Cars in Books, February 1997

Gordon Bennett, Sir Henry Brittain and to St Petersburg by Mercedes Ninety

It is through the thoughtfulness of readers that this column continues. This time it is the Rt Hon Alan Clark of Saltwood Castle who has kindly sent us a copy of the motoring pages from David Kelly’s autobiography, published in 1952. From this we discover that the author had his first initiation into foreign travel the Grand Tour after his first year at Oxford in 1911. As Alan points out, it was a memorable tour indeed, which one might be hard-pressed to emulate today in a Mercedes-Benz 500SEL. Sicily to Venice, over the Alps and back to France a year before the Rolls-Royce Ghosts won the Alpenfahrt.

It originated while Kelly was staying for the Long Vacation with his barrister half-brother and his cousin Olive d’Ameberg at a cottage at Dovercourt in Kent. He had been there for only a day or two when he received a telegram from his future stepfather, R J Walker, asking whether he would like to go on a trip to St Petersburg. The run was to start the following day and, as a train strike was imminent, Kelly packed hurriedly and left for London before the trains ceased to run. His destination was Little Holland House in Mulberry Road. The next morning, after Kelly had obtained a passport, required only for Russia and Turkey, they crossed from Folkestone to Boulogne, where the huge 90hp Mercedes open touring car Walker kept there for his Continental travels was awaiting them.

Soon this Mercedes Ninety was speeding along the French highways at 60mph, driven by Walker’s very experienced and capable chauffeur, Albert Smart. A day later they were in Germany. The Mercedes then went north, through the smiling Rhineland over the dark Prussian plain and so to Berlin. Here Walker preferred the old Esplanade Hotel to the more up-to-date Albion. After which this whirlwind tour took the travellers to the Prussian frontier and into Russia. Back in Germany the Mercedes suffered “an internal accident”, but a wayside cottage produced an excellent omelette and it was possible to telephone the Commick Motor Works. A car was sent out to tow the Mercedes in and two days later it had been repaired. Then it was on to Munich and Dresden, putting up at the fine Belleview Hotel. Walker now decided to take the train home, which gave the 19-year-old Kelly the opportunity of driving the Mercedes on through Germany and Holland he describes it as a huge six-cylinder 90hp touring car. Mercedes made many different models and presumably this would have been a 39/80hp.

This notable tour ended in Rotterdam, where “with old English insouciance” Kelly left the Mercedes in a garage and got the night boat back to England without leaving his name and address or paying any fee. A week later his step-father received a letter from the AA saying the Dutch police were seeking the two men who had abandoned the car, and it was duly recovered.

The next book to which my attention was drawn by an anonymous reader was Pilgrims and Pioneers by Sir Harry Brittain, published by Hutchinson, which went into three editions. In it Sir Harry writes of his motoring and flying experiences. The first began in 1895 when, while in Dinard where Herbert and Bruce Ingram’s yacht had put in, Brittain having been cruising with them, he saw a Frenchman with a very early motorcycle and was allowed a brief ride on it. In 1896 he had his first ride on a car, with the Hon Charlie Rolls, in what was remembered as a small de Dion Bouton (did Rolls have one of these that early on?) on a drive from South Lodge to London, along Piccadilly, where the slight rise to the Naval & Military Club was rather a trial.

This was followed in 1902 by a tour of the Continent with Sir Arthur Pearson, who took two 40hp Mercedes for the journey, described as “celebrated motor cars of quite outstanding power”. Sir Arthur was a fine driver, and he had with him his expert chauffeur called Hoffer. Petrol was difficult to obtain, tyre trouble frequent, but they penetrated into Switzerland from France and went to see the beginning of the boring of the Simplon tunnel. On the bad road to it one of the Mercedes broke its gearbox, so it was put on a train to Unterturkheim, where the Mercedes works did the repairs. While there Sir Harry saw some fine skidding practice by Salzer, the Mercedes racing driver. The fine tour continued into Germany before the return to England, the two ladies of the party surviving the dusty roads.

The book describes balloon ascents with Rolls and how Sir Harry had a flight in the airship R36 in June 1921 (Civil Airship GFAAF), with 40 MPs, from Paulham. Most of the party went there by special train, but Brittain was driven up quickly in a car by Francis Curzon (Lord Howe). The R36 went out to sea at Beccles and returned via Yarmouth.

In May 1930 Brittain had a flight in the R100, starting from Cardington. The flight passed over London, Tilbury, out to sea and back via Hull, Leeds and over the Pennines, and over Manchester and Liverpool, with those below looking up and waving. (A note says the new R-R Condor 3Bs were on trial, that the airship normally flew at 2000ft at about 54 knots but on test rose to 3400ft and up to 80mph.) The trip took 22 hours. There were 65 on board, 22 and a half tons of fuel and 15 of water ballast. Two attempts had to be made to tie up to the mast on the ship’s return.

In 1908 Brittain went in his Charron car to Le Mans to see Wilbur Wright fly. There is much more about aviation, including a visit to see the 1927 Schneider Trophy race for which Brittain, being on the board of Napier’s, was its representative. Brittain also viewed the triumphant 1931 race from the deck of the Oxford and he and Curzon had a dinner in the House of Commons for the RAF High Speed Flight. By 1932 Brittain was working on a history of aviation and to get the atmosphere he went on the Imperial Airways proving run to the Cape and back in the four-engined Armstrong-Whitworth Atalanta Artemis monoplane flown by Capt Prendergast, with a bad landing at Tobruk when one of the big Dunlop tyres burst. Attwood flew the machine on to Heliopolis where it was inspected and overhauled a pioneer of the Imperial Airways Empire routes. Brittain had been flown to Paris to join the AW monoplane by the famous Capt O P Jones in the Handley Page HP 42 Hengist. And, while in Africa, he was shown the sights from Gordon Store’s DH Fox Moth.

Sir Harry went to the start of the England-Australia race with Sir Richard Fairey in the latter’s Rolls-Royce, delayed by a puncture and getting lost. I find it interesting that he refers to his colleagues at Napier’s, through whom he was able to let both the Oxford and Cambridge University Air Squadrons have Napier Lion engines to study and work on; he had joined the board of Napier’s in 1919/20 when he was MP for the Acton division and advised on public relations.

Another interesting item sent to me, by R A Smith of Epping, is a page from The Motor-Car Journal for July 13, 1907, which gives the fate of the Napier which was crashed in the Isle of Man by Clifford Earp after Jarrott had driven it in the 1903 Gordon Bennett race. According to this account, it was sold to someone in Kent who also had accidents with it, so passed it on to an American customer who raced it, with a third place in a 100-mile event, before another serious collision, after which its engine went into a boat. The same source reported that, after Edge had won the 1902 Gordon Bennett, his Napier was sold to the Marquis of Anglesea, who gave it to his mechanic, and that the engine of another 1902 50hp Napier went into a rail-coach of the North-Eastern Railway Company. How does this conflict with the surviving presence of both the GB Napiers in this country today?

I have also received, from Frank LoughIan of Dublin, a copy of the Act of Parliament which in 1903 authorised the closing of public roads for a motor race, the first time this had been permitted, but only for the 1903 Gordon Bennett contest over the roads of Dublin, then part of the British Empire. (The original must now be a valuable historic document, although at the time it cost a mere halfpenny…)

Part of the Light Locomotives (Ireland) Act of 1903, it authorised races with “light locomotives” in Ireland, not exceeding three days a year, all speed limits and furious driving charges rescinded unless incorporated in a Local Government Board Order; but expenses incurred in closing the roads might be required to be paid to the County Council involved, perhaps with a prior deposit. The order expired on the last day of the year, and it required the restriction of speed in populous places (hence those race time controls) and other purposes incidental to proper race conduct. WB