Cars in books, May 1994

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Cars in books

Cecil Lewis, still writing at 95, but perhaps best-remembered for his wonderful account of flying with the RFC during the First World War (Sagittarius Rising, published in 1936 by Peter Davies and commended by no less a person than Bernard Shaw, so that it went into at least six impressions), caused me and the LeaFrancis OC some problems when, in a later book Farewell To Wings (Temple Press, 1964) he writes of how he rode to Brooklands after receiving his call-up papers, down under the concrete banking, to the aeroplane sheds, on his proud possession, a two-stroke 2Y2 hp Lea-Francis motorcycle.

Incidentally, later in this book Lewis has that fine description of the pilots of those days. ”We pilots of the First World War were the last to enter the age-long lists of singlehanded combat. Alone, without parachute or radio, we fought high in the sky. . .there we won or lost, lived or died, by our own skill and courage — and no Big Brother breathed down our necks and told us what to do.” If you missed his first book, Cecil Lewis covered much of it in the recent Sagittarius Surviving, together with how he flew a Miles Gemini to Africa and was one of the founders of the BBC — highly recommended!

Back to that Lea-Francis motorcycle, “the sort you ran alongside and jumped on”, which took Lewis on his run from his home at Hindhead to Brooklands for instruction on Maurice Farman Longhorns at the age of 171/2., to go solo after 80 minutes and be sent to France and into action in Morane Parasols after only 20 hours in the air. . .The experts say this Lea-Francis could not have been a two-stroke because such was only made in prototype form by the Coventry manufacturer. When I asked Lewis about this he replied “Too bad, that’s what I remember.” But I had raised the question 28 years after his book was written and 77 years after he had had his motorcycle, so maybe his memory was, quite justifiably, at fault, and what he had was a four-stroke. In his recent autobiography All My Yesterdays (Element Books, 1993) Lewis tells

us a little about the cars in his life, inasmuch as his parents had family cars, one of which was a White steamer. Another was a pre-war Belsize, which Lewis drove from Warwick Castle to London with his friend from Oundle days (the second son of the Countess of Warwick, whose second family seat was Easton Lodge in Essex), who was riding his Indian motorcycle. Lewis’s passenger was the youngest Selfridge daughter. . .

From More Please, Barry Humphries’ autobiography (Penguin Group, 1992), we learn that in Australia the well-known actor’s father had a putty-white Oldsmobile in Melbourne before the war and an uncle working for ICI a grey Chevrolet. The Olds was replaced by a Buick and later Mr Humphries saw the light and had a Mercedes and his wife an Austin A40. And to help this feature, which 1 started long ago, a reader who owns a MG YT tourer, has kindly drawn my attention to Si Perelman A Life by Dorothy Herrman (Sewin & Schunter, 1988) in which there are various references to the famous humorist’s black and red 1949 MG of this type, which he bought in Bangkok, had shipped to London and toured England, and which was then used for travel in Denmark, Germany and Holland. Some cosmetic work was done on the car at the MG factory. Later the MG was used in the USA, before being again shipped to England from China. It was used for the 1978 Paris-Peking Rally, co-driven by Syd Beer and Eric Lister, when Perelman was 74. He died in America in 1979 of a heart attack. The MG was sold by a vintage car dealer in New York to someone in Arizona, for 10,000 dollars. There are a few references to cars in Recollections of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which consists of reminiscences of Crowborough residents, including Sir Arthur’s chauffeurs, collected by Malcolm Payne, edited by Philip Weller, and with comments by Dame lean Conan Doyle. The only cars named by make are the De Dietrich with which Conan Doyle took part in the 1911 German Prince Henry Tour which went up to

Scotland and back and finished at Brooklands, and one of four he owned around 1924, described as “a big old air-cooled Rover”; it could not have been air-cooled but perhaps recollections of the popular little Rover Eight have intruded here. There is mention of local garages and of Conan Doyle’s sons rushing up and down Beacon Road in their racing cars. (Their prep school was apparently owned by lames Hunt’s grandfather.) Conan Doyle is said to have also raced at Brooklands but Dame lean corrects this, although Sir Arthur was there for the aforesaid Tour. She says he was driven at 100 mph by his sons “which in those days was fairly unusual” — in one of their 36/220 or 38/250 hp Mercedes-Benz one assumes, if not in “Chitty-Bang-Bang I”. This interesting 26-page booklet is published by The Conan Doyle (Crowborough) Establishment at £4.50, profits to the Arthur Conan Doyle Memorial Fund, which may appeal to those of our readers who are Sherlock Holmes followers. (Fuller details of the racing Conan Doyles were published, of course, in last month’s MOTOR SPORT.) It’s available by post for £5.25, from the Conan Doyle Room, The Cross Hotel, Crowborough, E Sussex. Cheques to “ACD Memorial Fund”. Although not mentioned in the book, I am told that circa 1923 Sir Arthur had two green-painted Austin 20s. He was a patriot, like Rudyard Kipling. And having mentioned Kipling, I am tempted to quote from a little-known verse of his when America was claiming to have won the 1914/18 war, which may have a little topicality now that the Irish Question is in full spate: “At the eleventh hour he came, But his wages were the same

As ours, who all the day long had trod The wine-press of the wrath of God Till he showed us for our good — Dead to mirth and blind to scorn — How we might have best withstood Burdens that he had not borne!” If you think I am becoming highbrow, that came from The Aeroplane, in 1935, after an American Admiral had come here and been critical of our Navy and Air force. W B