Possibly our first “Jolly boy’s” outing!

1983 was the year of the “loadsamoney” generation.  Margaret Thatcher in the glow of the Falklands war triumph gave the Conservative party a landslide victory and wiped the floor with Michael Foot, turning the political map of the country blue.

Microsoft launched the world’s best word processing programme called Microsoft Word.  Cruise missiles appeared at Greenham Common along with large numbers of protesters.  Droughts in Ethiopia caused the death of 4 million people which gave Bob Geldorf a great money making idea.

I owned a garage and belonged to a group of local businessmen in Bedford who amongst other things sponsored the Bedford boys Amateur boxing club with some great events.  The group seemed fairly evenly divided with motor dealers and Estate Agents with the odd shopkeeper, accountant and a few solicitors. (If the devil should cast his net!……..) The sub-division of car dealers, motor traders and garage owners developed further into a dining, drinking and general entertainment group and we organised a night out when we took over a local night club for the evening with a caterer, bar and entertainment laid on.  It was that night out when the comedian came on and looked around the room and said “Bedford Motor Crooks” and our group was christened.

Bedford Boys Boxing Club was already quite famous not least because British and British Commonwealth Heavyweight Champion Joe Bugner began his career here as an amateur before turning professional in 1967.  The club had a long history of providing an evening of top quality amateur boxing, hosting clubs from all over the country.  Anyway Bedford Motor Crooks had a table for ten, to wine and dine and watch some great amateur boxing matches.  After the bouts came to an end and cigars were lit, the tradition was that a large number of items donated by local businesses were auctioned off.

The more wine that flowed the more generous the bidding became, with all of the profits going to the club.  I can remember when one local entrepreneur took off his Rolex watch in a drunken gesture to donate to the cause and the even more inebriated bidding fetched about a thousand pounds more than the new value of the watch.  That sets the scene!  At our table one of the motor traders told us that he had just bought a top of the range Winnebago motor-home or as the Americans call it a Recreational Vehicle, it could accommodate all ten of us and how did we feel about an outing.

After a lot of discussion we unanimously decided that it was a great idea and we would all pile in two weeks time, sharing expenses and go to watch the Le Mans 24 hour race.  The talk went something like this, “It’s only 450 miles that’s nearer than Glasgow.”  Quite a few of went to car actions in Glasgow on a regular basis.  “It’s only just the other side of Paris, a piece of cake.”  “Sort of ten hours driving plus time on the ferry.”  “Let’s take it easy and allow three days to get there, one day for the race and two or three days back, perfect!”

A few days before we were due to depart; I got my first view of our holiday home.  What an eye opener.  It was the biggest motorhome I had ever seen.  Think 40 feet long, near double-decker bus size with a ladder up to the roof, a huge air conditioning unit on the roof next to an enormous generator.  In the centre on one side of this juggernaut was an annexe that powered out once the vehicle was parked up and retreated flush with the side to go on the road.  There were as promised, separate bedrooms, some with bunks sufficient to sleep ten people comfortably.  Shower room and toilet, a built in television and VHS player, remember this was 1983.  All of the furnishings including a cocktail cabinet were unbelievably luxuriously finished and would have put some luxury liner’s cabins to shame.  In 2016 a similar vehicle would cost in excess of a cool million pounds.

Come departure day all of us were excited about our luxury holiday and we met up at our agreed meeting point.

First unplanned glitch – Strike one.

Think ten people arriving at an airport with their check in luggage plus carry-on bags – enough to fill a carousel.  Right not a problem, someone has to climb up the ladder and stack all the luggage on the roof rack next to the aircon unit and the generator; it’s the middle of an English summer so of course it’s raining.  This turned into what the Special Forces call a Chinese Parliament with the difference that a SAS patrol is usually four men and we had ten all offering their opinions.  One of the gang disappeared to his business premises for a large tarpaulin to cover our luggage and I went to buy some straps to tie everything down.  Two hours later the cases were snugly secured and we set off.  Naturally by this time it had stopped raining.

Strike two

This was a few years before the M25 opened and before we got as far as the ferry, one of the guys worked out that were only doing four mile to the gallon.  Thank goodness that petrol, yes it was a petrol engine not diesel, cost around £1.70 a gallon.

Strike three

Because of our size we had to load with the Lorries and couldn’t get on the next ferry so we were delayed for another one and a half hours but at least we were in pole position for the next ferry.  Time for a meal, getting back in good time to board; we had left the air conditioning running on our luxury abode and first in line for the Lorries to load.  The engine refused to turn over, the air conditioning had flattened the positively enormous bank of batteries; ten motor crooks were unable to bump start the beast, no-one in the queue behind had a tow-rope but with the help of a couple of lorry drivers we were able to push the monster out of the line.  Did you know that Motor Crooks swear worse than sailors?

Another ten man Chinese Parliament decided that we should camp for the night where we were; not much option really and using the on board generator overnight to charge the batteries.

Strike four

After an hour charging with everything switched of except a couple of small wall lights and the battery indicator showing good signs of life; the generator stopped.  Examination proved that it had run out of fuel.  Another Chinese Parliament decided that we didn’t have a tube to siphon fuel from the Brute and in any case the generator ran on two stroke mixture.  A volunteer was despatched to the nearest garage to buy a can of two stroke fuel; better but two cans in case we need the generator in France.  Our volunteer finally returned having had to get a taxi to travel miles to find an open garage with the necessary fuel and we in due course got the generator running and the batteries charging.

We managed about 4 hours sleep before we woke to check over the vehicle and make sure that everything was working perfectly and took up our position to load on to the ferry.  Thank goodness I didn’t have to drive the Juggernaut up the ramp and into position on the loading deck!

Strike Five

No ten man discussion this time but somebody decided that while we were at sea we should run the generator to really top up the batteries.  Breakfast! And then when we were halfway across the Channel the ship’s tannoy demanded we return to our vehicle.  Oh my word surely nothing else could go wrong!  When we got to our vehicle we found an irate crew member jumping up and down – pointing to our generator shouting Das ist verboten; I’m not sure if he was French or English but he sounded like a Nazi.  He was abusive enough to upset several of the barrack room lawyers among our number,  One of whom insisted on being taken to see the captain to complain of his rude and abusive behaviour.

Because we were such a bloody minded lot we left the generator running and had fully charged the batteries by the time we had docked.  We drove off and parked up to await our representative.  He returned having had his apology.  It turned out that the Captain, ever such a nice chap, was a fellow Freemason.

 Strike six, seven and eight

Nothing else could go wrong other than a puncture just before we got to Paris.  The Monster had ten wheels in total!  It only took ten Motor Crooks around two and a half hours to work out where the spare wheel was hidden, then to work out where the jack was.  How were we to know that it didn’t look like a jack, just a three foot long piece of metal with a ratchet along its length on one side.  Then when we finally changed the wheel and found that the tyre was soft, not flat just a bit soggy and we had to drive slowly to a service area – Aires de service, where we blew up the tyre and checked the others.

Then in view of our history took our two fuel cans to get them filled up with two stroke mixture for the generator while we topped up the ginormous fuel tanks.  Use your imagination. . . . . . . ten English motor dealer with various educations attempting to explain that we wanted two stroke fuel for the generator by pointing to the roof of the Winnebago.  No, we didn’t need the air conditioning topping up, thank you!  Eventually we just filled the two cans with 2 stars and unbelievably one of the guys went into the shop to get a coffee and . . . . Bingo! Found a can on two stroke oil.

We left the Paris Boulevard Peripherique, turned on to the Route A11 when the engine began to overheat.  After finding somewhere safe to park, ten garage owners/motor traders/car salesmen/dealers and a motor auctioneer, checked the cause of the overheating.  You will have heard of the adage about the number of people needed to change a light bulb, well I can tell you that it takes ten motor crooks to find a small leak in the top radiator hose.

“We could wrap some tape tightly around it as a temporary measure, if we had some tape” – We didn’t.  Eventually someone found some baling twine in the hedge and a plastic carrier bag and we strapped it up and refilled the radiator from our on board water tank and we trundled off as far as the next service area where we stopped in a cloud of steam.  We resumed our struggle with schoolboy French to the staff who again responded with their by now routine blank faces.

I then gained Superman status by solving the problem by asking two coppers who I saw were sitting in their car drinking coffee. – They didn’t leave their car but 30 minutes later a mechanic arrived in a breakdown truck, took away our defective top hose and within the hour returned with a replacement.  He fitted it, refilled our drinking water tank, and checked our tyres and we were on our way.  The bill from the mechanic was 500 francs – less than £50.

My pals were slapping me on the back and congratulating on the way I charmed the ‘old bill’ and then began hooting when I explained that I had sorted the problem out in the time honoured way, I bunged them a ‘pony’ that’s £25 or in fact 250 francs and it worked like a charm.  Two hours later we pulled into the Le Mans racetrack campsite just as it was getting dark.  The fairground was in full swing with a huge Ferris wheel and lights and loud music.  Our millionaire recreation vehicle with its centre extension pulled out really looked the business and was the centre of attention.

Strike Nine

Once settled, the party started.  Our cocktail bar had been well stocked before we left but we had also made a few stops on our way down.  Well we were in France and as well as a six case of Courvoisier cognac, we had added a case of Moet et Chandon Champagne and tree cases of Premier Cru wine.  The word went round the raceway and more than a dozen new friends including some fellow campers, a couple of race mechanics and obviously at the mention of free booze a couple of journalists appeared.

I hadn’t mentioned that our ten motor crooks, as well as being boxing aficionados, were all member of the local rowing club and all of us were ex rugby players and we knew how to party.  I sat quietly with a bottle of Premier Cru and a personal bottle of Courvoisier.  I’m not sure if it was me that began singing a few rugby songs, it could have been.  Some of our new German friends joined in with German lyrics to the same tune.  Then some of the French lads joined in their own language.  The night went on . . . . . and on . . . . . and on I don’t recall when the actual race started but we all missed it.  I think I feel asleep on the floor of the motor-home but I woke up lying on the grass in hot sunshine and could hear the race engines but dozed off again.  I woke up in the dark with the fairground in full swing with lots of lights and lots of noise.

I decided to go back to the Winnebago for coffee and would then go to watch the race.  Inside the motor-home there were quite few people slumped around.  I made myself a coffee and sat on a sofa alongside one of the journalists from last night who had also missed the start.  Although a long while ago I can still remember him starting giggling and saying “I know the tune and most of the words, I’ll just put them together in time for the deadline” he fell asleep again.  I’m not sure when or how but I woke up in my own bunk, in my sleeping bag – Result!  I think all or most of the guys were in their beds and someone was using the shower so I went outside and across to use the campsite showers which were excellent as you may expect of France.  It was there that I learned we had not only missed the start but also the finish and the closing ceremony.

I got back to the motor-home and found all were present, when I passed on the news that although we hadn’t planned to watch the free practice or the qualifying, we had come all this way and missed every part of the 24 hours race itself.  One of the guys said “Bugger I know why they call it and endurance race and we all collapsed giggling like a bunch of schoolgirls.  We decided that we weren’t in a fit start to leave until the following morning so our journey home would take two days.  That evening we would go over and have an evening at the fair.  When we got there it was closed and in the process of being dismantled.  We fell about laughing again.  We found a good restaurant and had an excellent meal, sans alcohol.

Strike Ten

We had a perfect drive home and for some reason our fuel consumption improved to over 7 MPG.  We drove unhindered straight on to the ferry and had a lovely drive home.  One of the Crooks owned our local car auctions and a couple of weeks later he had the Winnebago valeted and detailed and advertised it nationally with some sort of story behind it, not the true one I’d add.  The Millionaire RV made a handsome profit for both the owner and the Car Auction.  Between them they covered the whole kitty for our holiday including my bung to the ‘old bill’.

Who says my memory is getting bad?  Some things are unforgettable!  Do you know I’ve been to motor races all over the world but I’ve never seen the Le Mans 24 hour Endurance Race?

About Jake

Long retired travel writer, author and freelance journalist. Educated at Wolverton Grammar and Greenwich Naval College. Happily married since 1958, with a married son and daughter, a married granddaughter and an adult grandson. Hobbies rock-climbing, dinghy racing and ocean racing. Still regularly working out in the gym.

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