Cars in books, September 1971

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Obtaining a copy of “How To Make Enemies”, by Ronald Duncan (Hart-Davis, 1968), after having read a favourable review of it in a back issue of The Field, I wasn’t altogether astonished that it contained some references to cars, although it is the autobiography of a poet, playwright and Devon farmer, because this is the case with so many non-motoring books and the reason for the very long run this column has had. Nevertheless, to come upon a motoring item on the very first page did constitute a mild surprise.

The vehicle concerned is described as “an old Sunbeam lorry”, which had stopped on “the steep hill in Devon running from West Mill (where the author farmed) to Mead”, about a quarter of a mile long. The reason the Sunbeam is mentioned is because it stopped, ran backwards, and overturned at the bottom. My interest lies in the fact that although the Sunbeam Motor Company of Wolverhampton did make commercial vehicles, even to having an advanced, inclined-overhead-valve engine for them (as I discovered when researching the subject of power units with hemispherical heads but sans overhead camshafts, as in BMW, Lago-Talbot, Peugeot and a few others, for Motor Sport some years ago) they didn’t make very many.

So what was this luckless Sunbeam lorry to which the whimsical Duncan alludes? At first I thought he might have encountered an ex-Kaiser War Sunbeam with lorry body. But the episode occurred during the Second World War, to this is highly unlikely, and I am still wondering whether the ill-fated lorry was a Sunbeam car converted to carry goods or whether it was a genuine Sunbeam commercial continuing to serve into the war years, in which case it would be something of a rarity.

About the only other motoring aside in this entertaining autobiography, with its accounts of Lord Beaverbrook (and other celebrities), free love, Glyndebourne, illness, and Cambridge in the 1930s, concerns “a small Volkswagen” hired in Holland, which Duncan’s wife Rose Marie called “a wretched Feuchtwangler”. There is, however, a piece about flying out of Idlewild and two of the air-liner’s four engines catching fire….

I felt I had to read “We Danced All Night”, by Barbara Cartland (Hutchinson, 1970), because it is devoted to, and defends, the 1920s. I felt sure cars would figure in it. In fact, the book is more a collection of facts and memories of the period than autobiographical. There are rather garbled references to motoring, although I applaud the authoress’s recollection of “the musty leathery smell of the high-roofed taxis”, which plied for hire in London at that time; when the debutantes “sat in the rows of taxis at Hyde Park Corner, a gentle kiss was all that ‘happened'”—to Barbara Cartland, who also confirms that a man with a car topped all the desirables in a girl’s life.

This leads her on to this topic, but I find it incredible that in that era of horse-drawn cabs and horse-drays Segrave should actually be summonsed for slow driving in Bond Street, nor can I trace that he was ever at Cambridge, for after leaving Eton he joined the RFC. And why should the Duke of Westminster be “fined for driving a motor car at 19 m.p.h.” in 1912 when the speed limit was 20 m.p.h.? And in saying William Rhodes Moorhouse was the first to fly the Channel there is a surprising ignorance of Bleriot. The “Bentley Boys” get brief mention and Segrave’s death is attributed to broken propeller blades on Miss England, whereas these were intact when the boat was salvaged.

To say that few women except Lady Diana Cooper drove cars in 1921 is wide of the mark, but some lines devoted to Bentleys at Le Mans are correct. In saying Sir Malcolm Campbell’s father was a diamond merchant the writer has probably become confused with Woolf Barnato, “a broad-shouldered, dark South African with eyes like betel-nuts”, who is said to have been responsible for London’s traffic-lights.

What I did find interesting was the mention of George Henderson, who formed the Henderson School of Flying at Brooklands, taking Barbara Cartland out “in his enormous car which was just an engine covered with iron plate and mounted on a chassis with two bucket seats taken from an aeroplane”, also described as “an extraordinary car made from an old aeroplane engine, an ugly, open, noisy car, which he called ‘Barbed Arrow’, a somewhat obscure play on my name”, because this unquestionably refers to Henderson’s Napier chassis with 250-h.p. Rolls-Royce V12 Falcon aero-engine, which he drove on English and Continental roads. The book reminds us that Henderson was piloting the Junkers aeroplane which crashed, killing all the occupants, at Meopham in 1930.

The Prince of Wales’ Burney Streamline car, and how it stalled on a hill near London, is mentioned, as are “a fleet of Hispano-Suizas” used by Sir James Dunn, and King Alfonso driving another Hispano-Suiza at 80 m.p.h. at Deauville. Amongst the prolific names-dropping the Marquis de Casa Maury is described as “slim, pale with large sad eyes… proudly Castilian in ancestry, Cuban by nationality, educated at Beaumont College in England, and he served in the RFC during the war. He was an ace driver, racing in all the Grands Prix driving Bugattis” (sic!). After the Wall Street crash he is said to have opened the Curzon Cinema; he married Paula Gellibrand.

Rolls-Royce enthusiasts may be intrigued to learn that Barbara Cartland designed the body for the new R-R her husband ordered in 1927, which, she says, “was the first Rolls with a white body, black wings and a black hood. The following year the coachbuilders copied my colour scheme and won the Concours d’Elegance at Monte Carlo. I have my daughter’s pram painted the same, and in 1929 Raine has the smartest pram in the park”. There’s satisfaction for all owners of white and black Rolls-Royces!

Barbara Cartland says Claude Graham-White “owned the first petrol-driven motor car in England”, recalls Lady Dorothé Plunket as wanting to be a nurse, “but instead she took to driving her car very fast round Brooklands”, and has much to say about Lt. Glen Kidston, RN, including reference to a speed record (sic!) he made in 1925 by attaining 96 3/4 m.p.h. in a 1,990-c.c. Bugatti—perhaps she places undue faith in Press cuttings!

Incidentally, the book confirms that Michael Arlen had a yellow Rolls-Royce, although the novel which made his fortune featured an Hispano-Suiza, remarks on a body for a Rolls-Royce designed by Lord Portarlington, who “has done a great deal for the motor trade”, and refers to an unnamed racing driver whose wife, whom he was divorcing, flung champagne in his face at the “Bat” in Albemarle Street. “He didn’t even flinch.” The race which Miss Cartland was asked to organise at Brooklands in 1931 between lady drivers, all in supercharged MGs, is one piece of Track history I know very little about but which I was just going to investigate before I saw her reference to it. It sounds like a much criticised stunt by society girls to which the real racing ladies strongly objected.—W. B.

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