From the archives with Doug Nye

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Talbot’s peak success
It was the toughest trial of all – but a British marque conquered the Alps

Our high summer each year turns thoughts back to what was once the greatest of all summertime rally events, the pre-war Alpine Trial and its post-war successor, the Alpine Rally. Back in 1934 the 6th International Alpen Trial was organised by the German Automobile Club. It attracted no fewer than 155 entries, including new models from BMW and Delahaye plus a team of factory-supported privateers representing British Talbot, whose team captain was the big, burly, hard-driving bon viveur Mike Couper.

Three new Alpine Trial team Talbots were custom-made at the Barlby Road factory. Registered BGH 21, 22 and 23, each one was allocated to its crew; BGH 21 to the Wisdoms (motoring journalist Tommy and his wife Elsie, known as ‘Bill’), BGH 22 to Hugh Eaton with works mechanic Ben Higgins, and BGH 23 to Mike Couper and veteran works experimental mechanic George Day.

These new-built Talbot 105 team cars were run-in on the road as they cruised at 60mph to the first overnight stop at Reims, where Couper put 20 gallons of fresh fuel into each of the three cars, cursing the cost (of fully £10).

Through desperately stormy, rain-swept weather, the new team battled its way down to Nice, en route practising on the Galibier Pass, part of the Lautaret (which they found was blocked by rock falls) and over the Cols de Vars, Cayolle and Allos. They reached Nice that Friday and, by the time their Trial rivals appeared, the three sister Talbots had all been cleaned and polished, and the British crews were sunbathing.

Scrutineering took place on Sunday, then cars went to parc fermé to await Tuesday’s start. From 4.00am competitors set off at one-minute intervals.

The first day’s route alone comprised 306 miles to Aix-les-Bains, where Talbot chief engineer Georges Roesch himself awaited his team’s arrival. The next day involved 263 miles to Interlaken over the Little and Great St Bernard Passes. The Talbots simply flew, cruising at 70mph through Italy towards Aosta.

Up the Great St Bernard the crews used their newly run-in cars’ full 4500rpm in each pre-selected gear.

Many major passes punctuated the Trial’s third day, including the Grimsel, Furka, Oberalp, Lukmanier, Splugen and Maloja before the night stop at St Moritz. Attacking the mighty Stelvio Pass Tommy Wisdom managed to clear an official Mercedes-Benz that got itself wedged on one of the hairpins, but both Eaton and Couper were delayed. Power was robbed by the summit’s 9000-foot altitude – Couper reckoned he had lost well over a minute yet still covered the climb in 23min 23sec, Eaton 22min 22.2sec and Wisdom – unimpeded – 22min 16.8sec. These Talbots were by far the fastest cars in the entire Trial, and Wisdom’s had just set a new touring car record for the Stelvio.

After the Italian Colle d’Aprica, Passo del Tonale and the Mendola had been negotiated, the Talbots checked in at Bolzano, after which the Rolle and Costalunga Passes preceded an uninhibited charge into Padua, then 4000rpm and 80mph-plus for 10km through the autostrada speed test and across the lagoon into Venice.

Hugh Eaton’s riding mechanic Ben Higgins had overslept in St Moritz and overslept again in Venice. Eaton had to hire a high-speed launch to get the highly popular errant technician to the line just in time for the 5am restart. The Talbots then tore through Trieste to Fiume, holding “…an easy 70, arriving in the mid-morning check with ample time for a final fill of Italian petrol and a three-course lunch; they had averaged over 50mph from Venice…” as marque historian Anthony Blight related.

A dusty, pot-holed, time-wasting section followed through Yugoslavia to end in Zagreb before day six took the entry some 55 miles back to the finish in Munich. After delays finding promised fuel, Couper’s BGH 23 lost nearly half an hour. He drove like the wind to recover and, despite crashing through a wooden gate on a rainy mud-covered road he slashed the deficit to just eight minutes. He then learned that the organisers had cancelled an interim time control due to its having been set up in the wrong place.

The Talbot and Adler teams were finally judged equal winners of Group II, both teams winning coveted Alpine Cups. The Talbot marque’s record, of seven official entries in three separate Alpine Trials with not a single mark lost by any car, and the highest possible award won in each event, is quite remarkable to this day. All three of Couper’s team Talbot 105s finished in excellent condition (and remain so today). After a couple of enjoyable laps around the Nürburgring and a final continental night’s stop in Liège, the triumphant team tore home, ‘Bill’ Wisdom seeing 4850rpm – just on 100mph – on the long, straight Belgian roads.

Husband Tommy would report that after the 3600-mile trip, “Oil consumption had averaged 1700 miles to the gallon and petrol 18mpg. Not a sparking plug had been changed, nor a tappet adjusted. Brakes were still 100 per cent efficient – they had been adjusted once. No car could have given less trouble or performed better…”.

Quite a story to ponder if you are planning an Alpine tour of your own just now…

Small rewards
Prize money in the 1950s looks small beer today – and the driver didn’t get it

To some leading Formula 1 drivers today can salt away a million per race. Browsing through the 1950 programme for the British and European Grand Prix at Silverstone, it’s interesting to study its Awards page. “To the entrant of the car finishing… [entrant, note, not driver]: First in the race £500 – Second £300 – Third £200,” and on down to 10th place (last of the world championship points placings today) “£25”.

That £500 for winning at Silverstone in 1950 would equate to some £15,000 here in 2015, second place £9000 – third £6000 and that 25 quid for tenth would be matched by £750 today.

An entrant would also be thrilled to learn that for fastest lap during the race there was an extra 30 quid on offer – £900 in modern value – arguably far short of the true cost for just one three-mile Formula 1 lap today…

More cheeringly, the supporting 500cc F3 race paid £60 for first, £40 for second, and £30 for third. So the award for third place amongst ‘the demented woodpecker brigade’ paid the same as fastest lap in the Grand Prix. As it happened, the 500s put up an exciting show, Stirling Moss and John Cooper (leading at a different fixture in 1950, above) in Cooper-JAPs, Peter Collins in his Cooper-Norton, Wing Cdr Frank Aikens in his Iota-Triumph, Don Parker’s own Special and more wheel-to-wheel up front.

According to The Autocar, teenager Collins “…was in second to Aikens, with Moss some yards behind. On the last lap Stirling made his great effort, and by sheer brilliance overhauled the other two to lead as they came round Club Corner and up to the finish; but the strain was too great for his engine, which blew up on the run-in; Aikens swept by to win, and Collins drew almost level to lose second place by a couple of inches – a popular victory for the Wing Commander…but heart-rending for Moss.”

Ah well, £40 for second – about £1200 today – not to be sniffed at, Boy.

Sting in the tale
Parnelli Jones ‘led’ the 2011 Indy 500 – until the Marmon Wasp’s centenary celebrations came close to disaster

At Indianapolis, the Speedway Museum happily has one of its most prized exhibits – the Marmon Wasp single-seater, winner of the original 500 in 1911 – restored to good health. It had all gone rather horribly wrong immediately before the start of the centenary 500 in 2011. Parnelli Jones had been given the honour of driving the Wasp during the rolling-lap preliminaries. He was supposed to pull into the pits well ahead of the pace cars and the grid formation after giving the great car its centenary bow.

But it didn’t quite happen that way. Instead Parnelli found the Marmon’s engine tightening up. The pace car and the field began to close the two-mile gap behind him. A thump and clatter announced near disaster. The old engine – believed never to have been rebuilt since its race-winning 500-mile run on May 30, 1911 – burst just 24 hours short of its true centenary. The Indy Speedway Museum’s personnel, waiting expectantly in the pit lane, saw the seconds ticking away – and still no Parnelli, no bright yellow Wasp emerging from Turn 4. The PA commentary told them the field was closing. The Wasp’s stricken engine, despite having thrown a rod, was still running on five, but haemorrhaging oil onto the track.

And then here came Parnelli, in the punctured Wasp, just limping across the yard-of-bricks timing line without being engulfed. It had been a close run thing.

Today – after a really complicated procedure – the Wasp’s engine has been successfully rebuilt, and the near-priceless old lady has been restored to active health. Here’s to her second hundred…

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