It was a typical shopping day in the high street. Well, ok, maybe not by UK standards. The sun was a bit hotter than you’d normally expect in St Albans, there were rather more Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s hunting parking spaces than you’d find in St Ives and, unlike St Helens, the shopping bags were Louis Vuitton rather that Lidl and there was unquestionably more Moet for sale than milk.
That’s because we were in St Tropez, but it was still a typical shopping day. Then, something caught the eye of the shoppers. Now, these are people who wouldn’t normally give a second glance to Brad and Angelina running over Naomi Campbell in a Bugatti Veyron and yet they were actually staring – and smiling. So it wasn’t a superstar, or a supermodel or a supercar that caught their fancy but it was definitely super – it was a Morgan.
My Morgan 4/4 1600 Competition was 40 years old so I had decided to give it a birthday treat – a drive to the South of France and back. It also coincided with my birthday (sadly not my 40th!) so it was to be a double celebration on the Cote D’Azur. I’d been thinking about this trip for a year or two. At 1800 miles there and back this was to be the longest distance the car had ever travelled in Europe and, although I know 40 is the new 30, my wife and I wondered if it was wise. However, it had enjoyed a few ‘limbering up’ exercises over the past few years speeding down to Le Mans for the Classic and occasionally for the 24 Hours itself. So, I was quietly confident.
As an insurance policy, however, I checked it in for a little TLC at Brands Hatch Morgans. Sarah, Keith, Phil, Brett and the guys have been lovingly nurturing my car for years and have become specialists at the pre-Le Mans fitness assessments and remedies. They were reassuring so we made our minds up. The trip to St-Trop was on and it was just about packing essential kit – and my Ray-Ban Wayfarers, of course.
Compared to decisions over the right Riviera look, selecting the route was simple. As intrepid travelers we would meander down along little known Gallic “chemin de campagnes” seeking out obscure “Chambres avec petit déjeuner” And we would have done, if we were anything like ‘intrepid travelers’ and we hadn’t wanted to get to the sun asap. Instead we chose the most direct route, if you’d put a ruler on Calais and St Tropez and drawn a line it couldn’t have been straighter.
However, as anyone who travels on the other side of the Channel knows France is so vast and so rural that even the motorways routinely pass through areas whose natural beauty would qualify for special plaques and conservation orders in other countries. So as April reached its last chilly gasp the journey from Calais to Lyons (our first night stop-over) was memorably beautiful if rather blustery. It was also, for a 40-year-old car, happily incident-free mechanically.
Now, I know amusing parts failure and bizarre breakdowns are the stuff of these Morgan trip sagas but I must disappoint their fans. Over its life my car has been remarkably trouble free. It has bothered the AA several times but their splendid guys had us back on our journey in no time at all. There was a petrol problem in Malvern (it must have been MOG 86, according to my Diamond Anniversary Special Issue) but this was sorted by a very helpful man who was just passing by in his Morgan. I watched with admiration (and total terror) as he fiddled with the petrol feed line – whilst smoking a huge pipe! In fact, in all the years it had only been on the back of a recovery truck once. And that was when it was parked dead in the centre of the Le Mans Classic racetrack, and I, embarrassingly, lost my key ring with ignition key and, most importantly, the Krooklok key attached. The recovery man was so delighted with the assignment; he even brought his wife to view the amazing cars.
So, over the day our fingers uncrossed and we worried only about what to have for lunch. Stopping, occasionally, to feed us and, frequently, to give the car a drink re-introduced us to another pleasant aspect of driving a Morgan in France – the attention it gets. The French, certainly in rural areas, all seem to drive old, battered muddy-grey Renaults. Yet the second they spot something interesting, like “le Murrrgarn”, they suddenly turn into the most fanatic ‘Top Gear’ fans. They would gather around the car congratulating it and us on owning it. They would fire off questions, most of which in true Brit ‘restaurant French only’ style I could barely understand but their enthusiasm needed no translation and I soon learnt “mil neuf cent soixante-neuf”, “moteur Ford seize cent “ and “cent et soixante kilomètres par heure “. I hoped they’d find my appalling accent as attractive as we find Gerald Depadieu’s when he mangles English.
These generous and charming accolades continued as we drove towards Lyon. Hands were constantly waving from the roadside and passing cars requiring a reciprocal response from us whose constant repetition would have exhausted the Queen. Cheery shouts and whistles were added when we arrived in the city and hit a traffic jam caused by ‘Lyon United’ football fans and it was with this noisy escort that we arrived at our hotel.
Next day, our spirits rose with the temperature, as this was the short bit of the journey. On our drive so far, in spite of the April chills, the Morgan had been topless (how else for St Tropez?). But we quickly felt the warm balmy air of the South and leather jackets came off as sunglasses went on. Now we really were in Morgan country “dans un style francais” and everything we passed seemed to be evocative of the pleasures ahead. The colours of the Mediterranean were captured in the fruit trees in blossom against the unbelievably blue sky. The faces that smiled at us were distinctly more sun tanned. The scent of the wild herbs, growing as freely by the roadside as our nettles, hinted at the great meals ahead. And as the Morgan growled through the Rhone valley you couldn’t pass the miles upon miles of vineyards or the road signs to Chateauneuf du Pape or Beaumes de Venice without mentally ‘tasting’ that first glass of chilled wine. Even the roadside lavatory my wife encountered with the now rare slippery metal footrests and deep dark frightening hole gave us a sense that we were leaving formal France behind.
Actually we weren’t going straight to St-Tropez. Vague impressions of overpricing, traffic jams, noise and the fact that where once you might bump into Bardot or Picasso it was now likely to be Katy Price and Roman Abramovich had persuaded us to find an apartment elsewhere. So, on the recommendation of friends, we had booked a place in Bormes – les – Mimosas, a few miles away. And their advice was good; this village is even more stunning than it sounds. Beautiful pink washed, terracotta tiled, bougainvillea graced houses cling perilously to the side of a lush tree clad hill. The road up to our apartment was pretty perilous too, especially in such a low-slung vehicle. But it was worth it; the view from our terrace was as reviving and invigorating as the glass of Provence rosé with which we toasted the Morgan’s arrival in the Med.
And, after a couple of lazy days, there we were, causing a fuss amongst the shoppers on the Avenue Foch. The town was named after St Torpes, an early Christian martyr. Allegedly, he was beheaded and set adrift in a boat that finally beached where Saint-Tropez now flourishes. The boat also contained a cock and a dog, and when you see some of the people on their super yachts you feel nothing’s changed! However, all my other initial fears about the place vanished as soon as we’d left the industrial outskirts behind and arrived in the Port. St Tropez in spring is totally charming. We may have been a little won over by people’s appreciation of our car but the residents in the shops, galleries, bars and restaurants were all friendly and helpful – no Gallic shrug, no dismissive “Non” or “Pouf!” Sadly, the narrow streets of the Port were less friendly to our car (and just about everybody else’s) Maybe when St Tropez’s most famous resident drove her Morgan, you could park anywhere. But now, like me, Mme Bardot would have to leave it in an underground car park. So, while we celebrated the joint birthdays at Senequier, a harbour front café, the Morgan lurked amongst rows of much commoner supercars.
Fortunately, for all of us, the drive to and from the town made up for this. It’s one of those classic, winding coastal roads carved into hillsides that are perfectly designed for top down, top speed motoring. On one side, sharply scented forests sweeping up to the sky. On the other side – nothing, until several thousand feet down there’s the sparkling blue Mediterranean. And ahead, just those sort of curves that demand to be explored at a thrilling pace. No traffic, no cares, no gendarmes - just a typical day on a country road where the experience of driving a Morgan can’t be matched. Il est magnifique!