A high-speed continental grand tour

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In 1972 I was reminded that in 1937 the late Dudley Noble took the then-new Humber Snipe on a drive covering 10 European cities in 10 days. This prompted me to try and visit 10 European cities in five days, as Britain would soon be part of the European Economic Community. I thought it would be appropriate to leave the London Motor Show when it opened on the Monday and take the new British Jaguar XJ12, as it would have been satisfactory for the journey, but unfortunately the Jaguar company would not find us a vehicle. We resolved this by asking BMW to lend us a car, as the BMW 3.0 CSL Coupé was due for road test. When asked they embraced the idea enthusiastically and would inform their agents on our intended run, to give help if needed, which was not needed as the car behaved impeccably.

Michael Tee, Motor Sport’s production manager, would act as photographer and do the driving while I kept the log, navigated and reported the story. We did not intend to make a record-breaking run, merely take a little jaunt to discover how much quicker the roads and cars had become.

At 7.10am on a Wednesday, with 1.9 miles on the trip odometer, we started off from Tower Bridge, reaching Dover by 8.50am and taking the Seaspeed hovercraft, which took us across the Channel in only 45 minutes. We left Calais at 11.22am for Dunkirk, heading for Paris on the autoroute, getting lost in Dunkirk, but the autoroute was encountered by 12.44pm. The BMW cruised at 5900rpm at 130mph. Approaching Paris we took on fuel, which was working out at 14-15 mpg, which meant refuelling every 200 miles. It took us two hours to get a photograph of the car beside the Eiffel Tower and to negotiate the afternoon traffic outbound for Lyon. By 6.07pm we went through Lyon on the Aix-Cannes-Nice road and soon reached the third capital, Monte Carlo, where we stayed at the Holiday Inn. We had arrived at 11.21pm with 891 road miles covered since leaving Tower Bridge, so our travelling time so far was 17hr 2min, including crossing the Channel, stopping in Paris and an evening meal. We were averaging 75mph, which showed how fast the roads of Europe were in 1972, whereas Charles Jarrott in 1906 in a 7-litre Crossley took 37½ hours to reach Monte Carlo, and Radley in 1913 in a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost required 26hr 4min. Admittedly both of these were non-stop runs and avoided Paris.

On day two we reluctantly left the Principality, setting off by 9.10am for Ventimiglia, skirting Geneva and Florence. On our approach into Rome the streets were lined with troops in ceremonial dress and the Polizia were out in force as the President was due to visit, so it took us one and a half hours to take the obligatory picture beside the Coliseum. We then headed out to the Austrian border. We left the Brenner Pass at 9.49pm and by 1.44am on the Friday we found a clean truckers’ motel in Linz. By now we had 2038 miles on the clock.

With only four hours sleep we resumed the motoring, and by 1.14pm we had reached Vienna and photographed the BMW by the Schönbrunn Palace. Our fifth capital, so we were halfway. Retracing our path towards Salzburg a blizzard reduced the BMW to a cruising speed of 100mph. Between Munich and Stuttgart the traffic reduced us to a crawl but by 3.59pm we were at Basle and 90min later taking a photograph in Berne, capital number six. In the dark we drove on the 300 miles to our seventh capital Bonn, where at 11pm and with 3121 miles on the clock, we found a hotel.

Day four started early, leaving Bonn at 8.30am. We drove down beside the Rhine passing signs to the Nürburgring, then headed for Luxembourg where we photographed the car by the EEC headquarters, departing the eighth capital at 10.40am in good spirits as we were ahead of our schedule. By 12.45pm we were searching for the Atomium in Brussels, and then on into Holland and Amsterdam, our final capital, leaving at 4pm to return to Belgium and from there to the coast and Ostend. We took the night ferry to Dover and were back on Tower Bridge by 12.35am. Ten capitals in four days, and a total mileage of 3789, mostly at well over 100mph. This sort of run can be exhausting, and on the run home I felt jealous on seeing a farmer with his horse and plough in a field, a striking contrast to the pace we had maintained in the past four days. After I got home one of my wife’s friends said you must have had a relaxing time in Paris, to which I replied “we only spent four minutes there”.

The idea of doing the journey in five days was reduced to four because Michael Tee, who drove so fast and safely, wanted to get back in order to see a girlfriend.