As we start the 2020s, Adam Hay-Nicholls steps back in time to sample life at Pall Mall a century ago.
My new 2-litre Speed burbles along the stone corridors of St James’s, its long black bonnet scything through the pools of light cast by the gas lamps that illuminate Pall Mall, its tail creating a fog of exhaust fumes in our wake. Hum, it’s a veritable pea-souper back there – perhaps a misfire? Having screeched in front of a row of hackney cabs outside number 89 and given the horn a jaunty parp, Eastman the carriage attendant appears waving the smoke away, ushering me towards the revolving doors of the Royal Automobile Club and relieving me of the chuntering Lagonda.
Celebrations are afoot tonight. Dozens of white-tied revellers and taffeta-dressed flappers are making their way down the precipitous steps from the rotunda to the swimming bath hall where a grand ball is taking place, featuring the latest novelties from Paris, I’m told. A live jazz band competes for attention with a display of high diving. From the drawing room, two colourful Chinese dragons escape from an oriental magic show. They had appeared via the “wit, wizardry and whistle” of Herbert J. Collings (1), who insists on being addressed as Col Ling Soo during festivities such as these. I cross the foyer towards the Great Gallery, where, beneath the gold chandeliers, a large party is tucking into sole suprême while addressed by Major and Mrs Court Treatt (2). They’re bidding farewell to the R.A.C’s gathering on the eve of their mammoth automobile expedition from Cape Town to Cairo, a 12,700 mile challenge never before attempted.
I must look lost. Quinn, the head hall porter, arrives with a willing smile and, in his Irish lilt, asks if I’m looking for the Motoring Committee. “Sir, I believe your acquaintances were watching an Egyptian teenager, a Mr Amr Bey (3), on the squash courts. One has heard the young man referred to as a human streak of lightning! Only removes his tarboosh to pick up a racquet. The gentlemen may have retired to the comfort of the Long Bar, Sir. Please follow me, Sir”. Through the Club Room we sweep, where the chess circle is gathered around a tense match between Señor Capablanca and Herr Maróczy (4). We descend into the depths of the Long Bar.
A burst of light emanates from William Morris’s pipe. The industrialist is settled into a leather Chesterfield opposite his chief competitor, nursing a Brandy Alexander. “Ah here they are sir,” proffers Quinn, “Mr Morris (5) is in conference with Sir Herbert (6). If you’ll forgive me,” whispers the head porter, “I would be most grateful if you’d remind Sir Herbert, sir, he now owes me for several taxi fares. If he could remember to bring his wallet with him next time it would be greatly appreciated”. With that, Quinn toddles off mumbling something about Sir H being a navvy and a hellhound.
Sir Herbert Austin is notorious for never having cash on him, but he’s about to receive a welcome windfall. “I’ll give you £700,000 for the Wolseley assets,” remarks Morris, “but not a penny more”. Despite the promise of this fortune, the old man swears for twenty minutes without repeating himself. “I know your game, son,” Austin growls, “you want the overhead camshaft 8hp car. Can’t make a small car without it. No one wanted a small car until I built the Austin 7 and proved you could drive a mile for a penny-farthing. It’s twice as economical as your ‘bullnose’ Cowley”. “But it looks like a bally bath on wheels,” counters Morris, “and I have something different in mind (7). Alright, let’s shake on £730,000.”
Sir Herbert is distracted by the arrival of Walter Owen Bentley (8). “W.O.” he calls out in his brummie brogue, “did you hear what Ettore Bugatti said about your latest racing car? He called it the world’s fastest lorry!”
W.O. is too modest a man to extol the virtues of the Speed Six in such provocative company, but his high expectations as driver, engineer and gentleman are undeniable. “Bentley produces characters as well as cars,” he tells Sir Herbert, before wandering over to the bar where his “boys” are assembled, ordering a round of Hanky Pankies. These swashbuckling cavaliers, brimming with skill and bravery, party every bit as hard as they drive.
“What ho chaps,” W.O. addresses Woolf Barnato (9) – known as ‘Babe’ in ironic deference of his heavyweight boxer’s physique – Glenn Kidston (10) and Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin (11). “Just met a young rake who wants to sell my cars. He’s got big plans for a Mayfair showroom. Name of Jack Barclay (12). Ever heard of him?”
“Oh yes, he’s won races at Brooklands but he’s absolutely skint. Gambled all his money away on the tables at Le Touquet. Had to get his mother to bail him out. She did so on the promise he’d stop racing and concentrate on business. Looks like this might be it. Speaking of gambling, I’ve had this brilliant idea…” Babe outlines the most extraordinary wager. He wants to race his Speed Six against Le Train Bleu from Cannes all the way up through France and, not only that, cross the channel and be back here in St James’s sipping single malt before the locomotive pulls into Calais. Impossible! “Have faith dear boy, I’ve run the numbers; 830 miles, 29 of which are on the back of a ferry, should take about 22 hours and 30 minutes provided I can keep my foot buried. Shall we say £100?”
“You realise even if you do win the gendarmes will take £100 off you when they find out,” warns Kidston. “Besides, I’ve taken enough risks lately. That plane crash of mine’s taught me to hang on to what I’ve got. Whacked up the ginger, kicked through the fuselage while I was on fire, threw the German prince who was a passenger over my shoulder and ran a mile through a forest – still smoking – to summon help”. “Straight past the hospital and into the first pub for a beer!” chides Babe. “That story gets better every time you tell it”. “Well, I don’t like to admit it,” smirks Glenn, “but I needed to calm my nerves.”
“Now in all seriousness, I must have a word,” Birkin tells W.O. “I’ve come to the conclusion that if we’re to win Le Mans again this summer we need to get more power from a lighter model. We need to fit a supercharger to the 4 ½ litre”. “Increased displacement is preferable to forced induction,” counters W.O. firmly, “because to supercharge a Bentley is to pervert its design and corrupt its performance”. The normally self-effacing Birkin, wearing his signature spotted silk neckerchief, is not about to give in. “If you won’t finance it, Dorothy Paget (13) will,” he stammers. “The lady who refers to her staff by colour because she won’t remember their names. She’s mad enough to back it. I’m already in discussions with Amherst Villiers about building a huge Roots-type ‘blower’.”
“I think Tim might be on to something W.O. Look what compressors have done for Mercedes-Benz,” advises Barnato as he reaches behind the manufacturer, picks up a bread roll and throws it across the room, hitting Kenelm ‘Bill’ Lee Guinness (14) straight between the eyes. The younger brewery heir has been in a fit of giggles with his elder brother Sir Algernon (15), and an unidentified flying bread roll does nothing to curb the merriment. “Have you heard what Algy got up to in the war?” asks the moustachioed sibling. “He faced up the enemy, that’s what, when he found Portsmouth being terrorised by a monkey. Despite the efforts of the police and fire brigade, all ended up being bitten. Many, many casualties. Algy, hero that he is, volunteered to capture the bally thing and, after climbing a ladder and making his way along a roof, he hit the monkey on the head and brought it down in his jacket. He was celebrated for his courage, but little did the good people of Portsmouth realise that it was HIS monkey! He thwacked it on the bonce to disguise the fact the little blighter willingly surrendered to its master without a whisper.”
Bill and Algy have both ploughed their stout wealth into the pursuit of speed. Both have had land speed records to their names, but Bill recently retired from all motor sport after a very nasty smash in the San Sebastian Grand Prix. “After the war, I purchased a surplus minesweeper,” recounts Bill, “and had it converted into a fishing trawler. Inside, though, it’s been refitted as a gentleman’s yacht, with guest accommodation and a hold equipped to transport racing cars to foreign events. As I shan’t be racing anymore, I’m repurposing it for treasure hunting. Malcolm Campbell (16) and I will be searching for lost wrecks and doubloons in the Cocos Islands this winter, isn’t that right Malcy?”
Malcolm Campbell saunters over with bow-tied Henry Seagrave (17) and Selwyn Edge (18), owner of the club’s most fantastical moustache. “Given our penchant for racing on lakes at nearly 100mph you should be aware I have little wish to see what’s on the sea bed,” explains Campbell, “treasure or not”. “How’s the new Lagonda going?” asks Selwyn, sipping a Grasshopper. “Let me know when you’re ready to trade her in for a Napier”. I’m a bit concerned about the belching exhaust, I admit. “I can fix that,” volunteers Bill Guinness.
The barman rings the bell for Eastman to bring the 2-litre Speed back around. Señor Capablanca and Herr Maróczy are still on the same move when we pass back through the Club Room, and the crowd is thinning. At the entrance, Guinness whips the bonnet off the Lagonda and produces a new spark plug from his pocket carefully wrapped in an initialled handkerchief. “It’s a KLG spark plug – I invented it. It’s made from porcelain to withstand the highest temperatures. Seagrave’s running them in his 1000bhp Sunbeam.”
And with that, the 2-litre turns over like a dream. How many clubs can you leave with a set of spark plugs? “All part of the service, old whatsit. Tally ho etcetera!”
- Herbert J. Collings was a founder of the Magic Circle and its president, often entertaining royalty with his popular Chinese act.
- Major Chaplin and Mrs Stella Court Treatt undertook a 17-month car journey from Cape Town to Cairo, starting in September 1924. Upon returning to Britain their journey was feted as a triumph of British spirit and engineering.
- D. Amr Bey won the British Open squash title six consecutive times between 1933 and 1938, often held at the R.A.C, before becoming Egypt’s ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1945 until 1952.
- José Raúl Capablanca of Cuba was world chess champion from 1921 to 1927. Géza Maróczy was a grandmaster from Hungary.
- William Morris founded Morris Motors in 1912 and became a noted philanthropist, founding Nuffield College Oxford and the Nuffield healthcare trust and charity. He was made the 1st Viscount Nuffield in 1938.
- Sir Herbert Austin founded the Austin Motor Company in 1905, which merged with Morris in 1952. He earned his engineering spurs innovating sheep shearing equipment and was knighted for his industrial service during WWI. Between 1918 and 1924 he served as the Conservative MP for Birmingham King’s Norton.
- The sale of Wolsley’s assets to Morris in 1927 enabled them to produce the first Morris Minor and the first MG Midget during the remainder of the decade.
- O. Bentley graduated from locomotive engineering and aluminium rotary aero engines, before creating his eponymous sports car marque after the first world war. His company dominated at Le Mans in the late 1920s. Soon after, he lost control of the company to Wolff Barnato and Rolls-Royce.
- Woolf Barnato inherited millions as a teenager thanks to his ‘Randlord’ father’s diamond and gold mines, which he invested in Bentley. He won Le Mans three times from three attempts in 1928, 1929 and 1930. He fought in both world wars and played cricket for Surrey.
- Glenn Kidston had been a naval officer whose experimental submarine became buried in the sea floor thanks to faulty gauges. Somehow, he got it unstuck. He also survived two torpedo strikes by the Germans in WWI. He was victorious at Le Mans with Bentley in 1930 and was also a record-breaking aviator. He died in 1931 when his plane was ripped apart in a dust storm above South Africa, at which point it’s claimed that several high-society ladies in England fainted.
- Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin contracted malaria in Palestine while serving in the Royal Flying Corps in WWI, a disease from which he’d suffer for the rest of his life. He raced against his family’s wishes and won Le Mans with Bentley in 1929 and in an Alfa Romeo in 1931. During the 1933 Tripoli Grand Prix he burnt his arm against the hot exhaust pipe when bending down to pick up his cigarette lighter, the wound turned septic and he died six weeks later.
- Jack Barclay established what has become the largest and oldest Bentley dealership in the world in Berkeley Square in 1927.
- Dorothy Paget was an eccentric racehorse owner who funded the development and race programme of the Blower Bentleys.
- Kenelm Lee Guinness was an official driver for Sunbeam and set a land speed record in 1922. He also invented and manufactured KLG spark plugs, which were valuable to the WWI effort and remain in use today. Guinness started his operation out of a disused pub in Putney Vale called the Bald Faced Stag. Guinness suffered a bad crash in the 1924 San Sebastian Grand Prix in which his riding mechanic was killed. Thereafter, riding mechanics were outlawed. Kenelm’s own injuries, both physical and psychological, plagued him for years and he committed suicide at home in 1937.
- Sir Algernon Lee Guinness raced Darracqs after Eton, set a world land speed record in 1908 and joined the Royal Navy during the Great War. He continued racing in the 1920s, in Sunbeams, with his brother.
- Sir Malcolm Campbell gained world speed records on land and water at various times in the 1920s and 30s using vehicles called Blue Bird. He also won the 1927 and 1928 Grands Prix de Boulogne in France driving a Bugatti.
- Sir Henry Seagrave was the first person to travel at over 200mph in a car and held the land and water speed records simultaneously in 1929. He died in 1930, a few months after receiving his knighthood, when his boat Miss England II capsized on Lake Windermere at full speed. That year, the Seagrave Trophy was established by the R.A.C to recognise British nationals who demonstrate outstanding accomplishments by the possibilities of transport by land, air or water. Recipients include Malcolm Campbell, Richard Noble, Lewis Hamilton and Billy Monger.
- Selwyn Edge was a bicycle turned automobile and motor yacht racer who imported French cars, sold Napiers and set various endurance records himself. He was among the first entrepreneurs to recognise the marketing value of motor racing, and briefly owned AC Cars.