Book reviews, June 1972, June 1972
“Flying Between the Wars”, by Allen Wheeler. 199 pp. 9 1/2″ x 6″ (G. T. Foulis & Co., 50a, Bell Street, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. £3.85)
I have remarked before, in these Book Review columns, that books about flying between the wars, especially in the RAF, have been all too few. Now Air Commodore Wheeler, well known to those who support the excellent work of the Shuttleworth Trust or who go to the cinema to see the better aviation films, has written not only a most absorbing account of this period but about the best book of its kind yet published.
The setting is flying with the Royal Air Force from 1925 to 1929, at a time when there was little enthusiasm on the part of politicians or public for this diminished fighting service but plenty on the part of young men such as P/O Wheeler. The atmosphere of life in the peacetime RAF is captured absolutely splendidly—not only from the viewpoint of the aeroplanes of those days but of day-to-day life in the Air Force, the organisational structure, the relaxation, the Court Martials, all as seen by one particular recruit, recounted in an entirely fascinating chronological story.
The technique of flying all the aeroplanes he encountered as pupil and pilot is covered in considerable detail but not, as I rather feared from his earlier books, merely as “pilot’s notes” sort of descriptions. Instead, Wheeler makes you feel you are in turn walking out and climbing into each cockpit with him, first to make an exploratory flight, then to try out the most advanced aerobatics the aeroplanes can stand. Thus, in the most pleasurable reading imaginable, you get to know the Avro 504K, the Sopwith Snipe, the AW Siskin, the Gloster Grebe, the Bristol Fighter, etc., and those brand-new Army Co-Op machines, the Vickers Vespa, AW Atlas, DH Hyena and Bristol Boarhound„ which the author tested while at Manston.
This is excellent stuff in itself but there is much more; each chapter is more enjoyable than the previous one, if that is possible. The night flying, so primitive in 1927, the beginnings of parachuting from wing platforms on Vickers Vimys, taking part in the 1927 RAF Display in a Siskin and the King’s Cup Race in a 1917 SE5a, buying and flying his own SE5a, trying out a DH 53 light plane and his own ANEC powered with an ABC car engine, it is all here, capturing exactly the atmosphere and spirit of those far-away times. Life at RAF Digby, Duxford, Henlow and Manston, as seen by a junior officer destined to rise to high rank (although he modestly does not use his rank as an author), is equally well described, in this unique book, which I read from cover to cover in one afternoon, reluctant to break off for meals.
This is not a book for Aviation fanatics alone—it will please all those who like recapturing the wild, carefree, “different” days of long ago. In these pages you can almost smell the burnt castor-oil, make the forced landings, beat up the houses of girl-friends yourself (survive the Consequent crash), and face the consequences . . .
Wheeler refers in passing to his 1921 Riley two-seater, a later ABC motorcycle and a 1911 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost sold for £40 when the author was posted to Baghdad in I929—at a loss of £25. But this is as much a book for all those who are vintage minded as for vintage car enthusiasts. I hope Air Commodore Wheeler intends to continue this splendid autobiography, in one or more additional volumes, taking us with him on his flying experiences up to 1939, or even through the war years to the present day, for he is still associated intimately with interesting aeroplanes (I wish people wouldn’t call them “aircraft”, still worse “airplanes”) and exciting flying. I suggest that all of you who enjoy this book write to him, as I have done, to ensure that we soon get more of the same heady medicine!
“Flying Between the Wars” is so utterly enthralling that a few printing errors and a cursory index can be overlooked. The rather anaemic illustrations, some official pictures, others personal, a few of old Aeroplanes in modern times, are adequate. There is a Foreword by Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Charles Elworthy, G.C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O., M.V.O., A.F.C., who tends to excuse A/C Wheeler’s apparent irresponsibilities when he was a junior officer and remarks that this sort of thing cannot be tolerated today, when the “aircraft strapped to their backsides” costs £2,000,000 instead of £2,000—which is just another reason why Allen Wheeler’s reminiscences are so nostalgic. — W. B.
“The Great Road Races-1894-1914”, by Henry Serrano Villard. 248 pp. 8 3/4″ x 5 1/2″‘ (Arthur Barker, 5, Winsley Street, London, W1. £2.00)
I began to read the chapter on the Vanderbilt Cup, by this writer who was present at Sheepshead Bay in 1915 (when, he tells us in his Preface, Carl Limberg was killed), to discover that I had first to wade through items about the 1903 Gordon Bennett and the Taunus races, which led to America introducing road racing at Long Island, a dozen miles from New York, in 1904. In doing this I read with interest of how Robert Bosch had advertised the success of his ignition system in the GB race—”a giant poster of Jenatzy with his copper-red beard appeared on the billboards, in his hands a huge Bosch magneto connected to automobiles representing several different countries”. Unfortunately, Villard says this was “the high-tension ignition system”, whereas the Sixty Mercedes which won the GB Trophy had a low-tension Simms-Bosch magneto; Bosch h.t. magnetos had been fitted to Mercedes engines from 1902 but were not adopted for racing until some years later.
Providing slips of this nature do not intrude into other chapters, this book will be of value to students of early racing in America.— W. B.
“World Cars—1972”, compiled by the Automobile Club of Italy. 438 pp. 9 1/2″ x 11″ (Eurospan Ltd., St. George’s House, 44, Hatton Garden, London, EC1. £5.50)
This useful annual of specifications of the World’s cars contains, in the 1972 edition, over 1,000 illustrations, some in colour, and gives detailed information on 800 different cars from 27 countries, including those from Egypt, India, Turkey, Israel, Belgium and the two Chinas— what can be called comprehensive. From this data emerge plenty of statistics, such as the World’s longest car being the Cadillac Fleetwood 75 limousine (248.9″), the shortest the Larvil City (80.7″), the heaviest the Zil 114 limousine (7,000 lb.), the lightest the Larvil Varzina (706 lb.), the fastest the Lamborghini Miura P400 (180 m.p.h.), the slowest the Steyr-Puch Haflinger 700 AP (48 m.p.h.), the most expensive the Stutz Blackhawk saloon (£12,500), the least costly the Larvil Varzina (approx. £380)—and others of More useful application.
Apart from the copious illustrations and the table, there are chapters on car production in America, Japan, Britain, Italy, Germany and France, another on prototypes, a section on the World’s great coach builders, performance data, a review of last season’s motor racing and its techniques, performance figures, and details about the manufacturers themselves. “World Cars” is indispensible! — W. B.
“The veteran years of New Zealand motoring”, by Pam MacLean and Brian Joyce. 230 pp. 10 1/4″ x 7 1/2″ (A. H. & A. W. Reed Ltd., 182, Wakefield Street, Wellington, NZ)
As regular followers of this column will be aware, books about motoring in most parts of the World are now available. New Zealand got a look in last year, this very comprehensive volume by the late Pam MacLean and Brian Joyce, which has come to us by courtesy of Eoin Young, certainly doing the job very thoroughly in covering all facets of pioneer motoring in that continent. Trials and competitions are included and, judging from the many illustrations, the Cadillac seems to have been popular in NZ before the First World War. — W. B.
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We are not greatly in favour of photocopy reproductions of original motoring publications, if only because this short cut to authorship seems unfair to the original publishers. This applies less to catalogues than to articles and magazines and odd items from the past, like a reproduction of a 1929 3-litre Bentley catalogue by Bront-Hill Publications of 11, Main Street, Haworth, Yorkshire. This runs to 23 large pages and sells for £1.25. Of much greater interest is “Rolls-Royce and the Great Victory”, A well-produced reproduction by the same firm, in hard covers (260 pp., 7 1/2″ x 4 1/4″), of four publicity booklets issued soon after the 1914/18 war by Rolls-Royce Ltd. It describes at length in the stilted language of the times the work of Sliver Ghosts at the war-time front, of Rolls-Royce armoured cars on active service (which should interest recent correspondents to “Vintage Postbag”) and the exploits of R.R-powered aeroplanes and seaplanes, with lots of pictures. It even includes colour plates by J. Dickson and costs £3.00, plus 15p for postage and packing.