Blog : A long way to go and a short time to get there
I’d promised myself for many years that a Banger Rally would be an event I must do at some point. This year happened to be the year – I was determined to enjoy it. So I assembled a crack team: ‘Dodgy’ Dave Leader is an amateur rally man, good with technical toys and experienced with the Communist East. Steve ‘Ducky’ Wright, again a keen rally man, good with the spanners and able to speak German. Finally, young Tim, smug, monied and youthful, Tim doesn’t flinch at a 500 mile day behind the wheel and we could bully him in times of trouble. Having all known each other for yonk’s and each raced, crashed, bought and repaired more BL-based tat than you’d want to believe. My job? Source the car and make us all look ACE. Oh, and if I could be brash and boozed-up for the most part, then all the better. I relished the challenge.
The car which we’d take (For The Win) changed month-by-month as I’m a tame motor trader. The criteria was such: 4 or 5 doors for when or if we rolled it, spacious in the rear to sleep off hang-overs, from the ARG stable and finally it needed to be useful in the mountain passes. Eventually, I’d settled on a Montego 1.6LX, but was subsequently Gazumped by Team Now We’re Motoring (aka Team Whinge).
Thanks to Robin Siggs of this parish we ended up with a car we were determined NOT to take; a Rover R8 albeit in a special 216 flavour. I say determined not to take because between the 4 of us, we must have covered a million miles in various R8s over the years and where’s the excitement and challenge in something so competent and trusted? Still, it made sense and this car was a wee bit different as it had been fitted with a late SEi interior and a Twin Cam Honda CRX engine. WOOF! Alloys too, for that 185 section grip.
Now I’m a bit of a fanny when it comes to preparing cars, so the plan was for the 216 to be sent to me in Newcastle for a through fettling. Except, this thing worked from the outset, despite a lengthy lay-up in a barn where it was home to some nice field mice. Initially Tim used it to ‘shake it down’. Next Dave Leader got his hands on it, the only faults found a tricky electric rear window, and a wheel imbalance. However suddenly Ducky’s daily MGF driver went BANG! And before we knew it, the 216 was pressed into action for a strenuous commute. Prep time in the north was no longer an option and the car was submitted for a proper MOT. News came back it had failed; the rear anti roll bar drop links had perished rubber. That was it.
These R8s really were the High-Water mark for Longbridge quality, especially as this chassis was said to have covered over 200k miles alone. I insisted the boys service the thing, but that fell on deaf ears, apparently Tim had checked the oil and that was sufficient. I did get the boys to change the brake fluid on the morning of the day we set sail for France and that was it. It put me in mind of the ‘60s where it was said you could commute in a Mini during the week and win the Monte Carlo on a weekend by simply strapping a shovel to the roof and some spotlamps to the grille.
The first challenge was for me to get to Silverstone where’d I leave my car and get picked up by Dodgy Dave. Next we’d then dump his 75 close to London Heathrow for the return trip. In convoy to Heathrow, Ducky followed us in the 216SLiGTi (as it became known, although technically it should have been SLiGTiSEi). The M25 was its usual uselessness and we became late. Tim, picked up from leafy Surrey avenue bid a tearful farewell to his concerned parents as three hairy mean bundled him into the back of a scruffy, knackered looking Rover from the early 90s. Thanks to Benny of this parish, we were also equipped with a CB radio. 10-4 Good Buddy! An unexpected sprint to Dover saw us catch the ferry and my bladder virtually burst. I repaired myself with an over priced ice cream and a couple of pints on the boat. The vast majority of our rival teams had caught a sailing over 2 hours earlier.
All the teams gathered to register for the rally at ‘the usual place’ but with us being newbies, it was anything but to us. Never mind, we found it and I had a couple of pints to assess our largely Southern Based rivals. It was noted that there was plenty of shite in the line-up and the odd bit of class; An Allaggro 1.3 (brave), a late 820mk1 with US-spec bumpers (useful) another R8, this time in the turbot diseasel flavour (sensible). There was my stolen Montego looking fabulous, those dastardly Team NWM bastards. Still, those ‘impact absorbing’ bumpers looked particularly vulnerable…. Once we’d all signed-over every right we’d ever had to the StreetSafari mafia we agreed to reconvene in Calais centre to enjoy the night life. Sadly, a thunderstorm knocked this on the head for us, so we had a quiet night* with a nice meal and a few pints.
Sunday morning 10am and suspiciously we met in a disused dock for the off – destination, the Nurburgring. There looked to be about 15 teams, significantly less than usually participates in such events I’m lead to be believe. Still, we were at the front, a place we were destined to be for much of the rally. *Cough*. Team NWM and Team Piston Broke (in a crap SAAB Turbo) all agreed our first port of call for this run should be Alexander Boucke’s house of class. Off we went as fast as we could, despite the damp weather. Now, here comes surprise number 1. That Montego, variously called Nonego or Mongo throughout the trip, really shifts. I joyously recalled the 1988 advert, The New Cavalier Won’t Be Along For a Second or So! Surprise number 2 is that this LC11 has a tiny fuel tank. When I sold them I used to tell customers they had a usable 11.1 gallon capacity. Not this one, it could barely pass a motorway services sign before the CB would squark away in a Welsh tone, “Pull Off! Pull Off THIS ONE!” Surprise number 3 was watching said Nonego lock its rear wheels entering the services slip road.
Alexander greeted us with delight (Steven!) and surprise (there’s ten of you?) before we all went to his man lair for tea and Class spotting (“Oh look, there’s a rear axle from a 3-litre” and “is that a aftermarket wood trim kit for a LandCrab?”). Ah, remember when AROnline brought back the SD1 from Poland? Well me and Andrew ‘Pearly’ Elphick spent a romantic night together in there around Halloween 2009 on the outward trip. (I think the smell dissipated by 2010). After paying Alexander for the tea and biscuits with two centre caps from the R8 alloys, we were off. Now, at this point we were supposed to be heading to the Nurburgring for a hot lap, like the other teams, but Alexander insisted we try out some beautiful roads first, rather than the bland-you-like motorways. Leading the way and setting the pace, in his LPG’d Maestro A series.
Eventually, we parted company and he sent us in the direction of a rather special museum. Breath taking in its location, impressive in it architecture, stunning (is that right?) in its concept, this antiquity, known as the “NS-Ordensburg Vogelsang” (Vogelsang National Socialist Castle) is deep in the Eifel region. It was basically a finishing school for elite Nazi children. Naturally, we christened it The Nazi School of War. So impressed were we, that we stopped for an elongated late lunch, ultimately missing any chance of lapping the ring, but nobody complained such was this terrific discovery. If you’re ever near the area, visiting this newly opened complex of historic buildings is a must.
Incidentally, team-mate Ducky did a sub 10 minute lap of the ‘ring coming back from LeMans once in a heavily laden, yet standard ZT190 (its on youtube if your bored). Together we believed the Mongo was good for a 9 minute warm-up lap, or so we told everyone. Sadly, rain and death (nobody we knew) had stopped play on the track regardless of our arrival time, but other teams had made the effort. Team Car Mechanics made the lap after pulling over for tea and biscuits half way around (surely it couldn’t have just broke down, eh lads?) and the Rover 218SLD Turbot also made a lap. Our hotel was very nice, family run and entirely themed by racing for those Brits using the ‘ring – it even catered for rain ruining racing!
Imagine my surprise from the strict frauline running the place when she informed me that “The barmaid is in the bar with a hard-on for you” upon check-in (that’s another story). This was just after both Ducky and Tim had been told off for being clumsy in her hotel. Unfortunately, we had all booked different hotels around the Nordschleife, so that evenings mass drinking brawl was limited, although our sober man for the night (Tim) drove us back from the StreetSafari check-in point with a screaming Pearly Elphick never quite riding completely inside the 216 back to the hotel.
Did I mention the lack of chips in that place?
Day Two and by now I’ve no idea what the day of the week it is. Today’s destination is the Swiss city of Chur, via some sweeping mountain passes. Before those mountain passes, there was motorway work. Teams NWM and TPB had left before us. So we made up time by driving as fast as we could. So much so, we ended-up miles ahead of the other two teams for the meet point. Some of those mountain passes were famous, so not so, I’ve no idea really. I sat in the back of the Rover for the most part, scared to death of the driving and concentrating on this month’s Viz magazine alternating with the latest Autocarp. Later that afternoon, we all fine dined (at a Burger King) to allow the Mongo to catch-up.
Once again, we went our own way and arrived in Chur an hour ahead of the other two teams. What price a skilful navigator? Everbody (and I mean nearly half the teams participating) stayed in an eye watering expensive Yoof Hostel in Chur’s limited, but worthy Red Light District. Some expensive drinking in town (watching a train trundle down a high street was interesting) and then off for a kebab. Our man with the Elephant’s Leg made for good company, so we decided to finish the night off in a Brit Themed drinking den until the small hours. By the time me, Ducky and Alex Wedge got back to the hostel, the blinds behind the red lights opposite were well and truly swinging, as was I – falling through the hostel bed.
Wednesday morning and the meeting point was somewhere up in the hills where it was bloody freezing. Team Piston Broke slept in and missed the surprise handing out of 24kgs worth of mid 80’s soft porn. Most reminded me of period ARG brochures. More breath-taking mountain passes akin to something from Evo magazine’s centre spread followed. But back to the important stuff: Lunch. For our team and Team NWM, a delightful mountain restaurant just over the Italian border would suffice nicely. Strangely this coincided just after a series of 4-wheel drifts where I cried “ENOUGH!”.
Brakes smoked, exhausts pinged and tyres wilted as we dined in something approaching a missing scene of The Italian Job. Breaching the tranquillity Team TPB thundered past in their SCAB, though they would be soon be asking for assistance…before then miles of apple trees would have to covered. What happens to all those apples?
Another mountain passed beckoned and this one even impressed me, the Jaufen Pass. We were to climb massively up the mountain in Italy where at the top there was a grumpily manned café where you could buy stickers upon your worthy assent. Also at the top was a boiled-up SCAB. The SCAB had learned to go wrong and it wasn’t about to stop. After soothing the ailing SCAB we all snaked down the opposite side of the mountain to our evening destination of Salzburg, Austria which was an old stomping ground of mine. Sticking to motorways as time was cracking on and the SCAB was feeling a bit tender. After an hour of plying the Austrian autobahn, the SCAB’s gearbox started to scream. “Turn the Stereo Up” was my professional (and free!) advice. On arrival a night of debauchery ensued meaning myself and Pearly didn’t get back to our hotel until 0630hrs having drunk ourselves sober*. No problem there as neither of us was driving. Except we’d lost Ducky…
Having gathered myself together and looked at breakfast, the other half of my team wanted answers. “Where have you been?” “why are you pissed?” “where’s the ‘Duck?” The Duck, yes it was a good question. He’d been kidnapped by a lady of the night. Or rather very early morning, from the dubious bar we’d been holed-up in and cranking up the juke box since 0230 hours. Did you know there were three Falco albums? He wasn’t answering his ‘phone, he wasn’t replying to texts and he held the ticket to get the rally Rover out of secure parking. DOH! Team NWM were equally disgusted with Pearly Elphick my partner in booze. We needed to get a move on, as he other teams had left hours ago and we needed to be at our Hungarian meeting point before nightfall. Drastic action was needed and I made an executive decision. I sent a text which read: Passport and bag with the hotel. See you the other side.
Strangely this worked and within a minute my ‘phone rang. “Pick me up, she’s gone out to get breakfast, please be quick” being the breathless chant. “where are you?” I asked “Shit. I dunno” splurted the reply. Eventually a text bleeped with a destination, some 8km from the centre of Salzburg. We saddled up and set off for we were going to break the Duck free. This was now like an A-Team caper and the Duck was our Murdoch! The 216 and Montego bounded through Salzburg on a mission and only got slightly lost. Ducky duly rescued, we assessed our situation while I ate another particularly nasty ice cream. Tim now at the 216’s helm, Dodgy Dave as co-pilot, the dirty Duck sleeping in the back.
Alex piloting the Montego with Rhyds as wingman whilst me and Pearly snored in the back. Yes, the Mongo really was as spacious as I’d remembered. Off we went with some six long, fast hours of the most boring dual carriageway you could imagine. No scenery, no curves, no potholes, just a long ribbon of fairly fresh, straight, level black stuff to whistle down at an average of 88mph. The Montego’s worn H-frame bushes rocked me to sleep for the whole journey. I was to wake up in a different country and virtually a different era. A horse and cart had become a commercial vehicle again…
We were all somewhat suspicious of what we’d heard crossing into ex-communist countries, and the route we took to our evening destination was adding to our deeply suspicious minds. Driving down into the suburbs of Szeged the buildings looked like a shanty town, with kids and dogs running wild, men standing around braziers and knackered old cars virtually abandoned. Added to this it had turned dark which meant potholes were a bit of a challenge. In we bounded, like a comedy three-some convoy (we’d met TPB at the border buying a Vignette). Our hotel was again, a delightful family run business and had a court yard where we parked our chariots. Only to find three other team’s worth of cars! Winner!
Off we went to the city centre for a John Bull pub meeting point and what a nice city we found ourselves in! Truly stunning and such a relief after our minds had wondered WTF? after leaving the motorway (did I mention the police car facing the wrong way on the slip road?). Every restaurant looked inviting, the people friendly, the prices reasonable (even if we did pay for everything in Euros) and Szged had a warming, relaxed atmosphere interspersed with beautiful architecture all around.
The next morning was a bit of a joke; all of the team members had to order breakfast at check-in the previous night. Despite which, it seemed like we all got given the same omelette at breakfast the next morning anyway! Not to worry, it was fresh, it was plentiful, it was tasty. It was also awash with Paprika. The next stage in our comedy rally was into Romania and there was no set route as we’d been warned that the Romanians can drive, just not as we know it. They also have roads, just not as we know them.
The route wasn’t that long, but it was said to be difficult to cover and survive. Trepidation was the word. With a lot of teams spending the night in the same hotel, on straddling the border point, nearly all the teams met up crossing together. Convoy and CB radios alive! We bought a vignette and we all changed currency. We were the lead car and I spoke with the two customs men. It transpired they understood Geordie very well. They wished us well on our trip and thought it “Nice” in a faux FastShow show way (I think).
Immediately the first thing striking you about Romania, is DOGS. Dead or alive or somewhere inbetween, the place is wicked with them. Every petrol station had two for example.
The Romanian roadside is littered with dead dogs, leading to a CB chant of BIG DEAD DURG throughout the convoy. They smelled to high heaven in the sun too. The roads and driving seemed fine at first, but as time and miles mounted, things changed. In fairness, it was never as bad as we’d been warned, but the driving was still crazy. We drove past a fresh accident between a panel van, a Peugeot 206 and a JCB which was a warning. I was now driving and we entered a city called Diva. Not nice in a post communist deindustrialized way. However, Romanian attitude to driving appeared to be along the lines of ‘if you think you can get away with it, then good luck to you’. No road rage. No repaired Armco. Just lots of British Transit dropsides…
I made hay with my idiotic driving and the Montego and new-to-our-little convoy BMW 3-series paid the price of my high-jinx shunts. Footpaths? Excellent for undertaking. A major junction with directional feeder lanes? Ideal for going down the wrong way to get ahead of the Mongo. No rule was left unbroken, no temper left unfrayed, although Pearly’s attempt to run down a crossing full of homosapiens was taking it a bit too far. As for the police, well they were too busy and too slow, although I thought I’d been caught jumping my third red light across a tram track. I loved it. The rally boys might love the mountain passes, Tim might love the motorway, but I love cut-and-thrust, up-and-at-them city centre stuff.
The poor old Rover’s bumpers bore the brunt of every stop-to-a-halt in traffic and you know what? The Montego’s bumpers wouldn’t break. The boys in the BMW roared with laughter in the crunching games, although the local bloke behind them didn’t get the joke, even if he understood why their reversing lights kept flicking on. As we got closer to our hotel in Sibu, our Satnags became useless. Still we found our way and checked into our apartment, which was essentially in someone’s back yard. Our host, a lovely Romanian woman with perfect English wanted to know what took us so long? We thought we’d made good progress, but apparently not. Again, our accommodation was excellent (I’m a snob too) and we found ourselves in yet another charming, relaxing and beautiful city centre. Pretty ladies everywhere and we dined and drank like kings for very little money.
In fact, one Dacia Logan taxi later we bumped into a few other teams and had virtually private dining in a posh restaurant. After a relatively quiet night previously, I fell into my bad old habit of finding a dark semi street level bar for some afterhours intoxication. Deliberating on the steps downward “YMCA” stuck up on the speakers, so naturally we sang and danced through the doors – after all the night is but young and at 90p per pint of harmfully strong lager, this round is on me!
Friday dawned bright and we gathered our thoughts and pooled cash over breakfast. We’d partied hard and two days worth of cash had gone in one liquid session. Somehow we just managed to pay for our room. Team NWM had left their Montego parked overnight next to our 200, (despite being streets away in a different hotel), so again we set off in convoy. Of course, the Mongo still couldn’t pass a petrol station. Surprisingly, more than 17 litres was squeezed in this time. But trouble nearly found us here. The two petrol pump attendants weren’t savvy with their computers and thought the Montego and 216 had left without paying and the police arrived.
Luckily, I calmed and cleared the situation “FOR F**K’S SAKE, TAKE THIS MONEY” opened the negations of this Anglo-Romanian misunderstanding. Geordie; the International Language of diplomacy. Today was the day of the Transfagarasan Highway, the final and high point of the rally. I took up my back seat and off we went. Yes it was very good, yes, its every bit as exciting as Top Gear says it is. It was also windy and cold. There are pigs running wild too. The road goes nowhere, so all the traffic is there for the drive.
The locals now know the TG team have made it world famous, so they’re starting to cash-in. None of this detracts however, its still worth visiting. After the 216 had been up and down North and South sides (completely different!) umpteen times brakes on fire, gearbox whinging, hounding the (surprisingly agile) Montego we headed for our evening stop-off in Brasov which would mark the end of the rally. The city of Brasov coincidently was hosting a Beer Festival. So checking into another great hotel a quick surprisingly invigorating shower, and we were off. Lets party!
Justin Clements (street safari gaffer) handed out well earnt awards, more cheap beer consumed, another posh meal wolfed down, another beer tent and finally, another dodgy drinking den! This time with more teams to play more drunken games. Like using an unconscious Alex Wedge as a makeshift ‘Buck-a-Roo’ for beer bottles. Oh, we know how to live and represent Britain as a model of sobriety.
For me, the penultimate foreign breakfast was a bit sad and lonely. From here in, all the teams went their own separate way. We’d been told the previous evening that this rally would never be repeated. Not even the Mongo was following us to Bucharest. Worse still, we had to squeeze Pearly Elphick into the 216 in order for him to bring back the car with our delivery man Adamscart. He was flying in cattle class this afternoon to a lesser known Bucharest aerodrome. Walking out to the car a young lad was lurking looking rather upset with his bonnet ajar 70’s Passat. It was parked nose-to-nose with our Rover. Could I move the Rover to bump start his Passat? I could, but you’d never bump start that I said. Not even with his Mam and Dad pushing (who looking on sullen). Could I give him a jump start. I said I’d try, but those leads look poor. After 5 minutes of trying the Passat still wouldn’t jump start. I knowingly concluded the car was knackered (I reckoned it had been round the clock once as a minicab in a previous life and now it still showed 385,000km‘s on its six digit odometer.). The lad told me that car couldn’t be “knackered” as he desperately needed a car – it was their family transport.
Then it dawned on me. Another rally team parked 50 yards away needed to ‘bin’ their BMW 520 Tourer in Bucharest as they were flying back into London. This Tourer was a threat. I knew that AdamsCart and Pearly would rather repatriate that Bavarian scrap than our 216 on economic grounds alone. Like a scene from the A-Team with me acting as Face, I put my arm over this lad’s shoulder. You need a new car I asked? I’ve got just the thing for you, a lovely* BMW 520 estate with £500’s worth of alloys on and a fully rebuilt front suspension set-up. I showed him the car, I nodded my head and gave him a knowing look.
The lad thought I was taking the piss. He couldn’t afford it. Besides, it was too powerful as he’d only been driving a year. That car I said, is the cost of a taxi fare to Bucharest. Its yours, its free. Go and confer with Mummy and Daddy, come back and I’ll do the paperwork. Stop looking the gift horse in the mouth, now there’s a good lad. Five minutes later and a taxi was being hastily arranged.
Yet another Not-For-Profit sale I’d closed. The boy and his family were beaming. The lads in the BMW relieved they’d have their car disposed of legally, and crucially; we had ensured our brilliantly faithful Rover was coming home. We, Team FTW and Pearly waited to see what kind of a taxi was being arranged for the BMW boys to Bucharest. We hoped it was something awful, while the BMW boys rightly looked upon whatever arrived as a further four wheeled adventure. Imagine their delight and our disappointment when an air-condition Focus estate arrived with a smartly dressed driver.
Ignition key turned, we pushed on to Bucharest. A city which, aside from the outrageous show of decadence People’s Palace Project wasn’t a patch on the other two Romanian stop-offs. Maybe it was just our mood? Maybe capital cities never live up to expectations? Anyway, in an accidental perfect timing way, I collected our man AdamsCart from the Aerodrome where he had landed – the Rover never stopped moving for the pick-up!
Funnily enough, this outward and return trip turned out to be about the most dodgy drive of the eight days. I clipped a parked taxi, the 200 bottomed-out on a hole (with a nasty crack) we got lost, we were nearly hit on a roundabout and I marginalised a hard charging Dacia Logan taxi against some Armco (Adamscart got a better view of that than me). The Rover’s exhaust was now blowing furiously, the rev counter had packed-up and it stuttered like a bugger at low revs. It felt like the Bluesmobile after it threw a ‘rod me and Pearly commented in unison.
Still, I was flying home tomorrow with BA…
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.