Rallye International des Voitures Anciennes

Last year the streets of Montreux on beautiful Lac Leman echoed to the sound of racing cars commemorating the Montreux Grand Prix of 1934, a round-the-houses race won by Count Trossi’s Alfa Romeo from Etancelin’s Maserati, Varzi’s Alfa Romeo and Straight’s Maserati. The 1977 Montreux retrospective brought out a hundred historic racing cars, not all of 1934 vintage, of course, but evocative none the less. Fangio, Moss, Etancelin, Lang, de Graffenried and others added the human historic touch and the event turned into a great social and mechanical gathering.

Alas, it was too successful: the procession round the old circuit turned inevitably into a virtual race and while the crowd and participants loved it the Swiss authorities didn’t. Any thoughts of making the event an annual one were set aside. Instead, Baron de Graffenried and his organising team liaised with French, Swiss and Italian automobile clubs to stage in August a rally for old cars to start in Paris, rest a while in Montreux where a Veteran and Sports Car Festival would be held in conjunction, and finish in Turin.

In the event, the Rallye Des Anciennes turned out to be a tough test of cars and crew stamina; which was the most demanding on the crews, the driving or the gastronomic and Bacchanalian pursuits which peppered the event is a moot point. You might say that it was a bit “upmarket”, effectively by invitation only, hence the scatterings of Princes, Barons, Counts and Lords amongst the not so hoi polloi. Why was a humble MOTOR SPORT man involved? I too am still wondering, though I shall certainly not complain. … In fact I was there at the invitation of Lancia GB: the parent company were joint sponsors of the Rallye with Marlboro, Mott Chandon and Michelin. They decided that the presence of a couple of British motoring journalists would be appropriate, which is why Peter Gamier and I found ourselves heading Paris-wards in a Lancia Gamma coupe, accompanied by Lancia PR man Bob Crowther and crew in a Gamma saloon. Peter had thought of taking his immaculate Lancia Aprilia, but shied at the thought of a 2,000-mile journey, a shame, for the extensive Lancia representation lacked one of these splendid little saloons.

A peculiarly mixed bag of machinery ranging from 1923 to 1957 made up the 70-car entry, some of it pretty mundane and the standard of preparation generally not very high. As befitted my hosts, Lancia Lambdas were the most prolific, with some six in all, including Federico Robutti’s 1923 example, believed to be the only 1st Series extant. Robutti received a special award at the end of the event for surrendering the lead in order to assist another competitor. Come to that, everybody got an award at the end, including this writer. … British participation was thin. Stirling Moss confirmed his growing interest in older cars by co-driving his long-time friend Ian MacGregor in the tatter’s self-restored and quite superb 1933 Aston Martin Le Mans, which justifiably won outright the Concours in Montreux. It’s not everyday Moss is to be seen hard at work with polish and cloth! The two of them had driven the Aston all the way to the Paris start after their trailer had broken in England. Lord Montagu had entered the NMM’s 44-litre supercharged Bentley replica, freshly back from a similar rally in Australia. The irrepressible Major Heathcote and co-driver Sebastian Whitetown in the former’s 1938 Rolls-Royce 25/30 transpired to be the characters of the event. Swiss-domiciled expatriate Englishman Hilton Johnson had entered Ted Woolley’s 1924 Renault 45. Astonishingly, it burst a set of new tyres before reaching the Channel, so Johnson chose to enjoy the event in his Ferrari 308 GT4. Of British marques conducted by overseas owners, the nicest was Josef Trenkle’s 1932 Cross and Ellis-bodied Alvis Speed 20, bought three years ago from Coventry and since the subject of a 2,500-hour restoration. German publisher Helmut Sigloch had a suitably stocked, battery-operated refrigerator lodged on the rear floor of his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, bought new by his grandfather in 1924. Willman’s 1929 20/25 looked and sounded rough and finally expired, but Count de Beaufort’s Phantom II of the same year was pristine. Maspoli’s 1935 Van Vooren cabriolet and Aspegren’s lovely and unusual 1936 Saoutchik cabriolet represented the Derby Bentleys beautifully. A 1947 AEC Regent ‘bus, still resplendent in its London Transport livery, albeit on Swiss plates, did a sterling job of carrying the other competitors’ luggage, driven with aplomb by owner Roger Cuendet. Although it had to miss out some of the narrower, overhung sections of the route, it did tackle the Montreux-Calm hill climb and provided an ignominious sight at the top of the St. Bernard Pass, which it climbed without difficulty. Cuendet had to lower the double-decker’s roof-line by I think 27 cm. after purchase to comply with Swiss regulations. Prince Louis Napoleon turned out with a Bentley Continental and there were two nice Riley Kestrels. Luigi Villoresi, looking as fit and happy as ever in old age, turned out in a 1950 Lancia Aurelia Cabriolet loaned by Lancia, who had also found a 1957 Aurelia GT on special Borrani wire wheels for Count Johnny Lurani. Both drove with verve, Lurani fairly unperturbed by a total lack of brakes on the first morning and a loose steering column throughout. Piero Taruffi should have attended, but chose to remain on his holiday island. No less than three red and black 1938 Type 57 Bugattis and a 1928 Type 44 represented Molsheim. The Type 44 had a horrid electric fan hung on the outside of its horse-shoe radiator; the wisdom of this Heath Robinson device became obvious when owner Haas was able to unclip it quickly for the Concours. A 1949 Ghia-bodied Ferrari 195 and a 1951 340 America did Modena proud, Moss remarking that the Superleggera Barchetta-style body on the 340 (chassis number 114A) had inspired the Leonard-MG and subsequently the AC Ace and Cobra.

Practically a whole fleet of Hispano Suiza’s arrived from Spain, of which the torpedo-bodied Type 49 of the Rallye winner Manuel Pestana was undoubtedly the magnificent best. A delightful pair of Fiat Balillas came from Italy, one sports bodied, the other a saloon. Other marques represented included Delage, Delahaye, Talbot, Chenard & Walker, Essex, Lincoln, Hupmobile, Ford (Model-As only), Chrysler, Alfa Romeo, Audi, DKW, Hotchkiss, Salmson. Citroen and a lone 1937 Unic saloon, sound and unrestored, for which its conducteur had to manufacture a head gasket en route. The Rallye started outside the historic Automobile Club de France in the Place de la Concord. Heavy traffic and a slow police escort out of Paris caused some boiling problems and much lateness at the first control. Much of the route from thereon was to follow the tiniest roads on the Michelin maps through the most beautiful scenery. The first night was spent at Epernay, where Moët Chandon were the hosts in the labyrinth of cellars beneath their headquarters. It was not a night for teetotallers. Nor was the next night’s stop at Beaune, reached after traversing the fascinating champagne and wine routes. From Beaune we went via Pont de Navoy and Ouchy to Montreux, several carscrying “enough” on this tough and hilly route, including the sports Balilla, which completed the route to Turin on a Mercedes-towed trailer. Two nights in Montreux encompassed a ride in ancient carriages of a mountain train to a traditional fondue dinner high above the town and a disappointing “gala dinner” in the Palais des Congres. The cars and ‘bus tackled a demanding hill climb from Montreux to Caux on the Sunday afternoon; boiling in the Moss/MacGregor Aston was traced to the rally plate partially blanking the radiator, the only protest the fast and immaculate machine made throughout the event. The two were sharing the driving on the Rallye, Moss taking over the maps whenever his superior mathematics were required to cope with the various too-slow regularity sections, when his fanatical competitiveness had them down to 0.8 sec. margin of error. From Montreux, where Italian rally champion Pregliasco had been fastest on the hillclimb with a works Alfa Romeo GTV 2000 in a demonstration of “moderns” (Hopkirk, the Carlssons, Waldegard and others expected had not arrived), the Rallye wound over the St. Bernard Pass, amidst many clouds of steam, to the Aosta Valley and thence to Turin. The Aston tackled much of the St. Bernard at speed in top gear!

My conscience at being at the wheel of a modern motor car was relieved for a six hour section of the route into Beaune with a spell in Lord Montagu’s “blower” Bentley after co-driver Phillip Pollock, slightly unwell, had retired temporarily to the comfort of the Citroen SM tender car. This Bentley, with its replica Le Mans type body, is a contentious issue in this office: D.S.J. sees it as having been the instigator of the “replica rot”, for it was built up from bits in 1971. Its dummy fuel pump and instruments are certainly pseudo, but mechanically it is authentic 41-litre supercharged Bentley and drives as such. Too much slow running had fouled its plugs a little, but once this had cleared I was allowed to take the wheel, my first experience of driving a vintage Bentley. The huge, string-wrapped wheel, the restricted view over the long, louvred bonnet, the heaviness of the steering (how did those drivers survive their stint at Le Mans?) and the centre throttle pedal were mastered reasonably easily, but that massive gearbox, the flywheel inertia and the clutch stop those were a more difficult matter, their use required often on the narrow, twisting, hilly roads. I was surprised to find no “step” in the operation of the “blower”, so that the driver was unaware of its existence. In any case, 1,500 r.p.m. in top, the big engine thumping its firing strokes through the huge exhaust, was plenty fast enough on most of the roads. A Japanese television crew filmed us during the course of the hot afternoon, the plugs again objecting to slow travel behind a camera car. A mangled Bendix on the starter made push-starting the order of the day. More seriously, the following day the twin magnetos began to play up on the way to Montreux, where his Lordship was forced to abandon the usually refiable car. I shall recount my experiences with the Gamma coupe in a forthcoming road test, by the way. – CR.