Your Minor on French Roads
How's that saying go - "when in Rome..."? You could just carry on as normal on the left (and more than one of us has done it, with 'interesting' results), but it's probably safest to go with the flow and drive on the right like (almost) everyone else.
-- UPDATE - 5 DECEMBER 2019 --
The MMOC has been informed by the AMMF (French Morris club) that some of the motoring advice previously on this page is no longer current and could potentially mislead MOT'ers. We have therefore decided to withdraw this section for the time being. The French club has assured us that it is able to undertake the necessary revisions and I'll put that content online as soon as I receive it.
Minor Preparation Advice
During MOT you will be away from your usual support network so, to avoid any problems and allow our trusty mechanical geniuses to enjoy some time off, may we suggest some preventative maintenance before you set off.
A full service would be the ideal, particularly if you use the car regularly, but some basic work would go a long way towards ensuring a trouble-free holiday.
An oil and filter change, new air filter, check and top up gearbox and rear axle oil, grease the front suspension and track rod ends, universal joints (at each end of the prop-shaft), and handbrake cables (if fitted with grease nipples) would be a good start.
Check the grease in the front wheel bearings, and that there is the required quantity of the correct oil in the carburettor dashpot.
Some attention to the ignition system is a good idea; new spark plugs (clean the old ones; if they are in reasonable condition take them with you as spares). Check the condition of the contact breaker (points), but don't replace them unless there is a significant 'pip' on the contact surface; the plastic cam follower wears quite quickly when new, so your points gap will undoubtedly alter after a few hundred miles. Check the rotor arm (there have been many reported failures of rotor arms in recent months, so make sure that yours is from a reputable manufacturer), distributor cap and leads, and replace anything that is in the least doubtful. Change the condenser if you're changing the contact breaker.
Make sure that the fan belt is correctly adjusted, that the battery is in good condition and that its fluid is at the correct level. Check the state of the brake shoes and replace them if there is any doubt that they will remain in good condition while you are away in France. After you adjust the brakes, check the brake fluid level and top up if necessary.
Check your tyres for damage, wear and pressure (don't forget that the car will be loaded, so you may need to increase the pressure in the rear tyres, and don't forget the spare (same pressure as the rear tyres)). Cross-ply tyres are unavailable on the continent, and 145x14 radials are uncommon. Take a spare inner tube if you can.
In your boot:
- Spark Plugs - You changed them when you did the service (you did do the service, right?) but clean up the old ones and bring them as spares
- Rotor Arm - Make sure you're carrying the correct one (and guess who didn't!) and also some sandpaper or a nail file to clean any deposits off
- Condenser - Unless you've converted to electronic (and unless you're a stickler for originality you should), bring a known good spare
- Points Set - Personally I'd carry a couple of sets as even new ones don't always work. Don't forget feeler gauges to set them
- Fan Belt - You'd be surprised how often these'll fail on a long trip, and No, the old wives tale of using a pair of tights doesn't work
- Distributor Cap - You'll never find one in France so you'd end up waiting for one from the UK. Some people go the whole hog and carry a full spare distributor
- Plug Leads - Cheap, and take up hardly any room, so no excuse not to carry a spare set. Pack a spare HT lead too while you're at it
- Air Filter - Worth taking for the 'belt and braces' brigade. Yes, you can run without one if it clogs up, but do you really want to pull crap into your carb?
- Hoses - Yup, all of them. Because the one that'll fail will be the one you're not carrying. Don't forget a bypass hose.
- Fuel Pump = You could just take a spare set of contacts, but best to take a known good complete fuel pump. And a hammer to hit it with!
A simple tool kit will at least give you, or some other kind soul, a chance to get you running again should the worst happen. Including other, more specific, tools is up you.
- Jack and wheel nut wrench, and something to get the hubcaps off.
- A range of spanners, including a spark plug wrench, and a set of socket wrenches.
- Screwdrivers, both flat and cross blade.
- Feeler gauges, pliers, a sharp knife, a wire brush, abrasive paper, some WD40, and a hammer - well, you'll need something to clout the fuel pump, won't you?
- Don't forget the starting handle.
While it is not essential, we would advise that you take out breakdown insurance or extend any scheme you already have to cover your vehicle whilst in Europe. The MMOC insurance scheme with Footman James is very good and includes European Cover, but there are several other organisations which can provide breakdown insurance; make sure that they cover older vehicles, and that if you're towing, your trailer is included.
You should be aware that you may not have the same level of cover as in the UK, so you should read the small print. (The big print giveth and the small print taketh away!) You should also be aware that if you use the scheme to be recovered, you will be asked whether you wish to be taken to your destination or to a garage. They will probably only recover you once, or maybe twice, during your trip, so we advise you to think very carefully about using the scheme, and to first contact someone on the campsite to see if the problem is simple enough to be rectified by the roadside, or if someone can tow you back to the campsite (a solid draw bar will be required as towing with a rope is illegal in France). If the fault is more complex, you would be best to have the car taken directly to a garage; you may be entitled to a free hire car for the time your vehicle is in a garage. If you are carrying spares which relate to the problem, tell the garage, as it will undoubtedly have difficulty sourcing parts for a Minor.
Some useful notes on how to avoid a drama becoming a crisis:
These notes were compiled following some actual experiences involving visits to doctors and hospitals in France and the subsequent arrangements for going home. There was no high drama involved but a deal of hassle and inconvenience can be avoided by following the advice!
- EHIC cards are dated. Make sure that they are in date. 80% of the cost of treatment is covered by this card in France. If you have Medical Insurance there may be an excess to pay (say £40) if you do not have a valid card. You need to look to see if cover is only granted provided the card is valid.
- The hospital may need to know your National Insurance number so it's a good idea to carry it.
- The hospital will probably need to contact your Doctor in the UK so carry details of communication to him/her.
- If you use regular medication, apart from making sure that you have sufficient for the trip and some spare, carry a copy of the prescription. Keep it with your travel documents. It's important that the hospital giving treatment have this information.
- French 0800 phone numbers will work in France on public pay phones and normal land lines without charge, but not mobiles. Calls from mobiles are charged and you may have to use another number for that contact.
- Carry details of who you wish to have contacted in case of an emergency. It's a good idea to tell someone else on the trip where these and your other details are, especially if you are travelling alone.
- Make sure that your emergency insurance documents including the one that can repatriate the car (and caravan) are easily found. Bear in mind that if cover is provided by separate carriers they may not communicate as well as you would like.
- Medical staff in France probably do not speak English. Try to take someone with you if your knowledge of the language is a little shaky.
- If you have an allergy, or must avoid certain foods etc including for medical/religious reasons, make sure that it is written down on a note with your Medical Insurance.
- The ferry companies are usually very understanding in case of an emergency (Brittany Ferries certainly are). If due to some reason you will not make the pre-booked ferry phone them and explain as soon as you know.
- Mobile phones that are on a pay as you go basis may need topping up. Calls received in France (and other overseas countries) on your mobile are charged. The call costs can soon mount up. Make sure that you can top it up from overseas. Some network providers can set up an arrangement to top up the account by using a pre-arranged method. Best to contact the provider prior to the trip.
- The chances are that your car insurance is not on an any driver basis. Make sure that you have details of how to contact them to add a driver if you have to. .This may be the Broker rather than the actual Insurer. IN ALMOST ALL CASES YOUR DRIVING CARS EXTENSION IF YOU HAVE ONE, ONLY APPLIES IN THE UK.
- Due to 'Data Protection' many organisations will not talk to anyone other than the one on their contract. It's not a bad idea to get them to accept that you are happy for another named person to act on your behalf. They may need you to sign some formal consent, so do it before you set out.
- If an emergency arises it's amazing how many fellow MOTers have knowledge that can help you. Ask around if you have a problem.
Finally, almost all trips go to plan. Don't let the thought of trouble spoil your trip. Many MOTers will tell you how they were helped. Strangely very few take the credit for helping.
On longer MOT's those of you with standard Minor's might consider its too much driving for one day, and want to break your trip into two days, and now its time to brave the idea of staying somewhere overnight. Again, there's an easy way and one for the more adventurous.
The more common method is to find - or for those of you more sensible, pre-book - a hotel for the night. Every decent sized town has a branch of the more well-known chains of hotels, catering for the 'just somewhere to lay my head please' brigade right up to the 'can I have poached eggs with my morning paper' lot, and they're often on a complex of their own outside the town with choices of which standard you want.
These basic hotels are always on the outskirts of the town, usually in a retail or industrial park. You will always see signs for them as you approach a town, in farmers fields or on end walls of houses. They do not have restaurants, so you'll have to go into town for an evening meal, but most of them have vending machines for soft drinks etc. It is possible to book into one even when its closed, as the (English speaking) hole in the wall terminal will accept your credit card and dispense you a room key.
These mid-range offerings can be a bit hit-and-miss affairs - its often worth a premium to have a nicer hotel and a good start to the following day's travel, but if you've picked one thats just another block next to your more frugal buddies in the budget range, prepare to feel mugged. On the other hand, some of the Ibis hotels that are in town centres are often excellent conversions of family-run older establishments. If you're going this way, make sure you check the website for images of the actual hotel you'll be staying at before getting your credit card out.
If you feel like splashing out and dipping your toe in the higher end market, you'll probably be better off with an independent hotel rather than one of the chains. Due to being a po' ole' foster carer, I've limited experience of this style so I'll simply point you at a website which I've used in the past and found very good indeed - http://www.innsoffrance.com/
You're going to France, remember? Why settle for a boring concrete box when you can get out and stay with the real French, in anything from 'the spare room' to a converted barn and anything in between. Although you're not as guaranteed to find English-speaking hosts as you are within an hotel, even the least bi-lingual MOT'er can manage to get across enough to converse with the friendly and helpful madame. For those willing to give this a try, there are some real gems - and quite a few bargains - to be had this way. Every chambres d'hotes with an advertising board outside has to be registered with the local marie (mayor to you), and will provide breakfast 'by negotiation'. Prices vary considerably, but are often cheaper than hotels, and if you find a genial host you'll find out what's worth seeing in the area, etc. In the past we've been invited to join our hosts for the evening meal (well, they didn't know me..,) and sat around a huge table with the family enjoying conversation til late into the night.
Because there are so many little independent chambres d'hotes, its impossible to recommend individual ones, but a good tip is to pop into the local office de tourisme (most towns have one, well signposted) and ask there for a recommendation. They'll have a typewritten list of only the providers in the area that they've inspected and assessed to be of a decent standard, and they'll be more than happy to tell you which they'd stay at themselves - in English, too.
Regardless of whether you use a hotel or a chambres d'hotes for your accommodation, keep in mind that the journey is often as important as the destination, and you can take home some wonderful memories to add to those once you reach base camp. Those of you fortunate enough to have retired and not be in a hurry to get back can take a leisurely pootle back toward home spread over several days, and quite a few MOT'ers do this and don't return to England for another week. Be prepared for lots of questions about your funny little English car, get the guides to the area from the office de tourisme, and see some of the wonderful sights rural France has to offer. You'll go home a few pounds heavier, especially if you're adventurous enough to sample the local cuisine, but you can always work it off before next year. Enjoy yourselves, you're on holiday!
Planning Your Route
For first-time MOT'ers (and quite a few regulars too), the thought of a long journey through France is a bit daunting. It needn't be so, and in this section I'm going to try and give you a few pointers to take a bit of fear out and replace it with fun.
Every year, the MOT handbook, sent to participants in the post, has at least one suggested route for your travel to the campsite from each of the main ferry terminals. Of course this is entirely up to you, and you're free to take whatever route works best for you (and your passengers!). The handbook route is always the most direct, hassle-free route, but it can be entertaining - and possibly a bit cheaper - to use alternatives.
The first major consideration is whether or not to use the Autoroutes. These are the fastest roads, with a limit of 130kph (80 mph) in dry conditions and 110kph (68 mph) when raining. For young members, note that if you've passed your test within the last two years your maximum speed is 110kph on motorways. Autoroutes are usually only two lanes outside of very busy areas but are very free-flowing. Their biggest downside is that they are tolled, and can add a fair bit to the cost of your journey. For faster vehicles, so not many of us in Minor's then, they are a very efficient way of travelling larger distances, but the fact that most Minor's are going to be doing 60-odd miles an hour means that you'll often not be getting the maximum advantage from the Autoroute but still paying for it!
That's not to say that they don't have advantages though - especially around large towns it is far easier to use them than minor roads. Once away from cities, 'aires' - rest stops - are a maximum of 20km apart and are usually very clean and tidy with large grassed areas and picnic tables (three quarters of French travellers stop for picnics en route over long distances). Fuel stations will be in every second or third aire - they're signposted - but fuel there is cripplingly expensive compared to stations off the motorway. The French are... umm ... 'assertive' drivers on the Autoroutes, and its common to get a flash of the headlights in the rear mirror if you haven't moved back into the slow lane quickly enough after passing something (fat chance, you're in a Minor, remember!).
If all that Autoroute stuff doesn't sound like its for you, its not a problem. French 'N' roads are often surprisingly traffic-free out of towns, and usually run alongside the Autoroutes anyway - its just that you have to travel through the smaller town centres and tolerate the delays that go with that. The journey is definitely more interesting and the scenery better - the autoroutes tend to become monotonous after a while. While travelling through the smaller towns you'll get the opportunity to stop and buy some lunch or take a photo or two. The further south you get, the more unusual your Minor will be to the locals, and we've (very) often come back to our car and found a selection of people round it taking pictures with camera phones.
If you are looking at taking the non-toll routes, a quick note about road numbers. Ignore them. They change regularly, don't always bother to put them up anyway, and often will have more than one number for the same road. The much better way is to simply navigate toward towns on your route and follow the signs for them irrespective of the number of the road. Fortunately direction signs are plentiful. Allow plenty of time for your journey and taking the non-autoroute travel can become a part of your holiday in its own right rather than just a chore to do before you get there. Cut it too fine and there'll inevitably be stress - I remember well an occasion taking the map out out of Michelle's hands and throwing it out the window. Brian remembers it too - the map landed on his windscreen behind us. This is probably not to be recommended...
A word on breakdowns...
The MOT organisers absolutely recommend that all people attending an overseas trip obtain European Breakdown Cover, no matter how handy they are at weilding spanners. If the worst should happen and you/us really can't deal with your problem, the costs of recovery to the UK are eye-wateringly expensive and could even potentially exceed the value of the car. That said...
DO NOT ORGANISE RECOVERY HOME TO ENGLAND WITHOUT SPEAKING TO THE ORGANISERS. Phone numbers are provided in the Rally Handbook for emergencies, and someone looking at going home is about as 'emergency' as it gets! It is hugely disappointing for both you and us if you set out for your holiday and don't make it, but its even more frustrating to find out later about cars recovered home that we could (and happily would) have dealt with on the campsite. Although there is an annual list of essential items that everyone should have in their boot, other MOT'ers are a bit more serious and bring large amounts of spares, and there aren't really that many things that can happen to your Minor that can't be sorted in situ, on at least a temporary basis to get you running for the week.
Don't be put off by your breakdown company insisting on 'doing it their way' and be prepared to 'negotiate' with them - I was with a certain Brian Samways (sorry Brian ;o) when his SII expired in a pretty serious way just outside Calais and with several hundred miles left to go, and eventually persuaded his breakdown firm (take a bow Footman James) to have his car and passengers recovered to the campsite AND to pay the ferry fees for someone to bring out a spare engine, on the basis that doing this was actually cheaper for them than it would have been to recover the car back to Lincoln! A hasty phone call later, a mutual friend was on his way with another lump in the back of his Multipla, and the engine was fitted on the campsite the following morning. I took his original engine home in the back of my Mini van, which at least had me excused from the ribbing I'd been getting about it up til then. (As it happens, that wasn't the end of that story, since Brian managed TWENTY THREE seperate breakdowns before getting home, a record that still stands...)
Okay, that's an extreme example, but it bears repeating that you absolutely should not turn round and go back without seeing if we could assist on site. There's plenty of halfwits/friendly MOT'ers who relish the opportunity to get themselves dirty, and an open bonnet on site is guaranteed to have at least have a dozen heads poked under it inside twenty minutes. Or faster it the kettle's on.