Last week, I noticed that the hipsters over at Hell For Leather posted a video of a pack of scooters circulating on the rooftop test-track of the old Fiat building in Turin, Italy. That building was one of the defining products of the Futurist movement; Fiat cars were assembled on an assembly line that spiraled up through the enormous building. The assembly line ended on the roof of the building, where cars were tested on the parabolically-banked oval. Fiat stopped using the building as a factory in the early '80s, but the building survives as a shopping center.
That reminded me of another famous track that was also an architectural monument -- the fantastic oval outside Paris at Linas-Montlhéry, which was one of the touchstones of the school of architecture that came to be known as 'brutalism'.
My thoughts on Montlhéry were first posted on the old Road Racer X web site about five years ago, based on a few visits to the track that had taken place a couple of years before that. But since that post's long vanished from the interweb, I thought I'd repost the essay here...
A couple of months ago, I did something every journalist should do every few years: I (re)read A.J. Liebling. He was a brilliant essayist and war correspondent, a funny guy, and an insightful observer of subjects as diverse as the sport of boxing and French cuisine. He’s best remembered for his long stint at the New Yorker, a magazine so respected by writers that it is called the[ital] New Yorker, not “New Yorker.”
Liebling wrote eloquently about returning to Paris when the city was liberated in ’44, and described spending the last night before liberation in Linas-Montlhéry. He was bemused by the town’s gigantic race-track, but didn’t pay it much attention. Instead, he climbed to the top of hill and looked, through a spotting scope, at Paris. That was on his mind. But reading Liebling’s reminiscence of Montlhéry took me back to my own visits there, about 60 years later...
The first time I went there, it was to write a story about an event. Afterwards, I realized the real story was about the track itself. So I went back to see the track again a few weeks later.
That first time, I got a ride with Patrick Bodden; going back alone was more involved. I had to decode French train schedules, walk for hours after miscalculating the distance from the nearest station; a whole day was shot. When I finally got there, I innocently asked permission take some pictures of the empty circuit. I was told, “Fous-moi le camp! No one’s allowed in, and even if you were allowed in, photography is strictly forbidden.” To that, the jobsworth added, “And it’s never going to be open to the public again!”
* (Asterisk indicates that a brief musical interlude goes here. I suggest Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien.”)
For the previous 11 years, “Coupes Moto Légende,” Europe’s biggest vintage motorcycle meet had been held at “Le Circuit de Linas-Montlhéry” on the southern outskirts of Paris. That Spring, I went because I’d heard that the 2003 version of the “Coupes” was to be the final motorcycle event ever held at “Montlhéry”. The event always drew an amazing array of rare bikes. I wanted to see them, and especially hear them, in their natural habitat.
The Montlhéry circuit had remained virtually unchanged since its construction in 1924, making it a perfect setting for a vintage event. When the circuit was built it was in the countryside, but inevitably Parisian suburbs spread south and population density increased around it. More and more, local residents opposed the roar of open megaphone exhausts and the traffic snarls caused by legions of fans. By the time of the 2003 event they’d gotten their wish – the locals were promised, “No more.”
But oh, what a track it was. Although the layout allowed for road courses of up to 12 kilometers in length, Montlhéry was famous for its 2-1/2 kilometer parabolic oval. Way up at the top, the banking was a real old “wall of death.” If you had the guts and suspension for it, you could ride any motorcycle ever made all the way ‘round absolutely wide open. You think I’m exaggerating? Raymond Jamin, who engineered the track, calculated the rising slope so that up at the guardrail, a motorcycle could run through the turns at 220 k.p.h. with completely neutral steering. To build the banking up high enough, and make it strong enough to absorb the g-forces generated by the massive speed-record automobiles of the day, Jamin used 8000 cubic meters of concrete, reinforced with 1000 tons of steel.
Fame eluded Jamin, but his race track is a monument to the modernist style that appropriately became known as “brutalism.” In fact, it is listed in the official register of French historic sites and monuments.
The bowl was an ideal place to set speed and endurance records, and they were set here, by the hand-written, leather-bound book-full. Five years after the track was built, Herb Le Vack rode a Brough Superior to the world’s first closed-course lap of over 200 k.p.h. That bike, a 1927 model SS100 Pendine had been tweaked by Freddie Dixon. Before Le Vack rode, it was raced by George Brough himself. It’s currently owned by Peter Lancaster, a collector – like everyone here at the Coupes – who understands that even precious bikes need to run to live.
In 1952, Norton’s race engineer Joe Craig was staggered by the speed of the Gilera four-cylinder Grand Prix bikes. He responded by building the Norton ‘kneeler’, trying to make up with streamlining what the single-cylinder Manx engine gave up in horsepower. English GP ace Ray Amm, aided by Eric Oliver, set a total of 41 records on that Norton when they brought it here in the Fall of 1953.
The noise they made!
Brough, MV, roaring (the twin pitched flat, the four on song.)
Honda six, Guzzi eight. I winced when they were revved. Partly due to the earsplitting sound, and partly because I couldn’t ignore the potential for mechanical mayhem within those irreplaceable crankcases.
At a certain moment, it occurred to me that, yeah, I was getting an echo off the banking, but the parabolic shape was in fact directing the bulk of the sound straight up into the heavens. High flying birds, at least, must’ve wondered “What the?..”
By Sunday, we had bounced too many shock waves into the clouds, and it started to rain. Thousands of people; most of the riders, exhibitors, and swap meet traders had been bivouacked under the infield trees. Handwritten signs dissolved into papier maché. “For Sale”, “Wanted”, “I’ll sell you this rolling chassis, or buy a motor if you have one to fit it”. (Either way at least someone could leave with a whole motorcycle.) One sign taped to a frame simply asked, “Does anyone know what this is?”
In the rain, anything being sold under an awning suddenly got a lot more interesting. I lined up for some ‘frites’, behind a couple in their late fifties or early sixties. She was wearing a tweed suit, white blouse; a brooch, little gloves. As though she’d just come back from mass. He was holding something made of black plastic: the air filter housing for a Suzuki GT750. “You see, here’s where the filter goes,” he said, pointing inside. “And is that something,” she asked, “which will have to be cleaned?”
They had both been faking this conversation since Suzuki introduced the GT. She was pretending that she cared, and he was pretending to believe her. Both were visibly relieved when I leaned in to ask, “Did they call GT750s ‘kettles’ here in France?” That way he could start talking to me instead.
That year as always, the actual “coupes” – the cups – were awarded by a jury. There were classes for absolutely everything, from utilitarian mopeds to bona-fide works GP bikes. Such bikes are often ridden by the men who originally raced them. Kenny Roberts made the pilgrimage in 2002; Agostini came to Montlhéry almost every year. In total, about a thousand machines took their laps during each event.
Although the promoter sternly warned, “This is not a race!” putting riders like this on vintage race iron could only lead to one thing: racing! Even Sammy Miller – otherwise seemingly immune to the effects of time – lowsided, earning a ride back in the pace car, looking as close to embarrassed as a member of the Pantheon can look.
Finally, it poured. In the infield, people folded wet tents, stuffed damp sleeping bags into sacks. “That’s the part that I would hate,” my friend said, as we slogged past a vendor loading his inventory of cycle parts – now wet, and even rustier - back onto a trailer. Vehicles inched out on muddy tracks.
I hope you don’t mind if I leave you here, in the rain, for a couple of days. It’ll do you good. Build character. Me? I’m heading over to a large tent, where I can hear an accordion and tinkling champagne glasses, but I’ll be back here on Thursday to conclude this essay.
Au revoir, Marc