It had been a seven hour slog of a drive from windy and warm La Rochelle in the south to windy and cooler Dieppe in the north. But by mid-afternoon we were in our pleasant but now tiring hotel, the Aguado, and in a room that was not our usual one on the town side, but one facing the 20 acre green sward with the sea beyond.
On driving into this seaside town we had noticed several old motor cars parked or on the move. And from our room we could see more vintage cars beneath us. It was the weekend of the hundredth anniversary of the Dieppe Retro Rally. Cars made in the very early 1900s to around 1937 were to give a static display, driven around some of Normandy, and then take part in a concours d’élégance – right outside our window.
About 100 cars were taking part. One looked rather like a bedstead with engine bolted on to the front and, immediately fronting the driver amidships, an enormous radiator. There were the grand and powerful-looking racing Bentleys, the elegance of 1920s saloons, and on to baby Austins. Most were noticeable for the excessive noise emanating from a few large cylinders and the rattle of well-worn machinery. Drivers and passengers sat high and exposed.
The male drivers were inclined to be ruddy faced, well-heeled (obviously), well fed, and flat or Sherlock Holmes capped. Their ladies were well wrapped up, and had an excuse to wear long skirts and fancy hats tied down under the chin. The women sat upright and, being ladylike, and appendages of lesser importance than cars to the men, displayed an air of slight reluctance to be there at all.
We were able to inspect the cars, talk to the owners, admire the engines, the just-polished brasswork, and generally be amazed at how far motoring had progressed in such a short time.
After market day, when the Grand Rue had been crammed with vendors of most edible commodities, the street had been turned over to the old crocks. There we could compare makes and see the changing fashions of carriagework over the initial years of motoring. An enormous Avians Voisin saloon limousine, black and chrome, polished and with squared-off roofwork, epitomised an age where the few car owners could be very grand indeed.
Having once owned one of the original MGs, it was of especial interest to me to see if my actual car was there, but it wasn’t. Nor was there one that quite matched it. And our family car of earlier days, a bull nose Morris, was not there either. This car of ours had a dickey seat, and passengers would have to get out on to the road and add pushing power to get the car up steep hills.
It looked fun to dress as an Edwardian dandy or a Le Mans Bentley racing driver, but I well recall having to leave girl friends in the passenger seat while I had to adjust the engine of my MG, and get covered in oil in the process. And outside our hotel room, the crew of a motorised Edwardian barouche, dressed in their finery, had to disembark while seats were lifted out on to the road as the menfolk found the box of tools and attempted to get the thing going. Starting handles were in use, and more than one car driver needed the help of passers by for a push.
When all the rally contestants had lined up their cars on the pedestrian Grand Rue of yellow bricks on edge, a large white mat was placed under each car to catch any dripping oil. And nearly every one had left their oily mark behind when they had moved off.
Then came the concours d’élégance when all cars, drivers and passengers formed up on the grass to be judged as they passed a temporarily-erected stage on which a very vociferous Frenchman explained about, and commented on, the cars and their owners. After two and a half hours of it, many of the considerable throng of spectators had wandered off.
It had been a great occasion for owners, passengers and drivers. And many a spectator must have felt like having an old car and taking part. But old cars are a constant trouble, not to mention expense. And they leak oil.
We ate well in our favourite restaurants, bought garlic in the Saturday market, stacked up the car with wine from three sources, looked for and found an excellent Normandy cider in 1 ½ litre plastic bottles, and came home after a varied and most enjoyable holiday in our ten year old, small, Toyota 4x4, a car of the modern age that has never lost a beat and shows no sign of ever doing so. And it has never, ever, leaked a drop of oil.