BEGINNERS' LUCK

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36

BEGINNERS’ LUCK

Participation in Continental Events to-day is fraught with difficulty. Consequently, this account by J. Gott of how three I :1,-litre H.R.G.s, driven and navigated by novices, won the Team Awards in the Alpine Rally is of particular interest.

ON the evening of July 9th last, one 1948 two-seater and two 1947 ” Aerodynainics, ” the standard 1,500-c.c. H.R.G. team, crewed by six rather excited, but somewhat apprehensive individuals, left Tolworth en route to Marseilles to compete in the 11th Rallye Internationale des Alpes, scheduled to commence on July 18th from that town. The difficulties of competing in a Continental event are considerable these days, what with tourist quotas, currency and petrol restrictions, and the fact that it was possible for us to start at all was in no small degree due to the enthusiasm of Guy Robins, the ” R ” of H.R.G. The policy of this firm is not to enter” works” cars, but to assist private owners in every way, and Robins not only obtained an extra currency allotment for the H.R.G. competitors, but also “laid on” all available information and arranged for us to practise the special braking and acceleration tests, before we left England.

Everyone interested in sporting cars will be familiar with the H.R.G. specification, and I will not go into technical details, except to say that the engines and chassis of the open two-seater and the ” Aerodynamic ” cars are identical, but that the extra comfort of the” Aeros ” has to be paid for by an additional 2 cwt. of weight. All the cars were standard, bought “off the peg” and both ” Aeros ” had done over 6,000 miles before they started for the Alpine. As the rules are very strict, and the event is confined to catalogue models, the only modifications made to the cars were to add a second spare wheel, convert to 5.50 in. by 16 in. tyres, now the standard wear for all production cars, and check that engine, clutch and brake linings, oil seals and bearings were in perfect order and giving of their best. All cars were pulling the standard 4 to 1 axle ratio, which we found, however, to be too high.

Of the crews, “65,” a green ” Aero,was driven by myself and navigated by Jock Gillespie, a London police of! i ec r , who exhibited throughout those navigational abilities which made him a Pathfinder Star during the recent disturbance. “66,” the green two-seater, was crewed by Jack and Mary Richmond, of Darlington. Jack was our most experienced competition driver, conversant with all types of trial, and winner of the Castlereagh Trophy in the 1946 Circuit of Ireland Trial ; “67,” a grey ” Aero,” was driven by Douglas and Nancy Mitchell, whose first serious trial this was. Apart from myself, no one had previously driven on the Continent, and all were complete novices at an Alpine—hence the apprehension ! Our hope was to finish, with not too many penalisation points, and, if possible, to put up a good show towards the Team Prize.

We made a fast run through France in team order, restraining ourselves to a 60 m.p.h. cruising speed, and on the evening of July 11th, arrived at Carpentras with the intention of trying the cars on Mt. Ventoux, one of the timed climbs. Our object was to rise at 5 a.m., but this laudable programme was hampered by the lure of a gigantic fair, where, up to 2 a.m., much gold was spent on “Dodgems,” which proceed about four times as fast as in England, and on which head-on collisions are encouraged : probably we were lucky to escape with slight bruises. However, we did essay the Ventoux, which is about 14 miles long and rises to 6,214 feet. The worst feature is a banking, soon nicknamed the “Wall of Death.” This is just like a 12-foot section of the Brooldands banking, cut from the track and situated on a hairpin. Although we treated this and other hazards with care, we found that it was possible to exceed our set speed for the climb, which was 81f m.p.h. This was, however, the only occasion we did this, the reason being, I think, because we could make up time on the fast lower stretches, so compensating for the time lost near the summit, due to loss of power at altitude and unsuitable gear ratios. On presenting ourselves at the headquarters of the organising club, Automobile Club de Marseille et Provence, on the evening of July 12th, we felt rather like children entering a new school. The club issues badges, with bars showing

the year of entry, to each entrant, and everyone else apart from .us seemed to have at least two bars, whilst experts like M. Descolles had a clanking row of bars which would have been the envy of any American sharpshooter. The champagne soon altered our mood, though, after conversing with some of the experts, we left more convinced than ever that our 85 m.p.h. average would take some doing.

The cars were taken for inspection at 2 p.m. on, the following day, and as far as the H.R.G.s were concerned, the scrutineering was very strict, possibly due to the success at Spa on the previous week-end. Valve lift and overlap were measured, and the 1,100-c.c. team, consisting of Richards, Ross and Darby, had difficulty in convincing the officials that water pumps were standard : this was, however, settled by reference to the catalogue, which had to accompany all entries. In this, and other arguments, M. claude of the Lancia team proved a tower of strength, as our French was beginning to crumple under the required technicalities.

Once satisfied, the scrutineers marked wheels, petrol and water pumps, radiator block, carburetters, ignition system, and steering-boxes with dabs of blue paint, and we were over the first hurdle, and had time to admire the other 61 competitors, representing eight nationalities. We were particularly impressed by Black’s Mk. VI Bentley . saloon from

Portugal, Healey’s Mille Miglia Healey, Potter’s blue Allard, Appleyard’s black 3i Jaguar “100,” which might be about the first post-war example of this famous car, the smart metallic green SunbeamTalbots, obviously beautifully prepared, the business-like Lancia ” Aprilias ” of Descollas, Claude and Stassin, all running on castor oil, and the tiny “works” Renaults, headed by the managing director, M. Cazals, which, if sacrificing 350-c.c. in capacity, were giving nothing away in unpreparedness, as witnessed by the fact that this team later changed four con.-rods and pistons on one of the cars in under an hour.

On returning to the “pare ferme ” at 10.15 p.m., we found it floodlit and surrounded by an enormous crowd. Competitors were allowed in to their cars five minutes before their scheduled starting time, and left to a running commentary on their life history, which, in the ease of the French competitors, included some startling Maquis exploits. Having waited for ” 66 ” and ” 67 ” to catch up, we swept out of Marseilles in team order, and on the fast 80 miles to Mt. Ventoux, our 4 to I axles came into their own, as we cruised easily at a steady 70-75 m.p.h., building up time in hand which was to prove invaluable later.

On the lower stretches of the Ventoux the ears were still in team order, as we could see from our mirror, but after surmounting the “Wall of Death” all lights vanished and we had a sickening feeling that something had happened. We climbed slowly, not at all reassured by the sight of one of the Simeas, which had come to violent grief by the roadside, and it was not until we were almost at the summit that we could see ” 66 ” and ” 67 ” climbing rapidly astern.

At the foot of the mountain we stopped, and the others drew up behind. Jack announced calmly that he had gone over the top of the “Wall,” but had been pushed back on to the road and continued. Douglas and Nancy had arrived at speed in time to see him going over— a pretty grim sight ! I don’t think that the appearance of the Devil in person would unduly worry Jack, but Mary, who did not know whether the drop was 12 or 1,200 feet, was very shaken although, after some brandy, she pluckily agreed to carry on, sooner than spoil the team’s chances. A quick inspection of the underneath of ” 66 ” revealed nothing wrong, although Jack announced that the “brakes stuck on, which makes it tricky getting round corners ” ; on hairpins with a possible 4,000 foot drop, this might be classed as a masterly understatement. Despite this stop, we were still not behind time, although in true novice style we later frittered away our precious minutes by a leisurely fill up with petrol,

which brought on a six-minute deficiency. Our troubles now started, as, on the approaches to the Col de Rotisset, 4,586 feet, the ears got separated, arid, by wrongly assuming that French entrants knew the eorrect route, ” 65 ” and ” 67″ both got lost, a fact which was not fully appreciated until the track petered out in a farmyard full of incensed geese. On rejoining the main stream, we found ourselves among the 2-litre class, which

however, especially the Sunbeam-Talbots, drew in and let us pass, although they themselves had little time in hand. Despite this courtesy, passing on these dusty roads was difficult, as rain was now beginning to fall, which caused the suspended dust stirred up by the passing cars to congeal on to the screens in a thick paste, with which no wiper could adequately cope. Although ” 65 ” made the Grenoble check on time, the next scheduled stretch to Aix lea Bains was tricky, including the Col de Porte, 4,306 feet, the Col du Cucheron, 3,705 feet, and the Col du Granier, 3,783 feet, and it was not made easier by the commencement of a steady downpour, which was to last for the next two days. The fast stretch from Chambery to Aix enabled time to be made up, as the 1,500-c.c. H.R.G.s held a steady 80-85 m.p.h. : perhaps they wouldn’t have done this so light-heartedly if they had known that here Black was to wreck his beautiful Bentley in a high-speed skid !

When the Aix control closed, only 48 crews had checked in, of which 23 retained clean sheets. Of the I,500-c.c. H.R.G.s,” 65 ” was still clean,” 66″ had lost 160 and ” 07 ” 320 marks. The Mitchells had been led on a wild goose chase in the mountains by a .French Citroen, which had then abandoned them on the wrong side of a small Alp, so that regaining the route put them well behind Schedule. Jack had been particularly hard done by. The official route cards were only handed out on leaving Marseilles, and none of us fully appreciated that the times shown on the card were the times in hours and minutes allowed for each stage, and not the actual time due in. By an unfortunate coincidence, the elapsed time was twenty minutes later than scheduled time and Jack patiently waited outside the check, until an official gave the necessary explanation, by which time, however, he had lost valuable marks, at 10 points per minute.

In the evening the results of the Ventoux climb were given out : Claude and Descollas had climbed within onefifth and two-fifths of a second respectively of their set average, an amazing achievement which rightly gave them first and second prizes in the whole entry. Of the 1,100-c.c. H.R.G.s, Richards had retained a clean sheet, but Darby and Ross had lost marks, though the latter was compensated by a cup for his Ventoux climb. A Healey and an Opel had crashed on the Col de Porte, and there were many stories of phenomenal avoidances.

The atmosphere was made very gloomy by talks of the Swiss passes being blocked by avalanches, but t he organisers decided that we should press on. Although the seeend stage to Lugano was over 300 miles and included the Jaun, 4,911 feet, Susten, 7,342 feet, Oberalp, 6,656 feet, and Lukmanier, 6,237 feet, Passes, it was not too difficult,

as the Swiss authorities insisted on a reduction in the set averages, the 1,500-c.c. class now being down to 25i m.p.h., and the checks were far enough apart to enable time to be made up. Indeed at Andernatt, we had. 94 minutes in hand, and so could grease the hard used steering linkages, which, owing to the steady rain, were covered in viscous

mud. All the engines were, however, in good fettle, and, with their standard compression ratios of 7 to 1, much appreciated the excellent Swiss petrol, though the price of about 4s. per gallon, caused the crews to wince.

It was as well this attention had been paid, for on the Oberalp occurred one of the timed climbs which were the most difficult tests in the Rally. Out of the driving mist on the steepest part of the Chin!) appeared a dripping figure holding a blackboard with ” 5 ” inscribed thereon : this indicated that the next 5 km. would be timed. The regulations laid down that in the event of no one reaching the scheduled figure, the fastest car in each class would be taken as “bogey,” and every car outside 5 per cent, of that time would be penalised at one mark per one-fifth of a second, thus encouraging no one to lift their throttle feet.

Apart from the natural hazards of hairpins and a poor surface, the time was made difficult of achievement by the presence of a slow-moving herd of cows, whose keeper slashed out at the cars with his stick. Nancy Mitchell acquired a large dent in the tail of ” 67 ” whilst Descollas’s Lancia was even more unlucky as the windscreen was shattered, which made life very miserable for the crew in the driving rain, apart from nearly causing a serious accident. Indeed, the Oberalp seemed to be a happy hunting ground for cows, as near the summit, ” 66 ” and ” 67″ again became entangled in a herd of nearly 200 ambling animals, whose slow progress caused intense protest from the clutches, an impasse which was only solved by Douglas acting as amateur cowherd, an action which aroused the intense wrath of the professional article, who added another dent to the tail of the H.R.G.

Towards the end of the stage the weather improved, but the road was still sufficiently wet to put ” 65 ” into a bad skid near Olivone, the car ending up astride the railway lines, whence it was only removed by the kindness of some Swiss Army officers. It was fortunate that the sump and gearbox passed between the lines and so escaped damage, but the driver, reflecting on Sammy Davis’ adage that it is the driver’s job to keep his car on the road, proceeded in a very chastened mood.

The pare ferme at Lugano showed some battered cars, including Daligand’s blue Delahaye, which had a damaged front wing, and upon which a half-shaft had been changed. In general, however, the English competitors were going strong, especially the Jaguar and the Allard. he third stage of 194 miles from Lugano to Chamonix was also not too tough, and the competitors were cheered by a sight of the sun. The most difficult section was a timed run from the foot of St. Gotthard Pass, 6,864 feet, to Gletsch at the foot of the Furka Pass, 7.900 feet. On this stage occurred one of the rare cases of obstruction : Ross on the 1,100-c.c. H.R.G. was held up by a noncompeting English Lancia, the driver of

which should have known better. In general, however, even postal coaches, with their right of way, drew right in to let competitors past. Minor defects were beginning to show on the cars. The spring in the water release valve on” 65 “weakened, allowing quarts of water to escape whenever the car was braked, which was often : ” 66’s ” brakes were still sticking, although Jack had by now perfected a technique to cope ; ” 67 ” had jettisoned its oil filler cap, which necessitated a crafty repair with the interior of a cap, and its wiper had

developed a permanent short, which resulted in heavy wear and tear on Douglas’ fingers, as he had to operate it by hand. Despite this the cars coped easily with probably the worst col of the day, the Col de la Forclaz, 4,950 feet, which is very like a much magnified Fingle Bridge. It was here that Skelton Ginn,

sportingly driving a Ford V8, bought pre-war for 15, stopped in clouds of steam, emanating from a burst top hose : he managed to replace it, however, and checked in on time. The roll-call at the pare ferme at Cham.onix revealed more casualties : the steering column on Alivon’s Lancia had snapped off, Daligand had replaced another half-shaft, and two of the small Renaults were suffering from what one of their glamorous passengers described as “noises like a coffee-grinder.” Darby on one of the 1,100-c.c. H.R.G.s had unfortunately lost his route-card, and was disqualified, although his car was in

good fettle : the ranks of the 12 Simcas had been reduced to six, and Richards, who still retained his clean sheet in this class, reported that his mudguard stays were beginning to wilt under the strain. Although there were still a good number of clean sheets, it was obvious that those who survived the fourth stage were going to earn them. Not only was the day’s run the longest, 387 miles, but the higher set average was enforced, and there were seven cols to surmount, including the Col de l’Iseran, 9,000 feet, Col du Galibier, 8,307 feet, Col d’Izoard, 7,575 feet, Col de Vats, 6,858 feet, and Col d’Allos, 7,812 feet, on which were four tight time checks : further, it showed every sign of being ” Alpine ” weather, which if pleasant for the crews, was hard on the cars. On the run to the Iseran, the team made up enough time to give a quick check to the cars, when some inspired work with a heavy Rudge hammer gave Jack effective braking for the first time since the Ventoux. This was as well, for, if the ascent of the col was hard and rough, the descent was even worse. The Galibier was the worst pull, for the top section was covered in thick mud, where matters were complicated by wheelspin, and

severe loss of power owing to altitude. After this, owing to the tight checks, the cars got separated, until the final check at Nice. On the rush into the Briancon check, ” 05 ” came on a horrid smash where

Stassin on No. 62 Lancia had collided head-on with a non-competing Jeep, luckily without serious injury. Here ” 67 ” was again misled by another competitor, and fell behind schedule.

The next stage to Barcelonnette reduced the clean sheets, including “65’s.”

Petrol was running low, but the best that Briancon could produce was 10 litres or two gallons, and this only after three garages had been frantically tried. The Col d’Izoard appeared ideally suited for a timed check, and the

organisers apparently thought so to, as it was rough, dusty, full of hairpins, and exceedingly hot : about halfway up, the blackboard with ” 6 ” thereon suddenly appeared behind a • pine tree, and ” 66 ” and “65,” who were climbing together, stampeded into action. Within 20 yards of the finish line, however, ” 65’s ” engine cut out, and short though the distance was, it took time to push up a 1 in 8 gradient, and by the time the front wheels were over the line, ” 65 ” had incurred 364 penalisation points. The cause of the stop is still not clear, but plugs tried by water loss, and low petrol level, were suspected, as on the next stage, ” 65 ” ran out of petrol altogether, and had to be pushed in, thereby incurring still more penalisation points. It appeared that the tanker crews were on strike, and petrol was almost impossible to get. Incidentally, on hearing why ” 65 ” had lost its clean sheet, Descollas came up and apologised for taking on five gallons in Briancon, which he said he didn’t really need, an action typical of the sportsmanship of this great Alpine expert, who was to win his fourth Coupe des Alpes.

On the final run into Nice, crashes and misfortunes came thick and fast, as the cars and crews were tired, and almost everyone was behind time. Riskins on a Sunbeam-Talbot crashed on the Col d’Allos, fortunately without serious injury, and Donald Healey, the sole survivor in his class, sacrificed a certain Coupe des Alpes to arrange medical attention for his passenger. De Wurstemberger on a ” TC ” Midget, through no fault of his own, collided with a cyclist, who was seriously injured. The bolts on ” 66’s ” steering column came loose, and the wheel dropped on to Jack’s lap, fortunately on a straight section, but much time was lost replacing same. A Citroen crashed dramatically when trying to take a corner overfast. Potter collided with a non-competitor and had to do some desperate work on the Allard’s wing with copper wire. Cazals had to change a wheel, which put him outside the time limit, and the same fate almost overtook Ross, who ran out of petrol, and had to go into the Black Market to get enough to finish. ” 65 ” and ” 66 ” both got in without further trouble, although penalised, but ” 67 ” only got in with a minute to spare, after some hectic driving by Douglas and Nancy. This made it certain that the 1,500-c.c. H.R.G.s must win the foreign team prize, as they were the only nominated three cars to finish. Of the six Healeys, Donald Healey’s alone finished ; of the Sunbeam-Talbots, Hiskins had crashed and Wisdom had been delayed beyond the time limit by a bent gear selector, although Murray

Frame and Oslow Bartlett had driven magnificently and secured a Coupe des Alpes. The open Team prize, never before won by British cars, also seemed a possibility, although the rules governing this are strange. All cars of the same make, of whatever category, are eligible, and teams need not be nominated : this weighs the odds heavily in favour of the continental drivers, who sometimes enter as many as 15 cars of one make. Calculation showed that with Richards, who had driven beautifully and won a Coupe des Alpes on his first attempt, ” 66 ‘ and ” 65″ were the least penalised of any three similar cars. The officials were forced to see this, although the

first official announcement was that the open Team award had gone to the Simcas for the third time, the mistake only just being spotted in time, by Joe Lowrey of the Motor. The acceleration and braking tests on the Promenade des Anglais were again almost an English monopoly, as English cars won four out of five classes, and Jack on ” 66 ” won the 1,500-c.c. class,

beating the Lancias for the first and last time, his index being 8th fastest of all 29 finishers. When the results came to be weighed up, English cars and crews had swept the board, winning four of eight Coupes des Alpes—Appleyard (Jaguar), Potter (Allard), Murray Frame (Sunbeam Talbot) and Richards (1,100-c.c. H.R.G.) —the others being won by Claude and Descollas (Lancias), Gautruche-Mazalon (Citroen) and Auriaeh (Simca); four out of five classes, Appleyard, Healey, MurrayFrame and Richards; as well as best

performance in the Rallye, Appleyard, apart from innumerable other awards for fastest times up hills and in the special tests. Five out of six H.R.G.s had finished, the sixth not being eliminated through any mechanical trouble : this was by

far the best performance of any make which had entered more than one car. As the cars were all driven by novices to this form of competition, their stamina and reliability speaks for itself. There

was an hilarious gathering at the H.R.G. table that evening, although the price of champagne was sky-high. On July 23rd the ears returned to Tolworth in team order and without

having encountered any serious trouble. The overall petrol consumption on the Aeros was 28 m.p.g., and the two-seater had done over 80 m.p.g. Oil consump tion averaged about 3,000 m.p.g. ; ” 65 ‘ suffered from loss of water, but is now hacking the owner about, without a spanner having been laid on the engine or chassis ; ” 66 ” had to have the bent brake cross-shaft straightened. ” 67 ” required attention to the valve gear, probably due to having run 2,000 fast miles without a proper oil cover ; ” 87 ” had a puncture on the way to the start, and ” 65 ” on the way back, otherwise

there was no tyre trouble and all tyres still have treads. More important still, all cars still have brakes. Sump temperatures had run as high as 90 deg. C., but there had been no bearing failures.

The main lessons learnt are that whilst an Alpine is never easy, cutting stops to a minimuihi reduces risks. Both Richards and Appleyard refuelled on the move, and it is significant that the worst trashes occurred when competitors were trying to make up time. ” Spot-on ” navigation is also an essential. The distance out and back and round the course was 2,971 miles, and petrol cost just under 120. Insurance for ” 65 ” was £20, and the entry fee just under £10. These were the only additional expenses over a normal touring holiday, as we took out our own oil not trusting the French brands.