Cars in books, December 1964

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I wonder whether the Fiat Register is aware of an interesting reference to “a small Fiat motor car” in “The Light of Common Day,” by Diana Cooper (Rupert Bart-Davis, 1959)? It was seen in a Venetian shop-window in 1926 and bought by the authoress and her husband and used by them to drive to Garda and “along the untrafficked road…”, to Riva. If bought new, as I have reason to think it probably was, it must have been a Tipo 509.

By November 1926 Diana Cooper, then in America, wrote to her husband back home in England, about “giving a motor to Mother.” She specified “a sedan or limousine, one with the driver sitting outside, but compact, small and smart, if there is time painted her own middle-greenish-blue with peacock and corona on the door.” This Was to replace a Renault kept at Belvoir, which her mother refused to use as being too big and too expensive in tax and upkeep [I seem to remember a reference to this car—was it not pre-1914?—in another autobiography.— ED.). The new car was, if possible, to have “light-coloured lining and pulleys at the side-windows, and somewhere for a looking-glass and pencils and paper.”

What would you have chosen in 1926 to meet these requirements? The Fiat people were to effect an exchange, the little Fiat being in a London garage, but how this could be done, as another make was chosen, I do not know. The car, in fact, was a Hillman, presented to Diana Cooper’s mother after church on Christmas Day. It must have been a Hillman 14, which would not, I should have thought, quite have met the stated requirements. And does the newly-formed Hillman Fourteen Register know anything of this, or have any comments?

Meanwhile, Mrs. Cooper was motoring in Kansas City in two Rolls-Royces, and going to Taos, “still uncontaminated by petrol pumps and cameras.” There are other motoring references in this excellent book. For instance, ” a comic opera Rolls dating to 1913… man on box as well as driver, and the back wheels fitted up with chains as if for snowy weather ” which the Duke of Bedford, grandfather of the present Duke, was using at Woburn Abbey in 1936 [Someone will surely know where that one went”— ED.). Then there is mention of a “rather Heath Robinson motor car” hired in Ragusa in 1936 and of a “very shoddy open green Ford,” hired on the quay at Corfu on the same voyage, during which the King of Greece met his guests in “two open cars,” of which Ile drove one himself. There was a vertigo promoting drive along the goat-paths of Cephalonia, and another at Delphi, preceded by “eight soldiers jammed into a Ford.” At this time, when Duff Cooper was First Lord of the Admiralty, the British Navy obviously made good use of Ford vans, which are referred to from time to time in this volume of Diana Cooper’s autobiography.

Looking at a TV documentary some time ago about Caresse Crosby and her 352-roomed castle at Roccasinabalda near Milan, I noticed two photographs in the album she was showing the interviewer, one of which seemed to be Of a F.I.A.T.-like Edwardian racing car and the other looking suspiciously like the 1908 Hutton with temporary mudguards tacked on to it.

Determined to discover more, I wrote to Mrs. Crosby and received a card from her secretary telling me I would probably find what I wanted in her book “The Passionate Years” (Alvin Redman, 1955), which, the message tantalisingly concluded, contained pictures of a Bugatti and a Voisin.

Not only is this true, but this autobiography of the cosmopolitan American, about the ‘twenties and ‘thirties in America and Europe, is full of references to cars! The Bugatti is either a Brescia or a Type 13, with the early pear-shape radiator, a long one-piece bonnet-cum-scuttle held down by two straps, two big headlamps, but otherwise in stripped racing trim, photographed in Paris in 1921. It was owned by her first husband, Harry Crosby, but i5 not mentioned in the text. The Voisin is a disc-wheeled coupe de yule, seen at Le Bourget in 1927, and above it is a fine Study of the Argosy in Which Caresse landed at Croydon in that year, reminder of how delightfully primitive were the air-liners of that era.

The book mentions an American boy-friend who owned a Stutz Bearcat, “a full-blooded mustang,” Harry Crosby’s mother’s new Lancia roadster which she owned in America in 1919, and a Ford used for fire-fighting there in 1920/21, and the “big airport Daimler” which took her to Croydon in 1921. Then there is the “big grey Farman” given to Mr. Crosby by Paul Rainey, and a friend’s “vintage Citroen” which took them to Brittany in the autumn of 1927. Caresse describes watching Lindbergh land Spirit of St. Louis at Le Bourget after his solo flight across the Atlantic, and tells of the “yellow Hotchkiss” which ultimately replaced her “sea-green limousine, Narcisse (her dog) sitting haughtily next to the chauffeur,” namely, the Voisin. How well these few sentences capture the aura of owning a fine, individually-bodied car in the vintage years!

Later comes mention of “a model-T with bare-footed Nubian at the controls, his once white burnoose tangling with the gearshift.” which seems a little odd, for pedals controlled the gearchanges on these Fords. That was at Aswan, and this Ford was driven so furiously over the desert that it soon boiled over and Harry Crosby’s mother pleaded for the driver to go slower. There was ice beneath its back seat for the drinks consumed later!

By 1929, when back in France, an inn-yard in a village is described as containing ordinary cars—”Fiat and Citroen gave way—no Hispanos here—no shining Rolls—no grass-green Voisin…” In the last-named, its big hood folded back, there was a drive from Lyon to Paris in the summer of 1929, all wearing goggles against the dust, even the dogs, Harry Crosby stripped to the waist and Caresse persuaded to remove her blouse.

A great deal of motoring was done in the Voisin, with Lucien as chauffeur—”we (Harry and Caresse) snuggled down beneath the monkey rug in the back to drowse en route… Alone we travelled countless ways, and I have memories for a million days.” Harry Crosby was learning to fly in 1929 at Le Bourget and pilots like Vails, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Mermoz, who vanished on a flight over Egypt accompanied by one of Caresse’s schnauzer pups, are mentioned.

There is a passing reference to “a handsome Rolls” which Rosa’s Hotel in London ran in 1913, on a “trip to the airport” for example—probably Hendon is implied—and more individual motoring when her husband gave Caresse “a very smart town car, a Hotchkiss with a special landaulette body built by Labourdette—it was canary yellow with black leather trimmings, and they re-engaged Lucien to drive it, providing him with a beige whipcord uniform and black leather leggings”—such dignified motoring days will, alas, never return. Some of her friends in America had a super exotic red Mercedes delivered straight from the factory to them in Cannes but its low ground-clearance is described as causing it to ground on the concave gutters!

There is the “real antique” used by Scott Fitzgerald in New York, the “elegant Isotta Fraseini” (mis-spelling for Isotta Fraschini) which was hired to take Lady Mendl through the night from Brindisi to Venice, and some nostalgic memories of the road from the coast to the Riviera, via Sens, Satilieu, La Rochepot, Macon, Arles, and into Cannes, a two-day affair “the car opened landau-wise.” Fascinating is the mention of surrealist Max Erin’s “surplus property Dodge,” which he used in Paris as late as 1933, presumably a car similar to that war-surplus model Hornsted raced at Brooklands, and which was game enough to go the 250 kilometres from Ermenonville to Le Harve against the clock. It must have been one of the 1914/18 models, I think, as it is called by the authoress a “vintage jalopy.” The Hotchkiss was sold in September 1935 for “a little Citroen” or “citron,” which I think must have been one of the then-new f.w.d. cars, as it was driven over the Brenner Pass to Cremona and on to Kitzbuhl, and from Munich to Baden-Baden, trying to follow Kay Boyle’s “big grey Packard,” With an unexpected encounter with Hitler on the way, a journey you would hardly have attempted in the original 5 c.v. Citron model. So to a final reference to an ailing Ford in Virginia, in 1936/37, where Caress Crosby bought Hampton Manor. Verily, cars in a book!—W.B.