Cars in books, April 1973



ALLOWING that this feature is nearly as interested in aviation references in non-flying books as it is in cars and motoring personalities met in non-motoring books, I thought I knew all the worthwhile accounts of flying between the wars, especially in light aeroplanes, using the bibliography at the back of “The Story of the British Light Aeroplane” by Terence Broughton (John Murray, 1963) as a check. But I have since discovered a book on this topic which no enthusiast for the old days of carefree and adventurous flying in light aeroplanes should fail to read, namely, “The Flying Dutchess, A Biography” by John, Duke of Bedford (Macdonald, 1968).

This quite fascinating book is largely composed of diary entries written by the late Duchess of Bedford, who was lost under inexplicable circumstances in 1937 while flying solo in her DH Gipsy Moth from her private aerodrome at Woburn, at the age of 71. The Duchess was an enthusiastic owner of light aeroplanes, keeping an aged DH Moth and a DH Puss Moth at Woburn, buying a GA Pobjoy Monospar for the 1932 Tour-of-the-Oases Race, which her pilot crashed on the eve of the event at Thrupps End Farm near Woburn, while earlier she had bought a Bristol-engined Fokker monoplane for long-distance record-attempts in Capt. Barnard’s hands, and later she had one of the last of the open-cockpit DH Gipsy III Moths and a Percival Gull. She employed a pilot-companion, as others had chauffeur-companions, paying them £1,000 a year (in 1930’s currency) and giving them a house on the estate, no mean job for the slump years. After Capt. Barnard came Flt. Lt. Allen, who was killed in the mysterious Monospar accident, and then Flt. Lt. Preston.

The Duchess describes her long-distance flights made to India, Persia, Africa and the Cape, etc., which were of a record-breaking nature, in the Fokker and the DR Moth, in a most interesting manner, lightly disposing of the hardships, the near-mishaps, the forced landings, the uncomfortable hotels, etc. If only she had named the makes of the innumerable cars and taxis she used on these occasions, from 1928 onwards, what a remarkable list it would make! She does not do this, and the only make of car mentioned is a Rolls-Royce, of which the Duchess drove one, or perhaps more than one. The Duke of Bedford, describing how his grandmother met him at Woburn Sands station in 1933 or thereabouts, driving the car herself, calls it “a great big, high, old Rolls-Royce”, so it could well have been, even then, a Silver Ghost. It was sufficiently large to awe one of her pilots, used to exciting aeroplane expeditions, when Her Grace suddenly ordered him to drive it, but she herself drove it very fast.

I found this book fascinating, not only because of the personal accounts of the Duchess’ more ambitious flights but because, with its references to quite short flights, air rallies, etc., it captures the spirit of private flying between the wars. It is yet another non-motoring book in which Brooklands (curiously omitted from the Index), is mentioned (I regret I have not kept a list of the others, and a play, in which the old Track is featured, but perhaps the Brooklands Society has a note of them?)—Her Grace winning Concours & Elegance prizes there in 1931 and 1932 with her two Moths; she also presented the Tatler Cup on the first occasion. There are references to many of the pre-war aerodromes, including Hendon (where they flew over the wreckage of Lord Knebworth’s machine which had crashed the day before), to the Eastbourne Air Rally, to flying to Douglas to watch the car racing in 1933 (the year the Hon. Brian Lewis won in the Alfa Romeo), and so on, and there are the letters which passed between the Duchess and her last pilot, when the structural safety of her Puss Moth was in doubt, one rather puzzling reference by Flt. Lt. Preston to a “straighteight Lagonda” he would like to own probably being intended to apply to his mythical ideal car. Besides flying and bird-watching, the Duchess had as her major undertaking the Woburn Hospital, which she had opened during the First World War. One interesting motoring reference is to her Rolls-Royce having a puncture in a narrow lane at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Dartmoor, in 1926. While the Duchess changed the wheel she held up other cars, one of whose drivers tried to assist her but he “did not understand the job” — presumably being unfamiliar with R.-R. centre-lock hubs and spanners!

Incidentally, Her Grace was distressed by the spoliation of the countryside at Sarratt Mill by the growth of hideous bungalows, little villas, the cutting down of beechwoods, the winding lanes made straight and hedges and road-side trees cut down to “enable the motorist to tear through the country where there is no longer anything to linger for”. She wrote that in 1935, so one wonders what she would have thought of things today, when even in remote, traffic-lightless Radnorshire little used roads are being made into race tracks and they are now starting on the lanes? Oh, and having not long ago referred to finding a description of spectating at a Schneider Trophy race, here is the Duchess writing of watching the 1929 contest, soon after she had performed the opening ceremony at the new Hanworth aerodrome . . . .

Mainly, then, this is a book, and a very fascinating one, about aeroplanes and enthusiasts for them should definitely read it; they may even care to trace the poem about learning to fly by Jeffrey Day, which the Duchess quoted in a broadcast from Savoy Hill on returning from the record flight to India and back in eight days, being criticised for so doing because this poem contained the word “damn”!

I read recently a biography about Leslie Charteris, author of the Saint stories, in which he is first said not to have cared for Sherlock Holmes and later is credited with having written more Holmes stories than Conan Doyle himself, and in which Sexton Blake is confused with the great Baker Street detective! I came upon nothing motoring, apart from passing reference to the Saint’s two fictitious cars (no attempt being made to identify them), but this has led me to wonder whether the Sherlock Holmes Society has ever debated the details of the Ford and Benz cars which feature in Sherlock Holmes’ last case?

As the greatest detective in fiction, capable of solving more mysteries without going very far from Baker Street than James Bond could do while scorching about in an Aston Martin equipped with knives, etc., I find it just a trifle sad that, when Holmes did resort to a motor car, it was nothing more exciting than Watson’s Model-T, a car which even the painstaking writer of “Following in the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes” (David & Charles) is content to dismiss with the aside that no-one knows whether Dr. Watson bought it to take his wife for rides, or as a means of getting away from her . . . Which reminds me that in “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes” by Hugh Greene (Bodley Head, 1970)—what an impertinent title!—there is a reference to “The Mystery of a Motor Car” and “The Lady in the Car” by William Le Queux, which are presumably the mystery equivalents of the motoring romances of the Williamsons. From “Holidays Wales” by Maurice Wiggin (Farm Holiday Guides, Paisley) a colleague spotted the following:—”I was a child of six when my parents introduced me to Wales in 1919. We made the adventurous journey of some 90 miles front Staffordshire in one of the early Model T Ford touring cars—the original ‘flivver’ with a billowing Cape Cart hood, artillery wheels, and button-back upholstery stuffed with horsehair which, when it began to escape, pricked the tender back of one’s little knees abominably. The trip from Bloxwich to Rhyl took ten hours under a baking sun—we had twelve punctures and twelve ‘sooted plugs’ and when we arrived at Edward Henry Street we found that mother had forgotten to hook the ‘digs’. Such experiences leave an ineradicable mark and Rhyl has always been a name of magic to me.”