One of the real pleasures of HERO-ERA’s endurance rallies is the sheer plethora of cars that enter, offering the competitors the opportunity to share the road with dozens of other likeminded enthusiasts, and then indulge in plenty of car-related chat. Of course, there are the classic rally stalwarts, like the MG B and Triumph models that populate many of the spots on the starting list and whilst they are wonderful machines, there are always one or two cars in the entry that really grab the imagination.
On the upcoming London to Lisboa rally, nestled in amongst the Porsche’s, Healey’s and Alfa’s is one machine that really stands out. An absolute behemoth of a contraption, built more than 100 years ago, with a history that is more suited to rescues than rallies. The car is a 1917 American LaFrance Roadster, owned by John and Catherine Harrison and it began life across the pond as a Fire Engine.
The LaFrance is, for the uninitiated, a giant of a machine. A 14 and a half litre, straight six engine sits on top of a chassis that looks more like it came from the stock of a bridge building firm than an automobile manufacturer. It is a huge piece of heavy engineering, that dominates the road and looks like something that ought to be piloted by Kenneth Grahame’s Toad from The Wind in the Willows.
But what bought John into stewardship of such a magnificent, but unique machine? “Originally I was into rallying steam engines” he tells me, “ I fancied a car, but the trouble was everything I like was too bloody expensive!” With the Vintage Rolls Royce et al that John lusted after out of reach financially, another option was needed, and after being shown a photo of a LaFrance John, who in his professional life is a farmer, saw a machine that “looked proper.” A search ensued, whereupon two were discovered for sale in the south of England and swiftly purchased, one for him and one for a friend.
“They were just a pile of bits really” John says, “The engine and chassis were intact, but a lot of the panels had rusted away.” That was largely that for a decade or so, as other things prevented the planned restoration from materialising and the rather large pile of LaFrance items were stored away until the renovations could begin in earnest. When the time came the work was extensive, taking some four and a half years and saw whatever components John had stripped completely to be rebuilt to John’s exacting standards.
As one might imagine, the engine is a substantial part of the restoration process, and a ground up rebuild was required, which when you’ve valves that are as big as pistons and pistons like paint tins, is no small task. John tells me that it was actually all in fairly good order and unmolested, and so, aside from the problems of sourcing parts for an engine of this age, the rebuild wasn’t too complicated a job. The only real difficulty was working on something so large! The bodywork was a bit of a case of looking at pictures to have items made from scratch or sourcing originals, but nothing has been specially designed for rallying purpose. John tells me that the panels are minimal anyway and describes the LaFrance as something you sit on rather than in! The only big change from the first incarnation of the car is that the pump that once fixed onto the machine is now no longer resident, aside from that though I’m told it’s all fairly original.
But what is it like on the road? Especially on a long trip. “She’s a good drive” is the simple answer from John, “she attracts a lot of attention on the road as you would expect and requires no small amount of concentration to drive but goes well enough and will happily overtake goods vehicles uphill!” The engine is a twin spark design, with both magneto and coil ignition, that John uses simultaneously, advanced for the time, but as John puts it “it’s no good needing to get to a fire and the damn thing won’t start!” In the time since the car has been on the road John has amassed plenty of miles in it as well, with several multi-country rallies under his belt, with wife Catherine navigating. He is keen to point out though that anything more than 200 or so miles a day is difficult, and that driving in rain is “no fun at all”.
It’s clear that he revels in the prospect of giving the LaFrance a good long run out and believes that cars should be used, and this is a mindset that is common with all those that choose to enter a rally like London to Lisboa. Of course, the choice of car to compete in is down to the entrant, and the 10-day adventure through some of Europe’s greatest driving roads is bursting with tarmac that suits all manner of vehicles from vintage to more modern examples, the entry is packed full of variety. There are still one or two places left, and for those that enjoy the sun on the tarmac and piloting a classic car on thrilling, but peaceful roads, whilst in the company of like-minded travellers, it could be just the thing to blow away the winter blues and start the driving season in style.
Photos by Kev Blackmore