Updated from “Blood, Sweat & Gears (3): Humber,” in The Automobile, 2016, with an addendum on Churchill’s last ride.
Having written about cars and Winston Churchill for fifty years, I finally produced a piece on them both. From exotica like Mors, Napier and Rolls-Royce to more prosaic makes like Austin, Humber and Wolseley, the story was three decades in coming. But I am satisfied that it is now complete.
Part 3, concluded from Part 2: Excerpt only. For footnotes, all illustrations and a roster of Churchill’s cars, see The Automobile (UK), August 2016. A pdf of the article is available upon request: click here.
Humber for the Man
After the war, Lord Rootes and Churchill became close friends, exchanging Christmas gifts and farm animals, even collaborating politically. “So sorry that we did not do better in Coventry,” Rootes wrote after the 1950 general election. Churchill was offered a new Mark III Humber Pullman that October, but demurred. The Tories had lost only narrowly, and he was sure he’d be returned to office soon. The following year they won. He remained prime minister until he retired in 1955.
By then he needed a new limo, but Humber had discontinued the Pullman. Churchill was forlorn: “I’m sure you could build one for me if you tried,” he wrote his friend. “You can’t let me down now, I need another Pullman that I can stretch out in.” The sympathetic Billy Rootes found a low-mileage Mark IV and expensively rebuilt it. Technically works property, it remained on loan to Churchill for the rest of his life. It is now at the Louwman Museum in The Hague, Netherlands.
Churchill was a loyal Rootes customer. He bought a Hillman Minx in 1948, a Hillman Husky in 1958. In 1955, marking his 80th birthday the previous November, the Rootes Group presented him with a 1956 Humber Hawk Mark VIA estate, “a token of our appreciation of his services not only to the country, but to all of us.” The Hawk often accompanied Churchill on his holidays in France, where it was ideal for transporting his oil painting paraphernalia.
Notable among Chartwell’s postwar farm vehicles was an army-surplus Jeep supplied by Wolfe’s Garage in Westerham (still doing business). Phil Johnson, a mechanic, devised a step to help Churchill climb in and out: “I altered it several times to his instructions. He was a meticulous man.”
In 1954, Churchill was presented by the Rover factory with a new Land Rover. It bore the number plate UKE 80. Rover said this stood for “UK Empire” and eighty years” UKE plates were current at the time in Kent, so it must have been easy to get one. I suspect Rover might have hunted around for the owner of UKE 80 to get the number they wanted, plates being transferable in Britain.
The technician who delivered the Land Rover offered to find some rough terrain to demonstrate where it could go: Sir Winston’s response was that he wanted to see terrain where it couldn’t go.
He often rode shotgun to his son-in-law on Chartwell Farm. Once they drove up to a square of uncut wheat, where workers had cornered a rabbit. Aged 80, Churchill alighted, grabbed his piece, and dispatched the hare with one shot. “He was a great marksman,” said Christopher Soames. The Land Rover sold at auction for £129,000 in 2012.
At the end there were two Morris Oxfords: Farina saloons, mostly used by Clementine Churchill. George Weatherley of the Cambridge-Oxford Owners Club has tracked both; they are currently insured, but not taxed. In 2013 the ’64 made £51,000 at auction, through its famous association. There is however no Churchill record of a Vanden Plas 4 Litre R allegedly owned by Lady Churchill, destroyed in a banger car race a few years ago.
The Churchill car roster lists several “familiars”—not Churchill’s but known to or used by him. The best-known over his last years was a 1934 Rolls-Royce 20/25 limousine by Thrupp & Maberly, hired from Frank Jenner of Westerham.
Jenner said he bought the car because Sir Winston hankered for a Rolls-Royce, perhaps recalling his old Silver Ghost with more pleasure than it gave in 1921. In it, Jenner said, Churchill made his last journey from Chartwell to London, in October 1964. He died there three months later. This beautiful Rolls is available for hire from Advantage CarHire.
To the last, Churchill’s staff remembered the sense of urgency so characteristic of the man. In the old Humber, “Murray, the detective, would sit at [the chauffeur’s] side, quietly murmuring, ‘slow down here’ or ‘pull in to the left a little more,’” wrote Roy Howells, a male nurse. “At the back Sir Winston would be…tapping on the glass partition and calling out, ‘Go on!’ Whenever he felt Bullock was slow in overtaking he would lean forward and bellow, ‘Now!’ It does Bullock great credit that he never really took the chances his passenger would have liked….”
Addendum: Churchill’s last ride
BBC Regional News reports that the Austin Vanden Plas hearse which transported Sir Winston’s coffin at his funeral has been fully restored. The work was by done by Jo Burge of Classic Marine Engines in Suffolk.
The Vanden Plas was used for some time on funeral work, but detseriorated over the years and was head for the scrap heap. Bristol Memorial Woodlands had it restored—a frame-off project which took Burge three years. “It wasn’t really the car we were restoring,” Burge told the BBC. “It was the story.”
“Sir Winston was not a motorist but enjoyed good transport as a means to an end,” recalled Phil Johnson of Westerham. “Comfort and reliability came through as paramount. He saw cars as incredible time wasters and they were surely not his scene.” Well, they are ours—and intertwine amusingly with the saga of the great man.