Letter from Europe

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

Dear W. B.,

Although I am writing this to you from one of the most famous racing circuits in Europe, namely the Nürburgring, it should really be headed “Letter from England”, for much of its content is about motoring at home. This is because the annual summer visit to the island shores for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone was extended for a week in order to visit Silverstone once again, for the Vintage Sports Car Club’s race meeting. At the moment it is mid-morning on the Sunday of the German Grand Prix, the race not starting until 2 p.m., but the German organisers have laid on a vast programme of entertainment to keep the crowds amused and even now there is a parade of vintage and P.V.T. cars going around the whole Nürburgring circuit. I would say that 75% of the public make the German G.P. a two-day affair and traffic flows in steadily from Saturday morning, all day and most of the night, so that 10 a.m. on race day sees the public enclosures packed to capacity. With the Eifel mountains in the middle of a heat wave and the forests ideal for camping it is no surprise that a crowd of 350,000 has been estimated. Last year the weekend weather was disastrous, with rain and fog, yet an enormous crowd had committed themselves to spectating for the two days and they sat it out, even though there was little to see or do. I am sure that today there are thousands upon thousands of spectators who are proudly reminiscing to their friends and neighbours how they were at the Nürburgring in the foulest weather imaginable to see Stewart do that memorable drive to victory, when he was acclaimed the “Nebelmeister”, the “Regenmeister” and the “Ringmeister” all in one breath. The regular race spectator does not expect every event to be a classic, much as he would like them to be, but when there is a classic race that will go down in motor-racing history he wants to be able to say, “I was there”. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have missed the ending to this year’s Le Mans 24 hours, or the Stewart/Rindt battle at the British G.P.

The Automobile Club of Germany, who run the German G.P., were very conscious of the loyalty to the sport and the Club’s finances that the public showed last year, so for this weekend the provided almost non-stop entertainment for Saturday and Sunday at no extra charge to the spectators. In Britain we have been doing this sort of thing for ages, but it is one thing to provide entertainment for a crowd around the perimeter of an old airfield, and a very different thing to provide it around a 14-mile circuit through mountains and forest land. The A.v.D. made a big effort with this free-show as a way of saying “thank you” to the public, as well as all the other nationalities that flock to the Nürburgring, for spectators come from France, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy and Britain. I am sitting high up in the old wood and concrete grandstand, from where people watched Bugatti versus Alfa Romeo, and Mercedes-Benz versus Auto-Union duels in the past, and waiting for the return of the parade of old cars. The Germans have recently taken more interest in pre-war cards, both vintage and post-vintage, and have coined a ghastly American word for them, it is “Old Timer”, and to hear this expression in the middle of a long sentence in German makes me cringe, but at least they are tolerant of old cars and smile at them instead of laughing. On the recent Frazer Nash party the “chain gang” suffered all the way across Germany. There would be a true-blue vintagent in his Anzani-engined Frazer Nash, complete with sports coat and peaked cap, being confronted by a smiling German saying, “Ach so, die Old Timer”. I feel that an 1893 Benz might justifiably be called an Old Timer, but not a Frazer Nash or 328 B.M.W. However, we are in the midst of the “tolerant age” for old cars so we must just smile back politely and wave a greeting. Among the cars in the parade are one of Opel’s historic racing machines, the 1914 Grand Prix 4½–litre, sounding in very good health, a Brescia Bugatti, a front-wheel-drive sports Alvis of all things, a Type 35 Bugatti and comparatively modern B.M.W.s in the shape of a 327 coupé and a 328 sports car. They have all puttered quietly away on a gentile parade, in complete contrast to the old car movement in Britain, where we drive our cars at “characteristic speeds”, which means flat out.

With Vintage Silverstone being held on the Saturday after the British Grand Prix I simply had to stay home for a sort of summer holiday, and Anthony Blight suggested that I might like to take part in the quiet 5-lap handicap race on the Club circuit with one of his famous Roesch Talbot racing cars. This had been on the cards for some time, for I have always had a soft spot for the team Talbots, in particular the 110 model that W.M. Couper used to race at Brooklands, having watched it circulate the outer circuit at 124-125 m.p.h. regularly, and before being driven back to St Albans after the meeting. This car is registered BGH 23 and is probably the most famous of all the Talbots, certainly the fastest, and on one glorious occasion Couper recorded a lap of 129 m.p.h. by reason of some judicious slip-streaming. This was all done with an outwardly simple-looking push rod six-cylinder engine, unsupercharged, in the days when overhead camshafts and blowers were all the rage for high speed. Association with Blight and his Talbots extends beyond BGH 23, for last year I did some investigation on the Mille Miglia course for him in connection with his forthcoming book on Talbot racing, visiting the corner where Brian Lewis crashed in 1932 while lying fourth in the race.

Down in Cornwall, as you know, Blight has the complete Talbot team as well as BGH 23 and the sister car BGH 22, and he sent me on my way in the Couper car with instructions not to exceed 5,000 r.p.m. and to try and keep the water temperature around 80ºC. I had always looked upon this car as being something special but I had not visualised it to be quite so outstanding. It may be an “Old Timer” in the eyes of the Germans but there is nothing old-time about the way it goes. During the week that I used BGH 23 I covered nearly 800 miles, this including practice and a 5-lapper at Silverstone, and Martin Morris borrowed it for an 8-lap race. For all the road motoring it was used as I would have used the E-type Jaguar, and apart from the hard suspension you really would not believe the car to be over 35 years old. It is fitted with a low axle ration which puts its maximum speed at just over 100 m.p.h., but the way it cruises at 80 m.p.h. is incredibly impressive, with no vintage-like mechanical noises from under the bonnet. The remarkable things about this Roesch Talbot is that is has no vintage-characteristics whatsoever, and does not need them. It certainly has no undesirable post-vintage qualities and really is a modern car in all respects. Motoring about in modern traffic conditions there was no need to make any allowances for the age of the car as regards performance, braking, steering and handling, and on many of my journeys over undulating, winding, 70/80-m.p.h. roads, I would not have been any quicker in the E-type Jaguar, just a bit more comfortable. BGH 23 has a Wilson pre-selector gearbox, as did all the later Talbots, and this is certainly one factor that makes the car seem like a modern rather than a vintage, and the very light steering and immensely powerful brakes allow you to drive it as fast as road conditions will permit. It was running on a mixture of old-fashioned Dunlop racing tyres which kept the car in a nice balance on corners, the rear wheels sliding out at the limit, as found at Silverstone. The so-called quiet 5-lap handicap turned out to be a splendid dice, the fame of this Talbot in V.S.C.C. circles being such that I was put on the scratch mark, with some 25 cars ahead of me. In deference to the owner I imposed a rev.-limit of 4,500 r.p.m. instead of the prescribed 5,000 r.p.m. and battled my way through from last away to fourth place, the handicapping estimates being first class. With a bit more courage on braking and some greater bravery on the corners I should have got third place, or even second, for the first five cars finished in a pretty compact group. The car was reaching just over 90 m.p.h. on two parts of the circuit and lapping at around 70 m.p.h., which cannot be bad for a 35-year-old four-seater touring car of only 3.3-litres.

During the weekend I had occasion to take another member of the Blight-Talbot team to collect one of the 1932 cars, for Team Talbot were out in strength, there being four cars taking part in the meeting. At the garage where the Talbot was housed was a 1929 ex-Birkin blower 4½ -litre Bentley, and we compared BGH 23 with this monster from the vintage age. The Bentley was a great mass of splendid mechanical components, covered in all the best racing “goodies” of Le Mans, and exuding force and character. You felt that when it burst into life it would bellow and snort and exude fire and flame, and only a superman could control such a powerful brute. It sat in the garage like a great British Bulldog, with “Winston Churchill” written all over its features. The Talbot exuded none of this character at all, none of its components gave the impression of monuments of mechanical ingenuity, like the Villiers supercharger on the Bentley, and it sat there looking rather sheepish, like a whippet alongside the bulldog. On overall performance and ability the two cars were probably equal, the Talbot achieving its results by sheer efficiency of design, the Bentley by the traditional British way of B.F. and B.I. The Bentley gave the impression of having come from heavy industrial engineering, born of bridges and railway engines, the Talbot having come from the active and clear-thinking brain of an engineer who applied logic rather than tradition.

When I returned the BGH 23 to its owner I remarked that it was hard to believe that the car had done nearly 800 miles, including two short races, for all I had done was to pump up the tyres from 30 lb./sq. in. to 36 lb./sq. in. for the racing, pour in petrol at about 18 m.p.g., add a quart of oil and top up the water. Apart from that it had been merely a matter of pressing the starter button and going motoring, “which is as it should be”, said Blight. “After all, Georges Roesch said at the time, all you need to do with a Talbot is add fuel, oil and occasionally water.”

After driving the fastest of the Blight Talbots I felt as I did after the first time I drove a 328 B.M.W., a 1932 Alfa Romeo 2.3-litre and a Type 55 Bugatti, and that was a feeling that the Vintage Sports Car Club was founded on entirely false concepts of sports cars and that it should have been called the Vintage Car Club, but certainly not the Old Timer Club!

Now that the festival of kart racing, old cars, aeroplanes, military bands, saloon car and GT racing, is all over the German Grand Prix can start. I get the feeling that the German organisers have been to some British meetings. Who knows, they may even have stayed on for Vintage Silverstone, and next year there might be a historic car race.—Yours, D. S. J.

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