Simon Howarth takes his Fast Club Bentley Arnage Red Label on an organised grand tour of northern France
Roll back the calendar to September 2021, where the world is still in the grip of Covid, but the recovery is beginning. Restrictions are easing and travel is allowed - thus a band of intrepid explorers unite at Portsmouth docks with a mission to board a car ferry to St. Malo and take a leisurely meander through the French countryside. Our destination is Angoulemê, in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France and not a million miles away from Le Mans.
The aim of the trip was an organised long weekend with “Classic Grand Touring” for like minded people to convoy across, indulge in vehicular activities, eat great food and make new friends. In amongst this was the Circuit Des Remparts, Angoulemê’s annual classic and historic motor racing event. Angoulemê itself is partly an old castle, a fortification from back in history and is now a city of around 42,000 people. Its mediaeval origins mean streets can be painfully narrow (more about that later) and the streets very busy, but that does not stop a motor racing circuit being constructed each year on the public roads to provide a weekend of incredible fun. An experience that every petrol head must experience – add it to your bucket list now.
But first we have to get there, so it's back to Portsmouth. My son and I did the trip in our Bentley Arnage and on arrival at the docks we found a few cars already waiting and in minutes the group had grown to a list of desirable motors that would make interesting reading in any group situation. Already waiting was a Porsche 911 Turbo S, parked alongside a very conservative Mercedes C300 AMG Coupe, accompanied by a Ferrari F430, 356 Speedster, TR5, Ferrari F360 Modena, 812GTS, 328GTS, more Porsches and even a TVR. The list was incredible and we were to be joined, on the continent, by a Jaguar E-Type and an Alfa Romeo 1750GTV. Quite the convoy.
All boarded the ferry with no drama or mishaps, and we overnighted arriving in St. Malo the following morning. Armed with our directions and a sense of purpose the itinerary for the day was to end up at the Hotel de France, where we would be spending the night, via the Manoir l’Automobile Museum. What a treat this was. French media agency tycoon Michel Hommell built the car museum in 1985 on land belonging to his farm at Lohéac. The museum houses more than 400 vehicles. One of my very few complaints of this trip is that the two hours allotted to the museum was probably about two hours too short. The rooms, the vehicles and the themed areas demanded much more study and enjoyment in my opinion. At least I know where to head next time I am over that way.
A marvellous lunch later – all the food will prove to be incredible on this trip – and we begin enjoying some amazing French country roads on our way to the historic Hotel De France. Anyone with an interest in Le Mans will know that this hotel was a favourite of drivers and teams for many years, with the square in front of the hotel used for preparing cars before driving them to the circuit for the day’s racing. The run on the roads was leisurely with plenty of scope for some safe, spirited driving. My son was driving the Bentley and pushing 2.5 tonnes of Britain’s finest on the wrong side of the road was proving reasonably effortless for him. Considering this was his first driving on the right, my fears that he would be all over the road were completely unfounded.
The Hotel De France nods to the racing heritage with rooms named after famous drivers; Jacky Ickx, Sir Stirring Moss, Mario Andretti, Derek Bell, Jochen Rindt and others. The rooms were classically decorated and the beds comfortable. Dinner provided the perfect opportunity to get talking to fellow attendees, and the fabulous weathermeant that some of us were up sitting out of the front of the hotel until way past our bedtimes. Chatting with Alec and Barbara Hammond, who had joined us at the hotel, was one of the highlights of the trip. They arrived in a beautifully restored Jaguar E-Type (after some issues with their alternator) and Alec has some wonderful stories of his past racing exploits, particularly with one Brian Johnson of AC/DC fame.
Day two was basically to drive from the Hotel de France to the Mercure Hotel in Angoulemê via a coffee stop and a lunch stop. My sort of day! At this point it is worth pointing out that two guides were on hand at all times. Jamie and Jack had the organisation sewn up between them, one driving ahead to be there on arrival at the next destination and the other to be there with the group in general, although we did spread out a lot. Spare parts were carried and the whole trip was managed to perfection – mind you they have been doing this every year for a while and so they are well practised.
Coffee and La Louroux, lunch at Les Orangeries in Lussac-Le-Châteaux were terrific with great food and marvellous company. The lunch-to-hotel leg of the day was around 72 miles. All went so well until the outskirts of Angoulemê. Something somewhere had gone horribly wrong. It's manically busy and our directions to get to the hotel were very specific due to road closures for the weekend. As we crawled into the city, the streets became narrower and narrower, and it became clear with the traffic jams that all was not well. Messaging between cars told us that the people in front of us by ten minutes or so could not get up the road as indicated; it had been closed off by the police, we think because of an accident. We had to make our way round the city’s inner ring road (it is not a ring road, but that's the closest I can come to describing it). The combination of a right hand drive, 5.2 metre long Bentley, some VERY narrow streets and my navigating meant we managed to miss the turn, and had to go around the maze again! I would like to say that my son struggled but his skills and manoeuvring the beast in the tightest of spaces was impeccable. My directions however, were not. We got there. Eventually, and managed to find our allocated parking next to a beautiful old Rolls Royce in the secure underground parking area. We had arrived.
Now, I’ve mainly written about the trip to give you an idea of what to expect, which is essentially an overseen convoy with who you wish (or don’t) but a nice, relaxed atmosphere and everyone into their cars whichever make and model they have chosen. To go into any sort of detail on all of the cars would probably fill the magazine. So, I will keep this light in the hope that in the future RUSH Magazine can feature one or two of the more affordable ones in their own spread. There were indeed exotic cars that very few can ever own - a Ferrari 812 GTS and Ferrari 550 Maranello to name but two. However, there were also classics, such as the Alfa Romeo 1750 GTV, TVR Chimaera and Triumph TR5. They all had one thing in common. They were owned by enthusiasts who looked after their chosen vehicle with care and pride. Even the TVR didn’t break down for the whole trip! Fancy that. A very special car however, was the one owned by Alec & Barbara Hammond. As you will see from the pictures, the fully restored E-Type was better than when it first came out of the factory in 1966 although it gave a few minor niggles, it performed perfectly taking the French roads with an amazing amount of elan. Mind you all attendees had their own style, even though we were noticeably slower as we drove our way towards Angoulemê due in no small part to the wonderful food on offer causing increased weight – or was that just me?
Some of these cars, as mentioned, are out of the league of mere mortals like me, although we were not slumming it in our Bentley Arnage, an affordable (to buy) classic, not as affordable when things go wrong. I will be writing more about my ownership of one of Britain’s finest again, in future issues.
We were also blessed with mainly superb weather, with some heavy rain at the start of the weekend but clearing nicely for some great racing on the Sunday. Once in Angoulemê the roads are mainly closed and great stretches of the city centre given over to racing cars in the form of displays to makeshift parc Fermé locations catering for vintage vehicles through to priceless classics, they are all there. Saturday is given over to a spectacular navigational road rally, if you are fortunate enough to get into it. We had never navigated using “Tulip” notation before and so that in itself was an experience. The rally has around 1,000 entrants, with just about any car you would car to name. As you can imagine, it was carnage getting to the start, and getting away again with everyone going the same direction. Actually, it wasn’t at all. The longest wait was ten or fifteen minutes leaving the mid-morning coffee stop. The precision with which the organisers kept everything moving along was outstanding and one can only say “Vive La France!”.
I wish we could show more pictures, Bugatti next to Mini next to Lotus, next to Citroen, next to Lada – everything was there. If it was interesting, it was in. Even a couple of classic French police cars driven by guys dressed up as 60s and 70s gendarmes, who were quite happy to put full lights and sirens on through any of the many villages we passed through, much to the delight of the many people who came out of their houses to watch so many cars tearing past, safely I might add. In fact it is telling that with 1,000 cars on narrow country roads which were not closed off, the policing presence was negligible. The bad driving was minimal but the enjoyment was at maximum.
After a few hours driving all 1,000 or so cars stopped for coffee at Chateau de La Rochefoucauld, an old and historically significant house dominating the local town and open to the public. A staircase designed by Leonardo Da Vinci himself sits in one of the towers. Hundreds, if not thousands of people turned out to view the cars parked up on the lawns. Unlimited coffee, and unlimited oysters – oh, the oysters! Only the French could manage to put something like this on.
Imagine over 1,000 cars pitching up at a National Trust place in the UK. It just would never happen. The police would be all over the place, health and safety would be having a field day – just imagine the risk assessment. This is why it’s important that if you are a petrolhead you must put this weekend on your bucket list.
The rest of the day is navigating around more French countryside finishing back at Angoulemê in time to put the car to bed and get showered and changed for the evening’s entertainment, a gala buffet and music, open to anyone who wants to buy a ticket it is included in the tour and takes place in Angoulemê’s local market with even more oysters and this time also snails, canapés of all types, and any amount of other local produce. Once you are in everything is laid out for you to eat, drink (so much wine) and be merry. It also helped that our hotel was just across the road.
After Saturday, Sunday dawns bright and early with practice sessions for the various races in the morning and the races themselves in the afternoon. Being in the city centre it means that there is no worry about being over the limit as the cars get a day off. The city can be explored, the racing watched from many vantage points and whilst it was a wet Sunday morning it turned into quite a scorching afternoon. The racing went from sliding cars during practice which was very entertaining to hard grip and some great racing in the afternoon. Cars ranging from early 1900’s veterans, to classics and some modern stuff too fought it out in short races with plenty of variety to keep people interested.
Tea time saw the end of the racing and people make their way into the very centre of the city where a vibrant weekend was being had by all and the restaurants were enjoying great business - hopefully making up for the cancelled event back in 2020. Back at the hotel there is enough time to take it easy and get changed for the trip’s finale dinner; fine food enjoyed with, for us, new friends and then a late night at the bar arguing over who will drink which wine.
The organisation of the trip was second to none and whilst I have no affiliation with the trip and we paid our own way - just to cover the fact that this is an independent article - I can completely recommend Classic Grand Touring. You can of course organise the trip yourself at a significantly cheaper cost. I will be honest, running a Bentley need not be wallet busting, but it isn’t cheap so we may “DIY” it next time. However, the friendships formed and the welcoming nature of all concerned – many people are regulars on this trip and they greet you like old friends from the off – are not to be under-estimated. The price for the 2021 trip for two people with the car was £3,390 but was money well spent. Thanks to everyone who said it was OK to use images of their cars and thanks to Jamie Robinson and Jack Finn-Kelcey for guidance, support and organisation.