Cars in books, November 1995

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Richard Hough’s very complete and detailed account of the life of the Countess Mountbatten of Burma, Edwina, published by Weidenfield & Nicholson in 1983, it was a welcome surprise to find a photograph of the Countess in her bull-nose Morris Cowley, complete with coconut running-board mat, battery box, bulb-horn, and with its scuttle ventilator open, at the Cowes Regatta in 1926, Edwina driving, in cloche hat, Lady Loughborough beside her and “Popie” Baring, to whom Prince Albert had proposed, and her sister occupying the dickey seat.

The Countess is described as a keen motorist and by K Lee Guiness, the racing driver, as driving better than any man he had ever known. just prior to her marriage to Lord Louis Mountbatten, RN, at St Margaret’s Westminster in 1922 she went to Conduit Street and ordered a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, which was provided with a cabriolet body by Barker’s. A keen driver all her life, it is recounted how at Christmas 1928 she drove her Rolls-Royce alone, when she was pregnant, from Gilbraltar to Barcelona, a winter journey of some 600 miles.

The 1922 Rolls-Royce was a wedding present for her husband and was used for the honeymoon, to Paris and into Germany, where Lord Mountbatten, although labelled a bad driver, delighted in getting the car up to its maximum 70mph along the routes nationale to the French capital. In Germany Mountbatten insisted on visiting the Opel factory and test track. It is said that he was allowed to drive the enormous racing cars which Opel were preparing for the Grand Prix, but I think these must have been either smaller cars for the racing at the new Nurburgring or perhaps the big ones run at Fanoe Island, if the latter were, in fact, works entered…

In 1932 Edwina Mountbatten bought an ancient car (make undisclosed) which survived a 600-mile expedition across the desert from Damascus to Baghdad and during those expeditions she also chartered a light aeroplane for hopping about the desert (make again unrevealed).

Anyway, Lord Mountbatten is put down as very fond of fast cars, and of logging his average speed; he claimed regularly to do London to Portsmouth in 1 hr 20 min, adding “… and remember, no front-wheel-brakes”. (Which suggests he knew what Hispano Suiza and others were up to.) Indeed, he soon owned an 85mph 37.2hp Hispano Suiza, with, on its radiator cap, the silver mascot given to him by HRH the Prince of Wales, of a Naval signalman with signal flags in his outstretched arms. There are cars in several other pictures, identifiable only by their hub caps and bodywork. But what an interesting book, and one that deals with happenings on a considerably higher plane than that featured in the delightful book The Private Life of a Country House by Leslie Lewis, mentioned recently in this feature.

Man of Arms by Anthony Allfry, a biography of Sir Basil Zaharoff, has a few interesting motoring references. There is much about the early developments of Vickers which took over in 1807 the Maxim-Nordenfeld combine (of which Sir Basil had been salesman in chief and a shareholder since 1894) and which took over the Wolseley motor-car company in Birmingham in 1901, with, it is said, an eye to Its military possibilities. The versatility of Vickers, which became Vickers-Armstrongs, was astonishing, and in 1917, a year prior to the Armistice that concluded the war, their thoughts were on their Barrow shipyard constructing merchant ships and locomotives, Crayford turning to sporting guns and sewing-machines instead of Maxims, and Dartford to furniture, toys and washing machines, the latter surely a bold innovation? The Wolseley factory was set to produce a large-production luxury car to sell for £800, “that no American car would compete with”.

It did not entirely work out. The book tells us that Vickers’ Beardmore shipyards were disposed of in 1926, that the French steel company Firminy had already absorbed the Whitehead torpedo works at St Tropez, and of course, Sir William Morris got the Wolseley Company, for some £750,000, in 1927. The post-Armistice luxury car turned out to be the 3.9-litre side-valve six-cylinder 20/30hp Wolseley, priced at £1,050, as a chassis, in 1920. I remember that around 1924 a man called Epps had a garage off Streatham Place in SW London and used one of these big Wolseley landaulettes as a hire-car; my war-widowed mother, who did not drive, commissioned It one afternoon but although as a motor-mad small boy I enjoyed riding in it, it seemed rather out-dated compared to other post-war luxury-type cars. For years afterwards I used to worry that he might, in fact, have been Mr Apps, who made a fleeting appearance at Brooklands in 1928 with a mysterious car called the Avrolette…

Of Sir Basil, it is explained that he had modest motor-car requirements, using mostly Renaults, as he was a friend of the Renault family. He preferred the easy-to-enter pre-1915 models, which he used, driven by his chauffeur Baker, into the late 1920s, an apparently the production of one of these was, undertaken for him long after production of the type had ceased, with the coachwork made to measure. A tribute to Renault longevity… We learn that Sir Basil Zarhoff’s last car was a Packard, the French agent for which was another friend of his. All Sir Basil cars were painted in his Oxford-blue Weil picked out in yellow. But there is much more of interest in Man at Arms, especiaIly those interested in arms sales and industrial development.

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