European Letter

[By means of which our roving European reporter keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W.B.,

It’s not far off thirty years since I first went to Belgium under my own steam, for I am not counting a family holiday back in the ‘twenties, and as I mentioned in a letter to you a year or so ago, I was intrigued by the first piece of motorway I encountered. This was the stretch between Jabbeke and Aalter which is now part of the main Ostende to Bruxelles highway. Recently I was meandering about in the north of Belgium, close to the Dutch frontier and following some “Diversion” signs (the Flemish word is unspellable and is unpronounceable), I suddenly came upon a brand new stretch of motorway, which like the 1948 JabbekeAa’ter stretch, started nowhere and finished nowhere and I couldn’t help thinking that things don’t change much in Belgium. When we open a new stretch of motorway it seems to have a proper beginning and a proper end and is clearly part of a system. I suppose in a few years time this stretch that I came across will be part of an overall scheme, but I often wonder about the administration behind such projects and why one section gets finished before others are even started. In a similar manner certain Belgian houses have always intrigued me, for you will see a single house with plain brick walls on each side looking as if it has been cut out of a row of terraced houses, yet there is never any sign of further houses being added. Presumably the original plans were for a row of six or eight in a block and the builder never went ahead with the idea. The oda thing is that the one solitary house always looks as though it was intended to be one of the middle ones, never an end one, like a slice of bread taken out of the middle of a loaf.

One of the things I enjoy doing is reading a map for pleasure, not with the object of route finding, but merely to browse through, like looking through a picture album. This invariably arouses my curiosity about a particular piece of road, a waterway, a forest and its tracks or a coast line, and while I was at the Belgian GP at Zolder I was browsing through my map of the Province of Limberg and noticed “Automobile Museum” marked a little way off a fairly main road. This was just north of Hassett, and had to be looked at for two reasons, one to look at the cars in the Museum and the other to find out why it was marked as being off the road, instead of on the edge of the road. It turned out to be in a large park and woodland laid out and organised for just about every outdoor activity you could imagine; what is called in modern talk, “a leisure centre”, though not my idea of leisure for any of the advertised activities would have worn me out very quickly. Unfortunately, these organised leisure centres never seem to offer any off-road motorcycling activity, not a scramble or moto-cross course for tearaways, but a small hilly trials area where you could enjoy a balancing act or a touch of the “slant artists” at 30 m.p.h. and with very little fuss. Like having a putting green where you can enjoy the odd half hour, without the need for a full-scale golf course. Anyway, this Automobile Museum was buried deep in the woods signposted along gravel paths and there in a vast clearing was a building that made our National Motor Museum at Beaulieu look like a light engineering factory and the Donington Park Museum look like a collection of army Nissen huts. Goodness knows what it cost to build, but it is truly magnificent, and it houses the Mahy Collection, this Belgian gentleman having been collecting cars for a very long time. Unfortunately the exhibits do not do justice to the building, for most of them, while well presented, come under that category, coined by “One Track” in Motorcycle Sport, of Grey Porridge and if you don’t believe there are shades of grey, you should visit the Mahy Museum. I had long forgotten that so many dull cars have been made over the years. One thing about Beaulieu is that there is immense variety in its exhibits, while Donington Park staggers the visitor by the excitement of the exhibits. Naturally the Mahy Museum features the Belgian-made cars very strongly, with lots of Minervas, Imperias and FNs, but it also depicts the Belgian motoring scene by way of the Popular imports from Great Britain, France and America. The normal motoring scene in Belgium was never very enthralling, like Italy or Switzerland, and this Museum unwittingly reflects this. One of the nicest exhibits was a reconstructed scene of how old cars used to be found, with an Edwardian saloon of some obscure make in a hay barn, derelict and covered in old bicycles, straw bales, fence posts and all the junk that gets heaped into an open-ended barn on a farm. There were signs of chickens nesting on the driver’s seat and rats and mice obviously were resident in numbers; in fact, a live hen hatching out some free-range eggs would not have been out of place and would have been the ultimate finishing touch. All this in the corner of a marble and glass palace that made you feel you should remove your shoes before entering the front doors. I think the reason for feeling a bit disappointed by the overall collection was that it was not laid out to tell any son of story or to follow any sort of theme, or if it was it escaped me.

In complete contrast was a visit I made to Bristol, during a weekend “back on the mainland of Europe”. I had gone westwards to watch power-boat racing in the harbour, sponsored by the Embassy cigarette branch of the W.D. & H.O. Wills tobacco family who have close ties with the western sea port, but I took time off to visit the SS Great Britain, the great iron ship built by Brunel in 1843 and the first propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic. Having been retrieved from the Falkland Islands in 1970 it is undergoing a complete rebuild and restoration. When I have looked at railway engines being rebuilt by enthusiasts they have made vintage car restoration seem child’s play, but the restoration of Brunel’s great ship is something else altogether. For a mere 40p you can tour the whole thing, both inside and out, along specially constructed temporary walk-ways and all along the line are notice boards giving very thorough and well-worded explanations of what has been happening, what is happening, and what is going to happen, as well as a very full history of the ship from the time Brunel started the project. As an example of how to lay out something for public viewing, even while work is in progress, I thought. it was superb and came away feeling it was th best 40p I’ve spent for a long while. What really impressed me was the thought of the work when the ship was first designed and built over 130 years ago. Anyone who has read L. T. C. Rolt’s book about Isambard Kingdom Brunel will know that he was a remarkable man and to cross his bridges or travel his railways give you great respect for him, but to stand inside the stripped-out hull of the SS Great Britain put him into a different dimension for me.

On the power-boat racing scene I found the various engines rather fascinating, there being V6 two-strokes, 3-cylinder two-strokes, 4-cylinder two-strokes and some beautiful looking straight-six-cylinder two-strokes. There were also a couple of 2-litre Cosworth BDG engines which made me feel at home. In the boat racing world it is normal to give your boat a name, some being straightforward, like Spirit of Venus, or Georgie Girl IV, while others are obscure like Rondetto or Chinthe. Some while ago I tried to encourage the world of Formula One cars to give names to the cars instead of serial numbers, like 312T2/027. Among the boats was one called “Iver-Con-Iver”, which would not do badly for one of Frank Williams’ cars, while another was “Ere-wee-go” which I felt would have been suitable for Brambilla’s March, and how about “Sir Ducer” for James Hunt’s McLaren?

The reason for having time to spare to visit Bristol at a weekend was a sad one, for it was due to the cancellation of the Group 6 Sports Car race at Spa. With only 12 entries received the Club had no option but to cancel the event and this made it very clear what a complete nonsense the CSI has made of long-distance racing this year with their two World Championship series, one for Group 5 “silhouette” saloons, and the other for “two-seater” racing cars”, when the whole lot put together are hardly enough for a proper 1,000-kilometre race. Those of us who saw the great 1,000-kilometre races of a few years ago with a field of Porsche 917s can count ourselves lucky, and even more so, the days of the Ford GT40 and the Chaparral. I suppose in 10 years’ time there will be those who look back on the great days of the turbo Porsche Carrera and the BMW CSL; my only worry is what they will he watching then.