Simon Taylor's Notebook

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116

Today’s F1 drivers just do F1. Fifty years ago a working driver would drive anything, for a fee, and still try to win

At the recent NEC Classic Motor Show, the Sunbeam Talbot Alpine Register mounted an impressive display of four ex-works rally cars of the 1950s: three Alpines and a 90 saloon. Also on its stand was a trophy cabinet which included a small plain cup, rather unprepossessing to look at — except that it was evidently made of gold. Through the glass I could see Stirling Moss’s name on it, and I knew at once that this was a Coupe des Alpes d’Or. Only three Gold Cups were ever awarded in the 60-year history of that most gruelling of rallies, the Critérium International des Alpes.

While the idea of Michael or Jenson or Kimi whiling away a quiet weekend with a bit of rallying strains the imagination somewhat, half a century ago an F1 driver would take whatever came along, especially if a fee was involved. In 1952 Norman Garrad had the tricky job of promoting the products of the Rootes Group, of which he was competitions manager. The bread-and-butter Hillman Minx and the lumbering Humber Hawk and Super Snipe had little potential, but the Sunbeam-Talbot was billed as a performance car, despite its weight, long-stroke engine and vague steering-column gearchange. Garrad’s determination, and his ability to persuade top drivers into his team, eventually provided this unlikely car with a glittering rally pedigree.

Back in 1952 Garrad persuaded Stirling Moss, who’d never done a rally in his life, to do the Monte. His fee was £50. Crewed by John Cooper (the journalist, not the racing car manufacturer) and Desmond Scannell of the BRDC, Moss got the Sunbeam through thick snow to arrive in Monte Carlo without penalty, one of only 15 cars out of a huge entry to do so. After the final tests they ended up second overall, just 4sec adrift of winner Sydney Allard in an Allard. It was an extraordinary rallying debut.

The other event which Garrad took seriously was the Alpine Rally. But this was in July, when racing drivers were rather busy. However, Stirling had a few clear days in his diary between the Reims sportscar race and the British GP, so he duly took the bait of another £50 — and even persuaded Mike Hawthorn to do the same and drive another of the Sunbeams.

The Alpine was really tough on car and crew, tracing mountain pass after mountain pass through France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria, many of them on loose surfaces. Any car which managed to complete the entire rally without losing a single point, while still fully roadworthy, qualified for a coveted Coupe des Alpes: and, in the almost unimaginable event of a driver winning three Coupe des Alpes three years running, a Gold Cup was awarded.

In 1952 Moss duly won a Coupe des Alpes for finishing ‘clean’ (as did Hawthorn). For the 1953 event Sunbeam produced a two-seater version of the 90, called the Alpine. Another GP driver, Peter Collins, joined in but was destined to retire. Moss, with his regular navigator John Cutts, was allocated MKV 21, and once again finished without penalty: so now this had become serious. If he could complete the 1954 event without losing a mark he would win a Coupe d’Or, and that had only been done once before, by Ian and Pat Appleyard in their Jaguar XK120 in 1950/51/52. (The third Coupe d’Or  recipient was Frenchman Jean Vinatier in 1971, by which time the rules had been altered somewhat.)

Despite the July date, the conditions in 1954 were appalling, with thick snow closing several of the passes. Stirling, in MKV 21 once again, had to drive on the absolute limit. As he recounts in My Cars, My Career, “I tried so desperately hard to stay unpenalised that we covered the last few miles utterly flat-out downhill, with John Cutts counting off the time beside me. For the first and only time in my life the release of tension after driving that hard overwhelmed me. I burst into tears.”

By now the Sunbeam was on its last legs, and bottom and top gears had gone. A rival tipped off the organisers, and a scrutineer asked to sit beside Stirling to see if everything was still working. Providing a running commentary for the scrutineer’s benefit, Stirling drew away in second gear. “Le premier!” He then waggled the steering-column gearchange while surreptitiously engaging overdrive second. “Voila! Deuxieme.” Then direct third. And finally, with more waggling, overdrive third. “Voila! Quatrieme.” The scrutineer was satisfied, and Stirling had his third penalty-free Alpine, and thus his Coupe d’Or. It was, says Stirling, the only time he remembers cheating: “But I felt I’d earned that bloody cup.”

Not that he got his hands on it. Garrad’s deal with his drivers was either they got the trophies, or they got the £50. Stirling, of course, took the cash. Years later, as the Rootes Group slithered into Chrysler and then Simca ownership, the contents of the factory trophy cabinet were thrown in a skip. Miraculously the Coupe d’Or with Stirling’s name on it was rescued and reunited with MKV 21, which now belongs to Leon Gibbs.

Alongside the achievements of the 1955 Mille Miglia, or Aintree, or Monaco, or seven TTs, Stirling’s efforts in those lumbering Sunbeams are usually forgotten. But, as he always did, he’d given his all.