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Remembrance of Autos Past

The Armstrong Siddeleys, Daimlers and Darracq something or others were wonderful, but the Riley supersport could outrun hedge sparrows

The automobile has fallen from grace. What shred of dignity it had left as a culture object was surely stripped away with the collapse of the Rolls-Royce company in Britain recently, an event that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. It leads you to ponder those old tales of Rolls' solidarity and service—about the Rolls owner stranded in Moravia and the spare part being flown in from London by helicopter, along with a starched factory mechanic to install it free of charge. Ah, the glory that once was Rolls.

It was not ever thus with the automobile. There was a time when the world was safer, more solid and the automobile a sign to man from the gods that all was well and he would triumph. I can remember when the automobile was a source of human happiness, the companion of joy and the promoter of family ties. It was the darling of children and (with horses and the weather) the only proper topic of masculine conversation. Its sex was male and its spirit was strong and protective. It went for doctors when needed and took families for picnics under the leaf-heavy trees of summer. It was cozy to get into and even cozier when you snuggled down under a blanket in the backseat to keep warm. Also it spoke in a dogged, purposeful voice and not, as now, in rasping whispers or—if the muffler is bad—appalling roars.

Now and again, in the quiet of my study, I remember the names of automobiles I-have known and although, like Abou Ben Adhem, I love my fellowman, I find that I love these old automobiles quite as much. In those days, and in England, there were lots of automobile companies, and therefore lots of different sorts of cars. And each name brings a little splash of pleasure as it comes to mind—Jowett, for instance, which was small and always seemed to be painted brown. Armstrong Siddeley. Lea-Francis. Riley. Triumph. Standard. Ace. Bristol. Daimler. And a car called a Darracq something or other (I'm not even sure about the Darracq). It was huge and butter-yellow and had black leather upholstery inside. It had a silver hunting horn with a strong black rubber bulb. I saw it in England standing still on a country lane, and it had just arrived with the mud of Italy and France splashed in thin lines over its brave sides. I could take you right now to that very lane where that car stood 45 years ago. It was driven by a god wearing a trench coat. He waved to me and my brother, started up and went off in a cloud of dust to Valhalla.

My eldest brother Tom grew up in the most glorious period in the history of Western man. He was in his teens in the early '20s in the first real flowering of the automobile, when garages still repaired bicycle wheels as a sideline and you could sit for hours on a can of castor oil (yes, they used it in race cars) and talk about the Brooklands racetrack and the Ulster Tourist Trophy, and when, in racing, a mechanic sat beside the driver and operated a hand pump on the dashboard, which was the forerunner of a supercharger. If I kept my mouth shut and ran errands, I was allowed in on some of these sessions. Also, I watched these wonderful men improvising head gaskets out of two dozen thicknesses of newspaper. They were real mechanics, and we shall not see their like again. They adored machines, and they dreamed about them as Cortez dreamed about the Pacific. They lived in the twilight of the Age of Faith, the last perhaps of a wonderful race of men in which courage, honor, humor and crankcase oil were mixed about equally.

Tom started off with motorbikes. He got an old belt-driven Calthorpe for 10 shillings and a load of turnips, and he fixed it up and traded it in and kept this going until he wound up with a twin-port Norton straight out of hell. It had fishtail exhausts that gleamed like spurs and it could take anything that moved, including the airplanes of the period. Then one day he turned up at the house with the loveliest car I have ever seen (except for that Darracq something or other). It was a Riley supersport, or that is what we called it. It could do 65 mph, and it had a special high gear that you could flip into that would wham you right up to 70. The car could go faster than a bird. I am a witness to this, for I recall on my first drive spinning down a Hampshire lane and passing in succession three hedge sparrows, a willie wagtail and four yellow hammers, all on the wing and all flat-out. Those same birds could pass right in front of our old family Model T and often relieved themselves on the bonnet as they did.

But the best thing about that car was the finish. It was covered top, sides, bonnet and boot with crocodile leather—yes, honest to goodness crocodile leather like that on ladies' handbags and Heifetz' violin case. I wore a knitted woolen jersey in those days and I never approached that car without polishing that crocodile leather with my sleeve. It was a car designed with élan, with verve, with esprit, with joie de vivre, by men with hair in their ears who didn't give a hang for comfort. The seat cushions were of leather and pneumatic, and since there is nothing in the world harder than compressed air, I soon discovered that to save my bottom I was better off if I let the air out and sat on the bare boards. Science may not agree, but my behind knows that plywood is softer than air under pressure.

I don't know what happened to that car. I think of it as often as I think of the Darracq something or other. I remember that to be taken for a drive in it was the most splendid reward a boy could receive from an excellent elder brother. I cleaned guns, boots and hen houses all afternoon for a drive in that car—a spin over the glorious English countryside through the fern-carpeted New Forest until the last hill being mounted in a waspish roar, there before us, incredible beyond all else in God's creation, lay the sea. My brother is dead now, but wherever he is, I think that car is with him. That car and an Irish terrier he called Paddy. They are roaring around somewhere, impudently passing Daimlers and the old squire's Silver Ghost Rolls with the gun racks and dog scats in the back. And if what it takes to get another ride in that car is to clean guns, boots and hen houses in Paradise all afternoon—I am ready.