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After over two years of Covid-related inactivity, our resident road tripper Ben Coombs finally returns to the road with a trip to France in a 34-year-old Volvo.

There’s an old saying which states ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’.  It’s a convincing phrase, for sure, but I don’t think it tells the full story.  Because truth be told, there are some things in life which you might miss, but you only realise just how much you missed them, when they return to your life after an absence.

For me, it turns out that road tripping is one of these.

Thanks to a rather inconsiderate pandemic, the last time I’d truly been able to hit the road was back in the summer of 2019, when I took the ClassicLine sponsored Volvo 240 down to Monaco and back, on a two-week tour of France.  Those memories are now over two and a half years old.  Or to put it another way, we’re talking a quarter of a decade.  As someone for whom road tripping plays such an important part of their life, that’s an almost inconceivably long time.  But the truth is, in the course of that quarter-decade, I never realised just how much I missed those big foreign drives.  The unobtainable nature of such experiences during the pandemic led me to quickly shut away those thoughts of the open road.  They were locked in a dusty box somewhere in the back of my mind, I gradually became numb to their influence, and life just went on.  And on, and on.  For year after year as I waited for the storm to pass, the hobby which once consumed me seemed to whimper away in the background, no longer important; no longer a part of me.

But all things pass, and so did the pandemic’s smothering effect on our lives.  Borders reopened, restrictions came down, and a degree of freedom returned.  And with this positive development, there came the opportunity for new trips, new adventures.  Holidays, even.  And so, a return to the old normal saw my first holiday since 2019, an Easter camping trip to France, in the Volvo.

But in the weeks building up to the trip, it felt like it was doomed not to happen.  Firstly, the events in Ukraine cast a shadow of uncertainty over future plans, and then P&O Ferries managed to self-destruct their cross channel ferry service just before our departure.  But fortunately, our booking was with Irish Ferries, and even a four-hour wait at Dover couldn’t dampen spirits.

We were in a classic car, with a boot full of camping gear, heading to the continent.  And I was reminded again of who I once was, and who I still was, it turned out.  A person for whom automotive travel is a way of life.

Ultimately, it took us seventeen hours to complete what is usually a twelve-hour trip from Devon to Fontainebleau, where we were camping, but it didn’t seem to matter.  In a car which is like an old friend, moving towards a fortnight under canvas, life was good.  And so it remained for those 14 nights under canvas.  Laughing with friends, overdosing on cheese and climbing and hiking in the glorious Foret de Fontainebleau – a place which I’ve came to know so well over the years.  A place which, along with that old Volvo, reminded me of exactly who I was, and still am, and rejuvenated my enthusiasm for the road.

Eventually, our time in the sun-dappled magic forest came to an end, and it was time to head home.  But I was back to my old self, and heading home the quick way, via Calais, didn’t seem a fitting option.  No, it was time to get back into the road trip groove, by spending a few days drifting across northern France to Brittany, before boarding the ferry to Plymouth.  Our first night of this saw us reach the town of Le Mans, where we took a tour of the museum of the famous 24 hour race.  The compelling collection was full of interest, from the delicate Porsche 904 to the glorious silk-cut Jaguar, but the vehicle I was most please to see was the hybrid Toyota which won in 2020, still covered in grime from its ordeal.  Between the lockdowns, I’d watched the 2020 race on TV with my ‘bubble’, and to find myself face to face with the car I’d watched during the pandemic, in another country hundreds of miles from home, made for a symbolic meeting.

Freedom was back.

The next port of call on our journey back was another car museum, albeit on a rather different scale.  Refreshingly obscure and seemingly off many car enthusiasts’ radars, the Manoir de l’Automobile, hidden away in the countryside near Rennes, more than repaid the effort it took to find it, for it is truly a gem.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say it might just be the best car museum I’ve ever visited.  If you have any petrol in your veins, to tour the many rooms of the manor is an almost religious experience.  There’s a room containing about ten Alpines, and another devoted to Lamborghinis, Miura and Diablo and Espada and Countach and others, all lined up to grab your attention.  Just next door, a few million euro’s worth of Ferrari 250 GT SWB huddles with its Maranello bretherin, seemingly sneering at the microcar collection across the way.  There are Group B rally cars, ‘60s Americana, vintage French vans, a smattering of powerboats and a particularly cute Mini Cooper S.  And to top it all off, there’s a full grid of F1 cars, dating from the ‘80s and 90s and arranged as if the light is about to go green.  I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve got the point – it’s quite the collection.

And so, after a few days on the road we boarded a ferry and returned to Devon, our enthusiasm for road trips rekindled and the lethargy of those pandemic years finally banished.  And predictably, the Volvo 240 remained predictably reliable throughout, which begs the question.

Where to next?