Cars in Books, August 1984

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What have we this month, for this column, which the Editor of a motoring weekly once said was a good idea except that it would run out of material in a week or so — but which we have kept going regularly for more than 25 years? Well, from “Backstairs Life in a Country House” by Eileen Balderson with Douglas Goodlad (David & Charles, 1982) the only cars named are three Rolls-Royces which came in convoy whenever “two talked-about” sisters visited the great houses in the 1930s, even if only for a short stay. One sister being able to drive, she would arrive in a current-model Rolls-Royce, followed by the head chauffeur, in the previous-year’s R-R, in case of a puncture, to avoid delaying the journey, with the second chauffeur following in a third Rolls, carrying the two ladies’ maids with the ladies’ jewels, with a third chauffeur, in a Humber shooting-brake, bringing the luggage. I have no way of knowing if this really happened, but if it did it would be nice to think of the three Rolls as having been PI, P2 and Silver Ghost, respectively . . .

One’s eye is attracted to Frank Delaney’s attractive “Betjeman Country” (Hodder & Stoughton / John Murray, 1983) by the Rolls-Royce Twenty saloon (Reg No XW 7124) on the coloured front cover of the dust-jacket, threading its way past the stalls of Pinner Fair in 1934. I have outlined previously in this column the fact that John Betjeman refers to many cars in his poems, even to a Bugatti. In the book the early Delaunay-Belleville crawling up Highgate’s West Hill in bottom gear, the poet’s father’s Rover landaulette, and a Frazer-Nash figure in the verses quoted or remembered. The author says perhaps Frazer-Nash (he uses the hyphen!) motor-cars no longer rev in the roads around Marlborough, where Betjeman went to school, bringing forth cries of “Gosh, what an engine” — from which one assumes a Blackburn or at least a Gough is in mind, rather than the humble side-valve Anzani!

It is in the photographs with which this tribute to the deceased Poet Laureate is illustrated that the motoring interest lies — a bull-nose Morris-Cowley Chummy with ¾-elliptic rear springs, in Oxford for instance among the bicyles, a Charron taxi and an unidentified tourer, possibly a vintage Metallurgique. Which reminds me of the time, in the mid-1930s, when going through Oxford en route for Shelsley Walsh with a girlfriend wearing one-piece overalls with a chequered-flag over one breast, in her 1924 yellow-hued Austin 7 “Abdul-the-Damned,” I called on a cousin and his wife, an ex-barrister Don, just after they had returned from church on their bicycles on Sunday morning, a far cry from his rides home from Oxford in the very early 1920s as an undergraduate on an ex-WD Douglas, to a country house on the Welsh coast, where a Citroën tourer and an Austin 20 Landaulette shared a garage adjacent to an inflammable stationary-engine driving the domestic lighting-plant. I heard that our arrival on that peaceful day in the City of Dreaming Spires was the subject of raised eyebrows for some time afterwards . . .

There are other pictures incorporating cars in “Betjeman Country,” such as the one of Camden Town with LGOC ‘buses to Hampstead Heath parked with a Morris (?) taxi while two Morris vans, a Chevrolet lorry, and a Standard saloon go about their business, with other vehicles, including a Ford van, an Austin 7 two-seater, and possibly a Wolseley saloon in the background. What is almost certainly a Morris van appears in a picture of Harrow, where in another study a bull-nose Morris-Cowley traveller’s van is seen in a street containing also a Morris Minor saloon and an early A7 saloon, although it is an Austin 16 saloon, I think, seen waiting outside Tunbridge Wells station. But Morrises predominate at this period when you could buy a semi-detached three-bedroom house in Rayner’s Lane for £850, or a three-bedroom one in Ruislip, Wembley or Pinner for £350. Doom for the poet who deplored “Motorpolis” particularly in Oxford. . .! The author, by the way, has a penchant for placing people, a north Oxford housewife perhaps, by the size of the Volvo they drive but, Mr Delaney, Morris Minors were never bull-nosed!

Another Morris-Cowley figures in “Agatha Christie and All that Mousetrap” by Hubert Gregg (William Kimber, 1980), this being the car the famous writer of mystery stories had at the time of her mysterious disappearance. As this was on December 3rd, 1926 it was presumbly a bull-nose, unless a very early “flat-nose”, which I am sure Harry Edwards can clarify. In the book it is described as a drop-head, with the hood up, covered in hoar frost when it was found abandoned at Newlands Corner, some reports saying that the headlamps had been left on, so that the battery was flat, others denying this, some that the brakes were on, others they were off, implying that the authoress had staged a dummy accident. — W.B.

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Christie’s Historic Aircraft Sale, postponed, will now take place at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, on August 13th.