London to Rouen
The premise was simple but far from straightforward: drive a car from Rouen in France to Lisbon, Portugal over five days and raise money for charity. However, because this was the annual Sucata Run there was a catch. The car could cost no more than £250 (Dh1,490); less than many people would spend on a bicycle. The clue was in the name, really, because "sucata" is Potugese for junk.
As we sat in the queue for the Channel tunnel, we reviewed our purchase. It was a rickety 1995 Renault Espace with a mere 190,000 miles (305,755km) on the clock. It was cavernous, comfortable and just a little bit kitsch. Features included a sunroof-mounted water cannon that liberally sprayed water over the driver's lap, electric windows that went down but stubbornly refused to come back up and less than half its doors were openable. We had augmented the aquamarine colour scheme with fish, sharks, waves and an octopus on the roof.
This was, we hoped, sufficient effort to warrant the generous donations of more than £800 we had collected from friends and family for the childrens' educational charity Gemin-i, which the Sucata Run raises money for. It was to be both fun and philanthropic - perfect.
As we landed on foreign soil we prepared to drive on the wrong side of the road down to Rouen, where we would meet the other teams, hopefully make some friends and prepare for the epic journey south. At least that was the plan. As if sulking at its return to the country of its birth, the Espace got hot under the collar, or should that be bonnet? The temperature needle swung into the red. Not ideal. We saw some of our fellow competitors as we stopped for fuel (they were in an amazing Ghostbusters-themed Peugeot 406), and assured them that we would buy them a drink in Rouen later that evening. But the needle refused to drop, even after we'd picked up speed and soon the acrid aroma of burning oil filtered through the cabin.
We were only 22km into France and lurching onto the hard shoulder. What rotten luck. Fearing a stern lecture from the gendarmerie, we limped to the next junction and pulled into a garage on the outskirts of Boulogne. The diagnosis from the recovery van was bleak: the head gasket had blown and the soot shower billowing out of the exhaust put paid to any hopes of reaching Rouen, let alone Lisbon. Reluctantly, I signed over ownership and consigned her to the scrap heap. Her journey was over but ours was just beginning. We would get to the finish line by any means possible.
Rouen to La Rochelle
Having been forced to stay the night in Boulogne, perhaps one of the most dreary towns ever inhabited, we woke up with renewed urgency. Over breakfast we hatched a plan and by midday had caught a train back to Calais where we rented a shiny new Fiat Punto. It may not have been as cool as the Renault, but neither was it about to overheat and, being a charity event, the rules are slightly more relaxed than those governing serious, full-on rallies like the Mille Miglia.
It was 11pm before we finished the 750km leg to La Rochelle. But fortune favours the brave and, when we arrived at the designated bar to meet the other competitors, our deeds and dedication had already won us cult status. It was a motley crew. There were people dressed as fluffy bears sat at the bar and some doctors and nurses shaking their collection tins for last-minute donations. In total, there were 16 teams taking part, only one of which was sans voiture (car-free). We quickly struck up some friendships and arranged to ditch the hire car and join another team in the morning.
La Rochelle to San Sebastian
We were delighted when our new team turned out to be the Ghostbusters "Ecto-1"crew we had seen at the services. The car was a work of art. Painted white, it had a marshmallow man on the dashboard, ghosts and ghouls on the doors and rear window, and a roof rack ingeniously packed with ghost extermination machines and a wailing siren. As we prepared to set off from the campsite, other cars joined for the convoy. There were hippies in a flower-power Mondeo, an ancient zebra print Fiat 127, a James Bond-themed Kia saloon, a Dukes of Hazzard Rover 200 and a fluorescent green "emergency" Volvo for the event's doctors.
Ecto-1 led with the Cannonball Run theme music blaring from the siren as we snaked south through the town to a chorus of beeps behind us and a procession of waves and cheers from passers-by. This was the rally experience we had been waiting for and, though we weren't driving, we were very much back in the race.
With the zebra-print Fiat flat out at 80kph, progress was slow but never short of incident. The green Volvo was having troubles and we all took it in turn to jump start her at each petrol stop. The fields of France passed by the windows as the temperature rose several degrees every 100km or so and finally, after six hours on the road, we passed the Spanish border and arrived triumphant in San Sebastian; our bangers slightly incongruous on its stunning corniche. Spirits were high and the camaraderie of the group was already evident. One team, however, was nursing a €200 (Dh1,044) fine for not using headlights in an illuminated tunnel.
San Sebastian to Salamanca
After the revelry and high jinx of the night before, we set off on a convoy through the hills of northern Spain. Making the journey by car is a much more sensory experience than by plane and, travelling south, we saw fields give way to vineyards and beech trees to palms. If you have the time and can pay the tolls, it's a great way to travel. With the other cars seemingly running as smoothly as when they had left the showroom, we made serene progress and paraded into Salamanca by mid-afternoon. But then we heard word that another team was in trouble. A Renault Scenic from Scotland, with the cross of St Andrew on its roof, had snapped a cambelt just outside San Sebastian. The Sucata Run had claimed its second victim.
Salamanca to Cascais
The mood on the final leg was buoyant. The convoy was now nine - the longest of the trip. As we crossed the border to Portugal, we left the dry plains behind for the dramatic scenery of pine-studded hilltops, breath-taking vistas and down rocky valleys, as we emerged from tunnels burrowing through the mountainous landscape. Finally, as we approached Lisbon, we spied the Atlantic Ocean on the horizon and waved our fists in jubilation.
An hour later and we crossed the finish line at Cabo de Roca: the most westerly point in mainland Europe. There followed many high-fives and back slaps as the sun sank into the ocean beyond the rocks. For us, though, there were mixed feelings. We had made it, but not under our own steam. Still, we celebrated with our adopted team and set off for the beach party. The zebra-print Fiat won the best banger award and, in total, the teams raised almost £20,000 for charity. But far from being driven to distraction, most of the teams agreed to meet again next year to take on a new route from Bruges to Budapest. And perhaps we will too, but not in a Renault.
For more information on the rally, visit www.sucatarun.com.