Triumph – and James May

Cars People

That time I drove across England, Wales, and Ireland with James May in a beat-up old Triumph

The Grand Tour is back on our telly-boxes (assuming you have Amazon Prime), and we’re currently being treated to (or tortured by, delete as applicable and to your taste) by more road trips involving everyone’s favourite (or otherwise) trio of car geeks.

Whether or not this ends up being the last season of The Grand Tour (as has been variously rumoured and denied) that means we’re in for another few weeks of silly cross-country shenanigans involving various inappropriate cars. Twenty-odd years ago, I was involved in what might, if you’re feeling generous, be called a vague prototype of such driving adventures. It involved a cool car (well, cool-ish), a deadline, a mechanical drama, and one of the Grand Tour’s actual presenters, prior to the fact. Unlike the carefully scripted and crafted tales of GT, this one came about entirely by chance…

The phone rang and I picked it up. This is long enough ago, the autumn of 1995 to be exact, that it was a proper phone, sitting on a side table, with a cable snaking into the wall. The voice at the other end was unfamiliar to me then, but oddly now would be incredibly familiar, to me and to many hundreds of millions of other car-nuts. “Well, you’ve won it. You’ve won the car” the voice said.

Let me rewind a little. Earlier in the summer of that year, I had been home from university. My family lived then (they still do) in West Cork, which if you look at a map of Ireland is the little finger of land sticking out into the Atlantic, bottom far left. My university was in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, so trips home were rare and involved either endless bus journeys and a ferry, or an expensive plane ride.

This summer (I remember it being balmy and sunny, but in memory weren’t they all?) my parents, sister and I had gone into the nearby town of Skibbereen for a burger, and I had used the opportunity of popping into a nearby shop to pick up the latest edition of Car magazine. I was an avid reader then, and remain so, but in the far-off nineties, one of Car’s columnists was James May.

James was at this stage not globally famous. He had not yet begun his first stint on ‘old’ Top Gear, back in its 30-minute, Thursday nights, BBC2, era. He was ex of Haymarket Publishing and Autocar, and — as I am today — a jobbing motoring writer. In this column, he was writing about his old, creaky, 1968 Triumph Vitesse and how he wanted to get rid of it. It not being worth much, he had decided, through the auspices of his column, to give it away as a competition prize. Now, most people, reading that, might have thought ‘hmm, nice old car. I might enter that.’

My thought process was; “I know that car.”

I did, too, in a manner of speaking. Dashing back home, I began digging through my enormous collection of car magazines, which sat on a somewhat precarious shelf over my bed (if those pre-IKEA shelf brackets had given way under the strain of so many magazines I’d have been suffocated by my own passion…). And there it was, in a 1991 edition of Autocar & Motor, the very first one that I had ever bought, in fact. A long-term test piece, written by James May, focusing not on the shiny new metal that usually made up the subjects of such pieces, but his beat-up old Triumph Vitesse convertible.

I took this as a sign — well, you do with such things when you’re in college, right? I dashed, literally, straight to the typewriter (yes, that’s how old I am…) and whipped off a letter explaining to James, as he had laid out in his column, why I would be the right person to take ownership of his old car.

Now, a few short weeks later, here he is, Mr James May, soon to be one of the three most famous car guys in the world, and he’s on the phone to me saying that I’ve been selected as the new owner of his car.

Why? Well, according to James, I met the criteria. The my-first-issue-of-Autocar thing might or might not have been a help, but something else I said definitely swung it for me. Everyone else, apparently, had written in describing how carefully they would disassemble, polish, repair, and reassemble the Vitesse, returning it to a condition far better than how it had left Triumph’s old factory at Canley, in Coventry. That was the wrong answer, said James. The right answer, apparently, was mine — that it would be the only convertible in my sleepy West Cork home village, and that I would use it to try and attract girls. This was the intended use of the car, he said, and this was why I had won it.

We agreed to meet in a few week’s time at the Car Magazine offices in north London, and we would together drive the car from there, across England, and Wales, to the overnight car ferry from Swansea to Cork, and then on to my parent’s house. I would get a car, James would get an interesting feature. Everyone wins.

So, I finished university assignments one Friday morning (or, more likely, skived off from said university work), and grabbed a train to London. I figured my trusty Rothmans-Williams-Renault lightweight jacket would be warm enough for a balmy October day, and rocked up at the Car offices to meet James.

He had shorter hair then, and was wearing a sensible jumper, instead of one of his now-famous flowery shirts. In every other respect, he was how you know him now — not massively chatty, but witty in a grumpy, quiet sort of way. He was fiddling with a small hand-held device made by Philips, an early form of sat-nav which, theoretically, would give us text instructions of which way to turn. James would drive the UK leg of the journey, as far as the ferry, and then I would take over on the Irish side, dropping James to Cork airport to nab a flight back to London as we drove.

Off we set. The Vitesse was, to me at that point, utterly gorgeous. Dark blue paint (Triumph called it ‘Trafalgar Blue’) with matching dark blue convertible top, and blue vinyl seats. It had stacked twin headlights, tiny (but very pointy) tail-fins, and a surfeit of chrome. If you looked a little closer, it was also rather care-worn. Actually, if you even so much as glanced at it, it looked half-way to wrecked. James had driven it and kept it running, rather than fastidiously maintained it, and what work had been done had been done on a budget. One of the seats had previously collapsed and had been repaired with garden furniture components, for example. The synchromesh in the four-speed-with-overdrive gearbox was so worn as to be effectively non-existent, and the body so torsionally un-rigid that the doors had a habit of flying open on roundabouts. Oh, and being a Mk1 Vitesse, it also had that utterly lethal rear swing arm suspension, surely the work of a murderous sociopath, which would lift up and fold the rear wheels under the body if you misjudged a corner and tried to brake…

On the upside, it was a sunny day, the top was down, I was freezing in my too-light jacket, and the 2.0-litre straight-six was eagerly sucking fuel in through its twin Stromberg carburettors. Off we went…

The Vitesse and we glided easily enough out through London. The relatively cool weather kept any potential overheating problems at bay, and I contented myself with checking the maps, checking the small Philips thingy for directions, and peppering James with a constant barrage of questions, almost all of them a variation on “hey, how do I become a professional motoring journalist?” I’m sure he must have wanted to throttle me by the time we reached the M25 motorway, but somehow he kept his temper even, and the big-six engine powered the old Triumph along happily at 70mph. Well, we figured it was 70mph. The needle on the speedometer would bounce around a bit randomly, so we mostly just cruised with the other traffic and assumed that we were within the rough boundaries of the law. Fewer speed cameras, and no average speed loggers, back then.

It happened near Slough.

Night had settled in and we had put the top up, trying to coax a little extra warmth from the Triumph’s pretty feeble heater. The soak of warmth from the straight-six engine, wafting back through the firewall, was doing a better job, to be honest, but suddenly our collective blood ran cold as we heard it — whap, whap, whap, whap, whap. It sounded like someone slapping a wet dog with a rolled-up newspaper, over and over again. We pulled in, and found that tread was peeling off one of the rear tyres.

Fumbling in semi-darkness with an old toolkit, we finally got it changed and the (pretty-ancient-looking) spare on, but now were well behind schedule. James pressed on hard, the wobbly speedo flapping around between 80-90mph, but it was for naught. We reached Swansea to find the gates to the ferry port closed, the boat gone.

We probably should have turned around at that point, but James was all for pressing on — some of the do-or-die Top Gear spirit apparent even then. There would be another Ferry, from Fishguard, up on the west coast of Wales, leaving at 3am for the port of Rosslare in Co. Wexford. We could make it, at the cost of sleep, and would have more miles to cover on the Irish side, but decided to go for it. It was probably an entertaining drive up through Wales, along twisting roads, but I’ll never know — by this time I was tired and was concentrating on keeping a check of the maps to make sure we didn’t miss a turn, didn’t miss another boat, didn’t get snagged by slow-moving traffic across Wales. We didn’t, happily, and rolled onto the ferry on schedule, nabbing a small two-berth cabin to grab some shut-eye on the four-hour crossing. Which means, yes folks, I’ve shared a bathroom with James May and he’s seen me in my underwear. Sorry about that, James.

At 7am, we docked, fired up the Vitesse, and now it was my turn. Except, well, except there’s a problem. I’d heard, at that time, of the concept of double-declutching, and heel-and-toe gearchanges, but I’d never actually done either, bar some half-hearted attempts in my dad’s Ford Sierra. Now, with the synchromesh of the Triumph’s gearbox so conspicuously absent without leave, I have to learn, and learn fast. And do it while guiding the Vitesse off the ferry and up and out the road past the town of Rosslare, all with other impatient drivers and holidaymakers swarming around me. It didn’t help that the mount for the organ-style throttle pedal was slightly loose, causing the pedal to wobble around, meaning that my attempts to roll my foot onto it, to give a jolt of revs to smooth out the gearchange, are more than a little hit-and-miss, compounding my inherent flat-footedness. We make it as far as a nearby B&B which offers breakfast on a drop-in basis. I expect a tirade of abuse from James as to my cack-handed handling of the car and its gearbox, but all he actually does is note the amount of sugar I’m spooning into my tea cup and observe that ‘there’s not enough room in that cup for all that sugar.’ Hey, I was young and wasn’t putting on weight back then…

We carry on, and the gearbox gets a little easier. The trick is to get it into fourth, and then use the overdrive, actuated by a small wand on the steering column, trusting in the engine’s torque to carry you through any low gear manoeuvres. The overdrive works smoothly and easily, doesn’t require you to go near the clutch, and is sort-of-kind-of a prehistoric form of paddle shift. I come to rely on it, as a way of avoiding using the recalcitrant gearbox, but the rest of the Triumph feels wonderful, to me. Doubtless today, with two decades of testing cars behind me, I’d find nothing but fault, but back then, with the twig-thin Bakelite steering wheel rim in my hands, aiming between the frowning peaks of the bonnet, and with that straight-six roaring and growling away in lusty tune, I just fell hopelessly in love with that beat-up old car. Knackered it may have been, but on a sunny day, with the top down, it was pure, unadulterated, uncut motoring.

We drove on, passing Waterford, Youghal, and Castlemartyr until we hit Cork city, and I swung around the ring road to drop James at the airport. I might have expected him to be a bit more emotional about saying goodbye to his (t)rusty old Triumph, but he was, in fairness, in a rush to catch his flight so aside from taking a couple of quick photos of the ignition key (a delicately slim thing, with the Triumph logo embossed onto the top) and the car’s badges, he was off. (It was the last time I saw him until a chance meeting half-a-decade later at a Saab launch. By then he was properly famous, and we exchanged just a few words. He was, incidentally, cross with me for having later sold the car on…)

The old Triumph had one last surprise for me before I got home, though. On my own now, and driving on roads I knew well, I barrelled along happily, soaking up the atmosphere of the drive and plotting just which of the local girls I’d try first to impress with my new wheels. It was still early enough in the day, so few other cars were on the road, and I was lapsing into my usual driving habits, honed in the family Sierra. Coming into the town of Clonakilty, from the Cork side, there’s a small roundabout, and the road was mildly damp from an overnight shower. I drove, uncaringly up to it, indicated, swept the steering wheel around and… lifted off the throttle.

The Vitesse took instant exception to this foolish move, the swing arm rear suspension went about its murderous work, and within what felt like a fraction of a second, the little Triumph had whipped around in a perfect 360-degree spin, stayed away from any of the nearby walls and kerbs, and was now rolling gently along the road, in the intended direction of travel. The engine was still ticking over, which I then realised was because I had reacted by stabbing at the brake, but because the pedals were so offset to the right, had actually hit the clutch pedal. No-one had seen me do it, the car was unscathed, my heart was beating like a panicky rabbit’s. To this day, it’s still the only car I’ve ever tipped into a spin on the public road. I crunched the gearbox into first (bloody synchromesh) and drove the last few miles home with a deal more caution.

That wasn’t the end of my travails with the Triumph. There was the occasional, illicit drive (Irish insurance costs meant I was never technically allowed to drive it. Technically) and the incident with the distributor cap that got me fired from my first job (long story), but the first adventure was over. I didn’t know it then, but I had just driven a classic car across the country — three countries, technically — sitting alongside the man who’d gifted it to me, who would go on to become one of the most recognisable TV personalities… in the world.