Gorges and Clues - Nice to Albi
This quite light-hearted early autumn rally for 1950s Sports Racing cars and their minders provided perfectly formed driving entertainments for its discerning members. The aim of this one was to make the most of the tail end of the summer by spending a few days at Eze-Bord-de-Mer (ner Nice) before starting the event on Saturday and routing via some interesting passes and gorges across to Albi where the participants would take part in the Retrospective Historic Grand Prix.
The dozen or so participating cars needed little cranking in the fine sunny weather on the Côte d'Azur and ranged from the Pilkington's well-used 1938 blue Talbot Lago via Bianchi's Farrelac Allard and Hay's Maserati 200S to the John Coombes and John Young Porsche 911 (because their Ferrari destroyed its clutch). The two Johns were later christened Pinky and Perky.
Many of the Team had arrived at Nice train station after an evening of wining and dining in the train corridor, to be met by André and Monique Binda who provided a very civilised and French lunch at their lovely house above Nice.
A splendid hotel location on the edge of the sea with one of the most fantastic swimming pools, was the afternoon's highlight, followed by an excellent social evening with Mike Sparken of Alfa Romeo 158 fame. Roy and Susan Salvadori were there and various serious people with significant cars. Sunday provided more social entertainment, much laughter and wonderful swimming - a good relaxation before the start of the rally.
The rally route started at Vence and went immediately off for a brake test on the 34 hairpins of the Col de Turini and the Gorges de la Vésubie, where the local Nice Mafia in 1793 saved on rations for its Republican prisoners by pushing them over the convenient cliff. There seemed little to choose between Alex Boswell's full-house Cobra (on the discs) and Kirk Ryland's Jaguar-driven HWM (on good ol' drums). Pilks' pre-war Talbot Lago was on castor oil, and the Nashes of Threlfall and Wilson found it was not the car to be behind, but overtaking was almost impossible as it tended to overfill some of the narrower mountain roads, which had been designed for two well-laden donkeys to pass each other in some comfort.
Two more Gorges the next day in torrential rain were followed by a superb drive round the Canyon du Verdon and Corniche d'l'Esterel, giving some of the best views and scenery of the trip. Lunch at François' farmhouse all lent to a most delightfully spent day before we returned to the excellent hotel in La Napoule and supper under the floodlit château.
Thursday required an early start as we were to drive the Route Napoléon to Uzés via Mont Ventoux. Most people had an exhilarating drive in summer sunshine (almost too hot!) except William Hay whose Maserati destroyed its clutch and gearbox casing resulting in the use of a modern 'Twingo' to continue the route accompanied by Rossi's C type and the Cobra and Allard of Boswell and Bianchi. The weather on Mont Ventoux was perfect and the views across the Alps spectacular and memorable. Arrival at the very fine Château d'Apaillargues near Uzés after 235 long miles was not before time but, beer, a swim, very good dinner and much general conviviality worked wonders.
The next and final rally day, took us through the Corniche des Cévennes and the Gorges du Tarn to a very French hotel at Lacaune not far from Albi, our final destination. The hotel had not been decorated since it was used as the set in the 1937 remake of 'Bleak House' and when Monsieur Le Tosseur finally turned up, we managed to get the cars out of the rain, light a fire in the hall and have a few drinks. The hotel was a contrast to our previous night but as the bill was only £28 for dinner bed and breakfast, it was fine.
Saturday provided a small amount of rallying to the circuit for signing-on and greeting the Grand Prix drivers who had arrived after 650 miles of towing. Everyone was in fine form and managed to cram in plenty of sightseeing before the Gala dinner. On Sunday there were eight 'demonstrations' with grids for all comers between Cyclecars and Grands Prix, including motorbikes solo and with sidecars. Tony Bianchi was leading his plateau by some margin in his Allard Farellac until he became so nervous of its handling (the dampers still being at their Mont Ventoux setting) that he had to pull off for a rest. Tony said the Farrelac was doing over 150 mph on the straight. Spike Milligan in his A-type Connaught looked set for a win until David Morris in ERA 'Humphrey' passed him on the penultimate lap. It was all very Ned Kelly. Ted Rollason's Aston Martin DBR4 lost all its water through a porous water pump and had to retire. All the others performed well including the Bequet-Delage, which particularly delighted the French. There were no nasties, no lap-times and all the participants seemed to enjoy themselves hugely and had a very jolly weekend.
People dispersed their separate ways, some stayed to explore the area, others headed rapidly home and some went to drive round Reims. It is all still there with the café by the hairpin and the pits all intact with peeling advertisements. The circuit consists of straight main roads with a few sharp bends. They must have been heroes. The Mercedes were doing over 200 mph past the pits before the war, and all that separated the track from the pits was a thin white line! Richard's Talbot galloped round, it had been 4th there in the French GP of 1938 and used a higher axle ratio than for Le Mans.
It was a great trip, well organised by Trisha Pilkington, hardly a rest cure, but fun driving in proper cars on interesting roads with a group of friends, which is what a TOPS rally is all about.