The event that started it off.
On holiday in France in September 2003 I went to the Col D’Aspin, (1487m, 4889ft), with Steve Watson our friend and holiday host, to watch the Spanish cycle race pass through. As the cyclists pushed up the mountain and over the top, pulling on windcheaters for the run down the other side, I thought wouldn’t it be fun to come up here with our 1937 Ruby. Silly me, right away the problems came rushing into focus. We would either have to drive all the way through France to the Pyrenees, or drive from Santander, in Spain, having crossed the Bay of Biscay by ferry, either prospect appeared daunting. Would the car keep going? Would Dianne and I keep going? Would I be happy driving on the wrong side of the road? Would we be able to find our way with the signs in French? Who would look after the garden? What tools and spares would I need to carry? Would BBM69 boil all the time? We have boiled on some hills in the UK after all, and this Col is higher than Ben Nevis!
Having read Coleman’s Drive by John Coleman and recently obtained my own copy I began to think along the lines of “He drove from Buenos Aires to New York in a 1925 Chummy, BBM69, our Ruby should manage to get to the bottom of France one way or another”.
As Steve and Stella had generously offered accommodation, that was no problem. Dianne and I talked about the idea and it resolved into one of those things you just have to do!
We set about detailed planning for the car and ourselves. We both obtained photo driving licences, required in Spain we were informed. We copied all the paperwork for the car, V5, insurance, ferry and hotel booking details, all that was stowed under the rear seat cushion.
I was happy with the engine fitted to BBM, it had been prepared by Ian Bancroft and is a two bearing engine fitted with a new crankshaft and had run for around 6,000 miles, so was ‘run in’. I fitted a Bosch distributor machined to fit with the advance limited to match the original set up. I had already fitted flashing indicators with dashboard repeaters and 25/25-watt headlamp bulbs. As I would be driving on the right I added a Convex ‘stick on’ overtaking mirror to the nearside door mirror to check what was coming up on the outside.
Two items had been highlighted during the MOT as requiring looking at before the next test. Two wheels needed spokes sorting out and play was evident in the radius arm anchoring set up. I had the two wheels re-spoked and replaced the cups in the radius anchor. However the old cups showed little wear, I suspect that the spring fitted was a little light. When the bolt was tightened the steering definitely improved, with less wander.
BBM69 was furnished with two triangles, two reflective vests, a GB sticker and a spare inner tube. We already had a first aid kit and spare bulbs for all the lights. I usually carry quite a few spares in BBM69 for long trips in the UK anyway so only had to add a few bits such as a spare drive shaft for the rear axle, an extra litre of engine oil (making three in all) and some extra tools. I added a grease gun, drive shaft socket and battery charger.
As neither of us like to drive for more than around 150 miles in a day we opted for the ferry to Santander option, I had some misgivings, as I am not a good big boat sailor. I am fine in little boats bobbing around but the slow heaving up and down, up and down, leaves me feeling off colour to say the least. To avoid this becoming a problem in Spain we planned to night stop in Santander even though we would dock at 11.30am local time. In the event the crossing was smooth and I was fine.
We set off from Washingborough, near Lincoln at 8.10am on a fresh, sunny, Friday morning. We headed down the A46 to Leicester and on to the M1, we were only on it for a mile or so and then on to the M69 down to the A5, then turn right on to the Foss Way and all the way to Cirencester, with a stop at Stow-on-the-Wold. We nearly hit a suicidal pheasant in Brinklow on the way, that would have been catastrophe, if we had smashed a headlight so early on this trip. We arrived at our B&B at 2.30pm at Ford, near Castle Combe. We then went off to see our grandson and his parents who live nearby. We were both tired after 160 miles of driving, all of it against a stiff wind, not very helpful in a Ruby.
Next day at 10.05am we set off to Plymouth. What sticks in my mind about this part of the journey was getting round Exeter. We had approached Exeter on the A30 and the bottom of the M5, that was fine. However when the M5 turned into the A38 and then split into the A38/A380 we had a difficult time crossing two fast lanes to get in the slow lane of the A38 to Plymouth. We were then faced with a long climb up to Exeter Race Course. If I did it again I would look for an alternative route. We turned off the A38 onto the A3121 as we were staying with friends at Wembury. The day had seen us cover 141 miles; at one point the headwind was so strong funnelling up a cutting I had to apply the accelerator just to get down the hill.
We checked the car over next day ready to board the ferry at 4.30pm in Plymouth. The ferry was the Pont Aven owned by Brittany Ferries. After queuing up we were waved on to the ferry, incidentally even at this late stage well meaning people were saying, “are you sure you know what you are doing?” I hoped we did. The ramps were no trouble for the car and we had plenty of room, not being very wide helps. The ferry itself is fairly new and looked well turned out, we had an outside cabin with toilet, shower and kettle, so first thing, have a cup of tea. The ferry made a steady 30 MPH for 18 hours, so 540 miles or so, as the seagull flies. The other passengers seemed to be a mixture of last minute booze cruisers and the well to do visiting their Spanish place for the hols, and of course, us.
The friends Steve and Stella met us off the ferry. Then a short drive to the Hotel San Glorio and into the adjacent underground car park. We saw a local driver, in the street, making a parking space bigger with her bumpers, then walking off with a shrug, so were very pleased we had booked a secure spot in the underground car park!
Next day we set off for Biarritz on the A8 motorway, busy but no problem. Then we drove in a loop round the coast on the CA141 to Santona. After that it was back onto the A8 and a steady 40 miles an hour, 45 on the clock. We were using a Gecko satellite navigator and this gave us all sorts of information on the journey. The information included speed, average speed moving, miles traveled and vertical speed, that I found very useful in the mountains. In the past, I have encountered, and indeed John Coleman mentions the phenomenon of an uphill road looking flat, as the car slows and engine speed drops the driver imagines all sorts of woes with the engine. I could glance at the Gecko and see we were climbing at 80ft per minute and know all was well. I like gadgets and this one is good.
Once we began to climb into the hills the dry dusty agriculture gave way to eucalyptus forests, well managed and no doubt quick growing.
We soon found, as I suspected, it was not practical for our friends to drive with us, either in front or behind. The passing traffic expected us to be going slowly but not the modern car! We advised them to drive on to the next stop and have a cup of coffee until we caught up. This worked fine, so that was how we did it from then on. Dianne and I prefer to drive on our own in BBM, we can drive in that quiet rev range at 45 mph on the clock.
Before Biarritz we left the motorway and drove through Hendaye and St Jean-De-Luz on the N10 to have a look at some local towns. Then into Biarritz and the Hotel Louisiane, again with an underground car park. 164 miles on that leg of the journey. After booking in we had a walk to the seafront and had a look at the casino and in the shops, Herme, Laccost etc, good job no room for shopping in the Ruby. Dinner in the hotel restaurant then of to bed and a well earned sleep.
After a look around the town in the morning and lunch on the sea front we set of on the final leg of our journey. Our friends had doubled back into Spain to stock up on wine; they asked us if we needed to offload some luggage to help the old car? We declined; this was just as well, as they broke a shock absorber on the way home. Had we given them any luggage I am sure it would have been our fault! This time we were on the A64 to Tarbes, The traffic was much lighter on this road and indeed for long stretches we were almost alone. Even when a hill appeared so did a crawler lane so we never felt we were in anyone’s way. We did get some cheery toots from lorries as they sped past us. As is usual in France, every 25 kilometres or so we found a stopping place, usually with fuel and food and always with toilets. Well off the motorway they were havens of rest. So after 106 miles for that day’s run we arrived at our holiday destination. 607 miles of driving from Lincoln
Our first real run out in France was to Lourdes, we have been before, but thought we would like another look. I was keen to see how easy or otherwise it was to drive on smaller roads. In the event they presented no problems.
The only tricky bit was getting used to the ‘PRIORTE A DROITE’ signs this means give way to roads coming in from the right. Any small local road has priority over the main road. I suspect this removes the need for traffic lights or roundabouts, and saves money. We only met this in some towns and villages and was not a problem, but it did make you think.
The Ruby proved ideal in the tiny back streets of Lourdes, anything wider would present problems! Half the population seemed to be smiling Nuns waving us through. We soon found a free car park close to the center of interest and walked around, to have a look at the crowds going through the Grotto. Though not Roman Catholic ourselves we found the visit something of an experience. Making our way home was simplicity itself the route signing was very good and easy to follow.
A few days later we visited our friends and club mates, Keith and Carol Fair who recently moved from the Lincolnshire Wolds to the Ger in Southern France. They live in an area of undulating countryside of mixed crops and woodland. We saw plenty of wild flowers, including orchids. Again we experienced empty roads with very little traffic. Coffee on the patio was followed by a look round the property, then lunch, again outside under an umbrella, wonderful. As soon as we had finished they heavens cracked with thunder and lightning, we withdrew into the house to chat and catch up on how we were all doing. Keith was not sure how old the house is but it was extended in about 1750!
Next day we went shopping in the local Mall it was raining when we parked, so we avoided the trees, you never know what will fall out of them. When we returned the sun had come out and dried of all the rain except for a few spots on the bonnet, to our surprise the paint under the spots had turned to a filmy lilac colour. Even now they are still evident. They do make a good talking point though, when asked, “what is that?” We start off, “when we were in the Pyrenees…”
Next day we were taken to a local restaurant for lunch, it was very good but the French do like eating everything you can get of a duck or goose, I thought it was heart in the salad but Dianne thought it was more likely gizzard! The rest of the meal was very good and did not cost a lot either. As always wine came with the meal and was reasonable to drink.
Thursday the 19th and we woke up to blue skies and no wind, the perfect day for our trip into the Pyrenees and the climb over the Col d’ Aspin. We could see the mountains as we set of from base. The snow line was about half way up the mountains, but we had been assured that the col was open. Not so the Col-du-Tourmalet to the west and slightly higher at 2115m. That was still closed by snow and rock falls! We were on the D 8 for most of the way through villages and the town of Tarbes then more villages on the D 935 through Bagneres-de-Bigorre and on to Campan. Turning onto the D 918 we started the climb proper. We rook some photographs at 1100m. Looking back over the valley of the river Adour, with the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, the highest mountain of the region, in the background it was a wonderful sight.
From then on the road twisted and turned to keep the overall gradient to a reasonable climb. Most of the climb we did in third gear dropping into 2nd for the tight corners. Dianne was filming with a video camera and noticed it was getting misty, no surprise, we were boiling! We pulled off to cool off and top up with water, when it had all gone quiet I took off the radiator cap, very slowly. That pressure relief valve fitted to the later Ruby really does keep the pressure up; as soon as the pressure dropped she boiled again. No harm done and soon topped up and on our way to the top. Arriving at the top (1489m) we caused some consternation, with many questions from the visitors already there. Luckily we found a French speaking Englishman who spent the next hour being our very own tour guide. Thus freeing us to enjoy the view and our packed lunch. We were 143m higher than Ben Nevis. We had achieved our dream and driven BBM to the top.
We set off south towards Arreau, leaving BBM in third gear and with light braking we slowly ran down the winding road to the valley bottom. Turning onto the D 929 we set off for Lannemezan and the N117 towards Tarbes. We stopped in Tournay for a coffee as we had visited in the past when a local car club had used it as a stop on a run. Most of the cars then had been post war, with a lot of Austin Healy’s. A local man stopped his car to get a good look at BBM and caused a hold up, when a lady tooted her horn, he made a very rude gesture and ignored her for another five minutes! We stayed out of the way until he had gone. We then drove back to base having had the best day we have ever had driving BBM69.
After that we enjoyed a restful holiday driving round the local area and soaking up the atmosphere. We did buy six bottles of wine to bring home, packing up to drive home was easy, we knew it all had to go in, so in it went. When we were ready to set off our hosts presented us with a plant and a bottle of very good wine, we had difficulty fitting them safely in!
We set off for Biarritz at 10.15 with the sun shining on the snow on the mountains; we arrived at our Biarritz hotel at 2.15, having had a couple of stops on the way.
This time we took the opportunity of driving around the town, just to let them see what an Austin Seven looks like. Another good meal in the hotel and off to bed ready for the last leg in Spain.
The trip to Santander was uneventful except for one car following us with his hazard flashers on, must have thought we needed protecting! Another followed us for 20 minutes then overtook with lots of waving and photo taking. We were in the same hotel and garage in Santander so knew our way around this time. Good food again in local café, our non-existent Spanish showed us up, saying ‘moo’ or ‘baa’ while pointing at items on the menu is not very polite is it. Neither of us speaks much French but we can make ourselves understood, in Spain, even in this major port, English is not very much in use outside the hotels. We should have learned a bit of Spanish before we went but concentrated on learning French.
Next day we drove onto the Ferry, no problems at all, similar cabin, and knowing our way around, we were soon at home. This time the sea looked smooth but there was an underlying swell, not good. The boat was not rolling but pitching up and down from bow to stern. Not very comfortable at all, I soon developed a headache; we eat a good meal again in the restaurant and retired to bed. Next morning no improvement, in retrospect, knowing I am not a good sailor I should have taken some remedy for seasickness with us or even bought some on the boat. I was to suffer for the next two days. It was a blessing it was the homeward leg and not the outward one. Our trip from Plymouth was driven in what proved to be the hottest day of the year so far! The 140 miles felt like 240 miles and after booking into the B and B, I went to bed. I did not surface until 4.30pm the next day.
We set of on the last leg to Washingborough at 10.00am on Sunday, stopping at Stow On The Wold for coffee, then as usual at The Horseshoes for lunch. We arrived home at 4.30pm.
What did we learn and would we do it again? To answer the second point, yes we would. What did we learn? Firstly, the imagined problems of continental driving are just not there. Driving is easier because the roads are mostly empty, or nearly so, road signing is good and with a bit of planning getting to where you want to be is easy and trouble free. Many A7 driving friends questioned our driving on motorways, we find that we are less of a problem in congested areas, such as Bilbao than if we went on secondary roads. On the motorway, traffic can always overtake easily. Away from big towns the motorways are less used, possibly because they are mainly toll roads.
In total we used 36 gallons of fuel and 3.5 pints of oil travelling 1491 miles. Our average speed moving was around 33mph and max cruising speed 41mph that is 45 on the speedometer. I tightened up two bolts, the clamping bolt at the bottom of the steering column and the radius arm anchor bolt. Once the starter motor did not engage first time and once the radiator boiled, not bad for 68 years old.