The Spanish Adventure

with John Winn

Yes, it was an adventure for 3 & 1/2weeks and 2,000 miles, perhaps best described in two parts - the holiday and the car.

THE HOLIDAY started on 1st September when Loraine and I left Crick (near Rugby) and drove to Plymouth to stay overnight before a very calm crossing on the ferry to Santander. We were in good company as the Bentley club had a trip for a few days to the northern Spain mountain area and there were over 20 super old open Bentleys on board.

Our holiday was planned to take us from Santander to our friend's house near Gibralter and back, in easy stages, staying at hotels in or near the centre of various historic Spanish cities. All bookings were made in advance using information from the Rough Guide to Spain and the Michelin guide. The major concern was to find hotels with either garaging or private parking. This was not easy when most of the town centres were centuries old with narrow streets - however it was largely achieved.

To give an overall view our routes were, Outgoing (nights stayed) :-
Santander - Burgos (1) --- Alba de Tormes (2) near Salamanca -- - Carceres (2)--- Aracena (1) --- Cadiz (2) --- Sotogrande (6) our friends near Gibraltar

And returning:-
Ubeda(1) --- Toledo (2) --- Segovia (2) Burgos (1) --- Santander (1)

All the places were packed with historical interest and once we had found the hotels we left the car and could walk everywhere. I suppose the highlights were Caceres, Cadiz, Ubeda, Toledo and Segovia as these were all mediaeval fortified walled cities with a maze of narrow cobbled streets and wonderful squares surrounded by historic palaces, houses, churches and always an incredible cathedral. The Merlin bravely ventured along many cobbled streets, often steep, and usually only a little wider than the car. Fortunately most streets were one-way but this actually made locating hotels more difficult as one mistake could perhaps mean driving right through the old city and starting again and these cities were not small - probably 1/2 mile across.

The weather was reasonable but not as much sunshine as expected which meant that the legionnaire-type flaps we had made, to the amusement of our friends, to "popper" on to the backs of our baseball caps when driving, were not used! However we did often wear long sleeved tops and trousers as 3 or 4 hours driving between cities is an easy way to get sunburned arms and legs.

As usual the car attracted a lot of attention with 'toots' from other cars and lorries, waves and shouts from people at the roadside and curious on-lookers when parked. On the days we were travelling our average for pleasant incidents like this would be 8 - 10 per day.

Having spent a few months working in Spain in the 1970's I had already developed a taste for Spanish food and it was as good as ever. Amongst the more exotic meals we had were wild boar, partridge, squid and octopus, and not at silly prices. The salads were enormous and we soon ordered one between the two of us otherwise there would have been little room for main courses. Needless to say we both put on some weight which I am pleased to say is reducing with a return to a normal diet.

In driving right across the country one sees the whole range of its different characters. In the north it is lush, green and mountainous, like Austria or Switzerland, but as one drives south the landscape was often flat and very dry or miles and miles, interspaced with some hilly almost mountainous ridges. In the deeper south of Andalucia where olives predominate, we were often surrounded by olive trees as far as the eye could see. Spain is huge, twice the area of the U.K. and with only 40 million people (2/3 of U.K.) Driving through it on very good main roads with little traffic is exhilarating.

We relaxed for 5 days with our friends at Sotogrande and did some local touring, to Gibralter (for some cheap Scotch!) and a visit to the museum. Then to Ronda which is an amazing small town built on an isolated ridge and split in half by a gaping river gorge over 400ft deep and crossed by one 18c bridge. We tried a swim in the Med near Gibralter but it was very cold due to the tidal flow from the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibralter, so we gave up!

A tailpiece for the ladies - the dress and shoe shops were fabulous, everything had great style and colour. And with all the old churches in the walled cities, Loraine and I saw three weddings. The men were very smart and the ladies were so very elegant with beautiful outfits and stiletto heels teetering along the cobbled streets.

It was a really memorable holiday- maybe the best in the Merlin to date.

Now to THE CAR. Well, in our total of 5 previous continental touring holidays the Merlin only came to a breakdown stop once, and that was due to the broken clutch cable in France last year (see previous article)... And it didn't have a breakdown on this trip either but it came close. We packed the car as usual, suitcase on the rear luggage rack, rear locker filled with small rucksack and squidgy bags, boot full of tools, shoes and guidebooks, tank full.

On the way to Plymouth occasional dips in the road surface caused the rear of the car to swing down quite positively, obviously compressing the suspension and, to my concern, causing a rumble/vibration in the rear transmission. It only happened 6 or 8 times in the 200 mile trip but I remembered Bill and Alan Brown had a problem when they built their Sierra based car with a rear drive shaft rumbling. Their problem was that although the drive shafts are spring-loaded to cater for longitudinal movement when the suspension rises and falls, inaccuracies in the Merlin chassis and suspension construction meant that on occasions the spring loading was fully compressed, pushing their drive shaft hard into the differential. They solved the problem by putting packers between the hub assembly and the suspension arm. I then wondered if when replacing the differential mounting plate bushes (see article in previous Newsletter) I had somehow altered the relative positions.

When we left Santander the road was windy and only a moderate surface, with the result that the frequency of the rumble increased. I stopped and increased the damping of the rear suspension with the adjuster screw on the Spax coilover shock absorbers. I tried to move the ring adjusters to stiffen the springs but they were too tight to shift in a roadside situation. This improved matters but the 110 mile run to Burgos was over a mountain range and the rumble occurred on numerous occasions.

At Burgos was a large Ford main dealer where we arrived mid-afternoon. This is where the Merlin magic worked and my modest Spanish was put to the test! In short they were most helpful, and of course wanted demonstration drives to show them the problem. After about an hour a mechanic who had built competition cars took over, we put the car over a pit and looked at everything particularly whether the new bushes had misaligned the diff. The alignment seemed O K and both drive shafts had a reasonable amount of longitudinal free play, although the passenger side had less. The mechanic moved the ring adjusters to stiffen the springs and in a road test the car was definitely better.

The following day was a run of 160 miles to Alba de Tormes, near Salamanca. Unfortunately as the journey progressed the rumble became quite a serious noise and we limped the last 15 miles at about 20 mph with hazard lights on. We unloaded at the hotel and I rang the RAC. In 1/2 hour (amazing we thought) a truck arrived which I followed to a Citroen main agent only 2 miles away and drove into the long service bay and parked. The truck driver called me back to the door to look at the rear of the car from a distance. The passenger side rear wheel was leaning inwards by almost 3" at the top! The cause, a broken weld in the inner of the two limbs of the suspension arm. Fortunately part of the weld around the tube had acted as a hinge preventing a total failure.

The garage rewelded the break as best they could but there had been some distortion and the wheel still had about 3/4" inwards lean more than the driver's side. The repair enabled us to continue the holiday but limiting the speed to 50mph as there was still some rumble occasionally on severe road dips. Where the roads were really smooth I chanced 60mph.

Now the car is home and in the garage I have been able to examine things more closely. Firstly I have found a hairline weld crack in the same Z bend on the inner limb of the suspension arm on the driver's side - and this was the same place I found a hairline crack a few years ago and had rewelded in situ. Obviously the welding on these Z bends is dubious. I have removed both suspension arms, corrected the distortion in the passenger's side, and had the joints rewelded together with strengthening webs in the angles. Secondly, with the rear wheels and shock absorbers removed, I raised and lowered the suspension arms and found they swung in a path such that the spring-loaded play in the drive shafts is significantly reduced as the hubs are raised. In fact the passenger side shaft had no play left when the hub was raised to the equivalent of a fully compressed shock absorber.

Since we have toured before with the same luggage and fuel load I can only assume that we had always been close to this problem and that the distortion caused by the fractured weld was enough to remove the small clearance when the car hit a dip in the road. Then as the weld fracture became worse the frequency and severity of the rumble increased. We were fortunate that the situation was progressive and that the weld did not break completely without any warning.

As the drive shaft joint had been damaged and the gaitor had split, I had a new shaft made by Dave Mac in Coventry 8mm shorter which on re-assembly gives adequate clearance. As my differential has obviously done many miles and had a lot of slack in the gearing, I had it overhauled by Coventry Transmissions who fitted the shims to the planet wheels to remove the excess slack and, fortunately, said the gears were still quite good.

All is now re-assembled and an initial road test indicated all was well. I then needed to simulate a fully loaded condition to be confident before thinking whether next year's trip will be to France or Spain.

So, in place of suitcases I used a number of large plastic milk bottles filled with water plus a couple of small paving slabs. After choosing the worst of our local county roads Loraine and I went for a speedy run. To my great relief all was fine and a happy Merlin was put back into the garage to await some Spring sunshine - and we each had a large G & T!

Regards

John Winn

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