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.,

It is funny how as soon as I make tracks for Europe and put a wheel into the car park of British Air Ferries at Lydd, it all starts happening. Due to one thing and another, I missed the aeroplane to Ostend, and while B.A.F. were kindly shuffling their papers to get me on a flight to Le Touquet instead, a chap arrived in a grey E-type in the same plight, so when the Bristol Freighter took off it was full with two E-type Jaguars. This fellow had only had his car for nine months and had a long tale of woe about this going wrong and that going wrong and was incredulous at the reliability I had experienced over three years of rugged use. I feel a lot of his problems arose from unsympathetic driving, for he did not really know a gudgeon pin from an exhaust valve, but in spite of this he was a Jaguar fan and thought the Coventry firm were marvellous, as they had replaced clutches, gearboxes, brakes, etc., all free of charge, and given him a set of chrome wheels for luck. He was convinced that the spokes were aluminium(!) and that they were something very special, and I hadn’t the heart to disillusion him; nor did I explain that if you are really going to thrash an E-type over bad roads and through mountain country, you do not have chromium-plated wheels, for the spokes break. At Le Touquet we went our separate happy ways, well satisfied with our Jaguars for different reasons.

I had not been in Belgium for long before I caught up with what I thought was a local “hot-shoe” in an R8 Renault-Gordini, but then I saw that it had French number plates and was obviously going somewhere in a hurry. He was driving so fast and so nicely that I was content to follow him, and his R8 obviously had all the Gordini “tweaks” on it, with large bore, very noisy exhaust, 5-speed gearbox, enormous camber on the rear wheels and the sort of camshaft that ticks over all “bubbly and burbly” but is as sharp as a tack over 4,500 r.p.m. We had a lot of fun motoring in convoy across southern Belgium and his acceleration up to peak r.p.m. in all the gears from walking pace up to 100 m.p.h. I could easily match in top gear in the E-type. As I accelerated on full throttle from 1,500 r.p.m. in top, right up to 4,000 r.p.m., I could hear the Gordini going up to astronomical r.p.m. in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th, and there we both were at 100 m.p.h., and I thought “Hmm, not bad for a buzz-box, but is there any point in it?” If I had used 5,500 in all the gears I’d have been gone into the middle distance. When we got to the next town I could hear the Gordini going “Brrrp, 4th, Brrrp, 3rd, Brrrp, 2nd, Brrrp, 1st”, all ready to start all over again. The E-type just waffled down to 600 r.p.m. in top, going “Burble, burble”. In vintage motoring people extol the virtues of things like 30/98 Vauxhalls, which have a high power/torque/weight ratio, and the E-type is a jolly nice modern(!) vintage car. Power certainly corrupts, especially brake horsepower. I wonder why people build little high-powered engines. I always remember with delight going down Southampton Water in a power-boat with two 7-litre Holman and Moody Ford V8 engines, one to each propeller, going “burble, burble, burbly, glug, burble”, we went along on tick-over until we got out of the restricted areas, with the feeling of anticipation for the moment when 700 b.h.p. could be unleashed. I was not disappointed.

I was rather reluctant to leave England when I did, with the first Vintage Silverstone about to happen, and I understand the weather was fine. What a pity Cameron Millar’s 8CTF Maserati did not run, for it must be the most exciting import into Historic Racing circles that has ever happened. Following on my history of the 1938-39 Maserati Grand Prix car, I received an interesting letter from a reader at Oxford. He tells how 3034 was bought from Maserati by public subscription raised in the Argentine, for Raul Riganti. He goes on to recount how Riganti built up a reputation in the wild and woolly open-road races in Argentina, one particular feat being the first crossing of the Andes in the 1935 event when he did the 200 miles on gravel roads in under seven hours. He confirms that Maserati 3034 went back to the Argentine, after Riganti crashed at Indianapolis, and never raced again, but points out that in 1948 Farina won a race at Mar del Plata in an 8-cylinder Maserati, and suggests that it might have been 3035, the factory car that went to Indianapolis in 1946. Being detached from my archives as I write this letter to you, I cannot check any of this. One good thing about Historic Car racing is that it does not matter if you miss a race, it does not make the car less competitive, unlike modern racing, where to miss a race or two could make your car obsolete!

While I was returning from the Targa Florio I was cruising quietly up the Autostrada del Sol at 105 m.p.h., admiring the scenery around Orvieto, north of Rome, when I noticed a red car coming up fast in the mirror. It was a Porsche 911S, and right behind it was a white one. I went up to 125 m.p.h. and they sat on my tail and I could see in the mirror that the leading one had Stuttgart number plates! We were running comfortably in convoy when suddenly a motor coach pulled out to overtake a Fiat 600. The driver had obviously not looked in his mirror, and unfortunately did not heed my flashing lights and stayed in the fast lane, even though he was quite a way off the Fiat he was aiming to overtake. I went down on the inside of the coach, with the brakes hard on, and then saw that there was still quite a gap between the coach and the Fiat 600, so instead of panic braking I accelerated violently between the coach and the Fiat and out into the open road again. As I went through the closing gap at about 80-90 m.p.h. I looked in the mirror and saw the two 911 Porsches overtaking the Fiat on the “inside” down the emergency lane of the autostrada. Before the coach had actually overtaken the Fiat 600 we three were back in formation again and cruising at 125 m.p.h., but I don’t suppose the coach driver was even remotely aware of what he had caused.

I pulled over and let the two Porsches go by as I was intrigued to know who was driving them. The first one was driven by Hans Herrmann and the second by Gerhard Mitter, and they waved and grinned as they went by. After following them for some way at 120-125 m.p.h., with Mitter right in Herrmann’s slipstream, I eased off and settled back to my 105-m.p.h. cruising. I find that I can sit relaxed at around 100 m.p.h., but at over 120 mph. I have to concentrate too hard. To chaps who are used to 160-170 m.p.h. in works Porsches, 120 m.p.h. is comfortable cruising.

The Porsche factory insist that their racing drivers travel about Europe by road and discourage them from using aeroplanes and hire cars, like the “aces” do. After the Daily Express Silverstone meeting Vic Elford did a non-stop drive to Naples to catch the boat for Sicily, to start training. Herrmann and Mitter were obviously flat-out for Stuttgart when they passed me, and later, as I pulled out from a petrol station, two more Stuttgart-registered Porsches went by at 100-110 m.p.h., driven by Porsche engineers who had been in Sicily. Invariably these works 911S cars have little experimental tweaks on them, which are being “endurance tested” on such trips. Although I may appear to have gone off Porsches lately, I still have enormous admiration for their engineering and their integrity. Porsche is not only a name, it is a way of life, and the only thing wrong with Jaguars is the lack of this personal feeling. Somehow you have to believe in Porsche engineering because their production cars are developed through racing and serious trans-European usage by works drivers and works engineers.

On the autostrada from Rapello to Savona there are numerous brightly-lit tunnels, some of them quite long, and there being little traffic about I took the opportunity of doing over 100 m.p.h. underground! At 110 m.p.h. in a tunnel there is a most fascinating effect as the endless tube rushes towards you. Most tunnels have a speed limit, but the autostrada is limit-free and the effect of high speed down a tube is well worth experiencing. Not so long ago it took over an hour to traverse Genoa, but now you waft right over the top of the city on an impressive viaduct carrying the autostrada. Road building in Italy is progressing so fast that the map-makers cannot keep pace!—Yours, D.S.J.