Cars in books, January 1971
From “The Story of Sandhurst”, by Hugh Thomas (Hutchinson, 1961), I take the following: “The ‘twenties were wild at Sandhurst as elsewhere. The development of the motor car made visits to London far easier than in the past. Many cadets were now motorists. They kept their vehicles in garages in Bagshot and other nearby villages, since they were technically not allowed at the College itself. Very often there would be races from Hyde Park Corner to the gates of the Royal Military College, a dangerous pursuit which invariably resulted in several serious accidents, the cadets suffering far less than the infuriated civilians. Another anti-social pursuit at this time was a craze for driving very fast and very close to other cars, in an attempt to knock off their doors, but not to cause a serious accident. This hazardous enterprise was undertaken often with the greatest possible military-type preparation.”
This chapter concludes: “With this emphasis on motoring, it was fitting that the ‘twenties should be brought to a close at Sandhurst by the visit of His Majesty Alfonso XIII, K.G, the motoring king.” (The King arrived in 1930.) Within a year, this book recalls, King Alfonso had fled from his palace in Madrid into exile, leaving behind in his study “only two documents: both were motoring manuals—representative documents of the decade which had passed away as well as of the reign of King Alfonso”—which we now call the vintage era!
There is further reference to the races from London to Sandhurst, “to line-up in cars at Hyde Park Corner at 10 p.m. and race to Camberley down a busy main road”. It is said that too many civilians were killed by these races, so that the privilege of having cars was removed, but one wonders whether this isn’t exaggerated, for the A30 must have been fairly empty (and it is mainly straight) in the 1920s. It would be interesting to know of some of the cars used and the times put up.
There is a story in this descriptive book of a cadet who kept a date at the Savoy by stealing a steam-roller from outside the RMA gates and driving it to London in full evening dress, “parking his steed in Savoy Court was an absolute riot, but when he started back at 3 a.m. the jest had somehow lost its savour”. Again, one wonders how long this took, why the theft wasn’t discovered and the roller intercepted and whether it took on water on the 30-mile journey?
A reader, Mr. Tibberham, of Braintree, kindly lent me a most interesting book by the late Prince Chula of Thailand, “First-Class Ticket—the Travels of a Prince” (Alvin Redman, 1958). I thought I had read all HRH Prince Chula’s books, his five motor-racing ones and his “Brought Up In England”, but this one apparently escaped me. It is still well worth reading, but, confining myself to extracts from the chapter on “Cars”, is all that there is space for. In this Chula recalls how his grandmother, Queen Sauwabha, “for many years bought about 20 cars annually”, of different makes, countries, types, sizes and prices, to give away as presents! His tutor got a Model-T Ford but badly wanted a Rover. This was apparently before the 1914/18 war, and during the war “the British Government made sure all the British cars the Queen ordered were safely delivered as part of British war propaganda”.
The Queen, we are told, kept a big red Napier shooting brake as her personal car and Chula’s father drove an open seven-seater Daimler himself, even on ceremonial occasions. In 1916 he lost the battery box in another huge ancient car (make unrecalled) when driving fast over rough roads outside Bangkok, where Chula’s parents were changing to horses, and he and his nurse to elephant transport for a month. It was in 1916 that Cadillac made a present of a working model Cadillac two-seater, electrically-driven, to King Rama I, thus pre-dating Ettore Bugatti by about a decade! This passed to Chula, who drove it about the palace gardens, once knocking down a woman, while the subsequent King of Thailand collided with chairs set at a tea table, “luckily before anyone had sat down”. Prince Chula took this well-known model Cadillac to Cornwall and one wonders if it is still there?
Prince Chula’s father had, besides the big Edwardian Daimler, a small Wanderer, tandem-seated like a Bedelia, which he used for work and solo journeys, and on this Chula was taught to drive. In the summer of 1921 Chula’s uncle rook him on a European tour in a chauffeur-driven Daimler Light-Thirty tourer, which nearly went over a Swiss precipice on one occasion.
Chula’s first experience of fast motoring came while he was at Cambridge, “to clear the cobwebs before the June (1928) examinations”, as his American friend Bronson Griscombe put it, they did 75 m.p.h. on the Huntingdon road in an open Lincoln.
The two Voisins Chula owned were known to me from his other books; “Bira” had two narrow escapes while driving the 18 h.p. model in France, bursting both back tyres on one such escapade. Before this Chula had a 12 h.p. Voisin with aerodynamic saloon body, which was timed to do 77 m.p.h. He took delivery in Paris and his mother’s chauffeur taught him to drive. He used this pale blue Voisin with its square boot for “well over 100,000 miles” and after using it at Cambridge it was overhauled in 1955 and may still be in the garage in Cornwall. It was succeeded by the 3-litre 18 h.p. model “with half the gears electric”, which one gathers wasn’t nearly as satisfactory. In 1933 this was replaced by a 25 h.p. Park Ward Continental close-coupled sports saloon Rolls-Royce Reg. No. ALM 757—has it survived?—which Chula used for 20 years, replacing it with a Chrysler station-wagon in 1956. The Rolls-Royce had a purposely low roof-line and “tall friends of mine like Aubrey Esson-Scott [The Bugatti driver.—Ed.] could not drive it at all”. Prince Chula said, incidentally, “I always enjoy a meal more if I can see a nice car belonging to me through the restaurant window”.
Between the Rolls-Royce and the Chrysler he had a 1934 3 1/2-litre open Vanden Plas Bentley. It was finished in blue, the shade of a dance partner’s frock (“she sportingly cut a bit off the hem”—how modest were the girls of 1934!) and this set the colour for the ERAs, etc., which Prince Bira raced. Driving the Bentley mostly with the hood down (the dog “wore goggles always”) the two Royal Princes had some good runs. In England the running averages were mostly over 44 m.p.h. without exceeding 70 (no speed limit then, either!) and Biarritz to Paris was accomplished in 1935, when “Bira” was 20, at a running average of 59.1 m.p.h., an overall average speed of 49 3/4 m.p.h. Then “Bira” once did London to Edinburgh at 54 m.p.h. for the 386 miles, or 51.12 m.p.h. overall. The longest run done in a day was Paris to Cannes in the Rolls-Royce, at 45 m.p.h. in spite of ice for 70 of the 608 miles—good training for “Bira’s” racing.
After the war Chula explains that the crippling purchase tax limited his choice of an expensive British car—he had an Armstrong Siddeley Lancaster saloon and then an Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire. Buick and Cadillac cars were used in the USA, etc.
Apart from motoring references, this book contains the best unintentional snob statement I have met for a long time, when Chula, describing the Savoy Hotel, says it “reminds me of my house in Bangkok”!
Finally, for this month, who would have expected to find a reference to racing drivers in a serious, professional book mainly about entomological research? But it is so and this is the reason why I have been able to keep the “Cars In Books” feature going almost continuously for so many years. Reading, with much enjoyment, “Forest Refreshed”, by Norman E. Hickin, PH.D., B.Sc., F.R.E.S. Hutchinson, 1965), I discovered that, apart from being a very well-known entomologist, with caddis-fly breeds named after him, the talented author had done research for Dunlop, including war-time work on puncture-proof petrol tanks for Blenheim, Stirling and Lancaster bombers, work different from but not unassociated with modern bag-tanks for racing cars. He also worked on Bristol bushes, which sound like a development of Hartford’s Silentblocs. It was at an earlier period at Dunlops, when they laid on transport in some of their tyre test fleet from Birmingham to the Albany Street tyre depot for students going to sit for examinations, that Hickin mentions: “Some of the drivers were ex-racing drivers and it was a joy to be driven by them—so confident, skilful and safe were they. On one occasion the engine of the car I was travelling in, up to London, failed, but my driver waved down a long-distance bus…” Was he, I wonder, driven by Paul Dutoit?
As for personal transport, following a ”twin-tube New Hudson tandem push-cycle with derailleur gear and hub brakes”, the author confesses to his first car, bought in 1942. It was “a 1936 Ford 8, and I paid £50 for it, and when I sold it at a time of the great motor-car shortage I obtained £150”. It was the first of a long line of cars but the famous biologist was only interested in driving them, although he did replace a big-end on that first Ford, “but I would have to be driven very hard to attempt anything like that again”. Eventually he went on Safari in Africa in 1958 with his wife and teenage daughters, in “a 107 in. wheelbase Safari-type Land Rover”, shipped to Entebbe. It climbed Observation Hill, in Amboseli, when a large American Safari-type car failed, and when the family parted with the Land Rover several thousand miles later they felt it a grievous loss—not the first warm tribute paid by explorers to this great British vehicle. But you see how, when I seek out non-motoring reading matter, cars still intrude!—W. B.