Letter from Europe

[By means of which the Continental Correspondent, while he is motoring abroad, keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W. B.,

Not long ago there was a sort of unofficial competition at Monte Carlo on the Saturday night before the Grand Prix to see who could draw the biggest crowd with the most exotic motor car. The first time that a Lamborghini Miura appeared it stole the show without question, but this year there were so many Miuras in and around the Casino Square that you practically fell over them and hardly bothered to look at them. Something must have happened this year for instead of the square being filled with interesting and exciting cars, it seemed to be full of “funnies” and some very hideous machines. The prize went to the Lamborghini Espada, a vast and gormless device with four aircraft seats that was even uglier than that Daily Telegraph horror, the Piranha, which stole the Earls Court Show for ugliness and brashness. Close second was an E-type with a modified front, with the nose chopped off square, that looked as though it had run into a brick wall. It was a terrible night for exciting cars and made me wonder if the day of the exotic car is nearly over. The award for “Funny of the Night” was undoubtedly won by a device that looked like a touring Type 44 two-seater Bugatti, especially in the dark across the square, but inspection showed it to be a professionally-built “mock-Bugatti” using 2½-litre 6-cylinder Opel mechanical parts, including the i.f.s. It was beautifully made and superbly finished in the right colour blue, having been designed and built by the people who perpetrated the “mock S.S.K. Mercedes” known as the Excalibur. They are quite honest about these phoney cars, making no claims that they are anything but imitations and jokes; a bit of harmless fun for those who do not want the responsibility or mechanical embarrassment of a genuine S.S.K. or Bugatti. A well-known English amateur racing driver said he thought £5,000 was rather a lot of money for a joke, but at least you knew you had bought an expensive joke, unlike the people who bought a Lamborghini Miura and found out afterwards they had bought an expensive joke. It was definitely “funny night” at Monaco!

Being in France on the day the strikes began was an odd experience, with no telephones, telegrams, or post, and the only way to contact the outside world was to drive to a frontier. As the one-day strike was still going on next day, and was obviously going to go on, there was nothing to do but drive 500 miles to Belgium in order to make a phone call. I remember having to do the same thing about 1953 when there was a postal and telephone strike and I was at a race at Sable d’Olonne on the Atlantic coast. This meant a very long drive to Switzerland in order to phone base, in those days in an old Fiat, which took quite a time to cover the ground. I shall never forget seeing holiday-makers buying picture postcards and putting them in pillar boxes that were already overflowing with uncollected cards and letters, even though everyone knew there was a postal strike that was going on for a week or more. Some of them were having difficulty in stuffing their “wish-you-were-here” cards into the solid mass in the pillar boxes.

All this strike business caused Le Mans to be postponed, and at the moment a date at the end of September has been suggested for the 24-hour event, but few people are in favour, mostly on the grounds of unsettled weather, longer hours of darkness and the possibility of longer periods of mist. The general feeling is that the A.C. de l’Ouest should cut their losses and cancel the whole thing for this year. After all, they had to in 1936, for similar reasons of industrial upheaval, but there are people who feel that it should be run if possible, especially those who have built cars for the event, such as Chevrolet, who built some very special Corvettes for the Scuderia Fillipinetti. A lot of non-factory entries are upset at the possibility of complete cancellation as they feel it is their one chance of victory, and Porsche must feel that it is their big chance of overall victory, which might not arise again. After the double-crossing that went on after the 1967 Le Mans race, a lot of us feel that cancellation would be justice. Also affected by the French upheavals is the Reims 12-hour race, which has been postponed, which is a pity for this event is a lot more fun than the Le Mans race, and the massed Le Mans-type start at midnight is one of the most shattering events in Europe. It is seemingly so impossibly dangerous that you can’t believe it is true, and the opening laps are one of the most exciting things to see. It is actually quite safe and there have never been any accidents, or even near misses, and I am sure that this is because everyone is conscious of the inherent danger and consequently are 100 per cent switched on. There is nothing like a dangerous-looking situation for making people careful.

With the Le Mans race postponed, I was able to take a couple of days off and join a trade-Press “junket” to the Goodyear Tyre Company’s Technical and Research Centre in Luxembourg. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is a small but pleasant country that exudes an air of peace, quiet, restfulness and goodwill, and driving down from Belgium, this became most noticeable as I passed the empty frontier post, for passports and Green Cards are not looked at between the Benelux countries. The Goodyear Technical Centre is some 30 kilometres north of the town of Luxembourg and we were shown various operations in the stretching, twisting, compressing, heating, freezing and contamination of rubber and rubber substitutes used in tyre-making. There were also practical destruction tests on production tyres and the introduction of a new all-round Goodyear tyre called the “Decathalon”, which is now in production, offering further improvements over the G800, especially for the non-sporting driver. A G800 and a “Decathalon” were spun together on a test rig up to tread-flinging speeds and after quite a time at 145 m.p.h. the G800 began to deform, whereas the “Decathalon” kept its shape. They both stood nearly 160 m.p.h. for a time and then the treads began to fly off, more or less at the same instant. The casings did not burst, and the interesting thing was the long warning of pending trouble, for bits of tread began to fly long before the complete break-up came. These were extreme conditions, not likely to be reached on the road, and as the E-type will not do 160 m.p.h. I am happy on my G800s, but if one did reach tread-flinging speeds you would certainly hear the rattle of the first bits of flying tread as they hit the wheel arches.

Among the test equipment is a completely soundproof chamber in which cars can be run on rollers to study road noise from tyres, and outside was a circular track on which an agricultural tractor was motoring round and round on its own, tethered to a pole. It was towing a trailer device testing tractor tyres, and looked most odd going round and round without a driver. When I first saw it, it was going anti-clockwise, but while having lunch someone must have “got at it” for when I returned it was going round the other way! On a hillside overlooking the factory and Technical Centre the ground is being cleared and work is starting on the construction of a vast proving ground with a 2.2-mile high speed circuit, with bankings at each end, cross-country sections and road racing type sections. Goodyear have suggested that it could be used for competition purposes, and the main straight would make a good drag-strip. It is hoped to have it finished by next year, so that we may yet see a Luxembourg Grand Prix in 1970. At the moment racing activity in Luxembourg is restricted by the Government to a few minor hill-climbs.

American tyre requirements are developed and tested at the main plant in Akron, Ohio, but in Luxembourg the research, development and production is carried on for European tyre requirements, especially co-operation with manufacturers on the design of tyres for new models. Of particular interest to sporting motorists is the production of a new tyre that can best be described as a road version of the wide-tread, low profile, square-section racing tyres used by McLaren, Eagle and Brabham Grand Prix cars. This 70-series, as it is known, will be appearing later this year.—Yours, D. S. J.