► CAR’s critic on a French road trip
► How to deal with the gendarmes
► A classic column from CAR+
Filthy weather drives me to the typewriter, as I try to enjoy the good days outside and the bad ones working, but in any event the calendar says it is column time. It has been a good month with a memorable outing across France by BMW and shorter journeys in lots of other machines, some of them to unpleasant places like hospitals, where doctors and specialists were probing my insides. One of them was Australian and although I am used to the species I couldn’t understand a word he said, which was perhaps just as well. I chickened out on the last stage when they found nothing wrong but said they would take an X-ray just to check.
This involved unmentionable things, so I dodged that one and am still alive and driving. The BMW exercise, which was vaguely said to be a shipping trip, was to deliver 11 cars to Nice airport, not by myself but as one of a group arranged at two to a car plus three mechanics and their head man called either Wally or Willi, I was never quite sure. I flew up from Plymouth once again to Gatwick without incident, stayed the night at the Hilton there with a congenial group, and took off at breakfast time in a 320i for Dover.
Since I left that area they have built since new bits of motorway, and it is M-way virtually all the way to Dover, taking only an hour or so on a traffic-free Sunday morning. Those of you who remember the hazards o the old Dover Road will marvel. We were win fact an hour early for the ferry, and due to the time element, or lack of time element as we were required to average 70mph including stops to south of Lyons, some 500 miles, we had a second breakfast on the Townsend/Thoresen boat in place of lunch. The only snag with the cafeteria system is that by the time you have reached the cashier and paid, your egg had congealed on the plate.
Calais was no problem and the autoroute now comes as close as Ardres, about 14miles away. The tolls cost about £21 each way to Nice, which would probably pay for your petrol on the National roads in a small car, but then you could not perform the sort of exercise that we did.
While we are talking money, the standard fine for speeding in France seems to be 600 NF (about £50), so some of our crews found out in the radar traps. My co-driver was clever enough to spot the rozzers in time. They say, but don’t blame me if it’s wrong, that they will let foreigners do 90mph although the limit is 81, but if you are cruising at 110/120mph (and who isn’t?) you must hand over fifty crisps oners (or equivalent) and spend an hour spelling your grandmother’s name, place of birth, destination, reason for trip, et al.
There were many varieties of BMW available, the new four-door Three Series cars, the 728i, 732i and 735i, and a solitary 635i coupe. The theory was that we changed cars at Dover, and again at the night stop at Chasse-sur-Rhone, and we chose a Three Series for the Dover leg with the cunning idea of swapping it for a Six or Seven for the collar work. But some of our colleagues did not believe in Le Fair Play, and either refused to swap cars, drove straight out of Calais without stopping for swapping, or in one case even obeyed the letter of the swap law-changing one Seven for another. Finally we acquired the 735i with the new automatic gearbox which can be switched to Economy or Sport, which varies the revolution rate at which changes take place.
On the first leg of 490miles we averaged 78.8mph and about 22mpg, which I think is staggering. The big BM will cruise at 70 with only 2000rpm on the dial, and makes me very unhappy with the grotty little cars I have to own. It is quiet and comfortable and also very handy. I really should have learned how to make money. Looking at my time-table I now realised for the first time that we were actually early at the Hotel Mercure, which is one of a chain and not what one would normally call a BMW type of place. However, the Dutch barman was willing, and the place a lot more helpful and cheerful than some of these posher establishments.
We arranged to have the 635i Coupe for the final 270 miles to Nice airport in the morning, but due to some more jiggery-pockery finished up with a 732i, which took us in style to a splendid lunch at the Ciel d’Azur restaurant in the airport. Last time I was there with BMW we had a private room and a major demo of distinction who served some lethal cocktails containing Cointreau and all sorts of other explosives, but this time we enjoy our fielt de boeuf Feuillet (Wellington Loaf to you) preceded by quenelles de langouste a la sauce morille at a large jolly table.
We flew back in an executive version of the BAC 111 of British Airways which had cross-facing sofas and a bar in the middle, and hand-picked girls who were charming and polite, and very handy with the champagne, without any of the custard-pie-in-the-face attitude of some airlines I know, who think you are privileged to be served.
My flight from Gatwick to Plymouth in a tiny Twin Otter was a bit of a contrast with no service at all, but my neighbour was an oil rig man from Norway who had a bottle of Scotch in his pocket on which he traded swigs for lights for his cigarettes, so a good time was had by some. On arrival I found some kind soul had shattered a bottle of Mackenzie in my bag so that I have whisky-scented shirts and pyjamas, (so, what’s new?).
Something I think BMW should publicise is what may happen if you touch the throttle when starting their injection cars. There is a loud bang and the car will tick over on three cylinders but die if you open the throttle. I was floored by this, not on the trip but with a road test 528i. Investigation revealed that a pipe had disconnected itself in the induction system, and when it was pushed on again all was well. All hoity-toity I told BMW that they really should afford a clip of some kind on an expensive car, but they explained in words of one syllable that this is a fail-safe device for idiots who disobey instructions and touch the throttle when starting.
The car fires back because there may be raw fuel in the pipe, and blows the small pipe off the large pipe. If it did not do this it could wreck the fuel-metering unit and cost you money. They were terrible polite in explaining that this does not happen when you learn to live with the car, meaning: ‘Keep your damn great trotters off the blasted pedal, you oaf.’
When we reached Nice the mechanics had to service, fuel and wash all the cars ready for the next gang who would drive on a local circuit of roads, all while we were having lunch. After three lots of visitors the clever ones would then fill the boots with wine and drive back to England. Now why didn’t I think of that?
A BMW trip is a hard act to follow but arriving back in mid-winter with flowering Mimosa wins one a few points, although one of my Cornish neighbours had never seen or heard of the stuff. A few bottles of the wine of Provence did not go amiss either. As I peer out at the lashing rain and half a gale outside, Nice and Provence wine and mimosa all seem in another world, but I’ll be back in Europe this month and next DV, so watch this space.