Letter from Monaco

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Extravagance

Dear AH,

Last month I mentioned my brief encounter in Italy with competitors in the third Coppa d’Italia, and this prompted one of our readers in Switzerland to kindly send me the nicely printed entry list of that event. He was taking part in his 1933 Alfa Romeo 8C, and he answered my query about not seeing any 1900cc Alfa Romeos. It seems there were two taking part, but one broke a half-shaft at the start of the racing at Mugello, the other retiring for reasons unknown.

He mentioned in his letter that the post-war classes, of cars of the fifties, were indulging in some really competitive driving, not just ‘promenading’ about, as in some ‘historic’ events. This bears out what Steve Hallam (Ayrton Senna’s race-engineer) said when I met him at Imola. Our Swiss friend said that the pre-war class was rather quiet in comparison, but nonetheless they all enjoyed themselves, and he felt the whole event was very well organized.

Looking through the entry and results, there were a couple of Italian names that brought back some happy memories of the fifties. Not racing drivers or makes of car, but the names of Scuderias.

Now we all know the name Scuderia Ferrari, but in those days there were numerous small scuderias (the Italian word for team), as Italian clubmen were taking part in some pretty serious national events which were far more professional than our club racing at Silverstone or Brands Hatch. Various Scuderias were formed, often around town motor clubs, or by a group of like-minded enthusiasts, and entries and support were made through these semiprofessional scuderias.

The two which brought back happy memories were entries from the Scuderia Jolly Club, a group which originated from the Marzotto family and their chain of Jolly Hotels, and from the Scuderia Madunina, a group which used to enter Alfa Romeo and Ferrari cars in GT events. Other names in the list which have obvious connections were Racing Team Holland, and Scuderia Brescia Racing. You could hardly live in or near Brescia and not be an open-road racing nut.

Another letter from a reader, prompted by one of my letters to you (we must keep the Post Office solvent!), was from Anthony Brooke, he of the Vauxhall Villiers, in which he adds to the pre-selector gearbox saga, and the Armstrong Siddeley and ENV variants.

He bought an Armstrong Siddeley racing pre-selector gearbox in 1948 through an advertisement in Motor Sport, and the man who sold it to him claimed it to be from the batch made in 1934 for Whitney Straight to fit to his 8CM Maserati Grand Prix cars. The story was that Straight placed an order for nine of these special gearboxes, to equip his team of cars and as spares or for possible sale, like the one he sold to Nuvolari. All of which adds interest to the “Scuderia Straight” and the remarkable young American in 1934.

In passing, Brooke mentions that he had the pre-selector gearbox from his Talbot-Lago Grand Prix car overhauled by Armstrong Siddeley. They were a little apprehensive as all the threads were metric, but they managed.

While in Monaco for the Grand Prix, one’s mind was basically on today’s Formula One, but old cars and history can never be far away. The day before we all arrived for the annual “Extravaganza of Speed and Beauty” there had been an equally extravagant auction sale of old Bugattis and Ferraris, and some were sold for prices which bring tears to ones eyes. If they were not the prices in French Francs, US Dollars or Pounds Sterling they must have been the Hotel Loews telephone number. As far as I am concerned both are pretty academic, and the actual currency is pretty immaterial anyway.

Inevitably, these auctions produce some amusing stories, such as that of an owner who was bidding for his own car, in order to bump the price up. He anticipated backing out just at the right moment, to leave his opposition paying an inflated price. There was a moment of inattention somewhere along the line, and the owner found he had bought his own car! The irony of the situation was that by the time the auctioneers had taken their cut, and added various ‘premiums’ and ‘taxes’, it cost the owner a lot of money to not sell his car. It would have paid him to have sold the car privately for its true worth, rather than inflate the price at the auction. The big auction at the Loews Hotel in Monaco was on the Tuesday before the Grand Prix exploded on the scene, and that night the owner of one of the “million pound Ferraris” was asked politely to hurry up and move his car from the Hotel garage. The space it occupied was reserved for a well-known television motor racing personality who was due to arrive on Wednesday morning. His car? A Ford Sierra!

While looking at the traffic milling about during race week, I noticed a French’ registered Renault 4CV, the original little rear-engined family car, and a slightly later Renault Dauphine, also French-registered. Neither car was in concours condition, but nor were they on trailers or wrapped in plastic sheeting. They were clean and tidy and in use, like we still see Morris Minors in England.

At the Le Mans 24-Hour race some Bugatti owners were celebrating a 50th anniversary. It is 50 years this year since Bugatti won Le Mans for the first time. I was going to say “and only time”, but it won again in 1939. This was with the fully streamlined “tank”, based on Type 57 and Type 59 components, one of which is still in existence.

Did I hear the Bentley Drivers Club mutter but we won Le Mans 63 years ago” and the Alfa Romeo owners murmur, “our first victory at Le Mans was 56 years ago”?

The intriguing-looking Bugatti “tank” was driven by Jean-Pierre Wimille and Robert Benoist, two renowned French racing drivers of their period, and they averaged just over 85 mph for the 24 hours. One nice thing about the Le Mans race, in these days of continual change, is that it is still held at Le Mans and it still runs for 24 hours non-stop.

Our next breathtaking moment is going to be watching the Formula One cars passnig the Silverstone pits at 180 mph, having taken a run at Woodcote corner from the new “chicane” back by the bridge. Yours, DSJ

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