Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Bill and John's Excellent Adventure. Part 1: The Departure

MiniWorld shootInteriorThursday 27th January was a bitterly cold grey day: the temperature was just off freezing and there was intermittent sleet. We had packed up PRX 720B which looked rather fetching with its period roof rack holding two spare wheels shod with studded snow tyres. The weather suggested we were going to need them –how true that would be.

Nevertheless spirits were high as we left Ashford. With our Mini Cooper Register rally jackets (in this regard Bill extends a big "Thank You" to Tony Salter and the MCR) we felt most decidedly cool and ready for anything. The car was filled with Optimax petrol and we headed off for the “Le Shuttle” terminal. The vehicle was in great all round condition having just completed its photoshoot for MiniWorld two days previously and everything was in fantastic working order thanks to Lee McNair’s meticulous preparation. Just look at those pictures. Thankfully my luggage, lost previously on my outgoing flight, had eventually turned up having spent a brief vacation in Chicago. Bill had rebuilt the engine and had fitted a BRR2 Piper cam which was hotter than the one previously used. He had also blagged a set of Dunlop D93J wet tarmac rally tyres which were a tremendous improvement on the Yokohama A008s I used in 2002. In addition we were carrying a set of 5 studded Colway M&S tyres for snow and ice although I can’t say I was confident in driving in such conditions. But Bill was gung ho and described the little Red Devil as “right horny”.

I had plotted the route in detail and made a road book. This level of preparation probably exceeded all the rallies on which I had previously competed. I had also calibrated the Halda tripmeter against motorway markers and a GPS device and concluded it was 4% slow. No problem as a simple correction factor would be applied to all regularity speeds. We were cautiously optimistic and ready for battle.Leaving for France

A quick run down the M20 saw us at the Eurotunnel and we duly drove onto the upper deck of the train. A female “Le Shuttle” official announced to us that our car was “..a bit stinky..”. I simmered a bit and put her remark down to her lack of understanding of classic cars. However I did note there was a smell of petrol although was not particularly bothered as there was always a bit of spillage from a full-to-the-brim tank. Then I noticed Bill mopping at a slight drip from under the rear left wheel arch. I hoped this would stop but to no avail. Another Eurotunnel staff member appeared and said that we had activated the sensor alarms and he was going to reset them. I was willing the train to leave and get on with the journey but suspected this might not happen. Too true! We were then asked to move to another carriage while the problem was investigated. At this point a rather alarming tape loop was activated saying that “An incident had been detected (strange choice of wording) but there was no cause for panic”. I feel it would benefit Eurotunnel to consult a psychologist on the wording of such messages as there is no doubt that this particular one induced significant angst in some of the travelers. The anxiety index increased when we were asked to move to another carriage even further down the train and the arrival of some fireman who proceeded to discharge halon fire extinguishers didn’t help much either. Eventually someone made the decision that the train couldn’t proceed and would have to be evacuated and cleaned. We got back into the car and drove off the train with our tails between our legs. A large and humourless Eurotunnel official enquired as to whether we were the car with the fuel leak and if we had a hysterical woman with us. “Is this a wind-up?”, I thought. The car is a Mini with a full roll cage and every available cubic centimeter of spare space filled with parts, tyres and personal effects. I was tempted to retort that we had a blow up hysterical doll in our luggage but thought better of it as I had no wish to spend the night detained at the pleasure of Folkestone’s finest. As it transpired there had been an incident with a distraught woman on the same train as us; I didn’t like to ask why she had become hysterical.

Ultimately we were shunted into a windswept carpark where we determined that the leak emanated from a pinhole in a (brand new) sending unit. Some frantic phone calls were made back to base and after we were eventually given permission to leave the Eurotunnel hinterland we rushed back to Ashford where Lee changed the tank in 20 minutes. Ironically he “borrowed” the tank from Jim Wirtz’s ex-works Mk II rally car which is undergoing restoration at BRR. We then traipsed back to Le Shuttle and reboarded without incident and arrived in Calais half an hour later. We covered the 280 Km to Reims in three hours, met with Jim and Juliette Wirtz who had agreed to work as our service crew and then whizzed over to the Novotel to attend a splendid party arranged by the Automobile Club de Reims.

All’s well that ends well, I suppose although Bill is still wondering if he’ll get an invoice for £20,000 from Eurotunnel!

To be continued…


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