POTTERING TO LE MANS AND BACK

I had no time to do a mid-week post this week because I was packed off on my longest driving job yet. Aston Martin needed some specialist equipment taking to Le Mans for the famous 24 hour race this weekend so, on Tuesday I picked up a hire van and trundled over to the Aston Martin factory in Gaydon, Warwickshire.
Upon arriving at Aston Martin’s VIP Reception (where else?), I had to sign a secrecy agreement at security before being allowed into Fortress Aston Martin. So, what was this specialist equipment that warranted such measures? I probably shouldn’t say, but here goes ….. parasols, chairs, bedding, tableware (mostly IKEA – aargh!), candles, framed photos, a gazebo and a portable bar!! Crucial to the team’s efforts at the forthcoming endurance race. Aston Martin rent a gîte near the famous Circuit de la Sarthe every year in order to entertain guests. I have good reason to believe that these guests may have included a well-known celebrity baker (and part-time racing driver who has competed at Le Mans in an Aston Martin in the past).
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Having loaded up this vital gear on to the van, I set off on my epic journey. Fortunately, the van (a very long Peugeot Boxer) had air conditioning, sat nav, cruise control and an adjustable lumber support. What could be better for a long journey?
By coincidence, I had some appropriate reading material for the trip because I’m part way through Harry Potter et l’Ordre du Phénix. I’m sure even non-linguists can work out what that is in English. A few months ago, I set myself the challenge of re-reading the Harry Potter books in French – I’m on the fifth book and thoroughly enjoying it. It does help that I have read them all in English and seen the films (albeit a long time ago)! The odd thing with the French versions is that some of the names have been changed. For instance, Hogwarts is “Poudlard”, Muggles are “Moldus” and the tragic Professor Snape has been renamed “Professeur Rogue”. I have learnt some new vocabulary which I am sure will come in useful on a trip to France one day (but not this week). So, for example, should I ever see un loup-garou (werewolf) and une licorne (unicorn) racing each other down the autoroute on their Nimbus 2000s, I will be able to report it to the local gendarmes with confidence that they will understand. Amusingly (to me anyway), the French for magic wand is “la baguette magique”. Now this just conjures(!) up an image, doesn’t it? Harry, Ron and Hermione doing battle with Lord Voldemort brandishing French loaves of bread, the intrepid young wizards trying to turn He Who Must Not Be Named into French toast and vice-versa. Out of interest, I looked up the Italian and German for magic wand: la ciabatta magica and der magische Pumpernickel.
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Looks like Harry and friends have swapped baguettes for breadsticks. Probably about to try the taramasalata spell.
Enchanted with the idea that French bread has magical properties, I thought about going into a boulangerie and buying my own magic baguette. Then if the van broke down, a quick REPARO! would solve that problem. If I encountered any officious gendarmes or customs officers, they could be transfigured into frogs (what else?!). And best of all: middle lane hoggers – EXPULSO! and they would be blown out of the way. In the end I decided not to because I wasn’t sure if I could claim for a magic baguette on my expenses.
Talking off middle lane hoggers…. there weren’t any! Mainly because most French motorways don’t have a middle lane (what an obvious solution). They are however a delight to drive on. I left Calais early on Wednesday morning after a night in a hotel and absolutely breezed down to Le Mans without any traffic problems whatsoever – about 280 miles with a couple of short stops. There was hardly any traffic on the autoroutes and they have decent, smooth surfaces – not like some of our lumpy, bumpy, noisy concrete excuses in the U.K. But all this does come at a price. In tolls, it cost me EUR 58 each way between Calais and Le Mans.
Apart from a drive through Rouen, it was autoroute all the way to Le Mans. And unlike UK motorways where you often have an enclosed feeling, driving between two embankments, French autoroutes generally have a more open aspect allowing you sweeping views across the landscape. Another feature of the autoroutes which I like are the frequent large brown signs depicting features of the town or area that you are passing. Add to all this, two or three spectacular viaducts and all in all it was pretty good as motorway journeys go.
I arrived in the Le Mans area at about 12.30. I had been told by the good folk at Aston Martin (who were arriving later by plane and hire car) that the gîte they had rented was hard to find because it had no sign outside with its name. So I didn’t bother looking for it and just phoned Monsieur Le Owner who kindly said he would come and find me. I then followed him back to his gîte to see a large, clear sign at the entrance with the name on! It would have been dead easy to find had I just carried on up the road for half a mile or so. Monsieur le Owner must have thought I was un vrai imbécile (he may be right).
After unloading, I turned round and went straight back to Calais. No messing around, sight seeing or legendary three hour French lunch break. I was booked on a Eurotunnel train early the next morning, so it was easier to spend Wednesday night in Calais again and I arrived back there at about 8pm.
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Just leaving the gîte after unloading. The van felt like home for three days.
Throughout the journey the big Peugeot van performed superbly. It was relaxing and comfortable to drive, reinforcing my opinion that most modern vans, thanks to their seating position, are more comfortable than ANY car I have driven over long distances. Maybe I’m just a funny shape?! There may have been quicker ways to travel but by all accounts Floo Powder is very stressful. And judging by the spectacular amount of insects on the van’s windscreen, Heaven knows what state my glasses and teeth would have been in had I gone by broomstick (extra protein intake though!). Plus you couldn’t carry many parasols on a broomstick.
Next morning it was back to Blighty and the M20: noisy, bumpy concrete and three lanes full of traffic. Seemingly within minutes, I came across a major traffic jam between junctions 7 and 2 and had to cut across to the M2. Welcome home!

And guess what? I’m setting off tomorrow to do it all again!

Colin

WEEKLY CAR DIARY & ASTON MARTINS GALORE!!

If variety is the spice of life, this week was a vindaloo:-

Monday: Ford Transit Connect, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire to Leeds. Ford Fiesta 1.0 turbo Zetec, Manchester to Leicester.

Tuesday: Ford Fiesta 1.0 Turbo Zetec, Leicester to Brentford, Middlesex; Kia Cee’d 1.6 diesel, London to Leicester

Wednesday: Aston Martins galore – Rapide S (2014), Vantage S manual (2016), Vantage S auto (2014), DB7 Vantage (2003), DB9 (2014), DBS (2012), all for about 8 miles each! Second Rapide S (2014) Derby to Scunthorpe; Mercedes C220d, Scunthorpe to Derby.

Friday: Ford Focus Titanium 2.0TDCi, Thurleigh Airfield, Bedfordshire to London SE1.

Monday saw Episode IV in the Rebel Alliance’s mission to supply X-wings to satellite station Sky. Or was it Episode I?? Like George Lucas, my episodes count can’t I.

Wednesday saw something a little out of the ordinary. Seven Aston Martins in one day – all 5.9 litre V12s. I was just told to turn up at Aston Martin Derby who needed a driver for the day. Most of the time was spent taking some of their used stock for a run down the A52 dual carriageway to give each one a drink of their favourite super unleaded. The grimmest of tasks, I know and the weather was miserable too – all warm and sunny.

I got to know the lady in the petrol station quite well. Her name is Philomena Wingnut, she lives on a canal boat called the Mary Rows (it has no engine) and she has a life-sized tattoo of Richard Hammond down her left thigh (apparently). People began to notice our frequent meetings and all those loyalty points she was giving me so to stop tongues wagging we are having to get married next week but don’t tell the wife. Anyway, before 1pm I had driven five different models of Aston Martin. Shame there was no Vanquish or DB11, but let’s not get greedy, eh? Here are some brief thoughts on each based on an 8 mile drive, except the second Rapide in which I drove about 70 miles to somewhere near Scunthorpe:-

Rapide S – a five door family hatchback. Starting up all these V12 Astons was an occasion in itself. Pushing the button instigates lots of dramatic whirring noises followed by a loud bark. The Rapides were no different and on the move, they would growl even under mild acceleration. When cruising you can always hear a muted engine note just to remind you that there’s a 5.9 litre V12 lurking under the bonnet but it is perfectly civilised. The one I took to somewhere near Scunthorpe was quite comfortable but had an annoying rattle coming from the back. The source was nothing to do with the car, it was a very rattly child seat. Told you – this really is a five door family hatchback (albeit with a luxury leather-clad interior).

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Rapide S. Most of the cars were untaxed so I had to stick trade plates on – with hi-tech gaffer tape!
Vantage S Manual.  You could tell straightaway that this is an absolute little hooligan of a car. Growling, howling and snarling loudly the whole time. If it had nostrils, fire and smoke would be blowing out of them. Obviously very quick off the mark – really exhilarating and I didn’t go over 70mph (truly). You sit a bit lower and the suspension is noticeably harder than on the other Astons so 70mph feels much faster than say, in the Rapide. This was the only manual I drove, a seven speed box with dog leg first (just like a Reynolds Boughton RB44 but there the similarity ends!!). The shift was quite stiff and the clutch heavy so an interesting challenge.

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Vantage S manual with its aggressive snout. Or slightly creepy face? you decide.
Vantage S Automatic. As above but with a slightly hesitant self-shifter. This one had a fetching red stripe down the black centre console. Added to the drama.

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Vantage S auto waiting for petrol pump to become free and to see Philomena Wingnut for the nth time.
DB9. Somewhere between the Rapide and Vantage S in manners and probably the most beautiful. Good combination of brute force with some civility if you want it.

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The DB9. Stunning.
DBS. To be honest, on such a short drive I couldn’t tell the difference between this and the DB9. Even the interiors looked the same. Hang on, yes I could. One was metallic bluey silver (“Skyfall” – what else?) and one was black (probably “Taxi de Londres” or something).

DB7 Vantage. About 14 years old and looked a bit antique inside. Lots of wood to go with the leather and smelled liked a classic car. For some reason I was surprised when it made a proper and youthful sound on start up. Still went well too.

Lots of Astons
Vantage S manual again and the DB7 Vantage in green
The pick of the bunch? For me, the manual Vantage S. Enjoyed not just the outrageous sound track but also the challenge of mastering that slightly awkward clutch and gearbox and driving it smoothly. Might be a bit wearing on a long journey though!

I have driven a couple of Aston Martins before. Last year I drove a DB9 round a track in absolutely torrential rain. Surprised at how fast the instructor got me to go in those conditions. If I had been on my own I would have tiptoed round. All credit to him.
About thirteen years ago I had a day driving classic cars. Eight cars in total from the Classic Car Club in Birmingham (don’t think it exists anymore) to the Cotswolds. The eight cars included the recently restored beauty below. Slightly disappointing to drive mind you. Took a while to gather its skirts when accelerating and cornered like a battleship.

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All in all Wednesday was an unusual and interesting day. Had ostrich for my evening meal when I eventually got home (but not ostrich vindaloo). Don’t know why I mentioned that. Probably because it was unusual and interesting (and delicious).

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Another Aston. Oops, no – its Friday’s Ford Focus. Silly me. But it’s an Aston sort of colour and if you screw your eyes up, that grill looks a bit like …….
Colin