Top Gear, 1958

The death of AA Gill last December robbed the world of one of its great chroniclers – and also one of its great double-acts. As readers, we were allowed to share in the fun that was to be had on Gill’s (ir)regular outings with Jeremy Clarkson through their resulting field reports – and one can only imagine how sorely he is missed by his chum.

Such writings are there to be treasured and will, as with so much of both men’s work, long outlast the pair of them. As evidence there follows a gem of a piece that was written by Ian Fleming for The Spectator that has an extremely familiar feel to it for Gill-and-Clarkson devotees.

Before we travel back in time and allow Fleming to let rip, a word of warning: the mindset of the 1950s cannot be applied to today’s world… so the easily offended and the righteously indignant should probably look away right now. Tales of these two sons of the empire in their Caribbean bolt hole do not make comfortable reading for anyone who subscribes to The Guardian or works for the BBC.

Gill was credited, usually by his detractors, with having founded the ‘me’ school of journalism. This overlooks the entire canon of Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill for one thing, but even they were blushing wallflowers in comparison with Fleming. With all of that in mind, therefore, welcome to what most likely have been the look and feel of Top Gear 1958, featuring the late Ian Fleming and Noel Coward:

‘Dig that T-bird!’ I had cut it a bit fine round Queen Victoria’s skirts and my wing mirror had almost dashed the Leica from the GI’s hand. If the tourists don’t snap the Queen, at about 10 a.m. on most mornings they can at least get a picture of me and my Ford Thunderbird with Buckingham Palace in the background.

I suspect that all motorists are vain about their cars. I certainly am, and have been ever since the khaki Standard with the enamelled Union Jack on its nose which founded my écurie in the ‘Twenties. Today the chorus of `Smashing!’ ‘Cor !’ and ‘Rraauu !’ which greets my passage is the perfume of Araby.

One man who is even more childishly vain than myself is Noel Coward. Last year, in Jamaica, he took delivery of a sky-blue Chevrolet Belair Convertible which he immediately drove round to show off to me. We went for a long ride to épater la bourgeoisie. Our passage along the coast road was as triumphal as, a year before, Princess Margaret’s had been. As we swept through a tiny village, a Negro lounger, galvanised by the glorious vision, threw his hands up to heaven and cried, `Cheesus-Kerist!’

‘How did he know?’ said Coward.

Our pride was to have a fall. We stopped for petrol.

‘Fill her up,’ said Coward.

There was a prolonged pause, followed by some quiet tinkering and jabbering from behind the car. 

‘What’s going on, Coley?’

`They can’t find the hole,’ said Leslie Cole from the rear seat.

Coley got out. There was more and louder argumentation. A crowd gathered. I got out and, while Coward stared loftily, patiently at the sky, went over the car front and back with a toothcomb. There was no hole. I told Coward so.

`Don’t be silly, dear boy. The Americans are very clever at making motor-cars. They wouldn’t forget a thing like that. In fact, they probably started with the hole and then built the car round it.’

`Come and look for yourself.’

`I wouldn’t think of demeaning myself before the natives.’

‘Well, have you got an instruction book?’

‘How should I know? Don’t ask silly questions.’ 

The crowd gazed earnestly at us, trying to fathom whether we were ignorant or playing some white man’s game. I found the trick catch of the glove compartment and took out the instruction book. The secret was on the last page. You had to unscrew the stop-light. The filler cap was behind it.

`Anyone could have told you that,’ commented Coward airily.

I looked at him coldly. ‘It’s interesting,’ I said. `When you sweat with embarrassment the sweat runs down your face and drops off your first chin on to your second.’

‘Don’t be childish.’

I am not only vain about my Thunderbird, but proud of it. It is by far the best car I have ever possessed, although, on looking back through my motley stud book, I admit that there is no string of Bentleys and Jaguars and Aston Martins with which to compare it.

After the khaki Standard, I went to a khaki Morris Oxford which was demolished between Munich and Kufstein. I had passed a notice saying ‘Achtung Rollbahn!’ and was keeping my eyes peeled for a steamroller when, just before I crossed a small bridge over a stream, I heard a yell in my ear and had time to see a terrified peasant leap off a gravity-propelled trolley laden with cement blocks when it hit broadside and hurled the car, with me in it, upside down into the stream.

I changed to the worst car I have ever had, a 16/80 open Lagonda. I fell in love with the whine of its gears and its outside brake. But it would barely do seventy, which made me ashamed of its sporty appearance.

I transferred to a supercharged Graham Paige Convertible Coupé, an excellent car which I stupidly gave to the ambulance service when war broke out.

Half-way through the war I had, for a time, a battered but handy little Opel. One night at the height of the blitz I was dining with Sefton Delmer in his top-floor flat in Lincoln’s Inn. A direct hit blew out the lower three floors and left us swilling champagne and waiting for the top floor to fall into the chasm. The fireman who finally hauled us out and down his ladder was so indignant at our tipsy insouciance that I made him a present of the crumpled remains of the Opel.

After the war I had an umpteenth-hand beetle-shaped Renault and a pre-war Hillman Minx before buying my first expensive car—a 2 1/2-litre Riley, which ran well for a year before developing really expensive troubles for which I only obtained some compensation through a personal appeal to Lord Nuffield.

I transferred to one of the first of the Sapphires, a fast, comfortable car, but one which made me feel too elderly when it was going slowly and too nervous when it was going fast. I decided to revert to an open car and, on the advice of a friend, bought a Daimler Convertible. Very soon I couldn’t stand the ugliness of its rump and, when the winter came and I found the engine ran so coolly that the heater wouldn’t heat, I got fed up with post-war English cars.

It was then that a fairly handsome ship came home and I decided to buy myself a luxurious present. I first toyed with the idea of a Lancia Gran Turismo, a really beautiful piece of machinery, but it was small and rather too busy—like driving an angry washing machine—and it cost over £3,000, which seemed ridiculous. I happened to see a Thunderbird in the street and fell head over heels in love. I rang up Lincoln’s. Apparently there was no difficulty in buying any make of American car out of the small import quota which we accept in part exchange for our big motor-car exports to the States. The salesman brought along a fire-engine-red model with white upholstery which I drove nervously round Battersea Park.

I dickered and wavered. Why not a Mercedes? But they are still more expensive and selfish and the highly desirable SL has only room beside the driver for a diminutive blonde with a sponge bag. Moreover, when you open those bat-like doors in the rain, the rain pours straight into the car.

I paid £3,000 for a Thunderbird. Black, with conventional gear change plus overdrive, and as few power assists as possible. In due course it appeared. My wife was indignant. The car was hideous. There was no room for taking people to the station (a point I found greatly in its favour) and, anyway, why hadn’t I bought her a mink coat? To this day she hasn’t relented. She has invented a new disease called ‘Thunderbird neck’ which she complains she gets in the passenger seat. The truth is that she has a prejudice against all American artefacts and, indeed, against artefacts of any kind. 

She herself drives like Evelyn Waugh’s Lady Metroland, using the pavement as if it were part of the road. Like many women, she prides herself on her ‘quick reactions’ and is constantly twitting me with my sluggish consideration for others in traffic. She is unmoved when I remind her that in her previous car, a grey and heavily scarred Sunbeam Talbot whose interior always looked as if it had just been used as dustcart for the circus at Olympia, she had been guilty of misdemeanours which would have landed any man in gaol. She once hit an old man in a motorised bathchair so hard in the rear that he was propelled right across Oxford Street against the traffic lights. Turning into Dover Street, she had cut a milk cart so fine that she had left her onside door-handle embedded in the rump of the horse. Unfortunately, she is unmoved by these memories, having that most valuable of all feminine attributes—the ability to see her vices as virtues.

I have now had my Thunderbird for over two years. It has done 27,000 miles without a single mechanical failure, without developing a squeak or a rattle. Its paintwork is immaculate and there is not a spot of discoloration anywhere on its rather over-lavish chrome, despite the fact that it is never garaged at night and gets a wash only twice a week. I have it serviced every quarter, but this is only a matter of the usual oil-changing, etc. The only time it ever stopped in traffic was carefully planned to give me a short, sharp reminder that, like other fine pieces of machinery, it has a temperament.

The occasion was, for the car’s purposes, well chosen—exactly half-way under the Thames in the Blackwall Tunnel, with lorries howling by nose to tail a few inches away in the ill-lit gloom, and with a giant petrol tanker snoring impatiently down my neck. The din was so terrific that I hadn’t even noticed that the engine had stopped when the traffic in front moved on after a halt. It was only then that I noticed the rev. counter at zero. I ground feverishly at the starter without result. The perspiration poured down my face at the thought of the ghastly walk I would have to take through the tunnel to get the breakdown van and pay the £5 fine. Then, having reminded me never again to take its services for granted, the engine stuttered and fired and we got going.

The reason why I particularly like the Thunderbird, apart from the beauty of its line and the drama of its snarling mouth and the giant, flaring nostril of its air-intake, is that everything works. Absolutely nothing goes wrong. True, it isn’t a precision instrument like English sports cars, but that I count a virtue. The mechanical margin of error in its construction is wider. Everything has a solid feel. The engine—a huge adapted low-revving Mercury V-8 of 5-litre capacity—never gives the impression of stress or strain.

When, on occasion, you can do a hundred without danger of going over the edge of this small island, you have not only the knowledge that you have an extra twenty. m.p.h. in reserve, but the feel of it. As for acceleration, when the two extra barrels of the four-barrel carburetter come in, at around 3,000 revs., it is a real thump in the back. The brakes are good enough for fast driving, but would have to be better if you wanted to drive dangerously. The same applies to the suspension, where rigidity has been sacrificed slightly to give a comfortable ride. Petrol consumption, using overdrive for long runs, averages 17 m.p.g. Water and oil, practically nil.

There is a hard top for the winter which you take off and store during the summer when the soft top is resurrected from its completely disappeared position behind the seat. The soft top can be put up or down without effort and both tops have remained absolutely weatherproof, which, after two years, is miraculous.

One outstanding virtue is that all accessories seem to be infallible, though the speedometer, as with most American cars, is a maddening 10 per cent. optimistic. The heater really heats; the wipers, though unfortunately suction-operated, really wipe; and not a fuse has blown nor a lamp bulb died. The engine never overheats and has never failed to start immediately from cold, even after all night outside in a frost. The solidity of the manufacture is, of course, the result of designing cars for a seller’s market and for a country with great extremes of heat and cold.

Cyril Connolly once said to me that, if men were honest, they would admit that their motor-cars came next after their women and children in their list of loves. I won’t go all the way with him on that, but I do enjoy well-designed and attractively wrapped bits of machinery that really work—and that’s what the Thunderbird is, a first-class express carriage.

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Heineken brings out the big guns

Today in Montreal we shall see a great conspiracy unveiled like the maniacal plan of a James Bond villain – or in this case Bernie Ecclestone, for whom comparisons with a caricatured criminal mastermind are an occupational hazard.

The ingredients are all in place and one thing which can confidently be expected is that Heineken will announce the role it will play in Formula 1 from 2017 onwards – for the announcement will be the opening act of this year’s Canadian Grand Prix.

But there are also many fine old brands familiar to S&G regulars that are bobbing about on Bernie’s duck pond and about to form a nice neat row. For the time being, however, they’re doing a very good job of keeping themselves out of the spotlight until it’s time for the ‘big reveal’.

Heineken likes to present itself as a premium product. It conjures this image through an association with rugby and an 18-year partnership with the James Bond movie franchise. To this portfolio it will also be adding Formula 1.

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The art of product placement: James Bond is offered a Heineken

At this point the conspiracy kicks in – and it’s a belter. As protagonists we have two of the marques favoured by Ian Fleming – namely Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo – we also have TAG Heuer watches and, to cap it all, we have ‘Ernst Stavro’ Mateschitz, the reclusive mastermind behind Red Bull who may or may not sit around in his alpine lodge stroking a white cat.

There is a degree of consensus that Heineken will be shovelling hundreds of millions of dollars into Bernie’s retirement fund and using its savvy at creating upmarket online adverts (that’s ‘content’ to those in the trade), to underline the message that its beer is sipped by men of wealth and taste.

Formula 1 is wilfully rubbish at ‘content’, so having someone else do it and pay handsomely for the privilege looks like another of Bernie’s brilliant deals.

But while hanging some banners on the Hangar Straight and Curva Grande is nice, and putting your logo in the corner of all F1’s youtube clips has a value, there is nothing quite like having your branding on the car that crosses the line first. Just ask Red Bull.

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(Not) seen inside the Red Bull headquarters, yesterday.

The Austrian energy drink firm currently owns the commercial rights to the FIA World Rally Championship, drawing viewers onto Red Bull’s TV channels and websites while also selling footage to broadcasters the world over. Its logo can be seen on inflatable gantries and mud-spattered hoardings along the route but just in case that’s all a bit subtle Red Bull is also the sponsor of Volkswagen Motorsport, which wins everything.

So does this mean that Heineken is following suit and sponsoring the winning team? No… but there is a link to one particular motor manufacturer and James Bond affiliated brand that is currently dabbling in Grand Prix racing: Aston Martin.

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Aston Martin made its name in motor sport – here at the 1922 Grand Prix

This year, the Red Bull Racing F1 team (them again!) joined forces with Aston in an ‘innovation partnership’ (a phrase beloved of those who create ‘content’). What Aston brings to the party is a bit of a mystery as Red Bull’s engines are made by Renault and funded by the TAG Heuer watch company, resulting in a pair of Red Bull TAG Heuers on the grid which are innovatively partnered with Newport Pagnell’s finest.

Presumably it all makes sense to someone out there.

Meanwhile our fellow WordPress dweller, F1 insider and all-round decent egg Joe Saward was presented with a 007 baseball cap by Aston Martin and instructed to wear it in Montreal this weekend. So we have the trinity of Heineken, Aston Martin and James Bond uniting in a city full of beautiful women during a Formula 1 weekend and Joe’s clearly invited to the party.

All of this is intriguing enough but then we also have another S&G regular – and James Bond icon – barrelling into the frame: Alfa Romeo.

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Nuvolari raced Alfas with Ferrari badges. Now the situation is reversed.

Alfa is of course under the Fiat Chrysler banner and a close relation of Ferrari, which ran the elder firm’s racing programme from 1933-38. Sporting success has been a bit thin on the ground since 1951 (touring cars aside), but Alfa remains the romantic’s alternative to German executive cars and it has also provided many of the vehicles in which James Bond blows up villainous henchmen in recent films.

Now, however, Fiat and Ferrari CEO Sergio Marchionne has said that he wants Alfa Romeo back at the sharp end of motorsport. He came close to negotiating a deal with Red Bull to run Alfa Romeo-branded Ferrari engines last year and the Alfa badge is now resplendent upon the flanks of Ferrari’s Formula 1 cars.

Marchionne’s eagerness to bring Alfa back to Formula 1 could also be helpful for ‘Enrst Stavro’ Mateschitz, who not only owns the World Rally Championship, a broadcast network and a Formula 1 team with TAG Heuer branded Renault engines but also Scuderia Toro Rosso – a second Formula 1 team which, having formerly been Minardi, is based at Faenza, a stone’s throw from Maranello.

It seems that Mateschitz feels that two Formula 1 teams might be a little excessive in the current economic climate and is keen to sell his Italian stable at the right price. To Aston Martin? To Alfa Romeo? To Heineken? To Joe Saward? It’s a mystery worthy of Fleming’s finest.

And then, for the final layer on this cake of conundrums, we have James Bond himself. A new film is in the offing and there may well be a new actor playing the hero of the franchise because Daniel Craig has grown jaded with blowing up Alfa Romeos full of henchmen, rolling around with luxuriously upholstered Latin women and crashing Aston Martins. He wants to spend more time at home with the missus… and when the lady in question is Rachel Weisz it’s an understandable argument.

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Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo have been 007 mainstays of late

The last four Bond films were a cycle and a fresh start beckons. Something called a Tom Higgledypiggledy is apparently the hot tip for the job, having starred in an adaptation of a spy novel by John le Carré which involved him rolling around in a bathroom with a beautiful woman. There is also a new James Bond novel which features a fictitious 1957 Formula 1 season… an idea that the S&G once suggested in no uncertain terms to the Bond estate. The swine.

So where does all of this leave us? Heineken is making an announcement, Aston Martin has handed out the invites, Red Bull is everywhere and Alfa Romeo wants in. Perhaps a new James Bond will be announced and the new movie will feature him in a Heineken green Red Bull-Aston Martin blowing up henchmen one at a time in a fleet of Minardi-Alfas.

The plot is a bit convoluted and could do with a decent script editor but the good news for S&G regulars is that one way or another two of the most valued marques in motor sport history could yet be preparing their return to the fray – and we’ll all raise a bottle of Heineken to that.

Cheers!

 

The name’s Biswas. Mister Biswas.

It’s not often that ITV offers a nugget that really tickles the taste buds – particularly not in amongst the endless round of talking head documentaries that fill the Christmas schedules. For the record, whoever came up with the concept of showing a clip of a film/music video/gameshow and then have a Z-list nonentity describe what you’ve just seen with some wild-eyed embellishments needs to be shot.

Be that as it may, when ‘the nation’ selected its top 20 James Bond themes for an eponymous show (presumably that segment of the nation which shops at TK Max, drinks WKD and knows who any of the contestants on I’m a Celebrity… are), we were treated to an outing for Monty Norman’s first use of what would become his iconic Bond theme.

This was in fact a song from an unfinished musical adaptation of the novel A House for Mister Biswas, which was originally called Good Sign Bad Sign. If you can stand more than 74 seconds of it, you will have set a new record:

It is a spectacularly poor piece of work, you’ll undoubtedly agree, and it would have been a travesty if such a landmark novel as Mister Biswas were to have emerged with the sort of production values that went into this. All we can say at the S&G is thank goodness that Norman’s handiwork was given a final polish by John Barry, Vic Flick and his 1939 English Clifford Essex Paragon Deluxe guitar.

So let’s celebrate the masterpiece that was the opening credits to James Bond’s first on-screen adventure, featuring the John Barry/Vic Flick remix of Good Sign Bad Sign in its original glory, together with an awful lot of Caribbean goodness…

 

The mysterious ‘DBIII’

Following on from musings about Ian Fleming’s wild ride with Donald Healey in the 1932 International Alpine Trial, it has brought to mind the sale last summer of what is claimed to be the very Aston Martin that inspired Ian Fleming when writing the 007 novel Goldfinger – the mysterious ‘DBIII’.

“James Bond flung the DBIII through the last mile of straight, did a racing change down into third and then into second for the short hill before the inevitable crawl through Rochester. Leashed in by the velvet claw of the front discs, the engine muttered its protest with a mild back-popple from the twin exhausts…”

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Could this have been the view intended for Bond?

There never was a DBIII road car, and we can be fairly certain that Fleming never got his hands on a DB3s sports prototype, but this moniker was often informally given to owners of the DB2/4 series in the mid-Fifties.

Last year, headlines were made when Coys announced that it had the Aston that had inspired Fleming consigned for its Blenheim Palace sale. The car in question was a DB 2/4 Mk I Vantage, chassis number LML-819, was delivered new on 4 July 1955 to the Honorable Sqdr. Ldr. Phillip Ingram Cunliffe-Lister, DSO.

Just like Donald Healey before him, Cunliffe-Lister had been a wartime pilot – albeit in WW2, rather than WW1. He had flown Spitfires with Fighter Command and, later, joined 1409 Flight to gather meteorological information for Bomber Command and the USAAF in the twin-engined Mosquito. In July 1943 Cunliffe-Lister had been taken POW after he, along with Pilot Officer Pat Kernon, had taken off from RAF Oakington in Mosquito IX LR502 on a met flight over Holland.

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A 1409 Flight Mosquito Mk.IX on ops around D-Day, 1944

The aircraft ran out of fuel following a navigational error, but Cunliffe-Lister got the aircraft down and managed to evade capture for four days. Eventually the airmen were rounded up and sent to a transit camp for Air Force Prisoners of War before going to Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan, where he remained until his peacetime repatriation.

It seems that the former pilot found civilian life something of a trial, leaving his wartime bride and children in 1947 and remarrying soon after while taking part in international rallies as a means to find the adrenaline rush he clearly craved. A decade later, Cunliffe-Lister took delivery of the latest source of excitement in his life: a gunmetal grey Aston Martin.

While there is no record that Cunliffe-Lister and Fleming ever knew each other, both of their fathers had been close friends of Winston Churchill. Cunliffe-Lister’s father, Lord Swinton, was also head of MI5 during the Second World War while Fleming had been the bright young star of Royal Navy Intelligence. It has even been suggested the character of M may have been owed more than a little to Lord Swinton.

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Fleming at his desk in Goldeneye – concocting another thriller

So far so tenuous, but Cunliffe-Lister used to go on regular trips to see the Royal portrait painter Dennis Ramsay and his wife Rose at Hope Bay Studio, the house next to Fleming’s in St Margaret’s Bay near Deal, Kent.

It is of note that Fleming used Hope Bay Studio as the inspiration for his character Hugo Drax’s property where he kept a rocket in the novel Moonraker. Doubtless he would therefore have taken note of the rather beautiful motor car outside, and his interest would have been still further piqued by its rather unique specification.

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The Cunliffe-Lister Aston pictured on its return to Deal in 2014

This was no ordinary DB2/4: it had reinforced steel bumpers, concealed lockers, a heavy-duty anti-interference ignition system, driver’s seat connections for two-way radio and a Halda Speed Pilot… gadgets which bear a passing resemblance to those on Bond’s car in Goldfinger.

“… the DBIII had… certain extras which might or might not come in handy. These included switches to alter the type and colour of Bond’s front and rear lights if he was following or being followed at night, reinforced steel bumpers, fore and aft, in case he needed to ram, a long-barrelled Colt .45 in a trick compartment under the driver’s seat, a radio pick-up tuned to receive an apparatus called the Homer, and plenty of concealed space that would fox most Customs men.”

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Everything that the well turned-out spy might require

Much of the real Aston Martin’s history is as mysterious as anything that Fleming ever conceived. Philip Cunliffe-Lister committed suicide in 1956, and the car changed hands – and colours – several times before it was seemingly parked in a shed and forgotten about for many years.

A local engineer who had worked on Channel hovercraft eventually heard about the car and bought it as a father-and-son restoration project. As soon as they set to work on the car they realised that this was no ordinary Aston. Fortunately, their craftsmanship on the restoration coincided with much of the background on the Cunliffe-Lister family history in espionage coming to light at the end of the 50-year rule, which put a few jigsaw pieces in place.

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Under the gavel: the Goldfinger Aston Martin awaits its fate

The valuation and sale did raise some interesting questions. This was an amateur restoration of a basket case that had no significant competition history, whose first owner had some unproven links to Ian Fleming and wartime espionage and parked outside a house he once wrote about. As far as provenance goes, this was all rather new territory.

Surprisingly the car didn’t sell but afterwards it did elicit an offer of more than £275,000 from an interested party – a healthy 150 per cent premium compared to a similar car in standard trim. Whether or not it was sold remains a mystery – one that will doubtless be continued the next time LML-819 is consigned for auction.

James Bond will return…

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Fleming’s first assignment

With all the hubbub about James Bond that inevitably surrounds a new movie, the S&G can report that it is probably Daniel Craig’s finest hour. Not since Goldeneye has there been such a shameless parade of 007 iconography laid out in return for the entry fee, but it was sufficient to make beautiful women whoop with glee – something for which Ian Fleming would undoubtedly be thankful.

He would also doubtless be thankful for the high calibre of the car chase in Spectre, which is set in Rome’s rather claustrophobic, cobbled night time streets and featuring two visions of British-built loveliness, the stillborn Jaguar C-X75 hybrid and Aston Martin DB10.

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A licence to squeal: the ladies like a good car chase in Bond’s latest, Spectre

Cars were a major feature of Fleming’s life and work, and became such as early as July 1932 when, as a junior reporter for Reuters, he was dispatched to Munich for his first piece of overseas reportage.

The deal was that Fleming would act as navigator on the International Alpine Trial for a rather useful driver and WW1 pilot called Donald Healey, winner of the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally at the wheel of his 4½-litre Invicta. Fleming would write up the story to cast Invicta, and British motoring generally, in a favourable light while reporting upon one of the growing number of motoring events that had caught the public imagination.

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Healey and his crew celebrate winning the 1931 Monte with their Invicta

The event was extremely popular both with young British men and the burgeoning sports car manufacturers such as Riley, Sunbeam and Singer – all of whom were seeking to recreate the sort of fame and success enjoyed by the ‘Bentley Boys’ at Le Mans. Among the competitors in 1932 was a youthful Dick Seaman in the MG Magna that was normally his runabout at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Like Seaman and the other British contenders, Healey and Fleming drove 700 miles from London to Munich, crossing the Channel on the SS Forde before an overnight halt in Reims, then stopping in Freudenstadt in the Black Forest after a second day’s hard motoring.

They arrived in Munich in time for a torch lit parade before the start, which was held in torrential rain. Healey’s skill and the Invicta’s prowess catapulted them into the lead of the event, in front of continental ‘crack’ entries from the factories of Mercedes, Lancia and Bugatti to name but three.

Just months after joining Reuters on an unsalaried trial and being apprenticed by such tiresome work as updating obituaries, the whole event must have come as manna from heaven to the 23-year-old Fleming. Here he was among like-minded chaps, savouring the whiff of Castrol R and Healey’s furious working of throttle and gears at first hand.

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Future hero Seaman apace in his Magna

 

The Alpine Trial lasted a week and criss-crossed the borders of Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France on a route of 1580 miles. Healey was on brilliant form, setting the outright fastest time and a new record of 23 minutes 44 seconds for climbing the fabled Stelvio Pass, ending that day with a night at the Grand Hotel in St. Moritz – exactly the sort of excitements that Fleming would later give to James Bond.

At the end of the event, Healey would be awarded the Coupe des Glaciers for having completed the event with zero penalty points. The big Invicta did not carry off the outright honours and found itself swamped by hordes of smaller capacity cars on the final run to Grenoble – much to Fleming’s bemusement. It was reported in The Autocar magazine that this rather self-assured young navigator was to be found chastising the impudent little cars, demanding to know “What on earth are you doing among the grown-ups?”

Fleming filed his copy and parted ways with Healey – the former heading off into the arms of his Swiss paramour, Monique Panchaud de Bottomes, while Healey took in the Swiss Automobile Club’s annual hillclimb, finishing second.

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Monique Panchaud de Bottomes and Ian Fleming in Switzerland, 1931

While the young gentlemen enjoyed their sport, there was a small hubbub at home because, contrary to the story reported by Fleming and carried by The Daily Telegraph, it had not been a British victory on the event. Fleming’s editor called him to demand an explanation, to which came the reply that this was not a competition measured in first-past-the-post speed but in skill and bravery, at which the British contingent had won hands-down.

Remarkably, this explanation sufficed!

The impact of this odyssey was, of course, to be profound. It was the sort of drive that James Bond would later take, carrying millions of readers alongside him to experience the growl of two-inch exhaust pipes, to share the enjoyment of racing gearchanges and to learn the finer points of supercharging and back-axle ratios. It is also notable that Bond’s mother was called Monique and she was from Vaud in Switzerland.

Life for Donald Healey, meanwhile, would see him step back from competition driving and into the vanguard of British sports car designers, starting with Triumph. After working on the production of aero engines and armoured cars during World War 2, the Donald Healey Motor Company was formed in 1945, producing his own cars and in partnership with Nash and, most famously of all, with Austin.

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Donald Healey in later life with one of his celebrated creations

Thoughts at the S&G have turned to Fleming of late for reasons other than James Bond. More than 50 years ago now, that most unfettered imperialist gave his verdict on America’s rise to superpower status. As a nation, he declared, they were: “Totally unprepared to rule the world that is now theirs.”

In recent weeks, the behaviour of great swathes of Americans in the face of the Islamic death cult Daesh has hammered Fleming’s words home. Not least when that buffoon Donald Trump, stalking horse for the White House in 2016, suggested launching nuclear warheads at the barren desert of Daesh territory in Syria and Iraq – to rapturous applause: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark,” he said. “But we’re going to find out.”

No, Ian… they still haven’t got it yet.

Back in business…

The S&G office is now ready to go, complete with a signed photo of Manfred von Brauchitsch smiling beatifically out upon one’s workspace and an art deco cabinet for putting PR samples of automobilia in… hint hint.

At home with Manfred von Brauchitsch and Ian Fleming

There are also some vintage Pan covers from some of James Bond’s greatest adventures lining the wall. It’s the blind, you see, that gives the place an air of… well, of Goldeneye I think.

That's the way to write... now, where's my cigarette holder gone?

That’s the way to write… now, where’s my cigarette holder gone?

Hawthorn and the Stratocruiser

Hawthorn enjoyed bumping in to people on the Stratocruiser's staircase

Hawthorn enjoyed bumping in to people on the Stratocruiser’s staircase

It seems that Ian Fleming wasn’t the only British star of the 1950s who appreciated the finer things on offer from the tubby, propeller-driven Boeing 377 Stratocruiser in comparison with faster, more modern jet airliners.

In his biography Challenge Me the Race, the 1958 Formula One world champion was no less fulsome in his praise of the old bird than 007’s creator, saying:

“The fat old Stratocruiser is still my favourite aircraft for long distances. Its spiral staircase and bar on the lower deck give the passengers the opportunity to walk about and chat and get a change of scene which passes the time more agreeably than sitting glued to ones seat for hours on end in the slim modern projectiles.”

Of course, being Hawthorn, the possibility that some of his fellow passengers might be attractive young women would doubtless add more spice to the journey. Meanwhile here’s a BOAC promo film with James Robertson Justice pretending to fly one of these beautifully-appointed leviathans…