Cars in books, June 1976

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Having referred recently to a country side book in which the author admitted to using an early Austin 7 for her travels, I was amused when, after reading only as far as the first page of James Lees-Milne’s “Ancestral Voices” (Chatto & Windus, 1975), I came upon mention of another aged Austin. The book describes how the author, invalided out of the war and working for the National Trust, went round war-time Britain inspecting old houses and other properties. The Austin was in use by the National Trust and is described as “very old” in 1942 and as having belonged previously to the late Hilda Matheson. So I assume it to have been at least a 1930s model, if not earlier. It was based at the N’I”s wartime headquarters at High Wycombe and on the first encounter with it in this fascinating book, it had overheated at Princes Risborough, en route for Northamptonshire. This was in January 1942, so perhaps it had been purposely drained beforehand. Lees-Milne did it no harm, apparently, as it continued the journey and two days later it was at Potters Bar, its radiator this time filled with boiling water from a kettle—”it started at once”.

In slush and snow it was necessary to stop and wipe the windscreen, suggesting either that it had no screen-wiper, or an inefficient one. Later in the year, at the start of a visit to Lincolnshire, it took two hours to get the engine .started. Incidentally, from another reference to it, it seems to have been a capacious car for it carried two people, a cabin trunk, and a magnolia tree in the back compartment—a 1930s. Sixteen or Twenty, perhaps?

Although petrol was rationed (there is mention of a milk-roundsman who was allowed only live gallons a month for a rural delivery in Buckinghamshire, and of an unreliable gas-trailer bus in the Cromer area) motoring went on. For instance, the NT architect drove the author in “a respectable Austin saloon” (a contrast, obviously, to the old one owned by the Trust) up the Great North Road to Norfolk in May, 1942, and King Peter and the Queen of Yugoslavia, who that summer were staying near Cranbrook, had “an enormous Cadillac” in which they drove to the local cinema. Then Lord Brocket is quoted as using “his blue, two-seater Rolls-Bentley” when he showed Lees-Milne round Norton Place in Lincolnshire—I find this particularly interesting, because my eldest daughter was born some years later in 13rocket Hall and after the war I nearly bought Norton Place, but my wife objected to the cold weather in Lincolnshire. It is also mentioned that Col. and Mrs. Wood of Henley Hall, outside Ludlow, had “two Rolls-Royces and one Rolls-Bentley” laid up there, during the war. In contrast, Lord Kennet’s daughter used an Austin 7 to run the author to the station, after he had been staying at Fritton.

There are further tantalising references in this book to ancient cars in use in 1943— tantalising because their makes are not disclosed—such as the “old-fashioned motor” in which Prof. Richardson, Secretary of the Royal Society, drove the author from Cambridge Station into Lincolnshire, and “an old car” in which the widow of the Hon. Aubrey Herbert met him near Dulverton and drove him to Pixton Park.

Reading the book, I had hoped to come upon some stately home of a pre-war racing motorist. But if there were any, they escaped my notice; the nearest I got to this was to a reference to Lord Doverdale, who lived at Westwood Park outside Droitwich, being “interested in motor-racing”. There is mention of Lord Fairhaven “being” driven everywhere in a high-powered khaki Buick by a soldier, for he has something to do with the Red Cross”, this also being in 1943, at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. That October, the old NT Austin refused to start because of a flat battery, when wanted for a journey to Tunbridge Wells—but it survived, being. collected from Moon’s Garage and driven to Ipswich that December and back to London and one hopes that the NT, as Preservers of Good Things, know what became of it Incidentally, the author expresses the view that it was “exhilarating to motor long distances again (he was off to Lacock in Wiltshire in December 1943, presumably in the Austin), and that “Driving alone I feel happy and carefree. Every expedition is an adventure”. So we may yet hear more of him….

Fiction has been left ow of this series for a long time, because there is sufficient material without it. But, if only in appreciation of the Canadian reader who sent me a copy, 1 would remark that a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost figures in “That’s Mc in the Middle” by Donald Jack (Paperjacks, Ontario), which is part of the humorous “Bartholomew Bandy”adventures. These are set in the WW I era and are probably based on actual experiences, in the Army and RFC etc. Finally, for this month, those interested in cars associated with crime will find all the vehicles used in the Great Train Robbery, and by Ronald Iiiggs in his subsequent escape from justice, detailed in “Ronald Biggs—The Most Wanted Man” by Colin Mackenzie ;Hart-Davis/Mac:Gibbon, 1975).—W.B.

Since writing the foregoing I have received the following additional mites from the author of “Ancestral Voices”:

“Alas, I cannot remember the date of the old National Trust Austin. It was certainly pre-war, dating from the early 1930s, I think. “The first motor car I remember was my mother’s Minerva landaulette, upholstered in Bedford cord, and very pretty, of about 1910. And before the 1914-war I recollect sitting, very small and very frightened, at the hack of a Hotchkiss going at 80 m.p.h. on the straight bit of road beyond the Fish Inn at the top of Broadway Hill. My mother, wearing a large hat and veil, sat in the back holding my hand. I think She was as terrified as I was. I remember the clouds of dust and the gravel which flew from the wheels. We lurched from one pothole to another and finally had a puncture.”

Bath JAMES LEES-MILNE