A rather jolly lawsuit

With the current surge in aeroengined motor cars and the attention being paid to them — a book, an invitation to the VSCC Iubilee Shesley hillclimb, flat-out timing of them at Colerne, and their pending visit to the Nurburgring — I am reminded of the lawsuit over whether Chitty-Bang-Bang II should, or should not, be sold outside Britain. It was a case with some amusing moments, and what follows is howl, a feeble witness, remember it. The word-passages are not verbatim, became the depositions of the trial are unobtainable.

They are as I recall them over 20 years on; I apologise if anyone is offended by my recollections or finds them to depart too widely from what actually took place in Lincoln’s Inn as judge, barristers and witnesses discussed a rather famous old car. . .

Briefly, the owner of “Chitty” had shown little interest in it for some time, to the extent of allowing Peter Harris Mayes to remove it and restore it to a respectable running condition, Then, to meet the cost of this, he decided to sell the old car. The owner was persuaded to resist this, the value placed on such possessions having, even then, reached a high point. I have an idea that Mr Hollis, the farmer who had bought Chitty II. was reluctant to do this and said he couldn’t afford the legal costs. Lord Montagu then offered to meet these, with the laudable intention of making sure that the only surviving Count Zborowski Chitty remained in the country where it had been assembled in 1921, albeit of German components.

So the case was on … I was asked to appear for Hollis, who was represented by Mr Owen Stable OC, as it was thought that it might help if I said how astonished I would be if. having lent a car to a friend, he sold it instead of returning it to me. (It didn’t work out very well. After saying my piece I seemed to offend the barrister for Mr Harris Mayes, Mr Bernard Finlay OC, when, asked what value I placed on cars I had so loaned, I named a sum to the nearest three-farthings. “We can ignore the farthings,” I remember him saying, crossly.

The case had opened with the luckless defending barrister having to inform the judge that he appeared for Mr Harris Mayes in a case concerning a motor car known as “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang”. “Could you repeat that?” asked his Lordship II wondered whether he knew the alleged origin of the name.

For some reason it was thought necessary to decide whether or not the aged giant had been registered for use on the road, presumably to see who was named as the last owner in the Log Book. For this purpose a dear and very old gentleman, who had in the 1920s been a clerk in the office of Canterbury County Borough Council where motor tax was paid, had been subpoenaed to appear. He had come all the way from Kent and was allowed to sit.

Yes, he told the court, he well remembered dealing with the taxation of Chitty-Bang-Bang. for the following reason. When recording details, he had to enter the cubic capacity of a car’s engine. For this a ledger was provided, but there were only four squares for recording cc. So it was necessary to obtain permission from his superior before putting one digit of Chitty’s engine-size outside the box. 118,882 cc, you see)! “Thank you,” said the Judge, “you may now stand down.” The defending barrister had to show that his client, Harris Mayes, had spent much money on Chitty and felt he had a right to sell it.

To this end Harris Mayes was to tell the judge, Mr Iustice Wrangham, how he had set the car running again, even driving it from Deal to Alexandra Palace for a TV appearance. “I think I remember it,” murmured the judge. Alas, it had transpired by this time that the ancient monster’s road tax was a thing of the past. “Did you say you drove it? asked his Lordship.

“Yes, my Lord.”

“But it wasn’t licensed!”

“I used trade number plates,” explained Harris Mayes.

A pause.

“I hope, Mr Harris Mayes. that you are not perjuring yourself. You told this court yesterday that you were a wholesale butcher. I wasn’t aware that butchers had the right to use trade number plates on their cars!” Most of those present must have borrowed such plates at some time or other, so while smiling inwardly, we shuddered in our shoes.

Much, much time was wasted while law tomes were found for the Judge. “Ah,” he said, “here we are.” He read from these books that trade numbers were for the use “of coachbuilders taking a customer’s chassis to their works for its bodywork, for the motor trade when delivering new cars and so forth.” No mention of butchers! His Lordship described how even he received a reminder when the tax on his Bentley became due and how he had to pay it, and display a licence disc on the car’s windscreen. (As this was in 1970, it was presumably a Crewe Bentley).

It was a sticky patch, which must have increased Lord Montagu’s costs, but the defence barrister pressed on. Determined to show how Harris Mayes had improved Ch)tty, he had found a witness who had seen it on proud display at the local garage. The opposing barrister rose. “And on what date was that?” The witness, revelling in being such a source of attention, told In much detail that he remembered the date clearly, because it was the year in which he had gone to an expensive hotel in Switzerland to ski, had broken his leg and had received attention in an expensive nursing home. “Things like that make you remember clearly the year in which, they happened,” he explained.

The barrister had handed to him a local newssaper. asking “Is that the car in the garage window?’ ”That’s it, as I told you,” said the verbose witness. He was asked to read out the date on the paper. It was a year different from the one he had quoted . . .

They tried to trick me in the same way, by showing me a long piece in this paper about Chitty and asking if it was the only article I had written about the car. “Yes,” I replied. “Would you look at this copy of MOTOR SPORT. Isn’t that anotherarticle on the same motor car? He showed me one line or so, describing how Harris Mayes had driven Chitty at the Brighton Speed Trials. A good try. which I was able to parry.

After which His Lordship said “If that is all, we can let Mr Boddy go and get on with running his motor paper. At one stage the presiding judge had Shown surprise that Hollis, having admitted that he had two small boys, had never taken them to see the car in many years. It also transpired that Mr Hollis had not insured Chitty. Cross-examined on the article I wrote after Harris Mayes had kindly given me a run in Chitty II, T&Ts having by then rebuilt its gearbox, I was forced to agree that this was probably a costly repair, done as it had been by a top Brooklands engineering firm.

In fact, the case collapsed on the fourth day, when counsel for Mr Hollis told the judge that he had abandoned his action. Mr Hollis was then ordered to pay £250 costs.

Had he won the case. Lord Montagu had an option to buy Chitty II, which in 1946, when it had a broken driveshaft, was valued at £1000 (Mr Hollis had paid £300 for it in 19301, for £4000. In fact, it was sold to America for £16,500, and Harris Mayes then concentrated on a 1925 Lincoln.

Otherwise, it was a rather jolly lawsuit. The good news is that after many years in the States this exciting car has returned to England, on loan to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. If you want to see it, 1 understand it may remain there for some time, and it will temporarily be on display (for three months) at the Brooklands Museum.