I am indebted to a reader, Mr. J. E. Robinson of Barnsley, for drawing my attention to a book with some interesting motoring references, namely “Portal of Hungerford” by Denis Richards (Heinemann). Had I known of it I would have read it myself, and I shall now set about doing so, if for no better reason than because the period with which it deals appeals to me and because I once had the temerity to write to Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Viscount Portal of Hungerford, KC, GCB, OM, DSO, MC, about the 1914 Berliet “Whistling Rufus” that he raced at Brooklands in 1923, when I was writing my book on the subject of that great motor course.
I received a courteous and informative reply, in long-hand, from which I deduced that in the midst of all the high-level business at the Air Ministry, Viscount Portal was happy to take time off and recall his old motor car. It is indeed mentioned in the book, and named as “his open Berliet 20 car, its bonnet held down by a strap (shades of Brooklands) … widely known as ‘Whistling Rufus’ from its noise when the squadron leader piloted it at speed….” We are told that this Berliet was used for journeys from Portal’s house in Woldingham in Surrey to the Air Ministry, to which he had been posted from Staff College in April 1923 and that it was to remain a cherished adjunct of the Portal household for many years. More about it, and details of its eventual fate, in my “History of Brooklands Motor Course” (which Grenville are about to reissue in fully-revised form, now with a car-index, for those who still want to read it).
Apart from this reference to Viscount Portal’s Berliet, the aforesaid book tells of how his sporting father, E. R. Portal, took up bicycling in 1893 and motoring in 1903, going to the Crystal Palace Motor Show in February of the latter year and buying a 10-h.p. Wolseley for £475. Later in 1903 he drove this car to Scotland and his love of motoring led to a succession of cars, named as De Dion Bouton, Fiat and Zedel, all of which Lil Portal also drove. They were used to journey to Scotland for the summer holidays but tyre trouble was rife, “an average of 188 miles without a puncture” being recorded in July 1914. Apart from his father’s motoring, the beginnings of Viscount Portal’s motorcycling days are referred to. He had a 6.6-h.p. BAT which he rode in ‘Varsity events while at Oxford in 1913, spurred on by his friend C. G. (Jim) Brocklebank, who, of course, later raced a 1913 Grand Prix Peugeot car at Brooklands in the 1920s. It is recorded that at Kop hill in 1914 Portal on his BAT was able to beat the great Openshaw’s 90-bore Zenith and Brooke’s Indian, due to the slippery nature of the road – those who did not open out because of this being said, rather delightfully, to be suffering from “grease nerves”. At this time Brocklebank had a Mathis car. In 1949 Portal joined the Board of the Ford Motor Company and had a Ford Pilot, which is said to have frequently shown 100 m.p.h. on its speedometer (which belies Ford’s reputation for accurate speedometers!), and later Ford models.