Further thoughts from Lord Strathcarron.
Despite his wealth and title, Lord Strathcarron left the RAF in 1947, aged 23 with no qualifications other than that licence allowing him to fly a plane. He swiftly found that Civvy Street rarely needed a fly-boy which meant turning to the dark side of the street – becoming a car salesman. Car Mart Ltd on the Euston Road was his initiation to the car dealing world and a mere stone’s-throw from Warren Street where he could observe the kerbside traders literally selling cars from the top to the bottom of that street.
With a strict pecking order, a car would enter the fray to be snatched up for a nominal fee. That trader sold it on to the next man and so on, often for nothing more than shillings extra profit until it got to the last men at the dark end of the street who then had to sell on properly to Joe Public. Before the war, smiles and handshakes could be had at fifty shillings profit. By 1947, inflation had come to town and no-one would dream of less than £25 profit.
With credit in somewhat short supply, cash was king. He alludes to a “fat chap who arrived from the North on a regular basis to buy cars wearing a body belt always containing £10k”. Or the time selling a Rolls to man who “would bring the cash next weekend.” He promptly did: old pound notes stuffed into a battered suitcase which took an hour or two to count, openly admitting to “losing count a few times.”
On learning the trade, MacPherson was taken under the wing of several knowledgeable fellows and, who hasn’t played this game: spotting the genuine buyer from the tyre kicker, along with who can afford what? His shoes may shine, his suit may be sharp, but he might be poor as a church mouse. Back in the day, one of his fellow salesmen could often be heard gently berating a customers part exchange with “no, sir, I do not wish to deprecate your car but the body may part company with the chassis by Tuesday.”
Amazing on every level: this, a beige story. A fine Mercedes with Freestone & Webb bodywork (guessing a 540K) painted champagne & heron – that is two shades of beige. A well known and well heeled customer popped in after seeing it in the window; and was ushered straight to the back office, being told by chief salesman Hawes “that’s not your type of car, sir.”
The story played out this businessman was so taken by the car he insisted on being allowed to buy it the very next day. Tactics. Cunning. Audacity. And the cost: £4950. Not bad considering only a couple of years since hostilities ended.
Our journey through Strathcarron’s salesman period would not be complete without touching on two more instances of a totally different world to that of today.
“A chap phoned us wanting to buy the black Lancia Aurelia GT saloon as a shopping car for his wife. We agreed a time and date and he promptly showed but with a friend who resembled a fugitive from the boxing ring. This chap was wearing two heavy leather gauntlets. The telephone man asked many questions while his boxing friend rubbed the paintwork like a man possessed. Naturally this took some paint off to which a sudden, much lower offer on price (sadly not mentioned) was thrust forward due to the paintwork being iffy. I chased the brutes out of the showroom!”
Firstly, that is some shopping car, but can you imagine walking into any even half decent dealership today wearing leather gauntlets? And to rub your way to a more lucrative deal? Makes one wish for time travel just to see this nonsense taking place. Extraordinary.
We’ve seen how Lord Strathcarron conducted himself, but we now introduce the fairer sex to the equation. For those faint of heart, seek other matters, with haste.
“It is as well never to entrust the sale of a car to a woman. She may come across as being exceptionally knowledgeable but always will bend to the salesman’s patter, believing everything and accepting the very first offer, be that her attempting to purchase or to sell on. She will easily shock when being told at the true value of her part exchange but take it anyway even though it maybe several hundred pounds less than it’s actual true value. On buying, she will choose almost every extra. And with mechanical troubles, I can tell you of one woman who sold her car for next to nothing due to being told it was dangerous to drive (the steering needed slight adjustment) and went home in a taxi.”
One can only guess few women stepped foot in Car Mart Ltd… how times change – thank goodness!
“The great affair is to move” – Robert Louis Stevenson.
Strathcarron states that France is his favourite country to tour but, dear reader don’t for one moment expect this to be an easy ride. For starters he is most indignant as to the time it takes to get there from Blighty. Back then, many slow, lumbering ferry crossings were offered to all manner of ports, as opposed to the skies with the Channel Air Bridge with Silver City Airways: faster, more expensive. The ferries did have their advantages: 100 cigarettes for six shillings and large spirits for a single shilling!
Interest is expressed at a Channel Tunnel or bridge being built soon with far easier access yet sees either as “being easily destroyed should war loom again.”
Let us move to lighter stories; running out of d’essence. By arriving in France at any kind of ungodly hour, Lord S still preferred the secondary, quieter, more French roads to the “cluttered commercial signed” national routes. But one very late evening somewhere south of Limoges, the petrol ran out.
Having all the command of French a member of the aristocracy possess, in a village he heard revellers. Somehow he found someone who could assist; the wedding celebrations were in full swing and out of a barn came the bride, drunk but still in white dress, wobbled toward her garlanded Renault for her spare can, taking no money only offering a smile and kiss. Onward, Strathcarron!
A further advantage to using lesser known routes being the abundance of quality food at exceptional prices. “Many a restaurant looks like something out of Maigret but all provide excellent repair.” A forerunner for one Archie Vicar. More sober, perhaps.
We leave France for pastures new with two final anecdotes. “France has little traffic, undulating roads, superb access but horrific surfacing. It’s a blessing to return to the billiard smooth tarmac of England.” Swiftly followed up with “In 1947 we motored to Monte Carlo where they were building the new swimming pool. We’d sunbathe on the nearby beach when one morning a huge explosion occurred. A workman had trodden on a beach mine and now covered the car. I know all the mines have now been cleared but we’re not for bathing at that location.” Perhaps not as sober as we first imagined…
Spain was a “dreadful” place in the fifties to tour, but now far more amenable with quality petrol and roads. He once had an exhaust fail (no car make mentioned), fortunately finding a blacksmith who worked for three hours for only six shillings. One can only imagine it was the entire system and the pesetas conversion rate was poor. He suggests avoiding the “heavily trafficked tourist areas that are now spoilt by Ye Olde Tea Shoppe signs and just too many people.”
Portugal, Britain’s longest-standing ally, had roads as poor as their road manners. When travelling through an unnamed village, a peasant’s cart full of hay honed into view just as Lord S approached a crossroads. The mule’s driver being sound asleep until a firm toot of the horn roused him and some deft steering by the car driver avoided disaster. The peasant then beamed a smile, crossed himself and gently wafted off back to the land of nod.
Belgium is a country where “any moron can apply for a license” and the back road pavé is for the modern world, unacceptable. Should one veer off the autoroutes, the peasant’s Flemish directions could lead you anywhere. As long as you avoid Brussels, for with any European capital, the traffic is horrendous.
Switzerland proved clean, accommodating and the Simplon Pass is breathtaking whereas Italy is the land of the fast, skilled and short driver, attributes he obviously cares for and interested in. Asking a designer of a “particularly exotic creation why so little room is offered to the taller chap, his response was ‘we are a nation of small men‘” If only we knew who this was!
Italy makes the most beautiful, the most impractical cars with characteristic gear boxes: “it is assumed you must drive flat out or play tunes on gears one, two and three when belting up an Alp!” Again, feel free to tour the cities but leave the car well away from them, travel by foot, bus and avoid the manic scooters.
We hasten to the end of Lord Strathcarron’s European tour, our final destinations being Norway, Denmark, Holland and Germany. The Netherlands have superb drivers, as Germany whereas the Norwegian motorist has no sports car, for it would be pointless to drive swiftly on gravel. But the extended sunlight hours in June have to be seen to be believed. Denmark is not a pretty country but with excellent roads but do be careful of the hordes of cyclists intent on beating you to your destination.
Has so much changed in the sixty years since he wrote this? I’ll close with his own handwritten words on the books frontispiece. Outspoken, eccentric and British. Thanks for journey, Lord Strathcarron.