3 Nov 2013

Beer and loafing - a Gonzo tour around Europe in an ancient Jag

This is an intense story of a road trip across the continent fuelled by more than just petrol, that was sent to me by persons semi-anonymous.  It is not for the faint of heart nor weak of mind.  Read on with your eyes open and your mouth closed.  I almost didn't run it due to the sheer amount of illegality involved.  But then I thought, "Sod it, it's a great story."  Speedmonkey does not condone any activity in this tale, but it is funny nonetheless. - Matt


There was less than a week to go until the start of The Rico Rally and we still hadn't secured a suitable vehicle. My co-pilot and photographer, Ged, probably thought he was hiding his trepedation manfully but I could tell he was nervous by the way he kept muttering "Fuck sake George, it's next week."

There had been a series of almost rans. There was an MX5 that we decided was too small for two six foot adults, our luggage, three cameras, a guitar, enough liquor to last a week and a tool kit. Then there was Mercules, a CLK 430 V8 soft top which very nearly fitted the bill - it was fast, reasonably spacious and most certainly refined - but i was minding it for a friend who was being rehabilitated at her Majesty's pleasure. Mercules was almost certainly on an Interpol hot list and therefore unsuitable for running national frontiers.

Of course, there had been Jaguar number 1, a 3.2 XJ Sport that was riddled with dents, knocked from every bushed joint and suffered with some decidely dodgy electrics. I wouldn't have touched it with a forty foot pole under ordinary circumstances but that afternoon I was fairly high and the vendor looked like a beautiful person as did everyone else i encountered. The following day I got my money back.

We had narrowly missed out on an Audi A8 quattro five days before we were due at the start line in Kent when Ged and I independently and simultaneously stumbled upon an immaculate 1990 Jaguar XJ6 4L Long Wheelbase Soveriegn in the small ads. Fate had finally delivered our chariot for the rally.

With three days until flag up we cleared a day at the garage and started some hardcore race prep which largely involved bolting two massive Hella spotlamps under the bumper and applying the Rico Rally stickers to the doors.

Other than smoking around south Manchester for a day or so, the closest we managed to a shakedown run was the blast to Kent the day before the event started. The Jag drove faultlessly though the fabled 'magic carpet ride' was clearly from another decade. Sporting as much tyre wall as actual footprint, the side to side meandering motion was most notable in the narrow outside lane of the M1 where either armco or wagon wheels would ebb and flow in our peripheral vision.

Ged might have argued that the bouncing, lolloping and vision issues were unique to my experience, having taken a couple of pills bearing likeness to a Teenage Mutuant Ninja Turtle - gifted to me by a musician friend who felt my mood on the run up to the event had been fraught at best and viciously tense as a benchmark average.

Earlier that morning, and with only a couple of hours to go before I set off on my first journalistic assignment since being so brutally fired from my job as spin doctor in the oil business several years earlier (I was replaced by a short, drunk football commentator come demi-celebrity with a shockingly bad combover who was later jailed for child sex offences after a high profile courtcase), I looked like I was set for a meltdown.

To some extent I held Ged responsible for that morning's mood and the subsequent supa-nova, the repercussions of which rocked us both severely for the next seven or eight days.

The night before, Friday night, I was under pressure to finish a respray on an old Vauxhall Nova GTE, but equally under pressure to spend a little time with my wife who was less than pleased that I was getting a free trip around Europe as she saw it. I also owed the landlord a large sum of money and was committed to avoiding him at all costs. We had made excellent progress on the Nova and by four o'clock it was prepped, primed, masked and ready for paint. Matthew, the landlord wasn't due for another two hours and, if I left immediately, I was in with a chance of taking my wife to dinner. My painter, Sam, agreed that he could take the job from there and I could focus on damage limitation and retaining some spending money for the trip.

When I arrived on the Saturday I found that Ged, who's flat was almost directly above my garage, had arrived soon after I left and got Sam blind drunk. Sam in turn seemingly poured paint over the Nova around midnight before staggering home. I arrived expecting to pack some tools into the boot of the Jag, get paid for a beautiful paintjob and gather up The Gedi before hitting the road. Instead I found Sam rubbing out some massive runs on a half finished car that was due for collection within the next couple of hours.

I changed out of my Manc Abroad outfit – Adidas top, sunhat, shades, pristine white trainers – put on a papersuit and began prepping the car whilst The Gedi stirred himself from a deep sleep and tried to keep me calm with coffee and bacon. I was not calm. My entire withdrawal strategy had been timed second perfect, perhaps this was a symptom of my growing mental obsessive paranoia, but as the deadlines slipped and customers were held in a queuing pattern at the local cafe I knew I was destined to run in to Matthew.

And that's exactly what happened. Matthew turned the corner into the yard as the inconvenienced customer counted notes into my hand. I was busted. I paid Sam and what I hadn't managed to stash away I surrendered to the rent bill.

A tank of fuel for the Jag was around £100, we would be consuming a tank a day for the next six days. I needed to survive on around £300 in lose change and crumpled notes. I had a packed lunch, no euros and seven Es – three of which didn't even make the trip to France.

Either way, and with dirty hands, we set an excellent pace, putting distance between ourselves and any other creditors quickly and arrived in time for registration having smoked three Vauxhalls and a Mini Cooper in the name of practice.

We checked in, ordered a drink and proceeded to collect our sign-on packs before heading outside to bask in the fading evening sun and check out the rest of the field. The Jag, or Big Bad Kathleen as she had become known, certainly stood proud in the lot. First of all, being an ex diplomatic corps limo, Kathleen didn't really fit in the parking space, and secondly it was immediately apparent that what we had spent on our car, our fellow competitors had spent on travel sweets and sunglasses.

Ged and I worked the crowd and did what we could to make a good impression but try as we might we were still Northern monkeys in a £600 Jag. On his own Ged could have freestyled his way through the situation but the two pills I'd dropped somewhere outside of Watford had me under their grip and I kept jabbering about how I was flying and how gnarly the whole scene felt. Kowabunga. After a lengthy session, Ged suggested we turn in ready for an early start so we returned to our room with the best intentions still largely intact.

Ged climbed on to his bunk but I was concerned about moving the remaining pills over to France. I was almost over the horrors of the morning and given my state of poverty I had a feeling supercharged serotonin was the only thing keeping me from meltdown so I busied myself emptying hayfever capsules and restocking them with crushed ecstasy tabs.

"All sorted, Donatello?" slurred the Gedi, near enough in his sleep.

I inspected my handy work, still not convinced I had adequately disguised my stash. The pure white hayfever capsules were now covered in a purple chalky residue and were sure to merit further inspection when we inevitably got stopped. I turned on the main light, just catching my co driver on the verge of a comfortable drunken slumber.

"Do these look suspect Ged?" I asked passing him one of the four loaded pills.

"They look like they've been cracked open and restocked with illicit drugs."

Well balls to it, i thought. We knew they'd been cracked open and restocked with illicit drugs. Frenchy probably wouldn't care. They all dig smack on the continent and that's a fact. Ectasy would probably just be viewed with nostalgia.

I knew we wouldn't have time to thoroughly sweep the room before we left in the morning so i decided to clean up before I turned in. Whilst i had transfered most of the crushed up pills into the capsules, the cleaning process turned up a three inch line of powdered ecstacy. We were out of hayfever capsules so, Why not? I thought. A three inch line of powdered MDMA disco biscuit was just the thing before getting into bed.

When i came to, the only note i had made on the first night of my first journalstic gig in five years was two names scribbled on the back of a reciept with the legend "Best barmen in Kent." I have since lost the note and cannot recall the names.

Day 1; Kent - Dijon.

Whatever had happened, I woke soaking wet from head to foot, clothed and with only one lense in my best pair of glasses.

"This is bad, Ged. My other glasses are the ones I wear at work and they're covered in overspray. It's like instant cataracts. Should I drive with one eye shut?"

"I think I'll be driving this leg anyway. We'll sort your specs in France.” said The Gedi. “I know for a fact I've had only five hours kip. Fuck knows wat you did after I fell asleep but there's some guys here keep looking at you like you're a turd in a swimming pool. That level of disdain must have taken some time on your behalf. How long have you been lying there? An hour? Maybe Two?"

“Jesus, Ged, if you want to drive this first bit you don't have to beg.”

Outside, in the morning light I got my first memorable look at the competition. There were AMG Mercs, Ferraris, Porsches, a Lambourgini, GT70 Mirage, a smattering of BMWs and various other pumped up, petrol snorting marques. Strangely, Kathleen looked to be holding her own - albeit stood still.

I dozed in the passenger seat whilst we waited to board the ferry - time some of our fellow rally mates spent modifying number plates in anticipation on speed cameras and European federales. Once boarded I set about introducing myself to the same people I had no recollection of introducing myself to twice the night before – first when we arrived, and then again after only Ged had managed to go to bed as planned.

"Ged, have you met Oli and Dylan? They're from Yorkshire and they're running an Audi RS3."

"Yes, George. The four of us had dinner last night. Well, three of us did. You played with your food and kept trying to figure out which came first, the fried chicken or the Cream Egg."

I went to the floating megamart to buy headlamp deflectors that didn't fit the Jag and stocked up on lager for what promised to be a opening stint. I was not concerned by the headlamp deflectors, the big square lamps on the Sovereign were crap anyway and couldn't possibly blind our continental cousins, but the 24 can salute was my only hope for regaining some form of posture before we hit the road for real.

As we rolled off the ferry in Calais the Port Officials encouraged a show and the hold duly reverberated to fifty high-powered cars flexing their rubber and barking octane fueled melodies as each made an elaborate exit, pausing only to negotiate raised iron works and speed ramps - all except Kathleen who took such hazards in her comfort ride stride.

We hadn't left the Port of Calais before the first car fell victim of failure. An Audi R8 had picked up a puncture and the run flat system had dropped the car into safe mode. No problem, we thought, at least it's only a tyre. They have tyre fitters in France, right? Wrong. It was two days before the R8 rejoined us.

Whilst we waited at a nearby supermarket for a Finnish entry who had already driven the equivalent to race distance just to make the start we were treated to an eye-watering drift demonstration by the most lurid car on the rally, a dayglow wrapped Nissan 200 SX. Hat's off to one of the official photographers who took the concept of 'getting close to the action' to the limit as he was pebble dashed with loose shale trying to capture the perfect image. I remained cossetted in the passenger seat of the Jag, scribbled a note about his heroic dedication to the press on a cig packet and opened the first beer of the morning. When the tyre smoke settled we were off.

"How Long have we got, Gedi?"

"Four or five hours flat out to Dijon."

"Flat out, Ged? No stops? No scenery?"

"Northern France, George. Shit-hole."

Flat out is a relative concept. We were maybe ten miles from the boat and cruising at a comfortable convoy-friendly 110mph when the Lamborghini and a Porsche walked us like we were changing the plugs at the side of the road.

"Chavs, Ged. Deep down they envy us. They'll be pissing blood through shattered kidneys by the time they reach Dijon."

We passed the Supercar boys at the first toll where they had been detained for questioning after being clocked in excess of 320KPH. It was poor form and an early blow for our French campaign. Now every car wearing rally colours had it's card marked. A day or so later the French press described us as 'idle playboys' which is a bit rich coming from any nation that drinks wine with breakfast and needs a little sleep in the afternoon.

But for now the major problem was that thanks to the supercar boys the French law had a copy of our itinerary and they were going to be ready for us. Every mile or so on the highway south towards our stop for the night there was another speed check setting up.

"It's a hostile shit-hole, Gedi."

We travelled south in convoy. Occasionally somebody new would jockey for the lead but things were largely kept sensible for the prying eyes of the cinq-oh. Ged had found his groove behind the wheel of the Big Cat so I set up a makeshift press office in the back of the Jag with a guitar, a note pad and that case of beer. The intense police attention was a worry considering the contents of my Argentine leather hold all. Slowly but surely everybody sporting the Rico logo was getting pulled over and searched so when Ged stopped to stock up on Bolognese flavoured crisps at a services about halfway between Calais and Dijon I checked the pills in my bag. They looked wrong. My E-vision had betrayed me the night before. If we'd been spot checked coming off that ferry – and why the hell weren't we ? I had been blatantly out of my skull for at least 12 hours – we would have floundered right there on the beaches.

We had been lucky, but we were on our way to Italy – another frontier altogether. One which I had reason to suspect harboured a grudge from a visit the year before. My friend who had given the pills a few days before had managed to blag his way on to the Italian leg of a Beady Eye tour and I had accompanied him, disguised as his manager and flanked by three other “cew members” absolutely committed to having the time of our lives. My recollections of the trip are sketchy but if i were to sum up everything I can recall in bullet points it would read like this:
Spacca Tutto!
Too far this time, too far.

I could easily envisage a scene similar to the one in the Italian Job where the Mafia meet Michael Cain and company on the Alps, destroying their Jaguars and Aston Martins with bulldozers and instructing them – or in this instance us – to start walking back to England. I didn't need a possession or smuggling charge to complicate what already had the potential to be a very trying border crossing.

I wasn't the only person to have this paranoia. But where Oli let the fear grip him before he could think of a plausible alternative, stashing his weed in a tunnel near the Italian border the following morning, I chose to make sure I had swallowed all my contraband before we reached the border. As it happened they didn't make it 200 miles to Dijon.

Within an hour of getting back on the road, France had stopped seeming quite so hostile and the view had grown more pleasant. The Jag was back in its wallowing swagger and I spent the next 150 miles sprawled across the back seat jamming to Electric Lady Land, seven pills, 32 hours and fuck knows how many miles away from another reality. and feeling pretty good about not only myself but also my fellow man. Even my fellow frenchman.

The latent agressive vibrations felt earlier in the day were now giving way to a kind of circus. In my head I knew I was no longer covering a motoring get-away for the Sundays, my MDMA-plan diet had seen to that. We were freestyling it now and I could see that Ged was becoming braver as my excitment grew stronger with every head rush. They were coming every fifteen minutes or so now, each one announced by an involuntary “Kowabunga, Gedi!” or “I'm flying pal. We're styling it out”.

Any good judgement or common sense we had retained until that point was lost the moment i passed a can of lager to another press car at 105mph as Gedi, bouyed by my false chemical confidence, held the Jag within a Mini Cheddar of the other speeding vehicle. Good judgement and common sense not to be seen again for near enough a week as it later transpired.

My thoughts returned to the Beady Eye tour a year earlier. Then as now the odds had been stacked against us and we survived by pushing our luck as far we could. We were protected largely by people's inability to accept the horrors they see through their own eyes. Italy had already taught me that if you push your luck in a foriegn culture then there's a moment of stunned disbelief that, once you're tuned in enough to recognise it, marks your que to leave before the alarm is raised.

If we could reach Dijon, perhaps we might actually be able to pull this off. Numb eyes and lizard tongue be damned. We were on a mission. I thought I knew our limits.

To be continued...
Rico Rally 2013 - European Road Trip from Rico Rally on Vimeo.