Images from the article that we took while we were out there are at the bottom of the transcription that follows.
Two years ago, an article in TV proudly told us "You have to go to Europe next year. Trust us on this — it’s brilliant fun and once you’ve been, you’ll want to go back again and again.." This proved to be a prophecy well worth fulfilling. At Billing for the past couple of years we've been flyered by the Manta club of Hageland in Belgium with a view to us attending their bi-annual Manta and Ascona meeting in Aarschot. We made our final preparations at Billing, even managing to convince another couple of cars from our not insubstantial stand to tag along too. This year, the Belgium event fell on the 24th - 26th of July; just two weeks after the VBOA's annual GM extravaganza.
Many of those attending managed to get a few days off work around the said weekend so that we could both extend the convoy on the way to the event and have some recovery time afterwards. With club members coming from as far north as Newcastle, as far west as Somerset (and even Ireland!), Thursday the 23rd was a day of meeting up with all the fun of a convoy until everyone had been collected en route. At the last stop before the run through to Kent, each car was furnished with a walkie-talkie by the club. These proved to be an inspired addition to any convoy. The ability to communicate, organise and mercilessly take the piss out of each other on the fly was fantastic. It was then off to Dover for dinner and beer before the 6am crossing to Dunkerque on the Friday morning.
Rain and an orange tinted darkness greeted us from the windows of the Travelodge, but mercifully enough, it soon brightened up. At around five-thirty am, six Mk2 Cavaliers filled with camping gear and bleary-eyed but excitable car nuts boarded the ferry. This was a welcome opportunity for Paul to once again replenish his oil reserves. It was a surprise for everyone to see anything at all on the bottom of his valver's dipstick after the blue plumes and acrid spray we'd been treated to on the way to Dover! He had however come prepared; with about four gallons of Texas gold on board to keep on top of the situation.
Once off the ferry, we had to get to grips with driving on the opposite side of the road. Although the majority of us had European driving experience (and the club covering the "Staples to Naples" banger rally in 2006 with TV) nothing really prepares you for crazy priorities at junctions and the French police. Our first planned stop was a much hyped trip via the historic beaches of Dunkerque which seemingly promised to be an epic photo opportunity. After close to an hour of driving, and believing we were nearing our destination, we arrived on a patch of ground next to a river, only to realise we could still the the ferry not too far in the distance! We pressed on, and having finally found a side road allowing us down to the front, we made it to the beaches. Photo opportunities were sadly limited due to various dreary bits of 1970's concrete street furniture, and in modern times these beaches don't really exude the sense of history we may have been expecting. In fact the scene more closely resembled Blackpool seafront than the setting of some of the biggest battles in our history. Our presence had not escaped the attention of the local constabulary either. A marked car was followed by several more discrete offerings from the Gendarme which proceeded to circle the block casting a dark Gaelic shadow over our first stop making us feel particularly welcome. We decided to move on towards Belgium.
The run between France and Belgium was punctuated with fuel/call of nature stops, photo and video opportunities and a short but torrential downpour which left us wondering if Jonny had led us back to the channel! Motorway services in Belgium soon dashed any hope of cheaper fuel abroad. At over €1.30 per litre, even allowing for the exchange rate, it was still cheaper back home. The food there left something to be desired too, but hey, neither Belgium nor motorway services were ever known for their culinary delights.
As we neared the shows' location, we learnt that Jonny's (trust me I'm a lorry driver) directions extended only as far as the nearest motorway exit. Thankfully Ivan's hawk-like vision drew attention to the first of some (tiny) yellow signs on lampposts bearing the word "Manta", and we managed to find the show site. It was around mid afternoon by the time we rolled in, and there were only a few Mantas over in one corner and no Asconas whatsoever - let alone any of the C variety. First impressions ranged from " Where is everyone? " through to " Is this the right place?! ". Happily though, we were fairly early to arrive in the scheme of things and a steady flow of cars soon began to fill the site.
Local facilities were good, with two supermarkets within a five minute walk providing well priced food and more importantly; Beer (big shout to the Kaiser Chiefs, you know who you are!). Facilities on the camp site were "limited" with communal toilets! The seven am toilet visit can be challenging enough for a man without standing two feet from twenty or so women who are queueing for the two available cubicles. And the inmates at Parkhurst would have thought twice about the showers.
The weather was more than kind to us. The few brief rain showers we had really did nothing to dampen anyone's spirits and most of the time we were there it was genuinely hot. By the time the site was full, just about every age and model of Manta and Ascona were represented in both standard and modified forms. Engine conversions were not just limited to GM units either. One Manta A in a particularly striking shade of orange had been very neatly equipped with a straight six BMW M3 engine! Other conversions of note were another Manta A with an XE running a sneakily almost hidden supercharger. At least two of the Manta Bs had been beautifully fitted with 24V Carlton GSi motors too. The usual spread of carbs and throttle bodies were also in evidence, most notably in an outstandingly built Ascona A, finished in a rather individual shade of metallic green.
The majority of Ascona Cs (Mk2 Cavaliers) in attendance were on our stand, particularly in modified form. Many of the cars local to the event had lowered suspension and different wheels, but little in the way of engine mods, largely due to extreme rules imposed in Belgium. Our Mk2 Cavaliers therefore drew a lot of interest, especially with the bonnets up!
Despite doubting whether Belgium was ready for our little convoy, Leuven was ready for anything. The imposing gothic town hall and surrounding architecture gave little away as to this picturesque town's burgeoning nightlife. Happily our visit also corresponded with some sort of local festival with literally tens of thousands of people cramming the streets to party! This was right up the street of the occupants of our Beer powered support vehicle - the 3.0 Omega Elite driven by Ben Thurston from CJK and Paul from Young's engineering. They may have missed the ferry, the convoy across and most of the show but my god they made up for it in style.
At the time of writing it is still uncertain which way the GM board is going to go with it's choice between the Canadian-Russian consortium led by car parts group Magna International and investment group RHJ International. With the former indicating it may well close key European manufacturing locations with the loss of 11,600 jobs. At such a watershed moment over the future of the former GM Europe in general and with the loss of Saab already in the bag it seemed almost pertinent that our Cavalier tour took a detour from our road trip back to port to visit the site that was actually the birthplace of the majority of the Cavaliers in convoy, (the alternative slightly less well bolted together plant of choice was Luton - where all the cars seem slightly more prone to rust from too). From some distance the GM presence looms large, emblazoned on chemical towers and buildings across the industrial landscape. It was impossible not to notice how much one company had impacted a geographic area to such a vast extent.
After getting the shots that we wanted we found ourselves on six lanes of pristine yet desolate tarmac running from the plant to the edge of the industrial district. We had casually planned a couple of shots of the cars in formation, but of course, owing to being caught up in our little 'pilgrimage' excitement quickly took over again. The resulting 30 seconds of footage more accurately resembling strip action at the Santa Pod. Everything that we had been through over the weekend culminated in that one shot. It felt like the cars were on home turf for the first time in 25 years and eager to please. Until the Luton built Calibre decided to let the side down. Cut to the end of the clip and there is a moment where the V6's torque can clearly be heard pulling the thread from the gearbox mount. Quick thinking and Keir's big hands made light work of swapping out the bolts from Richie's strut brace to get the car home.
So was it all worth it? In short, a wholehearted YES! Some may doubt that a smaller club with a niche outlook and without the resources of some larger clubs could pull off a jaunt to the continent, but this could not be further from the truth. Booking the ferry in advance and being flexible on your crossing time keeps the cost down. Taking two to a car spreads the fuel costs. Eating locally from supermarkets etc keeps those costs to a minimum too. European mapping on your SatNav (including 'safety' cameras) is a must, and walkie-talkies come highly recommended! Our event provided us with a shared experience that none of us shall forget.
Perhaps the quote from Dougie's first trip to Belgium does sum it up most effectively;
"You have to go to Europe next year. Trust us on this — it’s brilliant fun and once you’ve been, you’ll want to go back again and again.."
We are already planning our next adventure.
Images from the article that we took while we were out there. Many of which were not included. Many more exist too!