Cars in Books, October 1998

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When I realised that The Queen of Whale Cay by Kate Summerscale (Fourth Estate, 1997, ISBN: 1-85702-360-9) was a very full and capable biography of Betty Carstairs, the well-known motor-boat racer, I read it with this feature in mind. Not many cars, more ‘Boats In Books’, but the interest is sustained.

‘Joe’ Carstairs had a very intense and varied lifestyle. Her purchase and evolution of Whale Cay island a was described by the Bahamian Herald as “the greatest story since the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Colony”, so you can say that again! That extraordinary achievement and the boat-racing form the core of the book, but from it we learn that in 1928 her friend Tallulah Bankhead ran a cream Bentley that was almost overturned in the rush by her fans at the first night of the The Canlboard Lover and that Johnston Noad, who like Carstairs raced boats, had several Bentleys, although I do not know that he actually raced cars.

Very interesting is that, having driven ambulances in France during WW1, ‘Joe’ and her girlfriends formed X-Cars at Cornwall Gardens, Kensington after the Armistice, using Daimlers which they hired out for tours of the battlefields, etc, an Irish tour of 1700 miles costing £134 all-found. There is a picture of one of the Daimlers, but this service seems to have escaped Daimler historians even though it was the advent of Instone’s Daimler Hire Co that shut it down. Before which the girls had obtained an order from the Sultan of Perak for a violet Minerva, a present for the Rajah Premaseri. In 1918 her mother gave Carstairs a much-loved Buick. She thrived on fast driving, and later had a Triumph motorcycle, then a Sunbeam car used for a Sicilian tour, followed by four silver-grey Rolls-Royces, as more flashy and modem then the Daimlers.

She drove from Paris in a ‘120mph’ Vauxhall ex-racer or 30/98? — to race her boat. Noad is said to have had a Rolls-Royce for which he designed the body himself. A London treasure-hunt saw the Prince of Wales a competitor, and one of Joe’s friends, Count de Perigny, is said to have had a racing Peugeot in 1915; driven by his step-daughter. ‘Joe Carstairs inherited US$10m from Standard Oil investments and left US$33m when she died in 1993, aged 93.

All her fast cars are not named; in later years she had an amphibian aeroplane, and the fate of her racing boats, other boats she built, and her trophies are part of this quite remarkable, well recorded story, which I read with interest, although I could have done without the many pictures of the boy-doll in various uniforms which meant more to this madly lesbian lady than her human friends.

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