Car vs 'plane to Côte d’Azur

Having been impressed by our dash in a 3.0 CSL BMW, covering 10 European capitals in four days in a trouble-free journey of 3789 miles, much of it conducted at well over 100mph (MotorSport, January 1973), Raymond Playfoot, the urbane and efficient BMW PR man, thought that as the French autoroutes were open it might be instructive to see if a car could beat a light aeroplane on a coast-to-coast sprint.

He lent us a 3.0Si saloon, and Graham Horder agreed to compete in his Messerschmitt Monsun (powered by a 150hp Lycoming engine) with his partner David Cockroft on a Calais-Cannes duel.

I was to report on this trip, while Michael Tee, who had proved such a fine and safe fast driver on the ‘fourdays’ run in the CSL, would be doing the driving. So one afternoon we booked in with the car at the comfortable Meurice Hotel in Calais and spent the afternoon looking at the memorials to racing drivers on the Boulogne circuit. We inspected the sadly defaced one for the great Georges Boillot, and then photographed the monument which marks the place where in 1903 Louis Bleriot took off in his 25hp Anzani-powered monoplane for the first-ever aerial Channel crossing and noticed that the streets thereabouts were named after him.

Then we repaired to the local aerodrome to meet our rivals, who landed only five minutes late for their intended ETA. The aeroplane we had to try to beat cost £7800, the BMW £5360; the car was shod with Michelin XWX tyres and used Castrol oil and Shell fuel, the Monsun used Aero-Shell 100. We had planned for each to start at 8am next day, but the aeroplane pair had to use a taxi to reach the aerodrome and it was four minutes late. This rusty Citröen ID19 took 13 minutes to get there and the Monsun had then to be warmed up, the fuel tanks topped up (32.4 gallons), a met report obtained from Le Touquet, and take-off clearance obtained; all this took 28 minutes.

Meanwhile, Michael was experiencing heavy traffic en route for the Dunkirk Autoroute de Sud. The car then got into proper BMW mode: Paris was reached in 2hr 31min, the city cleared in 16min, and after 4hr 53min we were into the Lyons Tunnel, in spite of a refuelling pause for 72.8 litres of Esso.

By noon we had covered 326 miles, and after another 93 the small fuel tank caused another stop, for 76.5 litres of Total. Indeed, prudence made us later take on 100 francs’ worth of Esso. However, we were by then off the autoroute at 8hr 55min, to meet much traffic, and getting lost once in Cannes. Petrol pauses had cost us 18min and we got to the hotel at 17.03. Would we be first to arrive at the hotel? No, the two airmen were sitting by the hotel pool, glasses to their lips…

Horder and Cockroft had navigated by maps (a road one for a time) and beacon; no auto-pilot for them. Flying first at 5000ft, then at 7500ft, they had crossed the Arras autoroute by 09.19, against a headwind, but maintaining a 112 knots cruise, before their refuelling stop at Troyes-Barbery, after a welcome in guttural English when 30km out. Only gliders were flying there and there was a hard runway and brand new control tower.

Getting new maps, paying landing fees, having a beer and taking on 13 gallons of Total 100L took 51min. Over Lyons in haze; in another 13 hours they were over the Rhone Valley and had to avoid the firing range near St Tropez. An unknown motor race circuit near Le Luc was a puzzle, as Paul Ricard would be further south (can anyone suggest which this was?). Only one other aeroplane had been seen, a Magister taking off from Frejus military base, and they were too high to spot topless bathers on the beaches! Friendly R/T permitted them to land at Cannes, at 14.39. Playfoot was to have met them. No sign of him. (The scheduled Heathrow-Nice Air France Boeing 727 was nearly eight hours late). So they took an old Peugeot 404 taxi and got to the Hotel Logis Sant-Estello at 15.40.

The aeroplane had won in spite of the delay at Cannes Airport.

That’s how it was 31 years ago. Next day we went to Lyons to attend the Bugatti International Rally. There was an entry of 94 of these wonderful cars, agreeable, even smiling gendarmes, as the stripped racing cars passed along the public (but French!) highway. Nigel Arnold-Forster’s Delage II was an extra attraction for the enthusiastic crowds.

The big event on Saturday was the many-hairpinned Limonest hillclimb, 2.6km long, which someone said made Prescott look like a suburban garden path. Ian Preston (Type 35B) made FTD in 2min 15.3sec. Michael obtained a centrespread of excellent colour pictures of the rally entrants, a reminder of a joyful day in hot sunshine.