The best part of an adventure is the planning, right? Yes, and no. The best part of the adventure to me is just saying ‘yes’ to things and doing it. Sometimes it all goes off without a hitch; other times you’re seeing the back of a recovery truck. But hey, it’s all part of it.
While many of the other Speedhunters are incredibly organised people (looking right at Paddy McGrath), I’m just a little… looser.
Sure, to get to events, and especially a pretty strictly-scheduled rally, does take a degree of planning, but I can quite happily leave a lot of stuff to the very last minute, or even worse, to chance.
My process is simple: I see an event; I spend about 15 minutes online checking out how feasible it is to get there; I get a hotel booked with free cancellation (and no prepayment for absolute minimum commitment); and then forget all about until it’s pretty much time to go.
Case in point: The 2021 Roger Albert Clark (RAC) Rally.
It was the start of May when I decided that the RAC was a possibility, a full six months before the event. When did I book vital things like a ferry or even decide what car I’d drive for the week-long odyssey? I can hear Paddy wincing, but a whole three days before. Booked on Sunday afternoon, travel on Wednesday morning.
Normally I’d have to decide which car to take, but my hand was forced this time after I sold my Hyundai i30N a few days before the event.
The Hyundai was an amazing car and I enjoyed every single one of the 21,000km we spent together, but I was paying a pretty sizeable chunk of cash every month for the privilege. While trying to simultaneously save for a house deposit, something had to give.
Hyundai gone, attention turned to my somewhat neglected 106 Rallye.
The little Peugeot and I had been pretty distant for a few months. A busy work schedule meant it was nearly three months since I’d sat behind its wheel, but the time had not been wasted. It got a run to Rallye Omologato 2 in the hands of Maurice Malone, and then went in for some mechanical work. Owning an older performance car – with 103bhp I’m clinging to that title – requires continuous preventative maintenance, but little updates also make life easier.
Jumping back in, it felt like we hadn’t been apart. My feet immediately reset to the incredibly offset pedal locations, the deft throw of gearshift no more than muscle memory, and the familiar urgency of the rev-happy lump upfront had turbo boost instantly expelled from my mind.
There was one issue though – the 106’s NCT (National Car Test) cert had lapsed.
Being legal was somewhat important given I had a lot of driving ahead of me, but looking into online bookings, the wait time for this annual road worthiness test – similar to the UK’s MOT, Japan’s shaken or Germany’s TUV – was six weeks.
In an amazing twist of fate though, a cancellation appeared for Tuesday morning, a mere 14 hours before I was due to leave on a ferry. This was last minute to the extreme, but I had faith in the little Rallye. After a somewhat tense 40-minute outside the test centre, it emerged with a ‘thumbs up’ from the tester and a new cert sitting on the passenger seat. Happy days.
Home from work and everything needed packed into the boot, the back seat and footwells of the little Peugeot, I had enough time for about four hours of rest, although that was mostly spent thinking about what I’d forgotten.
My alarm went off at 1:15am and I was on the road 15 minutes later, albeit with the 106’s engine running at a higher-than-normal idle.
From home to the ferry in Belfast took just over four hours, the only talking point being an incredibly thick blanket of fog for the first 90 minutes. Prior to crossing over into Northern Ireland was a chance to fill the Peugeot’s fuel tank and grab some pancakes for breakfast.
Dashboard dining at five in the morning isn’t all that flash, but it sure hit the spot.
I arrived at the ferry terminal with plenty of time to spare, which isn’t something I do often. Blanket? Check. Netflix? Check. For a man who forgot to put a spare wheel in the car, I had my priorities in the right place.
Driving onto a ferry is always a rather fun experience, and while I might not have all the ro-ro facts like Ben and Ryan did with their recent trip to Ireland for 86 Fest, I can tell you that Stena Line to Cairnryan do serve a very fine breakfast and have a very comfy lounge.
I arrived in Scotland to weather that had turned. Rain and cold – for my first ever time in the country, it felt apt. I don’t think I’d have liked it any other way to be honest.
Thankfully, it was nicer a few days later when border-hopping again to grab that all-important ‘car in front of country sign’ photograph.
The one thing I wasn’t expecting was the incredible filth spraying off the near constant line of HGVs as I made my two-hour trip east towards the English border and onto Carlisle. By the time I stopped for fuel outside Gretna, the poor 106 was properly blackened, but deep down I thought it just looked proper.
I’ve said it before, but the Rallye is a car that looks equally great whether it’s polished or filthy.
The real MVP on day one was my Sennheiser headphones and a stack of downloaded podcasts. Throughout the week, this pairing was called upon during long drives, although occasionally there was time for some period correct ‘dodgy’ music. Because as great as the diminutive Peugeot is, cruising alone at motorway speed (which equates to almost 5,000rpm) can get a bit wearisome, although the deceptively-comfortable seating position really helps.
I made it to the RAC scrutineering, took and few pictures and collected my media accreditation – so far, so good. After dropping my bags to the hotel, I grabbed a bit of lunch and the headed back to the rally base for some more snaps. Again, no problems.
It felt like nothing could go wrong. Until it did.
Heading home, the Peugeot lost all battery power and ended up stranded in a dark lane. It didn’t take long to diagnose the problem – an empty space where the alternator belt should have been. Clearly it’d had enough and exited somewhere along the road.
It was the first night of my week-long adventure and my 106 was already on the back of a recovery truck. Thankfully, I’d signed up to the AA Breakdown service before leaving, so maybe I was prepared after all.
The next morning, with a fresh battery from an absolute legend of a roadside tech named Rob – a fellow rally man – we got the 106 to a nearby parts supplier. £5.20 for a new belt, fitted right there outside the door by Rob, and I was good to go.
A little over an hour after the 106 came off the axle stand I was parked in a forest in Kielder.Rally Mode
Over the next few days, the routine went like this: Get back to the hotel, throw the rally map out on the bed and figure out where the entrance to any given special stage was. Once pinpointed, I’d throw it into the phone and save it, then memorise the first car due time and work from there. Adding time for travel and a need to get there early to avoid too much of a walk (I know how precious that sounds, but remember I’d be laden down with cameras and gear), I’d end up with a rough estimate of my wake-up time for the next morning. It always seemed to be 6:30am.
Arriving earlier on a stage allowed me to take a walk around and get an idea of good shooting locations, and just enjoy the peace and quiet of a forest in the early morning sunshine ahead of a frantic day.
It was also a chance to get in and set up things like remote flashes ahead of the first competing cars.
The Rallye also doubled as a mobile office for the week. Stage shot, I’d grab my laptop and download my images. This is handy to keep memory card space free on the cameras, but also to get a few images quickly edited for social media. Although, the second part was a rather fruitless exercise given I barely had any mobile reception out on the rally route.
As the days past, I only grew fonder of my 106. Laden with soggy jackets and muddy boots, it climbed hill after gravelly hill through the woods to the stage-side car parks – generally openings on wider off-road tracks that were often icy. Most of the vehicles were vans and SUVs, but a few hardy souls followed the ‘not in its natural environment’ approach.
From that first night blip, the Peugeot never missed a beat. Even the high idle rectified itself quite early on, a sure sign that the 1,300cc 8V just needed driving.
As you may know from my RAC story, weather-wise, Friday evening was downright terrifying. I tend to sit low and reasonably far from the wheel of a car, but on this occasion I was nearly bolt upright, seat slid forward with two rather white-knuckled hands gripping the steering wheel.
Storm Arwen had struck, and having left the final stage of the day amidst a snow blizzard, I’ll never forget the drive back to Carlisle. Pitch black, the admittedly poor lights of the 106 were no match for the oncoming deluge of snow. Reduced to dipped beams and at times park lights, the road became an invisible labyrinth of standing water and was only defined by the white lines visible in places. Every few miles there was a tree or debris to swerve around, one hazard in particular appearing quite suddenly on the outside of a crested corner.
It took two gruelling hours to get back to the hotel when Google Maps had advised 53 minutes.
Stages were cancelled the following day, providing an opportunity to do some unplanned exploring. I’d seen pictures of the Lake District and it looked like perfect 106 Rallye territory, so I grabbed a coffee and headed 90 minutes north.
Cockermouth to Keswick via the Honister Pass is one of the most spectacular drives I’ve ever done, helped in part by a lack of traffic on this crisp winter afternoon. The fabled allure of the great British B-road was living up to its stature, and mile after mile the 106 sang to its heart’s content. Naturally though, I had to add some spice to the situation.
When I’d seen the Lake District in pictures, it was launch photos of the 2017 Ford Fiesta WRC on the Honister. What I hadn’t done was research, and didn’t know it was both extremely steep, reaching 1,167ft at a 1-in-4 gradient, and extremely prone to ice. So, yes, it was mega, except for the terrifying descent. If I had crashed, at least the scenery was nice.
As the Roger Albert Clark rally headed south to Wales, so did I. This drive from Carlisle to Snowdonia was the second longest stint of the trip, but the 106 ate it up. Sure, it may be tiny amongst modern traffic and a wee bit unrefined, but it’s fun. There are no modern frills, but that allows a chance to think, to plan and to take in the sights of the road.
Making a quick fuel stop with 106 miles to go was most definitely not planned.
One thing I’ve come to learn about the Rallye is that it’s a welcoming car. People pass compliment, take pictures and want to chat, in a way perhaps I wouldn’t have got with the Hyundai or something modern. During a stop to take photos on the way to Dyfnant, a group of off-roading Land Rovers pulled in, and within minutes we were all chatting and checking out each other’s vehicles.
The last few days in Wales were flat out. There were early mornings, late evenings and plenty of miles in between, but ultimately, I knew there was a ferry leaving Fishgaurd at 1:00pm on Monday that I intended to be on. That gave me a pretty firm cut off of 10:00am leaving Walters Arena, yet here I was at 10.15am admiring my little Rallye. Welsh mud, rolling hills and a dirty Peugeot 106 isn’t everyone’s dream view, but it is mine.
The drive to the ferry was frantic as expected, and I arrived with a whole six minutes to spare. Boarded and settled in the lounge, it felt great that the Rallye and I had made it to the end, even if another three hours lay ahead from Rosslare to home.
When you ask what some of us are doing with our SH Garage cars, well, I’m mainly just driving mine. The Rallye is outside the window as I speak, and I now feel torn about whether to put it into winter storage or not. Over six days, across five countries and clocking up 2,450km (1,520mi), we both had an adventure of a lifetime.