Authors of best-seller novels have an unfettered choice of motor cars for the use of the characters in their books and it is amusing to consider the different vehicles they favour for this purpose.
Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza and sometimes Daimler figure prominently. Dornford Yates invariably endowed his heroes with the “Best Car in the World.” His characters were great car owners and drivers. These elegant cars invariably stood outside White Ladies, the Hampshire home of Major and Mrs. Pleydell from the early nineteen-twenties until that worthy mansion was made over to the nation in 1937. Jonah Mansel, you may recall, possessed a Rolls with special coachwork built by a firm in St. James’s Street. which had various stowages for the rifles, revolvers, ropes, handcuffs and weapons needed by Jonah during his Continental peregrinations in books such, for instance, as ” Cost Price.” Members of the Vintage Sports Car Club may be amused to know that this Rolls was driven by Mansel’s man Carson, who used to sleep on guard in the well-loved vehicle while his master was busy stalking undesirables and would sometimes clean the car in a lunch break during a feverish chase across Europe !
Occasionally, it seems. Carson erred, for in “Berry and Co.” the Rolls takes the family to church and while Berry is reading the Lesson they hear it being driven away, which certainly gets the story off to a good start but suggests that on this occasion the faithful chauffeur had been guilty of overlooking a leak in the silencer ! Not that this proved any setback to his career, for in “Blind Corner” he receives £100,000 as his share of the treasure. of Count Axel the Red—and goes on being a chauffeur.
Apart from Mansel’s Rolls-Royce, other Dornford Yates’ characters owned cars of this illustrious make, such as Chandos, Vanity Fair, Anthony Lyveden and several lesser characters. When an inexpensive car is called for the author favours the “Lowland,” which suggests that perhaps he shrank from the model-T Ford as too obvious an opposite to the Rolls-Royce and wished to suggest the Overland of the same period.
When C.R.N. Minchin wrote his thriller “N.7” he gave the Rolls-Royce to the villain and let the hero chase it down the great French highway of the title, in a Bentley. “N7 ” was written because Sir Henry Royce happened to remark to Minchin that he thought the writing of an Edgar Wallace-type thriller must be very difficult. Minchin sat down to accept this challenge and this, his first book, not only well describes Route Nationale 7 but contains some subtle clues dependent on the reader’s knowledge of the correct setting of the minor controls of a 40/50 Rolls-Royce. A Morris, other 40/50 Rolls-Royces, and a Rolls Twenty also figure in the story which, as recounted in the author’s subsequent book “Under My Bonnet,” earned a letter of praise from Royce himself.
The Hispano-Suiza is not only the subject of a classic passage in “The Green Hat,” by Michael Arlen, which was published in 1922, but there is a French novel called “L’homme a l’Hispano,” the writer of which was Pierre Frondaie.
Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond liked to dash about in a sports Bentley and in his amusing book “Clubland Heroes” Richard Usborne sums up the closing paragraphs of a Sapper shocker “… the Demon King châtelain may have escaped, but the dead otherwise lie in heaps, Drummond’s other friends have arrived, probably masked and hooded in black, and a procession of sports cars drive back to Brook Street, Clarges Street and Half Moon Street for more beer and badinage.”
The old Morris tourer with the squealing brakes in which Peter Moran is driving across the unfenced South Downs in heavy rain towards Under Hall in the opening pages of Nevil Shute’s second novel “So Disdained,” which was first published in 1928, is obviously the blood-brother of the Morris Cowley two-seater used by the author when he was stationed at Howden on design work in connection with the airship R.100, to which, as Nevil Shute Norway, he refers in his autobiography “Slide Rule.” Also in “So Disdained,” which was published in America as “The Mysterious Aviator,” there is a little Talbot two-seater (presumably an 8/18) which is the Under Hall runabout and maid-of-all-work, used to refuel the Breguet XIX aeroplane in secret on the eve of Moran’s alarming take-off, solo in the night, for the Casa Alba. It is in this novel, too, that R.A.F. Intelligence Officers employ “a big American five-seater, perhaps a Stutz or Chrysler . . .” The dust-jacket shows a very realistic “bull-nose” Morris tourer.
Nevil Shute also featured a 6 1/2-litre Bentley in his third novel, “Lonely Road,” so he is something of a motorists’ favourite when it comes to light fiction. Incidentally, all these early novels of his are still available, from William Heinemann Ltd.
Rudyard Kipling rendered the early Lanchester immortal in his short story “Steam Tactics” and there is evidence, from the aforementioned “Under My Bonnet,” that he used a 40/50 Rolls-Royce, called the “Duchess,” early in 1921, with every satisfaction. It may not be generally known that Aldous Huxley features an early 30/98 Vauxhall Velox in his novel “Those Barren Leaves,” which came on the bookstalls in 1925. The Velox endows its young owner, Lord Hovenden, with unaccustomed courage as he drives it, enabling him, amongst other things, to promise to make a political speech, as he rolls along at sixty, and to tell a mother of four children, seventeen years older than himself, that she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, as he drives the Vauxhall at 75 m.p.h. yet, out of his car, diffidence and nervousness are foremost in his character. Although eighteen months old, the 30/98 touches 88 m.p.h. on a long, straight Italian road and easily disposes of the cautious chauffeur Ernest in a “Silver Ghost” limousine. “Wonderful machine, don’t you fink ?” is the comment of the twenty-one year-old owner to a terrified passenger—Lord Hovenden is a happy ancestor, perhaps, of Toad of Toad’s Hall.
It is a vast pre-World-War-One Delaunay-Belleville which indulges in some rapid motoring in “The Unknown Sea” by Francois Auriac, While at the other extreme the unorthodox features of the original two-stroke mid-enigined Trojan assist the plot of John Ferguson’s thriller “The Man in the Dark.” The latter came out in 1928 and has been reprinted in the “Penguin” series.
Fiction’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, had little to do with motor cars but he did, we believe, on one occasion ride to a case in Doctor Watson’s model-T Ford and his creator, Conan Doyle, had a 1903 Wolseley as his first car and a big Lorraine-Dietrich “Billy,” which he drove in the 1911 Prince Henry Trial, and on Brooklands, as is evident from a biography. Bernard Shaw had a car of the latter make in the mid-nineteen-twenties, before turning to specially-equipped straight-eight Lanchester.
Besides fascinating appearances of specific makes of cars in novels and thrillers, there have been the motoring novels themselves, such as “All Out,” “Portrait in a Windscreen,” “Speed Triumphant” and “The Racer,” although in these cases the cars are often fictitious or thinly-disguised. Not however in “Speed Six,” which has a Bentley as its hero.
Classics in this field are the Williamson books of long ago, of which “The Lightning Conductor,” “The Motor Maid,” and “Car of Destiny,” all written before 1910, are notable. In “The Lightning Conductor” the hero, a keen owner of what is obviously a Napier, disguises himself as a chauffeur/mechanic in order to drive the ladies across Europe in a primitive car they have unwisely acquired, popularly thought to be a Benz Ideal, but which experts interpret as a New Orleans. In desperation the hero sets fire to this vehicle and the tour proceeds, much more successfully, in another car, if memory serves, a Panhard-Levassor. One day, it may be recalled, as they drive across the vast plain towards Salon they encounter a masked automobilist “like a figure of death in an Albert Durer cartoon,” who hurtles towards them “at seventy or more” in a gigantic racing car. “Perhaps,” they decide, “it was the great Fournier himself,” On a Mors, of course.
Enough has been written to indicate that many elegant and rapid cars abide in the well-thumbed books in public and private libraries, and that these often come to light in the most unexpected places; that is a lot of the fun of discovering them.
“This is the Schoolroom,” by Nicholas Monsarrat, Contains a masterly discourse on the safety of the skilled driver, no matter how high his speed illustrated by a lively account of Alastair, a Cambridge undergraduate, driving a 3 1/2-litre Bentley. The book also carries a reference to a Mercedes achieving “a hundred and eight on the Barnet By-pass” after the big car had been tried out at Brooklands earlier in the week . . . ” But it was safe, safer than doing twenty-five down Grosvenor Place : a wide straight road with a roughened surface, a crisp dry morning, a time (just after 6 a.m;) when there was no traffic at all….”
Another unexpected tribute to the safe judgement of the fast driver is found in John Fothergill’s entertaining autobiography “My Three Inns, “Fothergill describes how the joy of life returns to his son in a great chunk.”natural to his age,” as his little old Salmson is driven rapidly—”It may not go more than 60 m.p.h. but it feels like 250″—and after being taken for a drive in an Aston Martin racer which reaches 100 m.p.h. and covered 12 miles in ten minutes he concludes “I imagine this type of driver is much safer than the majority with their 50 and 60 m.p.h.”
Certainly Fothergill calls both the-Salmson (known as the “AW” or “Awful Warning “) and Aston Martin “racers” and the A.M. is described as having “engines,” that common error of the novelist, but elsewhere he proves so knowledgeable about cars and picks his adjectives so carefully (“splendid Hispano-Suiza” but “sumptuous Rolls-Royce”) that I am prepared to accept these as printing mistakes. Incidentally, Fothergill’s Three Swans at Market Harborough is mentioned as being filled one night with Donington visitors and while he had the Spread Eagle at Thame an aeroplane from Brooklands landed in a nearby field.
Sinclair Lewis, in “Rabbit,” allows the young bloods of nineteen twenty-three America to construct exciting ModelT Ford “hotrods,” while Mr. Babbit, respectable in Real Estate, derives social status from owning a six-cylinder touring car of a superior make (unnamed) which he drives with dash. Incidentally, from this novel one appreciates how much earlier in America the motor car was established in the lives of the people than was the case in Europe.
In another of this author’s books. “Prodigal Parents.” the reader is confronted in the first chapter by a Triumph Special, which has an accident at an S-bend. It is obviously a fast car, but as this book was published in America in 1928, and at that time no Triumph had been made that was likely to excite an American, one concludes sadly that it is fictitious, like the Houndtooth with which it shares the Sachem Fells agency.
So far fiction has been our main theme, but if you search amongst biography, autobiography and other non-fiction works further motoring discoveries will be made. For instance, there is the account of how T.H. White had to abandon his well-loved 3-litre Bentley because the magneto drive had sheared when he was on his way to Scotland for a salmon-fishing holiday, in “England Have My Bones.” and further references to the old-school Bentleys in “I Bought a Mountain.” by Thomas Firbank, in which a timid London solicitor is met, at a remote Welsh Station and given a memorable ride in a gale and pouring rain, screen flat and the hood torn away. There is some rather similar open-air motoring with a vintage persuasion, in an Alvis Silver Eagle. in “The Story of a Norfolk Farm,” by Henry Williamson, and later in this book the Alvis acts as escort to an old Morris Commercial which has been pressed into service as a removals van.
Music lovers who read Eric Coates autobiography will learn that he greatly enjoyed motoring. “Unfortunately, he does not disclose the make of the light car he owned in the nineteen-twenties, but later be makes it clear that he appreciated driving his V12 Lincoln Zephyr. —W. B.
[Easter is a time when publishers issue their new lists and presumably lots of reading is undertaken. If our readers would like to comment on the above or add their own “finds” in fiction and biography we shall be delighted to hear front them—but, if your letter or p.c. is intended for publication, please keep it short.—Ed.]