Cars in Books, March 1968

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I have encountered no cars in books for this month, but this is not because there are no more to be encountered. Indeed, a reader, Mr. I. D. Tibbenham of Braintree, has kindly drawn attention to the following: In “Us Four,” an autobiography by Cyril Heber Percy (Faber & Faber, 1963), there occurs this: “The carriage was moth-eaten and no longer used, for Daddy now had a Renault, with a hood and large brass headlights, which took a lot of winding to start. Daddy drove it, sitting bolt upright. The noise of his gear-change shattered everyone’s nerves and made walkers a hundred yards away turn round. He invariably missed his gears, on a hill, usually stalled the engine, and was given to reining back on the steering-wheel, murmuring “Whoa” when he wanted to stop.” This was probably around 1900. Later, in the 1914/18 war, “Daddy was recruiting officer for the district and had to travel long distances at night. His car was fitted with solid tyres as he had never learned to change a wheel. The effort of coping with a puncture on a cold night would probably have been too much for his asthma.” Before this, perhaps in 1910, “At last the Hall was fitted with electric light. A Ruston Hornsby engine was installed in the old dairy by the stables. Charlie France took charge, keeping the engine-room spotless and the fittings burnished. The room was always locked and we were seldom allowed a peep at the large flywheel whizzing round. Daddy could never understand electricity. He thought that if a bulb or stopper to a wallplug was missing, whatever it was that made the light, oozed out and wasted.” Then, soon after the war, “Algy had a B.S.A. and I had a Diamond with a J.A.P. engine. I would sit behind Algy on the B.S.A. with Bruce the labrador on my knees, and Algy would have a gun slung across his back.”

Then there is this, from “Filling the Gap,” by none other than Terry-Thomas (Max Parrish, 1959): “The first car I had was a bull-nosed Morris; open, of course, with a wonderful little dickey-seat and a Hotchkiss engine, I was told. I mean if I hadn’t been told I would never have known. I can see I shall have to be absolutely honest with you (and I know this will probably shock my very good friend Stirling Moss), but engines are just bits of metal to me. The next car that I had, which I completely wrecked, was a front-wheel drive A.C. I remember stripping all the gears somewhere on Exmoor, and I certainly remember having to abandon the car and walk.” There was, of course, no front-drive A.C. and one wonders if the author intended to write Alvis; or is this one of his jokes?

Mr. Tibbenham also tells me that in “Houdini—The Man Who Walked Through Walls,” by William Lindsay Gresham (Gollancz, 1960), Houdini’s acquisition of a Voisin biplane is recounted, a machine said to have been designed three years earlier by Santos Dumont, with a 60/80-h.p. E.N.V. engine. Apparently Houdini paid 25,000 francs for it, rented a shed and a mechanic named Brassac, and was flying it in two weeks. There is mention in “My Own Story,” by Bernard M. Baruch (Odhams, 1958), of a Paris-Bordeaux Panhard bought in 1901 by the author, and later of a yellow 40-h.p. Mercedes which cost 22,000 dollars in America. The Mercedes was raced at “Long Branck track,” perhaps a misprint for Long Beach, where we are told it did over 60 m.p.h. I think the author is incorrect in saying it had hot-tube ignition. Finally, an Arnolt-Bristol figures in the fictional work “Loo Loo’s Legacy,” by David Dodge (Michael Joseph, 1960).

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