Cars in Books, April 1974

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I discovered a number of motoring references in “Fun While it Lasted” by the larger-than-life author Barnaby Conrad (Michael Joseph, 1970). For instance, his first girl friend’s “antediluvian Dodge coupe, whose radiator insignia had long since lost the second “d” and the “e””, so that it was called dog. That was in 1942 or thereabouts, so this Dodge must have qualified as at least a 30/40s car, if not a vintage one. Described as “clanking and wheezing”, it nevertheless made a journey from Los Angeles to Tijuana, in search of a Mexican marriage licence. It is interesting that later there is mention of war-time motoring in Spain with producer-gas contraptions—”These automobiles would set off bravely in a cloud of sparks, but their speed and dependability were subject to change without notice: their drivers were frequently required to stop in the middle of an intersection in order to run to the back of the car and stoke it up. In general it was pleasanter to take a carriage, as I was doing”. which could be a lesson for the present day!

Much of the book is about bull-fighting, the descriptions of which, with the author taking on the bulls, is well worth reading. From this we learn that the great Don Juan Belmonte was using a Mercedes, chauffeur-driven, but that the author had to make do with a “trybrid motorcycle, a third American, a third English and a third Spanish”. I was trying to figure out this combination when it is explained that it was a “Harley-Norton-Soriano”, which after numerous mechanical deficiencies, collapsed on its rider. Later another machine was acquired, equipped with “el siday-car” for the current girlfriend, because “all vehicles were so old and undependable in Spain that one needed two —one for use and one for the mechanic’s shop”. Incidentally, those who may wish to try to decide which part of the Conrad hybrid motorcycle was which are offered some clues. Thus, it had a starting pedal and clutch and throttle were operated via cables from handlebar levers. It was a bandit’s bullet that caused the headlamp to explode, however . Later, at his ranch, Belmonte is noted as using a Fiat, and in Spain at that time the Consulate was using a maroon Chevrolet. Conrad was that rarity, a bull-fighting Vice-Consul. We learn, too, that the great Sinclair Lewis, author of “Babbit”, for whom Conrad was to work, was driven by a dignified negro chauffeur in a Buick, convertible. That’s about it, except for a “beat-up old Chevvy” owned by another of the author’s many women friends and the Citroen they used when living in Paris, and there is evidence that in the 1940s it was the Cadillac which was considered the correct car for wealthy Americans. But when the author wished to celebrate success he chose “a secondhand custom-built Mark IV Jaguar—gaudy, rare and frightfully expensive”. His father, looking over the “outsized headlights, the leather upholstery and the fruit wood panelling”, remarked that it “Looks like something designed over the telephone by Al Capone for his mistress”, which is redolent of King Edward’s description of the first Lanchester Forty. The author takes a 15-hour trip in a typical Spanish taxi, which he remembers as “a sort of The African Queen of automobiles”, several decades old, but its make is not revealed. This book is fun, especially from the viewpoint of reading about bull-fighting, so much like motor racing in many ways, the matadors driving fast but disliking others driving them, although I think my love for animals would cause me always to root for the bull.

Those who collect Rolls-Royce data may like to know of a photograph of what is patently a Springfield-built saloon, in which Noel Coward went on tour in Chicago in 1926 with his play “The Vortex”, which appears in “A Talent to Amuse” by Sheridan Morley (Heinemann, 1969).—W.B.