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Time is Tight: Catching Up with Progress on the American LaFrance

Time is Tight: Catching Up with Progress on the American LaFrance

The sands of time remain still for no man, and whilst one might believe that they move at a constant, anybody who has ever built and prepared a car for a rally will tell you steadfastly that this is not the case. This is certainly true of the American La France that has been selected as the chariot of choice for Tomas de Vargas Machuca and Ben Cussons on the rapidly approaching 2022 Peking to Paris. Indeed, when I first visited DT Vintage last summer to see the initial preparations for the restoration of this pre-war behemoth I was greeted by a pile of bits. Now, almost a year later, it is still a pile of bits and it isn’t just the sands of time that are piling up; the sands of the Sahara are also on the horizon.

‘A pile of bits’ is unduly harsh. Bits they may be, but the bits are in many cases sporting new coats of paint and have been through various restorative processes. Some have even been bolted back onto the now immaculate and strengthened chassis, which is ready now to be transformed into a car. The La France’s first event though is fast approaching, the Sahara Challenge is now a bit more than a mirage and September isn’t very far away. ‘I could do with having a few things back now’ says Paul of DT Vintage, one of the men charged with assembling the beast. If understatement were a competition, then Paul, with his dry Yorkshire outlook, would surely win first prize. Assembly is only half the battle you see, the engine needs to be started, the car test driven, and thousands of miles clocked up running the engine in and shaking the machine down before it undergoes the rigours of competition.

Behind the scenes various specialists have been hard at work, putting together the various pieces that will solve the La France puzzle. The engine, which had been stripped to its components the last time we had seen it, has undergone a full rebuild at the hands of George Laycock. It is humungous, the four-cylinder machine dwarfing the trolley that it has been rebuilt in, which itself began life as a dolly for Merlin engines. It is also a thing of beauty, painted and polished with the repairs to various components barely visible unless you know where to look. It looks the business, but until it fires for the first time there will undoubtedly be nerves about whether it will do the business, especially for a man like George that takes such pride in his work. “It is a privilege to work on something like this,” he tells me, with no false reverence, “my day-to-day is much more ordinary jobs, I can’t wait to see it on the rally, knowing that it's one of my engines powering it.”

The upholstery has also been dealt with, by Julian Taylor in his Yorkshire workshop. Taylor, who has been involved in the restoration and conservation of many fine motor cars over the past thirty years or so, including many important pioneer machines, has been charged in this instance with providing a little more comfort for the 8000 miles that must be travelled between Peking and Paris. ‘I’ve been asked to add springs to the cushions, but that’s largely all of the modifications I will be making, aside from that it is a fairly traditional job, in fact, I don’t really know how to work any other way.’ He is not joking either, with his manual sewing machine around the most hi-tech bit of gear in his workshop, with much of the work being carried with needle and thread, and horsehair favoured over foam. “If they had bought me in a shiny new Recaro seat I wouldn’t have known where to begin,” he says, whilst thumbing his trusty thimble that has been handed down through different generations and may be older than the La France itself.

Other specialist items that are eagerly awaited at DT are the radiator, which matches the engine for scale, the gearbox that needed its innards analysed to find out what oil and grease were contained within it, the wooden wheels and the steering apparatus. Paul is estimating that all the items should be back by mid-May and that the La France will be largely assembled by mid-June. This is a deadline that has already been pushed back, but then we must remember that the people working on this project are artisans, things have to be right, the wheels for example are born out of fire and steam and can only be pieced together outside in good weather. As Paul talks dates, I can hear the optimism in his voice, but I can see the trepidation in his eyes, the final months of this build will undoubtedly rocket past and the size of the task at hand is almost as gargantuan as the vehicle itself. Of course, they will get it done, the specialists that get involved in these projects are of a particular breed, and failure isn’t in their language. How much sand is left within the timer when it is finally complete though, is still very much in the balance.

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