Museum Piece by Dave Randle

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The inspired notion to invite members and manufacturers to a day of driving vehicles old and new on the fine roads of Hampshire’s New Forest has crystallised into a high spot of the year, on only its second outing.

The initial SGMW Heritage Day at Beaulieu a year ago proved the validity of the idea, attracting some great cars and excellent manufacturer support, but was not helped by the fact that it persisted down with rain most of the day.

It then being a landmark 15th birthday for the group, an enormous and fragile cake had been commissioned, and Group publicity man, Steve Loader, and myself were detailed to collect and transport it to the venue. Since our mount for this escapade was a Mazda MX5, this involved me driving in a decidedly non-MX5 manner while Steve nursed the precious cargo on his lap.

Our overnight accommodations were in Southampton. Both being Jimmy Webb fans, we knew the dangers of leaving the cake out in the rain – even on the passenger seat of a car – so we approached the kitchen staff, who kindly cleared space in one of their refrigerators, and supplied a trolley to convey it from the far reaches of the car park to its nocturnal berth.

We could then relax and become lightly victualled before retiring to our own nocturnal berths.

This year we bowled thither in a happy and highly-impressive Fiesta and, missing out the golden opportunity of seeing central Southampton again, headed without benefit of satnav (though the Fiesta Vignale was so-equipped) straight past the discreet entrance to our 2018 accommodation at Bartley Lodge at nearby Cadnam.

This was a truly serendipitous find by the SGMW committee. Full of character – and characters at the time – its rooms are spacious and stylish. Mine had a modern four-poster, en suite entirely suited to a man of affairs (chance would be a fine thing) and two French doors revealing some interesting plumbing solutions and a view over the smart gardens.

No lurid signs advertise its presence. From the main road, you wouldn’t even know it was there. Steve and I certainly didn’t know it was there, or we could have saved our short deviation.

The hotel’s public areas are exceptionally well handled, with complex wooden stairs and galleries, and nothing out of place, with the possible exception of SGMW Secretary Chris Rees’ trademark high-viz trousers.

In the afternoon, we gathered for a Group general meeting, in an atmosphere of general bonhomie. The business of the day then having been wrapped up, there was barely half an hour for costume and makeup before we were summoned to pre-dinner drinks, myself enjoying an excellent Bombay Sapphire gin mixed with Schweppes’ recent proper non-toxic tonic revival called 1783, minus the corn syrup and the sodium benzoate.

PSA was in the chair, drinks-wise, and did us proud with Citroën PR chief John Handcock the perfect host, also calling up a tray of Pimm’s to be enjoyed on the warm and sunlit terrace.

Our meals, were delivered with great efficiency by a posse of waiting staff, and the food was of fine quality, both in its ingredients and its preparation. Equally fine wine in all three colours flowed freely at JH’s open-handed command.

By reason of the two doors and a window without restraints, I slept comfortably in a light breeze and awoke raring to go. Breakfast was every bit as good as the evening meal, and we left refreshed to drive to the Heritage Day marquee by the old abbey at Beaulieu.

I was delighted to see that Citroën had located another 2CV as their heritage model. Last year’s had been a Dolly. This time they had a superb, one-owner, maroon and black Charleston. They also had the one-owner, and I wasted no time in getting him to give me a ride in it. He is rightly protective of his charge and leery of letting those without appropriate pilot training loose on it, but my endless eulogising softened him up and he asked me if I wanted to take over for the drive back to Beaulieu.

I jumped at the offer and fell in love all over again. You could buy 2CVs in Exchange & Mart for twenty quid when I was first able to drive, but I never had that much free cash and had to wait until the early 80s, when I found a mechanically similar Ami-8 Estate marked up at £80, haggled the price down to fifty, used it with delight and without major difficulty for a couple of years and sold it for two hundred. I still miss the nearly new Charleston two-tone grey ex-demo we replaced it with.

A full programme of driving included a couple of cars that dated back to those halcyon days when I worked in the used or second-hand car game, now known as ‘pre-owned’ or ‘pre-loved’, although most cars that came to us then were no longer ‘loved’ by those wishing to sell them, or by our sales manager, who could diagnose mechanical senility at forty paces. Most of the pre-loved ones had actually been wrested from their doting owners anyway by rude agents of finance companies desirous of restitution.

I learned a lot about cars and driving as a go-to ‘snatchback’ driver back then, especially when driving an almost uncontrollable Talbot Horizon fifty miles or so from a council estate back to base. We then put it on the ramp and discovered its back was broken and it was more or less in two halves. Luckily for yours truly, the driving wheels were up front with me, or I might have been like Leacock’s Lord Ronald who ‘flung himself upon his horse and rode off in all directions’.

That said, there was no such alarm attached to the Peugeot 205 GTi provided at Beaulieu. Voted Car of the Day by those assembled, it had not only been lovingly maintained, but also tweaked more than a little. However, the memories came flooding back of the first of the new-generation Pugs and the brand’s steps towards domination of the hot hatch market.

The Victor FB Estate from Vauxhall’s heritage fleet dates from twenty years earlier than that. It has much more interior passenger space than you are granted these days, aided by freedom of movement from absent seatbelts and wide, uninterrupted bench seats, front and rear.

I had expected column change to go with the ‘pushmi-pullyu’ handbrake under the dash, but it has a conventional four-on-the-floor, providing the possibility for interesting friendships to develop between you and a middle seat passenger.

Surprisingly though, those four gears are plenty, and the FB will cruise and pull admirably in fourth all day long, except on a motorway system mostly constructed after its heyday.

Also surprising was a smooth Honda Prelude that hardly showed its 1989 vintage at all. Power steering, five-speed ‘box, impressive road manners, and like the Vauxhall, the kind of ride comfort that is now largely a thing of the past.

Thrill seekers had to go no further than the sliding door of the ancient Transit brought along by Ford. To keep it on the straight and narrow it really is necessary to drive like an actor going ‘harry flatters’ against the back-projection. There is no assistance, but it feels like several hundred turns lock to lock.

And when it came to turning around to head back, I couldn’t find reverse. There was no useful diagram on the top of the gangly cranked gear lever. Eventually, I figured where it must be, and accessed it by using both hands to pull the lever up out of the floor and to the right and back, before repeating the all-in wrestling process of returning to Beaulieu. Exhilarating and great fun, but I’m not sorry I missed out on driving it back to its home with Ford in Essex.

Some manufacturers also brought examples of their latest models for us to try and Suzuki’s Swift Sport stands out from the crowd, as ever. It now merits the term ‘thoroughbred’ having started out exceptional and got better and better. I recently lived with it for a week, but grabbed the opportunity for reacquaintance. Suzuki’s PR head ‘Sir Alun’ Parry was, as last year, in enthusiastic attendance at Heritage Day along with his No2 Jess Grimditch, which equates to the brand’s entire press office supporting our event – praise indeed for SGMW.

I have also driven the new Cactus from Citroën, but was delighted to drive it again, as well as getting my hands on the brand’s new Berlingo for the first time. Something that might surprise dyed-in-the-wool Citrophobes is the sheer quality of the fixtures and fittings in the current range; the Berlingo is no longer a basic family hack, but as practical as ever, plus a sense of substance and build accuracy that strikes you immediately.

The new ‘advanced comfort’ seats are remarkable too, not only for their clever resonance tuning, but the easy folding mechanism of the three rear seats too – a work of genius that must make the Berlingo one of the easiest cars to live with.

Oliver Rowe from Ford was on hand to collect the steering wheel trophy for the company’s third successive victory in the Group’s other major success story, the SGMW Karting Challenge.

And at the end of a busy and rewarding day we were gathered into the abbey ruins to provide photographic evidence of the event, before making our various ways home.

Many congratulations and thanks are due to the SGMW committee, the press offices, heritage curators, delivery drivers, caterers and all concerned for organising such an enjoyable and successful event.

Dave Randle

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