Medieval stonework reverberates to racing exhausts as a French hill town is briefly turned over to the internal combustion engine
Words and photography: Roger Moss
It’s not every day that you see a 1920s grand prix Bugatti hammering purposefully down the RN10, the ‘old’ route to Bordeaux, but for one glorious September weekend in western France anything is possible. For this we have to thank the otherwise perfectly sane and respectable town of Angouleme, which once a year transforms its historic heart into a full-blown Monaco-style street racing circuit.
Keeping it alive, however, has required a certain determination over the years. After launching in 1939 and weathering an eight-year break owing to the outbreak and aftermath of WWII, the Circuit des Remparts returned and rose to ever greater prominence in European motorsport, only to fall victim to the wave of panic legislation following the catastrophic 1955 Le Mans crash. Angouleme would have to kick its heels until 1978 before returning to motor racing, now as a historic racing (or rather, ‘demonstration’) event, and each time subject to approval of the most stringent public security procedures imaginable. Against all odds, the Circuit des Remparts is still with us, and the knowledge that every year is a bonus only adds to the fervour of the thousands who converge here from throughout Europe.
And increasingly from across the Channel. The British presence in what is now a three-day event becomes obvious on Friday evening’s floodlit Concours d’Elegance, at least half of whose entries are British-owned. Past line-ups have included 1950s and 60s style icons such as Jaguar XKs and Rolls-Royce Silver Clouds, a 1923 Vauxhall 30/98 Tourer and a 1934 MG Magnette Type N (not to mention a Triumph Herald convertible entered a couple of years ago by its proud French owner).
Day Two finds more than 150 historic vehicles setting off on a 200km or so touring rally and rousing the largely unsuspecting surrounding countryside of Charente from its weekend torpor. The town, meanwhile, focuses on parades of competition vehicles, plus a Concours d’Etat which over the years has attracted Blower Bentleys and an Auburn Speedster, plus more recent exotica like the Ferrari F40. When the Rallye finally rolls back into town you begin to suspect that everywhere else on the planet must feel rather dull by comparison.
On Sunday you just know it. So do any late-rising locals, as the first grid lines up at 8.30am sharp for Vintage Sports Cars (under 1500cc). As the flag drops the noise level rises, and Amilcars, Rileys, MGs and rarities like Brian Wilson’s sole-surviving FWD 1936 Adler blast off beside the vast Romanesque cathedral for a brief dash along the Rempart Desaix before darting into the narrow streets (and tight 90-degree turns) of the town.
Now, just as suddenly, the Circuit Historique plunges below the plateau on which the old town is sited. Here the fastest cars of the day can achieve 180km/h, before braking heavily for a series of tortuous hairpin climbs back up to the ramparts and the start/finish line. The point-and-squirt action on this section is demanding for both cars and drivers, and getting it wrong (as someone almost always does) can be very expensive. There’s no run-off area here. The morning’s succession of 20-minute practice sessions and races usually includes categories for individual marques such as Frazer Nash, Riley, MG, Bugatti and Porsche, plus Formula Junior and GT/GTS, etc. It also sets the scene for the more serious stuff to come.
A typically French extended lunch-break restores the energy levels of crowds and drivers alike for the afternoon’s main events, whose programme descriptions make interesting reading. While more modern Touring Car and GTstyle events are classed as ‘Courses’ (Races), those for Historic and Vintage are described as ‘Demonstrations Historiques’, a point which appears to have escaped the attention of many of the entrants. While some owner/drivers concentrate on looking after their most prized possessions, others see things differently, encouraged by the promise of a cup for the first past the chequered flag, then a lap of honour in a pale yellow Citroen DS Decapotable. It all looks suspiciously like motor racing. And it is. There aren’t many places these days where you’ll see a more impressive spectacle of priceless pieces of motoring history in hand-to-hand combat right under your nose.
What can top the sight of a nearconcours E-Type Jaguar FHC powersliding among fragile-looking Elans and muscular Big Healeys? I’ll tell you: a group of huge, aero-engined Edwardians thundering flat-out around the legendary circuit, to the stunned amazement of event regulars who’d thought-they’d seen it all. After these monsters the Grand Prix Bugattis look almost toy-like, but their performance remains every bit as sensational as when they first raced during the 1920s, particularly the 1927 35B of Alexandre Lafourcade, a young self-taught architect who for the past four seasons has returned to Provence with the Over 2-Litre Trophy. But no-one leaves here empty-handed. The unique and spectacular Circuit de Remparts gives everyone who shares a passion for motorsport, whether a competitor or merely spectating, an experience they’ll never forget.