Car of the Month : December 2009
Rover SD1s. Ah the V8, the Vanden Plas, the Vitesse… but what about the more regular models in the range? We celebrate Gareth Hopkins’ award-winning 2300 Series 2 model by giving it Car of the Month status.
However, as you’ll see it’s not only in good condition, but Gareth’s not afraid to use the car he calls Roger, as the story of his 24-hour trip to Gibraltar – in the name of charity – clearly shows….
Words and pictures: Gareth Hopkins
On a mission…
Grove2Gibraltar 2009: a road trip challenge in an SD1
Gareth and his father ‘Hoppy’ drove a 2300 to Gibraltar for charity. The challenge was to drive from Dover to Gibraltar in 24hrs
Unadorned and in white, Gareth’s 2300 looks agreeably nice…
SOMETIMES, throwaway comments have a habit of coming back to haunt you. On a family holiday in Gibraltar last September, Hopkins Senior (or Hoppy to his mates) uttered the words that would plant the seeds for G2G ’09. ‘I’d love to drive my car here one day,’ he said as we lounged by the pool at the Rock Hotel. ‘They have a great classic car rally every year. I reckon people would love to see an SD1 driving up Main Street.’ I agreed it would be nice and then returned to the more important matter of topping up my tan…
Later on, dad then told me about a story he’d read in the papers back in the 1960s about a man who’d a bet his mate that he could probably drive his spanking new Austin Healey 3000 all the way from Dover to Gibraltar in less than 24 hours. Back then, Spain didn’t really have much in the way of proper roads, much less motorways, so his friend (no doubt sensing an opportunity to acquire easy money) accepted the bet. Legend has it that the chap jumped into his car, drove like a demon and arrived in Gibraltar in time for tea and medals. Unfortunately, he was also found dead in his room by a (presumably displeased) chambermaid the next morning.
And so the throwaway comment and the story of the bet came together. Wouldn’t it be fun to drive Roger (dad’s 2300) all the way to Gibraltar within 24 hours raising money for charity and then attend the Gibraltar Classic Vehicle Association event the following day? Oh, but not die in our beds so we could drive all the way home again? Although the challenge would formally start from Dover and not our home village, G2G ’09 was born…
What a challenge: Gibraltar and back in a 2300 that, until a few years ago, had been off the road gathering dust in the garage for 12 years? Now what petrol head would want to pass up on that kind of a challenge? The car was still something of an unknown quantity as well because it hadn’t been used very often since being re-commissioned (it’s got a limited mileage insurance policy) and although Hoppy had rebuilt the engine it hadn’t exactly been tested for very long, high speed endurance.
The biggest headache for us was getting European Breakdown Cover. Well no, actually, that was reasonably easy after a bit of digging (most policies will not cover a car over 15 years old now). The main issue was around repatriation. Check your small print because you’ll find that even the big players, like the AA, will only recover your car back to the UK ‘so long as the cost to do so is less than the market value of the car’. In short, if you drive a brand new Bentley, drive to Gibraltar without fear. If you drive an SD1, it’s probably best not to leave Calais. Eventually, we took out an AA policy and decided to argue the toss should the worst happen.
And so, on the evening of 13 May 2009, accompanied by the finest drizzle that Oxfordshire could throw at us and with the odometer reading 91,999 miles, we pointed Roger in a south-easterly direction and made our way to Dover where a B&B awaited us. It was then that the first bad omen occurred. The GB sticker came off somewhere on the A34 just before we joined the M4. ‘Is Roger telling us he doesn’t want to go?’ we mused. Pushing bad thoughts to the back of our minds, we ploughed on through the rain.
Queuing at Calais, and the enormity of the challenge begins to hit Gareth and his father.
The next morning, after tucking into a plateful of Full English with extra rations of toast, we made the short drive to the port. As we queued to pass through customs, I overheard two motorcyclists chatting to each other when they spotted the car. ‘Good looking car but they were really unreliable you know. They all rusted away too.’ Brilliant – everyone’s a critic.
At 09:10 exactly, the ferry gently pushed away from its berth. As we passed the harbour walls and out into the channel, I adjusted my watch an hour forward to European time. ‘This time tomorrow,’ I muttered to dad, ‘we’ll either be on the hard shoulder somewhere or we’ll have crossed the border into Gibraltar.’ G2G ’09 had begun. We had ninety minutes stuck on a ferry and then only twenty two and a half hours to cross a continent and get within spitting distance of Africa.
The ferry crossing took longer than advertised. It was a bit of a pea-souper across the channel so by the time we disembarked at Calais and headed for the A16, we were already behind schedule. Dad tried to remain positive though. ‘Look, we’re going to France and after about 20 or possibly 30 miles, the sun will burn the clouds away. We’re heading south; it’ll be sunshine all the way.’ So the rain followed us on and off all the way to Rouen.
Rouen nearly ruined it for us two hours into France. Anyone who’s driven to Le Mans will know that the motorway ends at Rouen; you cruise through the historic town on a dual carriageway and then catch the A28. We didn’t! The slip road had been closed due to an accident so we had to make a snap decision. We chose to join the motorway heading in the wrong direction then come off immediately at the next junction and drive through Elbeuf to catch the A28 further south. It looked quick and easy on the map but we lost precious time. Eventually, with the motorway we needed just in sight about a mile ahead, the heavens opened up. It rained so hard that it was deafening inside the car and we saw one of the beam deflectors coming off a headlight.
‘Bad omen number two,’ I thought as I got soaked trying to grab the ticket at the automated toll booth. And then… Roger died. As dad tried desperately to restart him, my heart sank and all I could think was that we didn’t even get to Le Mans. How would we get the car back to the UK? It was a bitterly disappointing moment as we sat there; blocking access to the motorway with a queue of traffic building behind us, in blinding rain with a car still coughing and spluttering on the starter.
And then a miracle happened. The car coughed back into life, well four or five cylinders did, but it was just enough for us to get going again. The rain had eased a little and as the car dried out, full power was slowly restored and we roared off towards Le Mans.
We could only think that the fan was chucking water over the coil and that’s what caused Roger to have a moment. We still don’t know what actually happened. In any event, G2G ’09 was back on but the challenge was now officially on life support. We now only had 19 and a half hours to get to Gibraltar. And that was more than 1200 miles away…
Pressing on in Spain…
After the near disaster that was Rouen in the Rain, we had no choice but to crack on if we were to get to Gibraltar within 24 hours. Dad had already vetoed my collection of CDs for the journey so we motored on south with nothing but the sound of a straight six at full chat, the patter of rain on the windscreen and a Tina Turner CD to keep us amused. Well, keep one of us amused anyway.
Fortunately, as the day wore on, we began to reclaim lost time. Le Mans (1100 miles to go), Tours (1050 miles to go), and Poitiers (980 miles to go) were soon well behind us. It was here that we had a bit of a shock. Unleaded was €1.30 a litre in France. At some point in the afternoon, we picked up the first distance markers to Bordeaux. It was over 500km away and that focussed our minds on the distance we had yet to travel. And just how many more times I’d have to listen to Nutbush City Limits… When we passed the town, the long empty toll motorways ended and we joined the equally long empty dual carriageway that would take us to Spain.
That evening, with the sun already setting over the horizon and the Pyrenees rearing up ahead of us, we entered Spain (700 miles to go). It was a disappointingly low key affair and there was no welcoming committee to cheer us on at the deserted border control post. As luck would have it, it started to drizzle again – great. A few miles later, we stopped again to refuel but this time the prices were much more reasonable, giving our wallets a morale boost. Madrid was 300 miles away but more or less half way between us and Gibraltar. Doing the maths, I knew that barring any more Rouen in the Rain incidents, we could start to think positively about achieving the mission with at least an hour to spare.
Unfortunately, what we didn’t know about Spanish motorways (until we were on them) was that they’re cheap and nasty affairs. They’re adequate enough during the day but at night they’re positively dangerous. Being unlit and without cats eyes, Spanish drivers are unwilling to dip their headlights. So you’re constantly trying to adjust to the darkness one minute and blinding Xenons from the other side of the carriageway the next. When you’re dog tired it’s the last thing you need.
Around 3.20am, we entered the Spanish capital. I blame it on the early hours and the Red Bull but for some reason I found it quite amusing to be quoting familiar English road numbers to dad, who thought I was winding him up. ‘Stay on the A1 until you can pick up the M40 and then look out for the A4 southbound…’ We decided to risk using the most direct route that would take us right through the centre of Madrid and it paid off. I can heartily recommend it to anyone considering G2G ’10… A wide and empty multilane thoroughfare made this the easiest capital city to navigate through by miles.
It was my turn to drive again after yet another fuel stop just south of Madrid and we had six hours left to cover the remaining 400 or so miles on mainly dual carriageways. But of course I’d forgotten just how tiring these stupid Spanish roads could be after the sun had gone down. Red Bull or not, I was definitely beginning to drift off. Luckily dad was still wide awake and while I had a cheeky power nap, he piloted us towards Granada. I woke up a short time later thinking dad had taken an unscheduled short cut – but he hadn’t. Here we were on some winding mountainous road complete with flashing arrow-shaped lights to guide us round some seriously sharp bends. Anyone who has a death wish should try the roads around Santa Elena in the early hours.
We calculated that the Gibraltar border was now only 250 miles away. By the time the sun had risen above the mountains around us, we’d already left Granada in our wake (160 miles to go!) and were making good progress around Malaga. And then disaster loomed again. It seemed that everyone needed to be on the same bit of road as us and we started a long stop-start crawl towards the final stage of our journey in bumper to bumper traffic. I’ll be honest with you, by now we were really drained and all we wanted to do was get to Gibraltar, sink a beer and get some sleep. Blue words mingled with the blue sky that particular sunny morning. With only 80 miles left, we couldn’t be defeated by commuter traffic!
Eventually, the traffic melted away and we cranked up the speed again. With only 40 minutes left on the clock, we caught sight of the Rock for the first time. Luckily, dad remembered a short cut through to La Linea de la Concepcion – the town adjoining the Rock. Definitely a place to avoid, we ignored the dilapidated buildings and the smell of open sewers to work our way towards the border less than a mile away. We lost precious minutes here as Gibraltar is not well sign-posted (sour grapes I expect) and suddenly we found ourselves getting lost in a warren of side streets and one way systems. Finally though, we worked it out and joined a long queue of day trippers nudging their way towards the border into Gibraltar. ‘For crying out loud’, I shouted as a series of indifferent Spanish guards demanded to see our passports.
The unmistakable Rock
Then, with just 10 minutes to spare an SD1 crossed the border into Gibraltar. With a triumphant toot-toot of the horns, we wondered when was the last time an SD1 had done that? The remainder of that day, 15 May 2009, remains a bit of a blur to me now. We checked into the Rock Hotel having abandoned Roger right outside the entrance (to the obvious annoyance of the doorman!) and then walked down the steep hill into town. We drank a beer or two and then washed them down with another beer or two… Still, what happens on tour stays on tour..!
The next day, Roger had a quick shower at the supermarket car wash (our heavy hangovers ruled out polishing and waxing) and we presented ourselves to the organisers of the Gibraltar Classic Vehicle Association to take part in their annual rally. What a great day out that was! Around 50 or 60 classic and vintage cars gathered in Casemates Square and then drove in convoy down Main Street, a pedestrianised road, out past the Bristol Hotel and then up to an old army garrison at the top of the Rock. To see the cars driving through the town, watch the video on www.youtube.com – we’re at the 4m 45s marker. After a guided tour of the tunnels and various photo opportunities, we made our way back into the centre of town for some free drinks and paella.
After a couple of days by the poolside, we took a leisurely three days driving back to Blighty. All in, we’d driven 3244 miles in under a week. Although the cost of the trip is a closely guarded secret, I’m pleased to announce that we raised £1600 for Freyja’s Fund, the charity set up in the name of my sister when she died from leukaemia in 1997.
As my own SD1 should be out of the body shop by then, I think we should have the 2011 Rover SD1 Owners’ Club National in Gibraltar.
Gareth and Hoppy made it to Gibraltar with 10 minutes to spare.
Gareth Hopkins and his father, ‘Hoppy’, hand over £1600 to Freyja’s Fund, the charity set up in the name of Gareth’s sister when she died from leukaemia in 1997