Cars in Books, April 1984

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A reader has drawn my attention to some very interesting and unexpected references to motoring in the Ralph Richardson biography. It seems that the great actor’s introduction to the sport occurred when his closest companion, the later radio actor Shelley, took him for a fast ride on the back of a Rudge to the Mumbles, when they were both on the stage at Swansea. A friend of Shelley’s, chief instructor of the London Aero Club, was doing joy-rides from the beach with two three-seater Avro biplanes. They went up and Ralph Richardson was delighted with the experience, saying he must become a pilot. He began to drive fast and famously, and became friendly with the director, Basil Dean, to whom Richardson gave good advice when he was contemplating purchasing an Aston Martin. He suggested having the long-chassis model rather than the short-chassis, as the cornering would be better, and having a Scintilla not a Lucas magneto, and gave him the serial numbers of the sparking-plugs to use, so obviously Richardson had an Aston Martin of his own at the time, indeed, he had designed a new “exhaust box” for it.

Richardson took up flying as he had predicted, and enjoyed “buzzing” Cedric Hardwicke’s house, Sunny Mead, in a machine flown by Bob Pickard as co-pilot. He also kept several fast cars in London and delighted in racing along the London road, but would trade them frequently as items he disliked emerged. During the war Richardson was put in charge of naval aircraft movements but in the air his navigation was weak; several forced landings were survived in machines such as Blackburn Shark, Albatross, and several Walruses. On one occasion an Albacore burst into flames after landing, but Ralph Richardson survived it all, once telling Geoffrey Quill that he was no good without his daily fright. He was eventually made parachute maintenance officer and got Olivier the same job. The book reveals that Richardson relinquished an immaculate bicycle to acquire his first motorcycle, a Rudge Multi requiring a running-jump start, and that before the war he flew his own DH Gipsy Moth. — W.B.