Have classic car, will travel? Jonathan Bell on the joys of rallying across picturesque landscapes in faraway lands
INVESTMENTS OF PASSION tend to be treated carefully: paintings sit demurely on the walls, fine wine in the cellar. Classic cars, however, are best when used — and even lightly abused. They derive their charm from their design, history, patina and the evocative sound and smell of internal combustion. Although the idea of taking hugely valuable objects out into the real world of risk, weather, wear and tear is superficially insane, it is widely practised among the classic-car community.
The classic-car world is a well-defined section of high society. Bookended by a pair of very high-powered events, the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este on the shores of Lake Como in May and August’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance on the Californian coast, the scene would appear to focus on polishing, display and lashings of elbow grease. While international collectors love the opportunity to ogle the contents of their contemporaries’ garages, there is also a network of far more discreet occasions where the cars can actually be experienced in the real world.
Driving old, rare or exotic machinery will always be fraught. Events such as track days are faintly déclassé, even if you’re in a dedicated, factory-garaged and serviced machine like a Ferrari FXX or Maserati MC12 Corsa. Not only might some chancer in a souped-up Mitsubishi dole out an unexpected humiliation, but in the process they might also nudge your rolling investment into the barriers. Even less attractive are the hang-it-all-out rolling circuses that began with and (d)evolved from the Gumball Rally, essentially four-wheeled stag parties that attract a moneyed set for whom discretion and self-awareness are their least visible qualities.
Instead, the genuine enthusiast turns to a very different sort of organisation, with the ghostly memories of grand continental tours from decades past still lingering in the machinery. Today, the prolific use of the ‘GT’ appellation to signify a machine designed for long-distance high-speed touring has rather debased the dream. While some modern GTs are more able than others, they all rather miss the point. For those who still yearn for an open-top trip down to the Riviera or the idea of wrestling their eight-litre Bentley across the dusty roads of the Sahara, there are other options.
Jonathon E Lyons set up The Jewel Events in 2003, following a connection with the late King of Jordan. Invited to tour the desert kingdom, Lyons arranged for 44 cars to set off from the Red Sea and traverse the country’s stunning landscape. Following this auspicious beginning, there have been Jewel adventures around the world, including South Africa, China, South America and Europe. Jordan is a regular destination, and in years past Lyons has negotiated the impossible, such as allowing drivers to roll down the tight, stony canyons that lead to the ancient rock city of Petra.
On the eve of their latest visit to the country, Lyons explains what Jewel is all about. ‘Outside the hotel we have perhaps £25 million of automobiles,’ he says, ‘together with an extraordinary group of individuals to drive them.’ Later in the week, 38 people will take their seats in these seventeen exquisite cars and set off through the Jordanian desert for a trip of unparalleled luxury. Jewel Events is like a rolling concours show, such is the calibre of the participants and the experience of the drivers.
These events are more grand luxe adventure than out-and-out rally. ‘Cars will get dust in their engines and interiors,’ says Lyons. As far as the driving goes, the emphasis is on destination, landscape and culture, rather than hairpin bends and powering across rough terrain.
The events are invite only. ‘Invitations are largely through friendship and trust,’ he says, ‘but there are barely any invitations left. Some people have done eight or nine of my events — and there have only been twelve so far.’
Lyons scouts the routes himself. ‘It takes up about 75 per cent of my time,’ he admits. ‘I identify all the locations, hotels, restaurants in advance, and then get a specialist roadbook made up for everyone. Not satellite navigation,’ he adds with some distaste. ‘An enormous amount of work goes into these things.’ A Jewel Event is rather like the Vanity Fair Oscars party, something everyone wants to get into yet is best experienced by an inner circle immune to being star-struck, tongue-tied or unable to relax.
A slightly less stately approach is taken by Rhythm of the Road Rallies (ROARR), set up a decade ago by Conrad Birch. Birch, 51, is also an inveterate traveller, and back in the Nineties he was experiencing frustration at India’s extremely inflexible car culture.
‘You can’t hire a car without a driver in India,’ he explains. ‘It’s very difficult. The driver costs nothing — it’s the car that costs the money. And you can only really drive Hindustan Ambassadors, which you certainly don’t want to drive for four or five weeks. So I shipped out a 1970 MG instead. Some people said, “Can I come as well?” and it grew from there.’
His first event mixed driving across country (‘terrible roads but absolutely beautiful countryside’) with luxurious camping. ‘We had en-suite bathrooms, double beds, our own local wine supplier. But it was very expensive — just the camping alone cost £50,000.’ Since then, ROARR has evolved into a bespoke event for motoring enthusiasts, using well-recommended and carefully scouted hotels as the waypoints. ‘The people we take with us are usually retired, or retired early after selling a business. A lot of them have bought their cars to take on rallies.’
Illustration by Anna-Louise Felstead
Suitable accommodation is still scarce in large swathes of Nepal, central India and central Asia, so a spirit of adventure is definitely required. ‘It’s a very European thing — a very British thing,’ muses Birch. ‘The mix of people is very cosmopolitan, but the atmosphere is very English. It’s just like Henley or Wimbledon — you can watch tennis in Germany, but it’s just not the same.’
Part of the attraction is, presumably, the juxtaposition between infrastructural weaknesses, the thrill of the unknown and the fabled stiff upper lip of the British traveller. ‘Iran is getting more difficult,’ he admits, ‘although Afghanistan is strangely easy. Iran is waiting to explode — I’ve been to lots of places where there have been uprisings and quite honestly you’re oblivious to it.’
There’s no such thing as the best car for intercontinental rallying. ‘Some people like to take 1925 Bentleys; some take a Seventies-era Porsche Carrera,’ says Birch. ‘We even have a chap with a modest MG and another who turns up to every rally in an NSU. But the people who come do think their cars should be driven — they’re not museum pieces.’
Mechanics and doctors roll behind the entourage in at least two backup vehicles. ‘We made it clear at the beginning that we will only work with you. We won’t fix your car if you go off to the bar for a beer,’ says Birch. ‘Mostly the people who come enjoy fiddling around with their car. Two male drivers are the best combination, we find,’ he says, adding that ‘wives are always a problem’.
Whereas Jewel won’t discuss prices, Birch says that a place on the next ROARR adventure will cost around £23,500 plus permits, a sum that includes shipping, hotels, mechanical and medical support, visa and travel administration. ‘We give any excess money to charities, particularly in India, but it’s really not a commercial venture.’
A more competitive environment is provided by the Endurance Rally Association, run by Philip Young. Young was responsible for reviving the Peking-Paris Rally, remade in the spirit of the grand overland trips made by automotive pioneers at the turn of the century (the first Peking-Paris took place in 1907). Finally, there’s another event for the enthusiast with more interest in racing history than high-table dining. The historic Mille Miglia is a slice of sporting history that attempts to re-create the great road races of the inter-war period in a format that also rewards driver skill.
The glossy perfection of Pebble Beach and the Villa d’Este is often illusory. Restoring a car to showroom condition might prolong its life, but it robs these machines of the qualities that gave them their value in the first place. Rally a car properly and you’re adding not just patina but also history, two essential components of a four-wheeled investment. Most importantly of all, you might just have some fun in the process.