… A day spent much as it would have been in peace time, with certain differences.
On Sunday afternoon we loaded the little Fiat with all the usual equipment— tools and petrol cans and batteries and wheels and thermos flasks. Loaded it until the level rose high up into the roof and then wedged things with our greatcoats and overalls to prevent, or rather delay, the inevitable avalanche when the brakes are hurriedly applied. Then we blew the back tyres up some more and went to bed.
We were about again at 4.30 a.m. on Easter Monday, and on the road by 5, the Fiat’s Hartley-masked headlight providing an excellent driving light. It is hard to assess weight behind, but we were certainly reminded of it on hills, needing bottom gear to climb up from Berkhamsted on to the Chesham road, and thundering, down into Chesham at a most rousing gait.
Came the dawn and we stopped . . . to survey the landscape and each other. What were these queer figures in battle dress with shooting irons lashed to their waists? Why were we not at Brooklands, but near Chiddingfold and still moving south?
8 a.m. found us at Chichester confronted with the object of our visit, Jack Fry’s 4½-litre Bentley “Panzer-wagen,” lately in use by the Sussex Home Guard and now to be transferred to Herts for the same purpose. This versatile machine had already proved itself of real practical use, for with its truck body it can carry eight people and a host of equipment (as well as boasting machine-gun mountings and other “expensive sporting extras”), but it was regrettably motored into a concrete road block some months ago, thus proving the efficacy of such devices.
Thanks to a variety of circumstances, including delay in obtaining spares and loss of men at the garage where she lay, repairs had come to a virtual standstill, and we found her with chassis straightened but quite naked at the front and devoid of axle, springs and other necessary details. The proposal was to remove these items bodily from Marcus Chambers’s 3-litre Bentley which reposed in a yard nearby, fit them to the 4½, and motor away not later than 5 p.m.
Having lain out for some weeks the 3-litre wouldn’t start on the handle, nor, for some reason connected with the rear brakes or axle which we could not stop to investigate, could we manhandle her successfully. We therefore set about it on the spot and, urged on by lowering black clouds and the most terrible smell brought about by male specimens of the feline species, had the whole outfit— wheels, brakes, axle and springs—off inside an hour.
Narrowly avoiding an accident with two bicycles, we bowled it across the main road and proceeded to “offer it up,” as they say in engineering parlance. We can only say in civilian parlance that the offer was not readily accepted and it was nearly 3 p.m. before we had everything buttoned on and ready for test. It is only natural when a chassis has been untied out of several knots for some of the holes to be a bit oval, and our efforts evoked from the garage proprietor the comment that he was glad we strangers seemed to speak the same language as Sussex folk in similar circumstances.
After one or two abortive attempts to start, due to fuel stoppage, disturbed magneto slip-rings, loose oil pipes and so on, the engine burst into its usual full-throated song after a ten-yard tow, and we set hurriedly about final details.
Attempts to couple up the batteries resulted in sparks and a nasty smell, so we resigned ourselves to no lights or starter. Incidentally we had no starting-handle either, for we had no time to straighten and refit the necessary front cross-tube which carries the intermediate pieces between the starting-handle and the nose of the crankshaft. Then we found that nobody had sorted out the smashed nearside wing mountings, so that a remarkable erection of string and rubber bands had to be contrived.
Nevertheless we were away not long after 5, the truck body piled high with wheels and brake-drums and broken wing-stays and all the many things we had no time to fit. Mechanically all seemed very nice, even the brakes, which we had not adjusted at all, being not too bad. A gentle pace was maintained, so as not to outpace the Fiat, but alas, Nemesis was already on our tails. Between Ascot and Windsor Great Park the Fiat lost a cylinder in circumstances pointing suspiciously to a broken valve-spring, and, after a brief and dismal attempt to carry on, there was nothing for it but to take her in tow. It was about the shortest tow-rope ever, and though the driver of the Bentley thought he was going Dreadful Slow, the poor victim in the Fiat swears he was going Dangerously Fast and is quite sure the front end of the Fiat was dragged bodily into the air on many occasions.
Be that as it may, the Shades of Night, etc., as we neared Beaconsfield, and it was thought wiser to jettison the Fiat outside Shade’s Garage at Penn for Len Slade (who looks after Anthony Heal’s stable of veterans) to attend to later. Followed an exciting 20 miles in the Bentley, beating the blackout, and a final triumphant entry home not long before 9 p.m.
It was a wonderful day, with almost all the ingredients which always went to make a peace-time holiday—the early start, the unconquerable snags finally overcome, and even the breakdown of the tender-car on the return journey. For who does not remember that, while Donington is but 120 miles fro, London, London is 1,200 miles from Donington?