Tuesday 26th January
It wasn’t the best start, weatherwise – blustery wind and rain made final loading of team and stuff into the BDRS VW Transporter a true “splash and dash” business. The media scrum at Paisley proved to be more of a game of Fives, but the job done, we turned north towards Caithness. Almost immediately, we encountered a flooded M9 near Stirling– would it be that sort of stop-start journey?
In fact, we were on the move fairly soon and we reached the event scrutineering at Keiss, just short of John O’ Groats without further problem. The Seaview Hotel’s welcome and appointments were warm and these northern Scottish climes were cool and clear.
The Burns Supper at the Seaview was most enjoyable– the hotel and the local community went to great lengths to make the evening, in the presence of the Lord Lieutenant and the new Caithness Flag, a great success.
Wednesday 27th January
A good omen. We awoke to darkness, but the conditions were clear and dry. Our 8.00am start at the John O’ Groats Hotel brought the local folk out in force – and a rising heart rate as the Caithness Flag fell and the WD, loaded for action, rolled off into the faint glow of dawn. It grew into a beautiful morning as we trundled down the northern A9, though baulked by roadworks at Berriedale. John, settling into what would prove a very long haul, was restraining speed, for these were early miles in the Riley’s running-in, the wee car having covered some 900 since it’s preparation for the event.
We arrived at Inverness, over the Kessock Bridge, aiming for the tea and sandwiches promised at the local football ground. By the time we reached there, all that had closed. We resumed our A9 southbound journey, risking the long climb by Culloden, and meeting for the first time a strong headwind – and driving snow! Life aboard the WD was tough…. we just about saw Slochd Summit.
By Aviemore, a stop was needed, at least to thaw out. The snow had turned to rain and sleet. Our next summit, the mighty Druimachdar, passed uneventfully, as did the remainder of our run into the Central Lowlands, punctuated by regular fuel stops to maintain our petrol supply from the small tank, and by heavy rain at times.
We had always been very concerned by the schedule for these 300 miles to Paisley, but we were going OK and earlier than feared – just as well, for we met heavy and extremely slow traffic on Glasgow’s M8 inner M-way.
We inched our anxious way over the Clyde and out towards Glasgow Airport peeling off the traffic just in time to avoid a complete standstill which would have caused us to miss the reception from the waiting crowds at Paisley. And what crowds! The whole area around the ancient Abbey was thronged with well-wishers, notable among them John’s parents, my better half, Liz, numerous members of Scottish Riley Enthusiasts and – thanks to the SRE’s David Robb and his team – Victor Riley himself, who had been welcomed to the civic reception and would now flag us and the BDRS Riley WD Tourer off into the night from the Monte Carlo Rally Historique Ramp. This he accomplished with a huge smile and appropriate panache, and we rumbled away towards Dumfries…
Thursday 28th January
This would be The Easy One. Just a couple of hundred miles to Hull and the cross-channel ferry, via Croft Racing Circuit and its smaller relation at Oliver’s Mount in Scarborough. Our BDRS backup team spent some late-night hours fettling the Riley – nothing major, but fine-tuning to reflect the running-in process.
The infamous A66 was no threat to us on this bright/showery morning and we reached Croft with no surprises. All set for a couple of laps, to show the Riley’s cautiously-extending paces.
Er, no. Word reached us that our ferry to Belgium had been cancelled. Naughty words! At least we could warm up with a cup of tea in the Croft complex, while we considered our options. John then began the task of undoing our transit arrangements. The decision was to make for the Channel Tunnel – 300 miles, spent retracing our steps to the spine of northern England before turning for the deep south.
Mile after mile, in intermittent rain and relentlessly-heavy traffic, John is hunched over our Riley’s wheel. Controlling his frustration and urging the tiny 1,087cc motor onward. Surely, the miles and the pressure would take their toll of man and machine?
The hours pass. The M25 and its anticipated horrors loom. And we are not disappointed. The Dartford Crossing is stopped. That’s “stopped”. Both directions. How can one of the world’s greatest cities survive with this level of disruption to one of its crucial thoroughfares? Surely somebody in charge could…… Our thoughts are interrupted by the need to focus on the task in hand: temperature and oil pressure. We are inching for miles. The radiator cap-mounted Calormeter needle crept gradually towards our agreed limit, but stopped short. Relief! Meanwhile, the all-important oil tell-tale stayed steady.
At long last, after more than an hour, we began to move a little. By degrees, traffic thinned and our speed quickened, as we found room to move on the M20. With a gasp of relief, we sound succour. Supper (delicious!) and a comfy bed with Julian and Lily, good friends of John, who had stayed up to look after us. We tumbled into dreamland after midnight.
Friday 29th January
5.00am darkness envelops us as the Riley WD thrums out of the farm and turns for Folkestone and the Channel Tunnel. Of course, were are relieved to be driving towards Monaco, once more, though the unexpectedly-long day 2 has taken its toll on all of us – except the remarkable BDRS Riley Nine, which has settled into a purring 40-50mph cruising habit very sweetly. The time lost has meant that the planned engine oil-change has had to be postponed, a bit of a gamble, though our confidence in the little car is growing. It really is proving remarkable transport although it’s very cold aboard, at times. The seats are good and the engine seems unburstable. Despite its all-too-recent overhaul.
For some of, the “Chunnel” is a new experience. For all, it’s just the job, no fuss and faster than the competition ferry. We have long since abandoned our resolution to concentrate upon traditional roads and the suggested Rallye route.
So Autoroutes are the order of this re-arranged day. John powers the Riley on. We share breakfast with the rest of the BDRS Team, then it’s off and running once more. Stops are frequent because of the need for fuel, but otherwise, no frills. Our backup crew stops, with John’s full agreement, to lay healing hands upon the venerable AC, which has suffered failure of its magneto. Later, they tackle the electrics on another competitor, a Derby Bentley. John and I rumble onwards, amazed by the progress of our Riley. 50 mph is more common than not, now, and we are way ahead of the rest of our team, out on our own, in grey but reasonable weather. There’s amazement, too, that we are ahead of our revised schedule. Time, if not on our side in a little car with a tiny engine, is not the pressure we had expected.
We agree to waive our intended overnight stop at Chalon-Sur-Saone, for we want to seize the chance to head further south, before stopping for the night. The team books a replacement hotel in Bourgoin-Jallieu. Will they catch up on us?
We take the high road, they take the low road – though Scotland and Loch Lomond are well behind us now! Dead beat, at the limits of endurance, we fumble a junction and become enmeshed in minor roads for a bit, but emerge to find the BDRS van and its trailer waiting to lead us through the town maze to our hotel. We have certainly reached a point much further south than we could have imagined, but it has cost us. Despite exhaustion and the midnight hour (and no proper meal for 48 hours, so late have been our late-evening arrivals), the team goes to work on that oil change…..
Saturday 30th January
Our alarm clocks signal an awakening no-one wants. So near, but some 300 miles. This madness continues! In thick fog, the BDRS van leads our Riley out into the road network heading for Grenoble. We thread that city’s highways as the first traces of dawn begin to shape the silhouettes of the surrounding mountains. The long slog into the foothills of the Alpes Maritimes begins.
Within the hour, we are seeing the true majesty of the Massif, our way surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Again we have been lucky, for although there is some snow at the roadside, the carriageway is clear, though wet in places, maybe icy. It’s here that we encounter a serious problem: our Riley’s windscreen is coated with ice. John scrapes the screen manfully as he drives, but progress is very slow, below 30mph at times, thanks to the gradients, hairpin bends and restricted vision. It looks as though we will not have the time needed to attempt the dramatic and demanding Route Napoleon – the prize that driver John has been dreaming of for months. Pragmatically, he resigns himself to a lower, more direct run to the warm coast of the Cote d’Azur.
We pause in Sisteron for a warming cuppa in a magnificently-friendly café. The sun is shining, the countryside glowing, the tops white and the sky unblemished blue.
The BDRS van is leading us and we don’t notice that, in St Andre des Alpes, it quietly turns at a junction, we follow dutifully and press on, the Riley never missing a beat. The sun is shining. We are well on schedule, in spite of the ice delays and long ascents. We can’t relax, but we are content to pursue the Transporter, with its Riley Imp graphic on its rear gate.
Then it dawns on us. These placenames are familiar, are they not? We ARE on the Route Napoleon, after all!
And it proves truly spectacular in road and setting. We pause in one of the gorges to take a breather and to watch and listen as “moderns” engaged in the spirited competition of the Monte Carlo Rally Historique, our companion event, snarl past at speed. They must be going our way.
Winding, winding, we thrum through the passes, the warmth of the southern climate now apparent, a much-need boost to flagging energy and expectation. After what seems an age suddenly we are among the tumult of rocks which make up the Mediterranean Coast and we can see the sea! Wow!
The final kilometres into Monaco unwind, though not without their hazards to a very old car with a 45bhp motor under the bonnet (albeit the outstanding Riley Nine twin cam, hemi-headed, crossflow design which reflects the near-genius of its designer, Percy Riley, in 1926 ….). Lengthy gradients tackled in warm air, road repairs reducing the busy carriageways and then a less-than-clear route instruction for the drop to sea level in Monte Carlo. John fumes and has to take action to reduce speed as the steep cliff road winds round repeated hairpin bends until we join the surge of traffic below. How far now?
A combination of instinct and half-remembered TV footage of the Monaco Grand Prix bring us though the convolutions of Monaco streets to the harbourside, but we have missed the final turn to the quay. John powers the Riley on through the famous Tunnel and up round the twists to the Fairmont Hotel, our weekend resting-place. We register and take our stuff to our rooms, then it’s back to our so-reliable Riley WD Tourer and off to the Finishing Line and our chance to scale the Monte Carlo Rallye Ramp.
Sunshine. Blue skies. Amazing tiers of architecture. Skeins of luxury yachts. Marshals in Hi-Viz Cheering crowds. Legions of photographers.
The Ramp. Blaring speakers announce our success.
Our travel-stained BDRS-prepared Riley Tourer has DONE IT!
Surely there were problems? Well, yes – we must be honest. One failed dipped-beam headlamp bulb filament and a small paper exhaust gasket. Cost? Less than £5..
Her reward? A wee drop of Old Pulteney Whisky, from John O’ Groats. Oh, and we had some, too!