Cars in Books, July 2000

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A reader has kindly sent me a book for this feature. It is Gilt-Edged, by Merlin Minshall (Panther, 1977). Described as the inspiration for the James Bond character 007, Minshall recounts how he was a spy in WWI, was Ian Fleming’s boss in WW2, was sucked into Nazi espionage and seduced by a lovely but lethal German agent, met FieldMarshall Goring, and other celebrities such as Sir Winston Churchill. The index shows such names as Sir Malcolm Campbell, Ettore Bugatti, Count Lurani, and Dr Porsche.

A book of high adventure by a writer who knew many other celebrated authors, confirmed by none other than the Foreword contributor, Len Deighton, the well-known crime writer. There was a section headed ‘The Racing Driver’, in which I learned that his first hope was to win the Monte Carlo Rally. For this he had a new 1-litre Singer Special “that had nearly won Le Mans”. Accompanied by a girl with no navigating experience, Merlin M set off from Umea in 1935, “with only 95 hours and 59 seconds to get to Monte Carlo”. On his journey the scent of Chanel No5 and Castrol R filled the car. The map of the entire route is said to have been on rollers “driven off the transmission shaft” an improvement on Jenks having to hand-wind his on the 1955 Mille Miglia! The Singer’s headlamps turned with the front wheels — Merlin’s own invention, copied, he says, by Citroen in 1960…

After several adventures they arrived at Monte Carlo without loss of marks, which only six others had done. “I felt I had as good as won”. Alas, the French discounted the Copenhagen control and he was placed fifth: “I did not win the Rally, not that year”. But the Singer, the book explains, was first in the 1500cc class, first of the British entrants, and took the comfort prize.

The book goes on to talk of competing in the world’s longest car race, the Mussolini Cup, after Minshall had become “fairly well known as a regular and successful competitor in many long-distance road races — the Hungarian National Road Race, the LiegeRome-Liege, a second Monte Carlo Rally, the Mille Miglia and the 24 Hours at Le Mans.”

In the 4000-mile Mussolini event, the little Singer “was a sensation”, beating all the works cars, listed as Aston Martin, MG, Frazer Nash and Riley, Minshall receiving his Cup from II Duce, after coping with overturned cars, flames and bodies lying across his path (four died). After which he “became known as one of the ace British drivers of the late Thirties and found myself offered cars to drive at Le Mans and Brooklands and in the annual slaughterhouse of those days, the notorious Mille Miglia”. Thus Merlin Minshall’s story, autobiography, not fiction, which does not quite tie-in with my records…