Keith Elliott At Large: Trouble and strife on Calais rally: 'I opened the bonnet and it drew a round of applause from the French locals. Can you imagine the English clapping an engine?'

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The Independent Online
MY WIFE and I broke up on the grounds of irreconcilable differences this week. She said we should have turned left at Azincourt: I'm still convinced the route was straight ahead. She might well have disappeared at Desvres, hopped out at Hucqueliers or flounced off at Fruges. Only the awesome presence of a car so beautiful that it must give autophiles wet dreams preserved our tenuous driver-navigator relationship for a whole day.

Until last weekend, we had very few arguments about cars. We have operated on the principle that there are two sides to every argument until I take one. I don't really trust her driving until the children have to be taken somewhere, but at least she's taken to scraping cheaper cars. So we went on a fun rally from Calais to Le Touquet, run by Performance Car magazine.

Aston Martin was once a great name in motor racing, and as recently as 1959 won at Le Mans. An automotive treasure hunt round the French countryside might not be in quite the same league, but sitting at the wheel of a drop-dead gorgeous Volante convertible, it is hard not to get misty-eyed about those legendary Aston drivers (Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss, Innes Ireland, Jackie Stewart). I felt a responsibilty to uphold that famous name: a marque of respect, you might say.

The Newport Pagnell manufacturer generously loaned me the works car, registration AM V8. The car itself is so elegant that even Rolls-Royce drivers gawp. Trouble is, the 100-odd other drivers on the rally either embarrassed me with awkward questions about the revised rear axle ratios, or knew the car was Aston's own, so I could not pretend to be someone famous with them.

The rally, now in its seventh year, takes place in France because British police do not like the idea of more than 100 cars scooting around on public roads. More than 12 cars in a competitive event is a rally, say the cops. Go to the RAC and if you satisfy all its regulations, perhaps you will get a waiver permit. And perhaps not.

This probably explains the success of scat rallies, which are like orienteering on wheels. Sidestepping twiddly RAC rules because scats are allegedly a navigational test, competitors work out fixed grid references at night and find 20 or 30 places, at the same time covering fewest miles.

Performance Car's rally is far less taxing. Competitors are invited to wear fancy dress (everything from undertakers to ladybirds) and the clues are relatively simple ('How many crowns on the Hisdin town shield?'). And the route includes an hour at Azincourt, scene of the famous battle, for lunch.

The organiser, Nick Duncan, who specialises in car rallies, is slightly puzzled by the event's continuing success. 'It is competitive, yet because there are no prizes for getting home first, it is fun rather than serious,' he says. 'But people keep coming back. I think one factor is the reaction of the French, who are much more open in their admiration for the cars.'

The pounds 147,000 metallic champagne Aston is the most admired of all. On several occasions, I opened the bonnet to let locals admire the craftsmanship and it drew a round of applause. Can you see the English clapping an engine?

But I'm still baffled how the great names of motor rallying like Mikkola and Alen drive for days without battering each other to death with mud-spattered hub-caps. There we were, cocooned in leather and walnut, yet we had more fights in a day than Frank Bruno's had in his career. And we were not alone.

Seasoned competitors say even fun rallying is more stressful than a marriage. We should have noticed the number of men-only or women-only cars. We even spotted one couple arguing as they left the portside at Calais. 'That won't happen to us,' we agreed. But five minutes later, heading on the motorway for Paris instead of the coast road for Boulougne, we were snarling at each other too.

I was all for scrubbing the rally, heading south until we hit Monte Carlo and hoping Aston had forgotten about the car. Suddenly I was 25 again, cruising nowhere in the world's most elegant car with the top down and a long-limbed Californian blonde by my side. Then my wife pointed out that I'd missed the only slip road for 20 miles. The spell was broken.

The experience has taught me a lot about rallying. First, agree beforehand which direction is left and which is right. Concentrate on the maps and the route rather than shop windows. And understand the strange psychological transformation that takes place when a man (or woman) gets behind the wheel of a beautiful car.

We're back together now. Without that competitive demon driving us, we cruised sedately through Normandy afterwards and basked in Gallic acclaim, as if it was us rather than our transport they were revering.

Sadly, Aston wanted the car back. I wiped away a tear as it headed home. It was like waving goodbye as your only daughter emigrates to Australia. And how can I do the rally next year in my 1976 Volvo Estate?

(Photograph omitted)

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