Letter from Europe

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

Dear W.B.,

I was interested to read in last month’s Motor Sport about the Moroccan Rally by G.P. and especially how the lone works Lancia beat complete teams from Citroën, Renault and Peugeot, for almost the same thing happened in the Targa Florio, which after all is virtually a rally over eleven stages, the only difference being that all the stages are the same, and passengers or navigators are not carried. In the Targa Florio a lone works Ferrari beat the entire Alfa Romeo team and that must be the most satisfactory race result (or rally result) that anyone could wish to have. When you have a team of four cars against the opposition’s four-car teams and you finally get one of your cars home first it is satisfactory enough, but to enter one car and finish first must be the best way of winning from the morale point of view. Jim Hall achieved this satisfaction with his Chaparral when he won the ADAC 1,000-kilometre race at the Nurburgring and later the BOAC race at Brands Hatch, and Alfa Romeo did it in 1950 when they sent a lone Tipo 158 to San Remo to give Fangio his first works drive. It is all very nerve racking for the drivers to be on their own, but if it comes off it is more satisfying than a dominant 1-2-3-4 sweep such as Mercedes Benz and Ferrari have achieved in their time.

Quite by chance I found myself at a small private dinner party with Fangio recently, when he and some friends were celebrating an Argentinian national holiday, even though they were in Rome. The old maestro is 61 years old and looking little different from when he last raced in 1958, and still follows racing pretty closely, being connected with the International race organisation in Argentina, as well as being the force behind the building of the “Fangio Circuit” in his home town of Balcarce, not far from Buenos Aires. In addition he represents the Argentine on the FIA for matters of International motoring, apart from the sporting side of motoring, and he was recently in Japan for an FIA Congress. He was highly amused by the plastic policemen that are placed strategically by the road-side at the entrance to cities, saying that it is a very clever psychological move, for you instinctively lift your foot off the accelerator when you see a policeman up ahead. I suggested that the idea was limited in value, because once you discovered the policemen were not real you ignored them. Fangio’s eyes twinkled, an eyebrow went up, and he pointed out that the day you do that is just the day officialdom decides to put a real policeman among the plastic ones. What we call Sodt’s Law. It’s nice to know that Fangio is still one of us.

He was in Italy for a number of reasons, one being in connection with a full-length feature film that is being made about his life, and another being to set a young Argentinian friend on the road to Formula Three racing. Naturally we got to talking about racing (Italian being the common language between the Argentinian, Venezuelan, American, Italian and English people present) and the victory by Ferrari in the Targa Florio against the four Alfa Romeos came up for discussion. Fangio’s comment was simple “Only one car can win a race.” However Ferrari has tried it in the past in Grand Prix racing and not succeeded, and this year Matra are trying it in Grand Prix, with a noticeable lack of success so far. There are a number of things in motor racing that I still think are meritorious, like winning a race with a completely new design on its first appearance, like Colin Chapman did with his Lotus 49 with the first Cosworth V8, or entering four cars, or even three, and bringing them home in line-ahead formation, or beating everyone with just one car, like Lancia did in that Moroccan Rally. Mention of the rally route going to Marrakesh and then striking out over the Atlas mountains recalled the time I went to the Morrocan Grand Prix in 1957 with three friends in a Rover 90. Dear old Auntie Rover, with her clock ticking away on the wooden mantelpiece and her long skirts, was driven “harry-flatters” by the four of us down through France and Spain to the ferryboat at Gibraltar and then equally fast to Casablanca. As there was time to spare between practice and the race we pointed Auntie south on the straight flat road from Casablanca to Marrakesh, the last town on our map before the real desert began. From Marrakesh the Atlas mountains formed a wonderful backcloth on the skyline further south and I had a terrible urge to forget the Grand Prix and motor on into those fascinating mountains just to see what was on the other side of them. I was out-voted by 3 to 1 on a visit to the Marrakesh Casbah, which I did not enjoy, firmly locking the door on my side and refusing to get out among the locals. As we set out on the 150-mile straight run across desert land back to Casablanca I was still ticking about wanting to see what was on the other side of the Atlas mountains, but my companions were unmoved and they pointed out that there would only be more desert and anyway by the time we crossed the mountains Auntie would be out of petrol and there would be no petrol stations over there and no restaurants and they were all getting hungry. I did not ask them why they had not eaten something in the Marrakesh Casbah! For the next hour I sat and glowered at Auntie’s speedometer which sat steadfastly on 95 m.p.h. on the long straight road across the desert.

I know someone will now suggest that I take part in the Moroccan Rally next year in order to-satisfy that ambition of sixteen years ago, but it would not be the same. These things have to be done on the spur of the moment to be enjoyable, like the trip I did to the Arctic Circle in a racing 300SL Mercedes-Benz Gull-Wing coupé, when we ran out of tyres, or like last year when we took the V12 Jaguar to the Western Highlands of Scotland on the spur of the moment, and ran out of money, having set out with the intention of merely putting its wheels “over the border” at Carlisle. It is invariably maps which set me off on such trips, for I see an interesting road or place-name and feel I must go and look at it. If we hadn’t had a map of Scotland with us that time I would have happily turned the V12 southwards once I had set foot on Scottish soil, and I am glad now that we did not.

I happened to be in Germany recently on a Saturday morning in the outer suburbs of a large city, and equally unusual I was on foot and wandering about aimlessly. It never takes long for something to attract my attention and this time it was a queue of 25 to 30 cars at a BV-Aral garage and petrol station, so curiosity made me wander across to find out why. My thoughts wandered from a strike of petrol tanker drivers and subsequent shortage at the pumps, through an impending ban on motoring or petrol rationing, to the garage proprietor going mad and giving away petrol for nothing. All the cars had people in them and most of them had their engines running, burning expensive German petrol and the queue was not moving as I walked alongside it to see what it was all about. It wound its way past the petrol pumps, past the workshops, round the back of the showrooms, and into an automatic washing machine. The car about to disappear into the washing machine, complete with its occupants, was being sprayed with soap solution from a high pressure hose, and when it was completely covered it was hooked onto a conveyor belt by its left front wheel and dragged through a hurricane of wind and water and whirling brushes. I walked round the back of this car laundry to watch the Mercedes-Benz and BMWs emerge spotless and white, and as I walked away I saw that the whole operation was advertised as taking 3 minutes and costing 3.50 Deutschmarkes (about 40p). Now, there was nothing very special about all this until I crossed the road to look in the showroom of an Esso garage and petrol station, and I noticed a white Mercedes-Benz, like any other Mercedes-Benz, emerging from a building and sparkling as if it had just been washed. In fact, it had, by the same mechanical means as I had been watching across the road. The only difference was that it had cost 5 Deutschmarkes at the Esso garage, but there was no queue, as I realised when a BMW drove straight up to the soap spray, into the washhouse and out the other end while the cars opposite moved up one space in the 30-car queue. I wandered off in a slightly befuddled frame of mind trying to work out which garage was making the most profit per hour, and whether a wait in a 30-car queue with the engine running was costing more than the difference in price between the two washing machines, and whether, if “time costs money” as people keep telling me, the German public are doing their sums right on a Saturday morning. In the end I gave up and went and had lunch.

It was interesting at the Belgian Grand Prix, at the beginning of last month, the number of people who were visiting Belgium for the first time this year and did not know about the overall speed limit that has been put on normal Belgian roads. If you drive into Belgium, especially from the south or west, you are confronted by a large sign by the roadside indicating that there is an overall 90 k.p.h. speed limit, but if you arrive by air to Bruxelles and drive off in a Hertz or Avis hire-car, as most people do at Grand Prix races, there is no indication of this speed limit. For as long as I can remember Belgian laws invariably have a “get-out” clause somewhere in them, and this speed limit law is a typical practical Belgian one, unlike the British speed limit law. This 90 k.p.h. does not apply on Motorways (which are growing fast in Belgium) or on four-lane roads, aptly described as 2 x 2, and such free roads do not need a central division. The signs just inside the borders are paper ones nailed to boards, and some of them are getting very tatty, and I am told that as the passing of this speed limit law was part of a political campaign to curry favour with a certain section of the public, and that the politician concerned is on the way out, this speed limit law is not taken too seriously, even by the Belgian Gendarmerie. This does not mean that I am suggesting it should be ignored, because, as Fangio said, you should always bear in mind Professor Sodt’s Law,

You have often pointed out, the moment we get into a motor car we are potential law breakers, and quite often deliberate ones. I find that there comes a moment in motoring when you have to choose between the letter of the law and safety, and in such eases my reflexes always go for the safety of my own skin. One of the most frightening things to see is the law-abiding motorist doing 69.9 m.p.h. overtaking another car doing 67 m.p.h. in our 70 m.p.h. limited country. The overtaking time, and potential accident time, seems to go on for ever. Personally I would rather squirt up to 90-95 m.p.h. and get by quickly, than stick to the letter of the law. Motoring through Barcelona I was hurrying along on a dual-carriageway with traffic light crossings when one of them began to change to red. With a bit of a panic I could have stopped in time, but, as there was hardly any traffic about I pressed on, passing the lights as the current began to leave the filament of the orange bulb and pass to the filament of the red bulb, but before it actually glared; the situation known as cutting it fine. What I had not realised was that the crossing was the junction of two dual-carriageways, mine and the one at right angles, and there were double sets of lights, with a sort of no-man’s land between them of quite large proportions on which you were supposed to stop if you missed stopping at the first set of lights, because by now the second set were well and truly red. It was all too instant for dithering decisions, and as I was looking right and left as I crossed the first set and could see the road was clear both ways at the second set at the same time, rather than try any desperate braking manoeuvres, I gave the Jaguar a good squirt of throttle through the second set of lights, straight into the arms of a Spanish motorcycle policeman who had been sitting on the central division about a quarter mile beyond the crossing, on my dual carriageway ! Had I not been so wary about looking right and left as I accelerated over the inter-sections, looking after my own skin, I would have been concentrating more on the empty road ahead, seen him on his motorcycle and come to a screeching halt with locked wheels between the two sets of traffic lights. It is very difficult explaining the finer points of travelling swiftly to a Spanish policeman who is not on your side and can tell a red light from a green or orange one. Actually he was very nice about it all and I gathered I had done something very naughty concerning “semaphores” or “robots”, but there was nothing in the wigging he gave me about speed or danger I am happy to say.

It is now past midsummer, the longest day as we call it, and the shortest night as the French call it, and the soft top on the E-type has only been down for two days since Easter. What ever happened to the sun ? — D. S. J.