Montlhéry Revival in a 1913 Nazzaro

AutoClassics navigates a 1913 Nazzaro racer to the Montlhéry Revival. Even if the navigator has never been abroad before...

As the ferry from England docked in Dieppe, I sat high in my curved passenger chair more suited to lounging than far-flung travel, securing the buckle on my leather-flying helmet and pulling down my goggles. Anticipation filled the lungs as the last surviving Nazzaro in Europe clattered down off the ferry and into France.

Greeted by the sight of vibrant shutter-windowed buildings and an assortment of road signs heralding place names unlisted in the tourist guides, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the task of navigating the rare 1913 Nazzaro and its driver. To add to this pressure, there was also a 1911 SCAT, a 1932 Frazer-Nash Interceptor and a 1928 Chrysler 52 travelling in convoy with us – all following my instructions.

We were all due to attend the Vintage Revival at the famous banked racing circuit of Montlhéry. This was an exciting, although slightly daunting, prospect for a navigator who’d never been out of the UK before. Initially feeling lost as I tried to adjust to giving directions in a busy town with a foreign twist on the Highway Code, panic struck all my senses at once. This is what Pre-War fear smells like.

However, as the views of the French countryside opened up and the fresh air blasted directly over the Nazzaro’s bulkhead with a lack of present windscreen, my mind simmered down as we progressed south through a string of charming villages.

In Les Grandes-Ventes, opposite the village’s Mairie (town hall) the Nazzaro attracted the attention of two older gentlemen on the main street whilst we waited for the 1928 Chrysler to catch up. Many questions in French came our way but, thankfully, David Biggins, the Nazzaro’s owner and driver, had a decent grasp of the language and he was able to tell the locals what he was driving and why.

One of the men who spoke with Dave gently patted the 104-year-old bonnet with affection, as though he were stirring a living thing. I never questioned this action; I had beaten them to it days ago when first greeted with the striking curves offered by such a special, historical machine.

The 1913 Nazzaro

Felice Nazzaro himself started out as a mechanic for Fiat aged only 15, working as an apprentice within the chassis test department. Tasked with delivering a new Fiat to Count Vincenzo Florio in Palmermo, Sicily, Nazzaro made such an impression that Florio employed him as his personal chauffeur and mechanic.

Finding himself regularly participating in private motor races organised by Vincenzo, who later set up the now-famous Targa Florio rally, Nazzaro won the Targa Florio in 1907 racing for Fiat. In the same year he also claimed the title for the French Grand Prix at Dieppe. Keen to utilise his intricate mechanical knowledge, alongside the benefits of his rapidly-rising profile on the racing scene, ‘Nazzaro and C.Fabbrica di Automobil’ was launched in Turin, producing racing cars under his own name.

Nazzaro won the Florio again in 1913, the only time that a driver claimed the Florio in a car of his own manufacture. Out of an estimated dozen built, only three remain – with two nestled away in New Zealand unlikely to be raced – it’s why this one is so special.

We continued on, with my first order for appealing café au lait placed in beginner’s French at Gournay before the Nazzaro went on to cross the picturesque River Seine at Mantes-la-Jolie. After picking up some fresh fruit and a selection of cold meats, our vintage convoy enjoyed a relaxed picnic in front of the Château de Thoiry. The lunch stop provided a welcome break from the concentration of navigation, as inside I was still screaming with nerves. We then took the D191, where Dave briefly navigated us to the splendid Château Les Mesnuls. It’s a hard life.

Passing through a tall brick archway that ducks beneath the Auffargis railway track, aged stonewalls and lengthy tunnels of green foliage opened out to line our route to Cernay-la-Ville.

As we approached Limours, the countryside again became wide and open, with fields of vibrant yellow on either side of every long straight stretch. I tried to make the most of a short break from the maps and my fingers fumble with my camera’s lens cap. My hope was to take a scenic picture whilst we were on the move, however this didn’t go to plan. To my dismay, I felt the strong breeze, which continually hits me over the bulkhead in the open cabin, whip the lens cap clean out of my grip. I think about asking Dave to stop, but by my voice has grown so hoarse and weary with a day of shouting over the 4.4-litre ‘wall of noise’ that I simply couldn’t get the words out. I’m again looked at for instructions and I have to assume the lens cap will forever lie in a rural French ditch.

I’m soon distracted by Limour’s array of one-way streets and patchy road signs. Our convoy becomes temporarily broken by having to give way to other cars at various roundabouts and junctions. It’s clear I’m not the only one struggling to find the best way through when myself and David clock the 1911 SCAT driving directly towards us on the Boulevard de General Leclerc! Somehow we all blunder back together and then it’s a sharp incline up towards Janvry, where Dave assures me he can take it from there with his local knowledge. I’m not in a position to argue – my maps are too small a scale to be of help in the larger settlements. I’ll just have to sit back and channel my inner Isadora Duncan, but without the scarf-meets-wheel-meets-face routine.

Reaching Montlhery

Dave had hoped to reach Montlhery with time to register and take the Nazzaro through scrutineering before the first day of practise comes to a close. We find ourselves on a busy dual carriageway, a stark contrast to the centuries-old villages we’ve encountered and then we climb an extremely steep hill leading up to the circuit. The 36bhp Nazzaro seems surprisingly competent at tackling the incline, more so than the remaining convoy on the rear. It makes me wonder how much torque the gold-topped engine possesses when tackling the racetrack. The butterflies in my stomach are suddenly turbocharged.

We make it to the circuit and I watch with fascination as numerous wooden structural supports rush by, the poor light masking the danger of what lurks on the surface, as we drive underneath the famous banking. At the other end, we are greeted warmly by Vincent Chamon, organiser of the event, before parking amongst countless other pre-war cars.

I clock Montlhery’s banked circuit for the first time, and it makes for a lasting impression. It’s some distance away yet appears to be near vertical. I’m thrilled to see it, even if it is mostly devoid of motorcars until the following day, leaving me to conceive how the Brooklands Circuit must have looked before 1939. Meanwhile, the inner bowl at Montlhery offers a hive of activity as people wander around in period clothing and numerous stalls show off their wares.

Many people shake hands with Dave for he is well known in the vintage motoring community, having produced Pistons, Passions and Pleasures – A Sicilian Dream, a film featuring the Targa Florio through which the Nazzaro starred. I decide to leave him to it and happily begin browsing the autojumble.

Soon enough I’m called away to once again rejoin the Nazzaro. Dave explains that scrutineering had already closed by the time we’d arrived and so ‘there’s nothing more for us to do other than to find our hotel’. We’re all starting to tire after our mile-heavy journey and, to our disappointment, the hotel proves anything but easy to locate. We only have success after asking directions, somewhat embarrassing for the navigator…

We stumble across the Hotel L’Oree, Saulx Les Charteux, where Dave parks the Nazzaro in front of a sloped section in the car park. He explains this will enable him to get a ‘rolling start’ in the morning, allowing him to fire the Nazzaro into life without having to use the starting handle – a forgivable cheat after all our efforts!

Chateau de Versailles

The next day, with Dave having made the most of his rolling start and now qualifying along at Montlhery, I instead climb into the Chrysler 52 known as ‘Big Fella’, belonging to Penny Morris. Sensing my weariness at dinner the night before, Penny had suggested doing something different than motorcars before rejoining the activities at Montlhery. Despite my usual enthusiasm for motorsport, I agreed this was indeed a good idea. After all, if I were here, there was one place in France I was particularly eager to see – the grand Chateau de Versailles.

The 1928 Chrysler seemed comfortable with its padded couch-like seats, glass windscreen and fold-down fabric roof – sheer luxury! Given the rain as we made our way towards the Palace of Versailles, these features made the Chrysler appear so much more modern and well-appointed than the Nazzaro. Granted there wasn’t quite the same thrill of escapade but I was happy to enjoy the indulgence while it lasted.

The following morning found everyone reunited at Montlhery, and there I received a true snapshot of how thrilling pre-war motoring must have been. After climbing some concrete stairs near the grandstand, I watched as five vintage motorcars tore towards us on Montlhery’s steep circuit. Faint white lines divided the banking into informal lanes and some of the cars were able to power themselves straight into the ‘top lane’ alongside the, previously well used, upper crash barrier, to which the French crowd applause and shout ‘Bravo! Bravo!’. The air was electric as the cars and drivers gave all they have.

Penny had advised the best way to stay in a pre-war car whilst going round a banked circuit, with no doors, no seatbelts and not much in general to hold on to, is to press your weight down into the floor through your legs and feet at an opposite angle to where gravity is pulling you. Staying within a car had never felt so complicated. And if I mastered not falling out of the Nazzaro completely, some photographs on the camera and some footage on the camcorder for Dave would be a fine outcome. I wasn’t driving but I was certainly busy – and in danger! I was convinced this was the end as we set off. I briefly wondered if I had told my mother and father how much I loved them, and if I had turned the hob off at home.

With no bodywork surrounding us as we swung around the twists and turns of the track, I could hear clearly and smell the warm engines that passed us by. The muscles in my legs and torso were working overtime to keep me balanced and on board to capture the experience in a mixture of pixels and film footage.

Suddenly the chequered flag appeared and it’s all over too soon. We pulled off the tarmac and back towards our parking bay.

Going around Montlhery was a fascinating and invigorating experience. In only a few short laps, most of what I wanted to know about the banked circuit was answered. Suffering years of disappointment about the inability to traverse the banked Brooklands circuit back in England, finally the ambition of hurtling round such a track had been achieved.

Afterwards, the return through France was a much more relaxed affair. We left the Vintage Revival halfway through the second day in-order to start heading back north. I had now acclimatised to cars driving on the right-side of the road and can pick our route out with much more ease, recalling the many place names from our trip down. I even found my lens cap when we rested further down the road.

Our final stop welcomed the sights of the Hotel Moderne, by the railway station in Gisors. The town made for a pleasant place to overnight, leaving me with unusual memories of ordering Japanese food in French through a slightly drunken hue of local Rose wine. I regretted the lashing of ‘juice’ once the sun blasted into my room the next morning.

From Gisors we motored back to Dieppe, where we boarded the ferry for Newhaven, England. The colourful panorama of Dieppe harbour slowly slipped away.

What had been a simple request from Dave for help navigate his motorcar had actually turned out to be an incredibly memorable adventure. I had felt both the worry of not being able to understand the language combined with the surprising sense of feeling at home.

What it was like to drive around a banked circuit was a question of mine that had been answered and partially satisfied. I will be returning next year, although, perhaps in something with a windscreen next time…

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