Dated and implausible, perhaps but a 90-year-old tale of early racing has its own charms.
I’m a sucker for a dirigible. Or an air-yacht, or a steam submarine, or an invincible battle tank, if it appears on the cover of an Edwardian boy’s adventure book. There’s a section in my library devoted to these century-old glimpses of a future that never happened, books I collect as much for their colourful and inventive covers as anything. But I read them — it seems rude to the ancient author not to, although to be honest they’re mostly terrible tosh serving only as a quick palate-cleanser between proper books. But tosh can be fun, and some of it is woven round motor racing, in that brave pioneer period when riding mechanics clung on to leaping, undamped chassis, pumping oil and shouting to the driver when a rival was trying to pass.
As a break before tackling something serious I’ve been indulging in Knights of the Wheel, by Alfred Edgar. Though published in 1926, it reads more like a pre-WWI adventure, what with aero engines and road racing, and a villain called Black Perro.
Clearly the author knows about racing: our boy hero rebuilds a car after Kop hill climb and while their French Grand Prix is held at the fictitious “big town of Ficheux” they then head off to Monza Speedway — built only a few years before the book — to battle Fiats, Sunbeams and “strange white Benz with their engines at the back, streamlined to a needle-like point”, rivals to their supercharged ‘Wilson! (Well, as a racing car name it’s no more unlikely than Williams…). Edgar’s descriptions of Monza autodromo (at “a town about the size of Swindon”) and the mountainous San Sebastian circuit have an eye-witness ring to them, as do his technical paragraphs. When I picked this up in a country bookshop I thought I’d made a discovery, but a little research showed that Alfred Edgar was the real name of the better-known Barre Lyndon, author of Combat and Circuit Dust among many racing titles. As Alfred Edgar he wrote hundreds of short stories for boys through the 1920s, many about motor racing with splendid titles such as Garage Jim’s Star Turn and The Red Knight Wins!, but all this was on top of working as a racing journalist — hence his knowledge of the sport.
The boy’s stories are very juvenile, which may be why he later adopted a pen name, but as Lyndon he proved he could write for grown-ups, graduating to Hollywood where he wrote stage plays and some famous screenplays — Hangover Square, The Greatest Show on Earth and The War of the Worlds among them. (One was on TV recently — The House on 92nd Street. It was awful.) Born in 1896, Edgar/Lyndon was still writing thriller scripts for television in the 1960s, including for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, but for me the charm is back in that innocent era when Britain had yet to realise that the label Great was slipping away. Only then could Edgar have his racing characters singing
‘The Speed men’s Song’:
Smoke and dust! Win or bust!
Rev that engine or she’ll rust!
Show your breed! Snatch the lead!
Put your foot down hard and SPEED!
Wincing doggerel or period whimsy? You decide but remember he was a 19-year-old Edwardian when he wrote that. (Actually that’s no excuse, is it?)