Fiesta Time in Mexico

“God Bless Freddie Laker!” As I write this the air-fares war which he started is spreading like a bush fire. So, with any luck, next year it will be possible to get to Mexico for not much more than a first-class return to mid Scotland on British Rail. It’s the holiday place for retired people who are impoverished by inflation eroded savings. There are, of course, for civil servants with index linked pensions, grand hotels. But for the less well heeled there are any amount of modest, but spotlessly clean establishments where one can get a double room with its own shower for two pounds, just two pounds per night for two people, without breakfast. And petrol, although not as good quality, is half the price it is in England. And this climate is marvellous, like a hot English summer at its best. Dry heat, not steamy, like you get further south towards Panama. And the people are friendly, charming and delightful. What is more, apart from one or two coastal resorts, no one seems preoccupied with fleecing the tourists. The only time I was short changed in months was in a little country store when I bought a bottle of delectable very old vintage rum which cost barely a couple of pounds per litre.

This story really starts in Cleveland, Ohio, on Lake Erie, where I had flown in to collect a four­wheel-drive Jeep for my South American travels. Here I found one of the best Motor Museums I have ever seen, the Frederick C. Crawford. It houses around a couple of hundred cars, well spaced, well lit and most attractively displayed. I give it full marks on two points. Apart from one or two well known cars, such as Models T and A Fords, a large percentage of the exhibits are rare and technically-interesting makes. The other is the quality of the restoration, I have never seen better. Ken Gooding, the Director and his staff have not over-restored anything and there is not a single fitting on any car that is not exactly contemporary with the original. I don’t know exactly how many American car manufacturers were put out of business by the big combines and the depression. There must have been several hundreds of them. These long defunct builders of quality cars are very very well represented. Ken Gooding, like me, has a great weakness for large Edwardians, all luxury and litres. I suppose about 10% of the exhibits are quality cars of European origin. I thought it was a nice touch to put a 30/98 Vauxhall standing next to an L-Head Mercer Raceabout, with its big bolster petrol tank behind the two bucket seats. These two cars have much the same “feel” to drive. And, certainly comparing untuned versions, performance was about equal. My Mercer, the only one that ever got to England, was quite unmodified, and it was comparable to a 30/98 whose engine had not been “breathed on”. It is one of the great regrets of my life that I sold the Mercer, in 1929 I think, to a vandal who put the engine in a boat and scrapped the rest.

For those, who like me, are aficionados of steam, the Frederick C. Crawford Automobile and Aero Collection is a delight. I don’t suppose anyone, short of Bill Harrah, has as many. There are also more Electric cars than I have ever seen together in one place before; these included some makes I had never heard of – but if you will forgive the pun, electric cars do not turn me on. My big surprise was finding my dear old, unmanageable, Chitty Bang Bang II. I parted with her in 1930, and she spent most of her life back in Kent where she had been born. The late Colonel Clive Gallop, Zborowski’s chief engineer had positioned the vast Maybach aero engine wrongly, so at any speeds over 80 m.p.h. the handling was most peculiar. Luckily at that time I was in my early twenties, and found the great car’s strange antics at speed funny, rather than frightening. As far as I could make out, nobody had driven Chitty II since she came to the States, so I could not compare notes. Perhaps Harris-­Mayes, the last English owner, did things to the steering geometry which cured Chitty’s mal­practices. But I rather doubt it.

This very splendid museum which forms part of the Western Reserve Historical Society, is based on the Frederick C. Crawford collection. He started to collect in the early nineteen thirties when an old car, however perfect, was quite valueless and was usually broken up for scrap. He also, and this was considered even more eccentric, collected old aircraft. There is a nice story about a barnstorming pilot whose Kaiser war DeHavilland Four was declared not airworthy. He asked what he should do, and the authorities told him “Ring Crawford – he buys junk”. Frederick C. Crawford, now in his eighties, can look back with great pride on a superb collection assembled with real love.

From Cleveland we drove the Jeep southwards through a blizzard, Americans say that it was their worst for a decade. New tyres and four wheel drive got us through, but we counted 49 motoring accidents along the way. We stopped a couple of nights with friends in San Antonio, Texas, who regaled us with T bone steaks as big as dinner plates. On the way, one of the rear brake cylinders started to leak oil onto the lining. Our trouble was to find a suitable wheel puller, but every garage that we tried either did not have one or said they did not. Most American garages refuse, usually rudely, to have anything to do with any vehicle over five years old. In San Antonio, we found a shop who hired virtually any special tool one could possibly need, against quite a small deposit. We also found a firm called “One Hundred Thousand Auto Parts”. Here one of the storemen, who answered to Mick, spent most of one morning telephoning round till he got us the correct brake shoes and hydraulic cylinders. Full marks to Mick.

Of course we could not visit San Antonio without going to see the Alamo, famous in history, song and film for the heroic defence to the last man, of 50 Texans against the entire Mexican army who wanted to take over Texas. The old Spanish mission which they fortified as well as they could, and many relics of the bloody siege, are extremely well displayed and explained. I found, interestingly, that some modern historians claim to have found evidence that Davy Crockett of the coonskin cap, did not perish with the others but escaped.

It is half a day’s run from San Antonio to Mexico and that night we slept well inside the country at Saltillo, which is something like eight thousand feet above sea level. The Mexican mountains are as beautiful as anywhere in the world and the main roads as good as our own. But the minor roads are really terrible, I can only compare them with the Balkans pre-war. We covered well over ten thousand miles in our three months travelling and about a quarter df this distance was over bad roads. With five hundred pounds to spend one could get either a Jeep with good mechanics and poor coachwork or vice versa. We opted for the former. Although the metal “station wagon” body looked lovely, an experienced eye could see that it was well rotted by the salt they put on roads in the winter. The bad roads caused the floor to fall to pieces and much of the bodywork to come away from the chassis. But Mexican mechanics are superb craftsmen, charging under a pound per hour, who will virtually fabricate anything from anything and are super experts on keeping cars that, in other countries, would have been scrapped long ago, running well. I think my body repairs for the whole trip cost me under 30 pounds, and I now have a sound strong station wagon-body that will last for years. But be warned, don’t expect to get anything done between two and four in the afternoon, everybody is fast asleep. After that they work far into the starlit Mexican night.

We went down the West coast full of glorious little seaside villages, unspoiled because there are no big hotels yet to house package tourists. Then across country to Yucatan. The West to East roads are as bad as the scenery is gorgeous. Yucatan is where the Mayas, those strange peasants with such profound knowledge of architecture and astronomy built their immense truncated pyramid temples. There are quite a number of these and to visit them is an experience of a lifetime. In the 12th Century, Plantaganet times over here, the Mayan civilisation extended far south into what is now Guatemala. Deep in the Guatemalan jungle lies Tikal, one of the largest and foremost of the great ruined temples. The most direct way to Tikal from Yucatan lies through a squalid little country called Belize that used to be, before we broke up the Empire, British Honduras. We had been warned beforehand that if our Jeep was not stolen the wheels and tyres were likely to be and our luggage certainly would be. We took endless precautions, but even then, the locked Jeep, unguarded for a few hours, was broken into and some of the contents stolen. The police were quite comically ineffectual and, although the thief had left his fingerprints all over the Jeep, did not have fingerprint apparatus! Belize is better avoided.

Once over the border in Guatemala, we hit several hundred miles of really bad road but everything else was lovely. Especially delightful, a highlight of this trip was the “Gringo Perdito”, cabins and camping beside the most beautiful lake I have ever seen, several miles long, it is so clear that one can count the pebbles on the bottom, and so warm one could spend all day in the water. It was also handy for the Mayan ruins in the jungle at Tikal, where, as one would expect lodgings were dear. Many readers will have seen these majestic temples without realising it, they were used as a set in “Star Wars”.

It was a long hard slog over a terrible road till we joined up with a first class main road to Guatemala City. Here there was, I have been told, a very fine private collection of old cars. But I did not know the name of the collector, or where he lives. We did not stay to try to find out because a Presidential election was in progress and South American Presidential elections are somewhat emotive. We spent some days in Antigua, the beautiful old capital that was abandoned in the 18th century because of the frequency of the earthquakes. Then to that famed beauty spot Lake Ataclan, where we turned and headed for home.

With the exception of one collection near the west coast, more notable for its quantity than its quality, most of the private collections are in and around Mexico City. Most of them consist, naturally, like that of Senor Torres Marin, treasurer of the club Mexicanos Automobile Antiguas, almost entirely of American cars. It is not that there have not been very exciting cars in Mexico, but the country is far too close to the USA. Interesting cars are not to be found in barns and stables as they are in Brazil and Argentina. American dealers and collectors have picked Mexico as clean as the bones of a donkey that has died in the desert. Only last year the last Bugatti and the last Deusenburg were driven across the border. There is, of course, a lot of interest in American cars. For instance, I learned, for the first time in my life, that Chevrolet in 1923 built an air cooled car. The engine looked very like a Franklin. I bet that even your editor, who is as near omniscient about motorcars as anyone I know, did not know that one.

I was lucky enough to fall in with Edouardo Valverdi in whose workshops virtually all the vintage cars in Mexico are restored. He took me round quite a few collections. The two, which to my mind are the most exciting are those of Senor Arthur Keller and Senor Elisa Keller, so interesting, specialises in post war luxury sports cars, Mercedes 300SL, Citroen-Maserati, Ferrari, E-Type Jaguar and all that sort of thing. Every year a few very few, wealthy playboys and car fancying politicians bring in cars of this type. A few years later when their traditionally fickle owners become bored with them, they find their way to the Keller collection. It is unlikely that Arthur Keller will be seduced by American dollars to part with any of his lovely cars. He owns a large efficient factory that makes subcontracted items such as seats for the huge Volkswagen factory at Pueblo. I wonder if many people realise that every single Volkswagen of the traditional “beetle” shape, that is bought anywhere in the world, is actually built in Mexico?

Personally, my favourite collection in Mexico is that of Senor Elisa, small enough to be housed in an extension to his house, but jewelled in every hole. Most of his cars are of the Veteran and Edwardian era and include a very sporting 1906 chain drive Lion Peugeot, a five-litre 1909 Peugeot tourer, a 1904 Reo and a 1917 12 cylinder Packard. Besides these, there are two gems beyond price. The only Type 30 Hispano Suiza in the world. This, a transitional model that immediately preceded the immortal “372” was built in 1917. And, indeed, many of the features of this model are anticipated in the Type 30. It is propelled by a huge overhead camshaft four cylinder engine of something like seven litres capacity, has back wheel brakes only and a vastly elegant Salamanca-de-ville body. The photograph herewith was taken when the car was new, but it in almost as good condition today.

The other car belonging to Senor Elisa which I covet more than words can say is a 100% original 18-litre racing Panhard. This car, built in 1906, at the time that Panhard was beginning to lose “the battle of the litres”, has an interesting history. It had never been raced in Europe, but was shipped brand new, direct from the factory to its wealthy Mexican owner. It was raced quite successfully till 1922, and then stored till it came into Elisa’s hands. The only name that I have is Augusto Cassel but whether he was the owner or the driver or both, I don’t know. Perhaps someone who reads this article might be able to fill this gap.

Some of the cars which I did not see in Mexico City were an 1898 Fiat, a 1904 Decauville, a number of American “High Wheelers”, so beloved by farmers that they were manufactured almost up to the outbreak of the first world war. Also in Mexico City is a 1911 Benz, one time property of the President. It is not a “Blitzen” model, but it is reputed to have an awful lot of litres. Unfortunately I did not meet Alberto Lenz, president of the club, with whom I corresponded. I should like to thank Edgar Santoyo and many other members who, with true Mexican courtesy and hospitality, made my search for old car collections in Mexico such a pleasurable success.

One thing I regret is that, on my way back, passing through Brownsville on the Texas-Mexican border, I was in too much of a hurry to catch a plane home, to visit the “Confederate Air Force Base”. This, from what I hear, is one of the finest aircraft museums in the world. – David Scott-Moncrieff