The Grand Tour of Europe (or what passed for it in my case)

by Tom Eaves

This is a tale of two misguided young men with an MG ‘doing’ Europe on a shoestring. It probably couldn’t happen today.

During the 2nd World war, which largely passed over my head in the form of the Luftwaffe, there was so little traffic on our roads that we could walk the mile to school in the middle of the road, with little danger of being run over by anything more dangerous than a horse drawn milk float. That changed when hostilities ended in 1945, and petrol – albeit poor quality “pool” petrol – became available once more for the private motorist. The traffic level was still light, although we didn’t stroll down the middle of the road quite so frequently.

One of the things which made a big impression on me was the appearance of some of the most delicious (in my eyes) little two-seater cars. These were the T-Types made by M.G. At that time I could not distinguish between the pre-war TA and TB, or the post war TC. In truth, there was very little difference anyway. I wanted one rather badly, but as I was only 8 at the time, sadly it had to remain a dream.

It was not until 1960 that I actually got my hands on one, in the form of a 1950 type TD in Hong Kong! I was at that time a Wireless Operator in the RAF, serving with the Far Eastern Air Force and the TD belonged to one Corporal Dave Simpson, or ‘Simmo’, as he was known to his colleagues. The registration number was XX 1144, and as our Chinese amah pointed out, it was a very lucky number, having three doubles. Simmo kindly let me drive it occasionally, quite legally as I had a full HK driving licence and it was insured properly.

Eventually, we all returned to the UK and went our separate ways. I went to college, and qualified as a Radio Officer for the Merchant Service, joined BP Tanker Co, and went to sea.

Returning to the UK for some leave at the beginning of 1962, I saw an advert in our local paper, the Falmouth Packet, for a 1949 MG TC on offer by a gent named Bob Hope, who ran a small garage in Threewaters, near Truro. I went to see him, saw it, and bought it. It cost £125, and in my eyes was beautiful. Thus I became the owner of FAP 35, pictured here in Cornwall prior to setting out on the tour.

As was quite normal for these cars, it had enjoyed a lifetime of total neglect, lived outside permanently, had been ‘maintained’ by its previous (impecunious?) owners (read bodged), and was by no means totally roadworthy. However, there was none of the MOT nonsense back then, so it didn’t really make a lot of difference. If the engine ran and the wheels went round and you could drive it, it was OK.

FAP 35, pictured in the snow in Cornwall in 1962

If you have never driven a TC or its earlier relatives, you can have no idea of just how crude and brutal they could be. It has been said by many well informed people that it was impossible to drive a TC in a straight line down a straight road. I concur; you couldn’t!! It has been further said that and I quote “The TC corners as if it was on rails”. Yes, again I concur, but would add that the rails were as drawn by Salvador Dali.

With the TC I really did learn the true meaning of hair raising experiences. The steering wheel had only one and a quarter turns from full lock to full lock, and when the cars were new, one and a half inches of play in the wheel rim from the steering mechanism was normal. You didn’t steer them, you sort of aimed them in the general direction you wanted to go, and hoped for the best. You learned to read the camber of the road in front, and to load the steering wheel against the way you knew the car was going to veer. My hair took on the permanent appearance of a bottle brush.

FAP 35 travels to the Continent

Notwithstanding the roadworthiness or otherwise of FAP 35, on my return from my next spell at sea, which had included a trip round Africa to the Gulf, and then to Australia, I re-taxed the TC, chucked a tent, sleeping bag, some tools and clothes in the back, and set off for Manchester where I picked up Frank, an Engineer Officer from the same ship, and we set off from there to Dover, and France.

At this point I should mention that BP Tanker Co were very generous with shore leave, provided it was in mid winter!

After a sea passage of over an hour, we drove off the ferry onto the continent of Europe. Frank had agreed to be the cook on this trip, and I was soon aware that he just had to be a better engineer than he was a cook. His idea of breakfast was a crust of bread dipped in lukewarm tea.

Running Repairs

It was damn cold in northern France at that time of the year, so we headed south on the Routes Nationales which at that time were festooned with permanent notices declaring “Chausses Deformee”. They sure were. The TC was equipped with 19 inch diameter wire wheels which had really seen better days, and it was not long before all four road wheels had assumed the general profile of a potato crisp. The poor TC shook, wobbled, shuddered and rattled its way south to Toulouse, where we had our first crisis. The fuel tank developed a leak. Now, you can’t just have someone weld up a petrol tank, especially when it’s full of fuel!

British ingenuity came to the fore, and we removed it, cleaned the affected area with emery cloth, and patched it with David’s Isopon and some fibreglass tape. Repairs completed, we set off once more for Andorra La Vella in the Spanish Pyrenees.

FAP 35 on the Pas de la Casa en route to Andorra, Principat d’Andorra in the ’60s

Andorra, it appeared to me, was a small enclave run by some sort of clergyman from either Spain or France, and is a tax free area. It’s now a ski resort. The TC tackled the steady climb up into the mountains, the countryside took on an alpine appearance, and it got colder. We had naturally run all the way from Manchester with the hood down and the side screens packed. The snow fields started, and as we climbed higher and higher it got colder and colder.

Eventually we arrived in the town of La Vella, and looked for the campsite. We pitched the tent, and rolled out our sleeping bags. Mine was totally inadequate for a well below freezing environment. Walking up the one and only street in the late afternoon, I decided that if I was to survive the night I’d better get a bit more lagging. I tried to buy a blanket in a shop on the side of the street. The language used in Andorra then, appeared to be Castilian Spanish, of which I possessed not a word. After giving a performance worthy of a second rate music hall act, I finally managed to buy a thick blanket which was sold to me as Una Manta. It was still known by that name many years later.

Having decided that Frank’s cooking was not up to producing a dinner, and being ravenous by that time, we decided to have a meal in a restaurant. In we went, and I ordered Bifstek con Patatas Fritas. I knew that much Spanish. I forget what Frank ordered.

My order caused consternation. It appeared that no-one in Andorra could afford steak. After a long discussion with the manager, someone was despatched up the street to the local butcher’s shop, and he appeared at our table a little while later carrying a whole side of beef. After a further palaver, I was invited to indicate which bit I wanted, and a slice of beef was ceremoniously cut off where I’d indicated, the side was taken back to the shop, my slice disappeared into the kitchen, and everyone was satisfied. By the time all this had taken place, the entire population of Andorra had been made aware that someone had ordered a steak, and just about everyone including the mayor had turned up to watch the pantomime.

They were still there enjoying the show when my dinner arrived, and they all gathered around and watched as I ate it. By that time I didn’t care, but it didn’t say much for the quality of evening entertainment in Andorra at that time.

Search for a Naked BB

Somehow, we survived the night, and the next day we set off towards Perpignan and the coast. As we left the snowfields, it got warmer again and life returned to what passed for normal for us. A rumour had been circulating that Bridget Bardot was to be seen sunbathing in the nude in St Tropez, so we headed in that direction to check it out. I can’t confirm it either way, I regret to say. St Tropez was, and still is, sun and sea and sand, and it was damned expensive to boot. So we rolled eastwards along the south coast of France to Cannes, to Nice, and then on to Monte Carlo. Monte is another of those enclaves, this time a Princedom, with its own borders etc.

We crossed the border and arrived at a cross roads. In those far off days, busy crossroads were controlled by a gendarme on a little pedestal in the middle. We arrived, stopped, and he saw us. He blew his whistle stopped traffic from all directions, pointed at us and waved us through as though we were royalty. I remember thinking that I could get used to that sort of thing. Monte was much too highbrow for a couple of tanker officers, but we toured the town, drove round the famous Grand Prix circuit at a very modest pace, and saw the sights, the casinos whose thresholds we didn’t dare cross, and after a day or two, we headed east once more towards Italy.

The road from France into Italy east of Monte Carlo was in poor shape back then, and to cross from France to Italy you had to take the formidable pass known as the Col de Tende. From the base of the foothills to where the road disappears into a tunnel there are well over a hundred hairpin bends of just under 180 degrees. Even with the most direct steering gear in the TC, it was damned hard work. Entering the tunnel, which was not lit, it took some time to get used to the mediocre lighting of the TC, and I did not realise that the tunnel was following quite a steep upward gradient. With no visible horizon, it’s impossible to know that. I was having nightmares wondering what the hell was wrong with the engine. I was having to use second gear and it seemed that I was beginning to run out of power. I knew that the altitude was considerable, and hoped that the engine would keep running and get us through the tunnel.

In the event it did, and we emerged out into daylight at the Italian border to find ourselves in a heavy blizzard like snowstorm. It was finally time to put the hood up and to slip the sidescreens into place. The Italian border guards gathered round to look at the TC, (they pronounced it TeeChee), shook their heads, and sent us on our way with much backslapping and good cheer.

Dropping down off the mountains which form the border between France and Italy in those parts, we drove east across a rather gloomy plain, which had very little to recommend it. The roads were still in poor condition, due no doubt to the financial situation of Italy, and of course the harsher winters they seemed to have in those days. We arrived on the outskirts of Turin in the late afternoon rush hour, which, in Italy, is a time to be avoided if at all possible. As usual, Frank’s cooking and food husbandry was sadly lacking, in that we had no provisions on board, so I pulled over on the side of the road near a small conditorie, and sent Frank ashore to buy something for the evening meal.

An Encounter with “Our Man in Torino”

I sat in the car, and a large black saloon car pulled up alongside, blocking all the following traffic. Fearing attention from the Black Hand mob, I sat tight. A well dressed gentleman got out, and came over to me, and addressed me in perfect English, to enquire if I had come from England in the TC. Answering in the affirmative, I added that if he didn’t move his car, the law would be on his tail pretty quick. Horns were being sounded, and fists waved about from the line of traffic astern of his car. His reply was “Oh, the CD plates take care of all that nonsense”. He then invited me to follow him to his house to meet his wife and family. Frank appeared just then, and I told the gent that there were two of us, to which he replied, “Fine, follow me.” We set off through the suburbs and climbed out of the city into what appeared to be the well heeled part of town.

Swinging into a gateway with high stone columns topped with stone eagles we pulled up in front of a very imposing residence indeed. At this time I can’t recall exactly who this gentleman was, but he held some high office in the British Foreign service, probably the Diplomatic Service, and was stationed in Italy. We had a superb meal, talked to his wife and two very pretty daughters, told our story, and finally left quite late in the evening, unsure where we would find a campsite, or even if we would find one at all. The dear TC was, at this point, beginning to display some interesting handling characteristics which I was certain had nothing to do with the imbibed alcohol!

Near Disaster and an Emergency Trip Home

We found a site on the banks of the River Po to the north of Turin, and pitched the tent, crawled in and slept the sleep of the exhausted. We spent the next day odding about, and I attempted to discover what was making a scraping sound from the front of the car. After a while, I noticed that the right hand side front wheel was standing at a different angle to the body than the other one. Our second crisis! Taking the wheel off, and the brake drum and bearings, I found that the front stub axle had a crack across it and it was bending. Yikes!!!!! Why it didn’t snap off whilst we were driving is still a mystery to me.

It was plain that the trip was over if I couldn’t find a replacement. The day after, I left Frank in charge, hired a car and went to Milan to the MG agents there. I had phoned them and they said they had one in stock. The car I hired was a Lancia, and in it I covered the 160 kilometres of the autostrada between Turin and Milan in exactly one hour, in British terms, at 100 miles per hour. Wow!! I had never driven anything like it, and it was absolutely exhilarating, and it had a heater!!

When I arrived at the agents, the part they had was for a TD / TF, and was totally incompatible. I knew I could get one in London, so the next day I hopped onto a BAC One Eleven belonging to BEA to Heathrow, got a taxi to Staines and S. H. Richardsons, bought the needed bit, got back in the taxi to Heathrow, got the afternoon flight back to Turin, and put the car back together again. Our Emergency Fund money had come to the rescue.

Poodles on Ice

Later, in the early evening, a large American caravan rig pulled in and pitched up near us. The driver came over, looked at the TC, and in a Texas drawl, enquired if I had one for the other foot. Hoots of laughter, of course, but he returned later with a full bottle of Jack Daniels, and the three of us sat in our tent until well after midnight and got very drunk. At some point there was a loud squawk outside the tent, as our guest’s wife had arrived, and proceeded to give us a hard time for getting her husband drunk. Anglo American relations dipped a bit, but she dragged him off, and we turned in. At about 6 the next morning, we were woken by an animal snuffling about round our tent, so with some difficulty, I opened one eye and looked out of the flap.

There doing what dogs do was a small one of the poodle variety, the only problem I had with it was that it was pink. At this point one begins to question sanity and to avoid alcohol in future – not a pleasant prospect -; so I asked Frank to have a look, and after a while he confirmed that it did indeed appear to be a pink poodle. Well, at least we were both seeing the same thing!

Four or five more pooches turned up, and they were all different colours, green, blue, yellow, orange, which at least gave us some hope that the booze of the previous evening had nothing to do with it. The dogs turned out to be part of the famous America on Ice Show, which travelled all over Europe, and during the day the rest of the outfit, hundreds of them, turned up in caravans and motor homes.

All the showgirls and skaters, all the technicians, were there, and as usual, the TC acted like a magnet. We were given tickets to the first show, and invited to be guests at the ceremony after the show when the local FIAT car factory was to unveil its newest creation, the FIAT Dino sports car. I took my camera, and during the unveiling, we wandered about on the ice with all the celebs and the glitterati, quaffed the champagne with the best of them, and finally staggered back to camp in an alcoholic haze.

We decided that it was about time we left Turin, not least because the boss of the AoI Show, having discovered that we were MN Engineering and Radio Officers, was trying to recruit us to join the outfit as technicians. Neither of us fancied that.

Escorted out of Italy

We packed up, and headed north out of Turin in the hopes of going to Switzerland. We got lost in the maze of roads, and I spotted a Gendarme with a motorcycle on the side of the road. I stopped and asked him if he could tell me how to find the road to Aosta. “Una momento”, he said, and called someone on his radio. Another gendarme arrived, and, forming up one ahead and one astern of the TC, escorted us out of Turin towards Switzerland with sirens and blue lights in action.

I’ve no idea what the onlookers thought was going on, but for me it was the greatest fun in the world right then.

Swiss Account

We didn’t make it to Aosta, because the road finally ended in a huge snowdrift several metres deep, so I had to turn around and head for the Grand St Bernard Tunnel. You had to pay to use these tunnels then, and that was an unwelcome expense, but couldn’t be avoided. Once in Switzerland, we were camping out in very cold and snowy weather, and to be honest, our equipment was not up to it.

The tent was ok and big enough, but sleeping bags and general clothing were not. However, we survived our trip north across Switzerland through the Alps in all their winter glory. The Bernese Oberland has to rank amongst the finest mountain scenery anywhere in the world, and seeing it in all its icy splendour from the open cockpit of a classic T-Type MG simply has to be the tops. Finally, we arrived in Basle in the north of Switzerland on the German border.

Leaving Basle heading north we followed the Rhine on the early German autobahn which must be the most boring road in existence. There were no further adventures of any note, and we finally arrived in Strasbourg. So far this has been my only visit to that city but based on what I saw of it then, I would like to return and have a proper visit. Turning west at last with some five hundred miles to run to the coast, we headed for Nancy.

Readies Running Out

Truth was, our money was getting very low, and in those days there were no ATMs or holes in the wall where you could draw money. It was currency or travellers cheques, and cashing those was not exactly easy or free. Banks tended to regard you with suspicion if you presented one. They needed your birth date, maiden name, passport number and Office of Issue, any aliases you might have sailed under, How’s your Father?, and driver’s licence, signatures in triplicate, then kept you waiting for 40 minutes whilst it was run past the security gnomes in head office in Zurich, all for ten pounds.

And you thought getting French registry for your MGs was difficult!!!

Unfriendly Welcome Home

We rolled northwest through Lorraine and through villages with names which had figured in the bitter fighting of WW1, through the Ardennes where the last tank battles of WW2 had taken place not very long before, through Cambrai and the flat agricultural plains of Northern France, and finally arrived back in Calais. We sailed across the channel on Townsend Thoresen Ferries, and drove ashore. We had crossed 6 national borders in our journey, and been treated so nicely everywhere, with friendly officials, and it came as a shock to come face to face with a surly and damned unpleasant British customs man in Dover.

We finally got away, but I left with a very sour taste and a determination to get my own back on their lousy service somehow, somewhere, sometime. (I have, but I’m not saying anything on the grounds that it would very seriously incriminate me!!)

Back Home

Driving through London, as one could back then, (can you guys do that on French plates??), I called in at S H Richardsons in Staines to buy some bits for the TC, which by now was in a sorry state. The 19 inch wire wheels had taken on the role of overgrown three penny bits, (if you’re under 40 and reading this, look them up on Google). In general the TC was in desperate need of some TLC. In Richardson’s shop stood an MG T-Type, a TF. I thought then – and still do! – that it was the most beautiful MG I had ever seen. The cost of the necessary TC spares was rather like a plumbers estimate and my by now meagre wallet couldn’t cope with the expense.

Salvation appeared in the unexpected form of a car salesman who had clearly spotted me drooling over the TF and arrived with the speed of a robber’s dog! He commented that my TC looked a bit jaded. I explained about the European Tour and hundreds of miles she had faithfully, (well almost), achieved without serious mishap. At which point he offered, what to me seemed a very reasonable trade in – in fact it was a better deal than buying the spares and repairing the TC! Fortune also smiled in that he didn’t take the TC for a test drive but merely commented that she must be sound to have completed the trip. (In all probability he didn’t want to get his suit dirty, but I’m sticking to my version).

The TF

Thus I traded the TC in on the TF, but not before I had returned to Falmouth which was my home in those days to raise the necessary cash. My father commented that it was a waste of money, (he after all had supplied the readies) and felt that selling the TC and investing the money would be better. Many year’s later I reminded him of this and enquired where one might have invested £60 to achieve a return of over £15,000 which is what the TF was worth at the time).

A fortnight later, I drove back to London in the TC, did the deal and drove home to the West Country.

Thus MG Midget TF ‘JDR 500’, TF4850, came into my life.

The TF that Tom has owned for 53 years.

Wonderful Memories

That was in late April 1962 and in 2015 the TF is still with me. It, too, has done the Grand Tour of Europe in its time, but with my new wife Christine as cook/navigator, which really was an improvement on Frank! My wife’s first real experience of the TF was on honeymoon, a fortnight’s trip which started in the car park at Lands End, and ended in the car park at Lands End leaving John O’Groats and Cape Wrath close to starboard. Looking back to the TC however, and in fairness to it, it did what it was supposed to do. It covered well over 1800 miles of very indifferent roads on the cheapest petrol available at a time of its life when it really shouldn’t have been tasked so sorely.

Overloaded and facing some of the most gruelling gradients in Europe, often in bitterly cold conditions and spending its nights in open camp sites, it gave all that it had, and has left me with a very few photographs and some great memories. I wonder if she has survived and where she is now?

Ed’s note: An amazing story which had me laughing in several places, particularly the occasion of the steak meal in La Vella, Andorra!

It would be a great pity if FAP 35 has failed to survive especially after such a feat of endurance. There surely must be a suspicion that the salesman at Richardsons, realising that the car was not as good as he initially thought it was, decided to have it broken up for spares. I hope not!

One thought on “The Grand Tour of Europe (or what passed for it in my case)

  1. Ola Hjorungdal says:

    What a story, brilliantly told. It made me also laugh in several places. I was born in 1960, and If possible, I would pay a decent amount of money to be able to travel back in time and do a tour like that through Europe in an MG T type. But in the summer time then…

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