A covert photoshoot at the former home of the French Grand Prix – evo Archive
How subterfuge and guile saved the day on a photoshoot at L’autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry
Issue 145 of evo (July 2010) was dominated by the McLaren F1, celebrating 20 years of the famous three-seater. But this meant a feature celebrating a record-breaking three-wheeler flew a little under the radar. However, driving a Morgan Aero SuperSports to Montlhéry remains one of my most memorable road trips. Largely because it was very nearly a complete waste of time.
The old circuit lies to the south of Paris and I remember it being a lovely sunny summer’s drive down from Calais. Photographer Matt Howell and I decided that we would avoid the autoroutes and stick to the D and N classifications, blasting along the mostly straight roads with the side-exit exhausts growling away. We got lost because we were using a map. We also spent some time in a Carrefour car park trying to disassemble and pack away the two removable roof sections.
All of which meant that it was early evening when we arrived at L’autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry. Thoughts of making the most of the lovely ‘golden hour’ light died with the abruptness of a race engine, however, when we saw the entrance. It was clearly not like those other historic French circuits Reims and Le Mans, which you can freely wander around large portions of. This had a tall fence with some aggressive barbed wire, while the entrance was barred by a red and white pole and a guard with a military flavour. Turns out the place had been France’s equivalent of Millbrook (with which it actually merged in 2020) for the last 50 years and was used for manufacturer and military testing. Guests were about as welcome as a dog in a cattery.
Merde was, I think, the mot juste, and my French didn’t extend much beyond that. Still, I rolled up my GCSE linguistic sleeves and strolled over to the youngish chap wearing khaki. It wasn’t the most flowing of conversations, but I let him make the running and made sure to smile and nod in what I thought were the right places. As such, I didn’t tell a lie, I perhaps just failed to furnish him with the truth…
You see, he thought that the splendidly curvaceous car we had arrived in was part of some filming that was already taking place on the circuit that evening. So he let us in. Matt and I expected to hear a shout from behind us as we drove in, but none came. We had no idea how long we’d have before we were discovered, but we tried to steer clear of any CCTV and make the most of the opportunity.
‘I’d barely heard of the place before we went there,’ recalls Matt, ‘but I remember being blown away by the scale of it. It was magnificent and rather monumental.’
It’s an 8-mile circuit in total, but we stuck mostly to the area around the banked oval, where a Morgan three-wheeler had broken speed records in the 1920s (and now famous as the scene of Ken Block’s Gymkhana 3, which was filmed there later in the same year we visited). In an hour Matt managed the incredible feat of shooting enough to fill a nine-page feature. Any other people we saw in the distance we gave a cheery but nonchalant wave to on the principle of looking like we were meant to be there.
Once the photos were in the bag we hid the memory cards in case we were stopped, then took a drive around the rest of the circuit, at which point we stumbled upon the film set that our friendly guard had assumed we were part of. Not daring to stop, we simply breezed right through the middle. You can’t sneak when you’re propelled by a 4.8-litre V8, so we waved at the catering truck, smiled at the stars and nodded to the director before hoping to hell that nobody raised the alarm before we made it back to the exit.
We could see the guard was on the phone as we approached the barrier and thoughts of breakfast in the Bastille vied with calculations as to what percentage of the car would fit under the striped pole. Then, miraculously, the barrier lifted. About a mile later we began to laugh and I think we chuckled most of the way to Calais.