Return to France - 33 years on. Reliant Scimitar to Renault Clio          image library

Our 6 month,1973 travels took us across America – Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, finally landing us in our pre rented, Queensway, London flat at just £33 a month! A very convenient London address, being central and near a major underground station.

 

High on our list of near future needs was an undercover, secure car-park and this we spotted almost directly across the road. Finding housing for our up-coming pride and joy, a brand new Reliant Scimitar GTE overdrive billed as the ‘World’s fastest production estate car’, was a priority. We had made our purchase through Campbell Motors Auckland, who were the Reliant New Zealand agents. Ours was the first on the New Zealand tourist delivery scheme operating at the time, where the vehicle could be owned for up to 12 months overseas before being imported to New Zealand with minimal tax. The Scimitar, in those days, was a bespoke, hand finished, sporting estate, created by the Reliant Motor Company of Two Gates, a suburb of Tamworth in Staffordshire. Tom Karen of Ogle Design Ltd, renowned design engineers, was years ahead with the GTE design and many other manufacturers soon followed with their own versions, Volvo in particular with their P1800. Famously, Princess Anne loved the vehicle as it suited her rural needs, and owned 8 over the life of the GTE model. The Reliant Motor Company was founded in 1935 and achieved early notoriety with the inherently unstable 3 wheeler Robin. There are many images of these motoring gems taking corners a little aggressively and ending up capsized in the ditch. A Mr Bean story included a Reliant Robin – you can imagine the outcome!

 

However, as we knew,  the GTE Estate was an entirely different beast, having 4 wheels to start with! The power was provided from a grunty, low revving Ford Essex V6. This drove the rear wheels through a 4 speed plus 2 overdrive gearbox. Proving a delight on the open road with the electric overdrive available on 3rd and fourth. Cruising fuel consumption was excellent and power/weight ratios much in favour of power as the body was rust-free fibreglass. It sounds like a plastic car, which in a way it was, but the separate, massive solid steel chassis underneath was the Scimitar’s big hidden secret. This sat low to the road with the motor well back in the engine bay, all in all offering great stability at over 100mph. The Scimitar’s top speed was said to be 120mph, which I could easily believe, but we never tested. A heavy, solid steel roll bar welded to the chassis and incorporated in the roof construction protected the occupants should the worst happen. Outstanding  compared to cars we had been used to in New Zealand – basic Holdens, Fords and British Leyland – although some are now so-called ‘classics’ there was nothing classic about them then. On most of these models, heating and radios were an extra, bench seats were covered in the most awful sticky vinyl, they featured a 3 speed column gear change and ‘handling’ wasn’t a word used. In comparison the Scimitar  offered total luxury. A superior quality mid tan interior trim with 4 individual seats, a very comprehensive Smiths instrument cluster, leather covered steering wheel and a top shelf Radiomobile 8 track stereo with 8 speakers. Wow, we were to find ourselves blown away by the sound. A sporty, stick shift gear change with the overdrive engaged via a long levered switch on the dashboard conveniently placed just on the right of the wheel. Engage 4th, flick the overdrive, the engine revs dropped and the Scimitar assumed its long legged cruising lope. Passing, simply flick the switch again and the power came on instantly with plenty to spare. The fully carpeted cargo area, accessed via a stylish glass hatch, could be configured in several different ways to accommodate luggage loadings. Such advances in functionality as a Triplex glass windscreen and a heated rear screen were standard fittings.

These were some of the exciting features built into the Scimitar SE5a, in which we would soon be commencing our European adventures.  We had a few days in London, then ‘delivery’ day 10th July dawned, with a train trip from Euston Station to New Street Birmingham for £4.20 each one way. We didn’t need a return as we would be driving our GTE. Reliant’s, Scimitar Sales Manager, Mr Cooper met us at the front office and immediately impressed us as the true English gentleman. Tall, thin, neatly trimmed moustache, beautifully pressed dark suit and horn rimmed spectacles. We were greeted in the reserved English fashion. Led from the office through an endless progression of passages, assembly areas and open warehouses, we finally reached a large enclosed yard where we met the Scimitar GTE in person. Not just ours, splendid in sparkling white, but at least half a dozen others – royal blue, deep maroon and dark forest green. Mr Cooper opened the driver’s door of JOC511L and motioned for me to settle into the driver’s seat. Passing me the key he said “would you care to start your engine, sir?” Turning the key brought the instruments to attention, then the Essex burst into life, settling to a six hundred rev idle and emitting a low bass V6 burble from the twin exhausts. Beautiful!

After a little paperwork and a very civilised cup of tea with Mr Cooper, we were driving out of the Reliant Motor Company’s yard gates and putting the first miles on our brand new Scimitar GTE. We loved that car and it served us well through 25,000 miles of UK and European travel over the next few months, with not even a flat tyre. When the time came to head home to New Zealand, we delivered our GTE to the London shipping agents for its long ocean journey to New Zealand.

 

Suddenly, or so it seems,  it’s 2005. We are returning to France after 33 years, excited by the adventure but a little apprehensive too. Landing at Charles de Gaulle is very different from Le Bourget 33 years ago – it seems chaotic and intense but finally we are on the City bus, transferring to taxi at the terminus for final delivery to our small hotel on Rue Chomel, Left Bank. Paris totally delights and amazes us all over again, after 33 years.  We immediately recognise all those favourite landmarks – remembered just as they were decades before.  The weather is kind with no rain but the nights are freezing.  One, on the Bateau Mouche left me virtually crippled from frozen knees with a bottle of Bordeaux red required for thawing! We have allowed ourselves 5 days to enjoy Paris and while this is enough to revisit the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides, Musee D’Orsay, The Marais, Sacre Coeur and Montmartre, there is so much more to see, the luxury of enough time to wander, sit and watch, visiting the many parks, gardens, street markets, museums and cathedrals will afford a deeper understanding of French daily life on a later visit.

The 5 days go by in a flash and on day 6 we taxi back out to Charles de Gaulle where we are to collect our Eurodrive Renault Clio arranged through Renault in Auckland NZ. This a great scheme for travellers where, if you are away for 17 days plus, you can collect a new Renault or Peugeot of your choice from many points in France or much of EU Europe. Everything is taken care of, comprehensive vehicle insurance included and the overall cost is considerably less than an ordinary rental. (Don’t forget your own travel insurance to take care of medical and personal items). Also, there's the benefit of having a new vehicle model you have chosen yourself with delivery kms only, but beware on pick-up there's very little fuel in the tank! Our model choice is a dark blue 2 litre diesel Clio with manual gearchange. Unfortunately these models have now been downgraded to a 1.6litre, complying with EU emission standards. OK, but not such fun to drive. At the end of your journey the car is returned as pre- arranged, then  the Eurodrive scheme allows these vehicles to be sold locally ‘near new’, but second-hand which greatly reduces applicable taxes.

 

We very quickly decide that one serious difference from 33 years previous is now a left hand drive vehicle would be mandatory. Driving our English, right hand drive Scimitar around France, as we did on our last visit, would be extremely dangerous if not impossible. If it works for you the smaller car (eg: Renault Clio) is best, as some one way village streets are incredibly narrow.

After a little paper work in the portacom office we are escorted out to our Clio and a few minutes later are driving out of the yard. The very scant amount of fuel had been pointed out and I straight away notice the indicator sitting right on the red E, but this should be no problem as we are advised there is a Total station more or less just around the corner. Being paper map people we had opted to not have the extra cost of a GPS device – big mistake – and must have turned right instead of left, or vice versa, out of the Renault yard. Whatever we did there is no Total station anywhere in sight. Certain that the Clio would soon splutter to a stop, we take the first exit we see and end up in the CDG airfreight area. What now with huge DAF and Renault articulators manoeuvering about? I spot someone official looking, carrying a clipboard and rush to catch him – “Excusez moi Monsieur, parlez vous anglais?” Immediately expecting a torrent of French which my very limited schoolboy version could not handle, I am relieved with the reply “of course, what are you doing here, what do you want?” I describe our predicament and from the reaction I can see we are not the first lost Eurodrive customer, nevertheless our saviour is extremely helpful and polite, directing us correctly to the service station. At last I can see the familiar Total sign ahead but another problem looms – it’s diesel back home but in France ?? All I can see is ‘essence’ and gazole! I could imagine ‘essence’ being petrol but gazole, maybe LPG? Where is the diesel, odd because every second car in France is diesel powered. If in doubt, ask “diesel s’il vous plait?” “Right there” replies the driver of the next door car also filling with ‘gazole’. “Gasoil” he says “it is diesel”. He laughs at the relief showing on my face. About 11am now and with a full tank our plan is westerly with tonight’s destination Nort sur Erdre in Brittany. Not so far in kilometres but we had not allowed for the 33 intervening years of road construction and constantly increasing traffic. We are soon horribly lost, and if you are lost within France’s RN (route nationale) roading system then you are truly lost.  The paper maps and more than a few stops for coffee and directions eventually win the day and we arrive at Nort Sur Erdre at 8:30pm, nearly 10 hours after leaving Paris environs. To our delight, the hosts of our pre-booked Logis de France, family run hotel, have kept the dining room running just for us. How good is that? A delicious three course set menu, accompanied by a light Loire Valley vin rouge. This little village on the Erdre River is delightfully French, yet close to the large city of Nantes which is on our route for the next day.  All those years ago we pre-booked nothing,   being reasonably sure of a clean bed for the night at each destination, but now with the increase in travellers that would be risky indeed. Today, the internet and mobile technology enables so much too, whereas 33 years ago it was a simple street-side telephone box and ‘Poste Restante'.

 

We spend the next 5 days in Brittany visiting Nantes, La Baule, Vannes, Lorient, Pont Aven and Quimper, with our next stop for the night at Benodet. One of the prettiest coastal towns I have seen, balanced on the Odet River estuary. A short riverboat trip can be taken up the Odet to Quimper, just some 20kms away.

We are of course, realising that we do not have anywhere near enough time to properly investigate these wonderful places we are passing through but it is a taste and a reawakening of old memories. Brest, a large seaside port city is home to a substantial naval establishment and although we are not staying here, we do find the tiny hotel above a waterfront café where we stayed 33 years ago. Our memory is of the stern sign above the sink – ‘absolument aucun lavage de sous-vetements dans le bassin’. But as this was exactly what we needed to do, our room was soon festooned with hand washed bits and pieces.  

We are looking forward to our next stop, Roscoff, on the northwestern coast of Brittany which is famous for pink onions and the onion Johnnies, or ‘Petitjeans’. An Australian publication has commissioned us for an article with photography about the Johnnies history so we have allowed 2 nights and plenty of time for local investigations. The morning of our 2nd day we take the passenger only ferry to the Ile Batz, just off the coast. A micro climate exists here for the production of early season potatoes and onions. The farms are very small, some only 1 or 2 acres and most of the work is hand done. I can see that the early season cropping pays off as the little island is maintained in it’s true Brittany horticultural tradition.

This is also the ‘Coté de Granit Rose’ which describes this stretch of Brittany coast where massive outcrops of spectacular, bare pink granite jut into the sea.

 

We are working our way north as we have a wedding anniversary date in Montreuil sur Mer, Pas de Calais. The Chateau de Montreuil holds fond memories for us. We could spend 5, 15 or 20 days getting from Brest to Montreuil, there is so much to see, but we only have 2. This includes a night at St Malo then a rush to Montreuil after a side trip to Mont St Michel for old time's sake which we really don’t have time for, proven by the arrival time in the dark, at Chateau Montreuil. What a relief for them and us. The memories come flooding back – we are in the same room as 33 years ago with a stunning solid copper bathroom ceiling. Charming, different and delightfully French. Our hosts are very understanding, our dinner table is waiting but we are assured there is no problem taking time to freshen up after our long day. Any weariness is soon chased away by the chilled glass of champagne waiting in our room and shortly we are down to the dining room to be shown to our table, strewn with fresh pink rose petals. Tears come to our eyes with this sweet touch. A 3 course, simple and delicious dinner follows, accompanied by an excellent Cote du Rhone vin rouge. Falling asleep is no problem tonight.

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