Driving over 1000 miles through the Alps isn’t a task to be undertaken lightly in 2002. Bill Boddy describes the brave men and women who did just that against the clock 70 or more years ago, in the early Alpine trials
The Monte Carlo Rally has always been respected as a ‘toughy’, with likely snow and ice to contend with from farflung starting places; and the Safari Rally is the opposite, with different but very difficult terrain to traverse.
But in those pre-war days nothing was quite so testing and prestigious as the great Alpine Trials, with tight time schedules and the highest of mountain passes to drive over at alarmingly high average speeds. So this was an event supported especially by works teams seeking the publicity which winning a top award, particularly a team prize, would achieve. Adventurous private owners also competed, and could be successful if sufficiently experienced at this kind of competition driving, and their cars tough enough.
These memorable Alpines, trials in every sense of the word (although later renamed rallies), originated before the First World War, when Austria required to prove the worth of its fast touring cars. In June 1910, the first Austrian Alpine Trial took place over a 532-mile route which included the Katschberg and Tauem passes and occupied four days. The regulations called for four-seater bodies, entries numbered 16, and Laurin & Klement won the Team Prize. The mileage was up to 885 in 1911, but the four-day schedule was retained, and Austro-Daimler took the all-important team award, and thus was born the famous Ferdinand Porsche designed 16/25 hp overhead-camshaft Prince Henry Austro-Daimler.
By 1912, the route was of 1488 miles, with seven days in which to complete it. Over 13 Alpine passes had to be climbed. Top teams were Fiat and Opel. Out of 84 starters, only 25 finished without penalties. By 1913, this challenging event included 19 passes in 1620 miles; only nine cars were unpenalised and Audi took team honours. Rolls-Royce folk will tell you, or perhaps they won’t, how in 1912 James Radley’s R-R failed on the Katschberg Pass with too high a bottom gear in its three-speed gearbox. But in 1913, a usefully low first-gear in a four-speed box cured this, and the four R-Rs, three works-entered, the other Radley’s, dominated the trial. Hives lost a mark for stalling his engine, and the Team Prize was lost when one R-R collided with a non-competing Minerva.
It was tougher still in 19141828 miles, the Katschberg now a timed ascent, and a speed trial included. Audi again won the top accolade. Radley alone drove his 7-litre R-R, and won his class against a Benz. These Continental R-Rs influenced the post-war development of the Derby Silver Ghosts. Thus evolved great cars like the Laurence Pomeroy-devised Prince Henry Vauxhall.
These testing trials diminished after the war, but their place was taken by a new series of Alpines. These, too, were for outwardly touring-type cars.
By the mid-1930s, the Alpine Trial was one of the most important international fixtures. In 1933, starting from Marino, instead of Munich, of the 120 cars entered, many were having last-minute changes of major components. The award to aim for was a Coupes des Alpes, for teams losing minimum marks; individuals competed for the Coupes des Glaciers. A Dutch team was alone in its class, so only needed to finish within the time limits for its Fords to collect a Coupe. Their Fords were flagged off at 4am, before dawn had broken. An Auburn lost marks before it had even started, as the starting-handle was wrongly used and a taxi-tow needed.
Almost at once, the 7200ft winding Col de Giovo, 36 miles long, defeated all of them on time and navigators were wise not to look at the unprotected drops at the corners! Sammy Davis of The Auto car missed little, noting that some 1.5-litre cars had mudguards of under the required 15cm width and he wondered if 50 of some of the entry had truly been produced. Sportscars and saloons had moved in!
Racing drivers Rayson (Mercedes), Dr Roth and Couper (Talbots), Lago (French Talbot), Count Lurani (Alfa Romeo), Tongue (Aston Martin), Barnes (Singer) and Horton (Triumph) were there, as well as well-known trials drivers, and the girls included Mlle Helle-Nice (Bugati), Miss Patten (Alvis), Mrs Gripper (Frazer Nash), Miss Champney (Riley) and Miss Richmond (Singer). Lionel and Mrs Martin were in a Humber, Donald Healey had a Riley and Prince Narischkine a team of Riley 9s.
The first day included, as well as the Giovo, the Falzarego pass and a timed ascent of the Pordoi, the required speeds so high that this became a speed hillclimb, all classes almost unable to avoid losing marks. Koltz’s Mercedes skidded in front of Rayson’s and rolled over twice, crew unhurt, and two MG Magmas collided with non-competing cars and were badly damaged. Miss M Allan and Mrs Eaton (SS) had trouble which cost them nearly an hour, so Margaret had to drive thereafter like the racing driver she was. Oxley’s Nash skidded off the road into rocks below, was rescued by oxen, did it again, and retired. The Alpine was living up to its reputation.
Already, Mike Couper’s Talbot had given up with a fuel-feed which disliked the high altitudes, as did those of a Riley and a Wolseley. Blackstone’s OM hit a boundary stone the stone won and an oncoming car pushed another Riley off the road, ruining its steering. First day over, 248 miles, and 91 of the 121 starters had lost marks. The American Vauxhall drivers had lost 36. W F Bradley in a Hotchkiss was best up the 7354ft Pordoi. On day two came the dreaded timedclimb of the 9150ft Stelvio. Experienced Alpinists drove as fast as possible over the 20 miles leading to it, and up the beginning of the pass, to make up time before the watches were started for the 11-mile speed test. On all three of the passes, drivers were penalised if they could not manage these at certain averages, which went from 42 to 45kph up the 1 in 4 of the Stelvio. This alone had reduced those with clean scores at the close of a highly strenuous day to seven, from 30 on the first day.
H J Aldington climbed clean in the chain-transmission Frazer Nash and Butler-Henderson’s Nash dropped only two marks. But it was the Rileys which scored in the 1.5-litre class. Two Frazer Nashes failed, Thorpe pushing back his front axle on an inconsiderate post and Mrs Gripper, going well, had the petrolfeed dry up. Donald Healey’s Riley should have lost no marks but a plug gave up near the Stelvio’s summit, and the Lago Talbot’s petrol pump nearly fell off.
Not all the drivers were experts. Mlle Sajoux, a young Parisienne, alone in a Delahaye saloon, was so fast into the St Moritz Control that she overshot and checked in fractions early, to find that charming appeals to the timekeepers to “arrange it for me” were ignored.
The Bemina, Albula and Fluela passes had to be tackled before the lunch pause on this second day. Next morning in St.Moritz, the Rileys, among others, would not start, needing hot-water and towropes, Jack Hobbs’ losing 50 minutes. The passes, easier now, were the 7520ft Julier, 6767ft San Bernardino and 4150ft Mont Cenis. The Rileys made up their lost time and it was into Italy, with excited spectators on the sidewalks at Turin, where the weary crews were met by Signor Parisi°, head of the RAC of Italy, Felice Nazzaro, famous ex-racing driver for Fiat, and Count Lurani, for a reception in the great Mussolini Stadium.
There were five more passes to cross next day. De Lazalette’s Peugeot had engine trouble and Miss Gough and Mrs Griffin pushed their Singer up as far as the Grenoble car park. Lago lost a wheel, Col Holbrook’s Triumph a drive shaft, and many others had problems, but the only serious accident was when von Fuerstenberg’s Röhr overturned.
The roads were open, and coaches sometimes held up drivers on timed climbs, only the Galibier’s downhill traffic being stopped for these, and even on the incorporated three-kilometre speed trial ordinary traffic had to be contended with — difficult for competitors and possibly sometimes alarming for the ordinary drivers.
In 1933, Carriere’s Alfa Romeo and Delmar’s Bugatti did not lose a mark. The Team winners in the five capacity divisions, 1100cc to over 3000cc, were MG, Riley, Adler, Hotchkiss and the lone Dutch Fords. Of individuals, Legere (Bugatti) dropped only one mark, and Miss Champney/Mrs Hobbs (Riley) won the Ladies’ class.
In 1932, the Roesch Talbot team had won its class, sponsored by Warwick Wright, and it achieved this again in 1934, backed now by Charles Joyce.
The political situation killed 1935 prospects, although H J Aldington had offered to finance the German entry, after the Alpine Cup BMW team had won in 1934, with Aldy’s Frazer Nash taking a Coupe des Gladels for the third time in succession, which resulted in Frazer Nash deciding to import BMWs into Britain by the end of 1934.
After the war, British drivers and cars regularly shone on the Alpine passes, notably Ian Appleyard in the famous Jaguar XK120 Reg No NUB 120.1 was allowed to drive this car years laterjenks a bored passenger. The Morleys (Austin Healey 3000), Stirling Moss (Sunbeams) and Paddy Hopkirk (BMC Cooper S) were among the British drivers who won Alpine Cups in subsequent years, Moss gaining a coveted Gold Cup for achieving three successive Alpines.
But as the famous passes were surfaced with Tarmac, rallies using them gradually became more like road races, a long way from the privateer adventurers of those 1930s Alpine Trials.