Letter from Europe

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

Dear W. B.,

Just recently there has been a lot of motoring about in the northern part of Europe, using the Ostende-Bruxelles motorway on occasions, and each time I pass by Jabbeke I cannot help recalling what an historic piece of motorway it is to some of us. People who are learning about motoring today take motorways for granted and even get irritable if there aren’t any, but it was not so long ago that a stretch of concrete motorway was quite a novelty. The first time I set off freely into Europe was in 1948, on my racing 350-c.c. Manx Norton, wearing leathers and crash-hat, a bag of tools on the tank and a rucksack on my back, and I was heading for Mettet in southern Belgium to take part in the races there. Friends who knew Europe at the time told me to be sure to use the 17 miles of Belgian motorway, from Jabbeke to Aalter, as it saved the hammering on the pave. This isolated stretch of motorway was out in the country, starting in some fields and finishing in fields, and I never did discover why the Belgians built this particular stretch first. After bouncing over the bad roads from Ostende, standing up on the footrests most of the time, it was marvellous to experience my first stretch of motorway and crack down it at 85-90 m.p.h. I had seen photographs and read articles about German Autobahns and Italian Autostrada, and knew about the Bi-motore Alfa Romeo doing 199 m.p.h. on the Pisa-Florence stretch and Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union doing 270 m.p.h. at Darmstadt, but that was all theoretical schoolboy enthusiasm. That first experience of motorway in 1948 was reality for me. This piece of motorway also played a strong part in the immediate post-war revival of high-speed motoring in Britain, for Jaguar and Triumph used it to demonstrate how fast the XK120 and the TR2 could go, and Major “GoIdie” Gardner did remarkable speeds on it with various versions of his record-breaking MG. I well remember one of the first Californian Hot-Rodders saying, in reply to our doubts of side-valve Ford V8 “Lakesters” doing 180 m.p.h., that they were prepared to doubt Gardner’s speeds of over 200 m.p.h. with the 1,100-c.c. MG Magnette streamliner on the Belgian motorway. We said “But it was officially timed”, to which he replied, “So were ours”. In actual fact the Hot-Rodders were prepared to believe the MG records and could not understand why we would not believe their speeds. I suppose lack of knowledge was the answer, for since that time “Lakesters”, “Streamliners” and so on have become “respectable” and Bonneville speeds are something I accept and admire, especially up in the realms of Arfons and Breedlove. That stretch of Belgian motorway was indeed historic and I wonder how many people using it today have any knowledge of its use in the beginning.

While on the subject of roads, another historic piece has at last disappeared, and not before its time, though now it has gone it seems rather sad. This is in the north of Italy on a back road between Milan and Modena, which I used to use a lot before the Autostrada was built. Where this road crosses the River Po the bridge had been destroyed in the war and a temporary bridge was built across the river sitting on concrete barges. The river is very wide in these parts and this floating pontoon bridge was very flexible, so that every crossing was full of excitement, especially if you were in a small car following a lorry. It was obviously one of those war-time provisional things that became forgotten and turned into a permanent fixture, and was part of the fascination of the trip from Milan or Brescia down to Modena. Now it has all gone, the remains of the concrete pontoons are heaped up on the river bank and a fine new concrete and steel structure has taken its place, and it’s just like any other bridge now. It’s all part of progress I suppose, but progress does seem to take a lot of the fun out of things.

On the way to Le Mans I had just slowed down to start looking for something, when I noticed in the mirror an obvious sports/racer coming over the brow of the hill behind me. It was not a vintage car and not a modern Le Mans car so I moved over and watched it approach. It was a DB3S Aston Martin and as it boomed past there was a wave from the occupants, whom I recognised as those two present-day “vintagents” Pat Lindsay and Neil Corner, in the former’s ex-works Aston Martin DB3S, number 63 EMU, looking just as it did when it raced at Le Mans. They were using it for touring and were on their way to an Aston Martin gathering at Le Mans, which is all part of the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Aston Martin firm by the Aston Martin Owners’ Club. I can’t say I have ever been much of an Aston Martin enthusiast, or at least not since the Ulster TT Astons of 1935/36, seeing at the time the start of a new era in sports cars with the advent of the 328 BMW. When earlier this year, at the Race of Champions, someone showed me the new V8 Aston Martin coupe I could not work up much enthusiasm, having first seen a 4-o.h.c. engine like that in a Maserati in 1957. While we were looking at it a saloon-car race was taking place, and I thought how much more impressed I would have been if that new Aston Martin had been out on the track seeing off Gardner in his Boss Mustang. If and when Jaguar introduce their long-awaited V12 engine I can’t help feeling that similar thoughts will cross my mind. No-one can deny that the old vintage six-cylinder Jaguar engine was race-bred, and there is something about machinery that has proved itself on the racing circuits of Europe. When you see 911 Porsches you have to admire them, knowing their racing record, and this is the whole reason behind Matra racing their 12-cylinder engine. If Matra ever produce a de luxe GT car with a 3-litre V12 engine it will have earned respect even before it goes into production. This business of proving by racing is one of the reasons that the Lamborghini is not taken terribly seriously in some circles, it has never proved itself in public on the racing circuits.

With the Le Mans 24-hour race at its height as I write this it is interesting to look back over the years and see how the types of cars have gone in cycles. Every now and then you hear the cry from Le Mans about “monsters” that are too fast, and feeble attempts are made to control the continual progress in power and speed. Ferrari used to run the big front-engined 4.9-litre V12-cylinder cars, and Maserati built their 4-litre V8 cars, including that wild-looking coupe that Moss caused to be built. Then there was a recession for a time and the mid-engined V8-powered cars began to appear, sparked off by Eric Broadley’s first V8 Lola coupe. This era expanded up to the 7-litre Ford V8 coupes and there were more cries of “monsters”, so a 3-litre limit was put on Prototypes, but Ferrari and Porsche slipped in and confounded the planners with their 5-litre sports cars, and this year’s Le Mans race saw fourteen “monsters” lined up at the start before we saw the first 3-litre Prototype. All the “‘chicanery” that went on after the 1967 Le Mans race to get rid of the 7-litre cars and encourage the 3-litre Prototypes, in particular Matra, has come to nought, the “monsters” are back in a big way, there being nineteen in all, eleven Ferrari 512S, seven Porsche 917 and one Lola T70. No wonder the 3-litre Prototypes were overshadowed. Once again the cry will be “monsters” and already their death knell has been sounded, for 1972 will see an overall 3-litre limit imposed, but I wonder how many years it will be before another mis-management on the part of the rule-makers will see the “monsters” back at Le Mans?

The traffic arrangements for Le Mans may seem tiresome to some people, but in fact they are pretty well planned and police enforce their plans strictly. The various car parks have coloured labels to put on the windscreen and you follow that colour route, rather like the London Underground Railway system. The Press car park has a white label and on the way to the race I had one or two upheavals and shouting matches with various police and there was some blowing of whistles and finger wagging. I could not understand why this was, as I was on the white colour route, and had I not known the route well and the car park I was aiming for I would have been deflected miles away. When I got to the gate of the car park there was another rhubarb, which really had me puzzled, but I got in and found my allotted space, which was number 70, only to have an official tell me I was in the wrong park. After some discussion he said that the green car park was on the other side, and when I said I didn’t want the green park, I wanted the white park, he said, “But you have a green sticker on your windscreen”. I told him it was white when I put it on, but he insisted it was now green. I finally got out of the car and he was absolutely right. Then the penny dropped. When I ordered the new E-type Jaguar I had specified an anti-glare “green-tinted” windscreen! He looked inside the car and sure enough the sticker was white, so we were all friendly, but some of the Gendarmerie were probably still wagging their fingers and blowing their whistles. This little incident recalled a time when I was driving with a friend who wears spectacles all the time and has a special pair with dark lenses for bright sunny days. As the evening came on he gradually got slower and slower, and I couldn’t think why, for it was still clear enough for me to see all right. Having been in the sun all day he had forgotten he was still wearing his dark lenses and for him night had fallen much earlier than for me. He changed to his clear lenses and we were back to our normal cruising speed.

Did I mention the rain at Le Mans? You can’t begin to imagine how awful a race can be.

Yours, D. S. J.