The origin of Genevieve

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The 1904 Darracq “Genevieve”, famous for its part in the film of that name, has been in the news again, having returned from Australia to take part successfully in the Brighton Run, before being sold at Brooks’ December Auction. So I was very interested to receive from Mr Peter Venning, of Mallorca, Spain, the following account of how he remembers this car, a fascinating story which we publish in good faith. W B

Late in 1945 a Court Bailiff walking along the Lea Bridge Road in East London, looking at the order he was about to serve, but not looking where he was going, struck his shin on a piece of rusty iron protruding from a hedge. Cussing and rubbing his wound, he noticed that the damage had been caused by the rusty dumb-iron of a very old motor car. The Bailiff was Bill Bailey, collector of old motorcycles. He investigated further and found behind the hedge a derelict junkyard, and therein he discovered, buried beneath the debris, about 12 very old cars.

Bailey passed news of his discovery on to two friends, Bill Peacock and Jack Wadsworth. The junk-yard owner was approached, and the entire collection purchased. Some of the cars were sold to other collectors, the remainder removed to Jack Wadsworth’s premises at Isleworth. These included: a 1903 four-cylinder chain drive Sunbeam, (no body); a 1903 Argyll-Aster; two 1904 Darracqs (two-cylinder), (no bodies); a Thorneycroft Tourer and a Whitlock-Aster. (no body).

Jack Wadsworth retained the Sunbeam, and later passed this on to a Mr Pomfrett in Birmingham. Bill Peacock retained the Argyll which he restored beautifully and sold to W A L Cook of Keston, Sussex, and which was a regular participant in the Brighton Run. And I bought the two Darracqs for £25.

The two Darracqs, which were now in the Isleworth yard, were in very bad condition, and without bodies. The front wheels of both had rotted away, as had the front durnbirons of the most complete of the two cars. The one sound chassis-frame was without engine and other parts, so the plan was to dismantle both and assemble from the best parts one more-or-less complete rolling chassis on the sound frame. At this point a very strange coincidence occurred — the future casting its shadow. One Sunday morning as I was working in Jack’s yard taking the Darracqs apart he drove in with another veteran on the trailer, and off-loaded it beside the two Darracqs, saying “Here’s a rare one. It was behind Swan Motors in Brentford.” It was very rare indeed, and in an advanced state of decay, but absolutely complete. Jack later sold it to the Reece Brothers who had a taxi fleet in Shepherds Bush, and they carried out a meticulous restoration. Some years later two beautifully restored cars were to meet side by side on a film set, for the rotting car which was dumped beside my two rotting Darracqs became one of the central characters in the film ‘Genevieve’. It was the Spyker. The resurrection of the two cars began from the same spot at the same time in Jack Wadsworth’s Isleworth yard!

When both Darracqs had been dismantled the parts were moved to a workshop near Kew Bridge, and during the next year or so stripped, cleaned and reassembled. These were then put in the sound chassis-frame, and with temporary rigs for ignition and carburettor, I got the engine running, gearbox and back-axle turning and clutch and gearchange working.

I had by this time acquired a set of tyres, but still lacked front wheels. The back wheels were OK. This remained a problem until one day, when passing a chicken farm under Dunstable Downs, I spotted an old T-Ford which had wooden wheels of the correct size (tyre size 30 x 3-1/2 or 765 x 105) and in sound condition. These I bought for a few shillings. However, when offered up to the Darracq hubs, I found that they went over the centre boss alright but the holes did not coincide — too much to hope! So I drilled another set, which did. I wonder if those wheels are still in use, or if they have been replaced?

Then, in 1949, l got married and moved to Bishops Stortford, towing the Darracq to its new home, a nice dry shed in Cannons Farm at nearby Start Hill. It was then that I decided the restoration was sufficiently advanced, and that the car should be registered. I was issued with registration number HXR 322.

The next stage of restoration was to find or build a suitable body, and, once again, Providence came to my aid. One day old Farmer Cannon, my landlord, passed by while I was working, and enquired what kind of body I intended to use. I explained that this was a big problem, but I was always on the lookout for something which would fit and be restorable. “Maybe I can help you there,” he said. I then had to listen to a long, long story about a car he had owned way back in the early days of motoring, and how when it would go no more, he removed the body, mounted it on wheels, and turned it into a gig, to be drawn by his favourite mare “Flower”. Eventually, I managed to enquire what had became of the gig. “Oh”, he said “I think it got put up in that old barn over there, but that was many years ago. Go and look if you’re interested.” I was! And I did! And after a long search in the gloom I came across it, lying on its side, partly covered with debris, filthy, but in sound condition. Later, with a friend’s help, we cut the body bolts of the frame, and carried this treasure over to the shed, and with great excitement placed it on to the chassis, to find that the width of the chassis and the body bearers and the dashboard were exactly the same. This is the body which is on “Genevieve” to this day, although subsequent owners have added a high back to the seat and a rear box boot.

I had now reached a point when I had to acknowledge that I did not possess the facilities or the money to complete a proper and worthwhile restoration, so I reluctantly decided to pass the Darracq on to someone who could. It was offered for sale in Motor Sport, and bought by Norman Reeves (according to Brooks for a reputed £4, which sounds very generous as this represents a loss to Mr Venning of £21 – W B). He continued the restoration and did, as they say in the West Country, ‘a proper job’.

I have always been puzzled by the dispute regarding the age of this car. The chassis which I used in the reconstruction carried the remains of a stack-tube radiator, which would indicate that it was a car of an earlier period. The radiator fitted by Norman Reeves seems to have come from a Flying Fifteen Darracq.

The Darracq became immortal by starring in the famous film “Genevieve”, with the Spyker, in 1953. It then went to the Antipodes, where it was registered A-27924 and passed through many hands, being modified and refurbished, and had a sojourn in two museums, before being auctioned for an extraordinary price. After returning to Britain it took part successfully in the 1993 “Brighton” and on December 2 was sold at Brooks’ auction, on behalf of Extravaganza Esplanade, for £143,000, £155,000 less than the last owner is said to have paid for it. A far cry from my purchase of it in 1945. P V.

POSTSCRIPT: I believe that the original script of the “Genevieve” film called for a Locomobile and a Humber for the race back to London after they had taken part in the Brighton Run, but it was then thought that British cars should be used. A Lanchester was apparently suggested but as actor John Gregson couldn’t drive a car, the less complicated 1904 Darracq, owned then by Norman Reeves, was chosen instead, along with the Spyker, that the VCC dated as 1905, eliminating it from Brighton Runs, but which actor Kenneth More had had no difficulty in taming for the film. It is to the credit of the National Motor Musem that it held a “Genevieve Evening”, prior to the Darracq appearing in the Brooks auction sale, which the Director of “Genevieve”, Henry Cornelius, attended, and for which the Rank Organisation made available one of the few copies of the film.

In 1953, the year when the film was first shown, Reeves took rally-driver Maurice Gatsonides (inventor of the Gatso camera) with him on the Darracq on the Brighton Run and it was a frequent competitor in VCC events including the Brighton Runs of 1950-56 until it left this country. W B