Is This The Ultimate Trip To Take In A Hot Rodded Porsche 911?
Photos by Maurice van den Tillaard
There are these things you’ve always wanted to do, and once you’ve done them, you want to do them over and over again. Driving a classic Porsche 911 through the French countryside is one of those memorable things, and I have to say, it can be a very, very addictive.
It was early June 2014, and I had some spare time left to make a trip to the south of France with my 1972 911. Since my better half had things to do in Italy concerning a cooking workshop—and told me to go and do something fun too—I didn’t hesitate for a second.
Last year I did our so-called Run to the Hills with my German buddy Daniel Schaefer from Heckmotorsportwagen. This year we had a hard time to plan things together because of our busy schedules, so I decided to do this tour as a lone wolf. Four days out of my busy agenda should be just enough to do this. I had wild plans to do another road trip this year anyways, and I had already pointed out some routes on paper. After a proper preparation in the week before I left, it was time to head south.
“Travel light” is one of my mottos, so I didn’t bring along too much. On the top of the list stood, of course, my photo camera equipment. Further, I took along a small tent, a lightweight air bed, a sleeping bag, some clothes and toiletries, a spacesaver spare wheel and a jack, a spare DME relays and a set of light bulbs, two liters of motor oil, maps, a flashlight, a GoPro, a navigation system, and some cash. You never know with the ATMs in France—I have had it happen before that I ran out of gas and the machine would not accept my card. In the week before I left, we checked the car properly so I would not run into any surprises on the way.
On Sunday June 1st, I left for Reims, on the stroke of three. Near the Luxembourg border, I opted for the country roads and left the freeway. Four and a half hours after I left the house, I parked my 911 at the old Reims pits, near the village of Gueux. The weather was fantastic and I had plenty of time to take some good photos. “I’ll find a campsite later,” was the first thing that popped up in my head. When the sun set further the light became perfect and with a very satisfied feeling I took off to find a campsite.
Of course, this wasn’t going to work out because the nearest campsite was too far away and it was almost 10 o’ clock at night. Luckily, I remembered the lot with hotels and restaurants five minutes away from the pits in the Reims direction, scenery which remembered me of being on the road in the USA. The Ibis Budget hotel was cheap, and had a secured parking with a guarded gate. Perfect. I set my alarm clock at 5:30 so I could hit the road at six the next day
The plan for day two was to drive to Malaucene, at the base of the infamous Mont Ventoux. The first part covering freeways, the second part over mountain roads mostly. An hour after I left, I decided to fuel up for the rest of the freeway part; I also planned on filling half a liter of oil. I let the engine idle to measure the oil, and at the moment I wanted to remove the dipstick the engine died out right away. I filled a little oil anyways and soon found out that it was impossible to let the car idle without having to use the throttle pedal.
I choose to stick to my plan and drive further south. At every turnout I stopped to see if the car would still not idle. Did I have a DME relay problem? Nope, because with the spare one, the engine still died. Maybe a faulty idler valve? It seemed to work as it should when I checked it. Maybe it’s a vacuum leak, but I couldn’t find anything. Any other part that got loose? Dirty connectors? I couldn’t find a thing and decided to go on.
Twice already, Dutch tourists came to help and when I told them my plans they said to just go on because the car ran great as soon as I was moving. They were right, because about one and a half hours later, the car was idling again. I almost turned around and went home, but the positive attitude of those Dutchies made me go on. I’m not a big fan of being on the road with these kind of weird troubles. The car was running again though, although it idled a bit more like a cold GT3, or a V8 with a stainless exhaust. I was a happy man, because I didn’t have to fiddle around with my clutch, brake, and throttle anymore at the toll ports.
In the middle of the afternoon I arrived at the village of St. Jean en Royans, where the route through the Combe Laval begins and takes you over the Col de la Machine. It got a little cloudy, but it stayed dry. Another thing which got me in a good mood.
Via the village of Lente (meaning slow in French) and the D76 and D518 country roads I drove in the direction of Die. The first section of the D76 was fairly slow, but soon it became the perfect playground for a go-kart like car as mine. The D518 was no different. From Die I drove to Malaucene following the D9. Another country road (Bison Futé direction Marseille), which is a lot of fun to drive.
Late in the afternoon, I arrived in the village which is loved by many a cyclist. It’s one of the starting points to climb the Mont Ventoux. With its altitude of 1911 meters, yes 1-911, it’s notorious for being one of the hardest climbs of all the mythical Tour de France stages. With a Porsche 911 that handles like a race car, it’s nothing but fun and the 21 kilometers (13 miles) are an easy stretch. I remember how beat up I was when I did the same route on my bike. After one hour and 45 minutes, I reached the top and literally bought the entire soda collection the tiny shop up there had to offer. The Ventoux is one of my many favorite areas in France so I took my time here. Driving an old 911 comes as a ritual for me, just like riding my bicycles, so I wanted to get the most out of this hill climb.
At a local store, I bought me some proper French bread and a terrine, which I enjoyed while sitting next to my car. When took a few photos an enthusiastic Frenchman stood behind me, and looked at my car. At some point he said: “C’est une voiture du Magnus Walker..?” Unbelievable—it’s a small world after all. He recognized the louvered hood and when I told him Magnus is a friend of mine the Malaucene local couldn’t stop talking about 911s.
When I got to the top of the Ventoux, it was eight o’ clock. “Time enough to find a campsite,” I thought again. I enjoyed the moment of silence up there, and just sat there for half an hour to suck up the stunning beauty of this place. It was completely empty, no cyclists, no tourists, nobody. Perfect timing. I drove down in the direction of Sault. When I rolled into town, the first thing I saw was a food truck where they sold “pizza au vue de bois”.
I couldn’t resist getting one of these, because I just love pizza from the wood oven. Soon, the clock almost hit ten and I still had to find a campsite again. The woman in the food truck told me to take a second left and go straight for a bit, then I would find it.
When I arrived at the campsite, it looked closed. The gate was still open though, so I parked my car about 50 yards from the gate and set up my tent. Hopefully the gate would still be open in the early morning. I set my alarm to 5:30 and when I opened up my tent after a good night’s sleep, the first thing I saw was the gate being still open. Half an hour later, I packed up and was ready to go. There still wasn’t anyone around though, so I slid a 10 euro bill into the mailbox and took off in the direction of the Grand Canyon du Verdon, another one of my favorite places to be in France.
I simply typed Moustiers Sainte Marie in my navigation, knowing I would be guided down some of the best roads anyways. Any road off the main freeways in southern France seems to be a good one, it’s amazing. And yes, I was sent via the D950, through the tiny village of Banon. A great road with many corners and fast sections. It wasn’t even 6:30, and the rising sun only made it better. Another good thing was that the roads were completely empty this early. Via Riez I arrived in Moustiers, where I fueled up the car. From there it’s only a few minutes to the Gorges du Verdon. I stopped at the vista point where the road through the canyon starts, and enjoyed the breathtaking view of the turquoise Lac Saint Croix.
Early June is a perfect time to visit this area if you’re into driving, because it’s so quiet out there, and the weather around this time of the year can often be compared with summer in the northern regions of Europe. I know the route well, and within a couple minutes I drove through La Palude, halfway the Verdon, on the D952. From here I followed my way to Comps sur Artuby, and then on to Draguignan and Le Luc. High speed curvy roads, all neverending fun.
The last part to Le Luc contained a few freeway miles, where I was overtaken by a 997 Turbo. Its grey-haired owner came driving next to me, and gave me the thumbs up before taking off like a bullet, disappearing in the distance. In Le Luc I enjoyed a quick lunch before I started to concentrate on another great driving road, the D558 to La Garde Freinet. It’s basically a supply route to Saint Tropez, but somehow, I got lucky again and traffic wasn’t too crazy. It was so good, actually, that I drove back and did the entire route twice! It feels more like a roller coaster than a road to be honest, so much fun…
Later that afternoon, I visited my friend Marco Rivolta to spend the night. He owns two stores in Saint Tropez and sure knows his way around there. Always a good time.
After a night of hanging out in “Strop” I continued my drive on Wednesday morning, direction: Monte Carlo. I don’t care about this place too much, but just had this urge to drive my 911 through there for once. It worked for a few good photos, that’s for sure. First, I had to fuel up again though. I wish fuel was as affordable in The Netherlands as it was at this Total gas station. 98 octane Total Equilibrium, for the nice price of €1,53 per liter (~$6.30/U.S. gallon) , and that in Saint Tropez…
Closely before taking the Monte Carlo exit, I got to another toll port. I stuck the small card into the reader, which said €6,80. I only had about five euros of change and a couple fifty euro bills. The machine said it only accepted five, ten, and twenty euro bills. After some intricate reverse moves and an extensive search for an attendant, they put an override in the machine and I was able to pay with a 50 euro bill. With over 40 euros of change in my hand, I continued my way to Monte Carlo… After a quick drive through town and a couple photos at a spot where I had a good overview, I got out of there.
From there, it’s just a stone’s throw to the mountain village of Sospel, the hometown of one of my heroes, multiple mountainbike downhill world champion and rally driver Nicolas Vouilloz.
On my way to Sospel, a small red hatchback started following me through the tight corners and narrow mountain roads. When I stopped to take another photo, the car parked behind me and I spotted an English license plate. Four young chaps from Leeds stepped out of the car, asking me if I was on my way to Col du Turini. As a matter of fact I was—and these blokes were too. Rally fans who just wanted to go and get a glimpse of the place where all the magic happens during the Monte Carlo rally. I think they took at least fifty photographs of my car…
Driving the Turini made me wonder again how good these rally drivers are. The roads are narrower than most others in the Provence, and the Turini immediately gives you more of a feeling as if you’re driving a high Alps pass, but then with trees next to it.
After the Turini, I drove through the city of Lantosque, on my way to Vence. I stumbled upon another great piece of two lane blacktop, called the D2565. It guides you through the Gorge de la Vesubie and it’s another epic driving road.
From Vence I started my climb up the Col de Vence. The D2 has been featured in Total 911 before in the Greatest Driving Roads column and I thought this would be an interesting addition to my trip.
Two thirds down the D2 I opted for the D5, which takes you down south again to the infamous Route Napoleon. The D5 is another one of those “must drive” kind of roads, like most of the other ones mentioned above. Arriving at the Route Napoleon I took a left turn instead of a right, and decided to drive south to Grasse. Shortly after passing the Grasse prison, where a magnificent view of the Mediterranean Sea pops up, I arrived to the edge of town and decided to turn around to go back up north on the Route Napoleon.
Before I could make the U-turn, an early nineties white Carrera comes hauling around a corner at warp speed. He saw me and quickly blinked his lights. The driver apparently knew his way around here! From here my route back home started, with a couple hours of the fantastic Route Napoleon ahead of me, all the way to Grenoble. The route leads you through a couple of slightly bigger villages in the beginning…and in one of these I was almost hit by an old Fiat Panda. The authentic French-looking driver didn’t see me at first, but when he did he probably slipped out the clutch.
The car came to an abrupt stop, and with a smile from ear to ear he was looking at my old 911. With a firm step on the right pedal I disappeared out of his sight, the flat six roaring behind me. I still wasn’t bored of all this mountain driving…
In the meantime, my car was still suffering from this weird idle problem. At some point down the Napoleon I stopped to take another photo. It was a magic feeling every time I would shut down the noisy engine and step out of the car. The sound of silence would fill my ears, and the smell of herbs de Provence filled my nostrils. I decided to take one more look under the hood to see if everything was still all right. No weird things to be seen, apart from one thing.
As soon as I started the engine again, it died out right away… “Please no, not again!” When I tried to start it again, it fired right up, and it idled again like it should do! Even today I have never found out what has been going on here, and the problem never came back. I stopped several times along Route Napoleon to see if it was still idling properly, and it was every time. I’m pretty sure I obtained some dirty fuel after my stop in Reims, or maybe some dirt came loose in the new fuel tank I had installed a few weeks before my trip.
Halfway Napoleon it started to drizzle, and soon this changed into pouring rain. My Weather Pro and Meteo Marine apps worked flawlessly, because I had seen this coming for a couple days. Five minutes into the rain, it looked like my windshield wipers were coming loose. A quick and easy fix with the plastic labels from two mineral water bottles solved this problem!
In the Grenoble area, I entered the freeway and shortly after Lyon I decided to find a place to spend the night. Luckily, I found another Ibis Budget motel with a secured parking. After payment I figured out from this mumbling Frenchman behind the counter that the gate was broken! What now? Did I have to park my car next to a freeway in the Lyon area, during the night? I hid the car behind a big station wagon, put the steering lock on, and removed the rotor out of the distributor—an easy trick I learned from my buddy Daniel. I’m a bit paranoid when it comes to stuff like this, because my cameras have been stolen more than once… After roughly six hours of sleep, I got up at 5 AM and got back on the road.
It was all freeways now, and according to my planning I should be back home in the early afternoon. Along the way some more crazy antics happened with a bunch of young dudes in a Renault Clio who were literally hanging out of their car windows while doing 100 mph, yelling at me and my old car.
They loved it!
The French surely have a good car culture going on. I made it back home at 2 o’ clock in the afternoon on Thursday, in the pouring rain, wipers still working. Every time I take the car out for a drive I make notes in a little logbook I keep with it. Miles driven, where to, when, and what kind of maintenance I perform on the car. Looking at the milage when I left, some easy math resulted in the fact that I drove 2281 miles in 3 days and 23 hours. France is a car driving mecca, especially the south part of this beautiful country. I can not wait to do this again, and again, and again…
You can follow Maurice van den Tillaard’s work on Instagram and on his website.