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’

Classic Sports Car - - Contents -

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

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