Letter from Italy

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Brief encounters

Dear AH,

There is something about Italy. On the way to Imola I was creeping round the Bologna ring road in solid traffic, and not enjoying myself, so I turned off to use the old Via Emilia, rather than the Autostrada.

At least there is something to see when creeping along on the ordinary roads, whereas on an Autostrada it is merely tin boxes and lorries, with the occasional frustrated Ferrari. The traffic on the Via Emilia is much the same, but there are extranous things such as shops, buildings, pedestrians, animals, garages, traffic lights, bicycles and motorcycles.

I turned off at the sign saying San Lazzario, a suburb of Bologna on the eastern side. At least this had fond memories of days gone by, for it was in San Lazzario that the Maserati brothers returned to Bologna in 1947, after leaving the Maserati factory to the Orsi family in Modena.

A lot of people still think all Maseratis were made in Modena, just like those who think Ferraris are made in Modena today. The pre-war heyday of Maserati was in Bologna, hence the Bologna Trident being incorporated in the badge. When the brothers returned to Bologna they formed a new firm under the name OSCA (Officine Specializate Construzione Automobili) at San Lazzario.

I was waiting at the traffic lights to turn left onto the Via Emilia, simmering in the sunshine and thinking of nothing in particular, when “wham, wham, wham” three red Alfa Romeo Giulietta GT coupes roared round the corner and shrieked off northwards. They had numbers on their sides and a big sticker saying Coppa d’Italia.

I hadn’t gone far on my way to Imola when more Alfas came towards me, then a couple of 356 Porsche Carreras, something that must have been an Ermini, a 300SL gull-wing Mercedes-Benz, Lancia Aurelias, Abarths and many more. It seemed like 1955 all over again, so I pulled off into a lay-by and watched the third Coppa d’Italia go by.

I later discovered that the competitors had started from Padova in the north, on April 26, run down to the Misano-Adriatico circuit for some races, stayed the night in Riccione, and next day had travelled down through the mountains to a tiny sort of kart-track at Magione, before turning across to Siena. On the third day there were races at Mugello, and on the fourth and last day the races were at Imola. I was now watching them on their last leg from Imola northwards back to Padova.

There had been a lot of mountain motoring, and some timed mountain climbs, and judging by the crumpled wings and noses, some of the competitors had been pressing on too hard. There was every type of Giulietta and Giulia Alfa Romeo, from the rather over-bodied Sprint Speciale (SS) to the raucous TZ. Judging from the number plates, entrants had come from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, England and Belgium as well as Italy, and the majority of the entries looked like well-used competition cars of the mid-fifties, though I did see a BMW 328 and a Monza Alfa Romeo.

The biggest surprise was to see a Tojeiro-Bristol carrying the famous LOY 500 number plates of Cliff Davis fame. There were some Austin Healeys, E-type Jaguars, and an MGB. It really was an interesting kaleidoscope of competition cars of 30 to 35 years ago, though I did not see a 1900C Alfa Romeo, one of the nicest GT cars of those times.

The sad part was that the drivers were having to mix with lorries and tin boxes, trying to weave their way in and out of the traffic. In the “good old days” the roads would have been closed and the Coppa d’Italia would have gone by in a roar of sound at 120 mph. Even so, there is something about Italy, and I am glad I turned off the boring Autostrada, even if I was an hour late in arriving at Imola.

I recently had a couple of “brief encounters” which livened up my motoring scene. Brief encounters are those rare occasions when you meet up with someone driving fast, exactly on your own wavelength, and have an enjoyable dice in close company until your ways divide. They go their way and you go yours and you never actually meet, though you wonder who the other chap was. You part with a cheery wave, a flash of headlights or a toot of the horn. You are like ships that pass in the night, except that you don’t pass, you actually run in close company!

I was cruising pretty rapidly on a stretch of motorway which was relatively empty and had a number of fast curves, and this ran off into dual carriageway which wound and undulated until it came to the first roundabout in the city. Coming up behind a black Ford XR3i, I realised it was “getting along nicely” as we passed a few cars and that he had seen me in his mirror, for he moved over neatly and smoothly, expecting me to overtake. I had no need to go by, so I dropped in behind him. We passed another car and his overtaking line was exactly the one I had mentally chosen, and from then on it was quite clear that our fast motoring lines, positioning and flow were the same. He went through the very fast open sweeps, devoid of traffic, on the most perfect “racing lines”, positioning the car smoothly, and exactly where I was aiming my Porsche. This brief encounter lasted a few miles, made all the more satisfying by the relative absence of other traffic. When we got to the first roundabout I indicated left, and peeled off, and as he went straight on he gave a cheery wave. The surprising thing was that he had his wife in the passenger seat and his mother in the rear, and he was an “old boy” with grey hair!

The second occasion was on a cross-country run late at night on deserted roads. A large motorcycle came out of a side-turning well ahead of me, the rider having his girlfriend riding pillion, or so it seemed by the friendly way she was tucked up close to him. He didn’t accelerate away in a frenzy, but was obviously about to travel fast and smoothly.

Dipping the lights, I sat a comfortable distance behind him as we “got on with it”, and they were clearly intrigued to know what it was that was matching their performance, for on a couple of slow comers the passenger looked back to see what was following them. Obviously satisfied, the rider began to “pile on the steam” and crank the bike over more and more on the fast bends. We ran in close company for quite a few miles.

Now from years of motorcycling I know a good rider when I see one, and this chap was good. He obviously knew our local roads, and there was no other traffic about so we had a really enjoyable dice. He made me sweat a bit, and I had to use everything the Porsche had, but it was fun. When we got to one of our local villages, he turned left with a brief wave and I gave him a flash of the headlights and went straight on. We’ll never know who we were!

Just occasionally you do find out who you have had a brief encounter with, like the time when I was returning from Brands Hatch across south London in the dark. I was on a 750cc Norton Commando, as was this other chap. It was actually all a bit unruly, with drag-races from the traffic lights, and very illegal speeds across Clapham Common and so on, but it was great fun.

I was wearing an open-face helmet, and he had a full-face space-helmet, so I could not see who it was, but he recognised me and at one point, just as the lights went green, he said “Are you Denis Jenkinson?”, to which I replied “Yes” and outdragged him to the next roundabout. We finally parted with a wave, and some years later I met this fellow, who introduced himself as Jonathan Williams’ brother, and added, “Remember the Norton dice across South London?” I certainly did. Jonathan (the former racing driver) asked “Was my brother behaving irresponsibly?”

One day I hope a grey-haired man will say: “Hello, it wasn’t my mother on the back seat, it was my aunt”. Yours, DSJ

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