Continental Travels by D.S.J.

I was hanging out of a sidecar at the time, riding as passenger to World Champion Eric Oliver in 1948, when W.B. Said “While you are there, you might like to write something for MOTOR SPORT about the car races”. We were earning a rather dubious living as members of the “Continental Circus”, a nomadic band of racing motorcyclists who travelled all over Europe living from one weekend to the next, surviving on starting money and prize money. In those by-gone days it was popular among race organisers to hold motorcycle races on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning and a Grand Prix for racing cars after lunch on Sunday. We used to race at places like Pau, Comminges, Bordeaux, Angouleme, Erten, Mont Ventoux and so on, and adding spice to my job as passenger was the opportunity to see some European motor racing close-up, having followed it avidly in race reports and photographs in magazines since the early nineteen-thirties.

I began motorcycle racing in 1946/47 in England, at interesting places like Cadwell Park and Scarborough’s Oliver’s Mount circuit, and at uninteresting places like disused airfields. I had got a taste for the real thing, which was road-racing, where an error of judgement of three inches mean hitting something solid, in contrast to airfield racing that Britain was getting all excited about, where an error of judgement of three feet either way was of no consequence. The urge to see and be involved in the real thing was too much for me, and I set off from Dover on a one-way ticket to go road-racing on ordinary everyday roads in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. We went to circuits out in the country, as at Chimay, Floreffe or Mettet, or through the streets of towns like Bruxelles, Avignon, Olten or Lugano, with the highlight in view of the pure Grande Epreuve road-race circuits like Spa-Francorchamps, Berne or Reims and the very heart of Grand Prix racing at Nurburgring and Monza. The flat and wide-open spaces of Silverstone, Boreham, Ibsley, Gamston or Charterhall held little interest for me, nor did the Garden Party “round-the-field” racing of Goodwood. To me racing in Britain in those days was half-hearted stuff, with only the occasional flurry of serious road-racing in Jersey, the Isle of Man or at Dunrod, but there were not enough of these real circuits.

Knowing that I was going to all the combined car and motorcycle meetings in Europe, the Editor saw an economic method of getting race reports into MOTOR SPORT, for in those days the circulation was small and “expenses” were non-existent, while “foreign travel” was a complicated business. I had grown up with MOTOR SPORT as my motoring bible and was more than pleased to be allowed to contribute to its furtherance in some small way.

From 1948 to 1952 I wandered the roads and circuits of Europe getting to know most of the circuits very intimately from quite close quarters, motorcycle racing for a living and filling in as a journalist in my spare time. Journalism as such was of little interest, the real joy was that it afforded me the opportunity to stay on for the Grand Prix races and see everything from the best vantage points and to get into the pits and paddock. While racing we travelled about in a van, or a car and trailer, but during the last year that I raced as passenger I began to journey about on my own, building myself a special 500 c.c. Norton for the job, using a racing frame and extra large fuel and oil tanks. During 1952 I covered more than 10,000 miles on the old “Noggy” for if we were not motorcycle racing anywhere at a weekend, I would set off from our base in Bruxelles and go to a car race, extra to the season’s schedule.

As the 1953 season was about to begin the management of MOTOR SPORT suggested that if I care to give up the motorcycle racing part of my summer wanderings I could concentrate fully on motor race reporting, and they would pay my way, though I would have to provide the transport. A season of travelling on a solo motorcycle had shown up the shortcomings so for 1953 I set off in an old car that I had bought during the previous winter. This was a 1937 Fiat 1500 with a pushrod 6-cylinder engine, a four-door pillarless saloon body and the useful attribute of the passenger seat being fully removable leaving a full length bed-space on a flat floor. In the days when my Fiat was new there was a little Fiat 500 known as the “Topolino” or “Mouse”, so naturally the Fiat 1500 was known as the “Rat”. It was slow and not very sure, but somehow it kept going all over Europe during 1953 while I reported on races and mountain hill-climbs for MOTOR SPORT. It was actually possible to buy spares for the old Fiat in France and Italy, and breaker’s yards were useful for getting bits as well. On July 14th of that year, which is “Bastille Day”, I was stranded in a small French town with a Fiat engine spread all over the hotel yard, waiting for some new exhaust valves to arrive from Paris by train. As I had been living there for a few days, since the Fiat had died on me in fact, I was able to join in the “Quatorze Juillet” festivities and enjoy the parade from the Hotel de Ville to the Gendarmerie, on to the Fire Station, round by the Railway Station and into the main square for the all-night dancing. As the parade was punctuated by frequent stops at cafes for a glass of wine, the band concert and dancing in the square was quite riotous.

The old Fiat allowed me to travel even further afield, in those days before Autostrada and Autoroutes, and a journey to Naples for the street racing was something of an epic. It was memorable for being a Grand Prix with only six competitors, yet was one of the most exciting I have ever seen. The six were Ascari, Farina and Villoresi with works Ferraris, Fangio and Gonzales with works Maseratis and a local lad with an old Ferrari who retired quite early on to avoid being run over by the furious-five. That particular meeting holds an amusing memory for me as I temporarily lost the old Fiat on the Saturday. On the way down the winding coast road the radiator had split and I arrived at Naples in sweltering heat with the Fiat boiling between refills. When things get desperate it is surprising (a) where you can find water and (b) how long an engine will run gently without water. I found a Fiat garage in Naples who were prepared to adapt a later Fiat radiator to my old car, so I left it with them and took a taxi out to the Posillipo suburbs where practice was due to take place: At the end of the day I caught another taxi and asked to be taken to “the Fiat garage”. I had assumed that a garage with a big Fiat sign outside was the Fiat garage, so had not bothered to note down the address. By the time the taxi had done a tour of all the Fiat garages in Naples until I recognised the one containing my dear old 1500 the fare was almost more than my car was worth!

At the end of the season the Fiat was more than a little tired and MOTOR SPORT were well satisfied with the first full season of Continental Corresponding by D.S.J., so they magnanimously agreed to buy me a secondhand car for my 1954 travels. On many occasions with the Fiat I had been grateful for being in a “foreign” car when it came to repairing it by the wayside or in a hotel courtyard, so I opted for “foreign” once more in the shape of a 1938 Lancia Aprilia. It would have been nice to have had a new Lancia, but the budget offered by MOTOR SPORT would only run to quality cars up to 1939 in the secondhand market as it was then. After shopping around the “trade” with someone else’s money I found a very nice one at one of our regular advertisers, and in comparison with what I had been used to it was a brand new car.

Full of confidence in this new acquisition I started the 1954 season with a trip to Sicily, which in those days took a very full four days, with no easy way down through the mountains of Calabria. The aim was the Siracuse GP, the first in Europe for the new Grand Prix formula that started in 1954 and the long haul was well worthwhile if only to see the new and exciting 250F Maseratis. My arrival in Siracuse co-incided with the Aprilia breaking an engine bearer and the engine leaning heavily to starboard. A friendly garage on the edge of the circuit agreed to fit a new bearer, obtained from their stores, while I walked down the road to watch the Grand Prix practice. I was glad I had not arrived in a secondhand British car at that point. The little Aprilia was a joy to drive all over Europe, cruising along at 60-65 m.p.h. and steering and handling so nicely that it was a real joy on winding and undulating French roads. Its all-round independent suspension gave it a good ride and the four-speed gearbox was very sporting. It was a very easy car to work on, quite major jobs being tackled under the shade of a tree or by the roadside. Although minor things went wrong or bits fell off, it never let me down and took the whole season’s motoring valiantly. In August of that year I was down on the Adriatic coast at the Senegalia and Pescara races and felt it was time the Lancia had a decoke and valve grind, so with the help of a friend the job was done round the back of the hotel where we were staying. For a complete new gasket set we merely had to walk across the railway lines to a motor factors in the main street, where we bought a service gasket set for a 1938 Lancia Aprilia with no trouble at all, and this was in 1954. On another occasion I was belting down the Mont Cenis pass into Italy when all hell seemed to break loose underneath. Hurried investigation revealed that one of the fabric universal joints on the propshaft had torn itself to shreds, so I drove carefully on to Turin making unruly clunking noises. In the great Italian motor city I stopped at the first spare parts factors and bought a new fabric joint and as the day was warm and sunny and time was on my side I decided to fit it there and then, by the roadside. Altogether the job took me four hours and the whole time I had been working an old man had been sleeping on a seat nearby. I had noticed him asleep in the sun when I pulled into the kerb, and being fascinated that he was still asleep four hours later I decided to take a photo of him with the Aprilia in the background. At that precise moment he woke up and looked very puzzled to find a bearded gnome taking his photograph.

This business of corresponding from the continent about motor racing was now becoming a pretty serious one and as MOTOR SPORT was expanding rapidly with the expansion of motoring sport, the management agreed to buy me a new car. I felt I had done two good years apprenticeship and suggested that what would fill my needs adequately was a Porsche 356A. This was 1955, the time when Porsche were really getting into their stride and their cars were becoming very civilised. They had at last developed plainbearing engines, the synchromesh gearbox was perfected, brakes were better and they had discovered about anti-roll bars to reduce oversteer and shock-absorbers were improved. I collected the metallic blue Porsche 1500 from the factory in Stuttgart and started a love-affair with air-cooling and rear-engines that lasted from 1955 to 1965 and clocked up more than 350,000 miles, developing the car as I went along with help from the Stuttgart factory. That Porsche led a hard life, sustaining damage to all quarters, sometimes my fault, sometimes the fault of others, and the only panel not to be straightened out by the coachbuilders was the sliding panel in the sunshine roof ! To say that the Porsche served me well would be an understatement. It was quite remarkable and though things broke on it and I broke things on it, in ten years it only failed to reach its destination twice, once when the fibre camshaft-driving wheel sheared its teeth and once when a stub-axle broke. It had everything happen to it, the engine fell out, wheels broke off, the brakes failed, valves burnt out and it received a hearty shunt up the back, but always It managed to drag itself back home or to the Porsche factory. It was used for club racing and hill-climbs and speed trials, it was used to tow a motorcycle trailer, it was a real maid-of-all-work and it took me all over Europe, from Scandinavia to Portugal, from Oulton Park to Sicily, and though I did just about every dodgy manoeuvre with that car it never failed to help me out and never put me on its roof.

The stories and escapades with that Porsche throughout the years 1955 to 1965 would fill a book, and it left such an impression that ten years later there are people who think I am still using it, it had become such a part of D.S.J. In order to use a Porsche the way I did you had to be prepared to do your own servicing and mechanical maintenance, but having started my travels on a motorcycle this came naturally to me. I could never see the point of a garage doing simple things like tappet adjustments, or oil changes; they took so little time to do in the hotel car park that I could never waste the time taking the car to a garage. Major things, such as when the engine bearer broke while dicing along the northern coast of Sicily, called for a bit of skilled welding, but generally speaking there wasn’t much that you could not cope with by the roadside with the old 356-series Porsches, especially as a lot of the bits were standard Volkswagen.

In standard form those early Porsches oversteered pretty violently, wagging their tails like a dog, but using oversize Michelin “X” tyres on the back and skinny ribbed Continental cross-plys on the front, with modifications to the steering and the shock-absorbers, changed that Porsche into an initial understeerer, with a very smooth change to oversteer as the cornering power increased. When you got it really sliding through a corner the swing-axle rear suspension would eventually start a hopping motion. While this did not upset the cornering particularly it made the whole back of the car judder violently and ultimately broke something, usually the engine mounting strap, the rubber mounts or the attachments to the chassis; something had to absorb the stresses and it seemed that the engine fell out about once every two-to-three years. As it was attached pretty firmly to the gearbox and the gearbox and rear half-axle were in one, it merely meant that the engine dragged along the ground until you stopped. Some lashing with rope usually held things in place until you finished your journey. Taking the engine out was a simple job and you could then wheel the car round to a friendly welder to have a repair done.

At the time I felt I kept that Porsche too tong, but I had become very attached to it and I could not find an alternative. The fourcam Porsche Carrera 2-litre was a very desirable car, but I could not visualise using it the way I had been using the pushrod 1500, and then when the new-regime Porsches appeared I was horrified by their size and complexity. Time has shown that the 911 series Porsches have become one of the great cars of the world, but in 1965 I was not prepared to accept the complexity of the flat-six o.h.c. engine. The old Porsche, known as the “beetle car” was a toy in comparison to the 911, and I felt that if I was going to move up into the “big” car stakes then I might as well go the whole hog and have a really big one.

The E-type Jaguar had appeared in 1961 and set the sportscar world in a flurry with its sleek looks, its shattering performance and its obvious development from the Le Mans winning D-types. I tried the early 3.8-litre E-type and did not like it, which was very sad, for I thought its looks were terrific and for the first time here was a British car that I would have been proud to own. In 1965 the 4.2-litre E-type appeared with all manner of small detail improvements that obviated all my previous complaints. The new gearbox was right, the new seats were right, the new brakes were right, the electrics were improved, there was an AC alternator instead of that awful old dynamo, and taken all round it was just what I wanted. It was in complete contrast to the Porsche, for having given up air-cooling and rear-engines and a small compact little sporting car, I had decided to move into a different world. The E-type could not be more different, but the fact that I have now been using E-type Jaguars from 1965 to 1975 and am still happy with my open roadster, indicated that the new world I chose was a satisfactory one. I know the 4.2-litre E-type is not supposed to be as fast as the earlier 3.8-litres, but my fixed-head coupe had a maximum of 143 m.p.h., and the roadster, with the top down and everything open to the sun does 132 m.p.h., both speeds being academic as far as I am concerned in everyday use, for I know my personal limit of vision is around 125 m.p.h., and at that the Jaguar is ambling along.

At the time I thought the little Porsche was a reliable car, needing little in the way of maintenance, but Jaguar motoring has put a new complexion on the meanings. In a quarter of a million miles of Jaguar motoring I have naturally had a few things go wrong, like alternators burning out, exhaust systems rotting away, brake cylinders seizing up, clutch mechanisms breaking, a big-end running out, water system leaking, final drive universal joints seizing, but none of them have brought me to a grinding halt by the roadside and in need of a tow-rope. As with the Porsche, the Jaguars have reached their destinations with care and feeling for what has gone wrong, and that to me is the hallmark of reliability. Broken cranks, broken gearbox shafts, broken half-shafts, things like that which stop you motoring at once, are my idea of unreliability and on a car which is used all day and everyday during the season that sort of thing would be intolerable.

When this article began the intention was to ramble on a bit about the changing scene during the quarter of a century during which I have been covering European motor racing for MOTOR SPORT, but somehow I have only covered my personal transport scene, which has changed pretty drastically. 1975 has actually seen me come the full circle on transport for getting to race meetings, as this season I have used my Honda 500-4 motorcycle on numerous occasions, for reasons of ease of getting on boats without booking, avoiding traffic problems, enjoying the sunshine and above all because I still enjoy motorcycling. The overall scene in motor racing has changed enormously and among the things which stand out is the disappearance of most of those circuits which attracted me to Europe in 1948. Pure road-racing has almost disappeared and in its place are new stadiums or permanent tracks which are so dull and boring that the flat airfield circuit of Silverstone now seems attractive. Travel about Europe has become so much improved with the network of motorways, that the time scale for travelling has been halved and even Sicily does not seem far away. Fortunately the old roads are all still there and well maintained, so if time is not important trans-European journeys can still be interesting. Traffic volume and legislation throughout Europe has increased out of all proportion over the past 25 years, so that there is now nowhere on the racing itinerary that allows unrestricted motoring at any time of the night or day. The public interest in motor racing has not changed materially, but the following on the “inside” has become so large it is at times unpleasant. At one time, to meet another English journalist at a foreign race meeting was quite an occasion, now they travel to all the races by the jet-liner load. Although the actual crowds attending motor races have not increased materially, the out side world seems to want to know much more, or at least the purveyors of words and pictures tell us so. Whereas a Press stand for twelve people with one telephone used to be adequate, now you could fill a stand for 1,200 and 100 telephones would hardly be enough. “The world must be told about motor racing” is the cry of the media men, and this aspect of race coverage has changed for the worse as far as I am concerned. Just as I seem to have gone the full circle on transport about Europe, the day might come when I complete the circle on attending races, and go as a paying spectator, ready to take any advantage for slipping into the paddock without a ticket, or watching on an interesting but “Verboten” corner. Who knows, the Editor might then say “While you are there . . . .”—D.S.J