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The London to Prague Classic Marathon

A view from behind the wheel of Car no 14
A 1936 3.5 litre Park Ward Drop Head Coupe Bentley

Saturday 7 September 2002

A day at the Goodwood Revival Meeting on Friday was an appropriate prelude to the start of one of the greatest motoring adventures of my life! Now, with Car 14 and Car 15, our 2 Derby Bentleys, in line astern we were bumbling along the A3 heading towards Brooklands, at 15mph on the hard shoulder. Something broken already? Not at all! With rally numbers carefully applied to doors and rally plates front and rear, it might not have appeared an auspicious start: However, we were carrying out one important final task of preparation: calibration of our trip meters between 10 of the 100 metre posts along the road. These trip meters, with their constant clicking, and when allied to the tulip route books, would be our faithful guides over the next five days to Prague. 

Have I lost you with the jargon already? How easy it is to fall under the spell of the Classic Rally, with its time controls, regularities, penalties (oh yes, we would find out all about those!), and a whole host of other terms which were a mystery to us until very recently, and which we were soon to discover were still mostly a mystery to us!
At least we found Brooklands and Scrutineering without mishap. Feeling pleased with ourselves and our gleaming chargers, we were swiftly cut down to size by officials who told us we were not sufficiently clothed in stickers, we had insufficiently large fire extinguishers, and said extinguishers were not mounted properly in the cabin. As if that was not enough, we then discovered the hoards of navigators flourishing all sorts of detailed maps of the Continent comparing their plottings with the rute maps displayed by the organisers. We had still to meet up with our navigators, one of whom had already pulled out of the event that morning because of a domestic crisis! "It is all in the preparation" I seemed to remember someone saying! 

Nothing daunted, the Team Derby Bentley drivers decided that they had better get the trip meters set accurately and so made their way out to the A3 to the start of the measured route, just beyond the M25, to do some final adjustments to the calibration of those trip meters. It took a wee while for the Gentleman Players to discover that they had missed the correct start, after they stumbled on the finish by mistake! Some kind gents in a white Mk II Jag took pity on us and pointed out some salient points and useful tips. "No, you don't have to cover the whole 12 km course each time you want to test your meter, you can cover just a part of it which is measured in the route book" "Oh, I see". "Calibration works in reverse. Write down each set of results and see how the changes you make affect the result." "Oh, I see"…

"Now, where is the other car?" Mobile phone call to other driver: "Slight problem: ran out of petrol. Had to resort to the spare can" At least that was full!

And so began our first faltering steps into the world of Classic Rallying. When we finally reached Tower Bridge and the hotel, over an hour late, the rest of the crew was already there waiting. We immediately found some friendly faces among another Derby Bentley crew, Paul and Myra Markland. We parked next to them and soon discovered that Myra was from Glasgow. Paul was rather experienced at the rallying game, last year having brought his 1936 Buick home on the Inca Rally in South America on 5 out of 8 cylinders for the last 3,000 miles. Myra had tied sprigs of white heather on her front and rear bumpers for luck: they immediately became targets for future misappropriation. What a delightful couple! Things were looking up!

A Team Derby Bentley briefing followed to bring navigators up to speed, with Route Books, Speed Tables, Maps, all to the fore. This was all too much for Car 14's third crew member, who did not relish the prospect of the responsibilities of sole navigator being thrust upon him by the absence of the other crew member. He went home and rang to say he was not coming: this was not looking at all like the gentle drive across the Continent he was expecting for his holiday. So Car 14 now had one driver and no navigator. Car 15 was raided, and Paul, a Church of England minister, historian and theologian, was press-ganged into providing rather more immediate and temporal guidance than perhaps he is used to giving. We all went to bed that night somewhat more daunted by the enormity of the task before us than we had been 12 hours earlier!

Sunday 8 September

The day to which we had been looking forward for months was now dawning upon us, dread gnawing at our hearts. I went for an early morning jog round my old haunts in Bermondsey, to seek a little peace and perspective. As soon as the clock passed 0730, it seemed to go twice as fast. Breakfast was a blur. Then the covers were off the cars, oil and water checked, engines started, bags packed on board, hood of the Park Ward dropped despite the clouds gathering, and off we went to the marshalling point on Tower Bridge. We produced our navigators to the authorities, signed them on and received our time cards with admonitions not to lose them on fear of disqualification. A lull of waiting and of chatting to friends who had come to photograph and see us off, then an advance to the far side of the bridge and at 0937 we were being waved away. Now for the Wings and the Prayers! 

No loud exhausts or revving of engines: "Gently by Bentley", at least for the Derby built Bentleys. The Cricklewood cars ("the Thumpers") were already waking the comatose residents of south east London with their thumps, relishing the echoes reverberating from the walls of the railway arches as they passed underneath! Bentleys dominated the first twenty: 4 Derbys (our Park Ward drophead and Barker coupe, the Marklands and the massively well travelled Inghams in their 1939 Park Ward Overdrive) and 4 Thumpers made up nearly half the pre-war entrants. Others included a wonderful long tailed Lagonda LG45 from Wales (what a glorious waste of space!), an experienced crew in a 1933 Talbot, the Chuckle Brothers in the Alvis 12/60, the Johnsons off for a father/son bonding experience in their lovely Lagonda tourer, the competitive Brodericks in a spotless low chassis Invicta, the Ferrantis senior in Puff the Magic Dragon (an enormous Phantom III with reg no PUF 3 which had gone from London to Peking) together with the Junior Ferrantis in the delightful wee 1936 Riley Sprite. Sadly and most unusually, a fifth Derby that had gone round the world in 2000 failed to leave the garage of the Dunkleys. A 1913 Silver Ghost also failed to proceed at the last moment and took cover back in her transporter.

Successful exit of Central London was followed by a dash down the M20 (passing the Ferrantis Junior in their pretty Riley) to Lenham Village where we found our first Control. Into our hands were thrust all sorts of paper. One of these was pushed firmly under our navigator's leg for safe keeping and promptly was forgotten about. The 1st Regularity loomed ahead: we were excited! We knew the route, we had sussed the trick with the triangle, we knew the speed we had to keep: 28 kph as per Route Book. I found it difficult to keep to 28kph, and was passed by the Carter and Rossiter Thumper early on. Strange, I thought, they are clearly going faster than us and they should know what they are doing, having won the rally last year! By the time we arrived at the first secret check, we had five cars behind us, urging us on. It was then that we rediscovered that piece of paper under the navigator's leg, which to our horror told us that the speed we should have been maintaining was 45kph. Oops!

A right foot became suddenly much heavier! We came upon the Carter/Rossiter Thumper ahead, and after a minute flew past them with offside wheels scrabbling for grip on the grass verge! They appeared bemused by our antics. Lots of points were lost, however.

After the ferry crossing to Calais, the rain started and stayed with us all the way to Ypres. Stopping for petrol we had enough time to sort out a loose stone guard on the Barker and top up its rear diff with oil. The second Regularity was slightly spoilt by an unplanned foray into a farmyard, taking the Barker and the Lagonda Tourer with us! Having completed the Regularity, we then managed to miss the Menem Gate in Ypres but spied the Barker and followed them into the Town Square, witnessing John Greaves send Car 15 into an effortless and spectacular 4 wheel drift on the cobbles. Beautifully controlled, it might have been intended!

A coffee in a café was our undoing: we relaxed and forgot about preparing for the further regularities to come, on maps around Dikkebus, south west of Ypres. It was 5.30 pm and we deserved it! Off we went to the Regularity start. Paul was on fine form with the map, only slightly hindered by a lack of a magnifying glass to read the detail. We missed a narrow culvert under a main road, down which we should have turned left and when we had made amends we discovered a time check just the other side: the Rats! More time penalties. But then nature conspired with our unpreparedness to impose unsurmountable difficulties: it was getting dark and our only torch was in the Barker. The Barker was out of sight! With just a small map light on the dash board to help, we found the route to the finish of the last regularity, but then missed the subsequent secret control in our relief and desire to return to Ypres, this time finding the Menem Gate. Only over a drink in the Town Hall later did the awful truth dawn on us, and a 30 minute penalty was accepted as inevitable. So ended the first day, with Car 14 well down the field, and well behind Car 15, but we were each 3rd in our class nonetheless. Lack of experience had taken its toll!

Monday 9 September

We were up early: 5am start. We had noticed we had to be at Huy, some 200 kms away, by 0830, but it was all motorway so we had breakfast, I washed our car (if I could not drive or navigate properly, at least we could maintain standards of presentation!) and left at 0600 in the rain. We had not bargained for the Belgians having chosen to repair half the motorway system. Result: late arrival at Huy and further penalties of 7 minutes incurred for both cars. 

However, things improved. We were learning the ropes and beginning to enjoy ourselves, dashing madly round the countryside of Belgium and Luxembourg. We got totally lost on the second map Regularity in Luxembourg, arriving at a town for the time control, to be told by workmen that the town we wanted was 10 kms back the way we had just come! Oops! As we crossed from Luxembourg into Germany, our brakes were protesting at over-use on the hairpins, but at least it had stopped raining. We were glad to reach the Nurburgring, but a little apprehensive of tackling the hilly circuit in a comparatively slow car with dodgy brakes! Only allowed one lap (instead of the 6 promised by the organisers) Paul was posted as the rear gunner to alert me as to fast approaching traffic from behind and I took off, David Coultard eat your heart out! Fast bikes and dicing Porsches were skilfully avoided, 70 mph was surpassed and two of the banked corners were taken with full use of the banking on the racing line. What a buzz!

Thence to Koblenz, by the correct route. We were getting the hang of this! Where were all the rest? They seemed to appear at the hotel from the opposite direction. Hmm, a more direct route perhaps? The squealing brakes were a worry but we were reassured by Richard Ingham of the Park Ward Overdrive Derby saying that it was probably just brake dust on the shoes and that my brakes were far more effective than his. All my hastily conceived plans to fly out new shoes overnight from the UK were put on hold: funny how you always jump to the worst conclusions!

Tuesday 10 September

Raining again! That's strange, the rear of the car is all over the place. Have we got a puncture? No, all's OK in that area. Oh, now that is interesting: a local MX5 languishing 20 yards into a field with his warning triangle out: even in adversity these Germans observe the regulations! We wonder when we and others will be in a similar situation. The German roads have smooth surfaces which are great in the dry…now we realise why Michael Schumacher is the Rain Meister: he grew up driving on skid pans in the rain.

We survived; but not before Car 15 witnesses a lady in an Audi 80 appear round a corner in front of them, lose it in the rain and execute a 180 degree skid, landing in a ditch on her side of the road, facing the way she had come! We passed her minutes later, standing in the middle of the road, looking at her car and with mobile phone to the ear calling for assistance. Pity we could not spare the time to stop and help, but then neither had John and Malcolm in Car 15. The competition was getting to us all. Chivalry was dead!

1630 hrs: Tea time beside a lake and Apple Strudel and ice cream was our next Siren. We had an extra 60 minutes to get to the Hotel in Kassel. It was still wet but not raining. Relaxed, I was feeling happy with our performance and gave the wheel to Paul, my navigator. All went well, till in the middle of Kassel the tulips of the route book started not to make sense. We found ourselves lost. Eventually we asked for directions at a garage and were told we were not far away. However, by this time, we were close to exceeding that extra 60 minutes. Driving like the wind we arrived at the hotel, 1 minute beyond the deadline. Later, I discovered that that cost us 60 minutes of penalties. Without that, we would have only dropped 2 minutes 8 seconds the whole day, a whole 1 minute 18 seconds less than the Bounders in the Barker. I was furious because the route book was misleading and filed a complaint (to no avail, as it turned out later).

It was so galling to incur such a crushing penalty after having found our feet at last and done very well during the rest of the day in tricky conditions. We had parked next to an E Type with a rearranged nearside front wing ( "we were losing the back end at 20 mph in overdrive 4th gear all day"), and so I consoled myself that both cars were still unblemished and were going better, the harder we pushed them. We simply checked oil and water at the end of each day and went to the bar for a drink, passing several crews of much younger machinery carrying out major rebuilds to various parts of their car's structure. The lean and graceful Barker in particular looked stunning in motion.

Wednesday 11 September

Rain was combined with fog this morning! An inauspicious start to an inauspicious day. Approaching the first time control with plenty of time in hand, we found ourselves being followed closely by Robert Walsh in Car 1, one of the green Le Mans style Thumpers. He eventually passed us, just before the Time Control. With prescience, I gently advised him of the effectiveness of the servo-assisted Derby Bentley brakes, he admitted his were less effective and I politely suggested he would be prudent to maintain a greater distance between us. Why did I feel that such friendly advice was falling on the deaf ears of a Bentley Boy in a Thumper on a charge?

Soon after the Time Control, he was close behind again, and I pulled over quickly to avoid cosmetic surgery to rear end of our car. Knowing our Barker was now in front of him, I worried about them! A km or so later, I realised I was right to be worried: Aghast, I beheld the Barker ahead, stopped for the start of a Regularity in a queue of three cars, with a 2.5 ton big green monster bearing down on it at speed and with insufficient braking power to stop short of her rear bumper. Relief flooded my soul as Robert had the presence of mind to develop a sudden prowess at ballet in his Thumper, putting it sideways on the gravel to stop just short of the rear of a unique and beautiful body, first displayed by Barker at the London Olympia Motor Show in 1936. Rearrangement of some of the most attractive coachwork ever to clothe a Derby Bentley would have really spoilt my morning! 

This turned out to be the best day for both Car 14 and Car 15: less than a minute of penalties in each case. Both cars lay 3rd in their respective classes, and 84 & 53 overall. A brilliant performance from John and Malcolm, the Bounders in the Barker, with only Paul Carter's Thumper and the Broderick's Invicta ahead of them in their class. After 4 days, we had got into the swing of the rally. 

Just to avoid boredom setting in, I then was to change navigator for the last day. My original navigator, Tomas, joined us in Leipzig from Prague for the last day. Paul kindly agreed to drive Tomas' car back to Prague, and allowed Tomas a go at navigation. A 30 minute intensive training session followed that evening. 

Thursday 12 September 

Within 15 minutes of the start of the day, Tomas was a seasoned navigator! Colditz Castle was reached without a hitch. We parked in the courtyard but only had 10 minutes to spare for a very short tour of the castle. This was a major disappointment, as we had been sold a visit to Colditz as one of the highlights of the Rally.

On to the Czech Border, however. The regularities came thick and fast after the Border. The timings for the stages to Melnik were impossibly tight, for vintageants who were doing the regularities at 45 kph. I made a mistake by allowing several Porsche 356s in front of me at one regularity start to avoid having to pull over for them later. As a result we were late at the next Time Control and incurred penalties, not helped by a route book that was again wrong at a crucial junction. The last Regularity was crowned by an enormous pot-hole in the middle of the track, just as we entered a wood, with the hazard lying part in shadow. Fortunately both our drivers managed to avoid the worst of it, but the Thumper of Robert Walsh failed to execute a pirouette despite earlier ballet practice and lost an oil pipe in the resulting heavy landing. Later my novice navigator triumphed as we found the Time Control at the Castle at Velke Brezno perfectly, and then having left the Time Control found the Barker stopped in the middle of the road, yet to visit the Castle. Like the gentlemen we are, we set them right, trying hard to conceal self-satisfied grins!

At Melnik, 30 kms north of Prague, we again exchanged navigators to give Paul the honour of finishing the Rally as navigator. Finding our way through bad traffic in a Prague still suffering in the aftermath of the floods, we reached the Kongress Centre and the finish line, tired but happy that both cars had made it in one piece, both third in their classes. The Park Ward then suffered its first mishap: a puncture. Our cars looked good in front of the Corinthia Towers Hotel. We were surprised later on in the evening to find that many of our fellow pre-war cars, including all the Thumpers, Puff the Magic Dragon, the Long Tailed Lagonda and the lovely wee Riley, had already been spirited away onto the back of transporters for the return journey. Hah! Only doing half the job!

Later

We left Prague on Sunday at 0700, had lunch north of Nuremburg at 1300 (after some fun at the Czech Border) and arrived at Cologne at 2200 in darkness after a puncture and an hour and a half in a traffic jam on an autobahn near Giessen north of Frankfurt had delayed us. We reached Brugge at 1500 on the Monday with a further puncture and boarded the ferry at Zeebrugge at 1700 bound for Rosyth with no spare tyres left but delighted at the reliability of our wonderful Derby Bentleys. 

I thought I started the rally an enthusiast of Derby Bentleys. I realise I was wrong. At the end of the Rally, after the cars had been driven down from Scotland 400 miles to the start at London Bridge, covered 1800 miles of hard rallying and then a dash back to the boat of some 800 miles, all without any significant difficulties, now I am a real enthusiast of the Derby Bentley. Incidentally, the Inghams also went on to spend a week's holiday in Switzerland after the rally and drove 600 miles back to Calais in one day from Switzerland in their Park Ward overdrive saloon, albeit with a blown exhaust.

While perhaps the Classic Marathon is not best suited to Derby Bentleys, all four Derbys that started duly completed it without problem and with 100% reliability. Properly maintained Derby Bentleys are therefore well equipped to undertake long distance touring, which is exactly what they were designed for 60 years ago and in what they excel, now as then.

Neill Fraser
Driver, Car 14
Director, 
On the Road in Scotland
Providing unique and exclusive tours by Derby Bentley


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