One's First

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It is said that a woman never forgets her first baby, or a man his first car, both usually with respect. I have told before how my first car, a £5 ABC, packed much incident into its brief three days with me, before, en route for Prescott, a rod came out and smoking-hot big-end rollers ran away down Stokenchurch Hill.

Another car I remember because it was recently sold at auction is my 1926 R4B Delaunay Belleville. Old car ownership is enhanced if you know the story behind one’s purchase. In this case I was driving to the office, using a short cut in Chelsea, when I spotted a man up a step-ladder in an undertakers, dusting a Rolls-Royce hearse with a feather brush. I went in and inquired about the rare landaulette beside him. He descended slowly, saying “How did you know what it is?”. I arranged to purchase what was a marvellously original car in 100% condition, having ascertained that it had never actually followed a hearse but was the Guv’nor’s car for conferences with clients. (My name and superstition, you see… ) The undertaker signed the receipt with a quill-pen. For £35 I think. . .

That was in 1952. I set off to get insurance. The Broker turned up a book, then said there was no such car. “There is”, I told him, “it’s outside”. That negotiated, I set off along the Great West Road. Stopping to check the radiator via its ingenious D-B press-down cap, a police-car stopped as well. I had no licence yet but after looking at the oh-camshaft engine they went off, without asking a difficult question. . . I got much fun from that car. It was ponderous and heavy to drive, but reliable, once the coil-cum-magneto ignition had been sorted and a new Autovac fitted, from a later D-B. In the honoured company of John Bolster’s 1911 Rolls-Royce and Sir John Briscoe’s Coupe de LAuto Delage it followed the last tram out of London, getting left behind. I went to the MOTOR SPORT offices from Hampshire in it, leaving it parked without harm in a side street.

When Sam Clutton had his horrific on-fire accident in the 102-litre Delage at VSCC Silverstone he skillfully steered with his feet and avoided a left turn, or he would probably have demolished the D-B which I had parked there.

The D-B’s interior was all soft leather, fine woodwork, companions, cut-glass roof lamp and clever occasional seats. But up-front I had no weather protection. So my wife and the children enjoyed journeys more than I sometimes did… But I was taken aback when, waiting for a daughter at the then-peaceful Fleet Station, a bowler-hatted gentleman with briefcase rushed therefrom, asked if I knew a local hotel and got in. I drove him to his destination and the surprise was then his as I refused a fare, telling him it was a private car. But that, and the fact that when garaged in a local coachouse some builders assumed it had been abandoned, so removed its roof lamp for an ash-tray and stole the mahogany companions, took away some of the glamour.

A customer was quickly found — a young Sandhurst Cadet who, unable to afford a Bentley, saw the D-B with its ohc and double-ignition as the next best thing. Also, he said, it would be useful for snogging in, after dances. . . (I am glad to say he went on to faster things, racing his 2-litre Lagonda at VSCC Silverstone before flying Army and civilian helicopters.) The accompanying picture, taken with my vest-pocket Kodak. was taken when I took the family for a picnic on the infrequently-used Watlington Station (now probably abolished?) after a visit to a row-boat Thames ferry and other delights. Happy days! Every vintage car surely has a story?

Years later I saw the car in Guy Griffiths’s museum in Chipping Camden. It was sold recently by Brooks for an estimated £15,000. I am glad it still exists.

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