'A Diversion'

It all started when the Dutch held their Grand Prix on a Saturday instead of the normal Continental race day of Sunday, for this gave me an extra day in my normal week of getting from one race to the next. Normally I never do any serious motoring at weekends, always being involved with races, so it was quite a surprise to find the roads of Europe empty of lorries and vans, and being away from the more popular parts, the “Sunday Motorists” were not too thick on the ground. My basic objective was a race meeting on the far side of Germany, but having some time to spare for a change I made a detour into France to meet some friends who were on a gentle “vintage touring” holiday in Normandy in a 1932 Lagonda 3-litre. Needless to say, like all keen V.S.C.C. members, they were based at Clercs, where the Pichon family have their Motor Museum and their motor-minded hotel. Arriving late in the evening, after some very satisfying cross-country high-speed motoring in the E-type Jaguar, I took the opportunity after dinner to go for a gentle drive in the Lagonda, wafting quietly along at 50 m.p.h. in the warm summer night. Next morning the rains came, for the continent of Europe is not all sunshine and flowers as the guide books would have us believe, so the Lagonda hood was raised, as it is essentially a touring car and not a sports car, and we set off for a quiet and leisurely run around the back lanes of Normandy, which are very much like Hampshire or Dorset, and headed vaguely towards the Channel coast. All was going well when with a nasty “death rattle” we came to a stop and the camshaft, magneto and water-pump had stopped revolving due to old age finally attacking the timing chain, which had broken and dropped to the bottom of the timing chest.

As there was going to be a slight delay in getting the stricken car back to Clercs, where I could work on it in comfort, we got the local Citroën agent to tow us to his garage, and this he did behind a very well-equipped Citroën DS19 Safari, hitching us up to the back with a rigid tow-bar and saying “Occupy yourself only with the steering, leave all the braking to me”. The journey back to Clercs on the local bus was a story in itself, the 40 miles costing a mere ten shillings, to which was added a glass of wine at almost every stop. The bus was a large rear-engined single-decker and the driver took on the role of fare-collector, postman, parcels delivery man and general help. There was no question of locking him away in a glass compartment on his own, he was one of us and after about the third stop it was “drinks all round” with his chums on the route before we thundered off at 100 k.p.h. down the long tree-lined roads. The final four miles from the main bus route to our base was accomplished by taxi, as we felt it would be unfair to the other passengers to try and persuade the bus driver to deviate from his route. The taxi turned out to be another DS19 Citroën Safari, this time kitted out as an ambulance and one member of the party lay on the stretcher in the back. The driver explained that the regular taxi had gone off on a long trip to Le Havre, and he was standing in for him. We were a little concerned that someone might be taken ill in the village while we were using the ambulance as a taxi, but the driver assured us that all was well for the village had two more ambulances besides his. The ratio of three ambulances to one taxi for the whole village seemed a bit disproportionate until we remembered that they were all DS19 Citroëns, which are surely one of the best all-round vehicles in France.

I had been thinking that the E-type Jaguar had done well to clock up 100,000 miles, but when we set off in Pichon’s 404 Peugeot shooting-brake to tow the Lagonda back on a break-down trolley, I was a bit deflated when he pointed out that it had done 196,000 kilometres (about 120,000 miles) and had never had the cylinder head off. He reckoned that the secret of such long reliability was continual use and no abuse. It was never cruised at more than 100 k.p.h. (62 m.p.h.) and was used strictly as transport, often doing touring trips from the Mediterranean coast to the Normandy coast non-stop, with he and his father taking 2-hour driving shifts. It certainly made light work of retrieving the Lagonda and the engine was soon stripped and the damage found to be restricted to the broken inverted-tooth chain and a slightly mangled chain-tensioner. We had a brand new chain sitting in a box on the window sill, the only problem being that the window sill was part of the house in London! After much discussion as to the easiest and quickest way of getting the timing chain from London to Normandy, we enlisted the help of a fellow V.S.C.C. member. It is at times like this that good friends are far more valuable than any motoring organisation or insurance scheme. A phone call to our friend in London explained the situation and he said he would work on it. About two hours later he rang back to say the new timing chain would be at Boulogne next morning. Apart from being a keen V.S.C.C. member he also works for Motor and a quick series of calls amongst various of his journalistic friends found a chap from Motoring News who was crossing the Channel by Hovercraft next morning. The chain was scooped up from the window sill in S.W. 10, taken to W.13, and early next morning was transferred from a Ford Capri to a Simca 1500 at E.12, and I was waiting in the E-type as the giant SRN4 Hovercraft cruised majestically off the sea and onto the tarmac at Boulogne. It was merely a matter of work and time to get the Lagonda motoring once more, but by this time I was a bit behind in my motoring schedule for getting to Nürnberg and the Norisring Race.

Many people seem to think that I only go to World Championship Grand Prix races, along with the “bandwagon” and all the players, but I enjoy just as much a pleasant club-type race meeting. If the atmosphere is right, the situation right and there are racing cars about, especially big powerful ones, then I am perfectly happy and find the lack of “ace” drivers, works teams and championship struggles, quite a relief, and I always like to watch people enjoying themselves rather than parading about trying to justify their existence. This is why there are a number of smaller meetings on my International calendar to be attended, even though they may not be significant to the outerworld and the newshounds. I first raced at Norisring in 1950 and so enjoyed the pleasant old town of Nürnberg and the organisers and public enthusiasm, that after I stopped Continental motorcycle racing I put it on my short list of places to return to. It wasn’t until last year that I managed it and it was so pleasant to find that none of the character of the meeting had been lost.

Having got behind on my time schedule I realised I would have to forgo the practice days and set off on Saturday morning across France towards Germany and the Autobahns to the east. It was not long before I was involved in the inevitable 100 m.p.h. dice with a DS21 Citroën and a B.M.W. 2002. Needless to say I was now back in the E-type Jaguar, having left my friends to continue their “vintage” tour in the Lagonda. On the fast straights towards Reims we ran in convoy and it was obvious that the two French drivers were going somewhere special and had sporting tendencies and when we came to a police barricade across the road, and were sent on a long detour down country lanes, I remembered that the Reims Formula Two race meeting was this weekend. I am continually faced with the problem of clashing dates on the International calendar, having to make a decision between two or three race meetings on the same day, and this weekend was one of them, except that I had forgotten about Reims. It was obvious where the DS19 and the 2002 were going, as practice was in progress on the Reims circuit which uses the main Reims-Soissons road, which explained our detour. Being so far behind my original plan that I was already making a new one, I stopped to look over the fence at Formula Two and was so depressed at the monotonous drone of four-cylinder Ford-Cosworth FVA engines in cars that only seemed to vary in colour, that I drove on. Later, when I heard that the French driver Cevert had beaten all the stars in a Formula Three-type of “first hand raised is the winner” end to the race, I was glad I had not stopped any longer.

Pausing for a coffee a bit later on I was thumbing through my diary when I saw a note to the effect that the chain-driven Frazer Nash convoy was stopping the night in the town of Luxembourg, only an hour off my route. This was the start of a Commemoration Run to the Dolomites by a group of Frazer Nash owners, to relive the joys of the Alpine Rallies of 1932, ’33 and ’34 when Frazer Nashes did so well. If you care to look back at old volumes of Motor Sport you will see that in those days the accent was very much Frazer Nash, as the Editor at the time was T. G. Moore, and just as Motor Sport was referred to as the VW Gazette in 1955/60, it was known as the Frazer Nash Gazette in 1931/33. Those having been my formative years as a reader of Motor Sport, long before I ever dreamt of becoming a writer for this magazine, it is not surprising that I have always had a soft spot for Frazer Nashes and the members of the “Chain-Gang”. This run was being organised by the Frazer Nash Section of the V.S.C.C. and nearly one hundred people were involved, all of them V.S.C.C. members and avid readers of that well-known monthly magazine. Apart from that I knew that I had many personal friends on this “Raid to the Alps” as it was called. Turning off my route and going through the Iron Town of Longwy, with its continually burning furnaces, I was soon at Luxembourg, meeting two friends of long standing at the first cross roads in the city, their Frazer Nash cars coming in from the north as I came in from the west. Rendezvous point for the night was the station car park and there I saw the almost unbelievable sight of 34 Frazer Nash cars assembled, their ages ranging from 1925 to 1937, all chain-driven and powered by a variety of engines from Anzani and Meadows four-cylinders to A.C. and Blackburn six-cylinders. The Frazer Nash car was never more complicated than a good motorcycle and the engineering was simple to the point of being primitive, so that any enthusiastic owner with a good hacksaw, a hammer, a file and a welding plant can practically make a Frazer Nash by the roadside. The station car park was a remarkable sight with one car having a new clutch mechanism made, another was having its track-rod improved, another had the sump off to look at an oil leak, someone else was re-aligning sprockets, others were oiling chains and the rest were planning the next day’s route. In attendance were the service vans of Castrol Oil and Renold Chains, for this was no light-hearted trip, it was all organised with the assistance of Dunlop, without whom none of the cars would have been running on 4.50 x 19 in. tyres, Castrol, Renold, Belgian State Marine, who had transported the whole convoy from Dover to Ostend, and the Tourists Boards of Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Italy. Nine months of planning had gone into this “Raid to the Alps” and regular readers will recall that I became involved with the recce party last September in Bolzano.

A total of 37 cars had been entered, of which 36 had set off from all over England and Scotland, to assemble at the Crystal Palace. One broke a connecting rod on the way down from the North and another broke its crankshaft on the way to Dover, so the numbers were reduced to 34 at Luxembourg, and by dark all were ready for the 400-mile trip to Innsbruck next morning. Among the assembled cars were five that had actually competed in Alpine Rallies during 1932, 1933, 1934 and one member of the present “Chain-Gang” had competed in the Alpine Rally of 1934 with a Riley, so that this was a truly commemorative run. Between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. next day they set off in groups of three or four, as some were content to cruise quietly along at 40-45 m.p.h., while others were more interested in thrashing along at 70-80 m.p.h., for the later Frazer Nash models were pretty fast. Leaving at 5 a.m. I mingled with them as far as the German Autobahn and then settled down to some serious motoring in order to get to the Norisring soon after midday. Being a Sunday the roads were clear of heavy lorries and as it was early, the VW families were still in bed, so the kilometres went by pretty swiftly, my route taking me up to Frankfurt along the narrow stretch of Autobahn between Darmstadt and Frankfurt where Rosemeyer and Caracciola had broken records with Auto-Union and Mercedes-Benz, respectively, at around the 270 m.p.h. mark in 1937/38. Doing 125 m.p.h. along this two-lane motorway in my “modern” sports car needed a lot of concentration and I just could not visualise what 270 m.p.h. must have been like, especially when passing under the narrow bridges. Those Grand Prix drivers had guts, and no sense of fear or Social Security to make them demand better conditions. There was the situation and they accepted it.

Arriving at the Norisring on time, to my new schedule that was, I found the great Nazi concrete grandstand on which Hitler used to preach to his followers, hundreds of thousands of them, still standing, in spite of the threats of local authority to demolish it. The Nazi Party may be distasteful to a lot of people, but no-one will deny that they knew a thing or two about showmanship. Anyone who has visited the giant stadium at Nürnberg, which the English spell Nuremberg, must have been impressed with its magnificence and the dynamic force of its progenators. Just as Roman amphitheatres are preserved as monuments to a long extinct civilisation, even though many people disapproved of Roman tyranny, so the great Nürnberg Stadium should be preserved for all time as a monument to an extinct civilisation and a period of history. At present it forms the centre-piece of the Norisring circuit and accommodates some 20,000 spectators on the main grandstand block. The circuit is known as the Norisring, as Noris is the old name for the town of Nürnberg, and had it been called the Nürnbergring it would have become confused with the more widely-known Nürburgring on the opposite side of Germany. I was tempted to spend a couple of days in Nürnberg, for it is a pleasant town full of interesting things, and is situated in the heart of some delightful countryside, being one of those cities that has not sprawled all over the surroundings, and it always reminds me of the City of York, in England, but I decided I must get to Innsbruck to see how the “Chain-Gang” were faring, for some of the cars looked incapable of covering 40 miles by my standards, let alone 400 miles in a day. Another early start, some high speed Autobahn motoring, and I estimated that I could possibly catch them as they were leaving Innsbruck or failing that I would join them at the top of the Brenner Pass.

Now I find that in my trans-European motoring I have “on” days and “off” days and there is no way of anticipating them, there are so many factors involved, and this may be part of the reason I have never tired of motoring about Europe, even after 21 summers of it without a break. I planned my route and time schedule for normal circumstances, for you cannot guarantee an “on” day or pre-suppose an “off” day. Even when I woke up and found rain pouring down I did not anticipate an “off” day, and the first hour of Autobahn motoring was good in spite of the rain. Suddenly everyone was turned off the Autobahn by a police barricade and flashing lights and the traffic was directed down some side roads. After three-quarters of an hour in a traffic jam that had barely moved, with lorries and cars ahead as far as I could see, which was at least five miles, and the rain still pouring down, I realised that I was well and truly embarked on an “off” day. Getting out a map I turned round and dived off into the unknown complex of small roads to the north-west of Munich, deciding to alter my original route that had been through Munich, along the Autobahn towards Salzburg and down into Innsbruck from the north-east, thus avoiding the tourist area around Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It was an “off” day all right, as I knew when a vast milk-tanker reversed out of a farm in front of me and I then had to follow it for mile after mile in second gear along the narrow roads. On these sort of days I find I tend to give up trying, and instead of overtaking a slow car just before a small town, I hang back. That invariably causes me to get involved in traffic that I would have missed had I pressed on. One such occasion found me stuck at the head of a stationary queue while a vast excavator was unloaded in a main street; on another occasion a similar hesitation found me out-fumbled and waiting while a great lorry-load of bricks was being dumped, and all the time the rain was pouring down. It was an “off” day with a vengeance and all hopes of breakfast in Innsbruck were gone, as was a 10 a.m. rendezvous at the top of the Brenner Pass. The Italian customs people at the frontier were obviously in a bad mood due to the continual rain and were having a purge on foreign journalists and in particular anyone connected with the film industry. After a long cross-talk act when he was talking about colour ciné-film and I was talking about black-and-white 2¼ x 2¼ negatives, I finally got into Italy. But my “off” day was not finished, I still had to descend the Brenner, dicing in and out of caravans on tow behind German, Dutch, Swedish, British and Danish cars, all heading for the Italian lakes or the Adriatic coast, to say nothing of the enormous pleasure boats on trailers behind saloon cars. I hoped that when they all got to where they were going they would feel the journey had been justified. At one point I nearly wept when I came up behind six “foreign” cars and caravans stopped behind a parked car that didn’t have a driver in it! One thing about a high-performance car is that you can easily overtake such a column with a burst of second-gear acceleration, and I left that column milling about trying to convince themselves that the empty car was not going to start off!

At the foot of the Brenner the sun came out and Italy began to look just like the guide books. The Frazer Nash Raid had been due to have an official reception in Vipetano, the first town in the Bolzano Province. As I turned off the main road by-pass into the delightful old cobbled main street of Vipetano, or Sterzing as it is called in German, I was aware of a fiesta having taken place. Flags and bunting were everywhere and I thought that the day previous must have been a local Saint’s Day; it never occurred to me that it had all been for the arrival of the Frazer Nash column. Out of Vipetano you climb up the Giovo Pass, used in old Alpine Rallies, and on the lower slopes I overtook the Castrol and Renold service vans so I knew I was on the right route. The whole party was having lunch at the top of the pass when I joined them and everyone was bubbling over with joy and admiration for the Italian hospitality. I discovered that Vipetano had not been en fete for a Saint’s Day, but as an official welcome to the Province of Bolzano, the whole thing laid on by Dr. Plangger and the Ente Turismo of Bolzano. A police car had escorted the column from the frontier and at the entrance to Vipetano they had been met by the town band, the local dignitaries and girls in traditional South Tyrol costumes with flowers, food and wine. From Vipetano they had made a storming ascent of the Giovo Pass behind the police Alfa Romeo Giulia, its blue light flashing and its siren wailing. After the long haul across southern Germany and Austria, this terrific reception by the Italians had really set the seal on the “Raid to the Alps”. Days afterwards, tough and grubby Frazer Nash owners would almost break out into tears of emotion when they recalled the entrance into Vipetano behind the town band.

The afternoon saw a descent of the more precipitous southern side of the Giovo Pass, and another reception in the Casino gardens in Merano, and that evening a triumphal entry into Bolzano, the centre of the South Tyrol, and headquarters for the ten-day stay in the Dolomite country. The main square was cordoned off, the band were out in traditional costume, officialdom was present, and the scene looked like the finish of a Mille Miglia race. In superb formation the column of Frazer Nash cars swept into the square behind the police car, to the cheers of an enormous crowd, and a huge banner hanging above the square read “Welcome, Frazer Nash Raid, London-Bolzano”. The band played, the church bell rang, and the crowds swarmed round the cars. It was a memorable sight.

Many spectators refused to believe that the cars had been driven all the way from London, expecting transporters or trailers to be parked around the corner, or they suggested that the cars had come by train. When they were convinced that everyone had driven the 1,000 miles across Europe they then suggested that tours of the Dolomites would be made in coaches. That suggestion was greeted with hoots of derision, for the whole idea of the journey to Bolzano was to storm the mountain passes just as H. J. Aldington, A. G. Gripper, A. L. Marshall, L. Butler-Henderson and the Hon. Mitchell-Thomson had done 35 years before.

When the column of cars finally left the square, following the band, they went through the streets of the delightful old town to the Hotel Luna-Mondschien, where a huge garage had been put at their disposal, with “Welcome Frazer Nash” over the door, and a garland of flowers around it. The hotel was the base for their ten-day stay in Bolzano, during which time a very strenuous itinerary was carried out. One day was occupied by a civic reception at the nearby town of Ora and a riotous climb of the Mendola Pass, another was spent on the impressive Stelvio Pass, with its 48 hairpin bends, and for three hours it was closed to normal traffic while some of the faster Frazer Nashes made ascents “at characteristic speeds”. Another nearby town called Ortesei gave a reception before everyone tackled the Sella, Pordoi and Falzarego passes, and four stalwarts carried on in pouring rain over the Valles, Rolle and Costalunga passes. At the weekend a square was closed to traffic and a driving test competition was held between six Frazer Nashes and six local lads in Fiat Abarths and the like. The first Nash was a close fourth overall, and the old cars did not disgrace themselves. On the Sunday of their stay the Bolzano Automobile Club held a hill-climb up the nine-mile Mendola Pass, and thanks to the great efforts of the R.A.C. and Director Dean Delamont a special class of ten Frazer Nashes was included in the programme. The ravages of so much activity reduced the entry to eight, but these put on a splendid performance, the fastest being Boyce in his 1928 Meadows-engined car. The sight of the eight cars lined up at the start looked just like a 1932 copy of Motor Sport, so it was no wonder that I found myself fully involved, helping to repair bevel boxes, adjusting chains, driving the A.F.N. Ltd. transport van, team-managing the Mendota hill-climb competitors, writing up bulletin boards and planning routes.

Finally it was all over, all cars were still roadworthy, though some had received a lot of maintenance, and when I finally left Bolzano I found I had completely overlooked the fact that I had been on my way to the French Grand Prix when I got involved with the “Chain-Gang”. All that remained was to give David Thirlby, who organised the whole affair, a much-needed rest in the passenger seat of the E-type, while his co-driver drove his 1927 Anzani Frazer Nash, and to shepherd the convoys of small groups back across Europe to Ostend and the boat home. The enthusiasm with which the whole Province of Bolzano received the “Frazer Nash Raid to the Alps”, and in particular the whole town of Bolzano, was very moving and no-one in the party will forget it in a hurry. The people of the South Tyrol are very warm and friendly and they admire the British people and their love of mountaineering, but it had never occurred to them that British people would enjoy motoring up and down the magnificent mountain passes of the Dolomite country; but then they had not met the Frazer Nash Section of the Vintage Sports Car Club. If the British Government had tried to organise a “goodwill tour” across Europe they would not have succeeded half as well as the private-enterprise of the “Chain-Gang”. Old cars are enjoyed and admired by everyone today, and as a mission of British goodwill and sporting life the “Raid” was impressive. As the longest and most successful outing by a one-make car club it was a classic.

Having completely lost touch with reality I returned to the modern world and prevailed upon journalistic colleagues to bring me up to date with the French Grand Prix and other modern-day dramas. It does not take much to deflect me from the straight and narrow, especially if some interesting motoring is involved, and being irresponsible at heart and an uncontrollable motoring enthusiast I always welcome a diversion. The last time I missed a French Grand Prix was in 1958, when I was diverted by the Shell Film Unit to drive a camera car when they made that classic film of the Alpine Rally. Alpine motoring seems to have a fatal fascination for me and I know I am not alone in that feeling—D. S. J.