“We’ve come to report a car accident”said Ivor. The policeman became animated and said, “Vieni, vieni (come, come) theese-away.” He led us through some corridors and into a courtyard. He pointed to a wrecked Ferrari sports car and proudly said, “Look, accident!”
In August of 1966, Ivor Tiefenbrun (of Linn Products) and I decided to drive through Europe for a couple of weeks. We set out from Glasgow in his Riley Kestrel. Dover is roughly five hundred miles away and our plan was to stop halfway on route, spend the night, and then continue the next day. But being nineteen, we decided to drive through to Dover. There was a 2 a.m. ferry that brought us into Calais, France in the early morning. Feeling exhilarated, we agreed to drive on and eventually stopped in Soissons, another one hundred and fifty miles down the road. We felt so clever having added another day to our vacation. After checking into a small hotel we fell asleep and awoke in the evening.
Dinner over, we walked around town and came across a carnival, which had the usual rides and games. I stopped at a rifle range. The rifle wasn’t real but shot a beam of light at a sensor on a robot that moved in one direction then another. I shot at it a couple of times and noticed that there was a split second in each rotation when the robot paused. I aimed at the sensor, pressed the trigger. Bullseye! A light flashed and a siren went off. I was presented with a bottle of champagne. I took another shot. Bullseye! Another bottle. Then another and another… A crowd gathered to cheer me on. After about eight or nine bottles, sensing hostility from the owner of the stand, I quit. I could have gone on all night. We took the bottles back to our hotel and drank as many as we could. I remember lying in a bath pouring champagne over myself. We slept late the next morning and realized that we had gained no time at all.
Our route took us on back roads via a town called Gap, then over the beautiful Alpes Maritimes to Juan Les Pins near Antibes. As we neared the Mediterranean coast, the light changed. The air was crystal clear and the sunshine, bright. What a change from dreary Glasgow. For some strange reason, Ivor had installed an air horn in his car. It blared out “La Cucaracha, La Cucaracha” at very high decibels. He said we needed it to go over the Alps in Switzerland. A long switch drilled into the dashboard operated it. That night there was a celebration in town and a parade of cars was driving in circles around the main square pumping their horns. We joined in and regularly set off the air horn. At some point we returned to our hotel and were accosted by five really angry German tourists. They were complaining about the noise of the horn. We, of course, denied everything. This made them even madder and the leader, his face red and his eyes glassy, pushed past us, went in the car and pressed the horn on the steering wheel. ‘Beep’, it squeaked, ‘beep-beep’. He tried again, ‘Beep-beep.’ He didn’t notice the long switch on the dashboard and understandably pressed the horn in the center of the wheel. He was chagrined and apologized profusely. He slunk away, defeated. It was a perfect end to a perfect day. We stayed a few more days in the South of France lying on the beach and drinking and carousing. Then we drove into Italy but more about that later.
On leaving Italy we found ourselves near the Swiss border. It was the day of the World Cup soccer final and England was playing West Germany. We stopped at a roadside café to watch the match. Most of the patrons were German supporters and every time England scored a goal we cheered and were met with glares. England beat West Germany 4-2 and we were ecstatic. We left and soon arrived at the Swiss border. There was a massive line of cars waiting to enter. At one point we saw a Swiss customs official walking down the road eyeballing the line. He approached our car, looked at the UK plates and came over to us shouting, “Champions Du Monde!” (champions of the world); he then allowed us to drive to the front past the other cars straight up to the border and into Switzerland.
The drive over the Simplon Pass was breathtaking, but not in the usual way. When we started our descent Ivor announced that the front brakes were failing. This was no joke as the road over the pass was a switchback. He put the car in low gear and I was in charge of the hand brake. Frequently he would yell, “pull” and I would yank on the brake. It took many hours to descend the mountains but we finally limped into Interlaken tired but elated. We found a service station and were told it would take 2 days to repair the car as the parts had to be ordered from Zurich. A few days later, brakes fixed, we set off for Geneva.
After checking into our hotel we walked around town and saw a sign saying, “The Scotch Whisky Bar.” How could we not enter? The bar was dark and had hundreds of bottles of scotch on the shelves. We started to talk to the barman/owner and some of his friends. Ivor who is not known for modesty started boasting about how we know everything about scotch. Frankly about all we knew then, was how to drink it. As Ivor got going his hyperbole grew. The next thing I remember was the owner challenging us to a whisky tasting. If we guessed correctly, we could have free drinks all night. My heart sank. I looked at Ivor and shook my head. The barman went off to the end of the bar and I watched him pour whisky into two glasses. We smelled the amber liquid, dipped our tongues in it, rolled it around in our mouths and pretended we knew what we were doing. Ivor then started to bullshit about the type of barley and the distillation progress. The crowd was watching intently. I said to Ivor, “You know what it is don’t you?” He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Absolutely. You know also, don’t you?” “Of course.” I answered adding, “Do you want to tell them?” I saw panic in his eyes. “No you tell them.” I countered, “Ivor, you’re the expert, you tell them.” By now the bar was silent and Ivor was not looking happy. I paused a moment, “OK. I’ll tell. It’s, ehhh.” (Dragging it out for as long as I could) “Grants Standfast.”
Everyone turned to the bartender who was looking at us incredulously. He produced a bottle of Grants Standfast. The crowd erupted and everyone was suddenly patting us on our backs. Ivor was amazed. The barman was blown away and told us we could drink any scotch we wanted. Later on, Ivor quizzed me. I told him that when the barman poured the drinks, even though it was gloomy in the bar, I saw that the bottle was triangular in shape. Only Grants Standfast uses that shape of bottle.
We got mightily drunk that evening.
The next day we left for Paris. We arrived mid-afternoon, found a hotel in a seedy but quiet neighborhood and went walkabout. We had lunch and Ivor got some sort of food poisoning. He spent most of the afternoon in French toilets, which were none too clean before, and after, he left. Around ten that evening we noticed that the streets near our hotel were bustling with people and merchants. On entering the hotel we discovered that it was a real, old-fashioned whorehouse with a madam and variety of women to choose from and it was smack in the middle of “Les Halles.” At that time it was the central fresh food market in Paris; it was demolished many years ago but then it was colorful and gritty. We were hungry and went into, “Au Pied de Cochon”. This restaurant still exists today but in those days, it was much less of a tourist trap. We ordered a great French onion soup, which Ivor, to this day, credits with saving his life. We met some Americans in the restaurant. The man was an actor who had made his money in Schlitz beer commercials. With him were two women, one of whom seemed to like me and we spent a pleasant night together. I thought her terribly old. She was about thirty-five.
But back to Italy. We were driving south from Genoa on the Autostrada Azzura. Ivor was at the wheel and as we passed a truck, Ivor said that the driver looked asleep. I turned round and it did indeed look that way. Ivor floored the car to get far away from the truck. A few miles down the road we encountered a traffic jam. A few cars lined up behind us. At one point I saw Ivor trying to move the car to the right but was blocked. I looked round and saw the truck fast approaching. He barreled into the stopped cars and they concertinaed into the cars in front of them. We were hit and knocked into the car in front. Fortunately the force was diminished by the time it reached us. The front and back of the car was damaged and miraculously no one was killed. (Ivor to this day swears we were catapulted over three cars and spun like a cork.). After a while we managed to free the wheels and drove into the nearest town, Pisa. We found a hotel and Ivor called his insurance company in Glasgow. He was advised to go to the local police station and make a report. No matter how hard we tried, all the policeman could talk about was the Ferrari in the back. He couldn’t care less about our accident. I asked him what was so special about the Ferrari. He looked at me incredulously, “William Holden. It belong William Holden. He kill a man.”
The day before, in a drunk-driving incident he tried to overtake a Fiat on the inside, struck the car and killed its driver. He was eventually given an eight-month suspended sentence.