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