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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.