Letter to readers, August 1988

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Real classic

Dear reader,
With the Canadian Grand Prix and the Detroit race being on consecutive weekends it enabled me to spend a day or two among North American motoring enthusiasts, mostly vintage-car minded, but all happy to talk cars until the small hours.

While some of my journalistic colleagues flew away from Montreal to visit big cities, or sandy beaches to lie in the sun, I motored south with a friend in his VW Scirocco. Using mostly minor roads, which involved some map-reading, we had a splendid trip through the states of Vermont and New Hampshire, the scenery being very much like motoring in Austria.

Our objective was a small town on the Atlantic coast, to visit a lawyer friend who has a penchant for Bugatttis, and in particular to see his latest acquisition. This is a Type 51A racing car which had a distinguished history in “voiturette” racing around 1932-35; it left France for the United States in 1951 and has led a very sheltered life, mostly on the west coast, and our lawyer friend had got it home only a few days before our arrival, after a round trip of some 3000 miles in a pick-up truck and trailer. You soon have to adjust yourself to distances in North America, and our trip south took six hours, even though the journey seemed like “just down the road”.

On the journey the first things I appreciated were the total absence of serious traffic and the well surfaced roads, even on by-ways – presumably because the low volume of traffic does not wear the road out.

For my friend, who was driving, a welcome sight was the 65 mph speed-limit signs. This is a recent improvement over the blanket 55 mph USA limit, the increase now being left to the decision of each state. By general consent of drivers, unofficially of course, a 55 limit means that most people travel at 65 mph, so now we could happily cruise at 75 mph, with one eye kept open, as we do in England.

We found our lawyer friend in the local “Chinky-Poo” with a friend of his who used to be a mechanic on CanAm cars, in the days of the “Bruce and Denny Show” when McLaren and Hulme cleaned up CanAm racing with McLaren-Chevrolets, until Porsche stole the scene with the turbocharged 12-cylinder 917.

Joining them for a Chinese “nosh”, the talk of sports-cars, racing drivers, motor racing, Bugattis, Mercedes-Benz and all manner of things began instantly, and carried on until the staff began to put the chairs on the tables, just like in England. We retired to our host’s garage to kick the tyres of his newly-acquired 51A Bugatti and talk racing cars until well past midnight.

North America was in the throes of a heat-wave, and as one who suffers from the cold I soaked it up with pleasure. Next morning we piled into a delightful little Type 40 Bugatti, with the standard close-coupled open four-seater body, and persuaded the little 1 ½-litre 4-cylinder engine to bowl us merrily up the coast road to the Gullwing Service firm.

As the name implies, the Mercedes-Benz 300SL of 1953-58 with the fascinating upward-rising Gullwing doors on the purposeful-looking coupe body was the firm’s main interest, but the later open roadster 300SL models and other Mercedes-Benz were also accommodated. There must have been a dozen cars in the large, spacious workshop, from a bare chassis-frame rebuild to cars in for a sympathetic oil-change and service.

I always like to find out what vehicles the staff of such specialist workshops use themselves, and Gullwing did not let me down. In the staff car-park, among pick-ups, small European cars and recent American saloons was a 1000cc Kawasaki street-legal racing motorcycle, an immaculate 1957 Chevrolet in two-tone turquoise and cream, and a 1932 Ford Coupe Hot-Rod. The Chevvy had a Corvette V8 in place of the standard six-cylinder and the Hot-Rod was powered by a Mazda RX7 Wankel engine. Life is never dull when motoring enthusiasts are around. As lunch was calling we went off in the Chevvy sedan and a 300SL gullwing coupe.

During 1955 I motored extensively in those fascinating and powerful coupes, from practice laps round the 1000-mile circuit of the Mille Miglia and the dinky little 44-mile Targa Florio course, with Stirling Moss, to a wonderful journey to the Arctic Circle and back with Wolfgang von Trips.

When the Mercedes-Benz 300SL gullwing coupe is mentioned I am biased. You can keep your Ferraris, Lamborghinis, de Tomasos, and Maseratis: for me the 300SL coupe is the ultimate classic of the 1950s. As we reached up and pulled the gullwing doors down, and started up the fuel-injected 3-litre 6-cylinder engine, memories came flooding back. Even after 33 years it still made the adrenalin flow. The whole car is 100% Teutonic in every way, which you would expect from a GT car from Unterturkheim.

There are many blindly patriotic Brits who never believed in the 300SL and were quick to complain about this or that, but I usually found their experience was negligible – a quick trip up the road or a lap of Goodwood at the most. There was nothing effeminate about a 300SL. It was all male, and if you couldn’t drive properly or didn’t respect it, it would bite you very quickly, as I once found to my cost, landing on our side in a springy hedge. Driven by Moss and von Trips, I was able to appreciate what a super car it was.

As I said, closing the tight-fitting gullwing doors was enough to start happy memories, and took my mind off lunch. To keep a sense of proportion I made the return trip in the turquoise and cream Chevrolet, with its very advanced 1957 radio that had two channels for tuning into government emergency radio stations, for use in time of war or disaster. The only disaster I can recall of 1957 was the ending of the Mille Miglia!

The Type 40 Bugatti returned us to base and the weather was very hot, but just right for open-air motoring. That evening there was a farewell gathering for motoring enthusiasts from around the area, and so steeped in vintage motoring were some of them that they had no idea there was about to be a Formula One Grand Prix in Detroit. In fact, I think there were some who had never heard of Formula One. It was very refreshing.

Yours, DSJ

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