The worst car I ever drove - Front wheel dive

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At a time when privateers could drive their cars to and from race tracks all over Europe, the Baron invested in a uniquely sprung Maserati. It was, he tells Gordon Cruickshank, a big mistake.

Baron Emmanuel De Graffenreid has an unusual difficulty when it comes to discussing this article. “But I never drove a bad car!” protests the sprightly 85-year old veteran of 22 World Championship Grand Prix starts and one rather memorable victory, not to mention a hearty spread of pre-war racing.

“The Maserati was a good car, the Alfa Romeo was a good car – the best.” He has a point; as the pilot of both Alfetta 159 and Maserati 250F, he raced two of the most beautiful and successful racing cars ever built, both dominant in their day and both now seen as icons of racing perfection.

Furthermore, his racing has centred on these two Italian marques right from the beginning, when he entered the 1936 Mille Miglia in an Alfa, and neither company has been exactly famous for building ill-advised or unsuccessful machinery. Although the Swiss-born Baron was a member of the factory Alfa Romeo team in 1951, his career has been generally as a privateer, racing first with his American partner John Du Puy and then after the war for Enrico Plate, the Milanese team-owner and mechanic who was happy to cede the wheel to his protege.

In the ’30s De Graffenried and Du Puy went from race to race across Europe with a pair of Maseratis, and the Baron remained faithful to the marque when, after the war, he began to drive Plate’s cars in Grands Prix. These were in the main Maserati 4CLTs such as the one which brought him his famous victory in the first British Grand Prix at the recently-opened Silverstone circuit in 1949, moving on to the A6GCS, the precursor of the 250F which he drove in 1956, his last year of competition.

So if Maseratis were so dear to him, was his worst car perhaps the Alfetta 159 – beautiful and fast, but famously peaky in torque delivery thanks to its centrifugal supercharger system? “No, no, the Alfa was very, very good – it revved to 9000rpm, amazing for those days. No, I suppose the worst car I raced was one of my own Maseratis, a supercharged 4CM. I bought it in 1937 and had it fitted with independent front suspension a system called Technauto which another private owner said I should try. It was not a Maserati feature, you sent the car to the Technauto factory where the technicians fitted it for you.”

The Technauto design was just one of a crop of independent front suspension systems designed in the ’30s which could be added to conventional chassis frames with side rails, replacing the rigid axle and longitudinal leaf-springs. With small twin trailing arms, springs hidden within the aluminium alloy castings, and internal damping, it was a neat way to package a bolt-on contrivance; but the short arms with their restricted radius limited vertical wheel movement, and it was hard to alter spring rates. It also applied the loads to the very tip of the chassis rails, causing maximum chassis flex, and the inherent trailing-arm geometry kept the wheels Parallel to the chassis instead of perpendicular to the road. Fitted to a more rigid frame it could work, (as on Raymond Mays’ ERA R4D, and similar designs were successful on Grand Prix Alfa Romeos), but fitted to a chassis that adhered to vintage theories of flexibility, it would produce intermittent and unpredictable front-end grip which was a poor match for a rigid rear axle.

The Baron has to agree. “It was not a success. The car was difficult to drive, it was hard to keep it on the road in the corners.”

An expensive mistake, then? “It was not so expensive, about the same as the car with the normal front axle. I raced it all over Europe France, Italy, Switzerland, England.”

In fact de Graffenried campaigned the car for more than a season, “so it was not a terrible car, but I could not win with it, even against the other 1500s. Our aim was to finish, so it made us happy if we did. I remember taking it to Douglas in the Isle of Man in, I think, 1937, where we raced in the pouring rain. I don’t remember where I finished, but it was there I met Prince Bira, who became my friend and later my team-mate.” (In fact de Graffenried placed sixth; Bira won in his Delage. Du Puy, who had a 6CM, retired with low oil pressure on lap one.) “We also went to Donington, when we still had to race through the little arch in the bridge.”

It was a time when the amateur’s ideal of driving his racing car to and from events was not only possible but positively sensible. “I remember we drove out to the Kluges hillclimb in Romania, did the hillclimb, and then drove all the way home again. And we drove down to Naples and back as well.”

Being used to the idea that the trip was part of the adventure, it is not surprising that, when he was racing for the under-funded Plate outfit later on, de Graffenried was quite happy to drive the truck from race to race to save the two mechanics’ energies. Thus it was all the more impressive that the tiny private team beat Luigi Villoresi’s works Maserati 4CLT entry on that unforgettable weekend at the featureless Northamptonshire bomber aerodrome.

And what happened to the Baron’s unpredictable Maserati? “I eventually sold it to another private owner, and bought a 3-litre six-cylinder Maserati monoposto, a 6CM, for myself. It was a much better car.” At last the enthusiastic Swiss driver had a car which allowed his talents to show, which would lead to his being noticed by Plate, and on to the start of his Grand Prix career.

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