Through much of the last century, this time of year was highlighted by the annual Monte Carlo Rally. While circuit racing had recommenced after World War II as early as 1945-46, to organise a cross-border international event such as ‘The Monte’ through war-shattered Europe was fraught with difficulty. Still, just before Christmas 1947, the Automobile Club de Monaco, under its indefatigable chief executive Anthony Noghes, published regulations for a 1948 event. This proved premature, so The Monte’s revival was delayed into 1949, when the abortive ’48 rules were, in effect, repeated with only the dates changed.
The rally was based on a huge circuit of western Europe. Facing fuel rationing and other restrictions, competitors could choose any of six starting points before joining the main route. Starters from Florence would join up at Berne, from Glasgow at Luxembourg, Lisbon at Reims, Oslo at Amsterdam, Prague at Strasbourg and from Stockholm at Amsterdam.
Each route totalled some 2000 miles. Each starter was credited with 1000 points, lost at the rate of one per minute for lateness at controls. Average speed had to be between 50-65km/h (31-40.4mph) and woe betide any smart alec who averaged more than the maximum: heavy penalties included disqualification. The final run in from Lyon to Monte Carlo was divided into four sections, through which the average speed had to be above 50km/h – but below 60km/h.
Eligible cars had to be ‘of standard manufacture’ of which no fewer than 30 had been produced and catalogued by November 1, 1947. The rule-makers left compression ratio, camshaft design, valve size, gear ratios and number of carburettors unrestricted.
British gentleman driver Mike Couper entered a Bentley Mark VI standard steel saloon, with 4000 miles on the clock “and beginning to get nicely run in”. Raymond Baxter described Couper as “the type of man whom a London cabby automatically calls ‘sir’”.
In his book Rallying to Monte Carlo Couper described rally preparation as involving “what one would normally do before going abroad, but we added a set of chains, two shovels and two compressed air bottles for quick tyre inflation should we find snow and ice which, while not warranting chains, might require a decrease in tyre pressure”.
It had become common pre-war to rally three-up – one to drive, one to navigate and either one to mend machinery or provide cocoa and macaroons. Couper’s crew comprised wine importer Leslie Seyd – veteran of driving a Morris Ten to Timbuctoo and back – and Dr Melville Balfour, both a wine merchant and also a doctor. You get the picture?
On a test run to Cheddar, this trio found Bentley ‘LLG 181’ burned its rationed, low-octane Pool petrol – with 20 per cent added Benzol – at 20mpg. For the rally, Couper took a quart of ethyl lead to prevent the engine pinking. To avoid error in topping the tank, he measured out tots of it – sufficient to treat 10, 12 and 15-gallon refills – into small medicine bottles.
They then joined 46 starters in Glasgow, where among the good luck telegrams received was one from LA Earl, “onetime driver of the ‘Royal Scot’ train with whom I’d travelled on the footplate from Euston to Carlisle and back in 1938”.
Despite ice near Lockerbie “which caused a few cars to point momentarily towards Glasgow again” the adventurers encountered a novelty at Doncaster as “for the first time in rally history TV newsreel cameras greeted us”.
The cars were loaded on the Dinard cross-Channel ferry to sail Folkestone-Boulogne, where crews drew French petrol coupons for 500 litres. A civic reception, replete with champagne, delayed matters before road books and passage stamps could be obtained. They then boomed on, through Luxembourg, Dutch and Belgian territory before re-entering France for another reception at Reims.
In Paris navigation became confused. Couper hailed a taxi and asked him to lead them to the Place de la Concorde control at plein vitesse. “That was the second time I have asked a Paris taxi to hurry… I shall not do it again.” Arriving there they were told the Gendarmerie had moved the control. France’s famous Rolls-Royce/Bentley distributor Walter Sleator offered them lunch, for which they had no time. As second-best he reserved them a meal in the Aux Deux Marroniers restaurant at Glandelles – and sent a Bentley escort to guide them out of Paris…
In dense fog as they headed south, Couper asked front passenger Balfour how he was feeling: “OK,” he said, “but my right foot is getting ruddy tired…”
In Monte Carlo a magnificent lunch preceded the final eliminating test. The route was meant to be secret, yet for 5000 francs taxi drivers were offering “to take one over the course”. The test took a day, after which Bill Eastwood’s staff of the London Garage in Monte Carlo prepared the Bentley for the Concours de Confort, which it won by a mile. At a post-rally party in the Jardins Exotiques, Couper joined Bill Wisdom, Ken Wharton and winner Jean Trevoux in a radio interview by the BBC’s Max Robertson. Forbidden from advertising by its charter, Robertson cut the recording short, grumbling: “Why not just say ‘Morris-Ford-Hotchkiss-Bentley’? Now let’s have a drink!”
Overall, Couper’s Bentley covered 3403 miles at 16.6mpg. It used 10 pints of Mobiloil Arctic oil, and the crew’s only dislikes – reported back to Rolls-Royce – involved wind noise at over 60mph and the fact that the spare wheel, when pre-fitted with snow chains, would no longer fit in its compartment. Finally, the green petrol warning light was “very bright when you are tired, and nothing positive about it”.
Ending a post-rally visit to the Derby factory, Couper “murmured my thanks and suggested it would be pleasant to go to Monte Carlo again in 1950”.
“Come and see us about next October” was the response. Sébastien Loeb, eat your heart out.