Cars in books, November 1976

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There is not much about motoring in that otherwise very interesting book “Richard Dimbleby—A Biography” by Jonathan Dimbleby (Hodder & Stoughton, 1975), although it is pleasing to learn that the famous BBC television personality had a great liking for motor cars. In his first term at Mill Hill he wrote in the school magazine that “the coming life seems to hold all that can possibly be desired— motor cars, cigarettes, wealth, perhaps even something higher” (that in 1931). Dimbleby’s father had an income of £500 in 1913, and on this was able to live well in Richmond, with servants and a car. Alas, we are not told what this was, nor if it was the same car which later was one of the few things that “sparked young Dimbleby into life”, especially when he was installed in the dickey for the journey down the Great West Road to Bath, which, “driving steadily, stopping frequently”, took from 5 a.m. to teatime, around the year 1923. In 1937 Dimbleby borrowed “an open 1 litre MG” from the MG Car Company for his honeymoon tour of five European countries, of which a detailed log was kept, the cost of petrol at 2s. 3d. a gallon causing such a severe financial strain that they had to borrow from a friendly AA patrol at Dover in order to get back to Richmond. (The entire two-weeks’ tour cost just L100.) The MG, by the way, had an AMO registration, as you might expect of an Abingdon-registered car.

When Richard Dimbleby was campaigning for a pre-war fleet of large, impressive BBC recording cars he visualised Lagondas. When his great reputation was at its height he had his own chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces, which he drove “carefully and fast” when he took the wheel. He bought the first one in 1959, and thereafter had the latest model, “the Silver Cloud Marks I, II and III”. He felt that such a car was necessary for the position he occupied in national life but he also enjoyed driving fast and in silence on European motorways. At least one of his children, however, did not like his father arriving at school in the Rolls-Royce —many of us have experienced childish quirks of this kind. So he would use his wife’s elderly saloon (make not quoted) or the farm Land-Rover when parking alongside “the rows of Jaguars and the Rovers” at Charterhouse. When Dimbleby was broadcasting State occasions abroad, the Rolls-Royce was frequently shipped over in advance.

I was pleased to receive a review copy of “The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh”, edited by Michael Davie (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 11, St. John’s Hill, London, SW11, £7.95) because I realised when it was serialised in the Sunday Times that this book about the well-known novelist, a very large volume which is painstakingly indexed and cross-referenced, would contain some interesting motoring material. More than that, it is a social history of our times, from 1911 to Waugh’s death in 1966, which must therefore appeal to many readers of Motor Sport; although, as this almost-unabridged 300,000-word diary unfolded, I must say I agree with one of our office readers, who described it as “a sick book”.

Because “The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh” is a current production, which those who wish to read it will be able to purchase, or persuade librarians to obtain for them, what follows must be regarded as a review rather than an echo from the past, although my comments are confined to motoring happenings. The first of these occurs in 1924 when Waugh, who is teaching in London, is driven down to a cricket match in Hampshire in “a nice shabby Buick with an amusing speedometer which registered 50 m.p.h. when the car was puffing along at a comfortable 35”. This gratified the car’s owner, Jack Squire, who could not understand why the journey took so long! In the same year, on holiday in Ireland, “an unspeakably dissolute motor” was hired for a journey from Cahir to Newcastle, which, I suppose, could well have been a pre-1914 model, in the Ireland of those days. Then, going to teach in North Wales in 1925, Waugh takes a “tiny taxi” from Llanddulas station to the school—one wonders if it could have been one of those Austin 7 taxis, which came out in 1924/25?

It was while teaching at Aston Clinton that Waugh made friends with the Plunket Greene family and thus veiled references to Frazer Nashes begin to intrude—like going home in the back of Elizabeth’s car and arriving cold and frozen almost insensible, and to “Richard’s new car—very shabby and noisy but quite fast”. (In August 1925 Waugh himself could not drive, as he records “Yesterday I tried to drive a motor car”.) In September, he notes, Richard Plunket Greene’s car “was affected with a wheel wobble or woggle”. Repairs seem to have been done locally, at a garage in Aston Clinton, which stayed open very late as they hadn’t arrived “until dinner” and afterwards “sat over the fire in the Bell”. I am guessing that this car was a Frazer Nash, and if I am right it must have been a three or fourseater, as Elizabeth had accompanied the two school-masters on the run down and she drove it back to London. Whatever car this was, it clearly made the centre of London from Aston Clinton in the hour, or a little over. At this time, still 1925, they met a Harold Claire who “lay bets with Richard Plunket Greene about motor cars”. Late in 1925 “an enormous Rolls-Royce” arrived at the school, in which a party, including Olivia Plunket Greene, drove to the George in Oxford.

The next reference to motoring clearly refers to Richard’s Frazer Nash, as it “broke a chain” in Sumner Place and while it was being mended, prior to driving to Aston Clinton, they ate a supper “of herrings and marmalade”. Previous to this the car’s owner had been immobile beside the car, drunk, for two hours on the road out of Thame, while Waugh “sheltered as best he could under the broken hood”—the amount of drinking described throughout the book is quite reprehensible. Five days later the car broke again. At this time Jesse Graham, American mother of one of Waugh’s friends, bought an elegant new car, which seems to have been a Humber; but when a girl friend missed her ‘bus for London she went away from Aston Clinton “in the Ford car of a strange and common man whom she found drinking in the Bell”—which rather sets the picture of the motoring snobbishness of those days, which, being late in 1925, implies that this Ford was a Model-T. Continuing the theme, Babe McGusty, one of the Waugh intimates, was known to have hired for the day “an enormous Daimler”, to drive to and about Oxford.

On November 24th, 1925, it is noted, Richard Plunket Greene went to London “to talk to Frazer-Nash” (unhyphenated in the book!) about his “dark horse”, and Babe apparently had no further need to hire a car, as she arrived in “a motor car called a Phantom Rolls-Royce”, in which she took the schoolteachers back to London. She lived in “an opulent house in Grosvenor Square” and kept a lemur as a pet—from the date it seems she must have been one of the first customers for a New Phantom. The visit to Frazer-Nash MUSE have resulted in the purchase of a new car, “which occupied most of Richard’s time”, but, alas, it broke down about three days after he had taken delivery. A week later he married Elizabeth Russell, whose own car had lost a wheel earlier that month—was it, also, a Frazer Nash, I wonder ? Capt. Archie Frazer-Nash was at the Plunket Greene’s wedding reception at Halkin Street and the bride and bridegroom “drove away in the Frazer Nash”. Early in 1926 Richard bought Waugh a motorcycle “from a shop in Sussex Place” for £25. It was a Douglas, on which Waugh was instructed by Frazer-Nash, who simply “launched him down a long road in Richmond Park on 2nd gear”. (The Frazer Nash now had a new engine and clearly Plunket Greene was a good customer of AFNs.)

Waugh managed to ride the Douglas to London the next day; on the way it “shook off 12s. 6d.-worth of its lamp, broke its front brake and stand and number-plate”, but otherwise “went creditably”. Later there is a description of a horrible night run in which a nut came off the clutch in Aylesbury and three miles from Warwick a key sheared in the transmission, the gas lamps went out until more carbide could be found, and the rider got very wet. Although the machine “flew back to London” next day, it was soon left in Camden Town “to be collected by a man from Taylor’s” and a “minute, simple” Francis-Barnett was substituted. At first Waugh was “most unfavourably impressed by it” but he came to “like it more”, although it ran out of petrol by the Bell which, wrote Waugh, “seems to me gross over-consumption when I consider the promises of the catalogue”! This was presumably a new 1926 two-stroke Francis-Barnett. By the end of 1926 it is reported that the Plunket Greenes had a new car. [The following year Richard Plunket Greene invested money in AFN Ltd. and the following year he got control—BD.] I believe that one of Waugh’s comic novels had a motorracing theme (“Vile Bodies” ?), which his friendship with Plunket Greene may have fostered. I hope the “Diaries” will have something to say about this. But, for the present, space and reading-time have run out. If anything in this context or any more motoring matters are contained therein, I will continue this review of Waugh’s “Diaries” next month.—W.B.

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