Cars in books, June 1971

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In “Strictly Personal”, by Cecil King (Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1969), there are some interesting recollections about the Harmsworth family and its Fleet Street activities. One item which especially interests me is the statement that Cecil King’s family were given their first motor car, a Darracq, by his Uncle Leicester Harmsworth who “at that time owned the company and made us a present of his make of car, at that time a great success”. The year in question can be established as 1910, by which time Leicester Harmsworth is said to have “made a fortune in France out of Darracq motor cars”, money which subsequently “went”. (Incidentally, he bought Moray Lodge on Campden Hill during the First World War and collected pre-1640 English books and Fantin Latour pictures, both profitable undertakings, and later recovered his fortune through Mid-East oil.

I can find no reference to Harmsworth ownership of Darracq in either Lord Montagu’s “Lost Causes of Motoring—Europe, Vol. 2”, which has a long chapter devoted to Darracq history, or in Kent Karslake’s Darracq history in “Motoring Entente”, the book about the STD companies. But clearly Cecil King’s uncle was a Darracq owner, whatever the truth of the matter may be—did he, perhaps, own an agency for Darracq but not the manufactory?—because the book recalls drives in it in Western Ireland with Turley the chauffeur, over sparsely signposted, pot-holed macadam roads, at about. 20 m.p.h., punctures common, lubrication chancy, gear-changing difficult, but traffic almost non-existent. Other motoring references in this book concern an accident involving St. John Northcliffe in 1906, when his chauffeur, following telephone wires in a fog, ran up a bank and overturned, which broke his master’s back, and to Viscount Rothermere’s two Rolls-Royces which toured Italy in 1934.

Another book worth referring to, although I may have done this before, is “History of the Abingdon Fire Service”, by John Hooke, a copy of which Jeremy Collins, Secretary of the VSCC Light Car Section, lent me recently. This refers to Abingdon-on-Thames, one-time home of MG cars, where “the present fire-station” was built in 1914 (the book was published in 1945). There is reference to a 1914 Rolls-Royce car being purchased in 1940 to tow the Brigade’s second trailer fire-pump (the other was towed behind a 30-cwt. Ford lorry in appalling mechanical condition). The Rolls-Royce was given a special body and brass bell but cost a great deal to operate, as it used petrol at the rate of one m.p.g. Clearly, its engine was not as well prepared as its body! C. E. Fisher had charge of the R-R’s crew; one wonders where the car is, today? Incidentally, these trailer pumps sometimes went on exciting long-distance journeys, for instance to Birmingham, to Coventry on the night of the big blitz, and even as far as Exeter, when air-raids were exceptionally heavy.

The Abingdon Brigade’s engines included a motor tractor acquired in 1914 to tow a steam-driven pump, a six-cylinder vee-radiator Mercedes added in 1923, which Would answer calls as far afield as Shrivenham, but which once got bogged down in mud and was freed by horses, and suffered many other “accidents” (which probably means breakdowns) and a six-cylinder six-wheeler Leyland with 400-g.p.m. pump and caterpillar tracks for cross-country work, bought in 1933. One wonders whether this was the Mercedes reported to lie in a field near Abingdon in WW2, or was that a Ninety, later raced in VSCC events?—W. B.