Cars In Books, February 1975

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More cars in books occur in “George Formby”, a biography by Alan Randall and Ray Seaton, which is published by W. H. Allen and was sent to me by the Chairman of the George Formby Society with the compliments Of Alan Randall, the jazz piano and vibrophone player; who is a great Mercedes-Benz enthusiast. The book makes it plain that the famous Comedian, who rose to become Britain’s highest-paid entertainer in the late-1930s and 1940s, was a keen motorist. The book emphasises Formby’s love of motorcycles and his fast and fearless riding and driving of cars. His 1936 film about the TT will be remembered, including as it did his song “Riding in the TT Races”. The illustrations show a dreary Vauxhall drophead and a Hillman., both of the late 1930s, and there is a picture of hint with a 2-litre open sports Aston Martin. He had his first Rolls-Royce after he had topped the bill at the Palladium and thereafter Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars were among his favourites, with the Reg. letters GF, or those of his wife Beryl.

This is yet another book in which Brooklands is Mentioned, Formby being credited with being the first driver to lap the Track at Over 100 m.p.h., which is a mistake, intended to convey that he was the first person to lap at over 100 m.p.h. in a V12 Lagonda. But Formby enjoyed his lesser purchases just as much.. Indeed, the book tells us that he got the -greatest pleasure from a Hillman for which he paid £27, selling it after three months for 195, and from a Fiat bought for a fiver, on Which they spent 30/On paint and £1 on new tyres during a pantomime season in Manchester. Formby used to work On his Motorcycle, himself. His 200th car was “a navy-and-silver Rolls-Royce” which cost £6,250. His smoke green Bentley, GF 1, is also mentioned.

Another reader has sent me extracts from the first volume of “Aldous Huxley—A Biography” by Sybille Bedford -(Chatto and Windus, 1973), which covers Huxley’S life from 1894 to 1939. It is extremely interesting that he owned a Bugatti in the vintage era, keeping it for five years. We are cold that he bought it on the recommendation of the AA engineers in London (which in itself is astonishing) and ordered it with a touring body from “the works of Turin”. Turin is mentioned more than once, obviously in error for Molsheim. The Bugatti i5described as ” the new touring model . . . which has a most extraordinary performance and is a very sound piece of engineering and building”. With that the Bugatti OC will certainly agree, but I wonder whether it can enlighten my informant, Rollo Martin, Who says that in spite of consulting Conway he cannot decide whether the Huxleys’ Bugatti was a Type 44 or a Type 46. It seems that Aldous couldn’t drive because of poor eyesight but that his wife was quite a driver. The special body was not finished until Easter 1929 and the car was then run-in on a journey through France into Spain, as far as Madrid and hack, after which they took it to London. Apparently the car had been collected from the works (or from the coachbuilder’s in Turin?) and the new possession is described as “Aldous and Maria’s high point in cars, and their one great personal extravagance (paid for by `Point Counter Point’). It was a slim, powerful, two-seater, scarlet, with the upholstery in dove-grey leather. Maria Sat close under the large sports Car wheel; Aldous’ seat had been built to measure for his outstretched legs”. There was a cramped scat in the tail and the boot held two Or three Revelation suitcases and a portable typewriter. Ettore Bugatti is said to have been amazed to hear that a woman was going to drive “one of his monsters”and asked to meet her—which, after some of the lady racing drivers he had known, must have been more customer-relations than astonishment, one supposes. Fast journeys into Switzerland from France are mentioned but on one of these the car started to boil—”the radiator was ever its delicate point”—and they had to limp home. All most interesting, and as the book mentions other cars and long journeys I shall hope to investigate further.

Then, not so much “Cars (or aeroplanes) In Books” hut a “belated-book-review”, there is “No Echo In The Sky” by Harald Penrose (Cassell 1958) for this is an aviation book pure and simple. No writer paints better in words the majesty, mystery, and suspense of flying, than Penrose. His is even more a master of this art than my old favourite, Cecil Lewis of “Sagittarius Rising” memory. Because Penrose was a Test Pilot at Westland’s his technical references are accurate to a degree, but he writes in this book mainly about what it was like to fly a variety of aeroplanes in diverse conditions. Each chapter is a most delightful cameo of the old, bold, vanished days Of flying. Anyone who cares about aeroplanes and flying them .should try to read this now-out-of-print book. It opens with the author’s first flight in a rotary.engined Avro 504 in 1919, after the youthful Harald had cycled to his local aerodrome. It continues with quite fascinating accounts of learning to fly in a radial-engined Westland biplane in 1926, flying a Bristol fighter, energised by a Huck’s starter, in 1927, chasing the birds (feathered) from 1928 onwards, for many happy years, in his Westland Widgeon, until it was destroyed by fire, and the high adventure of altitude flying in a supercharged Houston-Westland two-seater biplane one December day in 1932, to see if it would climb a mile higher than the ceiling of the then-current Bristol Bulldog and he suitable for the over-Everest flight. That one ends with a skilled dead-stick landing, modestly described, after the Pegasus radial engine had ‘Stopped at 35,000 feet, in cloud, with only compass and bubble cross-level for reference . . .

Further just-as-delightful chapters follow, about flying the Westland PV7 high-wing monoplane in the late -Summer of 1934, from which Penrose had to jump, the first flight in the prototype Rolls-Royce steam-cooled Westland Pterodactyl one spring morning in 1935 (“Tomorrow May Not Come”—hut the chapter’s tide belies the undramatic account of this difficult exercise)—soaring among the birds at dangerously below cliff-top height in the author’s home-built glider on a day of boisterous wind in 1936, trying his first Spitfire at Martlesham Heath and indulging in a mock-battle with a Gladiator, testing a captured Messerschmitt fighter during the war, flying the Westland Lysander, and having trouble with the Welkin prototype, among the war-time dog fights, when one engine packs up. Then follow accounts of the new delights of piloting the Meteor in 1945 and crossing from England to Singapore and back in a DH Comet air-liner in 1952, culminating in Penrose’s unexpected last flight, in a Rolls Royce gas-turbine Wyvern strike-fighter, the 390th type in his log-book. A most rewarding little hook, in which the author blends a love of nature and the English countryside with his intimate knowledge of aeroplanes over a long span of years.

A reader, Mr. G. Lobb of Penzance, has persuaded Sir John 13etjeman to disclose the cars his father owned, arising from my remarks in this column last year, but the respected poet does not say what cars he has used himself, professing not the least interest in them, although he says he was always interested in friends who liked them. His father’s first car was a Rover landaulette (remembered from one much-liked Betjeman poem) which, he remembers, would only just get up West Hill in Highgate, where the family then lived. But it took its owner to his factory in Islington and to his golf-club in Barnet, driven by an ex-coachman called William Allwright, a “wonderful man, not mechanically-minded, who used to hiss as he cleaned the Rover”. Their next car, Sir John recalls, was an Arrol-Johnston, bought from a Putney motor-showroom from a man named Dawson K. Bunn, as they had moved to Chelsea. This one was driven by a Chauffeur called Johns, as the owner, being deaf, couldn’t drive a car. After that “they sank to an Essex saloon”:—W.B.

Car versus Train

IT apears that the 50-m.p.h. speed limit on ordinary British roads has been imposed not only with the idea of conserving a minute quantity of fuel but to bring travel by private car more into hoe with Public Service schedules. So it was interesting to be reminded, from an article in The Driving Member, magazine of the Daimler & Lanchester OC, that as long ago as 1937 a car beat the crack LNER express between Retford and Fort William, and it wasn’t a particularly fast car at that. Mr. V. Boyd-Carpenter, Spares Secretary and a Vice-President, recalls bows he bet some friends, all of whom were on the Chief Mechanical Engineer’s staff at the LNER Doncaster works, that his Lanchester Ten with Mulliner body could better the new time-tables just introduced for the King’s Cross-Mallig train, the LNER’s longest run, of 605 miles.

As he lived near Retford the run was to start from there, a proper breakfast and lunch were to be taken en route, and a member of the LNER staff was to go in the car to see fair play. The Clyde had to be crossed by ferry but the car averaged 33.4 m.p.h. for the 363 road miles, compared to 35.4 m.p.h. for the express, which had to do 425. miles. The train was stationary for 128 minutes, the Lanchester for 94 minutes. So we should be able to do as well M 1975, at least on journeys where 70 m.p.h. can he maintained on Motorways.—W.B.

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