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Douglas blows away competition at leMans

Way back in 1973, my dear old friend Len Cole the doyen of Duggie artists suggested to me that we should take a trip to France as he had been negotiating an entry for a new event that the Auto Club De L’Ouest hoped to establish at the venue of Le Mans.

When “Granny” Picked Up Her Skirts and Ran

Written by Phil Manzano - 1998 : First published in NCR Magazine.

With thanks to Doug Kephart who kindly found and sent us the article.

Len Cole was always keen to promote our particular branch of sport and although pre-war sprints had been popular in France post war this area of sport had disappeared, so this proposed event held the promise of re·starting the game.

So it was that in May of ‘73 we took to the road in a borrowed Trannie and the long road down and across to France to Le Mans. Bitterly cold it was slush and half melted snow for the initial miles but as we drove further south the weather improved and on arrival at Le Mans it was spring like. We found our way to a wonderful paddock surrounded with pine trees and the ground was quite sandy, a welcome change to the more usual home paddocks of mud and if lucky, concrete. We parked up alongside an elderly Frenchman and his son who had in their bay a very neat little Cisitalia which when fired up sounded like Great Aunt Agatha’s canvas stays being ripped off.

"If you think that I am going to ****** up a perfectly good engine by using a pair of worn out and *#*#*#* out old carbs you’ve got another think coming” Len Cole

We found our way to the control office of the track where we met up with the man who had dreamt up the whole exercise, L’Coumte Bernard De Lassee. Count or not, he proved to be one of the finest Gentlemen that I have ever met, so enthusiastic for sport and with a sense of humour second to none. Above all there was not the slightest hint of pomposity, just an overwhelming friendliness, he was quite overjoyed that we had turned up for it soon showed that he had a great enthusiasm for our marque, he loved Duggies!

Dr Joe on his machine with Phil Manzano and Len Cole (Brighton Speed Trials)

The event itself was a mixture of sub events, a Concours, circuit time trials and a 400 metres sprint which (give a few yards) is a standing quarter. Prior to the actual entry they had what was called "Le Verilication", this to establish that the runners machines were what they purported to be, all these events carried points which when finally collected would find the overall winner of Le Coupe De L’Age D’Or.

We were only interested in the sprint but mistakenly believing that the verification was scrutineering we put the bike in, and this led to dear old Len having a bit of a turn.

While we waited in the queue a Brit appeared and proceeded to look the bike over with a beady eye, never a good morning nor nowt, suddenly addressing nobody in particular he went into a speech delivered in an accent capable of cutting a well baked pie crust that he was "Absolutely horrified, my God it has got concentric carb’s fitted" he declared and began to witter on that it was disgusting to use these on such a bike. I watched Len’s neck for it was a perfect gauge of his temper, it went redder and redder, I stood back awaiting the explosion and explode he did, "If you think that I am going to ****** up a perfectly good engine by using a pair of worn out and *#*#*#* out old carbs you’ve got another think coming”.

Our Brit friend shrivelled and slunk off, never to be seen again over that weekend. Len had never entered the bike as pure vintage, only as P.V.T. or in the open comp classes, for the gearbox alone was enough to prevent it being true vintage and what Len could not stand was folk who assumed that they had an authoritative knowledge and would be stuffily pedantic, this was the best possible way to rile him up, the inference of him cheating would really pull the pin out.

"I had a sip and strewth was it pungent. I suggested we run the bike on it! and that really broke the ice and all was well once more". Phil Manzano

Len cooled off but said "stuff this, back to the paddock? I was dismayed for if as we had mistakenly thought, not passed scrutineering, had we made this long journey for nothing? A few discreet enquiries showed us that all we had forfeited were the points to be gained from this verification section, so all was well. Upon our return the Frenchman who had heard of the altercation produced a bottle and offered Len a sup of what the Frenchman called “Mon personnel Wheeesky”. I had a sip and strewth was it pungent. I suggested we run the bike on it! and that really broke the ice and all was well once more.

We walked down to the track and took a look at the course, the course as laid out started back at the entry of the pits of the smaller ”‘Bugatti" circuit, flat for the first fifty yards or so and then steadily climbed to the finish situated right under the famous Dunlop Bridge then swinging off right and down to the first right hairpin, I was horrified, this meant that if I had the bike on full hole at the finish I would never get her round that bend, the only way would be to throw the hook out some distance before the finish line.

I told Len that it would be suicide to try for a good time and it could end in tears. Len and I had spent years laying out sprint courses and to be blunt this course was entirely unsuitable for a flat out sprint, particularly in that the start was well up the straight bend back down from the pit lane!

The Count saw us discussing quite heatedly and twigged something was up and came over to us and enquired as to the problem. I put the problem to the Count who expressed the view that no one had ever had a problem before with this course, I enquired what was the best time over it, 17... something was the answer. I told the Count that I was likely to be at a ton plus at the bridge and that it was too dodgy, and suggested that why not draw the start line back to the bottom bend exit?

To his credit the Count took the suggestion and promptly got his timekeepers to relay the course. Len who had been very quiet all through this discussion said to me “you ain’t half upset the applecart, look at their faces" disgruntled wasn’t an adequate description, the entente cordial was disappearing fast. Mutters of "Perfidious Albion" were heard and black looks aplenty.

We slipped away.

The Event

The competition was in effect a pure KO, one bikes V bikes, V cars of all types, ranging from sports to full GP. As we were the visitors we were asked to make the first run. I fired up the bike after a slight push from the Boss and the old girl fired into life, the crackle woke the crowd up and smiles became the order of the day, nothing like a Duggie firing up is there?

I lined up on the line and then to my amazement the starter brandishing a green flag appeared, now, I had not had a flag start for years and quickly thought back to the old dictum “Don’t watch the flag, watch the starters belly button and as soon as it twitches drop the hammer, I did and the old girl flew, she rowed her rockers up the course never missing a beat, we hit the finish and threw the hook out, turned and slowly ran back to the start, and another contretemps ensued, to avoid running back on the course itself I ran down to what would normally be the exit from the pit lane only to be confronted by a Gendarme no less, blowing his whistle furiously and much waving of arms, I thought Oh **** this and half clutched, rattled the throttle, the Gendarme confronted by an angry Duggie gave it best and jumped for it and so we ran down through the pit lane, all I could see out of the window were waving arms hearing shouts and whistles and thought to myself, oh well, ‘ere we go again.

I returned to the start to Len, popped the window open and Len bent down and said “strewth, you haven't half put the pussy in the pigeons” I suddenly espied the Count running towards us and thought oh well we are really for it now, the Count was brandishing a bloody great Tricolour furled up and I ducked expecting a good thumping, thanking my luck for leaving my lid on I tried to avoid his lordship, but to no avail, he lifted me up off the bike and planted two thundering great kisses on both sides of my lid, he was jumping up and down with excitement.

Finally believing it safe I pulled off the helmet and it was grins all round, even from the previously very disgruntled timekeeping crew, up in the stands which were packed.

“Don’t watch the flag, watch the starters belly button and as soon as it twitches, drop the hammer”

The spectators were waving and shouting “Encore Encore”. Dear old Len had a grin from ear to ear “What’s up?" Quoth I, well, the old course record was 17 something and you have just gone up in 12.8l said Len. The Count insisted that I take another crack straight away, Len gave the OK and I lined up again. This time the Count took over and shoved the starter out of the way and brandished not the green flag but the Tricolour de France which I thought to be an honour, and so did Len, he was a very very happy man that day. During the course of that weekend the old bike took on no less than 127 other bikes and cars and came out on top in every run with no other work than oil draining, a couple of plug changes and resetting of tappets and chains which says something for a Duggie.

Regretfully we, having got an early return booking could not stay over for the prize giving and so making our apologies we set off for home but only after making the firm promise that we would be back the next year. Some time after the event we received a copy of Moto Revue the French bike mag published by the late and lamented Serge Pollozi, an enthusiast if ever there was one, wherein was an article about our trip to Le Mans. Dear old Doctor Joe Bayley whose bike it was after all did a translation for us and very complimentary it was too, best of all the article was entitled “A Grandmother who puffs out horse power" from that day on the bike was always called “Grandma" a very fitting title for a grand old lady. We did return to Le Mans the next year and again the following year after that, for that third year we went over in company with the late Billy Dent and the Ken Halls as a team which really stood our French friends upon their ears of that later…

Douglas at Le Mans 1974

Following our trip to Le Mans the previous year, as promised we took the trip over again eagerly looking forward to meeting up with all our friends once again enthusiasts all and what better greeting could we have had when our pit neighbour with the raucous Cisitalia rushed over to us when we arrived to assure us that he had reserved a place for us next to him. Installed the bottle of "Wheeesky" duly appeared and that was Len set up for the weekend, very much frowned upon nowadays I have to admit that the "wheesky" was a real reviver after the long haul in the Trannie, we even came to enjoy the Cisitalia having Great Aunt Aggie’s stays ripped off regularly.

“He sidled up to me and in best wide boy style whispered from the corner of this mouth and in a pure "Clouseau” accent “I wish to shallenge you wis mon Vancent"...

To avoid the problems of the previous year when we were ignorant of the ropes, the Dear old Count had provided a most delightful young French lady, Christine, to be our mentor, translator and general helpmate for the weekend, which smoothed our paths extremely well. The programme was as for the previous year, and what a welcome we received, we had tried at the last “Do" to advise and guide our fellow competitors how to improve their technique, how to perhaps better their machines performances and particularly how to step up their gear changes etc. and it soon became very obvious they had learned from us for their performances were much improved.

...Dear old Len, intent on Le Entente as usual, whispered back from the corner of his mouth we aren’t here to mess about so #### off"

We did experience one little happening which became quite amusing. Many of the car competitors ran good old fashioned grudge races, but for some reason the bikes did not, however, there was one character who decided that honour could not be satisfied unless he could run a best of three off challenges with us, his bike? a Vinnie Black Shadow! What was comical was that he sidled up to me and in best wide boy style whispered from the corner of this mouth and in a pure "Clouseau” accent “I wish to shallenge you wis mon Vancent".

Dear old Len, intent on Le Entente as usual, whispered back from the corner of his mouth “#### off we aren’t here to mess about so #### off".

This guy slid away, but within minutes was back again with the same request and got the same answer. This went on all through the Saturday until finally I said to Len that the only way to put a stop to these muttered entreaties of challenge was to let him have a bash and try to blow him off, rather grumpily Len finally gave in. So the best of three challenges was set up, the starters belly twitched and I was off, up at the finish I sat up, looked round and then the Vinnie rumbled past with matey snarling something very rude I am sure at me, as the Vee twin disappeared down the hill to the hairpin, he didn’t turn up at the start and we never ever saw him again - strange?

Again over the weekend, "Granny" came up trumps and never missed a beat.

In a sprint it’s getting there that counts and over a short distance power to weight ratio is everything

That year we took on over a mixed bag of 147 runners, one was really memorable they wheeled out a whopping great G.P. Lago Talbot, probably with a top speed way out in front of Granny’s but in a sprint it’s getting there that counts and over a short distance power to weight ratio is everything, talking of which reminds me that if ever I am going to have a go at our ‘Enery I am going to have some serious thoughts about ridding myself of some avoirdupois!

To return to the tale, the Lago grumbled up to the start line, a big grin from its driver directed to me and it was off again, two thirds up I took a quick squint to the rear, ‘Ullo! no Lago Talbot, yes there he was, still down at the start, I knocked it off and turned Granny round and back slowly to the start, "What’s up?" I enquired. "Ah" came the reply “I messed up my gears". "OK" I replied, "let’s have another go”. The French just could not quite believe this that one would turn round when the other failed and then offer another start. Len whispered in my ear that I was a crafty **** because this had tickled the French no end, anyway we had another bash and the old Lago was well and truly trounced. I returned back down to the start area again and a little later the Lago trundled around the corner having made its way home via the full Bugatti circuit, oh dear!. There was water pouring out of every hole, plus puffs of steam, the owner? He jumped out and shook me violently by the hand and swept aside my concerns for what looked like the end of a lovely old racing car. What sportsmanship!

Next out was a very delicious French lady driving an open Ferrari, off we went and Granny came out tops yet again, thus putting paid to any chances in other areas.

The best of the "Do” at Le Mans was the social gathering on the Saturday night.

Len a grand old trencherman in his own right was in his element, we were invited as special guests of the Auto Club De L’Ouest and didn’t they do us proud, loads and loads of fun fuelled by wine aplenty, the French at their best, get away from the flesh pots in France and they do know how to live, it was a very happy and benign Len that I tucked into bed that night.

ln 1975 we received an invitation to provide a demonstration to keep the crowd happy prior to the start of that years B’ol D’or 24 hour race

The next day dawned and before long it was out on the sprint track again, I just lost count of the runs but Len just kept putting the fuel in and the old girl ran and ran beating all comers still, and then it was off to the prize giving which we had had to give a miss to the previous year. This prize giving was held in the main track restaurant where a magnificent buffet had been laid on, many were the speeches, all in rapid French, which had me entirely lost in seconds and then I was called up and presented with the Andre Morell trophy, a large lump of silverware plus a huge huge bouquet of flowers - not quite me I’m afraid.

I no sooner had expressed my thanks than it was announced that I had also the Moto Revue Cup presented by Serge Polozzie plus yet another great bouquet! I retreated in some confusion looking like a refugee from Covent Garden. Christine, our go - between, had accompanied us and I thought that she should have the flowers and so I in turn presented them to that delightful young lady, the audience hit the roof, I did also get a kiss on both cheeks from the lovely and gracious Christine and the roof went up with another great cheer.

Len beaming all over his old chops then said that I was a very very crafty old B*****er for it was for sure that the French thought that the sun shone out of me whatsit, oh well, as they say over there ‘toujour le politess’.

Word of wisdom, from the late Len Cole

So the second year ended at Le Mans, a visit to be treasured in memory.

ln 1975 we received yet another invitation not for the L’Age D’Or event but to provide a demonstration event to keep the crowd happy for a couple of hours prior to the start of that years B’ol D’or 24 hour race.

We decided that we would form up a team of three and so we attended in company with Billy Dent and Ken Halls 500cc and 750ccs respectively. The Track Club put up some pretty hot stuff against us, principally a Martini Renault racing car which try as I might I could not get the legs off, over the last hundred yards it didn’t half shift and it certainly made the day for the French, for at last they had beaten Le Douglas. We all had a go at it, but as said it was one very quick car but we still knocked over everything else put up. Due to the preparations for the forthcoming 24 hour do we were unable to use the pit road to return and so had perforce to run a whole lap of the Bugatti circuit to return to the start area and I then committed the ultimate sin in Len’s eyes for I broke an unwritten rule:

"Never drive a Duggie hard on one pot". Len Cole

Yup! I did in the crank and that put me out, leaving both Billy and Ken to carry the flag. Fortunately Len forgave me and all was well as we watched the 500 and 750 keep the flag flying, a good time was had by all needless to say.

‘cries of ici Grandmere were heard as we pushed her over the paddock’

They say that the best come last, well for all of us the best was smack at the beginning when we first arrived. The old Trannie had been pressed into service yet again and stuffed with three bikes, spares, cans and four bods was well and truly loaded, on reaching the paddock which was packed solid we extracted Granny first and wheeled her to our allotted spacer

Due I believe to the write ups in Serges’ journal, Moto revue, we were pounced upon by spectators armed with cameras, cries of ici Grandmere were heard as we pushed her over the paddock, we left her with the usual bar stuffed through the lower front lugs and returned to fetch the other two bikes, as we approached the spot where we had left Granny, our way was blocked by a very tall and heavily bearded Frenchman who was quite put out when we asked to make way. He was trying to get a photo over the shoulders of those in front of him and now he was being asked to shift over he turned quite angry, suddenly his mouth opened and nearly fell out of his whiskers and in sheer amazement he uttered an immortal phrase "MERDE! TROIS DOUGLAS!!”, if nothing else, I shall remember that to my last breath for it said it all.

In memory of Len Cole, Serge Polozzi and Le Compte Bernard De Lassee (Bill Dent and Phil Manzano - Ed)

Report by Phil Manzano

Phil Manzano, Bill (Billy) Dent 500cc Douglas and  Ken Halls 750cc Douglas

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