European Letter

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[By means of which our roving European reporter keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W. B.,

Not surprisingly this month’s letter is mainly connected with the Nurburgring and the German Grand Prix, for that event is always a great occasion in motor racing. The very name of the Nurburgring conjures up dramatic scenes accompanied by music by Wagner, with some thunder and lightning in the background. Unless you have a helicopter, like Lord Hesketh, the only way to the Nurburgring is by road, and no matter from which direction you approach, if you enjoy motoring for its own sake, the trip to the Nurburgring is good. Most of the roads in the Eifel mountains have been rebuilt over the years, with super-smooth surfaces and some wonderful open sweeps across the hills and valleys. You may only be in the seventies or eighties most of the time, but the motoring is very satisfying and you get a very good impression of what the actual Nurburgring circuit is like, for the Eifel terrain is similar whether you are on the public roads or on the circuit. To drive the Jaguar over the roads leading to the circuit is very satisfying so it is easy to see why the racing drivers enjoy driving their racing cars round the 14-mile circuit. Unless you are indulging in some records attempts, or drag racing, flat surfaces are dull, but once you have left the pit area on the Nurburgring there are no flat surfaces, you are either plunging downhill or climbing uphill and it is that aspect of the circuit that I always find fascinating.

This time I approached the Eifel mountains through southern Belgium, with a colleague in the passenger seat, and after crossing the flat central part of Belgium we deviated off into the countryside across the river Meuse, climbing the hill out of Huy that is used for a national hill-climb. My colleague’s impression of Belgium had been gleaned from quick trips to Zolder and Nivelles, and he had no idea there was such beautiful countryside so near by. When I pointed out to him that it would be like this for the rest of the day’s motoring, getting better as we went along, he was visibly impressed. Our route took us through the Ardennes and then into the Eifel, and if you enjoy hills, forests, fields and good scenery you can’t go wrong in this part of Europe, and the roads are fairly deserted, which makes it even more enjoyable. Being in the Ardennes we naturally had to make a detour to take a lap of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, where the 24 Hour Saloon Car race had taken place the weekend before, and as we toured round we marvelled at the thought of racing cars belting full-chat on the same roads we were driving on. If motor racing had to be confined to one small area of Europe, to avoid annoying the rest of the populace, it would be ideal to locate that area in the Ardennes and the Eifel. Then the professionals could race round the Nurburgring and the amateurs could race round Spa-Francorchamps. For the clubmen there is an excellent hill-climb out of Spa, through Barisart, and for the power boys the Course de Cote de Malchamps, out of Spa and up past the aerodrome, could be revived. It would be no trouble at all to scheme up some hill-climbs in the Eifel mountains, and while the woods and forests rang to the sound of open exhausts all the year round, the rest of Europe could relax in peace and quiet, or spend their time tying to concentrate jet aircraft into one small pocket of air.

As we drove round the Spa-Francorchamps circuit we acknowledged the enthusiasm of mutual friends who had taken part in saloon car and sports car races on the high-speed circuit, not for professional reasons, but just for the sheer fun and satisfaction of it, and hoped that the opportunity for others would continue for a long time. Heading off across the hills to the Nurburgring, where the professionals were gathering to do battle, we wondered why the Belgian circuit was considered too dangerous for the top-paid drivers, yet was considered to be all right for enthusiasts. Comparing the two circuits we could not find much difference, the biggest complaint of the Grand Prix drivers being the unsettled weather at Spa, but it is equally unsettled at Nurburgring, as we were to find out. The length of 8-3/4 miles didn’t hold water, for the German circuit is just over 14 miles. It couldn’t be the trees, for most of them have gone, and those that are left are the same sort of conifers that abound in the Eifel mountains. The only thing we could be certain of was the average speed, which at Spa is 162 m.p.h. and at Nurburgring nearly 120 m.p.h. We could not believe that sheer speed was what was worrying the GPDA about the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, for the members are supposed to be racing drivers. We felt there must be something more sinister behind the continual song of the GPDA that “Spa is not safe for Formula One”. In passing we gave a thought to the future of the Belgian Grand Prix, for rumour has it that the Nivelles-Baulers Autodrome, where everyone feels safe even if they are not happy, is in financial trouble and is crumbling, while having been to Zolder and stamped off in a terrible huff the Grand Prix circus cannot possibly return there. Looking back at that fantastic road circuit round the hills and forests of the Ardennes we thought “they wouldn’t go back there for the Belgian Grand Prix, would they ?”. “No, no” we cried in unison, “it’s much too dangerous for Formula One drivers”. With that thought we turned our attention to the 14 miles of the Nurburgring, where the braver ones were attempting to go round in under 7 minutes for the lap, which represented an average speed of more than 121 m.p.h. and we decided that some people did not really know the true meaning of danger.

In the middle of nowhere in southern Belgium we came across a tiny village called Comblain-au-Pont, which in itself is nothing special, but to the motoring enthusiast it is worth a visit. To be more precise, it is aimed at the motorcycling enthusiast, for on the edge of the village is a motorcycle museum. Now museums devoted solely to motorcycles are very rare, and the only other one I know is that in the small castle at the gate of the NSU factory in Neckarsulm. This new Belgian one is quite pleasant, though not very large, and has one room devoted entirely to military motorcycles from the 1939-45 war and one’s heart went out to the poor suffering dispatch riders when you look at some of the incredible machines theyhad to ride. Our own ubiquitous 16H Norton looks quite civilised compared to some of the French, Belgian and German army motorcycles. The rest of the collection is a variety from interesting racing machines to very dull grey porridge, as “One Track” describes mundane motorcycles in our sister journal Motorcycle Sport. Even so, to anyone who has never seen the 1947 F.N. built in Belgium, with the most incredible trailing link front forks, a visit to Comblain-au-Pont would be worth while. It may be grey porridge, but some of it is unbelievable, especially the mid-twenties prototype one-off machine, with a steel monoque chassis, a V-twin JAP engine mounted transversely, like the latest Moto-Guzzi and a gate-change like an Austin 7. It was worth a small detour, and anyway in that part of Belgium, south of the river Meuse, there are usually two ways of getting to any particular point, neither of them being direct, so it did not present much of a detour.

From time to time I have commented on the increasing interest in Vintage and Historic racing in other parts of Europe besides Great Britain, and last year the Germans held an Historic meeting at the Nurburgring in conjunction with a sort of fair day. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, so it was repeated again this year, quite a large contingent of British enthusiasts going over to compete. Entries came from all over Europe, from Italy, Switzerland, France, Holland, Belgium and of course Germany. It was very much an International Historic meeting, with races for pre-war cars and post-war cars, both sports and racing, and a special event for Morgan three-wheelers that was incredibly well supported. Another interesting event was a race for 328 BMW sports cars, recalling the races at the Nurburgring in 1937/39 when the 2-litre sports class was dominated by these very advanced cars. A nice touch to round off the meeting was the addition of a race for the fifteen fastest cars from all the races, which meant a wide variety of cars on the grid. This is an idea that our own VSCC might think about for I feel it could make an interesting and entertaining final event of the day, rather than ending on a mundane handicap race.

The diet at the moment is a glass of Mosel wine and a couple of Frankfurters for lunch, for the English pound has sunk pretty low in German eyes; you don’t get many Deutschmarks for a quid, and everything seems desperately expensive by our home standards. It is not surprising that BMW cars and Porsche cars are beyond the realms of normal people in Britain these days, when priced against our own products. However, it is surprising how many abnormal people there are in Britain, judging by the numbers of expensive German cars, you see on British number plates.

Yours, D.S.J.