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The seeds of the 2008 Loire Valley/Classic Le Mans trip were sown in 2007, when we decided to turn what is traditionally a hectic, 4-day weekend visit to the 24 hours of Le Mans into a more relaxed, 10-day stroll through the Loire Valley to explore some of the fantastic chateaux found in the region before heading for the races. We had an absolutely wonderful time last year, saw some truly impressive sights, and had just about the right share of adventure mixed in. We wrote about the trip in various forums, and several people commented “hey, sounds like a nice trip. If you do it again, do you mind if we tag along?”

And so the idea was born to plan a completely informal, low-key DeTomaso meeting for 2008. The plan was to do the same thing as the previous year – flip through the travel guides and Internet to find some chateaux that looked promising, and find some local hotels that would be up to snuff. We eschewed the large hotel chains, instead looking for family run hotels that would hopefully offer a little more charm and personality.

In January I created a “brochure” describing the planned itinerary – the chateaux, the hotels, and directions for reserving for Le Mans. Replies trickled in from various countries – Norway, Ireland, England, the US, and Spain. As the date drew closer, we had 22 people signed up, the majority would be travelling in Panteras, with the odd Marcos and ´51 Jaguar special thrown in.

Amaya and I traveled from Spain up to France in a 2-car convoy with Fernando and César Bianchi. Fernando’s 72 Pantera is in the finishing stages of a complete restoration and Group-4 conversion, and just wasn’t going to be ready for the trip. So they piled into the family Mercedes AMG SUV, which was convenient as it gave us some extra room to carry supplies. The rising price of gas really made its presence felt the first time I filled up in France – I had never put more than €100 in the tank before, and my first tank was nearly €110 – over $170 for a tank! Outside of Nantes we split up, as Amaya and I were spending the night with friends of mine from Nantes, where I used to live.

The following morning, we headed out to meet up with the Bianchis and the rest of the group for the first day of the tour. We set the GPS to avoid highways and instead took the little national roads that wind alongside the Loire River. Traveling in this mode took a little longer than highway droning, but the scenery was just fantastic. In no time at all, we were arriving at the first hotel in Azay-le-Rideau. We had no trouble finding the hotel, and Mike Drew and the Bianchis were already there waiting for us.

We began chatting in the parking lot, and it wasn’t too long before a distant rumble could be heard and the Panteras started rolling in. Roger Brotton has basically straight pipes on his Pantera, so it made it a little easier to hear him coming! Shortly therafter Roger and Melanie Coates pulled in in their Roush-powered, Lamborghini orange GT5-S, followed by Stephen Burke from Ireland in his gorgeous 5-S, and Geoff Peters and Johnny Woods in Geoff’s ´72 GT5 ultra-lightweight conversion. Tailing along with Geoff and Johnny was Lewis Evans in his Marcos Mantula Spyder. Oyvind and Dagny Bakken from Norway left their two Panteras home, as they were not yet roadworthy and they weren’t sure how to fit their 3-year old son, Daniel, in the Pantera anyway!

The first afternoon was supposed to be a visit of the chateau in town, Azay-le-Rideau. But getting people out of the parking lot and away from the cars was more of a challenge than I thought it would be! The chateau closed at 7pm, and it was only by promising that we could look at the cars when we came back that people could be convinced to pile into the cars and head for the castle. We only had an hour, so we went through fairly quickly taking the required photos and oohing and aahing at the appropriate moments.

Upon finishing the tour of the chateau we headed back to the hotel for a complimentary welcome cocktail that the hotel had offered us. We moved from there to the first of a series of wonderful dinners and chatted in earnest about our respective trips until bedtime hit.

The next day we had a short drive to a chateau called Ussé, which is a charming chateau that inspired the story of Sleeping Beauty. We parked in the parking lot, and on a whim I asked the friendly ticket clerk if there was a group discount, as we had 16 people in our group. Her answer was “No. Well, are those your cars in the parking lot? Perhaps we could do something…..” This promising reply evolved not only into a 50% discount on entrance, but they allowed us to bring the cars into the courtyard of the chateau itself! So with a grin from ear to ear, I explained the plan to the rest of the participants and we went about moving the cars into the places of honor… It would appear that more tourists were taking pictures of the cars than of the chateau!

The chateau itself was quite interesting and well worth a visit – several of the rooms had scenes from the Sleeping Beauty story. We spent a couple of hours visiting the chateau, admiring the fine details and stonework of a bygone era, and waiting for the light rain to quit, which it did just about as we were ready to leave. So we headed out in convoy for our next destination – Amboise. The route took us through the city of Tours, complete with an 8-car u-turn in the middle of the city which was somewhat, well, exciting. U-turn aside, the rest of the trip was without incident and we arrived at the medival city of Amboise. We parked in the hotel’s indoor parking garage and headed for the complementary champagne being provided by THIS hotel!

The next day we explored the sights of the city. Leonardo Da Vinci lived here for the last few years of his life, and you could visit the chateau made available to him, as well as visit a museum dedicated to some of his inventions. Lewis, our intrepid Marcos driver, became so enamored with the city that he spent part of the afternoon windowshopping in real estate agents offices, thinking somewhat seriously about relocating here from the UK! We unanimously agreed that this was an excellent idea, as it would give us a place to stay during future visits to the area. We quickly discarded the homes with insufficient garage space and helpfully advised him on which houses we thought we wouldn’t mind staying in. We were a quite helpful bunch!

While some members of the group spent the day exploring the secrets of the medieval city, when we returned to the hotel we found that a not insignicant and rather sad portion of our group had spent their afternoon with the free internet connection in the lobby of the hotel, looking at DeTomaso websites!!! To each their own!

For dinner that night, half the group tried their luck in a local restaurant while the other half went for fare from the local street fair. Amaya and I went for the street fair food, starting with a half-case of wine from the booth selling wine, which was purchased with the understanding that use of their corkscrew was included in the deal! With the exception of Stephen Burke, who didn’t know exactly what was in the sausage he was ordering until after he’d ordered it and eaten a portion of it, it sounds as though the street fair group made out much better than the restaurant group.

The next day we headed for Chambord, which is what a French king builds when he wants a hunting lodge. It’s also what he builds when he wants to impress his peers, which must be a tough group to impress. But here the convoys took on a completely different nature. My GPS had stopped working for whatever reason, so we programmed a route into the GPS of Geoff Peters and let him lead the group. Our route took us down little secondary roads that were very lightly travelled, or not at all. And while the previous convoy, with yours truly leading, had been quite sedate in pace, Geoff had decided that sedate is fine if you are dead, but he was far from that! He was driving on full-out racing tires, and his car is significantly lighter than stock due to an obsession with shedding weight that has resulted in a carbon fiber rear decklid, rear wing, and front trunk, among many other modifications. His all-aluminum Dart-engine is both lighter and considerably more stout than stock. France has gotten much stricter in the past few years with respect to speeding and we were well into the “Go directly to jail - Do not pass Go, Do not collect $200” territory, but I remember consciously thinking that if we wound up in jail at least we’d all be together and would have some stories to tell!! So on I pressed, following in Geoff’s footsteps at highly antisocial speeds! It was definitely the driving highlight of the trip for me – an 8-car convoy across the secondary roads of France at the limits of the car. Occasionally we passed a local out driving along who must have wondered what happened as a series of blurs flashed by. To his eternal credit, Mike Drew pedalled the heck out of his 1.4 liter diesel rental and somehow managed to not lose the convoy from sight!

Adreneline flowing to the max, we arrived at Chambord. Last year I had a small problem here with my alarm acting up, which wouldn’t let us leave. This year we had no such problems, and had a thoroughly enjoyable visit of one of the most impressive chateaux France has to offer. Any hunting lodge with 365 chimneys – one for every day of the year – has to impress! We saw the room where Emperor Charles V of Spain stayed while visiting Francois 1 in 1539. This hotel has some history to it!

We headed from Chambord to our last pre-Le Mans destination in Chinon. Once again Geoff was given the honors of leading our group. While his right foot left no doubt as to its ability to press the gas, what was questionable was his ability to react to roads which were closed due to construction. At the roadblock he first went right, and the GPS re-calculated the route by suggesting 3 more right turns to try the original route again. Since the roadblock hadn’t moved and the road still remained closed, he tried left this time. The GPS now suggested three lefts to get back to the original route, which was, of course, still closed. So we made no fewer than three trips through the center of this tiny town, locals all open-mouthed, before he pulled over and said “OK, now what?” Fernando and Cesar, slightly more adept with the GPS, offered to lead. We only made one more trip through the center of the town (that made 4 in total) before we finally managed to escape the gravitation pull of the center of this town that wouldn’t let us leave….

In Chinon we were split up into several different hotels due to lack of space in the original hotel. I think that Mike Drew, Amaya and I, and Roger and Melanie Coates got the best end of the bargain as our hotel was quite charming. The hotel staff helped us find reservations for everyone for dinner in town, and what a dinner it was!

The next day the original plan was to see the city rather quickly, then to head out for wine tasting and to visit a winery, as Chinon is rather famous for its wines. But everyone got a little later start than planned, so we scrapped the wine tasting and just concentrated on the city. Another medieval city with its towering defensive castle towers, it is well worth a visit if you happen to be in the region. We only wished that we had more time to be able to explore all the fascinating little corners and treasures that the city had to offer. Mike, Roger, Melanie, Amaya, and I were lucky enough to have a nearly-private, one-hour tour of the old castle and explanation of the historical significance of the area.

But visiting the town in more depth would have to wait for another year as we had a date with another event calling us – the Classic 24 hours of Le Mans! Our little group split up amidst tears, but we knew we’d see each other the next day at the DeTomaso Drivers Club of the UK dinner. Amaya and I went with Mike Drew and Fernando and Cesar to find our campsites at the Le Mans track. On the way, we stopped in the town of Arnage to meet up with my sister, Miky, and Jim Oddie, who had come over from the US to attend.

We made our way to the campsite and began setting up quickly, as the skies, which had been threatening to rain, began to make good on their threat. I feared a repeat of Regular Le Mans last year, where it basically rained on us the whole weekend, but this time we were fortunate and only got wet the first day.

The camping situation was different this year, and was a further evolution of the new ideas introduced last year. Last year saw campsites pre-measured, which garanteed a certain amount of equality relating to real estate, regardless of whether you were an early or late arriver. This year they took the concept one step further and had reserved and numbered plots, which really seemed like a good idea, at least if you were informed of the change when reserving and could reserve an entire block with your friends. We found out rather late in the game and had to do some serious footwork to exchange our scattered campsites for a continuous block, but somehow managed it.

We shared our spot with George Gordon-Smith and Robert Brown, who unfortunately not only didn’t come in Robert’s Jaguar Special, but due to last minute obligations could only join us for the Le Mans weekend instead of the entire week in the Loire as originally planned. Also with us were two of George’s friends, Hugh and Jill, who happened to be in the area in their camper and decided to join us. We set up our tents the first day and were rather comfortable with the layout when George and Robert came in the Mother of All Tents – one large enough to house a small village under canvas. Somehow we managed to get their tent set up as well on the plot, and considered that if the rain were to return we’d have space for half of Le Mans to join us in their “living room” and stay dry.

Friday was a relaxed day, and the group split up based on their interests. We went with a group to check out the paddocks, and made a beeline for Group 6, which had 5 of the 6 Panteras participating. Patrick Hals was leaving as we were entering, going in search of race fuel for his genuine Group 4 racecar. We talked to the various drivers of the cars in the paddock for a while and checked out the competition. Le Mans remains one of the prime locationns for serious racing hardware, and it was really fantastic to look at the Porsche 917’s up close, the GT40’s, the Lolas….

We wandered through the paddocks of various other groups, which were divided by years. From there we headed to the Club parking area. Last year there were 6000 cars in the club parking area of various marques, and while the official numbers haven’t been released it would appear that there were even more cars this year. We saw clubs of all kinds of obscure marques, and models that you just don’t see in the flesh very often. By the time we got to the DeTomaso parking area, there were roughly a dozen cars parked there but the owners were off looking at other cars. Worth mentioning was the electric blue GT5 conversion of Kjetil Finne and Lisa from Norway, who had driven their supercharged modular motor Pantera down, putting over 5000 miles on the odometer during the round trip!

After spending the afternoon soaking up the ambiance, we headed back to the campsite to wash up and head for our rendez-vous with the British club. They tend to stay in a hotel 45 minutes from the track, and many elected to leave their DeTomasos home to make the trip in their Ferraris, Covettes, Ford GTs, Jaguars, etc. Much attention was being lavished on a 1959 Chevy Impala that had just made the trip across the Atlantic and was being used by its new owner on its maiden voyage. Dinner was a huge affair with perhaps 100 people in attendance, and was absolutely fantastic.

Breakfast the next day was bacon and eggs prepared over the grill, and nothing tastes better than freshly cooked breakfast in a campground! George did an outstanding job preparing everything to give us strength for the coming day. Once the dishes were cleaned up we headed back to the club area to look for marques that we had missed the previous day. The racing action began at 4pm with the first group, so we headed for the track to watch the Bugattis, early Bentleys, and so forth return to the track that they raced on so long ago…

After a few hours of watching the first few groups, we headed back to the campsite for Happy Hour. This year we decided to prepare martinis in the campsite, so George was kind enough to requisition a large bag of ice from a fish-market and martinis were prepared for all. Oddly enough the British contingent thought that they were a little on the strong side, which considering the fact that at least in the US they are 95% straight gin was to be somewhat expected! Troopers that they were they downed them anyway, to accompany our snacks before dinner. My sister pointed out that “One martini is too few, and three is perhaps too many”, and we had ice left over so we prepared another round. Appetites and livers sated, we headed back to the track, not quite as steadily as before, to watch the cars from the 60´s – Maseratis, Jaguars, Ferraris, GT40’s, Cobras… Unfortunately the Pantera in group 5 made only a brief appearance before mechanical problems sidelined them. The car had been rushed to make it ready – it was literally painted three days before the event – and not all the bugs had been worked out.

And from there to everyone’s favorite group – the heavy hitters in the last group with 5 Panteras competing. A blue-and-white Group 4-look from Germany with a not-entirely-legal monster stroker was quite fast, not surprisingly, and Patrick Hals “Candy” car was doing quite well. Their first of three races lasted for an hour, as all groups are allotted, with a mandatory driver change or pit stop during that time.

Once the group 6 cars finished, we headed back to our campsite to rest and sleep the sleep of the innocent.

Breakfast the next day was a leisurely affair, and after the required bacon-and-eggs, we began to break camp. While doing so, our attention was suddenly drawn to a roaring engine – I looked up just in time to see a Cobra replica zooming off backwards until it crashed into the barrier 100 feet behind it! People began running toward the area in a manner that indicated more urgency than if the car had simply suffered some kind of damage – in fact it had taken off backwards and run over a tent that had a rather surprised occupant inside! I’m still not sure exactly what happened, but they were apparently working on the engine and someone hit the starter while the car was in reverse gear and the throttle was wide open!. The engine fired right up and took off from under their surprised hands, crushing the tent against the restraining wall. Fortunately the occupant was more dazed than anything else, but it could have been ugly.

We broke camp, left the loaded cars in the campsite, and headed back to the track to watch the action of day 2. The field of Panteras had suffered somewhat, leaving just two still running for the final one-hour race – the ex-Phil Stebbings conversion and the Hals “Candy” car. Both cars were quite competitive and did an outstanding job representing the marque.

Like all good things, the end was quickly approaching. As the last rumbles of the group 6 cars were still echoing off the grandstands, we fired up the Pantera and pointed it toward Spain. The drive home was uneventful, if long. We rolled into the house at roughly 1am, the car humming happily all the merry way.

This year’s Le Mans Classic greatly impressed all those in attendance. There was less of a hooligan atmosphere than in regular Le Mans, and it seemed as though the people in attendance were there for the love of the cars, as opposed to a small but visible minority at Regular Le Mans who is there for the love of beer. The campsite was roughly 80% collector or sports cars, while in regular Le Mans the percentage is more like 20%. The sight and sounds of these cars that wrote the history books is something that has to be seen to be appreciated, as today’s cars just don’t have the same sound, and the wind-tunnel creations of the 21st century don’t stir the soul as much as cars designed by artists and designers of the past.

The overwhelming opinion of the group is that it is a trip that must be repeated, but as Le Mans Classic is only held every other year, it will have to wait. But we’ll be there – will you?
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