At the recent Lisbon meeting there was a race which, though dominated by Porsche Spyders, contained some interesting locally-built “specials.” Portugal is a remote country, isolated from the centre of motor-racing by the vast open spaces of Spain, so a close look round some of the amateur ideas about building sports cars for competition was most interesting. Many of them had strange personal names, such as Etnerap, Olda, Alba or F.A.P., and most of the major components were taken from production cars in just the same way as is done in England. The major difference between the Portuguese idea of a “special” and the English idea, that was at first glance very noticeable, was the degree of finish. There were a dozen “special” cars competing and all were finished in every detail, many of them fit for a motor exhibition, whereas a dozen English “specials” could be found that would not even be let into the car park of such an exhibition. The emphasis on English “specials” is one of pure function; such things as paint-work, interior trim, or proper instrument panels seem to have no place when the ultimate in performance is being sought. All the Portuguese cars that were inspected were extremely well finished and could have been used for shopping as well as racing.
Two particularly nice examples stood out at the meeting, the first (illustrated with this article) having a multi-tube frame running closely to each side of the M.G. engine and gearbox, and then tapering in to the centre of the car to form a four-tube backbone down to the rear suspension. The owner, Jose Canelas, of Lisbon, was pleased to point out that the chassis-frame was designed two years ago and this year, at Le Mans, the V12 Lagonda used an exactly similar layout. Front suspension of this “special” was by trailing-links and torsion-bars from a Porsche, as were the brakes, while at the rear an A70 Austin axle had been used to get a high ratio. Porsche brakes had been fitted to the Austin axle, which had been cut-and-shut, and it was sprung on torsion-bars. M.G. hubs and wheels were used all round and the very pretty body obviously owed parentage to a study of Ferrari, Maserati and Jaguar, the result being made in Lisbon. The M.G. engine had been tuned to Stage II, but this did not give sufficient horse-power and it. was hoped to acquire something nearer Le Mans specification at a later date.
The second “special” that attracted attention did so by reason of a very sleek appearance, beautiful workmanship and finish, but especially by its speed and the way its driver, J. C. Oliviera, was handling it. Finished in chrome and pale blue the general outline of this car, called an Olda, was a cross between an A6G Maserati, a DB3S Aston Martin and an SLR Mercedes-Benz. It had Porsche suspension and brakes grafted to a tubular frame, and Rudge hubs with wire wheels, while the power unit was a highly-tuned 1 ½-litre four-cylinder Borgward, as fitted to the increasingly popular Isabella saloon. The gearbox was also Borgward and again the interior finish was such that it could be used as a perfectly normal sports car.
Many of the other “specials” were based around 1,100-c.c. Fiat components and one rather clever one had been built with a body exactly like a normal coupé Porsche, the bonnet-line over the forward-mounted engine being slightly higher. Such things as remote header-tanks, pressure cooling, ducted radiators and so on are all well known to the Portuguese builders and used extensively.
Although not so weight conscious as English “special” builders, the Portuguese seemed to do quite well with some very standard bits and pieces, and the local ability in Lisbon for modifying or making special parts was of a high order. Most of these enthusiasts seemed to follow motoring sport outside their own country by means of magazines, and many were looking forward to the possibility of a 1 ½-litre Coventry-Climax engine becoming available to them.
* * *
Being an enthusiast for every aspect of motoring, I had recently, during the Swedish Grand Prix, an opportunity to indulge in the greatest extremes in the space of one day. Before one of the practice periods I was looking around the Mercedes-Benz team in their garage in Kristianstad, as they were preparing to leave for the circuit, which is situated some way out of town. Engineer Uhlenhaut was about to take off in the 300SLR coupé and, being on his own, he invited me to ride with him. Lifting up the “gull-wing” door, I jumped in, for, like the SL model, this coupé had high cockpit sides and but for the layout of the controls the interior was identical. The seats, steering wheel, pedals, instruments and gear-lever were exactly as on the open SLR models, just as Moss had used in this Mile Miglia, for mechanically this coupé was unchanged from the racing cars. The noise inside the coupé body was out of all proportion, the mechanical thrashing that came from the engine being due to everything running on roller bearings and the central drive to the camshafts, magnetos, dynamo and injection pump being an enormous train of tiny gearwheels. For just a few brief miles I was once more able to thrill to the exciting acceleration in bottom and second gear, as the tachometer whistled round from 2,500 to 6,000 almost as quick as you could follow it. Although we only needed to use the bottom two gears of the five-speed box, we were soon in the paddock, but even that short time convinced me once more that these SLR motor cars are a fantastic step forward in automobile engineering. In spite of having already ridden for nearly 3,000 miles in one of these cars, earlier in the year, this very quick dash up to the circuit was one more interesting experience to add to the mounting fund.
As Uhlenhaut was leaving before the end of practice I decided to return in another form of saloon car and, having arrived in what is probably the world’s fastest closed road car, I was highly amused to accept the offer of a lift home in one of the world’s slowest saloon cars. A friend from France was returning in his 2 c.v. Citroën, so with about 290 b.h.p. missing from under the bonnet we sailed back to town. Being well versed in 2 c.v. motoring, this Frenchman kept the throttle wide open and weaved his way in and out of the traffic, so that our average speed was not much slower on the return than mine had been on the outward trip. Motoring a 2 c.v. is an art, just as pre-war motoring a Fiat “Mouse” was an art, and to be driven by one who is well versed in the process is to be made appreciative of the little “tin-car” in spite of the rude things many people say about them. Motoring is indeed a fascinating pastime, and one of its fascinations is the wide variety available. With such variety life can never be dull.
* * *
During the same practice period of which I write, I had another new and interesting experience. Once again the petrol engine was the prime mover, but this time it was a 12-cylinder Pratt & Witney radial (air-cooled, I would add in an aside, for those who believe in such doubtful cars as VW or Porsche). Thanks to the excellent hospitality of the Swedish branch of the B.P. petrol company. I was taken up in a Sikorsky helicopter during practice. It was being used by B.P. as a flying advertisement and the pilot knew his way round the course from above. Being rather “agin” flying, not to say frightened, and always conscious of the absurd danger one is exposing oneself to being so far off the ground, I persuaded Stirling Moss to accompany me, as he somehow gives me confidence. At the time of our flight, Frankenberg, with the factory Porsche Spyder, and von Trips with a 300SL were engaged in a battle, and to hover over the corners and watch the two cars approaching side by side was a most exciting way of watching a race. By cutting across country we were able to follow this little private dice from a discreet height of 400 feet, the cars and drivers being easily recognised. After they stopped we watched other cars from above and it was interesting to see how some drivers used every inch of the road from the start of the corner to the finish, while others left many feet between themselves and the edge of the road. Watching fast cars in a slide through open bends gave one a truly accurate appreciation of motor-racing, and it was quite obvious that, apart from being in one of the competing cars, this was the way to watch a motor race when a spirited battle was being waged between two or more cars. All things must progress, so, who knows, one day Motor Sport readers may get a truly eye-witness account of a whole motor race, instead of just the little bit one sees from the Press stand.
* * *
Earlier this season the Daimler-Benz firm caused a stir when they produced their high-speed transporter, built around 300SL parts and capable of over 100 m.p.h. In a quiet way another German racing firm have been using a similar hot-rod transport van. That is the Porsche concern, who have fitted a 1,500-c.c. Porsche engine, almost to Super specification, into a normal Volkswagen Mini-van. Fitted with Dunlop racing tyres and stronger shock-absorbers, to aid stability, this little hot-rod tows a trailer containing a Spyder at close on 70 m.p.h., and keeps it up all day. This problem of racing transport on the Continent is always a difficult one, for such large distances have to be covered that time and speed are all-important. A transporter that can only cruise at 35 m.p.h. not only wastes time but makes life exceedingly hard for the mechanics. It is noticeable how fresh and fit the mechanics of Ferrari and Maserati usually are when they arrive at a meeting, even though they may have driven for two nights and a day without stopping, for the cabs of their enormous Fiat and O.M. transporters are fitted out like the observation car on an American train, and both are capable of well over 60 m.p.h. The fitting of a semi-racing engine into a transporter is by no means new, and some years ago a Talbot driver used to have a Talbot van fitted with an engine identical to that in his racing car, so that apart from the added speed he always had a source of spare parts available in an emergency. These “hot” vans also make life more fun for the mechanics, for their life can be an extremely hard and tedious one at times.
* * *
Covering over 1,000 miles on Continental roads every week, I get ample opportunity to appreciate road conditions in the various countries, both the good points and the bad. One idea that is now almost universal, and originated from America I believe, is the use of special centre lines in the road. The system is that on any stretch of road that calls for attention two lines are painted side by side in the middle. One is a continuous line and the other a dotted one, and the system is that as you drive along you are permitted to cross the dotted line and then the continuous one, but not to cross the continuous one first. Used on a hill, viewed when going up, the dotted line would be on the right (in England or Sweden) and the continuous one on the left, so that traffic ascending are not permitted to use more than half the road, but those descending can cross the centre lines to overtake. On a right-hand curve the arrangement of the lines would allow you to cut the corner if the inside of the curve was clear and afforded visibility across the apex, otherwise the lines would be reversed. There is no hard and fast rule, each section of road is taken on its own merits, but once the lines have been painted that is the rule of the road, and is very simple for drivers to follow. You cross the centre if the dotted line is your side; you don’t if the continuous line is your side. There are also occasions, on narrow, twisty roads when both lines are continuous, which naturally forbid using more than your own half. There is, of course, a certain amount of give-and-take about this system, especially if you drive fast, but then there is give-and-take over the matter of 30-m.p.h. speed limits.
Travelling through Denmark recently, I was most impressed with the superb road surfaces, without doubt the best I have experienced in Europe, but another idea was most commendable. This was on a three-lane traffic road where, instead of dividing the road into three sections by white lines or reflector studs, the road surface material was coloured, the two outside sections being white, the centre one brown. The road was thus marked into three lanes from its inception and the coloured material used could not lose its colour as it was the actual surface. It was rather like the effect one would get from making the outside lanes of concrete and the centre one of tarmacadam, only these Danish roads were of the same material throughout. Apart from the ease of defining the lanes, I found the two-colour scheme had a remarkable psychological effect, even when driving fast; there was no tendency to stay in the centre lane, or even straddle the division; one just felt untidy and out of place unless completely on the nearside lane.
There are innumerable good ideas in Continental road construction, just as there are on the British highways, but for pure motor-roads the German autobahns still take a lot of beating, even though some are over 20 years old. One aspect of German autobahn construction that never ceases to fill me with wonderment, is the way whole valleys are bridged so that you come out of a forest-covered hillside and suddenly find yourself crossing a valley at a height that would be reasonable for a light aeroplane, while another is the 100 per cent. lack of advertisement hoardings or buildings on the edges of the roads. The only permitted buildings are those at a petrol station, which usually includes an eating place, while there are innumerable parking bays for picnicing, stopping on the autobahns being forbidden. Another practice, that is very common in Holland, is the provision of through-ways in towns for traffic that merely want to traverse the town. This is done by numerous short, sharp tunnels or bridges, so that a quick crossing of a town is rather like a switchback ride, but very practical. By-pass roads are another interesting problem, and one of the finest examples is that at Rome. If you want to get down to Naples in a hurry you take the by-pass many miles before you even approach within sight of the outskirts of Rome, and join the Rome-Naples road a long way south of the Vatican City. This is a true by-pass that you join at 80 m.p.h. and continue at the same speed for the whole length without ever seeing the sight of a single house or factory. At night it is possible to see the glow of Rome, and it is a satisfying feeling when in a hurry to know that you will not have to waste an hour dicing with the Italian city traffic.
There is indeed much to be learnt on the Continental road systems, and equally much to be avoided, but it is to be hoped that those responsible for the projected new super-highways in Britain will at least tour the Continent before making plans. If they visit America then so much the better, but you must drive yourself to really appreciate the good and the bad; to be driven by a chauffeur while you relax in the back of a comfortable saloon would teach you nothing at all and merely waste the taxpayers’ money.
* * *
At almost every race meeting I go to people ask one particular question, and that is “Who is the world’s best driver today, Moss or Fangio?” I have numerous stock answers to this query and among them are “probably some unknown van driver in Patagonia has the combination of reflexes and judgment that would beat all the reigning champions if he was given the chance”; another is that “Hawthorn must not be overlooked, because he has won two major Grand Prix events, both in open battle and each was a decisive victory,” but eventually the questioners boil things down to the difference between Fangio and Moss. From the English driver’s own words, Fangio is the best — in my own words, I add, but for how long I would not like to say. Taking this season’s races, on almost every Grand Prix circuit, with the Formula 1 cars, there has been a corner that Fangio could take faster than Moss, using identical cars, or both using the same car. An example of this very slight difference between the two is the tunnel at Monte Carlo, where you enter into complete darkness and only see the light of the exit after you are fully in the tunnel. Even using the same car in practice Fangio could go through the tunnel without lifting his foot off the aceelerator, while Moss admitted freely that try as he might he always eased the throttle a fraction as he entered the tunnel. Another place on the same circuit was the hairpin at the Gasworks, where I timed a whole collection of drivers in practice from a mark on the approach to another on the exit of the hairpin. The time was just over 7 seconds and every lap Fangio was one or two-fifths faster than Moss. The main reason for doing this timing was a private arrangement with Moss to find out whether he could take the hairpin quicker in second gear or third gear, he signalling to me each time he left the corner as to which gear he was using. No matter what Moss did Fangio was always a measurable amount faster through the corner. Taking the opposite extreme I did a similar thing in practice for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa. Out this occasion I timed everyone through the long high-speed curve at Stavelot, at distance occupying some 15 Seconds at a speed of around 100 m.p.h. Again, even when both drivers were using the training car, Fangio was a consistent half-second faster than Moss and the others. These few vital fifths of seconds, or even tenths, all add up in a race and, added to Fangio’s superior track-craft through having more experience of open Grand Prix battles, I would rate him Number 1. As I said earlier, for how much longer is another matter. — D. S. J.