As a kid I always dreamed of adventures in cars – I had a little Post Office Telephone Dinky Morris Series E van that I imagined I travelled the world in. It was fitted out as a motorhome long before that idea was fashionable but, of course, you would struggle to get a bed in the back of a Series E – let alone the kitchen sink and everything else… such are the dreams of child.
As an adult, the idea of long distances in a car still attracted me. I had an Ashley Sportiva Kit Car based on an Austin Somerset chassis and, once restored, I had visions of taking it around the coast roads of mainland GB – in aid of a charity in order to get some real value from the experience.
Family, mortgages, starting a business – all got in the way and the Ashley was put into storage (and later stolen and scrapped – but that’s another story!)
In 1981 I was working as a Furniture Buyer for a large Cooperative group and I’m really not sure what resurrected the idea but discussions began in a very ‘broad brush’ and rather ‘wispy’ way – and seemed to firm up as the year progressed. My records show that the idea was set in concrete on 15 February 1981.
I had made some really good friends in the trade and, to be honest, a buyer at this level has quite a lot of clout – a lot of companies wanted to deal with us. Over and above the strictly business side of things though, three company representatives really had become very good friends and with promises of sponsorship in place – the whole idea became a reality. The question was – how?
I was pretty set on the Round Britain Drive idea from my childhood so that was never in question. But in what car and who with was certainly not settled – although my very good friend and neighbour John was a name in the frame from the early days of the project. Another was Nigel – a furniture rep, who later joined a food manufacturing company.
“Planning the route pre-SatNav was, of course, a challenge. I did a lot of groundwork with maps all over the lounge floor for weeks but someone suggested that the AA had got an official coastal route”
Another very good friend owned a furniture company in High Wycombe and offered me a couple of vehicles to consider for ‘practicing’ and development work. These were a BMW 7-Series and a Chevrolet Blazer V8. Robert was also very good friends with a senior manager at a major Ford dealer in his area and through some serious ‘old pal routine’ managed to secure us a new Ford Granada 2.8i saloon for the event proper.
At about this time, by some strange co-incidence, some Army personnel announced their intention to get into the Guinness Book of Records for circumnavigating the coast roads of the mainland. There was talk (probably just rumour!) that they were going to re-fuel via a helicopter. Pre-Google days of course, it was difficult to ascertain how true all this was but we considered it serious enough (though not the helicopter bit) to think about what we were doing and how could we do something different?
I expect it was me that suggested towing a caravan! My father was a ‘tugger’ and had a 14ft Thompson he towed with a Daimler Conquest Century, a Rover 3-litre and a Maxi – in that order. I had driven all of these on holidays and loved the sensation of seeing the van in the mirrors – just missing everything and being placed just where I wanted it! When I had been driving only a year or so, my father insisted I reverse the whole outfit into the drive (which included a significant dog leg) and park the van exactly 3” from the garage wall. To make the task even more challenging, the garage wall I had to get close too was on the off-side – so was lost even in the mirrors! He never actually measured it but his standards were fairly high!
So towing a caravan around the coast it was to be then! So where do we get a caravan? For practice we used the said Thompson but the most prolific manufacturer at the time was Sprite – based in Newmarket. On 12 January 1982 I phoned them and spoke to a Martin Lumley – who was immediately enthused and left no doubt that a Sprite would be available – they had just released the ‘Compact’ – a 12ft van with a low roof line that extended upwards once stationary.
And so it was that the Ford and the Sprite were married – and some serious testing began! It had been calculated that the BMW would give us less than 12mpg when driven hard with a caravan and the Blazer less than 4mpg. Thankfully, the Granada gave us nearer 16.
Planning the route pre-SatNav was, of course, a challenge. I did a lot of groundwork with maps all over the lounge floor for weeks but someone suggested that the AA had got an official coastal route. Indeed they had and we simply followed that – although this was in the form of a list – so had to be converted to something our navigator could work with on the road.
The personnel had an early change in that Nigel had to back out – he had only just become a family man and his lovely wife was not keen on such a ‘mad escapade’ at this point. I prevailed upon my oldest friend – once my boss – to join us and so it became – John, Don and myself.
The plan was to drive at full rally speeds and style but observing urban speed restrictions. In testing, we soon discovered the ‘Granny’ was quite happy towing the little Sprite at 100mph on scarcely populated roads at very unsociable hours. We would have one driver, one navigator and the third man getting some ‘kip’ in the back. As he was to be many times during this event, Martin Lumley was invaluable with regard to the methodology we had to employ and he had good credentials. He held at that time the world record for towing a caravan at speed – 134mph – with a modified 3.4 Jaguar and a Sprite Musketeer. One of his very useful ideas was just how to manage the rota for driving. We had worked it out our way but Martin was adamant we had it wrong – we must sleep, navigate and then drive.
The question of fuel raised its head of course as we drank it fairly quickly and travelling through the night we would likely need to re-fuel. All night stations on the coastal route were not a feature in 1982! We therefore obtained four 20ltr Jerry cans and extended the range somewhat – if we had ever been hit up the back-side we would have probably landed on the moon but our theory was the caravan would absorb the impact. Thankfully, we never had to put that one to the test.
“Amazingly, I had also got an agreement with ‘Little Chef’ to sponsor our meals if we promised to carry their decals, park prominently at their sites and use them every where we reasonably could”
I had contacted all the fuel companies with offices in the UK and asked for some sponsorship. All but one blankly refused except a young lady from Texaco. We were in dialogue with her for many weeks – discussing how we would find Texaco stations, how we would plan the route around them, how much fuel, how the bill would be paid etc. About a week before the event I phoned the young lady just to check on a couple of details to be told that she had left – and Texaco were not about to honour anything she had arranged with us. Bit of a blow that!
Amazingly, I had also got an agreement with ‘Little Chef’ to sponsor our meals if we promised to carry their decals, park prominently at their sites and use them every where we reasonably could. All this was done over the phone and weeks before we left – so did the guy we had the agreement with!
The whole object of this incredibly silly game was, of course, to raise money for the Antony Nolan Bone Marrow Disease Appeal. I phoned Mrs. Matthews at their headquarters in London on 27 July and our offer of help was accepted. I felt I really wanted to help and went up to their headquarters (a wooden hut) in the grounds of St, Mary Abbotts Hospital in London. I met Mrs. Nolan and some of the helpers and saw all the good work being done in memory of little Anthony. I pledged that we would try to sell each of the 4000-odd miles of coastal road travelled for £1 per mile.
Sponsorship was coming thick and fast with huge generosity from Bymacks Upholstery, Multi-Commerce International, Silentnight Beds, Buoyant Upholstery, Gomme Bros (G Plan) and Airsprung Beds. Others contributed figures of between £10 to around £100 – tidy sums in 1982. In all, 18 companies sponsored us leaving the sponsorship pot big enough to overflow a little and add to the donations figure at the end of the trip.
Graphics was not the business it is today and the ‘van’ was covered in sponsor’s names – made by me, by cutting the letters out of black sticky-back vinyl. Unfortunately, I have only two pictures of the outfit, simply because as a team we never stopped or got out of the car unless to re-fuel or use the little boys’ room. ‘Wasting time’ taking photos was not on the agenda! In retrospect, this was a mistake. There were a few photos taken by others which have since ‘gone astray’ and the only one I took was when the outfit was featured in our local Shopping Plaza one Saturday morning – in order to sell the miles, of course. This was an ‘instamatic’ picture of poor quality and little use for reproducing here.
Mind you, getting the car and the van were ‘big deals’ but there was lots of smaller stuff to be attended too: Number plates, extension mirrors, additional driving lights, jerry cans, maps, food, torches, auxiliary lights, flashing hazard light, spades, snow mats, two spare wheels and so on.
“We had arranged for TV coverage at Avonmouth where we were to set off in an anti-clockwise direction. However, no TV crew turned up – in fact no one turned up – so, with a quick spin of the rear wheels, we left”
And so it was after months of preparation and hours of laborious scissor work, Easter was upon us and ‘lift-off’. We had arranged for TV coverage at Avonmouth where we were to set off in an anti-clockwise direction. However, no TV crew turned up – in fact no one turned up – so, with a quick spin of the rear wheels, we left.
It was very soon apparent that the car and caravan outfit (now fully loaded) was still a perfect match. The Granada was so safe – so predictable. And the caravan was merely an extension of the car’s rear end. It did whatever the car did so that within a very short space of time we were drifting the whole unit as one. Braking was controlled and even with no drama despite us ‘pressing on’. As mentioned we used rally-style procedure with the navigator being responsible for everything except pressing the pedals and moving the wheel – he was the driver’s eyes and ears – clearly identifying hazards ahead and giving as much warning as humanly possible about a change of direction.
It had been agreed that unless in a dire emergency, the only stops would be for fuel – and the loo! Food would have to be bought while re-fuelling – and no other stops were allowed.
Progress down through Somerset, Devon and into Cornwall was swift and uneventful. At this early stage though, no one could sleep even if it was their turn.
Cornwall did produce some challenges! On one occasion we were coming into a village, which was approached over a hump back bridge. We could see the bridge clearly and the village the other side but what was not clear until we were ‘atop’ the bridge at some 40mph or so, was the two Rover 2000s – one each side, parked immediately over the bridge – and I do mean within 10ft of it! The gap between was enough for the Granny and the ‘van but not enough for the wing mirrors and modesty (almost) forbids me to tell you that I managed to clip both of them evenly. We didn’t break any of our glass and thus don’t think we broke any of the Rovers’.
All the work converting the AA map failed on several occasions and the first was in Cornwall. We landed up in one of those villages that has a village green with umpteen roads going off in all directions and the signage less than clear. We screeched to a halt and from nowhere appeared a boy – about 10 or 12 – who asked us what we were doing. We told him the road we needed and he simply said ‘follow me’. This little lad began to run flat out through these little streets, going left, right, left again – until eventually he, (somewhat puffed but very proud) said, ‘go, go, go, go’! We thanked him profusely and went on our way. He’ll be in his 40s by now – thanks again chum!
There were other very amusing moments. On another occasion in Cornwall we came to yet another green triangle and the signage was non-existent. Our navigator was convinced it was one way, the driver thought it would be another. The result was that we tore around this green and then stopped – reversed – tore round it the other way – stopped, and then went off the way we had tried first. Nothing spectacular there except that there was an elderly couple standing by the open door of their Morris Minor in the center of the green. As I wasn’t driving and was not getting involved in the discussion I had the opportunity to watch them watching us – swiveling around each other like the little folk on a ‘cuckoo clock’.
Dorset, Hampshire, Sussex and Kent came and went with little drama. At the time, we made mention of the fact that Kent appeared to have some of the worst road surfaces we had ever come across. I guess the rest of the country has caught up now!
“Our driver had pulled out to pass a stream of traffic on a perfectly straight piece of road with good visibility and plenty of room. It was a little unfortunate though that we were doing around 80mph when we realized that the third car was Police car”
At some point in Sussex we attracted the attention of a Police car. Our driver had pulled out to pass a stream of traffic on a perfectly straight piece of road with good visibility and plenty of room. It was a little unfortunate though that we were doing around 80mph when we realized that the third car was Police car – actually hidden from our view by the Transit van following it so closely. We completed our manoeuvre and within seconds had ‘twos and blues’ in the mirrors. We found a safe place to pull over and began to do so when the squad car pulled up alongside side and the officers, having read the graphics on the van, indicated with a clear hand signal to ‘go for it’ – their driver pulling back and never appearing again. Bless ‘em.
We had fun on other occasions as well. At a traffic light we had a ‘boy-racer’ in a Ford Escort pull up alongside us. He looked quite serious and, unlike the modern version, was sat right back in his seat and adopting the arms length position. Not for his benefit but simply because this was our style – our driver floored it and left the Escort seriously embarrassed. Thinking about it – we did this on more than one occasion.
Despite lots of pre-event dialogue with local TV, Radio and Press – we were let down badly by all of them. The local free paper was paid £172 to deliver thousands of leaflets – they failed to do so and refunded us the money. HTV were going to be present at Avonmouth to see us off with a flourish – they failed to turn up. However, our local paper did not let us down and printed several pieces before the event started and whilst we were driving.
We had got publicity associated with the car due to my good friend Rob who had arranged the loan of the Ford – having another very good friend – Tony Pond. Tony was at that time one of Britain’s greatest rally drivers. His list of achievements would fill a blog greater than this one. At around this time he had just won the Manx International in a Chevette. The illustration shows (from left to right), Peter Muschamp (Norman Reeves Ford), John Stanley (my friend and neighbour), myself and Tony Pond. Our man Don Barber was unable to make this ‘photo-shoot’.
Back to the trip… Further fun was had when had again lost our way a little – I was driving and Don was navigating. We screeched to a halt at a crossroads somewhere on the East coast. There was discussion in the front and meanwhile John (who was supposed to be resting) let us know he was getting out. We assumed he was having a wee against a hedge or something and having assured myself he was not behind the caravan, reversed very swiftly back to where we could read a sign post. This didn’t really help so I accelerated very swiftly forward to get a look at another sign – conscious now that we had lost precious minutes ‘faffing about’. At this point a very irate and disgruntled John got back into the car. Well, how was I to know he had been using the loo in the van! Poor chap – he’d been hanging on for dear life in the back there.
Hampshire, Sussex, Kent and Essex were traversed with little excitement. Relationships reared their ugly head a little – I had brought together a late-20s guy, a mid-30s guy and 50-something guy who had never met before. There were inevitably different opinions and approaches – to the drive, the driving and the event. I was partly to blame here as I had nursed this thing from its inception – it was my baby and I probably was not too keen to listen to others. I have mellowed over the years and no doubt I would be a lot easier to work with today.
“The entire project ground to a halt just over the Forth Bridge. John was driving, Don was navigating and I was sleeping. It was a cold and windy night and as we came off the end of the bridge we collided with three cars – all Hillmans”
The entire project ground to a halt just over the Forth Bridge. John was driving, Don was navigating and I was sleeping. It was a cold and windy night and as we came off the end of the bridge we collided with three cars – all Hillmans. They were parked on the left outside a pub and the caravan had swiped every one of the cars, finally dragging the Granada into the last one and thus waking me up – my head was resting on the nearside door.
I think we were all dazed – just in total disbelief. John was devastated and no one could quite work out how it had happened. Don was convinced the van should have missed the cars by a foot or so – certainly from his position in the front passenger seat he knew that the car was a good foot and a half from the parked Hillmans.
The Police were, of course, called but no one was even remotely hurt so no ambulance was needed. Statements were taken from us, witness statements and lots and lots of questions. Several hours later the van was taken away and secured in a Police compound and we were secured in a hotel room. We called round to the compound in the morning, removed the porta-pott which was David Lumley’s, the spare wheels for the car and a few other trivia items. We then headed for home – just John and I – Don had decided to take the train – he had been quite shaken by the whole thing.
Once back at base we all met up the following day and considered our situation. Clearly, John was in the frame for careless driving unless we could prove the real reason for the accident. To his very great credit, Don had the bit between his teeth over the root cause – he knew that the caravan should not have hit the parked cars if it had been following the Granada. We removed the tow bar from the Granny and discovered that the welding to the center differential support was broken. It was not rocket science to work out that the caravan could have been following the car at anything up to 18 inches to the left or right – but, due to the camber of the road, more likely to the left. Further examination revealed that the tow-bar was not new – yet we had ordered a new one and the dealer had agreed to fit a new one.
On the night of course, poor old John knew nothing of these goings on, as it was very dark.
Don continued his campaign to prove the root cause and took the tow-bar to a metallurgist for a full report. They confirmed that the welding was sub-standard – and had been ‘bodged’ at some point. This evidence was presented to the Dunfirmline Police and we had confirmation that our driver was exonerated from all blame.
This process had taken agonizing weeks, of course!
We then had the unenviable job of taking a significantly damaged Granada back to the dealer in Uxbridge and having the thorny conversation about the tow bar. Within 10 minutes or so the Sales Director established that one of the mechanics had swapped his old tow-bar for the new item we had ordered. There was a lot of apologies all round and away we came.
When we did speak to Martyn Lumley at Sprite Caravans he had been devastated by events and insisted that we should have ‘phoned him on the night – he would have brought another caravan and we could have continued – that was something we had not even considered!
I then had the equally unenviable task of informing all our sponsors and making the public aware that the attempt had failed. The best we could say was that we had still raised a whisker under £500 for the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Disease Appeal.
Although over 30 years ago, I must still thank my two friends for joining me on that trip – and for putting up with my limited management skills at the time. Don and I are still good friends and meet regularly but I haven’t seen John for many years.
Finally, if any AROnline reader wants to have a go at completing the trip – just one word of advice. Make sure the ‘chuffin tow-bar is a good ’un!