[By means of which our roving European reporter keeps in touch with the editor]
Dear W. B.,
I have just energised my nervous system and exercised my apprehension faculties, and feel very much better for it. When you attend the Monaco Grand Prix the last thing you need is a car, so the E-type spent five days doing nothing and any movements I made were on foot. The racing at Monaco is seldom exciting, though it is fun, but being relatively slow by racing standards there is little to watch that makes you tingle with excitement, as for example seeing the brave ones taking Woodcote Corner at Silverstone right on the limit, or watching a 917 Porsche doing over 200 m.p.h. past the Hippodrome Café at Le Mans. I get similar excitement from watching fast cars and brave drivers taking the Burnenville or Stavelot bends at Spa-Francorchamps, or the Ascari curve at Monza (before the GPDA put a stop to it). Monaco is a different world, it’s noisy and fantastic because it is round the streets of the town, but it is not heart-stopping to watch. Consequently you can get into a gentle and lethargic state of mind, especially after not motoring about for five days on end. (Is this what some people call a holiday?).
There are many ways of leaving the Monaco-Nice area by car and I thought I had done them all, but quite by chance I set off straight over the mountains, not really enjoying Autoroutes, Autostradas or Autobahns and after a while found myself committed to crossing a mountain pass very close to the French/Italian border. The day was dull and overcast but as I climbed up the single-track gravel road the rain poured down and the higher I went the deeper I got into cloud, and there were snow banks on each side of the road in places, which made the going very slow and eerie. For most of the way I was in second gear, creeping along at 800 r.p.m., peering into the cloud and the snow banks, having no idea of where I was going or what I was supposed to be seeing, which was why my apprehension faculties were being energised, to say nothing of my eyeballs being out on stalks trying to see where the long nose of the E-type was probing. When there were snow banks on both sides of the road it was not too bad, but when there was snow only on one side and there was nothing on the other except cloud, with no edge to the road I began to wish I had not started this trip. It was too narrow to think of turning round and too steep and too long to think of reversing.
On a bright sunny day it might have been pleasant, seeing the splendid views and the top at which you were aiming, but in rain and cloud it was something quite else. The top of the pass turned out to be just over 9,300 feet above sea-level, by which time I was down to walking pace in bottom gear. At the top the road turned sharp right through a slot cut in a rock wall, then right again and began to descend down the other face of the wall. From here on, I thought, it can only get better, and still in bottom gear I continued to grope my way downwards, until eventually I was below the clouds and the snow and the rain and grass and trees began to appear. Eventually I was back in normal friendly inhabited mountain countryside and I realised I had not seen another vehicle, another human being or an animal for 1 hour and 20 minutes and had covered nearly 30 miles in second and first gears, and I thought Europe was getting over-populated and that I knew all the ways out of Monaco!
After that little trip I had shaken off my lethargy and for the rest of the afternoon I stormed over the Col du Vars, the Col du Lauteret, the Galibier and the Telegraphe in quick succession. I was going to take in the Izoard as well, but it was still closed by snow. Pass-storming on a reasonably wide and well-surfaced road when you can see where you are going and what you are doing is great fun and is one of the better motoring activities, which is why the “Chain-Gang” are galloping about in the French Alps in their Frazer Nashes even as you are reading this; but in thick cloud on a narrow gravel surfaced ledge cut in the rock is something I prefer not to start, and was very relieved when it was finished. Like so many things in life it was great when it was over and common-sense says don’t start something you won’t enjoy, but if we let common-sense prevail all the time life would be dull and we’d become cabbages.
This little mountaineering excursion recalled a time when I gave the French Grand Prix a miss in order to drive an Alfa Romeo as a camera-car making a film of the Alpine Rally. The weather was glorious and in the open Alfa Romeo, taking the camera-man from one mountain pass to the next, right through the French Alps, the Italian Alps and the Dolomites, was a memorable trip. It was also a memorable film, but that was sixteen years ago, just as some of our new young readers were being born!
It’s strange how enthusiasm will overcome common-sense, and how enjoyment will overcome hardship. On that mountain trip I remember on one day driving for 21 hours non-stop, all of it in mountain country, as we zig-zagged about picking up competitors at various points on the route, and we crossed and re-crossed more mountain passes than I care to remember. If, before that day, I had been told I was going to work for 21 hours, I would have laughed, and gone somewhere else.
Mention of missing the French Grand Prix reminds me that I missed this year’s Targa Florio, much to the puzzlement of various colleagues. Many thought I had gone to East Germany in Tom Wheatcroft’s Donington Collection Transporter to find the 1939 Grand Prix Mercedes that is now up at Donington. They were quite wrong, though I was near to Donington, actually at Mallory Park at the Vintage Motor Cycle Club’s annual race meeting. I went up on my Norton Commando and had a superb early morning run cross-country from Hampshire, until the rains came about 30 minutes from Mallory Park.
The scene there was awful, wet and soggy, and everyone looked as though they had just fallen in the lake. If you arrive somewhere in pouring rain in a closed car there is little incentive to get out. On a motorcycle it is a different world, you are out in the sun or the rain from the moment you get astride the motorcycle, so the elements do not really seem to matter, and that was the whole atmosphere of the motorcycle meeting at Mallory Park. Between the races there was opportunity for old riders to have a gallop round on any motorcycle they could borrow in what is described as an historic parade, but what turns out to be a free-for-all. There was a fine turnout of retired racing motorcyclists, most of them having a go in the pouring rain, and among them was F. W. R. England (our Lofty) now the Managing Director of Jaguar Cars. I wonder how many Jaguar employees there were in the crowd, watching their boss circulating on a racing 350-c.c. AJS?
Earlier I mentioned how enthusiasm overcomes common-sense, which is the only way I can explain how I came to ride on the sidecar of a 500-c.c. Norton outfit in one of the sidecar races. Suffering equally from enthusiasm was the chap conducting the outfit, 62-year-old Eric Oliver, with whom I used to race all over Europe for a living 25 years ago. As we sat on the front row of the grid ready for the start, I thought “life doesn’t change much, does it?”
Rounding Gerards Bend on each lap, hanging over the rear wheel of the Norton I could see Eric’s right hand holding the twist-grip against the stop, and the front wheel crabbing in an awful understeer, with the old girder forks juddering away, and I thought, “if the front-wheel spindle breaks right now, we won’t half loop-the-loop over the hedge”. On left-hand bends there are other things to do than think, and down the short straight all you can do is look at the engine thumping away in front of your nose as you lie full length on the platform. And all the time the rain was pouring down. With a combined total age of 114 years some people think we ought to know better than to fool about with motorcycles, but enthusiasm is what makes people tick, without it they become grey.
Yours, D. S. J.