Letter from Europe

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

Dear W. B.,

It was just as well that my Letter from Europe was squeezed out of last month’s issue of Motor Sport, because I seemed to spend more time in England than in Europe during the latter part of August and early September. Apart from having to return for the Rothman’s 50,000 race at Brands Hatch it was also an excuse to borrow a 750 c.c. Norton Commando motorcycle from my old two-wheeler chum Bob Manns, at Norton-Villiers at the very moment when the summer appeared in the form of warm sunshine, which was very welcome after one of the worst trips in my memory across Europe from Austria. The whole of the central and north-western part of Germany was awash and after 15 minutes on the Frankfurt-Cologne Autobahn I gave up and took to the bye-ways. Traffic congestion was at its height in mid-August and the solid stream of traffic was splashing along at 60-70 m.p.h., nose-to-tail in zero visibility without a hope-in-hell of stopping or changing direction. That is my idea of suicide, so I turned off the Autobahn and found country roads just as wet but I was able to cruise at 60-65 m.p.h. in the torrential rain on my own, which I prefer. Earlier, on the way to Austria. the weather had been superb but the Autobahns were chock-a-block with holiday traffic and heavy transport and down in South East Germany I found my cruising speed was restricted to under 60 m.p.h. at times because of the congestion. Traffic on the other side of the Autobahn was just as heavy and in one morning I passed three minor “prangs”, but such is the morbid curiosity of other road users that a five mile blockage was building up while those at the front crept round the wreckage ogling at it and looking for blood. It was clearly only a matter of time before we had one on our side of the Autobahn, so coupled with the under-60 m.p.h. procession I took to the bye-ways and found some super empty roads where I could cruise at 80 m.p.h. This sort of deviation is not simple, for first you must have a car with good suspension and ride, or your teeth will fall out, and it is not recommended for Fords or Hillmans or Minis, and your car must be strong or the doors will rattle and the shock-absorbers will fall off. Next you must either have an excellent map or navigator, or an instinctive sense of direction, and fortunately I have developed the latter over the years, and thirdly you must not mind “getting mislaid” occasionally.

On the return trip to England, when I turned off the suicidal rain-soaked Autobahn, I cut directly across the Eifel mountains, not far from the Nurburgring and the clouds were right down on the road, necessitating the use of headlamps. During the run to Belgium I got mixed up with a local rally that was starting, and I did not envy them their motoring when darkness fell, for conditions must have been impossible, as they were bad enough at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. These terrible conditions continued across Belgium next day, almost to within sight of the English Channel, when blue skies and sunshine appeared and I felt sorry for all the British holiday-makers crossing the Channel; they were going the wrong way.

I mentioned earlier that I borrowed a Norton Commando to avoid the August Bank Holiday traffic, and I was delighted to see that Graham Hill has got himself a 750 c.c. Norton. He is most impressed with the performance and handling, though he finds a lot of vibration unless the engine is buzzing at around 5,000 r.p.m. He took one of his children for a ride on the pillion, and she was not wearing shoes, and complained that the footrests “were tickling her feet”! From 4,500 r.p.m. the Commando really gets up and goes and 100 m.p.h. comes up in around 14 seconds with no real effort. What I like about the Norton is that everything about it is right; all its qualities are good, some are terrific. but none is poor. I have tried most of the other “Superbikes” as they are called in the motorcycle world and they all have a major drawback, which detracts from their really excellent points. The BMW has a dreary gearbox, the Honda is too big, the BSA-Triumph too heavy, the Kawasaki too thirsty, and so on. Talking to Graham Hill about his Norton Commando I happened to ask why he chose a Norton. He looked at me very sternly and said “I couldn’t be seen on a Japanese bike, could I ?”—Good on you, mate.

Before leaving the Norton subject, one of the questions that I was continually asked by the motoring fraternity was how big it was, and when I said 750 c.c., the response was invariably surprise that motor-cycles had engines that big. I had to smile, especially when the “nouveau motorcyclist” talked about Superbikes, for in my shed I have two fairly ordinary English motorbikes of a bye-gone era, and they are both of 1,000 c.c. One is a V-twin 998 c.c. Vincent, and the other is a 4 cylinder Ariel Square-4. While bowling along at “around 70 m.p.h.” on the Norton Commando I was conscious of another motorcycle closing up on me in the mirror and by its silouhette it was too purposeful to be a “bogyman”. I throttled back slightly and a Vincent “Black Prince” came alongside and wuffled gently by, the rider giving me a look that was a mixture or satisfaction, pity and tolerance, as he lolloped along with power to spare. He probably knew, like I do, that there is a fellow with a fully-equipped road-going Vincent of 1950/51 that has yet to be seriously beaten over the standing 1/4-mile acceleration test by any of today’s Superbikes.

Talking of acceleration, while I was back in England I went to see the drag-racing at Blackbushe Aerodrome, in order to keep a sense of proportion on power, acceleration and courage and bravery. Watching Dennis Priddle cover the standing start 1/4-mile in 6.95 seconds, with a terminal speed of 211 m.p.h. made me rise up on my toes and mutter “— me!” just as it did in 1965 when the Americans showed us 8 seconds and 201 m.p.h. A supercharged, nitro-burning, 8-litre Chrysler V8 on full power is a shattering sight and sound, especially from close quarters.

At the other end of the scale I spent a very pleasant weekend in Sussex in a 1928 Amilcar, whose acceleration is negligible and whose speed is only just discernible. In company with a dozen or more similar small French sporting cars we had a most enjoyable time, it being the annual rally of the Amilcar/Salmson clubs. Many members and cars came over from France to make a gathering of some 85 people, the climax being a splendid dinner party in the great dining hall of Goodwood House, home of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, a setting the equal of any similar gathering in France.

When I was at school I used to walk around London through the centres of the used car trade, hoping to see interesting cars in showrooms or at the kerb-side. Presumably there are school boys today who still do this and had any of them been in South Kensington recently, near H. R. Owen’s, the London Jaguar and Aston Martin dealers, they would have had their cup of joy tilled. The Owen’s management were holding a small private party to present their cup to a member of the Aston Martin Owners Club and the nearby streets were filled with an imposing array of high-performance cars, from Dino Ferraris to 6.3-litre V8 Mercedes-Benz, Daytona Ferraris and V12 Jaguars, and V8 Maseratis. while Larnborghinis, de Tomaso Pantera, V8 Aston Martin and many more were gathered in the showroom. The gathering ended with the Aston Martin Zagato which had won the cup being driven out of the showrooms, to return to its private home.

At the moment I am in Italy after the Italian Grand Prix and the sun is shining, but all the signs of winter are approaching, so I will not stay for long.

Yours, D. S. J.