Vintage Hill Climb race, Tende, France
Peter Beers

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I was vacationing in France in June, 2007, and my mother in law found an advertisement for a vintage car race in the mountains a few hours from her apartment. My friend Herb and I hopped in our rental car and headed for the small mountain town of Tende.

Tende is best known for its ancient petroglyphs. They've got a big museum and people travel from all over the world to see them. I have and they're well worth the trip.

I will say that they are NOTHING compared to the vintage hill climb that Herb and I saw this day. The cars ranged from a 1931 Bugatti open-wheel racer (seen above) to a beautifully prepared Mazeratti limousine.

The Course: A few years back the road above Tende was improved greatly. It was built higher up the hill and was made wider and with fewer switchbacks. It took advantage of a new tunnel. Traffic could now move much quicker to get where people needed to go. That left an interesting problem: What should be done with the old road? Using it for a hill climb race course seems to be the right choice. The course is a little over a mile in length and starts with a 1/3 mile long straight. That straight is followed by a 120 degree turn and then a series of 7 switchbacks. Each of these turns is followed by straights that are as little as 40 meters and as much as 150 meters in length. Most are closer to 40 meters than 150.

The Vehicles: I know you're going to look at all the photos below, but I thought I'd talk about the range of vehicles. Many were vintage cars that were there to run and be seen. The 1963 Panhard and the Maseratti Limo were not really race-worth cars. That didn't stop them from driving pretty hard... well the Panhard pretty much just strolled up the course. It looked damn good doing it though.

There were 18 motorcycles from the 50s, 60s and 70s. There were 68 cars from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s and the above-mentioned 1931 Bugatti. Most were rally cars or sports cars. Some where originally race cars. Others were old cars that were later converted to race cars. All of them were driving hard. That is obvious from the Talbot that spun 4 times in three turns during practice. He was just putting down too much horsepower for the course. When he finally got it hooked up, he was one of the fastest guys up the hill.

Practice:Herb and I got there around 11am. The race was supposed to start at noon. We got to watch 3 rounds of practice. The cars would run up the course, then drive down the new road. The cars that were not street legal (open-wheelers and prototypes) drove down the race course between rounds. It was fun to watch people get dialed in. One guy stood out immediately. The driver of the #50 Opel 400 was putting down serious horsepower and drifting all of the turns. He went through a few sets of tires that day. He had the power to do it too.

This is the Opel's last run up the course.

Every one of his runs were just like that. He laid down rubber non-stop through the first 5 switchbacks, then managed to go straight for a short bit before smoking them through the last two switchbacks. It was amazing. He wasn't the fastest guy up the hill, but he was the most stylish and was definitely NOT slow.

The Race: After a break for lunch, the race got started about 2pm. It was hot out... in the mid 80s... and that made it very pleasant to watch. Interestingly enough for me, there were no real race marshals. There were guys in yellow vests that tried to keep people off the course while cars were coming up, but if you really wanted to walk out on the course, they'd let you. We were able to get very close to the cars as they ran. I usually made sure there was a big stone wall between me and the car if I was at the outside of the turn. I also didn't stand at the far side of the apex in case someone belew a tire. Even so, there were many times that I said to myself, "Self, that guy is coming right towards me." That was especially true with the black Opel. He got it straightened out and missed me by about 5 feet.

The race pitted cars of similar vintage and style against each other. Each car got 2 runs up the hill. Most were definitely pushing it harder in the race than they were in practice.

We didn't stay to hear the results of the race. We were tired and hungry and needed to get back to town. Herb took some splits to generally get a feel for how cars were running.

The 000 Porsche 911 was the fastest of the cars we saw. It really handled the tight turns well. The second fastest was an old Austin Cooper that was absolutely dialed.

1963 Austin Cooper doing its stuff

There were guys with big horsepower Turbo Carreras that were many seconds slower than this little Mini because they couldn't keep their turbos spooled. They were either bogging or spinning their wheels. There was no in between.

The motorcycles had a hard time too. Most were designed for more wide-open courses and they were either taking it easy around the turns, or dragging their exhaust with plenty of sparks. Most didn't want to do that kind of damage to their vintage machines.

The pictures say more than I can. So I'll shut up.

1971 BMW 2002 ti

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"1966" Lotus Proto. It looks like a Caterham to me. It has a pretty big American V8 under the hood.


The 1931 Bugatti again.

Click HERE to view a big GIF of the BMW 2002 ti