[By means of which the Continental Correspondent, while he is motoring abroad, keeps in touch with the Editor.]
Dear W. B.,
On one trip back across the Channel recently I arrived at the B.U.A. airfield at Le Touquet, having done a rather fast 500-mile run across France, to find all the aeroplanes well booked up. As I was in a bit of a hurry to get back to England I motored off to Boulogne to look for a boat, and suddenly saw the new sign saying “Hoverport”. I had completely forgotten this new form of cross-Channel transport, so turned sharp left and headed for the Hovercraft terminal on the beach to the west of Boulogne harbour. The sea was dead calm with the waves folding gently on to the sand, but there was a heavy sea mist and visibility was about 100 yards, and long before I could see the Hovercraft, I could hear it. It was an intriguing noise, almost awe-inspiring hearing it for the first time, for it is an entirely new noise, deep-noted and steady. Eventually it came into view out of the sea mist, cruising towards the shore, and by any standards it is BIG, looking much bigger than photographs suggest, this impression probably being emphasised by the way it loomed out of the sea mist some time after the noise had reached me. The landing area is a truly vast expanse of tarmac that stretches down to the water’s edge, and this great 165-ton monster cruised straight out off the sea and on to the tarmac, where it did a 90-degree turn on its own axis and then settled down like a great hen, opening its mouth to disgorge a stream of cars.
A memory that will always live with me is the day I saw the first Whittle-jet aeroplane do its first taxiing tests at RAE., Farnborough, and the feeling I had when I saw that beautiful little single-seater aircraft taxi away and manoeuvre around the tarmac with no visible propulsion, having been brought up on propeller aircraft. Although I have seen various small Hovercraft cruising about the Solent at times this was the first time I had seen the giant SR.N4 and watched it come ashore. It was memorable, and in spite of all the things we complain about, such as 70 m.p.h. limits, traffic congestion, laws and restrictions and so on, it made me feel glad to be living in this marvellous modern age. In the same way that I was convinced by the first jet-aircraft and realised that propellers were obsolete, the SR.N4 Hovercraft gave me the same feeling about ships. I would have been happy enough to have watched this fine machine, but better still was to find out how it went and the size of the cargo hold is impressive, the E-type looking lost inside. It would easily contain half a dozen of the biggest racing-car transporters and then some, while passengers sit in aircraft-type seats in observation saloons along each side of the craft.
It was a strange feeling as the great machine rose up, pivoted round and headed for the sea, accelerating in a cloud of sand and spray straight on to the water. It cruises at 70 m.p.h., taking a mere 35 minutes to cross from Boulogne to Dover, and looking out of the side windows the impression of speed across the smooth water was splendid. I had a look in the car-carrying hold while we were travelling and all the cars were pounding up and down on their suspensions, for the ride is not smooth, but it is a regular vibrating and pounding ride, very like a big power-boat, and, of course, there is quite a lot of noise. The cars are anchored to the floor by webbing straps round the tyres, the straps made of the same material as seat belts. The craft was nothing like full, and it was interesting to view the character of the cars on board, being two MG.-Bs, a Spitfire, an S-type Jaguar, a 230SL, a DS21 and the E-type, all driven by people who obviously enjoy interesting travel, and at the moment this seems to be the general rule as regards customers, even though the price of travel is comparable to B.U.A. air-ferry travel. During the journey an American traveller said: “What the hell is wrong with Britain? If your designers, engineers and technicians can produce a craft like this they shouldn’t have to worry about anything, yet your country seems to be in a mess, with devaluation, travel restrictions and political troubles.” We should certainly be proud of the all-British Hovercraft and Saunders-Roe, who produce the SR.N4, have clearly set an example that a lot of other engineering firms should follow. I was a little disappointed that the American said “Britain” and not “Great Britain”.
In a letter to you, back in the summer I mentioned driving a solid-tyred veteran Panhard round the streets of Cleres, saying it was an 1894 car with single-cylinder Daimler engine. As you know, by my lack of help when you go on the Brighton Run every November, veteran cars leave me cold and I can’t tell hot-tube ignition from a Stepney wheel, my mechanical interest starting in the vintage years, so it was no surprise when I received a letter putting me right about that veteran. It was from Jacques Ickx, father of the young Ferrari racing driver of that name, and he said “it must have been an 1896/97 Panhard with a two-in-line Phénix engine, not a Daimler engine”, so I stood corrected and realised I know even less about veterans than I thought, which isn’t much anyway. Visiting Cleres again I asked Jackie Pichon about this and got an interesting reply. It certainly was a two-in-line and not a single (but it certainly felt like a single!), but it was not a Phénix engine, it was a Daimler-Phénix and had no Phénix number stamped on the castings. He admitted that the date could be 1894/95, but not 1896/97, although the rear wheels and axle were identical to 1897. Once again there were no serial numbers, on any of the chassis parts so nothing could be proved, and the car seems to be a bit of a “special”. He acquired it from the chateau of Monsieur Levassor, where it had been kept indoors, as if of some particularly significant interest, so it may well have been a prototype or something. Although a lot of knowledgeable veteran people have looked at the car, no one has yet thrown any light on its origins. How very fortunate are some of today’s young men, to have fathers as steeped in motoring as Jacques Ickx; it is not surprising that one of his sons is a Grand Prix driver and the other a motoring journalist. My father hardly knew the distinction between a motor car and a railway train, they were just forms of transport, and he is probably one of the few people alive in England who has never driven a motor car, and never wanted to. I was going to say “but I have never ridden a horse”, but that’s not quite true, though I can say I have never wanted to ride one.
In your write-up on the Renault 16 I see you thought I was a bit casual about it last year. The trip I did in it was a sort of annual penance, in appreciation of all the magnificent motoring I am able to do in cars like the E-type. This year my penance was a never-ending trip to Le Mans driving a Commer “Highwayman” motor caravan. I borrowed this from the specialist firm of Wilsons, of Brixton, who have a stock of new and used motor caravans bigger than I thought possible. They believe in the self-contained motor caravan, instead of the car/caravan-trailer layout, like I believe in the mid-engined coupé GT car. It’s a pity some ordinary car dealers are not as enthusiastic about their wares as Wilsons are, but the interesting thing is that behind the scenes at Wilsons there is a hot-bed of racing enthusiasts, two members of the staff being Mini-saloon racers, and another a rally and rallycross driver, and when I took the “Highwayman” back after Le Mans there was a hot rally B.M.C. 1800 outside, covered in mud and wearing alloy wheels and great knobbly tyres. The firm are sponsoring an entry in the London-Sydney marathon and intend to use a “Highwayman” as a support vehicle.
While the normal “Highwayman” will wind up to 65.m.p.h. the resultant pandemonium is too much for me, so I kept to a comfortable 45 m.p.h. and just suffered the 2 C.V. Citroën vans that steamed by. To break the monotony of the journey back I did a couple of laps of the Rouen-les-Escarts circuit and met Robin Richards and Eric Tobitt of the B.B.C. doing the same thing in a long-wheelbase Land Rover for the same reason!—Yours, D. S. J.