The 1908 Austin Mystery, or the Case of the Abbott Photographs
So great has been the interest aroused by the recent correspondence on the 1908 Grand Prix Austins that we are glad to be able to publish further evidence, in the form of a letter from 221b, Baker Street, written by Dr. Watson, who says:—
I heard Holmes drive away in the cab to Kings Cross and resigned myself to a few days alone in our apartment. The weather was cold and damp and my leg did not seem likely to encourage me to venture afield. I picked up the morning’s papers and had only been reading them for a moment or two when I heard footsteps on the stairs. Going to the door I encountered one of Holmes’ Baker Street Regulars outside. “Is Mr. ‘Olmes in?” he asked. I said my friend had gone away for some days. “Then you had better open this, sir, and tell him it’s from Mr. Abbott.” With that the urchin vanished. I slit the envelope and two faded photographs fell into my hand. They were of the 1908 Austins at the Grand Prix at Dieppe and it did not need Holmes’ perception to observe a significant fact—the registration number on Resta’s chain-drive car was the same as that which had been on the radiator of the shaft-drive car driven in the Brooklands race by Warwick Wright. Clearly I must tell Holmes of this before he caught his train to Lindsey. I pulled on my coat and fortunately found a cab passing the door. My driver knew his job and I was in time to catch Sherlock Holmes by the arm as he turned away from the booking office. So glad was I, for the clock showed 10.13, that I did not at first realise that Holmes had adopted a dirty raincoat and soiled cap and that he carried under his arm a pair of rather battered trade number plates.
One glance at Abbott’s pictures was enough. “The case is becoming more interesting than I had anticipated, Watson,” he said, and his eyes sparkled with a new brightness. “I confess that when Boddy asked me to look into this matter I was not particularly interested and thought he was elaborating the mystery in the hope of a cheap scoop for his paper. I have cleared up some pretty problems of horse-flesh, Watson—you have, I know, not forgotten the Silver Blaze case—but motor cars are new to me and not altogether palatable. I now perceive, however, that this problem has quite a few unique and possibly sinister aspects. Watson, will you do me a favour, unless, of course, you have an engagement during the next few days?” I assured my friend, whose whole demeanour was now one of lighthearted enthusiasm, that on the contrary I was bored with Baker Street and would be only too glad to go, as Holmes had requested, to Lindsey and conduct a few enquiries on his behalf.* Having ascertained the time of the next train, we repaired to the cloakroom, where I donned the disguise of a dealer in secondhand motors and then Holmes walked out of the station, remarking that he had one or two things to look into in the London area.
*We are indebted to a keen reader, Mr. N. H. Fowler of Lincon, who voluntarily took on the mantle of Mr. Watson and sent us data obtained at the Lindsey Council Offices.
I was several days looking into matters in Norfolk and returned one evening to Baker Street bringing some information which I thought would assist Holmes in the case. I found him in his dressing gown, his pipe half filled beside him. Gone was the keen demeanour he had displayed at King’s Cross. His eyes were glazed, his countenance sallow, and he was replacing his cocaine syringe in its neat morocco case. “Well, Watson,” he greeted me, “I hope you did not exert yourself too much on my behalf,” and as he spoke something of the old twinkle returned to his eyes. I told him the few facts I had discovered. “Good, you did well. Watson,” he cried; “but the ease is finished.” “Finished.” I gasped, for Holmes did not appear to have been out for several days, judging by the complex array of chemical apparatus and piles of cuttings books with which he had obviously been occupying himself. “Yes, Watson, finished.” He smiled in response to my look of surprise. “It hasn’t been a very satisfactory case,” he went on, “and Boddy let so much time elapse before bringing it to my notice that I don’t think the whole truth will ever be discovered. But I have sorted a few things out and formed my conclusions. I don’t suppose you will find the case worth recording, Watson, but if you wish I will tell you how I proceeded.” I urged him to do so and after Mrs. Hudson had brought in the coffee Holmes said: “I told you, Watson, I was not particularly interested in the problem to begin with. Boddy struck me as the sort of fellow who would follow up the most unlikely clues hoping to find one of the racing cars built by Godfrey and Nash and end up with a Morris-Cowley. But I had been inactive too long and felt the air of Norfolk would be a change after the fog of Baker Street. There l made a careless mistake. I worked on surmise instead or on irrefutable evidence. You recall, Watson, that I assumed poor Mr. Lambelle’s memory was at fault and that Dario Resta drove a shaft-drive Austin in the Grand Prix. Abbott’s photographs arrived almost too late, showing that, in fact, Mr. Lambelle was perfectly correct and that Resta drove a chain-drive car. When you proved this to me at Kings Cross I decided to change my plans. While you were changing into the dealer-disguise in the cloakroom I took the precaution of telephoning Mr. Abbott, who is, as you know, such a source of reliable information on old cars. What I wanted to be certain of was that Resta’s car with the number AB 983 on its radiator had been photographed after the race and not before the start or during practice. Mr. Abbott clearly remembered taking the picture himself, although it was over 40 years ago, and as he had no pass or armband, had had to wait until after the race to get his pictures.
“The rest of the case I investigated not three miles from here, Watson, and thereafter it was straight deduction, as I had no positive clues—fingerprints don’t wait for 40 years, especially on racing cars. That is, perhaps, the only singular feature of this case, and if the conclusions are a trifle indecisive, perhaps I can be excused.”
Holmes paused to fill his pipe. “I found, from volumes in the excellent library of the Veteran Car Club in Oxford Street, and a letter to the Worcestershire taxation offices, the only facts in the case,” he resumed. “Austin built three cars and one spare car for the Grand Prix, two chain and two shaft-driven. Descriptions of a chain-drive car, AB 1012, appeared in the Press in July, but apparently it was not the first car to be built. This car was registered, as I discovered subsequently, on May 26th, 1908, whereas on May 2nd AB 983 was allocated to Austins for another of the racers.
“So AB 983 was apparently the prototype. In the Brooklands match race Resta drove AB 1012, Brabazon another chain-drive car whose registration number eludes my glass in contemporary photographs and Wright the shaft-drive AB 983, the works driver Hands being absent. The B.A.R.C. allocated the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 respectively to Brabazon, Resta, Hands and Wright and I suspect Hands was busy working on Wright’s race car so that Wright’s number was painted on the spare car Hands would otherwise have driven and Brabazon’s car was apparently given No. 3 instead of No. 1 to avoid a gap, Resta’s car, as the most important, having been numbered already. This is largely surmise, and not relevant to the case. Further evidence that AB 983 was the spare car is afforded by the Austin hand-out picture of this car, for the prototype and spare car would get the best chance of being photographed. Incidentally, Mr Harrison, whose Austin racing history was published recently, told me he had learned a lot from the correspondence in Motor Sport, so obviously no further clues would come to light at Longbridge, as Mr. Harrison had already interviewed old members of the staff there for his own purpose and discovered less than we already possessed.
“So I next considered what happened in France. The team put up at Eu and on the Wednesday, as Mr. Lambelle and contemporary reports tell us, Resta crashed his chain-drive car, entered by H. R. Fry and pretty obviously AB 1012. The next day Resta had a more serious accident and wrecked the spare shaft-drive car, which we must assume is our old friend AB 983. Resta and his mechanic were rendered unconscious and when they came to were chained to soldier-prisoners in a French gaol. They had been stripped for examination, their fingerprints taken, and bail set at £130. Austin offered a cheque which was refused, but ultimately Resta got out, to find that the mechanics had rebuilt him a car from the two he had crashed. Now Lambelle tells its the engine and frame of the chain-drive car were damaged and the rear of the shaft-drive car wrecked. It seems obvious, therefore that the engine and radiator from AB 983 were used to restore AB 1012 and there, Watson, is your chain-drive car with AB 983 on the radiator, as Mr. Abbott’s photograph portrays.
“In the race Brabazon drove a shaft-drive car according to the evidence of a contemporary photograph and Wright must therefore have taken the other chain-drive car.
“Now you have told me, Watson, that Sir Francis Hickman Bacon, Bt., taxed BE 3, the car now at Longbridge, at Lindsey in 1908 and that it remained in his possession until his death, being taxed regularly up to December 31st, 1929. You also tell me that you discovered it was a familiar sight around Gainsborough in the ‘twenties, usually driven by Sir Francis himself, and that an obliging clerk at the Lindsey Council offices, found that it was used with twin bodies, a two-seater racer and a four-seater phaeton.
Clearly, after the race Brabazon’s car was sold to Sir Francis, as the Autocar of ’08 confirms. Either it had no registration number, being the last car completed by Austin and possibly driven hurriedly to Dieppe on trade numbers, or else Sir Francis had sentimental reasons for applying for BE 3. You attach some importance to its declared engine number being E 1502 (chassis 1006) whereas Heal found 1011 on the engine when he was at Austins. However, the external appearance of the touring and racing engines was very similar and it may be that Sir Francis had a touring replacement at some time during his continuous twenty years’ use of the car or possibly the engine from one of the other racers.
“Now on November 25th, 1908 a Mr. H. G. Evans, of Worcester, taxed AB 983 and I discovered it to have a two-seater touring body which appears to be the work of the same coachbuilder who made Sir Francis’ phaeton—possibly Austins themselves. So in spite of Mr. Lambelle thinking the car was never rebuilt, it seems that it was (although an employee would be encouraged to forget it was ever wrecked) and its engine out of AB 1012 probably put back in it, for, you remember, AB 1012 wasn’t very satisfactory after it had been rebuilt and its number was apparently never transferred to a private owner. Contemporary evidence suggests that the other chain-drive car was sold, but to whom we may never discover.
“I can well believe that Lambelle demonstrated Resta’s Austin to Jack Johnson after the race, as Austins proposed to sell the cars, but possibly he, too, detected that out-of-true back axle and no sale resulted. The Evans’ car may well have come into Johnson’s hands later, however, remembering he wasn’t photographed in the car until 1910 at the earliest and this could be the car Mr. Jack Cleland saw in London after the Kaiser war, with yet another body. On the other hand, Johnson may have had a standard Austin decked out as a Grand Prix replica, deceiving everyone with it, Austins included. And there, my dear Watson, you have the details of the only motor-car case on which I am ever likely to embark. Oh, and if you are interested, Watson,” added my friend with a smile, as I reached for my pen, “when the Austins weighed-in at Dieppe, Resta’s rebuilt car turned the scales at 1,346 lb., Wright’s car at 1,337 lb., and Brabazon’s car at 1,379 lb. Quite an argument in favour chain-drive!”