Dawn was beginning to soften the edge of the night as the Buick convertible cruised through the Essex countryside. Its driver was a small man, so short that he had to sit on a cushion and lean forward to see over the Buick’s broad bonnet. His right leg was at full stretch; even so, only his toes pressed the accelerator. The rush of air lashed his curly hair forward.
There were three other men in the car, all asleep. Like the driver they were all young, and dressed in lounge suits or blazers with grey flannel trousers. One of them, in the back seat, held an enormous stuffed golliwog, half as big as himself.
So begins Derek Robinson’s most compelling and entertaining World War II fighter pilot novel A Piece of Cake (1983), in which the fortunes a group of young, brash and inexperienced members of Hornet Squadron are chronicled. That we are informed of the make of automobile being driven, and the light-hearted nature of its progress, in a book otherwise unrelated to the motor car, adds significantly to the enjoyment of the text by the aficionado of the internal combustion engine.
In contemporary literature, car references are almost unavoidable such is the nature of modern life, but not to name the vehicle in question leaves a gap in the dialogue which the motor enthusiast must fill. If the writer fails to perform this task our imaginations do so anyway, and although it may sound trite, much can be learnt about a character from the car driven, clothes worn and what other personal details a writer may wish to share with the reader. Of course in wider life such superficiality is secondary in importance to how the character thinks, speaks and acts, but first impressions are important, and the car in which a character arrives can set a scene most vividly and effectively.
That Scott Fitzgerald chooses a yellow Rolls-Royce (we are not told the model or year but best guess is a 1922 Silver Cloud) for the mysterious young millionaire Jay Gatsby, the title character in The Great Gatsby (1925), comes as no surprise. It’s what might be expected. Similarly, George Simenon’s decision to make the Citroen Traction Avant Jules Maigret’s wheels of choice is entirely logical, although in the books, of which The Strange Case of Peter the Lett (1925) was the very first, the police inspector neither drives nor possess a licence. However, it is the curve ball that intrigues.
In John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes Of Wrath (1939), one of the finest and most poignant books of the 20th century, a 1926 Hudson Super Six pickup truck provides both transport and home for the Joad family as they strive to escape the Oklahoma dust bowl during the Great Depression by driving across an inhospitable America towards a better life in California. Purchased from a profiteering and untrustworthy dealer, the tired and hastily converted Hudson sedan is ill-suited to such a journey through arid plains and searingly hot deserts, and there are casualties, both mechanical and human. But it is the truck that will be remembered when other details of the narrative may have been forgotten.
In To Noto by Duncan Fallowell (1989), a witty, perceptive and ever so camp travelogue chronicling a road journey by an aesthete from London to Sicily, and the surreal encounters that occur en route, the choice of wheels is an unpromising Midnight Blue 1.6-litre Ford Capri. Yet being told such details as that it cruises south down the Autoroute du Soleil at between 80 and 90mph with Berlioz on the 8-track, exuding “the hum of a contented car”, adds immeasurably to a reader’s conception of continental road life, as does mention of being overtaken by “a white Rolls-Royce from Switzerland, a Corniche with a soft top”. Less uplifting perhaps is reference to “contemplative lorry drivers [who] flick balls of snot out of their windows as they bowl along”.
More obscure vehicles appear in other works. Henry Williamson’s troubled hero Philip Maddison returns to the battlefields of the First World War in 1920 at the wheel of a Bedelia cyclecar in It Was The Nightingale (1962). The writer accurately describes how the car was driven from the rear tandem seat with odd belt drive controls, the vehicle having been purchased from a Calais garage for £45 and said to have won the 1913 Cyclecar GP at Amiens. Acetylene lights had been subsequently added to dimly illuminate the long straight poplar lined roads that criss-cross the former Western Front.
John D McDonald’s Florida private eye Travis McGee lives on The Busted Flush, a 52-foot house boat won in a poker game, but passes on V8 Americana in favour Miss Agnes, a 1936 Rolls-Royce pickup so named as its “horrid blue” paintwork reminds McGee of the hair shade of a former school teacher.
In Len Deighton’s Funeral In Berlin (1964), the duplicitous Johnny Vulcan, engaged by British Intelligence to broker a defection by a Russian scientist, drives a less than inconspicuous 1959 Cadillac Eldorado drophead. While fellow spy writer John le Carré chooses an Alvis for school master and former intelligence officer Jim Prideaux in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). “He arrived just after lunch, driving an old red Alvis and towing a secondhand caravan that had once been blue.”
The choice of these cars helps define the characters of those who drive them, adding enormously to the enjoyment of the books.
But of course the car chase is the ultimate expression of car related writing in fiction. In Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) special agent James Bond is cruising along the N1 in Normandy between Abbeville and Montreuil when, to the accompanying blast of triple air horns, he is overtaken at speed by an attractive girl in a Lancia Flaminia Zagato Spyder. We are told that Bond’s car is a “Continental Bentley – the ‘R’ Type chassis with the big VI engine and a 13:40 back-axle ratio – that he had now been driving for three years”, Fleming adding that “against the solemn warnings of Rolls-Royce, he had had fitted, by his pet expert at the Headquarters’ motor pool, an Arnott Supercharger controlled by a magnetic clutch”.
Bond gives chase. “100, 110, 115, and he still wasn’t gaining. Bond reached forward to the dashboard and flicked up a red switch. The thin whine of machinery on the brink of torment tore at his eardrums and the Bentley gave an almost perceptible kick forward. 120, 125. He was definitely gaining. Fifty yards, 40, 30. Now he could just see her eyes in her rear mirror.” Exciting stuff, further enhanced by the writer’s full understanding of the relative merits of the Lancia’s relatively compliant De Dion rear suspension compared to the more ponderous live axle of the Bentley, which eventually allowed the Lancia to get away once tight turns and pavé are encountered.
For the writer of fiction with an awareness of cars, there is probably no better medium than the automobile to convey taste, status, movement and speed. And while the biographer must reflect fact, the novelist has options, matching the car to the character to bring a situation to life. Some readers may not notice, but motoring enthusiasts do, and profit accordingly.