The Tribute Tour by Adrian Martin (Part 1)

From Devon to Emilia-Romagna, the ‘Motor Valley’

Background – September 1949

My parents had married in 1947 when wedding presents took the form of ration coupons and the honeymoon was a weekend in Torquay. 

Things were a little better in 1949 and so they set off for their delayed honeymoon in my father’s MG PA from Enfield, Middlesex to Rapallo in Liguria.  I am told that my mother was frequently sick on the way which was put down to the smell of the oil burning from the PA Dynamo leak:  Not an uncommon fault on P-Types.

As she was still sick once they reached Italy, she went to see a doctor who advised that the problem was quite simple – she was pregnant.  I was born seven months later!

Like many others, I learnt about MGs from my father and at the age of 18 I rescued a TA (EKL 226) from a breaker’s yard in Watford.   I have been driving and/or rebuilding T-Types ever since and during the Covid lockdown the idea of a “Tribute Tour” was born.  Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to Italy in our TC and follow in my parent’s tyre tracks and find out what I had missed in 1947?

First, a little background and scene setting.

An unloved TC finds a home – 1974

I was a student when I heard of a local MGCC enthusiast who had dismantled a rotten TC intending to rebuild it, but he now needed to sell it urgently as he had to move house.  So, I bought the car as a “garage clearance” for just £1 and picked up all the numerous pieces in unmarked boxes in a Ford Transit.  It took some years of saving and sourcing to pull together all the necessary parts to complete the car which was then in regular local use. Its longest run was the 220-mile drive when we moved from Herts to Devon in 2007.  And all was fine with the TC until nature took over…..

The flood – 2012

On 7th July 2012 there was a “once in a 200-year event” in South Devon and our home and our garage were badly flooded. 

So bad, in fact, that the only part of the TC that was visible above the flood water was the very top of the windscreen. 

After a lengthy and difficult battle with my insurers who insisted that any vehicle that was flooded had to be written off, the TC was reprieved and had its second rebuild!

The TC, slowly emerging from the muddy flood waters in July 2002.

I have to admit that this time the rebuild seemed to be more of a chore as I was just keen to get it back on the road as soon as practical.  In retrospect, I knew that there were some things that I would need to sort out when I had more time.

Retirement and the opportunities presented by a pandemic – 2020

By now I had the benefit of more time, more experience and, fortunately, less financial restraints.  I also had a decent garage workshop which was full of T Type parts acquired over the years.

Amongst the parts was a very worn XPAG SC engine from a Y Type, a spare gearbox and a lot of loose parts.   I decided to improve the TC for regular driving on modern, over-crowded roads.

The SC engine was rebuilt for me by Peter Edney to ‘Fast Road’ spec and I stuck with the rebuilt MG gearbox rather than choose the Ford option.  I did change the axle ratio from 41:8 to the higher 37:8 and following the very helpful article in Totally T-Type, I fitted 4 new Continental radial tyres.  There was, as ever, more re-chroming needed and tidying up the paintwork (again!).  Somehow the old leather seats, despite the flood, were still very presentable. 

With this third TC rebuild complete and the worst of the pandemic behind us, my wife and I began to think about recreating my parents 1949 trip by driving our TC to Italy and back.  But we would not be resting at a hotel in Rapallo.  Instead, we would join the Terre di Canossa rally of some 100 classics driving over the Apennine mountains to the Ligurian sea and back.

Planning – 2021

By late 2021 I was confident that the TC was in good shape for the trip.  I had carefully run in the new engine ‘Fast Road’ engine and with the new axle ratio and the radial tyres the car was really transformed:  Yet by keeping the steering, the gearbox, suspension, and shock absorbers, I was happy that the car still had the true feel of a TC (in particular the steering!).

I entered the Terre di Canossa and as I told various friends about our forthcoming adventure, we were delighted when four other couples decided to join us for the trip.  These were two early E-Types, a 1957 Mercedes 300SL and a Karmann Ghia.   Whilst it was great to have our friends come along with us, I have to admit to being slightly concerned that our TC might be a tad too slow for them.

Easter 2022

We decided to plan our departure on Brittany Ferries from Plymouth to Roscoff on Easter Saturday night so that we would arrive in France early on Sunday morning.   The thinking was that there would be no lorries on the French roads on Easter Sunday (Pâques) or on Lundi de Pâques as they are prohibited by French law.

We set off the next morning from Roscoff and had empty roads and a perfect blue sky.   We drove in company along the N12 until the start of the toll road to the west of Laval by which time I was feeling guilty that the TC was really holding up the others even at our steady 70 to 75 mph as I wanted to keep it around 4,000 rpm – after all, there was a long way to go!

So, they all went on towards Tours on the Autoroute while we turned off to take the more direct cross country roads via La Flèche (D21 and D306).   These roads were much better suited to the TC and we bounced along enjoying the wonderful countryside much as my parents would have done in 1949.

We skirted around Tours, still with empty roads, to reach Château de Perreux at Amboise and park up behind our friends who were already enjoying an aperitif – but we secretly knew that we had had the better drive and an absolutely perfect day! It turned out that the owner of the hotel is a classic car enthusiast who insisted that we drive onto the lawn in front of the château for a photo.

The next day we all continued together – again on empty roads in perfect weather.  We ran parallel to the A85 Autoroute using the D976 along the Cher valley and stopped at Saint-Pourcain-Sur-Sioule for lunch having struggled to find anywhere open on a public holiday.

We all took the quiet D46 and the N7 roads to our overnight stop in Blacé in the Beaujolais region near Villefranche-sur-Saone.

By now the TC had covered 685 trouble free miles over the two days:  The car was running smoothly and I was very pleased that the oil level had not moved since leaving Devon.   

For Tuesday we had chosen a route to avoid Lyon where we anticipated much more traffic.   But as we continued the next morning, we did find ourselves on major dual carriageways being surrounded by huge lorries with trailers travelling at relatively high speeds.  It is at times like this that the TC seems so very tiny and rather vulnerable!! 

We therefore soon turned off and headed East towards Lake Annecy on minor roads which were higher, cooler, and not as straight as before, but well worth it for the fabulous views. 

That night we stopped for our last night in France at another chateau – just to the South of Chambery at Coise-Saint-Jean-Pieds-Gauthier.  It was well off the “beaten track” and not easy to find but well worth it once there.  It turned out that it had been closed throughout the pandemic and the owner had just opened it that day for the ten of us.  It was all delightfully chaotic and a lot of fun.  A great stop! (see front cover).

The next morning one of the E-Types wouldn’t start.  We soon discovered that we had five “experts” offering advice but only one proper set of tools between us – and they were in the TC!  The electrical fault was sorted and we were on our way with the hood down in perfect sunshine once again.

We were soon leaving France near Modane and entering the Fréjus tunnel which had been recommended as it has much less traffic than the other routes through the Alps.

Our plan after exiting the tunnel was to meet for a coffee in Sauze d’Oulx and take the mountain road East, so we were more than disappointed to find grey skies and drizzle as we emerged in Italy. There was nowhere safe to stop and raise the hood so we battled on up into the foothills of the Italian Alps.

After a very welcome cappuccino with a cannoli we concluded that we should go back down and follow the valley to our destination to the North of Turin.  Our overnight stop was in the beautiful Castello di Razzano which would probably have looked even better if the sun was shining!

The Castello di Razzano between showers!

We had now covered 912 miles and the TC was running perfectly:  Still no need for engine oil but the front RH Girling did need a top up of Shocker Oil (not that it made much difference!).

After our usual checks on the cars, we set off for the shorter run to Salsomaggiore which is South East of Parma. It was overcast, but at least it had stopped raining!

We took the minor roads and turned off the SP234 into a small village called San Colombano for lunch.  We drove around trying to find somewhere to eat and went past a cafe a couple of times when a man jumped out and waved at us.  He introduced himself as Roberto and told us in perfect English that he was the Chairman of the local classic car club!

In no time at all, Roberto had shown us where to park and had taken us into a restaurant where he obviously knew the owner so he chose our meal and some wine for us.  Roberto returned as we were nearing the end of a splendid lunch to take us outside to show us his 1934 Singer!  

He then insisted that we stop off at his garage to see his other cars which included a Lancia Stratos, a 1940s Lancia, a Veteran Fiat that he had found in the UK and his pride and joy – a black London Taxi that he bought from the cabbie who was taking him to Heathrow Airport!  So instead of flying home he bought the taxi off the cabbie and drove it straight to Italy as a present for his wife!!

Roberto with his Singer, his “British” Fiat, and his Lancia

After this extraordinary interlude we carried on to Salsomaggiore to register for the Terre di Canossa which would start the next day.  The TC had coped perfectly with 1,047 miles of driving in heat, in rain and in all sorts of terrain.  My wife and I were both surprised that even after all these miles and six days of constant driving it had been perfectly comfortable and surprisingly relaxed!

Meanwhile, as I parked the TC in the garage beneath the hotel, I was delighted to see that we were not the only T Types entered for the event…

 Two Argentinian TBs that had been prepared by Steve Baker for the event

Before continuing in Part 2 with a report on our Terre di Canossa experience, it might be helpful to sum up a few thoughts from our outward trip:

  • It was well worth covering some 600 miles around Devon to sort out little issues before setting off
  • The more powerful 1350 cc Fast Road engine, higher axle ratio and radial tyres made for a much more relaxed trip
  • If planning a long trip, it is well worth choosing Sundays and Public holidays to avoid lorries
  • We covered the bulk of our outward journey over the two ‘lorry free’ days covering over 1,000km thus leaving three shorter days to enjoy or in case of any problems
  • We chose hotels in advance that could offer secure parking
  • And finally, we originally planned to take our luggage rack but after a test drive in Devon decided to travel light:  It was a good decision – after all, we were only going to be away for two weeks!!

Ed’s note: This completes Part I of Adrian’s article. I thought that I would give readers an interlude with an article by Eric Worpe on water pumps (complete with his wonderful drawings) before reproducing Part 2, which features the Terre di Canossa rally.