"Landscape with Machines"

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By L. T. C. Rolt. 230 pp, 8 4/5 in. x 5 1/5 in. (Longman Group Ltd., 74, Grosvenor Street. London, W1. £3.25.)

Tom Rolt is well known in the world of vintage motoring as an Honorary Member of the VSCC, the discoverer of Prescott (the origins of which as a hill-climb course are described in this book), and the enthusiastic owner of two 12/50 Alvis motor cars. He is known in literary circles as the author of books about canals, narrow-gauge and otherwise unusual railways, ghosts, motoring and engineering history, philosophy and the biographies of Brunel, Telford, the Stephensons, Trevithick, Watt and Newcomen.

Now “L.T.C.” has written his autobiography, and very fascinating it is! It is a conflict, as the title is intended to convey, between his interest in machinery and his love of the countryside which machines are destroying—and so say many of us! Rolt is happiest in remote places—how frequently that adjective is used I didn’t count—and he brings alive to us from the printed page the delight of out-of-the-way backwaters, old customs, primitive but enduring machines. There is no evidence that the author has ever been out of his native island, except for a visit to the 1935 Dieppe GP, but his love of this land, particularly of the Welsh border-country of Kilvert’s time, is clearly portrayed. His lonely childhood, his farming friends and experiences are a delight, and his account of what it was like to serve an apprenticeship in a locomotive works is vividly and splendidly written. Those who love steam will enjoy these chapters excessively.

Rob writes with an admirable balance between much fascinating detail and not too much verbosity. From the motoring aspect “Landscape with Machines” covers the advent of the first diesel lorries At Kerr-Stuarts, with the author as road-tester, graphic memories of his father’s motoring ventures, from Williamson motorcycle combination to a TE 12/50 Alvis tourer bought off the Alvis stand at the 1925 Motor Show, and just enough of Rob’s own motorcycles and cars, BSA, 2 3/4-h.p. AJS, two 1922 GN Populars, Belsize-Bradshaw and the more exciting vehicles he owned while at the Phoenix Green Garage, Hartley Wintney (“The Home of the 30/98”), to whet the appetite without constituting a “cars I have owned” item more appropriate to magazine than book.

There is nostalgic reference to summer evening runs between Hungerford and Wantage (and Brighton Runs) in Rolt’s 1903 single-cylinder 5 1/4-h.p. Humber in the days before the veteran car cult became a deadly serious social attainment. There is a whole chapter devoted to “The Phoenix”, headquarters of the VSCC, when Rolt/Carson/Passini ran the garage, the first time light has been allowed to play on this venture, which is especially appropriate as this year marks the retirement of Tim Carson after 34 years as the VSCC’s competent and imperturbable Secretary. Rolt recalls the denizens of the pre-war “Scuderia Carsoni”—his £10 duck’s-back 12/50 Alvis, a GN made into a single-seater and later into the supercharged Brescia Bugatti-engined Phoenix Special, the 1908 GP Itala, SAVA, 25/70 sleeve-valve Vauxhall which succeeded the £10 1911 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost as a tow-truck, Karslake’s Sizaire-Naudin, Windsor Richards’ 100-m.p.h. 38/250 Mercedes and 30/98 Vauxhall saloon, etc., etc. This chapter alone makes the book worth its price. Interesting that Rolt describes the 22/90 RLSS Alfa Romeo as “a not particularly good car” and comments on the petrol thirst of the early Overlands, which were popular transport in Wales in the early 1920s.

Rolt was once summonsed by a County Police Force for an illegible front number-plate on one of his GNs, since when, he says, “I am emphatically not one of those who subscribe to the view that our policemen are wonderful”. To show how intimately I read this excellent book, shouldn’t the Model-T Ford truck mentioned on page 72 be referred to as a 7-cwt. or tonner, not a 10-cwt. vehicle, and the Lorraine-Dietrich on page 183 as having a 15-litre not a 15 1/2-litre engine? Also, it was Col. G. M. Giles, not his brother Eric, who owned the Bugatti “Black Bess”, Shelsley Walsh is run by the Midland, not Midlands, AC, and surely the Mills 1907 Renault was bought from Marcus Chambers?

But enough of such carping criticism! The book is tar too pleasing to justify such intrusions into this review. Rob sentimentally says that whereas drivers of steam ploughing engines habitually referred to them as “her” or “she”, no-one, so far as he knows, refers to a computer as “she”. He obviously believes the most exciting of all motor racing was when the German teams came to Donington in 1938 (he spells the place with two “n”s), he refers to a home-brewed, Villiers-engined device with various kinds of crude automatic transmission, aping in turn a similar device someone tried out in a Gwynne Eight and Constantinesco’s arrangements, and remarks that Angela Rolt’s racing Horstman vanished during the war—as I well know, for I combed Basingstoke in search of it.

“Landscape with Machines” contains some surprises—Rolt’s comments on sex, confessions about reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets behind closed doors at “The Phoenix”, his first love affair, his difficult courting of his first wife, Angela…. It is thus a far-ranging book, yet typically “L.T.C.”. I predict that it will soon be sold out, if only because it is compulsive reading for all older members of the VSCC and most steam and old-car enthusiasts, apart from lovers of the countryside.—W. B.