Something different

The Alpine Rally

A NUMBER of my friends kept disappearing, saying, “We’re going on holiday,” and when they returned they talked about the change from the normal routine of their lives being as good as a rest cure, and kept asking me when I was going on holiday.

Now, for as long as I can remember, my life has been one long holiday, watching motor races every weekend, all over Europe, enjoying myself at English Club meetings and occasionally taking part, or when doing none of those things just “messing about with motors” as the Editor would say. The idea of taking a deliberate holiday had never occurred to me, so when it was suggested I should try one, “Do something different, for a change,” they said, “you are always mixed up in motor racing,” I thought I would try it.

By a series of logical steps I was approached by a certain John Armstrong, who runs the Shell Film Unit, to see if I would be interested in helping him make a film. Now that sounded different from the usual run of things, so I agreed and decided that this would be the much-talked-about holiday, and went along to have a chat with Armstrong about this film making. I soon discovered that this chap was “one of us,” having been assistant to Bill Mason in the making of the 1952 Le Mans film and the 1953 Mille Miglia, and anyone who has been to Silverstone Club meetings knows Bill Mason and his 4 1/2-litre Bentley. Then I discovered that this Armstrong was the lunatic who used to race a black Ford Eight van, minus its rear doors and fitted with a hot Ford Ten engine, a few years ago before “van racing” was really popular in Club circles; in fact, he was one of the pioneers of the “tradesman’s handicap” type of racing. I began to think that perhaps I was going to get mixed up in some motoring after all on this “holiday,” when I had been visualising basking in the glamour of film studios and starlets. My fears were confirmed. We were to make a motoring film; in fact, a film of the Alpine Rally, and my job was to drive a car fitted with a eine-camera, along most of the route, taking action shots of the competitors. “Let’s face it,” I thought, “motoring is your way of life, no matter what happens, holiday or no holiday.” Upon thinking about the matter a bit more I realised that the Alpine Rally was an event I knew nothing about, apart from what I read in the motor papers. The car I was to use was a factory Alfa-Romeo Giulietta Spyder with a Sprint Veloce engine, my companion was to be David Samuelson, one of British Movietone’s top cameramen, whom I had never even met, and I was to follow the route over all the tiny and dicey passes such as the Vivione, Gavin, Allos, Soubeyrand, and many others that I had never even heard of, and it was to go on from Monday to Saturday. “This is going to be different,” I thought, “if a holiday is a matter of doing something that is out of the ordinary routine of things, then this is going to be a real holiday.”

My motoring started on a Saturday, with a 500-mile non-stop drive down to Marseilles in and out of the French public going on holiday; it had to be non-stop, apart from one refuelling, for the slightest pause meant that the last hundred Frenchmen I had overtaken would come sailing past me and I’d have to do it all over again. Usually I spent weekends at racing circuits, so this was my first taste of summer weekend-motoring on the open highway, and it was a horrible experience, and one I don’t wish to repeat—but it was different! Arriving at a small Auberge just outside Marseilles I met the Shell Film Unit, which had been gathered together for filming the Alpine Rally. It is no exaggeration when I say it was reminiscent of being back in the Mercedes-Benz organisation, for supper was taken round an enormous table presided over by Armstrong, and I met a remarkable collection of people who were all very clued-up in whatever particular branch of the organisation they were taking part. I had fondly imagined that a film was made by merely taking along a simple “home movies” camera, a box of film, a map of the route and a motor car, and setting off with the first competitor. How wrong I was. This being an official job of work for the London Shell firm, there was a vast amount of paperwork to get organised long before we were assembled; cameramen had to have work permits, there were British, French, Dutch and Italian cameramen; the law does not permit quantities of film to be taken from France to Italy, and certainly not back again; camera equipment worth many thousands of pounds had to have special permission to cross the French/Italian frontier with duty being paid; special permission had to be obtained to film in certain parts of the Italian mountains where the route crossed military territory; supplies of film had to be deposited and collected; provision had to be made in case of car breakdown or crashes; supplies of money for petrol and food had to be arranged; insurance for the cars and drivers was necessary; route maps drawn up, rendezvous points arranged, and many other small details. If our Giulietta had been the only car involved the work would have been formidable, but in fact there were ten cars involved, for although seven of the crews were going to take shots from static roadside cameras as the Rally competitors passed, they still had to get about the place by car. As mobile cameras we had three cars fitted up: the Giulietta with a big 35-mm. camera mounted between the passenger’s knees, shooting through the windscreen, Armstrong with his Abarth Fiat 600 similarly equipped, and a Ford Zephyr drophead with a forward-shooting camera and a pivoting one shooting out of the back, this last vehicle being driven by none other than Dean Delamont, the illustrious Competitions Manager of the R.A.C., he too being on “holiday”.

This year the Alpine started on Monday afternoon, July 7th, and wound its way along obscure side roads and mountain passes north eastwards from Marseilles up into the French Alps, zig-zagged up and down passes such as the Allos, Izoard and Vans, and arrived at the French/Italian frontier on the Mont Genevre pass about midnight. It then crossed the north-west corner of Italy and arrived at Monza Autodromo by the back roads just after dawn on Tuesday morning. After a speed test round the Monza road circuit, the competitors went on to Brescia, where the first stage ended in time for lunch and the cars were locked away in a closed parking space. On Wednesday morning, at 4 a.m., the first competitor set off again and went straight up into the Dolomites, over a whole series of real stinkers in the way of passes, dusty and gravelly ones like the Vivione and the Ferules, the route going north-eastwards across the Dolomites as far as Bolzano and Merano, then turning westwards up and over the Stelvio, over the Gavin, back across the Vivione and across the northern plains above Milan as darkness began to fall. Then in the darkness and approaching midnight, over the Gran St. Bernard, across the corner of Switzerland and back into France, to the end of the second stage at Megeve. Throughout the route in France the average speed was one kilometre every minute, or approximately 37 1/2 m.p.h., and in Italy it was a little lower, being nearer 35 m.p.h. It all sounded easy enough on paper but, bearing in mind that the average speed had to include everything, refuelling traffic hold-ups, level crossings, punctures, mechanical trouble, the lot, being an overall average, it meant that there was not time to hang about. In order to liven things up many of the more difficult passes had a control at the beginning and the end, so that a crossing had to be done against the watch, with every part of a second counting. Where a mountain pass was preceded by a long stretch of valley road, with a control at the beginning of the valley, the average speed was easy enough, for you belted along averaging, say, 65 m.p.h., and if you could only average 20 m.p.h. over the pass it was still possible to keep up an overall 37 1/2m.p.h. between controls. The real work was involved where you started from rest at the foot of the pass, such as on the Vivione, which is 32 kilometres long, and had to average nearly 28 m.p.h. to the foot of the other side, all on loose gravel on a road never more than 1 1/2 cars wide and with very little in the way of barriers between you and the edge of the road which was also the edge of the mountain. If you were lucky and averaged 20 m.p.h. going up from the start to the highest point, it meant averaging nearly 40 m.p.h. down the other side. Personally, I find that a mere 35 m.p.h. downhill on loose gravel is petrifying, let alone trying to average more than that.

Having arrived at Megeve in the small hours of Thursday morning, after nearly 24 hours of continuous mountain driving, the competitors rested until 4 a.m. on Friday morning, when they were once more allowed to retrieve their cars from the Parc Ferme and continue on the route over almost every major and minor pass around Chambery and Grenoble, up and down the length and breadth of the French Alps all day long until arriving at Gap that night shortly before darkness fell. There was a short break of an hour or two and then on again into the night, taking in such passes as the Glandon, Telegraphe, Galibier, Lautaret, Izoard, Vars and so on, southwards over the Cayolle and then doubling back northwards again over the Allos as dawn was breaking. Then across the centre of the mountains to Mont Ventoux, near Avignon, and finally a comparatively gentle run southwards to Marseilles, where they arrived during the afternoon of Saturday. The Rally was not finished, for those competitors still in the running had to take part in a five-lap race round the Jean-Pierre Wimille circuit in the Parc Borely. Throughout the route of Friday and Saturday there had been timed hill-climbs with a set minimum time, up such mountains as Soubeyrand, Revard and Ventoux. The whole route covered nearly 3,800 kilometres, or 2,360 miles, and all we in the Shell Film Unit had to do was to make a film of the whole affair.

Our first major problem was the question of not being permitted to take any rolls of film into Italy, so a rendezvous was arranged at a hotel just before the frontier, where a member of the French Shell firm would be waiting to take charge of the tins of film; also in order to ease the passage through the customs of all the camera equipment carried on the ten cars, as well as such complications as an English driver with an ltalian-owned car leaving France, it was desirable that everyone in the unit cross the frontier more or less together. By an absolute masterpiece of planning, Armstrong and his two helpers had drawn up a system of routes and average speeds, allowing for the difference between a Giulietta driven by myself who knows the way across Continental mountain roads, and a Renault Dauphine driven by a Dutchman who had never seen a mountain, with all sorts of variations of driver/car combination in between, so that they all arrived at Briancon around 11 p.m. on Monday night.

Throughout Sunday and the Monday morning before the start the static camera crews set off for various parts of the route, until only three mobile camera cars were left, and as the 56 competitors began leaving Marseilles at short intervals, with the fast cars in front, the Zephyr, Fiat and Alfa-Romeo mingled in with them, endeavouring not to get in the way. Almost immediately out of Marseilles there was a climb up a long winding mountain road and on this we had fun following three other Giulietta Sprints and Wadsworth in his Denzel; I say we, but in actual fact I had all the fun, for poor old Samuelson had to do three things, look into his viewfinder and shoot the more spectacular corners’, hang on to his camera so that it did not get shaken about too much, and try to remain calm and ignore the screaming tyres and sliding car. For me the real joy was to be able to roar up these mountain roads at up to “eight-tenths” knowing that no traffic would be coining the other way, for the Gendarmerie were policing the roads, and while not actually preventing the public from driving along the route, they were certainly encouraging them not to. We motored until dark that evening, following Alfas, Healey Sprites, Citroen DS19, Sunbeams and Rileys, for we were bringing up the rear, the Zephyr being up front among the big Austin-Healeys, Triumphs and Fords. Leaving the route we motored to Briancon and over a space of 45 minutes, during which time we refuelled, both the car and ourselves, unloaded all the film and generally reported everything under control, the rest of the camera crews arrived from all directions.

Crossing the frontier just after midnight, we were able to have a few hurried words with various competitors as they stopped at the control, and learnt that there had been some havoc since darkness fell, and many cars were already out due to crashes or breakdowns, while others had dents and scratches but were still in the running. We all went directly to Monza, where an Italian Shell company representative was awaiting us with supplies of fresh films, and then out to the Autodromo to film the competitors arriving and doing the speed test; Then along the Autostrada to Brescia, where the Giulietta sang along happily at 5,400 r.p.m. in top gear. Having motored all night, it was then “time for bed,” for next morning, we were up at 3.30 a.m. and off into the Italian Alps. Now it was our turn to take the head of the procession and we followed Austin-Healeys of the works team and the 2.2-litre TR3 Triumphs along the Valley of the Scalvi, which I am sure contains some wonderful scenery though we had little time to take it in for the Works Rally drivers do not hang about; in fact, if you are going to hope to get through the Alpine without loss of marks you just cannot afford to hang about. What might seem to be a reasonable “press-on” gait in a 2.6-litre disc-braked Austin-Healey, proved to be a “bit of a dice” in 1.3-litre Alfa Romeo, if I was to keep close enough for Samuelson to get the competitor large enough in his viewfinder. Over the loose surfaced Vivione we trailed Consten and de Lageneste in their Zagato Alfa Giuliette, and various Fords and Sunbeams, the “Rootemobiles” showing a surprising amount of steam up time hills, bearing in mind their weight. Having begun this section with the first car and gradually dropped back until we finished it with the last car, we then followed it cross-country route to meet the Rally again as it beaded for the Stelvio Pass, the other parts of the route being picked up by the Abarth Fiat and the Zephyr, while all along were static camera crews.

From Merano to the Stelvio was easy main road going, and we found many of the competitors taking short naps while their navigators did some driving, for, by and large, most of the top rally drivers, such as Storez, Harper, Sears, Mrs. Mitchell, Pat Moss, Adams, Harrison and others, prefer to drive 90 per cent of the time, finding that too many changes from driving to navigating gets them out of the rhythm of pressing along. In direct contrast, Consten and de Lageneste, who were, eventually to, make best outright performance, shared the driving 50-50. Along this route we came across Pat Moss and Anne Wisdom changing plugs on their six-cylinder Austin-Healey, the engine of which was scintillatingly hot, for it was midday in the Dolomites, and as far as their team-mates Sears/Moore were helping we went on our way, later to find Annie Soisbault in her works Triumph held up at a level crossing, losing some eight minutes, during which time her engine was boiling merrily for she was afraid to switch off as her battery was down and would not turn the starter. Arriving at the foot of the Stelvio we met up with the other mobile cars and also many angry competitors who had got the impression that the timed climb of this very long mountain road, with its innumerable hairpins, was to be under “road-closed” conditions, whereas it was, in fact, to be amongst the normal tourist traffic; on an afternoon in July that is quite something. It was not surprising that many competitors clobbered walls and rocks, and the already depleted entry was even further depleted by the time the control was reached on the western side of the Stelvio. It was interesting to note the public reactions to this crossing of the Stelvio, for some obviously knew the Rally was on and had parked out of the way and were standing on corners waving competitors on, others discovered the Rally was on when they came face to face with a Ford or a Sunbeam coining round a hairpin on its door handles, and these hurriedly parked and became enthusiastic spectators, and there was a third group who were obviously petrified at the sight of the mountains and the tortuous road, and were having such a bad time trying to control their mighty Volkswagens or Anglias, grossly overladen with holiday kit, that they did not even see the Austin-Healey that missed their rear wing by a gnats-whisker.

Immediately following the Stelvio Pass came the Gavia, a narrow, dusty, loose-surfaced goat track that I personally would not let my goats walk on, let alone cross it in a car against a ticking stopwatch. Anyone who feels that mechanisation and “the wens” are crowding the countryside so that it is impossible to get away from building and civilisation should make a journey across the Passo di Gavia. You can really feel lonely up there, and so out of touch with the rest of the world that the sight of the first lonely old peasant down the other side makes you want to go and shake his hand, like Dr. Livingstone. If I had not been so busy lowering the Giuliette down time steep side, winding the wheel round the corners and trying not to get into a “dreaded sideslip” on the loose gravel, I might have had time to look over the edge, and then I should have been very frightened. My only relief was that I was not a passenger in a works Zephyr or Sunbeam Rapier, but I suppose if you are strong willed enough to keep your eyes on the stop-watches and the Halda, then you just don’t see how dangerous the whole thing is. By dark we were on our way back to our rendezvous at Monza, having been driving since 4 o’clock that morning, and I was happy to be in bed by midnight, giving but a moment’s thought to the long-suffering competitors who were still thriving on to Megeve.

On Thursday, while the competitors were resting at Megeve, we had a simple, leisurely trip of a mere 300 miles to make from Monza to Megeve, over the Mont Genevre and the frontier again, having left all our film with the Italian Shell man, down to Briancon to collect more rolls of film from the French Shell man and on over the Galibier and Telegraphe passes, where the heavens opened wide and we were forced to put the hood up on the Alfa, and on to Megeve just before dark, for supper, a check up on equipment and how the competitors were getting on, and then bed. In passing, it is worth commenting on the speed with which the hood on the Giulietta Spyder can be erected, and once up it is really water-tight. Next morning, Friday (as if it mattered, for by now we were completely out of touch with the rest of the world, or so it seemed), we were off at 4.30 a.m. and after a spirited dice with Peter Harper in his works Rapier, and other short dashes with Corbishley in his Standard Ten, the Guilietta four-seater saloons and the Sprites, we worked our way along the route, taking predetermined short cuts all organised on maps for us by the hard-working John Armstrong. By now the wheat had been sorted from the chaff in the entry, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to catch competitors, for those who were still running were the really “press-on” types, and while it was not too difficult to keep up with them it was almost impossible to gain any ground. If we wanted to follow someone closely we had to lurk up a side road where we could see them approaching and then time our rush out on to the route so that we had enough momentum to tuck in behind close enough to take some film. We played these games all day Friday, parting company with the Rally route about 7 p.m., and then made our way across to the foot of the Col d’Allos, where we arrived at 10.20 p.m. and had a few hours sleep before we were up again at 6 o’clock next morning to trail the competitors over the Allos, which was a 37 1/2-m.p.h. average speed run from one side to the other. This was 26 kilometres of concentrated driving for the competitors, the fast ones having to take 26 minutes, and when you realise that Nancy Mitchell arrived four seconds late, and Adams in his works Zephyr a mere 10 seconds early, you can get some idea of how tight things were. This pass was officially one-way traffic in the direction of the Rally and the public were almost forcibly encouraged to go somewhere else that morning, so that one could motor really hard and not worry about what was round the next corner, apart from catching another competitor. On this mountain crossing I saw the sort of driving that made my hair stand on end just to watch, and there was no possible question of following most of the competitors, for only the cream of the entry was left running, and on the occasions we did follow someone it was decidedly tricky finding somewhere to stop and pull out of the way before we were rammed by a following car, for on this last stage the fast cars were at the back of the entry, so that the intervals between cars was closing up. To see Ronnie Adams stopping his Zephyr on the downward run by means of the understeer and the front tyres, and cornering with the inside rear wheel off the ground, and Pat Moss in a 30-degree slide round blind bends in her Austin-Healey, or Sprinzel passing a slower car with his Speedwell-tuned Sprite on a road barely wide enough for a Mark VIII Jaguar, or Ballisat and Titterington in their TR3s roaring their way along, and Consten going really hard downhill in his Zagato Alfa, all four tyres screaming to high heaven in the early hours of the morning, amidst the peace and serenity of the great rugged snow-capped mountains, was to savour the full splendour of the Alpine Rally and a form of motoring that I can only describe as “sheer fantasy.”

As well there might be, an easy main road section followed the cross of the Allos, and we made our way down to the last control at Apt, where we met up with our other mobile cars which had been filming on the Mont Ventoux hill-climb and neighbouring parts, and then, in blazing sunshine, our bodies turning browner every moment, we had a leisurely trip back into Marseilles along with the head of the 25 cars still left running. In the immense heat of Saturday afternoon a series of five-lap races were run, in order to gain bonus marks, and by 4 p.m. the Alpine Rally had finished and I handed back the Giulietta, while Samuelson removed his camera and equipment, and my holiday was over.

John Armstrong and his technicians in the Shell Film Unit found themselves at the end of the Rally with thousands and thousands of feet of film from 10 camera crews spread out all over the Rally, and each of them assuring him that theirs was the best. From a solid week of filming he then had to return to London and sort out the best 20-25 minutes-worth of film and put it into some semblance of order and continuity, and eventually it will appear some time around Christmas. So when you see the title “The Shell Film Unit Presents The Rallye des Alpes” spare a thought to what went into making it. For the cameramen it was sheer hard work, and rather frightening work for those on the mobiles, but for me it was fun; in fact, it was something different, “a holiday,” as my friends put it.—D. S. J.