One of the nicest things about our postal system is that it brings me a steady flow of ‘Letters from Readers’, many in response to something I have said in this column, or elsewhere in MOTOR SPORT, many merely to express views on some topical subject, others to reminisce about days gone by and long readership, while many enclose snapshot photographs with a note saying “. . . .thought you might like this . . . .” While I do not guarantee to reply in detail to them all, and many do not call for a reply, the reader merely saying “in appreciation of many years of enjoyable reading . . . .” there are those that call for a follow-up and often the chance to meet the reader at a race meeting or hillclimb.
A small, slightly faded, print arrived recently with a note saying: “I’ve been meaning to send you this for about 20 years . . . .” Now that attracted my attention to start with, and when the reader said that his father had given him the photo it obviously added more years to its age. He went on to say that his father had “acquired” the print from an Italian prisoner-of-war in North Africa in about 1942, when father was in the Army. Unfortunately the print is too small to reproduce but a powerful magnifying glass brought forth cries of “Oh!” and “My goodness, I’ve never seen that” and so on.
The photograph shows the start of a Grand Prix with cars and mechanics lined up on the grid and it’s taken from the back of a public grandstand. The first thing to establish was the identity of the cars on the grid and the first four were Tipo 158 Alfa Romeos, and then came two 4CL Maseratis. The crowd on the far side of the track were all dressed in military uniform, and in the foreground were more military personnel, some wearing pith sun-hats. Whoever took the photograph was in a deep shadow, along with all the other spectators in the stand and it was clearly a very hot sunny day. The stone walls on both sides of the main straight, and the width of the track meant that it could only be one place and that was the Mellaha Circuit in Tripoli, in North Africa. And the date had to be 12th May 1940, the start of the Tripoli Grand Prix that took place while Great Britain and France were at war with Germany. It could not have been the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix because in that race there were two Type 165 Mercedes-Benz cars on the grid.
In 1939 the Italians had changed the rules for the Tripoli Grand Prix to impose an engine limit of 1500cc, thus keeping out the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union 3-litre cars. At the last moment Daimler-Benz AG entered two 1500cc cars for the race, at a time when no-one knew such cars existed. Two Type 165 Mercedes-Benz cars with supercharged V8 engines arrived in North Africa and annihilated the Alfa Romeos and Maseratis, Hermann Lang winning the race at around 122 mph average, with Rudolf Carraciola in second place. Those two cars never raced again.
It is a wonder that a war did not start between Germany and Italy at that point, for they were supposed to have been friends and Daimler-Benz humiliated Mussolini’s pride and joy, the famous “Alfetta” team. In 1940 Italy was ostensibly still neutral and not involved in the war, so the Tripoli Grand Prix could be run again to 1500cc in the sure knowledge that Daimler-Benz were otherwise engaged. Four “Alfettas” were entered to be driven by Guiseppe Farina, Clemonte Biondetti, Count Trossi and Carlo Pintacuda. The race was run over 244 miles and was won by Farina at an average of 126 mph, which made up for the previous year’s defeat in some small measure, except that we will never know whether the Type 165 Mercedes-Benz could not have won at 120 or 130 mph after a year of development. Biondetti finished second, Trossi was third and Pintacuda was fifth, a lone Maserati slotting into fourth place.
Although Italy was “neutral” at this time it is interesting that almost everyone in this small photograph is in army uniform and it would be fascinating to know where the photographer had come from and what he had done between 12th May 1940 and when he was captured by the 8th Army in 1942. I hoped there might have been more photos from this source, but there was only this single snapshot, but how intriguing that our reader’s father had kept it in his wallet all through the war and that it still survives, safely filed away in my Alfa Romeo racing archives.
Another intriguing racing photograph, or rather a photograph with racing connotations was one that came from another reader who sent a colour print depicting a large wooden box with the lid off. It had just arrived from ‘foreign parts’ and contained the chassis frame, axles, brakes, suspension, wheels and so on of what was clearly a vintage racing car. My guess of Alfa Romeo was not correct, the true identity being much more exciting, but all cannot be revealed until the next box arrives, for that should contain the engine and gearbox. Hopefully further photographs will arrive soon and it can all be explained.
A reader of long standing, who used to enjoy the days when old cars were not sought after by “collectors” and “speculators” but were bought for a few pounds and used “as found”, wrote about those happy days when the dealers were glad to get rid of an old Bentley or Alvis for £50 or £100 just to clear the space, with no MOT rules and no public fetish about “restoration” or originality or concours, you just drove it as you bought it. If the tyres held air they were roadworthy and one dim red light at the back was sufficient, while there was no problem finding your way home from the pub on sidelights, as there was no other traffic on the roads.
Those days having long gone, and enjoyed, our reader now contents himself by making models of cars for his own enjoyment and the photographs he sent me depict a Volkswagen Beetle towing a caravan, a truly splendid 1920 Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce armoured car, complete with electric power and radio control that does about 20 mph, and a similarly controlled racing car that is not intended to be anything in particular, but merely a “typical Brooklands Track racing car of the Twenties”. These models are sizeable things, the racing car being some two foot in overall length.
This reader has an interesting comment to make of the “Restoration” and “Concours” scene when he points out that mundane things like Morris Cowleys and Austin Sevens were never “bulled-up” like this when they were made and it is “. . . . a great shame, because people who look at them now get a misleading picture of what they should be”.
Many readers send me photographs of DSJ in (very cautious and a bit slow) action on my racing motorcycles in sprints and hillclimbs, as well as some nice ones on the start line, where it always looks as though I am about to go fast. Actually, up to the first corner I can be quite competitive . . . . But thanks for all the nice photographs anyway.
For a complete change I am publishing a photograph received from a reader in Canada. His letter started: “What is it that has a six cylinder mid-engine and all-wheel drive”. It is a 1937 Snowmobile built in Quebec by the Bombadier Company and it arrived at his village Winter Fete recently midst the snow and ice, and the owner happily gave people rides in it, just like owners of Sunbeams and Bentleys give people rides at our summer fetes, which are just beginning in England. Enthusiasm for vehicles is the same the world over.