Cars & Churchill: Blood, Sweat & Gears (1) Mors the Pity

Cars & Churchill: Blood, Sweat & Gears (1) Mors the Pity

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 1:

Excerpt only. For foot­notes,  illus­tra­tions and a ros­ter of cars, see The Auto­mo­bile, August 2016. 

Mors the Pity

Always fas­ci­nat­ed by new tech­nol­o­gy, Win­ston Churchill wel­comed the motor­car, buy­ing his first in 1901 at the age of twen­ty-six. It was French Mors—one of only two non-British cars Churchill would ever own—and a dis­ap­point­ment. He might have been think­ing of it when dur­ing World War II he said of France: “The des­tiny of a great nation has nev­er yet been set­tled by the tem­po­rary con­di­tion of its tech­ni­cal appa­ra­tus.”

Mors is Latin for death, and Emile Voilu, Churchill’s enthu­si­as­tic French chauf­feur, appeared to take this seri­ous­ly, sus­tain­ing many a bump. Churchill kept the Mors through 1906, but it lay unre­paired for long peri­ods; this upset Voilu, who looked upon it as his per­son­al equipage. In 1904 Churchill wrote: “The motor was a real sad busi­ness. Near­ly £28 to put it straight after a fortnight’s utter neglect. The fury of the French­man here at see­ing its con­di­tion was dis­qui­et­ing to wit­ness.”

Edging His Bets

Cars
The Napi­er receiv­ing break­down atten­tion, with Churchill and his wife on board, cir­ca 1912. (Wiki­me­dia)

In 1911 the Churchills bought a new Napi­er 15hp lan­daulette from a great rac­ing dri­ver and Napi­er expo­nent S.F. Edge, “the ebul­lient Aus­tralian.” With extras the Napi­er cost over £600 (£54,000 today). Churchill spec­i­fied buff cord uphol­stery and “Marl­bor­ough blue,” the house col­or of his famous ances­tor, the First Duke of Marl­bor­ough. Edge didn’t know what shade of blue that was, and the car was deliv­ered in red, but Edge promised a repaint when convenient—repaints were less com­pli­cat­ed in those days. The Churchills were already on hol­i­day in Scot­land, so they hired a works engi­neer to dri­ve to meet them, and to serve as chauf­feur.

They vis­it­ed the King at Bal­moral and Prime Min­is­ter H.H. Asquith in East Loth­i­an. There Asquith offered Churchill a cov­et­ed prize: the Admi­ral­ty. He took office in Octo­ber, pre­pared the Fleet for bat­tle, tried and failed to pro­mote peace, and went to war full of fight in 1914. Ignomi­nous­ly sacked dur­ing the Dar­d­anelles-Gal­lipoli deba­cle of May 1915, he spent six months in brood­ing impo­tence. Then he joined his reg­i­ment in Flan­ders, where (as he had writ­ten ear­li­er) he was “shot at with­out result.” 

Annus Horribilis

Nine­teen twen­ty-one was a year of tragedy, with the deaths of Clementine’s broth­er, Winston’s moth­er, and Marigold, their 2 1/2-year-old daugh­ter. The child died only days after they’d pur­chased the finest car they would ever own, a 1921 Rolls-Royce Sil­ver Ghost cabri­o­let by Bark­er. Marigold’s death on August 23rd—from sep­ticemia, which mod­ern antibi­otics would eas­i­ly vanquish—brought deep gloom.

Pre­oc­cu­pied with his per­son­al loss, the Irish rebel­lion and trou­bles in Iraq, Churchill gave lit­tle thought to the car. When he returned to Lon­don in late Sep­tem­ber, the Sil­ver Ghost only remind­ed him of their loss. In Octo­ber, his Aunt Cor­nelia, Lady Wim­borne, took the Rolls off his hands for only about £150 less than he had paid. Although he would fre­quent­ly hire a 20/25 after World War II, Churchill nev­er again owned a Rolls-Royce. He made do with gov­ern­ment cars until 1923 when, hav­ing pur­chased a coun­try estate, he went shop­ping for trans­port.

“Weighed and Found Wanting”

In late 1922 Churchill bought Chartwell, a spa­cious brick pile over­look­ing the Weald of Kent, where he would live until he died. His daugh­ter Sarah recalled the day he bun­dled his chil­dren into “an old Wolse­ley” and drove them down to see it, over­grown with ivy and in need of major ren­o­va­tion:

We were all so excit­ed when we set off for home that my father couldn’t make the car start. Help was solicit­ed and an amaz­ing num­ber of peo­ple helped to push the Wolse­ley about a quar­ter of a mile along a slight incline so that we could have the ben­e­fit of the sub­se­quent decline to start the reluc­tant engine. I noticed the peo­ple help­ing were very red in the face, but ours were red­der still when it was dis­cov­ered that the igni­tion was off and the brake on.

The “old Wolse­ley” was like­ly bor­rowed, for it was 1923 before Churchill bought any cars: a Wolse­ley two seater and a four-set tour­er. He owned five Wolse­leys, but was most often pho­tographed in the “lit­tle car,” which looked like its springs and frame were held togeth­er with bail­ing wire, with a slight assist from the tail­lamp wires. It marked his tran­si­tion to self-dri­ve cars. In ret­ro­spect he might have con­sid­ered that “an awful mile­stone in our his­to­ry,” when “ter­ri­ble words were pro­nounced” about his dri­ving: “Thou art weighed in the bal­ance and found want­i­ng.”

A Menace on the Road

Behind the wheel, Churchill was a men­ace. His long­time body­guard, the tow­er­ing Inspec­tor Wal­ter Thomp­son, was some­times pho­tographed ner­vous­ly sit­ting bolt upright, like a pri­vate perched uneasi­ly over an Alder­shot latrine. “Mr. Churchill has an immense grasp of the advan­tages and uses of the machine age,” Thomp­son wrote, “but he has no per­son­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty about the machines them­selves. He strips gears and rams head-on toward any­thing.” One Wolseley’s fly­wheel was miss­ing so many teeth that if the engine stopped in the wrong posi­tion it had to be restart­ed with the crank. They removed the front num­ber plate to leave the crank in place, and were thus often stopped by the law. “Take a good look at this car,” Churchill lec­tured one police­man, “and nev­er, nev­er stop me again.”

Churchill became Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer in 1925. A year lat­er, after the Gen­er­al Strike had par­a­lyzed Britain for ten days, the Duke of West­min­ster invit­ed him to relax at his res­i­dence near Dieppe. Exhaust­ed from the strike ordeal, Churchill opt­ed to dri­ve to the Chan­nel fer­ry himself—a bad sign, Thomp­son said: ”It either means that he is cross and sub­con­scious­ly wants to smash up some­thing, or that he is dan­ger­ous­ly elat­ed and things will get smashed up any­how through care­less exu­ber­ance.”

Jumping the Queue

Off they went, flat-out. At Croy­don, they encoun­tered road repairs and a queue of cars. Sud­den­ly, Thomp­son recalled, they were off the road, “pro­gress­ing right down the side­walk [pave­ment]. We got into a nice mess in no time and had to make an abrupt stop (Churchill was unusu­al­ly good in the tech­nique of an abrupt stop) and of course looked up into the face of an out­raged local con­sta­ble.”

“You fool!” the police­man shout­ed. Then he “swore most rich­ly for some sec­onds.” Churchill’s head hung. “He did have the civic sense to say he was sor­ry,” Thomp­son con­tin­ued, “and the match­less voice of the man iden­ti­fied him at once to the con­sta­ble.” ‘Sor­ry, Mr. Churchill,’ the police­man apol­o­gised.

“Then the majesty of the constable’s office and the dis­gust­ing guilt of the vio­la­tor brought forth, in gen­tle sar­casm, a cau­tion that with­ered Churchill and kept him silent clear to the Chan­nel. ‘Do try to stay in the road, sir.’”

By the late 1920s, no doubt to the relief of dri­vers on the Lon­don-West­er­ham road, Churchill had quit dri­ving. But he often rode “up front” with his new chauf­feur, Sam Howes. One fog­gy night in the Wolse­ley tour­er, they could not read a road sign. Churchill stooped, “made a back,” and told Howes to climb on to read the direc­tions. “I’m sure that few if any gen­tle­men on his lev­el would have bent down for me to stand on their back,” Howes recalled.

Con­tin­ued in Part 2….

4 thoughts on “Cars & Churchill: Blood, Sweat & Gears (1) Mors the Pity

  1. That’s an inter­est­ing con­nec­tion! Churchill was between cars in 1919, hav­ing sold his Napi­er in 1916. Until 1921, when he bought a Rolls of his own, he bor­rowed a Sil­ver Ghost from his friend “Ben­dor,” the Duke of West­min­ster. That must have been the one your uncle pinched. Clear­ly he had good taste.

  2. What was Win­ston Churchill’s car in 1919 (March) my uncle, was impris­oned in HMP Wandsworth for 12 months for steal­ing it, whilst work­ing on it, at Grove Park Garage.

  3. Noth­ing in the Archives on a Mer­cedes (or a Benz, which one source states he owned). It turned out to be a garage that spe­cial­ized in Ben­zes which did some work on his Mors. Do you have any ref­er­ences?

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