Some most interesting motoring material is to be found in Quintin Gilbey’s “contented biography”, “Fun Was My Living” (Hutchinson, 1970) although it is mainly about horse-racing, and I am delighted to add it to the list of non-motoring books which refer to Brooklands.
Mr. Gilbey, son of the great wine merchant, says that the family’s carriage horses were replaced by their first car, a 1910 Alldays and Onions, when they moved to Twyford in Buckinghamshire. The salesman said it would go at 40 m.p.h., whereupon Gilbey’s father said with some alarm that he didn’t want a fast car, he wanted a slow one. “He got it”, remarks the author dryly.
He recalls how exciting the first London taxis seemed, in an age of over-worked four-wheelers and spanking hansom cabs, three blasts of a commissionaire’s whistle summonsing a motor-cab, two a hansom, one a four-wheeler. During the First World War, while he was home from Eton, the author was taught to drive, so that he could replace the family chauffeur/butler, who was going into the Army. A motorcycle licence was obtained for the young Etonian, in case he was apprehended, as he was too young to drive a car! He was soon driving “the Overland, an open car, and an Austin limousine which bore a resemblance to a sentry-box”. That was in 1915, so these were Edwardian models, not the better known post-war Willys-Overland and Austin Twenty. There is an amusing account of the horror Edwardian parents had of children putting a hand on any part of a car, even a mudguard, in case it caused a serious accident! But this boy of 16 was soon taking his mother from the clothing depot at Winchester to Southampton docks, in connection with her war work for the hospital ships, being careful to obscure the speedometer with parcels, so that his passenger would not know the true speed. The Overland was even driven by young Gilbey to M’tutor’s at Eton, in this heavily petrol-rationed period.
Later in 1921/22, he encountered the gallant war-time Renault taxis in Paris—”Old scarlet boxes on decrepit wheels, they were incredibly uncomfortable and slower than the hansom cabs they had supplemented. . . .”
Back in London in 1923, Gilbey bought his first car, while working at Barclays Bank in the Strand. It was a “hideous little yellow affair, with a painted backside” and “was the most unsatisfactory car that can ever have reached our shores from France”—a 7.5 h.p. Citroen. It had been bought on hire-purchase but Gilbey had to give someone a fiver to take it away—very different, as he points out, from the elegance, speed, stamina, etc., of modern Citroëns. His parents had been against this first motoring transaction but sportingly provided a down-payment on a “snub-nosed” Morris-Cowley to replace it. This “proved as reliable as the Citroën had proved unreliable, and though as the result of my driving it full-out it developed a rattle, which suggested it was about to fall to pieces, I cannot recall that it ever let me down”.
As the author became a horse racing journalist he flew on charter flights with the great jockeys, who were treated even better than top racing drivers, it seems. There is also reference to “a big plane, painted dark blue”, which cruised at 80 m.p.h. and took approx. 2-1/2 hours for the regular Paris-Croydon flight in 1923 or earlier—probably an Instone Airways’ DH?
Motoring was a bit more sophisticated by 1930, when the author drove across the desert from Suez to Cairo, while returning to England in the
The reference to Brooklands (another one for the Brook!ands Society to chalk up!) concerns Quintin Gilbey’s only experience of motor racing—”I was completely out of my depth.” When, staying with Tim (Sir Henry) Birkin for the weekend, he went with him to the Track “when he was driving Dorothy Paget’s vast green Bentley in the long-distance event”, I imagine that Dorothy Paget’s horse-racing interests had drawn Gilbey and Birkin together. The occasion was obviously the 1932 BRDC British Empire Trophy Race, because the author says “John Cobb driving a Delage, won from George Eyston”, and that “Tim’s car conked out early in a race which seemed to go on for ever”. It is true that the Bentley retired, with a cracked cylinder block, but it was not green, and the race which seemed interminable to Gilbey was of 100 miles and over in less than an hour!
Incidentally, at the time Birkin is described as being involved with Sylvia Ashley, one of the house party. Many attractive women feature in “Fun Was My Living”, including June, of Cochran revue fame, who married Lord Inverclyde. But “in the early ‘twenties Babe Barnato, the wealthy racing motorist, was her constant companion”, at about the time Doris Delavigne attracted much attention, assisted by her Rolls-Royce. She was then the girl-friend of the Canadian financier and race-horse owner Sir Mike Edgar, in case anyone owns that particular R-R today. A reference to Laddie Sandford winning the Grand National on Sergeant Murphy gives a hint as to why Felix Scriven called his racing Austin Twenty by that name.
Brooklands may have had some influence on Quintin Gilbey, because “a few weeks later I turned in my Delage for a Speed 6 Bentley”, to impress the current girl-friend. He bought it through Birkin but it was not a success. The tyres were down to the canvas, the steering was very heavy, it developed a terrifying wheel wobble at 70 m.p.h., gave only ten m.p.g. (although cheap petrol being 1/ – a gallon, the tank could be filled for a pound) and “it consumed oil at approximately the same rate as petrol”.
The Bentley, not surprisingly, was exchanged for a Humber Snipe through the author’s old friend, Sir Arthur Pilkington, and later swopped for a Chrysler, “which proved the most satisfactory car I ever owned”. This was presumably not long before the Second World War and so it would probably be one of the ribbon-radiator sixes. Gilbey blames his wife for these “cumbersome vehicles”, as they had to have room for all her luggage and nanny and child, but they were “over-bodied and swung so violently rounding corners that my passengers were often sick”! He was using the Chrysler on the outbreak of World War Two.
Soon after he had joined up Gilbey was involved, as front-seat passenger, in a very nasty blackout car accident. After the war, again a sporting journalist, he obtained a new Morris Ten, selling it for a profit of £75 three years later. There are references to the poor driving of the Aly Khan and Lord Beaverbrook (one wonders what was the make of “his elderly car” which he used in Nassau and the gear-change of which defeated him when bottom was called for on the road up to his house?). Altogether, a most interesting autobiography.
There are several references to early motor vehicles and aeroplanes in “A Countryman Looks Back” by L. D. Manners, which concerns life in the Wiltshire village of Minety. Copies are available for £2.20 post free from his son, who, incidentally, is rebuilding a Crossley-Bugatti. The address is Coobe’s Farmhouse, Minety, Near Malmesbury, Wilts. Most of these references refer to motoring in pre-World War One days, including mention of oil engines of those times, but there is a memory of a very tall Major who had one of the first Austin 7s and, later, a Hillman straight-eight, “one of the best cars on the road at that time”. [No comment!— Ed]. Descriptions of early motorcycles, the author’s first one having been a 1908/10 5-h.p. four-cylinder, presumably an FN, bought in Cirencester for £5 and soon replaced by a 1-1/2 h.p. Singer (H. O. King of Oxford being a prolific supplier of cheap motorcycles in the 1920s) and “the Model-T Ford are included, although not all this material is original. The book is full of excellent black-and-white line drawings by the author.