Mad about Motors 5

 

 

LAP 1: On two wheels

 

LAP 2: Two wheels plus an engine (Nortons)

 

LAP 3: Four wheels (Peugeot to Alvis Silver Eagle, via Auto Union)

 

LAP 4: Moving up a gear (Aston Martin to MG Magnette)

 

LAP 5: The car that never was (Bédélia)

 

 

Lap 5

 

The car that never was

 

(The title of this Lap is a homage to Jock Horsfall’s involvement in 'Operation Mincemeat' in the

Second World War, filmed in 1956 as The Man Who Never Was – see Lap 4)

 

This last Lap concerns a particular episode related in HW’s fifteen-volume epic work A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Basically, the series follows the life of its chief protagonist Phillip Maddison (based on HW himself) in the first half of the twentieth century. The particular incident here is found in volume 10, It Was The Nightingale, first published in 1962. That title is taken from the scene in Shakespeare’s tragic play Romeo and Juliet when the lovers, after one night of marriage, wait in the dawn for their parting and wonder if the bird they can hear singing is a nightingale or a lark. We know the play ends in the death of them both, and the reader is meant to understand the implication of the reference. Tragedy is lurking.

 

The book opens with a chapter entitled ‘Bédélia’ (pronounced ‘baydayleea’; apparently current aficionados state it rhymes with ‘failure’!). For those who do not know, Bédélia was a French marque of light cars, or cyclecars, fashionable immediately before and after the First World War years.

 

 

motors 50 Bedelia BD2 MG in Louwman Museum Den Haag
A 1913 Bédélia BD2 MG in Louwman Motor Museum, Den Haag

 

 

Previously Phillip Maddison has survived the Great War but is extremely traumatised, and anguishing over the books he intends to write, in particular a book about the war itself. He has met a family, Irene Lushington and her two children, who come to live in the village in which he is living, Malandine, set on the south coast of Devon (actually South Milton). Phillip falls in love with the young daughter, whom he calls Barley, but for complicated reasons the family leave to live in the Pyrenees. In the previous volume, The Innocent Moon, Phillip, on a walking holiday with friends, has set out on a walk over the Pyrenees to find them and gets caught in an avalanche. He has a distressing dream that Barley has died trying to find him – while Barley in turn dreams he has died in the avalanche. Both of course survive – and finally opposition to their marriage is resolved.

 

So let us here first follow Phillip’s adventure – his 1924 honeymoon adventure – as he travels through France in the extraordinary car that the couple bought on a whim, with extracts from this charming and poignant first chapter of It Was The Nightingale.

 

 

nightingale 1962 front

 

 

They had been married in January, and the winter was glorious at first, with snow falling to a depth of six to ten inches all over England. . . . [but it became a hard, extremely cold winter].

 

Now the frosts were gone, the sun shone with heat, celandines and primroses broke along the hedge-bottoms and banks. By April all was forgotten, and when the swallows came back, Barley said, “Let’s go and see mother, shall we?”

 

Irene lived in the south of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. . . .

 

They set out in the third week of April for France; he wanted to see the battlefields of Picardy and Flanders on the way south. . . .

 

Travelling on Phillip’s (as HW’s) beloved Brooklands Road Special Norton motorcycle – as featured in Lap 2 – they go via Bedford, where Phillip, still traumatised by the war, is disturbed when he comes in contact with his old regiment.

 

They went on to Dover, leaving the Norton there and crossing by boat to Calais. Looking around before the slow train to Arras was due in, they passed a garage, and she got into conversation with the motor mechanic who was tuning a voiturette in a shed.

 

The vehicle was long and narrow, with disc wheels. It had a twin-cylinder, air-cooled engine driving two belts to the back-axle. The twin seats were placed tandem-fashion, the driver sitting at the back.

 

“À vendre,” said the mechanic, seeing their interest. “Bédélia, c’est bon marque, n’est ce pas? Tres vite!” There followed a conversation in French.

 

“What’s he saying, Barley?”

 

“He says it won the Grand Prix des Cyclecars in 1920, and is in very good tune. He wants 7,000 francs.”

 

Phillip calculated. “About sixty quid. Too much. I’ve only got ten fivers on me.”

 

“I’ve got twenty pounds Mummy sent me.”

 

The mechanic was watching their faces. Then he spoke in French again.

 

“He says he would like to show you how to drive it. It takes two, one to drive, the other to shift the pulleys.”

 

“But I don’t think we can afford it.”

 

“He says there is no obligation to buy, but he would like to show you how it works. It is the same Bédélia driven by M. Bourbeau, the designer, at an average speed of nearly 70 kilometres an hour for nearly four hours, during the Grand Prix at Amiens, when it won the race.”

 

Phillip got into the front seat, which was like a canvas deck-chair without the frame. The driver set the throttle, then running round to the back, began to push the cyclecar. Suddenly the engine roared and the mechanic flung himself sideways into the driver’s seat behind Phillip.

 

They rattled up the cobbled street, heading for a road out of the town. From the horn, an affair of several brass whorls, came a series of high notes.

 

“En avance!” cried the driver, suddenly striking his passenger in the shoulder. Phillip thought this meant he was going to open up and gripped the sides of the body, but the speed remained the same as before. The driver struck his shoulder again, while yelling into his ear and jerking about in his seat. Could he be getting into a rage? “Hoop! Hoop!” he cried, pointing over the passenger’s shoulder into the cockpit, and making what appeared to be an exaggerated gesture of sawing wood.

 

“Ah, mon Dieu!” he exclaimed finally in resignation, as he closed the throttle and got out, to explain what was wanted. He pointed to a lever in the cockpit. “Comprenez? Eh bien, regardez-vous maintenant!” He indicated the pulley on the near-side of the engine mainshaft. When he pushed the lever forward and to the left, Phillip saw that the outer flange of the pulley opened, so that the belt hung loose upon it. Then going to the other side of the car, the mechanic pointed to the smaller off-side pulley, which was now engaging its belt.

 

“Regardez!”

 

He got back into his seat and with a jerk shifted it back, together with the back-axle, this movement taking up the slack of the belt which had been loose while the engine was driving the other pulley.

 

So that was it – the lever, pulled back and sideways, or forward and sideways, changed over the driving pulleys while the driver took up the belt slack, or loosened it, by moving the floating back-axle.

 

They started off again. This time the gear was successfully changed while Bédélia rushed over cobbled road to tarmac. They stopped beyond the crest at a buvette, and drank cognac.

 

“Six mille francs, m’sieur.”

 

“Eh bien, mon vieux!” replied Phillip, spreading his hands like the Frenchman of English newspaper cartoons. “C’est madame ma femme qui est le – la croupier – she has la banque – si vous comprenez?”

 

“Santé!”

 

Phillip looked more carefully at Bédélia. The belts were new, the tyres were not worn. It was a lovely horn, tightly curled. No oil dripped from the engine. The magneto looked clean.

 

From the nettles in the orchard beside the buvette came the notes of a nightingale. “Attendez, monsieur! Le rossignol!” He stared delightedly at the other’s face. “Connaissez-vous ‘Le Rossignol’, par Stravinsky?”

 

“C’est un auto?”

 

“Non, c’est un opéra.”

 

The mechanic shrugged his shoulders. They drove back, Phillip at the wheel.

 

“I’ve heard the first nightingale, Barley!”

 

“How lovely. They’re always a few days earlier than the English birds. They’ll be in full song in the Côte d’Or now.”

 

“Let’s buy this ’bus and go there by road! A thousand miles, what an adventure!”

 

“Let me do the bargaining.”

 

It was theirs for 5,500 francs. The mechanic filled the tank with essence, and put a spare tin of oil in the driver’s cockpit, while Barley went to change the fivers into francs. The deal was concluded. One last thought as the mechanic prepared to push them off. What about a driving licence?

 

“Pfui! En avance! Bonne chance!”

 

Between trepidation and glee he steered for the high road across the downs to Arras. It was tremendous fun down the straight road between poplars. Here he must stop on a slope and look at Bédélia. Walking round her, examining the brake bands on the rear axle, feeling the tyres. No tool kit, or puncture outfit!

 

“We’ll be able to get some in Arras, Phillip.”

 

Arras! How strange to be able to get anything in Arras!

 

On down through the poplars lining the road, the engine pulling well on less than half-throttle. The corn in the fields on either side of the road was beginning to shine in the breeze which blew the curls of the adorable head in front.

 

After an hour’s run they came to St. Omer . . . They sat on the grass in the Jardin Public, opposite the Place Maréchal Foch.

 

“I don’t recognise anything! But then we arrived at night and saw only the arc-lights in the autumn fog.” He sighed; with Barley beside him, the war was faded away almost to nothing. . . .

 

They walked around the town, still in ruins, and at 10.30 a.m. the next morning made for Cambrai on the straight N 39. The pavé was bumpy with brick-filled shell craters . . . but where was Bourlon Wood, which had overlooked the Siegfried Stellung in November 1917? . . .

 

Phillip, convinced it should be on the left, gets somewhat agitated until he realises that they have approached it via a different road.

 

The wreckage of Bourlon Wood was covered by green scrub. Far away on the horizon lay the old Somme battlefield, like a distant sea fretted by waves of wild grass and poles of dead trees. He longed to be once again in the desolation of that vast area, so silent, so empty, so – forsaken. Somewhere in that misty distance were the failed objectives of July the First, that dream-like day of terror and great heat; and below the horizon of fear was Albert, and the Golden Virgin.

 

“It says Albert on the map, Phillip. Would you like to go there?”

 

“But there won’t be anyone there, now.” . . .

 

It is all rather too much for Phillip.

 

“Barley, let’s go on south!” he said, after they had lain in the sun. “I don’t want to see the battlefields.”

 

Cambrai, shabby and bleak like Arras, was left behind to gay toot-toots of the snail horn, hands waved to children. Onwards to St. Quentin through the last of the Hindenburg Line country, grave of Gough’s Fifth Army in March 1918. Comrades, I will never forget. . . .

 

Six hours after leaving Arras they were in Rheims: 142 kilometres in 3 hours running time, and not one miss of either cylinder since leaving Calais. “O Bédélia, Bédélia, she must be christened with the vin du pays, a bottle of Veuve Cliquot bought in a wine store.

 

After which Bédélia ran south in top gear on full throttle, leaving behind the Chemin des Dames – name inducing compelled thoughts of a hundred bombardments, attacks, and counter-attacks – now but a crest of young tree growth among chalky patches receding behind Barley’s curly head. Bédélia rattled and bumped across the plain to the country of the Marne.

 

Within the hour they were in Châlons. Boys and old men actually fishing there – ah, the Marne, a word, a name – he said to Barley’s candle-lit face across the small table à deux in the dining room of the Hotel d’Angleterre – that had the power to raise eighty thousand ghosts of the original B.E.F., ghosts of both dead and living. . . .

 

After coffee and rolls and butter they went on their journey, travelling towards the sun above the mountains of the Massif Central. But after a while the sun went in and it rained; it rained harder; it poured down and there was no hood to put up. The belts slipped, the engine went dud, with water in the magneto.

 

They pushed Bédélia for a mile and came to a garage-shed where a new condenser was fitted to the magneto; very cheaply, he thought, giving the mechanic a pour boire. The engine fired at once, the rain ceased to fall, they went on happily through a damp twilight into Chaumont, to leave Bédélia in a side-street barn. . . .

 

Again they were on the road early, a clear bright day, the engine running well; through Dijon, with its vineyards and rose-gardens, stopping to eat their midday meal on a bridge over the Sâone . . .

 

The river turned its course there, the flow had carved a pool at the bend. The water moved gently over a sandy bottom at the verge, and, towards the farther bank, it deepened over a stony pit. While they were swimming to the other side he saw what at first he took to be a water-vole on the bank; but coming nearer, he saw it had a flatter head, and curiously small eyes with apparently no nose. It was scarcely seven inches long, with a stub tail, dun-brown like its fur. Through the wimpling current he swam, nearer and nearer the animal, which did not move, but opened its mouth in an inaudible mew when the hand of his extended right arm touched the bank. He waited for her to draw level with him, and put a hand on his shoulder to steady herself while treading water.

 

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

 

They got out and picked up the mite. It was cold, she breathed upon it for warmth, while feebly it sought with its paws to burrow between her fingers.

 

“It’s hungry,” she said. “Poor baby.”

 

Phillip, looking down into the water, cried out, “Come here!”

 

On the stony bottom of the pool lay an animal slowly swaying in the current. It was on its back, it was dark except for a light patch on its throat. As they stared, the body lifted slowly and half turned over; the current checked this movement, and they saw something upon one paw, attached to a chain.

 

“It’s an otter, it’s been trapped! The chain is nailed to the top of that sunken post! The weight of the trap has drowned it!”

 

He swam underwater and hauled at the chain, drawing up the body until its spiky fur showed above the water. It was heavy with the weight of the trap; he released it, and sinking down gripped the top of the post, to work it to and fro to loosen it. It was driven too deeply to be shifted.

 

“What a shame. They trap otters at Laruns, for their fur. I wonder if there are any more cubs?”

 

“They have them in holes of trees by the river, I think. I wonder how this one got on the bank? It’s too small to swim!”

 

“Perhaps she was carrying it to another nest, Phillip.” They could find no other cubs and walked down-river to find a ford.

 

“We’ll get some milk in the next town. I can feed it with my fountain-pen filler.”

 

As soon as they had dressed they went on to Dôle, where Barley bought some milk and, mixing it with hot water, fed the cub on the rubber squeezer of the pen-filler.

 

“Good, it’s sucking!”

 

It took three fills of the glass container, then closed its eyes. She put it inside her jumper, next to her collar-bone. . . .

 

Next morning the cub was still alive; with joy they went on south, a new view of mountains immediately before them. They climbed up to Poligny, the engine sharply crackling through the tree-lined streets partly in shadow; and continuing along route 83 they came to Lons-le-Saunier and after filling the pointed cylindrical tank above the engine with essence, made for Bourg-en-Bresse, their objective being Lyons – 187 kilometres on the map from Dôle. . . .

 

The mountain peaks were ruddy as they rattled down the valley route beside great Rhône whose leaping snow waters were visible on their right. . . .

 

They stop for the night. Phillip gets upset and jealous because Barley pays attention to a young waiter. He thinks Barley has been behaving oddly anyway – and decides that she has fallen out of love with him and is looking for someone more her own age. But Barley smooths everything over and all is well – and next day they continue their journey.

 

On the way south they ran into flocks of sheep. The dust of the movement of thousands of lean animals, with long ears and tails, hung on the air. Among the ewes were rams with spiralled horns held well above the flocks.

 

They sat in Bédélia on the road verge, hearing the tottle-tonk of bells, the short clatter of cloven feet in the dust amidst the barking of dogs. Boys with black shaggy hair and dark eyes passed by them, in charge of donkeys which seemed loaded almost to back-breaking point. Goats were among the sheep.

 

The flocks are being taken up to the high summer pastures in the mountains. Barley explains this system is called the ‘transhumance’ (and it is, indeed, the correct term).

 

When the flocks had passed he sat still listening to the sound of bells breaking upon the distant air like the blooms of mountain flowers below the snow-line. “Your word transhumance exactly describes it, Barley – the soft bells – cold air in the sunshine, water running from the edge of the snow everywhere – the fritillaries and the gentians pushing through the flat grass – the great empty caves of the valley below one.”

 

He is thinking of his experience crossing the treacherous Col d’Aubisque and getting caught in the avalanche – exactly one year ago that day.

 

At noon they rested among aromatic bushes growing on a piece of waste land beside the road. The low stems gave a springy couch without injuring the bushes. Near them the scrub had been cleared by a past fire, so that out of reddened stones on the black ground lowly plants were growing. Each flower of the harsh soil was served by butterfly or bee. . . .

 

They have a complicated conversation with some degree of misunderstanding on the part of Phillip – determined that Barley is tired of him. But she is trying to tell him that she is pregnant – and he is going to be a ‘daddy’. They continue their journey.

 

Bédélia was moving with its secret shadow along a track through a flat region of reed and water, where pink reflections drew out from flamingos, and distant boats seemed to be sailing above the horns of wild cattle in the marshes.

 

Here the Rhône had rolled fragments ice-broken from the Alps until its flow was checked by its own rush, so that the river had sought many courses to the sea.

 

They had arrived at the Camargue – with its strange primitive life of fen-men and water-beasts – wilder and wider and more mysterious than the country of Dick o’ the Fens and Bevis, in those days when, thought Phillip, there had been romance, but little true living, in his life. Now he had got through to that ‘other side’ which all poets whom life had ‘mumbled in its jaws’ had dreamed of but never achieved. How fortunate he was, he thought for the hundredth time, as he listened to nightingales singing among the osiers, and larks above in the sky. . . .

 

Phillip embarks on an explanation to Barley about Romeo and Juliet – and the lovers' connection with nightingales and larks as dawn rises after their one night together: ‘It was the nightingale . . .’ — ‘It was the lark, no nightingale.’

 

Across a flat plain of stones, through the torrid air with its mirages of shifting dark blue levels, they came to a desert of sand-hills, and beyond the sands was the sea.

 

A welcome wind blew from the short wash of waves which revealed with every retreat glints of mica in the lapsing sand.

 

They swim.

 

Everything was so still, the sound of the little waves a mere whisper. Yet each moment the sandhills were changing. Every beetle toiling up the hot slope, every touch of gossamer bearing tiny Linyphia, every vibration of wing of sand-wasp and butterfly caused a stir among the grains of sand revealed by a glint, a spill, a change.

 

Never for an instant did the elements cease to cry their sharp and mindless cries of creation, even on the most still day of summer, under the vast blue silence of the sky.

 

When the mistral blew, the shape of a dune might be changed in a day, diminishing and streaming away in the coils and re-buffets of the wind until the damper, finer sand of the interior hillock was exposed, to be carved cliff-like, so that roots of the binding grasses hung loose when the wind had blown itself out.

 

Here the elements of air and sun and water strove to abrade all form, living and dead, in the ceaseless percussion of the sands. Bottles rocked upon the shore of the tideless sea received the blast of grains driven by the wind until the glass was dulled to a beauty like the fathomless light of ocean’s floor. . . .

 

The pair spend a day or two camping here in idyllic honeymoon mode – until the mistral threatens:

 

A cold wind fanned the flames. The sun was round and red. It was time to leave. They had no light but the moon upon the wastes.

 

The next day they drove with a view of the high peaks of the Pyrenees. Carcassone, with its old walled town dark on a hill, was passed; they were making for Pamiers. Before them lay a route of steep ascents with many coiling bends, or virages, which so wore the belt of the smaller pulley that they had to change it over at Mas-d’Azil for the climb to St. Girons. The air was cold with patches of snow still unmelted on pastures where sheep grazed upon the subdued grass.

 

There was a further climb to the Toulouse-Tarbes main road, a steady ascent to St. Gaudens and on to Montrejean – over sixty kilometres from St. Girons. Would Bédélia’s belt hold out?

 

Up again from Montrejean, and on to Lannemezan, which according to the Michelin map was nearly 600 metres high. Could they get there on the belt now frayed and ragged? They took the wrong turning and found themselves on a small stony road, leading with many bends to St. Laurent-de Nestes. She suggested turning back; he went on until the belt-fastener tore loose. He repaired it and fitted a spare link and continued along the twisting route to Bagnères. The engine had plenty of power; up they went in low gear until Bédélia, long and narrow, stuck at a hair-pin bend. They managed to lift round her tail. But how to restart the engine on a slope? It was hopeless.

 

They lifted the tail round in a complete circle and returned the way they had come, spending the night in an otherwise deserted auberge at Bonnemazon, sitting before a wood fire in the dining-room after a dinner of small thin trout and tough mutton. In the morning, back to the main Tarbes road beyond Capern; and from Tarbes along N 117 to Pau, the adventure nearly over, for at the end of the road was Laruns.

 

It seemed almost the end of the old life together when they stopped at the villa and sat still for a few moments before looking round to see Irene as she came down the garden path to greet them. . . .

 

A week later Bédélia, her rear tyres worn to the canvas, was sold – after some hesitation, for they had shared so much with the faithful little ’bus. Still, there was satisfaction in knowing that seven one-thousand-franc notes were folded in his hip pocket, as he sat in the Paris train at Bordeaux, thinking that the blossom of the hawthorn would be white upon the hedgerows when they returned to England. It would be great fun, too, to ride the Norton motorbike again. . . .

 

At the Dover customs there was nothing to declare. Fortunately Lutra – Phillip had given the cub its Latin name – slept soundly against her heart, so there was no bother about quarantine.

 

[This ends Chapter One]

 

 

*************************

 

 

So much of HW’s writing in his 15-volume A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight is based on fact that many readers assume (or have assumed in the past) that the series is more or less straightforward autobiography written as a novel. That is far from the case. There is a huge element of fiction woven into the basically factual structure. It is one of the elements that makes the Chronicle so endlessly fascinating to those who not only like a good read but enjoy teasing out the various strands.

 

So – the first point to be made here is that this whole episode is entirely fictional. There was no ‘first’ short and tragic marriage in HW’s actual life (later in the book Barley dies from a haemorrhage after the birth of their son, thus fulfilling the Shakespearean tragic element) – and the 1924 honeymoon visit to France and the purchase of the extraordinarily eccentric Bédélia never happened: therefore, in real life, this is – as the title for this Lap suggests – the car that never was. But having said that, it is all based on real events, and there certainly was a French marque called Bédélia.

 

Readers may have noticed the very obvious resemblance of this 1924 honeymoon ‘Tour de France’ with the one HW actually made on his second honeymoon in 1949 in the unpredictable Aston Martin, as related in Lap 4. There are some notable differences, however: the fictional 1924 journey through France is meticulously detailed, town by town, and the Bédélia behaves very well. There is none (or very little) of the trauma of the Aston Martin story! The description HW gives in this novel of the short stay on the Camargue, the isolated south coast of France, walking on the beach is more or less exactly the same as descriptions he wrote into his diary on his 1949 honeymoon visit in the village of Le Lavandou.

 

But in 1949 HW and bride turn east after their stay with HW’s friend Richard Aldington, before travelling into Italy and then home over the Simplon Pass across the Alps, whereas here in the novel in 1924 Phillip and bride turn west and make for the Pyrenees and stay with Barley’s mother, Irene Lushington. HW’s description here of the difficulties in driving up the Pyrenees in the Bédélia is a fictional replica of the difficulties of driving in the Aston Martin up and over the Alps.

 

The basis of this idyllic fictional love affair (and subsequent marriage) has its roots in real life. In the early 1920s HW did indeed fall in love with a young girl who came with her mother to live in the same village – in real life of course, Georgeham in North Devon. For the novels HW transposes place and events to a fictional ‘Malandine’, which is based on South Milton next to Hope Cove in South Devon. In the previous volume, The Innocent Moon, the early part of this love affair is related more or less as in real life, but then gets fictionalised: HW did not get caught in an avalanche while crossing the treacherous Col d’Aubisque while trying to reach Barley and her mother. In an earlier book, The Sun in the Sands (written in 1934 while HW was on an extended visit to America, but not published until 1945), we find a similar story; but in that book Barley actually dies.

 

That original fictional visit to the Pyrenees is based on an actual visit, though not quite such a dramatic one. For in May 1924 (note that the date corresponds with the fictional visit here) HW went on a walking tour of the Pyrenees in company with two journalist friends, J. B. Morton and D. B. Wyndham Lewis (both wrote the well-known column ‘Beachcomber’ for the Daily Express). These two men planned to follow a great walk undertaken by their hero, Hilaire Belloc, and HW, depressed after the break-up of his love-affair with the real-life Barley, joined them. It was on his return from that visit, in June 1924, that, while out with the Cheriton Otter Hounds, HW met the girl whom he subsequently married, Ida Loetitia Hibbert. Indeed – just as Phillip meets and marries ‘Lucy’ as It Was The Nightingale progresses.

 

There is woven into the fabric of this fictional honeymoon journey the sub-story of finding the very young otter cub when its mother has been trapped and drowned in the river they bathe in. It is of course a variation on the theme of the cub that was found by HW’s friend Capt. Horton-Wickham, crippled in the Great War, soon after HW went to live in Georgeham, the story of which was printed as ‘Zoë’ in The Peregrine’s Saga (1923). It was this incident that kindled HW’s interest in otters and determined him to write the book that became the great classic Tarka the Otter (1927), which still sells hundreds of copies every year and recently was runner-up in a national poll for the best-loved animal story. As the story progresses in It Was The Nightingale, this young cub, so loved by the now dead Barley, gets caught in a trap, and in escaping is so terrified that it runs off, after damaging the claws of a front pad, so its footprint is easily recognisable. Phillip goes on a mission to find it – as symbol of his lost (perfect) soulmate, and then determines to write a book about the creature’s life: The Water-Wanderer – which is of course actually Tarka the Otter.

 

Now we come to the crux of the story: the extraordinary car that Phillip and Barley buy on arrival in France, while waiting for the slow train to Arras. There is nothing whatsoever in HW’s archive to suggest that HW and his first wife Loetitia (otherwise known as Gipsy) bought a car when they arrived in France on their honeymoon visit to the battlefields of the Great War in May 1925 (exactly a year later than the fictional honeymoon). Although it would perhaps be foolish to rule it out altogether! It is thought that they travelled to Folkestone on HW’s Norton (not the BRS but a slightly later version fitted with sidecar – see Lap 2). After crossing to France, they then took the train to Arras and walked round the battlefields that HW had been involved in in the War – resulting, after a further visit in 1927, in his book The Wet Flanders Plain (1929), which relates his powerful impressions and memories of his wartime experience.

 

So, like the mythical first marriage and the whole of this 1924 visit to France, the purchase of a Bédélia in 1924 is purely part of HW’s fictional structure. Neither is there any evidence to tell us why HW chose that particular marque of French car to grace his adventure. Perhaps it was the most unusual one he could find – and one that would perhaps most intrigue his readers! ‘Car’ is actually a misnomer: the Bédélia was in fact a cyclecar, also known as a ‘voiturette’.

 

The only mention anywhere – the one single clue – that I have found is in a book entitled Racing Voiturettes, by Kent Karslake (Motor Racing Pubns,1950), which I feel HW bought in order to research what was available, where he wrote a note on the front flyleaf – and underlined the mention of the car within the text:

 

 

motors 51 note re Bedelia

 

 

motors 52 bedelia

The illustration opposite page 177. The pointed cylindrical petrol tank above the engine and the

'lovely horn, tightly curled' beside the rear driving position are well illustrated here.

 

 

The Tamplin was the car featured in Lap 2 owned by the Hibbert ‘boys’, brothers of HW’s real bride, whom HW met in 1924 and subsequently married in May 1925. There is no evidence that HW, although very familiar with motor-cycles, had actually even driven a motor-car at that time – but one presumes that he did have a go in the Tamplin. The Bédélia would seem to have been rather a beast to drive, especially (as HW makes very clear) it also involved the passenger, who was needed to help change from one gear to the other. The thought of someone who had never driven a car taking this eccentric vehicle on the rough French roads of 1924 is quite alarming!

 

The sections of text in Racing Voiturettes that HW then underlined are from pages 213 and 215:

 

 

motors 53aa extract Racing Voiturettes p213

 

* * *

 

motors 53bb extract Racing Voiturettes p 215

 

 

HW made a rather odd error in his own text. He ascribes the Bédélia’s triumphant ‘First’ at the Grand Prix des Cyclecars at Amiens as 1920. In actual fact this was 1913, clearly stated in Racing Voiturettes and corroborated in various other sources of information. Perhaps he thought a pre-war triumph was a little too far removed to make the car a desirable and exciting buy for his own purpose. The manufacturer sold out to another firm in 1920, and the marque had totally stopped production by 1925.

 

The Bédélia first made an appearance in 1910. It was the brainchild of a young French engineering student, Robert Bourbeau (known to have been 18 in 1908), who crashed his motor-bicycle and salvaged the parts to make what was to become this most unusual cyclecar. Together with his friend Henri Devaux (who seems to have supplied the finances) they set up a factory in Paris. The name of the car is taken from the French pronunciation of the first letter of their two surnames: Bé - Dé - lia.

 

There was around that time an international fuel crisis caused by competing commercial interests. This particularly affected France, which had no independent source of oil. Standard ‘Edwardian’ cars (as cars of that era were known in the UK) were big and heavy, expensive, and fuel-hungry. There was a move for a lighter, more economic and cheaper machines for ordinary people. But many newer models were merely cut-down versions of the originals and were therefore not really any more economical to produce. Cyclecars, many of them three-wheelers (for example, the still very popular Morgan), fitted the mode and the mood.

 

The Bédélia seems to have been in a class of its own! The translation of one French description is that it was like nothing other than itself! It had a very long and narrow light wooden ash frame, four wheels (with Michelin tyres), and two seats in tandem: the driving wheel and thus the driver situated in the rear, and passenger in the front seat. It was powered by a motor-cycle engine – with choice of single or two-cylinders, with the boast that they were manufactured to aviation standards. One description referred to it as ‘a wingless aeroplane’.

 

HW Society member Peter Lewis did some research into the car in around 2000, and found some valuable information, including the fact that there is an example of the marque at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, Hampshire, and a description of the car in their ‘encyclopaedia’. Peter also discovered two little booklets and very kindly sent me photocopies. One is from the makers themselves describing their own car, and the other from the English distributor of the car. The latter reveals that there were several models available, according to the power of engine required.

 

First from the manufacturer’s 20-page, A5 size booklet – written of course in French – and note there is no acute accent inserted in the brand name!

 

 

motors 54a cover makers booklet

 

motors 54b advert inside cover

 

motors 54c the car p 3

 

 

These are followed by pages devoted to an ‘Introduction’, ‘Généralités’, ‘Caractéristiques’ (including a view of the very important twin cylinder V-engine):

 

 

motors 54d twin cylinder V engine

 

 

These are followed by further detailed technical descriptions of ‘Suspension’, ‘Freins’ (brakes), ‘Poules variables’ (pulleys) – and several pages of references from satisfied clients.

 

The second booklet (12 pages, A5 size) is from ‘Sabella’, a London firm of distributors, and although not so detailed is more comprehensible!

 

 

motors 55a cover

 

motors 55b p 2

 

motors 55c p 3 rest of specifications

 

motors 55d p 5

 

 

Illustrations follow of the various models available according to engine size – and therefore power etcetera:

 

 

motors 55e model i

 

motors 55f model ii

 

motors 55g model iii

 

motors 55h model iv

 

motors 55i model v

 

motors 55j model vi

 

motors 55k back cover

 

 

A fine period advertisement:

 

 

motors 55l an advert for Sabela

 

 

The car had been successful at several English racing events as well as others in Europe, including of course that amazing win at the Grand Prix de Cycle-cars at Amiens in 1913. There were 38 cars entered for that race, including four Morgans, a Marlborough (with a lady partner), the rival French car Violet-Bogey, driven by Violet himself, and two Bédélias, among various other machines. The gist of the race can be gathered from the account given in Racing Voiturettes, but the set up for the race was fairly complicated. First it was run in tandem with the actual Grand Prix, and one has to tease out what items belong to which event.

 

The actual Grand Prix circuit was 20 miles, but for the Voiturette race this was shortened, making a circuit of 10.8 miles with fifteen laps, a total distance of 162 miles. The rules were strict, especially about engine size and vehicle weight: there was a minimum and a maximum. Many cyclecars had to cut back on weight to qualify – not the light-weight Bédélia! (Note that Phillip and Barley were able to lift its tail end and turn the car right round when in a remote place in the Pyrenees!) Even within the race there were various categories. The two Bédélias were driven by Bonnville and partner – and Robert Bourbeau himself & partner (not on this occasion Devaux, although he did enter other races at that time).

 

Racing Voiturettes reports that at the start Violet went off ‘in fine style’ and at the end of the third lap was leading the two Bédélias and the Marlborough. In due course Bonnville’s Bédélia caught fire; the Marlborough boiled, Violet (unfortunately and stupidly) stopped to find out why his pit-team were cheering, and so lost his leading place; then, in trying to catch up, took off a wing on a corner and was disqualified for that! The actual winner – first past the flag – was one of the Morgans, but because the Morgan only had three wheels and the rule was for four, it was not declared the winner. This left the second-place car – Bourbeau’s Bédélia – three minutes behind, to be declared the official winner: actual time 3 hours, 55 minutes, and 54 seconds – an average of 40 m.p.h. for the 162 miles.

 

Following this triumph the Bédélia was advertised in The Cyclecar magazine, this appearing in the issue for 6 August 1913:

 

 

motors 56 Cyclecar advert

 

motors 56a also from cyclecar

 

 

When Phillip and Barley buy a Bédélia at the end of April 1924, they are told it had won the Grand Prix – what is not quite clear is whether it was that particular car – or did the mechanic just mean the Bédélia marque had won that race? It did (fairly unusually) have disc wheels, as did the race car. You will have noted that Phillip did very well out of the transaction: bought for 6,500 francs in good condition, they used it hard for their holiday visit – we are told ‘the rear tyres were worn down to the canvas’ – and two weeks or so later managed to make a profit, selling it for 7,000 francs.

 

It is interesting to note the many tiny details HW gives about the Bédélia: more perhaps than he could have garnered from Racing Voiturettes. He knew for instance that it had to be pushed to start it unless on a slope. He enthuses about the superb horn: ‘From the horn, an affair of several brass whorls, came a series of high notes.’ That curled blob (rather notably coiled like a French horn in an orchestra) outside the car on the left of the driver’s seat in the photograph from Racing Voiturettes is that horn. How splendid to be able to put out one’s hand and give a merry blast! HW also notes ‘the pointed cylindrical [petrol] tank above the engine’ that had to be filled with essence: also visible in the photograph. (That seems a rather dangerous arrangement: no wonder Bonnville’s car caught fire in that 1913 Grand Prix!)

 

There was an interesting article about the marque in Motor (30 October 1971), which relates a detail obviously not known to HW:

 

Even during the Great War a job was found for the spidery creation of Bourbeau et Devaux, they served as field ambulances, transporting a single wounded soldier on a stretcher, fixed just above the engine – a fate almost worse than death, one feels!

 

(Improvements in later models allowed the driver to change gear all by himself!)

 

 

motors 57

 

 

Further advertisements for the Bédélia:

 

 

motors 57a

 

 

This whole story does lead one to wonder whether HW actually knew that particular marque: had perhaps even had a drive in one. We will never know – but this whole amazing story, centred on a quite extraordinary vehicle, surely proves that HW was indeed ‘Mad About Motors’.

 

 

 

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LAP 1: On two wheels

 

LAP 2: Two wheels plus an engine (Nortons)

 

LAP 3: Four wheels (Peugeot to Alvis Silver Eagle, via Auto Union)

 

LAP 4: Moving up a gear (Aston Martin to MG Magnette)

 

 

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