Strada Vecchia
(The Old Road)

As post war austerity subsided and people had more income at their disposal, vehicle ownership boomed in the 1950s and 60s. With this grew the desire to hit the open road and explore the continent. Only one obstacle remained - The English Channel. New roll-on/roll-off cross-channel ferries from Dover and Folkestone to the French ports, which also offered a higher level of comfort than previous vessels, appeared, and soon a new airport - Lydd Ferryfield - was constructed and car-ferrying flights with Silver City Airways were offered to Le Touquet airport in France.

By 1960 their Bristol Freighter and Superfreighter aircraft were ferrying 90,000 vehicles across the water! In the mid-1960s, Hoverlloyd and Seaspeed hovercraft, from Ramsgate and Dover respectively, offered an alternative fast means of getting across the sea. Then in 1994 the Channel Tunnel opened offering railway-based transportation of vehicles to France via Le Shuttle.

Strada Vecchia is a celebration of those early days of continental summer holidays by road. It was a time when one still had to plan ahead before the trip: Green cards were needed for insurance cover; journeys were longer due the rarity of motorways meaning heavier traffic on normal roads and also due to long queues at customs every time a border was crossed, so travellers were used to taking it easy and stopping on the side of a road and having a picnic; petrol stations were not like the motorways service areas of today so may have lacked even a toilet but might often have a resident mechanic or one situated nearby; motorists might have carried a spare jerry can of petrol (or even a spare toilet roll) in case they found themselves stranded far from the next station; if travelling through France vehicles needed to have yellow-painted headlamps or yellow plastic covers fitted before the headlamp deflector sticker became the norm in Europe for British cars.

All these things and more characterised continental road travel for vehicles full of British holidaymakers driving to their holiday destinations to the seaside or mountains or even Europeans living in Britain travelling to their native countries for the holidays... and of course, at 4pm, out came the camping gas and the kettle and everything stopped for tea! All kinds of vehicles, not only cars could be found from motorbikes and sidecars, vans, utility vehicles, campervans, cars and caravans and who can forget the film "Summer Holiday" where a bunch of young people take a London Bus abroad.

Fifty years ago in July 1967, aged 17 months, I made my first road trip from London to Italy with my family in our MK III Ford Zephyr 6. I don't remember much about it being so young, except that I was car sick a lot! We took four days to complete a 790 mile journey which today can be done in about 14 hours on today's equivalent motorway network.

Later, as a driver myself, I chose to take the motorway rather than my Dad's old AA-recommended route. More recently though, and now with a young family of my own now, I started to miss the romance of the 'old road' and on my annual road trip nowadays I try to stick to the non-motorway route. With less traffic on these roads now, air-conditioning in cars it's quite a scenic, sick-free and even brisk journey to Northern Italy. But now the heart yearns for the ultimate holiday test: to make the entire journey as near as possible to the 1967 route in a classic car!

There's a touch of inspiration from the film "Montecarlo or Bust" in this event but it's not a race, just a nostalgic test of authenticity and endurance for both vehicle and occupants.

Romano Viazzani


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