Cars in books, December 1971

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“Fighting In Flanders”, by E. Alexander Powell (Heinemann, 1914), to which a reader drew our attention, is an interesting example of how a patriotic American, reporting for The New York World, joined the Belgian Forces of 1914 in Flanders and stirred up hatred against the Hun, which eventually resulted in America coming into the European War. Mr. Powell was driven by M. Marcel Roos, who had already given his own 90-h.p. car to the Government and enlisted in a regiment of grenadiers. The Government subsequently placed a car at the disposal of the American war correspondent and his account of the fighting encompasses a lot of dangerous motoring.

Motoring, it is made clear, was only for the military in the Belgium of 1914. “There was, you understand, no such thing as hiring an automobile, or even buying one. Even the few people who had enough influence to retain their cars found them useless, as one of the very first acts of the military authorities was to commandeer the entire supply of petrol. The bulk of the cars were used in the ambulance service or for purposes of transport, the army train consisting entirely of motor vehicles. Staff officers, certain Government officials and members of the diplomatic and consular corps were provided by the Government with automobiles and military drivers. Everyone else walked or used the trams.”

“Thus,” says the author, “it frequently happened that a young staff officer, who had never before known the joys of motoring, would tear madly down the street in a luxurious limousine, his spurred boot resting on the broadcloth cushions, while the ci-devant owner of the car, who might be a banker or a merchant prince, would jump for the side-walk to escape being run down.”

“Speed limits were flung to the winds,” and it was possible to drive 20 or 30 miles over stone-paved roads in a comfortable and powerful car, witness a battle, and get back to a civilised hotel in time to dress for dinner. War correspondents were provided not only with fine cars and drivers but Belgian boy scouts to open and close the doors for them. “The Belgians,” says Mr. Powell, “made more use than any other nation of motor cars. When war was declared one of the first steps taken by the military authorities was to commandeer every motor car, every motorcycle and every litre of petrol… diminutive American runabouts, slim, low-hung racing cars, luxurious limousines with coronets painted on the panels, delivery cars bearing the names of shops in Antwerp and Ghent and Brussels, lumbering motor trucks, hotel omnibusesall met the same fate.” They were daubed in elephant-grey paint and labelled “SM” (Service Militaire) in staring white letters. “It made an automobile lover groan to see the way some of those cars were treated.”

But they contrived to average something like 12 m.p.h.—remarkably good for an Army column. They were kept at the Parc des Automobiles Militaires on the Red Star Quay at Antwerp, where several hundred vehicles and all manner of parts were held in reserve. The author was first given “a limousine that was big enough to sleep in” and, as it was too clumsy for his purpose, it was exchanged for “a 90-h.p. Berline”. The make is not mentioned but from the pictures I think these were Minervas. Minerva armoured cars are certainly mentioned by make and illustrated; Prince Henri de Ligne was mortally wounded in a raid on the German lines near Herenthals in one of these earliest of armoured cars. The book contains eye-witness accounts of how these operated.

There really seems no ending to this fascinating theme of cars in non-motoring books. For instance, although I would not imagine that Julian Huxley, the great scientist, was enamoured of motor cars, there are several references to them in his “Memories” (Allen & Unwin, 1970). He recalls that his first car was “an original Model-T Ford, costing about £100, with petrol at 5d. a gallon”. That was in America in 1914. Huxley adds another piece of praise for these famous cars: “It was a gallant little machine, which I could drive across the prairies; though I had to get out now and again to check that the hard dead stalks of last year’s plants had not hit the sump-cock and let out the oil.” The terrible state of the Texas roads of 50 years ago is vividly described.

Back in England, Huxley bought “a two-stroke motor-bicycle from Cobb Saunders”. “I am afraid,” he continues, “it wasn’t a very good bargain; whether Juliette (his wife) was riding pillion or not, I had to get off at every hill and push the wretched thing.” There is an interesting reference to ballooning as late as 1924, when there were still special gas pipes for filling balloons at the Oval cricket ground and the Welsh Harp, Hendon.

Huxley does not give the makes of all the cars he used but reveals that in 1925 Maria, wife of Aldous Huxley, “drove a small Citroën at full speed round the hair-raising bends of the mountain road (the Cortina d’Amprezzo), while Aldous had charge of the horn….” Then there is the Bébé Peugeot which the son of the celebrated writer Pierre Chevrillon took the Huxleys out in when on holiday in Brittany, but the make of car which H. G. Wells had out there isn’t quoted, nor is that of the “powerful car” which Sir Horace Plunkett drove as if in Ireland, on the right instead of the left as on Surrey roads. Flying from Russia to Königsberg involved using a First World War 3-seater aeroplane as late as 1931. Two years later Huxley’s wife “had acquired a second-hand sports-touring Hotchkiss”, in which they went to Ireland, via the Fishguard ferry, and a long drive from Cork to Baltimore. Presumably it was this car which Huxley crashed into a tree when trying to avoid a donkey-cart while cruising at about 80 m.p.h. along a straight route nationale towards Abbeville in 1938. Or perhaps by then they had acquired something non-vintage? One wonders, too, about the “old car, very high-sprung to go easily over the bumps”, which the then Duke of Bedford was using on his estate when Julian Huxley went there to discuss zoo animals before the last war, another item from the pages of this enjoyable autobiography.—W. B.

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