Sunday, 23 June 2013


When I got asked to navigate on the London to Lisbon classic car endurance rally, I jumped at the chance. I felt honoured to be given the opportunity to participate in what was promising to be an exciting event especially when I realised I’d be competing in a 1930’s Riley Brooklands, however I had no idea what pre war rallying really consisted of, or what challenges lay ahead.

I tried to be as prepared for the event as I could be, knowing there was no roof and very little windscreen it was pretty obvious that if it rained we would get very wet so I purchased a very flattering all in one wet suit usually used on motorcycles. Tomas, my driver brought helmets and goggles and I even had see-through plastic bags for the paperwork and maps. 

Day 1
Greenwich to Portsmouth

The challenges started even before the rally, we were setting the trip to the organiser’s measured kilometer and despite trying eight times, when we double checked, it was always out, no matter what we did. I thought maybe I was doing something wrong but I took a MGA out to set that trip and it worked perfectly first time. Apparently the retro trip in the Riley was attached to the gear box and running off pulses even when we were not moving. It soon became clear that we weren’t going to have an accurate trip on the event.

After an early lunch it was time to begin the epic adventure to Lisbon, as car 3 we were one of the first to be waved off from the sunny start line in Greenwich next to the maritime museum. It was quite an easy day to start with, once out of London we had a practice regularity which I really wished had been a real one as we only dropped 5 seconds through it. There were also two fantastic but relatively easy tests at the airfield that Top Gear use,  another regularity was on the cards before we reached Portsmouth to board the overnight Ferry to St Malo
It was a perfect first night of a rally with a meal in the a la carte restaurant and afterwards a few drinks in the bar whilst I coloured in the road book and worked out how far apart fuel stations were (as the Riley doesn’t have a fuel gauge) Spirits were high as the Ferry took us into country 2 of 4 whilst we slept.

Day 2
St Malo to Poitiers

As we disembarked off the ferry early Sunday morning, the sun was shinning and as we reached the first roundabout off the ship I remembered to call the exits in reverse with turning right being the first exit.  It felt like a great start to Day 2. We made our way to breakfast and our first continental breakfast and of course the joys of continental coffee. Straight after breakfast there was a short regularity test around a caravan park. This proved to be really tough without a trip as there were many roads 0.05 of a kilometer apart. This caught me out at the first timing point as I misjudged which road the control was on so we were 5 seconds late. Then as we approached the end of the test my road book and paperwork blew straight out of the car. It was a miracle we made it through the test without choosing the wrong roads but I was disappointed with dropping a total of 10 seconds.

My highlight of day two had to be at a double roundabout, the instruction in the road book was right at the first roundabout, left at the second.  I repeated the instructions as Tomas completed the maneuvers but at the second roundabout he went straight over, when I questioned his actions he was adamant that I had said right at the second round about, now he may be correct that I called it wrong confusing my lefts to my rights but the real question is, if I did say turn right why did he go straight on? This kept me smiling for the rest of the day.

On one of the navigation sections through France the Riley started mis-firing so we pulled over to clean the Spark Plugs. The Gasket covers are just clip ons so oil leaks into the spark plugs so we had to clean them with a wire brush. Once they had been cleaned we were once again on our way, unfortunately we had dropped to the back of the rally which meant that we were over our allocated time.

When we reached the afternoon coffee halt the event mechanics had a look at the car and found that one of the spark plugs had closed while they replaced the spark plug cleaned the others for us Tomas and I enjoyed a much needed coffee and some gorgeous homemade shortbread. However this of course added to our overall delay which meant we had to make the decision to cut some of the route, we rejoined just before the main control at the end of the day. There are two really hard things about cutting the first is making that decision in the first place as the competitive side of you argues.  The second is jumping from tulip diagrams to a map and back again, trying to work out where the route is and where the tulips correspond to on the map.
Day 3
Poitiers to Pau
An early start meant very cold cheeks as we started out, I thought about wrapping a scarf around my face but with the wind when travelling over 20 miles an hour taking away my voice Tomas couldn’t hear my directions as it was, therefore it was a very refreshing start.

After fuelling up just before lunch their was a prominent smell of fuel especially when we went round corners but it wasn’t until another competitor stopped us to say we were losing fuel that we realized we may have a problem.  As we had just filled up we presumed it was the overspill.
As we entered a forest track clouds started to gather and with the ominous sign we decided to pull over and, for the first time,  pull out our wet suits and prepare to get wet. Oh and we did!

Of course it didn’t just rain, it hailed which without a significant windscreen means, heavy rain stings, hail takes a layer off skin of your face. In this lovely weather we had two tests before the drive into Pau. By the time we arrived we were soaked luckily the car park was underground as I got out of the car the water just poured off me it was hilarious!

Day 4
Pau to Burgos

This morning I awoke to bad news, the petrol smell from yesterday was actually a cracked fuel tank which the mechanics couldn’t fix overnight. We were told we couldn’t continue and that our rally would be over. Devastated would be an understatement but lucky for me Tomas is not easily deterred from his goals and he wanted to get The Riley to Lisbon.

With the historic Grand Prix being held in Pau just two weeks later there had to be someone nearby that could help and so he began ringing around mechanics and welders to find a solution. It was definitely an advantage that he is fluent in French. So as all the other cars departed from the hotel and our luggage with them a real sense of abandonment settled in my stomach, not knowing if we would be able to rejoin them, the news came through that we had a found a welder who despite being very busy would have a look at the tank if we got the car to him on the other side of Pau.

We jumped in the Riley with all the bags on top of us and me hanging further out of the car than normal.  Unfortunately when we arrived the welder man was working on another car and wouldn’t be able to get to ours until after lunch (and that’s a French lunch of at least two hours) again this didn’t stop Tomas, he managed to wangle it so that if we stripped the car then the welder man would see what he could do.

That’s how Tomas and I became mechanics for the day taking everything out of the back of the car, removing the parcel shelf and disconnecting the fuel pipe. The Welder man turned out to be a really great guy, he took the fuel pipe stuck it all back together and then we fixed it in place with Lock-tight. We then had the fun task of putting everything back where we had found it, it was a good job I had written down exactly where everything came from and the order we did it in. It was like a surgical operation with Tomas getting his hands dirty and myself handing tools when required. Before long we had done it. The fuel tank was fixed and after cleaning the spark plugs and thanking the helpful welder man we could do what this morning we had thought to be impossible and re-join the rally.

However, it was now 3pm and the rally was already in Spain and heading towards Burgos. I pulled out the Atlas and planned the fastest route to the evening Hotel, this meant a mad rush of four and a half hours on the motorway. All I can say is that it was intense with the wind constantly beating against your face, it definitely blew our cares away. We also had an issue with traffic, not that it was busy, on the contrary, there were hardly any other vehicles about. Its just that every car that went past would slow right down in front of us to try and get a picture of the car or would overtake us to film us. We felt famous although it was the car that was really getting the attention.

As we approached Burgos I had to try and jump onto the tulip diagrams to find the hotel and Parking and at 19.45 we pulled into the Hotel with a resounding sense of achievement and a well-deserved drink!

Day 5
Burgos to Leon

It was a misty start to the day but after yesterdays antics we both felt good and started the day with fresh anticipation. The first regularity began well, we were on time and keeping the average speed well, until we turned a corner and there was a little hill, normally this wouldn’t phase a rally crew but in a 1930’s Riley Brooklands this was bad news and as we struggled over the crest of the hill of course the luminous jackets of two marshals came into view, we had dropped 20 seconds. Having left that control point we tried to make up the time we dropped with those Marshals but the surface of the road became very rough and we could hardly maintain a speed of 30 kilometres an hour let alone the 47kph we were supposed to be doing, so catching up our time soon became impossible and it wasn’t long before the next car, who should be a minute behind us, was overtaking.

The day turned from bad to worse after coffee as cleaning the spark plugs had meant we dropped behind rally time again and had to cut to the kart circuit for a test before lunch. Tomas was exhausted so went for a 10 minute lie down during lunch, this was when it began to rain. By the time we were ready to leave it was pouring it down, this lovely weather stayed with us for most of the afternoon. When we reached the start of the next regularity we were already drenched and a small queue of classic cars were waiting to start, thank goodness they all took pity on us and kindly let us take the next minute. The Road book was slowly becoming a sodden mess despite the clear plastic bag and efforts I was making to keep it dry and at one point I had to get Tomas to stop as I couldn’t separate four pages so didn’t know which direction we were heading. With all the chaos caused by the weather we concentrated just on the navigation of this regularity, the fact we reached the end was a miracle although if we had taken a detour through a lake we would have been drier!

The challenges kept on coming, although the rain eased off we were both soaked through, and that’s when we began the ascent up the Picos de Europe, waving as, one by one all the other cars overtook us. Inevitably half way up we had to pull over and clean the spark plugs as she began to misfire again, at this point we were surrounded by snow and it did cross my mind to make a snowman to wave at The Baker Boys in Car 51 but I was concerned that my hands may not warm up afterwards. It wasn’t long after that they and the other remaining cars overtook us and when we got going again we were running last. Each crest of the hill promised the peak of the mountains but time and time again we were disappointed as we kept climbing upwards and realized this was why two of the other pre war cars had cut straight to the hotel.

Finally we reached the afternoon coffee stop and although we were over time both Tomas and I needed to get out of the car and have a break, this was the lowest point for me. I was freezing cold and soaking wet and the last thing I wanted to do was climb back in the car and carry on. There was of course no other choice, so on we went, focusing on getting to the hotel that night.

I wish that had been the end of our struggles for that day but having cut straight to Leon after coffee which was thankfully downhill the whole way, I tried to jump back on to the Tulips as I had done the day before but whether it was because I was tired or that our trip wasn’t working or both, suddenly I realized we were in the middle of Leon with no clue of which direction the hotel was in or where we were. Asking directions really didn’t help when the man we asked informed us we were 45 mins away, this was the final straw for Tomas after such a trying day so I had no choice but to fish out my phone and google the hotel. Turned out we were only 10 mins away and I had taken a wrong turn at one of the roundabouts. Finally we reached the hotel, it was relief to get out of my soaking wet clothes and have a nice warm bath but it still took me all night to warm up.

Day 6
Leon to Ourense

We awoke to beautiful sunshine, which was a great relief after yesterday excepts our seats had taken on so much water we had to sit on towels for the whole day. Tomas soon began to guess which direction we would be taking at junctions and nearly every single time he got it right, when I asked him how he was doing this his reply was, we are always going uphill!
It was really starting to get to us that we were the first out in the morning and always the last in at night, with hardly any breaks in between. We found that no matter what we did our average speed of 55mph just couldn’t keep up with rally time and we were dropping 20 minutes for every 2 hour section. This meant coffee breaks and Lunch halts were our only chance to get back on track so a break was out of the question.
Todays regularities were off speed tables, and without an accurate trip it is very difficult to run to time, all I could do was call the speed changes and guess that we were close to time. I was very excited when we were just 5 seconds out at a timing control. We started to fall into a pattern of following rally route to coffee then cutting to lunch and the same afterwards.
So after the afternoon coffee halt we cut to the hotel which meant that for a change we were early, and we could really enjoy the beautiful winding road up to the Parador hotel in Ourense and with the sun still shinning brightly we enjoyed a nice drink as we watched all the other crews arrive.
It was a beautiful night so we had the window wide open although it did get a bit windy the next morning.

Day 7
Ourense to Vila Real

The exit from the hotel was a steep uphill slope and after warming the car and clocking out, it took us several attempts and a run up, to get up it. It was definitely worth it, we were very high up with a 360 degree view all around, it was the best road ever and with a beautiful sunrise it really did seem perfect. The morning coffee halt was on the Portuguese border where the old immigration controls still look rater intimidating but it was a great feeling knowing we were now in Portugal and that we had made it through England, France and Spain to get this far. We stuck to our routine of cutting after coffee to give ourselves a decent lunch break and not to push the car too hard. At this point the goal was to reach Lisbon any way possible. Every stop we cleaned the spark plugs and checked the water and oil. HERO had promised us fantastic hotels and they more than delivered, in Vila Real we arrived at The Vidago Palace an absolutely stunning hotel and due to our routine of cutting to keep up we arrived at a decent time

Day 8
Vila Real to Caramulo

After a fabulous breakfast at The Vidago Palace we were on route to Porto (where Port comes from) unfortunately it was 10 o clock in the morning and we had a way to drive afterwards, but the coffee stop was beautiful and driving through the vineyards was fabulous. One of the regularities was down the side of a hill, which meant for the first time on this Rally we could be competitive. I cleared the first timing point and picked up just 1 second on the next, I was over the moon!  

At the afternoon coffee stop Tomas noticed a lot of oil on the rear left wheel, one of the oil seal was leaking. As is the motto with classic car rallying ‘Make do and Mend’ a water bottle was found and cut in half, attached to the hub of the wheel to push the oil away from the wheel so it wouldn’t get into the brake drums.

Then it was onto Caramulo an the famous Hill Climb, unfortunately with the end being so near Tomas was loathe to put the car through the strains of a 2km hill climb. But with a large crowd gathering and the prestige of completing The  Hill Climb in a 1930’s Riley Brooklands weighing on him he finally gave in and we jumped in the Riley and drove the test, although we didn’t stop on any of the stop a-stride lines in fear of not starting again.

The meal that night was in The Caramulo Motor Museum amongst the classic and vintage vehicles it was better than a private tour.

Day 9
Caramulo to  Lisbon
The Last Day! With the end in sight we really didn’t want to risk anything so we cut straight to lunch, which turned out to be a really good choice as the coffee stop was over 3000 meters above sea level. We arrived at Abrantes Kart circuit and after a great final test we had a quick lunch before heading off on rally route towards Lisbon.

On approaching Lisbon we pulled into a car park where we were joined by a local classic car club of 200 cars and police outriders to escort us to the square and the finish line. This meant that my job was done, I had navigated us from London to Lisbon without a Sat Nav or working tripometer. It was a fantastic feeling, and I relaxed into the final leg and enjoyed the convoy with police escort through red lights.

This of course was not the end of our adventures, as the convoy slowed down over a cobbled street to keep all the cars together , The Riley began overheating, we tried to get the attention of the lead car but it was too late, meters from the finish line we broke down. Luckily Car 48 a Rolls Royce kindly gave us a tow over the finish line, (well we had to make an entrance).

Triumphantly, in our slightly unusual finish, we had made it from start to finish, through four countries, all kinds of weather and every problem that pre war rallying could have thrown at us. We came second in class and 37th overall and also won a team award with the other two oldest cars on the event called ‘The Numb Bums’

Everyone seemed to really enjoy the Rally and you can read how Geoff Love, Octane's Publishing Director got on here.

 I will never forget the epic adventure we had on this event and can only hope I get another opportunity to do something like this again in the near future.

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