2000 Liege Rome Liege

Recalling a memorable event of some twenty years ago

Tom Coldicott my co-driver and I arrived at the Post Hotel in Liege full of trepidation. The field read like a real-time classic car encyclopaedia. There were two vintage Bentleys, an amazing 1932 Alfa SC, a pair of AV 105 Talbots, a BMW 328, an Aston 15/ 98 and a Frazer Nash TT Special. There were no less than four Bentley R type Continentals. There was also a brace of very pretty, 1950s Frazer Nashes. Other exotica included 2 Ferraris, a pair of BMW 507s and a Delahaye. There was the usual gaggle of Healeys as well as a bunch of TRs and MGs. Lancias were also well rep­ resented. The most unusual cars were a Brough Superior and a K2 Allard both in well used condition. There were seven XK120s, two '140s, four 150s, two C types (the real thing) and a Mk 2. The most illustrious competitors were probably Carlsson and Palm in the original works Saab 95. Cars had to have been in production before 1961 so we took along my XK150. We were sent off at minute intervals, in numeric sequence, from the town centre in Spa. Unfortunately, earlier clutch problems had started to reappear so for us the start was a little fraught. The first regularity section was only 8 kms with 17 tulips, no turns and certainly no navigational quandaries.

The road was narrow, tortuous and littered with hairpins. It set the pattern for the week where most of the regularities were short and consisted of going as fast as you could to stay on time. There were usually lots of tulips, each with a clearly defined distance point. The trick was to arrive at each point exactly at the time shown in the book. It has to be said that we got into the swing of things early and quickly settled into a routine. The first day's route took us through the Ardennes into Luxembourg and through to France. We had three other short regularity sections in what was otherwise a long afternoon that ended in Amneville near Metz.

The last section of the day consisted of a slalom course through a car park. With lots of gravel, hay bales and galvanised barriers it was a cross between a special stage and an auto-test. It's where we hit our first bit of bad luck. Cars set off at minute intervals and as luck would have it, the car in front drove round at a rather leisurely pace. Unfortunately, trying like mad, we caught them before the end and confusion reigned as we did our damnedest to get past without making contact. The result was a big score and frayed temper s but that's rallying. In any event it could have been worse as we ended the day twelfth overall. Our car however, was almost undriveable as the gear selection problems had returned in earnest.

Day two started with more clutch adjustment and a return to the car park slalom, this time, run in the opposite direction. I was a little crestfallen when without an excuse I managed only a slight improvement on the previous evening. Rally route took us through the Vosges Mountains and into Germany. The journey through the Black Forest and around Lake Constance was a delight. Several of the German villages turned out to greet us in style and I particularly remember the very pretty young lady in Munchweier who welcomed us with a lovely smile and a bottle of the local brew.

We were given a splendid lunch near the Black Forest town of Ottrot. Alain DeFalle, the event organiser, seems a wizard at getting that sort of thing just right. The organisation needed to feed and water 130 crews (including officials), in some style must be daunting. After lunch we dipped into Austria and then back into Germany.

There were four regularities that day. The first three were taxing but manageable and we later discovered that we'd got quite low numbers. The last section however, turned out to be a classic example of what can go wrong in rallying. The road book informed us that the test would be between 9 and 16 kms but with no control before 9 kilometres. Not unreasonably the villagers of Reickenhbach, about 8 kilometres from the start, had requested that cars went slowly through their hamlet. The strategy seemed clear. We put on as much speed as possible at the beginning, crawled through the village and then sat out the time in a lay-by. We were a little disconcerted when a number of cars, that should have been well ahead, went by as we sat waiting our time. It seems they had wrong slotted and were now behind.

In the next 5 kilometres we were faced first, with some lads in a classic Alfa who decided not to let us by, then with a vintage motorcycle rally that wouldn't let us by, next the older cars that had gone past earlier and now did not want to let us by and finally a huge tractor that couldn't let us by. Negotiating that lot cost us 27 seconds and some irritation.

At the end of the day we were lucky to keep 12th place. We spent the night in the delightful town of Obersdorf tired out after a 580-kilometre day. Dinner was preceded by the now ritual clutch adjustment as I was once more struggling to get gears.

The route on day three took us across a bit of Germany, into Austria and onto Italy through the Passo di Rombo, about 420 kilometres. While in Austria we got a ticket for, I suppose dangerous driving after we crossed a white line to pass a recalcitrant Opel. It cost us twenty minutes and 75 "D" marks but we got a stiff lecture thrown in. Fortunately, we picked up the lost time.

At the start of the day's first regularity we sent off in apparent good order on what turned out to be a tough hill climb. On the first bend Tom's door flew open. I slowed; he slammed it shut and off we went again. We'd gone about 100 yards before we realised that the road book had fallen out. Tom leapt out, ran down the hill then back up with the book. We set off in hot pursuit of the ticking clock. We flashed into the control just three-seconds down. Lunch was another charming affair in Italian Santa Leonardo where the locals still speak German, eighty years after the area was ceded from Austria after the Great War.

By the time we struggled into the control to start the last regularity of the day, the gear selection problem was so bad that we contemplated pulling out. With­ out much optimism, I got under the XK and made one last effort to keep us going. Luckily, I discovered a fault with the hydraulics and our clutch problems were over.

The last regularity was in effect, a forest stage. The road was no more than a woodland track with sheer rock walls and trees on all sides. To make matters worse we met a couple of very startled motorists along the way. We somehow got the '150 round in a respectable time. The day ended in Cortina where it seemed, the entire town turned out to greet us. We were now lying tenth and for the first time savoured the prospect of a top ten finish.

The fourth day (350ish kilometres) saw a major disappointment when it was announced that the Stelvio sections had been cancelled because the road had been washed away. We nevertheless had some hard driving through the Dolomites. The day started with four linked regularities. Linked sections consisted of two or more (up to four) controls within a contiguous regularity route. You had to stop at each control, give in your card and get your time recorded before continuing. While you were stationary the clock was still ticking so the whole thing was a bit of a scramble. One of my few criticisms of the event is that the quality of marshalling at these crucial controls was decidedly patchy.

The organisers found an alternative way up the Stelvio and after another splendid meal at the top, we had a double regularity over the first, easier part of the Gavi pass. We finished in Madonna in the luxurious Golf hotel where the whole rally was housed under one roof in extremely friendly and convivial surroundings. Day four had been nemesis day for a number of competitors although we were surprised to learn that we had picked up a place and were now ninth. The official results showed 92 finishers from the 106 starters but many more cars were in trouble and out of the running.

In truth, parts of day five were probably too tough. The rally leader developed problems and fell back and the Saab of Carlson and Palm went out. A lot of cars went over the edge and the damage count at the end of the day must surely have given the organisers pause for thought. Fortunately, no one was injured. There was lots of gravel and very demanding driving. The first section was a triple regularity and as we sat waiting to go out, one of the vintage Bentleys came storming up and went into the control ahead of us, obviously late. We were reluctant to go out right behind them and engineered an eight-minute delay. The first two sections were hard and the last bit near impossible, a helter-skelter course through the narrowest of mountain tracks. We crossed precipices and gorges coming within inches of stone walls and Armco barriers. It was a hair-rising ride. We were already struggling when we caught the Bentley and that was that. There was positively no way through. They moved over when they could and we pulled out all the stops but we were done for and collected our one and only maximum. (Only 12 cars avoided maximums on that section). We were pretty depressed at the time, expecting that our chance of a top ten finish had evaporated.

We wound around Lake Carda and stopped for lunch at the Cavalino restaurant opposite the Ferrari factory in Maranello. The afternoon saw no respite however, with hairy regularities where lots of people had near misses and others came to grief. While on the third part of a triple section, there was a thump and Tom and I just caught sight of a black bag in the road behind us. As the boot lid was bouncing about it was odds-on that it was one of ours. We weren't sure what it was but in the heat of battle we elected to go on. It didn't take long however, to realise that there was something else dragging along behind us. It was decidedly disconcerting but we ploughed on regardless, praying for a control to end the misery but the agony went on for another 15 kilometres. When we finally pulled into the control we discovered Tom's camera bag caught on an overrider. As luck would have it, Tom had the camera with him in the cockpit. He lost his wide-angle lens and some film. Amazingly, his telephoto lens was still in the bag and undamaged. It had been our first aid kit that had dropped out and was, by good fortune, later returned.

We finished the 450 kilometre day in Florence with a high-speed Police escort through the city. In spite of our mishaps we were surprised to find we were now joint 6th with exactly the same number of penalties as a Swiss '140 that had been the leading XK. At dinner that evening there were dire predictions for the final day. With seven competitive sections, we were assured it would be a stinker. We slept badly that night.

The last day took us indirectly from Florence to Rome, about 500 kilometres, and it turned out to be the least demanding of all. The competitive sections were mostly linked but manageable regularities. The competition ended with the organiser trying to catch us out by finishing with a very short run. We weren't easily fooled however and came in more or less on the button. Our police escort met us on the outskirts of Rome and shepherded us to our hotel in Bagni di Tivoli where the competitors were greeted with the traditional drenching in champagne. We felt a real sense of achievement at being among the finishers.

The prize giving dinner was a sparkling affair. The final results showed that Healeys had swept the board, taking the first four places. We had beaten off the challenge of the Swiss '140 by a single point and ended fifth overall, which was nice as the first five crews got rather splendid trophies. Of the thirteen XKs entered, we were the first home.

All aboard for Dingley Dell. Standard Eight drop head coupe

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The start in Liege

Thirteen XKs started the event

A team  of Italian police escorted us all the way and even entered with a classic ,old Police car

SFF taking a well earned rest

XK feeding time at the top of the Stelvio

A faded print of us being excort through Florence streets

An original C Type showing some battle scars

We made it, relaxing at our Rome hotel

The SFF team with their trophies