Letter from Europe

[By means of which the Continental Correspondent, while he is motoring abroad, keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W.B,

There are many ways into and out of Italy, most of them involving crossing mountains, either by the road passes, through the road tunnels or on the special car-carrying trains that go through tunnels. When I go to Monza I am usually in a bit of a hurry and find the Mont Blanc road tunnel one of the best ways into Italy, but after the Italian Grand Prix I have a little more time and like to leave Italy by way of the Mont Cenis pass, or Monte Cenisio as it is called in Italian. I enjoy this pass for many reasons, it is fairly traffic free, has a good surface and some super hairpins and you can always enjoy a thrash up to the top.

However, its main fascination is that it used to be used for an International mountain hill-climb that was called the Susa-Monte Cenisio, for the start was in the main-street of the small town of Susa, at the very foot of the pass. The finish was right at the top in the French part of the pass and for the event the Italian and French frontier barriers were fixed open and the competitors blasted across the frontiers flat out. In the days when movement about Europe by road was still fairly severely controlled it was sheer joy to sit on the grassy banks at the top of the Monte Cenisio, in the French sector and watch a works Ferrari or works Maserati cross the Italian frontier post at 130 m.p.h., heading towards you and the last series of sharp hairpin bends before the French frontier post, for there used to be a large stretch of No-man’s land between the two barriers.

In recent years the French have built a vast electricity complex on the top of the pass, making a huge reservoir by building a dam across the plateau, with a new road running higher into the mountains round the edge of the artificial lake and it affords a splendid panorama as you motor along. It always intrigues me to think that down at the bottom of the lake is the old road and the old frontier post where the finishing line of the Susa-Monte Cenisio hill-climb used to be. Also down there is the small frontier village and a vast military barracks through which the old road used to run, though I never saw it occupied by soldiers and the whole area always looked a bit desolate and derelict.

When leaving Italy by this route the simplest way is to take the Autostrada from Milan to Turin and then join the road up the Susa valley. With Alfa Romeo at Milan and Fiat and Lancia at Turin, that Autostrada is bound to be interesting, for along it you pass Balocco where Alfa Romeo have their private test-track, and near to Turin is the new Lancia proving ground. This year on the Monday after the Monza race I was negotiating the fly-over system to join the Autostrada when I saw Nanni Galli threading through the traffic ahead of me in a red Alfa Romeo Montreal, the 2-litre V8 coupé that is beginning to appear on the roads. Moments later I saw him going in the opposite direction, having made a U-turn before joining the Autostrada. I was not awake enough to think anything of it, until I was on the Autostrada and in a depressing blockage. Galli had obviously seen the signs, having local knowledge of Milan and its suburbs, and gone off in another direction. I sat in a creeping queue for nearly 30 minutes due to that mistake. It was very hot and I was glad to be in an open car, for I could sit in the sun and read the newspaper while others were trying desperately to get some air into their saloon cars. After years of fastback coupés I am now really enjoying an open roadster and wish I had made the change earlier. Sitting there I wondered what would happen to a Dino Ferrari if you took a tin-opener to it.

The blockage was caused by a Swiss girl in a “Banana Yellow” Porsche 911 who seemed to have been struck on all sides by Fiats. I suspect someone was not looking where he was going, for she looked very attractive standing forlornly by her battered Porsche. It had all been at very low speed by the look of it and no-one seemed to have been hurt. When I eventually got going I was bowling across another fly-over to the west of Milan when a small orange car rocketed out of the feeder road and ran door-handle to door-handle with me for quite a way. It looked like a Citroën GS by its general appearance, but obviously wasn’t, and when I got in front I looked in the mirror to see that it had a grille like a BMW, which puzzled me a bit so I slowed down and let it come by, to find that the driver was smiling and waving.

It was our old friend Consalvo Sanesi, the Alfa Romeo works test-driver and 159 Alfa Romeo Grand Prix driver, and he was on his way to Balocco. It looks as though Alfa Romeo have joined the small family car league, for this little orange four-seater bore no resemblance to any known Alfa Romeo.

The Milan-Turin Autostrada is one of the oldest in Italy, long since modernised and enlarged to three-lanes in each direction, and at the moment a centre barrier is being erected. They are not using the ubiquitous and unsightly double-Armco barrier, but are building what I can only describe as a full-length concrete window-box. This concrete trough is about three feet high and four feet wide and is filled with earth and plants and grass, and shrubs are planted in it. Consequently it serves two purposes, it provides a solid centre barrier as effective as any steel wall, it looks very pleasant and relaxing and when the vegetation has grown up it provides a very effective anti-dazzle screen for night driving.

I have never believed that Armco barriers were the complete answer, and have always felt that big-business in the steel world has forced them on us without allowing thought for any alternative. Trust the Italians to come up with an alternative that is not only better but in good taste as well. The idea was probably encouraged by the Italians’ love of concrete and that cement in Italy means Fiat and Fiat means Italy. Anyway, I think it is a jolly good idea.

Before leaving that Autostrada I had a sad thought as I passed the fork at Santhia, where you turn off to the right to head tor Austria and Switzerland. Exactly two years ago, after the 1969 Italian Grand Prix, I ran in company with a BMW 2002 at 105 m.p.h. as far as that fork. It was driven by Jochen Rindt, with his wife beside him, and in the back was Piers Courage and his wife, and they were on their way back to Geneva and waved happily as we parted company, they to leave Italy by the Monte Bianco while I was heading for the Monte Cenisio.

I was interested to read last month the letter from the Fiat Register about the various Ballila sports cars and the mention of the Berlinetta aerodinamica because there used to be one of these standing outside a garage on the road down to Aosta from the Mont Blanc tunnel. Whereas the Spyder was a pretty little car I always thought the so-called streamlined coupés was hideous. It was too short, too narrow and too high. About as attractive as the funny Morgan coupé that appeared at Earls Court a few years ago.

Coming across France recently I detoured out of Reims to visit the old Grand Prix circuit and everything is still there, but it seems like a different world to recall the French Grand Prix races that took place there, and the 12-hour sports car races. Racing at Reims was when French racing circles were still thinking in the Grand Manner, before the new Federation took over, and the last Grand Prix on the fast triangular circuit was in 1966, when Brabham won with a Brabham-Repco V8 in the first year of the 3-litre Grand Prix Formula. It’s staggering how the years go by so quickly.

Just in case you get the impression that all roads in Europe are motorways lined with steel barriers I am sending you a photo taken last month of a French Route Nationale with no yellow lines, no barriers, no signs, just pleasant open road motoring. I won’t tell you where it is in case someone feels the trees should be protected by Armco barriers!

Yours, D. S. J.