A record entry of 220 cars from 21 countries countries took part in the Tour Auto, but it was the Shelby Cobra of Henri Pescarolo and Jean Rives which came out on top.
Their Cobra faced stiff competition from more 30 different marques, including Ferrari, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Ford, Lotus, Mercedes and Porsche.
Ferrari is always strongly represented and this year there were more than 40 competing. Models ranged from the predictable 250s to the more unusual 212 Europa Cabriolet with a crew from Ecuador. Also running was a 330 LMB, one of three built.
Porsche was also prominent, with 904,906 and 910 prototypes as well as 911s and 356s, and several lesser-known marques were present in the shape of Panhard, Matra and Osca.
From the start at the Trocadero in Paris, the cars blasted through the rush hour traffic to Montlhery for the first track test. The circuit combines conventional corners with a section of steep banking where drivers can get as high as they dare before swooping down for the chicane at the bottom. One driver described this as “playing Spitfires”, fun to do and great for the spectators but not actually the fastest line. This is helpfully marked by a yellow line near the bottom.
Wang/Pearson’s 250LM set the early pace, beating the rest around the track by 11 seconds. Just five seconds separated the next four places, with a gaggle of Britons chasing the Porsche 910 of Verchere/Crubile in second. Peter Sugden, who usually enters the regularity in his 250GTO, was in the GT class for the first time this year, partnered by Jim Evans. “I managed to get on the third row of the grid, which surprised me,” he said, “so I thought I would try for a spectacular getaway.” Unfortunately, instead of smoking the tyres away from the line as planned, it was the clutch that provided the spectacular start witnessed only by the driver. The car filled with fumes and was passed by the rest of the grid.
Once competitors had completed the preliminary racing, they enjoyed a substantial barbecue lunch to sustain them on the long trek ahead. Routed along fantastically quick D-roads in rolling countryside, the teams blasted along in bright sunlight to the first of the special stages at Chenevelles.
Derek Hill set the fastest time on the twists and turns. It was the first time that his father, Phil Hill, World Champion in 1961, had let anybody drive him “It scared me to death,” he said, no doubt reflecting that the brakes had been playing up all day. “We used up the brakes at Montlhery and since then we have not been able to lock a wheel.”
At Le Vigeant, south of Poitiers, Pescarolo/Rives made their presence felt, taking second. The Britons held seven of the top 10 places, but they weren’t going to have it their own way.
At SS Le Pont du Dongon, competitors were treated to roads obviously much frequented by cows. The resultant racing was entertaining. With tactics, some of the oldest are the best hut they can also lead to problems. After the Seckel/Berens team left the line with very little fuel in their Healey 3000 to save weight, they soon hit fuel surge problems when accelerating on the straights.
Going south through Perigord, the rally came to the Bordeaux region, where pedigree red Italian racing cars mixed with vineyards that produced pedigree red wines.
In a 356 roadster, Adam Richardson was finding his first Tour fascinating: “I usually race on circuits but this is so different.” He and co-driver Reiner Talkamp were the class leaders up to SS Langon when, just 20 seconds into the special stage, the carburettor linkage broke. “It was only firing on two cylinders and the oil pressure went to zero but I thought ‘it’s still going’ so I kept driving.” They stayed ahead to win their class despite this mishap.
The Tour offers participants the very best of France but it isn’t always appreciated by exhausted contestants at the end of a long day. When asked if he was going to the rally dinner that night in Bordeaux one American declined, saying that he couldn’t be bothered. When it was pointed out that it was at the famous Chateau Margaux, he replied: “Not famous enough for me.” So he continued his search for a simple meal in the city.
Though the tour is known for drawing in the world’s great GT cars, more humble machinery is also welcome. A Renault 12 Gordini, looking for all the world like a Parisian taxi of yesteryear, rubbed shoulders with its more illustrious entrants with no hint of embarrassment and placed 20th.
At the finish in Biarritz, Pescarolo and Rives took the prize ahead of Martyn Konig and David Dugdale in a 911 Carrera. Last year’s winner, David McErlain, was third in his GT40. Jean-Claude Thiriet and Yves Heffray won the regularity in a TR3 ahead of Laurent and Stephanie Queffele in their Matra MB8.
So why do these people put themselves and their rare cars through such punishment? One competitor got out of his car at the end of the day and stretched his limbs. “Too much pleasure,” he said, but his smile was huge.