It was the year 1937: six cars started on their way to Monte Carlo in front of Estonia Theatre. On the left Frenchman L. Billon’s Renault, on the right the Watford of his countryman R. Carriere. (Estonian Film Archives)
In June of this year, 12 electric cars will start from Tallinn to Monte Carlo, to hold the first electric car race in the world. But there were car races from Tallinn to Monte Carlo already in the 1930s and some of the stories connected with them are like episodes from a thriller – high society and diamonds, cocaine and contraband.
Estonians had their first contact with the Monte Carlo star race (that is how rally was called at that time) in 1929, when Julius Johanson started from Riga towards the Pearl of the Mediterranean. He had been sent on his way with great expectations, but his journey was spoilt by a snow storm and the tricks of his competitors. German Rudolf Caracciola, whose fame at that time could be compared to Michael Schumacher’s status today, also started from Riga with two service cars. In the snow storm, Caraciola’s assistants did everything the hinder the Estonians’ progress. Once one of the service cars turned in front of the Estonians, another time Johanson’s car was simply pushed into a ditch.
Journal Auto described the incident: “Then the men who were clearing the road for Caracciola’s car – there were about twenty of them – rushed to our car and pushed the Buick with us into the ditch.” The race was discontinued because of great loss of time.
Tallinn instead of Riga
A year later the start was moved from Tallinn to Riga. In the system that was used for accounting of results at that time, the distance of starting place from Monte Carlo also counted and that made Tallinn very attractive. But roads were a problem. Berliner Tageblatt’s reporter Fr. Arnau compared the situation with the Far East and wrote: “And then [on the border of Estonia and Latvia] you arrive in a primitive land, with almost impassable clay roads where sometimes 10-inch deep tracks hinder driving, and the sides of roads were so slippery due to frost that a car could go down into a ditch any moment.”
Especially angry were the Germans because the ladies who accompanied them became seasick on those roads. Caracciola threatened to load his Mercedes on a ship and have it sent back to Berlin. Actually nobody left the race but the warning worked – on the next star races the roads were in order.
Caracciola was not the only top racer to start from Tallinn. Hans Stuck, who was almost as famous, also started here, and also the Brit Donald Healey, whose name is commemorated in the car world by the car brand Austin-Healey.
From the Estonians, Alfred Zimmermann – Julius Johanson took part on Auburn in 1930; in spite of successful start (they were the second to arrive in Berlin) they discontinued in Belgium because of motor failure.
On this rally, too, the Estonians did not escape the tricks of competitors. In Königsberg they had to wait for more than an hour for the stamped road book to be returned to them, in Berlin the Estonians were misled by a “pilot car” that drove around and took them to one and the same street three times instead of guiding them through the city.
In 1931 Tallinn was again one of the places the star race started from, but this time it was again the snow that caused trouble. In Estonia the roads were cleared, but in Latvia, from Cēsis to the border of Estonia, the roads were impassable. And so only one car made it to the start, and even that car got stuck in snow in Latvia on its way back.
After the break of one year, the start was again in Tallinn in 1933. Frenchman Maurice Vasselle, driving a Hotchkiss, who started from Tallinn, was the general winner. But it was a Miss E. M. Ridell, who participated in the race, who caused the biggest stir in the papers. Namely, she lost a bag with diamond jewellery in Pärnumaa county. It was found and Päevaleht described its contents: “The lost and found handbag contained a golden cigarette case, a necklace, two rings, one golden and the other of platinum, two pins decorated with little diamonds, and other articles of lesser value – toiletries, pills, etc.” The finder, a farm girl Ida Kiisajon was given 45 kroons as a reward.
A very peculiar vehicle also started from Tallinn: Lord Clifford’s Gardner-Diesel-Bentley with 5.5-litre diesel engine. It was the first race car with diesel engine in Europe.
Star racers accused of smuggling drugs
Monte Carlo Rally caused the greatest confusion in 1934, when the team consisting of Alfred and August Zimmermann, Nikolai Mets and dancing master Arseni Poolgas drove an Auburn. They arrived in Monte Carlo and finished as the 53rd. On their way home, a scandal arose. The racers were stopped at Laatre border control point and accused first of trafficking cocaine and then of smuggling. Later they were acquitted by the court.
But it seemed this power demonstration by the authorities had its impact because in the next two years no Estonian racers started from Tallinn.
Estonians could at last celebrate in 1937. Karl Siitan and August Zimmermann returned from Monte Carlo with a cup awarded for persistent performance (little picture). This trophy is still in use as Karl Siitan’s Cup. In the end of each year it is awarded to an Estonian rally team who has achieved the best results at a competition abroad during the season.
The Monte Carlo Rally of 1938 had lots of adventures in store for Estonians (pilot was again Karl Siitan). Once they drove into a wall of a castle at full speed, when they were taking fuel in Avignon a car next to them caught fire, in Belgium they raced through a filling station cafe.
The start from Tallinn to Monte Carlo (again without Estonians) was given in 1939. But the format of the star race survived for much longer, it was still in use in 1996. But the Estonians had to wait for real success until 2004, when Markko Märtin won the second place in overall competition. But this was already at another rally.
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