This is an article from the magazine of the Forces Driving Club of Malta. Words in italics have been added by me within the last few weeks prior to publication. The photos included were taken by me.
The Targa Florio was an open road endurance sports car race held in the Madonie mountains of Sicily near Palermo. Founded in 1906, it was the oldest sports car racing event, part of the World Sportscar Championship between 1955 and 1973. While the first races consisted of a whole tour of the island, the track length in the race’s last decades was limited to the 72 kilometres (45 mi) of the Circuito Piccolo delle Madonie which was lapped 11 times. Safety concerns forced the organisers to cancel the race as an international event. It became a national event which did not last for long. The final race in 1977 was forcibly stopped by the police after a serious accident killed one spectator. I did not see any notices in Sicily but in all races held in this country you will see a notice which states, ‘MOTOR RACING IS DANGEROUS!’ At the Targa Florio described below spectators could stand at the roadside, some even on the road. There were very few marshals around, just the odd policeman. Dangerous it was but none the less exciting. Fast, loud cars and the smell of Castrol XLR, what more could a motor racing fan ask for!
On the afternoon of Saturday 2 May 1970 five hopeful members of the Forces Driving Club of Malta, Roger Thayne, Pete Range, Derek Vaughan, Roy Francis and myself assembled at Luqa Airport ready for the journey to Sicily. One of them nearly did not make it having forgotten to renew his passport and then forgetting his leave pass! However some smooth talking by a few people to the policeman at the Passport Desk ensured my seat on the Viscount! The flight to Sicily was uneventful apart from Roger Thayne offering his cigarettes!
At Catania airport we had to line up once more at a Passport Desk. Have you ever shown a F1250 (RAF I.D) to an agitated Italian Passport Official? Be sure you have a camera ready to capture the look on his face if you do! More smooth talking from an Italian-American G.I based at Sigonella who just happened to be in the queue behind us! Through the gate we went. Roger disappeared to look for our hired car, Derek went back into the airport to complain to Alitalia that his sleeping bag had been left behind in Malta. As I was sitting on it at the time Derek’s argument rapidly came to an end when he was informed. Roger reappeared to tell us that we had a Fiat (what else?) 124 Estate at our disposable. It was quickly loaded up and four of us climbed in leaving the driving seat for Roger. At almost six o’clock out of the airport we drove to hysterical shouts of “You’re on the wrong side of the road!” It was then decided we were going the wrong way out of the airport, so we turned round and drove past the airport in the opposite direction, straight into the car park! Eventually we made it out of the airport heading in our original direction. Some five miles out of Catania we had our first welcome to Sicily moment. We came across the scene of an accident with one dead body laid across the road. This naturally caused a silence in the car for a few miles but as dusk came rapidly upon us and we had established our direction, jokes began to be exchanged, and exchanged, and exchanged!
The gang of four outside Collesano
Realising that we had not eaten for some considerable time it was decided to stop at Enna for a meal. Enna is a small town perched on top of a large hill. I seem to remember a signpost indicating 1:6 but at times it seemed like 1:1! Roger quickly located a restaurant, probably because he was hungrier than the rest of us. Conversation with the waiter was interesting. Roger eventually made himself understood in German. (We haf vays of making you talk!) Five Pizza Romano’s were ordered and we waited cheerfully to see just what they were. If you happen to be starving and perched on top of a hill somewhere in Sicily a pizza tastes delicious! However as the size of the pizza decreases along with your appetite you will probably find yourself longing for good old fish and chips. (How times have changed!)
Having found myself treasurer by some careful plotting, I paid the bill and we were off into the night once more. The road by this time was becoming rougher as it twisted and turned through the hills. We were now heading for Cefalu and a meeting with Hugh Arnett. (More about that later) We stopped at a village for refreshments although Roger spent most of his time trying to lock and unlock the car. Pete Range was doing a brilliant job navigating. Actually he read the signposts, had a quick prayer, and then looked at the map to make sure! We circled a place called Petralia, a quaint little village that was to cause a slight argument on the way back.
And so to Cefalu, or was it? We saw a train flash by and decided it must be the one Hugh was arriving on. Up and down road went the white 124 but no station could be found. ‘Is this Cefalu?’ ‘No!’ ‘Yes!’ ‘It can’t be?’ ‘It is!’ And so to Cefalu. Around the corner and half a mile up the hill. Now came our first Route Check. It was more like a clue in a Treasure Hunt. The problem posed was. ‘Find Hugh Arnett!’ We had it on good authority that he was staying at either the Astro or Santa Lucia Hotel. After some thirty minutes of driving up and down Pete (I won the 69 Gozo Rally) Range found the Astro Hotel, however as he was over his time allowed he was classified a non-finisher by the barman! Back to the story. Hugh, it turned out, was not staying at the Astro or even the Santa Lucia. This time we were looking for the Belvedere which was to prove just as elusive as the Astro. However it was eventually found with all its lights out and no sign of anyone. Hugh had mentioned in a note left at the Astro that he would be leaving for the race at 3:30am. As it was nearly 2:15 we decided to go and eat. Well four of them did but I didn’t fancy Tartella at that time in the morning. After a cat-nap in the car Roger found Hugh lurking in the hotel. It was then discovered that the latter had transport along with his mate Austin and also a press-card for the pits. Why for did we bother coming to Cefalu? As it turned out it was to come in useful later on to have a contact in the hotel. Feeling rather tired and weary and running out of jokes we headed for Collesano. A vantage point for the race recommended by Roger via ‘Moto Sport.’
Collesao appeared before us at about 4:45 am. Only modesty prevents me from relating how, on the way there, I navigated Roger up a white no-go on the side of a mountain. (That is a road shown white on a map?)And all he could do was bloody well laugh! However we did get to Collesano. The barriers were already across the road and the journey to the Targa Florio had ended. We were there!
With the back seat down, Pete Range, Derek Vaughan, and Roy (Sleep anywhere) Francis managed to lay full length and get some sleep. In the front Roger (long legs) Thayne was getting into contortions with the steering wheel in an attempt to sleep. At one stage his left foot was resting on top of his side of the windscreen and his right foot disappeared somewhere under my side of the facia. (In case you are trying to work that out remember it was a L.H.D car.) Unfortunately my camera was not handy at the time. We managed to have two hours interrupted sleep and awoke to the sound of rain drumming on the roof. (For hints on sleeping in a Fiat 124 Estate look out for, ‘Places I have Slept in,’ by one R. Francis.
With the race due to start at 8 o’clock it looked as though we were in for a miserable day. At about 7:30 Roy, fully refreshed from his uninterrupted sleep, ventured out in search for something to drink. He found somewhere within minutes and soon we were all round the corner at the Café drinking coffee. This was after sitting in the car for half an hour wondering where we could get a cup of coffee! By this time the rain had stopped, although a few minutes earlier we had seen snow cascading down the peak above us.
We were at a suitable vantage point by 8 o’clock but we didn’t see the first car until 9:40. As it turned out the start had been delayed because drivers and officials had been held up in traffic. (Only in Italy!) The stillness of the morning air was shattered as Toine Hezeman’s Alfa Romeo 33/3 came through the village. An excited buzz was heard from the watching crowd as one car then another hurtled through in rapid succession. However there was no sign of Vic Elford in the Gulf Porsche. We learnt later that he had retired after only ten miles with suspension trouble. After four laps it became apparent that the battle for the lead was going to be between Siffert/Redman and Rodriguez/Kinnunen in Porsches and Vaccarella/Giunti in the lone works Ferrari. Vaccarella is the local hero and was given a rousing cheer whenever he passed through. We were able to move through the village, crossing the road from time to time and in all had about
‘Nino’ Vaccerella hammers his Ferrari down the High St in Collesano
twelve different vantage points. Each afforded an excellent view of the race. By lap seven the race was between Siffert/Redman and Vaccarella/Giunti. On lap 8 Siffert came roaring through nose to tail with Vaccarella. The spectacle of two high powered cars literally screaming through the narrow roads of Collesano made us wonder what the drivers’ nerves are made of, or perhaps they haven’t go any? By this time the smell of oil fumes permeated the air and with the crowd urging on Vaccarella with shouts of ‘Nino!’ ‘Nino!’ there was a tremendous atmosphere about Collesano. Laps 9 and 10 saw Siffert/Redman pulling away from the Ferrari. On the last lap we saw the Rodriguez/Kinnuen Porsche driven by the latter come tearing through the village faster than any car on the previous ten laps. Indeed on the last lap he passed the Ferrari and broke the lap record with a speed of 79.9mph. If you saw the circuit you would realise just how good that is. One lap consists of 45 miles over twisting, hilly and narrow roads. To add to which they pass through a few villages on the way. I don’t think any of us had seen a car accelerate so fast in so short a distance as Kinnuen did from one corner to another on that last lap. Vaccarrella too had been driving brilliantly through the village to the delight of the spectators but his Ferrari was not quite good enough
A Porsche 911 comes down the hill into Collesano
went through at about 3:45pm and for us the 54th Targa Florio was over. All of us were agreed that it was the best motor race we had ever seen ‘live.’ (It still is!) There was only one complaint about Collesano and that was a lack of somewhere to spend a penny (Or a lira!). Having had to climb half way up a mountain take my word for it!
Return to Cefalu
Back then to Cefalu, down the twisting road. Motoring casually back Roger looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a Fiat 500 on his tail. With a shrug of his shoulders he accelerated a little faster round the next corner. Looks in mirror. One Fiat 500. Faster round the next corner, Fiat 500! Four wheel slide round next corner, mirror, Fiat 500. Grits teeth, changes down to second, hammers down straight, slides round, mirror, Fiat 500! Deep breath, gnash, gnash, positively flies down short straight, back end out at corner. Strange silence in the car? Mirror, Fiat 500! Car ahead overtaken just before corner, slide, mirror, no Fiat 500!!! Smile from Roger.
Apart from that the drive back to Cefalu was quite uneventful!
We returned to the Belvedere Hotel which you may recall was last seen at some God-forsaken hour in the morning. We were told to return later with the promise of accommodation of some sort. As it was yet again some considerable time since we had eaten we found ourselves a restaurant and devoured half a chicken each. (Nothing in a large stomach!) (although I was quite slim back then!)
Then back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep. The hotel kindly provided us with a room at short notice. Four beds were provided and for reasons mentioned earlier Roy Francis ended up in a sleeping bag. However before retiring it was discovered that an Alfa Romeo 33/3 was parked in the garage beneath the hotel. Not only that it had won its class and finished 7th overall in a race called the Targa Florio! Everyone had a good look at the works and a try of the hot seat. Derek casually mentioned that he was an Alfa owner to which Roger replied that his Audi had a Porsche gearbox and that was nearer than Derek to first overall! Back into the hotel where Derek persuaded an old German professor to become thoroughly drunk on our brandy! The night was still young. At about eleven o’clock just as four of us were settling down to sleep a brandy filled Roger entered the room offering us Cheese and Salami rolls. A kind thought but he was recommended a good place to stick them! Pete Range was oblivious to all this far away in the Land of Nod braking for the next corner in the Alfa. Roger thought it would be a good idea to put one of the rolls on Pete’s pillow in case he was hungry in the morning.
Up at the crack of 7:30 we breakfasted on coffee. This was a bit strong so Roger, in his best Italian, asked for some hot water to dilute it. Five minutes later we were presented with a pot of tea!
Return to Malta
Having paid the bill we set off for Catania with the sun shining and the sky clear. The scenery on the way back was spectacular and refreshing after dusty Malta. We had gone about 15 miles when we came to a place called Petralia. The problem being there are two of them. Major and Minor. Much talk as to whether we went through them or round them. It was decided to go through. Once out the other side Roger decided we should have gone round but he knew where he was. We agreed with the first part but decided he was going the wrong way. Undeterred Roger pressed on until we came to a familiar road junction with a signpost indicating Catania! (Mumble, mumble!!) On we sped to Catania with the joke barrel being scraped. Nearing Catania we saw some oranges for sale at the roadside. The Italian gentleman who was selling the oranges asked me for an English cigarette. This gave Roger an idea. Half in Italian and half in German he came to agreement with the orange-seller. For 120 cigarettes we received at least 70 large oranges. Can’t be bad. A few miles after this we reached Catania on a different road from the one we had left on. The problem now was to find the Aeroporto? Roger and Roy agreed on the direction taken, but Derek, Pete and myself knew we were going the wrong way. On reaching the Airport…………….. all that was left was to pay for the car. This proved to be the major part of our bill.
Onto the Caravelle complete with Air Hostesses. (More about them on request. S.A.Es please!) Derek suggested we encourage the pilot with shouts of ‘Nino!’ ‘Nino!’ but he would not have heard us anyway. Within 30 minutes we were back in Malta and through the customs with only oranges and tired faces to show for our trip. The week-end had cost us £10 each and three of us had used the free air warrant. (Such, such were the joys!) Roy and Derek had to pay £10 each for their tickets so there expenses were doubled. However we all thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it good value for money.
Finally, thanks to the other four for being such good company and from the four of us to Roger thanks for doing all the driving, not bad for an amateur!
Ah the memories! £10 for a weekend in Sicily? Probably would not buy you breakfast these days!