Cars in Books, July 1989

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It should have come as no surprise to find cars mentioned in Young Betjeman by Bevis Hillier (John Murray, 1988), because the Poet Laureate mentioned them in his poems, but I also discovered that the author of this readable “period” book includes a quote from Motor Sport, so that my name finds its way into the index — which was a surprise!

The quote dates from 1974, when the book states that I had already been editor for forty years, which give-or-take a year or two was true, and was a query as to which cars John Betjeman may have used for his travels to look at churches and other antiquities. This was spotted by Carol Lobb, who, along with the author of this authorised biography, was presumably a Motor Sport reader.

She mentioned my query in a letter to the poet, and his reply appears in the book, explaining that his father’s first car was a Rover landaulette (this I knew from one of his poems), which would only just climb West Hill in Highgate where the family lived, and in which Betjeman Snr used to be driven to his Islington factory.

The Edwardian Rover was replaced after they had moved to Chelsea by an Arrol-Johnston, bought from a Putney showroom run by Dorson Kay-Bunn and driven by a chauffeur called John. After the slump they sank to an Essex saloon. This does not exactly answer my query, but it does add interest to the book! We also learn, however, that when Betjeman was up at Oxford in 1927 he had an open Morris-Cowley, in which he drove his friends to see church architecture, as had his friend John Dugdale in his bullnose Morris. At Oxford, I suppose Morrises came naturally!

Earlier, when he was at Marlborough, Betjeman visited Clivedon in Sir Ambrose Elton’s old Ford — presumably a Model T. There is also the tale of a Talbot-Darracq owned by Elsie MacCorkindale, which he tried to borrow while staying at Trebetherick in Cornwall in the 1920s, hoping that while escorting a girl to a dance he might be able to make love to her in it. He was told firmly it would be more sensible to walk. Whether this was out of concern for the girl or for the car isn’t clear, but the latter got itself into a Betjeman poem ..

The Morris was sold in 1928 for £40, but that didn’t stop Betjeman being later fined £4 for speeding (anything over 20 mph in those days) in Dorset, presumably in a friend’s car. I had expressed the view that John Betjeman. cannot have liked the motorcar very much, remembering that while he was at Marlborough he had hardly noticed a boy who was one of a gang mad on cars. Yet we learn that when he was younger and his father’s friend Philip Asprey once drove him up to London from Cornwall in his snub-nosed Bentley he leaned over the dashboard of what was almost certainly an early 3-litre, urging its driver to go faster. …

Incidentally, it was through Asprey’s that Betjeman’s father’s firm obtained a big order to refurnish Captain Woolf Barnato’s house in Sussex, but it was burnt down before this could be done. Betjeman also knew Donovan Chance, who in 1930 opened Friary Motors in Old Windsor (agent for Lagonda and Chevrolet), where Lord Selsdon found his 1903 Mercedes Sixty which is now owned by Peter Hampton.

After Oxford, Betjeman worked as secretary to Sir Horace Plunkett (said to have owned Ireland’s first car, a De Dion Bouton) on his Cooperative Creameries scheme; he had two Chryslers in 1928-29 — one open, one a saloon — and a house, the Crest House in Weybridge, to which he used to drive Betjeman. When the latter was ill it was Dr Beare, well-known as the Brooklands surgeon, who attended him.

At Heddon Court, where Betjeman taught, there was a 45hp Renault with cocktail cabinet in the back, a Clyno, and a blue 27hp eight-cylinder Hupmobile with underfloor heating, which surely prompted Betjeman to name this make in “Indoor Games near Newbury”. The author also mentions a wild drive in a master’s bullnose Morris through London, which ended up by ruining the school cricket pitch. The MD of the Architectural Press, for which Betjeman also worked, kept a Rolls-Royce caravan so heavy that its spokes snapped.

There is a scathing comment by Betjeman about being taken to a motor race, presumably at Phoenix Park, with a house-party from Clandeboye (seat of the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava), one of whose guests was Sir Henry Birkin; and the story of how Lady Mary Erksine, at the age of 18, drove Sir Richard Sykes’ Rolls-Royce into that of Sir Michael Duff while staying at the Duff home at Vaynol Park in north Wales in 1929, knocking over the wrought-iron gates. It is remarked that an accident involving two Rolls-Royces had a certain chic!

The only cars illustrated are Pamela Mitford’s Rolls, with a very odd fabric two-door body and dummy knock-off hub-caps presumably retaining the wheel discs, and what looks like a Lincoln tourer at Lord Longford’s house, Packenham Hall. Indeed, the book abounds with cars! If you are interested in Twenties’ and Thirties motoring, enjoy Betjeman’s poetry and can overlook some of his less pleasant foibles, you should read it. WB