………………………..guest post guest post guest post………………….
I’ve not been blogging much over the last few weeks so I decided it was a good time to do a guest post. This was written by my mum, Caroline. It is about a very special reunion. Enjoy…..
Way back in the 1950s, when I was a teenager, my mother had a mid-life motor car fantasy. OK, it’s usually the men who have mid-life car fantasies, but my father never drove, so my mother decided to live the dream for both of them. So she sold her existing car and in its place she bought her fantasy car, a vintage Rolls Royce, a beautiful, dark green and grey Rolls Royce. Well, it wasn’t vintage then – it was not much more than twenty years old. It was a 20/25hp Sports Saloon built by Freestone & Webb in 1933. (At that time RR themselves only produced the engine and the chassis.) We were then living in part of my grandfather’s house outside London. Here the Rolls had somewhere safe to live – a garage where my mother could keep it for the few years she owned it.
It was a beautiful car, all elegant paintwork, sweet-smelling, soft leather upholstery and gleaming mahogany fittings. Poised to take flight, the iconic RR ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ stood at the front of the bonnet. Rare even then, she was the full-sized, tall, standing Spirit, not the more familiar kneeling one. Directly in front of the windscreen was another mascot, a Lalique glass fish that could be lit up at night with a flick of one of the many switches on the dashboard. For their safety both these mascots had to be removed whenever we parked away from home (a bit like taking the satnav with you these days).
On the steering wheel, and on the mahogany dashboard, was a bewildering array of switches, levers, knobs and dials, several of which had to be engaged before the car would start. There was a switch for the ignition; others operated the enormous headlamps, the sidelights, and the interior lights. There was a switch for each of the windscreen wipers. There was a switch for each of the indicators, one for the left, one for the right: these would flick up on either side of the car, and after the turn had to be closed again. The gearstick and the handbrake were positioned on the right of the driver’s seat. Probably designed with a chauffeur in mind, this made getting in and out of the car interesting for the driver, particularly for a lady driver in a mid-calf, much-petticoated 1950s skirt. My mother solved this by getting in and out on the passenger side and sliding across from the driver’s seat.
The rear was luxuriously upholstered in dark green leather. Fitted to the inside of the right-hand rear door was a small holder for two little bottles, for brandy and/or whatever, with a silver matchbox holder between them for the lighting of cigarettes or cigars. The left hand rear passenger door had the disconcerting habit of flying open whenever we rounded a sharp bend, so my brother and I learned to hang on tight as we approached a curve in the road. No seatbelts back in the ’50s!
One day my mother announced she was going to give me my first driving lesson. My very first driving lesson. In the Rolls. I was sixteen, not old enough for L-plates. So I couldn’t go on the road, which was just as well as it happened: the Rolls was not the car for a learner. We headed for the very long drive of a nearby house – well a nearby stately home really. It was far too big and far too stately for its family – wealthy as they were – and they actually lived in a small (-ish) modern house they had built in the vast grounds. Think Downsize Abbey. I took my first driving lesson in its long, long drive. It was a disaster. With all those levers and switches to engage, I jerked and jolted a few yards and promptly stalled. Start. Stall. Restart. Double declutch (double dewhat?) Stall. Restart. Stop. Eventually the Rolls generously allowed me to take it a couple of hundred yards. I can’t really say I drove it. Then my mother turned the car around, so I could jerk and jolt us all the way back to the gates. End of lesson. I must have ‘driven’ all of 300 yards.
My mother happily drove her lovely Rolls around for a couple of years. Shopping, weekends with friends, and so forth. I don’t remember her ever taking it on any very long journeys. Family holidays were then thought unnecessary as there was plenty to occupy me and my brother during the summer holidays. We had my grandfather’s very large garden, complete with tennis court; there was countryside all around for us to cycle in and an open-air swimming pool not far away. About the furthest my mother would have driven would probably have been once a term to visit me and my brother at our boarding schools, maybe 100 miles each way – a long ride back then with no motorways to speed the journey. As a teenager whose aim was to be as unobtrusive as possible, I am now ashamed to remember my embarrassment at being picked up in such a splendid car! Then my grandfather died and we moved back to London, to a flat near Victoria Station. A vintage Rolls clearly could not live out in a London street. So it was sold and went out of our lives for ever.
Or so I thought. Over the years I might have thought about our Rolls maybe a dozen times, perhaps when I came across a photograph of it in an old album. I might have occasionally mentioned to someone that the first car I ever drove was a Rolls Royce, but I have never been much interested in cars – apart from an early yearning for an MG sports car (never fulfilled) – so I rarely spoke of it. So long as a car starts and stops when I want it to, that’s all I care about. Then late last year I was chatting with a friend during the tea-break in our line dancing class. He happened to mention his Rolls Royce. “You have a Rolls Royce?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “I’ve got a vintage Rolls. Had it for years.” “How wonderful!” I said. “The first car I ever drove was a Rolls!” “What model was it?” he asked. “Ah! You’ve got me there! I have no idea what it was.” All I could remember was that it was green and grey, that the gearstick was on the right, and that for some reason I remembered its number plate. It was FXF892. Then it was time to get back to the Cowboy Strut and I thought no more about it.
The following week I arrived at line dancing and my friend produced a sheet of paper full of information. Via its number plate and the Rolls Royce Enthusiasts’ Club he had tracked down FXF892’s entire history since my mother parted with it. It was alive and well, and living on the other side of the world. It had lived in the UK until 1975, when it had been bought by a man who took it to South Africa, and eventually on to Australia. And there I was, thinking, if I had ever thought about it at all, that it must have ended up in a scrap yard decades ago.
Via the Enthusiasts’ Club, my friend contacted NL, the present owner, and put us in touch with each other. He was as excited as I was and we exchanged emails and photographs of FXF892. He had bought the car about five years ago. He wrote: ‘I have fully restored the body (painted in its original colours) so it is in excellent order now. It won the Best Pre-War Rolls Royce at our last Rally and the Company Trophy for the best restoration.’ NL lives in Western Australia, about 80 miles outside Perth, where our eldest son, James, lives. He said that when we were next in Perth we must be sure to come and visit the car. At that time we had no thought of when we might next be in Australia. Then, around February, James phoned and said, ‘We’re thinking of going to explore Queensland in June. Do you want to join us?’ There was only one answer to that! So we arrived in Perth at the beginning of June, and the first weekend we were there, before setting off for Queensland, we drove the hour or so out of Perth to visit the Ls, who had kindly invited us all to lunch.
When we arrived, NL showed us into his garage, one in a row of three, where FXF lives in luxury, its stablemate being a vintage Bentley convertible, even older than the Rolls I believe. It was quite emotional seeing the Rolls again. I had entirely forgotten what a truly glorious car it was. I wanted to stroke it. I did stroke it! Very gently, with the tips of my fingers. How I wish I had appreciated it more when I knew it. The adjoining garage, the middle one of the three, is a workshop where NL cares for all his cars – he also has a vintage Armstrong Siddeley pickup, which is a great favourite at the local green waste collection point where he uses it to take his garden rubbish, and a modern Citroen for supermarket car parks; these two share the third garage.
The middle garage, NL’s workshop, is immaculate. James, whose own middle-aged car fantasy had, a few years ago, involved a 1970s Triumph Stag, was speechless with admiration and envy of this workshop. It is like no workshop you have ever seen. There is not a drop of oil to be seen on the floor. There were no oily tools or rags lying around. No pieces of unidentifiable rusty metal. No scattered nuts or bolts. You could eat off the floor. In pride of place in the middle of the workshop, was a shiny, bright blue and yellow hoist to enable access to the underside of the cars – NL does all the work on them himself. There were workbenches, filing cabinets, cupboards, a desk, and shelves, all immaculately tidy. The walls are a gallery of car memorabilia, including framed photographs of his own and other vintage cars.
FXF892 is a truly beautiful car. I had forgotten quite how beautiful. It is lovingly cared for, restored to all its original glory. The chrome fittings, the lights, the radiator, the number plates, all gleam, and the paintwork shines. The leather inside is soft and smooth. The only difference from the car that I remembered is that sometime over the years its mascots have been replaced: the Spirit of Ecstasy is now kneeling and instead of the Lalique fish, there is a falcon, but now that NL knows it originally had a fish he is on the lookout for one. The current asking price for a Lalique glass car mascot is enough to make your eyes water.
NL kindly took us all for a long drive through the country roads around his home. I rode in the front passenger seat, full of admiration for NL, who reached without hesitation to whichever lever or switch he needed. It was a fine Australian winter’s day with not a drop of rain, but he demonstrated the wipers for us anyway: they swept to and fro over a surprisingly small area of the windscreen. The car ran so smoothly and so quietly it is hard to believe that it is over 80 years old. I didn’t think of listening for the ticking of the clock! He told us that it would comfortably go well over the Australian speed limit of 110 kph, 68mph – FXF’s speedometer is of course in miles. And somehow NL has managed to retain its original British numberplate, the one I remembered – the one that made it possible for the car to be tracked down. We didn’t pass many pedestrians on the road, but those we did pass stopped and watched as we went by. Some of them waved and we all waved back. I don’t remember such a reaction on the British roads of the 1950s. Even then a beautiful RR must have been a rarity, but to Aussies walking along a country road it must have looked like something out of a movie. When we returned we took loads of photographs, and for only the second time in my life I sat in the driver’s seat of FXF892.
So that’s how it came about, that after sixty years, and more than ten thousand miles, I once again met what is undoubtedly the most beautiful car I have ever been in in my life. I’m sure my mother was looking down at us all and loving every moment of the experience too.