First published in Bulletins 218 and 219 as “One Man’s Holiday” this article now includes photos not previously included.
One Man’s Holiday – by John Fox
My TD21 was the only Alvis to take part in the ‘Rallye Haute Savoie’ (see January 1971 bulletin) in the capacity of official car. The ‘Rallye’ was organised by a group of people calling themselves the ‘European Vintage Touring Club’ led by Major H.W. Hill of Crawley, and consisted mostly of pre-war vehicles of a diverse nature – an ex-Bournemouth open top double decker bus, a 1934 Leyland Fire Engine, a 1923 Rolls-Royce 20, a 1948 Allard Pl, an FX4 Taxi (not not you-know-who) and a 1928 12/4 Austin among 24 vehicles which even individually caused quite a sensation wherever they went.
A pleasant surprise on meeting at Dover was the news that BP (France) were sponsoring the event – 2,660 miles without buying any petrol – except for one incident in the middle of the holiday, but I digress. The purpose of the Alvis was to shepherd these slow moving vehicles and recce all receptions and BP petrol stations.
The Dover-Calais British Rail Ferry was taken at 24th July 1 a.m. on Saturday, by all except a Rolls which had broken down half an hour after starting, and a Vauxhall which stayed to assist. They caught a later ferry caught us up on Sunday. A reception was expected at Calais, but the only one was a cold and official ‘get these old vehicles out of the way!’.
It was nearly dawn, and so the convoy trod carefully round roundabouts and along the right hand side of the road. We pressed on to find the first addresses on the BP list, at Bethune. Of course they weren’t open, but by the time the others had arrived the hard working French were busy waiting for twenty-four unusual customers.
Soon after entering the autoroute an SS1 was found immobile with coil trouble. Everything was under control and so we exercised the Alvis at a steady 70-80 mph to find the others. After a lunch-stop at the end of the autoroute all vehicles were accounted for and we began the drive in convoy to Paris and the Bois de Boulogne. As with all convoys, we got separated in Paris. But somehow each managed to follow someone in front through red lights if necessary, and through the busy Saturday afternoon street markets where progress seemed like two yards every half-hour, the temperature gauge indicated cause for concern, and we remembered the last time we slept, and wished we’d never left Britain, and our opinion of Paris became unrepeatable – then we realised the vehicle at the front didn’t know where he was going either – and the gendarmes shouted ‘Partez, partezl’ when we stopped to consult the map.
We resorted to commandeering ‘un vieillard sur bicyclette’ to get on the double-decker and direct us to the Bois de Boulogne. We made it! There was another snag – we should all have filled up with petrol that day. So, the Official car burst into life to search for the BP station. An hour or so later, several U-turns, (a feature of every days motoring!) and the odd ‘Pardon monsieur, a quel direction…?” we spotted the other half of the ‘convoy’ returning from the petrol station, so we followed them until they got lost, and then led them back to the Bois.
By now everybody was in need of some sleep, and somehow there seemed little enthusiasm to “hit the Paris scene”. On the contrary, both the S.S. and the Alvis left the rather noisy and unattractive Bois de Boulogne and headed south in search of a quiet ‘foret’ to set up camp. Due to so many French cars the dozens of lanes all going the same way and my slightly heavy right foot we lost the S.S. By dark we had still found no S.S. but at least did find a camp site complete with a very helpful English girl.
For overnight stops we had brought a two-sleeper tent in addition to a large frame tent, luxury for three but erection proved difficult. I therefore resorted to the TD’s back seat pour dormir which is quite comfortable if you fold the back of the front seats forward and pull the rear seat cushion out six inches.
Next day I was awakened by torrential rain at dawn which continued till late afternoon. Sunday was autoroute day and with the rain I was glad to have Dunlop Aquajets under me – the FX4 Taxi was aquaplaning at 20 mph, the Alvis was still firm on the road at 60 mph, leaving two dry tracks and a tremendous spray behind it. Our destination was Beaune, the centre of the Burgundy wine growing area, but because of the rain and a petrol stop the convoy was late arriving.
We went on ahead to console the French-men who had given up their Sunday afternoon to receive us. This they did very well, so I don’t recall much except that by the following morning the weather was dry, and everybody seemed to be rather late getting up. Bringing up the rear at. TD speeds we left the heater on and the roof open to dry out various soggy articles. This method was found very effective.
On hotter days I really appreciated the TD’s eyeball ventilator pointed at my besandled feet with the blower on. On the other hand the front seat passenger found an uncomfortable amount of heat coming from the gear box cover, which on inspection lacks insulation at its front and by the passenger’s right foot. Mods are afoot! (Sorry).
However, as we were late starting we were going to be late for our Beaujolais reception, so we put over eighty miles into an hour and searched Villefranche for the address of the Wine body we had been given. After much gesticulation we found the very Official building containing the Interprofessional Wine Committee and discovered that our reception was eight kilometres away. Meanwhile twenty odd bulky vehicles were on their way to a very congested Villefranche where they were not supposed to be.
Returning to the car, left in the midday sun it was almost impossible to touch the steering wheel never mind sit in it. However we headed towards the autoroute, to find that the vehicles had arrived and were waiting for us. Having given them directions how to get there, we pressed on to apologise to the Beaujolais bods, who were to say the least not too pleased for us to be late.
This was the first occasion of highish altitude and high temperatures, and a 1928 Morris Commercial suffered a breakdown but was towed to the reception by a 1932 Albion Lorry. The Alvis too was getting very hot with going up and down the hills chasing after lost vehicles. After one very quick glass of wine we proceeded to Rochetaille, to visit the Motor Museum. Set in beautiful countryside and spacious grounds this museum had some very desirable exhibits, and many awaiting restoration.
Alvises are relatively unknown in France, although a Swiss friend reports seeing a Paris registered Grey Lady this summer in Switzerland. Somehow my French seems to improve when there is something worth talking about, and I had a very interesting conversation with the Director of the Museum who said his every day transport was not at all important but agreed with my observation that the Citroen SM was a most impressive car – this model along with the Porsche was one of the few cars who could make us feel as though we were crawling along when cruising at 90 m.p.h. His restoration projects included cars as modern as the early ‘E’ type Jaguar.
Our friends in the S.S. found an identical model in the museum, and were entertained by the Director to Dinner, much useful information being exchanged. That evening we camped down at Trevoux. For the second time, first at Beaune, and at Trevoux we were given the freedom of the site, and at Beaune we had even been given a parting bottle of wine, good stuff mind you, not plonk. The camp site had its own bar, and after instant mash, instant peas, and a can of stewed steak cooked on a large scale for the occupants of Morris 8 and Alvis, my two comrades David and Roger disappeared whilst I was entertained to wine and cheese and exchanged details of the days events with P & P of the S.S.
The next I was to see of Dave and Rog was next dawn when I wound down the driver’s window put my feet out to air, and noticed two bundles lying on the grass – one on camp bed, the other on the ground. Between the Alvis and the Morris were two similar bundles.
More detailed inspection revealed that it had been a hard night for Rog in particular, and no-one had had the inclination or ability to put up a tent. As I was driving it was fortunate that I had not been involved as we were not ready to leave until an hour after everyone else. Navigator Dave was unable to speak at sufficient volume for me to hear, nor did he say anything coherent. Roger was still dead to the world, now prostrate in the back seat, motionless until midday. Fortunately I had studied the route and we managed to cross Lyon and find the petrol station, arriving before those that had left much earlier, who had got lost. When all had filled up we pressed on to Lake Annecy where we were to be for the next twelve days.
Lathuille, by Lake Annecy was to be our base for twelve days. From here we travelled at least another 1000 miles before returning home. The longest excursion, occupying two days was “across the top” into Italy and to the Motor Museum in Turin. Not all the vehicles were suitable for such a long haul, but many brave souls got up early in order to arrive in Turin by 3 o’clock. Having a faster car, and a rather splendid evening before it was nearly ten o’ clock before David Butler and I set off in pursuit on a glorious sunny day, able to relax and enjoy the drive, the TD disguising the steady climb we began some 40 miles later.
We estimated that we might catch up the rest at Modane, the petrol stop 80 miles along the route. Enquiries revealed that the vehicles had passed through two hours earlier. They must have got up early: Not having enough room to put in 50 litres (coupons came in this denomination) we were unable to tank up as we had hoped, but had enough to get there and back into relatively cheap France again. The real climb was soon to begin, the ascent was tackled in 3rd gear, and 2nd occasionally, revving at no more than 3,500 rpm and mostly 2000 rpm the temperature not rising much over 90°C, until we stopped at the top, some 6,800′ up and took photographs.
Restarting 20 minutes later was no problem but temporary petrol vaporisation caused erratic progress for the next few hundred metres. On reaching the Italian border all the customs officials were interested in was prodding real English flesh, David travelling in his usual attire of Peony Red swimming trunks. Over the border we came across our first ‘sheep’ – the Red Cross ambulance having some customary “pain et fromage”. He had had some difficulty explaining that it was not a military vehicle before the Italians would let him in. Neither did he know his way into Turin, having no map – so we arranged to escort him in from the outskirts of the city where he would wait. The descent was made with little use of the brakes, going down as up in third and second. The acceleration in these gears and on those inclines was very useful for shooting by long lorries, and other members of the rally on the very short straights between hairpins which proved most enjoyable.
Once into Italy the drive became less pleasurable, the climate very humid and the temperature very high. Turin and its outskirts were more of a challenge initially than coming over the top, the traffic moving very quickly, the roads being straight and at right angles to each other, and the traffic lights difficult to interpret. Furthermore, we knew not our route to the Museum, and it was a case of instant Butler navigation. We had caught up some four or five others in Turin and followed them until they came to a stop and consulted their maim David being entirely in control of the situation (not always the case!) we then led the cars straight to the Museum, which is a most impressive building in a tastefully modern manner.
Our ‘reception’ here consisted of a non-English speaking lady who eventually managed to tell us that we would be able to look around free of charge: However, we still had an ambulance to escort, so set off, somewhat reluctantly, for the outskirts. With over half an hour practice in Turin traffic, and navigation sort of under control we set off, driving ‘as if in Rome’, (but actually Turin). Surprisingly, progress was very smooth, without drama, and very swift.
As I was beginning to enjoy myself, we spotted on the opposite carriageway an Austin 7 and a Morris Oxford leading an ambulance: At the first opportunity we turned left and made our first U-turn of the day, quite impeccably of course with all the practice of the previous ten days manoeuvres and set off hoping to make up 4 sets of lights before they got themselves lost. Now we were carving up the Fiats and Alfas in tremendous style making up ground on the less fleet trio, and catching them up in time to lead them back to the Museum. All the ‘hairing’ over mountains and doing Turin twice left me rather exhausted and wasn’t particularly receptive to walking around a static display of nevertheless very nice machinery – not one Alvis though-perhaps not surprisingly.
The recommended hotel lacked appeal and we left those more satisfied with what was offered and set off in search of something to spend our newly acquired thousands of lire, after half-an-hour of mental arithmetic convincing ourselves that we hadn’t been done. Turin continued to lose its appeal, so we took the route back out of Turin and turned left at the first village and questioned a local as to where there was a hotel. He spoke no French nor English, but a little German and after much gesticulation and jubilation at mutually recognising a German word we were directed to a lake a few minutes further on. Seeing a ‘Whisky A-go-go’ sign we parked the Alvis and booked ourselves in, and decided that it was time we had something to eat for the first time of the day. This also caused problems, solved by pointing at random items on the menu and hoping.
The next morning an Englishman came up to the car as we were about to leave wanting to know why we had BP stickers plastered everywhere, as he worked for them in Italy. Anyway, on explaining he solved a problem for us in that he told us what had happened to the fire engine which we had not seen at all the day before. Apparently, they had made international news by putting out a restaurant fire on the way; As with many ‘paper’stories this wasn’t entirely the case, but it’s all good fun.
Amazingly, as we made our leisurely way to the main road forming our route back to Annecy, we merged with six or seven other rally vehicles. Soon afterwards the Rolls Royce in the mirror disappeared, having ground to a halt. An hour or so later, and some oil in the gearbox he was mobile again. With all our commuting in Turin we were now getting short on petrol, had a mountain to climb, and nobody wanted to give us any (we couldn’t BUY any).
However we climbed in convoy with the Allard who was having cooling problems, but had a full tank of petrol; we got to the top. Once over the border, David took over the driving and I could appreciate the rare delight of being driven in my own car. On our descent Dave noticed that the accelerator had no effect on our progress – we had run out of petrol. It didn’t matter as we were going downhill, and with the engine turning it was no different from having petrol. 13 miles later we coasted to a stop 100 metres from an Esso garage where we bought all of five litres and continued to the BP station at Modane where we were re-united with other members of the rally.
Further down the road stomachs rumbled at not having anything but an incredibly strong cup of Italian coffee at breakfast and I proceeded to open the 32nd of our 60 packets of soup. One further advantage of a sun-roof discovered later on this return journey from Turin is the ability of a passenger (me) to stand up in the rear, whilst travelling at moderate speeds and take a panoramic view of the scenery. I was doing just this whilst ascending the Col de la Tanie which has lots of lovely hairpins, when around one there came a tractor with a Trailer loaded with hay, which bulged out at the top. ‘Bales’ I cried and dived back into the security of the interior. On our way through Faverges we saw other members of the rally who had not attempted the run, and exchanged news. We ended our excursion with a ride in a 48 year old Rolls 20, a beautiful car which made only asthmatic noises and cruised at a dignified 40 m.p.h. Then it was back to instant mash, instant peas and genuine plonk.Post script 2021; David is still a 12/70 owner and retired in Bristol after travelling the world; the TD21 was sold after 30,000 miles in two years and is awaiting restoration in Germany having done over 200,000 miles. JF 9 went on to a Gordon Keeble and a Bristol 411 before being sold to fund a new business but both of these cars shared a garage with other Alvis Three Litres. The couple with the double decker became good friends and he bought a TE21 drophead which was used on our next continental trip with Nadine when we met Madame Graber at Wichtrach and went on to our first Graber Treffen in Arth.