Cars In Books, November 1978

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In that book by Herbert Sulzbach (the remarkable man who fought against us in the First World War and on the British side in World War Two), “With the German Guns” (Leo Cooper, 1973), there is little about motor vehicles, as he fought in a Field Artillery Regiment in 1914/18, although there are some references to air fighting, and a note of when a Zeppelin was first used in combat. But we do learn that the declaration of war in 1914 caused his family’s “beautiful Adler car” to be called up, along with the sons of this Jewish family. Not much more about motoring occurs in that racy book, earthy as one has come to expect from Show Biz autobiographies, “The Long Banana Skin” by Michael Bentine (Woolf, 1975), but there is mention of the family’s “slab-sided Austin” which they owned in 1924 – probably a Twenty and in which they made an annual holiday journey from Folkestone to Westcliff, via the Gravesend Ferry. There is also a chapter devoted to the glider that Michael Bentine’s father built, inspired by that of Kronfeld at Folkestone, and a reference to Uncle Bert Woodbridge, who first shot down Richthofen in the 1914/18 war and later died getting help after the Imperial Airways aeroplane he was flying over Afghanistan had been shot down by tribesmen about which aviation experts will remember more than I do. The book also refers to WW2 ambulance frolics with the ARP, which does bring back memories, and to an Austin 7 which featured in a film about the Great Train Robbery; made in conjunction with the Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, and to a tiny Messerschmitt car used in one of Bentine’s TV comics. He was, of course, responsible for the epic journey up the Amazon by the Hawker-Siddeley Hovercraft SRN6 and an interesting chapter is devoted to that.

After Mrs. Pamela Laughton had told me that June, the famous actress, had been a close friend of her Uncle, Parry Thomas (Motor Sport, September, page 1254), I made a point of reading that lady’s autobiography, “The Glass Ladder” by June Hillman (Heinemann, 1960). There it is, a reference to meeting Thomas, Segrave and Campbell at Brooklands, where she went with multi-millionaire Woolf Burnato when he was racing there. Campbell is described as rather taciturn, Segrave full of charm, but poor “Tommy” Thomas was June’s favourite. She described him as “such a truly sweet man”. Remembered by her as big, shy, awkward and far from handsome, his thinning hair never tidy, his hands and face always streaked with oil, June certainly knew Thomas well. She describes dropping into his sheds when he was at work on his big Leyland and of taking a nap on an old sofa in Thomas’ bungalow although I think her description of “The Hermitage” (now, alas, no more) as a “shack” wide of the truth. But obviously Thomas liked June. If what Bessie Duller told her was correct, Thomas had his “tobacco-stained teeth, quite appallingly irregular in shape and position”, seen to by his dentist specially for here . . . That was in 1923, when Barnato was racing his 1 1/2-litre sleeve-valve Bertellis. ‘There is a picture of one in this book, with June looking on, said to have been taken at Brooklands but more likely to have been at Barnato’s Surrey house Ardenrun, although it could just be in the little paddock at the Track.

So here is yet another book in which Brooklands is prominently referred to – is The Brooklands Society keeping a note of them? Because these literary references are proof of the importance of Brooklands, in our English heritage. June didn’t like the place, complaining that the air stank with petrol fumes, which is nonsense – Barnato, indeed, told her the fresh Weybridge air was good for her. While they were there she spent much time sitting in Bebe’s open Hispano-Suiza – presumably the 45-h.p. 8-litre he used to break records. They went to Boulogne when Parry Thomas made FTD there in the Leyland-Thomas.

Other items of interest in “The Glass Ladder” are a mention of the Duke of Manchester’s haunted KimboltonCastle, on one of the drives of which speed-trials were once held, and June remembering that when the young Marquis of Blandford drove her from London to Skindles at Maidenhead, his car was a “yellow Sunbeam” – that seems to have been in 1919. She recalls days spent at Brooklands while Barnato was racing his Bugatti – presumably the Indianapolis car – although he is later quoted as collecting Bugattis. Incidentally, his house, Ardenrun, which stood in about 1,000 acres, at Lingfield, is described as “very large, pseudo-Georgian” and, with buhl, ormolu and lots of gilt, June found it “quite horrible”. Bebe Barnato expected June to drive down to Ardenrun after she had finished the evening performance at the theatre in London. I would dearly like to know what car she used, in which she did the journey in about an hour . . . The reason why Ardenrun did not figure in Motor Sport’s “Homes of the Racing Drivers” series is because it was burnt down. In its remarkable day Barnato built the racing Bertellis there. The answer to what car June used at this time is that it could have been the “long, sleek, coupe-de-ville Bentley with carriage lamps and pearl-grey upholstery”, driven by an English chauffeur, which she used in Paris when starring in the American Revue, in 1927, presumably a present from Barnato, although June never married him; it was the year in which he bought Bentley Motors. Incidentally, among the celebrities who visited June’s dressing-room was “the Cuban Marquis de Casa Maury, whose first wife was Paula Gellibrand, one of London’s beauties”; his name crops up quite often in motoring history of this period. And was boxer-­turned-actor Carl Brisson, the Stutz driver?

The man June did marry, unsuccessfully, after her friendship with Barnato was Lord Inverclyde, grandson of the founder of the Cunard Steamship Line. He had come into £2,000,000 we are told and lived in Castle Wemyss in Scotland, which had a frontage of some 2 1/2 miles. In the stables, we are told, there was “a Rolls-Royce-engined horse-box”. And in those pre-1930s Lord Inverclyde kept a coal-fired yacht built in 1921 by Hepple & Co. with five state-cabins, and carried 23 in crew; named the Beryl, it made World-cruises and took guests at Castle Wemyss up the loch to his Lordship’s shooting moor in Dunbartonshire. That’s about the extent of motoring interest in this auto­biography, except that there appears to be an error in describing Sir Malcolm Campbell as “a dark-moustached man” and to record, for what it is worth, that when June saw one of her lovers, film-producer Lothar Mendes, for the last time, around 1932, he drove her to San Pedro harbour in “a grey Rolls-Royce”; and that she frequently stayed, when in England, with the Dullers (Mrs. Duller became Mrs. Walter Nightingall) and the Plunketts. – W.B.