On what is usually a warm September day, deep in the Charente region of France, a city is stirring. Angoulême is a placid city, even with its inhabitants of 50,000 plus. Unassuming locals go about their daily business, starting with an early morning visit to the boulangerie, to collect their fresh croissants and pain au chocolat. A daily ritual where neighbours stop for a chat as they amble to and from the shops.
This sleepy lifestyle is about to be interrupted. Angoulême is about to explode into life – the life of the engines of cars from days gone by.
The first car to visit approaches from a steep hill as the autumn sunshine proudly highlights the ramparts. In the distance, a faint rumbling can be heard, as more cars approach the old roman fortress with its formidable walls. These cars are a sight to capture in your memory forever – only on a rare occasion will you see such a collection of historic cars - from Frazer-Nash, Bugatti and Riley, to former Le Mans racers and visiting modern sports cars.
Rumble and Roar
The cars slowly enter the town, their owners proudly absorbing the admiring looks of passers-by. They make their way along the cobbled streets to the marketplace, where one by one, they park in an orderly row. As engines are turned off, the waves of heat hover above the cars, engines tinker as they cool down, and the drivers make their way to one of the many bars, where they can sit in the shade of a parasol, and enjoy a well-earned cold beer.
More cars arrive, until the marketplace is nearly bursting. Tales of cars, and the journey there consumes conversation. Hand gestures help animate the energetic conversations of groups of drivers.
They are here, of course, for the ‘Circuit des Remparts’ race. A race unlike any other. This is the highlight of the year for Angoulême – for the inhabitants and visitors alike. The cars are here to race around the walled ramparts of the city, drivers brushing with danger as they race without any modern form of safety device. The cars range from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, modern sports car drivers may only watch and dream.
The whole town is about to be taken over for the weekend – by a passion for the sights and sounds of a bygone motoring age.
The first ‘Circuit des Remparts’ race was held in 1939 with 10 participants, but the second race was delayed until 1947 due to World War Two. There were other breaks in the continuity of the rampart races - 1951 when the formula one rules stopped the races until 1955 and then again from 1955 until 1978. In 1983 the race was finally brought back to life as a venue for historic cars. It has taken place each year since, with the exception of 1989, and now holds the distinction of being the last race of its kind with only Monaco and Pau as contenders offering high-speed, French, city street racing.
The circuit is 1.279 kilometres in length, with three 90-degree hair-pin bends, and two fast straights, where the drivers of these historic cars reach speeds of up to 120mph, having to brake heavily down to 20mph at the hairpins.
Friday starts with a concourse d’élegance in the early evening. By this time, the whole city has come to see the spectacle that awaits – cars everywhere – if there is a space, there will be an amazing car in it. Both the public and the authorities ignore parking rules – the only tickets this weekend are to the events and paddocks. The Hotel de Ville is buzzing with life, and a carnival atmosphere holds onto the crowds as they freely wander amongst the exquisitely polished cars.
The sound of rapid French coming from the many loudspeakers dotted around the area is immersed beneath a wave of international languages as people try in earnest to understand the mechanics of each car. The evening soon fades into night, with no sign of sleep for those who have come to see this amazing event.
The following morning, the city is awake early, eagerly awaiting the day ahead. Saturday is the day of the ‘tourist rally’. The tourist rally starts with a huge breakfast in the car park of the local sponsors – the supermarket! People arrive early, as the rally departs the car park at 08:00, with each car departing at 30 second intervals.
The rally cars begin to gather for the start, drivers swapping friendly banter with their competitors. The course follows a route through the beautiful surrounding countryside, stopping off for a three-course gastronomic lunch in a military aircraft hangar. The crowds watch and wave as the rally leaves Angoulême, over 200 cars leave the city for the day, proudly displaying their rally placards on their vehicles.
The drivers are able to stop for cognac tasting en route – (there are two types of spirit on rally day) having to find the difference between tasting and drinking. By 4 o’clock, the cars start arriving back at Angoulême, some drivers wearing dirty faces from wiping oily arms across their hot brows. At 5 o’clock, a ‘concourse d’etat’ finds people rushing towards the Hôtel de Ville to view a stunning mixture of cars, but results from the concourse are to be announced later that evening at the party…
The ‘competitor gala buffet’ begins, enthusiasts dress for the era of their cars, the town has an ambience of high spirits – for the race starts tomorrow, and they want to win their class. The party is held beneath the covered market in the town. Music is playing, cars are ‘posing’ around the town. People are everywhere, laughing and singing, knowing the race won’t start early, as Sunday morning is reserved for hangovers and practice sessions. This is, of course, the party of parties. Drivers enthusiastically recount tales of past races to all that ask, and are greeted by gasps of admiration, and more support for their cars. The drivers are waiting for the results of the Concourse d’etat, hoping their passionate cleaning and polishing will make them triumphant in their pursuit of a trophy. The nearby town of Cognac has obviously made just enough alcohol for the event – Rémy Martin is being drunk in abundance!
The music stops. A microphone is tapped. A hush descends over the crowd. A nervous electricity fills the market place. One person in the market place has won first prize - his height in cases of cognac! The proud owner is announced, and the crowd erupts into cheers and applause, as the man slowly makes his way to the microphone, all the time being greeted by handshakes, kisses and back patting.
After receiving his liquid gold, the party carries on into the small hours. Those sensible enough, retire to their hotels for a nervous nights sleep before the main race tomorrow. Others just carry on.
Sunday - Race Day
The sun is shining, warming the old metal of the vintage cars and giving the drivers relief that they will not have to race in wet conditions. Practice for the race starts early, at 8.30am precisely. There are in fact a number of different races as the types of car vary widely, from Frazer Nash to Lotus 7.
They are put into their own special groups, and practice begins in earnest. The start/finish line happens to be in front of the cathedral, and in front of this imposing monument, engines cough and splutter into life, and with a few pops and bangs, the drivers move off, learning the sharp twists and turns of the ancient streets.
The crowds are expanding each minute; locals hang out of precarious looking balconies, cheering and waving at each car. Others hold metal fences like they have been squashed into them. Children hold their noses at the smell, whilst pressing one eye into the railing so they can see through it properly. Elderly people wildly wave at cars they once saw all too commonly. All along the route, there is an atmosphere of passion and love for these cars and their drivers. Every single car is applauded as it passes by at greater and greater speed.
All too quickly, it is time for lunch. All practice stops as the town crowds into the local bars, restaurants and hotels for some food and some liquid refreshment. It is hard to get to the bar in an establishment, as each is overcrowded with enthusiasts who are animating their conversation with one arm, whilst waving their drink about
with the other. Nerves are building as the race time approaches.
The races are due to start at 2pm. The start/finish line in front of the huge cathedral has gathered a crowd throughout the day. Wherever there is a viewpoint, however high it is possible to climb, spectators eagerly await the start. Children are perched on their parent’s shoulders, large lumps of cotton wool protruding from their ears. All too quickly, lunch is over, and the drivers make their way to their cars, inspecting oil and water levels again, topping up where necessary.
Engines stutter into life, occasional belches of black smoke spew from ancient exhaust pipes. Some drivers are wearing crash helmets, some sport old goggles, and a few are just driving wearing the clothes they came in.
The first race is about to begin. The cars line up adjacent to the cathedral. Anticipation and nerves fill the track. All of a sudden, they are off, engines screaming with protest as the cars compete for pole position. The Bugatti’s are awakened from their normal slumber; spirited crowds applaud and wave as each car passes. The heat of the day has already started to warm the tarmac, and as cars pass through the hair-pins, they leave a trail of rubber on the road that emits a distinctive odour. The circuit is quite short, but there is enough room for a long straight where most of the overtaking is executed. Passion and energy is transposed between the public and the racers, each driving one
The scent of burnt oil rises, and combines with a mixture of petrol, leather and hot asphalt which radiates through the whole town. This race removes the modern day restrictions of track racing that was brought about by stuffy do-gooders, and replaces them with a fantastic atmosphere, sounds that you will rarely hear, and interaction with drivers that you can only dream of.
The Circuit des Remparts races carry on, with a huge medley of cars from the 20’s to ex Le Mans racers. Different engine tones and exhaust notes consume the town, an enthusiast in the crowd for every car there. Driver’s brows are laden with sweat beads as they thrust their cars into bends with every ounce of energy they have. Their arms are weakened by the efforts at the wheel as they desperately challenge for their prize.
As they pass the chequered flag, the crowd explodes into applause and cheers, waving anything they have in their hands. Flashes from cameras make it seem like there is royalty in town, but in their own way, they are royalty, for you will never see such a unique gathering in another place, and somebody has won their class, their prize.
Perspiring, exhausted drivers slowly remove themselves from their chariots, and with adrenalin still pumping, find more energy in order to congratulate other contestants, furiously shaking wet palms with other drivers, and wiping oil and soot from their faces with their forearms.
The Circuit Des Remparts is almost over for another year. The Prize giving ceremony takes place at the Hôtel de Ville at 6pm. Drivers stay in town and merges into the huge gaggle of people – refreshing their thirst with a lot of well earned beer. The sounds of engines and exhausts are soon replaced by music and laughter as the townsfolk merge with the racers, avidly comparing the day.
The Mairie presents the prize to the winner of each group – the equivalent of his weight in Cognac - a highly cherished trophy! Yet again, this is cause to celebrate French style, and the celebrations start in earnest.
Angoulême has succeeded once more. Memories of the last few days are imprinted in people’s minds. They will return next year, because once you have visited this awesome spectacle, an addiction is formed, and you will wish the year away, beginning your plans as soon as you have packed your luggage and cognac into your car for the journey home.