Letter from Europe

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

Dear W. B.,

I’ve done it again! Last year I travelled to Le Mans in a mobile caravan with the idea of having somewhere to get an hour or two of sleep during the 24-hour race. The device I used last year was fine when it was parked, but the 300-mile journey each way was unbearable. What really finished me for the gay, romantic, nomadic life of the gipsy traveller, was being overtaken up a hill by a 2-cv Citroën baker’s van. I said then, “never again” and decided that I preferred to travel across France properly, at an unruly 100 m.p.h., and suffer the discomfort of a Le Mans hotel, and on race night to sleep in a chair or on someone’s pit counter. Some people can stay awake for the whole of a 24-hour race and think nothing of it, but I tend to sag for an hour or two just before dawn. The trouble with Le Mans is that though the race runs from 4 p.m. Saturday to 4 p.m. Sunday (this year it’s 2 p.m. to 2 p.m.) you have to be up and about by 8 a.m. Saturday and if you are keen you don’t see a bed again until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. on Sunday so the 24 hours becomes 38 or even 40 hours and you feel very second-hand on Monday.

As I said, after pounding to Le Mans and back last year in a motorised caravan I said never again, and had it not been for the Grand Prix circus fouling up the Belgian G.P., it would have been “never again”. With the Belgian G.P. cancelled I took the opportunity to return to England for a week-end, and that’s when the man from Wilson’s Caravan Centre in Brixton got me on the phone and said “How about Le Mans this year,” and I said “No, I couldn’t stand being passed by another 2-cv bread van.” It was Anthony Wilson who was on the phone, and he’s as much of a caravan nut as his father and the rest of the firm. If anyone builds anything that looks remotely like a motorised caravan the Wilson family know about it and sell it to someone. So I’ve done it again, but I must admit that is was the 100 m.p.h. bit in Wilson’s conversation that swayed my better judgement. Knowing my aversion to 2-cv Citroën performance he produced a caravan that he thought would see off any 2 cv and more besides. It was a Martin Walter converted Ford Escort Estate, fitted out with camping gear, an extendable roof, a full length folding bed, but no lavatory or refrigerator like the device I had last year. Wilson’s had had it converted by the Willment Speed Shop, so that it had a hot 1600 Ford G.T. engine providing the power and it ran on sporty-type Ford wheels shod with podgy Goodyear G800 tyres. Actually it would not do 100 m.p.h., but it did do 95 m.p.h. and cruised at 85 on smooth roads, because Ford have still not discovered the property in automobile design of “ride”. Not only did it deal with the baker’s vans, but was great fun out-accelerating the local sporty-boys in their Simcas and Renaults with all the lamps on the front and the speed stripes on the sides. One thing about Ford’s, their engines will stand tuning and they do rev, so taking this innocuous-looking Caravan, with its yellow curtains, up to 70-75 m.p.h. in third, dealt with most things. I’m sure some French speed-shop merchants had dissatisfied customers coming back saying “I couldn’t keep up with a caravan!”

You no doubt remember many years ago that we had a friend who was always designing specials, and one of his phobias was that orthodox cars rolled under cornering forces and leant outwards. He always felt that cars should lean inwards on corners, like a motorcycle, and he used to instance a French special that ran in the Bol d’Or in Paris. It was a Chevalier, designed and built by Monsieur Chevalier, and was a little single-seater notable for its circular radiator. It was powered by an 1,100-c.c. Ruby engine, and its all-independent suspension was so arranged that the car leant inwards on corners. It was certainly intriguing, though not outstandingly successful and all I knew about it was its unusual appearance, from a rather fuzzy picture in a motoring magazine of the late nineteen-twenties. Can you imagine my disbelief when I saw the Chevalier motoring round the Monte Carlo circuit, just before the recent Grand Prix? It was taking part in a parade of old cars that had been in a commemoration run of the Paris-Nice rally and though the bodywork was changed from the slim single-seater to a small two-seater, and mudguards had been fitted, the rest was unchanged, and it was without doubt the original Chevalier. It seems that when Monsieur Chevalier gave up racing in the Bol d-Or he converted the car to its present two-seater form, as a road car, and it had been lying dormant in a Paris garage for well over 30 years. Recently some French enthusiasts found it, acquired it, and after making it all work again, took part in the Paris-Nice Commemoration run. Not only that, but they drove it back from Monaco to Paris, every bit of 600 miles, and the last I saw of them was when I passed the little Chevalier bowling merrily up the Autoroute somewhere near Avignon, presumably still leaning inwards on the corners.

While having my weekend off in England I took the opportunity to do some motoring in vehicles other than the E-type Jaguar, and one very pleasant day was spent in a 1932 Lagonda 3-litre tourer, visiting a Lagonda Club gathering and learning a lot about Lagondas, before the David Brown era, of course. I am told that one of the reasons for the creation of the 3-litre 6 cylinder Lagonda engine, with its massive seven-bearing crankshaft, was to provide a car that would go everywhere in top gear because one of the directors of the old firm could not change gear on the old Lagonda 4-speed “crash” gearbox. I think the most ardent Lagonda enthusiast will agree that the vintage and near-vintage Lagonda gearbox is a delight if everything goes well with your gear-changing, but a moment’s mental distraction and you miss a gear-change and you are in the most embarrassing trouble, stirring around feebly and finally coming to reset and starting all over again. It’s not like the gearbox on our 1930 Sunbeam, where you can push it into any gear no matter how much of a nonsense you have made. The 3-litre Lagonda does not have the personality or power of a 3-litre Bentley, but it certainly has all the charm, and bowls along nicely at 1,600 r.p.m. in top gear, ticking over at under 400 r.p.m. in neutral. It is a large comfortable vintage-type touring car, even though it was born in 1932. There are still some pure vintage 3-litres about, of 1929/30, and I’m sure the character is the same.

Another 3-litre car I took the opportunity of driving was a V6 Ford engined Marcos. Strange how popular the 3-litre capacity has always been; what a pity “Baladeur” is no longer writings for Motor Sport, for I feel he could produce a most interesting reason for this. [They are no longer “80-bore,” however.—Ed.] Think of the 3-litre Ballot, the 3-litre Bentley, the 3-litre Sunbeam, the 3-litre Lagonda, the 3-litre Invicta, the 3-litre Maserati, the 3-litre Mercedes-Benz SLR, the present 3-litre Grand Prix Formula, and all the 3-litre Prototype cars. It has always been a good round capacity figure. While trying the 3-litre V6 Ford-engined Marcos (of which more next month) I went up to Norfolk to visit Lotus, and did mention the idea of a 3-litre Lotus Europa, but there is nothing doing. Colin Chapman’s Lotus Empire on his own private aerodrome really is rather splendid, and well worth a visit; they are completely self-contained with their own runways and an L-shaped test track using the runways and the perimeter track. The whole factory exudes youth and vitality and a motoring atmosphere that I have never been conscious of in our Motoring Midlands, where the heart of the industry used to be. The black tyre marks away from the main gate of the factory occasions no surprise; they are those sort of people up in Lotus Land.

It would have been nice to be able to say that I finished up my “holiday weekend” with a ride on a 3-litre motorcycle! What I tried to do was to borrow a 3-cylinder motorcycle from Triumph, but somebody “threw it up the road” before I could get my hands on it, so I had to borrow an awful old-fashioned vertical-twin B.S.A. Lightning, brand new in build but so dated in conception and completely lacking in character. I wonder what happened to all the good motorcycle designers?—D. S. J.

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