Back on the road again

No longer content simply to coddle their trophy vehicles, classic-car enthusiasts are jumping behind the wheel for some serious road action. Simon de Burton dusts down his TR6.

May 20 2010
Simon de Burton

It doesn’t seem so long since the most exciting thing that ever happened to a classic car was to arrive at a show field in order to be parked up, polished and pampered in the hope of winning its owner a trophy before he or she guided it gently home again to the safety of a dehumidified garage. But in recent years many members of the old-car movement have stopped regarding their prized possessions as cosseted museum pieces, preferring instead to actually drive them – and often as hard as possible.

Such enthusiasm to get behind the wheel and use classics in the way that was always intended has led to a mushrooming of organised events around the world, ranging from all-out, track-bound races to group driving holidays. But somewhere in between comes a type of competition that is proving to be the most popular of all – the long-distance regularity “race tour”.

Save for a few special cases (such as Mexico’s rather barmy Carrera Panamericana and certain high-profile rallies), true road racing has long been banned in most countries, but the regularity race tour provides a way to drive against the clock without having to break the law or jeopardise safety. A competition licence to enter regularity costs £37 from the Motor Sports Association.

In a nutshell, drivers are given a detailed route map punctuated by checkpoints at which they must arrive within a certain time range – not too soon, not too late. Usually, there will also be a series of “secret” timing checks along the way to encourage competitors to maintain the required average, with penalties being accrued for straying outside the parameters.

Some events spice up the route with circuit driving. Competitors can choose to enter “touring”, “regularity” or “competition” classes (a race licence is required for the latter) and get to drive on some legendary racetracks as well as enjoying the road route, which invariably takes in the area’s best countryside.

This format originated in Europe with events such as the Tour de España and France’s Tour Auto – but it was only brought to the UK in the form of the Tour Britannia in 2005 by a pair of Irish former rally champions, Alec Poole and Fred Gallagher.

I had wanted to take part in the “TB” since its inception, but not until last year did I get my act together sufficiently to actually send off the entry form and commit, which only left the small matter of putting my somewhat neglected Triumph TR6 back on the road after a five-year period during which its longest journey had been about 20 miles.

Naturally, the start date suddenly arrived before so much as an oily rag had been laid on the car in the way of preparation, so it was with some trepidation that I set off from Devon the night before to meet up with my Oxford-based friend and co-driver, Paul Davies. I figured that if the TR could conquer that initial 200-mile journey without trouble, it might just be up to handling the 750-odd road miles of the event, together with some hard laps of four race circuits and some spirited hill-climb sections at the stately homes of Belvoir Castle, Harewood House and Duncombe Park.

Well, we made it to scrutineering at Silverstone for 8am sharp, but I did feel a little embarrassed at the dilapidated state of our steed compared with some of the beautifully turned-out machines of my fellow competitors – such as reliability-rally fanatic John Ruston, a retired industrialist, who turned up in an immaculate Porsche 911S despite having returned to England the night before, having driven his Frazer Nash in a similar event in Switzerland. He keeps an entire stable of rare classics, so that he can hop seamlessly from one event to another.

Other enthusiasts included Brad Mottier, a senior director at General Electric, and his son Barry, who had travelled from the US to field their immaculate, 39-year-old Datsun 240Z; the late Laura Ashley’s son Nick, in a race-prepared Ford Falcon; and period-property restorer Paul Williams and his wife Jules in an extremely valuable Bugatti Type 37A. First-timers Max Taylor and Mike Hickson were in one of the prettiest cars there, a Jaguar E-Type with rare “low drag” bodywork, while retired couple Bob and Ann Linwood fielded a Citroën Maserati that they had bought on eBay only a few weeks before for a couple of thousand euros – and which subsequently took them to victory in the regularity class.

To say the three-day event lived up to my expectations would be an understatement. Superbly organised, carefully planned to take in some of the most scenic and uncluttered driving roads between Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire and Scarborough in North Yorkshire and offering the chance to put the car through its paces on some of England’s most demanding tracks, it revealed that driving in Britain can be fun after all. Add to that the excellent food that was laid on along the way, the mix of interesting, like-minded enthusiasts and the fact that we came home with a trophy for “first in class” and I was left wondering why on earth I hadn’t made the most of my classic car by doing an event like this before.

Equally convinced was banker Ben Morgan, an M&A specialist in the oil and gas industries, who entered the “touring” category in his £200,000 Aston Martin DB5 to get a feel of what such an event was all about. “I bought the car as a wreck in 2002 while I was living abroad, spent £180,000 having it restored and decided that I really wanted to use it rather than wrap it in cotton wool and only take it to concours shows on sunny days. The Tour Britannia was an ideal step into classic rallying.”

Morgan was so hooked by the Tour Britannia that two months later he and a friend found themselves in a 1968 Corvette, taking part in the Casablanca Challenge, a 10-day event that began in Kent and finished in Marrakech.

Demand from classic-car-driving sunseekers has caused such competitions to mushroom, with organisations such as the Endurance Rally Association staging several rallies a year in exotic climes. Its main event this year will be the gruelling Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, while already scheduled for 2011 are the London to Cape Town (for the “truly adventurous”) and the more easy-going Classic Safari Challenge, a classic motor tour designed for couples. Although there will be the option of taking part in a competitive class, the less keen can peel off for game drives and make the most of the stays in luxury lodges and hotels that are part of the package. A maximum of 24 cars will be admitted, with the rally starting in Dar es Salaam, driving through Mozambique and ending in Cape Town.

All Endurance Rally Association events are said to be suitable for novices, no race licence is required and the main recommendation – although it’s not compulsory – is that you have your classic fitted with a roll cage in case the going gets tough on some of the unmetalled roads that often form part of the route. What all would-be entrants need is plenty of time and, of course, money: entry fee for the 37-day Peking to Paris is £34,000, the 30-day London to Cape Town costs £12,000 and the 25-day Classic Safari is £24,000 – and that doesn’t include getting your car to and from the start line.

But according to Robert Coucher, editor of high-end classic-car magazine Octane, hefty entry fees have done nothing to prevent such events becoming ever more popular: “People are completely changing the way they look at classic cars. They no longer just want to polish them and use them on high days and holidays – they want to really drive them and make the most of them. Values have risen dramatically even in the past year or two, but that hasn’t stopped owners from appreciating the fact that the best way to enjoy these cars is to use them, and that by entering events ranging from the Tour Britannia to the Peking to Paris they will meet fellow enthusiasts and have a huge amount of fun.

“Another important factor is that people have realised that classic cars don’t actually have to break down – it’s all about having them prepared properly and taking advantage of the many discreet modifications and sensible upgrades now available that make them that much more useable in the modern world. My message is this: if you’ve got an old car, rally it, drive it and enjoy it. That’s what it was made for.”

See also

Classic Cars