Great days out #2: The Silvretta Classic 1999

| 31 Aug 2011

In a previous blog I wrote that I had only ever travelled in cattle class on a plane. I have now remembered that that wasn’t true. Sorry.

Many years ago, thanks to trickle-down theory, I “inherited” a trip to a classic car rally in Germany. In the way that these things happen, it was offered to the biggest of bigwigs in Haymarket, who couldn’t do it, passed through a few echelons of senior and middle management, then the bloke who ran the canteen (we had one back then) and finally washed up on the shores that it probably should have beached itself on in the first place.

If you are wondering, the main difference between business class (it wasn’t anything as fancy as first class) on this particular short-haul flight was metal cutlery, an option on a second bread roll and a better-looking, more polite stewardess. And of course the smug feeling of being special or important that people who are used to such privileges simply don’t get.

Back to the event in question: it was the Silvretta Classic in the (mainly Austrian) Alps. It was backed by German magazine Motor Klassik, which we were sort of partners with at the time (it’s very complicated). BMW and Jaguar both took fleets of cars and I, fresh as a daisy after my relaxed business class flight (very important and special, me), was parachuted into one of the former, BMW’s own gorgeous 507, 3168ccs of V8-engined wonderfulness. 

The whole experience (even apart from flying business class, did I mention that?) was slightly surreal for me.

First up, I think that at that stage, the 507 was just about the most desirable and exotic classic I had driven (the fact that one has just sold for a million bucks helped bring this memory back to mind).

Secondly, I had it for a few of days against the breathtaking backdrop of the Montafon Valley rather than a mere three hours of shuffling it out between thunderstorms in Neasden which is the norm on C&SC.

Thirdly, it had a full support crew. When the brakes boiled on day one (I may have been a little “spirited”), my natural reaction was to start working on them, but I had barely loosened the wheel when a SWAT team of mechanics arrived in pristine overalls and ordered me back into the car in no uncertain terms while they sorted it out. Oh, how the other half lives.

And finally, with just a hillclimb or two under my belt, this was my first road rally – with closed special sections – and quite the poshest trip I had enjoyed during my time on C&SC to that date.

In 1999 the Silvretta Classic was in only its second year and was swamped with “local” entries, but these included some great gear such as Maserati 300S, Siata 300BC Spyder, Borgward Rennsport Coupé and Porsche 550 Spyder (genuine). JDHT laid on its usual smorgasbord of C-types and then there was me, in a BMW 507.

On the first day I drove it like someone who had never done a regaularity rally before, needlessly taking too tight lines and exploring its limits, which were a lot further away than I had thought, even if it still didn’t really whisper “sports car” to you. Sounded amazing though, especially through all those tunnels.

I settled down into the BMW over the next couple of days, enjoying the snick of the four-speeder, but more than anything the admiration and adoration it engendered on (nearly) its home turf.

This was an extraordinarily popular piece of automotive sculpture, worshipped by on-lookers and something that it would be a crime against humanity to harm or damage in any way.

Which brings me on to the two important lessons I garnered from this event.

One, of no relevance to the 507 at all, was that a true enthusiast needs to be tinged with a little madness. I learned this when I met Eddie McGuire on this event. Eddie may be pretty well known now for expertly circling his Gordini round the historic race tracks, and for the Cooperati he owned before it, but in 1999 Eddie was a refreshing and insanely enthusiastic classic fan who had driven 700 miles from Hertfordshire with Phil Cubitt to take part in the rally in his Austin-Healey Bonneville recreation, boasting only the most slender aeroscreens.

The other thing I learned, that was vaguely related to the 507, was that I had to buy a Lotus Elan.

A bizarre outcome, perhaps, but one that had been bubbling under for a while. Of course I had driven Elans previously, but, to my chagrin, they had tended to compound rather then alleviate my fears. In fact, the very first had ticked every bad reputation box including the pop-up lights popping down of their own accord. On a single-track road. At night.

All this changed on the Silvretta Classic. My co-driver, a Motor Klassik employee called Frank spoke brilliant English and rubbish maps. Late for a checkpoint at the top of a mountain and stuck in a traffic jam of tourist buses heaving their way up there, I was cursing the fact that I couldn’t see safely up the road to take a punt on passing the traffic.

No matter, reckoned my new best friend, he could see and it was totally clear: go for it. So, disarmed equally by a stupidly trusting nature and the sort of competitive madness that overcomes rally novices, I did go for it.

Straight into the path of a green and gold Elan barreling down the mountain at high speed with a cartoon German at the wheel.

In the split second before the inevitable head-on, as the victim of my idiocy bore down on me with a face that looked like Bratwurst had just been banned by the EU, I considered my stupidity.

To so implicitly trust someone I didn’t really know. On strange roads, in a still relatively strange car. A strange car that wasn’t even mine but the property of a major motor manufacturer and worth a small fortune. Not to mention the damage I was about to do to the cherished classic coming the other way. As far as bridge burning went, this could rival Nijmegen… and have a similar effect on Anglo-German relations.

I slipped the 507 into reverse and hit the gas, but it wouldn’t be enough, the closing speed was still going to be enormous. And then the Elan stopped. Squealed and slithered to a halt just inches from the 507. Make no mistake, I am not exaggerating: until that point a non-crash was an utter impossibility. Yet, thanks solely to the Elan and its heavy-footed driver, I had just had the most monumental non-crash imaginable.

And a huge Road to Damascus conversion. If an Elan could save my – thoroughly deserved – blushes in that situation, I could no longer resist and I had to have one. Three months later, after seeing and driving 10 or so, I did have one, and it has been saving my blushes ever since. All thanks to the Silvretta Classic and a mulletted man called Frank.