Mel Nichols in a Lamborghini Urraco

Confessions of a 1970s car journalist

Words: Greg Stuart
Photo: Mel Nichols

The man who inspired Jeremy Clarkson spent the 1970s driving about in gold Lamborghinis, borrowing cars off Pink Floyd and hanging out with Enzo Ferrari. His is the motoring journalism story you have to read…

Australian-born journalist Mel Nichols is one of the forefathers of modern automotive journalism. As the editor of CAR magazine in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, Nichols raised the bar of what car writing could and should be.

His beautifully-crafted articles about pan-European adventures in a raft of illustrious supercars – machines like the Lamborghini Countach, Maserati Bora and Ferrari BB 512 – were accompanied by photography of a calibre not seen in other UK mags at the time, photography that got teenage boys as excited about the form of a De Tomaso Pantera as they were about the contents of Suzi Quattro’s leather jumpsuit. 

The spread in CAR from one of Mel’s most famous escapades

© CAR MAGAZINE

One teenage boy paying particular attention was a lanky, fuzzy-haired lad from Yorkshire called Jeremy, who’d go on to make quite a name for himself…

“I still think [Mel Nichols’] story about driving three Lamborghinis is the best-ever drive story… I’m trying to do stuff like that now, only on television.” 
Jeremy Clarkson

Nichols’ most-loved articles are collected in 2013’s And The Revs Keep Rising. Now, he tells Redbulletin.com about his six favourite stories from a time when writing about cars was damn near the sexiest job on the planet. 

Mel Nichols

Mel Nichols inspired a generation of journalists  

© Haynes Publishing

1. Becoming a Lamborghini delivery driver for a day

Mel Nichols: Roger Phillips was the UK importer of Lamborghinis, and he had to go to Italy, get these three gold Lambos – a Countach, a Urraco and a Silhouette – and bring them back for display at the Earls Court Motor Show. So he phoned me and said ‘We’re going to go and get these cars, do you want to come? You’ll have to be at Heathrow this afternoon’. So of course I said yes.

“The gendarmes would line up on the overhead bridges and watch us go past”

It was just before the French introduced speed limits on the autoroutes. We literally drove through France at 160mph, which was as fast as two of the cars would go, on the most gorgeous autumn morning. The gendarmes, once they got word that these three gold-painted Lamborghinis were storming up through France, would line up beside the motorway or on the overhead bridges and watch us go past.

Unthinkable now, but just the sheer imagery of that is still strong in my mind: that gorgeous pale blue sky, a cool autumn morning, the open road spreading out ahead of us and those gold cars bowling up that road, accompanied by the amazing sound of a V12 and two V8s… that’s never going to leave my memory.

2. Borrowing a rock legend’s Ferrari 250 GTO

MN: Unbelievably, Nick Mason, the drummer from Pink Floyd, lent me his Ferrari 250 GTO for a week. Nick is not only one of the world’s greatest and most knowledgeable car enthusiasts; he’s such a lovely guy and so generous with his cars, because he believes that they should be used, and is keen for people to experience them. 

“I’d paid £16,500 for my house and Nick had just paid £75,000 for the GTO”

The 250 GTO was parked outside my terraced house in Clapham. I’d paid £16,500 for my house, which was absolutely as much as I could afford, and Nick had just paid £75,000 for the GTO. Nowadays, they’re around £30 million… So I drove this Ferrari to work every day in Smithfield, and I drove it home again at night. It was my commuter! Then at the weekend, I took it up to Norfolk and had this terrific journey through the night up to East Anglia. 

Nick Mason's Ferrari 250 GTO

Living with Nick Mason’s Ferrari 250 GTO was special

© Goodwood

The reason I love that car is that it was so alive – it was absolutely the Ferrari personified. It had this amazing V12 engine where almost every 100 revs would bring a different combination of sounds, the classic symphony of sounds of a great V12.

It had a fantastic gearbox, with the lever in that metal slotted gate that you’d feel every time you changed gear. And then impeccable handling – not a great deal of road-holding, but the car would be telling you all the time what it was doing. So an amazingly enjoyable, fantastic, sensory experience. I can never thank Nick enough for lending me the car.

3. From Modena to Wiltshire in one go

MN: Probably the best single drive I had was another ‘Lamborghini from Italy’ trip, bringing an Espada back. I’d been in Italy all week visiting Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, De Tomaso. Lamborghini had said that they’d have an Espada ready at the end of the week which they would like brought back to England, and would I drive it back for them? Again, just this amazing aspect to your life where you find yourself in a situation like that…

“We sat that car at mostly 140, 150mph up through France”

So on Saturday morning, the photographer Richard Cook and I got up at six in the morning, went down to our hotel car park, got in the Espada and off we went. We drove up past Milano, rolling along at 120, 130mph, and then climbed up through the Aosta Valley heading for the Mont Blanc tunnel. Then we just went at it all day, sat that car at mostly 140, 150mph up through France. The Espada was a fantastic car for that sort of proper grand touring.

We got to Calais in time to get a ferry, got across to Dover and bombed up to London. And in fact, I felt so relaxed and not tired that I stopped in London to let Richard off and then went down to Wiltshire to stay with some friends. So I arrived down there sometime around midnight at the end of this long, long drive from Modena.

Lamborghini Espada

The Lamborghini Espada was a great GT car, says Mel

© Lamborghini

4. Being saved from decapitation by a Finnish rally legend

MN: I drove with Hannu Mikkola in Wales just before the RAC Rally in the Audi Sport Quattro S1 while he and his engineering team were evaluating differentials. I jumped in with Hannu and we went on this little circuit they had through the woods, and it was truly amazing. 

“It was the most masterful piece of driving I’d ever seen”

One moment really sticks in my mind: we were going down a road that had a bank on the left-hand side of the car and quite a steep drop down a valley on the right. It was a left-hand drive car, so Hannu was up against the bank. We came around this bend at about 100mph. A pine tree had fallen from the bank above and its trunk was jutting up above the road. As we came towards it, I could see that the tree was going to hit the windscreen about where my head was. The car had been cocked sideways as we came towards it and Hannu just un-cocked it and went under the tree without touching it. He’d obviously been doing it for hours on end, but it was the most masterful piece of driving I’d ever seen. 

Audi Quattro

Mel didn’t pass up the chance to sit in one of these with Hannu Mikkola

© Audi AG

5. Catching a lift in a prototype Countach

MN: I had a particularly wonderful journey from Monaco on the Monday morning after the 1973 Grand Prix. Bob Wallace, the famous Lamborghini test driver, had been in Monaco with the prototype Countach. Bob was very taciturn, but if he knew you loved cars, he was happy to have you along. I said to him, ‘Are you going back to Modena, Bob?’ and he said ‘Yep’. So I said ‘Do you mind if I come with you?’ and he said ‘Nope. Be outside the Hotel de Paris at seven in the morning’. So I was there, he pulled up, swung up the door, I jumped in and off we went, flat-out in this prototype Countach to Modena. 

“The original, pure shape of the Countach is still absolutely amazing”
Lamborghini Countach

The Countach looked like a spaceship when it launched in 1974

© Lamborghini

It was, and still is, an amazingly pure shape. It’s a shame that it became bastardised later with the wings and the mudguard add-ons. But the original pure shape was, and still is, absolutely amazing. Being inside was like sitting behind a sloping piece of glass and just going down the road very, very fast.

6. Meeting Enzo Ferrari

Enzo Ferrari

Not just anyone could get an audience with ‘Il Commendatore’

© Ferrari

MN: Before I arrived in England from Australia in 1973, a friend and I had planned to go to Italy – in fact, we went to the last proper Targa Florio, the Sicilian road race. I’d written to Enzo Ferrari to ask if I could possibly come and see him and visit the factory and race department, and he’d said ‘Yes, of course’. So we went to Maranello, got given a tour of the factory and they lent us a 365 GTB/4, so my friend and I went off for a few hours driving that.

When we got back, Enzo’s assistant and PR man – a wonderful man called Franco Gozzi – sat us down for a cup of coffee. When we had finished, he stood up and said ‘Mr Ferrari is waiting to see you’ – extraordinary words! Franco always had a great sense of drama…

“Enzo Ferrari must have liked me… [but] if you care and have great passion and try to do things really well, that opens so many doors…”

Franco knocked on the door of Enzo Ferrari’s office, opened it and there sitting at the end of this long room was Enzo Ferrari himself. We walked in and he gestured for us to sit down. He’d been reading magazines – he had that week’s Auto Sprint, the Italian racing magazine, in front of him. We sat and talked for about an hour. For some reason he must have liked me, and so whenever I went back to Modena, which was frequently, and I was at Ferrari, usually at the end of the day, Franco would say ‘Mr Ferrari would like to see you’. So I had many meetings with Enzo Ferrari at his office, or we’d go for lunch at the Cavallino across the road.

Why did he like me? I think he saw the quality of the stories I produced about his cars and the photography that accompanied them. If you care, and you have great passion and you try to do things really well, that opens so many doors. People can see that you’re as serious about what you do as they are about what they do, and that creates a natural affinity.

And the Revs Keep Rising (Haynes Publishing) is on sale now, priced £19.99.

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05 2016 REDBULLETIN.COM

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