Cars in Books, March 1981

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Although it is splendid period reading, about the First World War and the 1920s, “The Private Diaries Of Rider Haggard — 1914-1925”, edited by D. S. Higgins (Cassell, 1980), is not a very rewarding book as far as this column is concerned, for while there are a few references to cars, the makes are never quoted. There are, however, descriptions of how civilians living on the east coast of Britain were affected by the zeppelin raids and of the privations of war, which caused writer Rider Haggard to give up farming and deprived him of getting taxis easily when he went to London. It is interesting to find Haggard’s great friend Rudyard Kipling complaining that life was difficult without the use of his motor — pining probably for his Lanchesters; in 1918 he wrote “. . .in those days of no motors, 18 miles are as bad as 100,” Amusing, too, that Haggard always refers to cars as “motors” in his earlier pages, not as “motor-cars” until the 1920s, and never as “cars”. Otherwise, very little about cars, but there is a reference to the “huge motor vehicle that was conveying the military band back to Norwich” after a war-memorial service at a village church, in September 1920, nearly running down Rider Haggard and his party in narrow Church Lane, three people, including the author, being knocked down, or falling down in the rush to avoid the ‘bus. “I had been watching the approach of the motor and calling to the others to stand as far back as possible. I expect the brilliant headlamps dazzled us all. . . . These great char-a-bancs and busses (sic) should not be allowed in lanes of less than a certain width. They are a terrible danger, especially at night”. Thus did Sir Rider Haggard add his protest to the many that were rife in the 1920s over the char-a-banc menace.

This month has been in general a good one for this column, even if I did pick up Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely” under the mistaken impression that this was the famous tribute to the Model-T Ford I have long wanted to read, only to discover that it is a fictional “who-done-it” in which cars certainly figure, but is not the piece written, I now remember, by Lee Stout White about the passing of the famous “flivver”. I do not think this is any longer available in this country, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a Motor Sport reader proves me wrong!

When the library found me a copy of James Agate’s autobiography, which Alistair Cooke remarked recently to be his favourite bedside reading, I did not expect the famous theatre critic and author to include motoring in his repertoire. So I was very surprised when the first such reference in “A Shorter Ego” (Harrap, 1945) came as early as page 7.

This refers to Agate having trouble with the back axle of his car while driving across Blubberhouse Moor in Yorkshire on the Whit-Sunday of 1932. It had to be towed into Harrogate, where the garage valued this (unstated) car at £48. Agate was advised to sell it at once as it was in a bad way, but Henly’s offered him £85 for it if he bought from them what he disguises as a “Rank Dazzle”, which he rather liked the look of. They wanted £240 for this, or £115 for the part-exchange deal. It was agreed, the new car was registered by the next day, but Agate knew it wouldn’t do after driving it a quarter-of-a-mile. He didn’t drive himself but his chauffeur’s elbow and arm rubbed against his with every gear-change and the sunroof was beastly. Like riding in a sardine tin. (Could it have been an SS?). Anyway, losing £10 because the car was now technically second hand, he changed it for a Riley Nine d.h. coupe that had done only 3,000 miles. This was priced at £285, the deal adding up to £210 after the old car had gone in exchange. This Riley had a dickey-seat, as later in his book Agate recalls riding therein; I wonder whether the Riley Register was aware that the entertaining man-of-letters owned such a car?

I have sometimes wondered if this long-standing and enduring column has caused authors to include cars in their more recent books, not because they want a mention here, but because it has made them aware of the interest in cars that exists among those reading non-motoring literature. In Agate’s case, it cannot be so, because he wrote “Ego” before I started this feature. If I was agreeably surprised by his inclusion of the aforesaid motoring item, there was more to follow. Apart from odd little snippets, fascinating in themselves about appointing a succession of mostly unsatisfactory chauffeurs, and of journeys to different golf courses, etc., Agate tells of changing the Riley in November 1932 for an 18/70 Talbot with only 8,000 miles recorded, in excellent condition. It cost him £54 (presumably after part-exchanging the Riley), which he apparently had difficulty in finding. (Although normally we would call this car a Talbot 75, when first introduced it was, I think, referred to as the 18/70 model, being of 17.7 RAC h.p.). A new chauffeur-valet was appointed, with the change of car.

There are some accounts by James Agate of long night drives, etc. and then came another surprise, of Agate writing of how, in 1934, he acquired a 1928 6 1/2-litre Bentley. It cost him £275 and 18 instalments of £14, after another part-exchange deal involving the Vauxhall, that, although the book doesn’t say so, seems to have succeeded the Talbot. The nett result was that James Agate was £50 down on the transaction. He mentions with obvious pride that when new the Bentley cost £2,800, which suggests a special body. After this it is disappointing that there is no further mention of the Bentley. Agate does write of hiring a “piddling little car” for only £2/10/- for the weekend, in which to go to the Oxford University Debating Society Jubilee Dinner in 1935. It was “an example of a much-advertised make. . .; it looked like a louse and crawled like a beetle”, taking 3 1/2 hours to get from Birmingham to Oxford. (Your guess is as good as mine — Ruby Austin 7 or Ford 8 perhaps; anyway, the Bentley seems to have influenced Agate’s views on slow cars!) The next we hear, apart from the extremely entertaining non-motoring aspects of Agate’s autobiography, is that he acquired a Humber Twelve, in 1935. It was almond with green wings, chosen to make it easy to find in car parks and after the theatre. (I find the same advantage in the Skyport glass roof of he Rover 3500.) A new chauffeur came with it, a very small man, “but so is the car”.

Apart from these unexpected references, there is evidence that one of James Agate’s friends was “a motor-fan'”, that the last dinner attended by the celebrated Harry Preston in Brighton before his death was a big motoring affair, and in 1935 Agate noticed the age of Belfast’s taxi-cabs, “fusty with old leather”, suggesting vintage models. He was in New York at the time of the terrible end to the airship Hindenburg, which just beforehand he had watched “. . . nosing majestically between the skyscrapers on its way to Lakehurst”, Agate getting his taxi to turn round to keep it in sight, and he recalls seeing an aeroplane sky-writing EAT SHARP’S MICKEY MOUSE TOFFEE! in the setting sun of an August evening in 1935, over Clacton. And at last he has provided me with the opposite side of that coin which implies that after the First World War it was the profiteers who bought Rolls-Royces, while the Aristocracy remained unobtrusive in their Daimlers. Agate had cocked a lugubrious eye at one of these, causing his chauffeur to say “They use ’em for black work. It’s an ‘earse!” . . .

It is also known that Agate was using a 1937 Chevrolet just before war broke out that had done 36,525 miles since new, was equipped with “wireless”, and managed to average 43.6 m.p.h. for 218 miles, on pre-war roads, remember. It once broke down in Shrewsbury, en route for Wales, but some Shropshire garage lads fixed it in a few hours and the journey continued to Brecon. But Agate admitted that 244 miles in a day was too much motoring for him. Later he swopped the Chev., the “rabbit-hutch”, which needed a rebore, the brakes relined, and three new tyres, for a Hillman Fourteen. Incidentally, one is always receiving suprises in these “Ego” books — for example, although Agate’s hobby was showing Hackney horses, one discovers that in June 1939 he gave a small luncheon party at the Savage Club, at which two of the four guests were Prince Chula of Siam and Prince Birabongse “the racing motorist” (I would have called him a racing driver), “Bira” being described as being “the exact shade of Agate’s best brogues, with the prettiest English wife and a passion for toy trains.” The luncheon talk was mostly about Siamese myths and whether they would make good material for C.B. Cochran, who was present. Finally, there is a tantalising mention in “Ego-6” of how the author motored from Manchester to London in the late-1890s or early-1900s, taking two days, to see Rejane in La Parisienne at the Mercury theatre, tantalising because the make of this early motor-car isn’t given.

This column has long progressed beyond fictional references to cars. But occasionally something of interest in the line that started this feature some twenty years ago crops up. For instance, in that readable story by Alec Waugh, “Married To A Spy” (W. H. Allen, 1976), the famous novelist brings in a “Low slim Hispano Suiza” owned by a Spaniard in Tangier. The period is post-WW2, because a Volkswagen and “a large roomy Simca” are also mentioned. One assumes the Hispano Suiza was intended to be a surviving pre-war model, but if so, does “low” correctly describe it? Although later it is said to have had a “long lean line”. The assumption must be that Waugh’s rich Spaniard was driving a V12, perhaps?

Returning to auto-biography, a reader has sent me the following, from “A Chinaman in my Bath” by Lord Mancroft:-

When he was at Oxford Charlie had been the proud owner of a Morgan run-about. It was, despite the Dean’s disapproval called “God”, because it moved in a mysterious way. Everything about the car made a noise except the horn, and it did about two telegraph poles to the gallon with the wind behind it”. Well, one evening Charlie was bidden to a smart rout at Londonderry House. He drove up to the front door in this bizarre vehicle, resplendent in top hat, white tie and tails. “Shall I park it for you, M’lord? asked the linkman. “No, no,” said Charlie loftily, “keep it for yourself, my good man. By all means, keep it.”

Michael Aspel, in his “Polly wants a Zebra” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974), which has in places pornographic overtones, (a trend started perhaps by David Niven in “The Moon’s a Balloon”) saves me the trouble of picking out the cars in his autobiography, because they are all listed, those he has owned that is, on one page. He gives them as a 1932 Morris Minor, several MGs and Peugots, a Jaguar, a Rover, a BMW, an Alfa Romeo 1750 Veloce, one or two Fiats, and a collection of Minis. The book also contains a graphic description of how Aspel “lost” his Morris 1800 by braking on the slippery surface of a lane between his house at Woburn Green and the M4 in 1968 and wrote it off against the front of an approaching lorry. . . .

Finally, for this month, in that very readable autobiography by Jeffery Amherst (the 5th Earl Amherst), “Wandering Abroad” (Seeker & Warburg, 1976), we learn that the author was left a little Standard car owned by a distant cousin, Bobby Percy, after they had made a jolly trip in it just before the 1914 war, from Warwick down to the Amherst family seat at Sr. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall; the cousin lost his life in the Navy soon after the war started. This was presumably one the popular 9.5 h.p. Standards. Nothing more is heard of it, but when he was at Sandhurst Amherst bought a 2 1/2 h.p. Douglas motorcycle from White’s Garage in Camberley (it is still there), on which he used to make illicit journeys to London and back, as a Cadet on leave. The route, he tells us, meandered in those days through Bagshot, Ascot, Staines, Isleworth, Chiswick and Hammersmith and took quite a time — I knew the old A30 road, but did it embrace Ascot, in 1914? The bulk of this book is concerned with the theatre and show business but there are many references to flying therein, not surprisingly as, after going round the World with Noel Coward, Amherst turned to Civil Aviation as a career, learning to fly at Hamble and spending much time at Heston, with Messrs. Airwork. He tells a good story against Lady Portia Stanley, who arrived in a Rolls-Royce to be flown to Deauville, of flying Dorothy Paget to race meetings (horse races, one assumes), and of a trip to Germany in an Avro Tutor with Gladys Calthrop, organised by Lindsay Everard, of dicey take-offs from the Scilly Isles with a Vega Gull, of a bad flight in a Vickers Viscount, and a great deal more concerning his time with BEA, and before that with Olney Air Services at Croydon — Earl Amherst was a Vice president of the British Airline Pilots’ Association and remains an Honorary Member. — W.B.