The adventures of Millie the Merlin
("La Petite Voiture") - Part 1 Introduction
Our original plan was to have an idyllic, easy-going holiday travelling almost clockwise through France in an open top tourer -down to the Riviera, back up along the Atlantic coast and call into that well known gites in Kergoff, Brittany. However, although I have had my fair share of adventurous holidays in the past,this trip certainly ranks as the most incident laden. We promise that all that follows is absolutely true and I will try to keep it as brief as possible! I will send details of our route, and the intended one, to Dave & Jenny as soon as I have retraced it from the shorthand notes we took as we travelled. It is a good route but we did not have much luck when we tried it. We actually heard a Frenchman extolling the virtues of this route to another family on the beach at Cagnes-sur-Mer. Despite all our traumas, especially 'Day 4' we hope to return to France next year.
Days 1&2- Friday/Saturday 31 July /1 August
The afternoon sailing from the Isle of Man had been fully booked almost 3 weeks prior to departure and the ferry company do not operate a 'wait-Iisted' service. I therefore had to get the evening sailing and try 'standby' on the day of departure. The usual delays at the office etc. meant that when I got to the docks there were 2 cars already on standby. Although the standby queue was off to one side, there was quite a lot of interest in my 'Morgan' and I ended up giving a few lessons about 'specialist cars'. Loading commenced and guess how many from standby managed to get on -yes, only 2. Bugger, oh well, now I had time to relax and pack the load properly. (The previous week I had taken the car over to Ireland in order to show Ruth the proposed means of transport around France and to collect most of her luggage. Ruth fell instantly in love, and christened her "Millie". The Irish trip could easily be the subject of another story!). When I appeared at the docks again Millie drew the usual attention. I was actually starting to get used to this, as were the Harbour Police and port staff- I'm sure they were beginning to think that I was some sort of poser. The sailing was uneventful and I tried to get some sleep. It landed at Heysham and f was on the road at 00.35 am and I drove non-stop down to Toddington services on the M1 (c. 230 miles in 3% hours) and 'slept' in Millie for approx. 3% hours. Just the sort of 'relaxing' start you need prior to a long continental trip.
When I arrived at Kempton, Dave & Jenny were just finishing breakfast and I (re)introduced them to Millie who they of course knew from before. I had actually got the contact from them at the Newark show and they were able to give me the full history. (I had bought the car for the trip and had done the deal over the phone, flew over the next day and drove it back without even a test drive!) I explained that I would not be staying long as I was going to Gatwick to collect Ruth and then we were off to France upon which a note, in French, about Merlins was produced! I took a quick look around the show, collected Ruth and on the way back to Kempton got caught in a very heavy shower (Kempton attendees will remember them!) with the hood down. Ruth was quickly introduced to the Owners' Club, got a quick tour of the show and I only just had enough time to buy a club Polo shirt before we were on the road. I will really treasure this shirt in view of the dreadful robbery of Dave & Jenny's trailer tent and all the club merchandise.
As we departed for Dover the weather was glorious, despite the earlier thunder showers, ...the wind was in our hair and Millie was racing down the overtaking lane -we were on holidays at last; but then Disaster -Millie spluttered, coughed and then briefly fired up again only to die as I was trying to safely cross to the hard shoulder. On with the hazards and we glided to a halt at the beginning of the slip road at Junct. 7 on the M20. Although I had put some fuel (£10) in before collecting Ruth from Gatwick the only diagnosis I could come to was "out of fuel". On checking the mileage for a Kempton return trip to Gatwick, plus Kempton to J7, spirited driving, fully loaded etc; yes it had to be fuel (£10 = 3 gallons, plus maybe 1-2 that had been in the tank; 145 miles fast driving fully loaded -not bad fuel economy but that was not much comfort at the moment!). To add insult to injury we had almost stopped at a services sign indicating fuel just 3 miles ahead! Although I could try and blame the fuel gauge for this I suppose I will have to accept the responsibility for this one, (Plonker). I was still getting used to the gauge indicating half full when the tank is actually empty.
We tried phoning the M on Ruth's mobile but it did not work. I ran to the nearest SOS phone and gave them all the details. "Phone back if no-one has come after 1 hour". The hovercraft was leaving in 1 % hours and we were still almost 40 miles away!! Ran/walked back to the car and waited for an anxious 45 minutes, watching hundreds of cars whiz past, but no sign of assistance. In desperation I made a sign saying "FUEL" (still have it) and within 5 minutes a good Samaritan stopped and I bought the contents of his fuel can. Millie fired up immediately, we stopped at the SOS phone and cancelled the call for assistance. Tore off to Maidstone services while planning our pit stop for maximum efficiency -after all were we in a desperate race against the clock with serious consequences (for me!). In the rush to save precious seconds (only 40 minutes until sailing) Ruth was to dash into the kiosk and join the queue and would pay for the petrol immediately I had finished. However, Ruth's pride took a battering when, on exiting Millie, her foot got caught in the wire to the fridge and she took a nose dive into the tarmac. The big disadvantage of owning a sexy car is that they inevitably attract a lot of attention which is great until something goes wrong. Poor Ruth had to pick herself up, collect what remained of her dignity and walk past all of the onlookers to the kiosk -and after all her practise getting in and out of sports cars! The rest of the pit-stop went as planned and we got to Dover JUST in time and joined the couple of cars which had not already been loaded; talk about cutting it fine! I was so exuberantly happy to be there I drove on too quickly and hit the exhaust hard on the ramp of the hovercraft. Tant Pis! (Not impolite, but we had to start practising our French).
We relaxed on short trip across -but was the exhaust going to be noisy and if so, how bad? My hopes were dashed on arrival in Calais. The exhaust was very noisy (Merde, impolite) and we stopped soon after disembarkation. I examined the manifold by torchlight and saw that 1 branch had broken away from the 4-1 box and that another branch was badly cracked; but what was to prove much worse was the slight squeak that had been coming from the rear wheel had gotten considerably worse. This was probably a result of all the high speed driving done since Heysham. We started our search for hotels as there was no way we were going to get to Boulogne now. It seemed that every hotel was full and we eventually found ourselves in a grotty part of town outside a seedy establishment with an 'hotel' sign outside. Ruth's quick foray inside confirmed that it was the type of place that probably rented rooms by the hour! !
We decided that no matter what the cost, we were going to stay some where comfortable, and safe!, and we eventually ended up in a good hotel, the Calton at Bleriot Plage. (See Tip 1 )
Day 3 Sunday
We enjoyed a lovely buffet breakfast looking out on a group of German enthusiasts' fleet of 10 British classic cars (oh, and 1 Porsche Speedster). Went out to see the damage in daylight only to notice oil all over the underside of the driver's rear wheel arch. The roulement ('bearing' to all English speakers) in the axle had given up the ghost and all the oil in the differential was getting onto the rear brake drum etc. (Expletive !), and today was Sunday -nowhere would be open. Even bigger expletive (even though it was a Sunday). I had meant to get that squeak investigated back home but 'never had the time' -it looks like I might now have plently of time for regret. (See Tip 2) Nothing for it but to slowly squeak our way to the Municipal campsite -which was full ! Thankfully, not only has Ruth fluent French but she had spent a whole summer working on a French campsite and knew the inside story. She talked her way in and got us a pitch. We set up camp and had tea, relaxed and resigned ourselves to probably losing another whole day of the holiday -what a dream start! Ruth was placated with champagne, strawberries, chocolate and other comfort foods. (See Tip 3)
We tried phoning the M a few times but we seemed to be holding for ever and ever so we decided to try again first thing in the morning. In the meantime we did our own research about nearby Ford garages -they were bound to have a roulement; Cortina/Taunus was surely a popular model and in any event we were only in Calais where you can actually see England. If one had to, one could almost swim over and collect a part; that is if you did not want to utilise the services of anyone of the dozens of boats, Seacats, hovercrafts and trains that crossed every day.
Day 4 Monday
We got up early, confidently expecting to be back on the road by evening. However, we ended up having to settle for a 2 day wait unless a suitable secondhand part could be found. (See 'Day 4 novel' for the full story).
Day 5 Tuesday
Although the croissants, baguettes and Camembert breakfast was lovely, we couldn't help feeling that it would have tasted even better if we were just a bit further south! Ruth phoned to see if a secondhand part had been found - "Non". There was nothing we could do (short of hijacking someone with a Ford Taunus and/or borrowing part of their axle). Another day on our very own part of the beach watching the ships sail in and out (again!). Back to the tent for tea and more delicious baguettes. My desire for baguettes diminished somewhat when I broke my ~ tooth (denture from a rugby injury), but luckily I had brought a spare. (See Tip 7)
We couldn't help thinking about our original timetable. By now we should have leisurely meandered our way through central France, driven through part of the French Alps and be relaxing on Riviera beach. But "aren't those the famous White Cliffs of Dover I see in the background?". Anyway, the weather was hot and sunny and we tried to convince ourselves that it was 'best to acclimatise ourselves to the sun and heat before we go down south where it was even hotter.
Day 6 Wednesday
Went through what was by now a well established routine and phoned the garage as usual. Surely Millie would be released today -"Non, Jeudi I'apres midi" (Thursday afternoon) was the reply. Neither of us was impressed, but what could we do. Beach, plus another walk around town. Back to the tent and I was very careful with the baguette, after all we did not want another disappointment or 'calamity'. So far we seemed to be having at least 2 every day!, but so far so good -then Ruth sliced her finger while cutting a baguette! (Baguettes are very dangerous things!) Although quite bad, the plaster from the First Aid box held it together. More comfort food and an early night.
Day 7 Thursday
Today was 'Jeudi', at last! Down to the beach and kept checking our watches until "I'apres midi" when we phoned again to confirm that "La petite voiture" (see 'Day 4' story) was really going to be ready. We could break camp at last !!
Ruth called a taxi while I packed everything. I planned that night's stop-over, we would push for Reims (160 miles) or even Chalons-en-Champagne (190 miles) with a fair wind behind us. A friendly taxi driver (who now has my phone number for his next visit to the TT!) whisked us to Garage Nivaille. The taxi driver was very interested in Millie and also did not believe that we would fit all the baggage into her. It was now Spm and all we had to do was pack the car! The mechanics showed me the 'work' they had done -the 'ecchappement' had 'collapsed' where they had increased the bend at the bottom of the manifold and the pipe had flattened. I bargained to no avail and as we were anxious to get back on the road and I didn't feel we had a lot of choice so I paid and we left.
At least she was working and we were mobile again and it was only 6.20 pm! How far is Nice? The first 10 miles were fine except that the faint smell of rubber I thought I got earlier had got stronger and when I went quickly around a large roundabout I knew that something was amiss. Pulled over only to find that the exhaust had been re-installed a full 2 inches more to the rear !! and that it had neatly shaved rubber off the driver's rear wheel. (Major expletive and thoughts of violence to be meted out on the return journey). The exhaust was too hot to handle but at least on inspection matters had looked considerable worse than they actually were. It had only 'shaved' the outermost part of the tread and was not near the carcass of the tyre. Although the exhaust had been re-fitted to the manifold in the same place I tried to loosen the clamps and push the exhaust up a bit further, but it was no use -whatever messing around they had done when bending the manifold etc, was going to need surgery to fix it permanently.
I ended up using some washers as wheel spacers, quickly re-organised the load and cleaned off the rubber 'swart' in order to check if any more was being taken off. (See Tip 8) We were back on the road driving very gently, but at least we were moving. The whole episode had taken circa 30 minutes, and this and the 'slow' 40 mph rate of progress had done serious damage to my draft timetable.
I drove until almost midnight to reach St. Quentin and we took the first hotel available. Hotel St Quentin is old-fashioned but friendly, clean and good value. What a day -the anxious wait, delight that Millie was ready, disappointment at repair, the 'high' of being back on the road, despair over the rear tyre and Nice mayas well be on the other side of the moon as far as I was concerned. Time for bed, tomorrow is definitely going to be better (or at least it had better be!).
As Part One has taken up enough space already, the remainder will be held over for the next issue. As most of the troubles hit us early on, I promise it will not be as long. Besides we were quite tired when we got to Nice and we needed to take a few days rest! Part Two contains: The dash South; Millie does Monaco, Nice etc, moped falls for Millie; St. Maxime & St. Tropez; causes a sensation in Cannes, Nice to Pisa & Florence and return in 1 day!; The dash North.
TIP 1. Make sure you are in a nice comfortable place before you break down, especially on a Saturday or Sunday.
TIP 2. If something that is not meant to squeak, is squeaking -get it fixed before it causes bigger trouble!
TIP 3. Bring a French-speaking girlfriend/partner and look after them well.
TIP 4. Write down contact names/numbers of good Motor Factors or Main Dealers in England from whom you can order parts to be couriered to you, and save the cost of 'ineffectual' insurance.
TIP 5. Never go to France in a Ford. A taxi driver ('Day 7'), who drove a Citroen, told us that Ford were by far the worst garages in France and that Renault were the best, even 24 hour service in some places !?
TIP 6. (Optional) If in trouble, remove GB (or GBM, GBJ etc) sticker.
TIP 7. Bring spare teeth. Also, a kitchen sink is not always such a bad idea -if you break down for quite a few days it might come in very useful.
TIP 8. Do not let a French mechanic within shouting distance of your car unless it is absolutely necessary and all other imaginable possibilities have been exhausted. It is a measure of last resort.
Although I am presently without a 'Millie', (a bit like the Isle of Man Four Wheel Drive Club where, for my first 2 years of membership I did not have a 4 wheel drive car but was the proud owner of a portable winch), I look forward to attending the Club pitch at some of the shows next season, and to having my usual chat with Dave & Jenny. We'll see how long I survive next year without a Merlin.
In the meantime I have tidied out the garage and am half way through its conversion into a workshop.
I have just received a refund (at a bad exchange rate) from the M which has appeased me somewhat, but I am keeping an open mind on whether I will be join them next year.
Day 4 Monday
While Ruth shopped for baguettes etc, I tried phoning the M. The lines were busy again so after breakfast Ruth phoned Ford, explained that we were M members (5 star) etc, and made an appointment for the afternoon. Tried M again and eventually got through and explained the problem and our actions so far. They agreed that the Ford garage was the best option and I was to phone back after the visit.
Went to Ford and Ruth explained to them that our 'ecchappement' (exhaust) was broken and a 'roulement' had worn out, leaking oil etc. However, I could see that, after recovering from the initial 'surprise' of a foreigner speaking fluent French, their glazed-over expressions and the way that they looked at each other, that they were of the opinion that Ruth being a mere female could not possibly have the remotest understanding of anything slightly mechanical. I then showed them the picture of an 'exploded' (very appropriate!) back axle in the M Foreign language 'parts book' (essential for any foreign trip), the oil on the wheel arch etc., but it still did not seem to make an impression. We showed them (the 3 'experts' with us) the French article on Merlins. A fourth expert arrived and Millie was eventually put on the hoist and the wheel and brake drum removed where upon they confidently announced that liquid (gear oil) was actually brake fluid and that the pistons seals were leaking! I wiped the pistons and showed them that they were not leaking and again reiterated my theory that it was the 'roulement'. They then called the Senior Manager (presumably to deal with my insolence) which brought the number of 'experts' up to 5.
He diagnosed 'roulement failure' (quelle surprise!), and gruffly prescribed at least 3-4 days delivery for part, they could not do anything and "go back to England to get it fixed" and then walked away. Ruth explained to the remaining 'experts' that we would phone M to advise them of the prognosis and that we would come back. I updated the M, they mentioned their official agent in Gravelines but he was only a breakdown service and would have to get the part through the Ford garage anyway! I suggested that I would order the part myself and get it couriered to me. This is not allowed as parts have to go through official channels. (Tip 4) M said that it was best to get the job done by Ford.
Returned to Ford but they were far too busy discussing something very important and they avoided us. Ruth explained that they had 'got the job' and asked if the part could be ordered as soon as possible. One of them went to get the Senior but just came back, shrugged his shoulders, in a typically French/continental way, and said he could do nothing. We waited another approx. 15 minutes, asked reception if he could be paged but they were obviously not interested. Eventually we got so fed up and left.
Phoned M again (I am thinking of taking a lease on this bloody phonebox). Explained latest development and asked them to phone Ford. They seemed reluctant to do this and we agreed to try and find a more friendly, efficient local garage before resorting to their own agent approx. 15 miles away. We squeaked around Calais with Ruth asking for directions, even from Gendarmes, and we eventually clocked up 6 garages/workshops. This was a very stressful and frustrating day.
It was now after 5pm and I phoned the M and was now in the mood to kill someone. The M gave us the number of their agent and Ruth duly phoned him. He was gruff and very busy and told us to go to a different garage outside Calais which the M also used. Ruth told him that we would drive out to him if it would help and his answer was the quote of the holiday -Ruth was told by the official M agent "Vous fait commes vous voulez" and then he hung up! This translates as "You can do what you like"! However, depending on the tone and the manner in which it is delivered, the translation of this French phrase can actually be abbreviated to an impolite 2 word expression of which the second word begins with "a". (I presently have a good mind to write the above French phrase on my M renewal notice)
I almost didn't need the phone to contact the M this time but J somehow professionally held my temper but demanded that they sort it out now and I would phone back in 10 minutes expecting a solution. When I phoned back they gave me directions to Garage Nivaille and assured me that everything was going to be looked after. We squeaked the 10 miles out to the garage and they were waiting for us! The M must have impressed upon them that we were to be looked after! We explained and demonstrated yet again what the problems were and then waited while Millie was put up on the ramp. Again they chose to ignore Ruth's information that it was based on a Ford Taunus and had no interest in the French article about Merlins, so we just let them at it. They started examining the axle and having their own discussion, "Beam me up Scot tie -before I hit one of them". I went out the back to search through all the wrecked cars (lots of dead English registered cars!). A while later when they advised me that they thought it was a Ford axle, I said "Qui" and you have 4 Cortinas out the back with the same axles (but none were 2 litre; I am not sure if it has a heavier axle).
They promised to do their best and we left poor Millie amongst the large lorries, recovery trucks, etc. The next smallest vehicle there was a Range Rover and Millie must have felt like she was in the Valley of the Giants. This was the reason the mechanics christened her "La Petite Voiture". They called us a taxi and we sadly went home 'alone' to our tent. Hopefully they would have good news for us tomorrow. (See Tip 5)
We hope nobody else will experience what we went through this day, including the sort of attitude that some of the French showed us (See Tip 6). We look forward to reading about other members pleasant holidays.