Cars in Books, April 1984

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A reader, Mr Stead of Youlgreave has kindly sent a copy of the descriptive reference to driving a used 1953 Jaguar XK120 which had been stored after very little mileage, because it was no good for crossing fields, out of London to Guildford. The car did 90 mph at 3,500 rpm and the description of this run, which appears in “Dead Letter Drop” by Peter James (W. H. Allen, 1981), should please Jaguar folk. There are some intriguing motoring items in the primarily aviation work, “Aviator Extraordinary”, the Sidney Cotton story as told to Ralph Barker (Chatto & Windus, 1969). It is odd that the publishers of this very full and interesting book did not send MOTOR SPORT a review copy when it was first released but I hope they will accept this as a belated review. Sidney Cotton, the Australian who invented the Sidcot suit so well known to several generations of open-car motorists, had an extremely full and eventful life. His biography, told in the first person by Ralph Barker, covers how he learned to fly with the RNAS during the First World War, being sent solo rather improbably without any tuition, in error, on a Farman Longhorn at Chingford early in 1916, before being posted to the CFS at Upavon to fly BE2c machines before his posting overseas. The motoring references concern the Overland that a neighbour in Australia was persuaded to buy in 1912 and on which Cotton taught his children to drive — it would, I think, have been the model with the epicyclic gears, like the car Nick Lees uses in VSCC events. Cotton then built a car of his own, in 1914, using a dog-clutch transmission “very similar to that used some years later in England by Fraser (sic) Nash”, with final drive by belt. Cotton drove it 150 miles from Dalkeith sheep station to a railway and trucked it to Brisbane, where the Willys-Overland agent built a body for it. A photograph shows that it looked like a typical cyclecar of the time, perhaps is was assembled from a kit of parts.

The rest of the book is full of Sidney Cotton’s remarkable flying activities, which range over so many aspects that there is no space for them here — seal spotting in Newfoundland, the Courtauld Expedition, aerial camera work in WW2, flying in Hyderabad, etc, all entirely fascinating. The astonishing apathy of the RAF to Cotton’s successful camera work over enemy territory is covered in detail and puts this book in the category of an important historic document. The treatment he received at the hands of officialdom is hardly credible, and when it is realised that even Winston Churchill, when Prime Minister, had to warn Cotton that the Establishment would win in the end, it seems that George Orwell in “1984”, exaggerate as he did, may not have been altogether wide of the mark about “Big Brother”, before or now. . . .

Turning to happier things in Cotton’s story, there is a chapter devoted to the 1920 Aerial Derby in which he flew the Napier-Lion-engined DH 14A and had a spectacular forced landing in a field near Hertford after the engine had caught fire, and, indeed, there are sufficient descriptions of forced landings in the book to satisfy even my interest in the subject, most of them due to early engines stopping in the air without warning. Cotton’s successful colour photography ventures also figure, to interest camera enthusiasts, but there is not much more about cars, apart from Cotton driving to Florida in a sports Delage around 1934, covering 1,250 miles in under 20 hours, averaging 64 mph, the Delage having been lent to him by his friend A. J. Miranda. His own cars were Rolls-Royces and he had an impeccable chauffeur-butler, Cyril Kelson, who held the R-R certificate; in those pre-war days it cost only £40 return to take Kelson and the Rolls-Royce to America. There are some further motoring and aviation references in “Laughter from a Cloud — The Autobiography of Laura, Duchess of Marlborough” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 1980). For instance, she says that her boyfriends, Eric Dudley (the Earl of Dudley, whom she eventually married) and Bert Marlborough both had Rolls-Royces in the mid-1930s and, her father disliking them, their chauffeurs were asked to park further down Oxford Square, WI, when they called to collect her. It is also related how her first husband’s (Viscount Long) large sporting Bugatti, on a run to Scotland, developed trouble before Harrogate, taking a day to repair, circa 1933— any comments from the BOC? On the aviation side, there is an account of a European flight in Arthur Forbes’ (later Lord Granard) private aeroplane in the summer of 1938 and the adventures they experienced, on the journey from Nice to Venice and Budapest, to Constanta, which included a dicey take-off, a forced landing and finally a crash. The make of the machine is not disclosed but it is described as an eight-seater biplane and there was a wireless operator. An Airspeed Oxford perhaps? Among the friends who went were Commander and Mrs Buist, relations perhaps of the one-time Editor of The Autocar of that name. Just before the war the Duchess of Marlborough, then the Countess of Dudley, who worked as a nurse on the most humble duties during the blitz, was running a Hillman Minx, and it may be of passing interest to the Hillman Register that this was written off when she drove it into a Morrison air-raid shelter, damaging the front of it, but drove on, only to have a stick of incendiary bombs finish it off . . . By 1943/ ’44 she had replaced the burnt-out car with another Hillman Minx. Another friend of the Duchess who had motoring connotations was Michael Arlen, author of “The Green Hat”, the 1924 novel featuring an Hispano Suiza; I was interested to learn that a film was made of this starring Greta Garbo; assuming they used the correct cars in it, how nice if it could be located and shown again. One learns that on war work other than at her hospitals the Duchess of Marlborough usually drove her own small car but sometimes went in the Duke’s own cars, driven by his chauffeur Roscoe who was too old for war work.

Continuing through this book, which reads rather like a social diary, one finds mention of the most luxurious Daimler ambulance that conveyed the Countess of Dudley from a nursing home in Bentinck Street in London to Ednam Lodge, the Dudley’s country house in Sunningdale from where the unsolved robbery of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels happened, reminder that similar Daimler ambulances had been used by the Royal Family before the war. I was interested to find that among the many friends of the Duchess of Marlborough had been Freda and Bobby Casa Maury, the latter described by the Earl of Dudley as “that Cuban motor mechanic” but who is described in fact as “quite a good racing motorist” (he used to drive Bugattis in the 1920s) and who taught the Countess to drive a car exceptionally well, which she says wasn’t much but she was grateful—the first time I have seen an admission that driving an ordinary car is a pretty normal skill.

I omitted to mention from the very enjoyable book “Happy To Fly” by Ann Dench, reviewed recently, that before her flying career she worked for a time “to earn a bit more money as assistant in a car showroom selling 30/98s” (could this have been Crackington Motors at Welwyn?) around 1935, and that she describes Brooklands in those days as “. . . a very relaxed place. There was no ban on drinking and flying; it was reckoned that as every pilot would sooner or later find himself flying after a party he might as well learn to do it properly. So the bar opened every lunchtime with Pimms as the favoured tipple. It was up to you whether you drank or not — and my first lesson in taking decisions for myself.” Ann Welch managed to drive her parents’ new BSA saloon from the Bromley showrooms to their house at Bickley after only motorcycle experience, no doubt aided by its fluid flywheel and pre-selector gearbox. But read this excellent book for yourself. . . . — W.B.

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