Cars in books, February 1973

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FROM “Enid Bagnold’s Autobiography” (Heinemann, 1969) comes a reference to the writer’s father’s first car, bought when he was Chief Superintendent of Building Works at Woolwich and lived at ‘Warren ‘Wood at the top of Shooter’s Hill. It was a Cadillac “with a little door at the back like a horse trap and no windscreen”. The date was 1902 or 1903 and the actress remembers the brass radiator, lamps and horn (cleaned after Sunday lunch), the “black leather ‘sleeves’ for articulated parts, with brass oil inlet-holes, and screw caps with ‘endless threads”. She also mentions the black leather spring gaiters and how her father built an electrically-lit pit in the garage and put in a winch so that she could get the car back into its garage after it had been pushed out and slightly downhill. Of motor cars in general she remarks that they “have always been women but they were more particularly women then. There was a touch of keeping a mistress. Their waywardness was loved. If something went wrong it was the nature of -a pretty woman to have faults.” Which perhaps explains why the vintage and veteran car movement is so virulent.

In November 1967, alter I had referred previously to Leonard Woolf’s autobiography “Beginning Again” (Hogarth Press), 1 mentioned a letter I had had from the famous author, about the cars he had owned. I now find that in his subsequent autobiography “Downhill All The Way” (Hogarth Press, 1967) Woolf has quite a lot to say in a most interesting fashion about two of these cars, a secondhand Singer bought in July 1927 for £275, which on a Continental tour “punctured on an average about every 25 miles”, and a Lanchester 18 with a Tickford hood which “Could be wound back to convert it to a completely open cat”. In the Lanchester Woolf made another long Continental tour, delightfully described, astonishment at a pet marmoset sitting on his shoulder successfully passing them through customs-posts, even in the growing menace of Nazi Germany. For a literary person Leonard Woolf was notably enthusiastic about motoring: “There is no doubt-Whatever that, as an individual. I have enormously increased the scope and pleasures of living by the six cars which I have owned and driven in the last 40 years.” Vintage enthusiasts will have fun deciding just what kind of a used Singer he would have purchased in 1927 for as much as £275, and lam interested to find Woolf’s references to cars in his book listed in the index, because few publishers pick them out in this way—perhaps our previous reference indicated to Woolf’s publisher the interest in cars in books?

In another autobiography of a Socialist, “Nothing So Strange” by Ftaneis Williams (Cassell, 1970), the index isn’t helpful and the only interesting reference to cars is the ownership of two by the author when he was living in a nice house at Holmbury St. Mary, which he sees lit to excuse, as the Editor of a Socialist paper and a Socialist MP! He dots not say what these cars of the 1930s were but does mention an accident when “a front spring” broke and a car overturned, this could imply, if taken literally, a sing& front spring, as on a Ford, Overland of Austin Seven. It is more likely the author meant that one front spring broke, leaving us in the dark as to what he was driving.

I was interested to find no mention of RollsRoyce armoured-cars in “The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia” by Phillip Knightley and Cohn Simpson (Nelson, 1969), nor any reference to his alleged remark that the best gift in the World would be a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost car and enough petrol and tyres to run it for the rest of his life. But those who collect every scrap of R-R material should note the picture of Lawrence arriving at Damascus in his Rolls-Royce—a very early Ghost, presumably, sans windscreen and lamps, and with tatty mudguards!

It was interesting, coming so soon after finding references to a pre-1928 Singer in the autobiography of Leonard Woolf, to come upon mention of another such Singer in that remarkable book “The Lure of the Falcon” by Gerald Summers (Collins, 1972). This is a most moving account of a young man taming an injured falcon and retaining it with him throughout action in the Second World War and numerous PoW camps, from one of which he escaped, still with the falcon, a story almost unbelievable as it progresses anti one that is extremely well recounted. The Singer belonged to the author’s mother and Used to meet him at various public schools (there are some interesting sidelights on Gorcronstoun), driven by the chauffeur/ gardener. It was an “ancient blue Singer” remembered as “clanking and bumping down the drive” after Mrs. Summers had taken her son to a prep. school at East Grinstead and it was being driven back to their house, “Old Acres”,, at Horam. As this was about the year 1925 and the Singer was already ancient, it could not have been a Junior and must, like Leonard Woolf’s also ancient model at this time, have been one of the larger saloons. It was not in those days used for touring on the Continent, when trains were preferred, but it survived the war, meeting the author and his falcon at 1 lorain Station in 1945, driven by the same chauffeur.

“Gossip” by Cecily Gould (Gentry Books, 1972) is the extremely enjoyable biography of the 30-ton Harris-built 1899 cutter of that name and her very capable owner, who was still sailing a YOD at the age of 91. There are no cars named in it but I found it pleasing to have at last encountered a book which describes the Schneider Trophy races of 192931 as seen from a personal moored yacht, apart, that is, from enjoyment of the book in its entirety. There is nothing dramatic about the viewing of the racing seaplanes but it is nice to have recalled for one that this happened, and the excitement these races caused. I was also interested to note that when “Gossip” was given an engine in the early 1920s this was at first a “very erratic” 6-h.p. Day. This was changed later fir a secondhand Brook’s, which was even less reliable; I like the method of stopping it in an emergency, which was achieved by throwing a wet flannel over the plugs! Every sailing family should read this delightful (and dclightfully-illuShated) hook.

In Ursula Bloom’s “Rosemary for Frinton” (Robert Hale„ 1970) she refers to how boyfriends in the 1920s were regarded for their motorcycles—”the rich ones had Harley Davidsons, the others had to take Triumphs”. Her boy had a “very secondhand one of these”, with a sidecar made out of a bathchair. She writes of the local record, Frinton levelcrossing to Colchester level-crossing in 18 minutes for the 18 miles, and how a friend, Leslie Green, attempted to make it 17 minutes, riding “a powerful Rudge, the envy of the town”, with the Bloom on the pillion and her brother sitting on the tank. What I find rather delightful is that when the author asked her solicitor friend, Stanley Nicholson, whether there was a law against this, he said, no actual law, only the danger of death. Mr. Nicholson couldn’t have been a very good solicitor, because this was in the 1920s, when an overall 20-m.p.h. speed-limit prevailed. . . . Later the author bought “an extremely second-hand Lagonda”, which she drove with driving lessons and no appreciation that gears were of the slightest Importance”. It had no self-starter and must, I suppose, have been an 11.9 or a 12/24.

The most remarkable thing was finding such fascinating reference’s to cars in such an unlikely place as Geoffrey Grigson’s “Notes From An Odd Country” (Macmillan, 1970). This is a poet describing the part of France he lives in, in a rather poetical vein. Yet that does not prevent him from making passing reference to the traffic on its way to the motor racing at Le Mans and to a wine-grower, aged nearly 90, who drove his extremely old Renault once a week into the market at Montoire, a car bought in the twenties, its enamel hardly scratched, which the author estimates to have run less than 25,000 miles in all its 40 years. Does it still make this weekly 10-mile out-and-home pilgrimage. I wonder? And what of the Marquis in the neglected chateau who existed in poverty, his livelihood consumed, not by a passion for drink or women, but through having inherited a fortune insufficient to cope with his desire for Lars of all kinds ? He is dead now, the author says. But who knows what he has left behind in his shabby home, in a remote part of France ? I will refrain from saying where, pr half the VSCC will be converging pn the house in the summer holidays (although I cannot stop you buying the book to find out L Grigson also refers to his friend, Ben Nicholson, who returned to Tours in his 70s in a fast car which he insisted was Ben’s Mercedes. not a Mercedes-Benz.—W.B.