Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Grand Adventure - Italy 2018

Whilst I really own my Sunbeam Lotus to enjoy driving it, its always been shortish distances - and in the UK, being restricted by a mix of time, cost and a wish to preserve the car and minimise the spend.  Except for pre-arranged meetings and events, its been weather dependent too. Until last week the longest trip had been a week up to the Isle of Mull - around 1,000 miles or so.  That was back in 2008 and was captured here:

About 18 months ago, the Avenger and Sunbeam Owners' Club magazine (or Facebook or Forum, I forget which) mooted the idea of a club Trip to Italy in May 2018 and would there be interest.  I was hesitant at first, being a big commitment, time away from home & family, cost and the exact timing were all factors.  But as time went on and more detail was added, plus I started to gain confidence in the car again - with its newly rebuilt engine - it was time to sign up and look forward to the adventure.

Closer to the time I volunteered to help out with the route and hotel planning, assisting the other 2 organisers.  A good number of members expressed an interest, in the end there were 5 cars and 8 travellers.  Rather than diarise the trip, I've grouped it into categories, for a change.



Best to get to this first, as this wouldn't happened without those who organised and those we met along the way:
Fellow organisers Mike and Steve
Bernard in Belgium
Steve and Andreas in Italy
Federico and friends in Italy (along with apologies for not getting to meet with you all)
Steve and friends of the Simca Rallye Owners' Club in France
Michel, family and friends in France
Ex-Pressed Steel Panels for the plaques and the trip to Spa
Sunbeam Owners' Parts Shop for the spares package
To my family for "letting me out to play"


Starting points were Hull and Dover, for the ferries over to Zeebrugge and Calais respectively.  As it turned out, 4 cars were due to use the overnight P&O from Hull and one member to join later in the trip due to work commitments, heading out from Dover.  But even that didn't come together as one of our travellers had trouble on the way to the ferry at Hull and ended up leaving via Dover, more on that in the section about the cars below.

Here was the planned route(s) over 6 days - its worth noting at this point that none of the route planning was prescriptive - they were offered as ideas and guidance only with everyone free to choose as they wish:

First day am: Zeebrugge on motorways to the F1 circuit at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium
First day pm: Spa to Amneville in France for the first hotel - via a mix of motorway and major A roads through Belgium, Luxembourg and France.
Second day am: Amneville to Mulhouse (both in France) via a mix of motorway, dual carriageway and some country roads over the hills into Mulhouse
Second day pm: Mulhouse to Weesen (Switzerland) - just South East of Zurich - via mainly dual carriageways and motorways, with an option to take in Germany, only adding about 10km extra to the journey
Third day: Weesen to Turin (Italy) - the most flexible in terms of routes.  4 different routes were offered through the Alps to suit various different factors - such as distance, time, appetite for big climbing, weather, if the passes were actually open etc.  In the end, I don't think any of the 4 routes were followed exactly by anyone.  We chose Klausenpass / Gotthard Pass / Lukmanier Pass / Lake Lugano / Lake Como / Milan / Turin
Fourth day: Turin to Dijon (France) mix of motorway, major A roads through the Great Saint Bernard pass and some open country roads.
Fifth day am: Dijon to just south of Paris - all efficient motorways except the last few miles of narrow country lanes to get to our meeting point
Fifth day pm: South of Paris to Le Mans - some fun country lanes to get to a short stretch on motorways
Sixth day: disperse to various ports to get home.

Including the trips to and from the ferries I clocked up 2279 miles in total.


I made a day of it, taking in several of the excellent (though speed limited) roads in the Peak District.  And some Bakewell tart too of course.

Cat and Fiddle Pass

There was a gathering of the Scottish and Northern contingent on the dockside at Hull, two Sunbeams and one Avenger Tiger.  The fouth expected car didn't make it, but more on that later.
So overnight on the P&O ferry was fine - a perfectly smooth crossing, a win for one of our number on the bingo and decent food in the buffet style restaurant.  The "entertainment" was a bit mediocre though.  I had an outside cabin and it was comfortable enough - a bit like being in an Ibis hotel really.
I have to say though, that the piloting of the ferry in the Hull dock is something a bit special - how they manouver the ship into the lock is beyond me - there must be about a foot of clearance on each side.  Remarkable.

Taking it steady over the crest of the ramp, just in case - with the comedy ferry man



Caramel Profiteroles and Custard, following on from veg curry in a giant Yorkshire Pud - a night of "fusion" eating!


There were three, then there were four, then there were five and finally there were four again:

Sunbeam Lotus
As pedalled by yours truly and co-piloted by Stuart.  Not a genuine Sunbeam Lotus, but built from the right bits and its been through extensive updates over the last 18 months including an engine rebuild, new rear brakes, new brake master cylinder, rebuilt axle, front wheel bearings, front shocks, exhaust pipe & manifold, recondiditioned radiator and many other bits too.  After about 17 years of largely maintenance only, quite a lot of work has been completed. The axle, brake and wheel bearing work occured over the last winter, being completed about 6-8 weeks before our trip.
Apart from the huge amount of fuel consumed, all went well with this car, although the clutch release bearing being a little noisy by the end.

Sunbeam 1.6S
Piloted by Roy, a pretty standard car with a few tweaks.  Its an automatic and has had its Copper Beech metallic finish recently refreshed.  Lotus style stripes and Amil alloys lift it above the standard car. The massive sunroof as a big bonus for Roy on this trip. Most recently, in fact the week before the trip, a reconditioned cylinder head had been installed - fingers crossed for this one!  Only one real incident for this car was an alternator belt failed when Roy was valiantly supporting Mike and his challenges.

Avenger Tiger
Russ and Catherine travelled all the way from Ayrshire in Scotland to join us, and, due to motorway closures on their return journey, added a drive over the Pennines and lunch at Tan Hill to their tour.  After an interesting debate with the ferry people, the essential lead additive was permitted on to the ferry.  Another completely reliable car although the rear suspension was a little lower than expected.  This car had substantial rear bodywork restoration work over the winter, and another that was only completed a matter of weeks before the off.

Avenger Estate
Pedalled by co-sponsor Mike, of Ex-Pressed Steel Panels and resplendant in a green and white version of the blue and white livery of a typical seventies Avenger estate chase / service car.  Still pretty much a shell at the turn of the year, just making the start of the tour was an achievement in itsself. Although we all carried some spares with us, Mike's Avenger also carried the spares pack provided by co-sponsor Sunbeam Owners' Parts Shop.  Mike didn't make the Hull ferry as planned - fuel starvation problems getting in the way.  However, when we disembarked in Zeebrugge, remarkably, Mike was there waiting for us having fixed the car, driven the length of England overnight and crossed the channel at Dover.  Bravo!  Later, with a holed radiator at Spa, the car seems to have succumbed to head gasket problems in the Klausen Pass.  As mentioned above, Roy offered fantastic support to try and keep the Avenger on the road, at the same time as suffering alternator belt failure himself.  A great effort from Mike and Roy to keep everything moving, but unfortuately it was an early bath for Mike and the estate.

Avenger GT
A car with an interesting history, particularly in its specification from the factory.  A smart looking car that has done very few miles indeed.  Being LHD and with a largely export type of spec the car has a few quirks such as a massive reservoir for the washers as they include a pair of headlight wipers, an unusual air filter housing and a few other bits n pieces such as a factory fitted sumpguard.  A bit of a "barn find" this car, with only a few minor bits of fettling before it went last year to Majorca, and now for Italy.  Mike and Alison were looked after by the GT on this trip.  Only what looks like a thermostat failure on this car, swapped out in about 15 minutes on the shores of Lake Lugano in Italy.


Just before the major classic car race meeting of the year, we grouped at Spa Francorchamps after a thrash down the Belgian motorway from Zeebrugge - just about meeting the very tight timetable.  All 4 of our cars making this meeting with a local club member who officiates at the classic car race meeting the following weekend.  And what a venue - it's spectacular, well equipped and in a beautiful location.


We were soon treated to a couple of laps of the track behind the safety car.  The main memory from this is the huge changes in elevation, how tricky some of the corners are - particularly the double left downhill with adverse camber - and how none of this is at all obvious when watching F1 on the TV.  Extra respect to the F1 drivers when you realise just how tricky this circuit is.

Of course, Eau Rouge and Raidillon are the most famous corners here and hanging back a little from the train allowed a nice little run through here, but nothing to challenge the capabilities of the car.

We followed this up with a lunch in the facilities above the F1 pit lane where a fantastic view was afforded of the whole circuit, now buzzing with practicing GT cars and those having trackday fun.

The circuit tour was a fascinating mix of facts, behind the scenes insights and a flavour of the history, glamour, excitement and danger of this place.

Briefing Room

Written Press Room

Media Commentary Boxes

Inside a Commentary Box

The Podium

Pit Lane

Control Room
After the track session, the Avenger estate was pouring water from its radiator.  It seems to have been holed, so Radweld and some fresh coolant went in.  Fingers were crossed and we set off for the trip through Luxembourg to the overnight hotel in France.


Third day, second meeting.  A little bit of luck was involved in this one as we really had no idea where were were supposed to meet up with our local Sunbeam enthusiasts - other than "next to a lake".  As it happens, we'd had more reasonable run through the Alps than the rest of the group.  This was the day we lost Mike, Roy spent a great deal of the day supporting Mike and trying to keep him on the road to no avail.  Additionally Roy's alternator belt failed and the Avenger estate gave up its belt to keep Roy on the road.  Russell/Catherine and Phil/Alison were held up for a while too, helping out where they could.
Then there were all the roadworks in the Alpine tunnels - sat for 10 or 15 minutes many times at many roadworks meant that hours were lost. By the time 3 cars made the meeting at Lake Lugano, we were already close to the time at which we were meant to be meeting another group in Turin.
But back to Lake Lugano and our fortunate meeting with locals Steve and Andreas.  Just before the village of Albogasio there's a choice to make - bear left into a tunnel or bear right and make your way along the lakeside road.  We chose right as a chance to make a lunch stop, then about 0.5km further on we found Steve and Andreas leaping out into the road (later, they said our car coming around the corner was "like seeing the Madonna"!) so we pulled into the nearest parking space and joined them for lunch.
Steve spoke OK English, Andreas not so much.  But it mattered little - their enthusiasm was there to see and enjoy.  Both being Sunbeam owners with a difference - from a UK perspective.  They both drive GLS models, but they're fitted with the little Imp derived 1.0 litre alloy engine - a combination never made available in the UK.  Andreas' car is in Moonstone and is a lovely immaculate car with the interior in stunning condition.  Steve's car was the first car he owned and he's added 150,000km to the 30,000 it had covered when he bought it.

Steve's 180,000km car

Andrea's car and its immaculate interior


The locals add to our flag collection

A quick thermostat change for the Avenger GT
We chatted and waited for our 2 Avengers to catch up - it seemed that we should continue together from this point onwards, given the troubles experienced by Mike and Roy.  So we took some photos of all the cars together in the little car park - like a scene from the early 1980s.  By now we were late so we took advantage of our local friends equally local language skills and rang ahead to see if we could re-arrange the later meeting.  After a bit of debate amongst the group and our offer of some alternative times in the evening and next morning, unfortunately it wasn't possible to make it work.  Italian Steve passed along our profuse apologies.
The rest of the day didn't really improve from a travelling perspective - the Avenger GT needed a little running repair before we could set off, very bad traffic jams around Milan and torrential storms of hail and rain meaning we couldn't travel at more than 30mph on the motorway for around an hour.  It was late by the time we arrived in Turin - a 7:15am start and a 9:30pm arrival - very tiring and unfortuately too late for one of our appointments.


See the notes above about our trials and tribulations on the 3rd day - a contrasting mix of spectacular scenery, a great meet up with a couple of locals and then the travel, weather, breakdown, roadworks and traffic jam problems.  So we unfortunately didn't make the planned meeting in Turin, this and losing Mike and his car along the way were the low points of the trip.  Apolgies again to those in Turin, sorry to have missed meeting you.


Well this one we didn't expect.  On arriving at our modest Ibis hotel in Dijon we spotted a classic Simca Rallye in rally spec in the car park.  As it was a beautiful warm and sunny evening, it was not hard to find its owner sat enjoying a beer on the Sun terrace, along with some friends.  It had been a warm afternoon and we'd enjoyed the last of the Alpine passes and the following country roads to the hotel, so a beer was in order.  Unfortunately a bit too quick really as we were invited by our new friends to join them at their annual meeting venue - it was the Simca Rallye owners' club get together just 10 miles down the road.

As others had also enjoyed beers already, I joined Roy as a passenger and we followed the very quick little Simca to pay a quick visit to the gathering.  A few Brits were there for a chat and some nice cars were available to browse around on a fine Summer's evening.  The club was having a big group dinner in the evening so we left them to it, but great to happen across them by accident.

Roy's car at the Simca Rallye Club meeting
Roy also recruited Steve, from Belgium - a Simca and Sunbeam owner - as the newest member of the Avenger and Sunbeam Owners' Club.


After a morning of munching miles on the motorway, we travelled in convoy and arrived near our afternoon appointment in time to refuel both cars and travellers.  Our re-grouping point was an Intermarche car park, but it turns out there was a McDonalds nearby which offered an outdoor terrace to enjoy the sunshine as we were refreshed.

Then it was on to our meeting with Michel and his family and friends.  What a genial bunch!  We sat under a massive sun umbrella in Michel's back garden and feasted on amuse-bouche, small sandwiches and chilled rose or beer (for those not driving).  One of the locals spoke OK English and our fellow traveller Stuart went through mental torture trying to help with the translation - stretching his French to the limit and beyond. Google translate was called upon a couple of times for some particularly technical terms. Of course the cars were the focus of the conversation - ours and those of Michel.  We learned how Michel's passion for the Sunbeam Lotus was largely through admiration for the way such a small team from Coventry went up against the might of the likes of Ford and Fiat and won the World Championship against the odds in 1981.


Michel has campaigned a number of Sunbeam Lotuses, Peugeot 205s and Peugeot 309s in various French championships - local and National.  He's clearly passionate about the car and the sport and is a handy driver to boot.  Then we were priviledged to be introduced to Michel's personal car museum which is, rather breathtakingly, dominated by a collection of ex-works Talbot Sunbeam Lotus rally cars.  These are surrounded by memorabilia, storyboards and a collection of other cars valued by Michel.



Ballon d'Alsace


Ballon d'Alsace

Ballon d'Alsace

Ballon d'Alsace

Ballon d'Alsace

At Mulhouse Citie de L'Automobile

Citie de L'Automobile
At the Flyhof Hotel, Weesen, Switzerland

View from the Flyhof

View from Flyhof


Lake Lugano

Lake Lugano


Great Saint Barnad Pass

More Roadworks


Lunch at Vevey

Great Saint Barnard Pass
Between Dijon and Le Mans

My co-pilot
Our last night and photo opportunity together at La Sarthe

Refreshment at Le Campanile

The view from Le Campanile, Arnage, Le Mans
On the docks at Ouistreham - 38,000 miles total and 2007 miles so far

On board Brittany Ferries' Normandie


At Spa:

At Mulhouse Citie de L'Automobile (just a small sample of this amazing collection)

Chez Michel

Simca Rallye Meeting

24 Heures Du Mans Museum

At Ouistreham Docks



There was a lot of stuff to think about before, during and after the trip.  European road rules are slightly different to those of the UK and you need to carry quite a bit of stuff in the car, plus, it varies from country to country.

The hotel bookings all went went, we focussed on cost-effective locations from the large chains in most locations, but the hotel hightlight was the Flyhof on the edge of the Walensee lake, just South East of Zurich.  Spectacular views, rustic and authentic interiors, great service, fantastic food.  Pricey of course, but it is Switzerland.

Fuel - we used lots of it - around 650 in Euros from home to home.  As for Super Unleaded (referred to under different terms in various countries, but always described by its 98 RON octane rating) - generally this was not a major problem.  In France we had to try a few stations a couple of times before we found it, in Switzerland it was very easy to find and in Italy it was a major problem, and the only time we had to revert to additive for the Lotus engine.

Convoy - we had a mix of convoy travelling and travelling separately from time to time.  I like the "looseness" of our arrangement, but it might've worked a little better if we'd agreed more frequent re-groups.

Organisational - it would've been better if we'd had more information sharing beforehand, particularly each other's contact details including those at the local meeting points.  Easy to comment with hindsight of course.

Here's our collection of flags, each added as we travelled across each country:


This was one of those "once in a lifetime" trips.  And by that I don't mean it wouldn't be possible to do parts of it again - sure, it would be easy to go on another tour of the Alps, but the combination of route, cars, experiences and the people we shared it with all gelled so well.
There were some disappointments - missing our Turin appointment and Mike having to go home - but interestingly they came on the same day that I experienced one of the emotional highs of the trips - my Sunbeam Lotus at the top of the Klausen Pass - something I hadn't really thought would ever happen, especially after reading so much about these roads in countless car magazines.
The journey and the meetings were the point of the trip, the common theme of the old cars & motorsport, the glue that held it all together, the camaraderie the element that made it special.  And we've all made some new friends - amongst the group and along the way.
Thanks again to my fellow organisers, to our hosts along the way, my family for giving me the time, but mostly for the companionship of our group of members who made the whole thing more than a journey, but a very enjoyable holiday experience.

A more philosophical view of the trip from Stuart: