Letter from Europe

[By means of which the Continental Correspondent, while he is motoring abroad, keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W. B.,

At the moment I am feeling slightly sick, as I have just been driven round the Daimler-Benz test-track by Uhlenhaut’s personal assistant in a 220SE. I expect you are wondering why this made me feel sick. As the space available in Unterturkheim is a bit limited the Daimler-Benz engineers looked for a way of designing a testtrack on which continuous speeds of around 100 m.p.h. could be maintained in a confined space and they have come up with a tight 180-degree turn with a vertical banking. It is built of concrete and is so designed that on the steepest part, which is at 90-degrees to the horizontal, a car will run at 100 m.p.h. or thereabouts with no steering forces being applied, the only forces being centrifugal, about 3.2g at 103 m.p.h. In this way a vehicle can be kept at an 85-90-m.p.h. cruising speed down one straight and back along the other, thus doubling the available distance for speed testing without the need for buying any more land, not that there is any to buy. Everything and anything is run on this test-track, from diesel saloons to vast buses and as you cannot see much when you are standing on your car, there is an automatic signal light system that lights up a series of yellow bulbs on a board at the entrance to the banking showing exactly where any vehicle is on the banking. Half way, round is a second indicator board so that there is no excuse for running into another vehicle. Apart from the speed track, which has a very large radius turn, with a shallow banking, at the opposite end to the Vertical banking, there is every imaginable road surface and road condition, from rough tracks to steep hills and from sudden side winds (created by turbine fans) to extreme conditions of wet and salt corrosion. With testing of all Mercedes-Benz vehicles from diesel taxis, through the 250SL to articulated trucks, going on all the time the traffic density is reckoned to be higher than on the open road and there are often “phenomenal avoidances” as the test-drivers have to look out for themselves and needless to say they are all very experienced drivers. If ever there was a prang between two test vehicles, I am sure the Daimler-Benz engineers would whip the wreckage away and learn a great deal from the results of a study of the damage. They are those sort of people.

After having my summer holiday at the Vintage Silverstone race meeting and that splendid day of high speed motoring in the road test B.M.W. 2000 TI the Jaguar was pointed towards Germany, for the Grand Prix at the Nürburgring and after that a trip down into Southern Germany, where I am at the time of writing. While at the Nürburgring I had the opportunity to borrow a B.M.W. 2000 coupe. Strange how I never had a chance to try a modern B.M.W. for a long while and then I get two in two weeks! You know how we enjoyed the 2000 TI because it felt so right, nice and taut and balanced, with a nice gearbox and “forgiving” handling so that it encouraged me to “play bears,” well the coupe was the complete opposite. For looks I think the coupe B.M.W. is first class, from the outside, but inside it’s a bit of a fancy “passion wagon” and being a bog-standard ordinary one it had automatic three-speed transmission. If it hadn’t been for the circular B.M.W. badges I would never have believed that the 2000 TI and the 2000 C had come from the same manufacturer. B.M.W. shrug and say “yes, we know about the 2000 C, but there are people who want a car like that.” All I can say is that there must be some horribly bog-standard people driving about just after this experience I had to get someone to hold me up! This time because of Porsche. Can you imagine it, Porsche have built a car with automatic transmission, I cannot bring myself to call it a gearbox. The Porsche 5-speed gearbox on the current 911 models must surely be the simplest, most foolproof and best gearbox ever put into production, yet there are customers who want an automatic transmission. Oh, how are the mighty fallen, and what awful people must be invading the ranks of the motorists.

Certain parts of Europe are now packed solid with “happy holiday makers,” but to look at some of them as they totter along the Autobahnen, with plastic sheet, flapping from over-laden roof racks, or driving blindly along closely followed by an enormous caravan swaying from side to side, they look anything but happy. Due to the summer traffic I timed one of my crossings Of the Eifel hills to be at night and I must say that the idea of marking roads with white reflectors along each edge is far more satisfying than a single row of “cat’s eyes” down the centre, the way we do it. Two lines of reflectors shining in the headlamps give a much better indication of the shape of the road than a single snake down the middle and it is much more restful I find. I know the German system costs twice, as much, but I am sure it is more efficient. I suppose our Transport Department make do with a single line of reflectors on what seems to be a typical British outlook these days of “cut the cost and put up with the mediocre” rather than doing a proper job, even if it will cost more, which is a German outlook.

While in Stuttgart I naturally had to have a look at the new Formula One Mercedes-Benz which David Benson told us about in the Daily Express while I was in England for the British G.P. The only trouble was that by the time I got to Germany Mr. Benson’s story had changed slightly to the new racing car being a Group 6 Prototype for Le Mans. As the Le Mans organisers are in the throes of a “changing face” attitude about what size of engine will be permitted at Le Mans in 1968, and the latest Daily Express story said that the secret cars were in Italy cruising up and down the Autostrada del Sol at 200 m.p.h., I arrived in Stuttgart completely bewildered to find a lot of the Daimler-Benz staff even more bewildered by it all. As they say at Unterturkheim, “we have a huge department for dispensing publicity and information and when there is something to say we shall not waste any time in saying it, and if we were thinking of returning to racing we would herald it with a lot of publicity.”

With the Grand Prix circus making quick flight to Canada for a one-off Grand Prix at Mosport, Europe is left with a miscellany of Formula Two races and Group 4 sports car races, and some of the Formula Two teams are going to have to do a lot of long-distance lorry driving, of the sort that would cause the professional lorry-driver’s union to have kittens. You will recall that in the article I wrote lust month on the Problems of Transport, I mentioned that every team needs a “bright Herbert” who can foresee trouble and complications. Sometimes he may be the truck driver, sometimes the team-manager, but whoever he is he can save a lot of trouble and delay. During the slight lull in Grand Prix racing after Silverstone the B.R.M. team took the opportunity to go to Zandvoort for some testing and did not take their usual route to Ostende on the boat. Instead they tried going via Rotterdam, where racing car transporters are unknown and sure enough they were held up while the paperwork was sorted out. As time was on their side this did not matter and it was in the nature of an experimental trip anyway, so they were able to add to their store of knowledge. Another team was recently about to cross Northern Italy when their “bright Herbert” found out that the Italians have just introduced a new law that says that lorries must leave Italy by the same frontier by which they enter, so this has put a stop to any short-cuts. There is never a dull moment on the European scene, is there?—Yours D. S. J.