Cars in Books, February 1966

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This series has by now had such remarkable continuity that it seems it need never end, yet I am still astonished that almost every non-motoring book I read invariably contains some reference to one or more cars by make. With the more recently published works this is to some degree understandable, inasmuch as motoring and cars are of universal interest to people of all ages, both sexes and most nationalities, so novelists and biographers may be expected to include what they know or remember of cars in their books. I can now almost sense when reference to matters motoring is imminent, at all events in certain instances, but I confess to satisfied surprise when, reading “Bid Time Return,” by Humphrey Pakington (Chatto & Windus. 1958) on Christmas Eve, I came upon such things, amongst the author’s memories of naval warfare in the two World Wars.

What could be more appropriate, with the prices of old cars sometimes at such ridiculously elevated levels, than the following ? : “Meanwhile life was expanding for us … when a friend of mine started to hawk around a bull-nosed Morris for £30, I closed the offer, took driving lessons, and decided to make my first independent appearance on the roads by driving the family from London to Dorset, a distance of 138 miles. Mrs. Johnson, as we had named the bull-nosed Morris, had been led out of the garage on the previous night, and was standing before the house with a somewhat hang-dog air when I got down at half-past five on a grey summer morning. One of the tyres was flat, and there was considerable difficulty in inducing Mrs. J. to start, but we sailed off eventually, my wife, myself, and the four children, Nannie and Cook being left to come on by train. We sailed off, and we sailed into a dead-end at Hammersmith. I prefer to call it a ‘dead-end’, though the highway authorities seem to think ‘cul-de-sac’ more refined. I was not yet adept at backing, or at turning in a narrow space, and my crew, though willing, were not much use. However, a little pushing and pulling got us back into the main stream once again, and we sailed happily along till a car passed us, drew up ahead, and signalled us to stop. The driver advanced. ‘You do know that one of your back wheels is nearly off, don’t you ?’, he said.”Anyway, a garage secured the loose wheel, the journey continued with a stop to picnic in a field beyond Salisbury—”on a downhill slope we touched 35 m.p.h.”—and after “a passing mechanic” had adjusted the clutch, the family reached their destination, Chideock, at 4 p.m., grazing the wall of the house on arrival.

No longer can one condone such light-hearted learner-driving but it is a happy throwback to the golden age, when frequent punctures, infrequent garages, engines difficult to start and other drawbacks were offset by the real freedom of the road. As I gained my initial experience at the wheel of vintage Morris cars, admittedly flat-nosed Cowleys, these passages were particularly agreeable….

The author parted with the Morris “after six months of faithful service. Having paid only £30 for the old lady I did not expect to get a large price, and when my garage suggested—as I understood-35s. I closed with the offer readily enough. I was therefore very pleased to receive in due course a cheque for £35….” He then bought a new Essex d.h. coup (christened Elizabeth), using it to cruise from village to village while preparing a book for Batsford, “and only once in all that time did I have to put up the hood—when I ran into a thunderstorm.” That would have been in the late thirties.

There is also, in this book, reference to hiring a Daimler “with chauffeur and footman complete,” or a Court function at Buckingham Palace, but I find myself wondering whether the communication between passengers and chaufeur really was by ringing a bell, as Pakington describes, and when he writes of the courtyard “being rent with the noise of the engines, and the smell of petrol rising into the air,” I feel he is being rather harsh on the silence factor of pre-war luxury cars, and probably meant “exhaust fumes” anyway!—W.B.