Letter from Europe

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

Dear W.B.
Once the summer arrives high-speed motoring in Europe is severely restricted by the traffic density and especially the caravans on tow behind such impossible things as DAFs and Simcas, while the flapping plastic sheet covered roof rack brigade don’t help things much. However, I try to be tolerant and, having enjoyed clear roads and high speeds throughout the early part of the season, I now plan my routes and journey times more selectively, often making a 50-mile detour to avoid a congested frontier or troublesome town. I always maintain it is better to keep moving on minor roads or up in the hills than to sit in a stationary queue on a main road or on a popular valley route.

Some people I know always seem to get lost when they try and detour, but I must be lucky in having a good sense of direction and frequently use the sun as a general guide. When I return to England I invariably get lost (probably because the sun is seldom shining), like when I got confused coming out of the Mersey tunnel and ended up going back into it again and puzzling over there being two tunnels in Liverpool, or like the time I got hopelessly lost on the way to Oulton Park!

On a trip down to Sicily recently I set out one day with the idea of making a leisurely trip down the centre of Italy on the Autostrada del Sol, but somehow everything clicked into place, traffic was light, and I ended up driving for just over 10 hours with stops only for petrol and cups of coffee. This involved the Autostrada down into Calabria, then across to the Mediterranean coast and right down the coast road, which is continually being improved. In all I covered 1,054 kilometres, which was nothing special, and my hotel to hotel time was 10 hours 7 minutes, which again was not exceptional, but it recalled a day in 1955 when Stirling Moss drove for an identical length of time and covered 1,000 miles, including four mountain passes, and there was no Autostrada in that trip.

The actual distance of the Mille Miglia was 1,597 kilometres and that was quite a day’s motoring. My travels are not all 100-m.p.h. trips and the day after, I was ambling along the coast of Sicily towards Palermo when I spotted a sports Fiat Balilla in a garage and, going back, I met the owner who was very pleased and proud of his little red 1935 sports car. He had had a fire in it and had just finished refurbishing it, but had no idea of the sort of activity we have in England for old cars. He just liked tinkering with it and driving round the village was all the use he could give it, for there is no VSCC in Sicily.

It is interesting that we call the model the Balilla Sports, whereas the Italians call it the Fiat tipo Coppa d’Oro. It all looked very original except that it lacked the fin on the tail, the Sicilian owner having had to make a new boot lid and the fin was beyond his capabilities. A little further on happened to notice a small, plump, pink piglet standing by the side of the road, looking somewhat bewildered, and as I was wondering what it was doing there I came across another one standing up on a bank with two road workers looking at it. There had been no pig farms along the road and the scene was still puzzling me when I came up behind a Sicilian lorry and saw that it was full of similar, plump, pink piglets and it was pretty obvious that the two I saw had fallen out, or jumped out.

The lorry was a double-deck affair with a canvas tarpaulin over the top deck and as I was thinking about the fuss there would be when the driver delivered his load two short, for no one would believe he hadn’t sold them on the quiet, the lorry went over a level crossing.

As it rolled on its springs a pink leg came out from under the tarpaulin, followed by another one, then a little curly tail, and the next moment “splat!”. a plump, pink piglet fell flat on its hide in the middle of the road, got up and tottered off looking rather bewildered, having fallen from a height of about eight feet. I hooted vigorously, the driver’s mate looked in his mirror, saw the pig about to be gathered up by the level crossing keeper (free food for a week!), and stopped. While the lorry driver grabbed the piglet by the tail and one ear and carried him back to the lorry I explained about the other two and the lorry was turned round and they went back in search of the missing piglets. As I drove on with the sound of the lorry driver’s thanks in my ears I thought I heard muffled curses coming from the crossing keeper, so I still don’t know whether I did the right thing or not.

The growing cult of the big, fast motorcycle in the super-bike category is certainly spreading throughout Europe, and at the French Grand Prix there were more 750-c.c. four cylinder Hondas than you can imagine, and from all sorts of countries—Italy, France, Switzerland and Monaco. On one bit of open-road motoring I got into a bit of a dice with a Frenchman on one of these big four-cylinders and we thrashed along at 85-90 m.p.h. for quite a way, his pillion passenger looking quite unconcerned as he laid the bike over on 80 m.p.h. corners.

He was trying very hard and with great courage, and I was wondering how long he could keep it up, when we caught up with some traffic, and that was the last I saw of him. While I was braking heavily down to 40 m.p.h. behind a van, as there was a car coming in the opposite direction, the Honda nipped through the closing gap, swerved by the two or three cars ahead and was gone. On another occasion, on an Autostrada, I came up behind a 500-c.c. Kawasaki Mach III that was cruising along at about 85 m.p.h. and after I had gone by I looked in the mirror and saw that it was tucked in behind me.

I went up to 100 m.p.h. with the Mach III in my slipstream and then moved over into the slow lane as I was interested to know just how fast a Kawasaki would go unaided and not specially prepared for road-test by journalists. The Italian rider tucked himself away and went by and I paced him at a very honest 180 k.p.h. (112 m.p.h.) for mile after mile, the Autostrada being completely free of traffic at the time. It was interesting to run alongside him at that speed, both bike and Jaguar being rock steady, but while I could relax and look across at the three-cylinder two-stroke engine turning over at about 8,500 r.p.m., he was having to hold on and battle against wind-pressure, as he had no streamlined fairing on the bike.

As with the Honda rider, I wondered how long he could keep up the pace, with the wind noise and the buffeting, whereas even with the hood down on the E-type it was fairly comfortable at that speed, and you can keep it up indefinitely. After some minutes the Kawasaki dropped back and the Italian returned to his 85 m.p.h. cruising speed, and I eased off to my normal maximum economical cruising speed of just under 100 m.p.h.

When you are in a car you know well and, in fact, live with day in and day out, and you have a go with another vehicle, you get a much better impression of its capabilities than you will ever get from reading a road-test, no matter how impartial the writer, and one day on the French Autoroute south of Lyon I was able to assess the speed capabilities of a Renault-Alpine 1600 and a 1.9-litre Opel GT. They were having a bit of a scrap together when I got involved with them, so I sat behind to watch, and we ran in close company for over half an hour. On the level we were running at 180 k.p.h. and down some of the slopes speed rose to an artificial 200 k.p.h. (124 m.p.h.), and it was obvious that they were both “Harry Flatters”, for, though the Alpine was leading all the time, occasionally the Opel GT would get alongside and at 180 k.p.h. they would run wheel-to-wheel, neither giving way.

Time and again the Opel would get alongside, only to have to drop back again. (Yes, the French Autoroute was splendidly clear of traffic.) After more than 30 minutes of this the Alpine dropped back, no doubt the driver and passenger completely exhausted by the noise in the little fibre-glass French whizzer, and the Opel went on at unabated speed. All this time I had been intrigued by the fact that the Opel was driven by a blonde-haired woman, and with the Alpine out of the way she moved into the inside lane, so I drew up alongside to find that it was the widow of the late Jo Schlesser, who was killed so tragically in the air-cooled Honda accident at Rouen in 1968.

After another 30 minutes running in company we both had to stop for fuel, and while chatting she explained how she had not only been flat-out but had got a pain in her right leg from holding the accelerator down on the floor-boards. When she came to restart there was an ominous silence from the starter and, looking under the bonnet of the Opel, it was easy to see that things had been getting pretty warm. The pump attendant struck the starter motor a shrewd blow with a tyre lever and, hey presto, it worked and Mrs. Schlesser was able to continue on her way to Vichy.

I carried on up the Autoroute towards Paris and later had another little involvement, this time with a Citroën SM, the new Maserati-engined car that makes everything else look old fashioned the way the DS did when it first appeared. I saw this unusual-looking front view approaching in my mirror as I was cruising at around 100 m.p.h., so moved over and it swept by in complete silence. This was serious stuff and 200 k.p.h. was the order of the day from then on. As we were approaching Paris the traffic increased and one car at 200 k.p.h. overtaking the populace is all right, but not two cars at that speed so I eased back and let the Citroën SM go. Where the DS was the car of the sixties I feel sure the SM is the car of the seventies.

Next month I will tell you how I sat in a traffic jam on a German Autobahn for three hours because a VW had tangled with an articulated oil tanker. It’s not all high speed, you know.

Yours, D. S. J.