Cars in books, March 1989

Reading The Monocled Mutineer by William Allison and John Fairley (Quartet Books, 1978), one sees how far the BBC departed from the true story of the notorious army deserter and mutineer of the First World War, depicting him as an accessory to murder, which was never proved: his shooting down by British policemen was controversial at the time, even though he was armed and threatening his assailants when cornered.

The book also shows up the BBC for not trying sufficiently hard to use the correct period motor vehicles for its television film. For instance, the car used by the Penrith police to apprehend Percy Topliss is described as a “blue open four-seater Armstrong” commandeered from the Crown Hotel, and the motorcycle used by the son of the Chief Constable as a “ten horsepower 1000cc American motorcycle capable of attaining the then phenomenal speed of 80 mph”.

Now Topliss was shot in June 1920. Penrith is a town with many hotels but The Crown no longer appears to exist; it sounds like one of the smaller hotels however, and might have been expected to keep an old car, perhaps even a pre-war one, in which case the “Armstrong” could have been an Armstrong-Whitworth. The new 30hp Armstrong Siddeley had only been announced in 1919, but it is just possible one might have found its may to Penrith a year later.

As for the optimistically-fast American motorcycle, this would have been either a Harley-Davidson, an Indian or a Henderson surely?

One of the many money-spinning aspects of the old-car movement is that cars are available to film producers, who have agencies from which to obtain them. So one would have expected the BBC to use reasonably appropriate vehicles for this controversial film (seen in some quarters, incidentally, as anti-establishment). But what did it do? It obtained a late-type vintage Alvis and a mid-1930s twin-port Cotton-JAP for the chase scenes!

There were other unsuitable cars and commercial vehicles too. I spotted Morris Commercial, Austin 12/4 and others which were too recent, although the small open Humber used as the CO’s staff-car in the mutiny scenes in France remained just credible, and It was clever to have found a single-cylinder 1910 Austin Seven or Swift (each virtually identical) for the lady to have her breakdown with and for Topliss to put right, when posing as an army officer. Then again, would he have announced to the world that it was a 1910 Austin or Swift”? One wonders whether Topliss would even have known the make of this little car when he encountered it?

Reverting to the book, the “Armstrong” is described as proceeding with the chase at steady 45 mph along the Carlisle road, driven by the barman with armed police aboard. When Topliss was on the run, he stole a War Office Sunbeam (valued at £100) from Bulford Camp, to impress a girl; later he stole a “beautiful Darracq landaulette” which broke down temporarily, ran out of petrol (in spite of Topliss selling Army petrol unlawfully) and hit a cow, bending a mudguard and the bumper; it is just possible a 1920 Darracq could have had a bumper. In France, the official detailed to find Topliss rode a Triumph, which I believe was properly shown in the film.

One final incident in this dramatic but sorry story was that Topliss’ body was taken by the police to the cemetery at Penrith on an old mineral lorry which, when the Press seemed to be pursuing it, speeded up to 45 mph — again, this seems a rather fast pace for what was very likely a pre-1914 truck on solid tyres!

But if you saw the play you might like to read the book and see if you can recall which vehicles the BBC wrongly represented.

I recently reviewed The Vintage Car Murders, (edited by Jonathan Goodman), remarking that some of its chapters did not refer to cars at all.

One murder involving a vintage, or more likely an Edwardian, Mercedes, which did not appear, is of much interest for the way in which the murderer, a chauffeur who killed a girl in 1921 and was hanged in 1922, was traced not only by his misspelling of words on telegrams to his victims but by the car having an unusually long bonnet and other distinctive features which may interest owners of the older Mercedes cars. The police noted that it had stopped close to where the girl’s body was found, recognising it by the depth of the tread mark of its Dunlop Magnum tyres — pure Sherlock Holmes! Goodman is absolved from not including this case in his recent book because it appears in his earlier book The Pleasures of Murder (Allison & Busby, 1983). WB