JOHN ALEY

A Lifetime in Motorsport

 

 

CHAPTERS


Introduction

My Way

Abarth

Infrastructure

The French

Nurburgring

Racing Small Saloons

Re-start

The Serious Side

The Changing Years

The Chimp

Makes You Think

Memories That Stick

Rollover Bars

Mini Racing

 

Gallery

 

Updates

Downloads

Contact

 


THE FRENCH

 

April in Paris – well late September 1960 - actually but it was a warm sunny day and the Montlhery Autodrome was packed for the International Coupe de Paris meeting organised by AGACI. who were faced with a problem. 

In the up to one litre touring car race an Englishman had appeared from nowhere for practice the day before and put himself and his curious little white Mini on pole.  This was too much for the home crowd and certainly a blow to the club`s president who happened to be a director of  Regie Renault. So overnight a works Renault Dauphine appeared not only in the entry list but on pole position on the grid – Agincourt and Waterloo must be avenged. 

So the French crowd that Sunday afternoon was happy at the prospect of at least one race being won by a hero of France in a French car.  The starter`s flag rose and the works Dauphine plus most of the French drivers left the line heading into the distance before the flag actually fell and the cautious English driver and his team mate in the row behind departed.  One must remember this was France and a small oversight like a jumped start by a Frenchman would not be noticed but if a foreigner made the same mistake ……. 

One must also remember that at that time the Dauphine was a real “hot ship” among small touring cars with efficient aerodynamics and  every possible extra homologated for Group 2 racing and supported by the works whereas the Mini was very much in its infancy being practically unknown in France and merely regarded as a strange little foreign “Bubble Car” with no extras and the aerodynamics of a brick. 

For a few laps all was well with the Dauphine maintaining its lead but gradually the white Mini was picking off the back markets followed by the middle runners as it moved up the field so by about two thirds distance it had the hero of France in its sights and the xenophobic crowd was getting worried.  Fortunately the course in use that day whilst incorporating half the banking also had the wiggly bits round the back and it was in this area that the Mini had gained.  Eventually it was in slipstreaming distance and after a tow round the banking, a death defying jump into the lead at the next corner and then a really frantic dash through the wiggles it was able to re-enter the fast section with enough distance to maintain its lead to the end of the race. 

By then though the French crowd, who always like a winner, had changed sides – like 1940 – and were cheering it on to what was probably the Mini`s first outright win in an international race…………. 

…….. and folks, like the GI playing with his deck of cards in church, I know that story is true – I was that Mini driver. 

Lest anyone should deduce from this story that I am anti-French let me hastily reassure the reader that that is far from the case.  I am actually a great lover of France, its people and especially admire the single minded way that nation gets things done but at the same time I get considerable enjoyment when their best laid schemes come unstuck. 

Even the night before that epic win my party had been enjoying the nightlife of Paris.  I think it was the memorable evening when the singer in the “Billygoat” nightclub  in Montmatre had brought the house down with a risky song which caused my old friend the one and only John Bolster to rise unsteadily to his feet and explain in a booming  voice to a party of  stoney faced English tourists that the words of the song had been about sexual intercourse, although he used a shorter word. The country has more to offer than motor racing! 

For some years we raced in France quite a lot although latterly we found more good touring car races elsewhere as theirs became limited to national drivers – I wonder why.   I first came across  their idiosyncrasies at Montlhery in 1957 when I acted as pit manager for a team from CUAC who with a certain amount of support from BMC drove an A35 for seven days non stop to secure a number of International records.  It was a very happy week but one of my jobs was to supervise every pit stop which took place at three hourly intervals so I didn`t get much sleep. After each stop I had to check our lap recordings with those of the French timekeepers who had been appointed by the FIA and on whom the acceptance of our records depended.  This checking first involved waking them up, if it were night, or finding them, during the day, and getting them to accept our carefully recorded lap chart against their own casual ideas. 

Another amusing incident involving French officialdom came a few years later at the Mont Ventoux hill climb when the official results showed, most classes to have been won by local French drivers.   As these results were unlikely and, - to put it in the kindest terms – biased, and this was a round of the important European Touring Car Championship of which I was on the organising committee I was asked by the foreign competitors to discuss the matter with the Clerk of the Course.  I was well received, given a glass of wine – not the local stuff which at that time was dreadful, totally unlike today`s Cote de Ventoux. which with government funding is now quite drinkable,  - while he listened patiently.  When I had finished he considered the case and  pronounced that of course I was right, but it was a matter for the timekeepers and there was no possibility to bring them into the discussion because – said with an expressive Gallic shrug of the shoulders – “They have gone home”.   So we had another glass of wine and discussed other matters. It was however noticeable that at the prize giving that evening the results had been quietly altered although the biggest cups still went to the locals  while I received one which had been donated by the ADAC for the best performance by a German driver.  I still have it sitting in the corner of my living room with a plant growing in it. 

Another triumph which certainly won me the biggest trophy, and was the most lucrative was the Circuit de La Chatre.

La Chatre is a small town in the middle of rural Frace well south of Paris.  Like many similar places in the fifties and sixties, for one weekend a year they closed a three mile  circuit of ordinary roads and held an international motor race meeting.  The main event was for Formula Junior cars where they could secure a really internatiional entry for not too much money and this was supported by events for touring and GT cars. It suited us because we could take part without taking much time off my work – then a motor assessor for the Prudential – and it was on the BMC bonus schedule.

I finished work early on Friday afternoon, drove the faithful Mini, the one we were going, to race, to Dover where we caught the next evening boat to Calais.  We then travelled overnight to La Chatre arriving there about breakfast time, where we checked into our hotel and made arrangements with a garage to use as a base.  A quick check over the car and off to the circuit where we spent the rest of day being scrutineered and practising. As the town was en fete we spent the evening celebrating before falling into bed. Early the next morning we had first to visit the police station to secure the release of one of our fellow drivers who had been celebrating too well.  We were at the circuit all day winning the race after a first lap collision that dropped me to last place and then helping our friends who were in other events, as we all knew each other in those days when we formed a sort of travelling circus around Europe.

That evening came the open air prize giving in the market square with lots of speeches but plenty of the local red stuff  and eventually at about midnight we set off back home, catching an early morning boat to  arrive back in Cambridge before lunch and completing a day’s work in the afternoon.

By modern standards costs were low. The channel crossing both ways was about £15, fuel came free on my Shell contract and our hotel was provided by the organisers. On the other hand BMC paid me a race winning bonus of £200, while other contracts brought in another £100 and various motoring magazines to whom I contributed added to the pool. Yes racing could be good in 1961 with a weekend in France, lots of pleasant motoring and a good race showing more profit than my day job paid in a month. 

Then there was the scrutineer who demanded to see the fire extinguisher – unheard of at that time in English racing.  With great presence of mind my friend, Tom Threlfall, handed me my Wanner grease gun, which at least looked like an extinguisher and which Monsieu Le Scrutineer accepted with the greatest aplomb not once but several times as the aforesaid grease gun was produced by most of the foreigh drivers, We subsequently affixed it to dashboard with a bracket where it served the same purpose at other meetings. 

No, in my book France is a great country with a great people who may change sides occasionally but are never beaten. At that time – the sixties – the country was much like that described by Peter Mayle in his best seller where everything had to be planned like a military operation.  They also make good wine.

After victory at La Chatre a small girl in National costume presents the trophy while a commentator for local radio hovers in the background.  Meanwhile Jean is more concerned about the headlight broken in the first lap fracas.   I love this picture as it shows the rural setting in which this so called International race was staged, typical of so many Continental races at the time.