by Graham Hemsley
Some of you may have read my previous blog that covered my accident in France in 2014 in Mabel, my 1960 Riley 1.5 and how that summer was a non-starter in terms of motoring around in France.
Thankfully, that is all behind me now albeit it's still a painful memory and my back still bears the scars......not that I can see them but if my wife says they're still there then that's good enough for me.
So fast forward a couple of years and I thought I'd just put a few words together on how Mabel and I get along out here in France.
Just by way of background, we're fortunate enough to have a small cottage just outside the village of St Mathieu in the Haute Vienne department of the Limousin region. We're a stones throw from both the Dordogne and Charente departments and we're classified as being in the South West of France albeit in the northernmost part.
Mabel is unceremoniously dragged down on the back of the trailer (the fun starts getting her up there) in May when I leave Bristol and is then taken back in October. Why not drive her down I hear people ask. Quite simply, I need a day-to-day car to do day-to-day “things”. Not sure Mabel would cope with being loaded to the roof with “stuff” to go to the dechetterie (the tip) and other chores.
Also, we go out quite a bit in the evening and as my wife is 99% teetotal she provides the taxi service and doesn't really like or want to drive Mabel. Hey, means I can indulge so I'm not complaining. But yes, I do go to the shops, vide greniers (boot fairs but so much better), friends houses like I would in the UK.
Back in England I use Mabel as much as I can between October and May and in the UK it's not uncommon to see classic vehicles out and about during the week. Out here in France however it does seem that unless you're going on a dedicated drive or to a show then classic cars are seldom seen. I could be wrong about that but can only talk from experience in our area.
As a result of being out and about and not on an official run or whatever and being a British car that few French people have seen or heard of, heads often turn when I pass by. Occasionally, in supermarket or builders merchants car parks people will come up and ask what it is. Oh a Reeeleee they say and seem genuinely pleased to see her.
There's quite a few Brits in the area where we are based and as in the UK I get the comments that I always get back home......”my father/uncle/relative of some description had one of those”. And as I do in the UK, I then say “I'd like a £1 for everyone that has said that”. Nothing different there.
Classic vehicle shows are a bit different out here though. I'm loosely connected with a car club called the “Rétromobile du Périgord Vert”. I say loosely as I attend a few of their events but do not pay the annual fee. That seems to solely fund the end of year meal and as I'm not there for that they seem quite happy for me to tag along. Most of the events are not their own events but larger organised events that we pitch up to.
Being France, food is inevitably high on the agenda. It's quite often the case that a meal is provided for the driver by the event organisers but any passengers have to pay whatever the going rate. Also, an aperitif is sometimes provided. As I never, ever drink and drive I am looked on quite oddly at times when I just ask for water.
On the other hand the club are going to an event after I've gone back to the UK and where they've decided to go for a meal, presumably in a restaurant as it's €35 a head for car and passengers! Now it would need to be a very good meal to justify that outlay.
Even if I were here I'd not pay that as without knowledge of which restaurant we were going to and what was on the menu (I eat anything but Julie, my wife, doesn't) it could be a serious waste of money. So the free meal will do me even if it is just melon for starters, sausage and chips for mains, a piece of cheese and a yoghurt for pud. That'll do for me.
On the day of an event we meet at the President's house. Now, that's not the President of France but the President of the car club which is about 20 mins from where we're based.. We then go off in a convoy to the event picking up members en route. Once at the event, it's then quite usual to go on a balade. That is a trip round the local area for as many or as few of the classic car owners that want to.
On a recent trip (Mabel was back in her barn in disgrace after deciding to leak copious amounts of petrol from the carbs) I went to a friend's house – he has a 1960s Volvo Amazon in superb condition and with around 28,000 kms on the clock from new. I'd like to say and show pictures of other Rileys but I've yet to see another out here.
Anyhow, after a 90 minute drive from the President's house with about 10 cars from the club, we pitched up at what clearly wasn't the event but a holding area for about 100 cars. The balade then commenced – all 100 or so cars fronted my a Model T Ford and other ancients. This time we were accompanied by motorcycle riders who went ahead at breakneck speed to block roads and turnings so that all 100 or so cars could serenely pass by. What the locals and other drivers on the local roads thought I have no idea. I just kept thinking about what would happen back in the UK and the reactions that might occur. Road rage could well be the order of the day.
Anyhow after a couple of hours (remember we'd already driven 90 minutes to get there) and going down minor roads and quite a few rough, rutted tracks that managed to cause a bit of damage to a few cars and a diversion through a horse-racing track (yes, we wondered about that as well) we arrived at a château. Ah good, the show I thought. But no. This was just a stop for aperitifs – cue wine and pineau (google it – it's lovely) being served. Not sure why, but here were adults dressed as pixies, elves and fairies there as well. All very surreal.
We then depart in the, by now, searing heat to the show. This was only a few minutes down the road but took ages owing to the crowds as it was a Vide Grenier (boot fair only way, way better) and car show combined. Searing temperatures meant rising car temperatures and the Volvo was so, so close to over-heating. However, we got there..........parked up and went for lunch. As I was a passenger it was €12. Food was only OK.
Once lunch had finished we wandered around the Vide Grenier and as it was so hot very few people were looking at the stalls let alone the cars so off we went home for the 90 minute drive back after being there for around about 90 mins. I'll not be going to that one again and neither will the club.
Back to the Mabel and her naughtiness – this is where I hand my head in shame – loose banjo bolt at the rear of the carb. A quick tighten up and all would have been OK........well actually it wouldn't as Mabel doesn't like the heat and temperature gauge rises and I'm sure I'd have been on the side of the road waiting for her to cool down. That's something to look into over the winter when we're back in Brizzel. The radiator is clearly past it's best so that may need to be re-cored and a good back flush is probably in order as well.
On the whole it's great driving around in France as the roads are so empty we often wonder if we've missed a Road Closed sign.
by Graham Hemsley
"Aaarrgghh", I cried out - or most probably something less polite along with the aarrgghh.
Lying on the side panel of the passenger side front door of Mabel (my 1960 MK 1 Riley 1.5) and realising I was in a ditch with my back, leg and fingers in a great deal of pain, I realised things could have been a lot worse. No, really they could have been. I count myself fortunate that apart from the scars to my back that my wife Julie reckons will be there forever, I’m here to tell this sorry tale.
We’re fortunate to have a cottage down in the Haute Vienne department of the Limousin region in France and the day before I’d pulled Mabel down there on the back of a trailer. Longish drive from Bristol to our hamlet but no problems whatsoever experienced. Couldn’t have gone better in fact. Got her off the trailer the night before and went over to see friends for supper and realised on the way back that the rev counter had packed up as had the panel lights but hey, that’s very minor to what happened the following day.
There I was on the way to a charity garden party (very British) on a lovely May day in an area that reminds you of the English countryside and looking forward to the strawberries and clotted cream when it happened. A car was coming towards me. I veered to the left. He veered to the left and we missed each other by a gnat’s doodah. He ended up in the middle of the road. I ended up down the ditch. Yes, you’ve probably guessed. For a nano-second, my mind thought I was in the UK and as such driving on the left-hand side of the road…….as was the French driver of French car on the French road coming towards me. I’ve driven thousands of miles all over Europe and beyond with no problems so why then? I’ll never know.
I lay there. Nothing was burning. Couldn’t smell petrol so that was, at least, a positive. Ooh ah, my back hurt but I could move so nothing broken. On the basis that the passenger door was wedged tight against the bank of the ditch I managed to haul myself over to the driver’s side door and out on to the road. The owner of the French car was kind and understanding. Not so his wife but then again I had given her one hell of a shock. Once they realised I had a phone and had called the friends who I was due to see at the garden party, they said their “adieus” and “au revoirs” and went on their way.
I was more than happy that didn’t want to hang around as neither car had hit each other and I guess they wanted to get to the local dechetterie (the tip/recycling centre) before it closed.
It then struck me that had Julie been in the car (she was still back in Bristol) I would have crushed her and hospitalised her, if not worse. However, had she been there she would have pointed out in no uncertain terms that I was driving on the wrong side of the road so bloody well get back over. On balance though I’m glad she wasn’t there as I’d rather have a damaged car and ego than a damaged wife. The car is just a bit of metal that can be repaired. I also became a convert in having seat belts fitted in an instant but more of that later.
Phone calls were made and Gerald and Anthony (who I was going to see along with their wives) came out from the garden party as quick as a flash. They took me back to our house and I asked Jerome (our French neighbour) if he would come out with his tractor and haul me out of the ditch. He duly obliged and received a very nice bottle of malt whisky for his trouble.
So, Mabel was now on the side of the road and I was not really conscious of the pains in my back, arms, legs and neck that I would certainly know about the following morning but was more concerned as to what would happen next. A young lad on a bike stopped. French I thought, but no he was English and spoke fluent French as well. He leapt into action and went into our local village and brought out Guy Brandy and his breakdown truck from the local Renault garage that he runs.
Now, having Guy around is a bit of a bonus as he organises a car event for all things old and new in our village each year and so had an interest in seeing a Riley. (Something it transpires he’d never seen before but then why would he?). So, Mabel was unceremoniously dragged up on to the back of his breakdown truck/transporter as given that the passenger side front wheel had a mind of its own, clearly it wasn’t going to get up there under its own steam. Mabel was then taken to Guy’s private workshop along with various Renault Dauphines, old Peugeots and a Land Rover based fire-engine and there she stayed for a few weeks.
Didn’t do much the day of the accident (or the next couple of days) as I clearly wasn’t in the right frame of mind or OK physically to do anything. However, the first thing I did even before phoning my friends was to call Julie, tell her what had happened and that I was OK. Her reaction………you’re OK, it’s OK, we’ll get Mabel running again. At the time I honestly wasn’t bothered but later on I’m just so glad she said it.
Spent a night in pain at our friends Gerald and his wife Sue’s house as they wouldn’t let me go back to our cottage on my own and for that I’ll be forever grateful. Not sure how I managed to get dressed in the morning and nearly had to call on Sue to help me out and to put my pants and trousers on. Not that she would have but at least it lightened the mood at breakfast…….not that I was all that hungry.
Right, what to do next as there were clearly both mechanical and bodywork issues to be addressed. Not having appropriate tools or even decent facilities in which to work meant trying to find someone who knew and understood the vagaries of old cars. As luck would have it I had previously hooked up with a local Google Group in our area where people advertise events, items for sale and services etc. Sometime before a chap (Paul Richfield) had advertised on there to say he had had a lifetime of working on vintage and classic cars and I had saved his details.
These read as follows.
“In 1961, Paul had his first vintage car. Too young to drive, many hours were spent on
stripping and rebuilding in time for his licence. This was followed by the usual Austin 7, Riley Specials and many others. Eventually turning to full time restoration he was a partner of Fergus Engineering, Lincs, working on such cars as Hispano Suiza, Bugatti, Bentley, Mercedes, Maserati etc.
Head hunted to look after a private collection on the Mediterranean coast, has spent the last 40 years maintaining European-American and English Classic cars. During the last 12 months has repaired cars ranging from a 1932 Cadillac V12 to a 1960 Morris commercial van.”
Sounds like he could be chap I need so contact was made and so glad that I did. He’s an interesting chap and has an historical association with pre-war Rileys but more of that later.
Paul came over in his beat up Peugeot 205, conversed in fluent French with Guy Brandy and it was agreed that on a temporary basis he could work on the car in Guy’s private workshop. What this in reality meant was arranging for some sort of wheel arrangement to be made that would allow Mabel to get up on the back of my own trailer and be transported over to Paul’s place for suspension and brake rebuilds to take place.
Various attempts were made and finally a Renault 5 wheel was adapted by Paul and held in place, how I’ll never know, but at least we finally made the back of the trailer after only once having the steering collapse in the main road before going up on the trailer. Mabel was then taken over to Paul’s workshop for the next stage to take place. The reason for the new smaller wheel was that the original assembly and lower suspension arms had been bent back so far that the original wheel was fouling the wheel arch.
Here’s Paul’s summary of the works that took place.
“After removing front left hand wheel the following damage could be ascertained.
The two lower arms of the suspension were badly bent towards the rear of the car. The arm connecting the shock absorber to the top links of the swivel pin was also deformed. In addition, the rubbers holding the tie bar to the chassis fixings had been torn away and the bar was now unsupported.
The main elements were provided by a specialist suspension components supplier and the Riley Motor Club in the UK. Sundry small fixings, lubricants, grease etc. were provided from stock. The chassis fixing (Eyebolt – lower arm to body [No. 62]) was not damaged and no deformation of the chassis could be seen in this area. Nor could any damage be found in the mountings of the shock absorber. There was also an electrical problem caused by the shock of the impact.
The car was supported and wheels removed – the following works were carried out on the L/H side of the car only:
I now had a working car but now needed to get the bodywork attended to, as since re-locating to the area in which we have our cottage, Paul no longer has the room or facilities to undertake this work. Shame, as I’m sure he’d have made a fantastic job.
As I mentioned I’m a member of a local Google Group down in France so I put out a call for recommendations for someone who could work on old British cars and understood the needs of classic cars which, let’s face it, are different to the cars of today.
Various suggestions were received and we narrowed it down to just a few although for logistical reasons I was favouring a chap (Franck) who was only about 20 minutes or so from us. Paul and I visited him and with Paul seeing what was going on, his facilities and looking at the quality of his work it was agreed he could do the necessary.
There being repaired was a Porsche, Jaguar XJS and a couple of piles of rust which turned out to be a pair of Mustangs being rebuilt. The chap (Franck) was clearly very good at his craft and had a passion for getting it just right. Sort of chap that wouldn’t let a job leave his premises less than perfect as it may affect the reputation he was building for himself.
So, it was agreed that on 1st September, Mabel would be delivered and he would get on with it. No point in trying to get anything done in France in August as the whole country just seems to shut down.
Now parts were required other than what Franck might do with new metal as the front panel, wing and bumper were beyond repair. OK, they probably could have been repaired but the labour costs associated in trying to get these into an acceptable condition was going to be greater than replacement parts. These would also be stronger than my damaged rusty versions.
A replacement front wing came from a fellow Riley 1.5 owner along with a bumper and good old eBay came up with as good a second-hand front panel as you’re likely to find. The front panel was sent by post and arrived in first-class condition.
The front wing and bumper were taken by my friend to a Riley Motor Club council meeting (along with various parts from Riley Motor Club Spares) in Kenilworth and brought back to the Bath area which isn't that far from where I live by the of chair West of England Centre for the Riley Motor Club. Now, how to get these to France?
Again, I put a note out on the previously mentioned Google group and eventually it came to pass that a chap living not far from where the parts had been taken to i.e. the Bath area and who is renovating a property very close to ours in France would bring them out. Not sure what the locals thought of a couple of chaps swapping bodywork parts from one car to another in the car park at Limoges airport but it didn’t seem to matter.
Franck had said it would take about three weeks (I guessed this would run into four weeks) and so I popped back from time to time to monitor progress……….the problem was apart from moving position in the body shop, not a lot seemed to be happening.
It all came down to a language issue and a communication breakdown but Mabel was eventually ready and looking so much better than she ever had been since I’d taken ownership of her. The trouble is she wasn’t going to be ready until after we were due to come back to the UK for the winter. My wife had to hastily arrange a flight back to the UK for work and I rearranged our sailing.
The upshot was that I’d crashed Mabel within 24 hours of arriving in France and she was ready to take back two days before the rearranged sailing. That wasn’t quite what had been planned before taking Mabel on her French adventure.
Now, there’s a few people I need to thank……
My friend for supplying the wing and bumper, the local area chairperson for fetching and carrying and especially to the chap running the Riley Motor Club spares who contributed greatly in getting parts that were on the parts list and some that were not out to France speedily in order for Paul to carry out the mechanical repairs. Paul and the chap from Club Spares were on good speaking terms by the end of this saga and the number of emails that were going backwards and forwards between all of us was quite a sizeable number. .
More on Paul Richfield - and this will appeal to pre-war owners and enthusiasts in particular. I mentioned he had owned a pre-war Riley………well this happened to be the Cuthbert Special which I understand to be a famous model and which came up for sale recently through the Historics at Brooklands auction but didn’t sell as the reserve wasn’t met. I think he’s still kicking himself as to why he didn’t keep it but it was a long time ago that he sold it. I’m sure that if anyone is compiling data on pre-war specials that Paul could provide additional information. If so please get in touch and I’ll see what can be arranged.
Seat-belts……..if they had been fitted my body might well have been less damaged than it was. For instance, when I was thrown from the right to the left I managed to shear off the door handle with my back. That's ¼ inch steel by the way. Yes, much pain and huge blue, green and orange bruises followed. Seat belts have now been fitted to Mabel. I couldn’t give a jot about their not being “period” and that the originality of the car has been devalued. For me, safety is vitally important and who knows it might not be me that is the idiot next time, it could be some other idiot and I’m not prepared to take that risk. Yes, I’ve heard all the stories about if I’d being wearing seat belts then this and that wouldn’t have happened. However, they do save lives and I consider mine worth saving.
Lastly, I know that if I were reading this I’d be asking myself…..”How much did all this cost?” I know that as I’ve kept a log of all direct and indirect expenditure and it’s………well, I’m the only one who knows the cost and that’s how it’s going to stay!
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