THE BLIGHT MEETS THE GOOD LORD
It could only happen in Britain. After buying a vintage headlamp on Ebay, I was issued with detailed instructions – from a somewhat clandestine third-party – on exactly how to retrieve it:
“Drive down St Pier’s Lane, past Lingfield Notre Dame, turn right on Racecourse, past Notre Dame Junior, then, just after Eden Brook, turn right on Station Road. Continue for about a quarter of a mile until you reach a left-hand bend – it’s the one with a large copper beech. You’ll see some black iron gates on the left-hand side. If you drive past Lingfield Station you’ve gone too far. He’ll leave the gates open for you; just park in front of the house.”
Of course, it would help if British houses had numbers, but that would be a bit naff, especially in the leafy lawyer-belt of Surrey where such things are frowned upon. As it turned out, my destination didn’t need one.
The ancient iron gates were something of a local landmark and impossible to miss, even at speed on a blind corner with one eye on a cryptic mud-map. They were generously proportioned with handsome features, intense pot-belly black in colour, and exceedingly well-hung. They were also reinforced with a muscular stone gatehouse that was big enough for an average family of four, or 16 if it was located in Bradford………….
The gates were open as promised, but the crunchy gravel driveway alerted an ageing gardener to my arrival. He nodded politely as I drove past and then went back to manicuring his bright green lawn. I continued along the sweeping driveway, past beds of scented roses and finely sculptured shrubs, to the house itself which unfolded like a pop-up picture framed by ancient yew trees. And it was big, really big.
The old colonial may be a bit rough around the edges, but he scrubs up pretty well when required and he’s definitely not rattled by nobility. A clean shirt certainly helped, but the old diesel wagon was a bit of a handicap and it was one of those occasions where a stately carriage and a fleet of prancing white chargers would have come in handy.
I parked the handicap as instructed and waited for a doorman or butler, but no-one appeared. Still, times are tough and affordable serfs are in short supply these days. The front door would have consumed the best part of a mature oak tree, but it was dwarfed by an impressive stone facade complete with a coat of arms. The cast-iron knocker was similarly proportioned and operation required some effort. The heavy metal ring delivered a satisfying and resounding knock that echoed throughout the empty courtyard. A well-dressed man soon appeared and he studied the wind-blown offering on his door step with some suspicion.
“G’day” I said. “I’m here to collect the lamp.
His guard fell away like a wet blanket and a generous smile took its place.
“Lord Lingfield” he declared wringing my hand with considerable vigour. “Delighted to meet you; do come in.”
The good Lord led me through a richly panelled hallway to an expansive kitchen with a commanding view of the beautifully sculptured gardens.
“Tea?” he asked reaching for an oversized aluminium kettle that had obviously served a military campaign in its previous life. The poor man was clearly bereft of domestic staff.
“Bonza.” I said. ‘’Cow juice and no sugar thanks.”
From my experience, old-school aristocrats are unreservedly hospitable and impeccably mannered. Lord Lingfield was no exception and we spent the next hour chatting about vintage cars, life in Australia, the trials of maintaining old houses, and historic sailing ships – his consuming passion. To be truthful, I usually avoid any discussion of bobbing boats because they always make me sick, but I was fascinated to learn that the good Lord was a direct descendant of Sir John Balchen – an Admiral in the British Navy and commander of the first HMS Victory in 1744; impressive lineage indeed. Unfortunately, the heavily laden warship sank in a violent storm near the Channel Islands and Sir John went down with over 1000 men. But there was an Australian connection in the form of a beautifully crafted scale model in a large glass case. It was made downunder from red cedar and it sat proudly in the centre of an appropriately sized antique dining table.
We finally got around to the Ebay lamp after a towering grandfather clock struck for the second time. When I asked where the lamp came from the Lord confessed to selling off his fleet of cars. It was originally fitted to a vintage Rolls-Royce, but there was only one left now and it rarely saw the light of day. Pity.
I wasn’t allowed to depart without being presented with a copy of Oceans Odyssey – a beautifully illustrated book detailing deep-sea shipwrecks with a section dedicated to HMS Victory. If one good turn deserves another that was surely worth a dinkum Aussie calendar. Fortunately, the old colonial always carries a selection in his baggage and a glossy example showcasing Aboriginal art was forwarded the very next day. I expected nothing more, but when I returned to Brisbane two months later I received an official envelope from the House of Lords containing a beautifully scripted thank-you card from the good Lord himself.
“Dear David. How very kind of you to send a calendar which is on the wall in my office! Warm regards, Bob”
Sometimes, good old-fashioned courtesy goes a long way……
© David Fryer, the Blight in Blighty, September 2013. (925-words)
Fryer’s Flyers MY DIRTY WEEKEND
Britain is well stocked with eccentrics. You can see them every weekend scurrying around on penny farthings, racing through sleepy villages in vintage rag-top cars, or charging up and down abandoned branch lines in billowing steam trains. The obsession with old machinery is hardly surprising – Britain was the epicentre of the industrial revolution after all – but an annual muster of heavy metal can only be described as obsession on steroids.
The Great Dorset Steam Fair is the biggest event of its kind in the world attracting more than 200,000 people every year. The event runs for five action-packed days and it’s one of the few places where heavy metal can shake rattle and roll in a smoke filled environment without fear of prosecution. But the steam engines on offer are not the familiar railway locos of childhood dreams and murder mysteries. These iron-age monsters are free to roam the public highways and they are a sight to behold as they thunder down the narrow country lanes around the sleepy little town of Blandford – the steamy epicentre for five days.
Free-range steamers come in a variety of different shapes and sizes. There are road rollers, tractors, trucks, ploughs, and even cars; in fact, just about everything that gets a heavy metal nut all hot and steamy. And for those who can’t live without a loco, there’s usually a chuffing great 120-tonne railway engine thrown in for good measure. But it will probably be strapped to the mother of all trailers and dragged around the 300-hectacre site by a team of ancient tractors – all steam powered of course.
More than 500 live steam engines gathered for the annual muster in 2013. Machines from as far afield as Patagonia, South Africa and New Zealand converged to kick up a storm of smoke and dust. The event set a new world record for rollers with no less than 102 in a thundering convoy that surely rattled the Richter scales of Dorset. It would have been 103 if Lord Kitchener – a late-Victorian steam roller – hadn’t crashed into an historic 16th century pub a few weeks earlier. The unfortunate engine broke in two and the ancient pub walls suffered a serious blow. It’s not the sort of thing that happens every day, even in Britain, but local beer sales soared and the patrons enjoyed a barrel of laughs. (Thinks: Did they sing Roll Out the barrel on the day……?).
The wandering colonial missed that little morsel of excitement, but he wasn’t going to miss out on any fun at the fair. In fact, he had a steaming hot date with an old boiler from downunder.
Engine number 12063 was built in 1909 at the Fowler engineering works in Leeds. The general purpose tractor was shipped to Young in New South Wales where it was used to haul and cut hardwood logs. Like so many steam engines, it was abandoned and left to rust in an open paddock soon after World-War Two. The story may have ended there but for a chance encounter in the isolated outpost. After being spotted by a British steam enthusiast in 2004, it was shipped back to Blighty (Brits call this “repatriation”) where it ended up in the hands of Richard Vincent, a self-confessed steam nut from rural Somerset.
Richard is a no-nonsense character with a well-oiled boiler suit, a bit like the sort of bloke you’d find in an average Aussie suburb, although his Antipodean counterpart would probably be messing with big Macks (trucks, not burgers). Richard’s passion for steam eventually led to a full-time business dedicated to restoring ancient engines. Long-lost skills and antique tools were employed for the challenging work, but his hands-on approach ensures a steady flow of heavy metal for the workshop regardless of the economy.
It’s probably fair to say the old Young-Fowler is no show pony. You won’t find any polished brass or precious paint to care for, but it’s a well-fettled engine and more than willing to work. Of course, work is no longer a four-letter word for ancient steam engines these days. Most only get fired up for fun and they rarely leave their cosy sheds in winter.
So, what’s it like to drive a thumping great thug of a steam tractor? I have to say it was one of the most exhilarating driving experiences of my life, but to claim I was actually in charge of twelve-tonnes of heavy metal would be stretching the truth. These ancient machines require a considerable degree of expertise and at least two hours of preparation before they can even turn a wheel. Once mobile they require team work; there’s just too much going on for one person. My job was to keep the slow-motion projectile pointing in the right direction and avoid any collateral damage along the way. Fortunately, I had some help from Paul Taylor, a serious steam enthusiast from New Zealand.
The old Fowler already had a rip-roaring fire in the belly and a full head of steam by the time I arrived. The imposing mass of heavy metal rocked gently to a reassuring beat from deep within, and the huge flywheel turned with the effortless ease of an ancient steeple clock. Sizzling tendrils of steam caressed the well-patinated boiler and droplets of boiling water danced across the greasy pushrods as they plunged in and out of the well-honed cylinders with hypnotic regularity. The machine had a life of its own and I could almost hear it beckoning: “its play time, I’m ready………”
I responded by clambering up the hissing monster with a mix of iron-awe and trepidation which, as it turned out, was well founded. Before I had chance to settle in the beast kicked into action with a savage jerk and a snort of steam. Seconds later, we were trundling down a steep grassy hill at full chat in a cloud of smoke and dust.
Of course, speed is a relative term in steam circles. The actual road speed may be low compared to modern vehicles, but the mechanical noise and action were extreme and exhilarating. I stood over the exposed rods and pistons as they pounded in and out with the urgency of a thrashing machine in the face of a storm. I felt like a conductor on a pedestal in front of a busy orchestra, but I had no control over the discordant mass of clanking of metal. That was Paul’s job and it was all music to his ears. Besides, I was focused on wrestling the heavy iron steering wheel which needed a significant numbers of turns to generate a surprisingly modest response at the front end.
I think I passed the test. With Paul’s guidance we managed to shake, rattle and roll around the crowded arena without incident, and I even managed to reverse park without spoiling anyone’s day. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for my expensive new shirt. It was covered in fine Dorset dust and spattered with polka-dots of thick black oil. Paul looked at me with a wry smile and I suddenly understood why well-oiled boiler suits are so popular in steam circles.
Did the old flue-sniffer have fun? You bet. I’ve already booked a dirty weekend for next year and I can’t wait to kick up another storm in the hills of Dorset. Now where did I put that boiler suit……..?
© David Fryer, the blight in Blighty. September 2013. (1280 words)
Footnote: Fowler Class R 6 nhp DCC, shipped 13th September 1909 to Sydney agent W. M. Noakes for H. G. W. Thackeray of Young, NSW. Lyall;1960’s McPherson’s Engineering, Parkes, NSW; Parkes Rural Museum; Allsop; Exported mid 2004 to Martin Bros; Simon Caldwell 2006; Currently Richard Vincent, Somerset.
A Blight in Blighty – GLORIOUS GOODWOOD
A report from the mobile desk of David Fryer
When Adolph Hitler looked across the English Channel through rose-tinted binoculars, he probably had beady little eyes on glorious Goodwood. Fortunately, the poor man grossly underestimated the steely resolve of the Brits and a collective determination to keep the old Jack flying.
The cross-Channel rivalry still plays out in the skies over Sussex seventy five years on. It happens during the annual Goodwood Revival, and although dog fights usually finish without too many casualties these days, there are always plenty of thrills and spills for the 200,000 attendees.
Action starts at 8am every morning with a low-level pass over the camping ground by a brace of Spitfires on mock patrol. Most Brits are still preparing breakfast at this time of day and you can almost hear them thinking:
“If it wasn’t for our spits we’d be eating sour krauts and boiled brats instead of streaky rashers………..”
Heaven help anyone who stands between a hungry pom and a streaky rasher! Mind you, after having worked in Germany I can understand their concerns. Flaccid white sausages were consumed with great relish (or was it pickled gherkins?) in the staff canteen at the Bavarian Motor Works every morning. I always gagged at the prospect of getting my laughing gear around the wretched things, although I managed to embrace their love of an icy-cold Löwenbraü after a hard-day’s work. The Germans couldn’t get enough of the stuff – especially when served by Bavarian beauties with big jugs – but it was nearly always accompanied with a customary fat white sausage.
Anyway, back to Goodwood. The Revival is surely one of the biggest parties on the calendar. Fancy dress isn’t exactly mandatory, but a man would feel naked if he didn’t make an effort. Fortunately, most of my wardrobe qualifies, so it was simply a case of deciding whether to wear the Plus-Four or Plus-Eight tweeds and remembering to shake out any moths before the gate.
While historic race cars are the main attraction, pre-war aeroplanes always feature strongly. Spitfires were frequent flyers throughout the Revival in 2013 and a lone 1936 Junkers JU 52 made an occasional fly-by. With machine-age corrugated panels, the strange looking creation was a bit like an airborne 2CV with the fun parts removed. It was difficult to tell if was actually moving or not when flying into a headwind, although it wasn’t difficult to imagine spitfires taking them out like ducks at a rifle range. But the Germans loved their ugly duck and they were happy to show it off to a wandering colonial. I climbed aboard for a sticky beak and it was an interesting experience. The cramped thirties interior had been refurbished with sympathetic attention to detail, but the flight deck was upgraded with the latest technology for safety. We managed to avoid any talk about sausages or war and I was released after fifteen minutes of mutual interrogation.
Talking of war, it’s a well known fact that Germany actually made three bombs for the war effort: the V1, the V2, and the VW. Fortunately, none appeared at Goodwood, but there were a surprising number of Mercedes 300-SL ‘Gullwings’ in full race trim. At one stage the Germans got uncharacteristically excited after someone suggested an impromptu photo-shoot of the Junkers surrounded by three matching grey Gullwings. The operation required clearing the area of numerous spectators, but Germans excel in such tasks and several were seen strutting around the audience in leather boots and bomber jackets. The Brits were surprisingly compliant as they were ushered out of the frame, but the leaden grey sky refused to go away; pity. The incident was noted by a small group of Dad’s Army members, but they appeared to be more interested in the whiff of fresh tea from a nearby pilot’s club.
The race-pits were littered with pre-war exotica in the form of historic team-cars, most with impeccable racing pedigree. With so many impressive cars on display it was impossible to choose a favourite. Nick Mason (of Pick Floyd fame) had a similar problem when he first went to the Revival, but he solved it by buying a whole stable of expensive race cars to choose from. A very impressive bright red Aston Martin Ulster was rolled out of the Mason’s garage for 2013. It was the last of the factory race cars and the first with a squat radiator to reduce drag. Mr Mason may have been over the moon with his contribution, but the bright red livery clashed with my sickly green envy and I couldn’t shake the sound of ‘Money’ for the rest of the day (Dark Side Of The Moon, track-5).
Talking of money – Bonhams delivered yet again with the sale of the 1935 ex-Tazio Nuvolari Alfa Romeo Tipo 8C which sold for a thumping £5,937,500 (AU $10.1 million) – a new world record for an Alfa Romeo. Don’t tell Jeremy Clarkson. The ex-Works 1931 Invicta 4½-litre S-Type ‘Low Chassis’ Sports sold for £953,500 (AU $1.6 million); a gorgeous 1925 Vauxhall 30/98 with a Wensum body and Brooklands race history sold for a respectable £259,100 (AU $440, 865), and a very Teutonic Messerschmidt KR200 three-wheeler cabriolet sold for a comparatively bargain-basement price of £20,700 or AU $35,200. (Thinks: Why did I sell my bright red Messerschmidt Cabriolet? And to a mad East German escapee too……….). All prices quoted include buyer’s premiums.
For me, the high spot of the weekend was undoubtedly being part of the action on the hallowed track. 2013 marked the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France and I was privileged to be part of a small group of like-minded cyclists on period racing bicycles. The unlikely peleton was headed up by Sir Chris Hoy and we were expected to do a lap around the circuit each day, but it was a tough task on a machine that was over a century old with no gears and dodgy brakes. There was a possibility my performance (or lack of) would turn the show into a Tour de Farce, but all went well and I managed to cover the required distance without expiring along the way. For my efforts I received a generous pack of passes for all three days. The passes included Champagne dinner at Goodwood House on opening night, a VIP pass which provided access to the pits, three slap-up meals each day, camping permits and more. I also managed to obtain a much coveted press pass for Sunday and this allowed invaluable track access during car racing and grid access prior to race starts; a rare treat indeed.
It was a party to remember and certainly difficult to top. Will the old colonial be going next year? You bet……..
© David Fryer, the Blight in Blighty, September 2013. (1115 words)
A Blight in Blighty – Prescott Hill Climb
A report from the mobile desk of David Fryer
Glocestershire – a large rural county in the south-west of England with very fat pigs and magnificent mangelwurzels. It’s also home to two-thirds of the Top Gear team, Prince Charles and a number of famous authors. But the ancient shire is better known for the Royal Forest of Dean – a medieval hunting ground for kings – and the rolling Cotswold Hills with picture-postcard views.
The Cotswolds are littered with charming honey-stone villages and quaint English pubs. It’s a popular area for tourists who cherish the peace and quiet of rural living, but on some weekends in summer, the hills are alive with the sounds of screaming engines and squealing tyres.
Prescott Hill is a crumbling stone’s throw from Gotherington – a typically sleepy Cotswold village – and just a short drive from Cheltenham – a prestigious city famous for horse racing and the International Literature Festival. It’s also the location for a unique motor racing track owned and run by the prestigious Bugatti Owners Club.
The medieval kings may have ruled the Forest of Dean, but the kings of speed certainly rule at Prescott. Stirling Moss notched up his first hill climb in 1948 and many wanna-be racers have wrestled the hairpins since. I managed to get there for the 75th anniversary of the Vintage Sports Car Club in August 2013 and it was a memorable day indeed.
The summer had, up until then, been the hottest and driest for many years with record temperatures in some places. Curtains faded, gardens cracked, and normally verdant lawns turned straw-yellow. Gardeners were forced to use their butts for watering and red sunburnt faces were common. Fortunately, a slightly cooler change arrived just in time for the start of racing. Drivers breathed a collective sigh of relief as their cars were spared expensive overheating woes, but ice-cream vendors cursed their bad luck.
There were plenty of jaw-dropping jousters on offer including an impressive 1929 Bentley fitted with a 24-litre Napier aeroplane engine, a magnificent recreation of a 1906 straight-eight Fiat-Isotta Fraschini, countless Bugattis in various shades of blue, and a king’s ransom of exotica that most of us uncrowned cruds could only dream about. At the other end of the scale, Tim Gunn’s flyweight cycle-car – if one could call it a car – would have fitted comfortably within the confines of the Bentley’s engine room. The tiny morsel of muscle, with a single-seat fabric body, single-cylinder engine, and flimsy timber chassis, attracted a disproportionate amount of interest in the spectators’ car-park.
Action was blistering and relentless for all three days. I thought I’d seen some good burnouts in the outer ‘burbs of Brisbane, but the fearsome Napier-Bentley redefined the act. It leapt off the start line with a thundering roar and an impressive cloud of smoking rubber that surely contributed to global warming. The tyre bill for the weekend would have crippled the average mortal, but it didn’t appear to concern the owner – a larger than life character with a shock of grey hair and a tight Superman T-shirt that looked as if it had been sprayed on. The slogan on the Bentley’s bonnet said it all: The Ultimate Laxative, and if that wasn’t enough, a notice at the rear end advised anyone to report the improbable beast as stolen if driven responsibly!
Frivolity aside, racing is a deadly serious business. There were no serious incidents on the anniversary weekend, but a few weeks later someone managed to roll a 1924 Bugatti on the track. The historic car was worth a cool £250,000 (AU $450,000) and although badly damaged, the owner managed to walk away uninjured despite head butting a metal guard rail. He also reputedly walked straight over to the members bar for a glass of beer immediately after the incident. One can only hope the beer was cold……..
© David Fryer, the blight in Blighty, August 2013 (645 words)
The Tin Snail Trail
From the front, it looks like a frog in a fairground mirror; the side profile bears an uncanny resemblance to an inverted rubbish skip on wheels; but on reflection, it’s half-a-tonne of fun.
The Citroën 2CV “Tin Snail” is a frivolous French folly, a quirky convertible that defies automotive convention. With lift-off doors and flip-flop windows it could have been designed for circus clowns. The roll-back roof was almost certainly inspired by a saucy sardine can, and the diminutive stem-mounted headlamps were surely inherited from a sight-impaired snail.
The eccentric exterior is matched by an even more eccentric air-cooled engine. With a capacity of just 602cc (less than a brace of baked bean cans), the tiny two-pot screamer can only be described as numerically challenged. It palpitates within a cavernous void beneath a large curvaceous bonnet that resembles the bow of a shipwrecked tinny, sadly without the prospect of rescue.
But you don’t need to be an eccentric Francophile to keep a Tin Snail any more than you need a beret on a bidet. I first developed a taste for the saucy escargot when I needed a car for a Churchill Fellowship in Blighty. A boot-string budget restricted my options, so when a Burgundy and black ‘Charleston’ appeared at a local car auction I knew she was mine.
The forlorn flapper was lurking at the rear of a long line of clapped-out clunkers. With a start price of just £200 I anticipated some serious competition, but at the fall of the hammer I was the only bidder.
For some reason I expected a kinky kick-starter or a giant clockwork winder, so I was a little disappointed to receive a surprisingly conventional set of keys. The gearstick – a long crooked bar with a large round knob at the end – was anything but conventional. The mysterious object poked out of the dashboard like Excalibur’s sword and gear selection felt more like poking around in a stodgy rice pudding with a disability stick. It was obvious my first drive would include a steep learning curve.
Tin Snails are guaranteed to generate a smile and mine was no exception. As I wrestled with the walking stick, a collective howl erupted from a swarm of shady car salesmen hovering nearby. But their merriment was short-lived when the engine suddenly fired up for the first time. The diminutive donk burst into life with a disturbing screech that sounded remarkably like a flock of startled parrots in a 44-gallon drum. The screech quickly turned into an ominous rattle when I accidentally floored the accelerator, then a large cloud of blue-black smoke tumbled out of the rear end to engulf the entire yard and everyone within it. The dealers scattered for clean air and I savoured their plight in the rear-view mirror.
An unidentified gear was eventually discovered and my Tin Snail emerged from the cloud of smoke like the mysterious contraption it was. But as I bolted for the exit through a tight corridor of shiny cars, the engine rattle morphed into a loud and menacing knock. I managed to escape without too much collateral damage, although it would have taken some time for operations to regain normality on the auction floor.
If you need to work on a Tin Snail for any reason (when you’re a Snail jockey there doesn’t have to be a good reason), most jobs are a mere bagatelle. Just about everything parts company with surprising ease, often without the need for tools. The large and ungainly boat-front bonnet can be liberated by simply sliding off sideways – an operation that takes seconds rather than minutes. The boot-lid also parts company with a sideways shuffle, while the doors can be released by lifting vertically – all without the need for tools. Circus clowns find these features irresistible, but it’s rumoured they’re not much fun in a car crash.
Frivolity aside, it was time to roll up my sleeves and get down and dirty. The front guards were actually restrained by bolts – two from memory – but they weren’t badly rusted and it only took a few minutes to remove them. My Tin Snail was soon a bare shell in the gutter and the troublesome engine looked like an emaciated bald poodle once exposed.
The strip-down also uncovered a curious yellow bath duck lurking beneath the driver’s seat. It was attached to the floor with a slab of well-chewed gum and it had obviously been there for some time. I liberated the pathetic creature from its roost and reattached it to the scuttle, but its face remained fixed with a startled expression as I dissected the engine.
In no time at all the heads and barrels were off and the ping-pong pistons were identified as the source of the embarrassing knock. The rings were in tatters and large segments were missing, presumably scattered over the auction floor and surrounding countryside. Fortunately, Tin Snail spares are readily available and relatively inexpensive. After shelling out for a set of shiny new pistons my Tin Snail was soon firing on all two cylinders without a hint of smoke.
The rebuilt engine may have had the power of a Parisian poodle in a peddlo, but it had the heart of a lion cub on steroids. With a favourable tail wind my morsel of muscle would happily run all day on the smell of an oily rocket leaf. For those who like statistics, 0 – 100kph (zero to fearo in a Snail) can be measured with a conventional grandfather clock, although you may have to rewind it along the way.
Of course, size isn’t everything and performance takes a back seat when fun is the keyword. For squeals on wheels you just can’t beat a Tin Snail. They’re a passport to party and I soon found some like-minded souls at the local 2CV club – The Portsmouth Puddle Jumpers. In truth, most were an onion short of a bunch, but they shared a common sense of fun and adventure.
My good friend Rowan flew in from Australia a few days later and he was delighted to be scooped up by a Tin Snail on arrival. He thought she was oh-so Frenchy chic and it was love at first sight. But the poor man couldn’t resist broadcasting our passage through every town and village with a cheap bicycle horn that was kept on the parcel shelf. Tin Snails are one big hoot anyway, so they rarely need help to attract attention, but I was happy to share the mood and we laughed all the way back to Chichester.
Laughter is always infectious, but I was surprised when Rowan announced that he had bought a matching Burgundy and black Tin Snail called Tootsie. A name like that was sure to generate a good wheeze, even on a bad day, but I was even more surprised to hear the car belonged to Trudie Goodwin – aka Sergeant June Ackland in The Bill television series. Rowan had never heard of The Bill, or June Ackland for that matter, so the significance was lost when he rushed off to test out her Tootsie in London.
But the deal almost turned pear-shaped when Rowan failed to obtain insurance cover. With no ties to the mother country – other than a shrivelled Jack in the top left-hand corner of the Australian flag – he was deemed an unacceptable risk. The news came as a shock to Rowan who was a fully-certified Queenslander and devout tea drinker; and it was also rumoured he sang God Save The Queen in front of a large portrait of Her Maj at primary school. This smack in the eye meant finding a substitute driver for the duration of his holiday. Normally, I’d avoid anything that resembled the long arm of the law, but I was a great fan of blonde sergeants and a sucker for Snails.
As luck would have it, June Ackland was away filming when we arrived, but hubby Kit Jackson was happy to seal the deal and hand over the keys to Tootsie. After a quick cuppa and obligatory inspection of old Bill portraits in the hallway, we took off on the first leg of what was to be a new adventure for Tootsie in her old age.
A nearby Tesco car-park provided a good opportunity to remove the embarrassing name from the boot lid. It peeled away like a Brazilian waxing strip, but it took some of the lacquer with it and a tell-tale ghosted impression remained. Little did we know it would be an important asset several years later.
The car-park presented a good opportunity for closer inspection and although the car cost five time more than mine it ticked some important boxes. The body panels presented well, the original paint had a rich lustre, the upholstery was in exceptional condition, and the chassis looked good, or at least we thought it did. Little did we know, Tootsie was rotting from the core; something that would haunt Rowan back in Australia.
The holiday delivered some memorable experiences, but it also delivered two more Tin Snails. A bright red Special turned up in Manchester with the even more unfortunate name of Monica-Mable. The custodian – a suitably mad lady with an over-baked solarium tan that closely matched the car – was horrified when I told her the name would have to go. She stubbornly refused to sell unless I could come up with an alternative that met with her approval and this created an awkward standoff for some time as a variety of names were proposed. All were firmly rejected until I finally suggested the name Pickles. She finally relaxed, the keys were exchanged for a wad of well-worn bank notes, and I disappeared into the sunset with Pickles.
If three is a crowd, then four is a riot. Another Charleston turned up in the leafy lawyer belt of Surrey, this time in two-tone grey with a topping of bright green moss. Sadly, it had been left out in the open for several years; the battery was dead, the tyres were perished, and the paint had deteriorated to a cloudy grey bloom. In contrast, the carpet of moss was flourishing to a point where it could have been harvested for animal fodder or trendy garden rocks. A Tin Snail with moss may have impressed the Portsmouth Puddle Jumpers, but it wasn’t a good look for the lawyer belt. This may explain why the owner – the well-dressed daughter of a wealthy industrialist – was happy to flick it on for fifty-quid and the promise of immediate removal.
Thirty-minutes later, the forlorn Snail was running and it sounded remarkably healthy. The perished tyres were full of wind, and the blooming paint shone like new thanks to a borrowed dish scourer and a can of spray oil. The transformation surprised everyone, ourselves included, but the vendor was even more surprised when Rowan drove off with enough traffic violations to wipe out a driving license – if he had one!
to be continued………….
AGATHA CHRISTIE and the MYSTERY OF THE MISSING MORRIS
“I will confess here and now that of the two things that have excited me most in my life, the first was my car: my grey bottle-nosed Morris Cowley. The second was dining with the Queen at Buckingham Palace about forty years later.”
Agatha Christie in her autobiography, 1977
When Agatha Christie mysteriously disappeared on the night of Friday December 3rd, 1926, the incident made headline news in British newspapers and front page coverage in the New York Times. Her disappearance triggered an unprecedented search that involved over 1000 police, teams of tracker dogs, more than 15,000 volunteers, spotter planes, a renowned clairvoyant, and distinguished crime writers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers.
The intensive search initially centred on her beloved Morris Cowley tourer which was found abandoned not far from Silent Pool – a haunted spring-fed lake and popular beauty spot in Surrey that Agatha Christie had used for her novels. A passer-by, Jack Best, stumbled upon the damaged Cowley early on Saturday morning when he was walking his dog. The car was grounded on a grassy embankment with its rear wheels in the air, the driver’s door was open, the lights were still on, and clothes were scattered over the rear seats. Personal items, including an expired driving license, were also found at the scene.
Teams of police and tracker dogs searched the surrounding countryside for days and thousands of volunteers scoured every bush and bramble in tight coordinated lines. Spotter planes were used for the first time and the lake was dragged for a body, but nothing was found. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers joined the search and a prominent clairvoyant was handed one of Agatha’s gloves, but all to no avail. The world’s most famous author had disappeared without trace and millions of devoted fans suddenly found themselves transfixed by a real-life murder-mystery that could easily have been lifted from the pages of her best-selling novels.
Suspicion initially fell on Agatha’s husband, Archie, who had spent the weekend with his mistress, Nancy Neele, but with a rock-solid alibi and lack of hard evidence, he could not be charged. Questions were asked by leading politicians and a substantial reward was offered by a major newspaper, but the case remained unsolved.
Silent Pool was dragged for the second time on the 7th December and an adjoining millstream was drained of water. Then a letter was discovered, supposedly written by Agatha Christie herself. It claimed she had gone to a Yorkshire spa for a rest, but the letter was discounted by police. Little did they know it was the most important lead they had.
The famous author was finally discovered on the 14th December at an up-market spa-hotel in Yorkshire. She had registered herself at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate (now the Old Swan Hotel) under the pseudonym of Mrs Teresa Neele from Cape Town. The chosen surname was obviously inspired by Archie’s lover, Nancy Neele, and one observer even suggested the name Teresa was an anagram of Teaser.
Her fans were less than sympathetic when they heard the news. Many were outraged by the waste of police resources and there were suggestions the whole thing had been staged as an elaborate hoax to generate publicity for her latest novel. The official response, from Colonel Christie, was that she was suffering a combination of amnesia, nervous tension and depression, after the loss of her mother earlier that year. He didn’t mention the affair.
The Christies separated soon after and eventually divorced in 1928. Archie married his lover, Nancy, and Agatha took custody of their daughter, Rosalind. The Christie name was retained for her writing and she went on to become the most successful crime-writer of all time. The Guinness Book of World Records claims she has sold over two billion copies of her novels and her estate boasts that she is third in the rankings of most-published books after Shakespeare and the Bible.
Her disappearance inspired several books, a feature film, doco-dramas, radio broadcasts, numerous articles, and even a Doctor Who episode. At least one book – Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days by Jared Cade – became a best-seller in its own right. A feature film – Agatha – followed in 1979 starring Vanessa Redgrave, Dustin Hoffman and Timothy Dalton. A BBC TV doco-drama – A Life In Pictures – screened in 2004 and, in 2008, a Doctor Who episode – The Unicorn and the Wasp – travelled back in time to the fateful night she disappeared. It featured Christie in a blue Bullnose Morris shortly before she was taken away in the TARDIS and transported to the hotel in Harrogate!
Agatha Christie avoided discussion of the incident for the rest of her life and there was no mention of it in her autobiography. (The autobiography was published in 1977, shortly after her death).
As for the fate of Agatha Christie’s beloved Bullnose Cowley, therein lies another mystery. While the author’s disappearance has been heavily documented with forensic attention to detail, information on her car is almost non-existent. There are no published photos, no documents, no registration number, and very few details other than an occasional mention in her autobiography and interviews. This is surprising because it was a significant feature in her life and pivotal in police investigations at the time.
The Daily Mail devoted several pages to the incident in 1926 and they still hold a number of original photos in their archives, but none show a Morris Cowley. It would appear the car was removed by the police and sent to Sanford Garage in Guildford, presumably before the press were alerted. Some damage was recorded by an employee in the Surrey Advertiser at the time:
“The bonnet was slightly damaged, the speedometer cable broken, and the wing a little bent. The electric battery was run down.”
According to a 1927 directory, the garage – at 60 Epsom Road – was run by a man with the unlikely name of Captain Napper. The garage was redeveloped in the Art Deco style a few years later, but it was still used as a garage for several decades. An additional two residential floors were added more recently – in matching Neo-Deco style – and called Sanford Mews. The garage is now a bicycle store.
The Guildford Dragon – a weekly on-line newspaper – ran a mystery photo competition in July 2013 called ‘Where Is This?’ (No.64) featuring the original garage c1922. It was correctly identified by a number of readers, but there was no mention of the important link to Agatha Christie in either the editorial comment or responses. The editor-owner is also a historian and lecturer in history, but he was unaware of the important link. Sadly, it would appear this little morsel of local knowledge has withered over the years.
Her difficulty in starting the car early that morning in 1926 was reported by a pit worker, Edward McAllister:
About 6.20 on Saturday morning I saw a motor car with a woman standing at the back. She said to me: ‘Would you mind starting up my car for me please?’ I said: ‘I will have a try.’ I got off my bicycle and started up the car after some little trouble. The radiator was cold and the lights of the car were on. The Surrey Advertiser, 1926.
The Cowley had evidently been out in sub-zero conditions all night and the woman’s hair was allegedly covered with hoar frost. This report ties in nicely with the car being discovered approximately two hours later with the lights still on near Newlands Corner. Some reports claim the car was found overhanging a chalk pit, but this is an exaggeration.
Christie wrote about the challenges of starting the Cowley in her Autobiography (p.349):
“I cranked and cranked, and nothing happened. Finally, I burst into tears, came into the house, and lay on the sofa sobbing.”
This happened not long after her mother died in the spring of 1926 and it may indicate that she was struggling emotionally at the time.
Christie also wrote about the challenges of learning to drive in an earlier reference (p.332):
I don’t think I can really reverse at all, the car never seems to go where I think it’s going.” Her first attempt to drive Archie – to a train station on the western outskirts of London – was “…..one of the worst ordeals I have ever known.”
It was Archie who reminded her that she knew how to put the brake on because that was the first thing he had taught her.
“I was shaking with fright” she said, “I stalled the engine once or twice by braking rather more violently than I need. As long as you could steer reasonably, and didn’t have to park, turn, or reverse too much, all was well.”
These statements paint a fascinating picture of a young woman learning to drive in the 1920’s, but the lack of specific detail has led to speculation over the years: Does the Cowley still exist? Or was it scrapped like so many other vintage cars after WW2?
A comprehensive search of the internet yielded a bewildering number of articles on Agatha Christie’s disappearance, but hardly any information on the Cowley. Several sites feature an image of a car purporting to be the genuine article, but all such claims turned out to be incorrect or deliberately misleading.
While some show a Bullnose Morris of appropriate vintage, other claims are blatantly absurd. One site hosts an image of a later ‘Flatnose’ Cowley claiming to be her car, yet these didn’t appear until after Agatha Christie’s disappearance. Another site shows an Austin Seven, while several sites – including Alinari and Getty Images Inc.- show a copyright-protected photo of an impressive veteran landaulet claiming to be the actual abandoned car on the day. But the vehicle is a much earlier pre-1915 Dennis with a Midlands registration mark. The interesting thing about this car, other than its rarity, is that Dennis had a factory in Guildford, just down the road from where Agatha Christie disappeared. The Dennis was used by the police for their reconstruction of events a few days after her disappearance and it may have been supplied by the factory. (Getty eventually corrected their image, but Alinari have yet to amend theirs).
Just one solitary image appeared to be genuine, at least at first glance. The tatty sepia photograph shows a 4-seater Morris Cowley of the same vintage, but something wasn’t quite right. Agatha Christie disappeared in December, the depth of winter in Britain, and the image clearly shows trees in full leaf with bright sunshine. Was this an earlier photo from the Christie archives? Sadly no. The image bore a striking resemblance to a colour photograph of the late Garnons-Williams Bullnose used in Jared Cade’s recreation of the fateful drive in 1926. The two images were compared side by side and, sure enough, the sepia photo is nothing more than a PhotoShop forgery. (It should be noted that Jared Cade was unable to provide any information on this image and there is no suggestion he had anything to do with the forgery).
So, why are there no images of the Christie Cowley? A woman driving a car was something of a novelty in 1924 and a famous woman driving a car would have attracted considerable attention. The lack of documentation or photographic evidence has generated speculation over the years as to the exact model. The Daily Mail described the car as a two-seater in 1926, yet the BBC mention a coupé in their 2004 documentary. The most compelling description can be found on a Berkshire Constabulary wanted-persons poster issued on December 9th, 1926 where it is described as a 4 seater Morris Cowley. (An original poster can be viewed at the Berkshire Record Office, document reference PS/FT26/29).
Agatha Christie confirms this in a brief description of driving in Devon in 1930 (Autobiography p.415):
“I used to drive my faithful Morris Cowley, which was of course an open touring car, and which had an elderly hood with several gaps in its structure, so that, sitting in the back, water coursed steadily down the back of your neck. In all, going for a picnic with the Christies was a distinct endurance test.”
She met Max Mallowan, a renowned archaeologist, at this time and they married soon after.
The search for the missing Morris continues next month.
© David Fryer, March 2015
The Mystery of the Missing Morris, Part-2:
“The last thing I dreamed of was a car. Nobody I knew of in our circle of friends had a car. I was still imbued with the notion that cars were for the rich.”
Agatha Christie discussing the possibility of buying her first car in 1923. (From her autobiography, 1977).
Agatha Christie has been the subject of intense public scrutiny for over nine decades. Countless books and articles have been written, films and documentaries have been made, hundreds of photographs have been published, yet very little has been written about her beloved Morris Cowley; no photos of the car have been published, and the registration details are unknown. Does the car still exist? Or was it scrapped a long time ago? To date, these questions have not been answered, which is surprising considering the importance of this humble little car to the world-famous author. If the existence (or fate) of Agatha Christie’s Morris Cowley can be established, more information will need to be uncovered. In the absence of published documentation, other methods need to be explored.
The year of purchase and location is always a good starting point, but without documented reference these pointers have been subject to speculation. There are no specific dates mentioned in Agatha Christie’s writings or interviews, but her autobiography offers some useful clues (p.331):
“Anna The Adventuress had now appeared in the Evening News and I had bought my Morris Cowley – and a very good car it was: much more reliable and better made than cars are nowadays. The next thing I had to do was to learn to drive it.” she wrote. “Almost immediately the General Strike was upon us, before I had had more than about three lessons with Archie.”
The General Strike was a significant event in England lasting nine days, from the 4th May to the 13th May, 1926. This would suggest a purchase date of 1926, but Anna the Adventuress is a 1920 silent film written by Blanche McIntosh and E. Phillips Oppenheim. Anne the Adventurous was a serialised adaption of her fourth novel, The Man In The Brown Suit, which first appeared in the London Evening News in November 1923. The novel was published in book form by her publisher, The Bodley Head, in 1924.
The suggestion of 1926 car is contradicted by a description of driving into the garage at their rental home ‘Scotswood’ in an earlier quote (p.332):
“I had to turn into Scotswood and get myself into an extremely narrow garage, next to our neighbour’s car. These people lived in the flat below us – a young couple called the Rawncliffes.”
The wife reported the ordeal to her husband:
“I saw the first floor driving back this morning. I don’t think she has ever driven a car before. She drove into that garage absolutely shaking and white as a sheet.”
Scotswood is the name of their first house at Sunningdale in Berkshire (they rented the first-floor apartment). The Christies moved there from London in 1924, so this statement confirms she had a car then. They bought a house nearby in 1926 and named it ‘Styles’ after her first book – The Mysterious Affair At Styles. Fortunately, for Agatha Christie, Styles had a two-car garage complete with chauffeur’s quarters. Unfortunately, it also had a history of delivering bad luck to its occupants and the Christie’s were no exception. Within months of moving in Agatha’s mother died, Archie broke the news of his affair, and her disappearance occurred soon after.
Then there’s this quote from an interview with the Sunday Times in 1960:
“My third book was serialised in a newspaper and they gave me a whole £500 for that; it was wonderful. I bought a thing that I thought I would never have – a car, a Bullnose Morris. That is one of the big thrills of my life, a Bullnose Morris.”
It’s interesting to note that she talks about a ‘Bullnose Morris’ in 1960 and a “bottle nosed Cowley” in 1977. Her third book is listed as The Murder On The Links, a title that may have been inspired by Sunningdale Golf Course, for it was this course that influenced Archie Christie’s desire to move there. The Man In The Brown Suit (that inspired the serialisation) was actually her fourth book.
Most London registration records were destroyed a long time ago, so if the Cowley was purchased in London in 1923 /24 – where the Christie’s had owned a number of properties – details are unlikely to be found. They moved to Berkshire in 1924 and the Berkshire County records still survive in original card form. Naturally, a search was commissioned, but nothing turned up. That said, a number of cards list a Sunningdale garage rather than the actual owner. The DVLA – Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency – were happy to release any details as a matter of public interest, but with literally millions of cars recorded they can only search by registration number. Pity.
A breakthrough of sorts finally came after months of searching when an original image was discovered in a photo-library. The image, captioned a 1925 Morris Oxford with two well-dressed women, was something of a Eureka moment, for there was a young woman who bore a striking resemblance to Agatha Christie herself.
Apart from the remarkable similarity and the Bullnose Morris, there are two further clues in this photograph: The standing woman is wearing a very distinctive fur coat (a fur coat was reportedly found in the abandoned Cowley), and she is also wearing a hat that appears to be identical to one she wore on a world tour in 1923.
The Morris Oxford is similar in appearance to a Cowley, but it has a slightly larger engine and radiator. For someone lacking confidence in their driving skills, the smaller Cowley may have been less threatening.
If it is Agatha Christie, who is the other woman at the wheel? Was she a friend? Did she influence Agatha in her choice of car? Or was she a sales demonstrator? Stewart and Arden were the largest distributors for Morris in the 1920’s and they employed female demonstrators, but the Oxford has muddy tyres with low air pressure and cars used for demonstration were always kept spotlessly clean and in good working order.
So, what is the likelihood of the Christie-Cowley still surviving after nine decades? Almost 33,000 cars rolled off the Morris production line in 1924 alone and relatively few survive today. The search for a registration mark continues, but the mystery of the missing Morris endures for now. Agatha would no doubt be amused to hear that.
It’s worth noting the research for this article was done from a remote location on the other side of the world. That has to be a tick for technology.
Finally, a quote from the remarkable lady herself:
“I don’t think anything has given me more pleasure, more joy of achievement, than my dear bottle-nosed Morris Cowley.”
© David Fryer, March 2015
The author would like to thank the following for their help:
Ann Laver (Agatha Christie’s Surrey, A Research Paper 2013), Surrey History Centre, Reading Archive Office, Beaulieu Motor Museum, Heritage Motor Museum, The Bullnose Morris Club (UK), Thames Valley Police, The Daily Mail Archives, and many others who have contributed in no small way.
Some tit-bits of trivia:
The Guinness Book of World Records lists Agatha Christie as the best-selling novelist of all time.
Over two billion copies of Agatha Christie’s novels have been sold worldwide.
The Mousetrap is the longest running play of all time.
Agatha Christie books rank third, after Shakespeare and the Bible, as most widely-published.
The Christie’s Sunningdale property had a two-car garage and chauffeur’s quarters.
Archie Christie drove a Delage.
The New York Times claimed Agatha Christie was American, but she was born in Devon and was quintessentially British to the core. However, she did have an American father.
A little bit of Bull:
The Morris Cowley badge features an ox fording the River Isis, hence the name ‘Bullnose’.
Isis is the name given to a section of the River Thames above Iffley Lock near Oxford.
The Bullnose radiator is renowned for overheating because of its curved shape.
The radiator shell is made of solid nickel, so you can keep polishing ‘til you hit hot water.
With 33 grease nipples requiring attention each week, the Cowley requires considerably more maintenance than today’s cars.
Every replacement part had a unique Morris name: BEMAH – Rear Wing (£1/3/2d), BOJU – Hood (£1/7/0d), ENASASUCK – Ignition Switch (2/6d), FAGEND – Steering Yoke (2/0d), BABEGAS – Radiator Badge (2/5d).
The Bullnose Oxford inspired Cecil Kimber to set up Morris Garages, better known as ‘MG’.
The first MG was essentially a rebadged Morris Oxford.
The Rajah of Perlis had a suitably enhanced 1925 Cowley.
An Autobiography, Agatha Christie, 1977
The Bullnose and Flatnose Morris, Jarman and Barraclough
Agatha Christie’s Surrey, Ann Laver
Eleven Missing Days, Jared Cade
The Daily Mail, December 1926
The Surrey Advertiser, December 1926