Aston Martin World - Stage 3 - Anchorage to New York - Driving Ambition by Barry Weir
Mike invited the four of us, Ronald, George, Joel and myself to a barbecue at his house. It was amazing, and we stayed eating rock lobster and salmon until about 10.00 pm.
After Mike’s we went back to the garage to squeeze in as much work as we could. Ronald had worked really hard today. I dragged him away, leaving the mechanics still at it at about 1.00 am – we have to get some sleep or we’ll never cope with the drive tomorrow with a 7.00 am start. Roma has found somewhere else to live! I’ve just finished speaking to her and she informs me that she has found the perfect house and wants to move. Now, I’m at the furthest point from the UK that you can get and I am confronted with ‘where will I be living when I return home, indeed will I have a home to go to’. I shall have to persuade her to wait until I return so that I can see the property.
Day 44 – Monday 12th June
Anchorage to Tok – 519 km
At 6.00 am on Monday morning I stood eagerly awaiting the arrival of my newly overhauled car, but when ten past came, and then a quarter-past, and it still hadn’t come, I began to worry. I knew the mechanics would have worked most of the night to complete the work, but what if something new had reared its ugly head?
We had already changed the track rod arms, changed the suspension back to the original, put a new temperature gauge in and fitted new bearings and king pins. We had new brake cylinders, new 400 lb heavy-duty springs, and new lever arm shock absorbers all round. There was a new set of tyres, new brakes, brake shoes and cylinders, just in case they were worn, and the engine had a tune-up. It was an awful lot of work in a very short space of time, but everyone had worked incredibly hard and we were all set. Or were we? At 6.30 am everyone finally arrived, and I was relieved to find that other than a couple of odd jobs I could do later, everything was finished. This first driving day in the new continent was a world away from the deserts of China. The mountains, rich green valleys and waterfalls oozed life after the mute sterility of the desert, and the brilliant Alaskan sunshine was cool after the Asian heat.
Smooth, almost deserted roads and beautiful scenery. It is Scotland and Switzerland rolled into one. And no dust, so no more coughing! Three or four hours down the road we went into sunshine overload, too much squinting when we were already tired, and if it was not for the midges we would have dropped off. The bloody things are everywhere, and they only sleep for about an hour a day when the sun goes down. I saw a T-shirt with the logo: ‘Tok: a million midges can’t be wrong’ and that just about sums it up. We filled up with petrol this afternoon at Tok. It was freezing. Permafrost starts three feet down so the petrol is very cold. Now Ronald filled the tank full but as the evening wore on, the petrol warmed up and expanded up the vent pipe and dribbled for ages onto the car park. Pippa and Christine invited us out to dinner with a local couple this evening. They told us they only get two or three hours of sunshine during the winter and they virtually hibernate. He doesn’t mind months of staying in reading books. She needs to get out whenever she can, but when it gets down to about -30oC she stays in too. It’s not a lifestyle I’d choose; cabin fever would strike after the first heavy snowfall.
I did my laundry when we got back, and managed to make a real hash of it. I’m always going on at Roma to check pockets for tissues before putting clothes in the washing machine, but tonight I not only washed my dirty tissues, I also tumble-dried them. Now I’ve got hundreds of bits of shredded tissue to pick off my clothes while static keeps pulling them back on again. I will never moan at Roma about it again.
The food is great at last. Pancakes and maple syrup. In China it was spicy chicken noodles with bread and jam for breakfast – not very appetizing. But it’s getting better.
Day 45 – Tuesday 13th June
Tok to Dawson City, Canada – 301 km
The winding gravel road to Dawson City in the Yukon took in some great scenery and I was still relishing the greenness of it all and the cooler temperatures when we hit a 35 kilometre stretch of road construction. Just when I thought it was once more safe to open the windows, I was horribly reintroduced to the dreaded dust. It went everywhere and for some time the lovely surroundings faded from view. China all over again!
At our Chicken stop, population a massive 20 people in the summer and about 10 during the winter, when it has been known to drop to about -80oC, I had coffee and a chat with some of the guys. I heard that Hans le Noble’s Porsche had broken down somewhere, earning him half an hour’s penalties; bad news for them, but could be good for us.
Back to hole in the ground toilets – very basic and very cold, China again. There was a gorgeous dog at the café – big, friendly and fluffy with three legs. Everyone made a fuss of him and he was definitely well fed because whenever a pie was passed his way he made sure only to eat the meat and left the pastry – a very discerning animal.
Ronald went off to chat with Pippa while I was buying Roma and the girls some T-shirts and toy chickens in Chicken. I don’t mind that they get on well, but one wonders whom he is rallying with. We’re getting on well though, and the days are going very fast. There were times when I didn’t think we’d get this far but now it feels like it will be over in no time. After Chicken we drove into the mountains to the border with Canada. We waited 20 minutes while the border guard talked on the phone to her boyfriend. Up above the snow the views are absolutely stunning. However we are now 20 minutes late on this timed section, so it’s flat out. There was so much snow on the top of this ‘Highway in the Sky’ that we had to slow down to about 40 kph, and it took us ages. There was an off-road part of the route but when we got back on the road we hit an awful hailstorm. It was so bad the windscreen was vibrating with the weight of the chunks of ice. Ronald and I held our hands on the glass to stop it bowing in, steering with my knees. I was terrified but I managed to keep going at about 25 kph until the wipers gave up due to the weight of ice.
The last stretch was a different story. At one point we were going along at 185 kph and we still weren’t flat out – it was fantastic! We kept this speed for half an hour, driving along the ‘top of the world’. Descending into Dawson we really did use the brakes – they smelled like they were on fire, definitely overheating. The car was vibrating and shaking, and clouds of dust everywhere in the car, but it was a terrific run. No penalty points as we arrived in Dawson. Good driving or what?
Dawson City looks like something out of the Wild West, with dirt roads and raised boardwalks. You almost expect John Wayne to pull up and tether his horse by a watering trough. Our hotel even had swing doors like an old Western saloon. In its heyday as capital of the Klondike, tens of thousands lived in the town, but today it is home to only 2,500 people. It also created several woman millionaires; who ran the brothels and made a fortune. Quite a few people had problems today. Pippa and Christine lost it on the hill and the back of the car spun into a ditch, but one of the other cars towed them out so they got home okay. They are both fine and so is the car but they gained another 18 minutes of penalties. Do, in the XK140 number 53 arrived into the checkpoint 10 minutes late. Good news for us. He is in front at present.
One of the things that has amazed me all through the Rally is how kind everyone has been in all the places we’ve passed through, and this place is no exception. It may be a small town but the people here are very big on hospitality and we have been made very welcome.
Day 46 – Wednesday 14th June
Dawson City (Rest Day)
I was up early after a poor night’s sleep. My body clock, still not back in synch after leaving China, was responsible for the early start, and the weather was responsible for the rotten night. It poured with rain from dawn ‘til dusk and all night I was serenaded by the drip, drip, drip of water falling onto the metal roof of the veranda outside my open window.
Although officially a rest day, there was a special timed section in the morning around the ‘Big Dawson Loop’, 135 kilometres of tightly-twisting gravel track past old abandoned gold mines. The rain did not let up and had turned the track into a mud bath. This was the first time we had driven in these sorts of conditions since leaving Tower Bridge. It was harrowing at times and more than a few cars were penalised for coming in late, but fortunately only one vehicle actually came off the road and no one was hurt. The powdery surface of the gravel track had turned to a creamy goo making soft patches in the road and it sent us sliding all over the place. It was really quite frightening.
Halfway round the loop we took the wrong road and ended up at a radio mast on top of a hill, losing about six minutes – three up and three back down. Navigation was a bit of a problem there.
Further on we saw a Healey being pulled out of the undergrowth. It had come across the road, hit one tree and then another. Fortunately the guys inside weren’t hurt and they were soon hauled out, but the car was badly damaged.
We were lucky it wasn’t us. Things got so bad that as soon as I put my foot on the accelerator the back would swish from left to right or the front just wouldn’t steer. We were dancing all over the place, from one side of the road to the other. Once, when we hit the soft sand, we slid sideways straight across the road and I just managed to pull us up before we hit the trees. Ronald congratulated me on such a fine recovery. Sometimes I really don’t know why I’m doing this, I must be bloody insane!
I didn’t want to do anything too strenuous after this morning so I spent the afternoon pottering around town and doing a bit of shopping. There’s nothing much to do here and not much choice in the shops. They all seem to sell the same sweatshirts and T-shirts at the same prices, but I did buy a copy of ‘Gardening Life’ for the Healey guys so that next time they go pruning in the woods they can do it properly!
They are really geared up for tourists here. Buses come and go all day, but it must be dead out of season. It’s quite gimmicky, although there’s quite a bit of genuine historical stuff around too. The boardwalks aren’t just a gimmick though – after the rain the dirt roads are just rivers of mud, and it was a good job I didn’t need to cross over.
Day 47 – Thursday 15th June
Dawson City to Whitehorse – 606 km
Unfortunately our strict itinerary meant that we could not pay homage to our Wild West surroundings and drive off into the sunset. Instead we headed east from Dawson, cruising up the highway in the morning drizzle. The journey to Whitehorse, the largest town in the Yukon, took us through the Rocky Mountains along very straight, very empty roads edged with pine and silver birch trees, and it was easy going after the mud bath that had been the Loop.
A short off-road section provided a little drama but the majority of the route was highway driving that required little effort, leaving me plenty of time to ponder on our chances and the injustices of the Rally rules and regulations as I saw them.
As I see it the Rally officials keep moving the goalposts, and not in our favour. We had to go through customs up in the Rockies yesterday. The early people got through quickly and the latecomers were delayed, but they gave all the late arrivals ten minutes back, because they complained of the delay at Customs. We were delayed but drove frantically to make up for lost time. So the advantage we’d gained by superb driving went right out of the window. Do Meeus re-gained his 10 minutes, putting him further in front again. Then on the Loop yesterday, an official flagged us down and we wasted three or four minutes waiting for the Healey to be pulled out of the ditch before we could go on. We ended up five minutes late but when we asked for some time back we were told we couldn’t have it. We just can’t win. The gap is widening tremendously between the first and last cars. Fortunately we’re in with the front ones, but who knows what’s going to happen if they keep changing the rules? It’s crazy; sometimes I think they’re making them up as they go along. I’ve never come across anything like this before.
However, we did quite well today, but nearly came to grief in the timed section after the car died on us halfway up the first hill. We had a vapour lock, all vapour and no petrol coming through, and we just sat there while cars overtook us at one-minute intervals. Once the petrol started coming through I really went for it, 150 kph+, overtaking the cars that had passed us, and performing a neat little pirouette in the middle of the road at one point, arriving with two minutes to spare. Good driving!
Claude Picasso’s Merc nearly went for a dip in the lake. It clipped a tree, which bounced it back on track and they carried on as if nothing had happened, and Ronald thinks I take risks!
Word was out that the Royal Canadian Mountain Police were on the lookout for speeding rally drivers so we took it easy on the way back. We were lucky, they were fining everyone they saw driving over 95 kph, and in the end we were one of the few cars that didn’t get stopped. Nice to know luck is on our side.
Whitehorse is much bigger than Dawson but it’s no easier to buy things. In China the shops were open all hours but here the whole town, including the glass repair shops that were supposed to be open for the Rally cars, shut at 5.00 pm. I did manage to buy some socks – seven pairs, one for each day of the week, because every time I send my things off to a hotel laundry I get back less socks than I send.
I’m getting a bit fed up with Canada. The scenery is stunning, but you can overdose on stunning, especially when it comes with midges that eat you alive, and rain, and I cannot get used to this nine to five mentality.
Day 48 – Friday 16th June
Whitehorse to Watson Lake via Rose River – 736km
The sheer length of the drive and the difficulty of the two 96 kilometre sections in the timed trial combined to make this one of the toughest days of competitive driving so far.
It was absolutely crazy, two-and-a-half hours of constant pressure, searing heat, yes the sun is out, and choking dust. I must be nuts! We took off like a bat out of hell after the Healey and Do Meeus in the Jag, sliding all over the place and almost going into the ditch. There was only a minute between each car going off and we soon overtook the Healey and then caught up with Do Meeus, but we couldn’t overtake him. He was churning up loads of dust and we were so close behind him we could barely see where we were going, let alone try to overtake.
I was pressing the brake and the accelerator so much I ended up with cramp in my foot, but I had to keep going, frantically stomping on one pedal and then the other, hoping we wouldn’t skid off the road – it was absolutely excruciating. It was worth it though – we gained two minutes on the Healey and one minute on Do. Every minute counts.
On the second special stage we passed a big green Irish Cadillac, the Healey, the yellow Porsche, and Picasso in his Merc, all of whom had gone off the road. So many people have had problems today it must have wreaked havoc on the leader board. We might have even overtaken the Porsche, in which case, Do will be first in our class and we will be second, with only minutes between us.
I talked to the scrutineer about the rules, and the official view is that if people have accidents you don’t stop, that’s what the medics and the backup team are for. You have to be ruthless because if you stop, you lose out: you’re late and will get penalties. If, however, something happens that is beyond their control, such as the long wait at customs, they will give extra time. That’s great. We didn’t get the extra time at customs because we drove so fast that we made up for the delay, but we do keep the penalties we got when we stopped at the accident, which we wouldn’t have stopped at if we hadn’t been forced to!
Practically speaking, the day was quite a success – we came through in one piece and with no penalties. But on a personal level, I was frustrated and increasingly concerned about what I saw as our failing partnership. We were losing our team spirit, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
Ronald is going round helping people to calculate their checking in and out times so they don’t get penalties. Here I am trying to be ruthless and win, and he’s helping all and sundry get their maths right, that’s the competition he’s helping. We should be getting our game plan together, figuring out how to improve our own position, not trying to salvage everyone else’s.
He completely flipped this afternoon. We got in early (5.00 pm) so we had time to clean up the dust and fix the car for tomorrow before checking in. We weren’t due in until 7.00 pm. Ronald was irritable and fretting so he toddled off to check in at 6.00 pm. We still had plenty of work to do and I didn’t want to do it all on my own, but he went anyway. He came back a bit later saying “the Clerk of the Course wanted to see the car as some had run out of petrol and he wanted to be sure that we had arrived with the car”. But I was still finishing off so I said that we’d go in a couple of minutes. We still had 45 minutes before our official check in time. He went off the deep end, storming about saying, ‘he was the navigator, not me, and it was his responsibility to get us checked in, and we were going now!’ This whole thing with Ronald and Pippa is also getting beyond a joke.
They went off for a wander again today when we stopped for coffee, leaving Christine and me sitting there like a couple of lemons. We get on great and talk to the other Rally competitors but it would be nice to have my co-driver to talk to.
I don’t know what to do about it. Talking to him does no good he always tells me we’re fine and nothing has changed. He cannot see what he is doing – but the rest of the Rally can and others make snide remarks about them, which I promptly ignore.
Day 49 – Saturday 17th June
Watson Lake to Terrace – 863 km
After a good night’s sleep I felt ready to cope with the marathon run to the tiny community of Terrace, British Columbia. The novelty of spending the major part of each day in the cabin of the Aston had worn off early in the rally and as we were facing 11 or 12 hours’ hard driving (800 km run), we shared the job to break the monotony. The tension of driving for hours at speeds in excess of 145 kph is draining, mentally and physically, especially as you have your navigator’s life in your hands and are responsible for Roma’s Concours Aston. I was a bit worried about the drive this morning because Ronald came in looking absolutely shattered and I was sure we were in for a row at some stage, but peace reigned and he managed okay during his driving stint. He’s quite a good driver, but his concentration wanders sometimes and it gets a bit hairy.
The weather this morning was dull and overcast and although we were below the snow line it was still quite cold. Up in the mountains for the timed trial the sky was a brilliant blue, but there was such a thick blanket of midges on the windscreen we only got to see it intermittently as the wipers swept them away. In fact my two least favourite components of the rally, dust and bugs, featured quite heavily in the day’s activities, but there were sufficient high spots to make it an enjoyable, if tiring day. The car is running at 50oC temperature, oil pressure 65, all ok.
I thought I’d done a decent job of cleaning out the car yesterday but every time we went over a big bump – and there were many – clouds of dust appeared and we could barely see out of the window. It will probably be days before we get rid of it altogether. The new springs are superb though, so we were comfortably bouncing around, even if we couldn’t see where we were going.
Another Rover, number 58, came a cropper at one of the time controls. David Hughes’ navigator left the door open when they went to check in and car number 41, a Chevy, ran into it, taking it right off its hinges. They had to drive the rest of the day with a piece of paper taped across the doorframe to keep out the dust and the draft. Understandably the navigator was not too happy, but it was pretty entertaining for the rest of us.
Ronald reckons that Do Meeus checked in 20 minutes too early, which is 40 penalty points. We should find out for sure tomorrow.
The windscreen has a crack and it’s chipped, but Ronald has checked and it looks like we’ll be able to get it repaired in the morning, which is good news. I called Tim and said I might need a new windscreen, and I might have a chat with George Richcreek to see if there’s anything he can do. Early night tonight – it’s been a long day.
Day 50 – Sunday 18th June
Terrace to Smithers with loop to Granisle – 473 km
One of the good things about the Rally itinerary was the way it was broken down into manageable chunks. We seldom had to face two long driving days in a row, and Day 50 consisted of the short drive to Smithers, followed by a series of timed tests out in the forests, finishing at Granisle, where the townsfolk had laid on cookies and coffee. It was not the first time this had happened, but I was always surprised by the generosity of our hosts and the interest they took in our endeavours, and it was a pleasure to spend time with them.
Roma and the girls rang in the morning to wish me a happy Fathers’ Day. It was nice to know they were thinking of me but it made me very aware of how much I was missing home and how isolated I was feeling. There was still a whole month to go to the finish line and I wondered how Ronald and I were going to manage.
Roma checked out the website and we’re in eighth place overall and still second in class. Ronald was convinced that Do had clocked in early yesterday but it was not showing on the scoreboard. He’s going to check it out with the Clerk of the Course, because there have been occasional errors in recording times and that could alter positions quite dramatically for some people – in this case, us.
I joined Ronald and the girls, for breakfast at 5.00 am. The previous evening Pippa went with Ronald to get the windscreen chips done. The Rover’s windscreen is chipped too but Pippa didn’t take it to get it fixed, she just went with Ronald in the Aston, much to Christine’s annoyance.
I’ve also come to the conclusion that Ronald is not single-minded enough for this Rally. We were going well this morning when we went round a slippery corner. Car number 75, a Lancia Flavia, had gone off the road and slid down a bank into some bushes. Everyone seemed to be okay and there were six other cars there lending a hand, but Ronald wanted to stop and check they weren’t suffering from shock. I said, “No,” it’s been like this from the word go – we’re either running a rally, or we’re not. If we stop and help anybody, we’ll get penalty points, you decide.” Bad news, Ronald wanted to stop. Anyhow we didn’t stop; we went to the hotel. It was more important to get a service crew and rally doctor.
The Jam Tart, Janet Chisholm’s red Chevy, did a jam roly-poly! It tried to go straight on when the road banked sharply to the left and went into a slow roll, ending up on its side. The car was pretty dented but the crew was fine and they somehow managed only to lose an hour, which was pretty good going.
The people we meet on this rally are amazing. A guy who lives in a mobile home round the corner from the hotel we are staying in invited me to use his power jet to clean the car, and for a beer afterwards. Then there was a free beer tent and a jazz band in the car park, which made the job of finishing cleaning the car much more enjoyable.
Ronald says he wants a day in bed tomorrow, a rest day. I shall be up at 7.00 am to get the car greased up and ready for Tuesday, but I won’t hold my breath for Ronald. I’ve made it very clear that the West Coast, AMOC are coming to Kamloops to meet the two of us, not us and Pippa, and I expect him to be there and to be sociable, and the same goes for meeting George Richcreek in Jamestown and the American AMOC in Newark.
My Visa card isn’t working. They’re not clearing it because they say the number’s not valid. I’ll have to get it sorted out because I’m definitely going to need it.
Day 51 – Monday 19th June
Smithers (Rest Day)
While we were on the road there wasn’t really time to give the car more than a quick once-over, so rest days like this one, when we have quality time to check things out thoroughly and do essential maintenance, are very important. I went down to the car park after breakfast and, much to my surprise, Ronald joined me soon after and we worked through until lunch. The townspeople of Smithers closed the Main Street and ran a parade of the rally cars, but unfortunately a lot of the cars, including the Lancia and the Jam Tart, were tied up with repairs and the turnout was not very impressive. Undaunted, they laid on a reception in the evening which was much better attended, at which they presented an enormous trophy of a moose antler to Lennox McNeely and James Walters, the highest placed Canadian crew, who were driving around the world in a 1938 Packard Touring Sedan.
Day 52 – Tuesday 20th June
Smither to Prince George – 531 km
Well, today we’re leaving Smithers for another gruelling day of God knows how many kilometres in the countryside. Ronald’s quite perky this morning, he got up quite early because the car wasn’t running so well so he’s changed the spark plug. Perhaps we’re getting our act together now. We’re actually doing what we should be doing which is rather good news. Those of us who had not already had enough of gravel roads before the journey to Prince George had certainly had our fill of them by the end of the day. Skidding and sliding was a perpetual risk, particularly as it had rained overnight, creating the now familiar creamy slippery mudpack surface. Restricting our speed took some of the fun out of the timed sections, but it kept us on the road and we still managed to arrive in good time. By midafternoon, everyone had reached the hotel, including Tony Fowkes of the back-up service crew, whose trusty Land Rover had become one of the casualties of the Rally two days earlier. He was now working from the back of a flatbed lorry, while he waited to collect some parts that were being sent out to Banff. It’s a bit ironic that the service crew needs service, but hopefully he’ll get things sorted out on Friday. He looked less than comfortable on, rather than in, his new vehicle, and it was really quite funny. Freddie Giles’ Hillman Hunter lost its radiator – he still got in on time, don’t know how he did that, picked it up and ran perhaps? We entered the twilight zone for a moment this morning when a bus load of English pensioners came into town. They had seen another load of classic cars just like ours not so long ago at Tower Bridge in London! It really is a small world.
Ronald has been very cheerful the last couple of days and he doesn’t seem so tired. We’ve been getting on really well. It’s almost like old times, It’s a welcome change.
Day 53 – Wednesday 21st June
Prince George to Kamloops – 661 km
Everything changed for the better on Wednesday morning. The sky cleared, the sun shone brightly and the road surface, although mostly still gravel, improved dramatically. We had an easy drive through gently rolling hills to Williams Lake, where we paused for coffee before launching into some fantastic timed trials.
The first of these was 153 km long; a twisting, winding track that ran through the mountains, along the side of the Fraser River. This was followed by two much shorter runs, less than 32 km each, through pine forests, which allowed me to put my foot down and really go for it.
The views down through the gorges were breathtaking. I had to be a bit careful about sliding on the bends, but we still hammered it, averaging about 80 kph. We came up behind Do Meeus in his Jag – and rather than sit in a cloud of his dust, I overtook him and we went off like a rocket down the road ahead of him. Then he took a wrong turn and didn’t realise his mistake for about five minutes. We arrived on time and got no penalty points but Do got 11 minutes worth. It cheered us up no end because it meant that we’re closing the gap. Who knows, we might even overtake him. It was brilliant fun. At the end of the day, Do gained 22 penalty points, which means we are now within one minute of each other. Hopefully we’ll take the lead in our class in the next few days, and we should stay there because we’re definitely faster than Do. He’s carrying a lot, so his Jag is very top-heavy and it doesn’t corner that well.
The car’s giving everything it’s got and I’m still demanding more from it – brilliant little car. Anyhow, we have noticed that the driver’s side tyre has started to wear badly, the track rod adjustment is wrong and loose, so we’ll have to be careful because we could in fact lose our steering and that could be quite hairy.
Car 88, a Mercedes, went off the road, smashed through a fence and got stuck on a mound of soil. They had to physically dig themselves off, and the Rally director had to pay the farmer $100 for the fence. A couple of other cars went off the road but I don’t think anyone was hurt.
We’ve got a rattle in the gearbox – third and fourth gear in particular, to 3,500 rpm, but it disappears at 4,000. I have greased the universal joints and got things fixed up for tomorrow, but we need to find out what’s causing the rattle. I chatted with Tony and he doesn’t think it’s too serious. When we get to Banff we’re going to jack the car up and run the engine to see if we can find out what’s causing it, and then hopefully cure it.
Also at Banff we’re going to be scrutinised, and we have no tax disc – it flew out of the window today. I’ve sent off for another one, so I just hope I don’t get penalised.
I met up with Ronald, Pippa in tow, at about 6.30 pm in the bar, to wait for the AMOC members to arrive. I’d hoped he would be wearing his Aston Martin team T-shirt to show a united front and a professional attitude towards the Rally, but he turned up in a casual shirt and casual trousers. You cannot dictate what people do. An hour later everybody was getting a bit hungry and, as Ronald didn’t have his Aston gear on, I suggested they go and get something to eat. I didn’t say anything because we’ve been getting on really well lately, but I was a bit annoyed. He knew the AMOC members were coming to see the two of us so I would have thought he would have come on his own, and dressed for the occasion.
When the Club members arrived they took me to dinner and I had my ego well and truly stroked. They’d all been following the Rally on the website and wished me well with the rest of the trip. I’ve been finding it a bit of a slog recently, so the evening was just what I needed.
One or two competitors have complained at the pace of the Rally, saying that it’s destroying their cars. I said, we went through China and everything else and it destroyed our car, but we serviced it and kept going. This was an endurance rally, not a jolly ride on a Sunday afternoon through the countryside. If you’re up there with the leaders doing very well, and you start moaning ‘it’ll destroy your car’, well tough luck. That’s the name of the game. This is an endurance rally. That’s the whole idea of the event. If your car gets faults and errors and breaks down, you won’t be in the top group, you’ll drop down and someone else will take your place. It’s pointless slagging off the Rally just because you happen to be fairly near the top and then saying well, ‘gosh, you know, I don’t want to lose my position, because my car’s falling to bits’. That’s the Rally. I think the Rally people have taken it on board. However they are altering things slightly; the special stages will be much shorter, and there’ll be less of them. But much quicker so you can’t make up time, so that others have a chance to catch up. I’m quite confident tomorrow will be interesting.
Day 54 – Thursday 22nd June
Kamloops to Banff – 551 km
Ronald was up and about bright and early this morning. He’s much more cheerful now; it’s quite a change from the miserable sod of a few days ago. Well you can’t be perfect all the time.
It rained quite heavily overnight but the sun was shining again for the scenic drive along the Trans-Canada Highway to Banff. It was too late to dry out the mud and puddles on the timed test though; no one made it in on time and a few regretted trying.
The test section today (average speed 81 kph) was on gravel, with the sloppy creamy mud. We went round a long left-hand bend and I saw what I thought was a couple of locals standing under a tree watching the fun, until Ronald pointed out that it was Yves Morault with his Peugeot 404 in the ditch beside him. Up until today he was in second place over all so I don’t suppose he was too chuffed.
Do lost time when his engine cut out going through a water splash. He arrived three or four minutes behind us, so we must have taken over the lead in our class now.
Day 55 – Friday 23rd June
Banff (Rest Day)
The resort town of Banff, with its hot springs and snowy mountain peaks made a pleasant and peaceful stopping-off point. We took the opportunity to sit over a leisurely coffee or beer, see to our laundry, and carry out repair work on the cars. The last few days had been tough going and most of the cars needed some degree of attention. Much to Tony Fowkes’ relief his Land Rover parts had arrived and he was able to rebuild his engine and get the portable workshop that most (not us) relied on back on the road.
We took the Aston to a garage in Calgary (a two hour drive 160 km away) where we handed over a list of jobs, including changing the universal joint, fitting a new track rod arm and taking a look at the speedo, which had been flickering, and toddled off leaving the two mechanics to it.
We went for coffee and a bite to eat and killed a bit of time in a shopping mall. When we got back to the garage at about 3.00 pm the guys said the universal joint wasn’t too bad, but they had changed it anyway. The track rod arm was still being made, so while they were getting on with that we went for another coffee. They changed the wheels and fitted the steering arm and then they found a really bad problem with the speedo. Where the cable was screwed into the take-off from the gearbox, the nut had been over-tightened and it had split. Not only that, it had been cross-threaded. They took it all apart, cleaned it up and managed to weld it together, but now I’ve got to get a new speedo from Tim Butcher, and I’ll be having a word with him about it because it must have been his guys who hashed it up in the first place. The bill came to $1,200.
A new windscreen had been sent from the UK. When I got up to my hotel room, at about 9.00 pm, there was the new windscreen on my bed! I’d never fitted one before. I went back downstairs and grabbed Ronald who had just ordered his dinner. He helped me get the damaged windscreen out and put the new one in, but I finished off on my own because Ronald went off to have his dinner. I’d given up on mine.
It’s 10.00 pm and I’m going to bed. Ronald’s downstairs, socialising with the other guests. We got a lot done today. The track rod arm is perfect now, brakes are adjusted, and the speedo should cope for the time being. I’m lying here, trying to think, and I realise I’ve lost of track of time. I don’t immediately know what day it is, or the date. This afternoon, in a shopping mall, I couldn’t even remember what country or town we were in. You get completely disorientated doing this rally. You just drive and stop and drive again.
I just hope all goes well tomorrow. Having got to first place in the Historic Sports Cars section and sixth overall, it would be rather nice if I could stay there.
Day 56 – Saturday 24th June
Banff to Shelby, USA – 642 km
It was raining when we set off on our trek to the tiny town of Shelby, via Glacier National Park and a border crossing into the US state of Montana. The weather got worse as the day progressed. As we climbed into the mountains the rain turned to sleet and by the time we had reached the special stage in the afternoon it was snowing quite heavily.
Another long drive, three special stages and foul weather, what a combination! I am absolutely shattered from the effort of trying to keep the car in a straight line. I could do with an iron to smooth out the frown lines on my forehead.
The Aston has very little grip on such wet surfaces and I had my job cut out just keeping it under control. Even on straight stretches the car has a tendency to slide all over the road, so we had to slow our pace a little – but we still had fun slithering our way around the course.
We did quite well on the two morning sections, even though we were skidding and sliding all over the place, but so did everyone else, so it won’t have changed anything.
Lunch was great – a really good buffet with live entertainment from a Country and Western band. It was so nice being warm and dry that I nearly lost track of time, but I managed to resist the temptation of one more coffee and we made it to the check-in dead on 1.00 pm. Yes there are lunch stops on the American leg.
We survived the final timed section even though it was snowing quite heavily, and had no problems at the border crossing.
Day 57 – Sunday 25th June
Shelby to Bozeman – 490 km
It is amazing what a difference a good eight hours can make. In contrast to the previous few nights, and despite all the coffee I had been drinking since we hit the North American continent, I slept really well in my small Shelby hotel room, and woke the next morning to brilliant sunshine. I felt on top of the world.
Ronald’s in very good form. Now, for the last couple of days, he’s got more into the spirit of the Rally, as I would put it, more involved in the car and how it’s working. I see far more of him now and he’s far more amenable, which is nice.
My positive outlook seemed to translate itself into good luck by the bucket load, and as it turned out I really needed it. 80 days worth of potential disasters seemed to come together with one completely surreal day. The first near disaster happened at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. It was wide-open country, this is Montana, and it was deserted, so even though the sign said ‘Stop’ we didn’t bother to slow down. They’re usually all flat roads, but this time the road going across had a hell of camber on it, in other words, the centre was raised up about a foot higher than the edges. So we’re bombing down the road at 140 kph, and we hit it. The front wheel hit it first and went upwards towards the sky, and then the car launched itself into space, quickly followed by the back wheels. This was very reminiscent of another incident back in China somewhere with a railway line. Anyhow, this time, it went up and then the front of the car, instead of staying parallel to the road as it were, dipped forward and the car went head first, crashing into the road. The front wheels took the full impact, clouds of dust were flying everywhere, and our eyeballs were rattling around in our heads, you’ve no idea. Then the back caught up with the front, that hit the ground, and because there’s no engine weight to keep it down, it bounced back up again, to the point where Ronald and I were looking through the windscreen at the tarmac directly in front of us, we were almost vertical. Clouds of dust, we had no idea where we were going. Then the back came down again, and we sort of looked at each other and smiled as there was not a lot else you could do. Clouds of dust, we couldn’t see a thing. So we opened the windows, braked hard, stopped, had a look round: no damage, nothing, it was just pure, pure luck. On another timed section, coming off a bend, we came across Picasso’s Merc, smashed up right across the road. We pulled up and Ronald went to look after Claude and his co-driver Silvie Vautier, while I stopped the traffic and got the camera crew to get some help. Do Meeus overtook us. We were into penalty points now. Then medics and officials started to arrive and Ronald said the guys were okay so we could go on.
Off we went, flying down the road. When we came up behind Do Meeus, he pulled over so we could pass him, which was very kind considering we’re in direct competition. Then two or three miles down the road we hit a curb on a left-hand bend. The brakes were useless on the gravel, so I took my foot slightly off the brakes and we drifted round. My side rear wheel went off the road and we swung out over a 20-foot-drop – it was a horrible moment, but almost straight away we swung back onto the road and carried on as nothing had happened.
A few minutes further on some cows stepped out into the road, and the next thing we knew they were chasing after us, inches from the car. I couldn’t believe it, these huge, ton-and-a-half animals, were coming after us – we could almost feel their breath. I thought one of them was going to jump on the bonnet. It’s funny now but it was absolutely terrifying then.
Compared to some of the other drivers we got off lightly today. As well as Picasso, two other cars, Rick Dyke-Price’s Healey and Do Meeus’ Jag also went off the road. The Healey got stuck on the bank. It was soon towed back onto the road but still managed to lose two hours in penalties. The worst one today was Do. After we passed him, his car went out of control on a corner and rolled down a 20-foot slope – it may even have been the site of our near miss. They lost three hours in penalties, but that’s probably the last thing on their minds right now. He and his wife, Johanna were both very shaken up and the car will need some work.
The Aston is now oiled and greased up ready for tomorrow’s drive through Yellowstone National Park. I am very aware that we are there but by the grace of God… and I don’t think I’ll be taking our safety for granted after this. Also, if I really damage the car Roma will kill me.
Day 58 – Monday 26th June
Bozeman to Billings via Yellowstone National Park – 549 km
After the eventful journey to Bozeman we were in need of an easy, relaxed day, and that was exactly what we got on the 12 hour drive to Billings. We had a straight run through Yellowstone National Park with no special sections or time controls to worry about. We saw beautiful countryside, gushing geysers shooting hot steam into the air and bears, bison and deer wandering through the trees in clear view. It was very like Switzerland in places.
Ronald and I got on fine but he was a bit quiet because he wasn’t feeling too good.
Driving into Yellowstone there were acres and acres of dead conifers. They looked as though some sort of fungus had got to them, it was really quite sad. There were special pull-in lanes for parking, but we got stuck in a great long queue because some people had stopped on the road to get a better look at a grizzly bear 400-500 yards away. They got out with telescopes; tripods and cameras with lenses about six feet long and no one could get through. Sad anoraks?
We counted two or three grizzlies on the way up to Old Faithful geyser. It felt very staged and artificial there, with internal and external viewing areas, and as the geyser wasn’t due to go off again for another 45 minutes and there were other geysers in the park – admittedly not as big – we decided to give it a miss.
The route took us up into the mountains to about 3,400 m. It was cold and clear and all quite picturesque until we suddenly drove into a cloud, and it was a total whiteout. There was snow to our right and left and we could only see six metres in front of us. We crawled along like this for nearly an hour. It was claustrophobic and extremely unnerving, but it was the only bad part in an otherwise great day.
Driving round Yellowstone there were signs everywhere and I suddenly thought how ‘Big Brotherish’ America is, No Smoking, Belt Up, 45mph Limit, No Left Turn, and No Right Turn. There seems to be this assumption that no one has any common sense. The Americans are more controlled than any of the Chinese or Russians we have seen.
On our way out of the Park we got stuck in more queues. The police were pulling cars over because they’d had complaints that two rally cars had virtually forced a vehicle off the side of a cliff through reckless driving. But when they realised there were actually more than 40 cars in the rally they just checked the description of the culprits, and as we didn’t match it, let us go.
The car is sorted and ready for tomorrow. The end of the new Speedo cable disappeared; we must have lost it in the snow, so we’ve had to put the old one back on for now. I’ve also filled some gaps round the windscreen where wind and rain was getting in, so we should stay dry from now on. The forecast is for temperatures in the 90’s as we head east, which will be a pleasant change.
There are loads of time controls en route tomorrow, which could mean lots of penalties. If the leading cars get caught speeding or driving recklessly, they will be arrested and their cars impounded for 24 hours. But that’s just wishful thinking on my part. We’re first in the Historic Sports Car category now, and fifth overall, and there’s very little chance of improving our position. This is likely to be it for the rest of Rally.
Day 59 – Tuesday 27th June
Billings to Rapid City via Devils Tower National Monument and Mount Rushmore National Memorial – 787 km
In true rally style, our relaxed, untimed day was followed by the first of three of the longest drives of the whole 80 days. There was only one special section, but that was enough, and the many time controls along the way also had the potential to trip up any drivers not doing their maths properly.
Fine weather in the morning soon turned to dull rain. The route took us past several places of historical interest, without which my boredom threshold would have been seriously pushed on this long drive. We stopped to look at the small grassy knoll where General Custer made his Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn and then went on to the Devil’s Tower National Monument, made famous by its appearance in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for the special section.
The 18-mile gravel track was pitted and rutted as if dozens of tractors had gone before us, and trying to maintain some sort of speed while staying in the troughs that dominated the track was anything but easy. Several cars slid off the road and most of us dropped at least a few minutes on that section. We ended the day at Rapid City, pausing first to ogle at the impressive, fantastical Mount Rushmore with its remarkable carvings of four of America’s presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt) carved between 1927 and 1941 under the direction of the sculptor Gutzon Borglum.
Day 60 – Wednesday 28th June
Rapid City to Jamestown via Badlands National Park – 786 km
Wednesday dawned with clear skies and the promise of warm sunshine. The second of the three ‘longest days’ had no test sections to interrupt the 786 km journey. It was my first real chance to let the Aston have its head, and I was looking forward to some fun on the long open roads. I must tell you. I had the most appalling breakfast of the whole Challenge this morning: a couple of trays of sticky buns, dirty-coloured water instead of coffee, and jam so thick I couldn’t get my knife into it – and it was ‘off ’. It would have been very good for filling up holes in petrol tanks but for breakfast it was appalling. I made up for it later with the standard lunch of pancakes, maple syrup, sausages and bacon that I’ve had virtually every day since we got to this continent. And I’m putting on the pounds that I lost in China!
Ronald seemed perkier today. He’s obviously getting over whatever it was he had. One of the guys in the Lagonda has been quite poorly over the last few days and it turns out he’s got some sort of viral infection, with malarialike symptoms. The doctor must have given him something because he seems much better this morning, even eating breakfast with the rest of us. We reached the Badlands by about 10.00 am. Amazing, huge mud mountains and rocky moonscapes, the best scenery I’ve seen for weeks. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. We were driving along enjoying the scenery when ‘déjà vu’ struck – bee country again. The car windscreen turned into a mobile insect graveyard, horrible, but at least this time the wipers were working.
On the high plains the temperature really increased and we flew down the Roman-straight road for hours on end, engine temperature 24oC, oils at 60-65 lbs pressure, no rattles, no squeaks, at 160 kph, with the breeze blasting in through the open windows. Eating up the miles out on the prairies was a pleasure. But I wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale of the landscape, and the sense of isolation I felt came as something of a shock. A couple of breaks for tests would have been welcome.
Hours later we were still on the same road, driving in a straight line through the prairies, now at about 170 kph for hours on end. Very boring. All I could see was grass everywhere, with the occasional building thrown in, stretching on forever, even as far as the horizon. There was no one in sight and no other cars in front or behind us. We measured the road in hours rather than kilometres and I felt quite lost.
Looking after the Aston was a bit like looking after a horse. No matter how hard the day had been, I still had to take care of the car before myself. When we finally got to Jamestown we had to fit new tyres and grease everything up ready for tomorrow before we could go for showers and dinner.
It’s just as well I had a new windscreen fitted back in Banff because I’ve now found out that in the States it’s illegal to drive a car with a cracked windscreen. Picasso cracked his in his accident and he got a ticket just driving between the site of the accident and the garage to get a new one. The guys in the Mustang lost their windscreen too in an encounter with a pheasant, but they made it into town without being spotted.
The mobile phone hasn’t been working since we got to Alaska. I don’t understand it; it worked in some of the wilds of China, but hasn’t worked at all since we got to ‘civilised’ America. Fortunately public phones do phone out in this country. We’re hoping the reception will be better when we get to Duluth.
Day 61 – Thursday 29th June
Jamestown to Duluth – 863 km
Another bright, hot, sunny day, 29oC. This is the third long day in a row, in fact the longest of the whole rally – after this it would be downhill all the way, at least until we hit North Africa.
I enjoyed dashing round the gravel course in brilliant sunshine, at speeds in excess of 160 kph on open roads. Even with that entertaining diversion, the most memorable aspect of the day was still its length. We were still on the prairies, narrow, straight roads, going on hour after hour, with sometimes more than 95 kilometres between turn-offs, and by the time we finally arrived in Duluth we were both exhausted.
Lunch was at a very nice spot overlooking the water at Detroit Lakes, and then we drove through the White Earth State Forest and Indian Reservation to the timed trial, along a classic US rally route.
The 78-kilometre timed trial along a twisting forest track was also one of the longest since our arrival in America. I’m amazed we got through it, but we did, and we have good reason to be pleased with our performance. We came up to a big bend with lots of gravel. I turned into the bend, the back started flying wide, it caught up with the front, we went sidewards, then backwards off onto the grass, but it didn’t slow us up too much and we got to the end with eight minutes in penalties. At one stage we were hurtling down the gravel road, dust flying everywhere, with the Busch’s Mercedes in front and the Morault’s Peugeot behind – it was great fun. Average speed 160 kph. Then Morault came up behind us driving like an idiot, so we let him overtake. He went past and because he was in such a great hurry he missed the turn – his just desserts I reckon. We cheered with joy.
We beat the Busch’s, but got one more minute than Morault, despite his detour. Freddie Giles, who’s in the overall lead, got six minutes of penalties, so I think we did pretty well.
The hotel here is better than most we’ve stayed at since we got to the USA, but that wouldn’t be hard. I thought there were some bad ones in China but almost all of them over here have been awful. I don’t think too many will be hitting the town tonight; most of us will be dead to the world as soon as possible. Tomorrow is a rest day, thank God.
Day 62 – Friday 30th June
Duluth (Rest Day)
We got up bright and early and took the car down to the garage to change a few little bits on it – what a disaster. We had a hell of a job getting the universal joint out. The one that was in there was damaged, so we put a new one in. We had to take the timing case cover off the front again, (remember we did this before somewhere in the car park). This time we did it in the garage, which was a lot easier. It was cracked on the other steady foot but fortunately we had a spare one we’d had shipped out to Anchorage, and had taken it with us, so we took the old one off, and fitted the new one. The work went on all day, then we finally put the car back together, and now it’s going quite well. I’m so tired…
Anyhow, this evening I went out with Christine, George Richcreek and his friend, Patrick, and had a nice night at a really great restaurant. Tomorrow’s another day, the car’s all fixed and sorted out – don’t know how long for, but apart from Niagara Falls, this is the last service day we get, so after that it’s real bad news if it goes wrong.
The rally people, or so we understand, have scrapped a lot of special stages because of all the holidays coming up, 3rd July in Canada and 4th July in America, so all the kids are off school and loads of people will take to the roads. So tomorrow we’ve got one special stage and then there’s no more until we hit Morocco.
Day 63 – Saturday 1st July
Duluth to Marquette – 722 km
The steering went a bit wobbly and we could smell oil burning. We had a look at the oil seal at the front, and it looks as though it may have a bit of a leak. The original oil seal was a double-lip Viton seal that locked it up bone dry, but this one is a single lip so we’ll have to keep an eye on it. When we got to Marquette there was a terrific thunderstorm, lashing rain, crashing thunder and lightning flashing everywhere. The guys at Calgary hadn’t set up the tracking like they were supposed to. Bad news, we found out that the passenger front tyre had been set up with half an inch too much tow-in, which is horrendous. Half of our front nearside tyre has been getting worn and half of it hasn’t.
Someone lent us the gear we needed to put things right so Ronald held the umbrella while I lay down in the streams and puddles (well someone had too), to take the sump off and undo the nuts, and then between us we adjusted the steering arm. Hopefully the car will drive a lot better tomorrow. I forgot to mention to Ronald that the tarmac was warm and so heated the water, which was quite pleasant. Freddie was fixing his car next to mine and also getting soaked. We both had a good laugh – ‘mad men and machines’. I spent a very pleasant evening at the hotel with Ronald, Christine and Pippa, Do Meeus and his wife Johanna, and the two in the Italian car, Roberto Chiodi and Maria Esposti. Food was pretty good too.
Day 64 – Sunday 2nd July
Marquette to Bay City – 723 km
We were never far from water on the drive to Bay City. The route took us along the shores of Lake Superior and then through the stunning scenery of the Hiawatha National Park to our destination for the night, perched on a large bay at Lake Huron.
It was a day of contrasts as we passed through lush green countryside and built-up urban areas. The weather when we set out was damp and cold, but when the sun came out temperatures rose to the mid-30’s. As it got warmer I was reminded that the hottest weather was still to come, in North Africa. I was driving along thinking that the car was going better now that we have sorted out the steering arm, when we suddenly lost all charging power and the red light came on saying we had no dynamo. We were on a special stage so no stopping to fix it yet.
I managed to make it to the time control without any penalties and then took the dynamo brushes out and found that they had disappeared. We looked through the spares bag; there were bearings, but no brushes. I thought Tim was going to put some in but there weren’t any there. Luckily for us David and Dennis, local Healey club members came along and they had some spares so we fitted those at lunchtime and they seemed to work all right. Quite often a local car club would travel with us, they carried spares so it was a great help.
Oil is still leaking out of the front main bearing. I can’t tell how bad it is but I think we need to get the oil seal replaced – if we can, that is. These single-lip seals are known to leak, but I don’t know if we will be able to get hold of another Viton one or if we will just have to make do. All things considered today has gone very well. We made good time and thanks to the Healey guys we have some good strong brushes and a renewed dynamo. As for everything else, it will have to wait until Niagara on Tuesday.
Only 16 days to go until we hit Tower Bridge again. Dinner tonight was excellent.
Day 65 – Monday 3rd July
Bay City to Niagara Falls, Ontario – 557 km
We left Bay City in the early morning drizzle for an easy day’s drive, the route crossing back into Canada before running along the northern edge of Lake Erie to Niagara Falls.
On paper, today was shorter than recent trips, but the cross-country route along lots of dirt tracks made it feel very long. It all looked so similar it felt like we passed the same farm about 20 times. Ronald was very quiet too; I don’t know where he was last night but he seemed a little bit tired this morning.
We got to the passage control and Yves Morault had broken down. Ronald wanted to stop and help. I didn’t, but he gave me such a hard time I finally agreed. By the time we were finished fixing their accelerator cable we were running late so we had to drive like bloody idiots, breaking every speed limit going, to get to the next time control without penalty points. It took an awful lot of concentration and I could have really done without the pressure.
When we got to our lunch stop they’d rescheduled things. Arrival time should have been 12.48 pm, we were now due to leave at 12.34 pm, 14 minutes before we arrived! So we didn’t get anything to eat and had to drive on, again like bloody idiots, to get to the next check-in on time. Morault overtook us on the way through a town. When we stopped at some lights a local guy got out of his car and asked us to ‘tell that bloody man (Morault) not to drive so fast, he overtook me at 125 kph!’ Good job he hadn’t seen us a few minutes earlier.
I screeched into the final time control all hot and bothered, but I could have saved myself the trouble because several people missed it altogether, and a few penalties more or less on my time isn’t going to make much difference to the overall positions.
Although I was now enjoying the driving, I always looked forward to the journey’s end, and on this occasion I had an added incentive. Roma, Helena and Charlotte were going to meet me at the hotel, and Tim Butcher was also in town with spares.
Roma and the girls were already at the hotel when we checked in. It was great to be a family again, even if it was only for a couple of days, and I intended to make the most of it. There was quite a bit of work to do on the car, we had oil leaking at the front, the king pins were wobbling, and we needed new brake shoes, but fortunately it was Ronald’s turn to do the work, so my girls and I should be able to get away for a while tomorrow. Ronald had planned to work tonight, so that he could have tomorrow off to see the Falls, but that all went up in smoke when we got to the garage with Tim and found it was closing up for the night. I don’t know how long he’ll stick with it tomorrow, but Tim will be there for the duration, and if I have to, I suppose I can come in for a while.
Day 66 – Tuesday 4th July
Niagara Falls (Rest Day)
I took Roma, Helena and Charlotte to Niagara on the Lakes, which was definitely over-the-top touristy, but also quite pretty, with loads of little souvenir shops to potter around. It was a nice break from the car and one tatty motel after another, although the hotel here certainly doesn’t come into the tatty category. We’re staying at the Sheraton on Niagara Falls, and we’ve got a Falls-view room, which is absolutely stunning.
This afternoon we’ve been out looking across the Falls to the USA, and as it’s the fourth of July we’ve got fireworks to look forward to at 10.00 pm. This has been my idea of a day off – family, fun and fireworks, in that order. All was to change later.
Ronald was supposed to start work with Tim at 8.00 am. There was a lot to do. New brake shoes, new timing case cover and oil seal, new headlight, the original one had cracked, new speedo cable, etc. Well, I went down for breakfast at 9.00 am and Ronald was there with Pippa, her husband and friend. Ronald left at 9.30 am so he would arrive at the garage at 10.00 am. Two hours late. He also said he wanted to be back by 5.00 pm so that he could go and see the Falls ‘with the others’.
Well, I dropped by the garage and all seemed to be okay. However, a telephone call later and Tim was not happy. Ronald was clock watching and not achieving much. I decided to return to the hotel, get on old clothes and go to the garage. I arrived at 4.30 pm and Ronald took my taxi back to the hotel.
I finished working on the car and returned to the hotel at 8.00 pm. A quick meal and off to bed. A nice day with the family – you must be joking. I stayed awake just long enough to see the fireworks and woke up at midnight feeling lousy and depressed, so I took a walk along the Falls on my own. Very inviting, the waters. I was at my lowest now.
Day 67 – Wednesday 5th July
Niagara Falls to Binghamton, New York – 536 km
This morning Ronald informed me that he did not go to the Falls but went instead with Pippa and her husband and friend for an 11-course meal. What!
After an excellent breakfast I felt more calm, and I was eager to get on the road again as every mile took us closer to New York and the end of this leg of the Rally. I wasn’t too upset saying goodbye to Roma and the girls because I knew I’d be seeing them again in New York, where they planned to do some serious shopping.
Today, Wednesday was an interesting day, a real navigator’s drive – one mile, then turn right, one and a half miles, then turn left, and so on all day. We zipped along the roads as fast as we could, which I enjoyed, and Ronald was kept very busy, which made him happy. My driving has improved 100 per cent since I started this rally and Ronald’s navigating skills are getting better all the time.
We stopped for lunch at the Cannonball Run Pub, run by Bruce Yates who founded the Cannonball Run. I remembered the films with Burt Reynolds, but I didn’t realise the race was real. The place was chock-a-block with racing and film memorabilia. It was a fun place for lunch, but hellishly expensive – a bun and chicken salad was $18.00 – about £12.00, and that’s a lot here.
In the afternoon we were off again, and Morault, who drives like an idiot (he’s quite a nice guy in all fairness) was in the lead, and the Healey guys were behind us. We were bombing down the road and Morault missed the turning off to the left. We turned off, and the Healey guys followed us, and I stuck my hand out the window and clenched my fists and said, “Yes! We did it and Morault missed it!” And then one hand from each side of the Healey came out and did the same! We had a really good day, bombing about these lanes – a long, long drive.
At the hotel we took a look at the engine because it was running a bit rough. Ronald started it up and within seconds there was a bloody great bang. It was the distributor. The one we’d put in back in China had never sat down fully in the block. We thought it had stripped the ‘key’ that locks it into the oil pump. We refitted the old one with the oil leak and now the engine works great, it just leaks oil, but I think that’s what we’ll have to put up with the rest of the way. We have a problem with the new brake shoes, they’ve gone soft, they’re a waste of time. As soon as I put the brakes on there’s a smell of burning rubber, and I reckon I’ve probably eaten up half the brake shoes in one day. I phoned Tim to try and get some more delivered to Marrakech, along with two front wheels so we can get the tracking done properly, its still not right. Hopefully that’ll get us all the way back to London with no other problems. It appears that I should have bedded in the shoes gradually but I didn’t, and the surface is glazed and useless.
Ronald and Pippa have invited me to join them for dinner in the hotel, so it should be a pleasant evening. Tomorrow we’re off to Newark, and then it’s Morocco and we’ll be nearly home.
Day 68 – Thursday 6th July
Binghamton to Newark – 333 km
Ronald and I enjoyed the journey to Newark, but several cars had major problems and at least two vehicles ended up on the back of rescue vehicles going for major repairs.
No great challenges today, it was another early start, a nice easy drive from A to B and we had a great time in the morning, bombing round country lanes. It was much busier this afternoon with traffic jams and road works slowing us up, but we still made quite good time. David Hughes in the Rover was pulled over by the police for overtaking on double yellow lines. They didn’t fine him – they just made him sit there for half an hour, so he came in late and got 23 penalty points, which I’m sure upset him no end. Lunch was at a country club called Eddy’s Farm Resort, in a beautiful location on the banks of the Delaware. There was an excellent buffet and afterwards I just had time for a wander down by the river. Relaxing and peaceful.
Tomorrow the car’s going to a workshop to get oiled and greased, brakes checked, wheels balanced and steering rod sorted, and that’s it – no more work then until we get back to London because we’ve got no more rest days, except the day after arriving in Morocco.
Roma, Charlotte and Helena are here. They flew down from Niagara and have been out on a shopping binge. Tonight a whole gang of us went out for a meal and we had a good time, but kept it pretty low key. It’s been a long rally and the tiredness is beginning to tell on us all.
Day 69 – Friday 7th July
Newark/New York (Rest Day)
Long-term fatigue may have been setting in, but after a good night the prospect of another rest day had me up and raring to go soon after dawn at 5.00 am. It was a brilliantly sunny day and after breakfast Ronald and I went off to see John Langeler, an AMOC member with a beautiful DB V8, while the girls headed back into New York for more shopping.
John took us along to an Aston Martin dealership about an hour away, and I told them we were having one or two problems with the steering. The guy in charge said we should leave the car with him, go for a look around the city, and then pop back in the afternoon – an offer I wasn’t about to refuse. I met up with Roma, Charlotte and Helena for lunch at the oldest pub, a single storey building in New York, which sits in among all the skyscrapers, a rose among thorns, or the other way round, depending on your perspective. Then they went back into the fray, Bloomingdales this time. We went back to pick up the Aston.
When we got there the car was all done – suspension, tracking, bearings, and cam angles – all of it done. Fantastic! But it cost me over $500. I called on Robert Burt, a friend of John’s, on the way back. He has a prewar Aston and a Lotus racing car and he was delighted to see us. We had a great time, stayed for tea and took photos of the car, like the Aston anoraks we are! We were back at 7.00 pm. Nice meal and an early night, long day tomorrow.
The ladies’ arms must be a couple of inches longer with the weight of all the shopping. Ronald and I have been getting along really well lately, he’s back to his normal cheerful self, and the Rally is fun again.
Days 70 and 71 – Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th July
Rest Days in USA/Morocco (Travel Days)
Isaw the car off on the Antonov before getting a Royal Air Maroc flight out of JFK at 7.00 pm. No problems there. First class seats. The flight was very good, no complaints at all.
We then changed for an internal flight from Casablanca to Marrakech, and that was an experience I don’t plan to repeat. It was absolutely chock-ablock and all the overhead lockers were full. The flight attendant told people to put rucksacks under the seat in front. Big joke – there wasn’t even enough room for our feet under the seat in front; we had to sit there with our knees up round our chins. Fortunately it was only a twenty-minute flight, not quite long enough for cramp to set in but very, very hot, not humid, just hot.
We got to the hotel at about lunchtime. Tim arrived half an hour later, bringing the new brake shoes. These would be fine as long as I run them in gently. The two new wheels had arrived days earlier. I tipped the doorman to reserve one of the covered parking areas for us so we could work in the shade. It was definitely worth it. He did us proud; he even put out bollards to stop anyone else taking our space.
Ronald collected the car from the airport, which was very good of him and meant I could have a bite to eat.
We went round the whole car, changed all the brakes and all the wheels. And then we thought we had better sort out the tuning. It was running quite badly, Tim said that we would have a look at the distributor. He had brought a new one out. But there was a problem with it – the automatic advance was jammed and didn’t work on it. Yet he brought it out all the same, I don’t know what has gone wrong there. He had a look at the spare one that we had (again it was another new one supplied by Tim) – I wondered what we could do about warranty on this; I was certainly going to want something back for this. The key (straight bit of metal) that locks into the oil pump is off set. And unfortunately, whoever built the distributor built it with the wrong off set. So the rotor arm at the top was 180 degrees out. Now, when we fitted this distributor way back in China somewhere, I had managed to tighten it on to the top of the oil pump but it hadn’t dropped down locking the key into the top of the oil pump drive. It had just been sitting there, firing away. It had not given us any trouble at all, all the way through Canada and America. We had been running with this distributor just sitting on top of the oil pump, literally pinched in place by the bolts.
We’ve now turned the ‘key’ back to its proper position so hopefully that will be an end to our distributor problems, we’re going to fit it tomorrow and keep the good oily distributor as a spare just in case.
Day 72 – Monday 10th July
Marrakech (Rest Day)
What a contrast it was from the towering skyscrapers of New York to the mosques and palm trees of Morocco’s ancient city. It was also extremely hot and the blistering sunshine sent people scuttling into the shade from mid-morning until early evening. A few competitors ventured out to the Kasbah or the souks, but most spent the day lounging beneath parasols around the large hotel pool, sipping ice-cold drinks. Today was a marvellous day sightseeing. Ronald went off doing his own thing, so Tim Butcher, Shirin Azari and I took a taxi into Marrakech for a look round the souk markets. We got there early so it was cooler and had an absolute marvellous time.
Tim wanted a headscarf for his girlfriend and Shirin wanted one she could wear during the desert section. We haggled in a ridiculous mixture of French and English. I was wearing sandals and I told the stallholders I couldn’t afford the leather between my toes I was so hard up because I had six wives and 14 kids. They really joined in on the game. They are absolutely marvellous people. This is a place I will definitely revisit and I’d recommend it to anyone.
We paid 50 dinars to come back by horse-drawn carriage. I only wanted to pay 40, but in the end shelled out the extra 10. It was worth it because the driver took us the scenic route, and we saw some lovely parts of Marrakech that we would otherwise have missed. Then he picked us up again later and took us to another hotel for a typically English afternoon tea in some lovely cool, shaded gardens.
The hotel here is the best so far, but apparently from now on they should get better and better, which is great because we will finish the Rally remembering good hotels and decent breakfasts, and not concrete sticky buns. Then, maybe, looking back through our rose-tinted spectacles we may decide to have a go at another rally further down the road.