No one is likely to set off for Baghdad at the present time, unless in an attempt to release hostages held by Saddam Hussein. Back in the 1930s it was different. Indeed I have come across details of a journey there from London which was not only another bit of motoring adventure, but which serves to underline the sheer versatility of the competition drivers of those times. In a more recent epoch we remember how, for example, Stirling Moss showed up many other racing drivers by his ability to jump out of a single-seater GP car into a sports car and drive each with the same skill, in short or long distance events.
Today, with the highly professional aspect of the game, such versatility is less in evidence. But before the war (I had better insert Hitler war, in view of pending developments) those who enjoyed motoring competitions were often very versatile. This applied not only to the drivers but to the cars. Readers with long memories may recall my account of how it was then Possible to buy a normal M-type MG Midget and run it, with some chance of doing well, in events as diverse as Brooklands’ races and High-Speed Trials, long distance MCC reliability trials, mud frolics and long duration rallies, etc.
It must, surely have been simply love of adventure which prompted the Hon Brian Lewis, Tommy Wisdom and Mrs Elsie Wisdom to venture from London to Baghdad in a Wolseley saloon early in 1936. If money came into it, this cannot have been the prime motive for going. Brian Lewis (Lord Essendon) was a Company Director, apart from his titled position, and TH Wisdom, motoring and aviation Editor of the Daily Herald, Sporting Life and The People, had, I believe, a financial stake in these profitable Long Acre publishing ventures.
So their departure on this long journey was presumably an acceptance of their collective professional approach to their chosen way of life. Brian Lewis was, of course, the versatile prewar driver of monoposto P3 Alfa Romeo, Type 59 Bugatti, Roesch Talbot, Frazer Nash and other cars, in events as versatile as Brooklands races, the TT, the loM road races, the Alpine Trials, etc. Tommy Wisdom was likewise an all-rounder, well known at Brooklands in cars from the big Leyland Thomas downwards, with an lnvicta in the 11-, record breaking with an MG Midget, and after the war driving Healey, Jowett, ERA and Aston Martin cars in all kinds of competitions, including the Mille Miglia, Le Mans, Spa, and the Alpine Rally, and record breaking with Bristols, etc. His wife Elsie joined in, even to driving the Leyland at Brooklands, with a lap at over 121 mph along with smaller cars, winning the JCC 1000 Mile Race in a Riley with Joan Richmond, etc. All three of these drivers naturally took part in the Monte Carlo, RAC and other rallies, and in sprint events. When a bit of publicity was sought for a new Wolseley model, they were game to go.
We are talking of the four-cylinder 12/48hp Wolseley, new in 1936, with pushrod ofiv, 69Y2x102mm 1548cc engine, four-speed gearbox, box section frame, leaf springs, and hydraulic brakes. With what then passed for de luxe equipment, it sold in saloon form for £225. It was in one of these new Wolseleys (BOP 475) that the three racing drivers set off for the Middle East, luggage stacked on the roofrack, `To Baghdad, Please’ painted in English, French, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew and Persian on the front doors. Ahead lay no more 30 mph speed limits and Belisha beacons, but the Libyan, Sinai and Syrian Deserts.
The Channel was crossed from Newhaven to Dieppe. Customs objecting that only 60, not 600, cigarettes were allowed. On the second day 647 miles were covered, with stops for breakfast and dinner, an overall average of better than 36 mph, to Marseilles. The next day was occupied sailing to Tunis. By the third day the Wolseley reached Ben Gardene, averaging 51 mph through the night, after a day of sightseeing, (a puff of publicity was stirred in here, about an Arab who had crossed the Libyan Desert on a camel, in 32 months). They got to Tripoli, over great areas of soft sand, on the fourth day of the trip, using wire rope ladders to get going when stuck, then hiring Arab prisoners from a fort to push the Wolseley out of the next hole.
On day 6 the party passed the pits of the Tripoli race circuit, where Birkin had burned his arm on the Maserati’s exhaust pipe and where recently Nuvolori had crashed, during the Grand Prix. In a sandstorm they made Sirte. By Day 10 the Wolseley was at Bengazi, by way of the road that one day would be the Autostrada. Thirteen days, and they were in the desert, Egyptian territory heavily fortified, but with permission to cross a prohibited British military area. After hours of lowgear grinding the car was giving some 23 mpg and using little oil. So they progressed, meeting Schneider Trophy pilot George Stainforth in Alexandria, (having beaten the fastest boat at this point), passing the pyramids, and Elsie Wisdom riding a camel in Cairo. Seventeen days out and they were passing the Suez Canal and crossing the desolate Mitla Pass of the N Sinai Desert, with three gallons of drinking water left. Arabs threw stones at the car, causing them to load their gun, and British soldiers on a lorry escorted the Wolseley to Jerusalem. Next day, across the Jordan by the Allenby Bridge in a shade temperature of 116deg, to call on the Iraq Petroleum Co’s office — only they mistook the Emir’s Palace for it, calling out the Guard. The pipeline manager, with a sheikh as bodyguard, produced lunch.
The Wolseley gamely continued, over the 150 miles of desert to H4 pumping station, then 100 more miles of sand to H3. Brian Lewis changed a tyre for the first time ever, he said! After 20 days and 4600 miles the 12/48hp Wolseley reached Baghdad, a place now very much in the news, for a far less happy reason. The crew then flew home to Croydon by Imperial Airways.