Its one experience to co-drive a classic car from Belvoir to Dieppe, but quite another when that car is a one family owned 110 year old Renualt, owned by the Duke of Rutland. Roman Garages were invited by His Grace to accompany him on the annual rally. Here's what happened....

With many thanks to the Roman Garages co-driver, Mr Colin Perriss who kindly kept notes of this amazing event. Read on!

“When it comes to rare, classic and collectible cars, this one tipped the scales. Want to know what it is like to drive a rare, older car on today’s roads? Well, the Duke of Rutland still has the family’s 1908 Renault, with me as co-driver, we undertook an epic journey to the Dieppe Retro Rally from Belvoir Castle.

Read on for the incredible experience of driving this rare, classic car (over 100 years old), to the Dieppe Retro Rally.”

What is it like to drive a rare or classic car on today’s roads? Unforgettable.

This is what I learnt from spending five days on the road driving a 100+ year old Renault across France, with the Duke of Rutland.

No roof and no doors at 50 mph on the M25, were my first thoughts when I first set eyes on the rare 1908 Renault that I was to co-drive for the next five days. I did start to wonder what exactly I had got myself into – and I’d not even sat at the wheel yet.

With plenty of experience of driving and looking after the automobile over the years, Stuart (the Duke’s personal chaplin) was on hand to reassure me that I would be fine.

Much needed words when you are facing the reality of driving a stunning rare car, designed over one hundred years ago without a roof, doors, side panels – you get the picture.

Bought by the current Duke’s grandfather in 1908, this piece of automobile history was guaranteed to get attention on the road – I was going to have to adapt quickly.

Assured that I would soon get the hang of a very different style of driving, we got started.

Things get cranking:

Or so I thought. Starting the car, it turned out, could be considered an art form in itself.

Forget turning a key or pushing a button, the Renault  expects to be woken from its slumber properly. That is a elongated sequence of events that result in the awakening of the 4.4 litre engine, a small workout for the dedicated person doing the work.

To begin, the two switches under the driver’s seat must be engaged, then: the bonnet is opened, carburettor primed, two other components selected (one on the left, the other underneath the front of the car) – with everything going on, their names and purpose escaped me, either way they are vital to the chain of actions that result in the cranking handle finally  being turned (with plenty of enthusiasm required to produce the required effect).

As an observer, it all appeared to be a bit of a lottery as to whether it would actually start. However, as you would expect, Chris had it down to a fine art and the car dutifully erupted into life when he took over the reins. A skill that was to prove invaluable later on.

Not one for the shy or retiring type, the sight and sound of this rare Renault quite literally stops people in their tracks. Heads turn, cameras click, wildlife runs for cover, it quickly becomes  clear that every ride in this car is an event in itself.

The ride was firm but pleasant as we trundled along in the sun. Although it did feel as if I was on, rather than in the car.

Then the butterflies begin as I realise that once we get more fuel, it will be me in the driver’s seat, in control of the Duke’s very expensive car.

Quicker than expected, it is my moment to shine. The steering wheel feels solid and the pedals have a familiar layout.

The gearlever on the right throws up an immediate challenge, operating in a straight line with the handbrake positioned right next to it. Crucially, the handbrake is the primary method of slowing down, as the brakes on the centre pedal are ‘inconsistent’ (and prone to being covered in oil by the engine and gearbox).

I am flooded with relief, as I pull away without stalling the car. Until, that is, I am required to  change gear. Double de clutch time.

Clunk, crunch and wouldn’t you know it- I’ve taken it too far.

With sage advice from Stuart, false neutral enters my vocabulary as I learn that changing gear in the Renault is more of a mission than a technique. Finally in fourth I’m driving, but not as I know it!

It took five further practice sessions, in preparation for our French adventure, before I was road-worthy. That is public roads, ie. other cars, junctions, traffic lights and potholes. I mention potholes because the Renault has wooden wheels – not the most responsive material when  hitting a pothole at moderate speed.

Thankfully, the trip out was largely uneventful. A feat met with the announcement from Stuart that as a result, the reserve driver was offically no more, and my place on the road to Dieppe was now set in stone.

Result! I was up for the challenge. I was off to the Dieppe Rally on Thursday in a Renault from 1908. Unreal!

On the road to Dieppe

As we pulled away from Belvoir Castle on Thursday morning, I prepared myself for the adventure ahead, which was about to see me driving the Renault down the M25, M23 and beyond.

Driving down the A14 had already been an assault on the senses. The combination of the lack of roof or doors, a very loud 100+ year old engine, much of the traffic speeding past – not to mention the specimens ingested whilst travelling at speed, was experience enough.

On the other hand, it was enjoyable to see that modern traffic bowed dutifully out of the way for us to pass, lorries honked their approval, drivers waved cheerfully and passengers took cheeky snaps.

Despite the lack of a seat belt or airbag (unless you count the one on the horn), I felt secure as we drove along at 50-55 mph.

When we stopped to refuel, it was a taster of the world of Wills and Kate, as drivers spilt fuel on their feet, tripped over or reached for their phones as the extraordinary rare car pulled in. Even more of a spectacle because the engine must remain running whilst the car is refuelled, otherwise it will get too hot and could refuse to restart.

Driving along the motorway, proved much easier than I imagined. Surprisingly, the challenge was to remain focused because the Renault requires a very high level of concentration to keep things moving smoothly.

Then out of nowhere the challenge appeared.

The dilemma:

The unexpected. Picture this. I’m feeling chuffed that I’m handling the M25’s stiff incline perfectly and then we come across….. a vehicle taking the hill even slower than us – and its another 100 + year old car.

Unbelievable.

So now I’m faced with the dilemma. To overtake or not to overtake – that was the big question, as well as: would we make it or even be able to find a gap?

Then by some miracle a gap appeared. I stuck my arm out, finger pointed, Chris waved his arms in a we-are-pulling-out fashion and then I was committed to finish the job and overtake. The look of astonishment on the face of the other driver was priceless.

Challenge 1 succeeded.

Challenge 2:

Pulling up outside the Grand for an overnight stop in Brighton, the car was showered with attention and photographs by the public, whilst I revelled in a mixture of relief and achievement.

Landing on French soil in Dieppe suddenly reminded me that I hadn’t driven abroad in more than twenty years.

The weather continued to help us with another day of blue skies and sunshine. A good thing because it was the first day of the rally. As the oldest car in the Dieppe Rally we were issued with the number 1 during registration at the Mayor’s office.

The large, diverse collection of classic cars taking part in the Dieppe Rally was fascinating and the atmosphere was upbeat and friendly. The live band that followed us on our travels for the next two days was a nice touch. The car of course, attracted lots of interest as usual.

The first leg from Dieppe to Saint Valery en Caux, was lined with crowds as we cruised through streets, villages and towns in a convoy of classic and retro cars. On arrival in Saint Valery en Caux, we were greeted with a never-ending sea of gorgeous food for lunch.

Back in the car, the first few gear changes were smooth enough and I’d managed not to stall the car. Downshifting the Renault is challenging, and there is often a lot of clunking and banging as it is wrestled from fourth to third and third to second, but such is the nature of the car.

Later I was grateful that Chris was on hand to save the day when the Renault stalled on an incline.

There were a few mild ‘complaints’ from the Renault as we progressed to Dieppe. There seemed to be some interruption to the normally smooth running 4.4 litre engine, but the issue was inconsistent, so did not appear to be a major problem.

Or so we thought.

A 110 year-old problem..or was it?

Day two started in a similar way to the first, but this time we were the lead car. Driving behind the pace car, we were treated to a police motorcycle escort out of Dieppe. Running red lights in a 1908 Renault, with cheers from the crowds lining the roads, was great fun.

This time though, we would be faced with slopes, hills and inclines – needless to say, Chris drove there. I would drive back.

It soon became clear that this was to be our most challenging day, as the car seemed to lack power on every hill and changing down became increasingly necessary. Our first stop in Eu was a welcome break.

Finding no obvious issues after a basic check of the car, we headed off to our lunch stop in Domaine de Joinville. After another superb lunch, it was my turn to drive. However, it was quickly apparent that something was wrong.

First it was the inclines, then even flat sections of the journey became an issue as our aged  Renault hesitated and appeared to lack its usual power.  We made it back to Dieppe, albeit at a slower pace, which meant that we were unable to find the final parade of the Dieppe Rally.

Our final night in Dieppe was spent contemplating what the problem might be. In the morning, as we had predicted the night before, the problem seemed to be the fuel pump. Fitted during restoration in 2008, the fuel pump is an SU retro unit that supplements the gravity fed fuel system, to enable the car to travel uphill quicker and more efficiently.

The contacts on the fuel pump were in very poor condition and the mechanism was silent instead of emitting its usual ‘clicking’ sound.

End of the road

Our Dieppe adventure was brought to a juddering halt. The Renault was not going anywhere.

Although it was not the triumphant ending that we had planned, it had been a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime adventure. We had driven a car that was over one hundred years old, to France and taken part in the Dieppe Rally. Not a feat to take likely.

A car from a bygone era operating in a modern world. Incredible.

How would I rate the drive?

A unique driving experience, quite different from the driving that we know today. Driving the Renault was like a having an ongoing physical conversation with a machine that responds to your abilities with clinical honesty. Challenging but ultimately incredibly rewarding, I’m grateful to all concerned for the fantastic opportunity to take part in the expedition.

What of the Renault? It was transported back to the UK soon after and is undergoing repairs.

The irony is, it was the newest component, rather than the original car that did not make it. The car itself performed without fault.

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