In October’s issue of TTT 2, we left Paul, Christine, and the MG TC at a campsite just north of Rome. There was less than 1/2 gallon of petrol in the car, enough to travel about 15 miles. They only had 30p in Italian Lire, not enough to buy breakfast, let alone any petrol.
In 1977, credit cards, cash machines and the like did not exist. The only way to get foreign currency was to go to a bank, with your passport and cash in some traveller’s cheques. Food and petrol had to be bought with cash.
With the scariest episode of the trip still to come, what could they do?
Paul Ireland continues where he left off in the previous issue……
“Fortunately, ‘Sir Good Fortune’ smiled on us the next day. We found the camp site would cash our traveller’s cheques, and at a reasonable rate. Just ‘around the corner’ there was a petrol station. It was open! We were ‘trucking again’!
Our next stop was Viterbo. Here we saw advertisements for a free concert. Vivaldi, the Four Seasons. What better way to spend an evening? After our evening meal we walked to where the performance was to take place. It was already full and we were directed up a narrow spiral staircase onto a balcony. From here we could look down on the dozen or so performers.
It was a hot and humid evening. The enthusiastic conductor was smartly dressed in black tails. While the performance fell short of the London Philharmonic, the location and atmosphere made it a very enjoyable experience. From the number of encores, everybody apparently agreed it was magnifico. By the end of the evening the poor conductor was drenched in sweat.
Our problem came when it was time to leave. A large priest was blocking the narrow doorway to the staircase. Before people were allowed past him, they bowed their heads, crossed themselves and said a few words in Italian. How could we leave? I suggested, “Let’s do the same as the locals and quietly mumble a few words.”
Next, we visited Orvieto and its amazing black and white striped stone walls (like a humbug) cathedral – somewhere well worth a visit if you get the chance. This was followed by Assisi.
We got to Assisi up a winding and very narrow road. I am sure you can imagine my astonishment, when in the car park, a large coach was disgorging Americans. “I cannot see how that managed to get here” I commented to Christine. As we left, we waved to the somewhat bemused American tourists. I cannot imagine what they thought about seeing a classic British sports car in Italy.
Our descent was on a road that was almost a motorway. That is how the coach got there. We had arrived by the ‘back way’!
With the exception of a very hot, 40 minutes ‘stop start’ queue where TC nearly boiled, the rest of the trip up through Italy passed mostly, without incident. Just a delayed departure from the hotel one morning to clean out the oil that had leaked into a rear drum. Travelling through Austria (before the need for a Carnet), into Germany, stopping at a camp site by Lake Constance. Boy did it rain that night!
In the ‘good old days’ tents were not as sophisticated as they are now. No sewn-in ground sheet or fly sheet that covered the whole tent. The ends of our tent were exposed to the weather. Woe-betide anything that touched either end when it was raining. The morning came and the heavy rain continued. I had left TC with its tonneau cover as it was the only way to keep the car dry. Despite the cane (see pic below) the tent was full of puddles. The sleeping bags and nearly everything else was damp. Fortunately, an Italian family took sympathy on Christine, allowing her to shelter as I put up the hood, installed the side panels and loaded the very wet TC with a very wet tent and camping gear.
As we drove on through Germany, the weather brightened and, despite protests, I took the hood down. “It will help things dry out” I said. That was, of course, until Christine pointed out the rain was actually making things wetter. So, the hood went back up. Shortly afterwards, shock and horror! Coming towards us was an old Mercedes followed by a German TF. HOOD DOWN! I had hardly stopped moaning that this reflected very badly on the British, when in my mirror I saw a rapidly approaching Mercedes, lights flashing. At the first opportunity, I stopped and was greeted by a German who said “I no speak English, you stop.” We waited in embarrassed silence until the TF arrived. Fortunately, the TF driver could speak a smattering of English.
He explained they were going to an ‘old timer’ car rally and please would we go with them. Now sandwiched between a Mercedes and a TF, we agreed. ‘Kidnapped’ by the Germans!
Parked up at the event, you can just see our TC poking out between the Mercedes and TF that hijacked us.
All I can remember of the route we took was that it involved a car ferry. When we stopped, we found ourselves in Strasbourg. Our ‘captors’ arranged accommodation for us but I remember very little of the rest of the evening. Too much schnapps!
The next day, the rain had passed, the classic cars, Germans included, had dispersed. The sun shone. Hood down saw us driving along very quiet scenic roads through verdant forests. In 1977 there were still border controls between European countries. We rounded a corner and across the road was a barrier – an old-style barrier with a concrete block on one end. On the left-hand side of the road was a sentry box. The barrier and sentry box were immaculate, as if new. We had come to the German border, strangely without passing anything to indicate we were leaving France.
Imagine the scene. A deserted road through the forest. A 1930’s style car with two passengers, stationary by a barrier. The sentry-box. A picture that would not have been out of place at the start of World War 2.
In the 1970’s there was a series on TV that both Christine and I watched. It was called “The Secret Army” – a story about an escape line in Belgium. It was the serious precursor to the comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo! You can still find it on watch again TV.
In The Secret Army, the extremely sadistic Gestapo officer, Kessler, was superbly portrait by the actor Clifford Rose. You got a chill in your spine whenever he appeared.
Just as might have happened in World War 2, out of the sentry box came a soldier, fingering a machine gun, pointed in our direction. Scary? Even scarier! He was the splitting image of Kessler, right down to the wire rimmed glasses.
We froze in horror.
‘Kessler’ strode purposefully up to the TC, machine gun pointing at us all the time. When he got to the car he demanded of Christine. “Passports”! By then she already had them in her quaking hand.
He then walked slowly around the car. It seemed like an age.
It was as if he had three hands. One hand was firmly placed on the machine gun, the second held the passports while the third flicked through the pages. His eyes, through those wire rim glasses, appeared to be focused accusingly on us, just flickering occasionally to look at the documents. I watched him with horror in the rear-view mirror as he inspected the suit cases on the luggage rack.
We waited in terrified silence.
After what appeared like an age, sitting in terror, he arrived back at the passenger door. He paused, then in aggressive tones said slowly “Ah so – “we have zee British …. Yah!”
At this point I was wondering if we could make a run for it. The barrier was just higher than TC’s bonnet. Or if it would be better to try to escape as he took us into the woods to be shot. I decided the latter option would give us more chance.
‘Kessler’ continued, “so the British” (long pause) “they must visit Bad Gastein”, or some similar place, I did not hear the full name, panic makes one deaf. He continued “I was born there; it is a very nice place!” At which point he clicked his heels together and handed back the passports. After we had both mumbled “of course, we are just going there” he strolled to the concrete block to lift the barrier.
As soon as it was high enough, TC was accelerating flat out. Once we had rounded the corner, I stopped so we could both recover from the shock. It is one moment of the trip that is burned into our memories.
After that scare we had an uneventful journey up to Brussels where we had arranged to stay with my cousin who was working there.
You must have heard the old joke. “How do you get four elephants in a Mini?” Answer, “two in the front and two in the back” After my cousin had gone to work, we decided to go with his family for a short trip to a tourist attraction. Well, “how do you get three adults and two children in a TC?” Simple, three in the front and two in the back!
The previous evening my cousin had told us a story. He said that one day, his boss ran into the office. Slamming his door, he told his secretary he was not to be disturbed. A few minutes later a Federal Police officer, dressed in black leather, arrived, burst into his boss’s office, despite the protests of his secretary. Dragging his boss from underneath his desk where he had been hiding, the police officer served a notice for some road traffic offence or other. My cousin added that in Belgium there were the Local police who were friendly and the Federal police. “Do not upset the Federal police” he warned, “they can be very aggressive.”
Fortunately, we were not going very far with five up. Just after starting our journey, Michael, sitting at the back with Christine asked, “What does that say on the motorbike, the one that is following us with the man in black?” POLICE! Fortunately for us, the Federal police man either decided a MG TC really was a 5-seater or that prosecuting the British would be too difficult. He turned off at the next junction. Lucky escape or what?
On our way back we had arranged to stay with a university friend at his flat in Crystal Palace. That was in the days before the Congestion Charge and London Ultra Low Emission Zone. To show our gratitude we had bought what, from the picture on the packet, looked like a sumptuous meal. Gnocchi. A few days after we arrived home, our friend telephoned and told us all the packet contained was what looked like dried potato flour. His evening meal with his flat mate had been a complete disaster. We later learned Gnocchi powder is used to make miniature pasta dumplings, and consists of wheat, eggs, and potatoes. It is not a whole meal.
Finally, after 4 weeks we arrived back home, much to Christine’s father’s relief. A journey of a lifetime that remains still strong in our memories.
The TC had completed the whole trip without any real problems. It shows just how robust these little British sports cars are.
My advice to any T-Type owner is, do not leave it languishing in the garage, get it out and use it. The roads in Europe are now much better than the UK, smooth and quiet. If you do not fancy going it alone, why not join the T Register spring or autumn tours, or the MG Octagon Car Club Founders Weekend? In that way you can really enjoy your T-Type and perhaps experience a memorable trip such as ours. Rome and back in 1977.
Paul and Christine Ireland
- Just for the sake of historical accuracy, the first cash machine, known as an ATM (Automatic Teller Machine) was installed on 27th June 1967 in the branch of Barclays in Enfield, North London.
- I can recall trips to mainland Europe with my parents in the 1960s. Passing through Customs’ posts was quite an ordeal – I think it was the uniform of the border guards and the guns they carried that frightened us.