Fifties and Sixties Racing
Tour de France


General notes from the time:

 IN FRANCE, WHERE THE VOTERS ARE NUTTY over bicycles because that is what they use for transportation (and none of that nonsense about why don't they drive cars. . , remember what happened to Marie Antoinette after her reflections on the baking situation), there is an event known as the Tour de France.

In this form of legalized sadism, producing only a smidgen less attrition than the Colosseum (Tipo Roma) of Nero's time, various muscular types pedal a bicycle clean around the country, up Alp and down dale, in sickness and in health, through snow, sleet and hail. Fame and fortune await the winner of this marathon; invitations to endorse athletic equipment and glucose drinks flow his way, beautiful women are found under his bed by other beautiful women, and some even start their own political party. 

The organizers of the Tour also do well, it appears otherwise the event would not continue. "Tour" editions of papers sell out all over Europe, many advertising rights are sold to those who wish to display the virtues of their product across some rider's derriere, hotels and restaurants along the route do big business.

This shower of publicity and its attendant benefits was not lost on the automotive department at L' Equipe, the big French sporting daily, and in 1951 journalist Maurice Henry, L'Equipe and the Auto Club of Nice got together to put on the first 4-wheeled version of the Tour. For obvious reasons, stages could be a bit longer than for the push-bikes and there were five of these etapes on a route which went clockwise around France, touching Ostend and Geneva en route, before it came back to Nice. In spite of being a sort of regularity run with hill climbs, speed events and gymkhanas thrown in, enough interest was aroused for some 97 starters (of which 77 finished) to embark onto the teeming roads in early September, when anyone who owns wheels is on vacation.

Practically from the word go (or in this case, allez) the team of Pagnibon/Barraquet took the lead on points in a 2.6 Touring-bodied Ferrari roadster and held it to the finish. If I remember correctly, it was this Ferrari which was sold to Phil Hill and started his long association with that Maranello concern. Peron/Betramnier and Checcacci/Schell followed in similar models. A 1300 Porsche was 4th in the hands of Picard/Farge and having it, an 1100 Fiat and a 4-CV Renault scattered among several Jaguars leads me to believe that regulations were not too stringent as far as modifications were concerned, although class prizes were awarded.

In 1952 we found displacement categories split up from the former four (from below 750 to unlimited) to six, with an extra classification for cars strictment de serie and, of course, a Ladies Cup as before. Pagnibon entered again, this time with a newer model Ferrari, but in the course of the three stages (with seven circuit tests), Nice-La Baule, La Baule-Reims, Reims-Nice, which comprised the Tour, mechanical failures allowed M. and Mme. Gignoux (DB Panhard) to take the lead from him and Peron (Osca) on the last stage and keep it. Of the 108 starters, 58 finished, and the little DB beat out a choice selection of competition machinery besides the usual Jaguars, Panhards and Porsche 1100's.

For the 1953 version the pot really began to boil, with a classified separate category for production cars, both modified and unobtrusively so. Bigger and better prizes and races attracted 114 starters, of which 59 finished, the top money being taken home by the persistent Peron (Osca Mt-4) who just edged out the late Jean Behra (3-liter Gordini).

The next year emphasis swung back to the high performance sports cars and 124 competitors set forth to cover a changed course of Nice-Brest, Brest-Nancy and Nancy-Nice. Fog and thunderstorms bedevilled the hardly rally-style entry and after a stirring battle between Pollet and Guelfi, both with Gordinis, the former escaped the clutches of Storez (Porsche) and Peron (Osca) to give the Paris firm a win. In this event the Index of Performance, beloved of French mathematicians, was introduced to confuse the foreigners and a new name, that of Olivier Gendebien, appeared on the scene with 7th overall in an Alfa TI.

Mid-season of 1955 saw Pierre Levegh's tragic accident at Le Mans and a panicked Government, weathercocking with the breeze as politicians will, straightway heeded the yammering of anti-sport elements and cancelled anything that even looked as if it might involve putting numbers on cars. By the next year, when the Tour crept back, it was a shadow of its former self and had taken the form in which we see it today, with a 38-mph obligatory road average, secret controls, shorter stages with more rest time, and was restricted to GT and touring cars.

Shell of France got into the act and boosted the prize money, but even then the number of starters (103) was down from earlier years. Furthermore, many people found that with the new schedules there was no possibility of forging ahead and then stopping to fix something; the 37 finishers did not include Pollet (winner of the previous Tour), whose Ferrari had broken a rocker arm, but propelled de Portago into the big time, followed by Moss (Mercedes) and Gendebien (Ferrari).

Having the baby left on their doorstep as it were, the AC Nice stuck with that formula and as if in sympathy for the status quo, Gendebien collected the next three events in a row battling every inch of the way with such stalwarts as Trintignant, Mairesse. De Silva Ramos and Schild. That brings us up to the 1960 event.

The Tour is still a regularity run, with maximum and minimum road averages to please the always worried French authorities, but studded around the route are seven hill climbs and seven circuit races. Because the road sections are mostly duck soup for an experienced rallyist, their only sting lies in the nocturnal mountain sections where one can get lost and in the odd case, not check in on time because of some mechanical derangement.

This year a system was adopted by which everyone's standing was rated in kilometers covered. If an entrant was late at a control, these minutes were treated as a function of the average speed for that section and he was docked in distance. Hill climbs were arranged as if the competitor had continued for a much longer period. . . say 15 minutes . . . at the same speed when it actually took him only five, his kilometrage being then worked off what he would have covered at his average speed. The circuit "races" were handled in a similar manner. At Le Mans, for example, all cars circulated for two hours.

The winner covered the optimum distance while those behind had their seconds behind expressed in terms of kilometers and then subtracted from the optimum, thus giving the true distance covered. If one didn't finish an event, he was docked the amount he didn't do. Work carried out in the pare ferme, where cars were stored before speed events and during the rest stops, cost 50 kilometers, but if this seemed like an open invitation to rebuild the complete automobile between races, the cylinder head, block, differential casing, starter (pushing was penalized) and generator were marked against substitution. In addition, the gearbox, sump and rear end were sealed with wire so any fiddling about or swapping of bits lost 15 kilometers.

And in case someone found a way to counterfeit the wholecar, there was a secret mark put on somewhere!   As the first of 115 starters, Ancelin/Romel (NSU) moved out of Nice on Sept. 15 en route to the Col de Braus, it was raining like California and continued doing so through that night's rest (at Nice) and the next day, which encompassed the hill climbs of Mont Ventoux and Col de Roussel. On all three, people came unstuck (like Simon-Ferrari) or dropped points because of the wrong tires (Gendebien- Ferrari) or went like gangbusters (Mairesse, Consten, or Walter's Porsche Abarth). By the time the Nurburg Ring was reached, the pattern had been set, with Mairesse streaming wildly ahead of his fellow countryman, Gendebien, and Consten who, having made up a large lead on the Ventoux, sitting back and slipstreaming Jopp in another 3.8 Jaguar to lose only .154km.

It was plain that Gendebien, who is very experienced in such matters, was waiting for the importunate Mairesse to crash or break the car and what were a few kilometers here and there? However, there is such a thing as letting the opposition get too far ahead and Olivier had a bit of bad luck-at Spa, the next morning, when he had the race in the bag, but ran out of gas at the last corner. In the touring category, Jopp's co-driver Baillie (one driver could only perform in a certain number of events) halved Consten's lead but both, plus 3rd man Jose Behra in another 3.8, had to step smartly to stay ahead of Rosinski, Oreiller, and Trautmann in Conrero Giulietta TI's.

After Spa, it was around in the bushes at night (during which Mairesse clobbered Spinedi's Ferrari while the latter was making a U turn) and off to Montlhery, where Gendebien and Mairesse pulled exactly the same routine as at Spa and Consten and Jopp ditto Nurburg Ring. All slept in Rouen, and on the Essarts circuit the next morning, Baillie whittled another 2 km off Consten while Gendebien picked up almost that amount from Mairesse, whose Ferrari was not handling its best in spite of the fact that the whole front suspension had been replaced at the Montlhery control before checking in.

It was off to Le Mans next and goodbye to the big money for Gendebien; his Ferrari coughed a piston, probably brought on by running lean twice; and although the works mechanics changed it in just over two hours, there was a 200-km penalty for missing the race, plus 150 for unsealing the sump. Canny Consten slipstreamed Jopp throughout and took the lead just at the end, when his competitor's tank momentarily ran dry. Pons' Alfa blew its head gasket, Behra's 3.8 slipped its clutch, and many tired engines got more tired.  

On the long night's run to Clermont-Ferrand Gentilini took his Jag over a railway embankment and blocked the main Paris-Brest line for two hours. Consten split the Puy Mary and Puy de Dome (which his co-driver Renel did) with Jopp and Baillie, but after that, with the hill climbs of Le Tourmalet, L' Aubisque and the circuits of Auvergne and Pau, this clever driver was far in front. Oreiller, who had moved up to third in the Touring class, was put out when he found sand in his engine at Clermont-Ferrand, thus climaxing the skulduggery found in this event when keys were swiped (Berney), car papers pinched (Soisbault) and so forth, but Oreiller's teammate Rosinski took over his place. All Mairesse had to do was keep it on the road and sure enough he did, cruising into Biarritz on the evening of September 23 with a broad smile to collect more francs than I like to think about.

It all sounds a little on the- dull side, but the atmosphere at the controls is fantastic. Service wagons from the principal makes are lined up along the side of the road, together with the leading accessory and fuel people. Spectators are wandering all over, scattering as an Alfa, say, comes whooping in with hysterical blasts on its air horn, peak revs in third. It sweeps to a stop, a disheveled driver leaps out and waves his arms about, whereupon a regiment of mechanics dive under the hood.

The Marchal (or Cibie) men change a squashed foglight while the Cibie (or Marchal) fellows align another with their portable rig. The BP (or Shell) man pumps fuel in the back. Meanwhile, if there is enough time, the co-driver wanders off to the barber for a shave, or perhaps to the Shell buffet tent for a bite to eat.

These wonderful Shell people, incidentally, after putting up most of the prizes and feeding the multitude at every stop, suffered the indignity of finding that Consten and both Index winners were running on BP. Nevertheless, what's to keep an event like this from being run in the U.S.? Seems like a crackerjack idea to me.  

Author: ArchitectPage

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