Wednesday, 18 June 2014

On the road with Bertie Wooster and Captain Hastings

I rather fancy it's time for another Captain Hastings/Style Icon post, but this time with a twist!  I think that, by way of a change, I might focus less on the chaps and more on their cars.   Two chaps and their chariots of choice in fact!  Not just Captain Hastings and his voiture but also the equally arch-Chap Bertie Wooster, as portrayed by Hugh Laurie in Granada TV’s 1990-93 adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, Jeeves & Wooster (with Stephen Fry as Jeeves, of course!). Both these fine fellows happen to share the same taste in motors, driving cars that perfectly complement their personalities and which share a striking commonality with themselves and the characters who drive them.  The cars in question: the comparable Aston Martin and Lagonda.

Bertie Wooster’s Aston Martin

Wodehouse in his AC 12hp Tourer, outside Hunstanton Hall,
Norfolk, in 1928
To my certain knowledge P.G. Wodehouse never specified the make and model of car preferred by Bertram Wilberforce Wooster. As narrator, Bertie refers to it only as the “old two-seater” or “sports model”. This at least gives the reader carte blanche to imagine any two-seat sports car from the 1920s - although the BBC rather missed the point in their 1965-67 adaptation The World of Wooster, Ian Carmichael’s Bertie Wooster driving a four-seat 1927 Bentley 3-litre. Wodehouse himself owned an early-‘20s AC 12hp two-seater and one can easily see Bertie and Jeeves pootling along to Totleigh Towers or Brinkley Court in just such a model - I wouldn't be surprised if Wodehouse had it (or one of the many sporting cars favoured by the young "drones" of 1920s London) in mind whilst sat at his typewriter tapping out the stories.

In the event, though, the Jeeves & Wooster series went for an Aston Martin instead.  A 1928 Aston Martin 1½-litre International, to be precise.  An inspired choice, since it suits his youthful and excitable character perfectly.

Long before Aston Martin became inextricably (and, some might say, tiresomely) linked to James Bond, the company had already built up a strong sporting pedigree pre- the Second World War.  Founded in 1913 (and therefore having recently celebrated its centenary) as Bamford & Martin after owners Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin, their first cars had early successes on the hillclimbing course at Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire - hence they were renamed Aston Martin (the story further has it that Mrs Martin encouraged the rebranding on the basis that the new name would be near the top of any business listings!).

Astons would go on to race at Brooklands and Le Mans throughout the '20s and '30s, setting many endurance records.  Even Bertie's 1½-litre International had a "Le Mans" variant, although one can't imagine him tearing round La Sarthe (then again... maybe there's a story there!  Bertie did in fact drive his car into the ground attempting to beat the train to Deverill Hall in the fourth episode of series three).

Indeed Bertie remains blissfully ignorant of the inner workings of the motor car, knowing only that it runs on something called petrol but not that it has something called an "engine".  These things are best left to Jeeves or the local mechanic, naturally!

The 1½-litre International was produced between 1928 and 1932, a very prosperous time for Aston Martin following some lean years and the departure of its founders in the early '20s.  A group of skilled engineers and investors (including the wonderfully Wodehousian-sounding Lady Charnwood) had taken over the ailing company in 1926 and went on to oversee production of some of the most quintessentially British cars of the inter-war era including the 1½-litre, the 1934 MkII "Ulster" and the 1936 2-litre "Speed" model.

Aston Martin 1½-litre MkII

You can just imagine Bertie hearing about this wonderful sporting car company from his chums at The Drones Club and then heading off to the dealer to place his order.  Today you'd still have to be a Bertie Wooster to be able to afford an Aston Martin old or new; 1½-litre cars from the Thirties regularly fetch in the region of £150,000 now - as much or more than most modern Astons!  Certainly Bertie wouldn't be seen dead in the modern equivalent suggested by the Telegraph - a Mini Roadster indeed!  Choh!

This 1934 1½-litre Sports model sold last year for £155,500 at a Bonhams auction.

Captain Hastings' Lagonda

Here's the car we all know and love - the incidental yet important player in many a Poirot mystery, whisking our heroes to and from the crime scene.  How many times have we seen it bring some light relief to the proceedings as our favourite chap Captain Hastings talks about it, works on it or just drives it?

As with P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie never mentions the type of car Hastings drives in the books - mainly because he only appeared in eight of the stories and Christie was no doubt more concerned with getting the plot and motive down properly.  It's thanks, as ever, to the expansion of the character in the TV series that we can really enjoy Hastings' hobbies and adventures, especially with his car.  Thus it was that the show's producers gave him one of the ultimate gentleman's cars of the 1930s - a 1931 Lagonda 2-litre Low Chassis Tourer.

Lagonda was founded in 1906 at a time when many companies were setting up to produce the new-fangled motor car, including the likes of Rolls-Royce.  As with so many of its peers it became favoured by the Edwardian aristocracy and increased its reputation through motorsport success, in particular in the 1910 Moscow-St. Petersburg race.  After the First World War it continued to do well; Captain Hastings' beloved 2-litre Speed selling for eight years from 1925 to 1933.  The company faltered in 1935, however and was nearly bought out by Rolls-Royce until another buyer - Alan Good - intervened.  By this time Rolls-Royce had also taken over Bentley and Good was able to poach the man himself - W.O - to work for Lagonda, who designed a new 2.6-litre straight-6-cylinder engine that would remain the backbone of the business well into the 1950s and end up having great ramifications for the future of the company. 

Where would we be without Captain Hastings and his lovely Lagonda, eh?  Where would Poirot be?  Stuck in his flat, that's what - there's only so many taxis he can take after all. Who can forget it breaking down in The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly, or chasing after Mrs Daniels in The Adventure of The Missing Prime Minister?  We'd never get to see half of Hastings' smashing wardrove either, not least his superlative driving outfit.  I still can't believe he nearly chopped it in for an Alfa Romeo (all right, a fictional "Eliso Freccia") in The Adventure of The Italian Nobleman.

I've often wondered where Captain Hastings gets his income from to afford such a car as a Lagonda.  He was The Honourable Arthur Hastings, if I recall aright, so there's probably money and a family estate somewhere.  You'd need to be the son of a viscount or earl to afford one of Captain Hastings' Lagondas today, with good examples going for over £90,000.

Aston Martin plans to build Lagonda saloon, reports say

It may not be long before you can buy a brand new Lagonda again, though, if the latest rumours are anything to go by.  Aston Martin - who bought Lagonda in 1947 purely to get hold of the Bentley engine - have been toying with the idea of reviving the Lagonda brand for several years (its last appearance being on the futuristic Aston Martin Lagonda saloon in 1976).  Thankfully the initial idea to use it on a breezeblock of a 4x4 has been rejected and photos of the new saloon look very promising.  Definitely something I could see Captain Hastings driving around in!

Two top chaps, then, linked by their motors (although one can imagine them hitting it off quite well, too!).  While we may never be able to return to the heyday of pre-war British motoring, Bertie Wooster and Captain Hastings will forever be shining of examples of the Thirties gentleman driver.

**If you enjoyed this post keep your eyes peeled for more of the same in the next issue of In Retrospect, due for æthereal publication on the 1st July!**


  1. Even the name, 'Lagonda', is wonderful. Maybe a good girl's name?! Thanks for sharing all these drool worthy photos of these fabluous cars.P x

  2. Aaaaaah, how covetable are those cars? I can't drive, but I'd love to own one just to sit in! And now you've made me long to watch some Jeeves and Wooster again.

  3. Fabulous! I can't drive, but I love, love, love these old cars.

  4. Three of the Blandings Castle books of P.G. Wodehouse name cars and I can't find if they are real. One is a Buffy Porsin driven by Pongo Twizzleton in Uncle Fred. Another is a Bingley in this same book and then either a Mercedes or other known car is named. But I've read all the Jeeves books and stories literally over 100 times each. And Bertie's car name is never named as said.

  5. Bruce, just found your site tonight. I love it! I was surfing TV and not finding anything so I went to Netflix and decided to watch some old Poirots. By one of those crazy coincidences (which seem to happen to me a lot) my next episode to be viewed was Season 5 Episode 5 - the Adventures of the Italian Nobleman. This is the episode when Captain Hastings is considering buying the "Eliso Freccia". Anyhow, this is a fun site - right up my alley. Thank you. :)

  6. The "Eliso Freccia" is an Alfa Romeo 8C (cylinder) 2.9 litre - see Motor Sport magazine January 2014. On the subject of W.O. Bentley at Lagonda, when he joined in 1935 his first engine was the superb 4.5 litre V12 which powered Lagonda to 3rd & 4th places in the 1939 Le Mans 24 Hour.

  7. Me thinks, if Hastings had to decide between the life of a detective or a car mechanic, he'd have a tough decision to make. You can't talk to cars, but then, they don't argue with you either.

  8. That's not a Morris Oxford Plum's driving. It's an AC, I am sure.

    1. You're quite right - at the time of writing I thought it was a Bullnose Morris, but I see now it's a 1920-27 AC 12hp Tourer. Thanks for flagging it up!

  9. Just come across this thoroughly enjoyable post while doing some Wodehousean research. Can I offer a couple of points of information?

    Firstly, if the current issue of Wooster Sauce, journal of the P G Wodehouse Society (UK) can be believed, the PGW photo was taken at Hunstanton Hall in Norfolk, the home of a friend with whom he regularly stayed.

    Secondly, there a couple of (contradictory) clues in the books as to what car Bertie Wooster drives. In the story "Bertie Changes his Mind" (in Carry On, Jeeves - this is the one and only story narrated by Jeeves) the schoolgirl to whom Bertie has given a lift asks 'What's your car? A Sunbeam, isn't it?' In his A Wodehouse Handbook the late Norman Murphy suggests that 'it was probably the Sunbeam Super Sports 20/60 (1925) of which, I understood, only one model still exists.' It seems there are in fact three - one of them currently for sale!

    Murphy also notes that Wooster's car in Thank You, Jeeves is a Widgeon Seven, and suggests that this is really an Austin 7. Sounds logical, but then why would the thoroughly oofy Bertie drive something so cheap and cheerful?

    1. Thanks awfully for your comment; I'm pleased you enjoyed the post. I appreciate you taking the time to go into detail about some aspects of it - I'll certainly update the caption for the PGW photo again and your thoughts on what other car[s] Bertie Wooster drives has given me some material for a follow-up post or two, so thanks also for that!

      Indeed I seem to recall thinking there was reference in one of the Jeeves stories to a particular make that Bertie was driving but short of going back through the whole collected works - a not unpleasant undertaking but rather a big job for a simple blog post! - I wasn't sure how I was going to go about identifying it. But it comes back to me now, thanks - yes, a Sunbeam, and why not a 20/60 Tourer from 1925? I can certainly see Bertie and Jeeves pootling along in it!

      The Widgeon Seven sounds a different kettle of fish and I can see the argument for it being a bit below Bertie's sights, unless it was the racy 2-seater Sports variant, which had some motorsport success and might have appealed.

      Anyway, thanks again for stopping by and leaving such a spiffing comment - now I must go and look up that Norman Murphy book you mention!


Don't just sit there, type something! I enjoy reading all comments.


Popular Posts