Taking the road to Reims
I have never been in the habit of taking holidays. I was working at copy for Motor Sport right up to the moment when I left on my honeymoon and immediately I got back, and even Christmas Days were no exception. The nearest I got to one was a trip to see the 1956 French Grand Prix.
Previously we had hired planes for such trips, which sometimes involved mild adventures and once a serious storm, with a race report to be written on the flight back to Croydon airfield. But on this occasion I went with our photographer Michael Tee in his Austin-Healey 100M, meeting Jenks at Reims, so I had little to do.
We crossed to France by the Air Bridge’s very efficient service of car-carrying Bristol Freighter aircraft (no Chunnel then) from Southend to the wartime Marck aerodrome. We took the N43 and N37 through the WWI battlefield areas, to St. Omer, Bethune and Arras, air bases in RFC days. At Peronne we diverted to go round the circuit where, in 1937, Raymond Mays had won the Picardy GP in a works ERA. We paused to photograph the impressive memorial to Louis Trintignant and Guy Bouriat. In spite of damage by enemy bullets it was well preserved. Appropriately, Trintignant’s brother Maurice was due to drive the new Bugatti in the Reims GP, an excitement that fizzled out, alas.
France was now full of 2CVs, DS 19s were not uncommon; but I did see some vintage 7.5 Citroëns and a lone 11.4, an ancient Renault lorry in Calais, and a 12/40 Darracq converted into a truck.
On Friday Jenks took us in his Porsche 356 for a climb of Château-Thiery, where in 1902 Gabriel had made FTD on a 60hp Renault. To return before the roads were closed for the first sportscar races DSJ had his Porsche up around the ton, in overtaking an 850cc DB-Panhard saloon doing its 85mph.
Prior to the GP we drove round the wonderful 8.3km circuit, where racing began in 1925, with the first Marne French GP there in 1932, Nuvolari’s Alfa Romeo winning at 92.26mph. The Soissons-Chalons road was closed for the racing and all was looking wonderful, with the enormous new grandstand and press box. On the timing box was a plaque in memory of Jean-Pierre Wimille, who had won the Marne GP at the circuit in 1936 and ’37 in Bugattis, and the French in ’48 with an Alfetta 158, but was killed competing in a Simca in Buenos Aires the next year. Another plaque honoured the preparations France had made in the area to force back Germany’s advance.
The two 12-hour sportscar races preceding the grand prix were won by a Porsche Spyder and Duncan Hamilton and Ivor Bueb in a Jaguar D-type, followed by two more Jags before Ferrari got a look-in. On Sunday all was set for the 42nd Grand Prix de l’ACF. The grandstand was filled; balloons advertising Remington, Esso and Total bobbed about, while scooters, bubble-cars and the Kodak publicity van paraded, and also the Renault turbo-jet car, slow but of nice sound.
In practice Jenks had made me listen to the exhaust notes as drivers took the fast right-hand bend after the pits — only Fangio in a Ferrari and Moss in the 250F Maserati did not lift off. So we expected Fangio to win, but a split fuel line dropped him back, after setting a record lap of 127.25mph.
In the square in front of our hotel Tony Vandervell’s Bentley had had a puncture, as if in sympathy with the problems his GP cars were having — Colin Chapman had crashed one in practice. Our hopes for the lone Vanwall were shattered when Harry Schell, having commandeered Mike Hawthorn’s car, was sidelined by an injection-pump failure after a very commendable challenge to the four Lancia-Ferrari V8s.
But for us, the elation came with Peter Collins’ victory for Ferrari at 122.29mph for the 315 miles, beating Eugenio Castelotti (Ferrari) into second place, Jean Behra (Maserati) coming third and Fangio fourth. Stirling’s car having broken its gear lever, he took over Cesare Perdisa’s 250F and wound up fifth, of 11 finishers. I noticed that Collins’ road car was a Ford Zephyr.
On the return to Calais I called for a stop so that we could photograph a tall 1914/18 4WD van made in Wisconsin, with 36×6 solid tyres, towing a spoon-braked trailer. This was a request that convinced Michael I was an incurable vintage pervert.