Petroleum Scares

Those readers who have read Motor Sport for a very long time, or who have bought back numbers or the older bound volumes, no doubt at astronomical prices, may have scanned the “General Notes” columns with which I filled part of the magazine during the war years. They comprised somewhat guarded accounts of the sort of motoring some of us still managed to enjoy in spite of petrol rationing, the bombs and the black-out, etc. I had to be circumspect and not reveal all, or name names. That said, it was possible to describe an astonishing amount of motoring fun, albeit often of very restricted mileage.

Because there were far more vintage cars then on the roads, doing war-orientated tasks, and ancient motors to search for and even purchase, often for a “termer” or less, the grim period of WWII passed not too badly… But there were, for me, some petrol scares. Three in number, as I recollect:

1) I heard, after I had obtained a war-time posting to the Ministry of Aircraft Production but had agreed to run Motor Sport “by remote control”, that petrol coupons were allocated to journalists. It seemed worth applying, and in due course I received a large wad of coupons. So many, in fact, that I had most of them when the war ended, because I simply could not afford to buy the full gallonage they represented, even at the then modest price of petrol. There was only one snag. Misuse of fuel was a serious offence and those found guilty were in dire trouble. A colleague whose wife was taken ill a mile or two from the MAP offices drove to see her and was virtually arrested. How, then, could WB be seen driving freely about while colleagues were grounded? While the Basic Ration existed, one could claim to be using that, while quite legitimately using one’s other coupons. But Basic was soon rescinded. So your editor had to creep about as unobtrusively as possible, preferably at night!

Then came the scares. Arriving at my grotty digs one evening, I was informed that a police-type person had enquired for me, and would be back. He duly came, using petrol from far away. “You are in serious trouble” he told me, explaining that I had been stopped in my 12/50 Alvis for a noisy exhaust and was obviously misusing Government petrol, Basic having long been discontinued. I explained I was at work for my paper. “Ha”, he responded, and left, saying, in effect, that the cells were waiting. He returned later and asked to see one of my “business” coupons. The problem, for him, had been that petrol rations for journalists and farmers were issued from a different office than those for doctors, vets, and persons of other legitimate occupations. Thus after I had been stopped and a check made of my claim to “legal” petrol, no record could be found at the petroleum HQ they contacted of WB or his Alvis.

2) Then came another scare. I was driving happily along in the same Alvis (I had two more 12/50s to fuel at this time; but that is another story) and at a bridge over a stream turned off the road (somewhere near Croydon?) to photograph the car about to run through the water. Having walked over the bridge, faced the Alvis, and raised my camera, I became aware that a bicycling policeman had also stopped. “Demand to see your papers. Gross misuse of petrol…” he called. I was able to explain that I was on special coupons and taking a front-cover picture for Motor Sport (no, you needn’t search for it!). I suppose the deflection from my direct route, which would not have caused the copper to stop me, was, to be generous, two yards… It shows how strictly the rules were applied — at a time when at the RAE. Farnborough, from whence I had come, aeroplanes were washed in petroleum and a continuous “taxi-service” of thirsty Ford V8s ran round the airfield…

3) The next, and rather larger, scare arose, when I had to take one of the 12/50s somewhere, I can’t now remember why or where, but my petrol allocation being officially approved, I towed it innocently with another of my 12/50s. Rounding Parliament Square two Motorcycle Cops stopped the entourage. I explained. Ah, they responded, “but when towing, the tow-car uses more petrol than if driven solo, because you change gear more frequently, so you are committing an offence”. It went to Court, in Feltham, to which I travelled by electric train. The place was so occupied with petrol offenders and other criminals that all courts were occupied. It’s true! So the Magistrate asked if I would mind standing behind a chair and pretending I was in the dock. They had also run out of Bibles; I had to hold one in imagination while reading the Oath!

The Police witness trumped up the towing-car-consumes-more-fuel argument. I countered that it didn’t, because you towed more slowly with another vehicle on behind. The weary Magistrate grew more weary, read through my petrol-application form, (“…to run a motor paper – visit such factories as are still active, interview racing drivers, examine laid-up racing cars, etc.”). He looked up, said that as I had ended my application with “etc.” he felt I had the right to tow. Case dismissed. It made the police and the Ministry of Fuel official very angry… “You should have gone to prison!” they told me, as we entrained together for the return journey.

Later, driving to the South Coast to interview (truly!) the wife of a racing driver who was in the RAF, we had to enter a Prohibited Area; Joseph Lowrey, with camera, was accepted as my photographer, but a girl I described as my secretary was later fined a small sum… So you see what you may be up against if there is a third World War, or another “Suez Crisis”, or we run short of fossil-fuel. By the way, I recommend that you end all your business contracts with “etc”!