Ten short years



I cannot let the month of May 1965 go by without looking back to the same month in 1955, a mere ten years ago, for it was on the first day of that month that Stirling Moss drove his fantastic race in the Mille Miglia and I had the never-to-be-forgotten experience of riding with him in the 300SLR Mercedes-Benz sports car. Regular readers of Motor Sport will recall the exciting story I wrote in the June issue of that year, for it was the most exciting and satisfying day imaginable, having been second behind Castellotti (4.4-litre Ferrari) at Ravenna, second behind Taruffi (3.7-litre Ferrari) at Pescara, taken the lead from him over the mountains to Rome, and then held the lead all the way from Rome back to Brescia. It was a long and tiring day, our race time being 10 hr. 07 min. 48 sec. and our average speed for the 1,000 miles was 157.650 k.p.h.

Many people thought I went along for a joy-ride, while there were many other misconceptions about the part I played. At the Rome pit stop someone in the grandstand saw a bearded figure in the passenger’s seat, reading some sort of book, and after the race, in the sporting bars of Rome, he spread the story that Moss had taken a priest with him in the race, who had read appropriate texts when the going got difficult! This story got back to me some years later when I was in Rome with a gathering of enthusiasts. The Sports Editor of Autoocar thinks that Moss took me along as a publicity stunt, to write up good stories for him after the race. Alfred Neubauer thought at the time that Moss took me as a good luck charm, to keep him company; a sort of lucky bearded gnome. Stirlng Moss knew, and I knew, as well as many others close to us, that the reason for my being with him was to indicate to him which way the road went, throughout the 1,000 miles, for there was no hope of remembering it all. We worked on that race from early in January to May 1st, covering 12,000 miles of practice and compiling a detailed story of the road which I committed to paper, in what the rally boys now call “pace-notes,” and read these to Moss as we went along in the race, transmitting the information by a pre-arranged sign language, there being far too much noise in the Mercedes-Benz to even hear yourself shout. The real advantage that this system had was over blind brows, which we approached at 170 m.p.h., and there were many of these, for if I indicated “straight-on, full throttle,” Moss kept his foot down, where lesser men would ease back to 150-160 m.p.h. Similar situations arose through villages and across bridges, while there were many points where the road looked dead straight and flat-out but my notes told of “Caution, fast right” or “Panic braking, slow left.”

The events of all those practice miles we covered together, and the exciting 1,000 miles in the race, all seem like yesterday to me, and yet they were ten years ago and at times I find this hard to believe, but when I start taking stock of all the other things around me I realise that a great deal has happened in those ten years. In that time Britain has put the “Great” in front as far as Grand Prix racing is concerned, for in 1955 the starting grids used to contain the odd one or two green cars at the back of the field, and we have risen from a nonentity in G.P. racing, to the leading nation, but I wonder if we shall still be leading 10 years hence? It was in 1955 that Tony Brooks in a B-type Connaught beat the works Maserati team at Siracusa and gave everyone in British racing circles that wonderful shot-in-the-arm that convinced us that green cars were not for ever outclassed, and from that time onwards Tony Vandervell’s fine team of Vanwall cars went from strength to strength until they drove Ferrari and Maserati into the ground. Then John Cooper, Jack Brabham and Coventry-Climax took over and were later joined by Lotus and B.R.M., so that a British victory in Grand Prix racing was a foregone conclusion, only Porsche and Ferrari occasionally providing opposition. I used to write powerful and rude articles entitled “Britain and Grand Prix Racing” in which I badgered and harangued our Grand Prix car constructors and everyone connected with Grand Prix racing, grumbling about their deficiencies and urging everyone to try harder. Nowadays there is no need to write such articles, for apart from Ferrari, Britain is Grand Prix racing, but our reign may be over, which is another story. Throughout it all Enzo Ferrari has always been there, his cars always providing strong opposition to all-comers and often winning the yearly championship, others have come and gone, and alongside Ferrari have always been B.R.M., this team’s fortunes rising and gaining ground throughout the years, until they reached the top in 1962, where they have stayed ever since.

Drivers have come and gone, some tragically like Hawthorn, Collins, Lewis-Evans, Behra, von Trips, Musso and many more, others retired either through age, accident or loss of ability, drivers like Fangio, Moss, Brooks, Farina, Villoresi, Kling and others. During these fleeting ten years have appeared the new great drivers of the present time: Clark, whom I first saw driving a Porsche in the 750 Club’s 6-Hour Relay race, Gurney whom I first saw driving a GT Ferrari at remarkable speeds, Surtees whom I used to watch racing Norton and M.V. motorcycles, and Graham Hill, whom I first met in a café in Bari when he was acting as mechanic to Dan Margulies, and Brabham, who at first was so hopeless that I considered it an insult when he was teamed with Moss in an Aston Martin sports car!

The years go by and things change, some for good and some for bad, and over the years there was always the hope that the Mille Miglia would return, after its cessation in 1957 due to internal party politics in Italy that got out of hand following an accident not far from Brescia. I still maintain that had that accident happened at Antrodoco or San Quirico d’Orcia, or any other remote place, very little would have been heard of it and certainly party politics would not have got hold of it in their own newspapers. It unfortunately took place too close to Brescia so that all the newspaper journalists who only go to races for sensations were able to get to the scene of the accident and really do a good job of stirring up trouble. Had it taken place 500 miles from Brescia, as well it might, I doubt whether any press people would have bothered to go and take photos and make interviews. That the race finished abruptly in 1957 was a pity, but somehow I cannot see that it would have survived to the present day, accident or not, for the pattern of motoring and motoring life in Italy has changed enormously over the past ten years. More money, hire-purchase and greater production has meant that every shop assistant and bank clerk has a Fiat 500, and these are the sort of people whose interest lies in football, not motor racing, and they would have been screaming with indignation by now had the whole of Italy been dislocated for a day while the Mille Miglia took place. People who used to be on the trains going to the coast when the Mille Miglia was run, would now be wanting to use the roads for their Fiat 500s, and if they could not they would make a fuss. It is because of this different motoring population that the roads have become a mass of signs, symbols, double lines, warnings and traffic police, not only in Italy but in all countries, for the motorist of today is not interested in motoring, is of a lower mentality and therefore less responsible, and requires much more control and regimentation to maintain some semblance of order. This seems to be a natural law of human nature, unfortunately, and you can see it all about you. In England it is very obvious in saloon-car racing, especially since the advent of the B.M.C. Mini. Anyone can buy a Mini-Cooper over the counter and become a “racing-driver” and it has become so easy that an irresponsible element has appeared, a situation parallel to that on the public roads.

I think perhaps that the Mille Miglia was at its best in 1952/53 and that after it began to decline, and I was lucky to experience 1954 and 1955, while the race was still at its peak, even though conditions had begun to decline. On looking back it is clear now that we did things in practice in 1955 which we could not do in 1957 and restrictions and difficulties were appearing fast. Whereas people used to help you to sneak under railway level-crossing barriers, they were beginning to be unco-operative, and police no longer waved you over the traffic lights if you were in a racing/sports car; they made you wait, along with the family Fiats. It seems to be inevitable that the more prosperous a country gets the more righteous the populace become, and anything that they are not doing themselves is considered wrong and must be stopped. In these ten short years since 1955 I have made many trips to Sicily, for the Siracusa races and the Targa Florio, and whereas the 300-mile drive through the mountains of Calabria used to be a rather difficult and adventurous journey, with little in the way of hotels, petrol stations or restaurants, it is now a touring paradise, with vastly improved roads, very little traffic and a much wider range of civilisation. This year it was possible, to cruise at 85/90 m.p.h. on the autostrada from Milan to Naples, and on to Salerno, and that is a long way. It will not be many years before the autostrada is complete right down to Reggio Calabria, and Milan to Sicily will be accomplished in a full day’s motoring.

During these past ten years I have driven over 300,000 miles in a Porsche and seen British manufacturers catch up the better Continentals, and in some cases surpass them. From being pro-Continental cars, because they were so much better than British cars, I have had to change my views for most of the rubbish has gone from the British market and we now make some very good cars, in all categories, though we can still make rubbish if we want to. Just think how the bad independent front suspension systems have gone, how most enlightened manufacturers have discarded the beam rear axle and cart-springs, how the dreadful gearboxes and even worse steering-column gear-changes have disappeared, and their designers with them, I hope.

There have been many changes and many improvements since 1955 but it still seems like last year when we were practising with a 300SLR Mercedes-Benz, with its desmodromic valve gear, all-syncromesh 5-speed gearbox, inboard brakes, direct fuel-injection and many more advanced features, all so reliable and foolproof that we used the car as a high-speed touring car, parking it in hotel garages alongside the Fiats and Lancias, and next morning pressing the starter button and going on our way. That 3-litre engine gave 296 b.h.p. at 7,400 r.p.m., running on ordinary pump petrol, and we used to fill it up at Supercortemaggiore garages, using tourist petrol coupons! There are people today who still do not believe in direct high-pressure fuel injection where metered fuel is squirted into the cylinder as the piston rises on the compression stroke. They say it is all right when using alcohol fuel, but not for straight-petrol, yet we used the 300SLR for thousands of miles round Italy on straight-petrol with never a moment’s trouble. We had trouble with other things, such as clutch slip, burst radiator, brake troubles, engine power shaft breakage, but most of the troubles were through over-use, for the practice car was thrashed round the 1,000-mile circuit in turn by Fangio, Moss, Kling and Herrmann, and must have covered 10,000 miles at racing speeds. I don’t know what the others did but I do know that we once averaged 94 m.p.h. from Brescia to Ravenna, and 87 m.p.h. from Brescia to Pescara, on a Sunday what is more, and Fangio once did a full practice lap on his own, non-stop apart from refuelling. He did the leg Modena to Brescia in the dark with only one headlamp working, but he was determined to get back in the day, as he loathed stopping at unfamiliar hotels. Afterwards his comment was that he would not do it again, it was “Troppo pericoloso.” That hack-car really earned its keep and taught the Daimler-Benz engineers an enormous amount, not only about the car but about motoring conditions over the 1,000-mile Mille Miglia circuit.

During that ten years we have gone through a revolution in racing-car design, just as we have in touring-car design, and we saw the advent of a turbine-driven car on a racing circuit, when the Rover-B.R.M. gave such an impressive 24-hour demonstration at Le Mans. Just what will happen in the next ten years is not possible to say, but no doubt there will be plenty of motor racing: still taking place, and though few of today’s drivers will be competing I hope that at least one of today’s race reporters will still be at the trackside. – D. S. J.