Chauffeurs' corner

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It has been some time since I interviewed a chauffeur of long standing but last month I projected the Alfa Romeo into the Cotswolds to meet Sydney Luckhurst, who has driven one family through five generations. His father was employed at Lord Vestey’s London estate at Kingswood, where Pink was the head-chauffeur, and it was suggested that the young Sydney should help with the cars. He learned to drive on the hack bullnose Morris-Cowley (the only surviving relic of which is its Klaxon horn) and obtained a driving-licence when he was only 16. Lord Vestey was looking for a country estate and when he found his present home at Stowell Park near Northleach Mr. Luckhurst moved there, driving the 1922 Hooper-bodied 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royce landaulette.

It was there that I went for the interview, in the comfortable cottage quarters, once the estate laundry, where Sydney Luckhurst lives. He is still driving for the family three mornings a week at the age of 76, as Lord Vestey told him he didn’t want him to become a cabbage in his retirement, and there are various cars in the family.

I was first shown the garage, which has accommodation for 16 cars, necessary when there are many visitors to hunting and shooting parties or for the Cheltenham races, etc. At the time of my visit it contained a 1956 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith with Hooper limousine body and spatted rear wheels, which has done 123,000 miles without any problems, its original badges being worn, as His Lordship did not want them put on other cars. Beside it were some immaculate horse-drawn vehicles, and other cars in the garage were a very smart Range Rover, replacement for a previous one, wearing among others the badge of the British Field Sports Club, Lord Vestey’s Mercedes-Benz 280, one of a line of these cars, Lord Vestey’s brother also being a Mercedes user, a 320 BMW, one of several Land-Rovers, a Toyota Hiace used as the staff-‘bus, and a cream TF MG owned by the Hon. Mark Vestey, its SAM 64 registration having previously been on a Mercedes-Benz 4505EL in which Sydney Luckhurst once drove HM The Queen and HRH Prince Edward to watch polo, when she was staying at Stowell Park.

The mansion, which dates back to the period 1150-1200, and stands in 7,000 acres of rolling, afforested Cotswold country, had additions in 1898. Formerly the garage and workshops opened onto the stable courtyard but a new larger garage was built in 1963, in front of the hot-houses and near the blacksmith’s shop. There are terraced gardens and sunken lawns before the house, which now has squash court, ball-room, swimming-pool, sauna, and other amenities. At one time there were 22 indoor staff and an under-chauffeur to help Sydney Luckhurst. Today, with a London house, two chauffeurs are employed full-time and Sydney helps out three days a week. For fast transport between his home and London office, Lord Vestey uses a helicopter, which takes off from a small lawn by the mansion and lands on two barges tied together and moored near Westminster Bridge. Incidentally, the estate has 72 cottages and at one time electric light was generated by Lister oil engines. During WW2 the American Army lived in huts in the grounds but trees have been planted to mask the area. The estate has its own charming little church, the pews for which, of polished light oak, were made from the estate timber by the resident carpenters, which Royalty has admired. But the old organ vanished during the war. . . .

Back to cars, the bull-nose Morris was replaced by Model-T Ford tourers. At various times there have been subsidiary vehicles such as an Austin A35 van (which Sydney used, with the permission of the Dowager Lady Vestey, to regain his driving prowess after a stroke), an Austin 7 tourer bought for £50 at Liverpool Docks and retained until after WW2, and the present Morris Mini Minor. The main fleet always included Rolls-Royces, of which there have been five, with a PIII still in use (at the time of my visit it, with two other cars, was in London). After the first Ghost had suffered from a loose valve seat Lord Vestey hastily bought another to temporarily replace it, while the first was repaired at Derby, His Lordship tossing the Bond Street salesman for the price of £200 or £250 and winning!

This Rolls-Royce had an unpainted aluminium bonnet, no wipers, and no vizors and was difficult to drive when the sun reflected off the long bonnet. Mr. Luckhurst went to R-R Ltd for a short time to get used to these and the later Royces but did not take the R-R Chauffeurs’ Course, nor did the R-R Travelling Servicemen call to inspect them. They were used occasionally in France. During WW2 Sydney Luckhurst joined the RAF and was seconded to Dowrt’s at Cheltenham. He has his own Chrysler Avenger 1600GL, bought from the widow of an RAF friend, and as one would expect of an old chauffeur, it is maintained in spotless condition.

There are compensations for working long hours on such an estate, the staff dances, the shopping runs in the estate transport, a much-appreciated supply of firewood delivered to one’s door, and so on, and when some years ago Sydney was taken ill, as soon as the Dowager Lady Vestey heard of it, he was sent immediately to one of the best hospitals. Today, Sydney repairs the watches and clocks and lamps of the estate staff as a hobby. On the 50th anniversary of his appointment as chauffeur to Lord Vestey he was given a carriage-clock and on the 60th anniversary he was presented with a silver-salver by Lord Vestey, the Hon. Mark Vestey, the Hon. Kathleen Eykyn and the Hon. Joan Shedden, and the Dowager sent a telegram from Australia. The only time he had any trouble with the Police was in 1922, driving to Buckingham Palace, when he was caught doing 28 m.p.h in the Royal Park. He taught all the Vestey family and their relatives to drive, and six people to become chauffeurs.

W.B.