Peter Ross: Monte Carlo or bust

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From Glasgow to Monaco, the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique is a test of endurance over speed, with the focus more on getting to the end in one piece than winning

WE are driving, Ralph Forbes and I, through the countryside around ­Galashiels, roaring along the B710 in his 1977 Fiat 128. What we see through the windscreen are green fields, drystane dykes and the fast brown waters of the Tweed. But in our heads, in our hearts, we’re high in the French Alps.

Douglas Anderson in his Triumph Herald, which he drove to Monte Carlo twice. Picture: Greg Macvean

Douglas Anderson in his Triumph Herald, which he drove to Monte Carlo twice. Picture: Greg Macvean

“Imagine the roads all white,” says Ralph, full of glee, “snow and ice everywhere, and the car sliding round the corners. Now imagine that for 3,600 miles over the worst roads you can find. That’s when you really know you’re ­driving.”

Ralph Forbes is 73, owns a garage and is an amateur rally driver. He knows the back roads of rural France as well as the B-roads of the Scottish Borders. Since 1998, he has competed a dozen times in the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique – the road race which, at 2pm on Saturday January 26, will start from the People’s Palace in dreich old Glasgow and ­conclude the following Friday in sultry Monaco.

“It’s a proper boy racer rally,” says Ralph, one of those septuagenarians who wears his years as lightly as Salome wore veils. “It’s a mad race between the French, Italian and Germans. It’s road rage for a week.”

The event is a homage to the original Monte Carlo Rally, which first took place in 1911; known with fond insouciance among its daring participants and dazzled followers as “the Monte”, it is remembered as a hugely glamorous spectacle which set off from outside the Royal Scottish Automobile Club on Glasgow’s Blythswood Square until 1973. The 350 or so cars taking part in the Rallye Historique all date from this more characterful and alluring era of motoring – the rules specify models built between 1955 and 1980 – and their very names have a staccato futurist poetry that sometimes belies their rather humdrum appearance.

Ralph Forbes gets under the bonnet. Photograph: Phil Wilkinson

Ralph Forbes gets under the bonnet. Photograph: Phil Wilkinson

Take, for instance, the Gaz Volga, Zastava Skala and Moskvich Carat, any one of which would make a good pen-name for a dissident author, or those three graces manufactured by Lancia – the Flavia, Fulvia and Aurelia.

Ralph Forbes, for his part, is partial to his Fiat 128, which he bought for £700 from a bloke in Forres, and which looks – with its bright red paint, and blue and white racing stripes – like a wee, boxy version of the General Lee. One imagines it being pursued through Hazzard County by Rosco P Coltrane in a Hillman Imp. Jings, though, it goes like the clappers, and Hielan’ coos pass in a ginger blur as we speed towards Clovenfords.

“Bumpy old thing,” says Ralph fondly, crammed into his bucket seat, the gear knob a matchstick in his big fist. The engine noise is a loud and steady growl which gives the impression that we’re going faster than we are. You don’t feel insulated from the road like you do in a modern car. Ralph loves the sound of motor engines. Once, away up in the Alps, away up in the mist, he heard a vehicle approaching, and, assuming from the evident power of its engine that it must be the fastest car in the rally, looked out with some interest for it to overtake. “And here,” he says, “it was a little Citroën van delivering wine.”

Those participating in the Rallye Historique have the choice of starting from one of five departure points – Glasgow, Copenhagen, Rheims, Barcelona or Monte Carlo. Glasgow was reinstalled as a start city two years ago, following negotiations by Douglas Anderson, secretary of the Caledonian Classic and Historic Motorsport Club. Growing up in Dundee in the 1950s, Anderson had never made it to Blythswood Square, making do instead with the pulse-quickening flicker of Pathé news footage; the return of the race to Scotland is the fulfilment of a boyhood dream. For him, like so many others, the Monte is not so much about winning as the experience of trying to get to the end in one piece. It is about the alpine sublime, the beauty and terror of those mountain roads, the feeling of hurtling down from the snowy heights and seeing the blue Mediterranean laid out like a welcome mat.

“It can be dangerous, and some people do go off the road,” says Anderson. “There’s never usually fatalities, though last year the Parc Fermé at the end was littered with smashed cars.” It has been known for excitable Norwegians and Italians to ram each other out the way.

Each car has a crew of at least two – driver and navigator. It is expected that around 40 vehicles will leave from Glasgow, including teams from Scotland, Australia, the Czech Republic and France. Ralph Forbes is taking a break from competing this year, choosing instead to travel the roads he knows so well in a support vehicle; he will enter again in 2014, most likely driving one of his three Lancia Fulvias which he will spend all year preparing.

Victory in the rally is achieved by keeping as close to possible to an average speed set by the organisers. This may be little more than 30mph, but maintaining that average all the way, while dealing with hairpin bends, ice-slick roads, sheer drops, temperamental old cars, temperamental old navigators, full bladders, empty stomachs and white vans full of vin blanc is a chancy undertaking. Sometimes you will be crawling; sometimes going flat-out. The difference between victory and defeat can come down to fractions of a second.

The race isn’t really about speed. It’s about endurance. Arriving in France by ferry, the first challenge is to drive for around two days and a night, hardly stopping, from Calais via Reims to Valence. You have to get by on very little sleep. “I’ve seen them taking cocaine in this rally,” says Ralph. “I wouldn’t even take Red Bull.” At the end of one rally, he was so exhausted, his blood sugar levels so low, that he keeled over in the main square, had an out-of-body experience and was carted off to the Princess Grace hospital. These days he keeps biscuits handy and makes good use of his only words in French: “croque monsieur”.

Any warm illusions I may have had about one day taking part in the Monte myself are shattered when I get lost driving to the Uddingston home of Tommy Bryce, a veteran of the Monte Carlo Rally of 1954. Tommy is 83 now, but looks well on it; these old petrolheads must have motor oil instead of blood.

Back in the Fifties, Tommy was working as a mechanic for Herbert Feldman – “a Del Boy,” he recalls, “a shark” – who ran a garage in Glasgow called Pegasus Motors. Feldman wanted to compete in the Monte, but didn’t have the money. Luckily, he did have a rich uncle, Joe Strang, the Glasgow jeweller, who fancied a jaunt to Monaco, but didn’t fancy driving. So, with Uncle Joe dozing in the back, and Feldman and Tommy taking turns to drive, they made their way through France in a beautiful Riley saloon, a Pegasus hood ornament pointing the way.

They left Glasgow on 18 January, a cold Monday. Tommy remembers the thousands of people crowding Blythswood Square, throwing chocolate and ­oranges into the car, everyone wanting to shake his hand and wish him the best. “The place was jumping,” he says. “But I remember one of the other cars got smashed just shortly after it left. A tram car in Argyle Street wrote it off.”

Memories upon memories. Memories like rubber tread scorched on to his brain. Paris, he says, was unbelievable. A mad dash. Driving at more than 50mph with a police escort, gendarmes hitting buses with truncheons to keep them back from junctions. Then in the countryside, villagers would sometimes block the route, attempting to herd off the road any car that wasn’t a Citroën. “If you were French, you were all right, they’d let you through. I remember seeing these Sunbeam Talbots and Christ knows what all lying in the fields.”

He remembers, too, driving miles down the Z-bends of the fearsome Col de Turini mountain pass with his brakes worn out. “I spun a few times right enough,” he says, “but I never damaged the car.” You don’t feel fear at the time. Too much adrenalin and focus. It’s only afterwards that it hits you.

Tommy is the only surviving member of the three-man crew. He hands me a black and white photograph which shows him as a young man, standing next to the ­Riley at the Quai Albert while seemingly dressed for the ­Glasgow winter in a zip-up cardy with a lion rampant patch sewn on to it. He has just finished the race and is badly in need of champagne. He did have more photos from Monte Carlo, but his mother ripped them up when he got home and she saw he’d been celebrating with young ­women in the nightclubs and ­casinos.

He never drove in the Monte again. He couldn’t afford it, and reckons it would cost about £30,000 to do it now. “An awfy lot of money to go for a hurl in a ­motor.” So one of his prize possessions is the red and white rally plate from the front of the car. He might get a good price for that, but he’d never sell it. In fact, he has tried in recent years to find and buy the Riley he drove way back then.

Tommy Bryce was a young man in 1954. He has lived a life since then. Loved and lost. Been a husband and ­father. You get the feeling, though, that those few days behind the wheel, with the sun on his face and Uncle Joe at his back, were among the greatest and most intense of his life.

“Oh aye,” he says. “It was something else.” «

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss