15 May 2014

London to Lisbon in Little George

The triennial London-Lisbon rally organized by the Historic Endurance Rallying Organisation (HERO) last took place in April/May 2013, with Hagerty International as both sponsor and competitor. We fielded a barn-found 1930 Austin Ulster now owned by managing director Angus Forsyth. The car hadn’t been driven in 50 years, and with the exception of perhaps a hundred miles before the trip, the 2,385-mile journey would be Little George’s breaking-in run.


We depart the office with Little George. Our tow vehicle is a new Cayenne, on loan from Porsche Silverstone. Possibly the greatest example of going from the sublime to the ridiculous as we head out onto the M1 to London and the start line at Greenwich.

LG (Little George) is offloaded and pushed to scrutineering. Given that he was still being prepared at 8 p.m. the previous day, it’s our first nervous moment. All is well, except we need to cover up the cut-off switch, which is simply bare wiring and potentially dangerous.

We head off to calibrate the trip metre, but London traffic means we are running short of time. As the oldest of the 50-plus entries, we are car No. 1 and it seems the world’s media awaits us at the starting grid. The Portuguese Ambassador waves us off, and we’re away!
The route gets us out of London and into the wooded lanes of Surrey, before arriving at our first test at Dunsfold Aerodrome. This is a rigorous test on uneven land, and it’s amazing that the place is used by Top Gear.
Then comes our first regularity. Amidst all the chaos of the start, the trip metre is not properly calibrated, so we are almost running blind. But we make it to the first coffee stop — and our first brush with the HERO support crew from Maulden Garage.

On inspection we realise an element of the front suspension has broken. The crew soon sort this, but we are now way behind the rest of the rally and we head straight from Duns-fold to Portsmouth to meet our ferry for the overnight crossing to St. Malo. On the way we look Death in the face as a hatchback crosses right in front of us. With a telegraph pole on the left and the hatchback in the road, we somehow manage to avoid both by the smallest of margins. The silence in the car as we come to terms with the potential catastrophe lasts for 30 minutes, before we pull over for a break and brief reflection on what could have been. The near-miss reinforces just how exposed we are in the little old Austin, but our mood is much more upbeat as we arrive in Portsmouth and the Stena Line awaits us. Ferry made, the evening sees us getting to know the other participants, and a few pints later we head to our cabin.


A glorious morning in France — beautiful, windy, light traffic and blue skies, soon we are lined up and ready to start the day's first regularity test. The trip metre is calibrated, the suspension fixed, and Little George is going great.

Then, within 10 km from the first checkpoint, LG stalls and we attempt a jump start, to no avail. The recovery team arrives and after much head-scratching discovers no voltage to the distributor; the bottom drive of the distributor shaft had disintegrated.

The team tow us to a nearby village, which is terrifying, because the brakes on our car are old, we are going too fast and can only see the back of the van. Soon we are left in the small rural French village of Loheac. After confirming the distributor needs replacing, we work out the plan. Fortunately LG attracts attention everywhere we go — the kind that is eager to help.

A lovely couple called David and Mariette take pity on us and drive us to a ‘place of interest’. It turns out to be the Manoir de l’Automobile and we spend an hour, whilst waiting for a trailer, viewing an amazing selection of classic cars (the worlds largest collection of Renault Alpines and the largest collection of F1 cars outside Donington in the UK). They then take us to a quaint hotel in the next village. We check in, drink some beer and then the car is collected and brought to the hotel. David and Mariette bid us adieu with lots of hugs and kisses, continental style!

We’ve contacted restorer David Brazell for parts. Ian and Rory from the office will drive them from London. Mean-while, we pay a quick visit to the local motor museum and rally-cross track. As we wait, 10 bikers from Jersey turn up, all English including an ex-Rolls-Royce engineer, who wrote the definitive book on the distributor!

29 April | Day 3 | Poitiers To Pau (France)

Rory and Ian arrive at 2:30 a.m., to be greeted with warm beer and wine after a gruelling journey. In the morning we repair and replace the distributor and Rory and Ian depart.

We leave at 8:40 a.m., planning to rejoin the rally that evening in Pau. It is well over 500 km away and we have 12 hours to make up two lost days — all the more heartbreaking when we must drive non-stop through lovely wine country! At a coffee stop, we calculate that when the speedo reads 60 mph, Little George is actually traveling 52 mph. Whilst the rally is over for us, this is now a matter of pure survival.

We refuel just before Bordeaux, at which point one of the core plugs fails. A quick call to David Brazell, plus the use of a trucker’s hammer, and we replace it. All’s well but getting dark, so Angus fixes a small bicycle light on the rear of LG whilst we turn on an LED torch when a vehicle is coming the other way, just so they are aware there is something on the road. Finally, some 14 hours later, we get to within 58 km of Pau and LG’s batteries die. Thankfully they do so outside a truck stop with rooms, food and a bar. All of which shut 10 minutes after we arrived — just keeps getting better. Fortunately LG got us to a safe haven; for that we are thankful, after two hairy hours in the rain without lights.

By this point our bottoms are numb. It also hurts when you hit bees at 60 kph, and given we have spent most of the day travelling through rapeseed fields, we have had more than our fair share of hits.

30 April | Day 4 | Pau to Burgos (Spain)

We awake early to the sound of torrential rain. A miserable 1.5-hour drive to Pau awaits, as we’re still playing catch-up. We arrive at the hotel as the last car leaves for Burgos. However, all is not lost, for we are reunited with our bags. Clean clothes, hot shower and we are off again.

We depart and drive the race circuit out of town. Soon we are headed through Bayonne along the coast road to San Sebastian and down, eventually, to Leon, but all on motorways, which presented their own problems, especially being blown about by articulated lorries attempting, on each pass, to suck LG into their slip stream.

We park in an underground public car park and finally join the rest of the rally, having not seen them for two nights. At midnight, we move LG from the car park to the hotel car park, where we have located some electricity to charge him.

1 May | Day 5 | Burgos To Leon (Spain)

Leaving Burgos, the other participants have already headed into the snow-capped mountains of the Pyrenees. We know that LG will not make that part of the journey, so we follow the route from a distance.

Upon arrival in Leon, we are pulled over by the police for a check. We ask for directions to try and offset any awkward questions about our tour. They let us go, but not before taking pictures. Moments later the car battery goes dead and we push LG the last few kilometres across the piazza and into the hotel.

We check in, sort LG and eat a great dinner with the rest of the participants. Marcus announces ‘Beers on us… if we arrive in Ourense!’ To which the driver of the Ferrari 330 GTC 2+2 says it is the best speech he’s ever heard.

2 May | Day 6 | Leon To Ourense (Spain)

We file the clutch to help with the gear changes, which was becoming impossibly difficult; it proves to be a great development. The batteries are charged and after a few snaps of Angus and Little George in the piazza, we are on the way again.

In the afternoon, the road takes us past the most amazing dam, with breath-taking views. We are in glorious sunshine, the shades are on and all three of us are happy with life.

Turning off the main road toward Ourense, we reach the last stretch to our overnight stay, but it is all uphill. LG is very unhappy, and the tension rises with the hillside. After 40 minutes, we arrive at a stunning hotel built into a monastery. Now we have a very steep hill down into the monastery, which is taken quite tenderly, as the brakes on LG are hot and very temperamental. Angus works the handbrake and I walk in front with bricks to put out under the tyres in case of emergency. We finally arrive at the hotel, much to everyone’s pleasure. Beers are on us!

We do a complete nut-and-bolt check on LG and are happy with everything. Later, we push him into the courtyard to again charge the batteries!

3 May | Day 7 | Ourense to Vila Real (Portugal)

We awake at 9:30 a.m. Whoops!

Off we go then, headed to the border, but only after a slight error in map reading and a 50 km detour.

We cross into Portugal and stop in Villa Verde de Raia to toast our arrival. Then it’s a gentle run to the Vidago Palace, where a stunning setting awaits us. We do a full check on LG again and learn that six cars have now retired from the rally. Two days to go, we are still in it with a pair of vintage Rileys in our class.

4 May | Day 8 | Vila Real To Caramulo (Portugal)

We awake on time and even make it to breakfast. LG is grabbing the headlines, as a correspondent from Good Morning Portugal interviews Angus at the start. The camera crew then stay with us all morning as we travel through the Portuguese hills.

At lunch, Angus advises of a steering problem that is making it impossible to turn to the right around bends. Fortunately the climb up the hill was anti-clockwise, enabling LG to make it to the lunch stop. The team helps us fill the steering box with oil, and with a light tap from their hammer the steering seems much better.

We then discover five broken spokes on the front left wheel, so we put on the spare, only to realise that more spokes are broken on the back right. This is a big problem, and for a moment we think this is the end. It takes a few hours, but the team manage to get some decent spokes off the spare to replace the broken ones. An amazing job again and we carry on, albeit very slowly.

We arrive at Caramulo Motor Museum and Little George attracts a great deal of attention. We move immediately to the bar, where we invent the Little George cocktail: ginger beer, vodka and angostura bitters served with lemon and lots of ice.

Caramulo is famous for a hill climb. While we know this isn't a good plan, before we know it we are at the start!

Afterward we have a 20-minute interview with TV Portugal. They ask about our adventure and whether we have argued; they seem amazed we have not come to blows after sitting almost in each others’ laps for eight days through wind, rain, sun and snow.

One day to go and we are now starting to believe we might actually make it to Lisbon.

5 May | Day 9 | Caramulo to Lisbon (Portugal)

It’s the last day and Lisbon beckons, but not before we encounter a coach full of ‘uniformed’ people curious about the car. The passengers turn out to be a full-blown marching band, and we manage to convince them to parade around LG and give him a proper Portuguese fanfare!

We stop just north of Lisbon for a thirst quencher before the final leg, then arrive and line up with the others for an escort into the city centre. The parade turns stressful, however, as our police escorts travel at 10 mph and all the cars start to overheat. But then we arrive, and after 2,835 miles, nine days, five breakdowns and zero arguments, we cross the finish line in first position as car No. 1!

We buy a dozen beers and celebrate the accomplishment. Later, at the dinner and awards ceremony, we claim the Veteran Car Award, the Team Award and the Spirit of the Event Award. We are overwhelmed; we are also lucky enough to have downloaded the video of the marching band from earlier in the day, and we play it for all the participants to much hilarity.

At midnight, as the rally’s final day ends, we sit with Little George and glasses of champagne and toast the amazing Ulster.


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