An Account of a “Motoring” Trip to the Barcelona Grand Prix
The Earls Court Motor Show clashing with the Spanish Grand Prix, time suddenly became a Iittle short and distances seemed very long, so that the reporting of the Barcelona race needed some careful planning. Being averse to air-liners and their depressing habit a depositing you in a strange country with no means of transport other than a thumb, and also believing that if enthusiasts cannot always race, at least they can motor, the trip to Spain was planned round a motor car. There being four of us in the party, the offer of a Bristol 403 was eagerly accepted, for having tasted the joys of long-distance motoring in England with a 401 from the same firm, the Continent and 403 seemed an admirable mixture. Time was going to be short, as I was eager to reach Barcelona as soon possible in order to see the new Lancia Grand Prix team during practice. There would be little time for sight-seeing on the way down through France, but the two ladies in the party politely agreed that they were only interested in a holiday in Spain. As they settled themselves in the back seats of the Bristol I silently hoped they would not complain too loudly as we “pressed on,” for we intended to cover more than 300 miles before stopping for the night and we were leaving after lunch, crossing they Channel, and losing an hour due to the alteration of the time in England, compared with the Continent.
The Bristol was a perfectly standard 403 saloon, with 17,000 miles on the speedo., and 8.2 to 1 compression, set up on Esso Extra and running on Michelin “X” tyres — in fact, a delightful specification for any motoring, let alone 900 miles across Europe. With the friendly Townshend Ferry about to retire for its winter overhaul, and time being short, we made use of Silver City Airways. The delightful personal attention given to travellers was greatly appreciated after the dreary queues one experiences going by boat in company with upwards of 50 other cars. The Bristol’s only companion in the aircraft was a Vauxhall Velox on its way back to Switzerland, and in no time at all the Bristol Freighter put us dowa at Le Touquet and we were on our way. The flight had taken 20 minutes — the organizing at both ends a total of under 40 minutes — and after correcting for daylight saving we left the aerodrome at 3 p.m. and headed south. Paris being such a terrible time-waster, like all big towns, our route lay to the west, and the Bristol was soon into its stride, praising at 80 m.p.h. at 3,800 r.p.m., with all the needles on the various instruments indicating that all was well. We had filled the tank before leaving England and we did not anticipate buying any more fuel until we finished for the night, and down through Abbeville towards the city of Rouen the Bristol ate up the kilometres. At this time of the year the sugar beet industry in Northern France is at its height and the delightful triangular road signs that depict a saloon car spinning off the road were borne in mind. The French move hundreds of tons of beet from field to factory by means of horse and cart, and the amount of mud deposited on the roads can be very treacherous in damp weather. Fortunately for us the afternoon was dry and, with a strong wind blowing across the bleak Somme countryside, one was reminded of paintings of the French Revolution, in fact, one could almost see the cloaked horsemen galloping furiously across the horizon. Through the villages, such as Blangy and Neufchâtel, where the uneven pave enforced a 30-m.p.h. speed limit without recourse to police-traps or speed-cops, one could practically hear the rumbling of the tumbrils, while some of the old village women would surely have delighted at the sound of the guillotine falling.
Descending into Rouen our passengers were rewarded with an excellent aerial view of the spindly-looking cathedral, and after bumping over the appalling cobbled road surface of some of the streets we were back to our 80-m.p.h. cruising speed once again. It said much for the back-seat comfort that the passengers were able to write notes and make little sketches. As it was their first trip to the land of the free there were many impressions to be gained and the large side windows of the 403 allowed them an excellent view of the surroundings. After Rouen we made a slight detour in order to visit the Circuit des Essarts, where the Grand Prix races are run once a year. The surface of the downhill section after the concrete pits and grandstands was magnificent. Following N138, our aim being Tours, we gradually pushed the cruising speed up to 85 m.p.h. The only sound was the “spilling” of the air round the windscreen pillars and a pleasant hum from the engine. One of the great joys of the Bristol 403 bodywork is its air-flow and consequent lack of wind-roar, so that normal conversation can be carried on between all four passengers, unlike some British cars in which 60 m.p.h. precludes all further conversation. As darkness descended we began to see the magic name of Le Mans appearing on the signposts, for our route led through the “24-hour” country, while the flashing orange lights that indicate a cross-roads worth some consideration by the high-speed motorist, began to be more visible. Those delightful little “islands” at town road-junctions, which are a few inches high with enough room for an agent de Police to stand on, began to flash orange warnings as well. In daylight these “super manhole covers” can easily be missed and to hit one would ruin a wheel, to drive astride them is considered to be in very poor taste! We stopped for a change of drivers and to fit some yellow covers over the lamps, not wishing to be pushed in the ditch by an irate Berliet lorry. We reached Le Mans by 7.30 p.m., feeling that the time had arrived for dinner, for though we were in a hurry we were not in that much of a hurry, and any way the Bristol was proving capable of putting well over 50 miles into each hour with no effort at all, and the schedule had been estimated on an all-in 45-m.p.h. average,which included stops and hold-ups.
After having the sort of meal that only France can produce, in one of those quiet restaurants where the only interest is good food and not rooking the tourist, we left Le Mans, which looked strangely quiet and sleepy, and headed for Tours, on N 158, the Mulsanne straight actually being part of this main road. As we held an easy 90 m.p.h. down the length of the famous straight, the headlamp beams picking out familiar objects that I saw last June while reporting that epic 24-hour race, we tried first to visualise a Jaguar or Ferrari going past at 170 m.p.h., and then to put ourselves in their position and see our tail-lights ahead, not being able to tell that we were doing only 90 m.p.h. We mopped our brows when Mulsanne corner appeared and were thankful that we could go straight on and not have to do it for many hours of darkness, while a hope was made that no one would enter lightheartedly for the 1955 Le Mans with a car that was not fast for its capacity. Tours was made nicely by bedtime, and before putting the car away the tank was refilled and some arithmetic showed an honest 18 m.p.g.
Thursday morning dawned bright and clear and our objective was Barcelona, all things being equal and the roads permitting. We left at 8 a.m, — a not unduly early hour even for tourists, let alone anyone in a hurry — and we headed for Châteauroux, through the Loire Valley country, with its long sweeping hills and undulating roads. As we approached that town we had the fascinating glimpse one gets of the great church, which for a brief moment appears to be built in the centre of the road, the way actually turning to one side just in time. High up on our right were the ruins of the Castle of Châteauroux, and here we joined N20 and really got down to some steady motoring. When one talks glibly of cruising at high figures there is a tendency to refer to the speed you reach between corners or on quirk rushes downhill, but in the 403 cruising meant sustained speed, uphill, downhill or even round swerves. On the section from Châteauroux to Argenton we amused ourselves by checking the speedometer, with a stop-watch, against the excellent French kilometre posts, the little white 100-metre stones making the arrival of the end of the kilometre a simple task. At 80 m.p.h. we found the Smiths instrument 2 ½ m.p.h. fast and at 90 m.p.h. only 2 m.p.h. fast, and such was the pace that we were able check, with time to decide which kilometre would be a good one on a which to time the car, to make sure of a clear run and avoid having to drop to an indicated 85 m.p.h. due to having to give a little thought to traffic conditions. Meanwhile our passengers were happily writing postcards to their friends, for we had insisted on an 8-a.m. start. As we climbed up the winding hill out of Argenton the rev.-counter showing 4,200 in second gear — the sun was shining on the vast, gilt, religious statue that overlooks the town, giving it a strangely ethereal look. We passed quickly through Limoges, with its famous porcelain wares spread out on the pavements to attract the tourist with time and money to spare, and headed into the hilly country that forms the foothills of the Massif Central. The road began to wind and undulate once more, and here the cornering of the Bristol made itself really felt. With Michelin “X” tyres the rear-end breakaway, built into Bristol cars, was reduced to a minimum, and the car could be cornered on 60-70-m.p.h. bends with the tyres gently wailing and the rear ones at a slightly greater slip angle so that just the smallest amount of pressure was exerted on the steering wheel in the opposite direction to the corner, to retain a nice balance. Had there been any free play in the steering mechanism one could have merely taken it up on reverse lock. As it was, there was none, so a fast corner was merely a question of reversing the load on teeth of the rack-and-pinion steering and yet still have the tyres whistling gently, even though we had increased their pressure by 2 lb. all round, in view of the sustained speed and load. While the driver enjoyed the continuous fast swerves that go on for hour after hour when crossing the Massif Central, the passengers enjoyed the sights, among them the first ox-drawn cart, the two great beasts leaning heavily on each other as they plodded along, their heads yoked together. This was a sure sign that we were getting south, and through Uzerche and Brive a distinctly Spanish, or even Algerian, influence began to make itself noticeable in the local architecture, while life itself appeared to have slowed considerably. In Brive the French were at lunch, and there is nothing so deserted and empty looking as a town in the Dordogne country at lunchtime. We, too, began to think about lunch, but, seeing that Cahors was approaching and it was claiming to be a Gastronomique Centre, we pressed on. Continuous 50 or more miles into each hour had got us well into the South of France by 1 p.m., and most of them had been in the order of 53-54, the best being 56 miles in the hour. Cahors was certainly an excellent Gastronomique Centre and, considering that it is a small town in the middle of nowhere, its restaurants and food are remarkable. Lunch took us longer than we anticipated and we were some way behind our schedule, when we left, but once more the performance of the Bristol was brought in to recover lost minutes. The roads continued to be of the “dicing” variety and tyre scream and 4,500 r.p.m. in second and third enabled us to keep up our running average of 50 plus m.p.h., except for a delay at a level crossing. We had seen the train crossing a viaduct high to the right of our road and had noticed it to be loaded with Simca Aronde and 2 c.v. Citroën cars. The countryside in this part of France is such that it is as not many kilometres farther on that we reached the level of the railway, to find the two long “barber’s poles” that form Continental crossing gates, lowered in front of us.
Since mid-morning we had been on roads that were unbelievably deserted, even of local traffic, but running into Toulouse by half-past four, we met a lot of heavy traffic, which seemed quite a novelty. In the town we were held up by a lorry that had broken its back axle in the middle of the tram tracks, which did not seem to have worried the French in the slightest degree. Along the fast roads to Carcassonne and Narbonne, through delightful grape-vine country, the autumn tints on the leaves containing every colour from yellow to purple, there was unduly heavy traffic for the time of the year and we had difficulty in putting 46 miles in the hour. This was only achieved by combined driving by the two people in the front seats, one operating the controls and the other “spotting” and making decisions, for it will be realised that right-hand drive when driving on the right of the road has its disadvantages when in a hurry with main-road traffic. During this section we encountered our first “competition,” in the form of a very persistent Peugeot 203 which profited from every traffic check that the Bristol suffered to keep up with us for many miles, even though we were continually around the 70-m.p.h. mark, or more, whenever the roads were clear for a minute or two. Crossing the bridge into Carcassonne afforded a marvellous view of the ancient city, away to the right, modern Carcassonne having moved down to the level of the great river Aude. Turning down N9 at Narbonne darkness was beginning to fall, and some fast cruising in the dark brought us to Perpignan by 7 p.m., with time for some refreshments before heading towards the Spanish frontier. As we had been motoring pretty consistently for 11 hours we wondered if our lady passengers would prefer to spend the night at Perpignan, for we were now in sight of Barcelona by Continental travel standards, and were well up on schedule. They assured us that 11 hours in the back of the Bristol, with only a break for lunch, had not tired them nearly as much as the previous day’s exertions of preparing to leave home for a week, a ‘plane journey and the first experience of Continental motoring. As our arrival at Barcelona was expected, we agreed to continue, though there was less hurry now, especially as we were told the frontier did not shut until midnight. We took our time about leaving Perpignan, taking on petrol and one pint of oil, as well as buying chocolates and sweets, and leisurely motored out into the darkness towards the Pyrenees, but were soon on the winding road through the lower slopes of the mountains, where they run down to the Mediterranean at Cerbere. Our frontier was Le Perthus and the last six or seven miles were really winding mountain roads, where the driver was encouraged to go fast just for the fun of the cornering power of the Bristol and the delightful surge in second gear at corners. The passengers added to the “dice” by recounting stories of how the top Rally drivers average 33 m.p.h. over such going. Arriving at the frontier with the tyres smelling a little hot we learned that the Spaniards shut their front gate at 9 p.m. not 12 p.m., and we had four minutes to spare. Making the quickest frontier crossing I have ever experienced in seven years of Continental motoring, we were in Spain, and the driver was warned to look out for unlit bullock carts, large holes in the road, river beds crossing the road, and a general poor standard of surface that would reduce the cruising speed to 60 m.p.h. We had not reckoned with the Bristol suspension and were soon cruising at our normal speed, and in many places were reaching 90 m.p.h., the headllights now white once more, being able to pick out obstacles with adequate warning.
The last leg of the journey which we had imagined would be tedious saw 44 miles being put into the hour in spite of getting lost in Gerona, for here we encountered a Fair laid out all over the main road, with no room to get between the show booths and the pavement. Fortunately for us the Fair was closed, though as we drove in and out of the mass of temporary buildings we hoped we would not bump into the tiger’s cage. Eventually, after bumping over boards, ropes and trestles, we got through this maze and continued on our way. Another delay was caused by the main street through Arenys de Mar, where a river bed crosses the road, the dried-up river having the best surface. With with an obstacle crossing their main road it was not surprising that the Spaniards did not bother to build a foundation to the main street. Crawling in bottom gear, the surface felt worse than an English farm track, but once out of the town things improved. As the outskirts of Barcelona appeared we encountered another “competitor” in this journey to the Grand Prix, and again it was a Peugeot. 203, this time a drophead with Paris registration numbers, and it was in a great hurry, sitting on our tail at an honest 75 m.p.h., and eventually going past on a bumpy section where we had more respect for our torsion-bars than he had for his leaf-springs. Barcelona was reached by 11.15 p.m. and a short tour of the town was inadvertently indulged in before arriving at our hotel. We had covered 560 miles in the day in complete comfort, still averaging 18 m.p.g., and with no one feeling as though they had sat in the car for 15 ¼ hours, with three hours left for eating.
The Grand Prix at Barcelona was well worth attending, as reported in last month’s Motor Sport, even though it was supposed to be a job of work for the writer, but when you go to work in a Bristol 403 it is difficult to view Grand Prix racing as work. With the Motor Show still in progress and the Editor holding the fort, a quick return was called for, not quite so quick as the outward journey, however, as we had until midday on Wednesday to reach Le Touquet. So, leaving Barcelona on Monday morning, we returned along the same route, being able to enjoy the Spanish scenery that we had missed on the outward journey on account of the darkness. It was with great reluctance that we forked left away from the sea just before Blanes, for it meant missing the superb scenery of the Costa Brava. Now that the tourist season is over, that coastline of Spain is at its best, and for sheer breath-taking beauty of rugged coastline the journey through Tossa, San Feliu, Palamos and along the appalling roads through Pals and la Escala to Figuras, cannot be bettered. However, those roads are for people with plenty of time to spare and preferably driving a horse and cart, so we had to be content with the lower slopes of the Pyrenees, through the cork tree plantations, with the piles of cork drying in the sun, that was still hot by English standards. Lunching in Perpignan on local delicacies and vin du pays, we then retraced our route as far as Narbonne, and there followed the Mediterranean eastwards, our return route being up through the very centre of France, following N9. This was a slower road than outward route, but it was agreed that a journey through such a wonderful country was worth all the time that might have been spent in Paris had we returned by the faster route.
The afternoon was warm and sunny as we got back into what had become known as the Bristol-stride, which is to say 80 m.p.h., or 84 on the speedometer, and while lazily cruising along the fast stretch after Narbonne we suddenly experienced that fascinating feeling when the car in front of you does not get any closer, even though you are indicating 85 m.p.h. I say we experieneed, but actually only the writer and one of the ladies in the rear enjoyed the next few miles, for the others were fast asleep and remained so. The grey saloon in front of us was a 1900 Alfa-Romeo so we pulled our gloves on a bit tighter and surged forward. It also had a passenger asleep in the back and, having overtaken it at just over the 90.m.p.h. mark, its Italian driver “played bears” with us for the next 35 miles, and we pitted 2 litres from Bristol against 2 litres from Milan. Fortunately for us it was only a standard model and it dropped behind at about 87 m.p.h., while the Bristol went en up to an honest three-figure speed. “just to show the Eye-ties” — of course, had it been a T.I. Alfa-Romeo 1900 saloon we should have had to have turned sharp left, for I’ve seen that particular model lap Montlhèry at 114 m.p.h. Having satisfied myself that the Italian could not get so near the cornering limit of his car as I could with mine, we left the coast road and headed north, the passengers only now waking up and being furious at missing the fun.
The hilly country of the Herault “department” from Pezanas has earth of a remarkable maroon colour. The road ran in a straight line as far as the eye could see, and it looked just like an M.G.M. colour film of Mexico, with outcrops of rugged rocks rising out of the highly-coloured soil, there being very little vegetation. It was getting dark as we got into the mountains, after passing through Lodeve, and the last few kilometres over the peaks before Milian were done with the beams of the headlamps lighting up the valleys. As we descended the wheeling road we could see the lights of Milian twinkling far below us —seeming to stay the same distance no matter how many hairpin bends we negotiated. Rain was falling and there was a woody tang in the air when at last we reached the Grand Hotel de Commerce in the centre of this lovely little town nestled at the foot of the mountains. After the noise and Pandemonium of Barcelona the quiet restfulness of Millau was almost enough to make us stop motoring for ever.
Tuesday morning saw a brisk start at 8 a.m. running on wet roads, though rain was not actually falling. The route out of Millau to St. Flour and Clermont-Ferrand was one long Prescott hill-climb and descent, rising as high as 3,500 feet, where the clouds were down below road level. Until this point I had begun to wonder about the advantages of Michelin “X” tyres, but the three hours of almost continuous cornering on wet roads, at a degree of cornering power sufficient to produce gentle wails from the tyres, even on the wet surface, really convinced me that Mr. Bibendum has something in his metal bound tyres, especially for Bristol cars. Just before St. Flour we stopped for a brief moment while the photographic expert in the party leapt out to take a photograph of Monsieur Eifel’s fantastic viaduct. Like so many of us he was unimpressed, as we approached the top of the gorge, seeing the viaduct go straight on out into space, but after descending the steep valley side and realising that the viaduct was still “up there,” he was most impressed! The electric railway that crosses this viaduct had been with us all the way from Millau, sometimes high above us, other times way below, and often at our level. The peculiar arches carrying the electric overhead wires, looked like enormous croquet hoops and were visible many miles away. At one level-crossing a row of tiny bells hung, across the road indicating the maximum height that would pass under the electric wires, though quite what one was supposed to do in this desolate, but fertile, countryside if your lorry “tinkled” the bells was not very clear. A lunch stop was made at Gannat, once more out on the open plains of France with long fast roads, and whether it was the excellence of the fare provided by the Hotel d’Agriculture, down a little side turning off the main road, or the reaction to a morning of mountain motoring. I do not know, but the first hour after lunch saw 58 miles go by without ever exceeding 80 m.p.h. At Nevers we joined N7, the road that has such character that it has inspired the writing of a book about it The 54 kilometres from there to Nevers took 25 minutes, during which time the speedometer was checked at 100 m.p.h. At Nevers we stopped to find an infuriating “tinkling” noise under the bonnet. This proved to be the ferrule on the starting handle, which is kept in clips inside the bonnet. We had agreed to a pact on the outward run that three-figure motoring would be reserved for the return journey, and now the Bristol was beginning to hum contentedly to itself. From Nevers the road follows the river Loire to Briare and undulates in delightful 70-90 m.p.h. sweeps. It has a friendly .”English” air about it, after the more severe Massif Central country. The fact that sugar beet industries were beginning to be noticeable again added to this northern look. The Bristol was extremely restful to drive whatever type of going was involved. There was just one fault of which I was beginning to be aware. This was the inadequacy of the brakes for the performance and weight of the car, for the Bristol is not a light motor car and it is fast. There was never a suspicion of not being able to stop at the point aimed at, fade being non-existent, but there was a feeling that having judged the braking point from 90 m.p.h. down to a walking pace, there was nothing in reserve. Therefore when down to 30 or 25 mph. it would not be possible to lock the wheels and slide the car broadside, should an emergency arise. While the pedal pressure was not as heavy as on the 401 it was still quite high for a driver below average stature.
Fontainebleau was reached by 5 p.m. Whilst the passengers admired the Palace a change of drivers was made. The writer had done over 340 miles and felt no more tired than if he had done 30 miles, in fact the only reason for changing was that the co-driver was going to drive in the dark and wanted a few miles to get accustomed to conditions before the light faded. We left Fontainebleau along wide straight roads that run through the great forest. We did two more 100-m.p.h. checks on the speedometer and found it to be a true 97.5 m.p.h. In spite of by-passing Paris on second-class roads, 46 and 48 miles were being covered in the hour for the terrain was now very flat once more, and dull in the extreme after what we had seen in our day’s motoring. Amiens was reached in comfortable time for dinner, 460 miles having been covered between the hours of 8-am. and 8 p.m. This included the mountains of central France, and the run had not been a “suicidal dice” but a high-speed motoring run. There had never been the slightest chancy moment or risk, in fact it had been touring in the Grand Manner.
Wednesday morning saw rain with us again, but it cleared by the time the airport at Le Touquet was reached, with plenty of time to spare before the Bristol Freighter took off. We were feeling very satisfied with our motoring trip until we met our fellow aeroplane passenger, an Australian, who had just ridden front Bagdad on a motor-cycle and sidecar. The trouble about travelling is that you can never finish and there is always someone who has been farther!
The hour we lost on our arrival in France was now regained, when we landed on English soil. This enabled us to lunch near Charing, on A20, and report at the office in time for afternoon tea. We had covered 1,851 miles and used 103 gallons of petrol, which is as honest an 18 m.p.g. as one could wish for; the amount of oil used was one pint going into Spain and a further pint on our arrival home.
I have always felt that the word “motoring” was not really adequate for this present age, for Mr. Citizen in his “Universal Eight” goes motoring when he drives down to the local, or takes his family to the sea in a long queue of “mimsers” creeping along the arterial road. Racing is a word one reserves for the like of Fangio and Ascari, so it is difficult to convey the right impression of the type of travel which cars in the 403, Aston Martin, continental Bentley or Lancia GT-category offer; it is not high-speed motoring, for that is the group covered by the, Mille Miglia competitors, so I feel that if we spell “motoring” with a capital “M” it will convey the idea of the trip which the Barcelona Grand Prix afforded me. If you have had the opportunity to go “Motoring” I think you will see what I mean. — D. S. J.