Le Mans Classic 2014

Thursday 3rd July seemed to arrive with the speed of light. No sooner had we completed the Bristol trip than we were meeting Chris and Marise White in the Nag’s Head Car Park for another jaunt, this time to the ‘Le Mans Classic’.

Travelling to Le Mans

The trip across (or under) the channel went well and we were soon on French soil. Signal for the roofs down (Chris with his E-Type convertible, me with my XJS convertible) then we went off on a pleasant cruise along the silky smooth French motorways. The sun shone and we were kept company by a continuous parade of mostly British registered classics of all descriptions and prices, including a contingent of Farina Austin Princesses. We were even overtaken by a ’64 fully loaded Westminster tooling down the outside lane. Many we saw more than once after the inevitable pit stops for food and fuel. Some we found later were actually staying at our hotel.

The only problem was that the tunnel at Rouen was closed due to road works and the diversion signs suddenly disappeared. I took a wrong turning (where have we heard that before?) and we ended up in a massive traffic jam in the city, finally extricating ourselves by doing a U turn on the dual carriage way. Illegal but rewarding, this cost us an hour. Most other people we met were also similarly caught.

It was a relief to arrive at the Ibis, which Travel Destinations had taken over for the duration. No sooner had the cases landed on the bed, than the four of us were sitting outside drinking cool beers, an activity that we reprised most evenings. Resting in the hotel car park were several Jags, including: ‘E’ Types of varying series, an XK120 hard top, ‘C’ and ‘D’ type replicas, XJ300, ‘F’ type, several XJS’s, Simon Cronin’s 3.8 Mark II and an XF Estate. Other makes were represented by a Bentley T1 saloon, an Aston Martin DB6, one or two Porsches and a Morgan. The prize for the best personal registration plate has to go to a red E type – SER 142E (work it out). Another car that caught my eye was a blue XJS Celebration with cream leather and chromed wheels owned by John, whom we’d met earlier on the road down. This was immaculate and originally supplied by Henley’s – they had the wheels chrome plated.

The Paddock

We made an early start on the Friday and travelled via tram to the circuit, approximately 15 minutes away. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a vast plain of classic cars, the Le Mans Village – full of retro stands, club stands, the Le Mans Museum, Trade Stands, the Articurial Auction House, the Paddocks and much more – all within and around the 14 mile track. Porsche had by far the largest stand with hundreds of examples from modern to the early 356’s. Aston Martin, Morgan, AC Cobra, Ferrari, Lotus were also fielding large numbers. I don’t believe there was any make, with the exception of certain American marques, that was not represented. Richard Gibby would have been pleased to see Stand 33, – The Swallow Doretti Owners Club. Strangely, we did not find a stand solely dedicated to Jaguars.

It was the 50th Anniversary of the Ford Mustang, and they were out in force, often ferrying guests to and fro. I did see a ’59 Caddy Fleetwood in a fetching peppermint green/white combo. Those “rocket fins” are to die for. Chris and I managed to get into the pre- auction viewing for the Articurial Auction – thanks Marise for spotting the unguarded side entrance! Mercedes, Lancia’s, Aston’s, and Ferrari’s abounded. All out of my price league, unfortunately.

Our pass gained us access to the Paddocks. They say that the Le Mans Classic is the meeting point of all time periods. No more so than in the Paddocks where you can mingle with the teams and marvel at the classics, the majority of which had taken part in the original races. Here you can see examples of Bentley, Talbot, Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Delahaye, Lagonda, Invicta, Lorraine, Dietrich, Riley, Singer and many more from the 1920’s and 1930’s. Later eras are represented by Austin Healey, Jaguar, Triumph, AC, Jowett, Allard, Morgan, Lotus, Porsche, GT40’s, Ferrari, Maserati, BMW, Mercedes, MG, Lola, Alpine, Chevron, Corvette – the list goes on. All can be seen driving out, and it is easy to talk drivers and pit crew as you wander through. A nice sight was the Ecurie Ecosse transporter in the Jaguar Paddock. Derek Hood of JD Classics also had a paddock and was fielding two XK120’s including JWK 651, in a lovely shade of old English White, which he drove himself.

Friday Practice and Qualifying

Friday is all about practice and qualifying. Basically, the race is split into six Grids or Plateau as follows:

  • 1923–1939
  • 1949–1956
  • 1957–1961
  • 1962–1965
  • 1966–1971
  • 1972–1979

Each Grid races for about 45 minutes and each race on the Saturday from 16.45hrs, through the evening and night into Sunday, finishing at 17.00hrs. I hope I have this right and apologies to afficionados if not – it’s a bit confusing for a novice such as myself.

We left at about five on the Friday to partake in the BBQ arranged at the Hotel. A little disappointing, with only one skewer of meat and sitting indoors. Some wag sent out for pizzas! Wish we had… Still, the beer and the Mouton Cadet flowed freely and more than made up for it.

Saturday: Public Laps

Not only was Saturday the start of the race days, but it also gave a chance for the paying public to drive their cars on the pre-booked circuit. Chris had booked a couple of laps but sadly, due to rain, the track was wet and wisely he did not want to risk it. Other cars did, however. Sitting in the Dunlop Stand we were entertained by all manner of private machinery spinning and sliding round the Dunlop Chicane. The most hairy was when a red MGB slid and spun through the grass, missing the concrete barrier by only a couple of feet. All types of vehicle took part, from Healey’s to Rover P6’s, Bentley’s (Shadow shape) and, of course, Jags.

The strangest was a standard, new Mercedes C Class Estate. We learned afterwards that it was hired by the driver when his TR electrics caught fire on the trip down, rendering it unusable. Having arranged its return to the UK , he took the hired car and insisted that he took it round the track since he had paid for the Triumph. The marshals’ were not in favour, but two Frenchmen who had asked him for a ride on the track persuaded them to allow it.

After this we met Vaughn and Julie High who were camping with their 1981 red Porsche 911 Targa. By this time I was all porsched out. We also had a well stocked picnic basket – ordered from Travel Destinations for Lunch. Pity it rained!

During our visit to the museum shop we saw some French Comic Books for sale. These are books that are very popular on the continent and tell a serious story, but in comic art form. The artists were there to sign them, and would draw you and your car on the flyleaf. We bought two, one for each Jag, both done by two of the three artists present. The writer also signed the copies.

There were “Club Parades” throughout the day and it was common to step aside as you walked on the track to allow some of the best most exotic and expensive machinery to rumble by. The exception being the Rover BRM Turbine which sort of hummed and whined by.

The Race

Five o’clock saw the start of the races with the 1923–39 cars starting first. The thunder of the Bentleys racing round the track was glorious with the older cars making a totally different sound to the deafening screaming of the more modern machinery.

Following some food and a trip to Vaughn’s camp site for alcoholic refreshment, we made our way back to the stands to watch more races, interspersed by Vaughn’s recollections of his early days with Ferry Porsche as they brought the 356 from paper to production [it’s a long story!]. Time flew and it was gone midnight before we headed back with the cars still streaming round the track.

We arrived by tram, a little later on the Sunday, to view more races and spend some time looking at areas of the show that we hadn’t yet explored. The races finished at 5.00pm (where did the time go?) and we headed back to the hotel for drinks and a meal, followed by more drinks.

Travel Home

Monday came round all too quickly and we departed for home. The road up was again a classic car feast. Unfortunately, we had more Tunnel Trouble – this time the “Chunnel” which was blocked by a broken down train and downed power lines. We went shopping in the Retail area. However someone set off the fire alarm and it was evacuated so we waited in the car park for six hours before we managed to get across. You couldn’t make this up! Still there were a lot of exotica to admire and interesting people to chat to, including several of our hotel guests.

Sue enjoyed every moment of it, even though it was all about cars, as did Chris, Marise, Vaughn and Julie. We had a fantastic time, with lovely company and great cars. Would we do it again? Without hesitation!

Neil Shanley