Cars in Books, April 1972

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Quite a miscellany of references to cars this time, in recently-read non-motoring books, even to a piece on the Brands Hatch Racing Drivers’ School in “The Second ‘Field’ Bedside Book” (Collins, 1969). And an interesting aside in “Small Boat on the Thames” by Roger Pilkinton (Macmillan, 1966) about how the road past Bray Lock was freed from its one-time 8d. toll by the action of a motorist who in 1913 refused to pay and whose car cushion was seized by the toll-keeper and sold in lieu. A telegram was sent to the motorist advising him of 3/- balance which could be collected. The incensed car owner caused a big rumpus in Maidenhead, as a result of which the toll-fee was rescinded. So if anyone finds a 1913 car minus a seat cushion ….

I have also discovered two more books containing references to Brooklands Track—one about life in Edwardian England, with a picture of typical “bookies” of the day at the Track and another, unhappily, of the fatal accident involving Hermon’s Minerva, and the other the late Billy Cotton’s “I Did It My Way” (Harrap, 1970), which contains quite a lot about Cotton’s racing days at the Track and elsewhere, with a quote from my “History of Brooklands Motor Course” and some good illustrations of his racing cars.

For some time, having digested the James Bond thrillers, I had intended to read the late Ian Fleming’s “Thrilling Cities”, based on visits to various capitals which he undertook for the Sunday Times in 1959 and 1960 (Glidrose Productions, 1963). This is the unexpurgated version; some of Fleming’s references to night life apparently shocked the Sunday Times’ Editor and were blue-pencilled. In his chapter on Vienna Fleming writes about the car he used, and from this you realise that he really did know about our sort of motoring. He drove a Ford Thunderbird, his second, a four-seater with only 1,000 miles up when he left Ostend. His first, “a lovely two-seater”, bought in 1955, had run “50,000 fast miles without so much as a bulb fusing”.

Fleming confesses that he “had ordered all the gimmicks—automatic gears, power steering, power brakes”, but admits that “at first I hated and feared these devices, which seemed to give the car power over the driver instead of the other way round”. Later he got used to them and “could almost—you never quite can with these damnable devices—make the car do what I wanted”. This, and other remarks, stamp Fleming as having had a proper understanding of what motoring is about. He drove his Thunderbird 600 miles in two days on these occasions and praised its 50 h.p. (he presumably meant rated h.p.) 7-litre engine, very comfortable, roomy body, and its performance “. . . quick as hell. Ninety miles an hour with a reserve of of thirty was a comfortable touring speed on the autobahns . . . ” He also makes the sage but unheeded comment that “It is no good building 100 m.p.h. roads and putting a 50 m.p.h. speed-limit on them”, and notes that most accidents happen at between 30 m.p.h. and 50 m.p.h.

He calls for flashing headlamps on British cars and double headlamps as on all American cars (remember, he was writing this in 1959) and International road signs for this country and he criticises the “stuffy and old-fashioned AA routes”, compared to “the excellent free maps and regional guides” from Shell and BP. “By far the most impressive car on the autobahns”, Fleming wrote, “was the Volkswagen” which “. . . hammer along at a steady 80 m.p.h. with, according to all accounts, astonishingly little driver fatigue”. He then remarks on how a British delegation (one can see them!) said the rear-engined ugly duckling had no future in Coventry and says “I wonder what the British motor car delegation think [of Dr. Porsche’s invention] today!” I rather like his reference to “the Herren in their Mercedes or Opels, the Volk in their Wagens”. The non-motoring aspect of the book is also exceedingly entertaining.