His­toric ad­ven­ture

Le Mans Clas­sic, that is. And there’s no bet­ter way to go to this spec­tac­u­lar fes­ti­val of his­toric mo­tor­sport than in an MX-5 along some of France’s en­chant­ing back roads, re­ports Charles Robin­son

Total MX-5 - - CONTENTS -

The Le Mans Clas­sic is a petrol­head’s dream out­ing: we take a road trip to the iconic event in a £1000 mk2

Like many great ad­ven­tures, it started down the pub. Con­ver­sa­tion gen­er­ally turns to the topic of cars at one point or an­other: a friend men­tioned his forth­com­ing trip to both the Monaco and Le Mans Clas­sic events.

I’d never been to ei­ther, but with 10 pre­vi­ous ex­cur­sions across the Chan­nel to watch the Le Mans 24 Hours, I con­sid­ered my­self an old hand, so the al­lure of a week­end at La Sarthe watch­ing 24 hours of rac­ing by vin­tage and clas­sic Le Mans cars was too much – I had to go. And I had to go in my mk2 MX-5 re­cently ac­quired from man­ag­ing ed­i­tor Steve Ben­nett. My friend put me in touch with Ian Longden of Fast­track

Tours who was or­gan­is­ing a trip and I duly booked my place.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of go­ing to Le Mans is so much more than just watch­ing a race. La Sarthe oozes his­tory and over the years has built up a huge fol­low­ing amongst the Bri­tish, who ev­ery year stage a mini-in­va­sion of the 24-hour race: it seems as though they’re equally fond of the Clas­sic.

The devil is in the de­tail and as I had a few weeks to pre­pare, I wanted to get my mk2 prop­erly sorted for its ad­ven­ture. Apart from the ob­vi­ous tyres, oil, coolant and washer fluid, I wanted to make sure it was look­ing its best, too. Bear in mind this car cost the mod­est sum of £1000, and although me­chan­i­cally sound, there re­mained plenty to do, as there al­ways is with an old MX-5.

The first job I de­cided I could tackle (with my lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence) was to tidy up the sills which were show­ing ev­i­dence of pre­vi­ous paint jobs, none of which seemed to be quite com­plete! So with a £9.99 can of Hal­fords black paint, some wet ‘n’ dry, a few copies of the

Sun­day Times and some mask­ing tape, I set to work.within a cou­ple of hours the sills were look­ing pre­sentable. Next, the head­lights, which were show­ing that char­ac­ter­is­tic cloudy yel­low­ing: Michael Cleverley’s timely ar­ti­cle about re­viv­ing

the lights in the last is­sue of To­tal MX-5 proved in­valu­able, and after an­other cou­ple of hours they were gleam­ing and clear again.

Nearer de­par­ture, I started to get ev­ery­thing to­gether and, when you’re jour­ney­ing by MX-5, trav­el­ling light is the or­der of the day. Luck­ily, although I would be camp­ing for three days, cater­ing was laid on so I didn’t need to load up the car with food and cook­ing uten­sils. Even so, I de­cided to take ba­sic tea and cof­fee mak­ing pro­vi­sions – the day must start with a cuppa as a bare min­i­mum. Other than that, it was just tent, sleep­ing mat, a few clothes, and my cam­era gear, which took up the ma­jor­ity of the avail­able space. The MX-5’S boot might look small, but with some cre­ative pack­ing, in­clud­ing the use of Ama­zon pack­ing cubes (bril­liant) ev­ery­thing fit­ted in per­fectly.

My drive south through France was go­ing to in­volve tolls and this is where Fast­track Tours or­gan­iser, Ian, im­parted prob­a­bly the best piece of ad­vice of the whole trip – get a SANEF toll elec­tronic tag. Ge­nius. This lit­tle elec­tronic gad­get sits at the top of your wind­screen and al­lows you to pass un­hin­dered through the toll gates. Any­one who has been the sin­gle oc­cu­pant of a right-hand drive car in France and has had to stop at the toll bar­rier, get out, run around the other side of the car to pay, then leap in again and buckle back up, will ap­pre­ci­ate what a god­send this is.

The French mo­tor­ways now even in­cor­po­rate 30km/h bar­ri­ers – the im­pli­ca­tion be­ing that you drive at them with­out stop­ping and they open ‘just in time’. It re­quires faith to be­gin with, but by the end of the trip I had the ap­proach to these bar­ri­ers down to a fine art and was leapfrog­ging much faster cars that had pre­vi­ously over­taken me.

My plan was to use the payages from Calais to Rouen and from there to hit the back roads, re­liv­ing mem­o­ries of Le Mans trips past.with my toll tag work­ing per­fectly the first sec­tion of my jour­ney passed with­out in­ci­dent. The MX-5 might be de­signed for those twisty coun­try roads, but it seems to lap up the end­less mo­tor­way miles as well as any other car and, cruis­ing at 130km/h (81mph), I found my­self nav­i­gat­ing the seem­ingly ever-busy roads of Rouen be­fore I knew it. The hot and sunny con­di­tions made sit­ting in the Rouen traf­fic some­what un­com­fort­able, so it was with re­lief I found my way to the D438 and the next part of my jour­ney.

The D438 is a pic­turesque A-road that winds its way through the French coun­try­side, pass­ing through the vil­lages of Ber­nay, Broglie, Gace and Sées, be­fore bring­ing you to Alençon. Frus­trat­ingly, a cou­ple of weeks prior to my trip the French laws had changed and the speed limit on roads with­out a cen­tral reser­va­tion had been re­duced from 100km/h (62mph) to 80km/h (50mph), mak­ing progress a lit­tle frus­trat­ingly lan­guid.

Nev­er­the­less, the MX-5 was in its el­e­ment, its 1.8-litre engine giv­ing me all the power I needed to despatch slower traf­fic, so progress was good. Along the way I stopped at var­i­ous points to take pho­to­graphs and avail my­self of re­fresh­ments, in­clud­ing a re­lax­ing cof­fee stop in Gace. I re­alise that Le Mans is quite a slog from Calais and the temp­ta­tion is to sim­ply high­tail it down there on the au­toroutes, but I’d urge you to give your­self a bit more time, take the back roads, and en­joy im­mers­ing your­self in the French coun­try­side.

I reached the out­skirts of Le Mans in time for the evening rush hour and made my way through the traf­fic to the cir­cuit. Camp­ing had been re­served for me by Ian and find­ing my pitch was easy. Tak­ing a mo­ment to fa­mil­iarise my­self with my new sur­round­ings, I re­alised that, in MX-5 terms, I was not alone. Not only were there a cou­ple of MX-5S camped op­po­site, but also an­other in the tent di­rectly be­hind me. From think­ing my car would be on its own in a sea of gleam­ing clas­sics, I found my­self in an MX-5 en­clave.

I in­tro­duced my­self to the re­spec­tive own­ers and within no time we were com­par­ing notes and ex­chang­ing sto­ries about our cars.when Ian ar­rived not too far be­hind me, we set­tled down to a cou­ple of well-earned beers be­fore walk­ing to Ar­nage for food.

An evening in Ar­nage is one of the (many) high­lights of any Le Mans trip. The small town comes alive, streams of fab­u­lous cars strut their stuff down the main drag, whilst the bars and bistros

spill out onto the wide boule­vard-like street.we found our­selves at La Vieille Cloche, which typ­i­cally was heav­ing with rev­ellers. Beer, steak and chips: the din­ner of gods.

As the evening pro­gressed, the pa­rade of cars down the boule­vard reached a crescendo; a cou­ple of ine­bri­ated English men stopped each car and encouraged the be­mused drivers to make a rac­ing start: en­gines revving and tyres squeal­ing, in turn they took off down the street ac­com­pa­nied by whoops and cheers from the on­look­ers. Aah, it was good be back, and just as I re­mem­bered it!

Of course, Le Mans wouldn’t be Le Mans with­out the rac­ing. For the Clas­sic, the 24-hour rules are bent slightly to ac­com­mo­date cars of all ages from the 1920s all the way to the 1980s. Ob­vi­ously it’s in­ad­vis­able for a 1929 Bu­gatti Type 44 to race along­side a Porsche 935 from 1978, so the cars are split into grids (or ‘plateaux’) based on their age, pre-ww2 cars mak­ing up the first grid with five fur­ther grids cov­er­ing the years from 1946 to 1980. Each grid raced three times in the 24-hour pe­riod, giv­ing each set of drivers a cou­ple of day­time races and a sin­gle night race: one of the races in­cluded a clas­sic Le Mans-style start, with the drivers run­ning across the track to get into their cars.

In­cluded in my week­end pack­age from Fast­track Tours was park­ing in the Clas­sic VIP area, which en­ti­tled me to take my car and park on the Bu­gatti cir­cuit with 8000 clas­sics.you might ques­tion whether a mk2 MX-5 has re­ally at­tained clas­sic sta­tus, and yet my car fit­ted in per­fectly along­side a Jaguar E-type and a Ford GT40. Many of these cars were there with their own­ers’ clubs; dis­ap­point­ingly, although MX-5 France had a good turnout, I never found a rep­re­sen­ta­tion for the UK MX-5 Own­ers Club; per­haps some­thing for next time…

Main grid rac­ing was due to start at 16:00, but there was plenty hap­pen­ing be­fore then, in­clud­ing a clas­sic Jaguar race and a Group C race packed with a ver­i­ta­ble feast of amaz­ing Le Mans rac­ers from the 1980s and 1990s, such as Porsche 962s, Jaguar XJR-14S and a Mercedes-benz C11.

My first ever trip to Le Mans was to the driz­zly 1995 event where I watched the start from close to Terte Rouge. It had a par­tic­u­lar poignance as it in­cluded two of my cousin Jem Marsh’s Mar­cos LM600S, which thun­dered their way around the cir­cuit. I’d long wanted to go back to Terte Rouge and since the track’s

re­de­vel­op­ment I was in­trigued to see what the new lay­out was like. As it turned out, it is now one of the best parts of the track to pho­to­graph from. I found my­self there as dark­ness fell after an amaz­ing sun­set, and watched the cars as they ap­peared un­der the Dun­lop Bridge and snaked their way down La Chapelle, through the new For­est S-bend and on to Terte Rouge be­fore join­ing the fa­mous Mul­sanne Straight. very spe­cial…

One of the most en­ter­tain­ing fea­tures of the main 24-hour race was the pits. There was al­ways some­thing hap­pen­ing there, so it was with some ex­cite­ment that on Sun­day morn­ing Ian sug­gested we go take a look.we found our­selves stand­ing in a garage about half­way down the pit lane dur­ing the third and fi­nal race for grid 4, which in­cluded a Volvo­engined Mar­cos GT from 1965 be­ing raced by my cousin (Jem’s son) Chris Marsh. Sadly, me­chan­i­cal prob­lems ended their race out on the cir­cuit, but it was good to talk to the car’s other drivers and ex­change a few fam­ily sto­ries and anec­dotes.

We stayed long enough to watch as the next race got un­der­way and wit­ness the cars come in for their pit stops. This gave me one of the high­lights of my week­end – the 1968 Howmet TX pit­ting out­side the garage we were in. what you may not know is that it’s pow­ered by a jet tur­bine engine.yes, re­ally…

After the rac­ing was done we de­cided to hop in the MX-5 and get some pho­tos of the car in and around the track. Although the main cir­cuit was still closed to traf­fic, we man­aged to nav­i­gate all of the clear-up chaos and get back into the Bu­gatti Cir­cuit, which was like be­ing handed the key to the sweet shop.

My Le Mans Clas­sic trip de­liv­ered on so many lev­els: good com­pany, stun­ning cars and fab­u­lous mo­tor­sport. My £1000 MX-5 added to the ex­pe­ri­ence, never miss­ing a beat and dish­ing out driv­ing plea­sure from the mo­ment I left home to the mo­ment I ar­rived back.

This is pre­cisely what MX-5S were cre­ated for

It’s sur­pris­ing what you can stuff in a mk2’s boot

Make sure you stop for cof­fee

Can’t be Le Mans with­out go­ing camp­ing…

Does what it says on the teeshirt… Clas­sic sports car at Clas­sic Le Mans

Look­ing for that che­quered flag MX-5 Own­ers Club of France

Le Mans spe­cial edi­tion: how top­i­cal

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