The Classic Monte Carlo Rally ("The Monte"!) has been run by the Classic Rally Association (www.carnet.co.uk/rallyoffice) for the last eleven years. It is aimed at recreating the Monte Carlo Rally events of the 20's through 60's. The rally is run over five days, on public roads, with the route varying from year to year and takes in some of the best scenery that southern France has to offer. Traditionally the finish is in Monte Carlo, but this year the Monte Carlo Automobile club were being difficult and so the A.C. Cannes kindly offered to assist, and were gracious hosts.
Although no off-roading is required, the route includes sections that are far more harsh to any car than a day at the local race track. The list of cars that enter is varied. Those you would expect (MG, TR-3, Mini, Volvo, Alfa and Porsche) and those you don't (Rolls Royce, Hupmobile, and Lagonda). The list of entrants also includes many ex-works rally cars most of which do very well. However, a manufacturer conspicuous by its absence has been Lotus. Clearly these frail (and dare we say unreliable) cars are not suited for the required of long distance rallies. A noted exception to this has been 1961 Type 14 Elite, which competed in 1999. The story of this achievement was written-up in issue 3 of Pure Lotus magazine. It was this article (in part) that inspired me to enter the Seven. The other reason was that as a kid I went to see the movie "Monte Carlo or Bust". This oh-very British movie, with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Tony Curtis, and Gert Frobe amongst the cast, captures the daring-do sprit of the early rallies. Now here was my chance to emulate that event.
The requirements for entry into the Classic Monte are strict. No cars past 1970, unless they are unchanged models of a prior date. The only car in my garage that qualifies is my re-chassied 1969 Seven S3 which is used as a daily driver (with clam shells and a windscreen) as well as a track car (with cycle wings and aero screens). I should have known this was an unusual choice by the laugh of the organizers when I phoned to determine the entry requirements. But, hey, the Seven was and is one of the best track cars ever made. How much different can it be?
The Seven - Ready for the Monte
So with the car chosen, the next question was who could I con (I mean persuade) to accompany me on this adventure? Tim Westby, a friend and colleague in Houston, readily agreed. Tim is an accomplished autocross racer and instructs at the Texas Motor Speedway Motorsports club. His only draw-back is that he is a Porsche fanatic (I guess we can't all be perfect). Tim and I decided to enter the Marathon Route (which allowed for a Hotel every night) rather than the Sporting Route (which didn't) since neither of us had done any rally events prior to the Monte!
Tim (standing) has yet to regret his decision to do the "Monte".
Luckily, the Seven required very little modification to make it suitable for the Monte. Cibi fog/spot lights were added to the nose and a Retrotrip II trip meter was added on a removable bracket to the dash. I fitted a simple and very effective sump guard that I am going to keep in place. Finally, I obtained a hood from British Auto Specialists in Fort Worth (800-TR-MG-JAG). Butch Harris of BHR (713-785-2988), who keeps the Seven and its Type 61 FF stablemate (as well as several other Seven's in the Houston area) running, helped make sure my honesty declaration was accurate and provided me with a selection of jets for the single Weber DGV downdraft carburetor typical of the S3. Apart from a final service in UK, the car was ready. After polishing (Oh, what a waste of time that was!) it was shipped from the Port of Houston to await our arrival. Our entry was in, car number 103 in class 25, the Classic saloon and sports cars class.
I flew to Britain and got a train to collect the Seven from its storage not far from the Lotus Factory. Heading to my parents on to the M25 during rush hour, the rain started. It was a downpour. Hey, those windscreen wipers that I have to meet Texas inspection and never use, actually work!
The next day the Seven was taken to Redline Engineering in Caterham Surrey (011-44-1883-346515). As anyone with a Seven knows, these guys are official suppliers of Lotus Seven parts (as well as working on Caterham's). I had arranged to have them give the car a once over, including changing the plugs etc. and providing spares for the rally. They found that one of the rear hubs was loose and that the hub key was broken. However, with all the small problems dealt with we were ready to do the Monte. Or so we thought!
Due to the large numbers of cars entered into the Monte (over 200) there were four start points: Brooklands Race track, Noordwijk, Ypres, and St. Moritz. Cars starting at each of these points would eventually meet-up in Aix-les-Bains and continue en-mass, We were starting from Brooklands, the first purpose built race track in the world and, for NASCAR fans, it has the steepest banking I have ever seen.
Saturday, 8th January, we arrive at Brooklands for tech inspections and instructions. As soon as we arrive, people crowd around the car in awe of the bravery (stupidity) of attempting the Monte in a Seven. Despite the presence of many rare and beautiful cars, the Seven creates more than its fair share of comment and attention. In particular, a 1927 Rolls Royce Phantom 1 parked next to us. The wheels of this behemoth were the same height as our windscreen; the brake drums were the same size of our wheels, and they kindly offered to put the Seven in their trunk if we got into problems. Other interesting cars that made us feel that we were not going to be the worst off on the road, included: a 1923 Hupmobile City Racer whose highly experienced crew, Monte Mates and David Brock-Jest, seemed to take us under their wing.
Little and large. Note the relative height of the Seven and the wheels of the 1927 Rolls.
We had been sent 14" numbers to be placed on the doors. What door? Exactly, and the sides of the Seven are less than 14" high. So our first question at the technical inspection, a rather pathetic "where do we put the numbers?", was met with the comment "wherever you can, come get me when you are done". With numbers, our names and Texas flags (instead of the more usual national flags) all positioned, we passed tec with no problems.
Sunday 9th, January: the starting order was based on car number which meant that we had a chance to watch the other cars in the Marathon Route start out. We had well wishes from a member of the Seven Club just before getting into grid position, then with a toot from the horn we set off around what remains of the Brooklands banking and then out onto the open road. The first leg in England involved a cross country journey through villages and along the type of roads that English cars are designed for. Despite a chill in the air, there was not a cloud in site and the views were of the English country side at its best. Each check point was a pub with a large crowd waving and watching the cars. It was interesting that the Seven attracted a great deal of attention. In fact, the poor navigator (Tim) had to push his way through the crowds to get back into the car! After check points in the villages of Westerham, Sissinghurst and Hothfield we headed on the motorway (highway) to Dover and the ferry.
A quick interview with the TV cameras and we were off...
The English Channel was calm and we sat on the deck and watched the white cliffs recede. After arriving in Calais we switched driving duties and headed across France through Selles, Amiens and Compiegne. As the sun set the temperature dropped and we started thinking about putting the roof on, but held off as long as possible. The final checkpoint of the day was in a bar/café in the small village. After a hot drink, with the roof up, and me back at the wheel, we set off to the night stop in Troyes. However, a problem that was to be our down fall (Lucas, Lord of Darkness) raised its head. At 80 mph on a French country lane the lights went out with the pop of a fuse. Luckily, the S3 has only two, but their position is under the dash. As Tim got out so I could reach under the dash, he stepped in a present of some French cow. I had managed to skillfully find exactly the right place to stop the car! With a little help we got going again and made the overnight halt without further problems, however, I was to regret not spending time checking the wiring. The second day's start was cold and so we decided to use the roof, however, we soon decided that the day was warm enough to go without and removed it again at a check point.
View from the navigator's position. This weather wouldn't last...
The Monte is made up of two types of sections. The first involves navigation from one check point to another within a certain time. If you are early (we managed 55 minutes early at one check point!) you hang around and drink tea and coffee while swapping stories. Then once your time is shown on the clocks at the check points you sign in. If you are late you receive a penalty of 1 minute per minute late. The second type of section is a regularity. In this section, you are stopped at the side of the road and given instructions of a required average speed (unknown to the start of the section) and then your start is counted to the second. You then have to maintain this speed over an unknown distance at which point there is another check point to record your exact time (to the second). If you are late you get a penalty of 1 second per second late, but if you are early the penalty is 2 seconds per second early! Not hard you think? Well the speeds were generally about 45 kph (27 mph), however, on tight twisting roads with other traffic, and usually on ice or gravel, in the dark with 1950's vintage instrumentation, this is not as easy as it seems. In fact at Poligny we were given a test regularity which we got so wrong it wasn't funny. However, after this our regularity sections (apart from one which I will mention later) were within 10 seconds and our best was 3 seconds late. These times were in fact better than most of the "old hands". Despite a later cock-up I think the Seven, Tim, and I did a great job for a bunch of complete novices. We even made the "Top 10" regularity ranking, which includes both the Marathon and Sporting Route participants.
Cruising the French country side
By the end of Monday we had traveled across France to Aix-les-Bains via check points at Clairvaux-les-Lacs, St. Claude, St. Germain-de-Joux, and Seyssel. All picturesque in the sun, and in each town or village we received a warm welcome. The locals are at the side of the road to watch the passing of these great old cars. Every café or bar has memorabilia from either the Classic Monte or the Monte Carlo Rally the pros run. More importantly, when cars are in difficulty or lost the locals are always willing to help (of course speaking French helps and mine was rusty but gained a crash course in helping Tim ask "Is there a Starbucks nearby" and "Gimme a Coors light").
During the second day, it was clear we were gaining altitude when the engine started to cough and gasp for breath. Time to adjust the carb. Since we had no time to change jets we just leaned out the mixture. Thank god for the single downdraft of the S3 and not the twin Webers most people fit.
"Are you sure we are here?"
After arriving at Aix-les-Bains we were directed to a large car park at the lake front where an autocross was being run. Having only ever run one autocross before and none in the Seven I suggested Tim do the honors, but he insisted I drive. As we lined up with the other cars one of the organizers (a Seven owner) came over and said that if we didn't come first he would make us do it again! 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Go and we were off. The surface was gravel which made it interesting, but the car was everything people say and we logged a time of 51 seconds, the best of the Rally!
On Tuesday we ran almost continually with the bright red TR-3 of Kevin Crichton and his able navigator Steve Unwin. The morning was spent charging around the twisty roads between Vif and St Martin-de-Clelles. I was surprised by the road holding abilities of the TR, while their back end was sliding rather more than ours, they managed to keep up a great pace, and I decided that since we were in good time it was more fun to drive along pushing each other. This is probably one of the best parts of the Monte. Finding another crew which nearly match your own driving. It is a great way to make friends and enjoy the roads. The majority of drivers gained a healthy respect for the Seven and pulled over immediately on the winding roads knowing that the handling of the Seven allowed us to travel at a much faster rate then them. This was not always so, there were a few (a very few) complete idiots who will try and block you, even if they realize that you are much faster and more maneuverable than they. One being a 1962 Alvis, with incorrect numbers (why wasn't this a penalty?) blocked us for about 45 minutes on the last day, ensuring that we incurred a severe penalty for one of the check points. Even when I did pass him, he almost ran me off the road!
A typical fast section in the "Monte" - note the lack of guard rail...
Ice, snow, and mist. Aaah, this is more like it.
By the time we reached Valence on Tuesday night, we had maintained a good position, equal fourth in class. Not bad. Our goal actually (dangerously!) moved from being alive at the finish, to bringing home silver. We had earned some measure of respect from our Rally companions - a heady moment (the emphasis being on "moment"). However, the next day was the start of our "downfall". From Valence we had a mad dash to Bourdeaux where we all became the spectacle for the local children who milled around the cars in awe, while their fathers discussed how stupid we all were driving these roads in these old cars. From Bourdeaux we started to climb successively higher peaks, including: Col la Sausse (719 m), Col d'Ey (718 m), Col d'Aulan (845 m) and Col de Soubeyrand (994 m). Upon reaching the village of Rosans we all stopped for a lunch break little knowing our first mistake was about to occur.
Trying to run over the photograher on an icy hair-pin curve
Upon leaving Rosans there was a regularity section. At the start they gave us the usual instructions, but we must have made a wrong turn since we missed the end check point. Instead we ran the whole 44 km at the 45kph speed required of the regularity! We arrived at the road side check point on the Col de Cabre (1180 m) with one minute to spare and incurred a 15 minute penalty, ouch! The rest of the day was uneventful, but we arrived at Gap knowing we were now out of contention. It is strange that we entered just wanting to finish, but with three days of great results we actually started to think we had a chance. Oh well, there is always next year.
Thursday 13th January. Because of our original high position, we were going to have to start at 4:18 am (meaning we were the 18th car out). However, 4:18 am is not a civilized time to be awake, but standing in the freezing cold preparing the car outside the Hotel la Grille in the center of Gap was not on! Having Tim inside keeping warm waiting for the time card to be stamped (or so he claimed) just added insult to injury. As Tim emerged to make sure that I had not frozen to death, I commented that the "old hands" who had been driving au-natural had all put their roofs up. We decided that we would look like wimps and raised the roof. This caused much hilarity amongst the other competitors, especially when they watched my ingress. I have found the best way to get my 6' 1" frame into the cocoon of a Seven is bum first. This leaves a moment for on lookers to laugh at me as my arms and legs stick out of the side. Ok, I am not proud, I can take it!
Once we were off, we were both glad (ecstatic!) of the warmth of the roof. The road led up into the mountains on winding icy roads, but the Seven handled all of this well until the Prince of Darkness (Lord Lucas) made sure the drive was even more eventful. As we went up a mountain, the fuse for the lights went out again , though with a burning smell this time. Tim had put a spare in his jacket so with a few minutes we were off again only to have the lights go out again a few minutes later. We pulled into a farm entrance, where at about 5 am the sleeping farmer got to enjoy a stream of Anglo-Saxon that would make a construction worker blush! Not to mention that I kept honking the horn to test the circuits. Finally, with the roof off to help me work on under the dash, I rewired the main beams onto the other circuit. And we were off. I had had to undo the windscreen wipers, which of course meant that freezing rain/snow started! We even got to attempt a regularity section in pitch black, ice roads and only the full beams for lights, on the side of a mountain, in the dark, with no guardrail.
Ever try driving flat out on icy roads, with only high beams, in an open car, in freezing conditions, with no power to the windscreen wipers? No??
As dawn broke, Tim got a nasty shock. We had been averaging 40 mph on the tightest winding roads you can imagine, when he realized that there was no barriers and the side of the road finished in a drop of several hundred feet. "If you have the choice of hitting someone or going off the cliff, hit them", was his suggestion. I must admit there were several points that I started to get worried as we raced to make-up the lost time (we never did get back the time penalty) by pulling some serious maneuvers on the cliff roads. This is what the Monte is all about.
As we passed over the mountain from hell (as Tim christened it), the beautiful Col de Toutes Aures (1120 m), it was clear Tim was freezing and I was more than a little cold, so we pulled over in the village of Valberg on the summit of the Col St Anne (1550 m) to the nearest bakery/café. We jumped out and rushed in ordered coffee, hot chocolate and two pan aux chcolate. Warmth. With our hands cupped around the steaming drinks, Tim's comment was "This is all I care about in the world". Back on the road we reached the Col de la Coulloile (1678 m) without further problems. But without time for a break, and Tim back in the driving seat, we perform on the next and toughest regularity section.
View from the Col de la Coulloile (1678 m)
Driving at a constant 47 kph is not difficult, but think about doing it on an icy road with one 180° switchback after another. Tim kept us going within 1 kph of the speed required. This is where the Seven excelled, while others were slowing for corners and then having to adjust the speed on the small straights, we just kept going at a constant speed - maybe a Lotus is the perfect car for a rally. Even though at this point both rear shocks were failing fast.
The last leg was down the famous Col de Turini. The view and drive lived up to expectations, while I navigated simple as "go down there", Tim had to negotiate dozens of switch-backs. With no rear shocks and the rubber bushing for the A-frame disintegrating fast this was more fun than may be expected. At the bottom, after several photo stops, we joined the highway to Cannes. The A.C. d' Cannes had arranged with the Cannes police to escort us in groups along the famous Croissette (sea front) made famous each year by the film festival. Each car was photographed across the line and the crews welcomed by the organizers. We were just glad to be there. Oh yes, and of course the welcome "You made it then? None of us thought you would" capped the whole week perfectly. Then it was park the car in line and start the war stories with friends we had made along the way. Most importantly, there was a bar from which everyone consumed great quantities of beer, wine and champagne.
"You made it, then?"
Would I do it again? Yes. In a Seven. Yes, but next time to win. Of course if there were deep snow it would not be as easy in a Seven, but fast driving of narrow winding roads, up and down mountains is what the Seven is best at. Furthermore, the Ford cross-flow with a Weber downdraft (once the carb is adjusted) is like a tank engine. It will pull the car and its slightly bulky crew up a mountain in 4th at 2000 rpm without any problem. I wanted to prove that a Lotus Seven could enter possibly the toughest classic rally in the world and do well. While I am not sure the inexperienced crew did the car justice, I hope that this gets more Lotus owners out there on these big events, proving that Lotus' are not just track or weekend cars. What is next? Tim and I are talking about the South American Mille Miglia in the Seven. But for now I cannot believe we did it, and cannot wait for the car to get shipped back to Houston so I can get it back on the street and use it for my daily commute. Until next time, as Peter Cook says to Dudley Moore at the beginning of the movie. "You know the toast Barrington. The Monte!".
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