Art, flying pigs, Belgians and bizarre characters...

Jody Schekter, Belgian GP, 1979

Jody Schekter, Belgian GP, 1979 

 © The Cahier Archive

One of the pleasures of being a globetrotter is that one can write lovely lines such as: "Wandering around the Latin Quarter in Paris the other day, I came upon a very strange thing in the middle of a public park".

Paris in November can be horrible but when I was visiting it was beautiful and I wandered here and there, getting mildly lost and enjoying every minute of it. At one point I came around a corner and ahead of me was the great facade of Notre Dame, just a stone's throw away. And I suppose it was that which made what I saw in the little park all the more bizarre. There, beside an old tree with a sign which said that it had been there since sixteen hundred and something, were five cars buried nose-first or tail-first in the ground, pointing skyward. It looked like some curious automotive Stonehenge. The cars were pretty easy to identify (the pink Volvo in particular). The engines had been taken out and a round hole had been made through the middle of each vehicle. And then everything, including the wheels and tires, had been spray-painted, each in a different color.

What did it mean? Was there some hidden significance? Some social comment about French driving? Or was it just "art"? I have no idea but I noticed that a local graffiti artist had added his interpretation of it. "Ridicule" it said on the side of the green car.

I laughed and went on my way, wondering as I was wandering about the nature of art. Is it art or is it just silly? What is it that makes some people sigh when they see an old Bugatti when a Lotus does nothing for them? Why do people sneer at Ferraris that are not red? What makes a car beautiful?

In Formula 1 they have a very easy answer to that question. Any car that wins is a beautiful car. I am not sure I agree with that. The Williams FW08 won things but it was not pretty. And the 1979 Ferrari, which won the World Championship, was a pig of a device but, boy, did it fly.

In general, as we all know, pigs do not fly. I was reading the other day about a rather odd incident which took place on US Airways Flight 107 from Philadelphia to Seattle. It may be hard to believe but a 300-pound pig was booked in First Class (no rude comments about large Americans please). He was happily positioned in the first row of First Class and got through the flight without too much drama. But for some reason, on arrival in Seattle, the pig became unnerved as the plane taxied towards the terminal and ran squealing through the cabins before becoming jammed in one of the galleys. The pig's owner eventually managed to lure the poor frightened beast off the plane and up the jetway (First Class passengers get off first) where, in its terror, it left rather a mess for the Economy crowd to wade through.

I thought this rather amusing.

A few hours later, quite by chance, I found out about the world's first flying pig.

I was researching the history of a racing driver named John Moore Brabazon (as one does) and while I am sure there are cries of "Who?" from all over the world, one has to say that Moore Brabazon must have been pretty useful as a driver because in 1907 he won the Circuit des Ardennes, which was one of the biggest events of the day. He won it driving an automobile called a Minerva, which had the great misfortune to have been built in Belgium. Rarely did it last very long in any race. Moore Brabazon, I learned, had a thing about Belgian cars and indeed used to turn up at Brooklands in the poetically-named Metallurgique.

Students of Grand Prix racing history will know that in 1909 Grand Prix racing stopped for a while because there was not much money about and not enough companies were interested in building the vast multi-cylindered monsters that were being raced at the time. The few who wanted to go racing had to ship their cars to America.

For the European racing drivers of the day this was very frustrating but they were fortunate in that the lull in racing coincided with a new craze for daredevils: flying. This was not your nice little Tiger Moths, these were big old box-kites which did not like to turn corners. Moore Brabazon flew one of the earliest of them. In fact, after fellow racer Henry Farman, he was the second British subject to hold a pilot's licence. In 1909 he became the first British national to fly in Britain. He won several prizes and set a number of flying record including the first flight of a pig which he undertook to prove that pigs really can fly.

This wonderfully eccentric character eventually went into politics and by 1940 was rather an important fellow. He was Minister of Transport under Winston Churchill and then took over as Minister of Aircraft Production only to lose his job after a year or so because he made a speech which expressed the hope that the Germans and the Russians would "exterminate" one another in the war.

Churchill had no choice to but to elevate Moore Brabazon to the House of Lords where he took a seat as Lord Brabazon of Tara. He was given the job of planning for post-war civil aviation. The world might have remembered more about him if the prototype Bristol Brabazon - the largest plane ever built in Britain - had been more successful in its trials. It was scrapped and Lord Brabazon of Tara, racer of strange Belgian cars, retired to play golf and, at the age of 70, to take a trip down the fearsome Cresta bobsled run at St. Moritz.

There are often times when one is left wondering if the modern stars of Grand Prix racing would be as colorful as those who came before them if they were not surrounded by public relations gurus who stop them doing anything remotely interesting. Today the most interesting thing that a Grand Prix driver can do is go to a nightclub and sip a fizzy water. Gone are the days when they climbed the outside of buildings or became Ministers of the Crown.

Back in the old days every second racing driver started building his own cars for the roads and for racing. They had some pretty silly names too, notably the Alda which was so named as it stood for "Ah, La Deliceuse Automobile". One of the earliest of the car builders was a Belgian called Camille Jenatzy who built the first ever streamlined car in 1899 and called it "La Jamais Contente" (The Never Happy). Jenatzy was famously fast and he was obviously rather good at impersonating pigs as well because at the age of 44 he met an untimely death while off on a hunting trip with some friends in the Ardennes Forests. One night he decided to scare his friends by sneaking into the woods and making the noise of an irate wild boar. One of his guests was convinced and took a shot in the dark and killed Jenatzy stone dead.

Just like the racers of today really...

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