Words by Tom Butler
Before we begin the story, a brief but heartfelt thanks to those of you who helped make this adventure happen, especially Dad and Mum, Pam, Richard, Noel, Daniele, Kelly, Rhadames, Clara, Kate, Christian. Thank you!
The idea of getting the car down to Malta had been passed around a few times, but no one seemed to have time. It could be shipped, so I looked in to that, but the idea of driving seemed more interesting; it would mean I could stop to see a couple of friends on the way. I was aiming for a maximum of a week and had to be back by 20 May at the latest. When Dad visited he confirmed he would like to have the car in the sun, so I started planning and then I decided to take Richard – it might be the last chance for me and him to get to know each other a bit before he was gone for good… We would leave the following morning.
Preparations started in earnest a few days before the off. Padraig at Wesley James' tracked and balanced the wheels. Wesley warned me about play in the steering and I replied: "That's just how it is!" Wesley told me to "See Noel!" at least five times, so I did. Noel is a wizard who keeps the cars, trucks and tractors of many lucky folk around here running and looking good. He had done an amazing job of "repainting" the car a year ago. The paint job was beautiful but he also waxoyled the frame inside and out and re-welded a few of the more gaping holes. (After picking it up last year, he demonstrated its roadworthiness by doing a few doughnuts on a country lane!) The car would not have been ready without his magical touch. On this occasion he gave the steering a clean bill of health but told me to replace the front driver side tyre. We swapped it for the spare in the meantime.
So Pam and I went to Carlow to see Askea Tyres. One of the two tyres they had in stock bubbled at the side when inflated so off it came. Luckily we were able to change the worst offender – the front driver side tyre – which was cracking.
On the way home, a banging developed. We stopped at Noel's and Brian gave a hand. We tightened the wheel spinner – problem solved. Brian mentioned play in the ball joint. "Shhhh! Don't say anything. What you don't know will not hurt you…"
At home, I saw a pigeon sitting in the garden? Why wasn't it moving? Leaning closer I could see it had tags on its legs - it was a racing pigeon that had become exhausted and just had to land; I remembered being told that this sometimes happened to them. I phoned the number on the tag and Eddie in Dublin answered. Yes, it was his pigeon. Could we give him some water and meal? No problem. We would drop it off in the morning as we drove through Dublin to the ferry. We put the bird in a box with hay, water and food.
I picked Richard up from the train station. He had permission to leave school and was coming too. When we returned home we noticed the car was looking less dusty – Pam had surreptitiously given it a good cleaning.
That evening we packed and tried to get an early night. Pam mentioned that having driven to Carlow earlier that day helped her appreciate the dangers involved… and maybe it was not such a good idea to take Richard in the car. But the die was cast…
I woke early and checked the car and walked around the garden in the pre-dawn light as the birds broke silence. Full moon facing the rising sun, crisp air, dawn chorus – it was awesome. I woke Richard around 5am and we loaded the car, loaded the pigeon, hugs and kisses and were off, about 6am, 26,101 miles on the clock. We were on a road trip!
We cruised to Dublin, having chosen the longest trip through the city; it was interesting to see the town waking up but I was a bit impatient with the traffic. Richard was cool about the whole thing. He nonchalantly mentioned every now and then how much quicker the other route, which the mapping app recommended, would be… but the engine was warming as it sat in traffic. We got to the port half an hour before departure. Irish Ferries, comfortable as always, this time the quick crossing. Just as we were about to enter the hold, we released the pigeon who turned for home. Eddie left a voicemail that she had arrived five minutes after we let her out… a fun beginning to the trip, little of which had been planned, from Richard coming along, to the pigeon rescue, to waking up at 3am, to the Dublin detour, and we felt good.
After disembarking we stopped for provisions then started off on the A55 through lovely countryside and made fair time to Chester. Then the car stated to overheat. We stopped and refilled the water but soon the temperature was up again. I called Noel who mentioned leaks and, I think prompted by Brian, said maybe it was a leaking head gasket. But he gave me testing instructions over the 'phone and it seemed at worst it was a leak in the radiator or hoses. We were kindly directed to CAW Motor Factors who helped out with rad weld and coolant.
The temperature issue ameliorated but did not go away and stayed with us to London. It did not seem to be leaks because they did not show on rad or hoses. It was not the head gasket because there was no constant bubbling on filling the rad with water. I wondered if the radiator cap was the issue because it did not feel tight. I wondered if water was being released too easily. The electric fan did not help – it was not working yet was blocking air flow thereby reducing the capacity of the cooling system to cool the engine.
As we rounded Birmingham on the M6, heavier traffic and intermittent crawling pushed the temperature up a bit more. Suddenly the engine stopped. We were in the middle of the motorway. I hit the clutch and popped the car in to neutral to maintain speed. Luckily the traffic was slow. Rich was dozing off but immediately leapt in to action as we both jumped out of the car and pushed her off to the side. French might have been spoken, but we were pretty calm. After a couple of minutes I tried the engine again and she started. We rolled off again. I dropped speed and cancelled an evening appointment with Rupert. We had to refill the radiator frequently. It was good to have texts from Noel and Rupert, who had followed progress, asking about how we were getting on. And Daniele's advice as we passed Oxford was welcome "Get here safely". Thanks to them all.
I planned to go to the TR Shop if we made it to London… which we did, eventually around 9pm. The normally five to six hour drive had taken over nine hours.
We spent a memorable evening with Daniele and Kelly. They are a breath of fresh air and generous hosts. We were up and at Floris Cafe by 0830, my usual haunt when passing through South Ken. Great place, good people. Coffeeee!
Then I met Charles and Allen. Allen, a successful entrepreneur building a business which turns waste tyres in to fuel, also has a passion for cars and has raced. He came to look at the car and clearly understood some of the issues I was facing and offered some pointers, including staying below 50mph for safety if the steering was suspect (which I did not think was the problem, but…). Thanks Allen.
I have been going to the TR Shop since the early eighties. The counter used to be along the left wall, now it is at the front. It is a real place, a human place and I am grateful to Lukas for helping me out for decades. I picked up a radiator cap with a slightly longer neck and primed at 4 lbs rather than 10. The longer neck was essential to keep the water in. I also picked up a few emergency supplies like radiator hoses, fan belt, coil, distributor cap and leads, and spark plugs, just in case…
The heating problem subsided, though never went away, partly because the electric fan did not turn but blocked the radiator. George (in Gozo) later told me that the lighter pressure of the radiator cap helps reduce water loss, as well as the correct length neck.
We continued to the Chunnel train. We made good time and arrived in France about 1730 French time. After filling up we erroneously took a slight detour toward Brussels before getting back on the Paris road. I wondered if it was a sign that we should visit Marc, now in Brussles on his brief vacation from Africa, but I decided to stay on track simply because I had given myself limited time to do the trip.
It was beautiful drive and we made reasonable time toward Paris. After 100km or so I checked the wheels. There had been more shake than I was used to on the down slopes of the rolling motorway. We jacked up the front wheel and checked the spinners. Everything seemed fine and while stopped, Sebastian pulled up, checked out the car while we were fiddlin', and then we chatted a bit. He showed us a snap of his seventies or eighties Caterham, a more modern racer, and I tried out my incomprehensible French on him. It is cool when spontaneous camaraderie is sparked by a mutual passion…
As dusk fell I realised our lights were not working properly. We pulled in to a service area and looked for a solution, checking wiring and fuses, but did not have any luck. I phoned Rhadames to say we were delayed. Eventually I got the fiddling right and the lights came on. We got going again, though it was nearing 2300. It was 40km to Paris and Rhadames was not yet asleep. Soon there was a motorway diversion and, as traffic merged, we were edged in to the verge by a truck. Luckily we rumbled over the grass on to the road without any bangs. That was the only traffic incident we experienced and everyone came out fine.
Arriving on the Paris peripherique it felt good to be able to keep up with the traffic. The car sounded awesome growling through the tunnels as we sped half way around Paris via the "exterieur". We arrived in Vanves after midnight and what a warm welcome: my favourite pasta, a pizza, a glass of wine! Thanks to Rhadames, Clara and Ruben for looking after us.
The following morning I enjoyed the treat of Paris on a sunny morning in May. A hot air balloon was rising next to the Eiffel Tower over the Seine as I walked across and I took a little detour through a park on the way. There were arrows on the ground pointing off the main path, so, in the spirit of the Zen adventure, I took the hint and followed them. They brought me through pleasant glades and it seemed a metaphor for life – that if you take "the road less travelled" you enjoy the byways while still being in touch with the more distant main route …
On arrival back at the flat, Clara and Rich mobilised and we left on foot to meet Molly down by the river. Clara and Molly went for a coffee while Rich and I walked to the Eiffel Tower and then on to Concorde near where we met the others to go to lunch. We had planned to leave after lunch but I decided to stick around a little longer to hang out with Rhada since he would be home early. I'm glad I did, though it meant we left in the rush hour traffic. We made it out of Paris in about half an hour and headed south. The whole time we had travelled on motorways we had been the slowest vehicle in the slow lane. The small size of the car becomes especially noticeable when you are surrounded by large trucks. On this stretch I started to notice the small size more. There was some rain and the performance of the wipers was variable. (We had learned at the TR Shop that the wipers are probably original, based on the serial number.) I hoped to reach Kate and Christian that night, but knew we had left Paris too late. Around midnight we pulled in to a rest stop and parked. We slept.
About 0400 we started off again. There was a diversion at the next motorway exit. We did not want to exit, but were forced to and there were no signs for the diversion. We started following signs for Bourg and then Chalon and pulled in to Chalon north about 0600 and stopped in a quiet gas station to get our bearings. When I turned the ignition the battery was flat. Must have been lights, heater and wipers that drained the battery… I asked a few early morning passers-by for jump leads (in my best French, ha ha – "pinces" if you're wondering) but no luck. Rich said "Shall I push?" I did not think we had a chance, but we pushed the car to the back of the lot, then started for the roll, I jumped in, Rich was powering the machine from the back, I let the clutch off in to second and she fired. Wahoo! We were off again.
We re-found the motorway, got on and then followed Kate's excellent directions to St Bonnet de Joux arriving for le petit dejeuner around 0800. After breakfast I looked at the car and chatted with Christian. The clutch and brake pedals had been sticking on each other, which can be quite worrying in traffic or at high speed or both! He ingeniously proposed a washer to move the joint on a couple of mm – simple and effective!
We stayed for a delicious lunch, checked maps and then bid farewell. We decided to head for Italy… The drive through the Alps was spectacular. Hills, valleys, tunnels, viaducts, precarious edges, hard climbs … through the Mont Blanc tunnel (11.6km!) and out in to Italia!
We stopped to refuel and water. We were keeping a record of mileage since the fuel gauge was erratic and we did not want to run dry. We also matched the miles on the clock to the kilometres on the road signs to make sure the reading was good. (It was.)
After a bit of lollygagging we headed on south. After passing out of the gorges and valleys as the Alps subsided, we came to flatter country which appeared flooded. Rich thought it was planned and we thought perhaps it might be rice paddies for arborio rice. We headed for Genoa. It sounded historic and was on the coast. Hopefully we would find a place to stay.
We arrived in Genoa as the light faded and found ourselves in a port town – large warehouses, rail lines and cranes and ships behind port walls. The street lighting was dim. Before long we passed a Best Western and circled back to see if they could take us. They could. We checked in, left out bags and headed out to a modest pizza joint on a corner. A large fellow had just driven his 1000cc racebike into the shop."Buona sera! Aperto?" In my best, non-existent, Italian we asked for a pizza and a couple of beers. The people there were welcoming and cool. We meandered back to the hotel by midnight.
We were down at breakfast by 08.30, loaded the car and hit the road. It was a beautiful day and the drive was fun. We had to get fuel and stopped at the next service area. This was where we met the reputed rip-off opportunity in Italy which some fear – €1.99 a litre! In France the price was advertised well before the service area, in Italy you did not know it till you were at the pump. Our fill ups were 25-35 litres and we had some flexibility in the budget so I did not grumble. It was a sharp contrast to the wonderful evening we had had before and put it down to a local economic divergence. (The next most expensive was in southern Italy where we found fuel for €1.75 a litre.) We filled up, checked the water, declined the very expensive coolant and continued in the sunshine.
We coasted south till the road forked around Pisa. We had planned to take the coast road, but made a mistake and found ourselves heading for Firenze and Roma. We decided to retrace our path, since we wanted to be on the coast. This might not have been such a good idea. The scenery was lovely, but the road was a disaster zone – rutted, cobbled, holey – and everyone still maintaining motorway speeds. About 200km north of Naples, the car started to shake badly. I thought it might have been tyres or steering damaged by the poor road. We stopped and checked the tyres for bumps. All seemed OK, but the shaking remained. We texted Noel who gave some suggestions. We stopped again to check. This time I removed the wheels and checked the steering. All seemed OK.
It was warm so we also took the roof down and used the windows as wind-breakers behind our seats. And so we continued, but the shaking remained with us for the rest of the day. I tried to find the right speed and feathered the throttle to try synchronise the car best to reduce the shake. It was not easy and we dropped our speed from 80-100kmh to 60-80kmh.
The drive was beautiful. We passed around Rome and continued south along a picturesque, though intermittently industrial, landscape. As we approached Naples the sun was setting. We passed around and continued south. We stopped at a service area for a bite. The pizza was nothing compared to the one we had enjoyed the night before, but the venue gave another insight to Italian life – it was big and full of food. A bus load of students arrived, ate and left quicker than we did. We continued on for another couple of hours, pulling over at another service area before midnight.
I woke early at 04.00. I tried the lights, they did not come on. I tried the ignition – the battery was flat. I started to explore the connections behind the panel. After about half an hour a van with trailer pulled up nearby. After ten minutes the driver came over to offer help. He gave me a torch with a magnetic back - I had been using a couple of LEDs which turned off after a minute! Unfortunately his torch ran out of power after a few minutes. The fiddling continued and Waldher offered a hand. Richard too had woken by this time and after a while went in search of coffee. Waldher returned to his van to sleep, while his partner took over the driving. They were off to Palermo to pick up an 1970s Alfa! I got out the computer and tethered the phone and started looking up wiring diagrams. By about 0600 I had rewired the lights and ignition and the panel was back on, but we still had a flat battery. Fortunately we had a Richard. After a stretch and another coffee Richard push-started the car and we headed out.
It was a gorgeous sunny morning but the shake was still with us. The road took us through some hilly patches where the car would coast on the downhill. On one of these occasions she slipped out of fourth. I tried to put it back, but was met with resistance and a grinding sound. I tried third. She went in easily, and then slipped in to fourth… and the shake was gone! Now I remembered that the car had slipped out of fourth the previous day – the gears must have misaligned when I forced it into fourth! I would have to look that one up when I got back. The point was, the going was now smooth and we could raise the tempo to 80-100kmh.
There were numerous tunnels along this stretch too and the lights seemed to be working most of the time. Not having lights was not a great issue in the tunnels because they were lit and other drivers have lights. But as we entered one tunnel I "interpreted" a sign in Italian posted at the entrance -"No lights in this tunnel…" or something like that… As we cruised in, I switched on the lights. They did not come on. It was getting dark fast. I started to brake and by the time we slowed we were in pitch black darkness. No light. I didn't know what lane I was in or if I was facing into a wall or not. I breathed. I flicked on the indicator. OK, some light. We were stopped diagonally across both lanes. Hopefully any car roaring up from behind would see the light flashing, but it would still be tight. I pulled to the side and frantically fiddled with the switch. A car shot past. The lights came on. We were very happy to exit that dark hole in the ground…
We headed for Reggio di Calabria from where I had caught the ferry a few decades before. But the port was quiet and only a foot passenger ferry was operating. Oh dear! I asked a cop and he pointed me to Villa San Giovanni which I had noticed we passed a little while before Reggio. We headed back along the minor roads and found our way to the port, bought a ticket and boarded the commuter ferry to Messina. From there we headed to Catania.
Sicily was different from Italy. Similar countryside but it felt a bit more rustic, provincial, feudal, mafia? It was a lovely drive with the car top down. We got to Catania and wound our way through the streets to the port. We saw the signs for Virtu ferries but no ferry. A lad at a local bar was in no mood to help. He seemed more interested in making sure I did not speak to his female colleague, reminding me ofAsterix in Corsicawhere speaking to a female was cause for a vendetta!
Eventually I found the office. It was closed. Meanwhile I checked the Virtu website and it seemed there would be a sailing from Pozzallo that evening. We left Catania and headed south again.
We approached Pozzallo and exited to the local roads which deteriorated significantly. We hit a dip in the road which brought the car down hard on the road, but we cruised on, finding the port five or ten minutes later. We knew we were in the right place because we could see a massive catamaran ferry with Virtu on its bow. We found the queue – there were only three cars there. We stopped. The hand brake did not work. It had snapped off, probably when we hit that dip just outside Pozzallo… boring!
After half an hour or so someone official looking turned up. We inquired about tickets. "Oh no. It's full. You can book for Wednesday. Or go on the waiting list."
We got on the waiting list and stood by for four hours hoping we would get on. Roberto at the ticket counter kindly charged my mobile phone and laptop while we waited. The people in front of us had driven a car and caravan from Wales and were wait-listed too. They had seen us on the road. They too had had challenges – they had duct-taped the exhaust back on in northern France and it had lasted this long. A few other hopefuls showed up so that when boarding started around 2030 there were half a dozen waiting to get a ticket.
At nine o'clock they let on a wait-listed motorbike. OK, well if a motor-bike was not a sure thing, maybe there was no room for a car, and there was a car and caravan in front of us. After another five minutes they started chatting on the walkie-talkies. They would not take the car and caravan and they gave us the green light and we drove on! Wahoo! We were happy, though felt sympathy for the family in the caravan since they had had a long tough drive too.
On board we had a slice and a drink and I fell asleep on the deck. It is a super two hour crossing and we arrived in Valletta at 2330. We drove off and sped for the ferry at Cirkewa. There was a minor detour, but luckily we made good time arriving 1210 and drove on to the ferry soon after. We landed in Gozo and drove in to Torri by 0100. After a mutual celebration we unloaded, decompressed, showered and slept.
We woke to the peace of Gozo, and a flat tyre. Great. It must have happened on the dirt track going down to the house. We spent the day in luxury, moseying around, fixing the tyre at George's (Emer suggested the light problem might be caused by dirty points on the voltage regulator – will check that), removing the electric fan (we determined that the switch was defective and until fixed the car will be cooler without the fan blocking the radiator), taking a dip in the sea and closing the day with a fabulous dinner at Porto Vechia with Mum and Dad. The next day we accompanied Mum to Floriana and then she dropped us at the airport. We had to get back to reality.
Why Zen adventure? Because we did not plan very much and let the universe point us in the right direction. For example, why did that pigeon land in our garden the evening before we left for Dublin? And I remembered something told to me by a pigeon enthusiast ten years ago? The cosmic rhythm!
We visited friends who were available, we arrived when we arrived, we stayed where we stopped and took the ferries we arrived in time for. Yes, I aimed for a schedule and that influenced us, but in our heads we just went with the flow and enjoyed the journey. As they say "comme je trouve" and we found fun!
A few people ought to be recognised and celebrated for their help and generosity in making this adventure happen.
Top of the list is Dad: Thanks for letting me drive your car! It was super fun. A real life experience. And thanks for making the whole trip "risk free". And thanks for the welcome you and Mum gave us in Gozo. It was a fantastic dream.
Thanks too to Noel, without whom the car would not have got out of the yard. I learned during the trip of some of the extra work and care you gave to the car when you painted it and felt very fortunate. She held together as well as she ever has, she was protected out and in by your coatings and she looked fantastic. Your advice and reassurances while on the road took away our worries. Thank you!
Thanks to Richard for being a good friend and partner on the trip. Cool, engaged, good with the navigation, two push starts, many water and wheel checks and being a great companion. Thanks!
Thanks to Pam for giving me the time to go, for cleaning the car the night before we left and for your support and back up which made our adventure much easier and more fun. The little cushions you gave us worked too! Thank you.
Along the way many people gave a hand from friends who looked after us, like Daniele and Kelly, Rhadames and Clara, and Kate and Christian, to those who offered advice, like Noel, Rupert and Allen, to strangers who offered a hand, like Sebastian, Waldher and Roberto and the fun, helpful and generous characters we met along the way. Thanks to all.
Triumph TR3, first registered 1956 August 1. It is basically a powerful go-kart: 2 litre, 2 seats, you are 10 cm from the tarmac, you are the power steering and ABS (i.e. be strong and pump those drum brakes), great torque, still can get over 80mph though it probably should not, and able to do doughnuts!
It is original but, parts have been replaced and repaired. The biggest difference is the fibre glass wings which were probably put on in the seventies or eighties when they were popular and the originals would have had some wear by then.
The engine had a leak in the cooling chamber between cylinders after its first trip to Malta in 2000. That was looked after by Joe Zerafa. There is a wonderful photo of the car in his shop before the site was developed.
We set off at about 6am on Tuesday and arrived about 1am Monday having travelled about 3,656 kilometres, three ferries, one Chunnel, and numerous tunnels and viaducts through the Alps and in Italy. It was an awesome trip.
For a few days after we returned home my laptop shut down for no apparent reason. I wondered if this was a processor overheating and did an internet search which confirmed the likelihood of that being the problem. I loaded a thermal monitor and sure enough the processor temperature was ranging from 60 to 95 C. I reckoned it would shut down if it hit 105 C or so and guessed that had been happening. At first I just used a cooling platform to moderate the temperature while I got some work out of the way. Then one morning I disassembled the laptop to clean the fan and vents. Compliments to Acer for the design (V3-571) because although I had to displace the motherboard, following instructions in the manual (downloaded from manualslib.com– thanks) it was quite a smooth process. While in the guts of the machine I found that the anchor holes for the monitor screws had broken – possibly a piece had lodged in the fan itself. After a quick vacuum and brush all was put together again. The machine now runs at 40-50oC as it should. The lesson – watch the temperature…