John Simister: Wales – classic car driving heaven

02nd April 2017
john_simister_singer_goodwood_12062017_04.jpg John Simister

Wales. Britain is lucky to have this principality, not because its existence in the UK is in any jeopardy amid Brexit angst but because it contains fabulous roads through fabulous scenery. It's a classic-car driving heaven.


There's a lot more to Wales than just that, of course, as my Welsh mother and half-Welsh father always made sure I appreciated. It's where my favourite marmalade comes from, for a start. Step forward Coedcanlas of Lawrenny, Pembrokeshire, recently visited by Kate Humble – who lives in Wales herself – for her Back to the Land television series on the BBC.

It's also where the Motor Sports Association has tended to base its popular Spring Classic events, non-competitive navigation runs for around 100 classic cars with a grand dinner and a motor sport venue or two thrown in. Not this year, though, which left a bit of an empty space in the schedule of old-car driving fixes. So various friends and I cooked up our own event instead.

We'd stay at small, friendly hotels instead of the faceless conference venues needed for 100 car crews, and while we would lack a well-produced route book full of tulip-diagram directions, a marker pen drawn on a road atlas beforehand would do nicely to guide us on our rather wonderful route. Some among our number would convert this to sat-nav waypoints, which makes sense for the cars that would contain but one occupant, but Mrs S and I preferred the map idea. She's rather a good navigator, which is why we tend to be at the front on events like this.


This leading business had the potential to cause trouble this time, though, as the line-up of six cars will reveal. Four of them were rear-engined flat-sixes, three of which were air-cooled. One was a sleek, swoopy straight-six. And ours had half the number of cylinders and a fraction of their average horsepower. Still, once we were in the mountains we'd be going uphill only half the time on average, so we'd be on the pace for the other half.

There were Porsche 911s, of course: Peter and Lynne Burgess's 964 Carrera 4, Robert Lancaster-Gaye's 996 GT3 which he hillclimbs, and Bryan Smart's 2.7 RS Carrera. Bryan had intended to bring his recently-bought MGB GT V8, but his attempt to bleed a faulty replacement clutch master cylinder led to lots of paint stripped by errant brake fluid, blue air in Bryan's garage and an immobile MG.

The other air-cooled flat-six was Richard Bremner's 1965 Chevrolet Corvair Corsa, the one car in his extensive fleet of intriguing classic automobilia that currently works. The straight-six belonged to Tim Yetman's just-bought, just-restored, stunningly lovely 1949 Jaguar XK120, resplendent in blue-grey and looking for all the world as if it had just materialised from a brochure artist's canvas.


I had planned to take our Sunbeam Stiletto, to harmonise with the rear-engine vibe, and spent a while preparing it with a new water pump (loose bearings in the old one) and a new starter motor (the old one kept not engaging). Then its gearbox sprang a leak so I didn't dare risk it. Bring on then, the three-cylinder, two-stroke, 38bhp, 1961 Saab 96.

We met up at the Old Rectory Hotel at Llangattock, just the other side of the River Usk from Crickhowell, whose kitchen produced a supper far beyond any of our expectations. The next morning we set off on our route of mainly B-roads or unclassified lanes, driving over mountains with difficult names, getting slightly lost, passing through Brecon and over Mynydd Eppynt, venue for many a rally stage.

We were worried about the weather, this being Wales in March, but the sun shone, the sheep were smiling and the vistas were beyond glorious. A particular high spot was the B4518 from Rhayader to Llanidloes, a pretty little town where my grandmother was born and where the Great Oak Café serves excellent mocha cake. That road has a perfect surface, seemingly no traffic and some brilliant bends to aim around as yet another panorama unfolds.


By now, though, the Jaguar – on its first decent run since reincarnation – was misbehaving. A rear lever-arm damper had sprung off its bush, and first aid was needed. Llanidloes has a garage which specialises in servicing buses, and with business slow that morning its mechanics were very pleased to help Tim, Richard and Bryan's co-driving cousin Michael put it all back together.

Lunch at the thought-provoking but down-at-heel Centre for Alternative Technology was our next goal, by continuing B4518 and a yet smaller road to solidly-built Machynlleth ('The Ancient Capital of Wales'), over the River Dyfi and a couple of miles north. By now we had all become separated, so the Saab's relative leisureliness didn't matter.

Sated with the CAT's obligatory vegetarian fare, we headed back towards Brecon's Castle Hotel beginning with a different mountain route so narrow, so muddy and so decrepit that we wondered if it really went anywhere at all before the A44 suddenly materialised before us. A Carrera 2.7 RS thoroughly splattered in mud: you don't often see that nowadays.


Further on we traversed the Elan Valley with its lakes and dams, a fabulous road and the scene of many a motoring magazine photoshoot, before reaching our goal high up in Brecon – another culinary surprise-and-delight – with the Beacons looming in the middle distance. The Jaguar had consumed a worrying 3.5 litres of oil in 400 miles, so Tim had left our posse mid-afternoon to set off cautiously back to the very concerned restorer for a post-restoration service and investigation. Otherwise, the cars had behaved admirably, and our d-i-y classic car run was a great success.

As for the Saab, which I have owned since 2001 after driving it back from Sweden, it reached a major milestone. In all the many runs and events I've done with it over the years, this was the first time I didn't even open its bonnet.

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