Unusual Journey

David Filsell, as I do, likes to find rare books about motoring. The one he lent me recently, The Road to the Nile by Wilson MacArthur (Collins, 1941), must now be what is now known as a “Collectors Item”. It is about travel in the Western Desert and the Army of the Nile, on the eve of World War Two. Although many adventurous journeys by car of a similar nature had not been unusual, even many years before this one the unusual thing about this journey is that it showed what could be achieved by a normal British family car, a 1938 Standard Flying Twelve saloon (EYW 397). Not perhaps quite the sort of car one would expect to be trusted to cover more than 17,000 miles in Africa, fewer than 2000 of them on tarred roads.

But that is what MacArthur and his wife used, setting off just after the Munich agreement, helped in the matter of maps by the AA. Fog reduced the Dover-London run to a six-hour crawl. Then it was constant rain and snow all the way through Northern France, to entrain through the Simplon tunnel, the Pass being closed by snow. The natives were friendly and seemingly relieved, if anxious, that the spectre of war had been removed from their midst. Then it was a drive through Italy, from Domodossola to Syracuse, with aggi festa making services and supplies impossible, due to national holidays. . . (Customs clearance took 10 minutes in Calais, less than five at Jougue into Switzerland, but more than two hours at Domodossola and then only because a young officer wanted to see the British car’s engine.) Italy was seen as a country with roads planned with pride, vigour and vision by il Duce, but with too few cars to use them, petrol and the cars themselves expensive, the Italian middle-classes heavily taxed. Almost all the cars encountered, except in the industrial north, were “fussy little Fiats, smaller than Austin 75.”

Second-class on the Citta di Bengazi took the travellers from Syracuse, bound for Lybia. The AA had said that Palistine was out because of renewed unrest, and the Spanish Civil War meant that the Libyan entry to Africa had to be taken.

From there the quite standard Standard would travel eastwards over the tracks of the Western Desert to Alexandria and the Nile. An Albanian hotel porter had looked down on the car in the square below and called it the “Black Beetle”, and the name stuck. (Do you name your cars?) So here is another book about desert pilgrimage by car, Macarthur and his wife sleeping in the Standard at night, or in a tent attached to it. At the frontier post at Amseat, Fort Capuzzo, they were told what a lonely place this was. About one car a month went through; a big American one driven by an Englishman and his wife in the past week, but that was all. “How fast?” asked the official, of the Standard. “She did nearly 120kph on the Milan autostrada”, he was told, “and 125 all the way from Naples to Pompeii on the same type of road”. Some hours later they were down to 10mph. The tarmac had ended after a few yards and the desert had begun. Lybia, developed at last by Mussolini, was over; they were in Egypt. At Mersa Matruh cameras had to be sealed; Shell was poured clumsily into the car’s tank from four-gallon cans by native boys. But no oil or water was needed. Between Sollum and SidiBarrini MacArthur removed a front wheel the better to grease the car, which fell off the jack. A puncture then revealed that the nuts on the other front wheel were immovable. Tyre or tyre-valve trouble caused by the sand meant pumping up tyres, which couldn’t have been much fun in the desert heat. And so the story unfolds — another about desert motoring and the history and customs that it reveals. Of course, the car had a rough time. Of course they got stuck — but got out unaided.

The car ended this 20,000 miles to and through Africa plastered with dried mud, sand stuck to the body, wings and windows, brake rods caked with sand. The grease nipples were a solid mass of sand and the grease in the wheel hubs had thinned with the heat and forced its way onto the wheels. Otherwise this Flying Standard Twelve was unharmed, but it was afterwards left idle in a Chiltern village in England, as war engulfed Europe. I though that this might interest the Standard MC, of which I have not herd much lately. Which reminds me that on the way home from VSCC Colerne, approaching Gloucester, we saw a fully-laden Standard Eight or Ten, now a less common sight than, say active A30 or A35s. Perhaps it had been encouraged out of exile by the Exempt Licence situation, or been in regular use for a long time? W B