Why on earth, my friends ask, would I travel 20 hours on a round-trip plane to Paris, and spend a couple of grand of my own money to attend a weekend event at a suburban Parisian racetrack in lousy condition, with shabby amenities, mediocre food, which is a pain to reach unless you have a car?   The reason is simple; it’s worth it.  If you’re a fan of pre-1940 racing cars and motorcycles, there really isn’t a comparable event, anywhere.  Vintage RevivalMontlhéry has become to my eyes the most authentic vintage motorsports event in the world.  Not as in ‘period correct’ as per the Goodwood Revival, that glorious costume party of 50,000 people, who are not allowed access to the truly interesting stuff, like the pits.  It may be the right crowd, but it’s Disneyland crowded, and shares a bit too much of that park’s gloss for my taste.  I prefer a little grit, because pre-war racing wasn’t a theme park, it was dangerous and poorly-paid stuff, and the participants did it for the love of the sport.

The Four Horsemen confer…

I suppose if that tens of thousands turned up at Montlhéry there would be tiered access as well, but as the crowd is still 4-figures small, with a very large playground, it feels very much in tune with the old Brooklands ad – the right crowd, and no crowding.  VRM is the work of Vincent Chamon, who took on the mantle of the late lamented Jacques Protherat, the grandfather of vintage racing in France, who organized a ‘Vintage Montlhéry’ gathering for decades, before his untimely death 15 years ago.  The track was without such a mixed-vehicle event for ten years, until Chamon decided to do something about it.    This is the third of these bi-annual events, and it just seems to get better.

Amilcars need love too

Unlike most motorsports events, the organization is almost invisible, with a very light touch.  Gents and ladies in white boiler suits direct the action, and their attention is generally focused on getting vehicles onto the track in an orderly fashion.  The glorious chaos of the scene, which actually has a fluid and orderly movement, includes a mix of pedestrians, bicyclists, children, and racing vehicles using the main throughfare/track access, which means there’s a constant mix of revving racers and ordinary folks milling along, with a kind of friendly acceptance of of each group’s needs.  The frustration level looked very low, and I didn’t hear a voiced raised in anger amongst the scrum between pits and track, which considering the high temper of a rider or driver about to do hot laps, is really something. 

A 1921 Leyat Helica aerocar, surely the most remarkable vehicle at the meet, and a pleasure for all to witness! Powered by an Anzani v-twin sidevalve engine. A very special version reached 171km/h (102mph) in 1927 at Montlhéry

Perhaps it’s because there’s nothing to win; the track time is a ‘parade’, which means a few take full advantage of the fantastically historic track’s banking and chicanes, while most are content with a fast but not furious pace.  Some even potter, and know well enough to stay out of the way, clinging to the very bottom of the banking, while the really fast ones sail up the top line, which feels awfully near vertical when you’re on it.  It’s an eerie sensation to gaze at the top of another rider’s helmet as you pass by/over and they’re perpendicular to you.  But it is bumpy on the crumbly old concrete.  Riding the track is truly living the history of the place, as an awful lot of world speed/distance records were set there from its inception in 1924 through the 1960s.  Unlike Brooklands, competing interests (like tanks) never sullied the architectural concrete track banking, and we can still enjoy the magnificence of the place today.  I found it especially poignant to be back at Montlhery after visiting Daytona for the first time last September, during the Cannonball, and being sorely disappointed at the lack of romance about the place.  The center of the Montlhéry track is a forest, with big swaths of green grass, flowers, and shade if you need it.  The grandstands will hold a thousand people at most, all else is trees and sky in the environs; it’s simply gorgeous.  Visit the place before something stupid happens.

A lovely 1933 AJS OHC ‘Trophy’ model

What appeared in 2015?  Racers from collections all across Europe, from as far as the Czech Republic, with plenty from Germany, Holland, Italy, and England.  To date, no motorcycles from US stables have appeared, a situation I’d love to rectify in 2017.  There were American bikes certainly, Indian and Harley and Excelsior board trackers which seemed right at home on the banking – just about the only venue suitable for them actually.  Mostly it’s what you would have seen on European Grand Prix circuits from the early 1900s through 1940, with plenty of ultra-rare machines you’ll see nowhere else, dragged from the depths of family collections far from the public (and the tax man’s) eye.  The photographs here are a reasonable selection, but don’t encompass nearly everything – just the ones I managed in an attractive shot.

Lots of familiar faces, including Alistair Gibson, who built the 1100cc Brough Superior raced at Bonneville recently

Here’s huge thanks to Vincent Chamon and his team for putting on an exceptional and beautifully run weekend event, and for arranging perfect weather too!

Pudding basin helmets are fairly useless in a crash, but look great in photos…
Listed as an Amilcar, this recent creation is mostly new, barring the frame and a c.1918 Hispano-Suiza OHC V8 engine, rated at 200hp in the day, and an impressive piece of kit. Note the cam covers making themselves known…
Plenty of cool stuff at the autojumble – enough to build a ‘special’ actually, with a few frames and engines laying around
The Brooklands Museum boys consider a one-family-from-new Bugatti circulating discreetly around the track
Teen heart-throb! Aboard a 1930 Terrot NSS0
Bugs everywhere! A Type 35 Bugatti lining up for a track session
Another Type 35; so distinctive, and truly effective on the track
The loneliness of the long-distance racer
Between track sessions, a racing Morgan makes a nice backrest
Run don’t walk! A 1902 Clement Gladiator, identical to my own machine, and the great-grandfather of all mopeds
Trés chic in an oily-rag Bugatti Type 35 in French racing blue
A rare OHV Blackburne v-twin engine powering a cyclecar
Engine not required! A few bicycles and pedal-powered cars circulated too; quiet time.
Second oldest machine of the meet; the 1900 DeDion-Bouton trike
What has 4 connecting rods, 3 pistons, 2 carbs and exhausts, and 1 spark plug? A supercharged DKW SS250, that’s what. Sadly not raced.
The furious complexity of a c.1928 Douglas SW5 racer, with the Freddie Dixon-developed ‘still air box’, which also provided 100% more air filtration than other motorcycles of the day.
Gorgeous early Excelsior board track racer in original paint condition
Start them early! Plenty of today’s adult competitors at Montlhéry have attended since childhood
Untouchable! Frank Chatokhine and his ultra-fast ’39 Triumph T100 racer.
More than one person asked me ‘what’s inside that thing?’, to which I answered, ‘time and skill’.
Serious raw fun with a pair of GN racers; the ‘Piglet Special’ and ‘Parker Sport’; with chain drive an no differential, the rear wheels are slid around corners – fantastic to watch. GN mostly build cyclecars, and was the creation of Archie Frazer-Nash and HR Godfrey (HRG). Here’s a period poem about them: ‘Nash and Godfrey hated cogs, built a car with chains and dogs, and it worked, but would it if, they had built it with a diff?’
Period correct attire.
And the ladies too!
The engine room of the 1922 GN ‘Parker Sport’ – about as motorcycle as a car can be, with four separate air-cooled cylinders, 4 TT carbs, and all-chain drive.
An Amilcar after the final ‘touring’ lap of the track, the last event of the day, and hence no helmets
Marc Tudeau, the Montlhéry ambassador for Indian motorcycles, in clashing green!
Callie alternated between two and four wheels
A late 1950s Harley K model in bumblebee paint
Martin Heckscher and his lovely 1932 Velocette KTT Mk2
Oldest machine on the track; the 1897 Léon-Bollee trike, which sounded very healthy, and was bonked around the grounds all Saturday
Ueli Schmid and his 1926 Motosacoche 804 Sport with 1000cc f-head motor
A trio of early Mercedes GP cars were impressive in factory racing white livery
Hot stuff! A special Cameron racing JAP engine for this Morgan, with post-war Speedway heads and enormous GP carbs fed by automotive SU float bowls. Running on methanol, the owner reckoned 110hp
Morgans everywhere! They even had their own racing grid.
If it doesn’t exist anymore, someone like Pavel Malanik might just build it himself. This is the big brother of the NLG-JAP which won the first ever race at Brooklands in 1907…very big 1909 brother at 2714cc! The age of Monsters.
An ex-works AJS K10 racer with a lovely patina, which won my ‘I’d like that please’ award.
Oliver Way, the premier exponent/instigator of the current aero-engine car craze, aboard his first creation, labeled an Austin but considerably larger than the 7, with an airplane motor to boot.
Pushing in after hot track laps
Not just a man’s game, racing.
I caught neither the lady’s name, nor her machine info, although it appears to be a Magnat-Debon
A lovely Salmson, and the forest at the heart of the speed bowl
A monoposto racer with a motorcycle engine on the side; the Schashes cyclecar of 1927
Mosquito abatement, or something
Not the Tatra you were thinking of…a 1925 flat twin Model T11 Rennwagen
A very patinated c.1931 Terrot-JAP
Tim Gunn explains a 1919 Grafton cyclecar only needs one tool.
The lovely Paval Malanik re-creation of the 1909 Torpedo fan-4 with 1640cc and F-head configuration
From the Brooklands Museum; a c.1934 Triumph-JAP special
Goosebumps; the final Bugatti GP racer, the 1934 Type 59 with DOHC straight-8 engine and ‘piano wire’ wheels.
A little maintenance of the Brooklands Museum Velo KSS racer
The right crowd…and no crowding