The rozzer at the road-block knows. He knows…
This feature was first published in MOTOR magazine's February 2009 issue.
And all the Knights of The Realm, Captains of Industry, Pillars of Society and Legends of Sport loping past him in lovely brutocars at a butter-wouldn’t-melt pace aren’t fooling him for one moment. Because the howls from the hills behind him say that we should all be locked up just for just thinking of what we’re all about to do. But he simply smiles and waves us through.
Welcome to Classic Adelaide...
Day One: Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Estate
In truth, he knows much more about it than I do. But, with a bunch of squirty Mercs to examine and four days in wine country to do it, a man would be a damn fool not to start vigorously investigating. And, in doing so, I quickly learn that the Classic Adelaide is an opportunity to test yourself and, with any luck, someone else’s car in a series of closed-road stages over some of the most challenging roads in all the land.
Competing for class honours or just simply running untimed for your own satisfaction is optional. Being bored, clearly, is not.
This is revealed after one look at the entry lists. From brass-age to brand-new, virtually every drool-job that ever adorned a school boy’s exercise book is here: Astons, Alfas, Lambos, Lotii, Porsches, Panteras, HOs and Healeys. Approximately two dozen Ferraris alone raise the communal pulse, a singularly lovely red E-Type raises mine, and all are pumped to run for glory in the days ahead.
Of course, such indulgence requires responsibility. Accordingly, entrants are versed in essential first-aid skills, viz ”if it’s not breathing blow in it, if it’s bleeding stick a finger in” and, thus ready for any contingency, hundreds of cars, drivers and navigators assemble in central Adelaide for the first morning’s launch.
As part of the Mercedes-Benz entry – with fellow drivers Sir Jack Brabham and Vern Schuppan, hem hem – I feel obliged to maintain a modicum of dignity, in public at least, and am mercifully assisted by familiarity with the C63 AMG from last month’s PCOTY adventure.
In wagon form, it’s my first day’s ride, and any thought that the 13-second rush of the sedan might’ve been compromised disappears Very Bloody Quickly. Which makes the navigating services of Mercedes’ Peter Fadeyev particularly reassuring.
The unfamiliar public roads are one thing, but when closed off and unrestricted as competitive stages, they instantly convert from scenic tourist drives to terrifying switch-backed, horror drop-off rollercoaster rides and any clue as to where the blacktop’s headed next is deeply appreciated.
This comes from Fadeyev who, with astonishing PR control, avoids bracing his feet against the fascia and crying out to his maker. Instead, he imparts what guidance he can gain from the map and, where appropriate, updates me on the scenery that my total intensity precludes seeing.
“The lake beside us now is very lovely HAIRPIN RIGHT!!! very lovely indeed.”
As suddenly as they begin, each stage ends and, beautifully controlled by an army of helpful volunteers, we revert to road-mode, remembering to stay left and drive at civil speed to the next.
By mid morning in the Hermitage hill country, having taken tea with the ladies of Gumeracha, a pattern is becoming clear. The roads pass through a very Tuscan landscape until each new stage emerges, distinguished by the aforementioned mountie, the yellow-jacketed saints that Run Things and, now aware of what lies ahead, a growing number of helmeted lads leaking in the nearby vegetation.
But all tension fades with the comfort of lunch at Peter Lehmann’s Tanunda vineyard, and even declining the wine list is not so great a penalty when you can wander well-fed between the astonishing rows of cars ticking away on the grass, all haze and history, and, inspired by the atmosphere, twitch to be sent back on the road.
With growing familiarity, though, comes another responsibility. Specifically, I am reminded by my hosts to implant some memory of Mercedes in those who’ve made the effort to come out and watch.
Okay, it takes some research to fully disarm all goodness on the monster-motored little Merc, but by late afternoon, as a respectful crowd surrounds the Checker Hill stage, we finally switch ESP off and turn ‘Summernats mode’ On and, letting the whole M3-walloping 336kW explode on an uphill start completely unrestrained, I feel my femininity fade.
It’s two days later as I write this, and the scene should have cleared by now. But it will remain, I believe, in memory.
Day Two: Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG
Imagine walking into a carpark, seeing a full-bully SL63 AMG sitting there, thinking “That thing’s got my name written all over it” and then finding that, sure enough, it has. Some days are diamonds.
Sadly, though, I can’t share this good fortune with Mr Fadeyev, who’s apparently been called away by something very compelling and Photographer Watkins is accordingly ushered into the navigator’s chair, strangely drained of all colour. Never mind, this’ll fix him up.
Having been breath-tested – to everyone’s terror – and launched for communal delight in peak hour, the circus heads into the McLaren Vale region, being gaily greeted all along the route by the welcoming locals. But that’s only because we’re at the pointy end of the field.
By the time the 200th car bellows through they’ll be throwing fruit at it but, hush, let’s not spoil the moment.
The competitive stages are no less scary, however, because Watkins reads a map about as well as I would at this pace, but I’m learning that 70 spectators clumped together roadside in deck chairs is a Cliff Alert and, accordingly, we survive to pass through wee villages with the wee children being brought out to wave as we strangle past at a mandated 25km/h (and try that after a good speed).
On the upside, by morning recess we’re parked in a rural schoolground in which the mothers have slaughtered whatever locally abounds and offer it au bun for the benefit of the school, and life is good again.
And it gets even better when night falls and the city surrenders a major thoroughfare to the enterprise, Adelaide becoming the Great-Food-God-Car capital of the universe. And who expected that?
Day Three: Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG & 280SL
By now I’m feeling comfortable with the task to hand and just as well; the irrepressible Mick Doohan has joined our team and one doesn’t wish to be shamed. Sadly, news of my resolve does nothing to deter Watkins from pursuing the Distant Landscape Shots that he swears the story demands, and only after a disturbingly long wait do my hosts produce a new navigator; an overseas corporate visitor, it seems, of no immediate value to the local operation.
But Geoff Day has a sound knowledge of the product, particularly the various controls that lurk on and around the steering wheel, and with the uncommon combination of four eyes, four hands, two brains and two feet driving one car, we set a cracking pace through the hills west of the city, until...
On the Norton Summit stage, frantic waving from the crowd alerts us to something beyond a corner and slowing, stopping, we are confronted with the horrible sight of the red E-Type in the middle of the road, upside-down, shattered and spread like a broken flower.
It’s not the first big hit and it won’t be the last, but it hurts me deeply to see it. Both occupants are unhurt but Mother’s words echo to the end of the stage: “It’s all very funny until someone loses an eye…”
After lunch, a change of pace becomes (briefly) appealing and Day and I are rostered into the ‘Pagoda’-roofed 1968 280SL brought along by Mercedes to make the moderns look good. Which it does.
Despite grabbing great armfuls of lock on the needle-thin steering wheel and training my passenger to scream “SKIIIIIIIDDD” through every corner, the fact that the Pagoda has not one chest hair on it cannot be ignored. Over dinner that night, at Penfolds Magill Estate, I promise my hosts to leave memories all over the landscape tomorrow in something 6.3-engined. A small recompense, indeed, for ordering Grange.
Day Four: Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG
Seemingly in anticipation of greatness, for the final day I’m slotted into a CLK63, the oldest and least-gizmo-ladened chassis of the fleet, but with 354kW of willfulness to contend with.
Tragically, our visitor has called in crippled with homesickness and the role of navigator today will be played by Merc PR’s David McCarthy, cruelly rumoured to be overdue for a migraine and consequently having nothing to live for.
Accordingly, I do my best to smoke-cure the man through the first two stages and a bountiful providence enhances stage three with a runaway llama and two splendid naked breasts being plumped enthusiastically for our approval by a spectator somewhere south of Hahndorf.
By comparison, the fourth stage promises to be almost soporific until the start is clamped shut by coppers rudely returned to their day jobs by reports of a gunman loose on the road ahead. Clearly crazed by the loss of his llama, or wife, the man must be darted before we can proceed, and even then many navigators scour the charts for Grassy Knolls as a very reasonable precaution.
But not mine. Obviously now entranced by the notion of speed and “getting it all over with, quickly”, McCarthy raises our PR efforts to entirely new heights by, initially, disconnecting the traction control at every start and cackling maniacally as the clearly impressed bystanders dive for their lives. Then, compelled to burn ‘Mercedes’ onto the memory of those gathered in large clusters at points of imminent doom, he begins disengagement as we dive into hairpins, over crests, etcetera.
He leaves moderation switched off entirely for the final stages and limits his guidance to “and…GO FOR IT!” at every populated piece of roadside where the morbid now await us, cameras raised.
Finally we come to Windy Point, and wait for the 34th and final start. Beneath us, the city spreads all the way to the distant shoreline and even McCarthy seems briefly touched until reality returns with “Paul, see those people watching…?” and, very happily, we launch for the last time.
Tomorrow’s papers will name the winners of Classic Adelaide. And the details and well-deserved accolades will tell most of the story. But not all of it.
That’s because only we who ran in this wonderful, well-organised and thoroughly friendly affair really know the final detail: The named were not the only winners here.
Sir Jack Brabham was never a glamorous man. But everything that so inspired a young Australian design student, watching him win the 1966 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in a car of his own creation, remains undiminished.
The man is a phenomenon and, were he a modern sportsman, would tell you so. But he’s not. So the record speaks for him now. That, and the images that remain with me four decades later: of him at the next GP, turned 40, tottering to his car with a fake beard and cane…and then winning it by a lap. And at the next, Nürburgring, snaring the World Championship with his then-wingless F1 car at warp speed, airborne, above the wet track.
“You had to take off straight,” he tells me now, “because they wouldn’t steer in mid-air.”
And, with that, the man who bet a life on his designs inspires me still.
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