The first Beaujolais Run took place in November 1970 following a bet between two well-known Chefs as to who would be first to reach The Times’ office in Fleet Street with a bottle of the new season’s wine. The Run, which started with the release of the wine at midnight, was initially a race against the clock. However, after the RAF had a crack at the event and their planes turned out to be quicker than the other competitors’ cars, the Run became a navigation challenge.
I have tackled the ‘Run before as a Navigator and Photographer in a variety of sports cars but have since been itching to take my Rover 2000. After all, the P6 was designed for fast, comfortable, long-distance cruising and the boot is much bigger than a TR7’s or DB4’s. Besides, if I was driving rather than map-reading, we might not get lost.
I had started preparing months earlier, making a good, usable classic car into a solidly reliable motor that would get us home. I had begun with the cooling system – the radiator had already been replaced but I replaced the engine sideplates, flushed the block, changed the thermostat and rubber hoses and fitted a Kenlowe electric fan.
I had relays put in the headlight circuits to protect the wiring and fuse box, put in a new alternator. I fitted new shocks, rebuilt the fuel pump and had the carburettor rebuilt by Burlen (SU) and fitted a set of new Pirelli tyres. This was in addition to previously rebushing the front suspension and having unleaded-friendly valves fitted. I was therefore confident that I had covered all the bases.
We started the run from Brands Hatch on a frosty morning, a thirty-something mix of cars from the 1950s on which included a Jaguar C-Type, D-Type, two E-Types and an XJ6 as well as a pair of Stags, a TR6 and a Lotus Esprit. Newer metal at the front of the grid ranged from new MINIs, one dressed as a cow, and an Aston Martin DBS, the owner of which had driven his XK140 in a previous year. The P6 was certainly not the most valuable car on the grid, but drew plenty of the usual “My dad/uncle/neighbour had one of those, always liked ’em” comments.
After a demonstration lap by John Surtees’ 1970 F1 car – the event now raises money for the Henry Surtees Foundation after last year’s tragic accident at Brands – Surtees and surprise guest Nigel Mansell quickly walked the grid and shook all the drivers’ hands (they seemed more interested on the way back when I had the bonnet up adjusting the fast idle than in making small talk) before waving the cars off for two laps of the track and out onto the M20.
We convoyed to Eurotunnel with an E-Type, TR6 and the first motorbike to take part and arriving at the port in time to grab a coffee for my now traditional spill on the train. Eurotunnel had arranged for all the Run cars to get onboard together – that looked amazing and drew stares from other travellers. We were in a carriage with a Ferrari F430 and the XJ6, the owner of which also has a Fezza, but who had bought the Jaguar for the Run and was planning to sell it for charity at the end.
Arriving in France, we hit the fog-bound autoroute and headed for Reims. The murk was thick and obscured the magnificent views I had promised my Navigator so, when we saw hazard lights on the hard shoulder, it was at the last minute. I stamped on the brakes and pulled over ahead of the two Triumph Stags. I had a full toolkit, towrope and jump leads so we were ready to help, but the water pump had failed on one car and nothing could be done.
We left our fallen comrade and pushed on for the Taittinger Champagne caves in Reims and, on arriving in the town, we fell in with the self-built C-Type to circle the one way system and look for the entrance. Once inside, we were treated to a tour of the caves. 3,000,000 bottles of various ages are maturing beneath the streets of Reims. We sampled a small glass before heading for the hotel.
I then had a chance to investigate our loud running and poor performance. It just took a glance under the car to confirm a split and holed back box and that the vibrations had worked the exhaust manifold loose. I could do nothing about the back box, but I nipped up the manifold knowing it would happen again next day.
Following a night out in Reims, we were back at Taittinger to have our mileage taken and set off on the navigation challenge wearing our best fancy dress. The theme was “what I want to be when I grow up.” I had found some great space shuttle astronaut outfits but my favourite costumes were the couple in the D-Type, who were wearing romper suits and dummies with a sign reading: “I don’t wanna grow up!”
We quickly left the urban traffic behind and headed for the first checkpoint, a church in a small town not far away. We arrived behind the DBS and, with the other crews took a photo of the driver being an astronaut – perfect for us!
Back in the car, we deciphered clue two, tapped “shortest route to Chablis” into the TomTom and hit the back roads for a 125-mile back road blast. It was interesting to see each car’s version of the shortest route as we drove parallel with cars on distant roads or cut through villages to save a mile or two.
We pulled into Chablis’ town square as the Lotus was leaving – parking up in a car with a blowing exhaust and covered in logos drew quizzical looks for the locals but we caused even more amazement when we started running to the next checkpoint in our fancy dress! We grabbed our picture and headed off again as the bike, Ferrari and XJ6 pulled in, heading for the third checkpoint.
We had to telephone for help as the clue led us to the French GP circuit, but we didn’t know the name – a text for a Google search told us to head for the Circuit Dijon Prenois. Another surprise was that, in order to calibrate our odometers, we were to take five free laps of the track.
I am a Track Day fan and so was delighted to get out and see what the Rover could do. Unfortunately, the car was now limping up to 65mph with no back pressure, a long way from its 100mph top speed – I gave it all I could and pushed hard into corners to keep the speed up but was lapped by a Kia Sedona on the straight. Mind you, in typical P6 style, it rolled hard enough to lose chrome from the door handles but stuck like glue to the tarmac and anything in front on the bends. We’d been warned to watch our mirrors for Touring Car driver Anthony Reid. I kept an eye out and saw him coming up fast behind – he passed us sideways on the chevrons and disappeared past a couple more cars.
The Esprit’s driver had enjoyed his track time so much that he too had broken the car’s exhaust and later lashed it together with electric cable.
We had to push on as the day was getting late and headed for the last two checkpoints closer to our finish in Macon. However, after six hours in the car, the crew needed a brew, so we pulled up at a café for a cuppa. It wasn’t long before a dapper French chap pulled up by the Rover, walked around it, saw us and asked to hear the engine.
Our shortest route took us through some interesting places – at one point, the road ended in a field, “turn right in 80 yards” said TomTom, further onto the farm. We followed and hopefully saved half a mile. Later, at the top of a steep hill, strangely dressed people were shuffling along the narrow streets – only when we reached the top did I realise that we were driving through the grounds of a mental hospital. We drove on before being added to the register!
Heading to the last checkpoint of the night, we were surrounded by vineyards on all sides and the lanes grew narrower until we were bouncing down tractor tracks amongst the vines to the bemusement of the farmworkers.
Our shortcut put us between the DBS and Stag on the fast main road, but our TomTom wanted us to take a side road. Luckily, the Aston missed the turn as the good tarmac ended and we and the Triumph crashed down on to the older surface. Fine for these old buses, but that would have made a mess of the Aston.
We found the checkpoint and then made it to the hotel by chasing the XJ6 as we couldn’t find it in the TomTom. We had reached the town of Beaujeu for the new wine’s release and were able to hear the other teams’ stories. The C-Type had also experienced exhaust manifold problems, but the crew had luckily packed repair tape and bodged it together. However, the best tale came from the driver of a 911 who was pulled over for speeding and breathalysed at 9am. The Gendarme handed him the tube and announced “If this turns red, I weeell mek yor ‘oliday sheeet !” Of course, it stayed green…
Anyway, after a black tie evening of Taittinger’s hospitality and awards for most charity money raised and shortest distance travelled – we were 59 miles off the best, but not the worst for once – we regrouped on the last morning at historic Reims-Gueux road circuit.
Dating back to 1926, the triangular track used the streets and hosted the French F1 Grand Prix until its closure in 1972. The pits and grandstand are still there, haunting and alone, on a quiet country road. Forty years after Surtees made his Cooper-Maserati debut at the track, he returned and took a lap in a Quattroporte.
We’d planned to stop, grab a photo and drive on and not turn the car off as hot starting had become an issue, but the car stalled as we parked, so we stuck around for a while after all.
Fortunately, after tweaks from several hands and a few minutes to cool, the Rover came back to life and we headed for Calais. We didn’t dare turn the engine off, but needed fuel. Luckily, when we pulled into services, there where several other Beaujolais teams so the Rover could stay running while we fuelled it and ourselves. We were back in Blighty a few hours later… Birmingham’s finest had coped with 1400 miles in the four day trip and, exhaust aside, been comfortable and reliable – if I take it again I’ll pack more wine in the boot!