Bill Boddy looks back at a French motorsport institution which may not have long to go…
There is a threat to the Linas-Montlhery track. It may be closed in the next year or two, and for it to go the same way as Brooklands did in 1939 would be a very sad and serious loss to French motorsport — and France in general.
This banked track was built by Monsieur Lamblin, who owned the Lamblin Radiator Company which specialised in surface-cooling elements for aeroplanes. He was also the proprietor of the magazine L’Aero Sports. He had a chateau in 12,000 acres about 15 miles from Paris, off the Paris-Orleans road. Having seen the success of Brooklands, Lamblin decided to construct the Montlhery Autodrome. The contractors had 2000 workers toiling in two shifts from 4am to 10.30pm, progressing at the rate of 35 metres per day, making a track with two bankings steeper than those at Brooklands, joined by two short straights to give a lap distance of 1.58 miles. Lock-up garages were installed beneath the home banking, the chateau was converted into a clubhouse, and a large grandstand above one banking, with the pits opposite, was erected. The total cost was some £500,000.
Brooklands had to wait until 1937 for a road circuit, but Montlhery had a 7.8-mile Circuit Routier to complement the Piste de Vitesse banked track. All was completed by 1924. This was an opportune time: silencer regulations were about to be insisted on at Brooklands, where night running was also barred. At the new French course there were no such restrictions, and its surface was smoother. It was not long before record-attackers chose to use the new facility, with loss of revenue to Brooklands.
The opening of Montlhery covered the two days of October 4-5, 1924. The meeting was made up of a series of 100-mile races for cars and motorcycles of different engine sizes, concluding with a six-lap match race between JG Parry Thomas’ Leyland Thomas, Ernest Eldridge’s aero-engined Fiat and Arthur Duray in a 120hp eight-cylinder Belgian D’Aoust. It was an ambitious project, hoping to attract spectators who would reach the new track in about 30min on the N20 from Paris, or arrive along the Arpajon-Etamps road, to ascend the hill up to the plateau upon which Montlhery was built, via an under-track tunnel.
Already the English racers were supporters, the Salmsons beating Arthur Waite’s little Austin 7. The handicap match race was won by the huge Fiat at 121.04mph in spite of a thrown tread. The Leyland shed a back tyre but set a lap record of 131.89mph. Montlhery was to go on to hold the French Grand Prix eight times, the 24-hour Bol d’Or five times, and a great many sportscar and other races. Brooklands held only two RAC Grands Prix.
Later that first month, a 100-lap race for 1.5-litre cars was dominated by the famous Darracq team, in the order Scales, Segrave and Bourlier in a formation finish, Segrave setting the quickest lap at 109.6mph. The British were there again with two Austin 7s, and Thomas with his Thomas Special. A big-car contest of 10 laps saw Thomas in the Leyland win at 111.2mph from Vizcaya’s Bugatti and Douglas Hawkes in a Ballot. Montlhery was alive and already records were being broken there, a Bignan improving the world’s 24-hour mark with over 1800 miles at 75.86mph.
French manufacturers took the Touring Car GP which preceded the 1925 grand prix proper very seriously, Andre Boillot’s winning Peugeot averaging 53.3mph and finishing in the dark. Even with the summer holiday exodus from Paris, 25,000 spectators attended.
Prior to this, in the GP de l’Ouverture, Conelli’s Darracq was about to win when it skidded on a wet track, hit the wall and overturned. So Duller won, but was unjustifiably jeered by the French onlookers. Conelli walked to the ambulance and his car was driven back to Paris.
The major French marques soon began an intense spell of record snatching. Vizcaya started the ball rolling (by rolling a Bugatti!), and Renault, Delage, Voisin, Hotchkiss, Panhard-Levassor, Mathis and Rolland-Pilain went at it hammer and tongs for year after year. From Britain came John Duff with his Bentley, Eldridge with his specials, and the successful Stewarts — Gwenda taking a lap record in the 1.6-litre FWD Derby Special. She and Capt George Eyston were prolific users of Montlhery, Gwenda in anything from the 350cc HS cyclecar and Morgan three-wheeler to the Derby, and Eyston in just about anything from Singer and Riley 9 saloons and all those MGs to the 8-litre sleeve-valve Panhard with which he had increased the hour record up to 130.73mph by 1931.
Being France, all manner of small cars were also at it, the Rosalie Citroens forever going round in pursuit of truly long-duration honours, and the Hon and Mrs Victor Bruce joined in with 15,000 miles in an AC, and her solo 24-hour record in a Double-12 4.5-litre Bentley, over 2149 miles at 89.17mph. They also covered 2772 miles non-stop in a 7hp Jowett towing a 100-gallon petrol trailer — and then drove it back to Bradford.
Whereas Brooklands was closed for winter repairs, at Montlhery they tried for records with ice and snow on the bankings, even up to Christmas Eve.
In 1925, another match race leavened the long-distance scene, Parry Thomas winning from the Fiat and a Hispano-Suiza aero-engined Borgenschutz. In another of these races, the LSR V12 Delage joined in, Divo using it to beat Thomas and set a lap record of 135.07mph.
An AC, T Gillett driving, did a fine job in raising the 24-hour record. He survived the long hours, through thunderstorms, by eating biscuits and grapes and being massaged during the 64min that his 2-litre car was in the pits. The target was achieved at 81.27mph, with the 2000-mile record at 81.3mph. Gillett said he found the driving more tiring than at Brooklands, as the short straights gave less respite, but the surface was smoother.
Sunbeam had wanted this record and sent over Segrave and Parry Thomas, with Conelli, and a GP Sunbeam, Thomas unusually wearing a crash helmet which was probably Segrave’s advice. With snow on the banking tops it was hard going, but it was engine trouble which stopped them. They got four class records, including the world’s 500km at over 102mph.
In 1926, Bentley Motors tried to improve its 24 hour record with a racing 3-litre and got Class D records up to 12 hours at over 100mph. Miss Cordery won the Dewar Trophy for her 71-hour stint in an Invicta, while the wonderful 9-litre Renault 45 saloon took the world’s 24-hour record at 107.9mph. Albert Divo won the 1926 GP du Salon in a Talbot, from Segrave and Moriceau, the racing a mixture of the short road circuit and a final on the banked track. On New Year’s Eve, Eldridge achieved 126.51mph for one hour in his 2-litre Miller, another landmark.
After the fiasco at Miramas in 1926, the ACF was glad to return its GP to Montlhery. I have described previously those grands prix there of 1925, ’27, ’31, ’33-37. They were were won by Benoist/Divo (Delage), Benoist (Delage), Chiron/Varzi (Bugatti), Campari (Maserati), Chiron (Alfa Romeo), Caracciola (Mercedes-Benz), Wimille/Sommer (Bugatti) and Chiron (Talbot).
It was Voisin’s year, 1927, with Marchand’s special straight-eight sleeve-valve 7.9-litre car taking so many records, including the hour at 128.35mph. As a foil, the eight-day French TT was a success for De Vard’s Amilcar, which managed 3192 miles of the road course in 80 hours. On the combined circuit used for the coming GP, a Formula Libre 75-miler was too much for the two 4-litre V12 Sunbeams of Wagner and Williams (gearbox failures), and Divo in a 1.5-litre Talbot won a dull, wet race at 74.75mph.
I think Montlhery may have had fewer fatalities than Brooklands, but sadly de Courcelles was killed when the Indianapolis Guyot hit a tree at 100mph. Also, the driver of Panhard’s experimental car, steered by a ring inside the scuttle, was killed that year going for records.
Peugeot built special Knight-engined cars fora fuel-consumption race and it was rewarded when Boillot won from Dore’s Salmson, while Voisins still went on record-grabbing, claiming among many others the 24-hour mark at 113.4mph. And Eyston stole the Miller’s hour record with a GP Bugatti.
Busy day and night, the Paris track saw Grazide have the audacity in 1928 to break some of the Austin 7 records, an Amilcar Six was doing over 127mph, Renault did endless testing, and in order to settle a domestic argument Mr and Mrs Deeley drove a Singer Junior saloon around there for six days and nights!
Mrs Bruce was out again in a sports Bentley in 1929 on another solo drive (2149.8 miles at 89.50mph) and, in 1930, Sir Henry Birkin brought the blower single-seater 4.5-litre Bentley from England only to find that all the French timekeepers were in Morocco. By 1929, 74 badges had been awarded to record holders or for record attempts.
Eyston’s escape from MG EX120 when it caught fire — after the 750cc 100-miles-in-the-hour mark had been established for the first time — was the most notable event of 1931.
His world record having been beaten by 2.14mph by Czaykowski’s Bugatti at Avus in 1934, Eyston retook it in the Panhard with a magnificent 133.01mph. Mrs Stewart had pushed the Montlhery lap record to 147.79mph in the Derby Special; Raymond Sommer (Alfa Romeo) claimed to have raised this to 148.40mph in 1939, but this was thought to have been recorded by hand timing instead of electric, so I am happy to give Gwenda my support.
So it continued, something nearly always happening. But not entirely record bids. Apart from the grands prix, other Le Mans-type fixtures brought leading drivers to Montlhery. Frank Clement and George Duller won the 24-hour Paris GP for Bentley in 1927, leading almost throughout from a perhaps not very challenging field. In the 1933 ACE GP de France, Nuvolari (Alfa Romeo) and Chiron (Alfa Romeo) soon succumbed to axle problems and Campari (Maserati) led. It became a matter of pitstops: Campari’s took 52sec for new tyres; Etancelin’s, in a two-seater Maserati, took 115sec for tyres, oil and fuel. It was then between the two, but the former paused for all four wheels to be changed (43.6sec). When it began to rain, Campari came in for non-skid tyres (in those days!) and it seemed he had lost a close-fought race. But Etancelin’s clutch had seized and he bent the gearlever trying to engage the gears. So the opera singer won, and Eyston was third.
1934 GP was even more exciting. The new 750kg formula Mercedes-Benz and Auto Unions were there, as were the Type 59 Bugattis of Nuvolari and Benoist, the Scuderia Ferrari Alfas and two Maseratis. But the German menace completely expired, letting Chiron ‘s Alfa Romeo win, followed by those of Varzi and Count Trossi.
Besides this, three Bol d’Or races took place before WWII broke out, won by Rigoulot’s Chenard-Walcker, Gordini’s Fiat and Contet’s Aston Martin, and Arthur Dobson in a Riley was first in the 1937 Coupe de la Commission Sportive. In 1934, Cobb had the Napier Railton there, but Freddie Dixon crashed it. With the faster cars now going to expansive places like Utah, record activity at the autodrome faded and Montlhery lost money. The full effect was not felt until 1938, with the GPs of the ACE no longer held there. The French Independent Drivers’ Club tried to help (perhaps we need it now) but not much changed. War ‘stopped play’, as it did at Brooklands, and the military moved in, as it did at Brooklands.
After the war, the place resumed much as before, and British drivers used the track frequently and were among the winners. Records were broken and British cars used for publicity runs: Hess with his Austins, Moss and the enduring Jaguars and Rootes Sunbeams, the Kiefts, Tony Crook, John Cooper, Jack Fairman, Lance Macklin and others were active there, as was Plowman with his very willing 1924 30/98 Vauxhall.
In 1960, Lord Montagu persuaded me to do a book on Montlhery — or perhaps I persuaded him. It was published in the Montagu Motor Books series by Cassell; one day maybe it will be republished. However, I hope I have shown, or reminded you of, what a massive heritage France has in this wonderful place, which must not be allowed to go the way that Brooklands did. I know that the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, recognises that motor racing circuits are an important Irish heritage; it would be nice if the President of France, M Chirac, could feel the same about Linas-Montlhery.