All this interest in the papers and on TV about Britain’s entry into the war fifty years ago gives us an excuse for recalling a little of what motoring was like in 1939. What we were doing then cannot be more boring than pictures of people filling sandbags, trying on gas-masks or sprinting towards air raid shelters.
There had been a hint of impending disaster when the German drivers vanished just before the 1938 Donington Grand Prix. Then Neville Chamberlain returned to Heston in the Lockheed Electra and waved his historic piece of paper. Peace seemed to be assured and the Grand Prix took place, Nuvolari winning for Auto Union. For a time motoring continued as before. Petrol cost 1/6d a gallon, cars were taxed at 15/- (75p) per RAC hp, and you could run an Austin 7 for less than £1 a week. Lots of really ancient vehicles were there, to be hunted out and bought for a few pounds, such as the Ford-T taxi we found at Heath and Reach and towed away behind a 22 hp Ford V8.
I was out and about in 1939 in A7, Ford 8 and 10, and a friend’s Riley Gamecock, reporting for Motor Sport. There was a snowy test of Peter Clark’s special 3-litre Bentley, a flip round Brooklands in Lt. Torin’s 3-litre GP Maserati, long runs in RE Richards’ Rover Ten Special, an exhilarating ride in Anthony Heal’s Indianapolis Ballot, a drive in a class-winning Le Mans HRG, and sampling a borrowed 12/50 Alvis etc. I also had the interesting experience of riding beside Sydney Allard at sportscar record speed in the rain up Prescott, and of being flung from the same Allard at Horndean the next day, when he crashed after making FTD.
At the very last Brooklands Meeting the concluding race was won by AL Baker’s 5.4-litre Graham-Paige, after band leader Billy Cotton had won the last Mountain Handicap in his 1.5-litre ERA. The atmosphere was not so tense as at the similar meeting on August 3, 1914, when all that afternoon troop trains rumbled along the embankment above the railway straight, newsboys shouted of mobilisation, petrol was in short supply, the aeroplane races were cancelled, many drivers rushed away afterwards to ioin their regiments etc, and LG Nicolson won the final race “for the duration” in his Hispano Suiza.
Things were more intense at Crystal Palace in 1939, when only eight days before war broke out Bert Hadley won the Imperial Trophy Race in the little green twin-cam Austin. On the following Thursday I went with two friends in a Ruby A7 for a holiday in North Wales, reassured by CO Grey’s statement in The Aeroplane that there would be no war in Europe in the foreseeable future! As we went on our holiday way, BBC news bulletins told of trial evacuations of children from Britain’s towns and cities. On the Friday, the A7 got up Bwelch-y-Groes successfully but at Lake Vyrnwy a policeman in a Morris Ten stopped us to say war was imminent. I had no living relatives, but the others had. So it was about turn! At Chipping Norton we were told not to use our headlamps; further on an ARP Warden gave us paper to wrap round the feeble sidelamps. The blackout had begun, but not the bombs! It was a foretaste of compulsory headlamp masks, and Pool petrol of which even rationed supplies, at first sufficient for some 200 miles a month, ceased by July 1942. Closer to London, most Officers were hurrying, an RAF Officer’s Opel jumping the traffic lights. In the unaccustomed darkness alarming flashes occurred – from the trams.
On the Sunday morning the PrimeMinister announced that Britain was at war with Germany. Ten minutes later the sirens sounded. As some people ran to the public air raid shelters, we drove in the A7 round Parliament Square, wondering what we would see. Nothing happened! “We must volunteer for duty,” we said. But the nearest Town Hall was unmanned and uninterested … Even as this was happening in faraway Yugoslavia Nuvolari was winning the Belgrade GP in an Auto Union. On the Monday, from force of habit, I went down to Brooklands, as I continued to do until access was denied to us.
Hoping for a job more exciting than Army foot-slogging, I applied to Woolwick for an interview. The young interviewing officer’s blown Alfa Romeo was parked in the forecourt. When he discovered I wrote for Motor Sport he talked more of cars than of enrolment! So, to fill in time, I volunteered to drive ARP ambulances, at first Austin 12s and 18s and Morris 12s, later American chassis fitted with crude box-bodies. If you drove the latter fast enough, it was possible, due to the supple springing and smell of fresh paint, to turn the volunteer girl “casualties” into real casualties! I was also entrusted with a vintage Sunbeam 16 saloon, as the other drivers objected to its “crash” gearbox, and admonished for driving too quickly on training exercises – as a wartime emergency vehicle driver! With envy did I look upon an open 8-litre Bentley with a hastily improvised OHMS notice in a VAD car park, and at the tin-hatted crew of a 38/250 hp Mercedes-Benz… Once again, well-known racing drivers had been quick to join the Forces. Later on I got myself a war job at the RAE at Farnborough, where I met DSJ. But that is another story ….
It was around this time that a talk with Motor Sport’s proprietor settled the immediate fate of the paper. It went something like this:
Prop.: “Well, it’s goodbye then. See you after it’s all over perhaps?”
Me: “Can’t we keep it going?”
Prop.: “How would we fill it? The last war lasted five years. This one might go on for ten.”
Me: “With motoring history. There’s enough to keep going for a long time.”
It was agreed to produce an emergency eight-page October issue and to resume normal production afterwards. That, briefly, is how Motor Sport ran throughout the war, never missing an issue, with the help of the staff in the City who did the proof-reading and make-up, after I had written furiously and edited in what spare time I had after joining the Air Ministry. For the remainder of the conflict, we received splendid contributions from those serving all over the world in ships at sea, in army camps and in the RAF, their enthusiasm all the greater because peacetime motoring was denied them. As time went on, we were able to report club meetings and include technical articles, and even brief road tests of new cars such as the Mk.V Bentley, V12 Lagonda, Georges-lrat etc. The back issues I needed for reference were brought safely out of London at the height of an air raid, in what I hoped was a shrapnel-proof tin box, on the back seat of a Gwynne 8, purchased for the proverbial “fiver”. The Motor Sport offices, too, narrowly escaped the worst of the blitz. That was motoring under war-time conditions, fifty years ago. WB
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