Q: Nipped in the Astor car?
The Daily Mail once reported on a 1923 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost supposedly used by Sir Winston Churchill. The Rolls had been refurbished by Charlie Tope of Modbury, Devon. According to the Mail, “the vintage motor is said to have served the former British Prime Minister when he used it to give driving lessons to the first woman to take her seat in Parliament, Lady Astor, on a Kent estate.” Is there any truth to this? Also, was Wolseley his favorite make of car? —T.M., Dorset
A: Fun, but unlikely
Churchill was a notoriously impatient and scary driver. The idea of him in this big Rolls, teaching road technique to Nancy Astor, strains the imagination, but does conjure amusing images. It’s true they met socially, and shared a kind of bemused affection—in between tossing barbs at each other. (See “Lady Astor and Other Women Nemeses.”) But proving that he taught her to drive would really require more evidence than the Daily Mail offered.
Churchill did briefly own a Rolls-Royce, a 1921 Silver Ghost cabriolet by Barker. Painted Marlborough blue, it carried the number plate AE60—in case it may still be around. But he owned it only in 1921, and quickly parted with it after a family tragedy (not involving the car). For details see “Blood, Sweat and Gears.”
Pinched on the Dover Road
Behind the wheel, WSC was often accompanied by his towering bodyguard, Walter Thompson. Seated bolt upright with the 5’6″ Member of Parliament, Thompson looked rather like a private perched over an Aldershot latrine. The detective had terrifying but endearing memories of their journeys.
In 1926, en route to Dieppe via the Channel ferry, Churchill opted to drive himself. This was 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.”
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 pavement [sidewalk]. 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.)”
Next, they were looking at 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. “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.’”
Wolseley: a Churchill favorite
To everybody’s relief Churchill stopped driving himself in the mid-1920s. But yes, the unassuming Wolseley did qualify as one of his favorites. He owned five between 1923 and 1931, including the car in the photo above.
Andy Plummer writes from England: “Wolseley may have been lowly compared to a Rolls, but it was still considered a quality car. I own an 11/22, the model shown in the photo. I believe Churchill replaced the two-seat coupe shown with a four-seat deluxe tourer, which is the body style of my car. There is a picture of him driving it in St. John Nixon’s Wolseley: A Saga of the Motor Industry (1949).
Andy is right, and for the benefit of Wolseley fans, here is the full Churchill roster:
1923 Model 10 tourer: 4cyl, 1260 cc, 10 RAC hp (serial #40459), owned 1923-25
1923 Model 20 tourer: 6cyl, 3921 cc, 20 RAC hp (#36920), owned 1923-26
1925 Model 11/22 2-seat deluxe tourer: 4cyl, 1261 cc, 22 bhp (#45126), owned 1925-26
1926 Model 24/55 landaulette: 6cyl, 3921 cc, 55 bhp (#37129), owned until ca. 1931
1926 Model 11/22 4-seat deluxe tourer: 4cyl, 1261 cc, 22 bhp, (#75006), owned until ca. 1931