'BRAVO!" The shout went up time and again as we scuttled through ancient villages in our little 40-year-old sports car, bouncing over cobbles and squealing round hairpin bends, its game little engine roaring to haul us up mountain passes, pungent smells wafting from the drum brakes as we hared downhill again into the next valley. Every nut, bolt, kingpin and bearing was strained on some of the roughest roads in Europe, hours of corner after corner, never a straight, then bursting into another little village where again the streets were lined with cheering spectators, young and old.

We couldn't fail to fall in love with Iberia; as we headed into Fuente De, in Spain, after the first of seven such days, my co-driver, Richard Disbrow, commented: "We've driven more superb old-car roads in one day than we'd do in a year at home." We were constantly invited to overtake by local traffic, and in Portugal, villagers waved us on in frustration whenever we slowed to a safer pace.

In northern Spain, we marvelled at almost medieval farming communities: weather-beaten folk stooping over tiny plots of land clinging precariously to the mountainsides with nothing more than an ox-cart or donkey to transport themselves and their produce; many gathered sackfuls of sweet chestnuts from the trees which lined the roads.

And what roads. . . European Community grants had started to find their way here, roadworks constantly taxing the rally organisers with re-routes and delays, but at times it worked to our advantage. After squeezing through the narrow, cobbled main street of one tiny village, we emerged to find a magnificent new two-lane highway, complete with Armco safety barriers, clean white lines and road signs - and totally deserted.

In Portugal, cars were more common; in remoter regions we saw several MkII Ford Cortinas and Vauxhall HC Vivas; in one used-car lot we spied a pre-war 20/25 Rolls-Royce, while on a junkyard lay a split-screen Morris Minor convertible.

And what of the rally? Eighty cars from 1928 to 1976 left Hampton Court, London, on October 14 for a fun drive to Portsmouth, to board P&O's Pride of Bilbao, disembarking on the morning of October 17 to join 50 more at the Guggenheim Museum for the start proper. In all, 92 started the competitive Reliability Trial, the rest electing to take the Touring Trial, following less demanding routes.

Of the 92, 18 failed to finish, many cars suffering from the rigours of the roads and a few from close encounters with the scenery. Many more survived only thanks to the ministrations of the event's support crews and their own efforts to keep going. With just 41bhp in our little Ford sidevalve-powered Super Two special, built in 1960 using running gear from a 1937 Ford Ten, we were plagued by a misfire; after five days, we finally traced it to dirty carburettors, having replaced almost everything else in the fuel and ignition systems. But when the car went well it was enormous fun, its scanty cycle-winged body offering maximum exposure to the elements and the breathtaking countryside.

We could only look on as the leaderboard changed - it was led by John Blanckley/Tony Davies in their 1955 Austin Westminster until a wheel bearing failed, then by Portuguese entrants Joao Marques/Carlos Costa in a Ford Escort 1300GT until devious regularity tests increased their penalty score, then David Pengilly/Willy Cave in a 1966 MGB until they wrong-slotted, then 1967 Mercedes 280SL team Carolyn/Anthony Ward. . . The event ended with a tie for first place between the Wards and Angus Laird/Tom Bishop, rapid on the Monsanto Park test in their 1957 Austin-Healey 100/6.

The London to Lisbon Classic Rally provided fantastic entertainment for all, but will not run again until 2002; next year, the Historic Endurance Rallying Organisation (HERO) will be too busy with the phenomenal Inca Trail in South America. Before that, however, there's the LE JOG from Land's End to John o'Groats (December

2-5) and the Classic Malts Rally around Scotland (May 5-11). If you've got a classic car, why not use it?


For details of forthcoming HERO events telephone 01886 833505 or visit the web site: www.hero.org.uk