A French Odyssey 2012
Back in January 2012 at our monthly Glos/Wilts/N.Somerset meeting Bryan Bartlett announced to our gathering that he had found an advertisement for an event in France that accepted amongst others, replica Cobra’s. He produced some relevant paperwork and the seed was sown for us to take a trip to France to partake in the 21st Circuit Historique de Laon in May. Six couples were interested in the trip, namely Bryan & Carol Bartlett 428 Chevy Sumo, Harry & Loren Holgate 383 Chevy Dax, Nick & Chris Mathers 4.5 Rover DMS Viper, Neil & Chris Bedford 302 Ford Contemporary, Phil & Jane Whatley 428 Ford Dax, and Eric Rowley and Brian Richards 3.5 Rover Sumo, decided to make up a crew as well. Bryan contacted the organisers, Continental Car Tours and expressed our interest. They were pleased for us to enter and all the administration was duly taken care of. We had an entry to an event on foreign soil.
The medieval town of Laon (pronounced Lon) is situated to the North East of Paris approx. 140 miles from Calais by motorway
Reality soon set in and the what if’s soon followed, so began many weeks of checking, oiling, greasing, cleaning and checking every part you could think of (normally during the night !). I decided to replace my radiator and plumbing, change the expansion tank and fit a new battery. Harry also had a new radiator, plus a differential rebuild and brake modifications. Bryan had rebuilt his front suspension, Neil was having some extensive work done to his engine. Eric was suffering some overheating which needed tending and Nick was checking and fettling what he considered necessary for the trip.
At last the day dawned, 10th May, the Met. Office forecast that following weeks of rain during the drought! said the day would be dry for our trip to Dover for an overnight stay. Well I’m pleased to say it rained almost all of the way there, 220 miles, with dark leaden skies when it finally stopped. Jane and I arrived amazingly dry considering we have no roof on our car. We were the first to arrive at our guesthouse and met the owner who was a very pleasant and jolly chap. The time went on and the rest of the party arrived almost three hours later to give us the bad news that Neil & Chris’ car had engine problems in Bracknell which were not repairable at the roadside and had to be taken back to Chepstow on a low loader. That obviously put a dampener on the proceedings for the rest of the group. The others didn’t escape the weather either. They met at Membury Services on the M4 in a deluge and had to drive through approx. 6 inches of water to exit the car park. All of the ladies were complaining of being wet and cold and it showed on their clothing, being wet from the knees down. However, not to be downhearted after a quick freshen up we all headed out for some drinks and dinner and retired to bed ready for the journey to France in the morning.
The first people to greet me in the morning was Neil & Chris Bedford, who, intrepid to the core, got home to Chepstow, dumped the car in the garage (and cursed it one more time) got in their Audi Q5 and drove to Dover arriving at 23:15pm to join us for the weekend. A very huge well done to them. The spirit of the rally award if ever one was deserved.
Friday morning dawned dry and bright, and after a hearty breakfast we set off with optimism for a dry and pleasant weekend. That optimism soon evaporated when I decided to drag my nearside front wheel arch across the B & B’s metal gatepost getting out of the drive in the morning. Oh dear! Too late to worry we made our way to the port for a 10:15 crossing. Once at the port I had the courage to inspect the damage I caused to my wing and to be fair it wasn’t as bad as it sounded at the time. Some black gaffer tape soon had it covered up and looking pristine again! It’s a shame you can’t get a shine on it with some polish.
We mingled with of the other participants at the port and were next to the Chrysler Crossfire Club who had some very nice SRT 6 AMG examples with them. We were loaded very quickly and had a very comfortable and rapid crossing. Once the port formalities were complete we were on our way through La Belle France. We were without Eric & Brian though. They got lost within 200 metres of the exit and we did not see them again until 19:30 that evening. The plan was to avoid the motorway and have a gentle meander through the French countryside. This proved to be a little tedious as one town and village merged into the next, with the exit sign to one stood in front of the entry sign for the next. The appropriate speed limits restricted our progress, but we wanted a slow enjoyable run and the locals we saw appreciated our cars on route. We managed to stop in a small town between Bethune and Lens with a car park close to some cafes and we had lunch they only had sandwiches, so it was Croc Monsieur’s all round. After a welcome break we set off and after some pleasant driving our leaders, Neil & Chris in the Audi ( Sat. Nav.) suddenly pulled off for a comfort break, which proved very timely as Bryan & Carol had just experienced a small electrical fire in their cockpit as we exited the main road. Fortunately Bryan hit the kill switch saving any further damage and rolled into the car park. He cautiously switched it on again only to be met by more smoke and flashes. (Why do they put smoke inside of wires anyway?) Bryan looking totally devastated and defeated announced “That’s it, we are on our way home on a low loader” convinced his cigarette lighter connection was the culprit. What he hadn’t expected was that Harry “The Eel” Holgate would slither under the dashboard and using his dexterity, flexibility and my torch would emerge with a piece of burnt out wire from the clock which had chaffed through on a piece of metal underneath the dashboard. My black gaffer tape came in handy again and the wire was stripped back and taped up to make it safe. Once we made the circuit through the kill switch again and Bryan turned the key all was well and we set off again. Or so it seemed, after covering only a few miles Carol was startled once more by a loud bang and some more flashing, they both feared the worst this time, only to find that Harry had left my torch up in under the dashboard, switched on, and it had fallen down on Carol’s feet. Panic over
We continued our journey without further mishap to the Hotel on the outskirts of Laon where the event was taking place. We were handed an information pack on check in with our event number and some information for the following two days. Most of it was in French however. After a long two days of driving we decided to eat in the hotel restaurant. We had a choice of two menus, 17 euro and 22 euro with good choices. So after our fill and a few beers we decided on an early night to get an early start in the morning for signing on etc.
We were greeted by sun on Saturday morning which took some explaining to some of us because we hadn’t seen it for so long, but we didn’t complain and overcame the shock. We fuelled our cars and drove into town to make our way to the summit of the hilltop town where the day’s activities started. I’d better explain at this point that the event we entered is one of the largest Classic Car Events in Europe, so they claim, where this year 650 cars were entered to take part in a tour on Saturday and a parade on Sunday through closed roads around a 16 km circuit in the town and up the winding hill to the ramparts at the top surrounding a medieval Cathedral. As is standard fare on all Classic car events you are held in a queue for what seems ages until all the old precious cars overheat just before their drivers do the same. Determined not to get flustered we waited patiently and eventually reached the top to be met by admiring crowds and goody bags. We made our way as directed to the rear of the cathedral grounds and parked up with many other cars. On opening our bags we found some instructions leading us to a tulip route book which would direct us around the 170 mile route. Each page had 14 diagrams with the distances set out to the next turning and a total mileage alongside.
It only took one glance at our five female companion’s to realise that after sitting in the rain to Dover and then all the next day driving through France, we were not going on the tour with them navigating us from a tulip road book. I must say I didn’t blame them either. We decided to make up our own short tour driving through some towns and villages without the hassle of navigating every few seconds. We eventually ended up in St. Quentin which has a lovely square and enjoyed a very nice lunch and a drink. Although many locals gather on route to watch the cars go past, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the places we travelled through appeared to be deserted. All of the houses along the roadside seemed as though they came from a railway siding in the 1960’s.Very strange. When we got back to the hotel Harry had a flat ish front tyre with only a few psi in it. It was pumped up and allowed to rest overnight. When we met up with Eric & Brian we were pleased to hear that they had completed the full tour route and went to all points, and had a free lunch with champagne provided by the organisers in the town of Vervins. Well done to them.
I had previously booked a restaurant in Laon for our Saturday night meal and we decided to get Taxi’s so as we could all enjoy a drink. We arrived at “La Peche Mignon” just off the square and the Cathedral. We enjoyed an excellent meal, 4 courses for 24 euros. The staff were very polite, friendly and efficient and a good time was had by all (Photo 8). We retired to bed very weary.
Sunday dawned dry and very bright. Harry and Loren decided to sit out the day with their Cobra due to the tyre issue and travelled in with Neil & Chris in the Q5. We were advised to get to town early so as to park up in the main square ready for the closed road tour. We achieved the first part but were directed out of the square by a very surely Frenchman defending his bit. To be fair they had two low loaders removing illegally parked cars to make room for the event. It appeared though that only certain cars were allowed to park there. In the end in proved to be a blessing because they were all hemmed in and many hundreds of people were mingling in amongst them for most of the day. It transpired that the tour of the town circuit would have three start points and would commence at 14:00. We moved our cars from the car park to underneath the ramparts to join on the back once under way.
We took the funicular to the bottom part of town and viewed more cars at two different locations. Some streets were closed off and cars had been parked nose to tail and side by side all up the roads. We met up with the others who had bagged a nice table outside a bar in the sunshine and had some lunch and walked among the cars. The time came to make our way back to the top of town to drive the 16 km circuit that was laid out. The cars in the square led off, followed by motorcycles and military vehicles then it was the turn of the rest to join in. When we got to the main street the atmosphere was amazing with many hundreds of cheering people lining the road. They were very appreciative of the Cobras in convoy, encouraging us to rev up and clapping and cheering loudly. Once out of the main square and into the other streets it seemed as though every house in the town had come out to cheer us on and wave frantically. Some had tables and chairs out and were having a family lunch. Although we were in a long snake of cars and a sensible speed was the order of the day, it would have been rude not to have had a little blast when the opportunity lent itself. That opportunity came on our first circuit right at the point where we got to the hairpin bends on the hill, funny that. The crowds there were clapping and waving when we roared past giving it some beans up the hill. We had two circuits and decided to stop due to the numbers on track making it a start stop scenario by that time. It turned out to be more difficult to get off than to get on. Nick & Chris Mathers had some potential overheating issues in their DMS Viper and were desperate to leave the circuit. I managed to spot a gap to the entrance of the grounds that we had taken the day before and we both made it. Bryan had gone on by and had to find another means of exit. Marshalls were on every gated junction and would not open them up to allow you off. Eventually Bryan got out and moved one barrier and explained in pidgeon hand signed French that he had a problem with his car and had to park. Eventually we all made our way back to park below the ramparts. We met the others in the main square and it was evident that Harry and Loren had an enjoyable lunch. I had booked the same restaurant for the Sunday evening as Saturday and we had another enjoyable meal. We decided to eat earlier and leave the cars parked up because the town was very busy. We then drove back to the hotel and had a few drinks in the bar before bed.
Harry removed his offending wheel early on Monday morning and took it to a tyre shop for investigation. It transpired that when it was fitted the bead was damaged and a slow puncture was the issue. It was refitted and tested and pronounced fit to travel home. We journeyed up the motorway to Calais in quick time. The toll was 15.70 Euros for normal people but Bryan & Carol managed to get a pensioners deal of 9.40 Euros, good for them.
We were booked on the 17:15 ferry but managed to get on the 14:20 which really helped. Our ladies provided a very nice picnic on board for lunch of baguette, cheese, pate and strawberries which was most appreciated. We left Calais with sunshine and clear blue skies but could see the clouds looming 20 miles to the North. It must be a British thing. The crossing was fine and we were quickly out in Dover to, you guessed it, rain. We drove on through it and Bryan signalled an issue after about ½ an hour and when we pulled off, his windscreen wipers had stopped working. Eventually the decision was taken to remove the offending wipers and carry on without them. The vision was better than having them stopped across his eye line. It stopped raining after a hold up of about 1 hour due to a lorry fire on the M25 and Bryan decided to take his roof off for one last open air cruise before home. A short distance from home they encountered a heavy hailstorm which stopped just short of home. The sun then came out and Bryan was driving blind again with a dirty screen and no wipers. This just about put the icing on the cake so to speak.
The event is a good first time foray into a Continental event for anyone thinking of doing one. It was my first time and I was very enthusiastic leading up to it, but the weather early on and the long slog to Dover put some doubts in my mind before we set sail I must say. The price from Continental Car Tours was a steal at £185 per person for return ferry and 3 nights in a hotel with breakfast. However there was no representative from them at the event and you are left to your own devices to find out what’s what once you are there. Experience though will suffice enough to survive another trip.
In summary the trip was very tiring but provided us with some heartache, entertainment and a lot of laughs. The Town of Laon is very beautiful and interesting and proved to be a nice place to spend some time. The 21st Circuit Historique de Laon was enjoyable and had a wide variety of cars and was very well supported by the locals. Some of the organising left a bit to be desired, but you wouldn’t get the full French flavour if it ran like clockwork would you?
The group very much enjoyed the event and already the talk has centred around another trip across the stream to sample some French hospitality and open roads.
I personally drove 950 miles in my Dax 428 Ford and consumed 291 litres of fuel for the round trip. At least it gave a temporary boost to the French economy. Would I do it again in the future? well maybe, probably ……………… not.