Cars in books, July 1973

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Having referred to the smuggling book by a Customs Officer, I read “Benzedrine for Breakfast”, by Noreen Price and Peter Jackson (Robert Hale, 1963), to see, as it were, the other side of the coin, Noreen Price having been imprisoned for smuggling watches in a Chrysler and associated with racing-driver Gordon and the Delahaye in the same pursuit. But although this book is full of improbable but entertaining stories, the Delahaye with the false fuel tank isn’t referred to. However, in a chapter entitled, for some not very apparent reason, “Apologies to Stirling Moss”, she writes of the motor-racing cover used in her smuggling exploits, saying they used “the oldest Maseratis and ERAs which came cheapest to hand” and that “our cars never even started”, being taken back and forth across the Channel merely as decoys. I would not have thought there were that number of racing cars available, anyway, and when the lady says they were painted British racing green and that their favourite story was that they were going either to or from Le Mans —with Maseratis and ERAs?—I find myself wondering. . . . Gordon is described as having driven for the Aston Martin team and not being very deeply involved, although he got a two-year sentence.

The other cars mentioned are an old Ford d/h. coupé, the steering and handling of which apparently suffered from the weight of 12,000 hidden watches, so that it was replaced by the aforesaid 1936 Chrysler, and a sports MG which, it says, had gold ingots hidden in its spare tyre. Of course, the Chrysler’s suspect petrol tank had to leak on board ship and the MG had to suffer a flat-tyre, causing the police to helpfully try to put on the spare wheel. . . . The value of pre-war cars in possessing cavities in their running-boards is mentioned, and the racing-car transporters are said to have made a total of 49 crossings by the spring of 1950. . . .

Although this long-running series began with cars in fiction, for a considerable part of it I have found autobiography to be more rewarding, more interesting, than references to cars in novels. However, an exception must be made in the case of “The Fox in the Attic”, by Richard Hughes (Chatto & Windus, 1961); I suppose the Bentley DC is aware of the delightful description therein of a drive from London to Dorset, in 1923, in a 3-litre Bentley—”. . . an open two-seater—very open indeed, with a small draughty windscreen and with even the handbrake outside”— driven by a young aristocrat, accompanied by an enthusiastic child? It was considered preferable to “the stuffy family Daimler”, driven by a carriage-trained chauffeur who even at 20 m.p.h. made things seem dangerous and who had to come to rest on a hill in order to engage bottom gear!

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Then, from an American reader, Philip J. P. Liput, came the following comments on my recent remarks about Sherlock Holmes and cars:—Being an avid Sherlockian and believing the Master to have been the first detective to use the motor car as an instrument of his profession (you will recall Holmes’ character in “His Last Bow” was an Irish-American auto mechanic), I am pleased to inform you that some highly speculative writing has been done on the subject of the “little Ford”.

The T-Ford was well-known; even Dr. Watson, not awfully mechanically inclined, could have operated one. It was also inexpensive. The car, being American in design, would have suited the character Holmes wished to portray (Irish-American Anglophobe). Granted, it looked somewhat ridiculous, chauffeur driven, being a car of the masses. Although the car was of American design, it was probably not manufactured in America. At this particular time, there were two assembly lines in the British Isles themselves; one in Cork, Ireland and the other in Trafford Park, Manchester. Holmes’ Ford probably came from one of these two points. The Irish one could be possible, but I prefer the Trafford Park station, it being the bigger of the two. I will not go into the technical details, the Model-T being too famous to make this necessary.

The subject car probably was a 1914 model 5-seat Tourer produced in large quantities; however, “His Last Bow” suggests the adventure itself took several years, so it may have been as early as a 1911 model. A question could arise concerning the choice of a 5-seater tourer as the most likely car. The story mentions that Von Bork “After a short, final struggle” was hoisted, “still bound hand and foot, into the spare seat of the little car”. Some may infer from this statement a Runabout body, which had a front seat and a dickey-type “spare” seat in the rear. At first glance, this could be true. One recalls Holmes arrived chauffeur-driven, however, behaviour hardly normal for a Runabout. The probable chain of events was that Holmes arrived, with Watson as chauffeur and accomplice. When the time came for casting Von Bork off, Holmes merely rode up front with Watson (Von Bork being in the “spare” back seat). However, I cannot think of Holmes being so ungentlemanly in victory as to stuff Von Bork head first into a dickey! Regardless of body-style, the utilitarian Holmes would have found the T-Ford well suited to his assumed character and inexpensive to run. Nowhere, by the way, is the vehicle claimed as belonging to Dr. Watson.

One wonders, had Holmes not retired to raise bees in Sussex, what vehicle he would have used next, being the man to usher in the motorcar detective era. I hope you will forgive these Sherlockian ramblings. The above is a very brief summation of a “trifling monograph” I have authored, but not yet published on the subject. I have purposely left the matter of the “100 hp Benz” untouched—it being even more obscure to speculate upon, from its one brief mention, though not for such authorities as yourselves. [So what of Von Bork’s Benz?—Ed.]W.B.