Cars in books, November 1966

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There is a whole chapter devoted to cars in “Schwepped Off My Feet,” by Tommy Whitehead (Cassell, 1966), which is the packed autobiography of the wife of Comdr. Edward Whitehead, R.N., who became President of the Sehhh you know which . . . Company in America and its leading photographic model for the firm’s famous series of advertisements.

This chapter is very understanding, even if the authoress does confess that she prefers the American attitude to cars, which are not regarded as more precious than wives, as is the case with Englishmen! One also warms to a woman who dares to suggest that male drivers who have been passed by her and who then do everything they can to overtake fail to realise that the driver of the car they have been pursuing “hasn’t been trying very hard” —”trying hard” is just the expression enthusiasts bandy about . . .!

The only car mentioned at all definitely, however, is “an ancient Rolls-Royce that Teddy acquired in the immediate postwar years. It wasn’t a practical car. It had been built in 1930 for a long-legged man. Fortunately it fitted Teddy, but as the seat was fixed it was not possible for anyone with shorter legs to drive it. Three people could sit comfortably in the front seat and there was a dickey (rumble seat) which would take two more if they could stand the weather. When the car became ours it received all the care it deserved. Driving to the cottage at weekends with the hood (top) down, Teddy, Jacq and I would feel so secure. It was built like a tank. There were no draughts because of its high sides, and, best of all, we could see over the tops of the hedges.”

When a baby boy arrived there could have been problems, but Jacq volunteered to ride in the dickey seat so long as she could have an umbrella when it rained.”

When the family left for America the car was sold to a bachelor friend who “took the Rolls-Royce chauffeur’s course so that he could nurse it properly.”

Later we are told how the boy, now aged 13, was at Repton and how he was told he was wanted in the headmaster’s study. It transpired that the bachelor-owner of the Whitcheads’ old RollsRoyce had decided to present it to the school, so there it was united with the boy who had grown up with it, although when it was sold the Whiteheads had no idea it was to an old Reptonian. nor did the purchaser know that their son was at his old school. Does this vintage Rolls-Royce still find sanctuary there, I wonder ?

The only clue to the car owned by Edward Whitehead in America is that it is English and “is modestly considered the best make of car in the world.” His wife has an American shorting brake, “. . . not, alas, entirely dependable in cold weather, and when left outside in Vermont on a ski-ing trip, it had to be pushed many miles at considerable speed by a jeep to get it started.”

This book may be rather blatant advertising for a certain product but while reading it I confess to reaching out more than once for a drink of. . . Schhh you know what.—W. B.

There are fascinating references to real cars, too, in the early pages of “Editorial—The Memoirs of Cohn R. Coote” (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1965). The author, Sir Colin Coate, tells his readers of the Matchless motorcycle with wicker sidecar which he acquired from William Morris’ garage at the bottom of Holywell, when he was an Undergraduate at Oxford before the First World War. Even before that the author had had experience of motor cars, because his father acquired a White steam car in about 1902, and some of the shortcomings of this vehicle with its 700 lb./sq. in. boiler pressure are dealt with as early as page 32 of this entertaining autobiography. Other cars followed in the Coote family, “an accumulator-driven Panhard-Levasseur with beautiful brass fittings” being mentioned. Presumably coil-ignition is implied. It did 80,000 miles before being sold to the local plumber, “who may well be driving her still.” She went up to Aberdeen and back, before being replaced by “an enormous Metallurgique, whose tyres used to explode at the smallest provocation.” Nevertheless, this car was used for a tour of the Loire Chateaux, driven by a Scottish chauffeur.

Reverting to the Matchless, this venerable machine once took Coote and his father “from Stukeley to Carlisle, 267 miles, in 6 1/2 hours; and then on to a small moor which we had in Argyllshire.” Not bad for a 1911/12 combination, the excellence of which the author attributes to every bit of the engine being hand made. He also remarks that the cost was absurdly low. Speeds as high as 60 m.p.h. are mentioned as within the compass of the Undergraduates’ motorcycles in those days. A new one was acquired by Coote before war broke out, but the make in this instance isn’t quoted. It was, however, used by him when he enrolled in the Hunts Cyclist Battalion, based at Grimsby. Later push-bicycles were issued to these intrepid soldiers and the make is given as an Alldays & Onions, “a horror,” it was so heavily-built. Finally, there is a story of how Sir Cohn Coote tried to teach Lord Robert Cecil to drive—”He instinctively put the gear-lever into reverse and drove rapidly backwards. This incident was perhaps the origin of his devotion to the idea that road casualties would be eliminated if all cars were fitted with a gadget limiting speed to 20 m.p.h. Alas, the effect on the motor industry would have been catastrophic.” Let Barbara Castle read, learn and inwardly digest!—W. B.