Cars In Books, April 1994



Cars In Books

When I saw that Douglas Botting had written a full-length, as they say, biography of the late Gavin Maxwell, described as aristocrat, social renegade, wartime secret-agent, shark hunter, adventurer, racing-driver, traveller, naturalist, poet and painter (Gavin Maxwell A Life, HarperCollins, 1993 £22.50, I expected to find some material in it for this feature. Had not the author referred to using a GP Maserati on the road for instance, in his book about keeping otters. “Ring of Bright Water”, which made him truly famous? I was not disappointed.. .

In the Prologue, Botting tells of being driven from London up to Maxwell’s cottage in the Scottish Highlands in his vintage open Bentley. That was at Easter 1958 and, with no motorways then, it took two days. “He drove sensationally fast, like a racing-driver, with much squealing of tyres and restless changing up and down through the gears”. Gavin explained this by saying he had once been an amateur racing-driver, but, very dramatically, “. . . only after he had been crossed in love and had downed half-a-bottle of Scotch. Otherwise I would have been scared out of my wits!”. It was while at his second prep-school, Hurst Court near Hastings, to which his mother took him in the family chauffeur-driven Studebaker, that Maxwell developed 4ri interest in motor-racing, “after watching Sir Henry Birkin lap Brooklands at 140 mph” (This was around 1928, before even Birkin had gone that quickly). He was the grandson of the Duke of Northumberland and was born at Elrig in the

Lower Highlands of Scotland, close to the family seat at Monreith: his public school was Stowe. At Oxford in 1933 Maxwell had a Bentley, described as “an enormous coupe with a leather strap round its vast bonnet”. In it he used to wait for a fellow Undergraduate, Mike Wills, who also had a large sports-car, which would do 100 mph, and roar past him on the Woodstock road at 113 mph — which sounds fast to me, even had his Bentley been a Speed Six. . .

In 1949 Maxwell left Scotland temporarily to live in London again and it was then that he took up amateur motor-racing, with his 31/2-litre Corsica-bodied Bentley. He had intended to take part in a race at Silverstone for these Derby Bentleys but with too few entries it was opened to faster cars. The book covers his planned race strategy before he overbraked at a corner, spun, and was blackflagged — and his nervous panic before the great day! He then had a go at Goodwood but was frustrated by fuel starvation. But at a Bentley DC Silverstone meeting he is recorded as winning two tankards, for a s s 1/2-mile in 32.89 sec, and a f s 1/4-mile in 1 sec. There is a photograph of Gavin racing this two-seater Bentley, screen flat, numbered 55. (I wonder whether these Clubs realised they had such a famous future writer in their midst? There is an interesting page in the book devoted to Maxwell’s participation at the BDC’s newlydiscovered Firle speed hill-climb course, where he thought he was sixth fastest and quickest non-s/c car. He drooled over having “absolutely squashed” Hay’s “much-vaunted and Rolls-sponsored 41/4-Bentley which had been winning things all over the world that year”.

(Perhaps the BDC would care to check?).

Later in this fascinating biography there is mention of the secondhand s/c GP Maserati, converted into a two-seater, said to occasionally get up to 150 mph on the road before it blew up expensively. To help pay for this “folly” Gavin went to Palermo in 1955 to write a new book for advances of £1,300, generous for those days. He used a 1930 Fiat, which also broke down. His book about life in Sicily caused a great legal outcome, incidentally. . . There is a vivid description of how Botting felt when driven in the Maserati on a journey in Surrey, where apparently the car’s 150 mph maximum speed was still exploited! Later Maxwell had a red Mercedes, of which there is an account of another wild drive from Sandaig to Glasgow, this time when an otter emergency struck. Then Maxwell had a red Mercedes roadster, “his pride and joy”, and you can read how it was stolen at Palma docks, on an intended journey through France and Spain, in the 1960s, when Gavin’s girl-friend used to drive from London to Elrig non-stop, in her MiniCooper. An exactly similar Mercedes replaced the one wrecked in the theft, Which Maxwell drove “at fantastic speed on the Moroccan roads — up to 14 mph at times, averaging nearly 98 mph from Marrakesh to Mogador.” Presumably in the same Mercedes convertible — could it have been a 300SL, but if so it was a very fast one! — Maxwell is said to have “taken the Oxford bridge at ferocious speed”. I suggest that if you are interested in a strange life in wild places, as lived by a wild man. this 385-page book is essential reading. W B