Bentley Drivers Club, September 2005
Carriage Driving? Bentley? Surely, for any owner of, or enthusiast for Bentleys or Rolls-Royces, or indeed many of the other marques able to trace their lineage back to the dawn of motoring, the link is an obvious one. Whilst many of the early motor-cars evolved from the bicycle industry – Riley springs to mind – others developed, the social historians would have it, as ‘horseless carriages’. Certainly, the cyclecar derivatives owe much to their utilitarian and plebeian background and many of the companies concerned were financially as flimsy as their products were physically. One may have the pleasure of watching a Star or a Royal Enfield heroically battling from London to Brighton on the first Sunday in November, but otherwise the name survives as a memory, no longer as a manufacturer. Motor Cars, as the Bentley driver thinks of them, were in the early years a more substantial proposition and after the infant motor industry had grown to become a robust and vociferous toddler, many companies produced chassis for sale without bodywork, while many erstwhile makers of carriages for horse-drawn use were willing to apply their skills to the needs of the new R.A.C. horse-power. Bentley were such a vendor of naked chassis only, until the Standard Steel saloons of the era after the Second World War and many of the body-builders of this (pre-anabolic steroid) era had their background in the carriage trade. In passing, one may note the irony that “coachbuilt” is often regarded as a synonym for “quality” when so many coachbuilders failed to appreciate the different stresses induced by rear-wheel propulsion instead of anterior traction. Many problems with bodies resulted and it might be argued that not until Weymann devised a lightweight, flexible body did the motor car come of age.
With this in mind, it is natural for the Bentley or Royce enthusiast to wish to pay homage to our horse-drawn heritage. To enjoy a day in beautiful parkland in the shadow of Windsor Castle with enthusiasts for both types of horse-power, equine and fiscal, was too good a prospect to pass up.
On the day, with car and children washed, polished and generally made of respectable appearance (Windsor Great Park is a Royal park, do not let us forget), we set off with picnic, cameras and binoculars. We had to forget something – it wouldn’t be a proper day out with nothing left to chance, would it? So in the spirit of adventure for which my family is known, we placed the maps securely under the hamper in the boot and forgot all about them. The paperwork for admission to the event we misplaced entirely, though the dog may know more than he’s letting on. In the event, we need not have worried (not that we did, until we met the custodian of the gate) as we found as so often before that arrival in a Proper Motor Car opens doors, or in this case, the gate. There was a problem, however: unbeknown to us, there was also a Classic Car show in the park that day – which way to direct us? We were able to persuade the Custodian – who I must say was unfailingly polite – that despite all appearances we were not so ostentatious as to wish to make an exhibition either of ourselves or of our car and thus were directed to the area reserved for the Bentley Drivers Club. Here we were greeted by Mr. Carpenter, to whom we are very grateful for his organisational efforts, which extended even to providing programmes. He was also happy to share his (insiders’) knowledge of the Driving events and of where to obtain ice-cream. As R12 isn’t allowed in air-conditioning systems any more and my Scottish blood inhibits my use of the cheque-book to change the compressor, our ‘T’ isn’t chilly enough to prevent it from melting en route, which makes the children look untidy and feel sticky.
The Bentleys already parked – we were amongst the last to arrive – formed a remarkable selection from those which wear the winged-B badge. We saw a line of Vintage models, 3-litre, 4,5 and six-and-a-half, Derby and Crewe cars right through to a Continental R. A later arrival was to be an R-type Continental the owner of which assured me that he uses it for extensive continental touring, which I find cheering. He has even had bonnet louvers added, following experiences in slow-moving traffic near Madrid in summer. Even the greatest enthusiast for complete, just-as-it-left-the works originality must applaud the continued use of a Grand Tourer for the purpose for which it was intended. There is clearly a difference between changes to allow continued use and custom-car butchery, which may result in diminished utility, however much joy it may give to its’ owner.
The alternative, or original horse-power on show was also varied: a fiercely competitive Driving competition around the long course which covers a large area of the park, with a range of tight obstacles with names and themes: one had butterflies decorating the wooden fences which formed a sort of maze, while another, denser obstruction appeared to be centred around a newly-constructed old coach. Perhaps to simulate a Georgian traffic-jam. Less frenetic (but undoubtedly equally hotly-contested) driving tests took place in an enclosed ring. The former, for the most part, use lightweight carriages which bear comparison with hill-climb or desert-racing ‘specials’ from the internal combustion world, with welded tube frames, minimal or absent body-work and, to my surprise, disc brakes. The crew – I did not learn the correct terminology – had a driver who worked with great concentration with reins, whip and voice, while the other member of the team (presumably the inheritor of the role of travelling footman, though not of his clothing) performed gymnastics worthy of the side-car passenger in motor-cycle races. The nature of the obstacles was to require tight, precise turns, difficult enough with a pair of horses alongside each other: for the tandem pairs in-line it appeared impossible that they should clear some of the turns. We had great admiration for the drivers (and the horses) particularly when we saw one tandem carriage team go awry in a ‘maze’ and have to extricate themselves with reversing and doubling-back. Points must have been lost for failure to negotiate the course, but should have been added for verve and style! One minor complaint for the spectator (or photographer) was that, while the obstacles were close to the viewing area, the combination of the density of the obstacle itself (some were quite open, others a close-packed mass of woodwork) and the sponsors’ advertisements made the performance within difficult to assess. It is to be regretted that overt advertising must play a part in these activities: it jars unpleasantly, seeming out of keeping with events of this type. The clothing for the competitors was clearly practical for this athletic pursuit but bore no relation to the top-hats and tail-coats of coachmen of yore, neither was there any evidence of wigs or hair-powder under the safety helmet.
In the confines of the show ring were more what might be thought of as ‘carriages’, looking as if they might have escaped from the set of an historical drama being shot at nearby Shepperton Studios. Not only were the carriages – laundaulettes, phaetons and other names familiar to the early motorist, but the drivers and navigators were in character equally. Here were to be found the graceful clothes of times gone by. I recalled with nostalgia the Highway Code of my youth, arm signals and signals to be given to other road users by use of the whip. The modern motorist seems to struggle with correct use of the pretty coloured light-bulbs mounted on the corners of the modern car. A great surprise for this observer here was the gait of the horses – while all my family has some experience of equitation (a past-time which has suffered a great blow in the United Kingdom since Mr. Prime Minister Blair’s decision to ban fox-hunting, which in years to come will undoubtedly hinder our competitors in show-jumping and eventing) we had never before seen the extraordinary high-stepping trot of Hackney horses, which put me in mind of goose-stepping infantry. Compared with the motion of a Hunter or a thoroughbred (where, amongst race-horses, conformity of gait is only to be expected, if only because perhaps ninety per cent have a common ancestor in the legendary Eclipse, foaled in 1764), the appearance is peculiar, but a carriage drawn by a Hackney is a fine sight. It was very encouraging for the older rider who feels that his or her best days in the saddle may be behind them to see that the age-range for competitors in the ring was a wide one, from twenties to what might politely be described as mature, impolitely as active geriatric. Saga would possibly baulk at providing life insurance cover, however, as the speeds achieved and the terpsichorean movements could be hazardous. The activities in the ring were loudly applauded by spectators, spurred on by an active (and audible) commentator. Although once again sponsorship notices detracted from the timeless nature of the dressage, it was less of a problem for the onlooker in the more open area of the arena than it had been on the obstacle course. Another welcome feature of the show ring was an area of lawn adjacent to the ring with a refreshment tent, which was a welcome sight after watching so much energy being expended by other people and their horses. Tea and home-made cakes while sitting in the sunshine revived us sufficiently for further exploration.
Around the ring was a small town of tents forming an out-door shopping mall. Goods and services on offer were those typical of an English County Show: New Age crystals for healing, copper bracelets for rheumatism, water softeners and insurance. Did I mention double-glazing? One might get to meet the voice which has been heard so often on the telephone making yet another unbeatable, unrepeatable offer of draught-free, maintenance-free fenestration and give one’s own unrepeatable views on the subject of telephonic ‘cold-calling’. Of more obvious relevance were the outdoor clothing suppliers and purveyors of accessories for the horse. Several firms were selling carriages for the
cross-country competitor and one was able to admire the quality of construction, mostly of tubular metal for the frame with the minimum of bodywork and lightweight, perforated metal running-boards and steps. Some of the vocabulary for cars and carriages is shared, through common ancestry. Carriages had dash-boards mounted low-down to reduce the quantity of mud reaching the driver’s boots and breeches, the early motorist fitted gauges and controls to a similar board and it kept the same name (for many) when it migrated to a position in front of the chauffeur’s chest, below the new-fangled windscreen. The blend of ‘high-tech’ metalwork with hydraulic disc brakes and leaf suspension was an uneasy one to my eye, but the evidence from what I had seen half-an-hour earlier on the course is that it is effective, albeit less elegant than the period conveyances of the show ring. As for costs – one may purchase such a contraption at about the same cost as an old Range Rover, but while the latter comes with an engine (which may even work) for the carriage driver motive power costs extra, and continues to cost whether in use or not. The motorist, whether with a cherished historic vehicle or a modern one takes it for granted that the car may be left for long periods and stirred to action at will; there may be reluctance to proceed after a long interval due to cold (or absent) fluids, stiffness of the joints or electrical maladies, which we pass off as ‘character’, but for the horse, daily care is needed. Feeding, grooming, exercise, shelter and attention to the exhaust are essential daily, whether driven or not. If we think that the output from the tail end of a motor-car is a problem, consider the prodigious output – gaseous, liquid and solid from three-quarters-of-a-ton of horse. When we curse our horseless carriage for recalcitrance, when the flat tyres and flatter battery are due to our own neglect, we might reflect on the daily effort required to keep a horse-drawn conveyance drivable
Other types of period conveyance were a few minutes’ walk away at the Classic Car Show. Although the sun shone and the cars were proudly polished, there was a forlorn feeling almost seeping out of the field they stood on, which I cannot explain. The very few owners who were with their vehicles had little to say about them. Even the autojumble and vendors stalls had an air of lassitude. I would like to believe that the owners were all pressed to the rails in the viewing areas cheering the carriage drivers on. A handful of people were wandering between the classics. Eavesdropping on their conversations, most were not old car addicts, but were showing polite interest for the most part based on past ownership of the models on display. A general, as opposed to marque-specific car show has something for everyone, and this one had examples from the grand Motor Cars of the 1920s through to humbler and sportier cars of the 1970s and ‘80s. Like the other viewers, we bored our children with stories of the cars we had owned, illustrated with the examples in front of us, with misty-eyed nostalgia suppressing memories of uncomfortable seats, inadequate heaters, vague steering and serious corrosion. The children suppressed yawns. Triumphs stood in a line, TR3 to TR7 (yes, we had one of those), and a solitary, sad Vanden Plas 1300. We had one of those, too. Did that start the addiction? The Vanden Plas had more in common with my Bentley T-series than is obvious: quite apart from the appearance, resembling a Bentley which has been washed at too high a temperature and shrunk, the old Vanden Plas company made bodies for Bentleys, many more of which seem to be running now than ever left the works, such has been the enthusiasm for the deeds of the Bentley Boys. Not only was the interior of the Vanden Plas 1300 as near a miniaturised Rolls-Royce interior (with some leather but more ‘knit-backed expanded vinyl’) as British Leyland’s hard-working accountants would allow, but the body was pressed in the Pressed Steel Fisher plant which also pressed the Silver Shadow. The carpets may be thinner, the driving position more plebeian and half the cylinder count (with about a fifth of the swept volume) is much more voluble, but… the little 1300 has a proud look, lost when it grew into the Allegro body shell.
Did I mention that there was, marooned amongst more modern exhibits, one with an unrestored Weymann body? Its’ presence seemed to emphasize the gulf between the classic cars and their horsedrawn forebears cantering nearby.
There seemed to be no prizes being given out in the forlorn field of Classic Cars and despite the sunshine there was a chill wind there. We had watched from our ringside seats as the competitors lined up for judging and prizes, but didn’t fully understand the niceties for which they were presented, though a pretty girl with a pretty horse got one with a spirited round of applause from the spectators. The cross-country carriages still thundered by from time to time, but we still remained ignorant of the scoring system and the outcome. We returned to the Bentleys, where a few had left but more had arrived – but after a few pleasantries with our neighbours it was time for us to glide away too.