Driving Miss Nancy: Churchill, Wolseley and Lady Astor

Driving Miss Nancy: Churchill, Wolseley and Lady Astor

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

Further reading

Fake Churchill Quotes: Lady Astor and Oth­er Women Neme­ses,” 2021

Cars and Churchill: Blood, Sweat and Gears,” 2016

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