Friday, 28 August 2020

Back on the road with Bertie Wooster and Captain Hastings

By far and away the most popular post ever published on Eclectic Ephemera was my study of the cars driven by two of our favourite fictional (alas!) chaps - Bertie Wooster and Captain Hastings.  Originally composed in June 2014 it has to date racked up a frankly astonishing 19,516 views and continues to attract comments more than six years after publication.  Clearly it has proved popular with both Wodehouse and Hastings fans the world over and it has been some recent comments from a few of the former that has inspired me to revisit the topic once again.

In my original post I focussed on the shared automotive tastes of Messrs. Wooster and Hastings in the form of the two interconnected marques of Aston Martin (Bertie) and Lagonda (Hastings).  At the time I mentioned that neither character's motor was specified in the books and while that may be true in the case of Captain Hastings ("The Cases of Captain Hastings" - now there's an idea for some fanfic!) it was subsequently pointed out to me that Wodehouse did name-check two makes of car in a couple of his Jeeves books so it struck me as the perfect opportunity to make another post out of the fact and to set the record straight.  (I was also corrected in the matter of the car Plum was pictured in outside a friend's home in Norfolk in 1928, which I had initially [mis]identified as a Morris Oxford Bullnose but which in fact was an AC 12hp Tourer.)

Wodehouse in his AC 12hp Tourer (NOT a Morris Bullnose), outside Hunstanton
Hall, Norfolk in 1928.

Bertie Wooster's Sunbeam

I did say in my initial post that "to my certain knowledge" P. G. Wodehouse never referenced the car Bertie drives and only has him allude to "the old two-seater" or "sports model"; this was I admit based on a brief and slightly hazy recollection of all the Jeeves stories I had read over the years and even then there was a nagging doubt in the back of my mind that somewhere there was a reference to a specific model but short of going back through the whole collected works - a not unpleasant undertaking to be sure but rather a big job for a simple blog post! - I wasn't sure how I was going to go about identifying it.

Thanks however to a comment on the original post from an anonymous Wodehousian a couple of months ago my information was updated and memory jogged so that I was reminded that in the short story "Bertie Changes His Mind" (from the book Carry On, Jeeves) the character of Peggy Mainwairing, a schoolgirl Bertie and Jeeves give a lift to, asks of our hero "What's your car? A Sunbeam, isn't it?".  While no further detail is given either in this or later stories Wodehouse scholars have alighted on the 1925 Sunbeam 20/60 Sports as being the most likely candidate and I can certainly understand why (1925 being the year of Carry On, Jeeves' publication for one thing).

source - ClassicCarsForSale

One could easily see Bertie and Jeeves pootling along in such a car as this - the 20/60 being marketed against the equivalent 20hp Rolls-Royce of the period; available in a number of different bodystyles built by either Sunbeam or various coachbuilders on a standard chassis (as was the practice of the time), the Sports model was offered as a two-seater (with a separate dickey seat in the back) and looks every inch the spiffy vehicle that would have appealed to a chap like Wooster.

source - V&P Classic Cars
The history of the Sunbeam cars is a rather convoluted one and would easily fill an entire blog post alone.  Suffice to say that, like so many early 20th century car companies, Sunbeams roots can be found in late 19th century bicycle manufacture - in this case the creation of Wolverhampton businessman and engineer John Marston.  A keen cyclist, in the 1870s he branched out from manufacturing tinplate into making his own bicycles with the name "Sunbeam" being suggested by his wife Ellen.  As with many Victorian entrepreneurs Marston wanted his machines to of the highest quality and Sunbeam Cycles were soon widely regarded as among the best available, a reputation it held on to until bicycle production ceased in 1936.  The company began making motorcars around 1901-1902 but then in 1905 the business was split up, with the newly-formed Sunbeam Motor Car Company Ltd taking over car production while Sunbeam Cycles continued in the ownership of Marston (with motorcycle production lasting until 1956).

Louis Coatalen in his Sunbeam Nautilus, Brooklands 1910
source - Wikimedia Commons
In the years prior to the Great War the Sunbeam Motor Company grew to become a serious contender in the luxury car market, rivalling the likes of Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Daimler.  Under the auspices of French automotive engineer Louis Coatalen, who joined the company in 1909 as chief designer, Sunbeam branched out into motor racing and Land Speed Record cars; during the First World War it also produced aero engines and commercial vehicles (the latter continuing until the mid-1960s and encompassing buses, trams, trolleybuses and even milk floats!).   Following the war's end Sunbeam merged with two competitors, Darracq and Talbot but each would continue as separate entities.  The 1920s were Sunbeam's heyday with its luxury limousines and sports models like the 20/60 proving popular with the well-heeled set of the time.  The 20/60 was produced from 1924 to 1932 in various bodystyles ranging from large 6-seater limousines, through 4-seater open tourers to rarer examples like this drophead coupe - only three of which still exist, including this one currently for sale (and you know what they say - if you have to ask the price...).

source - ClassicCarsForSale

Sunbeam struggled to survive the Depression of the Thirties; in 1934 after a string of financial losses the company was sold to the Rootes Group, one of the first massive automotive conglomerates which already counted Hillman, Humber and Singer among its brands.  Seeing the way the market was going Rootes repositioned Sunbeam as more of an everyman's car, combining it with the Talbot nameplate to create Sunbeam-Talbot, a situation that lasted until the mid-1950s when the Talbot name was dropped and Sunbeam began making sports cars such as the Alpine and Tiger.

source - V&P Classic Cars
Sadly the decline of Sunbeam began shortly thereafter in the 1960s; over the following 20 years the company was sold to Chrysler Europe (who reintroduced the Talbot sub-brand), before being passed on to Peugeot who eventually pulled the plug on both brands in 1981.  But it is Sunbeam's glory days of the 1920s that we are concerned with here and this 20/60 Super Sports DHC from the middle of that decade is fully deserving of Bertie's attention.

Bertie Wooster's "Widgeon"

The only other car to get a name check in the Jeeves books is in Thank You, Jeeves, where Bertie is noted as driving a "Widgeon Seven".  This is definitely a fictitious vehicle (and nothing to do with his friend and fellow Drones Club member Freddie Widgeon) but is most likely to be based on the Austin 7, that brand's ubiquitous small runabout.  I won't go into the history of the Austin brand here (I've already gone on long enough about Sunbeam) and it is unclear why Plum felt it necessary to change the name (if indeed that's what he did) unless he thought - as has been suggested by Wodehouse scholars - that an Austin was somewhat beneath the likes of the moneyed Bertie.  While this may be true of the standard saloon and convertible models, again - like many cars of its time - the Seven was available in a multitude of bodystyles and its cheap asking price and simple, lightweight mechanicals made it popular as an everyday racer with a number being produced in quite sporty designs.  It's entirely possible that one of these could have appealed to Bertie and this may be what Wodehouse was thinking of when he was writing Thank You, Jeeves.

1933 Austin 7 Nippy 2-Seater Sport
source - Wikimedia Commons 

The most sporting of the Sevens were the two-seater Sports models with such wonderful pre-war names like Nippy (Brum, anyone?), Speedy, Brooklands and Ulster - the latter two taken from those models' many successes at the Ards racing circuit in Northern Ireland and at Brooklands in Surrey - and once again one can readily imagine Bertie and Jeeves whizzing along the country roads of England or around the back roads of Mayfair in just such a car.

1925 Austin Seven Super Sports
source - Car and Classic

Surviving examples of Austin 7 Sports variants are also thin on the ground these days; although perhaps not quite so rare as the Sunbeam, with prices starting at around £25,000 for a decent rebuild replica (a modern-build body on an original chassis) rising to £40k for an original Brooklands.  Definitely the best way into owning a set of Wooster wheels considering the prices of Sunbeams and Aston Martins!

source - Pinterest
Captain Hastings' "Elisio Freccia"

Right, on to Captain Hastings and his "other" car now (don't worry, we're nearly at the end!).  Our hero had always been very faithful to his beloved Lagonda so it came as something of a surprise to learn that in The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman he was seriously considering exchanging it for an "Elisio Freccia"!  "Considering" is the right term, too, seeing as he seemed to spend the first half of the episode vacillating over writing the cheque ("I've got it marked in my diary.  It says 'decide about car.'").

Once again the "Elisio Freccia" is a made-up vehicle and not a real make or model, but the car it is based on is certainly one of the most beautiful and rarefied Italian sports cars of the interwar period - the 1935 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900.

1936 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900A Spider
source - 

source - IMCDb / Auto Motor Klassiek
The 8C traces its lineage back to the 2300 model of 1931, which was a pure-bred racing car designed for the famous Italian road race the Mille Miglia.  A few two-seaters were produced for sale to the public, as well as single seater Grand Prix types (known as P3 Monopostos) which were entered in the 1932 Italian GP.  In the following years the model was refined as the 2600 in 1933 and subsequently the 2900 in 1935, which is precisely when Captain Hastings comes in as the 8C 2900A was first shown and advertised for sale at the 1935 London Motor Show.  I can just see the good Captain being in attendance and having his eye drawn by this racy Italian beauty, albeit as the fictional "Elisio Freccia".  I can understand his reluctance to part with the cheque, though, seeing as the asking price for an Alfa Romeo 2300 in 1931 was over £1,000 (£70k in today's money).  Having said that he'd be even less likely to spend out on one today - a 1937 8C 2900B selling for a breathtaking $4 million back in 1999, the result of only 33 such models ever having been produced.

In the event, though, our favourite chap ends up keeping his trusty Lagonda after stuffing "his" Elisio Freccia into the villain's Vauxhall (have no fear, though - no priceless classic cars were injured in the making of this film, a jerry-built mock-up being used for the final crash scene) following what has to be the greatest chase scene in the history of film.  Never mind Bullitt, Ronin and all the rest, Hastings' heroics has everything - a flock of geese, broken crockery, a charabanc full of old ladies, not to mention his fantastic finishing move!

"You SWINE!  That's for Miss Lemon!"
source - Pinterest

So there we have it, then - our two top chaps and three more of their favourite voitures.  I hope you've enjoyed reading this post as much as I have writing it (if you've made it this far); it's even given me an idea for a series of blog posts based around the cars of fictional detectives and literary characters (bearing in mind how well - or not! - I get on with series posts), continuing with Margery Allingham's Albert Campion and Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey.  Until then we can carry on delighting in the supreme Thirties motoring that these two splendid coves continue to afford us.

1 comment:

  1. Also Bertie's one-time charm Gwladys Pendlebury drove a red Widgeon Seven (in Very Good, Jeeves)..


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