Letter from Europe

[By means of which the Continental Correspondent, while he is motoring abroad, keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W.B.,

Before leaving Spain on a recent trip I made a detour down to Sitges, just south of Barcelona, to look at the disused concrete banked track. The man in the Tourist Office did not cotton on when I asked about it in English, even though his English was quite good, and certainly better than my Spanish, but when we conversed in French we made contact and he explained how it lay just off the road on the right as you go out of Sitges town, and it was called the Autodrome de Terramar. He added that I couldn’t miss it because the grandstands were visible from the main road. He was absolutely right and I drove through the tunnel under the banking into the big chicken farm in the middle. The farmer was very disinterested and did not want me to drive round the track, which I could easily have done, although some rough barricades have been erected to keep people off the bankings. Considering it was last used in 1926, or thereabouts, the concrete has kept remarkably well and the big open concrete grandstand is a most impressive sight. I walked around the north banking and marvelled how brave people were to drive primitive vintage racing cars on hard springs and skinny tyres on such a steep banking. Standing there under the hot sun all was peace and quiet, except for the distant barking of a dog, and I had a most uncanny feeling, the whole track seemed so unreal, and yet there it all was, virtually intact. I left the place feeling very subdued and strange, and from the main road I looked back and could see the whole of this great concrete saucer lying silent in the foothills. It was rather like going to the Greek amphitheatre in Siracusa in Sicily, that was uncanny world history, the banked track of Terramar was history in our little world, but there were no guide books, plaques or souvenirs, not even a nameplate, just this great concrete edifice lying fallow.

In complete contrast I visited the Montjuich circuit in the park in Barcelona, where the Spanish G.P. was held recently, and there everything was hustle and bustle and noise and I wondered how it was possible to clear away the traffic and people and control everything sufficiently well to hold a motor race. I don’t think I would ever have been brave enough to drive round the top of the Sitges banking, but I would not hesitate at having a little dice round the Montjuich circuit again. I raced motorcycles and rode on sidecar outfits round the Park circuit many years ago, long before the public and trees were protected by guard-rails.

You know how you enjoy meeting old retired racing drivers, not the recent ones like Moss, Fangio or Brooks, but drivers from many years before that. At Monza I met Count Antonio Brivio, who drove Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeos in the mid-thirties, he was in effect the Junior member of the team to Nuvolari. While at the Targa Florio I noticed on the Roll of Honour, the “Golden Book” of the Targa Florio, that he won it in 1933 with a 2.3-litre Alfa Romeo, and in 1935 with a 2.9-litre Alfa Romeo. He was in very good health at Monza and keeping abreast of Porsche and Ferrari developments with great interest. In Madrid I had met Count Villapadierna, who could easily be taken for an English gentleman, even to his using a Silver Shadow Rolls-Royce. He used to drive Maseratis and Alfa Romeos as an independent driver during the early thirties, taking part in most of the Grand Prix races, but his competition career had to stop in 1936 when the Spanish Civil War began, and he never restarted. Today he is President of the Spanish Automobile Club and breeds racehorses as a hobby. The Targa Florio reminded me of your interesting story on the four-cylinder Mercedes of Gerry Palmer in last month’s issue. I see from the ”Golden Book” that in 1924 Christian Werner with that Mercedes covered the 432 kilometres (six laps) in 6 hr. 32 min. 37 sec. at an average speed of 66.017 k.p.h. This year’s race was won by Mitter and Schutz with a Porsche in 6 hr. 07 min. 45.3 sec. for 720 kilometres (10 laps), at an average speed of 117.469 k.p.h. There is certainly some mechanical progress in motor racing, but it is interesting that it now requires two tough German drivers to do the driving. The last single-handed drive in the Targa Florio was in 1956 when Umberto Maglioli drove all ten laps on his own, with a 1½-litre Porsche Spyder, to win at 90.970 k.p.h. and it took him 7 hr. 54 min. 52 sec.

As you know, I am not at all clued up on rallies, and seldom know when one is happening, for life is too short to take in everything, and there is more than enough racing going on in Europe. Imagine my surprise when I was motoring up a fast winding hill in the French mountains on the way to Geneva, when a gendarme stood in the road and stopped me, just by a small road leading in from the left. I was just wondering what French law I had broken, as I pulled up, when “Wham”, an orange 911 Porsche shot out of the side road and roared up the hill. “What was all that about?” I asked. “It’s the Tulip Rally, you must wait a moment.” Then “zing”, a Honda S800 whizzed by, and after that he said : “You can go now, but watch out.” In the next town there was a control point so I dallied awhile and could not help noticing the strong Japanese atmosphere about the part of the entry I saw. I don’t know whether Japanese cars win rallies, but there certainly seemed to be some interesting-looking machinery. It was early in the event and the drivers had just come through the night in low cloud and mist, and some of them were looking a bit starry-eyed. I carried on my way, keeping a wary eye on the mirror, but after a while the route turned off the main road and I was left alone. Down in Sicily a similar thing happened when I was conscious of more and more excitement and anticipation in each village I passed through. “Something is approaching,” I thought, and sure enough in one village a policeman waved me into the side of the road and just as I stopped, round the corner came a bicycle race in full cry, hotly pursued by Press cars, service cars, team cars and supporters. In two or three minutes it was all gone and the dust settled and the policeman indicated that I could continue my journey! Its all happening over here.

With the ever-increasing growth of Motorways, especially in Italy, I find there is a new outlook on travel, and you no longer travel as part of the countryside, but are now cut off and remote, like travelling in train, and after 500 continuous miles of Italian Autostrada it is a strange feeling to turn off and go into a town to an hotel for the night, for you are in a different world. Although you pass through some wonderful countryside and some spectacular scenery you miss an awful lot of the real atmosphere of a country, so when I have time I take the old road, just to keep a sense of proportion, and see what is really going on among the normal people. On one such “off the Autostrada” I had time to look in on a number of scrap yards, which I always find fascinating, and was intrigued by the number of exciting looking twin-overhead camshaft engines lying about all over the place. Of course, they were Alfa Romeo 1900 and Giulietta engines, which one takes for granted in the cars, but a dozen or more piled in a heap seems unreal. In one big commercial breaker’s yard there were three or four enormous V8 engines, with exhaust-turbo superchargers that made Can-Am Chevrolet engines look like toys. Grubbing around among the oil and dirt I discovered they were O.M. engines from big lorries. Another fascinating lorry was a Bianchi from the early fifties, with a tubular space-frame and double-wishbone i.f.s, with coil springs. It would have been an ideal Brabham works lorry!

The E-type has been having a rest recently, deservedly after nearly 100,000 miles, and I have been using a Lotus Europa, but more of that in July. There is still plenty of enjoyable motoring to be had in Europe, but the season for traffic “black spots” like Switzerland and the Cote d’Azur is fast approaching.—D. S. J.