Cars in Books, August 1981

One comes across cars, or in this case the emphasis should be on motorcycles, in the most unexpected of books. Thus, glancing through “Perverse and Foolish” by L.M. Boston (The Bodley Head. 1979) I came upon a fine picture of a First War Army Officer astride one of those exciting vee-twin Indians, on one of which (or was it a Harley-Davidson?), after I had been given a short ride on the pillion at the age of six, I announced that it had made me feel “years younger”! The machine in the picture has a gas headlamp, bulb horn, and no silencers and it turned out to belong to the authoress’ boy-friend. She rode pillion on it, when she was nursing in Cambridge during World War One, to the hospital matron’s complete disapproval. Perhaps wisely, because just as his regiment (the Suffolks) was moving South, the rider had a very bad accident while riding it along the Newmarket road. Before that there is mention of the brothers and a cousin of the authoress having “motorbikes which competed with the opening war in the excitement and stir”; she accompanied one of them in a rickety sidecar up and down Kirkstone Pass and was later rewarded with the cousin’s (he of the Indian) discarded two-stroke, make not quoted. There is also a photograph of one of the boys with an early aeroplane, Gnome-engined.

Another non-motoring book in which a car is illustrated is Jack Benny’s biography by Irving A. Fein (W.H. Allen, 1976). It is a Maxwell two-seater of circa-1909, used in gags soon after WW2, but dropped as his jokes grew more sophisticated. It is also mentioned that the comedian used to do The Packard Hour radio programme.

From “Let’s Get Through Wednesday” by Reginald Bosanquet, helped by Wallace Reyburn (Michael Joseph, 1980), a very mailable book – that is, if you want a surfeit of Bose-an-ket – mainly about how ITN’s News at Ten is put together and presented, the famous newscaster admits to owning a beloved Mercedes 300S, which vvas being rebuilt when the book was published. I once gave Reginald a lift home when no ITN car could be found, after I had done a late TV interview, but I did not know then of his interest in cars. He is not quite correct about his Mercedes-Benz 300S, however, because it was not a post-war edition of the pre-war Mercedes 540K, which the book says was “a prestige car of limited production, for SS generals and above.” The straight-eight supercharged 540K first appeared in 1937, as a development of the 500K of 1933, and although SS Officers used these cars, it was the later Grosser Mercedes-Benz with which they are more usually associated. Bosanquet’s 300S, a 1956 model which he bought for £2,200 in 1961, is the non-supercharged six-cylinder model that appeared first in 1952, with the convertible body. He says it is among his most cherished possessions, will be left to his daughter Abigail by his first marriage, so he has refused offers of £12,000 to £30,000 for it, using hire cars and taxis while it is being rebuilt.

Later in the book there is a confusing passage about Bosanquet telling Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s Vice-President, that they were mutual vintage-car buffs, on the strength of the politician having once had a Stutz Bearcat and Reggie presumably thinking of his Mercedes-Benz 300S!

From “Ermine Tales — More Memoirs of the Earl of Carnarvon” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980) the pecking order of chauffeur in one of the great stately homes of the pre-WW2 years is revealed. A head chauffeur was second only to the chef at Highclere Castle, the Earl’s family seat, but a second chauffeur ranked below these two sevants, the house-electrician, the butler and the head-groom, but above the second groom and sixteen others of the household, the head chauffeur earning £188 a year, the under chauffeur £117! Yet all apparently lived very satisfactory lives. The family car was an off-white Rolls-Royce with red wheels and the Earl’s crest on the dooors, the chauffeur’s name being Jack Gibbins, who drove HM King George VI during the war, when the Earl of Carnarvon had his soldier-servant, Trooper Bloss. Lord Porchester had a sort of electric buckboard called the “Red Bug” from his father when he was six. It was tried out by the Earl and his brother-in-law Sir Brograve-Beauchamp so that the battery had run down when Lord Porchester’s turn came. There is a picture of it, showing it had cycle mudguards and a big steering wheel from a vintage car (also a picture of the Earl, with Harold Macmillan standing in front of a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud) and the little vehicle reminds me of the similar buckboard with which Ernest Eldridge used to have fun at Montlhery when he was racing his Fiat “Mephistopheles”, but that was driven by a petrol-engined cycle attachment. It is supposed to have lapped at nearly 19 m.p.h. and I often wonder whether Eldridge used it as transport about the Paris track. Finally for this month, a reader drew my attention to “Wings of Night” by Alexander Hamilton (William Kimber, 1977), about that celebrated war-time pilot Grp. Capt. Pickard and his secret missions. The motoring interest here is that the great pilot is described as having owned “a most extraordinary chain-drive Kleino car”. It is referred to four times. I can only think the author means a Clyno, except that no Clyno car was chain-driven. It was changed for a £20 Fiat 500 on the eve of WW2, the sunshine roof of which had to be permanently open to accommodate Pickard’s 6’4″ and his wife’s feathered hat! This was soon replaced with a Ford Eight in practically new condition, regarded as “the last thing in opulence”. Incidentally, having met his future wife at a Mess dance at the CFS at West Wittering, Pickard asked her to accompany him to “Donnington (sic) where John Cobb was racing”. That was said to be in 1937 but I do not recall Cobb competing there, although he did once demonstrate the Napier-Railton at that circuit. – W.B.