02 March 2023
LRM contributor Martin Port makes another pilgrimage to the Le Mans Classic event, this time in his Series II. His choice of steed for the trip generated some interesting reactions
Land Rovers and Le Mans – two terms that traditionally don’t go together. But over the last 18 years, five of my nine trips to the Le Mans Classic have been done in Series II or IIA models, interspersed with slightly faster average travelling speeds courtesy of an MGB, Porsche 912 and a Reliant Scimitar SE5A.
Setting off: Hard top swapped for tilt to avoid height restrictions
The trip almost always kicks off in the same manner: sitting in the queue for passport control at Portsmouth ferry terminal before being approached by someone driving a classic car with slightly better aerodynamic styling than a house brick with wheels. With a look of incredulity on their face, they will proceed to ask the same question: “You’re not going to Le Mans in that, are you?”
To be honest, I’ve never really understood the motivation behind this particular line of questioning; look at a map and it’s only around 100 miles from the French ferry port of Ouistreham – add another 100 miles driving in the UK, double the lot and it’s a 400 mile round-trip that shouldn’t really trouble a well- or even poorly-maintained 88in.
Photo opportunity at Carrouges, along with pal Alastair Clements’ MG Magnette
Of course, what they are really suggesting is that, compared with their straight-six-powered Jaguar E-type, you won’t be going as fast, you will arrive with severe hearing problems, will had to have paused halfway there to arrange a bank loan for the fuel, and will have to settle for a game of I-Spy as in-car entertainment (which will be rendered pointless because you can’t hear your passenger). In direct contrast, they will be cruising along at precisely the speed limit on the Route Nationale, whistling along to a spot of trad-jazz on the eight-track player and planning a leisurely lunch in a charming village just north of Le Mans.
Then there are those who turn it into a game of Green Oval Top Trumps because you are doing it in a Land Rover. ‘Call that a long way?’. ‘Why aren’t you doing the entire journey on greenlanes?’. ‘Two and a quarter petrol? Try doing it in
Gone are the days of filling up with cheap fuel once over the Channel
Crucially, they are all missing the point. Journeys aren’t always about the speed or the distance, and when I drive the Series II to Le Mans, I make sure that each of those 200 miles covered on the other side of the English Channel, counts. For the most part, the roads are fantastic – smooth, well maintained and practically deserted; the standard jokes about booking an appointment with a chiropractor for your return home soon ebb away as even the harshest set of leaf springs bounce nicely along without interruption, free from the littering of potholes back here in the UK.
Those near-perfect stretches also take you through the most fantastic scenery, if planned well. Fields of sunflowers on one side whilst on the other, rapidly ripening wheat fields stretch to the horizon – coupled with the mid-day sun and you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re in the American Midwest at times. Suddenly speed has no meaning and you find yourself naturally easing back off the accelerator pedal.
Idyllic villages such as Putanges-Pont-Écrepin offer the perfect rest stop
Then there are the villages – picturesque groupings of buildings assembled over hundreds of years, threaded together by a slow-moving river running through the centre. Stop for a coffee, pop into one of several boulangeries selling the most wonderful bread and pastries and then return to your vehicle – all without the stress of working out if you are permitted to park in that spot, how much it might cost and if you have enough phone signal to access the necessary parking app.
Now, in the time that it’s taken you to read that description of a motoring idyll, there’s a good chance that you’ve forgotten that I’m driving an old Land Rover. And that’s the point. It’s not actually that important. I’m not trying to climb uncharted territory in low-range, nor am I trying to set a record for the greatest distance travelled in a Series II over four days. I am simply driving my vehicle of choice, somewhere that I like. So why make it a competition?
Ferrari 328, Porsche 968 and 110 Defender neatly illustrate the automotive diversity at the campsite
When I did finally arrive at our camping spot at the Porsche Curves at Le Mans, I posted on Facebook a few photographs of the journey and one of the Series II – camping gear unloaded and a petit bière being cracked open using the old bottle opener screwed to the bulkhead. “Made it. Never in doubt.” As much as anything, I was referring to the fact that my plans to service the Land Rover had fallen by the wayside thanks to a mad rush to get a project to print before departing – not to mention the curious and slightly concerning rattle from the bellhousing which left me half-convinced that the clutch was going to fail somewhere in northern France…
Arrival at the camp site means a ‘we made it’ beer is in order
The post was met with a toned down and remote version of the same reaction at the port: ‘That’s a long way to travel in a Series II. Well done… are you running an overdrive?’
The answer is no, but then someone else asked if I removed the front prop for journeys such as this. I reassured them that doing that was most certainly not worth the effort, before the next poster suggested that Le Mans was (quite rightly) not a long way – that Morocco could be considered a long journey and that one merry band of travellers had recently taken three Series Is to Italy.
Martin finds a fellow Trans-Africa veteran
Lining up for a 'hot' lap
Post-race Le Mans track drive at a pace unlikely to threaten any lap records
That evening around the campfire we surmised that often people forget that everyone has their own agenda for using their old Land Rover. For some, a trip to the shops once a week and a Land Rover show twice a year is enough. For others, anything less than circumnavigating the globe is a failure. For me, driving to Le Mans and back was simply the purpose of the trip and, more importantly than anything else, it was a bloody good drive – one made more enjoyable (for me) by doing it in my Land Rover. There were no heroics involved, just an appalling lack of pre-trip maintenance that made me a little more nervous than usual.
But the Series II made it back and was ferrying a set of VW Beetle wheels around the following morning – back in use as my daily driver and with only a rougher idle and a blown tail light to boast of. It may well have covered over 30,000 miles at the hands of the first owner whilst in Africa, but it’s also worth remembering that the trip to Le Mans in 2022 was done on that same engine and gearbox, so relief at arriving there is, in my opinion, a permitted luxury. There are no givens of course – even if I’d fitted a Tdi under the bonnet, it wouldn’t have guaranteed a trip free from breakdown.
I’m puzzled why some people turn Land Rover ownership into a competition: there’s no need. There are numerous quotes that revolve around the ‘it’s not the destination, but the journey’ idea, so here’s mine: “It doesn’t matter where you’re going, but if you get there and have fun along the way, then you’ve won – even if it is on the end of a tow rope.”
Tilt draped over sticks offers adequate protection for Martin’s bed in the tub
How we did it
Ferry: Portsmouth to Caen return with Brittany Ferries – £354 including two-berth cabin on outbound, overnight ferry. Book early for best deals unless booking a package trip (see camping below).
Route: Ouistreham/Caen to Le Mans avoiding Route Nationale via Putanges-Pont-Écrepin, Carrouges, Pré-en-Paul-Saint-Samson, Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei, St Leonard de Bois and St Saturnin. The back-roads will take a fair few hours, but are particularly rewarding when in an older vehicle.
Total distance: 400 miles (200 miles in France) round-trip.
Fuel cost/consumption: 17 gallons of super-unleaded – £155. Average 24mpg (no overdrive, 7x16 Avon Traction Mileage tyres)
• Porsche Curves – exclusive to Travel Destinations (traveldestinations.co.uk). Complete package available including ferry, accommodation options and circuit entry.
• If organising your trip independently, there are a number of different campsites to choose from – each with their own appeal and views of the circuit.
Tips from a regular
• You will do a lot of walking if you want to see everything on offer – and believe me, you’ll kick yourself if you miss anything! Take several pairs of different shoes to give your feet a rest/change.
• Temperatures regularly top 30 degrees and with little shade on offer, a decent hat is essential.
• There are plenty of food and drink outlets at the circuit and although not cheap, they’re not extortionate either. If you prefer to buy elsewhere or stock up on BBQ supplies, there are several supermarkets a 10-minute drive away – just avoid making the trip when traffic is at its peak in the build-up to the race on Saturday afternoon and after the chequered flag at around 4pm on Sunday.
• A night-time trip out to Arnage corner is always good value with its unique viewpoint, but the spectacle and sheer noise from the grandstands as Porsche 917s, GT40s and Lola T70s jostle for position along the start/finish straight is just immense – particularly at night.
• If you fancy getting any sleep, pack some foam expanding earplugs.
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