European Letter

[By means of which our roving European reporter keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W.B.,

The idea of holding a race or demonstration for old or historic cars before a Grand Prix event seems to be gaining momentum, and the latest to do so were the Austrians. They had a very pleasant "old cars only" day during the week before the Austrian Grand Prix, and the fastest twenty from all the races they held were invited to take part in an extra event put on before the Grand Prix on Sunday. As a race it was not much, but as crowd entertainment it was a roaring success. There were two very rorty Morgan three-wheelers, driven by English chaps, that gave a Frenchman in a pseudo competition Jaguar XK120 a really bad time. He just could not get rid of them and had one on each side at the finish, and the crowd loved it. They also loved Scott-Moncrieff in his 30/98 Vauxhall, giving him a great cheer every time he passed the pits, doing 85-90 m.p.h. Such mixed entry events may not be approved of by the purists but as a harmless bit of fun on race morning it did no harm. However, officialdom in the form of the CSI, feel the need to control this sort of activity so a special committee has been formed to keep an eye on such goings on. This includes a representative from Great Britain, and fortunately the RAC have nominated Michael Bowler who is not only a regular competitor in historic type events and is well in touch with the active side of historic racing, but also has a good working knowledge of the Grand Prix scene having been a reporter on the Formula One scene for a time. I hope the CSI do not lose their head over this business and look upon old racing cars as needing 1974 regulations in their "construction and use". Asking a racing driver to lie down in a 38 gallon bath of high-octane fuel, which the Formula One car is, calls for as much fire protection as possible. Sitting on a vintage chassis, high up in front of 5 gallons of methanol is something quite else, and should not be viewed in the same way.

When travelling on the crowded German Autobahns in the summer, or even on the crowded by-ways, there is a new game that can be played to relieve the boredom of slow moving traffic. I don't know how many cars Germany has, but I am sure the number is vast, and increasing every day with Volkswagen vying with Ford and Opel, and BMW vying with Mercedes-Benz. For the fourth time to my knowledge and experience the Germans have had a big re-think on registration numbers, and the present one is intriguing for it comprises four letters and then three or four numbers. Now we all know quite a lot of four-letter words, but so far only one of them has appeared on a German number plate. However, a whole lot of other English words are appearing, as well as girls names, and so far I have collected VERA, DORA and RENE, while the words are piling up, with HASP, LIFE, SWAY, SLUT, LATE, MONK and DUKE. If you are stuck in a traffic jam with nothing to do but watch the lucky traffic flowing in the opposite direction this collecting of number plate words in Germany can while away the time.

While dodging some of the heavier traffic jams, by taking to the small side roads, I was very pleased to see that many villages, especially in the south-east towards Austria, are still decorating the outsides of buildings with old-fashioned paintings of appropriate scenes. One particularly nice one was on the side of a brand new fire-station, and the scene depicted an ancient sort of Roman soldier pouring water from a bucket onto a small conflagration lower down the wall. It was all beautifully done in many colours, and below were some window boxes full of flowers in full bloom. It was quite the nicest fire-station I have ever seen. Another pleasant habit in these sort of villages is for people to write their name in artistic script on the front or side, on the whitewashed walls making it very easy if you are looking for someone in particular. Instead of going along a row of houses looking for number 47, you look for the words Haus Muller, or Haus Flegel. If one was penetrating into darkest Wales looking for the Editorial home, one would look for House Boddy in artistic script on the whitewashed wall! Somehow it doesn't ring quite the same, does it?

Passing through Germany with a colleague I took him on a detour to show him the Norisring. This is the vast stadium on the edge of Nurnberg (or Nuremberg) on the east side of Germany and not to be confused with Nurburg and the Nurburgring on the west side, near the Belgian frontier. Once a year the roads round the great concrete edifice that the Nazi party built for their Nazi rallies in 1933-39, are closed and a race meeting is held, the area in front of the enormous monument being used for the pits and the start area. Suitably awed by the enormity of the whole thing, and marvelling at the stage-management required to put on a big political gathering for 250,000 people or more, we paused to pay silent homage to Pedro Rodriguez who was killed during the Norisring races of 1971. No words were needed, no floral tribute, no photographs, we were motor racing enthusiasts and we knew that a courageous little driver had died that day in this part of Germany, driving in an unimportant race purely because he loved racing and driving racing cars. Some while ago a reader from the North of England wrote to me to describe how he had visited Jim Clark's grave in Scotland and mentioned how the demeanour of other people there suggested that respect and not curiousity was the motive that had brought them there. All over Europe there are places where racing drivers have lost their lives, and always will, for racing can never be made completely safe if you are actually going to race, as distinct from playing at the game. Each year I visit many of these to pay silent tribute to those who have paid the price, and there are some acquaintances I would take with me and others that I would not.

Now and again I get time to read a book or two, and recently I read "La Victoire ou . . . rien!" by Vic Elford. Published by Solar Editeur in Paris it is written in French and Elford tells in great detail the whole of his competition career, from being a rally navigator to winning the Targa Florio. It is a fascinating book because it is about an ordinary chap like you or me, with a passion to go racing, and is an object lesson for those who stand around and whimper that no one will buy them a racing car or pay them to be famous. I do not know whether it is being translated into English, but it should be, as a guide to aspiring racing drivers who want to race because something deep down in them is stirred by the very thought of a racing car. For those who race to relieve boredom, or because it is the "in" thing to do, or because their friends talk them into it, I would not recommend reading it, for they are unlikely to understand what it is all about. Actually you don't need a very great command of the French language to read the original edition, for it is simply and lucidly written and is straightforward and honest, with no need for flowery prose to embellish anything. It is Vic Elford exactly as he was when he was racing, and still is. One of the nicest passages is when he was struggling to get into competition motoring and grasped the opportunity to navigate in a club rally. He said to himself "It is better to be seated in a competition car alongside the driver, than to not be in a competition car". It was this thinking that carried him through all the ups and downs of a long and very varied racing career, for few people have driven in such a variety of racing and in such a variety of racing cars as Vic Elford.

Taking the opportunity of a slight lull in serious motor racing I took time off to take part in a motorcycle hillclimb. It was actually part of the big car meeting at Gurston Down, run by the SW Centre of the BARC and all the top hill-climb runners were taking part. Our small group of motorcycles were in effect a filler for the interval and having had our go we were able to watch the Top Ten have their extra runs. This hill at Gurston Down, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, starts by plunging downhill on a very fast straight, which is exciting enough on a motorcycle, but to watch people like David Good, Nick Williamson and Tony Griffiths in their Cosworth V8 powered Formula One cars, and hillclimb champion Mike McDowell in his 5-litre Repco-Brabham going down that hill on a road barely two foot wider than their rear wheels, gave one a sense of proportion about motor-racing in all its forms. You don't have to watch Ronnie Peterson taking Woodcote corner at Silverstone in an opposite lock slide to be impressed; it is all relative. And the sound of the Brian Hart 2-litre Ford engine in Chris Cramer's Formula 2 March as it powered its way up the final straight, the driver going through the gears without a break in the exhaust note, was one of the better things in life. All this is at the friendly club level of amateur British sport where you are free to wander round the paddock, talk to people and sit on a grassy bank and watch the cars go by a few feet away from you with no obstructing iron or wooden barriers. Apart from keeping a sense of proportion such a meeting is a complete relaxation after the big business and big-time of professional racing.

The early morning mists are beginning to appear in France, a sure sign of autumn being with us, and soon the cold greyness that is winter in Europe will be upon us. The mountain passes will soon be closed by snow and parts of France and Germany will see drivers putting chains on their wheels and leaving them on for some months. In the temperate climate of Southern England we don't know what winter is really like, I am glad to say, for I am a sunshine and dry road man myself.

Yours, D.S.J.


Guinness Superlatives Limited, 2, Cecil Court, London Road, Enfield, Middlesex, have started a "Guinness Guide" series, in which the second title is motorcycling. This book has many very fine illustrations and covers most aspects of two-wheeled sport in a manner particularly useful to those not previously acquainted with motorcycling. There are more than 30 colour plates and some 300 monochrome illustrations in its 238 large pages. The price is £4.95 and the author is Christian Lacombe.

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L. J. K. Setright has written and John McConnell has illustrated in cartoon a big leaflet-type booklet about the DAF Variomatic transmission. This gives both a technical description and a non-technical guide to DAF's clever infinitely-variable automatic belt-drive. It is presumably available free from DAF Dealers.—W.B.


Ugly Volvos designed for crashing

Volvos had always looked conservatively yet purposefully attractive until those massive safety bumpers appeared last year. For 1975 the complete range takes on an utterly hideous frontal appearance in order to pamper to the whims of the US safety factions. It will be interesting to see whether more customers will be gained by these safety considerations than will be lost by the lack of aesthetics. Other modifications include two new engines, a 2.1-litre, overhead camshaft four-cylinder unit and an all-aluminium 2.7-litre V6. McPherson strut front suspension and rack and pinion steering has been adopted and prices range from £2,494 for the 244DL to £3,385 for the 245E.