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The Classic Road to Le Mans

It’s every inch as marvellous as you’ve heard.

Martyn GoddardphotographerDale Drinnonwriter

LE MANS, France -- I really thought we'd be having fun by now. Tim and I are headed to Le Mans Classic, the great race for classic sports cars that takes place a couple weeks after the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and we've brought the 1934 Riley Ulster Imp across the English Channel on a ferry. We're driving south on the precise route this car took to compete in the race in 1934.

We'd hoped that the old N158 route through France to Le Mans would be more like, well, an old road to Le Mans. Instead, we're grinding down a faintly cruel four-lane highway south of Caen that's crowded with commuters and big-rig trucks. From the navigator's seat of the Riley, it feels like I'm lying flat on the pavement amidst a thundering pack of rabid mechanical rhinos. We don't need a hot little sports car from the 1930s for this; we need a Camry with the premium audio.

Real racers don't carry cars on trailers

All this happened last year, because Le Mans Classic only takes place in even-numbered years, yet even now I think that maybe I shouldn't have talked Tim out of trailering his car. For a dedicated Riley man like my friend Tim Ely, the forthcoming 2014 Le Mans Classic for vintage race cars would be pretty special, and surely, I figured, we should do it up proper. It would be the 80th anniversary of the Riley marque's proudest moment, when it won the Team Award at the 1934 24 Hours of Le Mans. This Riley Ulster Imp was part of that effort, finishing 12th overall and third in the popular class for cars with normally aspirated 1,100cc engines.

"C'mon, let's drive it down to Le Mans," I told him. "It'll be just like the factory did in 1934." Actually it would be just like British race entrants for Le Mans did for ages following that distant year, as the customary way to get a racing sports car to the track was simply to drive there. "It's only a couple of hundred miles," I added, deftly sidestepping the fact that the Riley's odometer also has a trifling 80 years on the clock. Ely paused for a moment, obviously dazzled by the brazenness of my stupidity, before saying, "And we could have the official send-off at Brooklands, couldn't we? The 1934 team did a final test session there and left straight for France. …"

If you're British, it always starts with Brooklands

And lo, thus did we arrive at fabled Brooklands, cradle of British motor racing and the world's earliest superspeedway (1907), for Le Grand Depart. It is now a museum and a damned fine one. Much of the standing infrastructure dates from the track's heyday, including the Clubhouse and sections of the original 2.8-mile banked circuit. Even idling around the remnants helps you understand what utterly fearless, brainless, heedless heroes the Brooklands drivers were. Photos abound of them in massive monster cars with airplane engines, skinny tires, and brakes that wouldn't stop a Vespa scooter. They're running 130 mph and catching air over the insane humps and bumps in the banked concrete surface.

And now we're trundling along the boring N158 at an interminable if machinery-preserving 50 mph. We're in one of only 11 Riley Ulster Imps ever built, a tweaked yet street-legal sports model from Riley that was meant for serious amateur racers, much like a cross between a Caterham Seven and a Porsche 911 GT3 RSR. The legendary Mike Hawthorn, winner of Le Mans in 1955 and Britain's first F1 driving champion in 1958, got his start in the high-speed motoring business at the 1950 Brighton Speed Trials while sitting exactly where Tim Ely is sitting now. In fact Ely was a personal friend of Hawthorn in that faraway time, and when Hawthorn was killed in a road accident just three short months after he had won his F1 championship and then retired from racing, Ely bought this Riley from the Hawthorn family. At the time the car was in pieces and worth about as much as a middling third-hand Bugeye Sprite, yet now Tim Ely has assembled it, owned it, raced it, improved it, preserved it, and done rightly by it for 55 years.

But right now we're stuck on this highway at 50 mph, which not only seems the perfect way to collect a semi truck up the exhaust pipe but also a way to give your tootsies oodles of time to accumulate engine heat through the Riley's meager firewall. Nor do the equally meager aeroscreens interfere noticeably with the shower of sand issuing from a dump truck that overtakes us in Falaise. It's an awful highway but, hey, every American like me who grew up in the 1960s while watching the Ford GTs on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" knows that the N158 turns into the Mulsanne Straight once it reaches Le Mans, right?

Le Mans is really just a quiet country lane

But finally we can't stand it anymore, so we turn off in hopes of finding a road more appropriate to a 1934 sports car. Five minutes later we're on a quiet, wandering country lane, totally anonymous yet not all that different in reality from the Le Mans circuit. It has smooth, well-tailored tarmac with long straightaways connected by quick dips and swoops and fast sweepers, with the odd kink thrown in for good measure. It's ideal for sports cars and ideal for developing sports cars, and it's no wonder the world's greatest sports car race evolved at Le Mans on a circuit of public roads just like this.

This road fits the Riley like a suit from Savile Row. In its time, Riley was a true innovator in the car business, and the Ulster Imp was state of the art among pre-war giant killers. First of all, it's svelte in both size and weight. Then there's the landmark OHV four-cylinder engine, with twin camshafts mounted in the block and short pushrods actuating the eight valves in the head. (And it's a hemi!) The pre-selector gearbox is like a foreshadowing of a dual-clutch automatic with shift paddles; simply move the shifter lever into the gear you'll be needing next, and when you press and release the clutch pedal, hey presto, you've got it. With just 50 hp, the Imp might not be able to match the outright speed of today's cars, but it still fills the wish list of every serious driver ever born; it's nimble, reliable, completely predictable, and always feels like it's rooting for you.

Farther along we swing onto the southbound D338, and somewhere near the embarrassingly picturesque Beaumont-sur-Sarthe, Tim Ely and I have a pleasant Franglish chat there with a senior gentleman who once watched the Jaguar race cars caravan by to the racing circuit the year that the Hawthorn/Bueb D-type won the 24 Hours. Or maybe he once saw a Jaguar on the Discovery Channel; that's Franglish for you. Suddenly we're entering Le Mans, still following the D338 clear across town to the circuit and indeed onto the circuit. And now I recall that for those younger than the 1964 Ford GT, it's the D338 that now hosts the Mulsanne Straight. (The N158 by any other name, if you ask me.)

Take your pick, Le Mans Classic or Le Mans Legend?

As for the actual Le Mans Classic, ah, it's every inch as marvellous as you've heard. When it began in 2001, it was just a race for old sports cars. Now it's an event so big that it can be staged only every other year. You might honestly overload on great cars here if you don't hang tough. They're everywhere, from the most rare Bugattis to seemingly every Porsche 911 ever made. (And I don't mean every model of the Porsche 911; I mean every individual bloody 911.)

But it's the racing at Le Mans Classic that'll bring you here, and especially the unique opportunity to experience the entire history of sports car racing—and sports cars—at a place that has so shaped the way we feel about them. Le Mans is also a place where you can't help but believe that the only real difference between a 1934 Riley Ulster Imp and the dozens of cars that now carry a GT3 label is just the year they were manufactured. The roads have changed since then, and the technology has changed. But we haven't.

You don't even have to wait for Le Mans Classic to roll around every other year, because the 24 Hours of Le Mans stages its own classic event on the Saturday morning before the start of the great race. Le Mans Legend features a field of 60 cars that race the full 8.5-mile circuit, and you'll see everyone who's famous in the world of classic cars.

Why not make the trip yourself?

Every racing junkie should visit the Circuit de la Sarthe at least once. All you do is fly to Paris Orly, grab a rental car, and drive a couple of hours southwest on the toll expressways A10 and A11; add another 30-45 minutes if you land at Charles de Gaulle. It's a tolerable drive in any street car, and you can visit Chartres Cathedral on the way. Le Mans itself is nice enough, too: some 150,000 inhabitants on the River Sarthe, the usual charms of French tourism, and the birthplace of racing driver Sebastien Bourdais.

On race weeks, expect the population to roughly double or maybe almost triple, likewise the traffic and hotel rates. And whatever time of year you're thinking of going to the race, it's probably already too late to book a cheap place to stay. For sensibly priced rooms, we had to go 40 miles out and shop four months in advance. You'll make good use of your rental car, believe me.

But the outlook brightens greatly at the circuit. Ticket prices are reasonable by international motorsport standards. Food and drink are also fair quality and cost; the French simply won't tolerate cold $20 hot dogs. Viewing is normally good with general admission tickets and offers decent photo ops, provided you can zoom to 300mm or so. You have your choice of 24 Hours of Le Mans, the annual Le Mans Legend historic race that supports the main event, or the biennial Le Mans Classic (the next one is scheduled for 2016), which has become one of the coolest events in historic motorsport.

And should you be able to you drive a sports car like this Riley Ulster Imp to 24 Hours of Le Mans, you'll know that those who have gone before are riding in the passenger seat next to you.

1934 Riley 9 Ulster Imp Specifications

  • Price: 395 pounds sterling (1934)
  • Engine: 1.1L, 8-valve OHV I-4/ 50 hp @ 5,000 rpm
  • Transmission: 4-speed pre-selector manual
  • Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD roadster
  • EPA Mileage: N/A
  • Suspension F/R: Beam axle, leaf springs/live axle, leaf springs
  • Brakes F/R: Drum
  • Tires F/R: 4.5 x 19 in
  • L x W x H: N/A
  • Headroom: open
  • Legroom: N/A
  • Shoulder Room: N/A
  • Cargo Room: N/A
  • Weight: 1,760 lbs
  • Weight Dist.: N/A
  • 0-60 mph:

    • N/A
  • 1/4-Mile: N/A
  • Top Speed: 80 mph