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Casablanca 2009

The Casablanca Challenge lived up to its name but none of our challenges were as a result of the rally!
We started with a newly rebuilt engine which had done about a thousand miles before the first “selectif” over Forestry Commission tracks in Kent. The cars were grouped into four categories – vintageant, classics, modern sub-1400 cc and nine who started in Spain.
Crossing the channel we did the third selectif on the Franco-Belgian border on closed public roads. Our time was good and we overtook an MGB on the way – but as everyone completed the route in less than the minimum time we scored that minimum – along with everyone else.
There followed a long run to the overnight stop in le Mans and two long driving days first to Burgos in Northern Spain and then to Ronda in the south.  It was here that the problem which was to be a recurring feature of the rally manifested itself – points.  This set had managed about 2,250 miles – not very good but as I had two spare sets I was not too bothered.
Crossing to Tangiers, the rally schedule was disrupted – though it is not clear why.  After a ferry crossing which was only delayed by half an hour, the rally arrived at the 12.30 control point some three hours late!  This meant that the first Moroccan test section would be run after dark and driving in Morocco after dark is not for the faint hearted as the roads contain all manner of unlit human, animal and mechanized travelers as well as potholes, ruts and bumps.
On the way to the test our brakes failed – well not quite failed – the servo locked on so we stopped and the rally passed us by as we dismantled the servo and applied WD40 to release the brakes.  We decided against doing the hill climb with no servo after dark and detoured direct to the hotel – more penalties.
Next day we set off for the test sections in “rally order” – those with least penalties going first.  Yesterdays problems meant that we were low down the order and in the company of cars slower than us.  We would have to overtake them on narrow test sections, relying on their goodwill to pull over and let us past.  We were not alone with this problem as two other cars had accumulated abnormal penalties during the hill climb – the Sunbeam Tiger who went into a ditch and a Citroen whose electrics had failed.
Our times on the five tests were good and we climbed 14 places in the rally order.
Day 6 of the rally would end in Midelt in the Atlas Mountains.  This was the location of our “mishap” when the drive shaft broke on the 2005 Dakar rally.  Would Midelt prove to be a disaster for us again?
We had sprayed more WD40 at the brake servo and that was working again – on these test sections you needed confidence in your brakes.  The tests were on open roads of tarmac or gravel in the hills with sharp, unsighted bends, sometimes amongst the trees and you never knew what to expect next.  Leading the way were the “hot hatches” spreading gravel over the bends making the roads more slippery for the cars behind.
Our test results for this run were good and we would climb to fifth in class – but much, much worse was yet to come.
At the end of the last test we saw a marshal’s car and a rally car facing the wrong way on the road. We assumed the rally car had spun and the marshals were sorting it out.  Later we found out that a competitor had gone off the road and crashed 60 metres down the hillside killing the driver.  All motorsport is dangerous but to experience it at first hand when it happens to someone you know is distressing.
We knew nothing of this as we approached Midelt.  The town was a sea of dust as the whole place was being dug up and roads relaid in expectation of a visit by the King in 7 weeks time.  Driving up the high Street we saw and were spotted by the garage who repaired us nearly five years ago.  Having greeted them all and said our fond farewells we set off to our hotel and the closing time control of the day.  Err……….except it wasn’t quite like that!  The car wouldn’t start, it had been getting more difficult all day, so as it was pointing uphill, we rolled backwards, bump started the engine – and with a loud bang, broke the differential output shaft!!

Could this really be possible?  Could we have sheared another shaft five years on in the same place?  Sadly, yes, so the car spent the night and the next morning in the garage whilst the shaft was welded up by the same excellent machinist……………  Then we learnt of Warren’s death – not a good day.
Day 7 saw us leave the garage well after the rally so we decided to spend the night in the Gorges of Todra where they had their midday stop.  At night the Gorges were out in the sticks.  The hotel had an outside toilet block and we were asked to go to bed so they could silence the generator which powered the lights and kept the place awake.  The consolation was that when you needed that toilet block you looked up the channel formed by the rocks and had a spectacular view of bright shining stars with no possibility of light pollution.

Next day we wanted to see the top of the Gorge, drive over the mountains and down the Dades Gorge – which the guide book said was a good route – and the hotelier said you’d never do it in a car like this.  But we knew better……….we’d missed the piece in the guide book where it said you needed a 4WD hovercraft!
The road started on good tarmac with the odd washed away section then climbed via a smooth wide gravel track to the top of the ridge.  Then it became a rocky track and we were stopped by a crew digging it up to lay storm drains.  The car wouldn’t start so they bump started us and the track continued past Berber families living under the overhang of massive rocks.  The track got worse, we had to slip the clutch in parts, then the clutch pedal went to the floor boards, the engine stalled and we were 16 kms from the nearest town in a dried up river bed.  Silence reigned, no-one was around and things did not look promising.
The track ahead did not improve so we decided to retrace our steps.  We selected a spot for a seven point turn, took out and cleaned the plugs, turned the key – we had both ignition and clutch!
We climbed out of the river bed, past the begging children, past the road crew and returned to the tarmac road to retrace our steps to the main road.  Now the engine was spluttering – points again.  Stopping at a Shell station, we bought some fuel and more or less got their agreement to use their car wash as shelter from the burning sun.  Points changed and timing checked surely the engine would spring into life?  No, it needed yet another bump start before, much later than intended, we could head west into the dazzling, low sun towards Marakesh and the rally hotel.  Allison’s dreams of seeing two gorges and lunch beside a tinkling stream remained just that.
It was dusk as we skirted Ouazzarate and headed north with a mountain range ahead of us – not the Tizi-n-Test which the rally would use but the higher and busier Tizi-n-Tikkla.  On one hairpin bend which I took a little wide, the passenger’s door flew open into a lorry.  Fortunately only ripping out the door handle with minor damage to the fibreglass; we did not stop.
It was 10.15 before we reached our hotel but in the process we discovered that there were 3 Mirage Hotels in Marakesh – and ours inevitably was the third we were directed to!  We did our bit for the locals by stalling when asking some traffic police for directions – so they kindly put down their hair dryers to bump start us – again (we’re good at bump starts!).
Sunday was the last day of the rally but we were going nowhere – we had to plan our return home and a non-starting car was no help.  We checked the battery and decided it was worn out – but the problem was deeper rooted than that and I added a starter motor to my shopping list.
An inspection revealed a new problem – the diff oil seal had been damaged and we were leaving a trail of oil behind.  We would have to stop every 250 miles to top it up – and home was over 1,500 miles away.
Having sorted battery and diff oil, there was still time for some sightseeing before the rally dinner and on Monday we set off for Tangiers and the ferry to Europe.
Morocco is a Muslim country but not too strict.  Staying in a seaside resort outside Tangiers we asked about wine with the meal.  As the restaurant was next door to an Off Licence with a brightly lit Heineken sign we did not expect a problem.  We were told we could not drink outside on the pavement but inside was ok.  Shortly our “special mint tea” arrived with teapot and tea glasses – but this mint tea was red!  A strategically placed plant and nearly empty coke bottle completed the theatre!
We spent the next night in Gibraltar before the journey north to the Bilbao ferry.  Our first night was in the little town of Zafra, north of Seville.  We chose the Parador Hotel – one of a state run chain using buildings of interest.  This was an inspired choice – we negotiated a price of 70 euros for a room in a castle dating from 1440 with huge towers and a spectacular open courtyard – magnificent and well worth another visit just for the building and atmosphere – a perfect end to a day of driving.
We left early for the 750 km drive to the ferry port.  The car was good and we were bowling along near Salamanca when the engine died – no warning, just stopped.  The tacho went from 4,000 rpm to zero as we coasted off a convenient slip road, donned our yellow jackets and decided – points.  And so it was, the plastic cam had broken off.  We put back a set we’d repaired earlier but it would not start.  The police stopped at their third drive-by.  I showed them we had a spark but not enough battery to start the engine.  They returned with what sounded like “pincers” (jump leads) and the thing finally came alive.
We set off but with an unhappy car; the rev counter and fuel gauge were erratic and that night we had to change the points yet again (and yes we were stopping to do the diff oil every 250 miles).
Next morning the port – oh bliss of security and home via Portsmouth – no-one told us the Bay of Biscay was rough in November…………!

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World Cup Dakar 2005

The car that went to Dakar
2005 World Cup London to Dakar Rally

The Paris Dakar rally conjures up images of desert challenge and the ultimate rally experience.  So when the World Cup organisers announced the London to Dakar rally our names were soon on the list.

On our previous World Cup rally (Albania and Athens in 2002) they didn’t really want a Lotus Elan; this time they really didn’t want us!  But we spoke to the Sweep crew and with their support we were in – “Mission Impossible” the web site declared.

There were three categories of car in the rally – modern up to 1400cc, 4WD and Classics – a total of 46 vehicles.  The rally had three main phases – a long drive through France and Spain, seven days in Morocco to establish a leader-board (and weaken the cars for the desert challenge ahead!) and seven days of driving south with long tarmac stretches, the Desert and the Beach, both in Mauritania.

Preparations were going well when our pre-start gremlin struck.  In previous rallies it was falling oil pressure and a leaking water pump. This time it was an articulated lorry, which left us with a bent chassis and no driver’s side bodywork.  The rally started in 5 weeks!

We had three options:

1. Rebuild the car on a new chassis
2. Buy another car and partially rebuild with our engine, drive train etc
3. There was no other choice

A week after the crash we were the owners of a second 1967 Elan, red with an SE engine but it had been stored outside and little used in recent years. Fortunately my work was closed over the Christmas and New Year break so; with the help of my neighbour we stripped every moving part off the red Elan and installed those from the crashed car.  Engine, gearbox, differential, fuel tank, radiator, all hoses, suspension, brakes, trip meter, GPS, roll cage, sump guard – the list seemed endless.

We also had time to change the head gasket to plug the last of our oil leaks.  The effect was amazing – over 5,500 miles of high revving and engine-stressed driving we used just 8 litres of oil.

The car was back on the road five days before the start – time to decide that the old windscreen was too pitted to be used but not enough time to test our work – it had to be right first time!  Compared to some cars, five days was a luxury.  One car arrived at scrutineering with a blown engine on the Saturday but managed to return home, rebuild and get to Algeciras in Southern Spain by Tuesday afternoon.

The drive through France saw us receive a terrific welcome from an MR2 owners outing – they waved, flashed lights and hooted as we roared past – whether it was the sight of the rally plates or the knowledge that the Elan was their inspiration and ancestor I do not know.

In Spain we were the first car to break down when the engine, having misfired at low revs through France, spluttered to a halt.  This was just after we had taken a wrong turn off the rally route.  Fortunately most of the rally took the same wrong route (my navigator had fallen asleep, another was doing a crossword….!) and the sweeps diagnosed a faulty rotor arm.  The problem recurred through Spain, chewing up another rotor arm until a repair in Tangiers cured the problem with the Distributor weights, replacing coil, condenser and points for good measure.

The first two days in Morocco were uneventful for us (though not for the Range Rover which rolled even before the first Test).  We bypassed one Test which was seriously rough and pulled the exhaust off twice (exhausts are ancillary!).  Day 3 was more serious as, on a straight road on a plateau in the Atlas mountains there was a noise from the rear and the drivers wheel overtook us and went bouncing away across the scrub.  We slid inelegantly to a halt in a shallow ditch and went to find the wheel. Helped by the ambulance crew we found it 400 yards away just below the crest of a ridge.

The outboard drive shaft had sheared and a short stub was left protruding from the bearing housing.  A passing competitor brewed up a cup of tea as the sweeps went back to the nearest town to arrange a breakdown truck.  This was not what we wanted at 9.30 in the morning when we had been in 29th place.  It could have happened at a much less convenient time – like on the mountain passes we had tackled the day before.

We spent the day at Midelt – a town whose attractions do not merit a mention in our 250 page guide book!  The wind howled up the main road as we flitted between the workshop on one side and the café on the other.  By 10.30 that night we were back on the road but frozen and exhausted (not sure how they managed to put back the rear screen beading using only screwdrivers with temperatures below freezing).  The local lathe operator had shaped a new outer half for the shaft, cut the old shaft between the two bearings and welded the two together.  The keyway was cut with the precision engineering technique of putting shaft in vice and applying angle grinder!  It worked and the shaft has already done 2,500 miles of tarmac, desert, beach and washboard.

We still had to negotiate the price of the breakdown truck.  Quite why it had to wait till now I cannot explain.  The opening suggestion was 1200 Dirhams (£75) which I countered with 200; we agreed on 400 (well it was only 10 miles outside town)!  We retreated to the hotel which last night had hosted over 50 cars and 100 competitors and marshals with the hubbub and chatter of motoring stories.  Now there was just a solitary Lotus Elan; we had a cuppasoup before collapsing in bed. The outside temperature that night was minus seven.

The rally had moved on so we lost a second day in catching up.  Unsure of the repair we stopped at increasing intervals to check the wheel. It seemed ok but we had phoned our daughter and Sue Miller to arrange for a spares pack of drive shafts, bearings, a hub and a front stub axle (in case it got ideas) to be taken to the wife of another competitor who was flying out to Marrakech.  We had previously phoned Sue for a spare distributor – history does not record what she expected the next request might be!

Next day we were confident and wholeheartedly tackled the short desert Test.  The landrovers covered us in dust as we again picked up our exhaust pipe.  We passed a sick BMW who had lost his front suspension.  The sight of us finishing the day with the exhaust sticking out of the window brought varied comments on the style of our ” modifications”.  That evening we bought some welded chain and, try as she might, wife/driver could not again separate the exhaust from the car.

We had our first rest day in Marrakech, working on the car in the morning and becoming tourists in the afternoon.  The Elan was running well with slight body damage from that wheel.  Others were not so lucky – three 4WD’s had rolled so badly they would be MOT write-offs in UK, a Peugeot had acquired a new gearbox and most were seeking new tyres and shock absorbers.

Next day started with a tarmac Test on which we could have done better but found it difficult to cope with the stones thrown into the road by the 4WD’s.  The second Test saw the only casualty of the rally when the Astra missed a turn and hit a tree.  The navigator was taken away by ambulance with a broken vertebra.

That evening the Elan showed some signs of the treatment it had received – neither door would close properly or lock, the headlight electrics had gone, there was a loss of brake fluid and the wishbone bushes on the repaired wheel had moving causing the brake disc to rub the wishbone.  Everyday problems on a rally.

Next day’s departure out of Agadir was delayed by fog.  This slowly cleared as we tackled the long day of the African section – 400 miles and one Test.  Most of the road sections were of good quality and we could cruise at 80mph.  However the organisers limited the amount of such easy driving preferring to give us bumpy, dusty tracks.

Two days later we crossed to Mauritania.  The Moroccan side of the border had tarmac but the 10 miles of No Mans Land was part old tarmac, part rock and part soft sand.  We got stuck twice in the deep sand and were pulled out by the 4WD’s. As the alternative was the area warned as having landmines we had little choice!  After the border we joined a tarmac road.  This unfortunately ran at right angles to what the GPS wanted but we preferred tarmac to sand so drove on and hoped.

Up to now the 4WD’s had being doing reasonably but now it was their chance to shine – the next two days were the desert crossing. This caused us some concern – how would a little Elan cope in the sand?  We had three options – to go alone and hope someone would come along to pull us out, to join the “convoy” or to arrange for some 4WD’s to escort us.  We asked two series III landrovers to be our “towtrucks” as they were close to us in the startlist.

This was a Test section and we set off at one-minute intervals.  As we twisted and weaved round the loose stones we saw one “towtruck” racing past on our right – one down and one to go!  There were 3 Passage Controls in this section and we made the first, slowly but with no difficulties and saw the BMW, resting perhaps but more likely overheating.  Shortly afterwards we lost all signs of track and crept slowly over a rocky surface of low scrub and sand.  Temperature rose, oil pressure fell and we stopped to cool down.  All around was still and empty.

After a while our second “towtruck” came into view along with the VW beetle and the camera crew.  What an opportunity!  An Elan stopped in the desert and the driver shading herself with a black umbrella – interview time!!  They noted our position and carried on.

We continued and our progress improved; we soon came to an area where 10 cars were milling around, getting stuck in the sand and generally unsure what to do.  I walked ahead to find a path through the soft sand – the first car through should be ok but subsequent cars would fall into the tracks and become stuck.  Allison followed and then powered past leaving me with a quarter mile walk – claimed it took her that long to find a hard surface to stop on.  Amused was I not!

Driver grew more confident, we were clocked by a competitor on a parallel track doing 70mph, we crashed through the scrub and twisted and weaved through the dips and soft sand.  Only 3 two wheel drive cars completed the day without getting stuck.  Everyone was amazed the Elan had coped so well as they fully expected us to breakdown or get stuck or both.  The trick was partly the power of the engine and partly the strategy of never following other cars tracks when it was soft.

We camped at Cap Tafarit where fortunately the organisers had provided tents, mattresses and a refuelling facility – there is only so much you can get into an Elan when you are already carrying two spare wheels, oil, various spares, tools and 10 litres of fuel – who needs clean clothes?

Repairs were required for many cars. The BMW arrived five hours later at 9.30 after being rescued by a search party (overheating and broken starter motor), the Citroen AX had fuel supply problems, and one of our “towtrucks” had to rebuild a broken front suspension after hitting a gully at 60mph and most had punctures.

Next day we did breakdown.  The clutch pipe got too friendly with the exhaust and melted.  Pressing the pedal produced only clouds of smoke.  Luckily this was just below a ridge where the organisers had placed a sweep car to drag cars out of the sand.  People were not getting stuck so, as we had the spares, they helped us on our way.

That afternoon provided the most spectacular part of the rally – 30 miles along the beach on a narrow track with soft dunes to the left and the sea to the right.  A couple of misjudgements with the waves had the engine spluttering but the heat quickly dried the HT leads and normal service was resumed.  One landrover misjudged his speed over the ridges, which crossed our path, did a corkscrew roll and continued (leaving behind his windscreen, lights and the contents of his dashboard – mobile phone, keys to locking wheel nuts etc). He then had a puncture!

After the beach we had 50 miles of washboard before arriving in the capital Nouakchott and a much-needed shower.  We had added a large hole under the passenger’s seat to our repeating niggles but the Elan was going well and in much better shape than many metal cars.

Two days to go.  The first had the final border crossing into Senegal and 70 miles of dirt tracks.  We and everything we possessed we covered in a fine red dust and it will be years if ever before we remove it from the car.  One rear shock absorber gave up so we bounced the last day to Dakar’s Lac Rose and the finish line.

That little car had done 5,500 miles of some of the toughest driving in the world and earned the admiration of competitors and marshals alike.  We were given the “True Grit” award, shared with the 2CV and the Morris Minor as the car least likely to succeed (but we were the one the organisers really did not want).

The only question is what next?  What can compete with the Dakar rally for challenge and endurance?

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