Cars in Books, December 1982

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A READER has drawn our attention to the following, from “Max Miller — the Cheeky Chappie” by John M. East (W. H. Allen, 1977):—

“Edwardian Brighton owed its new prosperity greatly to Harry Preston. His genial personality and enthusiasm for yachting, motoring, flying and the theatre brought about a renewal of the town’s importance as a centre for sporting and stage people. The greatest single influence in the rebirth of Brighton’s success was the growing popularity of the motor car. In 1905 Preston promoted a scheme to have a tarmac surface made on Madeira Drive from the Palace Pier to Kemp Town, a distance of nearly a mile, to enable it to serve from time to time as a race track. From his youth Max loved motor cars; he was only 15 when he learned to drive and he was probably influenced by the early vogue in Brighton for ‘the rush and roar of motor-drawn traffic’. Max once said ‘That’s my Rolls-Royce outside. Does ten miles to the gallon, so I use the Lanchester for going round the town. Oh, and then there’s the De Soto for nipping up to the golf course or the river. Got the back arranged so that it can take all my gear. Then I’ve got my racing bike, to keep fit when I’m working. Put it in the back of the Rolls and go out on it every morning. Not up hills though. I don’t race up hills — bad for the heart, that.’ I remember he started driving a small car around Brighton, and a woman questioned him about his Rolls-Royce. `Oh, I had to sell it, lady.’ ‘What — things not so good with you, Maxie?’ ‘No, the ash trays were full’.”

Then, in fiction which can often be autobiographical, we have the following, from none other than H. G. Wells’ “Joan and Peter” (Cedric Chivers, 1918). The year is 1903:— “. . A polite young man appeared one morning seated in a chariot of fire outside the road gate of the School of St. George and the Venerable Bede. He was in one of those strange and novel portents, a ‘motor-car.’ This alone made him interesting and attractive, and it greatly impressed young Winterbaum to discover that the visitor had come about Joan and Peter. Young Winterbaum went out to scrutinise the motor-car and its driver, and see if there was anything wrong about it. But it was difficult to underestimate.

“‘It’s a petrol car,’ he said, ‘Belsize. . . . Those are fine lamps.’

“Miss Murgatroyd gathered that the guardians of Joan and Peter. . . had sent the car to fetch them. . . .There was something reassuring about the motor-car. They departed cheerfully to the ill-concealed envy and admiration of young Winterbaum. . . . The young man (driver) said ‘These here cars’ll do forty-fifty miles an hour.’

“In a little while they were upon an unknown road. It was astonishing how the car devoured the road. You saw a corner a long way off and then immediately you were turning this corner. The car went as swiftly up the hills as down. It said ‘honk’. The trees and hedges flew by as if one was in a train, and behind we trailed a marvellous cloud of dust. The driver sat before us with his head sunken between his hunched-up shoulders; he never seemed to move; he was quite different from the swaying, noble coachman with the sun red-face, wearing a top hat with a waist and a broad brim, who sat erect and poised his whip and drove Lady Charlotte’s white horses.” The year is still 1903 (Oswald has just returned to London having lived for many years in Africa. There is an interesting account of the places he sees in London and the differences he notices):— “. . Now and then he saw automobiles, queer, clumsy carriages without horses they seemed to be, or else low, heavy-looking vehicles with a flavour of battleship about them. Several emitted bluish smoke and trailed an evil smell. In Regent Street outside Liberty’s art shop one of these mechanical novelties was in trouble. Everybody seemed pleased. The passing cabmen were openly derisive. Oswald joined the little group of people at the pavement edge who were watching the heated and bothered driver engaged in some obscure struggle beneath his car.

“An old gentleman in a white waistcoat stood beside Oswald and presently turned to him.’ “Silly things,’ he said. ‘Noisy, dangerous, stinking things. They ought to be forbidden.’ “Perhaps they will improve’ said Oswald. “How could that thing improve?’ asked the old gentleman. ‘Lotto dirty ironmongery.” — W.B.