Autumn Drives in France Involve Castles and Tracks
Imagine the perfect autumn classic car gathering. You would want an eclectic mix of cars from Mini Coopers and Beetles to Bugatti Type 35s and Ferrari 275 GTBs. The cars would most certainly have to be in motion, both on the track and on the road. More importantly, the weather would have to be sympathetic. Of course, the participating people would have to be just as interesting as the cars they’ve brought to the gathering.
Now put all of that into a box, shake it about, and you get the Journées d’Automne (Days of Autumn) held in the Champagne region of France and made possible by Veuve Clicquot and Chapal and organized by ProFirst and Ecurie Epicure. Initially based around the Mas du Clos circuit, the event has moved in more recent years to the Circuit des Ecuyers, about 30 kilometres west of Reims.
The Champagne region is a reasonable four-hour drive (plus the 35-minute Eurotunnel crossing) from my home base in Southeast England. My wife and I headed down on Friday afternoon in my Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona, travelling in convoy with photographer Jonny Shears and his father, Mark, in Jonny’s Alfa Romeo GTV.
French autoroutes are fast and generally smooth but not very exciting. The Daytona is an ideal companion to eat away those arduous kilometres, pulling just over 3000 RPM at the French national limit of 130 kilometres per hour. I suspect it was a little busier in Jonny’s Alfa seeing as it had been fitted with a fast road 2.0 litre engine. He had little trouble maintaining station with the 4.4 litre V12 Ferrari.
We arrived at our bed and breakfast just before dark, and after freshening up, we headed out to the nearby town of Fère-en-Tardenois where many of the participants were meeting for an informal buffet dinner. Naturally there was a strong French contingent on the event but also quite a number of people from elsewhere including Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the United States.
There were around 80 classic cars in attendance (modern cars were not allowed into the paddock) with the fastest almost certainly being a Porsche Carrera 6 racer. There were also a large number of early Porsche 911s including a 2.7 Carrera RS. British cars were well represented with plenty of Jaguar XKs, MGs, Healeys and a couple of Aston Martins. Naturally there were French cars including four or five Bugatti Type 35s and a couple of late sixties Alpine Renaults. The Bugattis were amongst the most enthusiastically driven cars at the event and one showed amazing original patina that looked as if it had never been repainted since its last official Grand Prix race.
All good classic car adventures need a mechanical drama and ours came as we drove back to the B&B. Just as we came to a stop there was a distinct smell of oil. Popping the bonnet it was clear there was a serious oil leak, but with the only light available from an iPhone flashlight, it was impossible to tell what the source was. As there was nothing else to be done at midnight, I locked up the car. Then proceeded to spend a sleepless night of worry wondering what had happened and whether or not it could be fixed in the middle of France 300+ miles from my mechanic.
Thanks to the morning light, we identified the problem quickly: a union on an oil line running to the power steering pump had come away. Jonny and Mark came to the rescue and were easily reattached the line. However, the engine had lost a lot of oil which left the car in a non-operational state for the day. Fortunately, the cavalry arrived in the shape of Afshin and Kika of Petrolicious in a Ferrari FF, and we were able to grab a lift from them to purchase some oil and to attend the circuit races for the day.
I doubt I would have ventured out on the circuit in the Daytona but it was a shame not to have it with me in the paddock, as word of our misfortune spread. Many attendees came up to ask me what had happened and if the car was okay. I decided to console myself with a few passenger laps in Jonny’s Alfa, which turned out to be great fun hanging onto my seat as the little GTV slid through the tight bends. The tuneful 2.0-Litre twin-cam got the car down the longest straight quickly enough to not hold up the fast Porsches too much.
The weather was beautiful: sunny, crisp, and dry, as the track closed for lunch. This would be hosted at the nearby Chateau de Nesles, where one of the most spectacular sights of the weekend would take place––seeing the Porsche Carrera 6 driving along public roads towards the Chateau — a sight so surreal you almost had to pinch yourself to ensure you were still living in reality.
After lunch we returned to the circuit for a couple of hours before catching a lift back to the B&B where I could finally add the life-giving oil to the Daytona. We estimated that around four litres had been lost so I added a couple of litres before nervously firing the engine. It caught straight away and, even better, the gauges revealed that the oil pressure. While they read a little low, it was within safe enough parameters for the car operate.
With the Daytona once again up and running, I used the 6km run to the Chateau, where the evening dinner and award ceremony was being held, as a test run to check the vitals on the car at speed. On the journey, I was watching the oil pressure and temperature gauges almost as much as the road but both were right where they ought to be. Checking the oil on arrival it was clear the Daytona wasn’t losing anything further, but I proceeded with caution anyway.
The dinner was a lovely four course affair followed by a good-natured award ceremony. I won the prize for the person who drove to the event but didn’t make it the circuit––apparently it happens every year. Seeing as the prize was a leather bound tool roll, it should prove quite useful in the future.
The next day a smaller number of cars met in Fère-en-Tardenois for the start of a drive winding through the idyllic Champagne region. The weather had turned rather damp and rain showers were appeared on the horizon.
We were given a tulip road book but for the most part just stayed in the middle of the peloton of classics praying the lead car knew where it was going. In some of the smaller villages, the residents came out of their houses cheering and waving as a cavalcade of rare classics roared through.
Mid-way through the morning we arrived in the village of Gueux for fuel and refreshments, not to mention the requisite oil check for me. Our next stop would be the old pits at the Reims Gueux circuit.
The old pits are a great backdrop to the wide range of cars attending, so naturally everybody duly lined up for photo ops. Unfortunately the weather decided not to cooperate and a sudden downpour had everyone scurrying back to their cars. After this, some of the roads had become decidedly greasy, I had to take quite a lot of care so that the Daytona didn’t get out of shape during the rest of the day’s journey.
The event finished at Veuve Clicquot’s facilities in Reims, where we enjoyed another excellent lunch with champagne (for the non-drivers). A few of us even managed to sneak in a tour of the Champagne Caves, which were built over the last few hundred years. Many of these Caves were carved out of the chalk by hand.
With the event drawing to a close, I was relieved to be heading home in the Daytona and not on the back of a recovery vehicle. We made it to our booked tunnel crossing on time and ultimately back in England; despite plenty of traveling setbacks like security, traffic and weather. But the Daytona managed to muscle through it all and returned safely into the garage.
Taking a deep breath after experiencing such a whirlwind weekend, I began to think how the Journées d’Automne has to be one of the very best classic car events I have been to this year. It certainly proved to be the perfect way to end what has been a magnificent summer of classic car motoring. I look forward to making this an annual event.
As I wrote this, the Daytona is now with my mechanic for a thorough inspection and service. It will also probably require the replacement of any belts that have been impregnated with oil. When that is done it will also need the services of my detailer to thoroughly clean the engine bay of the last of the oil residue.
Photography by Jonny Shears for Petrolicious