European Letter

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

Dear W.B.,

I had a good chuckle when I read the recollections of Rodney Walkerley in our Golden Jubilee issue last month, about the early days of MOTOR SPORT in the basement office in Victoria Street. Particularly I liked the idea of the resident bailiff in that office block, going from one rocky firm to another. I wonder if the day will come when we have such a chap as resident in the Standard House office block? However, what really made me laugh was the thought of Walkerley hiding in the loo when he saw the young W.B. approaching to point out some inaccuracy about Brooklands cars. Poor Walkerley had a hard time, for ten years later when he was Sports Editor of The Motor he was receiving letters from D.S.J. pointing out the slightest inaccuracy about Grand Prix cars.

All this was brought home to me last month when I met Rodney Walkerley for the first time since he retired and I realised what a powerful influence he had been on my formative years around 1935-1939. He was then writing in The Motor under the penname of Grande Vitesse and doing all those things that I longed to do myself, like seeing the latest Grand Prix cars on test at Monza, or races at the Nurburgring or Monaco. Grande Vitesse was the chap who was actually there on the spot and I drank in his every word each week. In later years I came to know him well and sat beside him in the Press Stand at Monza, and at all the other European circuits, often giving him last-minute snippets of information that I had gleaned before leaving the paddock before the cars went out to the start, for I was young and active and he was advancing in years so he tended to set off for the heights of the Press Stand earlier than I did. In my early days as a reporter I remember watching a Maserati retire from a race and wondered why, when Rodney said “Oil pressure gone, it always does on those Maseratis”. I marvelled at his knowledge, but being inquisitive I went back to the paddock after the race and found the Maserati being loaded into its transporter. Helping the mechanics to push it up the ramp I asked what had happened and they showed me a big hole in the crankcase where a connecting rod had broken and escaped. Thinking to myself that Grande Vitesse had boobed on that one, I was surprised later to read in his story that Maserati had broken a con-rod, which had come out through the side of the engine. It was a long time later that I discovered that Walkerley had been staying in the same hotel as Villoresi, and always did for that race, so there was no need to go and check on the car as he knew he would see the driver at dinner that evening and find out what had happened.

In just the same way that Grande Vitesse influenced my early interest in Grand Prix racing, I keep finding that I am inadvertently or unknowingly having the same influence on young enthusiasts today, and I frequently have it brought home to me and it always comes as a surprise for I still feel I am comparatively new to the game and am still learning, Only last month, at the Nurburgring, a German photographer said “You won’t remember me, but in 1958 I walked with you from the Adenau Bridge round the circuit to Wehrseifen. I was a small boy then and could not speak much English, and now I am taking photographs of the Grand Prix”. When I realised that it was seventeen years ago of which he was talking I could hardly believe it and then realised that it was 25 years since my first visit to the Nurburgring. In 1950 there were few signposts about in the Eifel mountains and the roads were in a rough old condition, with bridges still derelict from the war, and finding our way from Liege to the Nurburgring for the first time was quite a business.

All this, which was prompted by the article in last month’s issue, emphasised to me the importance of continuity in the pattern of life, in our case a motoring life. Just as we plagued the life of one of our mentors, the same thing has gone on and I hope will always go on. Readers have always written to us or accosted us at meetings to query something we have said, or correct us, and I am sure they always will. Our companion paper Motoring News has many readers who write in regularly and one became so persistent in his writings that A.H. was almost afraid to open the morning post. On their office wall is a photograph of A.H. cringeing under his desk while someone else opens his post; just like Rodney Walkerley hiding in the lavatory in 1927 at the approach of W.B. Nothing changes really, only the details, but to listen to some of the people today you would think it was all new and they had just discovered it all themselves.

This continuity is very important if we are going to keep a sense of proportion, especially when things get a bit fraught. If we can accept that today is not all new and different, but is merely another link in a long chain, which in our motor racing life began in 1894, it may help us to see reason and not to panic.

On July 28th last a red Alfa-Sud was driven round the Nurburgring to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Nuvolari’s classic victory in the German GP of 1935, when he beat the Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Unions with an obsolete Alfa Romeo. This commemorative lap was not an Alfa Romeo publicity stunt or television feature for the masses, it was a private enthusiast indulging in a little personal nostalgia and appreciation of a great driver and a great occasion. To him Tazio Nuvolari was the greatest driver who ever lived and Alfa Romeo the greatest racing team. Today, he enjoys the success of the Scuderia Ferrari cars. This fellow comes from New Zealand and timed his bi-annual European holiday to take in July 28th 1975, forty years on from a great day in Grand Prix history. I hope that in the year 2001, on August 6th someone will drive round the Nurburgring in a Lotus Elite to commemorate another great day in Grand Prix history. It will be 40 years from when Stirling Mass heat the Ferrari team with an obsolete Lotus-Climax.

As regular readers will know, last April we did a trip round the old Mille Miglia route to celebrate another classic Moss victory, twenty years after it happened. Reaction to that story was most gratifying for it seems to have given a great deal of pleasure to a very wide cross-section of readers, which was one of the objectives behind the trip. One of my friends, whom I can only describe as a “Media Man”, was very upset when he saw the story in print as he had not realised what we had done until it was all over. If only we had told him he could have made a documentary film for us and could have spread it world-wide on television, etc., etc., you know how these “Media Men” go on. D.S.J. and A.H. looked at each other, smiled and said “We really enjoyed that trip, it was private and personal, and was so pleasant we were very happy to let MOTOR SPORT readers enjoy it as well”. I don’t think the “Media Man” really understood us. I fully understood my New Zealand friend when he told me what he was going to do on July 28th 1975.

The fact that MOTOR SPORT the magazine has just completed 50 years of publication is not really outstanding, for Motor and Autocar have been going a lot longer, but it is all part of the continuity of our motoring life. While there are those around us who would like to see the motor car and all its ramifications made extinct, I hope there are enough of us to keep it all going, at least until 1994, to complete a nice round 100 years of motoring competitions. At the recent Silverstone Jamboree that was passed off as the British Grand Prix, I met a young lady wearing a silver medallion on a necklace and on it was inscribed “G. L. Jackson, Southport 1926”. I said to her that surely he drove Sunbeam racing cars, and she told me that it was her great-uncle. Naturally, she was too young to ever have known him, but understood that he was a somewhat wild young man who raced cars and motorcycles in the nineteen-twenties. Pictures of him in action appeared in the early issues of MOTOR SPORT, racing on Southport Sands. It was such a nice medal that she had had it fitted to a necklace and was wearing it that day as she felt it was an important motoring occasion. It is the continuity of motor racing enthusiasm that really keeps it all going.