European letter

[By means of which our roving European reporter keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W. B.,

After motoring about on the highly efficient German and Belgian motorways and eating at the clinical and rather plastic motorway food stops, it was rather pleasant to return to France where you don't have to use the Autoroutes, leaving them to those people who are in a hurry. Meandering across France on what I call "yellow" roads is a very nice pastime and only adds about 30% to the time needed for a journey. Small back roads abound throughout France and providing you have a good sense of direction, and a car with good suspension, they present no problems, except that on some of them petrol stations are few and far between. At one time you could still see early vintage cars in use in the French rural areas, but gradually they were replaced by 2cv Citrons, and the last dying gasps of a Donnet or a Hotchkiss were in the shape of a farm truck or garage breakdown, but even they have now disappeared. To even see a black "Traction Avant" saloon Citroen is now quite a rarity, though you do come across early French light cars being kept by garages as curios or investments in the hope that an American or English collector may pass by. Many of the old Renaults and Citroens were virtually driven into the ground, and certainly into the hedgerows on the farms, and you can still see the remains, but there is never anything worthwhile or even saveable. No doubt some of our more imaginative old-car dealers would drag these old wrecks out of the hedge and advertise them for sale at a phenomenal price as being "ripe for restoration".

Before the mini-Grand Prix of France took place the European part of Goodyear had a small party, principally for the fitters and engineers who do all the work in the paddock, to celebrate the fact that twenty-five World Championship Grand Prix races in a row had been won on Goodyear tyres. When you have all the ace drivers and all the top teams on your tyres it is not surprising that you win all the races, but all credit to the Goodyear racing department, for when they took over Lotus and Ferrari in addition to those they were already looking after, some people felt they were taking on rather a lot, but they coped admirably and have kept all their customers happy and in race-winning form. During the course of the evening I was chatting with Regazzoni and the subject of languages came up, his natural language being Italian, coming as he does from the Ticino Province of Switzerland, which is the nice part south of the Alps. His home town is Lugano and when he said "you must have learnt to speak Italian in Lugano" I was a bit surprised and asked him why he should say that. Smiling rather sheepishly into his thick moustache he explained that when he was ten years old he had seen me racing motorcycles in Lugano, passengering on the winning sidecar outfit with Eric Oliver. That was in 1949 and little Regazzoni had climbed up on a wall with some other kids, to watch the motorcycle racing. In those days we also raced at Locarno, but that was too far for the small boys to travel, he explained, yet it was just round a small mountain on the next lake. Oddly-enough, that same year on the northern side of the Alps, at Berne another small Swiss lad was seeing his first motor and motorcycle race, and that was poor old Joseph Siffert, and we won that sidecar race as well.

I find it very fascinating to learn about people's background, especially racing drivers, and at another little gathering at Dijon I was intrigued to hear Phil Hill, the 1961 World Champion, and Bernard Cahier the European Goodyear PR man, reminiscing on their youthful days in California when they were salesmen for Roger Barlow Motors Inc., selling European cars on a commission basis. Phil Hill said he was a "damn poor salesman" and Bernard, speaking broken English with a lovely French accent, could sell anything and sold an MG to almost every housewife on the West Coast. His pronunciation of MG-TC or MG-TD was enough to make the most hardened American woman swoon. "You wan' a Ticcy or Tiddy" was his line of patter that never failed to win a sale, while poor Phil Hill just polished the cars, hoping someone would come and buy one, and muttering to himself "Damn Frog". The reason that Phil Hill was in Dijon was the doing of the Marlboro firm of Philip Morris, for he was one of many old Grand Prix drivers who were gathered for a glorious re-union. The Automobile Club of France was celebrating its 80th birthday and among the many things that were laid on for the week preceding the French Grand Prix, was a re-union of cars and people linked with the French Grand Prix races of the past. Marlboro were looking for something to organise that was different to their usual publicity stunts, and gave full support to this re-union idea setting Baron de Graffenried onto the job of rounding everyone up from all parts of the world and getting together one of the biggest assemblies of historic Grand Prix cars ever seen. For more than a year de Graffenried and the Marlboro organisation in Switzerland have been working away and the result was memorable. There were Grand Prix cars right through the ages, from 1907 to 1967 and a very great number of old drivers, many of whom had actually won a French Grand Prix, such as Louis Chiron, Phillipe Etancelin, H. P. Muller, Manfred von Brauchitsch, from pre-war times and Tony Brooks from recent years. In addition there were numerous drivers who had driven in the French Grand Prix at some time or other, like Taruffi, Lang, Villoresi, B. Bira, Manzon, Gendebien, Phil Hill, Moss, Herrmann, Trintignant, and Sanesi. Many of the old mechanics had been ferreted out, like Robert Aumaitre the chief mechanic of the Gordini team, Guerrino Bertocchi of Maserati, Sala and Zenardi from the Alfa Romeo team, Guilio Ramponi from the early Alfa Romeo days, most of the Mercedes-Benz mechanics and the Porsche mechanics who were with Dan Gurney the day he won the French Grand Prix at Rouen. There were also team managers from the past like Guidotti of Alfa Romeo, Ugolini of Ferrari and Maserati, and of course, the legendary Neubauer, and they had with them some of the designers and engineers of the day, like Colombo and von Eberhorst. It was a truly remarkable gathering, all due to the efforts of de Graffentied and Marlboro and even if a lot of the spectators did not know or care what it was all about, those concerned had a splendid time. Many of the Grand Prix cars were in full working order and where possible an appropriate driver took part in a two-lap parade. The sight of the 159 Alfa Romeo being started on the handle was quite something to modern eyes, and the sound from that beautiful highly-supercharged straight-eight was as exciting as when it last raced, in 1951. The 1939 Mercedes-Benz V12 with two-stage supercharging made exactly the noise one would expect, and von Brauchitsch went through the start area at well over the ton on his parade lap, followed shortly afterwards by Hermann Lang going even faster in a 1954 streamlined W196. Prince Bira was not hanging about in a 2-litre Gordini, but others. were more sedate. As Jack Brabham could not be there, Moss deputised for him by driving a typical Brabham Cooper-Climax, and Hulme drove a later Brabham-Repco V8 as a stand-in for his old Guvnor. It was a very pleasant garden-party and the only notable omissions were a Lotus and a 250F Maserati, and to everyone's regret Fangio could not make it from the Argentine.

This idea of a re-union of a particular race is one that might well catch on in future years, and the Italian Grand Prix and the German Grand Prix are two that would be worthwhile.

Apart from the pleasure that the Marlboro organised party gave those involved, it presented a remarkable visible development story of the Grand Prix car the logical progression to the cars of today being easy to see, highspots being the 1927 straight-eight Delage, the 1932 "monoposto" Alfa Romeo, the 1939 Mercedes-Benz V12, the 1951 Alfa Romeo Tipo 159, the 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 streamliner, the 1960 Cooper-Climax and the 1967 Brabham-Repco, the last being sire to the Formula One cars of today. Among the static exhibits were a D50 Lancia and a 1939 Auto-Union V12, the latter being seen for the first time since they last raced in 1939, having recently been winkled out of Czechoslovakia. It was not only a bright idea of Marlboro to organise the whole affair, but a monument of organisation to get the whole lot together in one place. I wonder who will be prepared to have a go at the German Grand Prix in a couple of years' time ?

Although the holiday season is supposed to be in full swing it is noticeable that there are not so many over-loaded family saloons with flapping plastic bags fluttering from their roof-racks as in the past, though there are plenty of unlikely saloons towing caravans about the place, looking for somewhere to come to rest. Having taken a quick look at the Routes National and the Autoroutes I will leave you while I duck down a "yellow" road that goes to Chambertin St. Givry-en-Aube, or some such unlikely place. If you work on the assumption that all roads must go somewhere you do not get lost for very long on the by-ways of France, but I don't recommend them for Ford suspension or British sports cars, and certainly not for caravans.

Yours, D.S.J.