Letter from Europe

[By means of which the Continental Correspondent, while he is motoring abroad, keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W. B.,

Travels started earlier than usual this year, right at the beginning of March, just as the fliers returned from the South African Grand Prix. Having wanted to drive a Lotus Elan Plus Two for some while and having put it off until a suitable trip made it worthwhile, I borrowed Graham Arnold’s personal car, he being the Lotus Sales Director. Apart from being black, a non-standard colour, and having the first set of production cast-alloy wheels, and a close-ratio gearbox, this was a standard used Lotus Elan Plus Two, with over 19,000 miles on the odometer. I had a feeling it was too early to be heading off to Europe, and while I waited in vain for the fog to lift off Lydd Airport I began to think longingly of a bridge or tunnel across the Channel. When the point of no return was reached I motored off to Dover and caught the only boat going to France, and eventually set off from Boulogne into a gloomy-looking French countryside. Although the boat was virtually empty it had a distinctly sporting flavour, with a Formula Three driver and a Matra mechanic among the passengers, and a 300SL Mercedes-Benz and two Mustangs keeping the Lotus company below decks.

This first trip was to Turin, to see and drive some new Lancias, and the gloomy and foggy evening did not encourage motoring far after the boat finally docked at Boulogne. Even though the Lotus put 150 miles into three hours quite effortlessly I had hardly made any impression on the French map. Next day was a beautiful sunny one, with blue skies, dry roads and negligible traffic, and the joy of pounding along the French by-ways at 80-90 m.p.h. with the Lotus suspension working away was everything for which I could wish. When I motor in France I invariably buy ELF petrol as a gesture of goodwill as the ELF company are supporting Grand Prix racing by advertising and backing Matra. In glorious sunshine I pulled into an ELF garage and saw two French motorcycle Police in the forecourt. They were taking a rest and standing by their B.M.W. motorcycles; as I stopped at the petrol pumps they wandered over to look at the Lotus with appreciative smiles and then asked if they could look at the engine. There followed a most enthusiastic conversation with one of them, who was incredibly knowledgeable on racing matters. He recognised the alloy wheels on the Elan Plus Two as being non-standard, he thought the Matra victory in South Africa was due more to Stewart than Matra, had great hopes for Matra to do well at Le Mans, and had been told by Pescarolo that the Grand Prix Matra V12 in its new form might well appear at the French Grand Prix at Clermont-Ferrand. We talked sports cars and motor racing for a long time and I discovered that he had a TR3 Triumph, and when I asked him if he had any trouble with the police when he drove his TR3 fast, off duty, he smiled and said he kept his eyes open and used a bit of common sense. I suggested that after patrolling French roads on his B.M.W. motorcycle all day it was surprising to hear that he went motoring in his TR3 when he had time off, but he insisted that he really enjoyed sports-car motoring and only wished he could afford something better. His biggest complaint was that he could not get to many motor races as he was always on road duty at week-ends, especially in the summer. When I motored on my way, near Bar-sur-Aube, I felt that there were two “flics” who would know what it was all about if they stopped me for driving in a “fast and furious manner”.

Passing through Geneva I was suddenly aware that I was on a length of concrete dual-carriageway that used to be part of the circuit we raced on when Switzerland allowed road-racing and we had a Geneva Grand Prix for motorcycles. The circuit went out of the town along this twin-track road on the left lane, round a bollard and back along the other lane, with straw bales between the two directions. Our approach speeds must have been over 200 m.p.h. but I don’t recall anyone complaining about the inherent danger. In those days we were only too happy to go road-racing, and the tram-lines that we crossed when we re-entered Geneva were all part of the fun. The brave “works” riders were two or three feet off the ground over the tram-lines, and at my lower speeds I found it heart-stopping at 12 inches. If you didn’t like it the alternative was to race round flat, safe, featureless English airfields, and they were never my idea of racing circuits. If I remember rightly the last time we raced in Geneva, many years ago now, it was raining heavily, just to add to the fun!

I crossed into Italy by way of the Mont Blanc tunnel, which costs about £2, for at this time of the year there is no way into Italy unless you make long detours south towards the Mediterranean or east along to Austria, either of which would cost a lot more than £2 on petrol. Through the 12-kilometre tunnel no overtaking is allowed and at the entrance a sign warns you to keep at least 100 metres from the vehicle in front. As I drove through I noticed circular signs lighting up on the wall of the tunnel reminding me of this 100-metre rule, and after a while I discovered that they came on automatically if you got too close to the car in front. As there was no-one behind me I experimented with dropping back and closing up, and sure enough the unseen eyes told me the moment I got closer than 100 metres. There is a speed limit of 80 k.p.h. (50 m.p.h.) but as there was a large lorry ahead of the car in front of me we were all down to 45 k.p.h., otherwise illuminated signs would have flashed on if I had gone over the speed limit. All this sort of regimentation on the open road would have made me despair, but in a tunnel like the Mont Blanc it was all good sense, for there is a time and place to play “silly b—–s”, and a tunnel, like a mountain pass, is not one of those places.

The Lancia gathering was pleasantly informal and I will tell you about the new cars later on, elsewhere in this issue, but for me the high spot was a drive in one of the Fulvia rally cars, the little 1.6-litre front wheel-drive coupé with 5-speed gearbox. This car was terrific fun, revving to 7,000 r.p.m. with a shattering exhaust note, a lovely close ratio gearbox, solid and direct steering, no interior trim or soundproofing, splendid rigid bucket seats, and the pedals in just the right position for left-foot braking, or heel-and-toe games. The gear-lever was a straight rigid bar with a big knob on the end that was a delight to use, so that half the fun of rushing this little car up the mountain road to Cervinia was stirring about among the five speeds and keeping the revs between 5,000 and 6,500 r.p.m. It was running on very wide tread racing Michelin tyres and it really did have its feet on the ground, though you had to be very firm with the steering wheel round hairpins for the self-centring action was very strong. A nice rally touch were the two buttons on the floor on the passenger’s side, one for the very loud horns and the other for the headlamp flashers, these two controls being in addition to the driver’s controls. The last few hairpins up to the hotel were ice and snow covered, but at the foot were waiting some Lancia mechanics who quickly fittest another set of wheels shod with Pirelli studded snow tyres. Later on Pat Moss-Carlsson took us for rides over a snow-course in one of these Fulvia rally coupés, demonstrating the art of losing control of a front-wheel-drive car on loose snow, and regaining it again before hitting a snow bank!

Before heading for Modena in the Lotus Elan Plus Two I accompanied a friend on a short test of an Iso Rivolta Grifo with 7-litre Chevrolet V8 engine. This was a luxurious beast of a car that would charge along at quite a rate but seemed to lack any sort of character, good or bad. To me it looks a rather dull old lump of a motor car, and that was the way it seemed to go. It wound itself up to well over 140 m.p.h. very easily and quickly but there was far too much wind noise and I felt the steering was too low geared and slow in response to encourage me to try any fast motoring on corners.

I am now heading into the mists of Modena and the rest or the Elan trip must wait until next month.—Yours, D. S. J.