Minis to Monte 2004

“Don’s Ramblings ” Don Farr

Definitely not the year to mention tie bars. My heavy-duty adjustable tie bar broke at very slow speed when I hit a hole in the road as I approached a road junction in central France, in fact at St. Claude. Several seconds later, when I braked, the tie bar separated and the suspension collapsed inside the wheel arch. Excellent. The other person who had had tie bar problems in 2004 was Robert Young on the last trip to Ireland. Robert’s came undone and displaced. Mine broke. Robert’s car was accelerating hard. Mine was not at that time.

Dominating this month’s rambles, and the rest of the magazine must be Minis to Monte. An excellent event. A brilliant, original idea put into reality by a massive amount of work initially from Robert Clayson and John Wilkins. The intention -to recreate the route travelled by Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon in 1964 when they won the Monte Carlo rally outright in 33 EJB.

We caught the 10.30 ferry on Sunday 26th September and to see 58 crews assembled in Dover Docks was impressive, and eye-catching, judging by the interest in the cars from Jo Public.

My role in this event was to drive the Course Opening car. There was no alternative but to use D555 GRX, the car owned by Dave Tippett and myself. This car was driven in the 1996 Monte Carlo Rally by Tony Dron and Alistair Douglas.

This time I was very ably partnered by John Wilkins, who had originally transferred the route into the tulips and printed the route book for us. We arrived at Calais and immediately left, allowing everyone else to make last minute arrangements, collect whatever was necessary and then leave at one-minute intervals.

The route the first day travelled from Calais to Reims, a distance of 182 miles. We arrived first and proceeded to park people (in the wrong place). Fortunately Robert arrived after not too long and we then helped park people in the right place – outside the pits of the old motor racing circuit. Lovely to go up in the old deserted stand and imagine the sights and sounds of yesteryear! Reality then took over and we travelled to the Tinquex Novotel, where we had the Rally opening dinner.

The second day we travelled from Reims to Mulhouse (for some reason pronounced as Mulooz!) A very early start for the course opening car but we still arrived first and arranged the car park expertly. The major attraction at Mulooz was the Musee National de L’Automobile Collection Schlumpf. This was a fabulous museum in magnificent surroundings, which simply fascinated. Its collection of Bugattis made Beaulieu, Brooklands and Gaydon look rather second rate. I walked round in awe of the vehicles.

All too soon it was time to leave and find our Novotel. Today’s leg was 244 miles.

The third day we went from Mulhouse (Mulooz) to Aix les Bains (Aches and Pains). 162 miles into the 236 for the day, almost precisely half way from Calais to Monte, the car lurched and the tie bar died. The official event breakdown telephone number did not function so we called the grandchildren. 20 minutes later they arrived, with spare tie bar, which was soon fitted and we were off again.

I did check that the steering still worked – slowly at first, then proceeded to throw caution to the winds and really enjoy the next hour or so, playing catch up with the grandchildren. Great fun, especially when Ian Wright joined our game. However, the playing stopped when we saw where Basil and Valerie had run out of road, fortunately without personal damage. Reassured that they were OK we continued at much reduced pace – after all we had a mission.

We had a car parking plan to apply in Aix les Bains and we were late. We did arrive and then parked cars in the right place. Previously Robert has liaised with the publicity people for the town and they had opened the special car park by the lake, plus the public, plus the press. This is where the camaraderie of the event was most demonstrated. Chris Tennant’s replacement tie bar had a standard bolt locating it on the bottom arm. The bottom arm of GRX is drilled to accept a larger diameter bolt. In the setting sun, on the shore of the lake a battery-operated drill was sourced, Andy Carter had an impressive collection of drill bits and we drilled out the tie bar to accept the larger bolt. Chris then impressed the crowd by lifting GRX with his inflation bag. This virtually put the car on its side by using the exhaust gas. I then impressed no one by removing the road wheel, Chris impressed every one by his skill at refitting tie bars. We then found our way to the Hotel. The Astoria.Magnificent! The walk in wardrobe was bigger than my house! Such elegance. That night we did not eat in! We found a cafe. Quite a memorable day.

The fourth day was from Aix les Bains to Gap, 212 miles. We set off early and soon were above the clouds. A sight that none of us will forget. It was just like being in a Boeing but not having to peer through the plexiglass round window. Amazing. We travelled to Gap where we were this time in a Hotel outside the town. We met everyone at a garage on the outskirts of the town and collected time cards and advised people how to get to their hotel. Whilst waiting I tried my pathetic French to use the facilities of the local garage to use their air line, John befriended a group of school kids waiting at a bus stop and Kate managed to | get the garage to weld ! her seat, which had; apparently broken due to Chris’ spirited driving. From Aix les Bains the roads had become more and more interesting.

The fifth and last day was from Gap to Monte Carlo, a distance of 245 miles and a very early start to stay in front of the hordes. A magnificent day’s driving, which included Turini. Going up it was excellent, coming down it was equally so. Times when I said ‘John, the drop is my side’ and other times when he said ‘It’s my side!’

The route book into Monte Carlo was first class. Three pages of the book for the last eight miles BUT, it got us into Monte along the Grand Prix circuit. I was so chuffed to be there, delighted with the car because engine-wise it had not missed a beat, and so we made our way to the underground car park of the Columbus Hotel. My recollection of the Grand Prix circuit was ‘Am I really here? I recognize this bit, and the swimming pool.’ The tunnel amazed me – it was two way!!! That is not that obvious when watching the Grand Prix (it threw me when I was entering the tunnel at about one hundred and…..dream on … 30 mph and a bus was coming towards John, on his side).
My most wonderful memory of Monte is seeing Andy and Ian unloading the Course Berlingo van at the front of the hotel, next to the Ferrari, which was just ticking over with a superb burbling exhaust. After the rapid shower, shave etc. and quick bit of shopping it was time for the End of Rally dinner in the Waterfront Cafe. A nice meal, presentation of awards and back to the bar at the Columbus. All too soon it was Friday, leaving day, which was raining, albeit the first day’s rain since the previous Saturday in Dover. Due to the grandchildren’s generosity GRX came back on the trailer and saved my ears from further punishment.

We did not make exceptional progress on the first day of the return journey, only getting to Chauffayer, just above Gap. We stayed in a very comfortable hotel, enjoyed a lovely meal and retired early. The following morning we admired the surrounding mountains and took many photographs of the French Alps both with, and without the cars.

The Saturday we had a lot of miles to do. The convoy consisted of Robert Clayson in his MINI Cooper’S’, Hugh and Jan Wyllie and, Ian Wright and John Wright, then Colin Harrison and Paul Wilson in the Range Rover. I first travelled with Robert, his car capable of higher sustained speeds, and we occasionally left the route and went shopping for mementos to take home. Eventually Robert and Hugh went on ahead in their cars and caught an earlier ferry from Calais. Ian Wright and the Range Rover continued at more modest speed and we caught the 23.45 ferry from Calais to Dover. We were delayed before we could disembark at Dover as some ‘football fans’ decided to do some shoplifting on the ferry. We had to wait for the Kent Police to come on board and apprehend the culprits. Not the most sensible place to shoplift – not too many places to run and hide! Once near home we took GRX off the trailer on the forecourt of a BP station and I drove the rest of the way, eventually arriving at home at 04.00. I disappeared to bed knowing that at least I did not have to get up for work next day.

What a glorious adventure, an achievement, fun. I run out of words. I thank Robert for gelling the idea, for making the arrangements, for travelling the route twice with John Wilkins to make the route book, for coordinating ‘ everything with the RAC etc. I also thank Paddy for driving the same route in 1964.

I take my hat off to Paddy – some of the notes in the book stated that in 1964 Paddy drove this stage in so many minutes. I know that the roads were closed but we drove the first stages in the dark and, despite the superb light output of GRX, I was not comfortable. This was in late September, there was no ice or snow. I am getting old!

Many, many memories. The friendship amongst all the crews. The friendship of the locals, in particular their efforts to undo the code that was my schoolboy French. Spending an evening inviting suggestions for what DF on my number plate stood for. Dead Fast was the cleanest, Dozy something was the least clean. The coffee breaks, which John and I enjoyed in some of the most remote villages on our travels. My pride, enjoyment etc. etc. etc. at climbing Turin! and arriving in Monte. John’s patience and courage in sitting next to me all day, for some twelve hundred miles without any adverse reaction.

Thank you, thank you and thank you.

Merry Christmas to everyone out there in Mini Cooper land, and best wishes for 2005.