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In May 1996 I took my 1953 TD, CEG 16 to France. Readers of Safety Fast! will perhaps remember from other tales of these trips, that I try and make the journey to the South of France each year. Sometimes the holidays pass without a hitch and at other times, as in 1996, they turn into an adventure.
My plan was to drive to Bargemon a small hill village about 25 miles north of Frejus, on the Mediterranean coast. A colleague from work has family in Bargemon and Iíd been invited to stay with them for a week or so.
The TD was loaded and checked, spare parts assembled and then discarded for others until available space became the arbiter and the day for the Ďoffí arrived. The day was bright, sunny and warm, and the trip to Folkstone promised three wonderful days driving through rural France.
The first stop on the first night was at the town of Nevers. The motel I chose became more and more crowded as the evening drew on. It was the Thursday before the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours and various film crews had booked in for the weekend. The TD was much admired and photographed. Perhaps it was nice to see a Ďrealí car before the vulgarity at Magny-Cours?
I pointed the car south and took off, straight into the first of many traffic queues. Everyone was going to the race-track and the only route appeared to be through the town. Anyway I was on holiday and the slow progress allowed me the pleasure of enjoying the scenery.
The previous year, fed up with the problem of fuel vaporisation the TD suffers from, Iíd fitted a Kenlow fan and now reaped the benefits. When the wait in traffic became too much for the engine, a swift blast of the fan and all was well. [If anyone wants details of how the fan is fitted Iíll be glad to pass them on].
Eventually I passed through Nevers and then the entrance to the race circuit at Magny-Cours, and at last the traffic became light and typically French; either every fast or very slow. About an hour later, approaching the outskirts of Moulin, I hit another traffic jam. This was getting serious. Two hold-ups on the second day, in the middle of the countryside, what on earth was going wrong? It didnít take long to find out. Those of you with long memories will recall a certain BSE crisis. In May 1996 the French farmers were doing what they do best and had set up road blocks around many French towns as a protest. Perhaps this was not the time to be driving an open, fairly slow, British sports car, with the hood down and GB plates! Eventually I reached the mass of 20 or so lorries that were blocking the road. Fearing the worst I edged forward only to be greeted as Iíve always been greeted in France in the TD, with much Gallic arm waving and shouts of encouragement. I just love these people, theyíre warm and generous, passionate about the important things in life and above all they adore old cars.
Through Moulin and onto the second nights stop outside Valance. For those of you planning this type of trip there is a wonderful road, the N82, that leaves St.Etienne climbs over a mountain and then descends into the plain at Valance. The effect is to go from the high temperatures of St.Etienne, gradually getting cooler and then colder as the summit of the mountain is reached and then warmed and eventually hotter as the town of Valance is approached.
An early start the next morning after checking the car and topping up the water and oil. The roads are empty. The TD hums along at 3500 to 4000 rpm. The higher ratio rear axle Iíve had fitted is perfect and the kilometers wind past. The long straight roads towards Sisteron are reached and enjoyed once again, perfect for M.G.s Into Sisteron, through the tunnel, the exhaust booming, and into the town where Saturday shoppers stop to look at the red M.G..
Not too far to go now, Iím a bit ahead of schedule and decided a detour is in order. The road from Sisteron Digne is quite hilly with lots of tracks leading off to possibly interesting places. The track I choose appears to be a logging road. It winds up the side of the mountain and the views as I turn the hairpin corners are spectacular. Steep though it is, itís no problem for the TD and we eventually reach the clearing at the summit. I pull round to reverse, and disaster. The clutch linkage snaps. Thank God Iím at the top. If it had gone on the way up there was no place to turn round and Iíd have had to come down all the way backwards with just the brakes to stop me. A frightening prospect.
I check under the car and the threaded portion of the linkage between the clutch pedal and the actuating arm had snapped. I managed to pick up the broken part but one bit is missing. Oh well going down should be fun, and it is. There were twenty-two hairpins on that track. I counted every one. By the time I reached the bottom the breaks were red hot, I know because for the last 6 bends I could smell them. Having reached the bottom, what now? Itís Saturday afternoon and Iím miles from a town.
Thereís only one thing for it. [The purists and those of a weak disposition are advised to skip this bit!]. I put the car in first and pull the starter. If youíve never tried this I donít recommend it. The car jerks forward and eventually fires. Judging as best I can the right revs I change into second and then third. Not much crunching, but I obviously canít go far like this. Thank goodness for the sturdiness of the TD. Itís OK on a straight road and mercifully in the distance I can see a garage. Itís closed. The owner gives me directions to a local mechanics shop, but he expects it to be closed. Worth a try, so again into first, pull the starter and away, I look hopefully for the workshop, but canít see it. I press on aware that this road is taking me further from the main road and into the French countryside.
As I round a bend there is a barn and working on a dismantled car are three men. I pull to a halt and explain, in my halting French, what has happened. My problems are suddenly and wonderfully solved. These marvellous people just take over. The car is jacked up and the clutch rod removed. A welding kit is found but unfortunately itís not powerful enough. So Iím bundled in one of the cars and driven to a farm. My companion finds the lady of the house who directs us to her husband whoís working inside the barn. Did I say barn? This place is a mechanics dream. Row upon row of tools of every description. Vast benches with vices, drills, saws and several large MIG welders. In a few minutes the broken parts are mended and I have to force this man to change me 50 francs for his work. He refuses to take more!
My companion and I return to the TD where the parts are fitted. While Iíve been away one of the other men has made a replacement of the missing part and after a short time CEG 16 is back on the ground ready to go again. I am so grateful and yet they refuse to accept anything for their trouble. Eventually I give the chap who did most of the work 500 francs. Itís worth every franc and then some.
The young girl of the house has spent most of the time sitting in the drivers seat of the TD and I ask if I can take her photo. I also want to take a photo of my new friends, and so the family assembles by the car. With many thanks Iím on my way. The carís no worse off for itís ordeal or my harsh treatment of it, and the rest of the holiday passes in a haze of wine, pasta, French bread, garlic, olive oil and red wine. And mechanically itís uneventful. [And the repaired parts are still on the car].
Driving abroad is fun. In an old car itís even more fun. And with adventures like these itís not to be missed. I know that several M.G. owners that Iíve spoken to over the years, have expressed some trepidation about risking their cars on long trips, and I hope this tale will both frighten and exhilarate them. But above all I hope it will encourage them to take the risk. Our cars were properly designed. They are sturdy and reliable. And I believe they like being driven and they like adventures.
During the rest of that holiday I pondered on how I could broadcast the help Iíd received from these kind strangers. It occurred to me that if I could write up my account of the holiday and get it published with photoís of my friends, then I could send them a copy of the magazine and a translation of this article.