Book reviews, April 1971, April 1971

“Lost Causes of Motoring—Europe, Volume 2”, by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. 323 pp. 8 1/2 in. x 5 1/2 in. (Cassell & Co. Ltd., 35, Red Lion Square, London, WC1. £3.25.)

Here is the keenly-awaited second volume of Lord Montagu’s “Lost Causes of Europe”, more interesting, I think, than the first of his volumes dealing with defunct European automobiles because the marques covered—Talbot Darracq, de Dion Bouton, Delahaye, Hotchkiss, Lorraine-Dietrich, Mathis, Salmson, Violet, Voisin, FN, Minerva, Hispano-Suiza and Pegaso—are, I think, more appealing to British-based enthusiasts.

The book is extremely provocative of controversy and packed with nostalgia somewhat tempered by masses of facts and figures. Obviously written for Lord Montagu by that astoundingly energetic and admirably erudite motoring historian Michael Sedgwick, the book just fails to approach the enormous fascination of the first “Lost Causes”. I suppose this is because there is less and less history left to uncover, that the book of British lost-‘uns was compiled after more interviews and correspondence with those in a position to remember the hitherto unexposed details, conscientiously as this policy of authorship and research has been covered in the European volumes, and, finally, because someone who has just unearthed, or is on the track of, say a Clyno or a Calthorpe, is, maybe, avid to assimilate the minutest fragments of information about such vehicles, whereas they never so much as hope to find themselves restoring an Adler or Pegaso.

This is not to say that much fresh material is not contained between these pages—it is, but buried to a considerable extent behind a facade of known history. The book copes well with the cars selected but not much is left to say about Hispano-Suiza, Salmson, Talbot-Darracq or Voisin. Nevertheless, the question of how the Hispano-Suiza came to be associated with the Belgian Abadal, which models really were Alfonsos, and the eventual fate of Birkigt’s designs, are faithfully followed through. It is just that I feel that in this volume more reliance has been placed on contemporary Press reports and chance remarks for an assessment of given models than in the British “Lost Causes” and that not quite so much fresh material emerges.

Nevertheless, this is a book no serious student of historic automobilism should ignore and many intriguing, quaint and important links emerge from reading it. The sorting out of the divers Violet variations is masterly and throughout the detail is profound, even to reminding me that I owned for a few weeks an FN saloon with a TT engine under its bonnet. These “Lost Causes” books have the important merit of being comprehensive, entertaining and important; I just think the first was the best. Incidentally, I note that I am quoted frequently in this third, very welcome, volume, I hope for more flattering reasons than in the hope of securing a good review!

To pull a Montagu book apart by way of criticism can well land the reviewer in trouble, for they are not written without extremely thorough researching, so I refrain from indulging in this habit on this occasion, apart from expressing disappointment at a certain brevity on the author’s part in not coupling Renault with Hispano-Suiza when the advent of Rolls-Royce servo brakes are mentioned and of neglecting to inform his readers of the subtle differences between plate-clutch and expanding-shoe, in brakes of this nature. Also, is it sufficient to state that mechanical-servo brakes were pioneered by Birkigt without expounding on those of Sunbeam, Renault and Delage, and should not the great Swiss designer’s departure from his classic direct attack by the cam on the valve, when rockers were used on one engine, as Kent Karslake has dealt with in a Motor Sport discourse on these engines, have been included?

However, I was interested to see mentioned the 16-valve twin-cam four-cylinder touring Darracq, which competed at Caerphilly and Shelsley Walsh hill-climbs, although the hoped-for confirmation that it became a catalogue model is met with a denial, to learn how Deguingand was tied up with Violet, to be reminded of the very odd endings of some of the once-great European makes, and to find Sedgwick’s oft-quoted Jam Factory at Maidenhead intruding again.

The book covers racing history as well as engineering and commercial development, comparing each make covered with others of like period and type, and the whole adds up to enthralling pocket-histories of, to quote the chapters, “Whatever Will They Call It Next?”, “Te Deum to Nunc Dimittis“, “Life Begins at Forty”, “Le Juste Milieu“, “Five Designers and Four Flags”, “The Alsatian That Lost Its Bite”, “St. Andrew for Billancourt”, “The Two-Timers”, “The White Knight”, “Odd Men Out”, “The Goddess of Automobiles” and “Flying Storks and Winged Horses”. The chapter headings, you see, like the grouped photographs which are insufficient in number to do the text credit, and P. van der Maaden’s line-drawings of the makes dealt with, conform to the previous books in the series. The main charm of reading them stems from the unexpected items to be gleaned, such as W. F. Bradley sadly forsaking open cars for a 12-h.p. Darracq Weymann saloon in 1925 because “I have reduced weight (to within a mere cwt. of an open model) and eliminated all noise” (except for a rattle from toolbox and fire extinguisher).—W. B.

“Steam Cars—1770-1970” by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Anthony Bird. 250 pp. 8 1/2 in. x 5 1/2 in. (Cassell & Co. Ltd., 35, Red Lion Square, London, WC1. £3.15.)

I am always delighted to read a book or an article by Anthony Bird, even if I do not necessarily always agree with him, because he writes clearly, brings fresh angles to bear on overworked subjects, and puts across a profound knowledge of veteran to vintage automobilism. So, overlooking his apparent lack of intimate knowledge of the Trojan two-stroke, and attempting to forgive him for writing at length about the Lanchester but refusing to do the same for that even more complex make, the Daimler, I went at this full history of the steam car in a tolerant mood.

Right from the commencement there was the pleasure, anticipated, of reading, in Mr. Bird’s terms, why homo sapiens had to wait until the arrival of steam power for a practical horseless carriage, why alternatives wouldn’t work, and the reasons for i.c.-engined vehicles being superior to the theoretically-ideal steam vehicle. The rest of this delightful book is in the same easy-to-assimilate vein.

The questions posed about the effectiveness of Cugnot’s steam truck of 1770, the truth about the legends which still surround the 127.56-m.p.h. Land Speed Record Stanley steamer, and similar Bird debunking, are as welcome as they are valuable. The chapter “Pros and Cons” discussing the advantages and shortcomings of many makes of steam car is truly masterly and, remarkably, the authors make no attempt to eulogise the subject of their book—exactly the reverse, as is portrayed by their quoting that classic steam-car indictment by Fred Marriott, the Stanley racing driver: “When a gas car breaks down it takes two hours to find out what the trouble is and five minutes to fix it. With a Stanley it takes five minutes to find the trouble, but you have to wait two hours until it is cool enough to work on”.

The very early story of steam coaches and carriages I find uninteresting but many students of history may not agree, so it is as well that the author (and here I refer to Mr. Bird who pushed the pen and not to Lord Montagu who, as it were, pushed Mr. Bird into pushing the pen and availed him of all the valuable reference sources, pictures and contacts that His Lordship commands) has dealt with these clearly and interestingly, even for this more vintage-minded reviewer, largely because of the delightful, yet thorough and analytical way in which Mr. Bird seeks the truth and dispels the myths.

The chapters more likely to appeal to the bulk of the Montagu/Bird readers are those relating to steam cars we encounter in today’s veteran car rallies and those which set legendary records in the domain of speed many years ago. Thus it is satisfactory to find Chapter V devoted to Serpollet and Stanley, Chapter VI to “The Year of the Locomobile” and Chapter VIII to “Steam at Speed”, while Chapter VII covers Serpollet, White, Stanley and divers other makes, very comprehensively.

The lucid Bird treatment of these pioneers of practical steaming are ably reinforced by a chapter on the state of the art between the wars. Moreover, the book has been brought right up-to-date by including data on the modern experiments in steam-car propulsion conducted by General Motors, Lear, Keen, Hedrich and others.

“Steam Cars—1770-1970” is the most readable book so far written on this subject and it is enhanced by appendices about how to operate a White steam car, a paper on steam propulsion read at Milan in 1906, and a list of steam-car manufacturers, from Abenaque (1900) to Wood-Loco (1901-2), the length of which may surprise you. This is a very worthwhile contribution to a formerly neglected aspect of the motor car, especially as it compares steam cars make by make and also with equivalent petrol cars, price and performance-wise, etc., in a most outspoken manner. There are, too, some good illustrations.

W. B.