The Daytona is back on French soil for a very enjoyable but not entirely trouble-free weekend.
Imagine the perfect autumn classic car gathering. You would want an eclectic mix of cars, from Mini Coopers and Beetles to Bugatti Type 35s and Ferrari 275GTBs. You would want to see these cars in motion – both on the track and on the road. You would want sympathetic weather and, of course, interesting people, with a cross-section of owners and drivers from around the world.
Put all of the above together and you get the Journées d’Automne (Autumn Drive) held in the Champagne region of France on the 19th and 20th of October. Organised by ProFirst and Ecurie Epicure with support from Veuve Cliquot and Chapal, it has been running for a few years, initially based around the Mas du Clos circuit. In more recent years it has moved to the Circuit des Ecuyers, about 30km west of Reims. After my last trip to the area with Octane magazine in 2012, I was keen to get the Daytona back on those open French roads, and this event was the perfect opportunity for this.
The Champagne region is a reasonable 4-hour drive (plus the 35-minute Eurotunnel crossing) from my base in the south-east of England. My wife and I headed down on Friday afternoon in the Daytona, travelling in convoy with Jonny Shears and his father Mark in Jonny’s Alfa Romeo GTV.
French autoroutes are fast and generally smooth but not very exciting. The Daytona is an ideal companion to eat away those kilometres, pulling just over 3000rpm at the French national limit of 130kph. I suspect it was a little busier in Jonny’s Alfa, but as it is fitted with a fast road 2.0 litre engine, he had little trouble maintaining station with the 4.4 litre V12 Ferrari.
We arrived at our B&B just before dark, and after freshening up we headed out to the nearby town of Fère-en-Tardenois where many of the participants were meeting for an informal buffet dinner. Naturally there was a strong French contingent at the event but also quite a number of people from elsewhere including Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the United States.
All good classic car adventures need a mechanical drama, and ours came as we drove back to the B&B. Just as we came to a stop there was a distinct smell of oil. Popping the bonnet, it was clear there was a serious oil leak, but with an iPhone flashlight being the only light available, it was impossible to tell what the source was. As there was nothing else to be done at midnight, I locked up the car and spent a sleepless night wondering what had happened and whether or not it could be fixed in the middle of France, 300 miles from my mechanic.
In the morning light, the problem was quickly revealed: a union on an oil line running to the power steering pump had come away. Jonny and Mark came to the rescue and were easily able to reattach the line. However, it was obvious that the engine had lost a lot of oil which left the car as a non-runner for the day. Fortunately the cavalry arrived in the shape of Afshin and Kika of Petrolicious, and we were able to grab a lift to get oil and then onto the circuit.
There were around 80 classic cars in attendance (modern cars were not allowed into the paddock) with the fastest almost certainly being a Porsche Carrera 6 racer. There were also a large number of early Porsche 911s including a 2.7 Carrera RS. British cars were well represented with plenty of Jaguar XKs, MGs, Healeys and a couple of Aston Martins. Naturally there were French cars including four or five Bugatti Type 35s and a couple of late sixties Alpine Renaults. The Bugattis were amongst the most enthusiastically driven cars at the event and one showed an amazing original patina that looked incredibly cool.
I doubt I would have ventured out on the circuit in the Daytona, but it was a shame not to have it with me in the paddock and as word of our misfortune spread, many people came up to ask me what had happened and if the car was okay. I consoled myself with a few passenger laps in Jonny’s Alfa. It was great fun hanging on as the little GTV slid through the tight bends. The tuneful 2.0 litre twin cam got the car down the one long straight quickly enough to not hold up the fast Porsches too much.
The weather was beautiful: sunny, crisp, and dry. The circuit was open from 9:00 am closing for lunch at 12:00. Lunch was served at the nearby Chateau de Nesles, and one of the most spectacular sights of the weekend was seeing the Carrera 6 being driven on the public roads to the Chateau.
After lunch we returned to the circuit for a couple of hours before catching a lift back to the B&B to add the life-giving oil to the Daytona. As a dry sump engine it's not that easy to gauge the amount of oil needed as you can only check the oil level with the engine running. We estimated that around 4 litres had been lost so I added a couple of litres before nervously firing the engine. It caught straight away and, even better, the gauges revealed that the oil pressure, while a little low, was within safe parameters for the car. With the car idling, I checked the oil level and it read just above minimum. I added another litre to bring the level up to midway, while consciously trying not to overfill it.
With the Daytona once again up and running, I used the 6km run to the Chateau where the evening dinner and prize-giving was being held as a test drive. On the journey, I was watching the oil pressure and temperature gauges almost as much as the road, but both were right where they were expected to be. Checking the levels on arrival it was clear the Daytona wasn’t losing any further oil, although I still wasn’t entirely confident.
The dinner was a lovely four course affair followed by a good-natured prize giving ceremony. I won the prize for the person who drove to the event but didn’t make it the circuit. Apparently it happens every year! No doubt the prize of a leather-bound tool roll will prove useful in the future.
The next day a smaller number of cars met in Fère-en-Tardenois for the start of a drive winding through the idyllic Champagne region. The weather had turned rather damp and rain showers were in the air. We were given a tulip road book, but for the most part just stayed in the middle of the peloton of classics hoping the lead car knew where they were going. In some of the smaller villages, the residents came out of their houses cheering and waving as the cavalcade of rare classics passed through.
Mid-way through the morning, we arrived in the village of Gueux for a fuel and drinks stop (and the requisite oil check for me) before proceeding to the old pits at the Reims-Gueux circuit. The old pits are a great photo opportunity and all the cars duly lined up. Unfortunately the weather decided not to cooperate and a sudden violent downpour had everyone scurrying back to their cars. After this, some of the roads were decidedly greasy and I had to take quite a lot of care so that the Daytona didn’t get out of shape.
The drive and the event finished at Veuve Clicquot’s facilities in Reims, where we enjoyed another excellent lunch with champagne for the non-drivers. A few of us even managed to sneak a tour of the Champagne caves. Built over the last few hundred years, many of these caves were carved out of the chalk by hand.
With the event drawing to a close, I was relived to be heading home in the Daytona and not on the back of a recovery vehicle. The car was now running without any more problems, and with each kilometre marker passed on the autoroute, the worry that there might be further issues receded. We made it to our booked tunnel crossing on time despite some irksome queues at the UK border security. Back in England, we spent another two hours on congested motorways before I could roll the Daytona into the garage at home.
As I write this, the Daytona is now with my mechanic for a thorough inspection and service. It will also probably require the replacement of any belts that have been impregnated with oil. When that's done, it will also need the services of Perfection Detailing to thoroughly clean the engine bay of the last of the oil residue.
Journées d’Automne is one of the very best classic car events I have been to and the perfect end to what has been a great summer of classic car motoring. I look forward to making this an annual event.
Huge thanks to Etienne Raynaud of Profirst for the invite to this great event. Thanks to Jonny and Mark for getting us back on the road and the Afshin and Kika Behnia for providing us with much-needed transportation on Saturday.
Note: A version of this article with photos by Jonny Shears also appears on Petrolicious. All photos in this article by the author.