A trip to the Dordogne September 1999

with John Winn


In 1997 Loraine and I drove our Merlin (Sierra based 2 litre, carburettor- fed) to the Loire valley in France and last year we took the ferry to Santander and toured the north coast of Spain, both without any particular problem. Then we read "The adventures of Millie The Merlin" and realised how fortunate we had been. However, undaunted, we planned the longest trip yet -to the Dordogne for 3 weeks.

The first indications were not encouraging. We booked our ferry, from Portsmouth to Caen, through Chez Nous who are a Thompson -Group company which leases gites and arranges B and B's in France. In 1997 (before Thompson took over) the car breakdown insurance included in the ferry cost was agreed to cover the Merlin, in fact the lady taking the booking chatted quite happily about a friends Kit-car. The new regime was however not user-friendly and not only refused cover but also refused any price reduction! I therefore arranged cover with the AA for £92. We knew that the mileage would be significant and divided it into easy stages, 140 miles to Portsmouth, overnight cabin on the ferry, then 3 legs each of about 150 miles down to the Lot valley which is in the south of the Dordogne region, stopping at 2 B&B's en route. All was fine including the weather and the surfaces of the roads- we avoided motorways and used the equivalent of our 'A' roads.

Having arrived at our destination I gave the car a checkover. The driver's side bonnet hinge had loosened on the scuttle. Not easy to get at the nut, and tucked up above the dashboard wiring. I approached it cautiously to avoid unloosening any connections. A socket spanner on an extension bar did sufficient to hold until we got home. I also found that the short double- ended spline section in the steering linkage between the two universal joints had become a slip-fit so I re-tightened the nyloc nuts and decided to keep a check on the situation. It stayed tight.

The holiday continued without further events until we had done about 1,000 miles, when I noticed that crawling through traffic and traffic lights on a hot day the electric fan didn't seem to find it necessary to operate- the temperature gauge gave a reading a little higher than usual but the dashboard fan light did not switch on. Strange, I thought! Loose connection or blown fuse? The reason was more odd than that.

When I built the car I decided to use relays in the horn and fan circuits and bought from the local auto-electrical supplier a fuse box for 2 fuses with a see-through plastic cover. The fuses were described as 'continental' and are torpedo shaped with cone ends. They fit between a spring leaf with a locating hole and a brass post with a locating indentation. Below this indentation is a hole through which the connecting wires can protrude.

What I found was that the fuse had fallen out of its mounting -it had not blown but its body had melted! Before the holiday I had generally cleaned the engine area and had rotated both these fuses to see their metal elements more easily. I must have dislodged the fuse so that the post end contact rested against the connecting wire, still held by the spring pressure. However the poor contact must have caused localised overheating, the blue plastic then melted and it just fell out. A carefully fitted new fuse has now operated for another 1200 miles without problem. I think the standard spade type fuses are better as they have a larger contact area with a more positive location. If I can buy a suitable twin box I shall probably change it.

We are now in our third week, the Merlin is happy, we are happy......it's a Monday morning and we decide to motor 25 miles to the town of Bergerac to look at the river and the historic buildings. Glancing at the voltmeter it only reads 13 volts. Hum! Stop car, turn off engine, check for loose wires to alternator (none found), switch on ignition -no red light, start car -still 13 volts; Unhappy thoughts arise, memories of Millie don't help. As Bergerac is only a mile or so we ask a passer-by if there is a Ford garage -he doesn't know and says (it is now 10.30 am) ! all garages are shut on Mondays!. Gloom descends. We decide to drive back to our gite.

After a few miles we see a Ford sign and they are open. Hurrah! ! Ah! they say ! you need the main agent in Bergerac who will open at 2.00 PM! They charge the battery for an hour to ensure that it is fully charged and give us directions, cost 20 FF (£2). Loraine's school French, circa 1950, proves adequate. We drive to the main agent, park the car outside, get some lunch at the local supermarket and return at 2.00 pm. We are third in the queue and wait half an hour, rehearsing my two sentences of explanation. No, the chap in reception speaks no English -but enthuses over the Merlin. His voltmeter confirms my voltmeter and probably a duff alternator, which they can't handle -but he picks up the phone and says drive 300 metres up the road to !!Franc Diesel!!. This is a large workshop, the car is expected, they also enthuse over the Merlin, skillfully remove the alternator, put it on a test jig, run it up and it's OK The young mechanic and I ponder and I manage to extract the peabulb ignition lamp from behind the dashboard, it has blown! We replace it and all is cured! He manages to tell me that apparently the bulb not only shows when the alternator starts to charge, it also carries the excitation current. We are all pleased, I give another mechanics 4 year old son a blast around their very large car park, his mother is full of smiles, the exercise took one and a half hours, and the cost with two spare bulbs was 248FF (£25).

The rest of the holiday passed without incident. The countryside and villages we saw were a pleasure, the Merlin attracted interest and our pre-translated and typed paragraph of explanation was regularly used. In all we covered just over 2000 miles. Next year, either Spain or France again, we will decide around Christmas.

On return to the UK

1. A friend in the village has 40 years as a motor mechanic and said failure of the ignition bulb is very rare as a cause of lack of charging. When the answer is known one sometimes wonders if one should have reasoned it out. My natural thought, and presumably the French mechanic thought the same, was that the lamp failed to light because the alternator was duff. There is a brief reference to an ignition warning lamp failure in Haynes Sierra manual Chap. 13,9.4, but it is not a clear statement that a failed lamp will cause the alternator not to work. Also nothing further is said in the fault diagnosis section. So even with hindsight I am not surprised we thought the alternator was the likely culprit.

2. I have always thought that the angles in the steering universal joints are extreme and when building the car I also found that the alignment required by the shaft into the steering rack actually needed the bearing block to be moved slightly outwards on the pre-drilled chassis plate, which made things even more angular. Whether this was because I fitted power steering I don't know, but I doubt Ford would deliberately make such a small difference between the power and direct racks. (Actually having found a number of positional and angular errors with the chassis and suspension. involving sending items back to Peter, I assumed it was another error -and maybe I'm right). Therefore I stripped down the steering so that I could examine the U-Js. I found that there had been slight fouling against the ends of the splined shafts where they protruded through the clamps, despite my bevelling the ends when building the car. I think this worked the splines loose. The spline ends are now filed flat and no longer protrude at all, and with the front jacked up I have checked that there is no fouling.

I have also re-aligned the U-Js on advice from a mechanical engineer so that the input to and output from the double-ended shaft are in the same plane. This is not as shown in the build manual but is apparently correct. The engineer's comment was that in a steering shaft the effect is small, however in drive-shafts to wheels angular mis-alignment causes wind-up and wear problems. Having had a problem and because the angles are extreme I just feel more comfortable with the U-Js re- aligned.

A tip: -if your sidescreen or hood press studs are becoming a little reluctant, take a cotton bud with a little Vaseline and wipe inside the stud caps. This made the many getting-ins and getting-outs a little easier during the 3 weeks.

Thinking back over the holiday we are very conscious that the Merlin made the holiday, it wouldn't have been anywhere near so much fun in a mass-produced saloon. The French drivers were interested and courteous. We found that without a top I could easily wave those past who wished to overtake and proceed at out tourist pace of 60-65 mph. Particularly we remember arriving at our first gite for a week's stay. The owner insisted on removing his Mercedes Benz from the garage for our Merlin because "your car is so beautiful".

All Merlin owners would, of course, agree.

Happy motoring to all members

Best regards John Winn


(Editor -I found my wife collapsed on the floor in fits of laughter in the midst of typing up this article. Clearly there are some subliminal jokes written in between the double-ended splines and the Vaseline applied with a cotton bud that appeal only to women. )