Cars In Books, August 1975

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From “The Rainbow Picnic”, Daphne Fielding’s portrait of Iris Tree (Eyre Methuen, 1974), I learn that Iris Trees mother was badly disfigured in a motor accident while being driven by the actor Lewis Waller. This lady can, however, be regarded as an enthusiast, because this unhappy experience did not deter her from buying a car of her own, with what money she had left after the failure of Wyndham’ s Theatre of which her husband had made her manageress, to give her a new interest. This was in 1913, so it is a pity the make isn’t quoted. Nor is that of the car in which Iris and Diana Manners motored to the Salzburg Festival in 1925, nor yet again what was the “fine car” owned by Fredrich Ledebur, whom she married. But in the 1950s she bought, with her earnings from her part in the film La Dolce Vita “. . . a secondhand car: an enormous Alfa-Romeo that had belonged to a Roman princeling. It was caddish in appearance, a glutton for petrol, and as hard to control as an unbroken horse. For an impoverished middle-aged lady who had not driven for years, no vehicle could have been less suitable, and Iris was frankly, and justifiably, terrified of it”. However, she drove it from Rome to Ischia and reached Naples safely. She left the car in a garage by the docks and on her return found only a large hole in the ground. As all the car’s papers had been in the glove-box, that was that! Later she acquired a used blue VW, which shared in many adventures in her later life, and on one occasion got itself stolen.

No finer or more readable biography of a great man can be found than Duff Hart-Davis’ book (Jonathan Cape, 1974) about Peter Fleming, the explorer, and brother of Ian Fleming of James Bond notoriety, who died a few years ago of a very sudden heart attack. At an age when travel books did not normally appeal to me in any way, I found Fleming’s story of his remarkable travels in China absolutely enthralling. But only after reading Hart-Davis’ very capable book did I realise what a remarkable character Peter Fleming was. His enormous capacity for travel in highly improbable places, often largely on foot, and his war-time and literary activities, mark him out as a quite exceptional person, who was also obviously very likeable.

His life was so broad that to pick out the relatively few motoring aspects seems even rather trite. However, I know those who read this feature will be interested to be informed, until such time as they take the opportunity of reading the biography in its entirety, which I strongly recommend them to do, that even while he was at Eton Fleming drove a car; this was during the General Strike of 1926, when he was nearly 19. All we are told, alas, is that it was “. . . an old buff-coloured car procured from the ancestral stables at Joyce Green”. Joyce Green was the vast family mansion near Nettlebed and the young Fleming drove the car taken from there to Reading Gaol early every morning, collected copies of the British Gazette, and ferried these to Swindon, armed with a riding crop. At Oxford, Hart-Davis tells us, Peter shared “a Morris two-seater known as “William” with Ian Fleming—this was in 1926, so it would have been a bull-nose. It seems to have served the young Flemings very well; in 1928 Peter drove it to Scotland, doing 440 miles on the first day, 160 by lunch-time on the second, and the following year the car was still in use, being used for a tour through France and Spain with Rupert Hart-Davis, although “the whole trip was coloured by the constant breakdown of the car’s steerage”. Peter drove all the way; including covering 900 miles and two sea-crosings in three days on the return journey, so the Morris could not have entirely disgraced itself. Incidentally, in hotel registers Peter who loved a joke in any and every situation, entered his profession as “Sanitary Inspector” . .

Apart from cars, there are many references to aeroplanes and flying-boats in this, long and splendid story of travel and adventure, commencing with Fleming’s first flight, in 1930, from Guatemala City to Mexico, reminder that inter-city air travel was pioneered by the USA. Ignoring references to cars of that period which Fleming drove in remote areas, such as from Shanghai to Nankin, but the makes of which are not disclosed (presumably they would have been American cars), and the “ancient cars” they used for hunting expeditions from Breslan in 1934 (and what would these have been?), one comes next to an Imperial Airways flight from Kashmir to Croydon, which took three days in 1935. In 1941 Peter Fleming was engaged in harrying the Japanese and in Saiaing sacrificed a Ford Mercury in a faked accident, leaving decoy documents in its boot—I was pleased to find evidence that he had considerable respect for Sherlock Holmes, who Fleming remarked later, would not have been fooled by the skid-marks they had purposely made before crashing this luckless Ford. In other places, too, there is reference to the greatest detective in fiction.

Back in England after the war, Fleming, the biography informs us, ran “a vintage Rolls-Royce shooting-brake, at his 2,000-acre estate at Nettlebed, which “being hopelessly un-mechanical, he drove with an atrocious grinding of gears”. This car formed the subject of one of Fleming’s essays in the Spectator, for which he wrote regularly, which all R-R lovers should hunt up; it was GF 7500, and I wonder if it has survived?

Before this, in 1939, Jonathan Cape, who published Fleming’s travel books, had paid for most of a Dodge car—its owner was naturally amused by the exhortation to “Dodge” on its prow—which would have been, perhaps, a Custom Eight. Does the Classic American AC know? Anyway, he described it as a good car, badly needed as his old one was devoid of brakes. Incidentally, the Dodge is picked out in the Index to this biography but the Rolls-Royce, and the Citroen shooting-brake which Fleming was using in 1966 after “he had long abandoned vintage cars”, are not—which makes me wonder whether it was compiled by an American! Read “Peter Fleming” if you possibly can; it is a great hook, apart from the motoring, flying and railway episodes it contains.—W.B.

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