An American in Paris


03 Aug 2020

The Road From Peking Actually Begins in a Workshop in Hull

Most people would agree that the prospect of driving from Peking to Paris is a fairly gruelling undertaking, in any vehicle. 8500 miles, or thereabouts, across the world’s largest continuous land mass, crossing umpteen borders and traversing deserts, all on some of the worst roads on the planet. That would probably be enough for most people, it is however a different breed that enter the HERO-ERA Peking to Paris Motor Challenge, cocooned in classic and vintage cars, many built before the war, that’s pretty hardcore in my opinion. Then there is another category of person, one that takes the madness just that little bit further, who decide upon answering the call of the challenge in a vehicle that is entirely unsuitable for the task at hand…

All being well, the oldest vehicle to line up at the start of the 2022 P2P will be a 1914 American LaFrance Type 10, with Royal Automobile Club Chairman Ben Cussons, and HERO-ERA’s own dear chairman, Tomas de Vargas Machuca behind the controls. For those unfamiliar with a LaFrance it is, in short, a fire engine. A big, cumbersome lump of a fire engine, with a giant 9 litre power plant, and a chassis that looks like Sir John Fowler drew it up. It is a behemoth, and whilst no fire truck is known for its nimble nature and deft handling this particular machine is, well, it ain’t no Dennis.

Of course, entering a machine this unusual is one thing, ensuring that it is at the start line and fit for purpose is quite another and that is a story that has already begun. The feat of preparing a vehicle that is potentially wholly unsuitable to the task needs to begin almost before the ink is dry on the entry form, but just who do you trust with such an undertaking?

The answer to that lies in a rural pocket of land north of the Humber estuary, and somewhat refreshingly, with a pair of hands that are from the opposite end of the age spectrum to the LaFrance. Step up Josh Thompson, one half of DT Vintage who at a relatively spritely 35 is certainly on the younger side of those involved with rally car preparation. Of course, like any good double act, there is balance and Josh’s business partner, Paul Dilley, is on the more experienced side of the age equation. The both of them have plenty of rallying experience between them though, and for Josh this is where his involvement with motorsport began, long before there were any inclinations that it could be the way he made his living.

Unlike many of us obsessed with this sport, Josh’s path to historic motoring didn’t begin in childhood. Indeed, it wasn’t until his father got hold of a Jaguar XK120 whilst Josh was at university that the seed began to germinate. ‘I think it had always been a bit of a dream car for Dad’ Josh tells me over a cuppa, ‘and when he began to show an interest in rallying in it, I offered to jump into the navigator’s seat, but more to enable him to take part than any desire to compete myself’. A later introduction to a love of cars than some, but certainly a less than premature route into historic rallying. Partner Paul is of a different ilk, and tells me he has always been involved in this world in one way or another. An extremely talented engineer, Paul has built many vintage and pioneer machines, often from just a photograph, such as a stunning Delage recreation, that was originally a one off built for actress Blanche Montel, and it is with him that the DT story begins, although not quite in the guise it is in today.

But how exactly did the worlds of a seasoned automotive craftsman and a relative novice in this world collide? Josh picks up the story, “Sort of a coincidence really. Dad and I were doing more rallies, now in the vintage world with a 1929 Chrysler 75 Roadster, we needed some bodywork doing and found Paul, who happened to be pretty local to us and things went from there.” It took a fair few more years before the both of them were in business together, and a fair few more miles of rallies as well, with Josh’s father competing in three P2P’s in that time amongst others. The Peking to Paris would also be an event Paul himself would enter in 2016, driving for Richard Thomson in a ’40 Studebaker Coupe, the vintage rallying bug well and truly caught after his introduction to it through Josh and father Mike. “Josh had begun introducing me to people and I’d picked up more and more work with the rally cars, and started to move away from the custom builds. It was inevitable that I would enter a few rallies as well, and even won the Grand Prix of South America, alongside Andrew Davies in a ’29 Chrysler 75.”

Fast forward a few years down the line and Josh and Paul are stood in their spacious, and clean, workshop discussing a pile of bits that used to be an American LaFrance. “The dust and sand are going to be a big issue” says Paul, you’ve got all this exposed running gear, chains and the like, not to mention the exposed engine valves. Mix a bit of sand in with some lubricating oil and you’ve made yourself a lovely grinding paste.” Josh agrees, “We’re going to protect what we can, but it’s a trade off between protection and having access to keep things clean. It’s going to be a daily battle for them on the event.”

This is but one issue they’ve got to solve and plan for on this ground up rebuild, tyres is another, finding some to fit the hefty wooden wheels, not to mention creating any replacement parts it might need from scratch. “We can do a fair bit of that in-house” says Paul, “We’ve other specialists we use for some work as well.” This is where the experience of a man who has designed replica cars from drawings is crucial to the plan, not only from a design and engineering perspective, but also knowing when to call in other specialist hands.

Seeing the beast laid out in component parts really hammers home what a huge machine it is. “Pick up the flywheel” says Josh, pointing at the great lump of metal laid flat on the workbench. I know full well I won’t be able to, but I try anyway. As expected, it is beyond me, and I can only begin to imagine the sort of grunt required to spin up this rotational mass. As if reading my thoughts Josh next points out the engine, a great lump of a block that houses four giant pistons, yet more mass to push around before any of this effort is transferred into forward motion. “She cracks on when she’s going” assures Paul, “takes some stopping mind.” I can only imagine, although I’m told that Tomas found this out first hand on the test drive.

Josh continues to show me around the different details of the truck, pointing out with enthusiasm the serpents headed horn (hand squeezed naturally) and the exquisite rams horn shaped inlet manifold, attached to the Schebler carburettor, which is of course, massive. He tells me with fervour of the machines history as a hose carrier, before it became the brigade masters personal transport, and his passion for his subject is infectious, to the point where I’m beginning to imagine entering the Type 10 myself.

Of course, talking up a storm is simple in comparison to the job at hand, but Josh’s zeal is great to see and the story of the restoration and preparation of this wonderful machine could perhaps inspire others in the younger generation to pick up the mantle when the current field begins to thin out a touch, it’s certainly a machine that makes you look twice. Whether that is as competitors or as the people behind the scenes, keeping the cars on the road, it matters not, although I am not sure that the two are mutually exclusive in any case. What is important is that a new generation are encouraged, and learn all that they can from those who currently have such a wealth of experience to share, people like Paul and the many others around the world that will be involved in the preparation of machines for P2P 2022. Of course, if you ask Paul and Josh their opinion on the subject will be a lot humbler, but dreams have to start somewhere and in a few years’ time I don’t doubt that the preparation of this particular car will be the origin of a fair few.

La France Type 10 Power Plant: Getting to the Heart of the Ark, in Preparation for Peking to Paris

Huge is an often-overused adjective, massive is another one, over-stated and liberally applied to almost any situation that falls short of the implied conjecture. Unbelievable is another, and as Guy Martin said, ‘when I see a man eat his own head, you can call that unbelievable’. But there are certain situations where all three words could be applied, and staring at the torn down engine of a 1910 La France Type 10 in a back-street workshop in Yorkshire a few weeks ago, all three passed through my mind.uHuge i

Huge because almost every component looks like it was cast from Forth Bridge leftovers; Massive, because of the sheer task of pulling apart and then piecing back together this Behemoth of an engine, with nothing but experience as a guide; Unbelievable because of the skill of the craftsmen that will be involved to repair, renovate and build components from scratch to undo over 110 years of use, neglect and poor workshop practices. Oh, and this and everything else attached to the truck needs to be ready to be shipped out for a shakedown rally in the Sahara in just under a years’ time.

The engine itself is but one part of this mammoth undertaking, but a significant part. Whilst the entire project is being overseen on the banks of the Humber at DT Vintage, the engine, and some other large components, have found themselves in the hands of George Laycock, who’s own personal preference when it comes to motorsport is straight-lining classic Norton motorcycles. His engineering background is with all things big and vintage though, and I know I’m in the right place as soon as I walk into the workshop. It smells exactly as I imagine all places like this to smell, with decades of history literally etched into the walls of the workshop and a machine shop full of heavy lathes and mills.

George isn’t the only craftsman who will be involved with the repair of the beasts’ heart though, and I arrive as he is deep in discussion with the gentleman who’s job it will be to repair cracks to the motors barrel, as well as repair an entire section of the spare barrel that is made up of nothing but filler. This spare engine, that was supposedly fully working, has other signs of abuse as well, all of which will need tending to. The parts that are disappearing today will be stitched, a process that in simple terms involves placing strips of metal into grooves drilled across cracks, that before they are finished, look just like stitches on a wound. This case metal reparation technique is one that has taken the man who is going to do it around the world, working on all kinds of large metal objects, including bridges, so he will be well at home with the La France!

Cracks are one thing, but how do you even begin to know how to shape and build parts when there are no drawings, especially anything with an internal tolerance which simply can’t be measured. Or how do you know what tolerances to apply to valve shims and crankcase shells? “It’s a lot down to experience and feel” says George. Typically understated for a Yorkshireman, but the skill and knowledge gained over decades of fettling all variety of engines will no doubt be key to knowing what feels right and what doesn’t as parts are made and the engine goes back together.

As well as the parts, there is tooling that needs to be constructed to even allow the engine and its components to come apart. “I’m building a jog for the clutch at the minute”, George tells me, “I need to hold the whole thing down to the bench so I can inch it apart, slowly.” Another piece of classic understatement, he’s no idea how powerful the springs are that are housed within the humungous clutch, or what sort of tension they are under. Undo the assembly without anything to hold all of that back and George could easily find himself on a one-way ride attached to the faceplate of this giant mechanism.

“We’ve also the problem of making the spare parts fit the final completed unit” I’m told, “these seem to have been one off builds, so whilst they look the same at a glance, cases don’t always line up and screw holes are often in different places, so that will be something else we need to attend to.” It’s fascinating stuff, and my eyes are constantly drawn back to the pistons that are like catering size baked bean tins, as well as the giant and heavy conrods and equally hefty crank. It’s an awful lot of rotational weight and any imbalance could well shake the thing to pieces – that’s before any thought has even been given to fuelling and cooling.

But what an exciting machine, and whilst it will be well into the spring before the components are pieced back together, the prospect is a salivating one. Despite the difficulty of the task the experience of the specialists will no doubt ensure that when it is all pieced back together, it will run more sweetly than ever, like the worlds largest Swiss watch! Or maybe just a well-built truck.

Time is Tight: Catching Up with Progress on the American La France

The sands of time remain still for no man, and whilst one might believe that they move at a constant, anybody who has ever built and prepared a car for a rally will tell you steadfastly that this is not the case. This is certainly true of the American La France that has been selected as the chariot of choice for Tomas de Vargas Machuca and Ben Cussons on the rapidly approaching 2022 Peking to Paris. Indeed, when I first visited DT Vintage last summer to see the initial preparations for the restoration of this pre-war behemoth I was greeted by a pile of bits. Now, almost a year later, it is still a pile of bits and it isn’t just the sands of time that are piling up; the sands of the Sahara are also on the horizon.

‘A pile of bits’ is unduly harsh. Bits they may be, but the bits are in many cases sporting new coats of paint and have been through various restorative processes. Some have even been bolted back onto the now immaculate and strengthened chassis, which is ready now to be transformed into a car. The La France’s first event though is fast approaching, the Sahara Challenge is now a bit more than a mirage and September isn’t very far away. ‘I could do with having a few things back now’ says Paul of DT Vintage, and one of the men charged with assembling the beast. If understatement were a competition, then Paul, with his dry Yorkshire outlook, would surely win first prize. Assembly is only half the battle you see, the engine needs to be started, the car test driven, and thousands of miles clocked up running the engine in and shaking the machine down before it undergoes the rigours of competition.

Behind the scenes various specialists have been hard at work, putting together the various pieces that will solve the La France puzzle. The engine, which had been stripped to its components the last time we had seen it, has undergone a full rebuild at the hands of George Laycock. It is humungous, the four-cylinder machine dwarfing the trolley that it has been rebuilt in, that itself began life as a dolly for Merlin engines. It is also a thing of beauty, painted and polished with the repairs to various components barely visible, unless you know where to look. It looks the business, but until it fires for the first time there will undoubtedly be nerves about whether it will do the business, especially for a man like George that takes such pride in his work. “It is a privilege to work on something like this” he tells me, with no false reverence, “my day to day is much more ordinary jobs, I can’t wait to see it on the rally, knowing that its one of my engines powering it.”

The upholstery has also been being dealt with, by Julian Taylor in his Yorkshire workshop. Taylor, who has been involved in the restoration and conservation of many fine motor cars over the past thirty years or so, including many important pioneer machines, has been charged in this instance with providing a little more comfort for the 8000 miles that must be travelled between Peking and Paris. ‘I’ve been asked to add springs to the cushions, but that’s largely all of the modifications I will be making, aside from that it is a fairly traditional job, in fact I don’t really know how to work any other way.’ He is not joking either, with his manual sewing machine around the most hi-tech bit of gear in his workshop, with much of the work being carried with needle and thread, and horsehair favoured over foam. “If they had bought me in a shiny new Recaro seat I wouldn’t have known where to begin” he says, whilst thumbing his trusty thimble that has been handed down through different generations and may be older than the La France itself.

Other specialist items that are eagerly awaited at DT are the radiator, that matches the engine for scale, the gearbox that needed its innards analysing to find out what oil and grease were contained within it, the wooden wheels and the steering apparatus. Paul is estimating that all the items should be back by mid-May and that the La France will be largely assembled by mid-June. This is a deadline that has already been pushed back, but then we must remember that the people working on this project are artisans, things have to be right, the wheels for example are born out of fire and steam and can only be pieced together outside in good weather. As Paul talks dates, I can hear the optimism in his voice, but I can see the trepidation in his eyes, the final months of this build will undoubtedly rocket past and the size of the task at hand is almost as gargantuan as the vehicle itself. Of course, they will get it done, the specialists that get involved in these projects are of a particular breed, and failure isn’t in their language. How much sand is left within the timer when it is finally complete though, is still very much in the balance.

Read More HERO Spotlights HERE