The hills come alive
Subscription TV may be a modern feature, but it can open unexpected doors to the past
It was a Saturday in September, the weekend before the Goodwood Revival Meeting. It was utterly exhausting. The Pyrenean mountain stage on the Franco-Spanish border was no less than 196 kilometres long – for the unapologetically unmetricated that’s 122 swooping, swerving, mountainous miles – the contenders had been at eight-tenths much of the way, literally wheel to wheel; some had lost control and gone off, a few dusted themselves down, hauled their machines out of the ditch and pressed on. Up front it was nip and tuck – but within the last 300 metres the stage was won, at last gasp…
It had taken hours. As the sweat-stained winner finally crossed the mountain-top line, I flopped back, absolutely drained. And I swung my legs off the sofa… and strolled into the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea.
Yes, I’m owning up. I’m afraid that this year Sky TV has trapped me at last. I always swore I would never pay ransom to the Dirty Digger for sports coverage, but the combination of Formula 1 – admittedly coverage which is immensely overlong, tedious, too often crushingly boring once we reach beyond the first 300 racing yards – and tarraaaahhh! – major-league cycle road racing as in the Tour de France and La Vuelta a España, has finally dragged me in. And, strangely enough, my missus too.
The live cycle racing coverage is like a wonderful road-show touring movie – seeing all these sights and wonderful scenery from the comfort of one’s own home, with no airlines, ferries or traffic jams to concern us, nary a single gas station bill to pay, nor fractious classic car to concern us…
Watching the ace riders in La Vuelta – Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador, Chris Froome – pumping their way, big-ring gears and all, up the Col d’Aubisque reminded me that this time of year used to host the wonderful
Tour de France Automobile. This actually pre-dates the the great classic push-bike race, which began in 1903. The Tour Automobile was first run in 1899 but was then relaunched after World War 2, in 1951.
It became the most terrific rally-style event with a major difference; it included serious circuit races amongst its timed stages, and combined them with speed hillclimbs over some of the most fabulous of European mountain-road cols. Races would be run at Le Mans, Reims, Rouen, St Etienne, Clermont-Ferrand, Montlhéry, Pau and later, as the Tour spilled beyond its national borders, the Nürburgring, Spa and Monza. The featured climbs included the mighty Mont Ventoux – a long-established Tour de France cycle classic – the Tourmalet, Chamrousse, the Col de Braus… and the Col d’Aubisque that I have just negotiated so strenuously via Sky TV and 160 other blokes’ lung-busting efforts… Viewing the sites where great sporting events took place is perhaps an unusual vicarious pleasure – but I’m sure some of you will empathise…
The inaugural post-war Tour in 1951 was won by Pierre Boniface, with navigator Albert Barracquet in his 2.6-litre Ferrari 212 Export.
In truth the event, though growing each year, did not really establish itself as a big motor-sporting deal until 1956, when the stubble-chinned Spanish celebrity aristo Marquis ‘Fon’ de Portago won with Ed Nelson in their Ferrari 250GT long-wheelbase berlinetta, beating Moss and Georges Houel in a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing into second place..
In Maranello Mr Ferrari was thrilled to bits – a Tour win proved his V12-engined closed-cabin exotics really were true grand touring cars, and to humble Mercedes too… He rated such victories as barely less prestigious than the Le Mans 24 Hours itself. His 250GT LWB line took the Tour de France Berlinetta tag thereafter.
In 1957 the Tour offered both GT and touring car categories – Olivier Gendebien/Lucien Bianchi winning the first for Ferrari, Jean Hebert/Marcel Lauga the latter for Alfa Romeo. Into the 1960s Ferrari was fully established as the Tour de France’s regular GT winner, Jaguar 3.8 saloons being the touring category kings.
This was an era in which privateers like David Piper would shell out five or six thousand pounds on a brand-new Ferrari 250GTO and immediately thrash its brand-new guts out on the week-long Tour de France. While the Ferrari stars famously fought each other to a standstill, littering the route with smashed and broken GTOs, the old-established 250GT short-wheelbase cars won outright into 1962, before Jean Guichet/Jose Behra and Lucien Bianchi/’JoJo’ Berger finally did the trick with their GTOs in the 1963 and ’64 events. Consten/Renel notched Jaguar’s last touring category win in ’63, followed a year later by Peter Procter/Andrew Cowan taking victory in a big Ford Mustang – an achievement too often overlooked.
And of course the mighty Shelby Cobra Daytonas had been in contention too – Carroll on Ford’s behalf trying to “bite Ferrari’s ass”.
But the event was in trouble: sponsorship tanked, traffic pressures meant its day was passing. The organising AC de Marseilles revived it in 1969-71 and in 1970 – most wondrously – J-P Beltoise, Patrick Depailler and navigator Jean Todt (whatever became of him?) won outright in their road-equipped Matra-Simca MS650 sports-prototype – perhaps setting a tacit example for Audi, Porsche, Peugeot and today’s LMPs?
Matra won again in 1971 with Gérard Larrousse/Johnny Rives: rally regularisation then absorbed the old event, although it had outlived the era in which modern motoring mores left room for it. But – looking at those col climbs from the motorcycle cameraman’s viewpoint, what fabulous roads those guys got to race along, indulged grand tourists blinding about against the clock…
A tale of true grit
Remembering Kaye Don, the Dublin-born speed-record chaser whose career featured an extraordinary blend of highs and lows
More rare photos fell to hand here yesterday – Kaye Don’s Sunbeam ‘Silver Bullet’ Land Speed Record car, being shown to the press back in 1930.
Kaye Don had always been – for me – a rather enigmatic great speed king of the past. Dublin-born as Kaye Ernest Donsky, he had begun competing in motorcycle trials in 1912 before making his name on four wheels at Brooklands in the Wolseley Viper. In 1928 he fielded three special works Sunbeams – the 2-litre Grand Prix ‘Cub’ and its big-sister 4-litre V12 Libre cars, ‘Tiger’ and ‘Tigress’ – and a more agile 2.3 Bugatti.