I Remember: Bentleys and Balls

I remember, before I was due to interview the Duke of Richmond & Gordon about his cars and aeroplanes, asking where I could park. I was told that his private parking space was near his London house. Two cars were there but I backed mine in and locked it. When the Duke heard this he was delighted, saying the other cars had no right there and I had trapped them. I had visions of a smashed window and my car in the road. Otherwise it was so pleasantly informal: the Duchess, helped by a maid, was hanging curtains. Our talk about motor racing was very interesting, beginning with the time when, as Lord Settrington, the Duke was a Bentley Motors apprentice, to his winning the 1930 BRDC 500-mile race in the Ulster Austin 7 with co-driver Sammy Davis, and on to his victory in 1931 in the JCC Double-12 race in the MG Midget with Chris Staniland, by which time he had become the Duke of Richmond & Gordon.

I remember a similar worry when I arrived late at Charlie Martin’s Kensington flat, leaving my car on double yellow lines, to be told not to worry: “they seldom tow you away here”, leaving me to wonder through another enthralling interview, if “they” did, how long it would be before I could drive back to Wales.

It happened differently when I was invited to dinner by another well-known racing driver, Maurice Falkner, to talk about his career. I was shown in by his manservant, taken into the library and put to sit before a blazing fire and a talkative caged secretary bird. After a long wait the servant came in stating he hoped his master wouldn’t be long, but that he was getting a trifle forgetful. “He had an important business meeting some time ago. I laid out his clothes, but he never returned that night; he had forgotten his appointment.”

It was getting late, fog was coming in, I had a 150-mile journey home, and so I decided to give it another quarter of an hour and then leave. But then came a key in the front door, his man saying I had been in the library for a long period and that the dinner was ruined. With no apology, the subject of my visit greeted me; dinner wasn’t too bad, and around midnight, after another very interesting interview, I left. The things I put up with to give you, and myself, the low-down on the motor racing of the famous!

I remember, on a more personal note, why I was jealous of Amilcar driver Vernon Balls. Think of being stopped by the police and asked your name. “Balls.” “Now answer sensibly, sir.” “Balls.” “Now look here, sir, unless you give a proper answer I will have to arrest you.” At the station the desk sergeant asks to see your driving licence. Today— compensation?

I remember a friend in an open Riley being stopped on Christmas Day. “You were driving rather fast, sir. Where are you going to?” “Buckingham Palace.” “Now I know it’s a special day, but I want a sensible reply.” But it was true, he was a BBC radio engineer going to check the apparatus HM the King would use later, for his speech to the nation.