Old Rileys Die Hard, And Tackle The Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique With Plenty Of Life Still In The Tank
Photography by Will Broadhead
I love an adventure. The thought of doing something difficult, somewhere difficult, fills me up with wanderlust and the good kind of anxiety—at the onset to any challenging trek with vintage automobiles, my goosebumps take on a National Geographic magnitude. Road trips are great, but it’s even better if the journey involves some form of motorsport.
While I have neither the resources nor the finances to ever really consider racing at this stage of my life, over the past year or two I have been enormously privileged to photograph the men and women that race everything from pre-war Grand Prix cars to Group C prototypes on circuits from Spa to Monaco. I’ve also been along for some of the best endurance rallies Europe has to offer. I follow along from the relative sanctuary of the media car, but climbing through snow banks to shoot the cars gives a taste of what it must be like to drive one of them along without a proper roof.
Not all rallies are created equally, and they aren’t aiming at the same targets anyway. Some are day-long jaunts with picnic stops, and others are a bit more taxing. And then there are some like the Rallye Monte-Carlo. The modern day event in the WRC schedule is bringing the legacy forward, but thankfully the Automobile Club de Monaco also makes room to celebrate the past with a historic rendition of the event, which runs each year after the dust has barely settled from the contemporary WRC machines.
The event also runs a “Classique” category, alongside the more easily recognizable cars of the “Historique,” open to machines no newer than 1965. For this year’s running, I was asked to tag along to cover the exploits of a six-person team entered by Blue Diamond Riley Services (BLD).
The Classique is seen as a bit of a champagne class alongside the Historique, and while it runs in tandem with the bigger boys to the rallye’s base camp at Valence, it doesn’t continue on with the rest of the regularity stages that the Historique cars will face over the following days, nor does the Classique category command the same media attention. If I’m honest, it just doesn’t even capture the imagination in the same way that a six-pot 911 or a sideways Stratos can. Thankfully I had time for both this year, and at 7AM somewhere in France in transit, after driving since around 10AM the previous day, our group of Rileys were in the middle of something significantly more adventurous than a merry little cruise to get some bubbly in the South of France.
The sign on the road into town read “Bourgoin-Jallieu,” but we could have been anywhere as far as I’m concerned, everywhere looked the same through the black of the night and not a roadside shape was discernible in the foam and swirl of the freezing fog that we’d been splitting for hours already.
In front of me are the exhausted crews of the BLD Rileys—John Lomas, MD of the group, falls to the floor with his hands on his head. One could be forgiven for thinking it’s a display for my camera, except he’s driven those long hours in a 1936 Riley Sprite, with no heating, no side windows, and, more pertinently, no sleep. It’s a feat shared by Rev. Adam Gompertz and Craig Callum, running in the event for the OCD Action charity in an MG TC prepared by BLD.
The car ran remarkably well, just as Lomas’ Sprite has, and despite covering over a thousand miles since we left the neon night of Glasgow—just two and a half days ago—it hadn’t missed a beat. The same can also be said for the Riley Monaco of William Twelvetrees and his father Roger, and whilst they do have the luxury of a sealed cockpit, their 1933 machine doesn’t have the horses its stablemates do—first out, and last in was the theme of the Twelvetrees’ trip.
These three cars still had a day driving ahead of them to make it to Valence for the convergence of this year’s Rallye Monte-Carlo participants. By the time they pull into the final time control for the day at the Stade Pompidou, they will have been up and on the road for 36 hours and travelled another 300 miles on the last stint of the journey to this starting line. When we get there it feels like the finish already, and with just a gentle roll down to Monte-Carlo on the next day’s docket, who could blame any of the crews for feeling that way?
Only thing is, the gentle roll is still a whole day’s worth of driving, down into the mountains of Provence and over the snow-crusted roads of the Col de Turini, in freezing conditions, in 80-year-old cars.
A champagne class this is not. The mileage covered has put all of these vintage cars well on the way to needing an engine rebuild or at least a thorough checkup, and the crews have battled through sub-zero temperatures, snow, ice, altitude, and fatigue to get here. Most of the traveling we did on the way was at night, and while this isn’t the most picturesque journey in the world, the feeling of accomplishment wasn’t stunted by lack of postcard views—and to be sure, there were some of those along the way, too.
All six of the cars competing under the Blue Diamond banner made it to Monaco, and the fact that only three of them completed every time control section of the race is testament to what a tough going this is—there were a few spanners turned in anger before the completion of the rallye (I reckon I’ll need the odd tweak with a wrench if I make it to 80 myself), but it was well worth the time and effort, and this particular effort was a privilege to be a small part of. It’s testimony to the pre-event prep that all machines drove over the finish line, but also to the verve of those who worked the controls to get them there.