Early morning at Le Mans, pre-race day. The circuit is deserted. The ribbon of tarmac coursing between the empty grandstands is bathed in soft light, while the dull concrete wall leading up to the Dunlop Curves looks menacing. You almost expect to see a grey Porsche 911 hove into view as Steve McQueen checks out the lie of the land before climbing into his 917 for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
On July 11-13, a month after the 24 Hours, it is the turn of the Le Mans Classic. The fourth running of this great historic race meeting has been eagerly anticipated by racing drivers from all over Europe, Britain, America and other far-flung corners of the globe. As motorhomes and trailers shuttling racing cars file into the La Sarthe circuit, things begin to come to life and the smell of strong coffee and Gauloise cigarettes soon permeates the air.
The Le Mans Classic is run every alternate year, organized by that intrepid duo Patrick and Sylvian Peter and their team. This year there are six grids or plateaux, each consisting of 66 cars, with plenty waiting in reserve. The cars range in age from 1923 to 1979, and guess which of the 396 cars is being made ready for Octane. Yep, the 1923 one. Definitely the oldest and probably the slowest of this vast field.
Ford France generously extended an invitation to drive one of its rare vintage cars at this fabulous event, and of course there is no way anyone in their right mind would turn down such an offer. So days have been spent swaggering around talking about The Race at Le Mans, the ‘works’ entry, the daunting prospect of going flat down the Mulsanne straight, and what the best lines are through the very technical Porsche curves. Also, a lot of cunning has been deployed to avoid actually mentioning what the racing car in question is. Because, when I do, people respond with a ‘What?!’ and then start laughing. Not very Steve McQueen at all.
Yes, it is a Ford Model T. But hold the sniggering because, as you can see in the pictures, it is not a Laurel and Hardy ‘Tin Lizzy’, but the rather more purposeful 1923 Ford Montier Special in proper racing roadster guise, finished in French Racing Bleu and wearing number 19, just as the Montier Special did back in ’23.
The idea of actually racing this contraption is no laughing matter.
As you probably know, a Ford Model T is not operated like, er, normal cars. This example has four foot pedals, a hand throttle on the steering wheel, two levers that have to be pushed and pulled and the smallest of drum brakes, fitted only to the spindly rear wheels.
Friday morning is for signing-on and scrutineering as the Ford France team meets at its hospitality suit overlooking the start/finish line. The air-conditioned suite is piled high with a delicious breakfast and the first thing to do is eat. The French are so civilized.
The Model T is to be raced by journalists, Pascal Martin and Etienne Bruet, and me. At this point, we’re handed beautiful leather holdalls containing a full set of Stand 21 racewear. This includes a custom-painted blue full-face helmet, Le Mans liveried race suit, gloves and fireproof boots and underwear. Merci very much indeed.
Signing-on is much like being in the army: hurry up and wait. I bump into Ray Jones, over from Sydney in his lusty Chrysler 75, the car we raced together at the Le Mans Classic four years ago. I tell him I’m driving the Ford T and he mutters, ‘Good on yer, mate!’
So, while we’re waiting, here’s the background. This is the 100th Anniversary of the Ford Model T in France, hence the race entry. The first race at Le Mans, the 24 Hours Endurance Grand Prix Rudge-Whitworth Cup, as it was then known, was run in 1923 and Charles Montier entered his Special. There was no mention of Ford at the time, because the cars were entered under the name of the constructor.
Young motor dealer Montier modified the T’s cylinder head, camshaft, brakes and gearbox. As well as that, he lowered the chassis to improve its handling. Finishing 14th out of a field of 33 on the then-17.262km circuit was a credible result.
Ford France man Jean-Pierre Lair unearthed this particular Ford Montier after months of searching, and it’s in correct endurance race configuration with open four-seater body, known as a Gaillon. The name is derived from a Normandy coast race that Charles Montier entered, and there’s speculation that this could be the original Le Mans car, because of its rare configuration and there’s original Ford France blue paintwork in various crevices. What a romantic notion.
Finally, all the paperwork is cleared and we make our way to Plateau 1 behind the grandstand. There, the old Montier is being scruntineered by an amiable fellow who is happy to see it has no seatbelts. That’s because it has no roll bar. In the pits, the little Special is attracting a huge amount of attention, maybe because Jean-Pierre and the other Jean-Pierres are revving it up with the rear wheels off the ground. Hope the chock holds, otherwise there will be a blue flash across the pit lane. Apparently they don’t do Elf ’n’ Safety in France.
The Le Mans Classic is not a 24-hour race. Rather, the drivers get three 43-minute races: one in the afternoon after the 4pm start, one late that night and one the next day. Things are made even more difficult as the Ford France team retires to the hospitality suite for luncheon, with bottles of wine winking at the drivers. Temptation!
After a long lunch, it’s time for practice. Jean-Pierre, the chief mechanic, is an elderly fellow but full of French zeal. He looks like Captain Birdseye on speed. He grabs me and sits me in the passenger seat and begins a 100mph explanation of how to drive the thing, all in French. There we are, static in the pits, revving the engine flat out. Oh, I do hope that chock is holding.
Come my practice, Jean-Pierre Birdseye is looking a little nervous, but I manage to get the Montier out onto the vast circuit, do the climb up the start/finish straight and over the hill and through the Dunlop Curves. Once through the chicane the Ford’s two-speed rear axle goes into top and the throttle goes down to the stop, only lifting for the tight Arnage corner. Coming past the pit wall the Ford France team is jumping for joy. The Montier has made one lap. Sacre Bleu!
Unfortunately that is the only lap, as it splutters to a halt on the Mulsanne straight. There a gang of marshals swings into action and gets the Ford safely behind the barriers. Philippe Van Hee and his team come to Le Mans at their own expense and look after all the racers the whole weekend, sleeping in tents in a field. I was immediately given a bottle of mineral water and offered a warm coat, a cup of coffee or something a little stronger. What a lovely group of people.
The Ford makes it back to the pits on a lorry and the Jean-Pierres go into overdrive, half stripping the engine.
Come race day, it is pure theatre. Our plateau is the first off at the 4pm start, with the traditional run across the track. Pascal is up first. The real rolling start happens at the back of the circuit and the Montier splutters past the pits and dies. Poor old Jean-Pierre looks heartbroken. Despite my waiting up until the 1am race, the car cannot be made to run properly so I go and crash out. All very disappointing.
Sunday morning is bright and beautiful, and the threatening rain never materializes. The Jean-Pierres have been working on the Montier Special all night and as we get to the pre-grid I can sense them willing the old car on. My resolve stiffens and I am determined to do this race.
The cars are released! The Montier roars up the start/finish line and over the brow. Into top, then the high ratio, the throttle remains nailed around every corner. Hey, what’s this? A little BNC comes into view and the Montier claws pass. An overtaking maneuver! Past the pit lane once again and the Jean-Pierres are jumping like Masi warriors.
Through Tertre Rouge, the Montier begins gaining on a Delage and finally squeezes past into the first Mulsanne chicane. By the next lap, the Ford France pit crew is doing somersaults and this is turning out to be a proper race. Flat out at Le Mans and holding it through the corners is one of life’s all-time great experiences, one beaten only by the sight of old Jean-Pierre when I brought the car into the pits for the driver change. As the tears streamed down his face and into his beard, I have never seen a man so completely happy!
Salut, Jean-Pierre, your vintage Ford Montier Special made it to the end at Le Mans, 85 years after its first finish.