Cars in books, October 1966

This feature, which I suppose makes journalistic history by its very longevity, I have come to regard as virtually without end. It all began with an article in Motor Sport about the more obvious cars in fiction, and has been kept going, helped by thoughtful readers and my prolific reading of books of all kinds, by quoting references not only to cars in fictional works but, more interesting, real cars recalled by authors of biographic, and autobiographies.

There is also a third type of book, that which is a motoring book in its own right, recently discovered, but too ancient to be put into “Book Reviews.” I think it is fair to use books of this kind to aid the continuity of this column, especially when such a volume is really in the travel category. The latest of these to come to my notice is “En Route,” by Roy Trevor (Stanford, 1908), the sub-title of which is “A Descriptive Automobile Tour Through Nine Countries and Over Nineteen Great Passes of Europe, with 96 illustrations taken by the author, and three maps.”

Anyone studying this book will soon realise that the better Edwardian cars were capable of undertaking long-distance journeys which would scarcely disgrace a modern car. “En Route” is written in the style of a novel, even to romantic interludes, and the car which figures mainly in its pages is referred to as “Mercedes ” instead of “the Mercedes.” But, as its author takes pains to emphasise, every word of it is true, his story being a report of some adventurous motoring in the years 1906/7.

The first tour so described covers Central Europe. The car a 1905/6 70-hp. chain-drive Mercedes, originally a grey two-seater, but specially fitted for the occasion with a snow-white Roi-des-Belges body edged with green and gold, upholstered in red leather, by Rothschild’s of Paris. The party consisted of the owner, his fiancee, his motor-shy brother-in-law and his wife, and the chauffeur, who had previously been head-groom to the family for at least a dozen years. The Mercedes was kept in Paris, the party set off from Scotland, the brother-in-law owned a yacht and there is evidence which suggests to me that both the owner and his brother-in-law had been at Eton—all the correct Edwardian background, you see!

The author, incidentally, after disclaiming any financial interest in the company that made his car, remarks; “. . such praise or mention as is bestowed upon the car has been called forth solely by virtue of its own excellence and wonderful powers of endurance ” and the book contains the following words which I, and I think Motor Sport’s Continental Correspondent, would agree are as correct in 1966 as they were in 1907: “She’s a Mercedes,’ I said, ‘ which spells perfection, and is to my mind the finest touring car in existence.’ “

It appears that the car was a present from father, delivered in January, 1907, I would think, and converted for touring after a month’s testing. Anyway, the tour started from Graham Castle, the brother-in-law’s favourite pair taking a little over 1 1/2 hours for the 15 miles, which caused the author to remark that a car would hardly seem to be moving at that speed, and after a few days in Paris, they were off.

To summarise the first tour, they crossed France via Bescancon to the Swiss frontier, where English gold coins were refused by the custom’s officials in part-payment for the 900 francs duty, which had been raised 50%8 since they had been that way previously. (Eventually each sovereign was accepted as worth 22 francs but English bank notes were refused!)

Between Les Ponts and Neuchatel they took the Routes hImpractibles, but the Mercedes made light of the 3,000-ft. ascent and ran down to Berne in time for lunch, Interlaken being reached that evening, in cold and mist. Next day the electric rack-and-cog railway was taken from Scheidegg to Eiger and after this excursion a train was used to reach Grindelwald, where Dennis, the chauffeur, was waiting with the Mercedes. There was another railway excursion from the foot of the Reichenbach Falls (shades of Sherlock Holmes!), which drenched the party as they stood on the platform by the engine-room.

The first pass to be tackled was the Brunig (3,300 ft.), banned to automobiles on Sundays and limited to a speed of 6 m.p.h. on weekdays, timed by an old woman using a cuckoo clock. The Mercedes made equally light work of the St. Gotthard (6,900 ft.). to climb which, however, a permit also had to be obtained. This made the anti-motoring brother-in-law repent and confess that “there’s only one way to enjoy travelling, and that’s by automobile—Mercedes preferred.”

The first burst tyre since leaving Paris was experienced at Domo d’ Ossola, but in ten minutes it was changed, the luckless chauffeur having to pump it up to 100 lb./sq. in. Incidentally, at least four spare tyres and many inner tubes were carried.

Having made light of the Simplon Pass (6,600 ft.), the Mercedes next tackled the Stelvio, highest in Europe. The car’s “barometer” showed some 8,000 ft. at the frontier post, and the Mercedes continued to the summit, at 9,200 ft. On the descent the long wheelbase of the “Seventy” necessitated reversing at some of the hairpins, over a sheer drop of 2,000 ft. “. . . everything, of course, depended on the brakes and side-chains, but I felt confident of Mercedes. . . .”

A deposit of about £78 in gold got the tourists into Austria, and eventually over the right Campiglio Pass (5,500 ft.) to Pinzolo. Terrified horses encountering the Mercedes were the worst problem, but the hairpins were also adventurous (Dennis carried a block of wood for chocking the wheels!).

The English, naturally, carried with them also a supply of tea, and at Lago di Ledro a huge meal at an hotel cost 7 1/2d.

More and more passes were conquered, including little known ones and the great 5,900-ft. Arlberg. But the Klausen (6,500 ft.) was then forbidden to automobiles and the illicit drive over it resulted in a fine of 200 francs. Otherwise, this first tour seems to have been entirely without incident, although it appears to have occupied from February to October. During the final run home across France—”dear old familiar France, ever the same cultivated lands as far as the eye can reach, the same peasants working in the fields, always the same interminable double line of tall, graceful poplars edging the road, and the road itself disappearing in one long unending ribbon beneath the bonnet as Mercedes rushed onward, ever trying to reach the far horizon,” even the brother-in-law, who had banned mechanically-propelled vehicles from Graham Castle, took the wheel. . . !

They were off again in December (presumably 1907), touring Italy. This time the brother-in-law used the 45-h.p. Mercedes double-limousine he had been persuaded to purchase (!) for the run from his home to the station, and did it in the prescribed 15 minutes in spite of the snow. He had even wanted to accompany the 75 h.p., but had been dissuaded. Pisa was duly reached, and the Mercedes was parked beneath the Leaning Tower, as we parked a modern Mercedes-Benz some years ago. Rome was visited. New tyres put on at Madrid, and the reserves carried increased from five to seven, with about 20 inner tubes stowed about the car. Moreover, in anticipation of the roads of Southern Spain, six gallon-tins of petrol were carried on the tool-box and six more with the tyres behind, giving a total fuel store of 32 gallons —the Mercedes’ consumption was about 10 m.p.g. Also, nearly 25 gallons of oil were stored in “long tanks fitted in convenient places.”

At times the car bogged down, the longest day’s journey in Spain would have been “the merest child’s play” in France, and both back tyres burst within sight of the Reina Cristina Hotel at Algeciras. Later, on a 130-mile journey to Valencia, a quicksand tore away the tail-lamp bracket and nearly the whole of the luggage-carrier, and worse conditions ripped the aluminium undershield almost to pieces and dented the petrol tank, a new 935 X 135 Michelin tyre being ruined in about 40 miles, the other day-old back tyre being, if anything, in an even poorer state and the front tyres in rags. Not surprisingly, perhaps, when the brother-in-law received news that he had to return quickly to England, the Mercedes was taken on railway trucks back to Perpignan. Here, cleaned and with new tyres, she came home in six days, after having been on the Continent for nearly six months.

The third tour, a month later, was to Northern Europe, from Folkestone, but first going up to John o’ Groats from Graham Castle. This time the brother-in-law drove, allowing the author and his fiancee to occupy the tonneau! The party went in due time to Hamburg Zoo, which seems to have forestalled Whipsnade by nearly half-a-century, broke up a complete cavalry regiment approaching Denmark, and at Middelfort on the Isle of Eyen had to drive the Mercedes over the railway lines—shades of Clinton and the 1908 Bala at Boulogne, years later!

Entering Sweden, £300 in gold was deposited with the customs, but the car still had to undergo a sort of MoT examination of its mechanical fitness, after which it had to wear “H’borg No. 3” registration plates, there being two other cars in Sweden in 1907! Apart from more startled horses and a head-down cyclist who collided with the car, all went well and the Splfigen Pass (7,000 ft.), the most difficult yet encountered, was conquered in teeming rain, the Mercedes being accommodated in the customs house on its arrival near the summit and the hotel proprietor giving up his room to the ladies, and sleeping in a house down the road, after providing picture postcards for the travellers to send home—oh, glorious period of Britannic prestige!

Mont Cenis (6,900 ft.) was easy work after this. The Mercedes sank into a grass verge at the top of Mont Blanc, from which 16 pushers only just managed to get the heavy car moving, but otherwise, this, too, was apparently a trouble-free tour. The party was back in ”Merry England, merry for the police I mean,” and on that note this interesting book ends, except for an epilogue about touring technicalities, and a remark that in Cadiz petrol had to he collected from chemists’ shops until they had about 4 1/2 gallons, which cost 45s. The Mercedes devoured oil greedily and its quality was a source of anxiety. In Spain it was generally good, at 15s. a gallon, elsewhere easy to obtain, but quality had to be watched in Italy, getting it, if possible, only in T.C.I. sealed tins. In Spain alone the Mercedes used up ten outer covers and a multitude of tubes in two months, in other countries the author ”completely lost count”! Steel-studded tyres had long ago been given up in favour of “strong, heavy, plain covers.” using Parson’s chains on greasy roads.

Roy Trevor was planning a further tour, with his wife, in Africa, from Oran to Tunis and from the Mediterranean to the Sahara. I Wonder if this formed the subject of another book and whether he, or his companions in adventure, Mr. and Mrs. Graham or the chauffeur, are still alive?

Even the Baby Peugeot, that Ettore Bugatti miniature, is found in autobiography, although Vermin Bartlett’s experiences with the one he bought in Rome in 1920/21 to facilitate travelling to his villa in Grottaterrata are far from complimentary, as told in “This Is My Life” (Macmillan, 1937). Apparently it had a cracked cylinder so that, “Whenever I took it into Rome it became so hot that large crowds gathered round this small ambulating Volcano.” This book, too, tells us that the only car in Tighina in 1918 was a Ford—the ubiquitous Model T—and that when Bartlett had an audience with King Alexander of Jugoslavia between the wars he was fetched in “a very ancient and  elevated Rolls-Royce, a car which every policeman and most citizens of Belgrade knew by sight.” Another “large but extremely antiquated Rolls-Royce padded with horsehair,” because the horsehair was sticking out of the upholstery. gave Bartlett a very bad time, during the 12 hours it took to cover a devious, almost 300-mile route; from Valencia to Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, and in “an enormous and very conspicuous white Rolls-Royce which had once belonged to the Count Romanones, a former Prime Minister of Spain,” in which they miraculously escaped being “shelled and blown to blazes ” on the Madrid-Toledo road during that same civil war.