A look back at a different kind of motoring from a different kind of motorist.
David William Anthony Blyth MacPherson was the urbane, charismatic and typically eccentric baron. Known for a commitment to road safety, yet somewhat ironically died in a road accident involving a refuse truck. Not only a peer of the realm, he was also a respected motoring journalist and successful businessman.
During his life, Lord Strathcarron waxed lyrical on motoring matters – mostly those from a bygone age. Equally at home astride a motorcycle as behind the wheel of a ’30s Alfa Romeo or a 1903 De Dion Bouton. A keen traveller, he could often be found in deepest mainland Europe, astride a bike with his wife riding pillion and the butler hastening at the rear with luggage in a three-wheeler, including a parrot in its cage.
Born in 1924, he inherited the lordship aged twelve, and being far more interested in drawing Delahayes and aeroplanes than Latin or mathematics, a lifelong passion firmly pinned to travelling by means of a motor was the result.
Motoring for Pleasure in 1963, sees the Lord of Banchor looking wistfully in the rear view mirror at a point in time when even he thinks the roads are chaotic. The opening chapter of his book is called Our Crowded Roads, where he recommends early starts, breakfast and lunch at one’s destination whilst getting home early. “With sufficient determination and enthusiasm one can overcome today’s difficulties behind the wheel.” Amen to that.
He had an keen sense of history and actively searched out cars, not necessarily with a pedigree, but certainly with stories behind them. His first vintage car was a British Racing Green 1926 3-litre Bentley bought in 1945 for £250. The Bentley’s previous owner was a naval officer, the car’s third owner. Requisitioned for the war, it spent the bulk of it in Hampshire towing a char wagon to supply thirsty soldiers with bromide laden tea.
The officer received not one penny in compensation but was most agreeable to the Bentley now belonging to one who could ‘do it justice.’ Finding the gearing not conducive to either hillclimbs nor London traffic, MacPherson reluctantly sold the car for the same price as that of purchase.
Moving onto a bolide from the Biscione: an open four seater bodied, supercharged 1500cc former Alfa Corse car from the late twenties, £570 paid in 1946. With a racing history and a thirst for water due to crack in the cylinder head, he toured Belgium in the winter of ‘47, carrying a two gallon canister of water; replenishment being required every hundred miles or so. At one juncture the top up could not commence due to the can being frozen solid. Maybe the cold weather somehow assisted in keeping the car going? Luck? Strathcarron appeared to ride that luck on many and often hilarious occasions.
MacPherson had a friend who had spent a fortune restoring a by then twenty year old Italian sports car. To celebrate, this fellow took it for a European tour, visiting the factory in question where the spotlight shone, but for all the wrong reasons. Laughs of derision and perplexed looks were his reward. “Why would this mad Englishman restore an ancient thing when we produce much better now?” Alfa? Lancia? He does not specify but continues the, to him at least, curious behaviour of the Italians. Collecting “two members of the Italian motor industry in the 1929 Alfa from London airport” in 1960 he found to his immense surprise that they neither recognised the make of car nor much appreciated being collected in such an old car.
Ever longer business and leisure trips in this open car meant he would “arrive at my destination with a dirty face and clothing, not conducive to good impressions nor making important decisions.” The Alfa was moved on. A 1926 Rolls Royce 20 was next. Ivory door handles, a lever to raise or lower the headlights, great in the dry but tricky to the point of being lethal in the wet, “negligible performance but a perfect town car.” But the Lord reflected with “was it better to keep an appointment with a dirty face in the Alfa or arrive late in the slow, old Rolls?”
The Roller didn’t reside too long, being his Lordship’s last vintage car. We bring the garage door down on this part of the story by considering his first motoring memories. His mother had a two seat drophead Fiat in “chocolate and primrose,” whereas the family mainstay was a Buick Landaulette of 1926 vintage which he reports as “still giving good service as a Folkestone taxi in 1946”. His father had no interest in cars, his mother being encouraged to drive faster from the back seat by her earnest son.
Of course a wealthy upbringing alters just about everything, cars being no exception. Lord Strathcarron makes the journey fluid, being knowledgeable and entertaining both with his purchases and his outlook. And imagine the faces of enthusiasts and investors at the prices of the vehicles mentioned? Crying in their beer, most likely.
On a typically filthy winter weather London day, Lord Strathcarron had a meeting at the Shell UK offices. Soaking wet in his motorcycle leathers, he set the bike outside and strode in. The security guard asked him who the hell he was. Stating his rank, the guard responded with “and I’m the Queen of Sheba.” On leaving the meeting and now dressed in suit and tie, the guard asked again who this chap was. “ The Lord Strathcarron and you I believe are the Queen of ****ing Sheba!”
This kind of straight talking proved rather typical of him. One can take it many ways; I’m sure the security guard hated him at that moment, yet would bore pub regulars frequently with the tall tale.
Onto purchasing a vehicle. The titled one casts a keen eye on the early 1960’s British scene once more. Then, as now, he suggests that we delve into performance figures before investigating anything else. Only after ascertaining these should one check if the new car will fit the garage, the wife’s colour choice, boot space and interior comforts. As for comfort or longevity that can only arrive after many hours driving. Test drives back then do appear to have been around the block, down the lane and back again. Today, what manufacturer doesn’t offer a 48 hour or more test period?
Matters far from new also deal with impressing the neighbours, a bigger car than the Jones’s simply must be better. “But with parking problems worsening daily and as larger cars are in the main company owned, some inverted snobbery now exists; a Mini or Land Rover has become socially acceptable as something far more opulent.” Using careful, calculated analysis, Lord. S doles out good advice that we could do with listening to today. “By choosing a larger than required car in order to take the whole family on the annual fortnightly holiday, why not purchase a smaller, economical bolide and hire a larger, holiday motor?”
Moving on to a subject that seems lost in the modern age of monthly repayments, the dark yet ever present cloud that is depreciation. Returning to his Rolls Royce, his suggestion of running a twenty five year old model could provide cheaper motoring for the average mileage driver and be “far more pleasant to own.” Forlorn wishes… but in many ways he is still correct. These days we have so much choice that should you wish to waft about in, for example a ten year old S-Class or XJ whilst covering that average mileage and avoid dealership costs, why not?
Returning to days long gone the Lord suggests a reserve of £50 to cover replacements should your new-to-you vehicle have little or no service history and as the original owner may have splashed out around thirty pounds of extras from basic specifications, all in order to impress the neighbours again, the second hand buyer can reap these rewards handsomely. Extras back then included different styles of ashtray, a warning light (or two) or a chromed grille. Make hay and all that.
He also mentions his distress at the lack of European trust over the British made car. Using a Swiss business reference, the average Swiss motorist would ask to see the spare parts catalogue before making a purchase decision. With little impact from manufacturers back then, along with far higher prices, our Swiss friend would indubitably have chosen German or French, possibly Italian over British. No doubt you’ll be checking Jaguar radiator re-core prices once finished here.
With national pride being at stake, he quite naturally promoted British wares foremost, yet well understood what the competition had to offer. “Should you wish for a small fast car to be driven like Jehu possessed by the devil, choose Italian. For those respecting high end engineering, the Germans have few peers. The French have developed suspension to cope with their dire road surfaces. Luckily their latest offerings contain chic whereas the immediate post war period were as drab and lifeless as any small French village.” Punches pulled? Not here.
He reveals around six percent of new cars in 1961 were imports. These would be subject to not only purchase tax but import duty – hundreds if not thousands of extra pounds sterling. But does Mr Jones have a Citroen DS? Or Mr Smith run a Mercedes Ponton? No. The Morris Minor, the Ford Anglia, the Triumph 1300 will suffice, thank you. Perfectly respectable stuff for the honest working British chap of the 1960s. Then as now, someone will always want to be different, stand out from the crowd and fiddle the neighbours twitching curtains. I’ll pay to drive individuality!
We close the freshly oiled door hinge of this episode with yet more pithy outpourings. “The modern car has become so easy to drive that knowledge of the working principles is no longer essential. Yet no-one would deny that such working knowledge can make a good driver better, enabling him to sort out potentially hazardous faults and keeping his car at maximum working efficiency.”
Do you know where your dipstick is?
Part 2 of this tale deals with just that; wheeler dealers and the dark arts of car sales.