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9th January 2004
Daisy's Diary: Living It Up At Le Mans
With the Landmark Challenge successfully completed, Graham Ham's adventures on his classic Triumph Speed Twin took a continental turn...
Regular RealClassic readers will know all about Daisy. She's a 1948 Speed Twin with MK1 sprung hub. She also happened to be the winner of the Triumph Owners' MCC's 2002 Landmark Challenge. We were halfway through the following year's challenge, but the Le Mans 24 Hour races could not be missed.
Lessons were learned on the Landmark, and I was intrigued to hear about two interesting upgrades available for old classics -- SRM's electronic ignition conversion for the K2F magneto, and Alton's 150W alternator conversion for the old E3l dynamo. As Daisy is covering something in the region of 18,000 miles a year, it seemed worthwhile looking at these.
So before setting off for Le Mans we paid a visit to SRM in deepeste, darkeste olde Wales where Daisy was duly kitted out with their goodies. In the meantime Alton were tracked down in France, and the alternator was duly ordered and fitted.
SRM's ignition conversion is everything they promised - the magneto stays intact, the coil and control box is discretely hidden away (in the toolbox on Daisy), and only the sharpest-eyed purist will notice that the HT leads don't go directly to the plugs anymore!
The alternator bolts straight on in place of the dynamo, and is of identical size. You can see that it's not the original item, but it's close enough - but what a difference! 150-watts of 12-volt power on tap is no comparison to the old 6-volt system, and I'd rather be alive than correct any day!
One problem has become very apparent however - the alternator is much, much stiffer to turn than the old dynamo. This in turn puts more strain on the timing side drive pinions - the resultant extra noise from the gear in the timing chest is quite startling. This will need some investigation as there is clearly wear in there somewhere. In the meantime, Daisy does somewhat resemble a diesel engine at tickover! The noise quickly disappears once underway, however, and perhaps the new unit will wear in with use...
So it was time for Le Mans, for a week of sun, ale, racing and good food. But what's this all about? The ferry company quoted me £166 for my five day return. My mates were all going in cars and they, to a man, only paid £50! So I phoned up and ask how it was possible to charge three times as much for a vehicle that takes up a quarter of the space. Their answer? My mates, who were travelling on the same ships as me, were able to make use of a current special offer - which excluded motorcycles. I asked why it excluded motorcycles, but the answer didn't help. In my view this is the classic case of discrimination against us two wheelers yet again!
So I decide to load Daisy into the Espace and made use of the discount. I then wrote to said ferry company and complained, pointing out that their policy had achieved them nothing - I was still travelling, so was my motorcycle - but we were taking up loads more of their precious deck space. I had last laugh, too, as I made a point of wearing my leathers while on board, complete with shades, and generally growled at everybody. Might as well reinforce their petty prejudices!
So after arriving in Calais we needed somewhere to dump the Espace, and we duly found a suitable lay-by close to civilisation where we unloaded Daisy and the gear. The run down to Le Mans is fantastic, and gets even better once you get past Rouen. Long, straight, roller-coaster roads alternate with winding, hilly sections to make for a thoroughly pleasant experience. Daisy was bimbling along happily, altogether better behaved since SRM's attentions. She was far more mellow in traffic, and didn't seem to mind the intense heat at all - unlike last year. And boy was it hot ! By the time we stopped for our last bum break, 20 miles from Le Mans, you could make toast on her rockers and head!
The Brit contingent (about 80,000 of us) tend to be spread across a number of large campsites - the one we were staying in is actually a cattle market, where you can camp under the tin-roofed stalls, which I imagine normally are filled with next week's dinner. There is a big pub right opposite, at the top of the road which leads down to the race circuit, and this boasts a large balcony, overlooking a large sloping forecourt. Crowds of Brits in party mood gather here to watch the steady arrival of various owners' clubs and tasty machinery. And this is one of the real attractions of Le Mans week - it has a huge classic following, albeit the four-wheeled variety. You have the AC Cobras, the vintage Bentleys, MGBs, Jaguars (E-Types, Ss and even C-Types in abundance), Ferrari, Morgans and everything in between.
So we threaded through the traffic approaching the site, ready for our grand entrance. I knew what was coming next as we did this same journey the year before on my other Speed Twin, a 1955 swinging arm version, Winnie. We pulled up at the junction just up the road from the pub. Daisy sounded a bit different from the usual engine noises and, as we turned left towards the pub, all heads on the balcony and forecourt turned with us. As we pulled onto the forecourt a cheer went up, followed by a drunken rendition of the theme tune to that classic film 'The Great Escape' - just like last year! What a reception. Daisy was quickly surrounded by admirers, and before I could get my helmet off I'd been slapped on the back numerous times, had my hand shaken over and over again and been offered three free beers!
Said beers were duly consumed, and it was time to go across and set up camp. My mates had arrived ahead with our gear in their cars, so I made a quick call to locate them and we prepared to leave. Daisy started first kick and another cheer went up. As we pulled off the forecourt 'The Great Escape' tune resounded from the balcony once again - this would happen numerous times as we visited this bar throughout the week...
We spent the week bimbling around Le Mans and the surrounding villages until the Friday. This is a great fun day as by now most of the visitors have arrived, set up camp and are killing time till the race in that peculiarly British way - by consuming vast amounts of ale. Soon they're lining the roads at certain points around the circuit (the pub being one such place), watching all the tasty cars go by. Now, it's a tradition in Le Mans that on the Friday, when passing one of these 'checkpoints', you will be stopped and asked to provide 'smoking tyres' up the road for the entertainment of the crowd. It doesn't matter what you're driving or riding. If you decline, your attention is drawn to the long line of happily drunken spectators that line both sides of the road for the next 100 yards, armed with big plastic water cannons! You can expect loud derision and a good soaking if you try to escape without making the effort.
It's great fun to watch, and the occasional unknowing poser in their open topped TVR or Ferrari are clearly rattled, trying to decide whether to abuse their expensive tyres or have their pride and joy (and themselves) thoroughly soaked inside and out. Chris and I were stopped on Daisy at one such point, but the bare-chested drunkard peered through his alcoholic haze at the tank-top instruments, the sprung hub and exposed battery holder, and just said; 'Nah!' A signal from him seemed to excuse us the ordeal, we got a cheer as we went up the corridor of water cannon, and not a drop was aimed our way -- so that's all right then !
By race day, I had abandoned any attempt at personal protection and had resorted to riding around in shorts and sandals. It was just too damned hot for anything else, but I took extra care as we continued to sample the villages and roads all around Le Mans. We decided to partake in a breakfast of croissants and coffee in the village of Arnage, two miles away and, as we sat in the early morning sun, I was delighted by the arrival of the Bentley Owners' Club - complete with no less than six of the big three-litre classics. They parked in a line and I couldn't resist placing Daisy in front to get some piccies of this rare sight.
After breakfast, we headed off for a swim, before laying Daisy up for the day and heading down to see the Classic race which they always put on before the main event. It's something else to watch those old bygone racers giving it their all around this famous circuit.
The main event starts at 4pm, and we had grandstand tickets to watch the start. Then it was just down to bumbling around the circuit to various vantage points until the evening, when the thing to do is sit on the grass banks by one of the chicanes, and watch the cars come screaming down the straight, lights blazing before crashing down through the gears and hitting the anchors hard. The discs glow bright red in the dark. As the cars accelerate away, spitting flame, the noise is indescribable!
Next we headed to the big wheel for a panoramic view of the whole schmozzle, before wandering up to the bar at about midnight in order to partake of a final few pints of giggle-juice.
Back we went to the campsite at about am, where there was an almighty party going on. We thanked our stars that we were under a tin roof as we watched fireworks going off in all directions all around us, and listened to the debris landing on the roof in a continuous pinging noise. And so to bed, although most of us didn't get much sleep, but it was fine just laying there, listening to mayhem going on all around.
We awoke to the heartening news that the Bentleys were out in front, and we partook of the traditional wander around the campsite to find the biggest beer-bottle-pyramid -- we reckon the Morgan owners had it this year. We breakfasted in Arnage again, returning via some circuitous country roads to break camp for the long haul home.
And this is another memorable thing about Le Mans week - the procession home up the long straight roads between Le Mans and Rouen is conducted in something like carnival atmosphere. The local French population comes out in force to line the roads, laybys and roundabouts. Quite a few set up picnic tables and make it a family outing. Many of them were waving the Union Jack or the flag of Saint George and by the time we reached Rouen my arm was tired from all the waving!
The downside, however, was the stream of maniacs in the TVRs, Jags, Porsches and like, who seemed hell bent on wrapping their kidneys round the nearest tree. The Gendarmes were out in force though, with their radar, so we were entertained by the regular sight of the French version of 'you're nicked sonny Jim!'
It was a thoroughly nice way to end a thoroughly nice week. Daisy took the return trip in her stride, and I reflected happily that she had conducted herself flawlessly yet again. We landed in Blighty without incident and that was another 800-odd miles behind us, albeit in a clattering, diesely sort of way. Once back at home it was time to prepare for the road again, as there was less than a week before we were due to set off for a rally in Belgium... Marvellous!
Real Mart's Endurance Anorak Corner
The 2004 Le Mans 24 Hour car race is on the 12th-13th of June and the 2004 Le Mans 24 Hour bike race is on the 3rd-4th of April. More info www.lemans.org. The Le Mans bike race is no longer part of the World Endurance Championship, so don't expect many Brit entries there in 2004. Pop along to the Assen 500 the following weekend to support the British World Champions instead: www.WorldEndurance.com
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