A long hot night at the Le Mans Classic - in fact just a little too hot!
Franck Morand (Mirage 0158) from Clermont Ferrand in France returns from Thailand frequently and in 2004 timed a visit so he could attend the Le Mans Classic race meeting in his MGBGTV8. The journey to the Sarthe circuit proved a little more exciting than he had anticipated. His tale is quite extraordinary. (Aug 04)

I had driven through the country roads from Clermont Ferrand on my way to Le Mans and as evening came, I reached Solesmes, famous for its abbey and some 50km from the Sarthe circuit. I stopped to check into my hotel and after a quick sandwich, drove on to the circuit to watch the practice session. At the MG car park at the circuit, I met with some MG enthusiasts amongst whom were a few French enthusiasts and a British couple with an RV8 who were camping on the spot next to their car. At around 1.00am I decided to leave for Solesmes for a good night's sleep after the long drive earlier that day. But then, whilst driving through the inner part of the circuit, I started to hear a strange noise in the steering column when turning the steering wheel. Then, the more I turned the wheel, the more of that sound it made. I stopped to check if anything was wrong but all seemed in order, except that the noise seemed to disappear when I tried to move the plastic cowl covering the steering column just a little.

So I carried on and a few minutes later, as I was coming out of Arnage village still attempting to be as gentle as possible with the steering wheel, the horn started to come on intermittently by itself. So then I knew it had something to do with the

Mirage 0158 owned by Franck Morand from France. The car has been beautifully restored including a professional LHD conversion with luxurious grey leather seats and trim. The car was originally Glacier White like the V8 on the far side in this photo at Silverstone 2002. (Photo: Franck Morand)

I started to hear a strange noise in the steering column when turning the steering wheel

electrics. But after the third roundabout, by simply turning the steering wheel it started to make a much greater sound - and then in an instant I saw sparks coming out of the steering column just behind the steering wheel! I stopped the car immediately on the roadside and switched off the cut-off red knob I had installed next to the batteries to stop any current going through. But to my surprise, the short circuit would not stop, and in fact it became greater in a dramatic manner and at an alarming speed! I jumped out of the car, removed all my valuables in a couple of seconds, and then ran to the boot to get some pieces of cloth so I could try and stop the fire on the steering column cowl. But the fire was gradually increasing
until I saw flames coming out of the column. Most alarming indeed! Plastic fumes started to invade the cockpit, and it became difficult to breathe in there. You have to realise that this was in the middle of the night too.

I realised it could become extremely serious, so I made a last attempt to control the fire. I wrapped the cloths I had collected from the boot and held them as tightly as I could around the steering column. I really squeezed the cloth to avoid any air getting to the fire. I thought this was the last attempt before leaving the car as I then realised that the V8 was likely to go on fire as it seemed to spread to the whole wiring loom. I could really imagine the car exploding at any moment and I was about to escape, but fortunately it seemed that I had squeezed the cloth tight enough to prevent the air from circulating for the moment. Eventually the fire seemed to subside. By that time I had burnt my hands badly, and the top part of my left index finger was in shreds, but at least I had saved the V8!! I let the fumes clear from the car and tried to relax a little, reflecting on what had happened. Although I did not feel too well, with my burns and the car stranded on the roadside at that late hour and a hotel room waiting for me 50 km away, I was still so happy that the V8 was not too damaged. I was relieved it had been saved from a fire.

I saw flames coming out of the steering column - I realised it could become serious!

The incredible thing about this shocking event was that back in Thailand I had ordered a fire extinguisher from Reverie in the UK - one with a nicely polished aluminium finish to suit the car - but they had run out of stock and consequently did not have any to send to me. It was as if I had sensed that something would happen. Anyway, here I was in the suburbs of Le Mans at 1.30am

Sarthe circuit plan with Arnage on the lefthand side.

with the V8 stranded on the roadside. I did not really know what to do and was ready to sleep in the car until early morning. Several cars passed by, but at this time of the night nobody would stop. And in a way I was happy they did not stop because you can meet all sorts of strange people on a Friday night. Finally, at around 1.45am I heard the sound of an MG approaching. When the car passed by me I called out to the driver, as it was a convertible with the top down, and he immediately

saw that I was in trouble with an MG. He stopped and I could see that he was British as the car was RHD, although he expressed himself in French too. After a brief exchange, he said he would be back in half an hour as he needed to meet up some friends at his hotel first. After waiting 30 minutes, he reappeared walking along the roadside as he had parked his car at the hotel half a mile away. After further greetings, we decided to try to see how we could tow my car to a safer place. We fetched his MG from his hotel and came back to the V8. However, we did not find a proper ring at the back of his MGB as he had made a few modifications on the rear bumper. I did not want to damage his car either. I decided that the best thing to do was to drive back to the circuit to find some help from the French members I had met earlier in the evening, one of whom had told me he would spend the night at the circuit.

So this kind English gentleman, Francis Yerbury, drove me there but we found only the British couple with the RV8 probably fast asleep in their tent, and no French members. It seemed likely they had gone off to sleep at a camp site. Therefore after a brief analysis of the situation, Francis was kind enough to offer to drive me to my hotel, so that I could at least recover my personal belongings and cancel the second night. So off we went to Solesmes in this beautiful but rather chilly Sarthe night. The drive was very nice as we could smell the pine tree forest along the way, and we had the opportunity to discuss further. Francis happens to teach English at the University of Caen, and has lived in France for over 14 years. Incidentally, we found out that he knew a common friend in Clermont, another British gentleman teaching English at Clermont-Ferrand University. A small world really. We passed by a village where we saw something like thirty Morgans parked alongside in the main street.

At about 2.45am we were about to reach Solesmes when his fuel gauge started to be alarmingly low. You can imagine that petrol stations in the Sarthe countryside at this time of night are difficult to find open. However, I insisted that we go to the next bigger village after Solesmes to seek petrol. We saw some fluorescent green lights next to a supermarket, and there was an automat station. We were saved! The poor chap had to drive back to Le Mans, and probably reached the place at around 3.45am or later. To cap it all, when I got into my hotel room, I realised that I had lost my mobile phone in the process. I knew I was not going to sleep at all that night... I left a message on Francis' mobile phone and asked him to look in his MG to see if he could find it.

His fuel gauge started to be alarmingly low!

At 7.00am I made all the telephone calls I could from my hotel room to get some assistance, and to cut the story short, one guy from the MG Club de France whom I managed to reach on the telephone, Christian Lissots, gave me the telephone of the Le Mans representative who in turn gave me the address of the MG/MAZDA dealer in Le Mans who could possibly help me. At least I could leave the car in his garage until I could make arrangements for it to be returned Clermont. Then I headed to the reception to check out and cancel my second night, which the landlady fully understood after I had briefly explained my predicament. I then made my way to the car park of the hotel which was fortunately filled with classic cars, and I immediately felt relieved at the

sight of a gentleman fiddling with his luggage in the boot of his MGBGT. I introduced myself and briefly explained my story to him, and found he was the most pleasant man you could meet. He said it would be no problem for him to drive me back to my car that morning as he had no passenger. He then insisted that we have breakfast together, although he was travelling with several Austin Healey friends in three cars, and I found out what an interesting person he was. Now retired, Michael Beardsmore used to work at the Healey factory for several years, hence was accompanying friends with the three Healey 3000s for this trip. He had actually serviced some of the cars himself to prepare for this trip.

Michael Beardesmore was at Le Mans Classic with some of his Healey friends. (Photo: Franck Morand)

At about 8.30am we departed for Le Mans, and he dropped me by my car in Arnage at about 9.15am accompanied by one of his Healey friends. We waived good-bye to each other as the Healey guys had to go as they had booked the track lap. I was relieved to find the car had not been vandalised, and I then set about the hike to the MG/MAZDA garage to seek some help. As expected, nobody would stop, except at one stage I saw a Mini Rover and waved at the driver while pointing at my MG on the other side of the road. He seemed to immediately get my point, and stopped. He was actually a customer of the garage and dropped me there in no time.

I met the owner of the dealership, M Soupiset, who let me use his office telephone as much as I could as I wanted to check first if my insurance would cover the trailer expenses - not easy on a Saturday morning. In the end, the insurance company said there was no coverage - thank you very much! M Soupiset called a mechanic who specialised in picking up cars on the Le Mans track and was able to fix minor problems whenever possible. He then asked his salesman to drive me back to my car, where I would have to wait about 40 minutes before the arrival of the mechanic and his trailer. While waiting on the roadside, a French MGF pulled up and the driver, Jacques Huron, asked me if he could assist. He was ready to drive me to the railway station at Le Mans so that I get back home. Moreover M Huron stayed with me until the mechanic came.

Before putting the car on the trailer, the mechanic looked at the damage and seemed to be impressed from looking at the steering column plastic cowl how completely it had melted, and tried to dismantle the whole thing to see the extent of the damage. After removing the cowl and disconnecting the burnt wires, he found out that the rest of wiring loom had just about been saved and remained miraculously untouched. We found the indicator light box was completely burnt too. After I explained what had happened to me a few minutes before the short circuit, he looked at the burnt parts and immediately deduced that the short circuit problem came from the fact the horn

wire had been squeezed more and more by the rotation of the steering wheel and had finally lost its plastic protective covering so the copper core eventually touched the metal, and created a short circuit. Now this immediately made sense to me as my mechanic in Clermont, who had just serviced the car, had mentioned to me at the time that he had tightened the steering cowl as it was slightly loose. Although this was done out of good intention, this obviously resulted in creating the short circuit. May I point out at this stage that, when looking at how the horn is mounted on MG's, one has to be extremely careful with this wire. Moreover, if you change the original steering wheel, as I had done on my V8, one must check very carefully to ensure the wire is going through the proper channel and is not likely to be squeezed in any way whatsoever.

After the mechanic had checked the wiring loom, he told me I could restart the V8 safely

After he had dismantled the whole thing and checked the rest of the wiring loom, the mechanic told me that I could restart the car safely. Which I did and you can imagine the smile on my face on hearing the familiar V8 burble. This mechanic, as I told him, was really like "Zorro" that day. I gave him a good tip on top of his regular charge. Then Jacques Huron, who had stayed all along, waved me good-bye and I then headed back to the circuit, with no indicators, no headlights, and no horn. There were many gendarmes around that weekend. But Good Lord, how good it felt to hear the burble of the V8 running smoothly again, plus the prospect of being able to drive the car back home.

I met Francis again around the track who had found my mobile phone in his MG, and we had a most friendly beer together with some French members who had help me through the phone to get the right contacts. Incidentally, Christian Lissots, who had driven his Renault Alpine to Le Mans (he is currently restoring an MGA), had lost his car keys, so I was pleased to pay back his assistance by driving him to Le Mans railway station in my V8 - a privilege for a Frenchman, as V8s are rarities in France. Unfortunately I could not find Michael again but I have corresponded with him ever since. I heard he had a safe trip back to UK with his Healey friends. Later, I met a gentleman from Clermont who was looking at my MG, and since he saw my number plates, he offered to me to drive together back to Clermont. He drives one of the very rare Ferrari 400 GT models - with a manual gear box and carburettor - and I can tell you that in this form, it is a real classic Ferrari as most of them are automatic with injection unfortunately. The colour of his car is most unusual, even for 400 GT, as it is beige which apparently is an original Ferrari colour. The trip back was very pleasant and without indicator lights, it was much safer to follow him. Moreover, as he is familiar with all the country roads, we did not have any problems with the gendarmes. Pascal Legrand belongs to a more and more restricted breed of real car enthusiast as he is an amateur car racing historian. He actually had a meeting with an editor at Le Mans for a book he is writing on the life of Louis Rosier, the famous car racing star from Clermont-Ferrand who amongst other things won Le Mans in a Talbot Lago, and stayed at the wheel 23 hours only leaving the car to his son for one hour. Another era, isn't it?

Well, this is how the story ends, but I thought you might be interested in the technical part of it, and also in the really nice friendship you can find among MG enthusiasts and others.

More photos from Le Mans Classic 2004