Cars in Books, August 1968

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Taking out of the library “The Right Age”, by Mary Koutouzow Tolstoy (Macmillan, 1961), to get a break from reading and writing about cars, I had not got beyond page 28 before I encountered not only cars but motor racing, for, after a passing reference to the tragic motoring accidents which engulfed Isadora Duncan (but no mention of the Bugatti which strangled her), the authoress says of Edward Arnold, whom she met in New York before the First World War and fell in love with: “His hobby was car racing and for several years his big Fiat competed in the Vanderbilt Cup races, driven by Ralph de Palma. It was one of the excitements of our young lives to get up at four, start off with picnic baskets, and witness the race”.

This whetted my appetite, for I am never really tired of reading about motoring, but the book did not produce much more of note. It does, however, refer to the authoress’ 15-year-old sister being allowed to drive Arnold’s “many cars—I believe he had eight! It was reported to my mother that she was seen racing down the South Country Road, her long pale hair flying behind her. It was before the days of driving licences, but she was, in any case, forbidden to drive again”. Eventually Dorothy Tolstoy married Arnold and in 1910 they used their motor-yacht to go to the Yale-Harvard boat-race. Moreover, Dorothy was driving again, because to escape the anxiety of burglaries in the Port Washington district the sisters moved to their mother’s apartment in town: “We drove in Dorothy’s car, but the roads were in a frightful state that summer and I was badly shaken. Be that as it may, I lost my baby”.

Returning to Paris in the Provence the Tolstoys met Leblanc, Bleriot’s manager. This led to a desire to fly and at Pau in the winter of 1911 “I was delighted to find Leblanc and the Bleriot family at our hotel, the Gassion. I pestered the life out of the former. At last he consented and we drove out to the aerodrome. We made two turns of the field in his little open plane and the wind tore at my cheeks. It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. It was indeed such an event to have a passenger flight in the year 1911 that a photographer who happened to be present took pictures, and postcards of the flight were sold in the town with the inscription: Comtesse Tolstoy, passenger de Monsieur Leblanc“.

After references to meeting some of the 1914/18 pilots, the authoress having done hospital work on the Western Front, she recalls her first car, bought in France in 1926, in which she went for a holiday at St. Jean-de-Luz, accompanied by friends in another car. She says: “I have rarely enjoyed travel so much as I did that trip in our funny little car. The luggage was strapped on behind, there was no hood of any kind or any protection from sun or rain, and at least once a day there was a blow-out or engine trouble. We took it in turns to drive and travelled down on the National Route to Marseilles. Then we went to Beziers, Carcassone, Montpellier and Toulouse. It was exciting driving through the desert of Craux, les Alpilles, and visiting the strange little town of Les Baux”. But the following year “. . . We were able to travel in style. We had a Renault with a hood and an extra seat at the back which held luggage. There were fewer breakdowns and it was very enjoyable, but somehow it lacked the sense of adventure which we had experienced in the little Mathis”. This Renault was almost certainly an 8.3 or 9/15 cloverleaf. In 1932 the André Citroëns are mentioned, as at St. Moritz for the Christmas ski-ing with Charlie Chaplin, and in the summer of 1934 the authoress and her family went to Portugal: “We drove the latest Citroën down the Spanish coast. . . . When we started back to France the car broke down, but we managed to coast nearly all the way to the frontier”. There is a great deal more motoring about Europe, but the makes of the cars used are unfortunately not disclosed. As late as 1937 drivers who crossed the Gross Glockner Pass were given “a precious piece of paper” for pasting on the windscreen to show this difficult journey had been undertaken and no cars, apart from that belonging to the Duke of Spoleta, were permitted on the Island of Brioni, off the Istrian Peninsula.

The book closes with the Second World War, at the beginning of which the authoress was again serving in France, with the S.A.F.F., in the Peugeot building on the Champs-Elysées. One journey from Paris to the front line at Mulhouse is described as undertaken “in a car driven by an English girl, Miss Rachel Ford”. The car was an “enormous Hispano-Suiza” which took the library, two dogs and three girls and which refused to start after a night in an open shed at Montbeliard until a garage-hand finally succeeded in getting it going, after which he asked permission to drive it around the town, “to see what it would be like to handle an Hispano-Suiza”. A week later, on this icy winter war-time journey, the car again refused to go, and “We gathered that the garage-hand had had too heavy a hand for the delicate gears”. It jibbed again at Chaumont and had to be abandoned, Miss Ford taking with her a part which had to be replaced, returning to the car a day or two later. Where is Miss Ford, who was able to drive a big Hispano-Suiza about war-ravaged France and find spares for it, now, I wonder, and does she still like large motor cars?

“The Right Age” concludes with a flight to America in a Clipper flying-boat and the return of the authoress to France, soon after D-Day. So much for my respite from reading about motoring and motor cars!—W. B.

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Postscript.—It’s remarkable how cars figure in so many books—even in the autobiography of a 91-year-old parson who became Author of the Year in 1965 with his book, “The Concise British Flora”, there is a reference to the driving skill of Mr. D’Oyly Carte in his big car on the roads of Devonshire in 1909.