This article about the Beaujolais Rally won an annual national award in the USA as ‘Best Magazine Feature Story’. It was written for bestselling US automotive title Motor Trend, but is less about cars than travel and adventure.
Racing across France to bring Beaujolais to the breakfast table
THERE’S NO SENSE to any of this. If you’re looking for logic, if you’re looking for sobriety, go look someplace else. All we have here, with the exception of an odorous night spent in a French jail, is unashamed fun. This is a tale of drink and a tale of driving, and don’t expect any apologies for it.
The drink is a red wine. The drive is a dash through the winter’s night, a high-speed rally masquerading as a gentle amble in the French and English countrysides. You could blame either the British or the French for this irrational annual adventure – or you could blame the likes of Motor Trend for travelling 6000 miles to take part.
Turning our backs on the grey French port of Calais and steering south with some apprehension towards Paris and the terrorist bombers, we laughed at the origins of this great wine race . . .
REMEMBER THE ECCENTRICITY of those Brits? They’re still crazy after all these years. For no good reason whatsoever, to Britons, Beaujolais Nouveau has become the most eagerly anticipated, enthusiastically fussed-about, extensively discussed, cleverly marketed bottle of mediocrity in existence. Playing at rally drivers, people fall over themselves in the scramble to fetch the new wine from the French vineyards every year. In rabid pursuit of the earliest possible sip of the amber liquid, Mad Dogs and Englishmen leave behind their families and friends, wave damp handkerchiefs at the receding White Cliffs of Dover like troops bound for the Normandy landings, then bravely disembark the cross-channel ferry to venture into a country where the natives eat frog legs and snails. Those who make it back from this great escapade might tell you (in hushed tones due less to the need for secrecy than the severest imaginable hangover) about their part in a 450-mile road race.
The French government might surely take some of the blame. After all, no one cared much about Beaujolais before the bureaucrats interfered. Then, as now, it tasted like any other bottle of cheap-‘n’-cheerful plonk. International interest in the drink was underwhelming. But, in the early ‘50s, the French legislature decreed that each year’s new crop of Beaujolais, the Nouveau, should be released by every vintner in the region on the same date, November 16th. Serious drinkers began to feel that enjoyment was being withheld from them. The chic suddenly craved Beaujolais Nouveau because they couldn’t get it. Disinterest turned to a crazed, feverish clamour.
The more enterprising vintners in Beaujolais territory, a 35-square-mile area south of the towns of Lyons and Macon, thought hard about that November 16th release date and the incredible demand it had prompted for their produce. One by one, they all concluded with a wry smile that November 16th could mean one minute past the midnight of the 15th. Which meant that the Nouveau might easily reach Paris, 260 miles north, first thing on the 16th. Which encouraged top restaurateurs in the French capital to callously dispatch motorcycle couriers into the foggy, icy darkness. Which filled the valleys with the sounds of high-revving engines and rattling bottles. Which ultimately rewarded the first hostelries to serve the Nouveau with a peculiar, perverted prestige. Which in turn inspired publicity seekers the other side of the English Channel, another 160 miles or more away, to race even harder, so that they might also deliver the overrated vino to their November 16th breakfast tables.
Which is how we came to be involved. Threading our way through narrow, twisting French country lanes, we started this ludicrous adventure by scrupulously plotting “pace notes”: A detailed record of road junctions and slippery surfaces and severe bumps and deceptive bends; a dog-eared notebook full of spidery diagrams and ominous exclamation marks that could perhaps be employed to our safe advantage during the wine-laden race back to England two and a half days later.
We had entered an event billed as The Sixth Annual Beaujolais Challenge, but in truth this ritual had been irrevocably established as part of British eccentricity some years earlier. In the mid-‘70s, The Sunday Times, a fine British tradition itself, offered a prize for the first bottle of Nouveau to be delivered to its London offices. Like the creation of Frankenstein, it seemed like a fun idea at the time.
Some people have a way of taking fun very seriously. Ferraris and Porsches were hired. Rally cars were stirred from their out-of-season slumber. Light airplanes could be heard droning through the overhead darkness. The urgent thwack-thwacking of helicopter blades sliced through the air. Free-fallers stepped out of aircraft doors over London clutching bottles of Beaujolais to their hearts. Automotive dealers tried to peddle their ware by lending them to those who could pedal them fastest. Drivers of no less a calibre than Stirling Moss joined in. Lesser mortals unwisely attempted to keep up. Beaujolais spilt like sticky little puddles of blood on French rural back roads.
Something had to be done.
The British Automobile Racing Club did it. In 1980, the BARC held its inaugural Beaujolais Rally, a slightly different kind of event designed to shroud the outlandish dash through France in a veneer of respectability. The organisers wouldn’t even whisper the words “road race.” They appeared to shift emphasis from the driver’s seat to the navigator’s. The winners, the stealers of the precious limelight, would now be the crew who covered the shortest distance between a common starting point, a vineyard at Villefranche-sur-Saone, and a common destination, a champagne reception at London’s Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane. By gad, sir, it was beginning to sound terribly subdued.
Just one catch. To count as a finisher, competitors had to reach Calais, approximately 400 miles away from the vineyard, before 8 a.m. During that first year, any entrant who missed the 8 o’clock ferry was disqualified. And remember: The Nouveau could not be released from the vineyard, by law, until 12 midnight. Assuming drivers had found the shortest possible route, they still had to average nearly 50 mph. Most had to drive farther and faster.
Over French autoroutes, of course, 50 mph is easily maintained. Away from the Paris ring-road, the unloved Périphérique, night traffic is generally light, and the speed limit is a snip above 80 mph. But life as an overseas adventurer is rarely that simple! The autoroutes describe a wide, sweeping arc across the map before finally curving northwest towards Calais. No way to achieve a competitive mileage reading there. The shortest, most direct route between Villefranche and Calais funnels the hurried cars down narrow, sinuously twisty lanes with high hedges and treacherous smatterings of glistening mud. In the dark and deep of late autumn, it’s often foggy and icy too. When the clock strikes twelve on the night of November 15th and the stampede begins, you need a fairly special vehicle on your side.
THAT’S WHY WE found ourselves bouncing towards Paris in a British-built Range Rover Vogue, the bigger, infinitely more sophisticated brother of the renowned Land Rover. Many were the reasons why the Vogue should be the perfect vehicle for the arduous task ahead: An immediate psychological head start, thanks to that high-and-mighty cabin with its commanding view; a 3528cc V-8 engine gutsy enough to propel 1.7 tons to more than 100 mph; permanent four-wheel-drive to combat the slimy agricultural deposits; a lockable centre differential and 10 forward ratios; and a comfortable interior with the sort of wood trim you’d expect from a Jaguar and the kind of space that allows the haphazard distribution of camera equipment and maps and snacks and all manner of acquisitions that help make a long journey shorter.
We were also attracted to the Range rover by the size of its trunk. The luggage space is so deep you could measure it in fathoms. We could pile a lot of wine in there: After the rally’s end, the precious cargo traditionally scatters like a shrapnel bomb, fragments of the year’s Beaujolais supply reaching the farthest corners of the United Kingdom, drawing thirsty crowds into grand hotels and cosy little public houses. Our mission was to collect 144 bottles, which promised a lively night in the otherwise restive West Country village of Exbourne, Devon. What wasn’t willingly consumed by “the locals” of the Red Lion Inn would rest briefly on the shelves of the village’s Post Office Stores. Do not accuse this race, this apparent madness, of reckless futility. This is a tradition millions can enjoy from the relative safety of the bar stool.
A similar vehicle to the Range Rover, a 4wd Mercedes 280GE, had taken this writer, a journalistic colleague, and a former British Road Rally Champion to victory in the wine race a few years before. We had won by boldly going where no crate of Beaujolais had gone before, speeding along dirt roads; waddling through devious shortcuts made inaccessible to other vehicles by squelching, knee-deep mud; cutting corners where the paved route otherwise curved. This time, we might have reasonably expected a repeat success: The Range Rover is, in many ways, a superior vehicle; photographer Tim Andrew read the maps with such unnerving calm we wondered why he hadn’t sat in a rally car before; and Derek Yarwood, enlisted to share the driving duties, was the holder of – take a deep breath – the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents Class One Advanced Driver’s Certificate. That mouthful denotes the highest civilian driving qualification in the world, a standard demanding of smoothness and safety as well as speed. We liked the sound of that. We had planned for fun, not fright.
Funny how those best-laid plans have a way of self-destructing. All hopes of a routine run disintegrated within an hour of entering France. So, too, it seemed, did part of the gearbox synchromesh. The shift in a Range Rover requires heavy-handedness at the best of times. This wasn’t one of them. The selection of 1st and 3rd gears went from awkward to near-impossible. Bury the clutch pedal in the carpet, heave the stick forward –and be chastised by an anguished metallic cacophony.
Having plotted barely 70 miles of our intended rally route, we were already exhausted. Eyes grew tired, peering with the inadequate assistance of feeble headlights, into the darkness. Patience withered. Plans to spend the night in Paris were begrudgingly abandoned. We had to terminate this wretched drive as soon as possible, and we did so in the cathedral town of Amiens, 65 miles north of Paris and much farther than we would have liked from the rally’s starting point. This was Monday night. The crazed stampede from the vineyard would begin at midnight on Wednesday. Two hectic days lay ahead.
Some days earlier, a Frenchman had made headlines by climbing onto the roof of the towering cathedral and threatening to fling himself off. If he lived in Amiens, it was easy to understand why. Fine food escaped our notice. The only attractive-looking hotel in town was filled to the attic. We reluctantly dumped ourselves in a gray-fronted building opposite the railway station. Dim bulbs soaked a yellow, tarnished hue over tiny rooms with creaking floorboards. Threadbare carpets climbed like fungus up the walls. In the corner of each room, a gargantuan radiator gurgled and wheezed asthmatically without pause. The tall, frosted-glass window in the cold bathroom was without a curtain. In the street below, pale faces peered up from a bus stop. Trains hooted and whistled and clattered in and out of the station all night long. The high-heeled shoes of ladies of questionable repute clicked smartly up and down the sidewalk outside. One night in this place was one too many.
The second night was worse. We spent it behind bars. It was a trying day, that Tuesday.
WE HAD STARTED by agreeing to deliver our afflicted vehicle to a local Land Rover dealer for examination. But we couldn’t. The clutch pedal was now totally slack, all gears unobtainable. A frowning mechanic in spotless overalls came out to meet us. With a knowing wink, he dived beneath the bonnet, extracted the clutch slave cylinder, drove away in his own Range Rover, returned with a replacement part, scratched his head at length, concluded the part wouldn’t fit, drove away again, and returned some time later with nothing more to offer than a defeated shrug. He mumbled that we would have to wait until tomorrow. We were distraught. Villefranche was still six hours away. Had we travelled 6000 miles for this?
Some gentle persuasion was called for. In the mechanic’s absence, we had discovered that the replacement cylinder would, in fact, fit. Carefully, we told him so. He took a pained look at his wristwatch. The two-hour lunch break was imminent. Our only hope appeared to be to volunteer a fistful of francs.
Palms greased, the Range Rover was duly winched onto a trailer, carted to a nearby Renault/Land Rover dealership, and, for countless reasons all too infuriating to dwell upon here, the rest of the day slipped by without any effective repair.
By early evening, we had to face it: Amiens would be our home for a second night. Photographer Tim trudged out of the Renault garage in search of a different, more tolerable hotel. He accepted the first three rooms he could find, obliged requests to pay cash for them in advance, and joined us in our only triumph of the day, the discovery of a perfectly pleasant restaurant perched on the edge of a canal á centre ville. Wined and dined, we walked back to the hotel, where another plan took shape in the writer’s heads. And you already know what happens to our plans.
The idea was simple. Since it was still early, we could escape the less than salubrious hotel for another hour or two by wandering back into town to drown our sorrows. Or, better still, we could find another hotel and simply abandon this one, leaving behind our $50 per head without too much anguish. So we asked, politely, for a front door key. We were refused. We asked again, and again, always with civility – and always without cooperation. We had run up against stubbornness that no amount of logic would budge. Delicacy was futile. A key or a refund, monsieur, the choice is yours.
Agitated, monsieur waved a finger. If we persisted to argue, he growled, he would call the police. With naive expectations of common sense and justice, we found that idea agreeable. Okay, then, go call the police.
The absurd events that followed contrived to cost us, by the rally’s end, two consecutive nights without sleep.
Like a tidal wave, three gendarmes burst through the door. The guy with the prominent pot-belly and the eyes flashing behind thick-rimmed glasses played the school bully. Every bag, every single item of our luggage, had to be unloaded piece by piece in the hotel foyer. Bully ranted and raved and strutted up and down, evidently delighted at the resounding echo of his own footsteps. Regardless of their irrelevance, breathalyser bags were thrust upon us. We had shared two bottles of wine with our meal; the tubes in the bag necks slowly but surely turned colour. In the circumstances, this was no crime; it only illustrated that we had too much to drink to drive. This appeared not to matter. There was a van waiting outside, blue light flashing, and it wasn’t going to drive away empty.
At Amiens hospital, a young, bleary-eyed doctor signed three documents, presumably to confirm our intoxication. No tests were conducted. Next morning, after six hours in a cell with blood stains on the wall and the stench of excrement emanating from a hole in the floor, we were each deprived of about $40 “for the hospital visit.” With a big, toothy smile, our cash was waved high in the air and dropped into the top drawer of a desk. No receipt was issued. No fines or charges were made. No verbal reprimand. Nothing. Just a night in the slammer and $40 for the privilege.
“Did you have a good night’s sleep?” asked the Land Rover mechanic in all innocence.
“Comme çi, comme ça,” replied Tim, with a grin. Unshaven, bleary eyed, unexcited at the prospect of driving 350 miles south only to immediately turn around and race back again, we paced wearily around the garage. Land Rover UK had understandably encouraged us to be patient, to have faith, to wait for an effective repair. Like us, they were unable to comprehend how an apparent clutch failure could be so difficult to rectify. We had been told to expect expert mechanics from Paris first thing this Wednesday morning. By 2 p.m., they hadn’t shown up. If we were to make the start of this cursed event, we would have to leave Amiens now.
The only rental car available in the town was a Fit Uno: A best-selling European runabout, competent in most circumstances, but most circumstances do not include the need to average 50 mph over unknown, slippery country roads, carrying 144 bottles of wine, seven 5-litre Gerry cans of fuel, three indecently sized overnight bags, two holdalls of camera equipment, a tripod, and a strobe light.
There was no choice. We loaded the Uno to the bump-stops and aimed for Paris. At Charles de Gaulle Airport, with precious time ebbing away, we struggled through reams of paperwork in order to exchange the Europcar Fiat for “anything of decent size and performance.” Smiling for the first time in hours, we drove off in a brand-new silver-metallic Mercedes 190. Maybe this could be fun after all. The steering was sharp, driving position good, ergonomics excellent, gearshift exquisitely light, chassis taut, 2.0-litre engine peacefully muted. After the little Fiat, the Merc was a dream.
BUT PARIS AT rush-hour is a nightmare. We trickled along, bumper-to-bumper, at maybe 15 mph. We sat stationary, time and again, for minutes on end. We fidgeted nervously. We eyed the clock. We turned our heads repeatedly in search of an escape route. Traffic everywhere, and none of it moving. Time wasn’t merely slipping away, it was falling in great landslides.
Thanks to intricate map reading, by way of minor roads the Mercedes eventually nosed free of the pushin’-‘n’-shovin’ Parisian commuters. Out on the open autoroute at last, the new engine naturally felt tight, and for our purposes 5th gear was too tall. Maximum speed, in 4th, was only 100 mph. Doubtful whether we’d reach Villefranche in time, we nevertheless pressed on through the drizzle.
The miles slipped under our wheels, the engine loosened, the maximum indicated speed crept up to 110 mph. After three tormenting days of trying, we finally reached the vineyard one hour before the rally’s start. The pre-event dinner, the oompah band, the can-can girls, we had missed all that. There was barely time to load up the precious cargo, attach the rally stickers, and snatch a hurried glance at the competition.
Looking for serious rivals? Here was a team of three Porsche 911s; three of Ford’s Group A-racing-inspired 150-mph Sierra Cosworth saloons; a plain-Jane 155-mph BMW M5; and a whole gaggle of Audi Quattros.
Or nostalgic style? A splendid 2.5-litre riley; a gleaming Aston Martin DB5; and a trio of Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows destined to run in convoy.
Or load-lugging practicality? Assorted estate cars and vans and, yes, five Range Rovers, too.
Or plain madness? How about a 1960 Merryweather Fire Engine?
Some, with rows of spotlights threatening to set the shrubbery alight, roared into the night equipped with rollcages, Nomex fire-suits, map magnifier lamps, and inch-perfect pace notes. Others simply collected the wine and trundled up the autoroute. All, as a condition of entry, raised money for ASBAH, the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus.
Frankly, our own competitive spirit was diluted by rain. The heavily laden Merc slipped and slithered on wet, leaf-strewn lanes and the brakes begged of extraordinarily long distances in which to do their work. Worse, through fatigue, driver error was a very real possibility. If we’d had bags under our eyes last night, now they were suitcases. We agreed to abandon the early gallop for a canter. After all this, simply finishing the event would bring enormous satisfaction.
At daybreak, that satisfaction seemed unlikely. Lacking pace notes, it had been necessary to devise an ad hoc route without any idea of the average speeds it would dictate. We dedicated ourselves too thoroughly to slow short cuts. By daybreak, we were so far from the mandatory 9:15 a.m. ferry that we could picture it slipping from the dock without us. Panic-stricken, we scrambled east toward the autoroute, condemning ourselves to an uncompetitive mileage.
At 8:05 a.m., headlights ablaze, Calais was still over 100 miles away. The car felt stable, the speedometer needle nudged 125 mph now, but worry etched deeply into the driver’s brow. It would be tantalisingly close.
At Calais, exhausted, this writer knocked his brain into neutral a minute too soon and, instead of joining the ferry line, swung right into a damn parking lot. A quick about-turn revealed a large sign outside the ticket box: NEXT FERRY, 12 O’CLOCK. Disappointment, irritation, a feeble sense of victimisation – all were dispelled by the wave of an official’s arm. Hurry!
We are left, then, with the bare facts. We were the penultimate vehicle to squeeze onto the boat. We placed 90th from 148 starters and 124 finishers. We ate up 465 miles between Villefranche and Calais, 66 more than the victorious BMW M5, 534 less than the last-placed Lotus Elan, which presumably spent the entire night flogging up and down the autoroute. But, truly, we didn’t care where we’d finished; just that we had. We’d earned a drink.