VE Motoring

Now that all the parades, services, street parties, fly-pasts and all the rest of the VE Day anniversary commemorations, and the endless TV programmes about the war have just about subsided, it is apposite to remember what VE motoring was like, not on VE Day but for the whole liberated year of 1945. Being in the village of Bilton in Yorkshire on my MAP (by then the Ministry of Supply) duties we saw nothing of the displays of relief that we heard were engulfing the whole of the country — no street parties, no bonfires to be seen, no ringing of Church bells as I recall — I went back indoors to go on writing for the next issue of Motor Sport

Nevertheless, the sense of relief was great, particularly as motoring freedom was about to return, if restricted for some time yet. Petrol had been rationed in September 1939 and the “Basic Ration” was now to be re-introduced. It wasn’t much, being allocated according to engine-size to give about 100 or 200 miles a month at most — Jenks and I once got through a three-month allocation of coupons in a day, looking at laid-up racing cars and that in an economically-minded 7 hp vintage Jowett — but the “basic” gave a modicum of freedom if used in conjunction with supplementary business users’ coupons, as my outburst “Petroleum Scares” last month should explain…

During the war, while “Basic” lasted (full freedom from petrol-rationing did not come about until late in May 1950, to be withdrawn again from December 1956 to May 1957 due to the precarious Suez Crisis) some of the better-known motor clubs managed restricted events and after it was withdrawn meetings were still convened, with such motor-keen members who were not in the Services or were on leave attending them by public transport, on bicycles or on foot… One remembers many good 750 MC gatherings of this kind and those Rembrant Luncheons organised by A F Rivers-Fletcher, still as enthusiastic today as he was then, although now aged 83. The love of motoring in the right cars, especially the love of motor racing, never faltered all through the grim days of the conflict. It was then that the now intense interest in motoring history and vintage and classic cars was fanned towards its existing level, as those divorced from their driving wrote avidly for Motor Sport (which somehow survived the closely aimed bombs, the closer incendiaries, the V1s and V2s and the hazard of its paper supplies being shipped round the coast from Scotland to the London Docks). They recorded their pre-war experiences and memories, and history took hold. For this we are not solely to “blame”, because the weekly motor papers also managed publication between 1939 and 1945… I say “blame” only because the price of the older motor-cars soon rose alarmingly as interest in them was aroused.

Then we were at VE Day and prospects seemed bright. Just prior to this Capt George Eyston had presided at the Rembrant Meeting, in the absence of Capt Phillips, who was engaged in the final Home Guard Parade and who, it had been hoped, might have expounded on future RAC prospects for a resumption of motoring sport. As it was, Eyston predicted an early return of a basic petrol-ration and racing by 1946, as Germany should have been defeated by then and “the East was a long way away”. The top-table guests included well remembered names — George Roesch, Kay Petre. Rivers and Penny Fletcher, Major Oliver Bertram, Anthony and Theodora Heal, F J Findon of The Light Car, John and Mary Bolster, Fred Craner, Laurence and Elsa Pomeroy, H R Godfrey, Lt Marcus Chambers, RN, Philip Turner of The Autocar, S H Capon of the 750 MC and Cecil and Mrs Kimber. Kimber replied to Eyston’s speech. Even at this period the cars outside, some on red-and-white plates, embraced s/c 1750 Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin International, 328 BMW, 20/90 British Salmson and an assortment of Fiats, etc.

Meanwhile, Motor Sport went on spreading, and consolidating, the gospel, unnecessarily or otherwise. Inman Hunter wrote for us of the Bertelli Aston Martins, Hutton Stott of veteran Lanchesters he owned, John Wyer revealed some secrets about the STD racing cars he had encountered, and so on. Consolidating history… In preparation for the Peace we were able to announce that racing cars were changing hands and other plans being made for a return to unfettered enjoyment of the motor-car. At the Rembrandt Meeting Mr Craner had revived Donington memories, mainly of the great drive by Nuvolari when he won the 1938 Grand Prix for Auto-Union at 80.49 mph against the might of Mercedes-Benz, but he explained that until the conglomeration of Army vehicles was removed racing could not resume there — and it was not until 1977 that it did.

After VE Day in May, things began to happen. Clubs held meetings to discuss the future. The Bugatti CC met at the RAC and said Prescott could soon be put in order, but it might wait until 1946 for another hill-climb. The 750 MC had an informal gathering at Osterley; attended, with their cars, by Capon, Birkett, Frost, Mallock, Orlebar, lack French. Lush, myself and others, and at Wrotham Park some 60 cars turned up for a meeting of the MCC, Jackie Masters saying a 1946 Exeter Trial seemed a certainly. The VSCC was revived under Anthony Heal’s command and held a rally in September, the 750 MC had its Otley gymkhana that month, which the BOC had forestalled with its Bagshott rally in August, five Bugattis being present. The Bentley DC appointed Stanley Sedgwick its Secretary (he is now its Patron), Forrest Lycett taking the chair in the absence of Wing Comdr Woolf Bamato, and the RAC called together 45 clubs under the Chairmanship of Earl Howe. It was a promising awakening, and when the RAC agreed to issue Restricted Competition Permits (it would not contemplate Full Permits until safe racing tyres were available) the green light was well and truly on. But Motor Sport’s plea for the Government to preserve Brooklands as a full race-track for posterity fell on stony ground…

Before this, Rivers Fletcher had got things going very nicely with the Cockfosters Rally, with demonstrations by cars of the more exciting kind taking place over a 3/5th-mile circuit he had hired, opened by Earl Howe in his Type 57 Bugatti coupe. So once again the sound and burnt castor-oil scent of Bugatti, ERA, Monza and 2.9 Alfa Romeo, R-type MG, 38/250 Mercedes-Benz and “Bloody Mary” could be enjoyed, proceeds going to a Barnet hospital. I gladly drove down from Yorkshire in a 3-cylinder 2-stroke Scott-engined Morgan 4/4 to report it.

After which, if the floodgates did not immediately open, the trickle of events became quite a stream, SUNBAC ran the first post-war trial, won by Newton’s MG, and in August 1945 the Bristol MC & LCC managed to hold the first speed hill-climb, at Naish House, Clapton-in Gordano, where Bob Gerard’s ERA R4A, with “crash” gearbox, was fastest car (49 sec) but was beaten by one second by P Falconer’s Triumph motorcycle. In September the Filton speed-trials took place, over a 600-yard straight on the aerodrome there. Gerard was again fastest, in the ERA, with 26.3 sec. Next quickest was John Bolster’s “Bloody Mary” (29.9 sec) and Issigonis, Mini fame in the future, drove the rubber-spring Lightweight Special to a class win, in 32.0 sec. Fastest Sports car was L Parker’s SS 100 (31.6 sec).

Things were gradually getting back to the Pre-Hitler norm. The veterans emerged for the VCC Blackbushe Rally at the Ely Hotel, in record number, Brighton Runs excepted. G Milligan’s 1903 Wolseley came the greatest distance, and the oldest vehicle was the Thornycroft steamer. On the organisational side the BRDC Committee appointed Sammy Davis and George Abecassis as its RAC representatives, asked Motor Sport to continue as its Official Organ, and had John Morgan as its temporary secretary, while Desmond Scannell was awaiting demob from the RAF. The JCC had opened a British Motor Sport Fund, and two new British cars were announced, the TC MG Midget and the Alvis Fourteen. In France racing had already been resumed, at the Bois du Boulogne, in three classes, won by Gordini’s Simca-Fiat, Louveaux’s Maserati and Wimille’s 4.7 Bugatti.

Petrol rationing was still a curb on unfettered motoring, but by 1946 things were almost resuming full-scale. One inevitable consequence of Motor Sport and the weekly magazines having drawn attention to motoring history and the older cars throughout the war, was, as I have said, that the dealers soon began to inflate the prices of vintage models. In our first issue after VE Day a 12/50 Alvis tourer was advertised for £35, a 14/75 Alvis sports tourer for £40 (by guess who — I was moving South), a fully-equipped 137 GP Bugatti for £400, a 3-litre “Red Label” Bentley with 4.25 axle and some spares for £150 and a Grand Sport Amilcar for £25. But soon the escalation commenced, and by the 1950s was surging upwards. Motor Sport said the only cure was to refuse to play ball with the vendors. But look at the situation today! However, back in 1945, I did try…

So that was VE Year, that was. Those who failed to return sadly mourned, including so many from our world, but the motor-car moving on regardless, to the present congestion and astonishingly high values placed on the better makes and models.