Cars in books, September 1975

From “Invasion 1940” by Peter Fleming (Hamish Hamilton, 1958) I learn, or am reminded, that in September 1940, when a German invasion of Britain seemed likely, a Lanchester armoured car was ready at GHQ Home Forces, Mill Hill, to go to Chequers and remove the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, to a place of safety. Which should delight the Daimler & Lanchester OC, even if the directive specified a motorcycle to follow the Lanchester “in case of breakdown”. Whether Churchill would have agreed, or would have ridden on the pillion of the motorcycle had the situation arisen, is open to conjecture…. Rolls-Royce folk will no doubt like to turn up the full piece about Flemings’ Rolls-Royce GF 7500, which this author wrote for The Spectator, and which appears in his book “My Aunt’s Rhinoceros” (Hart-Davis, 1956), together with an amusing aside on the A1 road as it then was, even if Fleming does fall into that trap about Royce’s death causing the R-R badge to change from red to black.

Hugh Conway has confirmed that Aldous Huxley, the famous writer, had a Type 44 Bugatti and I have since gleaned some more interesting facts about his cars, from Volume 1 of the biography by Sybille Bedford (Collins/Chatto & Windus, 1973). For instance, at one time Huxley had no interest in cars but after buying a Citroën in 1924 he became an avid enthusiast, even, we are told, to reading “the motoring papers, technical brochures, reports of Grand Prix racing”. He was driven always by his wife Maria, who, Huxley’s biographer confirms, was a very good and fast driver indeed. It may well be true that Ettore Bugatti tried to persuade her to enter for a race, because this is touched on in this book, and it is suggested that only her husband and young son made her desist.

The Huxleys used the Citroën, which one supposes was an 11.4-h.p. model, for long tours while they were living in Italy, such as to London via the Alps (in pouring rain), then back by way of Holland and Belgium (more rain) to Florence, the car behaving “in marvellous fashion” except for oil leaking into the clutch. What I find so interesting is that Huxley, who was envious of his father having bought a new Morris, obviously a bull-nose, was planning to have a new car. He wanted an Italian car, “more powerful than the Citroen, possibly the new Lancia (which must have been the Lambda, presumably) or even, if it’s not too dear, the new six-cylinder Itala which is said to have all the qualities of the Alfa Romeo”. One wonders whether the Alfa Romeo victory in the great French GP at Lyons in 1924 had influenced Huxley but, perhaps finding the production 21/70 Alfa Romeo rather cumbersome, he decided he liked the 2-litre Itala that had made its debut at the 1924 Paris Salon ? I think H. R. Pope was still proclaiming Itala merits in the motor papers at this time, which could have exerted further influence. It was less expensive than the Lambda and Huxley couldn’t resist it. (Sybille Bedford thinks the Bugatti was made in Turin and one wonders whether there has been confusion over Huxley’s letters about the Itala, which was made in Turin ?)

The Itala seems to have been used as much as the Citroën, which when it was disposed of was described as a faithful little car that had behaved so well and whose habits were “as regular as those of Emanual Kant”. The Itala, a 2-litre six, seems to have been bought in 1926—and Huxley thought it “a really rather tremendous car”. At the time his book “Barren Leaves” in which the hero, Lord Hovenden, drives a 30/98 Vauxhall, had been written, and I find myself wondering whether Huxley knew the 30/98 but preferred, or could only afford, the Itala ? It was taken in the Tuscan spring from Cortina to London and on another occasion driven from Paris to Italy via Switzerland, over the Simplon and along the first of the Italian autostrada, 40 miles long, with few cars on it except fast-moving ones. Aldous obviously loved it! But in 1929 the Itala had a bad journey in intense cold from Bandol back to Italy and the magneto expired on the Italian Riviera. They left it at a garage in Florence, waiting for a buyer.

The Bugatti followed, as we know, a red Type 44. It, too, was taken on long journeys, a tour of Spain, for instance, in 1929, from Suresnes. In 1932 it went from Sanary to Cannes, four people, Aldous, Maria, Sybille Bedford and a very pretty lightweight blonde, somehow fitted in, Maria taking “two hours five minutes, or was it two hours twenty-five minutes ? At any rate, it was pretty good going”. That Bugatti was still in use at Sanary in 1936, even if it did seize up once in the heat and had to be left in a field. There is also the rather delightful revelation that in 1932 the biographer had travelled out to Germany in her “very old open Ford roadster”, obviously I would think a Model-A, if it wasn’t a Model-T, the radiator of which had to be topped up hourly from a tin, due to leaks, and in which Sybille Bedford had started from Sanary with a large drum of petrol that had to be paid for on her coming of age! This drum was empty and rattling about in the dickey by the time she reached Berlin. But the Huxleys submitted to being driven about in the ancient Ford and Aldous delighted in giving a hand with the water tin outside the Eden Hotel, watched by the uniformed minions. In this Ford they even went to Potsdam.—W.B.