Classic Ferraris, Hill Climb Specials, And More Mix In The Mountains Of Portugal
Photography by Robb Pritchard
Photography by: Robb Pritchard, Irina Kotova, Pawel Frackowiak, and Pedro Ramos Santos
At the end of August I found myself in Caramulo again, ostensibly to see the automobile museum’s Porsche display, but I was more excited to see the procession of cars navigating the hills of central Portugal for the 2018 Caramulo Motorfestival, an annual extravaganza of the best classic and sports cars the country has to offer.
Museum co-founder João Lacerda was a famous car collector who invested wisely, but he also liked driving them, valuing more than just their financial aspects. And seeing as the winding road that begins right at the steps of his personal museum makes for the perfect hillclimb course, he gave the go-ahead for it to be turned into the Rampa do Caramulo in 1979. The international event ran for many years until 1993, but with the museum still in the family—now run by three of João’s grandsons—in 2006 they restarted it as the Caramulo Classic. This not just a hillclimb race this time, but a true festival of motorsport showcasing everything from the oldest classics to more out-there cars like the BRC 05 Evo or a race-prepped semi truck. It has grown nearly exponentially year over year, and is now regarded by many as the Portuguese equivalent of Goodwood. That might be a bit of a stretch in terms of scale, but the passion of the 35,000 local fans who come up the mountain in droves to see the eclectic mix of cars is definitely on a par.
Beautiful weather and fresh air, albeit tinged with the heady aroma of tire smoke, and dozens of gorgeous cars means there’s only one more thing to add to the equation to make a perfect weekend: good company. I was joined this year by my photographing friend Pawel Frackowiak and my girlfriend Irina. Pawels’s favorite car was the Citroën 11CV, otherwise known as the Traction Avant, an unusual choice considering some of the wheeled works of art on display. “When I was a kid my brother loved Citroën, and I was always interested in learning when he found out something new about them, like how the 11CV was one of the first cars to use a monocoque, to have independent suspension and front-wheel drive. And the lines of its body too, it always seemed to be used in films for the bad guys, so it has that sinister look to me…”
Irina, even though I might remind her we have a Porsche, is sadly a lover of Jaguars, and when the I’ll admit quite beautiful E-Type OTS (open two-seat) pressed through the crowd it made her gasp audibly. She had an even bigger smile though when owner Luis Liberal offered to take her up the hill in it. The car’s previous owner was kind enough to give it a thorough restoration 17 years ago and when it was put up for sale Luis didn’t have to go too far to see it, seeing as they were next door neighbors and all that. He has enjoyed it every day since. Even though it’s an OTS, he likes how it looks with the factory hardtop fitted. The black over British Racing Green does suit it.
To go up the course, even at much less than competition speeds, the marshals insisted that everyone wear helmets, which seemed a little redundant in the Jag seeing as it’s not fitted with seat belts, but rules are rules sometimes. Thankfully Luis had a nice original Bell helmet that he’d had painted in the twin-window style made famous by Jacky Ickx.
Once back down the hill, Irina was beaming. “I’ve always loved the modern Jaguars as in Russia you just don’t see any classic ones, which is why this was the first time I’ve ever seen an E-Type. It’s just so stunning.” She’d also never worn a helmet before, and if you’ve see those Russian dash-cam videos on YouTube you know that someone who cares about their personal safety will want have their seatbelt on, so she was a little freaked out when Luis spun the rear wheels off the line. “It was also fun to see all the people at the sides waving and clapping, and I would have waved back if I wasn’t holding onto the bar in the dashboard so tightly!”
I assume that I am putting myself in the minority around most people when I say it, but modern supercars don’t really do too much for me, and so as the fleet of Lamborghini Aventadors and Ferrari F430s blasted off the line it was the “normal” classics behind them that had my attention. One of my favorites among them was the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus. I am old enough to remember these in the Group 4, pre-Group B days of rallying, and seeing how this hatchback left the start I could tell that there was something special under the bonnet.
The car has a story, it turns out. Vitor Mendes used to rally it in period in the 1980s, but he rolled it into the garage in 1989 and never got around to getting it running again. It stayed there until a couple of years ago when Rúben Lopes’ girlfriend took him into the garage to show him her dad’s dusty car. “It was like a barn find,” he smiles. “Especially when we opened the bonnet and saw the 2.1L Lotus engine.” Rúben and his father run a rally preparation workshop called AMSPORT, and they used the garage’s tools and work bay to strip the car and rebuild it… without his girlfriend’s father knowing about it. The build took about a year to complete, and was presented to a very grateful and very tearful Vitor. It’s been entered into a few classic events since then. The Caramulo Motorfestival is the biggest so far.
The much-loved VW Beetle was famously the idea of a pretty evil guy, but it’s not the only car to have its existence instigated by a fascist dictator; Spain’s infamously brutal General Franco had a similar idea in the 1950s, but wanted a sports car instead of a cheap one for the people. The top range version of the Pegaso Z102B had a 32-valve 3.2L V8 engine and a transaxle layout for 50:50 weight distribution, which all sounds grand until you find out that it cost more than a Ferrari did at the time. Famously unreliable, it wasn’t exactly a great sales success and didn’t put Spain on the sportscar world’s map either.
In 1953 this particular model was given by Franco as a gift to his rather less despotic Portuguese counterpart, president General Craveiro Lopes. He didn’t use it too much though, and in the late 1960s it was heavily damaged when the Lisbon warehouse it was stored in was flooded. A few years later it was gifted in its sorry state to the Caramulo museum on the understanding that they would restore it and protect it for prosperity. It was a good decision, and now in fully working order it’s one of the rarer sights to see on the climb.
Another unusual car with a very interesting story behind it is the three-wheeled 1958 Messerschmitt KR200. Unless you are a die-hard Robin Reliant fan, in today’s thinking it’s generally accepted that a car should have four wheels. That wasn’t always the case though. More associated with German aircraft in WW2, Messerschmitt were banned from anything to do with aviation afterwards and so turned their attention to making cars. So-called “bubble cars.” This one was donated to the museum back in the 1980s but was in poor condition and was such an odd car that no one had the time to take it out of the corner of the warehouse to restore it… A couple of years ago, though, the museum decided to have a micro car exhibit and Salvador had an interesting idea of how to fund the work and started the museum’s first-ever crowdfunding project called Save Messi.
If you’re a football (or soccer) fan you should understand why Messi is not the most popular name in Portugal, but Salvador though it would be easier than trying to get people to spell Messerschmitt properly, and 160 people donated a total of €6,000 and the work was carried out with live updates. Messi was the first car up the hill for the festival, and proved very popular with the crowd.
Of course no classic road course is complete without a Ferrari tearing along it, and Caramulo had a couple of absolute stunners. The French Racing Blue 500 Mondial is an amazing looking car, and underneath the sublime body work it is very similar to Alberto Ascari’s 1951 and ’52 Formula 1-winning Tipo 500. This one is owned by the ex-Chelsea manager André Villas-Boas, and is considered to be the most original 500 Mondial in the world.
At first glance the lines of the little red 166 MM seem more like an Austin Healey than what I think a Ferrari should look like, but this particular prancing horse has a special place here. Exported to Africa in the 1950s when Angola and Mozambique were Portuguese territories, it was actually the very first Ferrari to ever turn a wheel in Portugal. And this is the first time it’s been back since then. A stunning car in an amazing event.
Other highlights include the Volvo Racing truck, a 940bhp beast that shook the ground as it growled by, and the absolutely unreal acceleration of the WRX-spec Citroen DS3. 0-60 in 1.8 seconds is a real sight to see when you are standing right next to it. It was a bit quick to photograph, so here’s a slightly slower Moke instead.
There was a lot more going on than I got to see, with a static display of classic cars, a huge line-up of Ferraris, classic bikes, even some airplanes with an acrobatic display and a low-level fly-by of a pair of F-16 fighters. Some big names were also in attendance: Valentino Balboni of Lamborghini fame, Dakar legend Cyril Neveu, and ex-F1 driver Pedro Lamy. There was even an off-road course for the group of 30 4x4s that joined in the fun. All in all an absolutely brilliant weekend for car lovers in Portugal.