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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