Historic scene with... Gordon Cruickshank

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No need for the AA…
… take your own mechanic on your continental tour instead. (And don’t forget the butler)

When I plan a car trip abroad I book breakdown cover and throw in some spare bulbs. But imagine a spares list that begins: ‘4 connecting rods, 8 valves, 1 clutch…’

That was the reality of continental touring in pioneer days, when meeting another motor was about as likely as encountering a coach and four today.

In 1903 a young and eager garage mechanic in Cambridge found himself being questioned by a customer on his engineering skills, and shortly afterwards it was he who was packing that daunting range of spares, because that customer was Lionel Rothschild and he needed a mechanicien to accompany him on tours abroad.

I discovered this from an enjoyable book a car friend gave me: Mr Lionel – An Edwardian Episode, in which that lucky mechanic, Martin Harper, describes their motoring adventures together until WWI got in the way.

A super-keen motorist and a founder of the RAC, Lionel could afford the best cars and from a puttering 10/12 New Orleans soon ran to 40 and 60hp Mercedes, Napiers, Wolseleys and Siddeleys. A petrol evangelist, he was determined to prove the car was serious transport, taking the Orleans to the shooting in Scotland, racing trains to the South of France and challenging his cousin’s matching Mercedes 60 in a race from Paris to Monte Carlo. This at a time when Harper says encouragingly that you could buy tins of petrol “in most towns in France”, adding that “to arrive at all was not a foregone conclusion”.

Harper was his faithful companion in all this, and far from ‘upstairs, downstairs’ they seem more like a couple of cheerful conspirators, even trying to max out a Mercedes up the Champs-Elysées. In their twenties when they met, Harper says they had a particularly friendly relationship, sharing the driving, eating together, visiting a casino and staying at the same hotels – though doubtless the master had a suite and Harper an attic room. He seems to be less a chauffeur – the family had several of those – and more of a travelling mechanical wizard, going on to crew ‘the Owner’s’ twin Napier-powered racing speedboat, run the domestic electric plant and even set up temporary electric lights in the mess tent when the master is training with the Yeomanry.

Lionel was also on the board of Wolseley and undertook demanding road tests for them, with Harper alongside. On one trip they took two cars to wild and untamed Corsica, where they outran some brigands and where Harper accidentally foils a murderous vendetta by smuggling a waiter from a hotel. On another they explored Spain, clambering through cloying mud and holes deep enough to ground the rear axle. At one point Harper says it took him three days to strip and clean the car, while roads in and out of Granada were so bad that they gave up and put the cars on a train. Train transport figures a lot in the book and it was Harper’s duty to arrange this – in one place he says casually that they put the Wolseley 45 on a train at Charing Cross and “consigned it to Innsbruck”, where he and the family entourage including Bloxham the butler – you can’t travel without your butler – proceed by sleeper.

As well as getting a vivid picture of how gruelling motoring could be in pioneer times, it’s nice to know that Harper was often left to his own devices abroad, driving solo Marseilles to London, exploring the Alhambra and Prado and, when the family even take a Napier 65 to Algeria – brave stuff in 1910 – he had his own adventures in the bazaars, including befriending an Arab with a Lancashire accent. Later on Mr Lionel telegraphs to London for new wheels and Harper waits in a small town on the edge of the Sahara until they arrive – complete with bowler-hatted Napier mechanic. Quite an experience for a country lad brought up in Edwardian times in a little Hertfordshire village.

In some ways the fortunate employee reckons he had more freedom than ‘the Owner’, hugely wealthy, well known and always at risk of kidnap, whom Harper reflects “seemed at times to regard me with almost exasperated envy”. On the other hand, after falling asleep and crashing the Mercedes during an overnight race with a French express train, an apologetic Lionel could travel on by rail while Harper picked up the pieces and sent them back to London.

One of Lionel’s frustrations was being forbidden by his father to race his cars; the closest he can get was as the entrant of a 15.6-litre Siddeley-Wolseley in the 1905 Gordon Bennett eliminating trials in the Isle of Man, although a collapsed wheel clobbered their chances. Later he and Harper were regular visitors to Brooklands during construction, more than once driving the Track before its opening, while of course the Aston Clinton hillclimb was on one of the Rothschild estates and they were regular attendees. Lionel wasn’t the only Rothschild with a car passion: his cousin Henri sponsored racing as early as 1901, his brother Anton commissioned a lavish pair of Fernandez & Darrin Hispano-Suizas, while Victor, Lord Rothschild bought a Bugatti 57SC from the factory and of course Amschel Rothschild was an avid historic racer during the 1980s.

Written in 1962 though only published in 1970, Mr Lionel doesn’t explain what Martin Harper went on to do once the Kaiser war ended his petrol-powered period with ‘the Owner’, but those years give every impression of being a halcyon time for him, despite the punctures, the roadside rebuilds and the all-enveloping dust. I’ve just driven out of pouring rain through the electric roller door into my dry garage in a warm, water-tight, automatic-wipered car and can’t help but think of the chilled fortitude of Harper and his charges, rugged up to the chin, as they battle through a Corsican thunderstorm in their roofless, screenless Napier.

On the other hand, his description of an 80mph overnight blast along the empty poplar-lined roads of Northern France, the rising sun flashing though the trees, makes one yearn for other times. Especially as today those velocities have become an offence.

Vintage premiere
Curtain-raising start to the VSCC season

Heartening to see a decent crowd at Silverstone for the VSCC’s Spring Start meeting in April, with plenty of interesting metal both in paddock and car park. I was especially looking forward to the new Premier Cru event, but with the Grist family Alfa Romeo Tipo B phoning in sick with a split fuel tank a day or two beforehand and some others racing elsewhere, the field was a little thin.

Not in quality, though, Sean Danaher bringing both 6CM and 8CM Maseratis to challenge the ERAs, Talbots and Bugattis. Sadly Calum Lockie in the 6CM spun and collected James Baxter in R4D early on, but Danaher in the eight-cylinder had a great debate with Terry Crabb’s ERA over second, finally giving him best, though it was Nick Topliss in R4A who led right through.

I must have put the evil eye on Julian Grimwade by writing about him in last month’s issue, as his practice session in the Norris was cut short by of all things an exploding battery, sending him to the back of the grid for the Pat Lindsay race (won by Duncan Ricketts’ Alta). Still, it gave him a chance to show me his racing talisman, sitting in a neat metal bracket in the cockpit – a small block of wood, neatly labelled “A small block of wood…”

Meanwhile, scouting the paddock for interesting tow vehicles, I came across the coolest pairing courtesy of Mike Preston, who hauled his Type 35B Bugatti to Silverstone behind his Type 50.

New bicester festival
Motoring village opens up to air and auto displays

Visited Bicester Heritage yet? if not, then set your diary for June 20-21 and Flywheel, a new motoring and aviation festival at the preserved WWII bomber base where many automotive specialists have settled. Having an airfield attached allows displays of classic aircraft and gliders, as well as air action from 10 WWI dog-fighters at once, Tiger Moths and a flypast of the sole surviving Bristol Blenheim. Historic road, racing and sports cars and military vehicles will parade on the perimeter track, there will be club displays, a vintage trade fair and live music. For tickets see: www.flywheelfestival.com

Nominations please
You too can have your literary two-penn’orth

If you have been impressed by a book on motoring history published in the last year and think it merits recognition, the Society of Automotive Historians in Britain would like to hear about it. Every year the Society presents the Michael Sedgwick Award to commemorate the well-known motoring researcher and author and to encourage new research, and nominations are welcome from anyone. They will be assessed by a panel of automotive authors and the award presented in October. Nominations must be in by June 30, to the chair of the Michael Sedgwick Award panel, Craig Horner, at [email protected] More information at www.autohistory.org.uk