Cars in books, April 1985

A staunch reader, Mr S. H. Simpson of Leicester, has sent me an extract from “Living In Lakeland” by Tom Smithies (Robert Hale), describing how Beatrix Potter used to visit Mary Fell, clad in shawl and clogs, but nevertheless arriving in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. There is also a story of two old lady friends of the author who were waiting for a ‘bus to Elterwater at Skelwith cross-roads when a car stopped and the rear door opened, and someone got out. The ladies climbed in and thanked the driver for stopping, whereupon he intimated that he had only stopped to drop a passenger and had not intended to give them a lift! Very different was their experience a week later, again waiting for a ‘bus, the ladies were offered a lift by the driver of a Rolls-Royce. They were going to a whist-drive in the Co-Operative Hall at Chapel Stile but felt this was no explanation to give the Rolls’ owner, so made an excuse and got out at the hotel, saying they were visiting a sick relative. At the whist-drive, however, there was the Rolls’ owner and his wife. “Your relative made a remarkably quick recovery”, he said!

Another thoughtful person has sent me a copy of “One Last Glimpse” by James Aldridge (Michael Joseph, 1977), which is a fictional version of an actual journey Ernest Hemingway wrote about in his book “A Moveable Feast”, when he drove circa 1929 from Lyons to Paris with Scott Fitzgerald. Aldridge makes the famous writers take a journey from Paris to Fougeres in Brittany, with himself, the book being in the first-person, and an English girl named Bo. There is also a green, Isona-Fraschim owned by rich American friends of the girl, described as “large, sparkling, rich, beautiful, fast, self-contained and powerful.” It is depicted on that dust-jacket as being driven by a cloche hat, and having four small-bore uncharacteristic vertical exhaust pipes on the off-side of the bonnet.

The car Aldridge makes Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald do the journey in, with all its adventures, is a 1928 Fiat. It figures prominently in what is, apart from that, a very readable book.

I have no means of knowing whether Hemingway used a Fiat on the journey described in “A Moveable Feast” but I intend to investigate. The Fiat in “One Last Glimpse” crashes in the end into a lorry and the girl is killed, rather as the girl in the glamorous Hispano Suiza died in Michael Arlen’s book “The Green Hat”… Assuming that Aldridge had some information about Hemingway’s and Scott-Fitzgerald’s cars and the latter was in fact a Fiat, it is amusing to gather the clues and try to decide what type it was. It is quoted as a 1928 Fiat, a make the young man recounting the story had driven once before — giving the sense of the important place this held in the 1920s — a little blunt-nosed car. This made me think at first that it must have been a 501 tourer. But the 501 was not made after 1926. The boy, asked if he can drive it, enquires whether it has “gate gears”. Scott doesn’t know, having borrowed it only the day before from the niece of the Isotta’s owner, who turns out to be Bo. In the event, however, they all drive it.

Accepting that it could not have been a 501, and the “blot-nose” more applicable to the Rolls-Royce-like radiators of later Fiats, could it have been an overhead camshaft 509, accepting that the later version of the 501, the 503 with square radiator compared to the more rounded contours of the 501’s radiator, as out of production by 1928? Further clues are that it seems to have had good brakes, as when Hemingway braked hard in a temper the occupants were flung about, Scott onto the floor, that it is described as having a “little singing engine” (the 990 cc 509 was very low geared), and it was clearly a tourer, with a canvas hood. In one place its nose is called “aggressive”, which could just suggest a vee radiator neat all events a larger “blunt-nose” than a 503 would have. Also, it was said to be able to do about 70 mph, alarming Bo… If it suggests anything, the Klaxon horn was sounded with a button in the centre of the steering-wheel . . . I wonder what the historians of the Fiat Register might make of it? [N.B. I have since read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast” (Jonathan Cape, 1964).] It confuses things by the author saying that if preferred the book may be regarded as fiction but that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact, and the car Hemingway says Scott used for the journey is a small Renault (one assumes a 9/15) with no roof, this having been cut away after it had been damaged in some manner at Marseilles — so now a very odd looking object with its saloon top removed. It also apparently required new piston rings and had been run without enough oil and water, causing it to overheat sufficiently to burn paint off the engine. The sump seems to have held two litres of lubricant. Perhaps on second thoughts what was implied was a tourer on which the hood had been damaged and therefore removed, but Scott refused to let the garage in Paris where the car was being serviced replace it (could they have replaced a saloon top?), saying his wife disliked cars with tops, in consequence of which they had to stop and take shelter every time it rained. The only other car in the book is the old Model-T Ford of Gertrude Stein’s with which she was having some ignition trouble. This causes Hemingway to wonder whether the inept boy mechanic who was working on it had ever been conveyed in such a Ford converted into an ambulance, which used to burn out their brakes going down the mountain roads during the war with a full load of wounded, necessitating braking in low and finally using reverse, until the last ones were driven over the mountain-side empty, so that they could be replaced with big Fiats with a good H-shift and metal-to-metal brakes. Which could be where James Aldridge got the idea of a Fiat from, in his novel…

I am indebted to interested readers for some of the material in this long-running feature. For example, my attention has been drawn by Mr J. Petter of Melton Mowbray to some intriguing motoring items referred to by the great historian, A. J. P. Taylor, in his book “A Personal History” (Hamish Hamilton, 1983). Mr Taylor recalls his grandfather carrying a rope in his first car, so that horses could pull it up hills if necessary, and that gentleman is first remembered as owning an enormous Talbot-Darracq, presumably before WWI, so perhaps a Darracq was intended. A huge open car used in the Derbyshire dales during the First World War is said to have gone at 60 or 70 mph, in which it was always very cold. In Taylor’s second term at Oxford, when his Communist sympathies had been accepted, his father gave him a sports Rover, with fish-tail body, perhaps a 9/15, thought to be the only car in Oriel apart from Cartwright’s Lancia. 7

The Rover is remembered as having frequent magneto trouble and being a brute to hold on the road. It had an exhaust cut-out that slightly increased its maximum speed, which was probably well under 60 mph, but seemed like the wind, after the passenger had been told to “give her the cut-out”… In the late 1930s Taylor had a series of open cars, which he drove in all weathers, snow and fog alike, using a train in England only when deep snowdrifts made it impossible to get his car out of the lane to the main road. In winter he drove them wrapped in a rug with a hot water bottle on his lap, one of these cars being a petrol-thirsty Ford V8 used up to and during the war. Petrol was then very cheap and Taylor bought ROP or ZIP, the two grades of Soviet petrol — Motor Sport used to accept full-page advertisements for the former, I remember. By the age of 50, in 1956, Taylor was very contented with his Ford Zephyr convertible, which he drove 15,000 miles a year.

Another reader, Claude Bernard of Brussels, has sent me extracts from the pages of The Wellsian, the journal of the H. G. Wells Society, from which one learns that he had a house, called “Lou Pidou”, built in the south of France to share with Odette Keun, where they had moved circa 1927. Their house-keeper complained it was a long way from the market, so Wells bought a Citroen, believed to have been a B12. Wells later bought a Voisin and unknown to him M. Voisin followed him with another Voisin to make sure the new car, scarcely run-in, got home satisfactorily. H. G. Wells was interested in industrialists and later Andre Citroen was a guest at Wells’ house. All of which I find very interesting.

Reverting to fiction, “The Kidnapping of the President” by Charles Templeton (McCalland & Stewart, 1974) is a very readable adventure story, but I think Templeton is being too optimistic in thinking that, when an old Ford special-bodied armoured bullion-van is found sitting in a scrapyard, at least 15 years old, rusted and without licence plates, and is rushed to where the kidnapped President of the USA is trapped in a similar van, the three door-lock flip-switches on the dash and the electric ventilation system would still have functioned — but it is a nice compliment to Ford, or rather, to the builders of the body!

One would not expect cars to feature, necessarily, in “The Lyttleton Hart-Dais Letters” edited by the latter (John Murray, 1984), but in fact there is an interesting example of how the opening of the M1 Motorway helped ordinary drivers, in Vol 6 of these absorbing literary letters. Rupert Hart-Davis hired a Ford Anglia in 1961 fora holiday journey from London to Kisdon Lodge at Keld in Westmorland and by using the then-new Ml from its beginning to the Northampton turn cut 40 minutes off his total journey time, the Ford going “like the wind”. Although the mileage was the same as by the former route, they “flashed through Bawtry” at 7.40, long before the hotels were open. They were able to breakfast at Boroughbridge and whistle through Doncaster before traffic had assembled in its bottleneck — how well I remember those hold-ups there, not helped by the level-crossing, during the War Hart-Davis was clearly pleased with the improvement but wanted a way of “avoiding the loathsome Leicester”. A later letter says they “got home in record time”, thanks largely to the M1. To which I can only add that it is a great pity, and an awful waste of the enormous cost of such efficient roads, that later the still prevailing 70 mph speed limit was clapped on them. — W.B.