Cars in books, February 1983

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Due to the generosity of a reader I have been enjoying “The Private Life of a Country House” by Leslie Lewis (David & Charles, 1980 — Futura paperback, 1982), being an account of how a typical minor country house in Essex was run, from just before the first World War to the outbreak of the second World War. Sometimes the writer of a fictional work covering these or similar periods tries to introduce the flavour of the times by naming the household objects and commodities used in those days, but too frequent adoption of this ploy becomes tedious. Lesley Lewis is not writing a story, her book is a documentary and so there is nothing tedious about her description of almost all the objects in the two houses in which she was brought up, first at Warley Side near Brentwood, but mostly at Pilgrim’s Hall near Ongar, also in Essex; at all events, I found it fascinating.

The family was able to keep a butler and servants and Miss Lewis was presented at Court, although her father went off to business every week-day. Cars naturally appear. The first was a green Austin landaulette, a pre-1914 model, driven by a chauffeur called Simpson. He went off to the war but sent postcards to his former employer. The next chauffeur was Albert Murrant, an ex-coachman who had discovered mechanics during his war service. He looked after the horses at Pilgrim’s Hall, drove the car, and started the oil-engine, with a blow-lamp, that generated the house electricity. (The engine was sold when the house was converted to mains-electricity just before 1939.) After a cob had died in 1920 a Model-T Ford was acquired, already of considerable age, a tourer with talc side curtains and a Stepney spare wheel, to help out the horses with transport. The author has not quite understood how a Model-T is driven, saying her mother changed gear with a ratchet on the steering column and mixing up the choke with the hand accelerator. The car’s bulb and Klaxon horns are remembered.

In the mid-1920s the Ford was replaced by Chevrolet tourer on which the author, aged 17, and her Etonian brother, were taught to drive by the chauffeur on the quieter roads, until they were sent off on their own. When her brother went to Oxford he was given the Chevrolet, described giving “standardised controls”, in relation to those of the Ford, and a Sunbeam landaulette was obtained, and later “a delightful touring Sunbeam, which had the luxury of a self-starter”. From a photograph it looks as if the Sunbeam landaulette was probably a 4-cylinder 16 hp. and the tourer a 14/40 Sunbeam. The three cars are depicted, circa-1929, in the motorhouse, and the Chevrolet is seen to have the later radiator with a curve at the top of the cooling element. The registration nos. appear to have been: Chevrolet: PU 8548, Sunbeam landaulette: MC 7440, Sunbeam tourer: MH 5321. Later still came the inevitable Austin 7, a boon, as it enabled the ladies to go out on Sundays without breaking the strict embargo on taking the chauffeur out on that day. Mr. Lewis, Senr. never learnt to drive, and used a bicycle on the Sabbath, mounting it from the rear hub. . . .

Another reference to a car, in this delightful book, is to a GWK two-seater, of pre-1914 vintage, used by the author’s aunts who were living in Steyning High Street. Again the author is not quite aware of how this was driven, but it was still in use into the 1920s and there is a splendid description of the difficulties of starting it, and its jerky take-off — no doubt due to its unmentioned friction transmission. This car is pictured, as is a tourer at a point-to-point in about 1931, with the butler in semi-formal attire attending on the alfresco lunch, but the odd hub-caps and disc wheels make me unsure if this is the aforesaid Sunbeam. The GWK once stalled, we are told, as it was crossing Goodwood race-course and as the horses were approaching the Police just lifted it bodily out of the way . . . Another Austin 7 is mentioned, to which the District Nurse had graduated, from her bicycle.

Another reader, George Paton of Woodbridge, has drawn my attention to “Grecian Glory” by Dorothy Una Ratcliffe (Eyre & Spottiswood, 1941) in which there is an account of a tour of Greece undertaken in 1938 in a Ford V8, which incidentally, possessed an altimeter. Our correspondent continues:—

It was shipped by sea to Greece. Obviously not in the first flush of youth (the authoress describes the car as having spent its colt-hood in Basoutoland) it nevertheless accepted the condition of the Greek roads in its stride, even crossing unbridged rivers taking “the condition of the swollen torrents as part of the day’s work”. The only recorded trouble is a fire in the carburetter effectively put out by the Greek refugee mechanic from Stamboul who had been hired for the trip.

Although Georges, the mechanic, had been General Harrington’s driver in World War I the authoress and her companion, N.P., were reluctant to let him drive “thus preventing him from hurling us round hairpin bends and horse-shoe curves at what he thought a suitable speed!” However, he turned out tube a splendid guide and protector.

“I have been driving regularly in Greece for the last 12 years and even now the roads are such as would make the average British road fund tax payer howl with horror! I would imagine, therefore, that the roads in 1938 were pretty basic.

You might be interested to know that most of my Greek motoring is done in my sister-in-law’s 15-Year-old Austin 1100. It is still in excellent condition despite a hard life. The subframes show not a mark of rust, nor does the bodywork, although the Trafalgar blue paint is faded by the fierce sun. The engine (round the clock twice — in the kilometres) is still crisp enough to keep up with cut and thrust of Athens traffic. I’m sure the climate has much to do with its preservation. but the lack of winter salt and the excellent Greek mechanics (who tackle a wide variety of cars) also tell their tale. I wish cars lasted like that over here!”

I am receiving much assistance with this column from readers, and Mr. Anthony of London weighs in with the following very interesting extracts from “Rex — Autobiography of Rex Harrison, the Actor Film-Star” (Hodder & Stoughton — Coronet edition 1976:—

Whilst on tour (c.1931 / 32) “. . . I bought a car. It cost, I think, twelve pounds ten, and was called an Airedale. I’ve never come across an Airedale since, but it had a 12-horsepower engine, a custom-built body, and an Airedale dog on the front of the bonnet. I didn’t know how to drive it, but things were a bit more lax in those days. Kind friends told me what to do: ‘Let the clutch out, very slowly, press the accelerator, let the brake off, and Bob’s your uncle’ . . after some hair-raising experiments, I taught myself to drive. For some time afterwards I must have been a terrible road hazard.” In 1934 he is married and living in Bruton Mews. “. . . The big-end had gone on my Airedale, and I borrowed £20 from my mother to buy another car, a Chrysler. The mechanic who sold it to me ran a repair shop in the garage beneath our flat, and when our son Noel was born, he spent many hours in his pram. amid the petrol fumes of the Mews, watching the mechanic perform major and expensive operations on the Chrysler. Like many of my early cars the Chrysler had a knack for getting me into awkward spots. . .” He then recounts how he and comedian Hugh Wakefield drove down, in their respective cars, to a week-end party in the New Forest. “. . . I particularly asked Wakefield to drive slowly, so that I could stay right behind him and use his headlights. I dare not use mine: as soon as the Chrysler’s headlights were switched on, everything fused.” Wakefield drives too fast, Harrison can’t see on sidelights alone, switches on and everything fuses and he drives into a pond! “. . . next day we went back with a horse called Blossom and yanked the car out of the pond.”

In the summer of 1938 he and his wife are on holiday in the South of France. It is “Munich Crisis” time and all English are advised to return home immediately.

“The drive back was exceptionally unpleasant. I had a Brough Superior sports car then — I seem to have gone in for one-time cars, like the Airedale and the Brough, which no one else has ever heard of — and it didn’t behave at all well. Eventually it went off the road and ran into a bank, and when backed it off and started again I discovered that it was boiling over. I went to investigate the radiator, which had a rather racy swivel-cap, and got a jet of blinding, a boiling water in my face.” He is badly burned and spends the next ten days in hospital in Paris. In late 1939 he drives an actress friend from Birmingham to Liverpool “. . . in my car, a second-hand Bentley, for which I had exchanged the lethal Brough Superior.” Our correspondent concludes: I first read this book several years ago and decided that there couldn’t possibly have been near called an Airedale. Within two weeks my Motor Sport arrived and in “Fragments on Forgotten Makes” I read all about — the Airedale!

Another reader has drawn my attention to “The Kingdom”, by Robert Lacey (Hutchinson), about oil men, which refers to Nejd’s first car as a Model-T Ford, which arrived in Riyadh, courtesy of Abdullah aI Qosaibi, and was dragged by a caravan of camels across the red Dahna sands. Later in the book there is a reference to the promise which Churchill made to Abdul Aziz, namely that he would send him the first post-war Rolls-Royce in return for the valuable presents bestowed on him. It was described by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the author says, as “. . . the finest motor-car in the world, with every comfort for peace and security against hostile action.” Alas, as at the time Rolls-Royce Ltd. were busy making aero-engines it proved impossible to implement Churchill’s promise to the letter. However, according to the book, an almost unused Phantom III convertible (later described as a limousine) was found and refitted by Hooper’s for conditions in central Arabia. The rear compartment was given one big armchair for the Saudi King’s use. The cost is given as £3,281 17/-. The Rolls-Royce was shipped to Jeddah, where it arrived in the summer of 1946. It had then to be driven the 900 miles to Riyadh and the British Minister, Laurence Grafftey-Smith, gave the task to one of his junior officers, David Parker and the Pro-Vice Consul, Cyril Ousman. They arrived five days later. Unfortunately, two vital matters had been overlooked. Only the women rode in the backs of cars, so the throne-like rear seat was ignored. Then the King discovered that the Rolls-Royce was a r.h.d. car and as this meant sitting on the chauffeur’s left, a place of dishonour, he lost interest. The Phantom III was given to his brother Abdullah. It would be interesting to hear what the R-R EC can tell us of the car’s ultimate fate.

That concludes this month’s looking back at cars in books. — W.B.

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