European letter

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

Dear W.B.,

Last month I mentioned about the desirability of Europe being all one country and how nice it would have been had money stabilised and found equality from one country to the next, Only recently I had a classic example of this when I had to get from the Monza 1,000-kilometre race, which was held on a Wednesday, to Barcelona ready for the practice for the Spanish Grand Prix on Thursday. A.R.M. was going to do the same trip by air, but decided he liked motoring better than flying, so joined me in the E-type, even though I made it clear that I was doing the driving as I am the world's worst passenger in my own car; in other people's cars I am probably the world's best passenger, but that is neither here nor there. We had breakfast in Italy, paying in Lire at 1,400 to the English pound, lunch in France at 11.16 Francs to the pound and supper in Spain at 135 Pesetas to the pound.

On the route we used various bits of European motorway, all constructed to the same standards, and paid for them in Lire, French Francs and Pesetas; we also bought petrol from identical petrol pumps, all ticking away in litres, but at so many Lire to the litre, Francs to the litre and Pesetas to the litre. By the end of the day the accounting system was chaotic, so you can see why we still have a long way to go to a really United Europe.

We did not set out to break any records on that trip, merely to get from A to B in a reasonable time and without unnecessary strain, and the distance was just over 1,000 kilometres, Admittedly we had crossed Turin at early morning rush hour, crossed the French Alps and had the French customs really sniff all round the car for contraband, had made a detour to climb the Cesana-Sestriere 11 kilometre mountain hill-climb course just for fun, stopped for lunch, and had taken to some side roads in France to avoid heavy traffic, but we covered the 1,000 kilometres in 14 hours. When we arrived in Barcelona I mentioned that we had taken 14 hours to cover one thousand kilometres, whereas the day before we had seen Ickx and Redman cover the same distance in 4 hours: A.R.M. said, "Yes, but they didn't have anyone coming the other way which led to a development of the idea of having a few cars circulating in the opposite direction to keep the racing drivers on their toes! At a talk I was giving to the BRSCC last winter one chap asked what I thought would happen if a police car was suddenly let onto the Circuit at Brands Hatch during a saloon car race. The possibilities were hilarious, but basically I thought most competitors would turn sharp left and disappear out of the circuit a bit smartly!

In France there seem to be two new sights on the roads this year, the first is depressing, the second is pleasant. On main roads, which I sometimes have to use, there is inevitably a large lorry with five or six little underpowered tin boxes following it, all unable or unwilling to overtake, and some trips can be a nightmare of short sharp dashes from one crocodile to another. Three things seem to have caused this, the 110 k.p.h. speed limit, the plethora of nasty little tin boxes being made by all the big manufacturers and the brainwashing of the French motorist that it is "dangerous to overtake". Gone are the days' immortalised by Russell Brockbank in his classic cartoon "Citroën Presse" of the 11 c.v. Traction Avant Citroën driven by a Frenchman in a beret with a Gauloise hanging out of his mouth, cornering his FWD Citroën on its door handles, with front tyres bending off the rims, as a very English vintage Bentley thunders along behind him. Nowadays the typical French motorist creeps along in a crocodile with five others behind a big diesel lorry. There are still a few renegades about, especially local delivery drivers in 2 c.v. Citroën vans cornering on the rims, but they are a dying race. The good thing in France is the number of Citroën SM that you see. Last year they were a rarity, now they can be seen everywhere, and they represent to me the car of the Seventies, and I don't mean the Seventy speed limit. The more I see of them the more beautiful they look.

Mentioning the old classic Traction-Avant Citroën that used to be built in all manner of lengths, seating from two to eleven people, they are now a rare sight on French roads, but down in Southern France people are collecting them. Motoring along small back roads you keep coming across little "caches" of these old FWD cars, mostly in the yards of farms or small-holdings and their numbers range from two to twenty-two. Whether they are being hoarded as "desirable collector's items" or merely as a cheap supply of spares for the farm hack, I don't know, but it is remarkable to see a line of these old FWD Citroëns, probably all from the early fifties, lined up under the roof of an open barn.

Not so long ago old cars in Spain were to use, but as SEAT flood the market everyone is getting a new car, so like France, so-called Automobile Museums are springing up. This involves filling a corrugated iron shed with tired old heaps on flat tyres and charging an entrance fee to go in. In our sister magazine Motorcycle Sport, a regular contributor who writes under the name "One Track" coined a splendid phrase for tired and uninspiring old motorcycles; he called them "grey porridge" and wondered if they ever had any redeeming virtues when new and whether they really justified being kept and preserved, except perhaps as monuments of bad design and manufacture. In the car world the ultimate in "grey porridge" must surely be a Phase 1 Standard Vanguard, though I can think of many more candidates, some in production today. A so-called Automobile Museum I looked at in Spain was crammed full of "grey porridge" and outside were mouldering heaps, presumably awaiting restoration, though I doubt it, looking at the "exhibits". In olden times the Noble Lord sent his men out to gather taxes from the peasants to keep the castle going, now the peasants pay the Noble Lord 50p to go and have tea with him, and the Castle is kept going on the profits, In not so olden times car breakers would have a shed full of old wrecks and a large Alsatian dog to keep away intruders, now the dog has gone and they want you to pay 50p to go in the yard and look at the old wrecks. It's a funny world in which we live. Of course, not all Museums are like this, and a visit to the Turin Automobile Museum or the Daimler-Benz Museum in Stuttgart will leave you breathless, not only for the exhibits but for the decor and layout of the buildings. When Tom Wheatcroft's Donington Collection of single-seater racing cars had its press preview party, a lot of people arrived expecting to see some tired old racing cars in a collection of ex-Army Nissen huts. When they saw the scintillating array of immaculate racing cars and the magnitude of the display in the special purpose-built halls, they were somewhat confused, as well they might be. There are Museums and Museums, and some are full of "grey porridge" covered with cobwebs, which is why Mr. Wheatcroft has called his "The Donington Collection".

While I was at Spa recently, for the sports car race, I was sitting on the wall on the inside of the very fast Stavelot bend and to while away the time before practice began I was reading one of the weekly motoring papers. I was particularly interested to read how all my chums in the VSCC had got on at Silyerstone, their race meeting being held on the same weekend as the Spanish Grand Prix. There was some powerful prose which said "The calico-tearing crackle of a phalanx of supercharged ERAs heralded the fastest handicap of the day: not only do racing cars not sound like this any more, I'm not even sure that you can still buy calico as such to tear." At that moment Pescarolo came round in the V12 sports Matra, screaming down the Masta straight at 11,500 r.p.m.. in 5th gear, snicked into 4th at the entrance to the Stavelot bend and went round on full noise at over 11,000 r.p.m. It was soul-stirring stuff to watch and to hear, and that one car would have drowned the sound of "a phalanx of supercharged ERAs". I put my comic paper away and smiled to myself, thinking "they live in a little world all of their own in the Vintage Sports Car Club, but it's a nice little world and they are such nice people. But that's my hobby".

Listening to the Matra, and watching Carlos Pace show what a really super driver he is in a proper car, was my work. Then Larrousse had a connecting-rod break on his Matra V12 engine and I thought "really the two worlds are the same", remembering how I saw Neil Corner looking at his smoking ERA engine at Thruxton when a connecting-rod came out. He was only doing 6,500 r.p.m. so the mechanical mayhem was not so bad.

With increasing frequency publicity letters keep arriving from one of the Cross-Channel Ferry Boat firms proving beyond all doubt that the proposed Channel Tunnel is a terrible mistake. The latest letter couples it with Concorde as another folly, but I should think the writer has never seen the Concorde close to or in flight. It may not transform the world's airlines, but as an aeronautical achievement and an example of man's ability to produce beautiful mechanical things, I reckon it is the best thing that has happened in the 20th Century. If we did not build things like Concorde, and people did not strive to do even better, we'd still be in the bi-plane stage, or we may never even have become airborne at all. The proposed Channel Tunnel may not end up as a beautiful thing to look at, but I for one cannot wait for it to be built.

Frequently I have arrived at the Northern Coast of France, wanting to return to England, to find the Hovercraft sitting fatly on its cushion refusing to go out because of the raging seas, the thick fog has grounded all the Air Ferries and such boats as are sailing are "shipping green ones down the funnel" and showing the barnacles on their bottoms as they lurch and roll. Not being a brave and courageous sailor I retire to a hotel and wait for the weather to change. If there was a Tunnel I would not mind what was going on overhead, even if I was on a train with my car. When crossing the Alps in the early or late part of the season the only way is on the train, sitting in your car on an open platform truck. With the passes blocked by snow there is no other way, and this is part of the free feeling one gets in what used to be the continent of Europe, where there are no drawbridges between countries. Our part of Europe is still an island, cut off from the mainlaind when the weather decides to get rough. We can't have a Channel Tunnel soon enough for me, but then I have no vested interest or shares in Townshend Ferries.