Chapter 2 Across France 650 Miles

It was very cold on the boat and the sea was decidedly rough. However, we lay down in our cabin for a time and then went down to the saloon for a meal. The time thus passed quickly and when the boat entered the harbour at Boulogne where we found snow falling fast and the ground thickly covered. A pleasant prospect for an all-night drive! We were through the customs in a very few minutes, special arrangements having been made by the AA representative to get us off quickly and with a few gallons of petrol in our tank, we started off to find a garage where we intended to fill up our huge 31 gallon tank.

However, it was warm in the car and I should add that we were quite pleased in view of the intense cold, to find that somehow, in the hurry of loading the car, we had somehow come away with Mrs. Symon’s favourite travelling bag, which we had not intended to bring at all. This bag will figure at a later stage of our adventures.

As we were climbing the steep winding road into the old town of Montreuil the engine gave two or three splutters and stopped dead. Humphrey tried the starter but there was nothing doing, so out we had to get. We were distinctly annoyed because it was snowing hard and it was obvious that we were going to feel both very cold and very wet.

We took the cover off the distributor, thinking that the points might have stuck. It seemed to be all right so he replaced the cover and tried the starter. Off went the engine and, rather mystified, we proceeded, having got both wet and cold, as we had expected.

cross europe

The cold was certainly awful and I was glad, when I took over the wheel at the end of two hours, to have something else to think of besides how infernally cold I was. It was about this time that ice began to form on the windscreen and we blessed our forethought in having brought with us a heated panel for the screen, without which it would have been quite impossible to see anything. The screen on the passenger side where there was no hot panel, was thickly encrusted with ice so that, Humphrey, after holding his hand against it for some time with no other result than getting his hand nearly frozen, said “Well, I can’t see anything so I may as well go to sleep.”

Above the windscreen of the car, Wolseley had mounted a thermometer. During the night the red liquid vanished into its bulb and did not reappear until after daylight.

We went steadily through the cold and the dark, till at last we were cheered by the breaking of the dawn. We then saw why it had been so appallingly cold in the car, for not only was the whole windscreen, except  the small heated panel, covered with ice to a depth of about ¼ of an inch, but all  the woodwork on the dash and doors was covered with ice also! Just about full daylight we stopped at Avalon for breakfast – it was 7.33 and we had come 300 miles in 9 hours. When we got out of the car we found that we were even colder than we had thought: we were both shivering and we each drank a large glass of brandy before we could think of breakfast while the kindly manageress of the hotel brought us hot bricks to thaw out our frozen feet. The thermometer in the courtyard of the hotel registered 12 degrees below zero, 44 degrees of frost! It was not surprising we had found it cold!

We found the hills from Saulien over to Chalon clear of snow but in a dangerously icy condition. However, we were in no hurry and eventually arrived at the Shell filling station about a mile south of Chalon. We had taken 2 hours exactly for the 76 miles. We never pass this place without a stop to greet our good friends, the filling station attendant and his wife. We had wired them from Avalon to expect us and we found them awaiting us on the doorstep. As usual, they greeted us with enthusiasm, and drew us into their warm room to participate of steaming hot black coffee and Vieux Marc. Of course they think we are quite mad but almost all French people of the lower classes think that that is the normal state of the Englishman! Then we went out to fill our petrol tank for the first time since leaving Boulogne 380 miles back. Our friends examined the car with the greatest interest, calling each other’s attention to the huge tyres, to the metal strips bolted to the back  (to be used, if necessary for getting out of soft sand), to the equipment of the instrument board for French people love lots of instruments, and so on. Then aback into their house for more coffee and more Vieux Marc and then, invigorated by the delightful welcome of our old friends and, a little, by the influence of their excellent liqueur, we resumed our way south over the shining ice-covered roads.

It was soon after we had left the Chalon filling station that we became convinced that the engine was misfiring. We had both thought that we noticed it before – the misfire was very intermittent – but had tried to pretend to ourselves and each other that it was purely imaginary. But now there was no doubt about it, the engine would cut out completely for a second or so and then resume its normal smooth rhythm. At last, there was nothing for it but to stop and make an examination. If there was anything wrong, now was the time to find it. For two reasons:- One was that we had plenty of time to spare which we should not have once we started off from Algiers and the other was that if the engine were to misbehave like this when we were crossing stretches of soft land in the Sahara we should, inevitably come to rest. The resistance of deep sand is so tremendous that even a temporary misfire is quite sufficient to bring the car to a sudden stop. And a sudden stop might mean hours of digging to get on the move again.

 

So, on all accounts it was desirable to find out at once what was the matter. Actually we discovered, or rather, Humphrey discovered the cause almost immediately. Almost the first thing he looked at was the distributor, (we had in mind possible condensation inside from the cold) and he was poking about inside it with his finger when he exclaimed “Good Lord, what’s this?” He held up a small carbon brush which he had found floating about loose. We examined it: it was unbroken and, as far as we could see, unused. It did not belong to any part of the distributor that we could discover. The engine started and ran perfectly and from that moment until the end of our journey to Cape Town the engine never once misfired. I cannot explain how it got there, nor were the Wolseley Company to whom we showed it when we got home, able to account for its presence.

Our scheme therefore, was that our Wolseley, would be kept on the quayside until the last minute, then driven in and turned round with its radiator against the port in the ship’s side, all ready to be driven out again as soon as the ship docked. This plan was carried out to the letter, the laggard boat train arrived, and eventually, just over 2 hours later, we started on our 19 hour crossing of the Mediterranean.

We could therefore not expect to arrive at Algiers before 9.30 instead of 6.30. Very annoying! However, it couldn’t be helped and we cheered up as the African shore drew near, and we saw the brilliant sun glistening on the tiers of white houses climbing up the steep hill from the sea that make Algiers a vision to be remembered.  And eventually we drew in to the harbour.