Book reviews, May 1977, May 1977

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“Its First Gear: The French Automobile Industry to 1914” by James M. Laux. (Liverpool University Press. £10.)

On the jacket of his book, and again on the flyleaf, Mr. Laux displays a “selection of French automobile marques taken from designs shown in the original manufacturer’s catalogues” and “reproduced with the assistance of the Veteran Car Club of Great Britain, and the Club lot Teuf-Teuf, Paris”. The inclusion, in what is presumably intended as a representative selection of pre-1914 French makers, of such names as Citroen and Simca gives a first impression of historical astigmatism which is, however, quickly dispelled by a study of the text. The author is Professor of History in the University of Cincinnati, and in his Preface he acknowledges with pleasure the aid of the American Philosophical Society and the Taft Food of the University of Cincinnati, which “assisted in financing several months of research in France and England”. This he evidently put to such good use that, in some respects at least, the efforts of his predecessors denied this assistance are made to look almost amateurish by comparison.

From the bibliography it is clear that, apart from the more obvious published material used by other researchers, the author has concentrated on the Archives Nationales and the Archives Financieres of the Credit Lyonnais, both in Paris, which are replete with financial information on French business firms. It is to be doubted whether this source has ever been tapped, with the same thoroughness and for the same purpose, before. The author has, moreover, supplemented it with a study of the archives of individual companies, including such treasure-trove as the “manuscript records of the Unic company held in the headquarters of Simca Industries, Puteaux.” As a result he has been able to unravel the incredible financial complications surrounding the early French motor manufacturers, their family firms, their partnerships, the public companies which were formed in France and England to exploit their businesses, their numerous financial successes and their even more numerous failures. He does not pretend to be encyclopaedic—some of his readers, he admits, “will be disappointed at the failure to deal with French automobile makes such as Ader, Cottin-Desgouttes, Gregoire, Le Gui and hundreds of others”; but his researches have enabled him to lead them with assurance through the business maze constructed by Automobiles Peugeot which made Peugeot cars and Les Fits de Peugeot Freres which made Lion-Peugeot cars, Georges Richard who made Georges Richard cars and the Etablissrnents Georges Richard which at the same time made Richard-Brasier car, Francois Pilain who made Pilain cars and Emile Pilain who made Rolland-Pilain cars and to on. He even scarcely falters over the protean appearances of Adolphe Clement as Clement-Bayard, Clement-Talbot, Clement-Gladiator and the rest.

All this is enlivened by the success of Mr. Laux in bringing the personalities of the early days of the French Industry to life. He throws what to many will be new light on the importance of the fact that the Peugeots and Emile Levassor were Protestants, and that Louis Delage had only one eye. It is not quite clear whence he derives the raw material for his character sketches, and one is inclined to suspect that in the case of some of them such as the Marquis. de Dion and Louis Renault, who aroused intense political hostility, the evidence of their opponents may have converted the portrait into a caricature.

While, in any case, the author subjects these personalities to a closer scrutiny than have most of his predecessors, his interest in their products appears to be minimal. One feels that he would have studied them just as assiduously if they had made washing machines or chaff-cutters instead of motor cars. Indeed he seems to be slightly contemptuous of other writers who have concentrated on “racing and technical details” rather than on commercial history. His own lack of interest (he himself, alas, would call it disinterest) in racing was presumably responsible for his statement that “in the half-dozen years after 1902 . . .” Panhard to Levassor “gave up racing competition.” This seems a curious error, on the part of a usually so careful historian, in view of the fact that the firm (somewhat to the chagrin of the rest of the French industry) supplied two of the three cars for the French (Gordon-Bennett team in 1903, and competed in the Eliminating Trials for the race in 1904 and 1905 and in the Grand, Prix of 1906, 1907 and 1908. But what is more important, his neglect of this aspect of the matter seems to the present reviewer to have prevented him from seeing the history he is writing in the round.

Mr. Laux is clearly somewhat at a loss to account for the phenomenal success of the French industry during the period with which he is dealing. As he himself points out, the bicycle really originated in France, but once its manufacture had been taken up in England, French output never surpassed the English. In the case of motor cars, on the other hand, in the years 1902 to 1907 French manufacturers’ production exceeded that of all other European countries combined. After proferring one or two other, not very convincing, alternative explanations of this remarkable French performance, Mr. Laux comes to the conclusion that it was due primarily to the excellence of the roads in France. This may be admitted as an all-important factor when the situation is compared with that in America where, outside the cities at the beginning of the century, there were hardly any tolerable roads at all. But if similar conditions had applied in England, they would have militated against the success of the bicycle industry. In fact England was covered with a network of roads dating from the turnpike era which, while not as. good as the French routes nationales, were nevertheless no hindrance to the early motorist. The Belgian Baron Pierre de Crawhez, who had motored throughout Western Europe and North Africa by the early years of the century, when writing about England in his Grands ltineraires, warns his readers against getting lost in “its lanes” but assures them that “les main roads” are very accessible (whatever exactly he meant by that), even good.

The early success of the French motor industry, I would suggest, was due not just to the excellence of French roads but to the fact that the authorities allowed motorists to race on them. The first builders of automobiles naturally regarded them as horseless carriages, and when the successful competitors averaged just under 12 miles an hour from Paris to Rouen in 1894 they were about equalling the performance of the best stage coaches slobs beginning of the railway era. By contrast, when Gabriel averaged 65 miles an hour from Paris to Bordeaux on the first stage of Paris-Madrid in 1903, it was clear that his Mors was competing not with governess-carts or hansom-cabs but with express trains. This revolutionary change in the nature of the automobile had been effected by French engineers, Levassor, Renault and the rest, in French-organised races, and thc occasional successes of foreigners such as Napier and Mercedes had only been achieved when they had discarded their native ideas in favour of French ones. No wonder that, in the early years of the century, the motor car was generally regarded as a French thing, and it was French motor cars that the customers wanted. It would be a welcome development if Mr. Laux would now turn his attention to the early history of the industry in other countries; but one fears that he would find it much less rewarding.—Kent Karslake.

“Allard” by David Kinsella. 199 pp. 9i in. x 7 in. (Haynes Publishing Group, Spook’ food, Yeovil, Somerset. £5.95)

Here is yet another one-make gap filled-in, by a member of the Allard OC. I am flattered to learn that he was projected towards journalism after reading my account in Motor Sport of a visit to the Rolls-Royce factory at Crewe. This book, which has a nice colour dust-jacket depicting a beefy Cadillac-Allard, sets out in clear and interesting fashion the highlights of the introduction and evolution of this well-known and essentially sporting London-built motor car. It also host great deal to tell of the arrival in this country of the dragster, and those drag meetings organised under the auspices of Sydney Allard from 1964 onwards. While the book does not profess to cover all aspects of all Allards in detail, it will be of absorbing interest to Kinsella’s fellow Club members and those who still operate Allard cars. The text, with which Reg. Canham, Allard’s salesman, and Sydney’s son Alan, who writes the Foreword, assisted, is backed up by many fine pictures. The book runs from the early enthusiasm of the Allards for exciting motoring, through the pre-war production programme and the war years, when the Company overhauled military vehicles, to descriptions of the many post-war models, how they were built, and the competition events in which they shone, from mud-trials to racing at Watkins Glen, Le Mans and elsewhere, and, of course, taking part in the post-war Monte Carlo Rally, which Sydney won outright in 1952.

It is important for such history to be accurate; the author generously says that any mistakes are his own. Well, he is a bit muddled about the origins of Adlards Motors, anti in the accident involving Denis Allard’s Brough-Superior sidecar outfit, Sydney was the passenger, not the rider, and Denis was to suffer further crashes before deciding that cycling was safer. Imhof didn’t drive Gilson’s Allard in the 1947 Roy Fadden Trophy Trial, I ant told, and in describing the J2, M, and P1 saloons, it is incorrect to say that the chassis was supplied by John Thompson Ltd., who supplied the side-members only. Some of the pictures have inevitably been used many times elsewhere and a few of their captions suggest a lack of intimate knowledge of what they depict. One amusing by-product of this is that number plates described as “unusual’. are actually Trade-plates being used in a trial! One would have liked more detail relating to outstanding Allard competition appearances, which could, however, hardly be gleaned unless one had been present at these events. But I like this book and it is nice to know that the author is an Allard owner, having bought one in 1960.—W.B.

“Nine Lives Plus” by The Hon. Mrs. Victor Bruce. 192 pp. 8 1/2 in. x 5 1/4 in. (Pelham Books, 52, Bedford Square, London, WC4B 3EF. £4.50.)

At last that inveterate adventuress, the Hon. Mrs. Victor Bruce, has given us a book about her motoring, flying and motor-boating exploits. After hints of it in women’s magazines, and on TV, the book has actually arrived, and very readable it is. That said, it has to be added that this is a book intended for the general reader rather than the dedicated motoring enthusiast. Thus, while it is of much interest, and splendidly illustrated with small but relevant pictures. not a lot that is new is imparted, and some of the statements tend to raise my eyebrows. There is, however, a nice line of humour through Mrs. Bruce’s text, which makes for enjoyable reading. I did not know that the 4 1/2-litre Bentley in which this very brave lady took the World’s 24-hour record at Montlhery without a relief driver had three carburetters, and wonder whether her head mechanic at this memorable run will like being referred to as “Wallace Hasten”. Nor does it surprise me that it was impossible to walk up the Montlhery banking, black ice or no ice. Nor did the boys unscrew the fuel tanks, surely, at the depot-stops…?

However, for a good account of the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally .d subsequent long-distance marathon in a AC Aceca saloon, the Bentley 24-hour record bid, the 15,000-mile record with the two-seater AC at Mondhery, racing at Brooklands (but Cobb was not in the Alvis team in the 1930 JCC “Double-Twelve”, in which the Braces drove a Silver Eagle), more Monte Carlo rallies with an Arrol-Aster, and a straight-eight Hillman, etc., cross,channel and endurance record-breaking in motor-boats, flying adventures of all kinds (from the epic round-the-world Hight in the Blackburn Bluebird to flying-circus, and more serious pre-war and war-time pursuits), ending up with show-jumping, this book is not to be missed. The chapters about Mrs. Bruce’s days in and with aeroplanes, although brief, allow me to excuse her some over-dramatisation in other places, especially about taking a Ford Ghia Capri to 110 m.p.h. at Thruxton at the age of 78 1/2, after driving there in her Rolls-Royce Phantorn III Hooper sedanca.

I leave it to others to challenge, if need be, the author’s clairn that she was Britain’s first (lady?) motorcyclist, having ridden a brother’s O h.p. Matchless sidecar-outfit at the age of 151 in 1911—on the road, at speeds up to 60 m.p.h. But don’t let these criticisms Put you off this enjoyable piece of lighthearted reminiscence. The Foreword is by Stuart McCrudden.—W.B.

“Behind the Wheel” by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Wilson McComb. 224 pp. 10 3/4 in. x 8 1/2 in. (Paddington Press Ltd. 21, Bentinck Street, London, W1M 5RL. £8.50.)

It is very difficult nowadays to find a new theme for the kind of copiously-illustrated coffee-table type of book that Lord Montagu envisaged as a tribute to 25 years of his Motor Museum at Beaulieu. What he has done is’ to produce, with Wilson McComb, a review, aided materially by 200 clear and interesting pictures, of what the sub-title calls “the magic and manners of early motoring.” The text enthusiastically enlarges on this theme, showing those who know only modern heated saloon cars how the early drivers had to cope with the most unusual controls, perhaps understand steam and electric as well as petrol cars, the extensive preparations required before a journey of any length could be undertaken, how the early motor-carriages were looked after by their chauffeurs and owners, the dress worn in days when an automobilist was fully exposed to the dust and rain, and the kind of now-forgotten equipment carried, as a matter of course, on the motors of those times—Stepney wheel, bulb-horn, candle, oil, gas or primitive electric lamps, etc. The latter chapters cover the increasing use of early cars at home and abroad, with extracts from the experiences of some well-known pioneer motorists. Road development is also looked at. This Montagu-McComb effort adds to the many worthwhile titles that have emanated from the Beaulieu historical sources.—W.B.

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