In this extract from Simon A. Kearne’s excellent biography of Sir Basil Milford-Vestibule, he details the only recorded meeting between the legendary engineer and bitter rival, Len Brik at the London’s 1957 Olympia Motor Show.
Sir Basil never missed an opportunity to attend the annual London Motor Show, although he habitually detested everything he saw there. He would sweep around the show stands, the ever-present Montclair in hand, accompanied by his faithful assistant, Boothby, unintentionally insulting friend and foe alike. On this occasion, I accompanied them during press day and as we arrived at the Lotus stand, Colin Chapman hurriedly ducked behind some packing crates in a vain attempt to avoid our party.
But Sir Basil saw him out of the corner of his eye, mischievously insisting we appraise the new Type 14 Elite when out of the throng emerges his great rival, Len Brik. My memory isn’t what it was in those days, so what follows is a précis of what took place. As Brik approaches, Sir Basil stiffens and his expression morphs into a dazzlingly insincere smile…
“My dear Leonard, how simply wonderful to see you!“
Brik shakes Milford-Vestibule’s hand with disagreeable force. Sir Basil, wincing, removes and wriggles it theatrically.
“Howay Vestibule, how’re things at the knitting circle? Nowt to see on your Empire stand, so I thought I’d have a gander round some of the toy cars. Have you seen our new Diva? Star of the show, they’re saying… We’ve been swamped by the damned press all morning… no offence there Kearne”.
“Diva?” replies Sir Basil airily… “remind me Boothby, was that the blue one”?
Brik sighs with mounting irritation, while Sir Basil changes tack
“Now Leonard dear, [drawing him by the elbow towards the new Elite] look at this new Type 14 Lotus? It’s terribly clever you know. The body is a glass reinforced plastic monocoque! Can you imagine?”
“Bloody daft is what that is, Brik remarks disgustedly. It weighs nowt, it’ll melt in the sunlight and the damned thing will shake itself to pieces, especially the way Chapman throws them together – here, he’s not around, is he?”
“Colin? replies Sir Basil absently, No dear boy… can’t say I’ve seen him”
“I suppose you think it’s the bees knees, eh Vestibule? Lightweight and clever… a bit like some people I could mention”, Brik says with evident distaste.
“Oh dear no replies Sir Basil blandly, not my cup of tea at all. Certainly we’ve experimented with fibreglass, haven’t we Boothby”? [Boothby looks pained] “But we could never get it to set properly; ending up with something more like jelly. Quite hilarious to drive, but totally impractical for mass production. Dying to hear what they’ve done to cure it… frightfully clever of them really. Such a shame dear Colin’s not about to tell us – I can’t imagine where he’s got to.”
“Never mind that, look at this suspension, Vestibule. Chapman strut is it? Some poncy dance step you Southern types get up to I suppose. All you need is a solid beam axle and some stout leaf springs, especially on a bairn like this. Just showing off if you ask me, but that’s Chapman for you… smoking mirrors like. Take it to the North East and they’d toss it off the Tyne Bridge”
“Oh, Leonard you’re such a wit, although for once in my life I can agree with you on something. Struts are indeed utterly wrong, in fact steel suspension in it’s entirety is an abhorrence.”
“Oh aye”, groans Brik, another lecture on the evils of steel. Served us well enough for centuries, but no, not good enough for the likes of you and your fancy London ways, eh? It’s all foreign phewmantics or whatever it’s called with you lot!”
“How dare you mention Oleopneunatics to me, you detestable man! We’re working on something infinitely more sophisticated and once we bring it to market, blacksmiths like you will go the way of the railways, do you hear?”
“Always the innovator eh Vestibule… nowt much to show for it this year. We’ve got your goose cooked with our new Diva. You’ll see, man on the street doesn’t want your water suspension and roof hinged wipers. He wants what he can understand, something solid and substantial and my Diva’s just what he’s after – you wait and see, my lad!”
Sir Basil, purple with rage, takes a drag of his Montclair to regain his self control before placing a patronising palm on Brik’s arm and countering;
“Now Leonard, I understand my full name might be problematic for you, but as men of equal stature, surely forenames are more apt. Please feel at ease to call me Sir Basil… oh and do tell me dear fellow, how is the truck business these days?”
Brik glares at his tormentor but as he’s framing a reply sees fellow rotter, Archie Vicar at the adjacent Humber stand.
“Howay, Vestibule, I’ll jog on… They tell me Humber’s Super Snipe weighs in at two tonnes unladen – now they know a thing about welding.”
“Yes, yes”, sighs Sir Basil; “off you pop and play with the camions. We must catch up again soon… always so stimulating to chat.”
Brik departs through the press day throng.
“That dreadful man!”, Milford-Vestible exclaims to a dejected looking Boothby, “I genuinely thought I’d lose all reason if he stayed another minute.”
“You couldn’t just have been pleasant? sighs Boothby. Would it really have killed you?”
“I WAS PLEASANT”, Sir Basil snaps back. “My head‘s spinning – I’d commit murder for a martini. Be a love and get me one, would you?”
Just then Sir Basil recalls the figure of Chapman, still trying to remain inconspicuous behind the packing cases and loudly exclaims;
“Chunky… I mean Colin dear boy, fancy you being down there all the time!”
Chapman clumsily emerges from his hiding place
“Oh, well yes, been having a few problems with the carpet, thought I’d better sort it out before anyone takes a tumble.”
Sir Basil ignores him and continues
“Just admiring your delightful Type 14 here with Boothby and dear Leonard Brik. Such a shame you missed him. He was in raptures, as indeed am I.”
“Yes”, Chapman utters flatly, having heard every word, “I can imagine.”
“Wonderful car Colin, and so clever of you! And it runs from a fire pump? Astonishing! What a shame you put it in quite the wrong place! But really, you must tell me all about this marvellous fibreglass bodyshell… I’m simply dying to know how you did it!”
“Yes well, it was bloody difficult as you can imagine Sir Basil,” Chapman begins hesitantly, “we had so much trouble with the thermoplastic polymers…”
Milford-Vestible looks dramatically at his watch; “Oh no, no, no dear boy, not now… I can’t possibly hear about it now! I must fly. Booked for cocktails at the Dorchester with Princess Margaret and the Aga Khan at six so I must dress. Terribly déclassé to be late you know. Have you met his highness? Wonderful man… such a wit. You’d love him Colin! You could sell him one of your funny little cars… I mean lovely little cars! But yes dear boy, you must tell me all about the Type 14. Dying to hear! Come along Boothby!”
With that, Sir Basil strides away, leaving a thoroughly bemused Chapman in his wake. Colin looks forlorn. His suit creased, his hair displaced – he turns to an underling and growls;
“This place is a right old mess – get these sodding crates stowed away… and somebody fetch me a bloody drink!”
Simon A. Kearne – Sir Basil Milford Vestibule: A Life Unstitched/ Total Victory – Both from Mask & Gauntlet Press.
Photos via Classic Car Catalogue/Autoheritage.co.uk