Spotting “Black Champion” by Finis Farr (Macmillan, 1964) in the local library, I read it to see whether it contained any reference to the mysterious Edwardian Austin, believed by some to be a 1908 Grand Prix Austin, which the negro boxer was said to have owned. It did not, but there was quite a lot about the World Heavyweight Champion’s motoring exploits. He had a weakness for fast cars and was involved in a number of accidents. Around 1904 Johnson bought his first car, and it is recorded that subsequently he had six bad accidents and appeared in Court on traffic charges at least 20 times.
Some of Johnson’s cars are described as “racing cars” and his superb reactions apparently enabled him to get the best out of them. But he was “arrested for speeding in his scarlet racing car” at Twelfth Street and Michigan Avenue in Chicago, before his fight with Jeffries. A picture of this incident shows a road-equipped car which I would have thought might be a Maxwell or a Flanders but which has a scrip across its radiator which appears to read “Fryberg”. Later, in London, Johnson collided with a taxi in Wilton Road, near Victoria Station, but he had a much worse accident early in the First World War, when his car crashed over an embankment between Asnieres and Boulogne; although no-one was hurt and he drove on through crowds of military traffic to the port. He also went off the road in Connecticut in 1924 and escaped from a crash at Benton Harbour, Michigan, in 1925. He apparently contemplated professional motor-racing but received no encouragement. A really bad smash came in 1946, when his Lincoln Zephyr collided with a truck at a bend in the US-1 road, some 30 miles north of Franklinton. He died in hospital at Raleigh less than an hour later, a sad ending for a fearless and skilled, if reckless, driver. The only other car named in the book is a “crimson locomotive touring car”, which followed Johnson along the desert roads as he trained for his fight with Jeffries.
In “Pride of the Peacock” by Sven Berlin (Collins, 1972) there is reference to a Crossley used by a gipsy in the New Forest in 1928 which should make the Crossley Register think, and to “a Harley-Davidson motorbike with sit-up-and-beg handlebars; an early twenties model. It had a high perambulator side-car into which we climbed”. That was in Cornwall, not long before the war.
There is virtually nothing about cars in “The White Island” by John Lister-Kaye (Longman, 1972), nor would one expect there to be, for this delightful book is about working with Gavin Maxwell on an island in the Hebrides. Even this splendid wildlife book cannot entirely escape the motor car, however, and there is a worthwhile account of the author’s night drive from the pollution of the Swansea Valley and the horrors of the steel-complex, to his new nature abode. He also mentions that in Scotland the car he used was “big and black and ponderous, but her capacious engine, when suitably encouraged, was capable of a remarkable turn of speed”. It was a 1953 model which had run “an honourable total of 134,000 miles”. Its fuel consumption over that considerable mileage was estimated as just better than 19m.p.g. It was known as “Burgess”, for “some illogical reason”.
So what was it? We are told it had “old leather seats”. Was it a Humber Super Snipe, or a Bentley? The fuel consumption better fits the former. Could the car’s nickname have had some connection with Burgess having designed the TT Humbers? A naturalist wouldn’t know about that, you may say. But Gavin Maxwell, remember, owned a fast Maserati and may just possibly have seen the amusing thing about calling a Rootes Humber by that 1914-associated name. But stay! Burgess also had a hand in the design of the first Bentley. . .
A grey Bentley Continental is mentioned in the espionage novel “The Legend” by Evelyn Anthony (Hutchinson, 1969), It must be one of the late James Young S-series cars, surely, as it had four doors? In the same book the Russians are quoted as using a smallish dark grey Zim with a supercharged six-cylinder engine which was capable of 0-120m.p.h. in just over 60 sec. – over to our tuning expert! – W. B.