Restoring my 64, part 4.

The easy way to do the Le Mans trip is in a Corvette C5 Convertible. It’s fast, comfortable, reliable, still looks almost like the current race C6R and will be admired everywhere it goes. But this year I was determined to take my almost restored 1964 convertible Sting Ray.  I trusted XIL 64 not to let me down on the Spring Shakedown, when it had just five miles on the clock, and it had performed superbly. How it would perform on a long hot trip in a foreign country was a question of a different magnitude.

The car now has door panels and carpets installed, a spare wheel and carrier, the various scratches and cracks have been sorted out by Mech-Spray. Even on the Wednesday morning I was due to leave, I was still tempted by the easy C5 option. But the forecast was perfect for the whole weekend, so after a rebuild of the original Carter WCFB to correct a low fuel level which had been causing a misfire on roundabouts, and a first oil and filter change, I set off for Dover, very much aware that we were still running in, and watching the gauges as much as the road. At the port, my bargain priced catamaran had not yet even left for its previous crossing, so rather than wait at least three hours, I bought a crossing with P&O, and loaded with a selection of old MGs, also Le Mans bound. This gave the opportunity to enjoy a great dinner in the top deck Langans Restaurant, where we have eaten as a family at the start of so many skiing and summer holidays.

Once on the empty autoroute to Rouen with only 300 miles on the clock, I kept below 2500 rpm/60 mph, the needle holding 190 F. Thankfully, a full moon offered assistance to the original dim-bulb T-3 headlights. My T-86 optional back-up lamps were rewired and loaded with amber bulbs, because I know from experience that French drivers are blind to red flashers.  At 24 euros a night, the Formule-1 chain of internet-booked basic motels offers great value. Arriving after midnight, I swiped my credit card, and was issued a room number and door code, which also opened the electric gate to the secure car park, ideal for my precious Sting Ray, and reason enough to stick with these motels, which do not otherwise reflect the rich tradition of French hospitality.

After an excellent night’s rest at the Rouen Nord Formule-1, I carefully checked the car and then set off south, and within minutes my ‘should have brought the C-5’ moment strikes. Deep in the Rouen tunnel in heavy rush hour traffic I notice that the water temperature had suddenly dropped. As any 283 or 327 driver knows, this is a very bad sign and indicates trouble. On all the later 350s and big blocks, the coolant sender is in the cylinder head, but on the older cars it’s higher up in cooling system, screwed into the intake manifold, and that means it gets uncovered as soon as the coolant level drops, and stops registering properly. In this packed tunnel, there is no chance of stopping and now I can see steam rising and smell the anti-freeze. Luckily the tunnel is down hill so I can coast some of the way out of it, but even as I pull away from the lights at the end to turn off and park, the gauge is heading for boiling as the steam reached the sensor.  I stop in an aquatic pet supermarket and discover that one of the heater hoses, temporarily routed because the whole A/C system is not yet installed, has touched the right hand exhaust manifold and has burned through allowing a big water leak. I cannot believe my good fortune that this did not happen on the long motorway run the previous night, but am still worried that I have done some damage. The aquarium shop does not have the parts I need to mend the pipe, but the they direct me up the road to a bricolage where the central heating department has copper pipe, hose clips and pipe cutter all for less than 15 euros.

As I splice the pipe a cheerful old guy in a Renault Twingo stops to admire the car and then offers to help, so I tell him that I need water. He races off and returns within minutes with two five litres containers, most of one of which is swallowed though my non-dated header tank.  Luckily the engine restarts,  runs on eight and warms up to a steady temperature, and  my new-found friend promises to follow me out of Rouen in case of further trouble. After ten kilometres he beeps, turns off and waves goodbye, and I carry on, happy again,  along my favourite cross-country D roads for the last 200km to the Circuit Le la Sarthe. My route avoids the N138 via Alencon,  a miserable single carriageway packed with truck and police checks, and goes instead via Evreux, Damville, Verneuil and Nogent. This is the perfect way to enjoy a Corvette, top down, skylarks singing above, smooth tree-lined winding roads, and every ten or twenty kilometres passing through a centuries old village. As it passes the 500 mile mark, the 327 motor is now much more free revving and powerful, and the temperature has reduced to a constant 180, despite the 90 degree weather.

At my F1 motel in Arnage, I am immediately adopted by two couples in classic Astons, who admire my old Vette and then insist that I should join them for dinner to discuss the forthcoming drubbing that will be inflicted on the yellow cars! They admit that the Aston Martin victory at Sebring in the spring was a lucky result, and are impressed that racing Corvette looks much more like a real road car than the DBR9.  In contrast to GM’s superb arrangements for Corvette owners, nothing appears to have been provided for owners of the British make - rumour has it that this is part of a very British ‘low key’ approach - and I am happy to be involved with a marque which is up front and noisy at all times.

More than half the track is on public roads, so Friday is cruising day. I meet up with the C5 registry who have been staying with local families, at the shopping centre at Change and am privileged to lead them into the circuit, with cameras clicking all around us. The rest of the morning is spent driving around and watching the hundreds of desirable cars that have arrived from all over Europe, by far the majority British registered. The crazies do their burn-outs and donuts, while the fearsome French cops try to keep order. Others park up and absorb the sun, because we are in the middle of a heat wave, and everyone admires my old 64, so much better to drive here than a C5!  The pit lane is open to see all the race cars being prepared and I spend the afternoon there, treading the famous tarmac, roasting in the sun between the grandstands, and enjoying intimate views into each pit. For a pre-booked online 125 euros, Corvette-Europe welcomes me into a secure Corvette corral with a grandstand trailer directly on the Porsche Curves, a proper bar, C6 display, covered seating areas and excellent barbecues on Friday and Saturday night.  It strikes me that this would make the perfect destination for a superb NCRS-UK road tour, maybe even with flight judging at the trackside.

Saturday morning my co-driver James arrives by the 185mph TGV train from Paris at lunchtime, and because the traffic back into the circuit is now grid-locked and we’ve seen the Hawaiian Tropic girls before, we opt to miss the pre-start ceremonies and take a thirty five mile high speed drive on empty roads south to Ecommoy, where we join up with a group of Austin Healeys who have the same idea, unconsciously tracing much of the route of the old circuit of 1911-1913.  We watch the 4pm start lap at the end of the long Mulsanne straight where, year after year, the inherently unstable Porches spin off backwards into the gravel trap. Although they now compete in a different class, the stones clattering in their fan cowlings is still sweet music to Corvette ears! As the headlights come on, it becomes clear that the Aston Martins are not invincible, and we enjoy a few beers and then the excellent GM barbecue cooked by real French chefs, and to make a perfect evening, my fly-spattered ’64 wins a 2nd place trophy in the Show and Shine competition. Local Sevenoaks member Pat Fitzgerald wins the best C3 with his 63 convertible, which is appropriately yellow to match the C6Rs racing past our enclosure.

At 11pm, we walk up to the main grandstands, past the other and more expensive GM hospitality unit where the 2006 ZO6 in a Euro version, vin number ending 65100052,  is on display, to watch the frantic activities in the brightly lit pits, and the race on the giant TV screens, while listening to the English language Radio Le Mans commentary on our FM headsets. A further long walk takes us to the dramatic uphill S-bend of the Dunlop Curves, where the C6Rs’ brakes glow as they slow, before scrabbling for grip as they accelerate under the famous Dunlop Bridge towards the Esses.

By 2am we are ready to leave, but the race, in which the two Corvettes will each cover 2,990 miles, is less than half over and Corvette success by no means certain.  Leaving Le Mans with the top down, we listen to the commentary on the U69 AM/FM radio, still hearing the race and the deep rumble of the Corvettes, even three miles from the track. I have insured the Vette for James, so we share the driving, occasionally cat-napping in the passenger seat. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the trip is how comfortable the skinny 64 seats are for a long journey. Trucks are banned from Continental roads from 10pm Saturday to 10pm Sunday, so the drive back into the dawn on major roads is perfect  - until we have another problem in Rouen.

This time we need fuel,  and be warned that if you want to buy petrol on a Sunday in France, it is only really possible with cash or a credit card on the autoroutes . Probably due to the 35-hour week, French petrol stations are now predominantly unmanned and automatic, and they only take French bank cards.  We spend 45 minutes driving from one automatic station to another, finally deciding to head for the service area 40 miles away on the autoroute - with only 30 miles worth of fuel left in the tank. Fortunately, on the old N-road out of the city, we find a human powered filling station and we still make the 10am wave-piercing catamaran at Boulogne-sur-Mer with time to spare. Friends at the track send text messages about race progress of the Corvettes to our mobiles , and we are back home to wives and children in time to see Corvette’s best ever result on Eurosport. 

I did 900 miles on the Le Mans trip, so the mileage on the 64 is now up to 1,150 and it is running better than ever. So time for a special thank-you my team at Claremont, Rob for the chassis and assembly, Dave for a terrific engine, Ben for the gearbox and diff, Lee for the seat and convertible top restorations and trimming and of course Pete and Wayne at Mech-Spray for transforming that bubbling and battered fibreglass body back into a thing of beauty. Next project is to get the A/C to work, and to try to achieve NCRS 2nd Flight at Tenterden in September.

Reprinted from Corvette Torque, the Quarterly Magazine of the NCRS.UK, the United Kingdom Chapter of the National Corvette Restorers Society.