Cars in Books, May 1981

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A reader, N.G. Allingham, OBE, of Emmer Green, has kindly contributed the following passages from “Nellie— Letters from Africa” by Elspeth Huxley: “Motor cars were all the rage then, and Jos delighted in a chain-driven Mercedes in which he had taken part in a Paris to Madrid race. (It overturned). In this vehicle he came to do his courting, and taught Nellie to drive. Naturally this was exciting; motor cars were exotic objects in Dorset lanes, and very few women could drive them. Swathed in dustcoats, their wide hats anchored down by scarves tied under the chin, they left control of the machines to the gentlemen. The machines frequently broke down and then, as the music hall song had it, ‘You have to get out, get out and get under, get under the automobile’. When Jos returned to Africa, about a year later, they were married. They departed for a honeymoon at Bagshot, in Surrey, in a house lent by Jos’s aunt, in a 6 h.p. Panhard that had replaced the Mercedes and was just as unpredictable; when going uphill its driver had to lower the ‘sprag’, a device that prevented the motor car from running backwards.”

Although these recollections are rather superficial to anyone who knows about the early motor cars, there is interest in the reference to “Jos’s” Paris-Madrid Mercedes. Twelve were entered for this disastrous 1903 race, which was ended compulsorily at Bordeaux, and six of these were the new 90 h.p. cars. The Mercedes that failed to complete the 342 miles were those of Werner and Foxhall-Keene and as Werner’s trouble was a faulty back-axle we must assume that “Jos” was Foxhall-Keene. His 6 h.p. Panhard-Levassor must have been a queer contrast to his Sixty Mercedes!

Dr. J.D. Playford, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Adelaide has drawn my attention to some fascinating snippets about motoring and Guy Burgess, as quoted in “A Chapter Of Accidents” by Goronwy Rees (Chatto & Windus, 1972). Thus, writing of the immediate post-war years, the author says of Burgess that his only extravagance was motor cars for which he had a passion both aesthetic and historical. He is said to have had an exhaustive knowledge of “every make and model”, from the first days of motoring. He had, apparently an almost religious veneration for Henry Ford and the Model-T. This rings a faint bell in my memory, for wasn’t Guy Burgess once associated with Brooklands in one capacity or another? Incidentally, I gather that the author of the Burgess biography was a firm anti-Communist from the late 1930s until his death several years ago.

I have also been told of interesting motoring references in some of the Gladys Cooper biographies. Two of these mention how she just missed being the first woman to loop-the-loop with Gustav Hamal at Hendon in 1913, and in Sheridan Morley’s book (Heinemann, 1979) about the famous actress there is a piece about how she was met by Sir Gerald du Maurier’s seven-year-old daughter at Rickmansworth Station, when Sir Gerald was driving his Ford one very hot Sunday in 1913— another Model-T user obviously. There is also a reference to Gladys Cooper using a Storey car in which to commute to the theatre from the Manor House at Charlwood in 1920, driven by her Belgian chauffeur called Gurney. It is described as an “open sports car”, although most Storey cars were rather staid, I would have thought. A picture shows Miss Cooper in a two-seater outside her house in 1918, and this car may be the Storey, but if so, surely a prototype. Another photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Buckmaster in a tourer seems more likely — but not enough is shown of either car for them to be identifiable.

The Storey threw Ivor Novello through a hedge when he was pushing Gladys Cooper up a hill in it and she inadvertently put it in reverse, it broke down and she had to be rescued by Harry Tate’s van, and it got a puncture at the top of Redhill at midnight, when it was full of luggage and “food from Fortnum’s”. One wonders why she chose such a rare make? At about the time Gladys Cooper had hers, the Storey Company had premises in Clapham Park, then a high-class residential south London suburb. As a small boy I used to pass the place frequently and peer in. I remember a Storey saloon with carriage-type electric side-lamps and one of these cars that had been involved in an accident being sent to a near-by garage, where its bent front dumb-iron was straightened by the time-honoured method of heating it to cherry-red with a large blow-lamp and hitting it with a sledge hammer. Not Glades Cooper’s I hope!

Finally, for this installment, amateur criminologists who were able to unravel the complexities of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” may like to apply themselves to the mysteries surround the triple murder of Sir Jack Drummond and his family while they were camping in the valley of the Durance in France in August 1952, after reading the “Dominici Affair”, by Jean Laborde (English translation by Milton Waldman, Collins, 1974). From our point of view the motoring aspects are the green Hillman estate-car NNK-686 used by the Drummonds for their holiday, a similar Hillman obtained for the reconstruction of the horrible crime, the fact that the author refers to French Police-cars as le traction-avant, to which the translator has added a note that he believes that at the time they were all Citroens, and the “4HP” in which the accused was taken home after his acquital by President de Gaulle in 1960 — no explanation is offered as to the make of this one, but could it imply a 4 cv Renault? And I wonder whether the Amilcar Register knows what became of an old car of this make which had been kept in one of the sheds on the suspect estate, close to the scene of the crime until it was sold in 1951? — W.B.