John O’Groats to Monaco: The Monte Carlo Rallye Classique

The Monte Carlo Rally is undoubtedly the most famous road-rally in the world – partly because it was a pioneering event in automobile sport when inaugurated in 1911 and also because it the model for truly-tough rallies all over the world. Of course, it has also retained a certain romance, even if in its modern form, all that is subordinated to a competition which combines its traditionally acutely-demanding special Alpine stages with eye-wateringly rapid, technologically-advanced 21st century cars and multi-million dollar international media coverage.

Some of that romance is still to be found, however, in the now well-established Monte Carlo Rallye Historique, which re-creates the simpler days, for crews, cars and spectators of the Rally as it was run until the 1980s. The event could be entered from a choice of pan-European Start locations: drivers would gamble on, say, good weather from Athens to Monaco, rather than a run in hazardous conditions from Warsaw, but with compensatory mileage, over routes which demanded higher altitude and speeds. Make no mistake, though: the Rallye Historique is fought to the Finish in Monte Carlo, then over special stage days, with no quarter given. This year, it was accompanied by a new event, the 1,400-mile Monte Carlo Rallye Classique, with an overall target time, rather than competitively-timed sections, from John O’Groats, in the far north-east of Scotland, to the sunlit Principality, to celebrate the first John O’ Groats Monte Start in 1926.

On 27th January, the Lord Lieutenant of Caithness, Anne Dunnett, flagged–off a remarkable array of 10 cars, from a 1927 AC Sports, similar to that which won the Rally from John O’ Groats in 1926, to a late-Fifties Lotus Elite. Among them was a 1931 Riley WD Tourer (the second-oldest entrant, its “WD” indicating that this was no low-slung sports car of the famous Riley marque, but a military-specification type, identical to that used successfully in the Monte Carlo Rally by Rupert Riley in the early 1930s). This very-basic little 1,087cc car, with its primitive hood and open cockpit, had been prepared by Blue Diamond Riley Services (the holy grail for owners of pre-WW2 Rileys), near Taunton, and was driven by the firm’s MD, John Lomas, with Gordon McAllan as navigator/co-driver.

Still completing its running-in after rebuild by BDRS, the Riley had to be driven with care, restricted to 40-50mph. It was going to be a long haul. The crew were prepared for poor weather, breakdown and accident; apart from emergency equipment aboard, the BDRS company van and backup crew were heading independently towards Monaco.
And poor weather the Riley Tourer certainly encountered during the first 380-mile day: freezing, blizzard conditions south of Inverness, which tested the crew’s stamina, then torrential rain before the car could join the Rally Historique entrants in Paisley, near Glasgow (replicating the former Monte Start from that city). Here, in front of the ancient Paisley Abbey, members of Scottish Riley Enthusiasts were numerous among the huge crowds and Victor Riley, son of the late chairman of the family-run Riley Motor Company of Coventry, was the guest of Blue Diamond Riley Services and flagged-off the WD Tourer from the Monte Ramp.

The strength of support for the BDRS Riley and its crew was clear throughout the planned UK journey, with enthusiasts turning out to cheer the car on. A further major encouragement to John, Gordon and the rest of the team was the knowledge that around the world, unseen but vocal in their Facebook and Twitter comments, over 800 enthusiasts were following the Riley’s every mile using the online Locatoweb Tracker.

No rest! On to Dumfries for a night’s sleep. Reined-in, out of consideration for its recent mechanical overhaul, the Riley brought John and Gordon safely to the hotel. Almost everyone else had reached the town some time before.

Already, the rigours of the event were taking their toll. The determined-looking and rapid TR3 had begun to falter, with serious mechanical problems.

The second day looked encouraging – much shorter (200 miles) and less-remote countryside, with better weather – but it was not to be. Arriving at Croft Racing Circuit, John received a message that the intended ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge was cancelled. Valuable journey time was lost as he battled to find an alternative. Finally, the unwelcome truth: he and Gordon would have to drive the Riley back towards the spine of England, then turn south and aim for the Channel Tunnel, adding some 300 miles to their planned journey. Gutted, but with no option, they began the dispiriting drive towards London, their light car buffeted by huge trucks. Another Rally Classique entry, a stunningly-fast, supercharged Austin A35, rasped past as if the Riley was standing still.

To cap it all, Riley crew had to endure almost an hour and a half of bumper-to-bumper crawling, up to and over the Dartford crossing, before they could head, in total darkness, for a very short night at a hastily-arranged B&B in Kent.

At 5.00am, John and Gordon tumbled into the Riley, fired-up despite the cold conditions, and headed towards Folkestone.
Emerging from the Tunnel, the BDRS team knew that their carefully-planned route, with its scheduled fuel and food stops, had to be abandoned. It was now necessary to cover over 400 miles towards central France as rapidly as possible in this old Riley, if they were to have time to reach Monaco next day. Would the Tourer cope?

Where were the other participants? The magnificent 1934 4.3-litre Lagonda, which had taken part in that year’s Monte Carlo Rally, was somewhere on the road, but exhibiting its true strengths of effortless high speed motoring, with an 85 miles-per-hour cruising speed available.

How was the Riley doing, at a 50mph maximum? To the crew’s satisfaction and relief, the little motor whirred on, mile after mile, though the journey was agonisingly slow, at times. John eased another 5mph on the throttle, when he thought it safe. This was a daring way to run-in a rebuilt engine.

A text message was received from the BDRS support crew: they had come across the AC Sports, which had succumbed to electric gremlins. Its magneto had stopped working and so had the engine, deprived of ignition. Could they take time to lend a hand? Without hesitation, John agreed, though the potential cost to the BDRS Riley could be huge. If something failed, the support would be miles, and soon hours, away.

The Riley engine purred on, however. It was almost too good to be true.

A further call from the BDRS van announced that another Classique entrant, the Dutch-registered 1934 Derby Bentley, had suffered a lighting failure. The BDRS support crew stopped again, to lend assistance.

Such was the Riley’s progress, that the crew decided to extend the day’s journey, to try to reduce the remaining distance. En route, John booked a new hotel some 100 miles further south. The new plan was texted to the BDRS van, somewhere to the north.
The sunset faded.

Exhaustion was mounting. Stops were confined to mere minutes. Darkness, the freezing mist, enfolded the Riley. It was midnight when the car reached the hotel in a ghostly town, hardly visible in the murk. It was also midnight when the BDRS support team was able to check the car and carry out a delayed oil change.

The alarm no-one wanted to hear forced the whole BDRS team out of their absurdly-short rest and into the shivering darkness for a 4.00am restart. Dense freezing fog. A change of route, to find and follow the main road through Grenoble, then tackle the long climb into the Alpes Maritimes. The crew was grim, desperately concentrating on the road, the radiator temperature on the long gradients, the oil pressure….

On summit after unforgiving summit, the freezing conditions forced John to slow to a crawl. In this 1931 Riley, there was no heater or demister, and the windscreen was coated with thick ice. He drove doggedly, peering forward over the bonnet at the unfamiliar and tortuous road, rasping desperately at the glass with an ice-scraper. The run from Scotland had not been easy, but it was now very gruelling indeed.

At last, dawn came up, the early sun illuminating snow-capped summits, though the road, swerving along twisting, dark gorges, was iced-over in places. Gradual warmth eased the Riley crew’s discomfort and a short stop in the warmth of Sisteron could not come soon enough.

Spirits rose with the sun. The Riley swung determinedly along the famous and spectacular Route Napoleon. Somewhere, the Mediterranean coast was close – then in sight!

John toiled, braking patiently on downward stretches, climbing with care so as not to damage the engine, as the road threaded the rocky coast. At last, it began to seem possible that the Blue Diamond crew and their trusty Riley would make it.

The surge and momentum of Monte Carlo traffic made for a stressful and confusing entry to the city. Somehow, John piloted the Tourer around the vortex and reached the famous quayside.

The Riley edged into the concourse where the Monte Carlo Rallye Historique Finish Ramp was set up. Officials of the Automobile Club of Monaco welcomed the BDRS crew, who were soon joined by the members of the support group. Photographers crowded round. On a signal, John drove this remarkable little 85-year-old car on to the ramp. The team had accomplished everything it had set out to achieve – a proper reward for the many hours of careful preparation at the Blue Diamond workshops. Mechanically, the Riley had run faultlessly, never missing a beat.

This victory of man and machine over adverse conditions and circumstances, including significantly-extended mileage, was duly celebrated at that evening’s Buffet Dinner at the Fairmont Hotel, when John and Gordon were able to swap tales of the adventure with other entrants, many of whom reported various problems which had affected their journeys to Monte Carlo. This made the BDRS Riley’s performance all the more remarkable and made the team’s satisfaction all the greater.

Job done, Blue Diamond. #MonteBD