A trip to the East April 2001

with John Winn

When I built the Merlin in 1995/6 (Sierra based 2 litre, carburettor-fed) Loraine and I had at the back of our minds that touring abroad might be a possibility, dependent on comfort, stowage capacity, reliability etc. To date we have had 4 super holidays, each of nearly 3 weeks and about 2,000 miles motoring. 97 was the Loire Valley in France, 98 the north coast of Spain, 99 the Dordogne and this year near Annecy in the French Alps and near Buxy in the Burgundy region. In fact of the total 14,000 miles covered since the build more than half has been abroad. The Merlin has proved comfortable and, with a luggage rack on the boot and the space behind the front seats converted to a lockable locker, capable of carrying everything we have required. Each previous year has produced some minor problem but not anything fundamental. Last year, as I wrote for the Newsletter the electric fan fuse melted (nasty continental type holder with a torpedo fuse) and the ignition bulb failed (causing loss of charging). So for this year I was particularly careful in my pre-checks which fortuitously coincided with the M.O. T. , always carefully done by the same chap in a small garage just outside the village.

The M.O. T. was fine and I did I. General service including oils, grease for steering nipples, distributor gap, belts check etc. 2. Change the fuse holder for the fan to a type taking a spade (blade) fuse. 3. Replace the bobbins in the exhaust brackets -one had actually separated, for the second time! They come from the Mini and I suspect have a greater load with a Merlin system.

Then, with 3 weeks to the holiday I thought- umm, she uses a little water and if left for a couple of weeks or more initially fires up on 3 cylinders, but after half a minute all is normal. So I consulted a mechanic friend in the village -ah! He said, sounds like a head gasket, which is what I had wondered. As he Colin is virtually retired and I am retired it was agreed to do the job in my garage -Colin providing the expertise and me as general assistant. Well what a saga, abbreviated as follows -

a) Cylinder head removed, yes we can see the rust track to the plug, Colin says need to skim the head.

b) Consult Rugby Motor Engineering Services (RMES) -they have a new head with hard valve seats for unleaded fuel for a good price. My camshaft is old and one valve has always "ticked" above 1500 r.p.m. so O.K. let's have a new camshaft as well.

c) New head fitted and valve still "ticks", we scratch our heads and take the car to RMES where more people scratch heads. Then the question - "Has this engine ever overheated?" -well I say, it did once boil when the electric fan fuse blew but it only lost a pint or so as I was stuck in a traffic jam. Humm, says the expert, perhaps a piston has "picked-up" i.e. caught on the cylinder wall.

d) I have two sleepless nights. With 2 weeks to go do we strip the block?, after all it has "ticked" for 3 years BUT now I know it isn't a valve and does it now sound louder and 2000 miles to travel?

e) Decision taken, head removed again, sump undone (Capri type for better ground clearance) but can't remove as it fouls on the chassis even with the engine jacked up. We work through the gap to undo the big-ends. All pistons removed -NO SIGN OF PICK-UP. However the engine was bought as a reconditioned unit and the pistons are not a recognised type, also one top ring is odd. The engine has only ever done 700 miles to the pint and the original head was pretty coked.

f) New pistons, rings and shells were bought from RMES and the conrods checked for truth. All sizes were carefully measured, with the view that a good job should resolve the ticking.

g) All reassembled (with 5 days to the holiday) start engine, increase revs. - "tick, tick, tick." -A large GLUM descends!

h) Colin says "jack the front up" 1 do. He disappears underneath, I rev the engine gently and then the "tick" disappears! ! The noise had been the clutch lever arm vibrating in the bell housing.

i) The cure, or at least virtually a cure, was a light tension spring to put a slight load on the arm in the clutch-out direction.

Do I have regrets? Well not really, the water leak was solved, the car now runs on unleaded, uses virtually no oil and the "tick" is almost silenced. So we left Crick, hood down, but gloves on on August 31, took the Chunnel from Folkestone (24 hours before the French fuel blockade) and allowed 3 days to travel to the Alps.

For the first time we used toll autoroutes for much of the journey. This made running-in easier. The autoroutes do not have much traffic so my 55mph cruising caused no problems, there are also many parking areas with loos and also service areas. By the time we arrived at Thones, a nice market town, near Annecy the engine was virtually run-in and the local Ford agent changed the oil and filter.

Our Gite was a chalet high up on a valley side with spectacular views and reached by a single width 1 in 6 gradient very minor road with hairpin bends needing 1st gear and about half a mile overall. I only did it in the dark once and that was enough. The Annecy lake was quite beautiful with some attractive villages on it's shores, often with small parks at the water's edge. The town itself is quite historic with a castle, a number of narrow streets and a network of small waterways with attractive bridges. Everywhere the flower boxes were lovely. We made a number of trips to nearby valleys and had some great walks in wonderful scenery. Again there were pretty villages and all so quiet and peaceful with the occasional cowbells from the pastures.

Our next Gite was near Buxy, in the Burgundy region. This is an area with rolling hills and vineyards on the slopes. The gite's owners lived in the adjacent house and he was a sports car fan, particularly early MGB's and had also owned a V8 Marcos and a race-tuned Sprite. He knew Merlins and I naturally took him for a spin. He had stripped and rebuilt many cars and engines, and would you believe, had once had a rattling clutch arm on a Pinto engine which he cured by a light spring- it' s a small world.

The gite had mountain bikes so we did a few local trips on pedal power. They also had a small lake and animal sanctuary with geese, ducks, rabbits and chickens, each in their own enclosure plus Hattie and Toots who were two recovered mongrels. You've guessed -every morning we took them for a walk to the local village on top of a hill, complete with a monastery. They were great company and we gathered that mosy visitors also fell for their charms. The area has a number of interesting towns such as Chalon and Clunes with some superb large churches. In two of these we were fortunate to hear the organ being played -enormous and majestic sounds.

Our return to Calais was spread over 3 days. The first stage was on a Saturday and we enjoyed a light lunch at a small bar/restaurant in the middle of the countryside. I started the car to leave the car park and... ..the clutch cable broke! It was now past 2 o'clock, and Saturday. I rang the M on their freephone number, gave my insurance policy details and location. In 25 minutes a recovery truck arrived and winched the car aboard, 15 minutes later we arrived at what looked like a breakers yard but with a garage attached. The Merlin provoked the usual attention and four, yes four, mechanics appeared to look at it. 1 hour later we drove away using a second hand clutch cable from, 1 guess, a left hand drive Ford, as the outer sheath was longer than mine. Quite incredible -we had had visions of hire cars, leaving the Merlin etc, etc, which would have been a very sad ending to the holiday.

Some general points- we booked our gites through Chez Nous, the same as our previous holidays; we stayed at Logis de France hotels en route; our daily costs for meals, drinks and visits were less than we anticipated -the weak Franc/Euro certainly reduced our expenditure; most of the bills were paid by Visa and if we wanted cash we used our Switch card in any Cirrus machine.

From leaving Crick until returning to Folkestone all our motoring, apart from a dozen or so miles, was top down fresh air fun. From Folkestone to home it poured. As usual the French loved the Merlin and some even took photographs. Now where shall we go in 2001, should it be May rather than September ?


Happy motoring to all members.

Best regards

John Winn.