Fleming’s first assignment

With all the hubbub about James Bond that inevitably surrounds a new movie, the S&G can report that it is probably Daniel Craig’s finest hour. Not since Goldeneye has there been such a shameless parade of 007 iconography laid out in return for the entry fee, but it was sufficient to make beautiful women whoop with glee – something for which Ian Fleming would undoubtedly be thankful.

He would also doubtless be thankful for the high calibre of the car chase in Spectre, which is set in Rome’s rather claustrophobic, cobbled night time streets and featuring two visions of British-built loveliness, the stillborn Jaguar C-X75 hybrid and Aston Martin DB10.

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A licence to squeal: the ladies like a good car chase in Bond’s latest, Spectre

Cars were a major feature of Fleming’s life and work, and became such as early as July 1932 when, as a junior reporter for Reuters, he was dispatched to Munich for his first piece of overseas reportage.

The deal was that Fleming would act as navigator on the International Alpine Trial for a rather useful driver and WW1 pilot called Donald Healey, winner of the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally at the wheel of his 4½-litre Invicta. Fleming would write up the story to cast Invicta, and British motoring generally, in a favourable light while reporting upon one of the growing number of motoring events that had caught the public imagination.

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Healey and his crew celebrate winning the 1931 Monte with their Invicta

The event was extremely popular both with young British men and the burgeoning sports car manufacturers such as Riley, Sunbeam and Singer – all of whom were seeking to recreate the sort of fame and success enjoyed by the ‘Bentley Boys’ at Le Mans. Among the competitors in 1932 was a youthful Dick Seaman in the MG Magna that was normally his runabout at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Like Seaman and the other British contenders, Healey and Fleming drove 700 miles from London to Munich, crossing the Channel on the SS Forde before an overnight halt in Reims, then stopping in Freudenstadt in the Black Forest after a second day’s hard motoring.

They arrived in Munich in time for a torch lit parade before the start, which was held in torrential rain. Healey’s skill and the Invicta’s prowess catapulted them into the lead of the event, in front of continental ‘crack’ entries from the factories of Mercedes, Lancia and Bugatti to name but three.

Just months after joining Reuters on an unsalaried trial and being apprenticed by such tiresome work as updating obituaries, the whole event must have come as manna from heaven to the 23-year-old Fleming. Here he was among like-minded chaps, savouring the whiff of Castrol R and Healey’s furious working of throttle and gears at first hand.

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Future hero Seaman apace in his Magna

 

The Alpine Trial lasted a week and criss-crossed the borders of Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France on a route of 1580 miles. Healey was on brilliant form, setting the outright fastest time and a new record of 23 minutes 44 seconds for climbing the fabled Stelvio Pass, ending that day with a night at the Grand Hotel in St. Moritz – exactly the sort of excitements that Fleming would later give to James Bond.

At the end of the event, Healey would be awarded the Coupe des Glaciers for having completed the event with zero penalty points. The big Invicta did not carry off the outright honours and found itself swamped by hordes of smaller capacity cars on the final run to Grenoble – much to Fleming’s bemusement. It was reported in The Autocar magazine that this rather self-assured young navigator was to be found chastising the impudent little cars, demanding to know “What on earth are you doing among the grown-ups?”

Fleming filed his copy and parted ways with Healey – the former heading off into the arms of his Swiss paramour, Monique Panchaud de Bottomes, while Healey took in the Swiss Automobile Club’s annual hillclimb, finishing second.

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Monique Panchaud de Bottomes and Ian Fleming in Switzerland, 1931

While the young gentlemen enjoyed their sport, there was a small hubbub at home because, contrary to the story reported by Fleming and carried by The Daily Telegraph, it had not been a British victory on the event. Fleming’s editor called him to demand an explanation, to which came the reply that this was not a competition measured in first-past-the-post speed but in skill and bravery, at which the British contingent had won hands-down.

Remarkably, this explanation sufficed!

The impact of this odyssey was, of course, to be profound. It was the sort of drive that James Bond would later take, carrying millions of readers alongside him to experience the growl of two-inch exhaust pipes, to share the enjoyment of racing gearchanges and to learn the finer points of supercharging and back-axle ratios. It is also notable that Bond’s mother was called Monique and she was from Vaud in Switzerland.

Life for Donald Healey, meanwhile, would see him step back from competition driving and into the vanguard of British sports car designers, starting with Triumph. After working on the production of aero engines and armoured cars during World War 2, the Donald Healey Motor Company was formed in 1945, producing his own cars and in partnership with Nash and, most famously of all, with Austin.

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Donald Healey in later life with one of his celebrated creations

Thoughts at the S&G have turned to Fleming of late for reasons other than James Bond. More than 50 years ago now, that most unfettered imperialist gave his verdict on America’s rise to superpower status. As a nation, he declared, they were: “Totally unprepared to rule the world that is now theirs.”

In recent weeks, the behaviour of great swathes of Americans in the face of the Islamic death cult Daesh has hammered Fleming’s words home. Not least when that buffoon Donald Trump, stalking horse for the White House in 2016, suggested launching nuclear warheads at the barren desert of Daesh territory in Syria and Iraq – to rapturous applause: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark,” he said. “But we’re going to find out.”

No, Ian… they still haven’t got it yet.

A little Monte magic

Here’s a little treasure from the archives of British Pathé – the start-to-finish story of the 1960 Monte Carlo Rally.

With this year’s event just days away it’s nice to be reminded of what makes the Monte so special. Of all the initiatives that M. Todt has come up with in his time as FIA president, one can only hope that his wish to restore an element of the driving marathon to world championship events, rather than daily loops from a central service area, will come to pass.

In the meantime let’s enjoy things as they were in the days when the Mini-Minor was yet to be Coopered!

1956 and all that…

A lot is said and written about British leadership in motor sport. About its value. About its importance. We speak in terms intended to summon up the blood in a manner that would have delighted Henry V at Agincourt.

‘Twas not always thus. Brooklands may have been the world’s first permanent race track and a few pioneering marques such as Bentley, Napier and Sunbeam may have successfully raided the most prestigious races in Europe but, before World War 2, Britain was hardly smitten.

Racing cars not permitted: the SMMT shows its wares

Racing cars not permitted: the SMMT shows its wares

Indeed, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders was moved to prohibit the display of racing machinery within its annual Motor Show – stating that competition was ‘vulgar and irrelevant’.

All that was changed by the Second World War. In its wake a tide of bright young engineers and hard charging drivers was unleashed. That tide grew in depth, strength and experience until Britain became the motor racing capital of the world.

The year of British ascendance was 1956. If the primary measuring stick of motor sport is Formula One, then this was the first year when the number of British teams outnumbered those from Italy or France. It is also the first year in which British drivers won more grands prix than any other nationality – with Stirling Moss and Peter Collins claiming two victories apiece.

Young bucks Collins and Moss ran the old master Fangio close in 1956

Young bucks Collins and Moss ran the old master Fangio (right) close in 1956

Of course this was also the year in which Collins famously missed out on the world championship after handing his car to his title rival and team-mate, Juan Manuel Fangio, in the final race of the year. Clearly the British still had to develop the killer instinct in these situations!

Neither Moss or Collins were driving British cars, but there was plenty of success outside Formula 1 for British manufacturers. Leading the way was Jaguar, which maintained its dominance at the Le Mans 24 Hours with a fourth victory in six years – with Aston Martin and Lotus winning class honours.

Jaguar's fourth winner at Le Mans is crowned

Jaguar’s fourth winner at Le Mans is crowned

In rallying, Jaguar also the Monte Carlo Rally with its vast Mk.VII saloon and Aston Martin won the RAC Rally with its rather more obviously sporty DB2/4.

Meanwhile, back on the tracks, the Owen Maddock-designed Cooper T41 dominated in Formula 2, establishing the template for rear-engined simplicity that would carry the Kingston firm to world championship glory by the end of the decade.

Jaguar also claimed victory in the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally

Jaguar also claimed victory in the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally

If that wasn’t sufficient to set the seal on British dominance then Stirling Moss – that man again! – set new class speed records at Monza in a streamlined Lotus Eleven.

It was a year that would define so much for so many people: the year in which the remarkable community of engineers and adventurers showed exactly what they were capable of. The achievements of 1956 set in place the foundations for a huge and vibrant industry.

This week the great and the good of that same industry gather for their annual jamboree – the Autosport International show in Birmingham. Doubtless there will be much bullish talk about the state of the nation… but how much of it is justified?

One thing is clear – the age of British leadership in motor sport that arrived with such a tour de force in 1956 has, in fact, passed.

At the end of last year Britain lost 25% of its F1 production in the space of a fortnight. If a quarter of the Premier League teams vanished there would be rioting on the streets – but the disappearance of more than 400 jobs and hundreds of millions of pounds owing to suppliers has merited barely a raised eyebrow.

This misfortune is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. For example British Formula 3 – the series that was the making of virtually every F1 driver from Stirling Moss to Jenson Button, including the likes of Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Mika Häkkinen – has ceased to exist, after drawing only half a dozen entries in recent seasons.

The Le Mans 24 Hours and World Endurance Championship are currently contested by Audi, Porsche and Toyota… all based in Germany. Both of the full works teams entered in the World Rally Championship – Hyundai and Volkswagen – are also based in Germany.

In terms of manufacturing there are now only three viable options when it comes to single-seater chassis supply: Mygale from France (Formula Ford/Formula 4), Dallara (GP2, GP3, Formula 3, Indycar, World Series, Formula E) and its Italian compatriot Tatuus (Formula Renault).

Across virtually every discipline of the sport, from rallycross to hillclimbs and truck racing to dragsters, British influence is increasingly on the margins. As well as car production, traditional bastions of the industry such as Dunlop and Shell have also moved their motor sport arms (and associated Research & Development of customer products) away from Britain.

In 2001 the Motorsport Industry Association, the self-appointed lobbying group in the UK, valued the industry at £5bn a year – which was quite punchy. These days the MIA puts that figure at £10bn – which is frankly ludicrous.

In the years since 2001 such prestigious engineering firms as Cosworth, Reynard, Lola, Van Diemen, TWR and Ralliart have hurtled into oblivion. On the domestic front, the British Touring Car Championship lost its manufacturer entries and star drivers but has battled on – and at least survived where the British Rally Championship has been consigned to history.

One by one the lion’s teeth have been pulled.

What took Britain to the top of the world in 1956 and kept it there for roughly half a century was a fraternity imbued with talent and inventiveness as well as the willingness to challenge tradition. As a community we urgently need to revive this same spirit if we are to have any chance of halting the decline.

Britain needs to recapture the pioneering spirit it showed in 1956 - and fast

Britain needs to recapture the pioneering spirit it showed in 1956 – and fast

The S&G is a place to look backwards but, at the start of a new year, it might also be a good time to look forwards – and worry. Context is really what this blog is about, and if by looking back we can find a way to fan the embers then so much the better.