Car versus light plane

Having been impressed with the way in which Motor Sport contrived to visit ten European capitals in four days in the winter of 1972 (MOTOR SPORT, January 19th) in a BMW 3.0 CSL, Raymond Playfoot, who so efficiently looks after BMW publicity in this country, suggested that it might be interesting to see how a car would compare with a light aeroplane for travelling across France, now that the Autoroutes have made fast motoring on the Continent possible in spite of prevailing speed limits.

Entering into the spirit of the thing, Graham Harder, whose BMW sales and service organisation through his company, Cheyne Motors, is well-known to London’s West End clients, agreed to fly the Messerschmitt Monsun (150 h.p. Lycoming) he shares with David Cockroft, from Calais to Cannes on the same day that Motor Sport drove between the two towns in a BMW. The car used was a full four-seater 3 0Si saloon. It was standard except for the effective optional front spoiler, costing £30, which elevated its price to £5,330. I was reassured to find that it was shod with Michelin XWX tyres; I am not prepared to say what degree of anxiety I suffered on being told that the sump contained not Castrol but Shell oil! (The aeroplane was using Aeroshell 100.)

This comparison between fast luxury motoring and accomplishing the same journey in a two-seater private aeroplane was not to be merely a matter of speed. What we sought to do was to compare the facilities and the cost of this one-day journey across France.

The Messerschmitt Monsun sells for £7,800 or only about £150 more than a BMW 3.0 CSL.

This is how the journey worked out. After booking in at the Meurice Hotel at Calais, where we enjoyed old-fashioned comfort, calm and dignity par excellence, we passed the afternoon looking at historic motor-racing items in Bolougne, including the sadly-defaced monument to the great pre-1914 racing driver Georges Boillet, photographing the memorial in Calais where Louis Bleriot commenced his grave and epoch-making first flight across the Channel in the 25 h.p. Anzani-engined Bleriot in 1909 (the surrounding streets are named after pioneer aviators) before driving to the local aerodrome, which is dedicated, naturally, to Bleriot. It is very quiet since the Air Ferries have ceased to operate, but we watched a Lear-Jet, used by French business executives, take off while waiting for our companions in the forthcoming experiment to arrive from White Waltham, which they did only five minutes short of their ETA.

The plane was to take their Calais-Cannes flying time as inclusive of taxi rides, refuelling stops, etc. A start was called for 8 a.m, but as the BMW moved off into the traffic of breakfast-time Calais the pilot’s taxicab had not appeared. This gave we mere motorists an uplift—had we but known it, the cab arrived not long afterwards. We drove to Dunkirk and onto the Autoroute de Sud and were on the Paris peripherique in 2 hrs. 31 mins. Traffic was heavier than expected, because wealthy parents were going down to the Med. to collect their children at the end of the summer holiday, but the BMW cruised fast and contentedly. It was clear of Parts in 16 mins. and we were entering the Lyon tunnel 4 hrs. 53 mins. from the start, which included taking on 72.8 litres of Esso after 3 hrs. 12 mins. motoring, a near-thing, as the low-level fuel light had not given much warning and the tank was more or less empty although we had tilled it with fuel the previous evening.

By noon we had done 323.6 miles, including this five-minutes “pit-stop”. After a further 93 mins., it was necessary to stop for more fuel. Total this time, the tank taking 76.5 litres. We had hoped to stop only twice but prudence bade us refuel with 100 francs’ worth of Esso when we were nearly home. These three stops cost us a total of 18 mins. But after 8 hrs. 55 mins, we were off the Autoroute and coping with thick traffic on the last lap to Cannes. There was slight confusion in discovering which way to turn in the town, and further traffic delays, before we got to the Hotel Logis Sant-Estello. But we entered the hotel drive at 17.03 hrs., the speedo-trip zeroed at the start, now reading 775 miles, an average speed of 85.6 m.p.h. (running time average 88.6 m.p.h.) Were the two intrepid birdmen there, or were they not? We had noticed with interest a head-wind against them from Lyon onward and had kept our fingers crossed. But, yes, there they were, sitting by the swimming pool, glasses in their hands, having arrived at the hotel from Calais Airport Li hrs. before the BMW. They had refuelled once and their log was as follows:

The pilot writes: We left Hotel Meurice, Calais, at 08.04 by rusted Citroen ID19 taxi. Arrive outside Calais-Marc Airport terminal building 08.17. Flight plan, obtain “clearskies” weather report by ‘phone from met. office at Le Touquet. Top-up aircraft tanks (total fuel capacity: 32.4 gals.). Start engine 08.42 and obtain take-off clearance on runway 07 at 08.45. Climb out on track to cruising level of 5,500 ft. for first navigation beacon at Cambria. Clear skies and no wind to reduce ground speed. Cross autoroute near Arras at 09.19, pass Cambria at 09.24, three minutes later than estimated so we have slight headwind. Groundspeed check gives 112 knots. Next beacon is at Chadlion, passed at 10.05, when we alter course for our refuelling stop at Troyes-Barbery airfield. Call Troyes Air Traffic Control from 30 kms. range and receive a welcome in clear, if gutteral, English. They have no other traffic except for a few gliders to the West of the airfield. Land on new hard runway at 10.35 and park in front of brand new Tower and terminal building. A quick beer, negotiate for new maps (we seem to have left two behind at Calais and will have to make do with a Michelin road map for the first 100 tuns. from Troyes) and pay landfee. Refuel with 13.0 gallons of Total 100L. Airborne at 11.26 and climb out on track to beacon at Autun, cruising this time at 7,500 ft. Work out ETA for Cannes to be 15.00 exactly if the wind remains the same. Pass 10 kms. West of Lyon at 13.00 but can’t see any of the city for haze. Head on down to Montelimar, where we cross the Rhone valley and the beacon at 13.38. Our next track is direct to St. Tropez beacon, to avoid the French Air Force firing ranges east of Orange. Pass over a motor-racing circuit near Le Luc at 14.21 (can’t be Paul Ricard; that’s further South West). Ground speed seems higher already, so revise estimate for Cannes to 14.50. Mediterranean visible from 25 krns., and as we pass St. Tropez at 14.36 look for topless bathers on the beaches-not much luck from 7,500 ft. We still haven’t seen another aircraft but do sec a Magister or similar just airborne from Frejus military base as we pass overhead at 14.39. Begin descent for Cannes at 14.40. A friendly welcome on the R/T and receive landing instructions for runway 26. Approach in considerable heat from over the railway station and land at 14.46. We arrive in the beautiful new terminal (reserved for private and business aircraft) at 14.52. No Raymond Playfoot yet so into the bar at 14.55. Wait until 15.23 (subsequently find that his scheduled flight Heathrow-Nice was delayed and it took him nearly 8 hours for the trip by Air France Boeing 727!). Commandeer an old Peugeot 404 taxi at 14.25. Petrol must be expensive in France as we coast down every hill in neutral. Arrive at hotel 15.40, allow three minutes for negotiations over taxi fare (F30,00 for 6.5 km. journey!) Eventually we agree at F20,00 and reach hotel bar at 15.44. When refilled, the tank took 23.2 gallons of fuel, so a total of 36.2 gallons had been used. [Good show.-ED.]

When we later topped-up the BMW with Esso it showed the overall consumption to have been 15.1 m.p.g. for this fast run. The comparative expenses for car and aeroplane were:


Fuel . . . . . . . £40,89

Oil . . . . . . . . . Nil

Autoroute tolls . . . .. . £9,24

Taxis . . . . . . . . . . Nil

Total £50,13


Fuel . . . . . . . £28,63

Oil . . . . . . . . . Nil

Ladning fees . . . .. . £1,52

Taxis . . . . . . . . . . £2,75

Total £32,90

By the time we were back in London the 3.0Si had covered 1,830 miles, requiring no oil, or water and being 100% trouble-free. Only once had the brakes been heavily applied, when a Renault 16 strayed in our path on ordinary roads near Alias, when, fortunately, they proved to be excellent anchors. If this little excursion proves nothing else, it does show that today there is nothing to crossing the wide Continent of France between a not-too-early breakfast and a late tea, whether by automobile or flying-machine. If, that is, you choose the appropriate vehicle.-W.B.