TOM FALCONER

 

 
 

         

To Spain  in the White 64 (this is an abridged version of the story that ran under Tom’s Right Hand Drive column in Corvette Fever January 2008)

After seeing our 1960 Corvette racer, the JRG special, shunted of the track on lap three of the very wet Le Mans Legends race on the morning of the Le Mans 24 hours I was in need of a weeks holiday  in the sunshine. My Ermine White 327/250 1964 had already led the two-day NCRS tour from Boulogne to Le Mans on departmental roads, so Polly and I decided to drive all the way through France and over the Pyrenees mountains to Spain on back roads as well.

We said goodbye to fellow NCRS members from the UK and the Netherlands, and pointed our Top Flight 1964 Corvette towards Spain. It was still raining lightly on this Monday morning but after twenty miles the clouds cleared and I dropped the top for the first time since Friday. When I bought my first convertible Sting Ray, a 1966 back in 1971, I was pleased to discover that the top could be stowed while still sitting in the driver’s seat, even in slow traffic, a facility that was lost when the deck release handle was relocated to the left end of the deck halfway though C4 production. A 1964 may be a big car, but it has no boot and our entire baggage for a two-week vacation, spare parts and tools had to fit behind or beneath the folded soft-top below the rear deck, but we somehow managed it, even including a few smart clothes for eating out and the sheets and towels for our house in Spain. The length of the rear spring hanger bolts determines the rear ride height on any 63-82, and I had adjusted mine so that my car looks just right with a full load. Driving though the narrow streets of small towns, I still sneak a look at the reflection of the car in the store windows, and delight in the lazy rotation of those big chrome spinners on the option P-48 aluminum wheels.

My wife Polly is a great map-reader and she supplemented her navigation with a sat-nav unit set to ‘shortest distance/avoid toll roads’. It’s easy to miss a turning in a French village, and the sat-nav will redirect you back to the chosen route without the dreade, and time wasting, turning back. As we skirted the city of Poitiers mid-morning, there was an ominous groaning from the right rear hub and my heart sank as I checked for a hot rear wheel bearing, a Corvette weak point we have been fixing at Claremont for thirty years but not one to tackle in rural France on vacation. But luckily it was just the knock-off wheel spinner starting to come loose, squashing the roll pin, and eight heavy blows with the copper and hide mallet, followed by the same on the other wheels solved the problem. The shop manual states that these wheels should be tightened periodically after refitting, and I had not done it.

After lunch at a roadside café the sun was getting hotter and early afternoon saw that magic moment when, after a short climb, a valley was revealed where all roofs below were red clay tiles, the predominant crop was grape vines and we knew we were in the south. I have been driving C2s for 35 years now, though we used to call them Midyears, and I reflected that there was no other Corvette or indeed any other car that I would rather be driving. Yes, the radio antenna whistles in the wind above 60 mph with the top down, and the visors have to be very tight to stay up in the wind, but these are lovable characteristics I have lived with all my adult life. And one could probably lose that C2 body shudder after every hole in the road by fitting a tube frame and C5 suspension, but it would not be the same car. After another two hours of empty, fast and sunny D roads into the Lot et Garonne region, we arrived at Villeneuve-de-Duras, and the Domaine du Grand Mayne vineyard whose wines we have been buying for years, took the fascinating tour with the owner and then found just enough space for another six bottles of his very special claret behind the seats.  That evening we parked our fly-spattered Sting Ray in the gated car park of the Hostellerie des Ducs, had a swim and then enjoyed a perfect dinner for two in the terrace restaurant, which was open to the garden, watching the swallows and then the bats swooping as dusk closed on the longest day of the year.

We cruised at 55 to 65 on our chosen departmental roads.  The French national speed limit on rural roads is 90 kmh, about 56 mph, so we arrived at each stage ahead of our sat-nav’s predicted time. Tuesday’s drive to the Pyrenees and beyond was an easy 250 miles through some of the most beautiful parts of France and the jagged mountain peaks were visible 70 miles away. If you spend your life repairing and restoring Corvettes, you worry about all the parts that can go wrong on such a trip, never a problem for those who know nothing about cars but just drive them. But now at 1000 miles into this trip, I was completely confident in my 43-year-old Vette, which we have completely restored, so the steep climb to the Vielha Tunnel, high in mountains on the Spanish border was my last worry.  Above 6000 feet the locals all drive turbo-diesels to compensate for the lack of atmospheric pressure, and my 5.4 litre small block V8 was definitely down on power in the rare air, but the temperature gauge went no higher than it had at 80 mph on the motorway and after ten minutes in the diesel smoke filled tunnel we emerged into clean fresh mountain air and the 60-mile down hill run to our house at Graus.

The 1964 was the last before Corvettes converted to the troublesome 4 wheel disc brakes, and it is no coincidence that all my classics including my 66 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and my 1972 Harley XLH have drum brakes. The next worry was brake fade as we descended steeply down the mountain to Bonanza, but the drums were superb, no fade and no smell, and we were enjoying these superb roads until the tires squealed.

There are few classic cars in Spain, so during our five-day stay we were photographed so often that every mobile phone in Aragon must have a picture of our Corvette in its memory! And then it was a 5 am drive though the spectacular mountain roads of the western Pyrenees beyond Pamplona to load the Vette onto the P&O ferry from Bilbao for the 29-hour luxury cruise up the Atlantic coast of France to Portsmouth and home.  Checking the fuel consumption, I found that on the wet sections of the trip we had used much less of the precious fluid.  Although overall we averaged more than 20 mpg, by my calculations the extra drag of driving with the top down costs about 3 mpg at 60 mph. Has anyone got the convertible data from those famous and much illustrated 1961 tests of the Sting Ray at the GALCIT wind tunnel at California Institute of Technology, or did they just check the coupe?

 

Tom Falconer

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