Martin Buckley Backfire
‘The traumatised Datsun was just one element of a trip that was making us feel as if we were stuck in a 1970s Play for Today’
My pal John (not the Tube driver or the lawyer, but another one) is from the great tradition of British eccentrics. The first encounter with him was in the form of an e-mail, ticking me off for the rude things I’d said about the cult of Steve Mcqueen worship. Though not always a man to be allowed near a laptop after a couple of glasses of red wine, in this case he was probably right, and yet still big enough to say sorry face-to-face when he made himself known to me one year at Goodwood.
John No 3 freely admits that he looks a bit like Mr Bean, does a wicked impression of him, and even did a year as a stand-up comic. He is also a frustrated poet and a passionate Francophile who, among his many attributes, likes to look after his friends. Being lucky enough to count myself among their number, I was invited on his sortie to the Le Mans Classic. No camping or smelly bogs for us: this John does things in style and had organised a château just half an hour up the road from the circuit. I was not sure what I could contribute, but when it began to look as if our host would be short of an old car to drive (his Alfa Giulietta Spider is still mid-rebuild), I had the bright idea of organising a loaner in the form of a Datsun Fairlady: 1965, right-hand drive and property of Jeremy Nash, who brought it over from his native South Africa 20 years ago.
Gus Meyer, my gem of a motor engineer – ‘mechanic’ doesn’t do him justice – was tasked with getting the little car up and running. Unfortunately, I’d got my dates wrong so instead of a month to work on the Datsun, Gus got a week – not much time to go through brakes, fuel, and all the other stuff that dies when you don’t use an old car for a long time. All subsequent events can thus be attributed to my schoolboy error…
Having said that, first impressions were good. Between John’s base near Redditch and our Le Mans digs the Fairlady, unused for 18 years, didn’t so much as cough. Instead, it suffered a sort of post-traumatic stress over the ensuing days. An overheating episode in a traffic jam on the way into the circuit was soon followed by brake failure – and the scene was set. Rather than enjoying the event, there was lots of headscratching among the male guests over carbs, points and master cylinders. Meanwhile, I was feeling bad for all concerned and wishing I’d insisted on John taking the wimp’s alternative – my boring, reliable, air-conditioned Merc SL.
Eventually, we got lucky when a local called Simon agreed to help. He had a garden full of Jags and was no stranger to old cars. The trouble was, every time he fixed one issue something else would crop up, until we hit a snag with the carb float chambers. For this there was no quick fix, putting the kibosh on thoughts of getting the poor thing home under its own steam.
In truth, the Fairlady was just one element of a trip that was beginning to make us feel as if we were stuck in a ’70s Play for Today, a rejected Dennis Potter script about seven middle-aged optimists on a misguided road trip. The heat, the booze, the traumatised Datsun, the increasing pain from John’s dodgy knee and the tension between what boys and girls find entertaining were all ramping up the febrile atmosphere.
It was much more interesting than anything on the track – which is to say that I was enjoying it, but not for the right reasons: when there is a column to fill once a month, seeing one write itself before your eyes has a certain appeal.
I’m still not sure of the real story behind the late-night golf in the garden and the resulting broken roof tile (and windscreen). Likewise the bloodbath on the top floor, after one of our not-very-magnificent seven, having indulged in more than a couple of adult beverages, sliced an artery in his thumb on a glass lampshade.
Still, nobody died, and we’re all mates again. John’s now off to collect the Datsun, so another adventure is hopefully not about to unfold.
From top: Buckley with Datsun’s saviour, Jaguar man Simon; Fairlady – and driver John – resists the temptation to break down in French traffic