocca, which is an 1,611-metre slog through 50 hairpins running north-south into the Trento valley. It was built in around 1915 by 10,000 Russian prisoners of war (hence its other name, The Russian Road) and is an extraordinary feat of engineering with cobbled corners. You need good suspension and a lot of low-rev torque to make an easy ascent of The Russian Road and YooHoo has neither. We stopped when the water temperature gauge read 100 degrees C.
My co-driver John and I have been firm friends since school days, but stressful, hot days in an uncomfortable, difficult old car could put such a friendship in jeopardy. I’m pleased to say (he snores) that nothing of the sort (he can’t navigate for a toffee) has happened at all (he won’t leave the switches alone) and frankly I’d not be with anyone else (which is absolutely true).
So I stink of hydrocarbons and oil, I’m due to supper, I’ve got a ton of vehicle checks and possibly a shower, so cheerio until tomorrow...
Saturday July 13 at 23:18
The second day of the Liège-Brescia-Liège road rally is now done. So that’s 389 miles from Karlsruhe in Germany to Misurina in the Italian Dolomite mountains, 12 hours of pretty solid driving, motorway and mountain passes, torrential rain, sandwiches on the go, the bandwagon rolls on - well in part. The best sight of the day was Zwiefalten Abbey, the bizarre monastery built in 1739 to 1747 and might best be described as a series of black onions on poles.
Against such historical information it would be daft to tell you about our great navigation Triumph (did you see what I did there?) when we turned right after everyone else had turned left and WE CHOSE THE CORRECT WAY! Except there have been far more exciting things happening - and besides we got lost ourselves soon after, thus losing most of the time we’d gained.
So breaking down on the autobahn entering Austria at Scharnitz, which was a major control on the original 1958 event, was pretty exciting. We were near a slip road and rolled to about 10 yards from the entrance then my co-driver John jumped out and pushed. Various competitors stopped and asked if we were OK but we’d got the car on to the grass and deduced that such a dramatic loss of power could only be electrical.
While we were prodding things with a circuit tester, Paul and Jan Gerring came roaring past at a squillion miles per hour after sheltering from the storm in their amazing car which has no weather protection to speak of. They then lost their rally plates, which flew off with the air pressure.
After the first day’s grumps and moans (not all of them unjustified), rally spirit has started to work its magic as 25 cars whizz across Europe in an attempt to recreate the spirit of the original 1958 event. This evening’s supper was such an example as competitors rolled in and grabbed at the chaotic but tasty catering and swapped stories.
My car’s problem was the damn low-tension wire supplying power from the coil to the distributor, which had failed for the third time. I had bought a very expensive crimping tool for this and many other jobs and if I could remember the manufacturer I’d name and shame them here.
By the way, don’t tell my brother, but we left his GT6 alternator on YooHoo, and it’s been providing current reliably all the way so far. I’ve sent a postcard to him from his alternator...
Such minor things seem as piffle compared to the derring-do of RAC mechanics Simon Courtney and Mike Collins, who did an amazing job rebuilding the clutch hydraulics of the John and Kim Durden’s TR6 at the side of the road. They’re having supper now behind me, having arrived at the Grand Hotel Misurina understandably late.
Sadly the lovely 1954 TR2 of Michel Golde proved to have too many problems to continue and he’s considering whether to rent a modern car and complete the distance or retire home. It would be a shame to lose the only Belgian on a Belgian-inspired rally.
I didn’t sleep much last night, turning and tossing and waking two hours before I needed to. Giving the job of driving in a rally to a former mechanic is probably not the most sensible thing. Yet John keeps telling me things are fine and there’s no cause for alarm, but I look at it slightly differently; I know things aren’t fine and I just need to find them and solve them before they leave us at the side of the road...
Friday July 12 at 23:46
This is the end of the first day of the Liège-Brescia-Liège rally although it’s actually now the second day as it is just past midnight and we’ve only just finished plotting the route for when we get up and get going at 8am on what event organiser Malcolm McKay promises will be “the longest day of the rally”.
I can barely keep my eyes open and am still wondering what to do about my Triumph TR3a’s prodigious thirst for oil and how we get through towns without oiling the plugs. It’s probably the most high-spirited car in the rally and I’ve made some daft navigational decisions today that have resulted in us driving sometimes three times through the same town to get a passage-control picture.
Not that McKay’s organisational skills are quite as blemish-free as I’ve painted in the past. In one case, not only had they knocked down the petrol station which gave a photo guide as to where our picture should be taken, but also changed the road signs...
It isn’t the organisation that mucks things up in a rally, though, it’s yourself. You can overthink things, turn around and retrace steps far too early or simply get into a complete funk where dead reckoning would have got you through. We chased through parts of Germany which we should have been enjoying, driving the maps and nursing the old car.
Rain has also been an issue for some. It takes 20 minutes to put up the hood and side screens on a TR3a and that’s exactly how long it takes to get soaked to the skin in a southern German thunderstorm. The last cars at the kart circuit near Karlsruhe faced a circuit completely flooded with hail; it looked like snow, but soon melted and provided some formidable water splashes.
But it’s been interesting all the same, with some of the faster cars often seen haring in the opposite direction and some of the slower ones catching up. Packed lunches were a good giveaway that you were at the right control as many had discarded the shells of their hard boiled eggs in the grass...
And it was all going so well... We were leading our new besties, Eleanor and Graham Goodwin, whose 1959 TR3a had failed to proceed so had elected to do the rally in their Skoda (boy were we jealous when it rained), and my co-driver John turned out of a side road, momentarily forgot about which side of the road to drive on and an on-coming Audi driver rolled up. We stopped, he stopped, and how we would have all laughed about it later except then a woman turned into the road and failed to stop before hitting the Audi and doing prodigious amounts of damage.
The police were called and gave the judgement of Solomon including what sounded like a lecture to the woman including the phrase “stop in the distance you can see to be clear on the road ahead”. For some reason they seem to think John is a senior chief constable, which provided amusement all round, although I’m pretty sure I’m going to be going through this complex insurance nightmare for months to come. It could have been worse - at least we’re still in the EU...
So goodnight and hopefully a bit more good news tomorrow - I have really got to go to bed...
Thursday, July 11 at 05:25
Rain wasn’t forecast for the travelling day of the Liège-Brescia-Liège road rally, but then neither was incipient tiredness, which all the competitors are feeling having been either lying under the car or lying to their bosses about this 11-day marathon and how they will be working hard right up to the off.
Rain, however, is exactly what it did, spattering the car with road grit and spray as we travelled the congested A42 from Dunkirk to Liège. I’d reckoned on 2.5 hours, though in the end it was nearer 3.5.
Then followed the business of signing in, putting on the numbered stickers and rally plates and introducing ourselves to each other. Early casualties include Neil Revington’s ex-works Triumph TR4, which had decided to mix its oil and water; he bought his TR2 instead. Of course the Americans came over to introduce themselves first, Jeff and Jeffrey Givens, both from Kansas, in a TR3a, which made things easy...
The evening’s introductory supper was a change from the usually gruesome gala dinners of such rallies. The event organiser Malcolm McKay talked about the original Liège-Brescia-Liège event in 1958 and how the Royal Motor Union of Liège had forgotten it had run the event for tiny, sub-500cc cars in way back then partly as a response to the fuel shortages of the Suez crisis.
“You’ll be lucky to get half a dozen entrants,” one seasoned rally hand had told him ahead of the inaugural running. In the end he got 25 and has run the event twice for small cars and once for Jaguars, with this year being exclusively for Triumph TRs, which were rallied quite extensively in their day.
Tomorrow (Friday) is the official start from the Espace Tivoli in front of Le Palau’s de Princes-Eveques, which is where the original event set off and the first time McKay has been given permission to start the retrospective event from there.
So far my Triumph TR3a has been behaving, though we are using a fair bit of oil, which it throws gaily around the engine compartment. My co-driver and one of my oldest friends, John Smallwood, will drive her off the ramp as I drive the maps for the first half of the day.
So far we’ve been doing an average of 25mpg – with a pint of 20W/50 oil every 200 miles.
Wednesday, July 10 at 22:56
Laura Kuenssberg is on the television, it’s half past 10 at night, the dog’s asleep and life in England continues as it has for hundreds of years. Except at schloss English, where loud Anglo Saxon emanates from under the powder-blue, 1960 Triumph TR3a jacked up in the drive. It’s lit from underneath like an alien attack spacecraft, but then needs must.
There’s barely five hours before we are due to leave for the Liège-Brescia-Liège rally, catching the DFDS ferry to Dunkirk, then on to the Belgian city for scrutineering. Well that would be fine if I could stop the rear drum brakes heating to red hot. Oh, and get previously agreed articles written and sent.
I’ve been underneath the Triumph (nicknamed YooHoo due to its JHU registration letters) three times today already, while fielding calls, demands for copy from spetsnaz-trained sub-editors and trying to reduce the weight we’re carrying ever further to prevent my brave old car’s headlamps pointing at the waxing moon.
Stuff gone right in the last few weeks was most notably my trip to see Peter Baldwin and Lee Deegan at Regency Autos in Cambridge, where in a virtuoso performance of engine tuning the two men succeeded in giving YooHoo manners, 20 per cent more power and a distinctly lumpy but recognisable idle in less than three hours.
In addition we had tea, lots of war stories and they even allowed my brother Will access to the rolling road test cell to hold my hand as they strapped down my TR3a and made it sing its heart out.
Honourable mentions also for Jeff Marks at Moss London, who’s been a lovely supporter of this bonkers effort to reenact the famous Sixties car-breaker rally in a barely tried and tested entry.
I’m trying not to think of how this is all going to go. I’m a worrier by trade and inclination, but this is a mega undertaking, especially since most of the other participants will have had their cars at specialist (and expensive) rally preparation companies for the last few months. My co-driver John has just arrived and unloaded a couple more bags. though they are distinctly smaller than mine.
Our strategy at present is to make friends with the RAC back-up crew and the chief marshals.
Central square in Liège is where we’re supposed to be tomorrow afternoon, thunderstorms are forecast, what could be finer.
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