Aston Martin World - Stage 1 - London to Istanbu - Driving Ambition by Barry Weir

Day 1 - Monday 1st May

London to Chantilly, France - 394 km

It was 7.15 am on a grey drizzly Monday morning. While other competitors were enjoying a leisurely breakfast and mentally limbering up for the challenge ahead, I was out in front of London’s Royal Mint rummaging through the back of the Aston. Based on the premise that every little helps, I had decided to off-load anything I thought we didn’t really need. A risky manoeuvre at this late stage, perhaps, but I was doing my best to ensure that by the time Ronald arrived we would be set to go with the lightest load possible.

Two hours later, as we lined up two-by-two in number order, the sun came out. It was a good sign and instantly transformed the grid into a vibrant mass of colour.

The atmosphere was charged with excitement and anticipation as we bade our farewells to family, friends and team supporting our effort. All of a sudden it was time to go. After hugs and tears from Roma and the girls, and sobs from Ronald’s young family, we climbed into the car. We were number 54, starting about halfway down the pack. Rolling onto Tower Bridge we were engulfed in a sea of well-wishers. People lined both sides and enthusiasts pressed against the cars. Camera crews and press photographers muscled in round the start line. It was completely chaotic and totally marvellous.

At 10.24 am Stirling Moss came over and wished us well saying, “Enjoy your trip. I must say if you get all the way round with this boy you’ve done well. A hell of an achievement. It really is. Amazing. Anyway, have a lovely trip.” He then enthusiastically waved the chequered flag and we pulled away with the words of the commentator blasting through the speakers, “Make no mistake, this team intends to go all the way.” We were off and my great adventure, which had been two years in the making, was underway at last. The drama and excitement of Tower Bridge faded and the drive out through the city and into the Kent countryside towards the Cross Channel ferry at Dover was something of an anticlimax. But with the effort it had taken to get this far I was much too wound up about making it through the day to experience any sort of let-down just yet.

As the distance between London and us widened my natural optimism began to reassert itself and by the end of the day, despite one or two minor hitches, I was confident that we would cope with anything the Rally threw at us.

End of day one

Arrived at Chantilly safe and sound. That’s one in the eye for all those who thought we wouldn’t even make it to Dover.

As I looked around at the cars in the car park I didn’t know how some of them were going to cope. There was one that was much too heavily laden, with four tyres on the top - they wouldn’t stay there long! And a convertible with cameras attached to the window frame. What happens when it rains? We’d lost one car already - a 1912 Locomobile packed up in a cloud of steam at Greenwich. Shame it was one of the cars only doing the shorter rally, not one of the Around the World Challenge entrants.

On a serious note, Ronald saved us from an early exit this afternoon when I pulled out in front of an overtaking car. He grabbed the steering wheel and pulled us back just in time, but God it was close. I didn’t see it coming at all. It was as well to find out we had a blind spot sooner rather than later, after all we would be driving on the right for virtually the whole 80 days, and at least now I could compensate.

Jobs for tonight include adjusting the brakes. There’s also a vibration at about 3,500 rpm that we need to look into. If it’s the prop shaft we will have to take it out and get it balanced somewhere. No point in worrying about it, though, we’ll just have to see what happens.

Star of the show at the moment is a yellow 1913 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. The driver was ill at the last minute and the co-driver, Terry Maxon, was sitting there at the front of the grid on Tower Bridge blocking us all in. To get the car out of the way the commentator asked if anyone wanted to drive around the world in a yellow Rolls Royce, and a blonde named Julie leaped in. But once he got started Terry wasn’t stopping and now the press are after them for a story, leaving highly amused civil servants and rally officials to run around and sort out passports, clothes, money and all those other little details usually arranged before taking a quick trip across umpteen international borders. I wish I’d known it was that easy!

The Rolls may not get very far though. Here at Chantilly it required frantic servicing. It has already destroyed all its exhaust gaskets and there were enough bangs and backfires for an artillery range. I don’t know how things will pan out but whatever happens Julie will have a good story to tell back home.

Day 2 - Tuesday 2nd May

Chantilly to Aix les Bains - 624 km

Ableak, cold, soggy morning greeted us in Chantilly. I was up at 6.00 am (5.00 am UK time) and it felt like it. At breakfast everyone walked around ‘zombie-like’ and in contrast to the previous morning most of the women appeared devoid of make-up. Ronald, however, was irrepressibly cheerful and positively beamed as he passed on the unwelcome news that we faced a 12-hour non-stop drive to Aix les Bains of nearly 700 kilometres.

The sky remained overcast and gloomy throughout the day but the beautiful green and gold fields and vine-covered hillsides that stretched on for miles, more than made up for anything the weather might have lacked. Ronald was really chirpy, and we got on very well. He did a stint at driving and coped well with driving on the right in a right-hand drive car. We got to Aix les Bains early. There were loads of other cars already there, which was just as well because one hell of a storm rolled in soon after. At dinner we heard that David and Mary Laing had shock absorber trouble on their Aston Martin DB2 and the mounting to the body of the car was being ripped off. Two days down, 78 to go! I’ve just got back from sorting out the car for tomorrow - Wednesday. Readjusted the brakes (again), greased and cleaned everything. I telephoned Helena as it’s her 18th Birthday and wished her happy birthday. She sounded cheerful enough and was getting ready for her party. In fact all my family sounded cheerful - as though they are having a ball while I am away.

Rally mechanic Tony Fowkes thinks our vibration is the propshaft but it didn’t cause us too many problems today. There’s also a new noise when we go round right-hand corners and we don’t know what’s causing that either. Apart from that - and the fact that we only had a couple of ham rolls and some sticky buns to last us all day - everything is fine.

Even at this early stage some cars are already having problems. A 1960 Rover T80, driven by Pippa McLachlan and Christine Jones, had problems with its fuel pumps and there was excitement in the afternoon when we passed a Chrysler Airflow churning out smoke. The exhaust had become too hot and set the wooden floorboards alight, leaving the driver with no option but to pour lemonade over it to put out the flames. The Aston is going fine, oil pressure 65, temperature 70oC. At breakfast this morning, Ronald grabbed a couple of ham rolls, it’s now 12.30 am on Wednesday, we have been travelling since 7.45 am on Tuesday so now I am virtually a bag of bones: no food - no lunch stops.

Day 3 - Wednesday 3rd May

Aix les Bains to Santa Margherita, Italy - 500 km

We were up at 6.00 am and it looked like it was going to be a lovely day. I was a bit stiff and tired. However, at breakfast listening to the reassurance of other people’s gloomy chatter, I felt more positive about our chances. Today was a killer for the car, nearly ten hours of driving, about two hours on a motorway at 130 kph and the rest of it hills. It was absolute hell, nothing but going up and down bloody hills all day long. Special stages, one after another. But at least we got in on time. No penalty points. I wore gloves for driving today, a bit belatedly for my right hand, which is covered in blisters from turning the wheel all day yesterday. But at least I had padding for my left one today, which I needed with all the gear changing I had to do.

Several people reported that the route yesterday - Tuesday - (which we thought was fine) was really hard on their cars, which is very encouraging. The yellow Rolls Royce is still going, but only just; they’ve apparently spent the last two nights on the side of the road. Not exactly glamorous. We had a quick drink with some of the other competitors and heard that one of the Austin Healy’s - car 87 - went flying about 40 foot down a bank while trying to overtake a Rolls Phantom. The guys got out okay but the car isn’t likely to be travelling much further under its own steam.

We started out on this rally with all good intentions with a checklist of things to do each day: check oil, water, spark plugs etc. But the days are so long and we are so tired it has all gone out of the window. We haven’t even looked at the checklist; there just isn’t enough time to do it all. I am amazed at how gruelling this is on us as well as the cars.

While working on the car, I was knocking the spinner onto the wheel. I was very tired and on the last swing of the mallet it slipped from my hand and flew through the air colliding with Ronald’s shin. ‘God it must have hurt,’ but he said nothing. I apologised but he knew I was exhausted. We have been constantly breaking speed limits in order to arrive on time. No tickets yet!

Tomorrow is a hell of a long run to the overnight ferry - Ancona to Ingoumenitsa. After that it’s on to Thessaloniki and a rest day.

Day 4 - Thursday 4th May

Santa Margherita to Ancona - 545 km

We set off across Italy very early on what was to be a brilliantly sunny day. The heat was a bit too much for some cars. Several had radiators overheat and had to take rests on the hilly stretches.

The Chianti roads were vicious, with lots of sharp bends and turns and I was grateful for the gloves again, even in the extreme heat. Lots of special stages - hill climbs and sprints. The car coped well with the difficult terrain and with a very dusty timed gravel section.

Despite the pressure of the long days, we were becoming more relaxed and settling into a bit of a routine. We were also getting to know quite a few of the other competitors, which gave a whole different feel to the event. Ronald and I were getting on fine too, until something he hadn’t thought important enough to mention nearly ruffled the smooth waters.

What I mean is, I nearly had a major barney with Ronald this afternoon. I was chatting away merrily to him and he was looking out of the window, completely ignoring me. I thought I must have done something to offend him but I was annoyed he hadn’t said anything, so I gave him a shove and asked, “what the bloody hell is up?” He just looked at me and said, “What?” It turned out he is slightly deaf in the right ear and with the noise from the exhaust he couldn’t hear me unless he was paying attention or I nudged him. All week I’ve been rabbiting on and he hasn’t heard half of it.

We have periods in the car when only Ronald’s directions, left, right, 400 metres ahead, or whatever, interrupt the silence. There is no need to say anything and we just sit there looking at this beautiful scenery and thinking our own thoughts, and I just drive on automatic pilot; it is very relaxing.

I’ve just heard that one of the American crews misread their directions, and ended up doing the gravel section twice. It was probably good practice for tomorrow, but once was definitely enough for us. We also heard that a reporter had arrived hotfoot from London via Rome to interview Yellow Rolls Julie. She is apparently quite embarrassed by it all and can’t wait for the original driver, to get better so that she can go home.

Day 5 - Friday 5th May

Ingoumenitsa, Greece, to Thessaloniki - 354 km

The overnight ferry from Italy to Greece left at the agreeably early time of 8.30 pm. We had dinner on board with a couple of guys driving a Morris Minor and a pair of Americans driving a Mercedes. It was a pleasant evening and I had a very good night’s sleep, the best so far. This ‘overnight’ trip actually took about 16 hours from Ancona down to Ingoumenitsa, which was long, but wonderfully relaxing, so by mid-morning on Friday I was feeling quite refreshed. We had separate rooms on the ferry which allowed me a lay in.

Friday dawned bright and very warm, with temperatures reaching the mid-20s while it was still early morning. The ferry docked at lunchtime but we were not scheduled to get to the hotel at Thessaloniki until late in the evening just before midnight. Who said no night driving? We faced a long drive, on very bad, very fast roads, taking in part of the route of the Acropolis Rally.

We took a wrong turn, picking up 11 minutes of penalty points, the timed trial was absolutely horrendous; half an hour of rocky, boulder strewn track with a stream running down the middle. The scenery, when I could look at it, was quite striking. It was James Bond country again, For Your Eyes Only this time, but Bond had hang-gliders and climbing gear, we only had our suspension to rely on - Q would not have been pleased.

The timed ‘section’ track this evening was even worse. Trying to avoid the worst of the rocks and the washed out gully down the middle in the dark, also avoiding someone’s exhaust, while maintaining a respectable speed and keeping a lookout for the next junction, was virtually impossible even with the two of us. I kept as close to the cars in front as I could, but we could hardly see a thing for all the dust. We bombed up the hill but still got in five minutes late over a 30-minute section.

It is almost impossible to make the targets on roads like these. Even on the ‘normal’ road driving stages of the Rally we are really having to push it, driving 120-135 kph on the open road and 50-60 through towns, just to get from A to B without penalty points. There is no way we can slow down to the speed limits and still keep to the tight schedules for each section.

We were supposed to meet Tim tonight - Friday - to brief him on our problems with the car, but we got in much too late. The prop shaft needs fixing and we definitely need to slacken off the shock absorbers and look at the valves. There’s also a slight oil leak behind the engine again, which needs a bit of thought. We’ll be virtually taking the car to bits, but we’ll have the whole day - Saturday - so that’s okay.

I am absolutely knackered. Trying to straighten up when I got out of the car was agony; it felt like rigor mortis had set in. All the positive effects of last night’s - Thursday - ferry ride have vanished without a trace. I need my bed.

Day 6 - Saturday 6th May

Thessaloniki (rest day)

Despite the tiring drive and our late arrival at Thessaloniki, I was awake by 6.00 am and looking forward to our rest day and finally meeting up with Tim. The weather in Thessaloniki harbour was glorious and I hoped that I would get a chance to explore the town once work was done.

We decided that as we didn’t know where any garages were, Ronald would go in a taxi, while I followed behind in the Aston with Tim. A good idea in principle but not terribly successful. Eventually we found a garage open and spent a long but enjoyable day working on the repairs. I didn’t get to see anything but the inside of the car, the garage and the hotel, but that was something to which I was becoming accustomed to.

We worked on into the evening sorting things out on the car. One surprise was the electric fan, which we found had been blowing out, not sucking in, all the way here. We changed it round, so the engine should run a bit cooler now. My fingernails were filthy. I scrubbed them with a toothbrush for two minutes and next I’m going to try a nail file. Pathetic maybe, but I will not be beaten. Personal hygiene is a must.

Ronald thinks he’s found a solution to the rigor mortis; he has organised us a massage in the men-only massage parlour in Istanbul. We are getting on really well. Ronald is an excellent navigator and we are doing well, but it’s frustrating that we’ve had no chance to meet the locals or try the food. We set off first thing with our packed lunches - no lunch stops, and just travel non-stop until we get to the hotel in the evening, and nine times out of ten we get in so late the restaurants have already closed.

An awful lot of people are having problems with overheating, electrics and fuel pumps. It’s not that they haven’t prepared well; just that they are having trouble keeping pace. Down at the bar there has been a lot of gossip about people dropping out because their cars are getting wrecked, and the Rally not being fair on the older cars, which is true I suppose. From the way things have been set up it is, without doubt, a race and not just an endurance trial.

We have decided to nickname the hill climbs ‘suicide runs’ because between the car and us, the chances are one of us won’t survive. Ever since starting this trip I have been drinking gallons and gallons of water but I must be sweating it all away because I hardly ever go to the toilet. It is amazing; I just drink and drink, but no output. The only other explanation is that my bodily functions have been paralysed with fright, which wouldn’t surprise me at all.

I brought little sachets of coffee, chocolate and sugar with me so I could make a cup of coffee or whatever I want, but it’s been a waste of time so far. None of the hotels we’ve stayed at in Europe have had a kettle in the room and some of them haven’t had room service so you couldn’t even order a jug of water. Maybe things will look up, as we get further into the trip. Then again, who am I kidding?

Day 7 - Sunday 7th May

Thessaloniki to Istanbul, Turkey - 684 km

After a day’s break we were keen to get on the road again for the final day of the first leg of the rally. The long drive to Istanbul meant an early start, 6.00 am, and we set off in bright sunshine, following a route traced by Alexander the Great and his armies more than 2,000 years ago on their way to conquer Persia.

Today, convoys of modern trucks and tankers congest the road, so for the first stretch we went inland, meeting the coast again at Kavala, before continuing to the tiny fishing village of Porto Lagos where we arrived at the checkpoint 45 minutes early. This meant that for the first time we were actually able to stop for lunch. A bunch of us descended on a small fish restaurant on the harbour side and while Ronald waited for our order I nipped off to the gents. Yelling and screaming brought me rushing back to see the chefs beating each other up. They were apparently having trouble coping with the sudden rush and one of them completely flipped. Ronald then disappeared. When I finally tracked him down he was sitting cosily with the Laings, they of the DB2 - comparing notes no doubt, and drinking beer. No lunch again today, the fighting chefs took care of that.

Getting out of Greece was simple enough but getting into Turkey was altogether a different matter - a complicated and lengthy procedure. Customs was a real pain. We had to keep going from one side of the compound to the other getting our passports stamped and stamped again and paying officials even though we’d already bought visas before we got there.

We were doing about 120 kph uphill this afternoon when a Citroen 2CV overtook us, absolutely flying along. We just looked at each other; it was surreal. Fortunately pride was restored on the timed trial, a hill climb and gravel section along a forest track. We came in second. The Citroen was nowhere in sight.

We got stuck in one hell of a traffic jam on the motorway into Istanbul. There were broken down cars and lorries everywhere. Then I had to do a Fred Flintstone act. I thought the brakes were fine but I had to virtually put my foot through the floor to make the car stop. We’ll have to take a good look at them in the morning. We’ve already had to change the spark plugs on the road today - badly misfiring - they’ve lasted just over 3,200 kilometres. Once we were on the road again traffic increased steadily with our proximity to Istanbul and by the time we reached the outskirts of the city the road was teeming with every conceivable mode of motorised transport, all seemingly in competition to belch out the most fumes. Heavily congested was an understatement and, to cap it all, a dense layer of smog turned the bright sunshine to a dull haze.

The noise, the buildings and the smog in this city are overwhelming. It seems wise not to breathe too deeply. I hope it’s not always like this. Roma and Donna have flown in to meet me. I hope to do some sight seeing with them tomorrow.

I checked the Around The World Challenge leader board and discovered that we are in third place overall, behind a ’68 Hillman Hunter and a ’64 Porsche 356 - not too bad for a ’54 Aston.

There have been a number of accidents with cars hitting pedestrians. They try to get a better view of the cars and end up crowding into the road and getting hit. Bruised arms and legs and a serious casualty with someone run over. I don’t know whom by.

Absolute nightmare! It’s midnight and I’ve just been woken up by a phone call telling me we are parked in the wrong place. Stuff it, I’m going back to sleep.

Day 8 - Monday 8th May

Istanbul - Rest Day/Prizegiving Party Night

After all the hanging around in queues and traffic jams to get into Turkey, the prospect of a free day in Istanbul with Roma and Donna was an attractive one, and I intended to make the most of it. The Aston needed some attention, but not enough to occupy the whole day and I could easily pass more on to Ronald if necessary.

Istanbul was an exciting vibrant city, but although it looked fantastic on this beautiful summer’s day it smelled awful, like a sewer dump. The noise, and particularly the fumes, from the innumerable vehicles of all shapes and sizes that flowed in and out of the city day and night, was incessant.

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Barry Weir got into the mobile homes business in the UK in 1978. He is now retired but offering consulting advice on Britain’s new Mobile Homes Act. Barry Weir is also a car enthusiast, a passion that didn’t begin until he was forty years old, and his family gave him a Mercedes SL for his birthday. He has since become the first person to race a DB7 in a track event anywhere in the world.

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