NO WHEELS STORY READS MORE LIKE A FILM SCRIPT THAN GRIFF BORGESON’S A DILAMBDA IN A CAVE. THE INTRO IS A CLASSIC. “THE SCENE: A NARROW TWISTING ROAD THROUGH THE WILDLY BEAUTIFUL SWISS-ITALIAN ALPS… THE CHARACTERS: A FAMOUS AUTHOR AND HIS FILM STAR WIFE LIVING IN A MOUNTAIN HIDEAWAY… THE PLOT: THE CHANCE DISCOVERY OF AN ITALIAN MASTERPIECE.” THEN CAME THE KICKER LINE THAT HOOKED YOU HOPELESSLY.
“THIS, I SWEAR, IS EXACTLY THE WAY IT HAPPENED.”
Among the pile of manuscripts I inherited when I took over the editorship of Wheels in late February 1971 was a collection of stories by an American writer, Griffith Borgeson.
The name was familiar; I remembered having read his articles in True’s Automotive Yearbook and his restoration stories of the fabulous Miller front-wheel-drive Indy cars in Sports Cars Illustrated (which later became Car & Driver).
Eventually I delved into the pile and among a rich variety of stories found this masterpiece, the story of Erich Maria Remarque’s Lancia Dilambda.
Remarque, of course, wrote the definitive World War I novel All Quiet On The Western Front. And he was married to Paulette Goddard, the beautiful American actress who had starred in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
Borgeson’s recounting of cold-calling Remarque, and of the gradual realisation of who this silver-haired gentleman was as they bonded over cognac and car stories, is one of those tales that seems almost too good to be true.
Keen to find out more, I wrote to Borgeson and in 1972 made the first of a number of visits to his “ancient rustic manor, a bit of a castle, with about 36 rooms, many of which await restoration”, just north of Aix en Provence, in the south of France. When I visited Griff and Jasmine in 1975, it housed a Citroen 2CV van, the Fiat 600 from this story, a 1936 Ford Popular with French coachwork body and an unrestored 1952 Alfa Romeo 1900 coupe.
Borgeson, I quickly learned, combined his natural curiosity in things automotive with an ability to speak Italian, French and Spanish; an advantage he carefully nurtured.
I directly trace my desire to live and work in Europe to a few days in November 1972 when I first stayed with the Borgesons. His enthusiasm, knowledge and a compelling urge to find original sources provided both motivation and stimulus, though it was 16 years before I moved from Australia to Europe.
As one friend said of Griff, who died in June 1997, “he had the mind of an engineer, the heart of a biographer.”
Remarque died on September 25, 1970. Paulette continued to live in their villa at Porto Ronco, Switzerland, until she died on April 20, 1990. They are both buried in a small cemetery in the grounds. Paulette’s previous husband was Charlie Chaplin, Erich’s previous wife was Marlene Dietrich.
BORGESON’S story ened, in Remarque’s words, “a bit indistinctly”. Deliberately so, for Griff and Jasmine were seeking an appropriate home for the noble car they purchased from him in 1963.
Through automotive historian Tito Anselmi, the Dilambda was sold in 1970 to Guido and Franco Artom, young Italian industrialists who collected classic cars.
The Borgesons last encountered the Lancia during the first retrospective Mille Miglia in 1971 when, in the hands of the Artoms, it ran like a train.
The car’s last known public appearance was at a special 100-year anniversary celebration of Remarque’s birth in 1998 in the German university town of Osnabrück.
This Dilambda, which Remarque called The Puma, was one of two owned by the great novelist. His first Lancia Dilambda – a roadster – was a gift from his publishers in 1929. Confiscated by the Nazis in 1933, it then disappeared.
WHEELS answers a classified ad and in the process grabs the first Australian drive in the Range Rover; Lamborghini’s $30K Jarama wows the crowds at the Melbourne Show, and the Jensen-Healey does likewise in Geneva; a Morgan Plus Eight gets the road test treatment from Robbo, who loves it but describes it as “primitive”. And that’s in 1972.
APOLLO 17 commander Gene Cernan becomes the last human to walk – and to drive – on the moon. Then scratches his daughter’s initials on a rock.
VOLKSWAGEN Beetle sales exceed those of the Ford Model T with the purchase of the 15,007,034th Bug.
EMERSON Fittipaldi wins at Monza to become the youngest ever F1 world champion at the wheel of his dominant Lotus 72D.