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 we seem to have been in a bit of a muddle over here, for we had a race in Italy on a Tuesday, followed by a race in Belgium on a Monday. It was all very confusing because normally I can only keep track of the passage of time by the fact that race day means it is a Sunday and another week has gone by. To confuse matters even more I drove through three snowstorms on the way down to Monte Carlo, and in the month of May. I said things have been in a muddle! However, I am happy to say that all is back to normal, races are now on Sundays, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and the day before yesterday I got the E-type wound up to 5,800 r.p.m. in top for quite a long time. The actual m.p.h. is academic, but on a 3.07-to-1 rear axle it is fast enough and Jaguar owners will no doubt appreciate that the engine is running well to do this without any fuss and with 85,000 kilometres rising on the clock.

Since I last wrote to you I have been doing some of those interesting cross-country journeys, where by country I mean actual countries. Breakfast in Italy, lunch in Austria, tea in Germany and supper in Belgium, sort of thing, and I always enjoy such trips because it makes me appreciate the freedom of travel in Europe. There is no drama, no booking agents, boats or aeroplanes, just a passport and a Green Insurance Card and you can go anywhere as and when you feel like it. It is interesting to do one of these runs where the middle country is what I call “neutral,” in other words it does not manufacture cars and is a relatively free market for those who do. One such trip was France, Belgium, Germany, another was France, Switzerland, Italy, and on these trips you are very aware of the complete change of scene as you cross the frontier. In France motoring is all Citroëns and Peugeots but no sooner had I got into Belgium, on a small back road, than I saw a Mustang and a Honda motorcycle. A few hours later, crossing into Germany life became all Volkswagens and Mercedes Benz; and so it goes on. The impression in Belgium is that no one has a monopoly; in Switzerland the accent is very much on German cars, but south of the Alps in the province of Ticino, where Switzerland projects down into Italy there was no monopoly and there were hits of British sports cars such as Triumphs, M.G.s and even a Lotus Elan, while Jaguar saloons seemed popular. While in that part, which to me is the nicest part of Switzerland and I always appreciated why Rudolf Caracciola made his home there, I saw a very smart 328 B.M.W. in the forecourt of a Fina petrol station. Needless to say I stopped and soon found that the owner was also the garage owner and he had just finished rebuilding the car. It was a completely standard 1937 car, but in nice condition and finding I was interested in such things the owner took me down into the basement where he had other cars, including an 8.9 hp. Renault four-seater, a vintage de Dion Bouton tourer and a 1939 Maserati 4CL, one of the 16-valve 4-cylinder cars, but he was not having much joy with it as he could not get the proper alcohol fuel that he needed, which made me realise how fortunate our V.S.C.C. chaps are in being able to keep their pre-war racing cars running on the proper fuels, plugs, tyres, etc. Returning upstairs he let me drive his 328 B.M.W. and we motored off up the road for a short trip. It was very nice, but not as good as my own 328, for it did not have the close-ratio Hirth gearbox, nor the very wide bi-metal brake drums, but it was a good example of a standard production 328. Leaving him with some useful information on how he can find a Rolls-Royce, which he wants to buy as a birthday present for his father, I continued on my way to Italy.

While on vintage matters, a couple of weeks back I was motoring in the Alsace part of France so I made a slight detour to pass through Molsheim. As you approach the town from the south on the N.422 you suddenly see a large Bugatti badge beside the road, half-hidden by bushes, and round the next corner is the Bugatti factory, no longer building racing cars, but doing general engineering. It was Saturday afternoon so everything was closed, but there are still Bugatti badges on the entrance pillars and a large badge on the front of the factory. One thinks of Bugatti as having been a small concern, and by comparison with Citroën or Renault they were, but nonetheless it is a sizeable factory, especially when compared with today’s specialist builders like Lotus, Cooper or Brabham, who are only carrying on doing what Bugatti was doing in the vintage years. I waited in vain for the sight of Jean Pierre Wimille coming out of the gates in a Type 59 on test!

I called in at the Lamborghini factory to see how the production of the P400 Miura is getting along and was able to have a short sharp drive in the prototype car, that has now done over 100,000 kilometres of test driving, so it was not exactly representative. It was certainly impressive and had all the good characteristics of a GT40 Ford, with that same balanced feel you only get from a mid-engine layout. With its 4-litre V12-cylinder engine with 8,000 r.p.m. on tap the acceleration was of the type where you point the car and squirt it, but I did not like the steering as it had no “feed-back” qualities so it felt dead and the gear-change was not a patch on the ZF gearbox used on the production GT40, the Lamborghini lever movements being long and rather heavy. As I said, this was only the prototype car, which is now a general purpose hack car so it would not be fair to judge by it and anyway I only drove it for a few minutes. No doubt some skilful journalists would manage to write a complete road-test, including facts and figures, after such a run, but I prefer to view it like Alex Moulton put it when we all tried the T-type Rolls-Royce – ” To get it in focus.” Having done that one can then start to find out about a car. I consider I began to find out about the GT40 Ford after I had used it for a week, and I have found out about the E-type Jaguar after using it for two years, but “up the road and back” is just a matter of making contact, but very interesting contact even so.

A couple of weeks after driving the mid-engine Lamborghini I caught up with Mr. Lamborghini himself in a front-engined 2 + 2, with the same type of 4-litre 4 o.h.c. V12-cylinder engine, and this particular car was noticeable because it had cast alloy wheels as used on the Miura, instead of the standard wire wheels. We ran in company for quite a way and I recalled the time when you and I were motoring somewhere or other and we passed the time by thinking up people who could motor about in cars with their own name on the front. Not cars of the past, but those still in production today, such as Lamborghini, Ferrari, Ford, Morgan, Cooper and so on, but not Chapman in a Lotus, the manufacturer had to have his own name on the front. Apparently it is quite amusing when Commendatore Lamborghini drives back into Italy, from France or Switzerland, and shows his passport and car papers at the frontier for the name is the same on both and he is immediately swept through with salutes and smiles. It must be the height of one-upmanship.

Making the annual pilgrimage down to Sicily for the Targa Florio, by road as always, I was most impressed with the progress being made with the Autostrada that is running from Naples to Reggio Calabria, at the tip of the toe of Italy. While we talk about motor roads the Italians get on and build them and numerous sections in the mountains are already in use. In Sicily the Autostrada from Messina to Palermo is also taking shape, with vast bridges and viaducts appearing across many of the valleys. At the rate they are working it should be Autostrada all the way from Turin to Palermo by 1969, which does not sound much, but if you have a map of Europe handy it is well worth looking at it and compare the distance with our M1 or M2.

There are sounds of Porsches and Ferraris tearing off up the road, so I must go. It is Targa Florio time and I am writing this from Cefalu. – Yours, D. S. J.