Cars in Books, February 1969

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While I have ceased to be astonished at the numbers of references to cars in non-motoring books I was intrigued when a reader recommended “John Christie of Glyndebourne” a biography by Wilfred Blunt (Geoffrey Bles, 1968), because although I have some small appreciation of good as distinct from “pop” music, I regrettably know nothing about it. So why should I find interest in a book about the founder of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera House? I have never been there, although I know racing motorists who have.

The fact is that I found the life of John Christie not only to make very good reading but to encompass some fascinating motor cars. While at Cambridge, Christie decided, in 1903, that he wanted a motor car, favouring a 6 h.p. Regal costing between £200 and £210. As with many young people money was the problem. This was apparently solved when his mother made him a present of a Georges-Richard, which he decided he preferred to a Regal. Whether Christie could drive was not known, but immediately on acquiring the car he drove it to Birmingham and back, some 520 miles, to make sure that he could. He had, it seems, specified a steel instead of an aluminium body, and had made alterations to the positions of petrol tank and accelerator. He suggested a skidding session on slippery roads to Sir Edward Duncombe when he called at Christie’s rooms and did a lot of tinkering on the Georges-Richard, “taking her to pieces, fitting new lubricators, encasing her belly in zinc to exclude the dust. He changed the brass gearwheel to a fibre one, replaced worn ball-bearings, fitted new exhaust valves. He adjusted the gearbox and stripped down the engine. Then, when everything was to his satisfaction, he competed in a hill-climbing competition”. I wonder how many visitors to the Glyndebourne opera realise that its creator was a competition driver!

In the long vacation of 1904 the Georges-Richard was used for an expedition to Bayreuth. It was a two-seater but an enormous cheesecrate was improvised by its owner so that there would be room for two more passengers, their luggage and tins of petrol. The passengers were Dr. Lloyd from Eton, George Lyttelton and R. H. Longman. We read: “Cross-channel steamers had at that time no facilities for transporting cars; a barge was therefore chartered and the car, together with its complement of passengers, towed behind the steamer to Calais”. The long journey seems to have been punctuated by overheating, and loss of power and the opening act of Parsifal was missed at Bayreuth when the car refused to start. Later John Christie bought a better car—a 1909 Ariel—and, by 1916 he was running “a small green two-seater Napier”.

This Napier was used for a journey from London to Edinburgh during the war to investigate a strike on the Clyde. Christie stopped in Bond Street to enquire the way to Edinburgh, his butler occupying the dickey seat with a barrel of oysters and a large jar of caviare. In 1919 Christie toured the battlefields in the Napier, its doors removed to make more room for his passengers, the butler now in charge of boxes of Charbonnels chocolates, and the springs suffering and needing attention from German prisoners.

After the war was over Christie formed the Glyndebourne Motor Works, amongst other commercial ventures, and as a master at Eton, some time before or during 1922, he ran a huge two-seater Daimler, bought secondhand, in which he was seen driving back from a London dance wrapped in an eiderdown. When running the organ-making firm of Hill, Norman & Beard, John Christie is remembered as having “a large grey two-seater Daimler coupé with a spotlight on the roof and fitted with balloon tyres on the rear wheels”. Later, in this capacity, he “bought two T Fords—one a two-seater which he used, and the other a four-seater for the firm’s use—it was a comic sight to see him in morning kit and top hat sitting bolt upright driving his car through London”. He is described as a most alarming person to be driven by but he is never remembered as having had an accident. After the Ford “he bought a secondhand Singer which was a dreadful machine; he used to drive up to the works in it from Glyndebourne each morning and back again at night—why, I could never understand”, Donald Beard is quoted as saying. One night the Singer caught fire on, it was believed, Blackfriars Bridge. One of his cars Christie licensed as a taxi, presumably to evade the heavy horse-power tax.

When he was engaged he suggested to his sweetheart her flying from England to Köln; this in 1931 when the next stage of the journey would be by tram to Bonn. And in 1935, when he was planning Glyndebourne, Christie mentioned “an excellent landing ground for aeroplanes 100 yards from the Opera House”. The last motoring reference in this absorbing book refers to John Christie of Glyndebourne being prosecuted in 1951 for driving on the wrong side of a narrow road. He was fined £25 and his licence suspended. Quintin Hogg was briefed for the appeal, at which Christie’s licence was restored, the fine reduced to £5 and costs awarded to him. It was with difficulty that he was dissuaded from bringing an action against the Police Inspector for malicious prosecution and/or giving false evidence. This episode, we are told, remained a lifelong grievance and caused much bitterness.—W. B.