Two and a half thousand miles around France in a 30-year-old car, with temperatures blasting through the 30-degree barrier daily. What could go wrong? “It’ll be fine,” said my colleagues the day before we left. I admired their confidence. And, frankly, I had no reason to doubt it; I’ve owned the E24 for three years now and it’s never once let me down.
Still, you can’t help but feel a sense of trepidation in such circumstances. As I packed fluids and jump leads the night before we left, I hoped I wouldn’t need them – or the European breakdown cover I’d spent a terrifying amount on (kudos to the AA for covering a car of this age, mind you – nobody else would touch it).
I needn’t have worried. Two weeks after Mrs R and I left home on a sunny Saturday morning, we returned to a Britain wilting under the same blistering summer sunshine we’d had for most of our trip – and in spite of the heat, the E24 was still running beautifully. I’ve done plenty of European drives before – once, even, in the same car – but this was unequivocally the best of the lot. Our route was, very roughly, a Reuleaux triangle from Calais down to the Riviera via Dijon, Grenoble and Provence, then along the Mediterranean coast in and into the Pyrenees, and finally, back up the West Coast and through the Loire Valley.
The highlight had to be the Route Napoleon, which we tackled on a quiet Monday morning, in convoy with my folks in their E31 840Ci. This was the part of the journey I was looking forward to most – but also most apprehensive about, from the perspective of reliability. 33C was the forecast high; not helpful when you’re trying to prevent the brakes and gearbox on a heavy automatic overheating down mountain roads.
But of course, once we were back on the Route, my concerns evaporated. While there were sections where I pressed on, for most of the day I spent my time cruising, guiding the E24’s shark nose along sweeping precipices and around languid hairpins while gawping at Provence’s rugged beauty. This really is my favourite part of the world to drive in; you can keep your Nurburgring, as far as I’m concerned.
We left Mum & Dad in Provence, and carried on through Monaco and along the Riviera. What a joy it is to glide along the coast here in an old grand tourer. Despite the dead flies and brake dust, the BMW still had glamour to spare. Along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, a passenger in a Mercedes CLS hung out of his window to give us a thumbs up and take pictures. And, shamelessly, I ogled my own car in the windows of chichi boutiques as Mrs R drove us into Cannes for the night.
There followed a few days bimbling around the South Coast before we headed west, to Lourdes, then north, to Bordeaux. A beautiful city, like a smaller, more laid-back version of Paris, where we sat in the Grand Cafe and watched England beat Colombia on the big screen, half of the place cheering with us by the end, with calvados on the house to celebrate.
Bordeaux is also home to Paul Bracq, the designer responsible for the E24. Boris, M Bracq’s son, runs an exclusive, almost invitation-only workshop in a quiet suburban street, where he restores the Pagoda Mercedes SLs his father designed earlier in his career to better-than-new condition, painstakingly sourcing brand-new parts – or fabricating them when he can’t. He – and his dog, Turbo – were kind enough to show us around before we left the city, and to allow us to take the obligatory photo with the fabulous sign bearing his father’s signature outside the gates. It’s a special place. Sadly, M Bracq wasn’t around, but in suitably fanboy fashion I asked Boris to pass on to him how much I love his work. Day: made.
On up the coast, then, to La Rochelle, with its achingly lovely old port, and then Saumur and the Loire Valley, where even Mrs R, fresh from passing her test last year, found herself enjoying a bit of ‘spirited’ driving on some sweeping, smooth back roads with fabulous sight lines. And then St Malo, where the hotel’s parking garage was across the other side of the old town – twenty minutes spent negotiating tight corners with razor-sharp stone buildings on either side, and again on the way back; at one point a kindly couple sitting at a cafe moved their table back to allow the BMW’s nose around a bend, so tight had the road become.
Throughout, the BMW was indomitable. On motorways it sat, rock-solid and smooth as ever, its seats endlessly comfortable, its air conditioning – freshly regassed before we left – saving us from the blistering heat. In towns it garnered admiring glances as it rumbled gently through narrow streets, the sun flashing off its chromework. What I love about it – what I’ve always loved – held true; you don’t need to go fast to derive immense satisfaction from driving it. Even at a sedate cruise, the subtle waft and wallow of the suspension and the background throb of the old six-pot is enough to make you smile.
On our final stretch from Rouen back to Calais, I found myself trying to think of a car I’d rather have brought instead, money no object – one with the same proportions of power, comfort, handling, cruising ability, old-fashioned glamour, modern-day gadgets and outright style. I failed.
It was an unforgettable trip in a car that became even more of an old friend. And, despite my fears, it didn’t let us down. More than that – it never once showed us a hint that it might. Up mountains, along motorways, through tunnels and down into many a multi-storey car park, it did everything we asked of it, and reminded me how lucky I am to own such a perfect classic grand tourer. What a journey – and what a car. Thanks, old pal.
Car: 1988 BMW 635CSi Auto 'Highline'
Run by: Alex Robbins
Bought: December 2014
Mileage at purchase: 100,895
Mileage now: 111,857
Last month at a glance: France, by 6 Series – surely the finest way to travel.