Song sung blue: 2017 Blue Train Challenge

Winners father and son, Richard and Tom Jeffcoate, in their 1938 Riley 16-4 Special.Pics by Gerard Brown, ERA

We’ve heard the stories; 1930s motor manufacturers bragged shamelessly about drivers of their cars challenging and beating Le Train Bleu, immortalised by Agatha Christie, in its dash from the English Channel to the Cote d’Azur. Rover Light Six driver Dudley Noble was apparently first in 1930, followed by E.J.P. Eugster in his Alvis Silver Eagle. Some time later, gambler and fast lady Peta Fischer, on a bet, raced the train from Calais to Antibes in her Rolls Royce Phantom ll.

In March 1930, irked by Rover’s trumpeting, Bentley Motors’ chairman Woolf Barnato wagered £100 that he would not only beat the famous train on its return journey but would be snugly ensconced within his London club before it reached Calais. Poor weather, unforeseen detours and a puncture made him work hard for his money but he succeeded with 20 minutes to spare. French authorities, taking a dim view of “racing on public roads”, slapped him with a fine of £160 and banned the marque from exhibiting at the Paris Salon that year. Seemingly trivial by today’s standards the fine, back in the ‘30s, was equivalent to an average English worker’s annual salary.

To celebrate the history, the Endurance Rally Association (ERA), organisers of the Peking to Paris endurance event that we covered last July, put on a five-day commemorative rally last month. Dubbed The Blue Train Challenge and tailored for enthusiasts with pre-1948 Vintage and early post-war “Riviera Sports Cars,” it ran from 18 to 22 September.

The format comprised a mix of Regularity Trial (maintaining set average speeds from point to point with penalties awarded for every second early or late at unannounced check points), along with other time-controlled and special tests. These were interspersed with gorgeous scenery, famous inns and restaurants, legendary racing circuits and old-car camaraderie. The entry list included nine Bentleys, three Alvises and an eclectic mix of other makes but, conspicuously, no Rovers. Countries represented included UK, USA, various European nations and a lone co-driver from New Zealand.

Day One – La Manche to the Val du Loire: Forty-five cars were flagged off, in the grey early dawn, from the avenue of trees outside Hôtel du Golf in Deauville. At day’s end, Jim Gately and Tony Brooks led the Vintageant class in their 1937 Cadillac convertible followed by the 1934 Talbot 105 Alpine of Wilfried Schaefer and Sandra Hubner. The little blue ’48 MG TC of Kate and Sophie Wickham was third. Xavier and Lucas De Sarrau’s 1957 Porsche Carrera 1500S led the Riviera class, followed by Baldwin/Hoskins (Chevrolet Bel Air), with Richard and Victoria Nicholl’s Jaguar E-Type in third.

Kate and Sophie Wickham doing laps of the private racetrack at Chateau De Mornay

Day Two – Fontevraud to Vichy: From a seeded restart on the banks of the Loire, the morning’s route saw the Rally cross the River Vienne and then run alongside the River Creuse before a time control and coffee stop in the beautiful village of Angles-sur-l’Anglin. Fully recharged, the modern “Blue Train” built up steam, released its brakes and tracked along to the third regularity of the day at the Val D’ Abloux. Then followed a clear run to lunch at the small but exquisitely set motor sport venue of Chateau De Mornay.

That evening saw Gately/Brooks’s Cadillac still in command with Richard and Tom Jeffcoate (1938 Riley 16-4 Special) close behind. Schaefer and Hubner had dropped to third. In the Riviera class, the De Sarraus’ Porsche still led but Dominic and Jack Manser’s AC Cobra lay second with third occupied by the Jaguar C-Type of Simon Brien and David Gomes.

Day Three – Vichy to Lyon: Unfortunately for Schaefer and Hubner, their Talbot suffered transmission failure just before Belmont-sur-Loire and they had to retire. Evening saw Gately/Brooks followed by the Jeffcoates with the Swiss pair, Beat and Elisabeth Hirs (1932 Alvis Speed 20) in third. The Classics/Riviera class leader board remained unchanged.

Day Four – Lyon to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorge: An early local accident and traffic jam caused some delays, but the run was otherwise mostly trouble-free. Late afternoon saw the Wickhams battling with fuel float issues in their MG. At day’s end the Vintageant leader board changed slightly with Nigel Dowding/Mary Antcliff (1934 Aston Martin Mark ll) moving into third. In the Classic class, the De Sarraus still led with Brien/Gomes in second and Baldwin/Hoskins (Bel Air) back up to third.

Day Five – L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to Cannes: The day’s route took competitors through the famous lavender fields of France but there was to be no sweet scent of victory for Gately and Brooks. Their hitherto stone-reliable Cadillac “fried” a rear wheel bearing within sight of the Riviera and they could not continue, allowing Richard and Tom Jeffcoate to claim first place.
Second and third places were taken by a duo of Aston Martins. Nigel Dowding and Mary Antcliff claimed silver in their 1934 MkII while Christian and Matthew Brash secured third in their 1938 15/98 Sports. The Wickham sisters’ MG took fourth overall and second in the under-1500 cc class.

Riviera Class winners Xavier and Lucas De Sarrau were certainly not “lost in France”.