Cars in books, September 1989

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This long-established feature seems to interest many who apparently read the kind of books we do, so regard it as a useful “library-list”. It has much the same point as a book review, and on those grounds let us look at Leap Before You Look by Aldan Crawley (Collins, 1988), the memoirs of a remarkable and versatile man. The cars come thick and fast . . .

The first one the author had seen at close quarters was the new Sunbeam in which an uncle drove from London to Bishopsthorpe in 1914. At that time Crawley’s father was chaplain to Cosmo Lang, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who had a Wolseley; he was still using this car in the 1930s, enjoying long drives sitting on the back seat with his friends, covered in rugs when up at his holiday house, Ballure, on the Isle of Mull. The Archbishop clearly liked speed; Crawley used to borrow a sports Alvis from Anthony Winn, and Lang would dismiss his chaplains, change into ordinary clothes, don a deerstalker and slip out of a back door of the Palace to where the Alvis was waiting. Crawley says he was happy when they reached 80 mph on the deserted Dover road. As this was about 1931 I suppose the car was probably a Silver Eagle . . .

When the author was at school in Farnborough in Hampshire, his headmaster had an Austin 20 of which he was very proud. He would take Crawley and another boy to the Hertford Bridge Flats to see how fast it would go. If the speedometer showed SO mph by the only bend there was a chance of it showing 60 on the long straight stretch. This was the road over which the Guinness brothers unleashed the 200hp see-eight Darracq in 1905, where the 1914 TT Sunbeams were tested, and where DSJ and I used to try out the pace of his Norton and my A7 Chummy during World War Two. While at Oxford, Crawley shared an old Dodge, painted in the Bullingdon Club colours of sky-blue and white, with three friends.

When he visited Welbeck House, the home of the Duke of Portland, in the late 1920s to play cricket, it was parked in the stable-yard with but a few gallons of Petrol (chic the tank; when it was time to leave the tank was quite full, the chauffeurs assuring him that he owed them nothing. It was the custom to replenish visitors’ cars, as their horses would have been fed in earlier times. At Harrow some of the boys used to play in a hired nocturnal visits to London from the Daimler; and at Oxford, apart mortis Dodge, Crawley had a snub-nosed a make popular with undergraduates in the town where they were made. But Basil Dufferin had a sports Sunbeam, around 1926 — a twin-cam 3-litre?

In 1937, while filming in Palestine, the author discovered that Sheikh Nari had two Rolls-Royce cars armed with machine-guns. Travelling for the Air Ministry in Sofia during the war he drove an old-fashioned Buick, another old Buick took him to the Caspian Sea in 1954 for the BBC (with the producer with whom Motor Sport had discussed motor-racing commentaries some years earlier), and a big Ford by grace of Henry Ford himself was used for filming in India in 1952.

From a different period are the cars in Tales Of Travel And Sport by Major P M Stewart (Thornton Butterworth, 1938), which opens with a description of a European tour in a 1906 14hp Germain. The Major had been converted to four wheels from two by an accident, and first bought a 1903 Chelmsford steam-car for £700. It served him well, in spite of scalding steam issuing from a broken water-gauge at Selby and a smashed wheel due to a skid in Cambridge, until this solid-tyred enclosed seven-seater had a heavy accident going down Sutton Bank. It was badly damaged and sold for £70.

The Germain broke its crankshaft at Perugia and was towed by oxen to the station, for repairs at the factory in Charleroi. Stewart later drove into Spain and returned to Nice, but in 1907 the crank again broke, and when reassembled the bearings overheated. So after trying two Fiats, the Major bought a 24hp De Dion double-phaeton.

This proved much better, covering the 136 miles from Florence to Milan in a morning. Various chauffeurs were engaged and no trouble was experienced with the Germain’s numbers on the new car, which behaved well apart from a burst water joint en route for Turin. Up the Susa Pass it had a race with a 16/30 Martini but lost when a water pipe broke; in Paris a fine of £16 was imposed for inadvertent declaration of the wrong amount of petrol in the De Dion, and the chauffeur’s licence was endorsed.

The Germain was eventually collected from the works, and after a slipping clutch had been rectified it went well. However, the back tyres lasted only 1900 miles on Italian and Belgian roads, and after dark a lamp had to be detached for reading signposts.

The Major does not seem to have been the most fortunate of drivers. He just escaped injury when his Bates Mule tractor pulling a four-furrow Ransome plough overturned in a field, had two upsets due to wheels coming off his cars, was nearly run down by a train at a level-crossing near Fontainebleau, and had the steering fail both on an early 65hp Napier and on a Wolseley Fifteen in 1928. The perils of the pioneers! WB