TO ATHENS BY ROAD
TO ATHENS BY ROAD
The Log of a Monte Carlo Rallyist
The Car and Its Crew.
AS the highest marked starting point for the Monte Carlo Rally, Athens has continued to attract each year a fair number of competitors, willing to chance the difficulty of appalling roads and badly mapped country for the honour of being the first to win through from Greece, Lord de Clifford, who has competed successfully in a number of journeys to Monte Carlo made a reconnaissance with a 41 litre Lagonda, and decided as a result of this that provided the car was suitably modified to increase the ground clearance, there would be a good chance of his reaching Monte Carlo.
A standard four-seater open car was chosen, and by fitting cambered springs the ground-clearance was brought up to 9 inches, and all moving parts such as the brake-gear were protected by enclosing them in leather gaiters. Lord de Clifford was accompanied as crew by H. B. Browning, the Secretary of the M.C.R, British Competitors Club and T. G. Moore of MoToR SPORT.
Lieppe was chosen as the point of departure, and after a hot and rather restless journey from Newhaven, the car and its personnel lauded on the shores of France. The gang-plank was coated with ice, while the town was shrouded in mist, both weather conditions later proving typical of those encountered on the journey.
An Early Start.
Lieppe was left in company with Whalley on a V-8 Ford and Symons on an Essex Terraplane, at 6.5 a.m., and the two Lucas fog-lamps proved their use in allowing a good average to be maintained. Soon after dawn an ominous creaking was heard from behind, and it was found that the special carrier which had been rigged to support the tool-box had given way under the weight of the Autotraktor and other weighty spares. It was quickly dealt with at Beauvais, and after breakfast the magnificent cathedral and the town gate with its two round towers attracted attention.
The repair was soon made, and the Lagonda continued its swift progress south-eastwards. A fresh outburst of creaking from the rear showed that the welding had not been successful, and after a consultation at Chalons it was decided to scrap the box and to carry spare petrol this on the running board, while the other articles were distributed through the spacious lockers at the back of the rear seat. All the luggage was now inside the car, so that there was only one seat vacant in the rear of the car, but the return to the normal handling of the Lagonda compensated for any extra discomfort.
Ruins still riddled with shell-holes and war-memorials of the allied forces, were met with near Soissons, and as evening fell fog came on again. A car which had crashed through a level-crossing gate made us thankful for our good lighting, but we were glad to halt that night at Nancy. By T. G. MOORE
Driving on “Slides.” •
Rising at an early hour, we left the town by nine, to a countryside white with frost. The roads were obviously in an unpleasant condition and this was brought home forcibly to the writer, who was driving, by the children who had made slides along the road. However, the car handled perfectly in spite of the long slippery slopes and ascents, and maintained its Rally average of 25 m.p.h.
Conditions improved near Strasbourg, and after a visit to the Automobile Club, the great lattice bridge of the Rhine was crossed and we entered Germany.
The German officials were very cordial and showed us the best road to Munich which passed north almost to Stuttgart, avoiding the snow-covered hills to the east, an extra short-cut they recommended entailed going over a snowcovered and narrow road, but conditions improved as we passed down towards Ulm and Augsburg. The roads were snow-covered of course and the way not too easy to find, so it was decided to stay the night at Munich.
Keep to the left in Austria !
Whalley was at the Club the next morning, but Symons had not turned up. It was decided not to enter Austria through the Salzburg road which was narrow and liable to be blocked with snow, but to go north to Brannan. The roads were narrow and as carts were constantly encountered the horn button was in use most of the time. The German customs official was proud of having visited Manchester, actually as a war prisoner, while the Austrians were less
intelligible, but impressed on us the necessity of driving on the left. The Austrian horses proved more lively than their German brothers, and one of them backed his owner into a tree, breaking a shaft and nearly overturning the cart.
The narrow road continued until its junction with the Salzburg highway, but on this a narrow ice-fringed stretch had been cleared, which allowed high speeds. As the sun was setting we entered Melk, on the banks of the Danube, and the yellow palace with its central dome, which dominated the town from the top of its hill was clearly outlined in the setting rays.
A Narrow Shave.
The fine road continued and Browning was setting a good pace, when a horsecart pulled right across the road in front of him, necessitating a heavy application of brakes. As ill-luck would have it the road was covered with an imperceptible layer of ice, and the wheels locked. The car swung completely round, but Browning shot it between the trees which lined the road, only touching with one wheel. The car was easily driven back on to the road, but the steering was damaged, and the remaining 50 miles to Vienna were covered at a slow speed. The damage was found to be slight, and all was in order for an after lunch start the next day. Vienna itself was ;disappointing. Entering the city over cobbled streets, one felt at once the gespondency of a prosperity whichhad departed, not lessened by seeing next ‘day the splendour of the Votifkirke with its delicate pierced spire. The first few miles out of Vienna were. rough but before the frontier was reached’ a long straight road was reached. After’. passing through Hainburg with its town gate and enormous stone cannon-balls” the houses began to take on the typical
ltAkan aspect of one story and a wide and dirty street. At the Hungarian frontier we saw one of the huge buses which maintains a 35 In.plt. a verage from Vienna to Budapest, and with the good road which foil( )w,•(1 we felt very optimistic about this section of the rally route. Actually this 165 miles stretch was accomplished in 3 hours.
The road sinks down to the Hungarian capital by a steep descent, and the brilliant lights of Pest were brightly reflected on the face of the river. Buda, the official quarter, which is built on the hill proved a little puzzling, but after nearly disappearing down a train subway due to our ignorance of Hungarian, we crossed the river safely to Pest. The local Automobile Club showed us a little of the town, Hungarian music, TOkay, one of the many ” boites ” with a marvellous succession of cabaret turns, and altogether ones memories of Bmlapest were of the most pleasant. After checking over batteries, wing fittings and the like we left Budapest after lunch en route for Szeged. The road continued over the dead-level Hungarian plain, with nothing to impede our progress except the frequent carts, driven 1)v wild-looking men in sheepskin coats, who refused to give way except after the most furious blowing of horns. Snow was plentiful but all went well, and by overshooting the route supplied by the Club we came on one which was a great improvement on that which bad been recommended. On the way to our halting point we overtook Schell, who was driving as usual a car fitted with the ” carosserie acrodynamique ” and twin realwheels. The town was not exciting,
but neverthelesi it was a struggle to get up at 4,30 next morning to leave it, and one blanched at the Viennese coffee, like beer in appearance, which was to send us on our way.
Can You Read Serbian?
The Hungarian Douane lay up a side road, and both Whalley and ourselves overshot the warning board, which was about 8 inches square. Conditions in JtigoSlavia continued the same as far as Nowi-Sad, where the snow gave place to slimey mud, with the road running
alongside the i atiube. For the first time the signposts were in S:rbian script, which added to the difficulties of mapreading. After coursing up and down snow-covered roads we readied Scullin, the crossing place to Belgrade, only to find no ferry. After much questioning of a piratical gentleman who spoke German, it was learnt that one had to drive alongrtithe bank of the river to a point opposite the town. Cars were compelled
to folio* a narrow track on the frozen foreshore, then to take to the fields. All went well until De Clifford decided to take a short cut, and the car sank through the frozen slush and bogged itself. ‘Hie French car was close behind, and with the help of its crew the Lagonda was extricated and restored to the fairly firm road. Belgrade is built on a high cliff at th
junction of the .Save and anube, an :1 must have been almost impregnilde before the days of long-distance artillery. From the old fort a magnificent view of the Danube, here about half a mile wide, reveals itself, and with a. setting sun lighting up the low snow-clad banks and the new suspension bridge half finished there was a powerful sense of the close. proximity of the modern and the unchangeable.
When it is safer to be ditched.
The road conditions after Belgrade were said to be bad, but all went well for several miles after the city. Suddenly on a corner the front wheels encountered icy ruts and went straight on towards a drop of 100 feet. The writer, who was driving, just managed to correct it, only to find that the tar was sliding bodily into a deep ditch on the safe side of the road. It came to rest at an angle of 45′ and only the low build of the Lagonda and the fact of its being fitted With an open body prevented it from turning over. It was extricated with the aid of two horses and a dozen willing natives, and nothing seemed seriously damaged. However it was decided to return to Belgrade to check up for possible .damage, and Browning and the writer spent a strenuous morning initiating the natives into the mysteries of wheel-track. The local method was to set them toeing in about half an inch and leave it so. Next day de Clifford displayed his skill in driving on ice, and undeterred by conditions brought the car safely to Nish. Road marking and maps became more and more vague, and an hour was lost through missing an obscure turning. It was
essential to get to the frontier before 5 o’clock to catch the customs officials, and Browning forced the car in good style up .a defile bordered with red rocks and earth, with hairpins worthy of Pingle Bridge and great gullies .across the road. We did achieve the frontier in time and were suitably welcomed by the Bulgarians which was just as well, as their territory is marked by a barbed wire entanglement, with fortified posts every half mile, while an ominous rifle-shot rang out as we were waiting. The dreaded ‘1,ragoman pass had been repaired, and was simply a long -snowy ascent. The customs post was at the top, after which the writer descended through frozen and deeply rutted snow to Sofia.
New Year’s Day in Sofia.
It was New Year’s Day according to the reckoning of the Greek Orthodox Church, but the town showed no signs of life. Next morning one was a little cheered by the sight of gaily dressed skiing parties setting off to the snowcovered hills which surround the capital, which we left through another snowfilled valley. The road once again was obscure, but de Clifford made surprising time over the snow, and by midday w(: were well on the way to the ( ;reek frontier. The valley gradually narrowe( down, the road was covered with gigantic potholes, and 7,000 foot mountains hemmed us in on both sides. New Year’s Day was being celebrated in many of the villages by dancers with blacked faces, grotesque masks or sheepskin head dresses, who were stamping about in the streets to music of drums and brass instruments
The writer was driving*Zas:Lthe car approached Greece, but with snow on the windscreen and a road one car’s width mounting and descending :tile rocky walls of the valley, there was little chance to admire the scenery. Before reaching Greece the cliff sides had approached to within 50 yards of one another for several miles, then the blessed relief of rolling grasscovered hills as we approached the frontier. The Greek Customs at Kula held us up two hours, so that we lost the precious daylight hours in which we hoped to cross the muddy stretch after SideroCastron. The way led along the end of a !ake, with water-courses running across the road and a fifty foot drop. We were accompanied by Bryde on a light 16 Austin Sports and together made an onslaught on the first of Greece’s ” sloughs of despond.” After floundering along on slimy and rutted roads, which were very difficult to make out by artificial light, we met our Waterloo in a mud hole A foot deep. The natives again turned too and helped us to a dry spot and we returned with wings scraping the side of the road to Sidero-Castron. De Clifford had stayed there on his former trip to Greece, and mine host of the Inn ” Thrake ” provided us with clean food and beds, which would have been difficult to find elsewhere in a small Greek village. The local inhabitants enjoyed themselves immensely watching us at
dinner, and pressed their noses firmly against the windows until we went to bed.
A Memory of the War.
Next day, led by 4 local car we passed without trouble by a different road, equally unmarked, over the muddy section and found Ourselveson the road built by the Royal Engineers during. the War. This took us comfortably across the Struma Valley, which was surrounded each side by snow-clad mountains. A winding ascent brought us to the snow line, and soon we were to see the summit of Mount Olympus, floating mysterious and golden above a sea of clouds and looking impossibly high. The descent to Salonica was over grassy down-like hills, with the town silhouetted against a sparkling sea. After the savage country through which we passed, the sailing boats, painted
sky blue above and orange on the water line, were a delight to the eye, while their strange rigs added to the interest. Cargoes varied from oranges to coats, shining black olives to firewood, but there was something intensely refreshing about shipping and sunlit craft after being immured in the Balkans. The warm sun had something to do with it, too.
The Crew Depleted.
At Salonica we suffered a heavy loss, for Browning was recalled to London on business. However De Clifford and the writer set off towards the south to see the shocking roads about which so much had been said and read, and after some shattering pot-holes reached Vette°, at the foot of the first great pass. The road ascended 4,000 feet, and was slippery with partly thawed snow near the summit, but on the south side all was well, and a long winding descent was begun, down to a plain. Greece as we found was a succession of plains of varying altitudes with mountain ranges in between, and at Servia we again began an ascent, passing a stranded motor bus with difficulty on the way up. Near the summit much snow had fallen., and the car got stuck in a frozen rut, and it was only by strenuous jacking and much tilling in of stones under the wheels that the car could be extricated. Mount Olymp Us, 15 miles away, had meanwhile withdrawn into the don& as is his wont when humans are ill trouble. Once more a winding descent, made more difficult by large boulders left by the carters who chock up thy wheels of their vehicles to rest the animals. After this range another run in x-alleys of lower altitude and then the climb of the :11e1c-wina Pass followed by an Alpine descent. Fxening was drawing in, and the purple and blue of the plain beneath and the orange of the sunset were magnificent viewed from a height of 3,0o0
Into the Sun.
After spending a night at Larissa we set off on the last stage of the journey. troubled more. than usual by animals on the road. Small donkeys are the usual beasts of burden and there were several .1uNiceis moments when some of these, 200 yards from their owners, turned out into the road. A cart actually refused to give way from the crown of the road and collided heavily with the rear wing, without doing more than buckling it. The weather by now was so warm that we had. discarded overcoats and drove along under a cloudless blue sky.
The succession of pass and plain continued, the Most notable being the Thermopyloe pass where the road ascends a vertical mountain side 1,500 feet in height through a series of zig-zag roads. Dc Clifford, who had been sparing the motor so far made full use of the car’s acceleration and brakes and climbed at a very rapid pace. At last after passing through plains red, green and black, according to the soil and cultivation, the last range was
reached, and climbing round grey lichenclad rocks, a descent was made through pines, the first woods we had seen since reaching Greece, towards Eleusis, and after duly exclaiming ” thalassi ” on seeing the sea, arrived at the town. Before we reached the good road to Athens the authorities played a final trick on us by by-passing all traffic through a series of back-street with at least a foot of liquid mud, when a first-class tarmac road was taken to Athens and the conclusion of the trip. The good road was built incidently because a former dictator had lived there. After the small places through which we passed, Athens looked big and almost frightening, but the glow of the setting sun on the Acropolis reassured us as we entered the goal of ten days’ effort.
Appalling Road Conditions.
To recount adequately the conditions, pot-holes, deep ruts and the rest which the car was subjected in the latter part of its journey would require many pages in itself, and it seems very satisfactory that apart from the damage to the wings caused by the accidents which occurred en route, the Lagonda arrived in Athens quite unaffected by its 1,800 mile trip. The roads from Central Europe approximate to earth tracks on Cotswold lanes, and a stretch of what in England would be a ” C” type road would be hailed with joy on the journey from London to Athens. It is a test of strength and stamina which surpasses any normal test on road or track,
How the others fared.
Of the 25 competitors who chose Athens as their starting place, most of them have had ” incidents ” en route.
F. de Riberio Ferreira, the Portuguese driver of a Railton Terraplane, crashed on a frozen road between Budapest and Szeged, bending a front axle, but got a new one within 24 hours from England and continued. He left his passports behind at Sofia, and they were sent after him to the frontier, unfortunately sealed, so that they were taken to Greece while the driver was chasing them throughout Bulgaria.
The Aries drivers were rather wild and broke different parts of their car each time they left Salonica. Finally they got as far as Larissa and were towed into Athens. The Essex entered by Symons and Murray Scott skidded on an icy road near Ulm in Bavaria, rushing backwards into a tree. The petrol tank and rear axle were damaged but the trouble was put right in two days and by great efforts
Athens was reached with two days to spare. They also had trouble with hydraulic shockabsorbers, brakes and an axle clip which snapped.
Bryde, the Norwegian, who was driving an Austin 16 sports saloon with tremendous verve, struck his flywheel casing on a rock in Bulgaria and was held up a day in Salonica to repair it.
Whalley on his V-8 Ford had a troublefree run, but found that his springs had flattened somewhat with the bumping of the bad roads and had a new set fitted. He left the road in Bulgaria.
The SchelLs (Lelahaye) got stuck in a snow drift on one of the passes, and also took to a ditch through using the hand brake on icy roads.
A Citroen with caterpillar track arrived and caused much interest, while GasTrevoux on the Hotchkiss had 10 inches clearance under the axle and more elsewhere.
Rupert Riley arrived a fortnight before the start and inspected the course in a local taxi. Ire remarked on the great efforts which the local authorities had made in the last year to improve roads. Healey and Ridly arrived by sea with their large tyred Triumphs, and profess themselves satisfied with the roads as far north as they have penetrated.