Wednesday, December 21, 2005
It will do 0-60mph (0-100kph) in under 4 seconds. It is limited to 120mph (195kph). It has the most ludicrous power to weight ratio in the known universe and better performance than a Ferrari Enzo. Indeed its makers, racing engineers Hartham, refer to it as "truly a miniature Ferrari in every sense".
This sort of insanity and irresponsible engineering is very likely to get people killed. But they will die with the smile to end all smiles on their face if they do it at 120mph in an F500. Fantastic. If I had the spare cash, I'd order one today.
And you've got to love the badging.
Monday, December 19, 2005
This process is in fact simpler than you might imagine for a classic car. It does still require some research however. Fortunately for you, if you live in the UK and you are bringing a classic car in from within the EU, I've done the research for you.
Purchasing Your Car
All the usual business applies here when selecting your vehicle. Once you have decided this is the car for you and set about purchasing it, make sure you end up with the legal equivalent of the V5 log book for the country you're in. This is both proof of ownership and proof of age, which is very important later on.
In many EU countries the legal transfer of ownership must be carried out by a special type of solicitor (not like the UK, where a green slip and a handshake is enough!) Don't forget to check what the local laws are regarding transfer of property, and if you find you do have to hire such a parasite (I mean, individual), factor this in when setting your budget. It will cost a few hundred pounds.
Getting Your Car Home
So, vehicle paid for (corresponding backs scratched) and legal paperwork in hand, it's time to head for England! Your best bet is usually by ferry, so most people head for the nearest UK-serving ferry port. Note, if you have bought a particularly slow vehicle (such as a Fiat 500) I strongly recommend staying off European motorways, unless of course you are seeking the ultimate cure for constipation.
Fresh off the boat in your chosen UK ferry port, proudly sporting your newly purchased classic car, you can pretty much expect to drive through Customs and off home without any issues - they're not in the business of bothering people driving old cars with foreign plates. Unless afforementioned cars are stuffed with canabis.
Getting An MOT
That's the next job. An MOT should be sought immediately and can be done on the chassis number. Also while odometers reading in kilometres are technically illegal in the UK, this is not part of the MOT test, so the car will pass without modification. Do, however, strategically position little triangular bits of black tape on the headlamp glass to correct the angle of the beam for British roads, or it will fail.
Headlamps will be set up for the "wrong" side of the road. Of course, the reality is most classic car headlamps in original condition are about a dazzling as bicycle lights so, post-MOT, ghastly tape can be removed without unduly upsetting your fellow motorists. However it is preferable to set the lamps up correctly for driving on the left.
Once again, UK insurance can be obtained using the chassis number. Here it is a case of "buyer beware". BIBA themselves (shame on them!) put me through to a bunch of crooks who were going to charge me £200 for one month of insurance by chassis number, on the basis it was "specialist" insurance. This is nonsense. I contacted my usual classic insurer of choice, Footman James, who immediately covered the car on its chassis number for the same fee as I would've been charged to cover it with a UK plate.
Paying Your Taxes
Or indeed, not. There is nothing to pay on a second-hand classic car, as VAT is considered to have been paid in the EU member state when the vehicle was new. And there's no import duty because you're within the EU. All you need to do is obtain and fill in all the details you can on a VAT-414 form from Her Majesty's Revenues & Customs. This is available online. It will ask you for a UK license plate, but leave this blank and send the VAT-414 with your DVLA application (covered next) and the DVLA will fill it in and forward it to Customs.
Getting UK Plates
The final step! Now you have all the information to hand the DVLA will require before they will issue a UK license plate. You need to fill in the DVLA V55/5 form (this is only available by calling or writing to the DVLA - you cannot get it through the Post Office or download it). You should receive an information booklet with this form, telling you how to fill it in, but even with that much of the information requested is not relevant to a classic car. I called the DVLA to ask their advice and they took me through it step by step. I advise you to do the same if you're not sure.
Don't forget, if the vehicle was first registered prior to November 1973 in another country you should not be due to pay any road tax. In this case the "license fee" (as I think they call it) should be £0.00.
Once this form is completed, you will need to include a cheque for the admin fee (currently £38), proof of identity (e.g. passport), proof of address (e.g. bank statement), original vehicle documentation from the EU country in which the car was purchased, car MOT, valid UK insurance certificate and your completed Customs VAT-414 form. Pop this lot in the post to your local DVLA office (in my case Chelmsford, but the DVLA can advise you) and wait.
Note this is where the proof of age mentioned at the start is very important and must be included with the V55/5. If the DVLA cannot ascertain the age of the vehicle they'll issue a Q plate, and no one wants a Q plate on a classic 1960s automobile!
De-registering The Vehicle
When I said you were done, I lied. You're finished with the paperwork for the UK, however, you must also inform the authorities in the relevant member state the vehicle no longer resides there (the equivalent to a SORN declaration in the UK). This obviously varies from country to country and you'll have to find out about this yourselves, but I imagine the consulate for whichever country is concerned will be more than happy to assist you.
And that's your lot. In due course you should receive a V5 logbook for your car, with which you can go and commission your UK license plates. We're still looking forward to this happy day, as we only sent the forms off a week ago, but we qualify for black and white plates (the same rules apply as for road tax) which will look really nice on our cream Fiat 500. Can't wait!
Monday, December 05, 2005
So, road tax. This isn't a new issue any more, but I got to thinking about it yesterday, and it really, really annoys me. Ever since the UK government began taxing motorists for the use of the nation's tarmac (as if they don't take enough tax from the cost of petrol), they have incremented the exemption year for tax so that cars over 30 years of age are tax exempt.
Why? Because these vehicles are clearly labours of love. They wouldn't be on the road at all if people weren't looking after them, they do very few miles and it's like a reward scheme for people keeping little bits of motoring heritage alive.
These museum pieces would all be on the scrap heap if it wasn't for the dedication of their owners and no one would ever see Lotus Elans, MGB GTs, Jaguar S-types, etc. - even more lowly specimens such as Mk 1 Ford Escorts or indeed, our own little Fiat 500, would be forgotten and resigned to black and white photo albums by now.
So it's a nice gesture to give people who poor their hearts, souls and wallets in to the maintenance of these days gone by of motoring a bit of a break. Great idea, no? Well the buggers stopped all that in 2004.
My 1974 Lotus Elan, a beautiful car, every bit a classic and in spite of being over 30 years old now, will never be tax exempt if the current government has anything to do with it. My father's early Jaguar XJ-S convertible, in spite of still having about 15 years to go, will thoroughly deserve classic status when it gets there. There weren't very many made. However under present legislation he can forget about it.
The government is just not interested any more. Worse than that, they seem to be discouraging any future classic car ownership. I'm sure they have got more important things to worry about, but why oh why did they change the rules when everything was going along just swimmingly?
There's also a more serious implication for post-'74 classics. It has to affect the value of vehicles built after the tax "watershed" - especially vehicles which span both sides of the cut off date. The ones registered prior to '74 must be more sought after than post-'74 vehicles, precisely because they are tax exempt.
The most gauling thing for me is my car was actually built in 1973 and was registered on 1st January 1974 as the original owner was one of these people who wanted to try and get one of the very first plates of the year. D'oh!! At least the Fiat is 1971.
Monday, November 21, 2005
It's always a bit of a toss up between leaving the car in the garage to get stale and damp, or braving the elements and running it out for a while, even if the conditions aren't the best they could be. This was one of those occasions. The sun was shining, the ground was dry(ish) and the car could do with a run, so out it came.
(An amusing aside: one nice chap, in his mid '50s I'd say, barely escaped with his life after an off the cuff comment about the car on the Saffron Walden high street. My girlfriend is, well, "protective" of the Fiat. Fortunately she didn't hear him say to me "oh, we used to have one of those - an original of course - many years ago!" I waited until we were far enough out of town to render turning back to find him a task not worth undertaking, before telling her of the conversation. At this point she started spitting something about ignorant Englanders, our car coming from Italy thus being ten times more original than any Fiat 500 sold in Britain, 1971 it was made, &c. Next time I have a conversation like this, I won't mention it.)
Anyway, all in all it was an enjoyable afternoon, but I'm less than comfortable with the fact the car is now sitting back in the garage with a light spraying of salt water under the sills, in the wheel arches and worked in to just about every other nook and cranny salt water can get at.
I was told by one of the mechanics at Paul Matty Sportscars, from where I purchased the Lotus, the best tactic for a classic car to be used all winter is putting it on a ramp somewhere and giving the entire underside a fine spraying with duck oil. I'm not sure how effective this is, but he swore by it, and in my experience these fellows do tend to know what they're talking about. This may well be an option.
I shall ring some local classic car specialists and see if they've heard of the practice. What a shame our rather handy next door neighbour, a lovely man by the name of Roger who services a very wealthy man's 14-car Porsche fleet for a living, has moved on. He would be able to tell me. I'll have to pop in to "The Welly" in Epping and see if he's about ...
Finally, confession time. I still haven't done the forms. But I must must MUST do them very soon. Unfortunately this sort of paperwork is always bottom of the list of priorities. A bit like cleaning the oven, but worse. I know it's worse, because we actually cleaned the oven in preference to facing the DVLA forms this weekend!
Monday, November 07, 2005
At least we can prove its age so it will qualify for the old black and white plates (which always look nicer) - it should be either an old J or a K registration, depending on which side of the 1st August 1971 it was "born". I'm not sure off the top of my head.
The sad thing about this is it will lose its Italian plates completely, which are originals and in the old format (with the MI denoting Milan) and even if re-registered in Italy at a later date it will be issued with a new style plate, which will be just wrong. So far as I'm aware, the Italian system doesn't work like ours (ie: you don't get a plate for the year of your car - you simply get the next plate on the list). It's a real shame, but the law is the law and we have to do it.
So this evening will involve sitting down with half a dozen forms and a black biro, signing the Fiat's plates away.
Monday, October 31, 2005
I should note that following the drive from Milan the car continued to be my girlfriend's day car for a few months, taking her to work and back as well as going on a trip to Southwell. It was around then it took the first trip to Bob.
We had to do about five hundred pounds-worth of work at this point. Half of this went on cosmetics (such as an aluminium number plate lamp), various little bits to get it through the UK MOT and giving it a good service and oil change. The other half was to replace the timing chain (the engine sounded like a broken sewing machine) and the carburettor (which had a split base plate causing the tickover rate to suffer and petrol fumes to invade the car via the heating ducts, not to mention being the original carb it was very old and worn).
And that pretty much brings you up to the first post, Introductions, with the Fiat.
Thursday, October 27, 2005
Roof rack aside, some good news. My girlfriend went out to wax the Fiat last Sunday, since it was a beautiful, sunny afternoon in Epping. About ten minutes later I heard the distinctive sound of the little Fiat engine, putt-putting away outside the front door. (She knew I'd recognise the engine sound straight away - nothing else sounds like a Fiat 500. She didn't even need to beep the horn.) I grabbed my coat, opened the door and there she was. "Hop in! Let's go for a spin!"
It transpired that unbeknownst to me, she had tried to push the car out of the garage to wax it in the sunshine. Light as it is, there is a slight incline and once you lose momentum it's game over. She gave up pushing with the car half way out of the garage and stubbornly refusing to shift any further. But before giving up completely and calling me she decided to try and start it. Remembering what happened the previous weekend, this time she didn't pump the accelerator as she turned the engine over. Bingo! It started, no problem. Suspicions confirmed. It was a simple case of flooding. Which is great news, because tow-starting the damned thing every weekend with the runabout was getting tedious, to say the least!
That's all for now, except to say many thanks to Chris and Victoria, who put up with my interuption of their beautifully prepared dinner to run to the Internet and place my final (and pointless) roof rack bid. I'm such a geek.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
"Perfect!" I cried. "That's just what we need." At that time our only car was the Fiat (or rather, our only car in London) so if we wanted to buy flat pack furniture for example, it was a case of either hire a car or book a taxi. Neither of which are, well, cheap frankly!
Ever since that fateful day I have scoured the planet for a Fiat 500 roof rack and discovered them to be the only commodity actually and genuinely rarer than hen's teeth. I've found luggage racks galour of the variety that clip on to the rear of the vehicle, but not a single ordinary fitted roof rack.
Luggage racks are fine for suitcases and the like, but as soon as you want to transport something a little larger, say a Christmas tree, or perhaps (heaven forbid) a flat packed wardrobe, they're no good whatsoever.
After a not small amount of searching, I had all but completely given up in my quest for a roof rack befitting of a Fiat 500. Given up that is ... until today. For today I noticed someone is selling one on eBay. Hurrah!
Of course, I don't technically need one any more, but who knows when I might, and who knows who might have the car in the future and need one? And so I am going to bid for it. I won't be linking to it, however, for two reasons:
- There's no sense in pointing the competition in the right direction
- eBay links die after a few months and I'll have to remove it
Knowing my luck however, the AdSense links for this page will probably fire up an eBay link to the only Fiat 500 roof rack for sale in the known universe and I will be lost in the flood of anxious owners, desperate to get their hands on its hallowed tubular steel. Grrrrr...
By the way, apologies for the photograph, but there are so few roof racked Fiat 500s about the only photographic example I could find was this toy. I promise, should I win the roof rack, I will post a photo of it, on my Fiat 500, in this blog so anyone scouring Google for a photo of a Fiat 500 with a roof rack in the future will at least find one suitable picture!
Photograph courtesy of Scale 18.
Monday, October 17, 2005
I wrote a post a little while ago called Temptation where I talk about wanting to get my hands on an original Series 1 Jaguar XJ6. The photograph I chose was an L registered dark red XJ saloon.
My father read my blog for the first time this weekend and commented that this particular photograph depicted the exact make and model of car I had my first ever journey in. Right down to the colour. The only difference is the photograph depicts an L registration which is one year newer than my first carriage, being a K registered vehicle.
How about that? When I was a baby my father owned a K registered dark red Jaguar XJ6 (with cream interior, so he tells me - I couldn't remember) in which I was brought home from hospital. In the words of the great Harry Hill: "What were the chances if that happening, eh?"
He still blames my appearance for having to sell it just a few months later. I think he's joking.
Two other noteworthy items:
1. The runabout got checked over while dad was at my disposal, and apart from needing four new tyres (which is ok, because I spotted that and negotiated a discount) it seems very sound.
2. Apparently my mechanic in Nottinghamshire, where the Lotus currently resides, is finally promising to fix the fuel leak this month. Hurrah!
Monday, October 10, 2005
Take a look at the picture. It's the horn and indicator/headlamp stalks for a Fiat 500 F or L (I think they're interchangeable). Those stalks look and feel pretty rigid when they are attached to the car. They certainly don't look like they're supposed to flex in any direction, so attempting to persuade them to do so was very far from my mind. Until I read Mike England's post, here on the Fiat 500 boards.
It never occurred to me our little Fiat 500, whose interior shares so little in common with modern car interior layouts, would actually have a stalk you can flex forward (like any modern car) to flash the lights. But it does!
And so when the weather turned out to be fine this weekend (better than fine actually - it's unseasonably warm and sunny and has been for days) and we decided to play with the Fiat again this weekend, I couldn't wait to try the newly discovered headlamp flashing abilities. Sure enough, it works great! And a Fiat 500 flashing its little headlamps somehow looks, well, even cuter than ever.
I think I've also discovered the reason for the starting problems as well. We in the IT profession would call it "user error" (or "luser error" if the perpetrator of the crime is particularly irritating - not in this case, I hastily add).
My girlfriend, who tends to drive the Fiat as I prefer to be a passenger in this particular vehicle (the Lotus is "his" and the Fiat is "hers"), often goes first in attempting to start the car. It usually coughs a bit for the first couple of attempts then stops firing completely. When I have a go the starter turns the engine over but fails to create so much as a hint of a spark.
Well on Saturday I believe I discovered why. I looked on over my girlfriend's shoulder as she was starting the car from cold and she was pumping away on the gas while the starter motor was turning. A sure way to flood the engine if it doesn't fire quickly. On Sunday I told her not to pump, but to turn the starter over with a little gas and then only try and catch the engine with the throttle when it actually fires. And bingo, the Fiat started without any pushing or towing.
Hurrah! I'll re-test my theory next weekend, weather permitting.
Photograph courtesy of Ricambi-Automobilia.
Monday, October 03, 2005
We pushed it out of the garage in to the sunshine and eagerly set about firing the engine. Or at least that was the plan. The Fiat, however, had other ideas. Having been abandoned in a cold, damp garage for two weeks it seemed to be in what might be considered as the automotive equivalent of a sulk. Arms folded, bottom lip wobbling, looking the other way, refusing to respond to cohersion of any kind.
We knew it was only being beligerant though. We'd been here before. So out came the tow rope ... again. (Push starting a warm 500 is a doddle, but a stone cold one takes more persuasion!) I went to fetch the runabout, hooked it up to the Fiat and within one length of the garage forecourt it was running. And judging by the amount of time we had to keep the choke out for (about 5 minutes compared to the usual 30 seconds) it had gotten very, very cold. Perhaps further anti-garaging evidence? Who knows.
In the end all was well. We had a nice morning out, and after a good run up the road the little car started first time in Sawbridgeworth. It developed a funny rubber-squeaking sound from the back left wheel (as you sit in the car) which concerns me slightly, but I'll deal with that another time. The important thing is that we had fun, the car had a run and everyone's happy!
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
This, I thought, sounded like a lot of fun. I read the introductions and the rules and it sounded even better. These cheery folk have a lot of good, safe enjoyment, in the company of their peers, out of harms way and without causing a nuisance to anyone. Then I clicked on the gallery and was slightly disappointed and surprised to see very few "classic" Lotuses. (Or should that be Loti?) Everyone was hurtling around in Lotus Seven kits or Elises/Exiges and there wasn't an original Elan in sight. Strange. Finally, I read the FAQ and things began to make sense.
If you own an irreplaceable classic like an old Elan, with which you have a certain affinity and don't particularly want to see mangled, reading advice such as this is not exactly going to encourage you to partake in the activity:
"... if you decide to take your car on to a track, you must be aware that you are accepting the risk ..."
Further examination reveals, depending on how much fun you have, you are likely to have to shell out for a set of tyres, some brake pads and an oil and filter change as a matter of course ... every time you go! And this note sends shivers down the spine of any sane, mortal, classic Lotus owner, knowing as you do that your engine is over 30 years old:
"... your engine will spend more time at high revs than ever before ..."
I don't know how much a Lotus engine rebuild costs, and I don't want to find out just yet (though I suppose it's inevitable I will one day). Track days are suddenly sounding less like the picnic I initially considered them to be.
All of the above leads to me only one possible conclusion. In order to thoroughly enjoy a track day, you have to be one (or more) of the following:
- A good home mechanic with ample access to inexpensive parts.
- Driving a hire car and insured to the hilt! (Something Lotus On Track won't let you do, probably on account of the fact you'll be driving like Jason Plato in the BTCC!)
It got me thinking it would be wonderful to be able to fix your own car like our friend Bob. His Fiat 500L is his pride and joy. He tells us he was the first person in the UK to do the now popular "Panda head conversion" (which is apparently neither cruel to animals nor illegal) making his 500L on 126 running gear good for 90mph.
I can tell you travelling at 60mph in an unmodified 500F - which is only possible downhill and with a following wind, by the way - is bloody terrifying, so 126 running gear or not, 90mph must be pure white-knuckle-inducing terror! The other day Bob apparently decided to push it a little. At an unmentionable speed (I wouldn't want to get the man in trouble) and egged on by his mate in an Alfa Romeo, the entire exhaust system sheered itself straight off the block.
"I'm an idiot," says Bob, "but never mind. I'll just fix it."
If I could say that, I'd be going to track days!
Thursday, September 22, 2005
He is the extremely proud owner of a 5.3 litre V12 XJS Convertible, which I have to say, in spite of being a car of an era I don't particularly admire (I was far happier when he was considering a nice 1968 S-Type) is a lovely car.
And mine? Well I recently began reading Martyn's XJ6 diary (sadly now offline it seems, but the link goes to his web page) on the Classic Cars Magazine website and this has added fuel to the little Jaguar-loving fire in my belly. I was already aware of what a bargain the old XJ6s are and I really quite fancied getting one at some point. Martyn simply served to remind me of their existence. I mean look at the wonderful machine in the photograph. Isn't she beautiful? And you can get hold of a mint one for less than £4,000, according to Classic Cars Magazine's current price guide. "Light blue touch paper and retire ... " as the saying goes.
Knowing me as I do, I realise this is the beginning of the end. I can see this going only one way. In a few years time, if not sooner, I will probably arrive home in a newly purchased S1 Jaguar XJ6. Watch this space. It might be a blog for three classics instead of two. And sooner than you might think. I just need to do the kitchen first, apparently. Bah!
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Ever since I bought the Elan, the race has been on to find a garage. The car was sat on my parents' driveway for a good few months which meant two things. Firstly, my mother was getting rather fed-up with her driveway not being her driveway. (Something my girlfriend's mother can also appreciate, not having a garage at the moment courtesy of her son's Alfa Romeo GTV6 - but that's a different story.) Secondly, I wasn't exactly filled with joy at the prospect of my motor spending the winter exposed to the elements in the rain-soaked north of England.
Finally, after months of searching, I found a spot in a privately owned, ex-council garage block, with reasonable rent (£100 a quarter - actually cheaper than my council garage rent in Epping). With a good deal of relief, I removed the Lotus from the afforementioned driveway and parked it in its new home.
Until recently, like many others, I held firm to the idea that cars over-wintering in a garage were somehow protected from time and the worst that could happen to a car in such a condition was a thin covering of dust. But then I read this article in Classic Cars Magazine which scared me silly! To summarise, the piece warns of the dangers of storing a classic car for winter, covered and in a cold, damp, concrete garage. Furthermore, the author goes in to great detail about all the expensive and destructive things such conditions can wreak upon your precious automobile.
Heavens to Betsy! The present storage conditions of the Lotus precisely match their worst possible case. It's even covered. Sounds like I'm doing everything the article says you shouldn't do.
My first reaction was to email Classic Additions, the manufacturers of my cover, to find out what they advised. They informed me since I had the "light breathable" cover, it was ideal (their exact words) for using in a cold, damp garage - indeed this was exactly the purpose it was designed for. Great.
So I had a chat with my father, who noted it has lived happily for more than a couple of years now in that very garage with no obvious damp problems. On top of this, it goes out for a good run every dry weekend God deems to send us (not that many, as the geographical location would have it), even over winter.
One further point worthy of note is of course the body shell. It's glass fibre, and the chassis is all one metal (and a modern galvernised replacement, as most Elans are now on since the original chassis construction was prone to rotting to nothing at an alarming rate) so there are very few places where the chemical principles of rust can come in to play.
But what about the Fiat? It has no such luck. It is already renowned for its shoddy build quality, especially the native models which seemed to be made from the off-cuts of the "for export" versions. One of the sills is already well filled, though the chassis is remarkably sound. Here I will have to be careful, as it too resides in a cold, damp, concrete garage, but with none of the advantages of construction which help the Lotus.
I will be inspecting the few appearing rust blebs regularly. And it will certainly go out and about whenever the weather permits, just to get some air circulating around the bodywork. Fingers crossed, eh?
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
One thing I didn't like was the alarming amount of dark, oily smoke which fled the exhaust when we started the car. I reckon oil must be leaking slightly down the valve stems while the car is stood, because after the engine has been running for a couple of minutes there are no more signs of smoke. This is probably because the worst of the oil which collected in the cylinder has burned off and the oil escape isn't significant enough to cause the engine to smoke in normal running. Indeed, it doesn't seem to use much oil, which is good.
Bob reckons it'll be alright on low mileage until the spring and it'll need a decoke then anyway, since to the best of our knowledge it's never been done. We were going to ask him to "convert" it to unleaded while he's at it, which involves replacement (harder) valve seats and that'll fix it. Then we should be good for another 35 years' motoring!
Monday, September 19, 2005
You would think it would be relatively easy to badge a model of car correctly. Not so with the Fiat 500F. In fact, it seems many people mis-badge their Fiats of all types, either deliberately or out of ignorance. There are a number of factors which don't help owners when it comes to deciphering which badge your 500 should carry.
Firstly, the F overlaps with both the D and the L and never had its own definitive badge. For this reason it is often sighted with both sets of badging, or even mixtures of the two. Why the D and the F overlapped for so long, Fiat alone know, since the F clearly supercedes the D, but they did. The L at least makes some sense, given as it was the "luxury" (ha ha ha!) model.
Secondly, there are all kinds of variations on the available themes out there, largely thanks to generations of owners being somewhat 'creative' in their badging. Some of this is down to front or rear panels rotting and being replaced with incorrect panel/badge combinations, and some of it is simply because everyone seems to prefer the "moustache" badge. Owners the world over apply it to every vehicle they get their hands on, even though Fiat no longer used it after 1968. (Fortunately the previous owner of ours had acquired a "moustache", but never got around to fitting it so we retain the correct L-type badge on our '71 500F.)
I imagine there is also a degree of confusion caused by the frequent mis-selling of models. While looking to try and find something reasonably definitive to post in my initial message board comment, I found two 500D cars being sold as F-types! (The D and Nuova models are easy to spot with their "suicide doors".) For people who are new to 500s and don't know what they're looking at, this breeds misconception and confusion.
So what's the rule when it comes to correctly badging a Fiat 500 then? (If you really care, of course.) It goes something like this:
- All D and Nuova models have the "moustache"
- F cars from 1965 to spring 1969 have the "moustache" badge
- F cars from spring 1969 to 1972 share badges with the L
- L cars should never have the "moustache"
- Same applies to the R, which has a completely new set of badges again, the front of which is apparently shared with the 126
To put this in terms of practical examples, our 500 carries the same front badge as an L which is correct for its year (though we've cheekily added an aluminium number plate lamp because they're rare and look nicer - ours should be plastic). As for Sue, she does indeed have the wrong badge on her 1966 F. 1966 is the realm of the D badges and her suspicions about the moustache-shaped dimple in the front panel are confirmed. She now has the arduous task of scouring the world for an original Fiat moustache.
There is still some debate as to whether these should be aluminium or plastic, since most after-market moustache badges seem to be plastic though there are some aluminium versions around. Prevalent opinion is divided: For example Fiat 500 message board frequenter, "Paul 1947", refers to La Guida as saying early badges were plastic, however the equally frequent "Mike A." says he has owned two Nuovas which were in definite, genuine and original trim, both sporting aluminium badges he's certain were factory fitted.
Good luck Sue! And I hope you find the right badge!
Edits courtesy of extra information from "Paul 1947" and "Mike A." on the Fiat 500 message board. Thanks!
Thursday, September 15, 2005
I haven't really told you much about the cars themselves yet apart from the problems! This isn't entirely fair, so I figured it's high time I extolled some of the great virtues they possess which make up the reason for us to remain in the honey trap of maintaining them. Starting with "the green one" ...
The Lotus Elan +2S 130/5 is enormous fun. It is fast, it sounds great, it handles like a dream, it looks great, it's (reasonably) economical and it's amazingly comfortable.
That's right. I said comfortable. So comfortable my girlfriend actually falls asleep in it every time we go anywhere! Believe it or not, Colin Chapman's theories on car suspension meant he didn't subscribe to the idea of racing cars being skittery surface-skaters on suspension with about as much give as an orthopaedic mattress. He believed good racing suspension was about perfect balance rather than a hard ride, and he proved it with the Elan (amongst other cars) and with the development of the famous Chapman Strut. They are actually surprisingly softly sprung.
Indeed, when climbing in to the cockpit of what is essentially a walnut-lined go-kart, passengers often expect their bones to be shattered by the first unfortunately placed pebble in the road. They visibly flinch as you hit a speed hump and then remark with surprise when it handles afforementioned hump better than their BMW 318. And then the real clincher. As you accelerate out of town, tailed by the magical boom of the exhaust note, and hurl the car in to the first corner, you realise this vehicle simply redefines the term "cornering on rails". The grip is just amazing and the confidence this entails in the driver is second to none.
It is also fair to say the 130/5 model (with the "big valve" engine and 5-speed box - early ones were all 4-speed) is perfectly at home in the modern world. It is comfortable and relaxing during a long run down the M1, with its electric windows, original radio (albeit restricting you to long wave) and comfortable seats. Yet if you discard 5th gear and thrash the (slightly clumsy) gearbox it out-performs the S1, S2 and S3 coupés in the country lanes. According to Classic Cars Magazine's monthly price guide, it has the same top speed as the Sprint coupé too, though I'm not so sure about that. Sounds dubious to me, as the +2S definitely carries more weight.
The only place I wouldn't recommend an Elan is in the city. The heavy clutch soon causes you to become rather tired of changing gear in slow-moving traffic. It's definitely a car for the open road (while we still have some!) and is much happier at 3,500 RPM than when sat idling in a queue.
Finally, I am pleased to report (though marginally disappointed as an owner) the perceived value of this particular model of Lotus remains the same. Despite all the hype from the various magazines in the classic car genre about the Lotus coupé's poorer cousin, they're still an absolute bargain! Bear this in mind next time you're poking around Autotrader thinking of replacing your classic, adding to your collection or even starting from scratch as a classic car virgin. I can tell you from personal experience that you won't go far wrong if you buy a well looked after +2S 130/5.
Monday, September 12, 2005
Don't get me wrong, I'm not cold hearted about these wonderful machines. Sentimentality does creep in, and I might refer to the Lotus as "her" ocassionally (for reasons to follow) but fond as I am of my cars, naming them goes a bit beyond the pale in my opinion. At the end of the day it's a lump of steel and plastic. It's great fun, but then so is the TV and I haven't named that. It's pretty, but so are the curtains, and I don't refer to them by name. It's useful, but then so is the microwave, and no, I haven't named that either. Have you? For that matter, have you named your car?
If the answer to the former is "no, of course not!" and the answer to the latter is "yes!" then I have to ask you why?!
My sister named the battered old Volvo 240 she used to barge around the Estonian highways in. The bloody thing was a disaster area. It would've failed any sensible road safety test and the boot was held shut with a padlock. To be fair, my father and I called this car several different names at various points in its life, none of them complimentary. We can't fathom how she even came to be attached to it, never mind name it ...
Indeed, were it up to my sister (and in spite of my frequent protests she still insists on this) the Lotus would be called "Lotty". Now quite apart from the fact that "Lotty" sounds like the name of a TV presenter trapped in the multi-coloured world of pre-school programming, what kind of name is it for a vehicle of outstanding racing heritage and prestige?? Even the script writer for Bob The Builder wouldn't call a Lotus "Lotty". (Not twice if I found out where he lived, at any rate!)
Furthermore, a colleague of mine has a VW Beetle called Benjamin. What sort of name is that for a car? All other reservations aside, it's a male name and everyone knows cars are female. I'm not being sexist here. In all the Latinate languages, except the ones I'll ignore for the purposes of this post, car is a feminine word. In French, la voiture; in Italian, la macchina; etc. So this particular car namer is not only daft, but also misguided.
And I'm also relatively sure my girlfriend has named the Fiat. I've wiped it from my mind (post-traumatic stress if you ask me) but I think I may have a vague recollection of being told the 500 had a name. My fuzzy picture of the event is something akin to me shouting "La La Laaaa, I'm not listening!" as I walk away with my fingers in my ears, girlfriend trailing behind me attempting to announce the unfortunate vehicle's ridiculous new title.
I can draw only one conclusion. I am surrounded by idiots.
Friday, September 09, 2005
As luck would have it, this particular friend is also a great fan of all things British, especially British, old and mechanical. It made absolute sense (and would please him down to the ground) to take the groom to his wedding in a Lotus Elan, and since I happened to have one to hand, that is precisely what I set out to do.
The morning of the wedding I fetched the Lotus (which involved spending twenty minutes down at the old council garage I rent indulging myself in the usual rigmarole of throttle pumping, attempting to start it, swearing, leaving it for a minute, trying again, etc.). Once I had it running I sped over to the village where the groom's parents live with the other best man, pulled up outside the house and in we went to have our ties straightened and carnations fixed by the groom's father (as he was wont to do, being an old hand in the sartorial game).
Pleasantries exchanged and time running out, the groom and I headed back outside. My fellow best man had hastily made other arrangements with the groom's brother. Either he couldn't stomach another batch of my driving or didn't fancy squeezing in the back of the laughably named "Plus Two". (Plus two what? Shopping bags? Midgets? Cats??) And so we hopped in the Lotus. I turned the key and the engine span over fast, the oil nice and warm from the ride over. But it didn't fire. Not even a hint of it!
Never mind. It's a warmish day and occasionally the fuel vaporises in the lines if it's warm and you have to pull some fresh fuel through before she fires, I lied to myself. I try again. The same. Ok, this is getting alarming, not to mention embarassing. I'm trying, and failing miserably, to look as though this is quite normal. It isn't! The Lotus always ... and I mean always ... fires first time once it's been running for five minutes. All I can think of are the infamous effects of Murphy's Law (or Sod's Law, as my father usually describes the same principle, rather more crudely than I, even if I do say so myself).
I try again. And again. Finally a bit of a kick back from the engine! An attempt to fire! We're getting somewhere! A couple more tries, a cough and a splutter, and it bursts in to life (much to the relief of both myself and the groom, who was rapidly looking like he might be arriving at his wedding in '02 Fiat Seicento rather than a '74 Lotus).
And so we arrived at the church, unfazed and on time, I deposited the groom at the steps and nipped around to the rear to stick the car in the church car park.
After the service I experienced the same reluctance to start when I went to run the Lotus home (literally around the corner) before festivities began. After a minute it fired and I popped down the road and backed up the drive. When I got out of the car, I noticed a little stream of something on the road and up the drive. A quick sniff of a sample collected with the tip of my finger confirmed this something was petrol.
(Note: I always check any errant fluids immediately I spy them, lest they evaporate. Something my girlfriend was less than impressed at:
"Do you have to do that now??")
The last time I experienced a similar fault, one of the twin Delortos got a stuck float and it cleared itself the next day. (The rather precarious location of the distributor, directly under the carbs, is precisely what makes the old Elan particularly prone to engine fires.) This time however the leak seemed to be out of harms way, but this was evidently why the car was struggling to start. Fuel starvation! So simple.
I'm not sure if I have the nerve for any more important occasions. I'm certainly extremely glad what might have been wasn't! I'm also going to recharge the fire extinguisher in the boot.
On the plus side, we all enjoyed a great day, a lovely service, a cracking wedding reception (largely made by the outstanding speech by the best men, of course) and much food, wine and merriment. Smashing, as Jimmy Saville would say!
Thursday, September 08, 2005
The same is true of the Fiat 500, and when carrying a 500 "virgin" they always comment with something like "how funny!" or "how does that work then?" when you start the engine, not with a key of course, but with a little lever down between the front seats. Marvellous!
Far simpler than the electric start buttons on some sports cars of a certain age, the start lever on a Fiat 500 pulls a cable exactly the same in nature as you would expect to find operating the brakes on a push bicycle. This cable pulls the lever on the side of the starter motor through two positions. First position spins up the motor and second engages it with the flywheel to turn the engine over. In the course of a swift pull you don't notice these two positions, but they are very much there. All in all this remarkably simple starting system works very well without requiring any electronics. There is only one thing can scupper you. Any change in the relationship between the location of the lever, the location of the starter motor and the length of the cable.
That sounds pretty unlikely, but a good friend of mine couldn't start his any more after an unfortunate shunt. Everyone checked for damage, swapped insurance details, all the usual stuff and then he went to start his car only to discover the chassis had been compressed by an inch or two by the collision and the starter cable was subsequently too long to engage the starter motor of the newly shortened Fiat!
Or you can suffer simple wear and tear problems with the cable, as we did.
Being the intrepid "wannabe" mechanics we are, myself and my girlfriend decided to fit our new starter motor ourselves. We called our man Bob (the 500 genious) and asked him what to do. When he'd stopped lauging (I still can't figure out what Bob found so hilarious about the prospect of us fixing our car) he told us what we needed to know and off we went.
The task involves blindly disconnecting the afforementioned cable by cutting a wire pin holding it in place, removing the starter motor from a gap only fractionally larger than the unit itself and right at the back of the engine bay, replacing it and re-connecting the cable with a fresh pin. After much jiggling, swearing, sweating, swearing some more, jiggling and a lot more swearing we finally succeeded. (It is a b*stard of a job if you don't have the means to safely jack the vehicle up! And you're mechanically incompetent, which I confess, it hurts my male pride to admit but admit I must.)
Now, when you get to the "re-connecting" bit there are three holes on the end of the cable to allow for some basic minor adjustment of the cable length. We had to re-connect the cable using the hole that made it as short as it could possibly be. We did, then eagerly ran to the starting lever and gave it a tug. Nothing. We tried to start the car again, this time from the rear with an arm inside the engine bay pulling the lever. This time the starter whizzed up but failed to engage with the flywheel, preferring to sit there making a noise like a particularly large dentist's drill. (Now you see the significance of the two positions in the starter motor's operation?) The cable wasn't pulling the lever far enough, if at all.
This, coupled with a large degree of paranoia that we'd done something really stupid and potentially damaging to our little car, caused us to do what we always do when our Fiat doesn't work. We called Bob (who don't forget, knows us to be mechanically inept). He immediately announced to us we must have used the wrong hole. "No!" we cried, bitter at this gross injustice. We were particularly careful to use the right hole! Especially as Bob had well and truly instilled in us the consequences of using the wrong hole. Our holes, we were sure, were all in order.
There was nothing else for it. We would have to go and see Bob to prove to him we had indeed used the right hole and we weren't quite as incompetent as he thought (if not far off). We tow-started the car with the help of the runabout and took it over to Hersham (again!) and upon our our arrival, Bob immediately reminded us we must've used the wrong hole.
"Nooooo!!! We didn't!"
And after some banter, a surprise visit by a Fiat 500 loving friend of Bob's, an inspection of our handywork and some more banter;
"Oh. No. You didn't. Your starter cable's all stretched and frayed. That'll need replacing."
Vindication! Hurrah! We knew it! Wait ... what exactly does that mean for the Fiat?
Well it means we don't have the Fiat right now. It's at Bob's. The cable costs next to nothing, but replacing the cable means taking all the seats out and doing (you guessed it) a lot of jiggling and swearing. We decided to let Bob jiggle and swear this time. At least we know we did a good job of fitting the starter motor after all and were merely victims of circumstance. Though I have a sneaking suspicion Bob thinks we had a stroke of beginners luck.
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Fortunately, that is not the opinion of our usual Fiat fixer (and a Fiat fixer of many many years' experience), a lovely chap by the name of Bob Caltagirone. He's a chatty, funny, easy-going man of Sicilian descent, with permanent overalls and cap (I suspect he might even sleep in them) whom it is impossible not to like. And his enthusiasm for the cars, and life in general for that matter, is infectious. Bob loves his cars. In particular, he loves his classic Fiats. And even more particularly, he loves his classic Fiat 500s.
Bob is a rare find for a classic car owner. The country is littered with classic car garages, but finding a mechanic who you just trust implicitly to get on with the job, do it right and charge you appropriately at the end of it is not as easy as it might sound.
That's not to say mechanics aren't trustworthy in the broader sense of the word. Garages have had a bad rap over the years and (almost) all the mechanics I've come across are decent, honest, hard working people, but in spite of all that, actually trusting them is about more than their personal integrity. It's about feeling they really genuinely do know all there is to possibly know about your little baby and that nothing can happen that this mechanic does not know how to deal with ... immediately, effectively and with minimum fuss.
Let me give you an example. As I mentioned earlier, our American friend had his head in the rear of our beloved 500, and while he gave us his opinions on Italian engineering he was testing the pressure from the fuel pump.
"Yup," he opined, "it's your fuel pump! Hardly any fuel pressure at all."
He sounded very certain indeed. Yet he failed to convince me, largely because this was his third expert diagnosis for our loss of power in the last hour. The first had (certainly) been a blocked fuel line or clogged air filter and then it was (had to be) the mixture and now he was absolutely, positively convinced it was the fuel pump. Hmmmmm ...
On top of this, he'd just taken me on a terrifying journey to the nearest roundabout and back where his dismal attempts at double-declutching caused my heart to stop with every gear change, and by way of an excuse for his dreadful driving skills he mumbled that the clutch needed changing. At this point all I wanted to do was pay the man and drive to Bob's in our under-powered Fiat 500 (and believe you me, an under-powered Fiat 500 is a serious lack of horses!) and get him to sort it out for us.
But this mechanic wasn't a bad person. In fact, he was clearly very knowledgeable about engines and a friendlier man it's hard to meet. He went through a checklist of things it could've been. He explained exactly what he was doing and why, in very clear laymen's terms and with the aid of props (old bits of engine lying around the 'shop). He marked each suspect off the list one by one. At the end of it he was stumped. He told us we needed a new fuel pump. We told him we knew a nearby expert who probably had the parts and he looked relieved and said we had best take it to our expert.
We settled up (£60 his boss insisted on charging us for his time, as I recall) and set off to visit Bob. In spite of the fact I'd paid £60 for nothing, I couldn't blame the mechanic and left feeling quite sorry for him. He did his best and looked genuinely a bit crest-fallen. His enthusiasm told me he didn't get many car lovers in his garage, and even less opportunity to work on classic cars. He would've liked nothing better than to set some happy customers on their merry way but he simply didn't know the car and with these quirky old beasts that is fundamental.
And so ten miles away in Hersham, having delivered our Fiat we briefly explained the problem to Bob.
"That'll be your condenser, that will! They get too hot you see; too close to the exhaust system. It's a design flaw really."
He took a screw driver, opened the boot, whipped a small metal cylinder off the side of the distributor, replaced it with a similar cylinder and off we went. It took five minutes, it cost £5 and he even gave us a spare (used, but functioning) for the glove compartment. ("They can go any time - always have a spare!") And that is why I trust Bob for all things Fiat. He just knows.
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
And so one is required to purchase what might be refered to as a "runabout". This would be a car upon which you can rely, about which you don't much care and with which you would happily do anything. As such, when choosing a "runabout" (as I did last week) I tend to adhere to the philosophies of "Bangernomics". A good banger precisely fulfills the criteria.
You don't care about it because it only cost about £250, so whether you're transporting horse poo for the garden or picking up an elderly relative from the airport (best not to do the two activities in that order) it makes no difference. If well maintained and approximately 10-12 years old it should start first time, every time (for a year or so at least) unless you're unlucky. If you get one with a years' MOT on it already (always one of my criteria) then you also know it's safe enough and you shouldn't need to spend any real money on it for 12 months, unless you're unlucky. You can park it on the street, safe in the knowledge that no one will steal a car that's pitied by your neighbours and mocked by passing teenagers, unless of course you're unlucky. And if you're unlucky, who cares? It only cost £250! Scrap it! Sell it as a rolling wreck for £50!
And so I went off to Edmonton to some dodgy "you nick it, we'll sell it" style second hand car dealer and bought a 1992 Citroen AX Echo 1.1 for £250. (Sorry - the detail in the year and type of vehicle thing is a classic car anorak habit of mine. Consider yourselves lucky I didn't add 3-door, Petrol, Manual.) It's battered to hell and back, rumbles, is filthy, welded and smells of tobacco but it does start first time and has that precious 12 months MOT meaning no expensive welding jobs required for a good long while. And I care about it so little I even forget to close the sunroof. Which is great because I accidentally get rid of the smell of horse poo and reinstate the faint whiff of tobacco.
Runabouts are great!
Classic motoring. The wind in your hair, the slight smell of fresh petrol, the squeaky brakes, the restriction to sunny days, the scarce parts, the large repair bills, we love it!
Between us we run two money pits. A 1974 Lotus Elan +2S 130/5 (mine, of course) and a 1971 Fiat 500 Berlina F. I've had the Lotus for two and a half years now and we bought the Fiat at Christmas in Milan, Italy. Both are a constant source of joy and pain, all of which I intend to document here. Hopefully it will be enjoyable and useful to other classic owners or would-be classic owners. Otherwise it only serves to give me something to do of an evening! Either way, what ho! Watch out blogging, here I come!
Thursday, January 13, 2005
It's strange driving through this countryside that twice in this century has been torn apart by conflict. As you get past Laon the terrain starts to become very hilly again and I found myself imagining what it must have been like to fight here in World War II. It must've been terrifying! The fact is you come over the brow of a hill and the next brow is only 2 miles away. So every time you hit the top of a new hill you must've been dreading what you might see in the valley bottom. And by the time you had poked your heads over the hill top it would be too late. You'd be in a fire-fight whether you liked it or not.
We were making excellent time but we did have one unexpected problem that was specific to this day. Lorries. Thus far we hadn't come across much commercial traffic - we left on a Saturday - but it was now Monday and truckers were everywhere, and if there's one thing a Fiat 500 hates more than hills, it's the draft from lorries! Every big lorry that passes throws us around like we were made of papier mache! All we could do was go slowly when we saw a lorry coming and hang on as the car got tossed around.
And so we forged on ahead to Arras. Here I had another one of my little navigational temper tantrums. I have to say, the streets of Arras are an indecipherable maze. Here we hit the usual issue when a main road takes you in to the centre of a French town. Not a road number or confirmation of your direction to be seen! We scoured Arras for about half an hour looking for signs for Bruay-en-Artois and only found a sign for Bruay-La-Buissiere. Now, given the French habit for naming four or five villages in an area exactly the same except for some trailing descriptor, we naturally assumed that this was the wrong Bruay. It was only later that we discovered that the town on our map, Bruay-en-Artois, had changed its name to Bruay-La-Buissiere. Instead we ended up heading out of Arras in the wrong direction but using a side road to cut through to the road we wanted. This is the point at which there was a mixture of cursing and relief as we realised the Bruay sign we hadn't followed was the one we should've followed. Note to self: must buy better map!
Finally back on track, we headed off for our penultimate French stop, Saint-Omer. We got here for about 2:30pm and decided to stop for lunch since the next destination was the ferry terminal at Calais. Saint-Omer is a nice enough place, but it's full of the English on this UK public holiday. It seems that half of England is taking advantage of the UK public holiday and traversing northern France after a break in Europe for the New Year. And they're all in Saint-Omer having lunch in the same brasserie as us! Still, I had the best omelette EVER - so I didn't mind.
After lunch we headed on to the Calais-Dover ferry port without fuss. In fact we arrived about 5 hours early for our ferry - I'd booked it for 9:30pm just in case. I went to try and transfer our tickets to an earlier crossing, expecting the usual nonsense - admin fee, no spaces, non-transferable, etc. But no! Top marks to P&O Ferries! The lady behind the desk said "no problem", printed us new tickets for the 5pm ferry and sent us to go and check-in. Fantastic. And the French lady at the check-in was really lovely - she couldn't believe we came from Milan and loved the car!
It takes about two hours to cross the channel, so because of the time difference (we gain an hour) we arrived in Dover at about 6pm. Straight through customs and off we went. Avoiding the M20 because it was dark, we chose to take the A20 which is the old road - it follows the M20 most of the way. With the benefit of hindsight, this was a bad choice. Most direct, it is - best road, it isn't! And I had to eat some humble pie when it turned out that Folkestone shared similarities with Arras in terms of road signage!
We got in to the outskirts of London for about 9pm. We were pretty tired and grumpy by this stage, but the car was certainly attracting attention as we headed over Tower Bridge and up to Angel! We got home at about 9:30pm, exhausted and thanking our lucky stars that we weren't just leaving Calais as originally planned! We'd done it. The Fiat 500 was outside our flat in London, in one piece and safely back in the buzz of city traffic.
Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Actually, the first few hours of our day were lined by pretty towns and villages. The Ain Department is really quite a nice part of the world. Our cooling stops were a pleasure (though admittedly sometimes a little too hurried - we felt the time pressure constantly). It was our intention to try and make Saint Dizier by night-fall. I secretly wanted to get a bit further, but that would've done.
As the morning progressed we discovered that one thing our map didn't point out was hills. And if there is one thing a Fiat 500 hates more than pot holes, it's hills! It now seems to us that France slopes gently upwards all the way from Lyon to Calais. Common sense will tell you otherwise, but I've never been up so many hills in all my life. My girlfriend was becoming less and less amused with every time we were brought to a 25mph, 3rd gear crawl by yet another steep hill. In fact such was her sense of humour failure, she could no longer say the word "hill" without a slightly unnerving air of malice coming out in her voice.
Powerless to alter the geography of the country we'd chosen to navigate, we pressed on and to our amazement (in spite of the hills!) we made Chaumont by late lunchtime. This was beyond our wildest dreams. Suddenly it looked like we might make it to Vitry-Le-Francois or even Chalons-En-Champagne by the end of the day. Phenomenal progress!
After a late lunch from an open boulangerie we managed to find, in spite of it being nearly 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, we continued towards Saint Dizier. The hills were subsiding a bit as the roads we were taking at this point pretty much followed the River Marne in the bottom of the valley. As a result, our pace quickened and we arrived in Saint Dizier at about 4pm. We would normally schedule a cooling stop about now, but everything smelled ok, it was getting dark and there were about 35 kilometres of dual-carriageway along the main road to Paris, the N4, to negotiate if we wanted to make it to Vitry-Le-Francois.
And so we did. We reached Vitry-Le-France about half an hour before sunset. It didn't look like the nicest place in the world so we decided to push on further still to Chalons-En-Champagne. It was only a short hop up a further stretch of motorway and we had a bit of daylight left. And more importantly, I knew that there was a minor road (presumably the old road) that ran up the other side of the valley. We drove up the motorway for about 20 minutes until the light began to fail, then pulled off in to the countryside to finish our journey out of harm's way. A series of farming villages lined the rest of the route to Chalons and the progress was pretty good. We got there about half an hour later. It was just after 5pm, and though we were tired it now wasn't at all far to the city of Reims. A goal we felt was impossible the night before, but we were within touching distance! We decided to give it one final push, as the more ground we covered today, the easier tomorrow would be. We hit upon two problems though:
One, our map was not really detailed enough for the maze of villages surrounding Chalons and two, French road signs in town centres are an absolute joke. Not for the first time that day we found ourselves going round and round in circles trying to find our route, but doing this in the morning when you're fresh and cheerful is one thing. Doing it when you're tired, fed up and looking forward to a hot bath is tantamount to massachism!
The problem is that the French tell you what road you're on regularly (in this case the D1 towards Tours-Sur-Marne) as you're trundling along, which is great. Every sign-post signs the next big village or town and the number of the road you'll be on if you take it. Lovely. Until you enter a major town or city. Then, for some reason known only to French town planners, all route numbers disappear without trace leaving you floundering! No sign reading "Tours-Sur-Marne (D1)" any more - oh no - that sign is plain white and reads simply "Juvigny". As it transpired this was a tiny village on the outskirts of Chalons, not even on our map. Of course we missed our turn... useless! I stood about 10 minutes of Chalons' back streets and side alleys before I exploded in to a torrent of abuse directed at the French (in particular, their signage manufacturers) and our woefully inadequate map.
Thankfully, my girlfriend speaks fluent French (I usually call it showing off, but I was grateful on this occasion) and she asked for directions. A lovely elderly couple gave us detailed directions to get to Reims using the back roads. Of course, we took their word for it but we weren't really sure we were going in the right direction so there were still some tense moments. As we went it became clearer though and ultimately the directions were perfect, so many thanks to them. It took us over an hour to get to Reims and we were pretty tired so we stopped at the first hotel we came across, a Holiday Inn on the river. Not a great hotel and it didn't look very central, but we turned the corner and were greeted by the main road up to the cathedral, which looks pretty stunning as you head towards it. We were very central! We just didn't realise it.
We dropped our bags again and set straight off to find some food in Reims. There's one particular street/long square called Place Drouet D'Erlon which cuts across the city centre from north(ish) to south(ish) which is just packed with little brasseries and restaurants so we found a brasserie there called L'Apostrophe. The food was good, the environment was relaxing and it wasn't too expensive so we had another nice evening before going back to the hotel and straight to bed.
Monday, January 10, 2005
As I mentioned, like anywhere these days I guess, the outskirts of Bourg-En-Bresse don't exactly fill you with promise. A typical suburbia just off the motorway - motels, petrol stations, car parks and small businesses. However, the approach to our hotel gave us the first sign this town might be more than that. There's an enormous gothic monastery (the Brou monastery) that greets you from the bypass - a beautiful old building of great history and recently restored, it's an impressive sight. A shame we were too grumpy to appreciate its flood-lit splendour at that point in proceedings!
However, as we walked from the hotel towards the historic town centre our mood began to lighten. After a couple of streets we found ourselves following increasingly narrow passageways between beautifully kept old town houses. And by old, I don't mean Victorian. Oh no, I mean REALLY old - 15th/16th century old at a guess, with bare timbers and "wattle and daub" walls. As we walked through the little streets we were wowed by architectural feature after architectural feature. Pretty little squares, interesting roof lines, sculpture, hidden entrances, you name it, we happened across it. It's almost as though Gordon Cullen wrote his famous architectual study, The Concise Townscape (a must for all architecture students), after visiting Bourg-En-Bresse. Best of all, we were fortunate enough to wander down the streets of Bourg-En-Bresse just at the end of the Christmas season so all the decorations were still up and the festivities under way. The more we walked, the more we realised we weren't really that hungry yet and we were simply enjoying whatever the next corner had to offer.
You know what else I liked about this little town? There are lots of pretty towns in this part of the world of course, but there's something really special about a town the people are proud to live in. It shows. People care for their property, the streets are clean, there's an obvious community effort to keep the place nice. And there's an air of contentment in a happy town. That's what Bourg-En-Bresse has.
It's also obviously a town that is forward-thinking. The nice new bus station in the centre of the main square, well kept and respectful of its historic surroundings. The pretty medieval market square we happened across - with an underground car park! This isn't a place suspended in time. This is a place that understands and respects its history but doesn't let that get in the way of its development.I really liked it here. It was the perfect place for us to stop and relax.
After a while we happened across a brasserie called Chez Blanc that our hotelier had mentioned was nice. We popped in to take a look and it was much nicer than we expected, but we figured we deserved a treat so we booked a table and went for another quick poke around the town. After half an hour we came back to eat a really nice meal in cosy surroundings, with a good local wine. After settling up (it wasn't cheap, but the price was reasonable) we slowly walked back to our hotel, full and relaxed, ready to face the next day. We said goodnight to the porter and turned in. We both slept like logs!
So there you go. I thoroughly recommend Bourg-En-Bresse as a good stop-over place for any journey across the east side of France. In fact, it's well worth a weekend break as well if you live close enough to drive/fly relatively easily.
Friday, January 07, 2005
We weren't going anywhere that day, but we waited until the sun shone fully down the valley (doesn't happen until about 2pm because of the narrowing of the valley near the north end and the angle of the sun) and warmed the car up, then we "stirred the tanks" and took it for a little spin down to Introd to buy some petrol and a grolla from a really pretty little wood-working shop in the village.
Satisfied everything seemed well, we returned the car to its spot on the hillside and set about enjoying the evening.
It was the usual affair of guitar, singing, chat, food, wine and general good fun. Then came midnight and we got champagne out and ate the traditional lentils for luck. We chatted on until about 2am and decided to turn in for the night as we knew we had an early start and it was already late.
The next day it was really cold in the morning. We got up at about 8:30am, but we messed about for a while and I think we got down to the car for about 10am and got all our stuff packed again. This morning, I could already feel, was one of those mornings we'd be glad we bought jump leads. The poor little car wasn't going to be at all happy about waking up this morning in the sub-zero temperatures! Still, after a bit of bullying from the alternator of a bigger, newer cousin, the little Fiat sprang in to life and we waved goodbye and set off down the valley towards Monte Bianco (or Mont Blanc, as it may be better known).
After an hour winding along a minor road towards the Mont Blanc tunnel (we weren't touching the motorways in Italy any more if we could help it), via Courmayeur we arrived, had our passports checked and passed through in to the tunnel. All was well, we were in good spirits and about to cross the French border. But then disaster struck. About two thirds of the way along the 11.6 kilometre tunnel through the heart of the mountain we both started to smell petrol. Fresh petrol in fact, very strongly! At first I told myself it was the air but after a minute or two we both realised it was our car. We were both pretty calm as we knew we had to get out of the tunnel anyway, so we just kept driving. What else could we do?
We came out the other end of the tunnel, thankfully, and pulled in to the first lay-by we found! I leapt from the car and ran to the rear, shouting to stop the engine. I opened the engine compartment just in time to see the last of what was a stream of petrol evaporate off of the cylinder head with a sharp "fiissssss". A quick examination revealed that it wasn't serious - clearly something had rattled loose. However, stupidly we had no tools with us and it was New Years Day. It was time to make the call and hope the pan-European breakdown insurance was worth the money we paid for it.
We were a little worried at this point. We'd barely travelled 40 km, we were right up on the side of Mont Blanc, the cloud was thickening and it was freezing cold - the French side of the mountain gets practically no sun in winter and the temperature drop is significant. My girlfriend was already getting cold feet - literally and metaphorically - and we had no idea how long the breakdown truck would be. At first they said they would take the car in to a garage over night, but fortunately we managed to convince the operator at the insurance company that it was simply a couple of loose bolts, so as long as they sent someone with some spanners and spares who knew their way around an engine we'd be fine!
Fortunately, only an hour later a very nice French mechanic appeared, a short-haired chap with a no nonsense manner and a small tool box. We started the engine again for him and this time I was able to see the petrol in full flow! Frankly, I'm amazed enough petrol was still entering the carburetor to keep the engine going. It was pouring everywhere. It was difficult to tell where the petrol was actually coming from as it was spraying, but on a hunch the mechanic changed the clip holding the fuel line to the carburetor and that was that. We were on our way again.
The next stop was only about 3 km down the road at Chamonix to see friends briefly before continuing. Unfortunately our unplanned brush with coldness had left us running behind schedule, so it was a quick hug, a chat and some photos and we were on our way again. Anxious about the time, and no longer in Italy, we took to the motorway once more. Fortunately it was down hill practically all the way out of the Alps from Chamonix, so we were able to keep our speed and didn't get in the way too much. That, coupled with the fact that French drivers are definitely much more courteous, made our motorway stretch reasonably uneventful.
One of the things I forgot to mention is that when you're doing long runs with these little air cooled engines at what passes for "speed", you need to stop for 10 minutes every 100 kms or so to give them a breather. They do get too hot otherwise and you can smell it. This isn't really a bad thing, since you can usually do with stretching your legs every hour and a half or so anyway. And so we crept along, swinging up past Geneva then stopped for lunch quite late about two thirds of the way between Geneva and the turn-off for Lyon. A motorway service station. They're the same all over the world. Globalisation in action. Except for one vital point. In France the food is at least edible.
As we left the service area it was getting dusky and I went very quiet. My girlfriend asked me what was wrong. I was starting to get the sensation that one might get if you lived in Transylvania and dusk was approaching. I wanted to bolt the doors and hang up the garlic! I didn't want to panic her, but I really didn't want to be on the motorway at night. During the day people can see you from a long way off. They can see you're driving a little old car and going slowly. At night all they see is two red dots in the distance. They assume you're going 120 kph like everyone else. They don't realise you're not until it's bordering on too late! This is really dangerous.
I just said "we need to get off the motorway as soon as possible" and left it at that. And sure enough, it happened. We were about 10 minutes from the Lyon (South)/Reims (North) turn off when the sun finally dippped beneath the horizon and the witching hour began! We had never been so scared in our lives. I still swear it's the closest I've been to dying and known about it. I'm not joking, I'm deadly serious. All of a sudden the visibility goes and every 30 seconds someone screams up behind you with their headlamps on full beam, they realise how slowly you're going, slam on the brakes, beep and swerve then scream past you. You think every time this happens they're going to hit you. And you know that IF they hit you in this little tin box, you're dead. My girlfriend was on the edge of tears and we moved to the hard shoulder to continue - we weren't safe anywhere else - not even in the slow lane. We took the first exit we could find. It didn't matter where we were! It probably took about 5 minutes to get off the motorway, but it felt like an eternity. We finally got to a place where we could stop and we just sat there shaking for a minute, both of us thinking about what might have happened.
We never took the little car on an unlit motorway after dark again.
We arrived in a rather sad little town in the valley of the River Ain, with two hotels, both closed. However, we managed to realise that there was a fairly significant town called Bourg-En-Bresse about 20 km away up a minor road that ran parallel with the motorway. We set off, after getting some directions to make sure we were heading the right way, and arrived on the out-skirts. We tried 3 or 4 motels on the outskirts, all sad, all dirty and all fully booked. I was starting to despair but my girlfriend was not going to give up, so we headed in to town where, by chance, we found a nice hotel with a couple of rooms and within walking distance of the centre. We snapped up one of the rooms and dumped our bags. The hotelier told us that Bourg-En-Bresse was a very old and very pretty historical town. We figured he was a local and biased, but it sounded nice. And I have to say he was right. It is so nice it deserves an entry of its own.
Thursday, January 06, 2005
This particular car is a 1971 Fiat 500F Berlina. We bought it (with loads of help from my girlfriend's very kind brother) from a classic car collector in Milan. It has only ever had 3 owners, including us and him! That's pretty amazing. And best of all, the first 32 years of its life were spent in a cosy warm garage being looked after by a proud old mechanic who had it since it rolled off the production line and that little engine fired for the first time.
(We were naturally cynical about this claim at first, but people who have examined the vehicle subsequently have all agreed it's been looked after very well, so it probably is a true story.)
This is one very original, very nice little car. Don't get me wrong, it's a Fiat 500 which means it's small, it handles like a bucket of frogs, it smells, it averages 40mph (65kph) and it rocks if a knat farts in the wrong direction - but damn, it's cute!
And so, on the morning of the 30th we loaded the little car with all our Christmas luggage and (via a local mechanic to fit a new battery - long and boring story) set off along the motorway for the Italian Alps. The luggage all fitted nicely on the back seat and I, despite being 6'3", had no problem folding myself in to the passenger side of the surprisingly spacious 3' high car. My girlfriend drove because it was on the wrong side of the road for me, you have to double-declutch and she'd had about 5 days' practice hurtling around the streets of Milan. However, we learned two things fairly quickly.
One, the motorway is not like central Milan. Central Milan is Fiat 500 country. There it rules. People smile and let you go. Old folk wave nostalgically as you grind the awkward little gearbox. No one seems to care that you don't even have a 0-60 time (the car tops out at about 55mph). Motorways couldn't be more different. There we cease to be an object of nostalgia and beauty and become a nuisance and a menace. People hate us!
Two, Italian drivers are *%!*&^%s! Excuse the sweeping generalisation - clearly not ALL Italian drivers are *%!*&^%s, just like not all English people like roast beef, but suffice it to say even my Italian girlfriend had to admit they're pretty appalling after about an hour on the motorway. They tail-gate, they drive too fast, they don't leave room, they're impatient - everything you don't need if you're trying to get a little old car from a to b with as little fuss as possible! I could rant for an hour on this subject, but... ach, whatever. There really is no point in raising my blood pressure.
We bit our lips, hoped that no one collected us from the rear, and continued our journey up towards Valle d'Aosta, nestled in the Italian Alps, where we intended to spend our New Year. To be honest, the 500 isn't too tiring. It doesn't make an unpleasant whiney noise like you might expect a tiny 499cc engine to make. In fact it makes quite a soothing "putt putt" sound, so were it not for the 120mph Mercedes and BMWs whistling past our ears, we would've been quite relaxed. Trouble is the prospect of instant death doesn't exactly set you at ease, so I was very relieved when we got off the motorways and in to the winding mountain roads.
Progress through these was steady and we spent a lot of time in second gear, but we had no pressure to go flat out and the little car can climb out of anything because of its very low 1st gear! And we pretty much remembered where to go from a visit to the same villa a year previous, so we didn't get lost which is always a bonus. We left Milan at about 1pm and arrived at the mountain chalet for about 6pm - 5 hours to go about 220 kilometres. Alarm bells were ringing, but we decided to get on with our New Year celebrations and cross whatever bridges the trip threw at us as they came.