Concours de sport

Miss B. M. Haig, whose motoring sport before the war was mainly confined to continental events, writes in decidedly nostalgic vein.

Yesterday I touched 80 m.p.h.! Moreover, I was not driving one of these popular Maseratis or Lancias – I was in England. Like a ghost from a lost world, the grey A.C. competition 2-seater, with its louvred bonnet and twin spare wheels, had emerged from its shroud of dust-sheets, drawn up its permanent jacks, and with a rather uneven beat from the three-carburetter engine after two years’ hibernation, crept out into an unfamiliar world to make a short cross-country journey to another garage for storage.

It was a curious sensation, after long months spent among heavy ambulances and six-wheeled trucks, to experience again the almost forgotten pleasures of a good driving position and a correctly placed spring steering wheel. The broad instrument panel looked good, with its dials and switches. Everything was registering satisfactorily, as the engine warmed through. In the early autumn morning we travelled along the deserted roads and began to climb into the hills. At the summit of one of them a long, straight stretch lay ahead, quite empty, without a single lorry or Bren-carrier in sight. This was too good to resist; the exhaust note changed and the needle of the large rev.-counter sprang to life as it swung across, mounted to 3,000 r.p.m, and soared upwards in one short, joyful, disgraceful burst of speed. It seemed terrific to one long unused to such excitements.

Now the dust-sheets have been replaced, but this time with an optimistic feeling that it may not be long before they are removed for good. However, I am very doubtful if this car will ever find itself at the weighing-in of an International trial. Perhaps it may be possible to hold a few small events in England soon after the war, for those who have tyres to spare, but for many reasons there seems little possibility of organising any of the long-distance continental trials and rallies for a very long time. It is sad, for they were good fun, with all the strange adventures that befell us and the wonderful variety of people we met. In 1939 I suppose most of us realised that it was the last year; for those who drove on the Continent there were many signs. Now we look back over four years, at a different life.

My last link was broken when my present car arrived to take the place of the M.G., which, with its ten-pound boost and high-lift camshaft, obstinately refused to adapt itself to the dwindling basic ration in 1940. I ran this car in the last Paris-St. Raphael. It was not a very suitable car to enter for a five-day trial, with climates ranging from Swiss snows to Cote-d’Azur sunshine, but I thought, anyway, it would be an experience. It was! However, contrary to all expectations, I did finish. Anyone who has owned a small supercharged car will know something of their unbalanced mentalities. This M.G. was no exception. Its behaviour before every speed test was unvarying; during the last few miles of the preceding etape sudden signs of a temperamental crisis would appear; plugs would start to oil-up, flat-spots appear and, finally, the whole engine would die, amid a dismal swan song of spits and bangs. Frenzied activity on the carburetter seemed to produce little or no improvement, while precious minutes flew past (there was never much time on this trial for mechanical adjustments). Then, when all seemed hopeless, the engine would suddenly galvanise to life, and, apparently independent of my efforts and with a healthy exhaust note, would scream its way through the test with a formidable turn of speed.

I entered for the Paris-St. Raphael from 1935 until the outbreak of the war. Miss Riddell and Countess Moy were two other British “regulars.” There were always many amusing incidents. In a high-speed winter trial with short controls and frontiers to cross, things are bound to happen, and they did, unfailingly. However, with the wonderful reception that we had everywhere, the friendliness and enthusiasm of the organisers, and the last impression of the Mediterranean sunshine, flowers, mimosa, and “vin d’honneur,” we were always left with the impression that it had been a thoroughly good party from start to finish.

One memory in connection with this trial, in the light of subsequent events, gives me unexpected amusement; this is when I think of the discomfort and inconvenience that we suffered every year in the hotel which was our headquarters at the Vichy control, namely, the Hotel du Parc. Many times since the fall of France have I dwelt upon the thought of poor Marshal Petain and his satellites of the Vichy Government, immersed in the sinister gloom of those expensive bedrooms, with their stunning wallpapers, central heating that never heats, and carefully-ordered breakfasts that never come! Cold, hungry and cross did we leave its rich portals, to collect our cars from the parc-ferme.

Another interesting rally on which to look back is the German Olympic Rally (Olympia Sternfaht von Deutschland). This took place in the summer of 1936 and was run in connection with the Olympic Games in Berlin. It was organised, of course, with tremendous pomp and efficiency; steel-helmeted sentries with fixed bayonets mounted guard at the controls, and as I presented my control book beneath mighty red banners, sprang to attention to present arms. I was driving a 1 1/2-litre “Le Mans” Singer, and as the only British entrant I received a magnificent official welcome at every point. With my rally numbers I was issued with two smart pennants, one the Olympic flag with the five coloured rings, and the other the swastika! I decided that the latter was a little overpowering for my small British car, and that the Olympic pennant would be quite enough to use.

At Aachen, the first German control, a triumphal arch spanned the road, draped with wreaths and greenery and bearing the words “Wilcommen in Deutschland!” Again, on entering Berlin I was handed an official document with the heading “Welcome in Berlin.” (On looking through these old papers to-day one has a certain suspicion that one might not be quite so welcome in either Aachen or Berlin.)

After checking in at Cologne, Heidelberg, Friedrichshafen and Nurnberg, we went to the Czechoslovakian frontier before turning back to Potsdam and Berlin. Here, in brilliant sunshine, we reached the Avus Track, and drew up at the finishing control amid a perfect welter of uniforms and an orgy of heel-clicking. I am glad to say that, out of over a hundred entries, the Singer won the highest award, the Olympic Gold Medal.

All these pre-war trials belong to the past, but let’s conclude on a note of optimism with the hope that our generation may still see another Monte Carlo Rally and perhaps a few of our own particular pet trials. No doubt the cars we drive will be very different from our old “Le Mans” type 2-seaters (at least I hope so!), but if we can find anything with which to cover our wheel rims, perhaps one day we may once more be filling in our “feuille d’engagements.”