In France Again! 2003

with John Winn

Planning our fifth holiday in France "avec la Merlin" (I think feminine - pretty, good curves and the chaps fancy her) meant deciding whether to cover new ground or revisit known territory. So when in doubt, compromise. Following our usual 2 gites, a week apiece, we tried one of each. 
Quick think: - yes, two sections, the holiday and the car.


The Holiday

The 2nd gite of our last holiday was very unsatisfactory so we abandoned the use of Chez Nous brochure and Loraine went to work on the Internet. This produced one and Country Cottages in France produced the other. The holiday spanned from Wednesday 21 May - Monday 9 June.

As usual we crossed overnight from Portsmouth to Caen by Brittany Ferries and after a few hours sound sleep on a flat sea, made for Chateaugiron, south west of Rennes where we stayed for one night in a comfortable old inn (Logis) a stones throw from an attractive fortified chateau, with the usual fun of narrow streets and unexpected No Entry signs - we could see the hotel 10 yards away, ... Next day another 150 miles to revisit an hotel near Chantonnay overlooking a pretty lake and with a heated indoor pool. Then onwards on a shorter run to Brie sous Mortagne where our gite sat at the end of a short road behind the village and by a farm vineyard. The Merlin was happy as she had an old barn roof for protection and the gite itself was superb, simple all mod cons and renovated to a very high standard. We met the owner and his wife as they visited a couple of times to cut the lawn and attend to the flower beds.

We knew the area, the northern side of the Gironde estuary, having stayed about half an hour's drive away previously. So, we revisted Bourg and Blaye with their medieval fortifications and then explored elsewhere. Using a large scale map of the area we found a number of delightful inlets with harbours for holiday yachts and boats. Oh yes, there was the usual bar nearby for coffee (or alternative) and the sun shone. Our other discovery was St Georges de Didonne, just south of Royan, a small seaside town with an enormous beach at low tide. We walked along the golden sand and saw a number of land yachts stored by some dinghies for which the beach was ideal- very exhilarating I would think. When we first saw the beach midweek it was almost deserted but it was different on Ascension day (public holiday) which was very hot and there were hundreds of people there. We could hardly believe the contrast. The local ice cream shop was in rip off mode - a cornet was 3 euros which we later realised was £2.10! Nearly double the usual price.

Our next gite was a long run northwards to near a small town called Sille de Guillaume. Le Mans was about 20 miles away but a large town is where I feel less comfortable about leaving the car so we did not visit it although we were told it is very interesting historically. As it turned out there were lots of other places to go. The gite was good, owned by a British family who use it in July and August. It could sleep 6, had a well stocked library of paperbacks and very well equipped kitchen, in fact, it was a home. It also had an orchard including a cherry tree with ripe fruit - delicious for breakfast.

Sille has a large shallow lake with a sandy beach, swimming area and a dinghy sailing school for youngsters. I tried the water but it was still cool so a pleasant paddle sufficed! A number of the local youth were not so inhibitited and had a great time. Some of the villages were very attractive and we also visited some well preserved and extensive Roman ruins. Amazingly, the nearby church had been built over Roman baths so instead of the crypt we went into a large baths complex complete with pre-recorded commentary and programmed lighting to explain it all.

The last 2 days were in a hotel a few miles from Caen in what is known as the Suisse Normand as it is very hilly.

Delightful countryside and river scenes, also the food was superb.

So how were the French bearing in mind the Entente not -so-cordiale over Iraq? The answer is fine; they still gather round the Merlin and we found young people polite and well mannered. My fears of some anti attitudes and perhaps some damage to the car were totally unfounded.

Amongst a number of pleasant incidents, two stand out. Firstly, stopping in a small village to check the map, I saw 4 vintage motor bikes in a row outside an old house with a chap in his late 50's cleaning them. An hour later I had seen his workshop, found out that he had 5 more bikes elsewhere in the village and established that he lectured in engineering. Amongst the bikes were a Triumph twin 650, Royal Enfield, Douglas 350 and a BSA 500 on which, in earlier days, he had done 100,000 miles over 10 years. The other bikes were French, some quite early. In his workshop he had built a position control device, running on rails about 1/2 metre long to demonstrate control techniques to his students. And it was built out of Meccano!! He had boxes of the stuff and said that over the years he had found it ideal to make his models. I told him my Meccano now resided in the loft with the Dublo train layout- pleasant reminiscing.

Our second incident was in a small restaurant, early in the evening before many people had arrived. A French chap, early 60's, on his own, commented in French about the car; after a while he started talking in English and said that he had a Mercedes 280 SL' Pagoda top' of about 1973 currently being re-sprayed. After talking for quite a while he invited us to his home for champagne. Quick decision needed - answer "yes" well, Jean-Claude had a large house formerly part of a monastery, with its own tiny chapel which is still consecrated, together with 4 interlinked quite large fishponds, almost small lakes, and the surrounding farm land. The champagne was excellent, the lounge was beautifully appointed; the conversation was stimulating - he was a really nice man. What did he do? He was a Buddhist faith healer to whom people came from all over France and he travels across Europe when needed. His work is varied and includes treating cancers and bringing patients out of comas after hospitals have called him to help. It made Loraine and I very thoughtful - we are retired and enjoying our leisure time. Jean Claude cannot foresee retirement as people will continue to 'phone him and arrive at his house asking for his special help. A gift with enormous responsibility, We have written to him to thank him for his kind hospitality.

The Car

As usual, I carefully checked and serviced the car over the weeks prior to the holiday and wondered if as continental trip No 7 (4 to France and 2 to Spain) this would be the first without any electrical or mechanical incident to report, also I felt good about the re-welding and strengthening of the rear suspension trailing arms (remember my last report on the broken weld when crossing Spain). The run to Portsmouth was perfect, the crossing to Caen calm - BUT before disembarking at 7am I had a quick look under the bonnet and the tide was out in the radiator header expansion reservoir. A quick feel of hose joints revealed no wetness so I topped the bottle up to the mark and noted the water loss was not much, just enough to have emptied the reservoir. Checks on the road at about 15 minute intervals showed I was losing water at a steady rate so we pulled off into a large parking area with loo and I pondered. On returning to the car it too had puddled, actually it was still puddling! I wasn't certain because there had been no whistling noises but I suspected a water pump failure. Luckily, we were only 10 miles or so from the largish town of St Lo which had a Ford agent. The Merlin weaved its magic, attention was swift, yes, the water pump seal had failed, yes, the pump was the same for Sierra, Transit and Granada and yes, they had one in stock. They reshuffled their work list, made us the first job of the afternoon and we were back on the road 
by 3pm and at our overnight hotel by 6pm nicely in time for dinner. We obviously had time to kill in St Lo and found that it is quite an historic city with an attractive river and the overlooking remains of a castle. It would have been an interesting place to visit in normal circumstances. That problem could happen to any ageing engine, so I didn't feel too upset.

The next problem was not only annoying it was and is worrying. Let me refer you again to my last article regarding rear suspension welding and the crack found by Bill and Alan Brown where the straight tube joins to the side plate of the hub carrier assembly. Also Tony Kirk later rang me and said he had found a crack in the same place as Bill and Alan.

Before we left on holiday, I checked this weld on both rear units and found no sign of a crack and assumed that after 20,000 miles plus my problems having been cracks in the Z-bend welds, I would be O.K. Wrong! Fortunately we were only trundling along through a village when there was a noise like a rifle shot. I stopped immediately suspecting a weld failure but the rear wheels were upright, so I hoped maybe a tyre had shot a stone against a silencer pipe. Wrong again! 200 yards later the steering went odd, I had to turn the wheel to the left to go straight ahead, the car was all lopsided and I stopped again. The passenger side rear suspension had collapsed and the wheel was leaning so far inwards that the tyre was resting against the chassis. The weld (which the Browns and Tony Kirk had found cracked on their cars) was gaping open, still just connected on the underside like a hinge. With the help of Pam and Stuart, two Brits living in France who saw our plight and whose house phone we used to summon the RAC, the car was trailered to a workshop. A specialist welder with a skilled mechanic re-aligned the suspension and re-welded the break making a very large fillet of weld all round for strength. At my request they similarly strengthened the weld on the driver's side suspension.

I have now had two serious weld failures both of which could have been very dangerous. Probably having done over 20,000 miles my car has done more than the other Sierra builds. Two other club members have also found cracks. When I paid the large repair bill the garage asked for a waiver of liability!

The next bit isn't good reading either. Bill and Alan Brown have discovered serious bending in the tube in the lower front wishbone which transmits the load through the shock absorber. This was on both sides of the car. Their solution has been to remove the wishbones, straighten the bends, cut the straightened tubes, insert rods machined to size and re-weld. On my car the amount of bend is hardly detectable, only 60 thou over the tube length.

The helpful welder in our village, who did the previous remedial welding, and I have had a chat.

Big welds can set up tensions, so the work in France although obviously a solution which presently works, will be supplemented by a substantial web from the upper surface of the tube to the side plate of the hub carrier. This will be done on both sides of the car.

I have obtained some substantial steel tube with an inner diameter the same as the outer-diameter of the front wishbone tube. A 19cm length has been sawn lengthwise to provide two half-shells to be welded as supports along the underside length of the wishbone tubes on each side of the car. As a refinement, and because any jack tends to slide along this tube when removing a front wheel, he will weld a short 10mm diameter peg on the shell against which the jack will be located.

Having now done at least 12,000 miles motoring in France and Spain and had wonderful holidays, how do I feel about next year. I have to say that my confidence for undertaking a major trip is rather low. Perhaps it is too much to expect our beautiful Kit-car to perform with the reliability of a modern car. At the moment I can't decide. We will see how we feel next Spring when any plans need to be made. If any Sierra-build owners wish to talk to me, please email. John Winn


Barry, our editor, asked if I could add a drawing of the rear suspension, indicating the problem areas. I struggled with perspective and isometric views to give a 3-D picture but the draftsmanship was too rusty so I have resorted to a basic drawing.

Both major failures occurred with the welds on the top surface and, fortunately, although gaping open on top, the welds on the undersides acted as a hinge. This considerably helped alignment when rewelding.

Failure area No. 1
At 11,600 miles, driver's side. Hairline crack found, rewelded in situ.
At 18,000 miles, in Spain passenger side. Major failure, weld gaping open. Initially rewelded in situ. On return to UK both passenger and driver's sides assemblies removed and strengthened by webs.

Failure area No 2
At 20,500 miles in France passenger side. Major failure, weld gaping open. Initially rewelded with large fillet of weld all round the tube in situ - also driver's side done for safety. On return to the UK the strengthening web now added and welded in situ on each side.


The stresses causing the failures would seem to be the reaction against the forces caused by the shock absorbers which bear the whole weight of the rear of the car and try to rotate each hub carrier. Stiff shock absorber settings would aggravate the problem as the impact of the road bumps and potholes would be more direct and not relieved by the 'give' obtained by softer settings. My Merlin runs on the softest setting, however on each occasion of major failure we were carrying holiday luggage but only the equivalent of two smallish suitcases. Certainly not excessive and on the France trip I deliberately never had the tank more than 70% full which saved the weight equivalent to one suitcase.

I can only conclude that the design and weld sizes used are only marginally adequate, as 3 club members have discovered. Fortunately the others just found cracks.

(My apologies for all this stuff to those whose cars are Cortina based - Mr Ford did a better job for you.)