Veteran to Classic - Carrera Panamericana

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The Carrera Panamericana is a 7-day marathon dash through Mexico in what are essentially pre-1955 cars commemorating the Fifties event and such great names as Fangio, Hill and Kling, to name but a few, tearing down the Pan American Highway in Lancia D24s, Ferrari 375s and lightweight Mercedes 300 SLs. There were and are classes for small-bore sports cars and big, limited production sports cars as well as three classes for standard production cars in which the large American saloons, such as Lincolns and Hudsons, clean-up while the more manoeuvrable Alfa 1900 saloons traditionally do well in the smaller class, 1990 being no exception.

In 1950, the first Carrera Panamericana was disputed by mostly Mexican and American competitors and was won by an American driving an American car. The eligibility rules were changed the following year allowing the Europeans to mount a challenge and prove their superiority. And now history is repeating itself. This year Europeans won 3 out of 4 classes and included the overall win of Alain de Cadenet in his Jaguar C-type replica. It was a very good effort considering that for the most part the European competitors were out there for the first time and most of the Mexican and American opposition had done it all before — in many cases twice before.

Most of us flew to Tuxtla Gurtierrez, not far from the Guatemalan border, on the morning of October 24th 48 hours before the start of the race. In tropical heat and humidity, a steamy mist hanging over the palm-ringed hilltops, the cars were unloaded from transporters and containers, everyone sizing-up rivals’ machinery.

Scrutineering of the 120 cars took place over the next day and a half at the Hotel Flamboyant where everyone gathered, drinking ice cold beer with fresh lime and sharing out the sun block. Stalls sold programmes and souvenirs to the crowds who came to see the cars and collect the autographs of the drivers. To the Mexicans, the Panamericana is big news, television and radio crews jostling each other to get interviews of anyone involved with the race.

British drivers included Jeremy Agace in a BRG AC Bristol and Bill Wykeham/ Ludovic Lindsay, who were to finish first in the Sport Menor class, in a beautifully prepared green and yellow Morgan Plus Four with which they were colour coordinated with their matching tee-shirts and overalls. Their most dangerous moment came when Bill had to drive the car off the topmost, front position of a sixteen-car transporter which had obviously been designed for cars with a wider track than the Morgan’s.

Some part of the Lancia Aurelia team that had been unable to go last year appeared in the form of Nick Mason/Guy Edwards and Chris Craft/Martin Birrane. Even with these professional drivers, the Italian cars were not as quick as had been expected. Both seemed to perform identically, finishing each section in tandem and also both had the misfortune of losing their steering on the same day. In the case of Guy Edwards, though, it was sudden and at high speed, Guy later telling me, “This is a great event, but it’s a little dangerous. When you think about it, they stopped these kinds of races in the Fifties because of the danger. Now we’re doing it again in 40 year-old cars.”

Alfa Romeo also sent a team consisting of four gorgeous 1900s and the Giulietta of Corraco Cupellini. Rumour has it that the Alfa factory, through Scuderia del Portello, spent in excess of $150,000 to do the event. A fleet of three new 164s were sent along with a big American van to carry spares. Bruno Bonini, who did the event twice in the Fifties, was driving one of the 1900Tis with Marco Cajani but ran into trouble on the third day coming into Queretero when their back axle seized. We thought they were out of the running in spite of all their mighty back-up, but Bruno had a more old fashioned attitude and decided to repair the car himself. They were consequently back in the race the following morning. The team’s 1900 of Viftorio Dini and Francesco Stanguellini, however, finished first in the small production car class.

Almost without exception the French contingent brought Alfas, but did not fare too well apart from Guido Bartolomeo who diced with the factory entries in his white 1900, which seemed quicker and better prepared this year. The Gallic competitors seemed to suffer a bad case of over-enthusiasm and their number was decimated when the ones that didn’t blow up went off the road.

After Robs Lamplough’s success of last year, there were generally several Alfas and with so many broken and crashed French cars around, spares were abundant. A young Italian, Enrico Cassimirri, bought his Giulietta in Napoli two weeks before the race and flew the car to the start. With no back-up crew, he managed to finish better than the official Alfa entry and fifth in the class. He was invited to join the Scuderia.

Jeffrey Pattinson drove a baby pink Giulietta Sprint that had just come from a complete rebuild. The other Alfa drivers thought he was exaggerating when he told them he was regularly pulling 7500 rpms in top. On the penultimate day, (Jeffrey discovered that his rev counter had been wrongly calibrated and that he had been under revving his way across Mexico. He made up for it on the last day by getting the rev counter needle all the way round the clock and back to zero.

The American cars were even more seriously prepared this year. One of the most attractive and quickest cars of the race was the 1950 fastback Oldsmobile of Jon Ward. It was lightened by about as much as some cars weigh — more than a thousand pounds was saved by stripping the car to its bare essentials. Just a couple of racing seats and harnesses, minimal dash equipment, roll bar — a real racer. Once it was ready for racing, the car was then finished as if it were going for a Pebble Beach Concours with layers of beautiful white paint and exquisite detailing both inside and out. A contradiction in terms but a most pleasing one.

Jon is another professional driver and he and last year’s front runner, Dick Anderson, in the Lincoln were giving Alain a run for his money the whole length of Mexico.

Unfortunately, Jon had some minor mechanical difficulties which cost him points on the second day, but he drove superbly to work his way back up from 61st place to finish 3rd overall.

The other very quick American was Gene Evans who flew over those mountain roads in his 1954 red, white and blue Ford. He finished 3rd, but was disqualified when, after a protest, the FIA officials measured his engine and found it to be oversized.

The route was longer and faster than last year’s — even the transit sections needed to be treated with a little respect it one got into traffic or had a flat tyre. The limited velocity stages had much higher averages, often as much as 70 mph on pot-holed and bumpy roads. These sections were even harder on the cars than the racing stages because one had to press on at a pretty high speed no matter what kind of pounding the car was taking, penalty points being scored for arriving late at checkpoints.

More and more cars were losing bits (sticky tape was to play an important part in this event) and tyres suffered tremendously. The actual racing was usually done on pretty good roads, but there was often that surprise, a change of surface or camber, waiting just around the next bend. There were more speed sections and longer speed sections this year. Driving the high mountain roads of Mexico in a good car is a blissful experience, all the bends are long and sweeping and there are not any jerky hairpins. Once you get into the rhythm, you never want it to end.

Of the 120 cars which started in Tuxtla Gutierrez, only 77 were still in the running on the 7th and final day, but many who had lost their cars continued to follow the race anyway. From high mountains overlooked by fuming volcanoes, their summit bathed in perpetual snow, the survivors descended into thicker air and arid deserts strewn with centenarian cacti as big as trees and straight roads that only disappeared when they reached the horizon. These roads, though, were a trap for the unwary and many a driver killed his car by keeping his foot to the floor murdering engines, running on the local low octane fuel, made even more delicate by having already been through hell for seven days.

The last speed section of the race was a 30 kilometre flat-out 2 lane blackspot scorcher with a few just-let-off-for-an-instant blind bends to keep it interesting. Alain reckons he was doing 160 mph and yet he was still beaten by the Americans on that stage. The Fifties sports cars had to hang on tight at those speeds as the rear suspension bumped up and down over the rough road and the wheels ever so briefly left the ground. It was pure adrenalin.

Congratulations and admiration are due to those who finished well, and to those who finished at all. It was not easy. But these distinctions are less important to those of us who were there, as just the experience of participating in this race justifies all the effort it took us to get there. CS