A friend and fellow fan of Leslie Charteris and “The Saint” sent me the image above. “Is this yours?” he asked. Yes, it hangs in my home. My friend has now acquired AQ —Automobile Quarterly— First Quarter, 1972. It contains a portfolio of The Saint’s 1930 sports car, the Hirondel, conjured up by five great artists. This painting was presented to me by its creator, Ted Lodigensky. “It has no value,” he declared. “It’s a car that never was.”
Maybe so, but not to devotees of “The Saint,” aka Simon Templar. “He was an Englishman, and a gentleman,” explained AQ editor Don Vorderman—though one must admit a pretty rakish one. Of impeccable manners and dress, he was nonetheless superbly skilled in the dark arts of detection and self-defense. He was the James Bond of the 1930s.”
An AQ classic
I’m glad my friend appreciates this stuff—I fear few are left who do—and am happy that he found a copy. It was one of our classic issues, if only for its Englishness.
After the Hirondel, we published a panel discussion on what was wrong with the British motor industry. A furore erupted in England. Bill Boddy, veddy traditional editor of MotorSport (an AQ contributor and accomplished historian of Brooklands) denounced us as Yank barbarians and mocked “a magazine featuring a car that never existed, a slapstick motor race, and an auto engine powered by soap bubbles.”
(The issue included a spread on a car engine with wind-driven vanes, stirring a bucket of soapy water, generating bubbles which, pricked by piston heads, drove the crankshaft. I dunno! It seemed like a fun idea at the time. And it was a British idea—from The Autocar.)
UK motor industry
The panel discussion was entitled, “What’s the Matter with England? Fine engineers muzzled by incompetent executives and a dismal labor force, among some other things.” It caused such an uproar that British Leyland Motors organized a press tour of all its factories to prove to us ignorant Americans that they really knew what they were doing.
It was my first trip out of the country, and Barbara and I fell in love with England (as it then was), particularly driving there—long before speed cameras. The quality of motoring was almost universally high. You could drive almost as fast as common sense suggested. You could pass on curves, for heaven’s sake! (“Reason is, we don’t have anything else,” said a British friend. The car being overtaken would politely inch over, while oncoming drivers calmly moved likewise, giving you a lane.) Provided you seemed to look like you knew what you were doing (and not DWI), you were rarely arrested. (I do know Brits who are exceptional drivers even under the influence, such as…oh, never mind.)
Incidentally, and sadly, it turned out that our panel discussion was exactly right. As far as homegrown products went, the UK motor industry was almost kaput by the 1990s.
From AC to Mercer
There was a history of AC (Autocarriers) in Thames Ditton, Surrey, from the Sociable to the Cobra. The author, Pennsylvanian Bill Jackson, is the spitting image of Benjamin Franklin, with a literary wit to match. We wound up with the Cobra 427, although somehow Vorderman didn’t get pictured behind the wheel, as he usually arranged to do.
I contributed (edited) the memoirs of Dutch Darrin, including several tall tales by Dutch. But they were so gaudy and wonderful, everyone forgave him. Don photographed Darrin’s DiFrasso Rolls-Royce town car—which he thought one of the most beautiful cars he’d ever seen. There was a road test of a “Living Legend: T-head Mercer Raceabout.” Don did the serious photography; I snapped him driving this amazing car at speed. Despite several dozen bad shots more of trees than car, I managed one so sharp you can read the name on the hubs. (With 35mm Kodachrome, even.) For a larger image of this incredibly lucky photo, and more on Don, see my tribute to him here.
The Bol d’Or: All Come All Ye Faithful
The motor race that so incensed Bill Boddy was the Bol d’Or, crafted by a colorful charlatan rather incongruously named Eugene Mauve. The hilarious history of this ersatz road race near Paris was recounted by the inimitable English writer Dennis May. To Dennis’ pen we added irreverent cartoons by Russ Brockbank. Bill Boddy hated it passionately, because Mauve wasn’t really a gentleman, dontcha know. As Dennis wrote:
Mauve’s total disregard for competitors’ qualifying experience and the race-worthiness of their cars constituted a local hazard. By his philosophy, a man had to start somewhere, so why not in the Bol? As long as the completed entry blank was accompanied by the appropriate fee, Mauve’s attitude was O Come All Ye Faithful. He once exercised this engaging complaisance in favor of a team of horrendous three-wheelers, built in a Paris backyard:
I’m sad to observe that Dennis May cannot even be tracked by search engines. His writing blended a superlative grasp of English literature with precise automotive knowledge. He was capable of an exquisite turn of words. Describing a car’s independent rear suspension he quipped: “All independent of the leafy spring, in Keats’s phrase.” He was a charming, gentle man, died too young, and Don Vorderman lamented his loss: “There’s just a great big hole where someone you loved once was. Everyone who knew Dennis loved him. And that’s one crowd I’m proud to be a member of.”
Back to AQ and the Hirondel
Still, what made this issue was Simon Templar and his fabled Hirondel. Each artist was fed a passage from Charteris’ descriptions of the car. AQ asked them to illustrate the words. John Hanna and Dale Weaver Totten started in London. Dale’s painting eerily captured The Saint rushing past Hyde Park:
If this had been a superstitious age, those who saw it would have crossed themselves and sworn that it was no car at all they saw that night, but a snarling silver fiend that roared through London on the wings of an unearthly wind.
Ted Lodigensky drew the suburbs, as you see at the top. Bob Andrews, a talented designer who had helped design the Avanti for Raymond Loewy, drew The Saint outside London, blasting up the open road. The climactic passage, of course, was reserved for Walter Gotschke:
Again and again in the dark, the Hirondel swooped up behind ridiculous, creeping glowworms, sniffed at their red tails, snorted derisively, swept past with a deep-throated blare. No car in England could have held the lead of the Hirondel that night.
It seems like yesterday…
If I have written anything worthwhile over 50 years it’s thanks to my five years as a minor player at AQ. Between Don Vorderman and Beverly Rae Kimes, I learned things that couldn’t be acquired in a school of journalism. The foregoing began with an email to a friend who acquired this old issue. I just wanted him to know the treat he was in for.
Forgive the ramble. RML