Cars in Books, February 1981

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Not many cars figure in “About Time”, the autobiography, up to the commencement of the Second World War, by Penelope Mortimer (Allen Lane, 1979) and, as it is a light-hearted aspect of a rather sordid story, one cannot be quite sure how serious the references are. But the authoress’s clergyman father clearly had a bull-nose Morris-Oxford, either a tourer or the two-seater with dickey, well before the General Strike of 1926, because he went off to Special Constable duties in it at that time. His daughter says she was allowed to ride astride the bonnet, “which burned the insides of my thighs”, suggesting that it ran abnormally hot, unless she means that she straddled the radiator. . . . This car was kept at the Vicarage at Chilton in Buckinghamshire, close to my back-route to and from Silverstone when we were living in Hampshire, and I once saw a similar car in that village long after the war. The Morris in the book was used for journeys to London and back in a day, but apparently a trip as far as Oxford was regarded by the children as quite an expedition. Sometimes the girl would ride on its running-board as far as Dorton, when her father was preaching there or visiting her godmother.

In his sad and lonely old age the clergyman used to get solace we are told from driving over the Derbyshire moors, slumped over the wheel of his cars, which he changed frequently — a Standard and a Humber apparently followed the Morris. The only other motoring references are related to the writer’s first boy-friend, who kept a thermos of water on his motorcycle to throw over the engine when it threatened to blow up — or could it have been a Scott, and the water intended for its radiator? — and to the grey Rolls-Royce with silver upholstery belonging to Layton, the black entertainer, some years before the war.

In a very entertaining assortment of old photographs put together by Christopher Simon Sykes in “Country House Camera” (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1980) I was pleased to see that a fine two-page spread is devoted to an open 3-litre twin cam Sunbeam with the slouch-hatted Sybil Rocksavage at the wheel. She was photographed at Port Lympne in about 1925. The car has the expected cycle-type front mudguards and the top pane of its windscreen is partially open, perhaps because there does not appear to be a screen-wiper. This splendid photograph measures 16 1/2″ x 7″. On the same page there are two more car pictures. One of them depicts The Knight of Glin in a very odd, apparently pre-1914, large two-seater with a two-gallon petrol can on its o/s running board, outside the bungalow at Brooklands which became known as Parry Thomas’s “Hermitage”. The car is said to be a Peugeot, and it has enormous electric headlamps and a Klaxon horn, so it may be just post-war. The driver seems to be holding his cap up on a pole, or else is for some reason wielding a mop. The bungalow windows are open, as they never seem to have been in Thomas’s day and I imagine the photograph may have been taken while Capt. Sir Alastair Miller, Bt. was living there.

Support is lent to this theory because the other picture is of The Knight of Glin driving a racing Bianchi at Brooklands, it says when he was working for the Bianchi Company. In the photograph the car looks like a cross between a 1913 Coupe de L’Auto Peugeot and a post-war Grand Prix Fiat or Sunbeam. The driver is crouched over the wheel and seems to be crossing the Fork at speed. This must be the red 2-litre twin-cam Bianchi with black wheels raced at the Track by Alastair Miller in 1924, after he had broken class-records with it the previous year. It could lap at 92 1/4 m.p.h. and the picture in “Country House Camera” shows it carrying the racing no. 1, so it must have been competing at a small Club meeting. When Miller drove the car it was entered by a Mr. C. Bloch. It seems to have cropped up again at Brooklands in 1930, but it was never the scratch (No. 1) car on these occasions. On this last appearance the Bianchi was entered and driven (but only for a short distance before calamity struck) by a Mr. C. Reffitt and it then had a red chassis but blue bodywork and cream wheels. It recovered to run one more race, driven by a Mr. G. Wells, lapping at 83 m.p.h. before retiring. So maybe the Knight was just trying the car out; there could have been aristocratic connections between him and Sir Alastair Miller. The sad thing is that the picture of this Bianchi is captioned “The Knight of Glin at 101 m.p.h., breaking the lap-record at Brooklands . . .”; no way. . . .!

The reader who recommended this book tells me that this 28th Knight of Glin was Desmond Otho Fitz-Gerald, who was born in 1901 and who died in 1949. So he would have been 23 at the time when there was a Bianchi running at Brooklands. He married the second daughter of Ernest Amherst Villiers, MP, in 1929 and they had two daughters and a son, the 29th Knight being Christie’s representative in Ireland. One wonders whether one of the brothers of the Knight’s wife was the Amherst Villiers of blower-4 1/2 Bentley fame? Incidentally, Amherst derives from Ernest Villiers’ wife having been Florence Amherst, sister of the First Lord Amherst of Hackney.

To revert to the book, it is divided into six periods, running overall from 1850 to 1939, and as it unfolds its pictures, equestrian and bicycling backgrounds give way to ballooning and then to early motor-cars. Scenes from a 1913 tour in France, including a shot of the chauffeur mending the inevitable puncture on a chain driven tourer, and of the Hoovers, who had bought a Panhard in 1902, with a number of cars at Henley-on-Thames where they lived in 1906, are included, and William Randal, 11th Earl of Antrim, is seen at Glenarm with his White steam car. There is a picture of Ernest Guinness flying his DH Moth G-AAAS, wrongly captioned as a Tiger Moth, and also in his propeller-driven motor-boat, and of the aforesaid Knight of Glin at Glin Castle in Ireland with his low-wing monoplane, which was possibly a BA Swallow, suggested by its podgy wheels, although the engine-cowling looks like that of an inverted Gipsy and undercarriage bracing is confusing. Over to the aviation experts!  Altogether, this book will be a considerable treat for those who enjoy recalling the pre-war days. – W.B.