James Bond's Bentley

Ian Fleming, Studebaker Avanti, supercharged Bentleys and Mercedes-Benzes, and Donald Healey feature in the latest Dove Digital anthology, The Complete Bentley. Fleming appears in connection with Healey, once owned a Studebaker Avanti I road tested for The Motor, and he memorably covered the 1930 Le Mans 24 Hours race. The great duel between Bentley and Mercedes-Benz was so seared into Fleming's memory that he re-created it for James Bond.

Individuals who gave their names to cars, Rolls and Royce, Ferrari, McLaren and Healey tended to be clever publicists. Competition driver and Technical Director of Triumph well before Austin-Healey days, Healey gained outright victory in the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally as well as winnning six Alpine Cups, for outstanding performances in the International Alpine Rally.

Healey drove an Invicta in the 1932 Alpine, taking as co-driver a young news agency reporter. My World of Cars (Haynes Publishing, 1994) was a biography Healey wrote with Peter Garnier: “On one of the Alpine Trials I did with Invicta, I had Ian Fleming, later of James Bond fame, with me as navigator. At the time, he was with Associated Press, and had been sent with me to report the event. On many subsequent occasions, when I used to cross the Atlantic three or four times a year on the Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth, we would meet and recall our rally together. We started from Friedrichshaven, where the Graf Zeppelin was based, and one of the awards for a Glacier Cup was a free flight. We returned to Friedrichshaven for a 4am start, when there was no wind. It took 250 men to launch and land it, the only way to bring it down to earth being to fly it to within 50 feet or so of the ground and then release 250 ropes, which were grabbed by the landing party, who pulled the whole thing down on to a big, flat railway truck and made it fast. While in flight, we were able to buy postcards illustrating the Zeppelin, already stamped and franked with its own special postmark. I bought several of these to send home to the family and, when we were flying low over the post office square in Breganz, in Austria, a bag containing our mail was jettisoned, the cards being sent on to their various destinations. Ian, as a very young man on his first foreign assignment, obtained some valuable copy and it started in him an interest in cars that lasted right through his life, prompting him to buy the most exotic he could find. For me the flight was not without a few misgivings, for it was the year following the tragic loss of Britain’s R101 in northern France, on her flight from Cardington to India, with the loss of all but six of the 54 people on board.”

Fleming may have been with AP then, although he was certainly with Reuters on June 21-22 1930. From The Complete Bentley: “Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and a Commander RNVR in naval intelligence during the Second World War, witnessed Bentley’s fifth Le Mans win. Covering the race on assignment for Reuter’s news agency, Fleming watched the contest between the 6½ Litre Speed Six of Woolf Barnato and Glen Kidston, against the Teutonic splendour of the 7.1 litre SS Mercedes-Benz driven by Rudolph Caracciola and Christian Werner. Fleming was fascinated by the drama of the occasion. Even though it was an unequal struggle, the great white racer with its wailing supercharger and the basso profundo green Bentleys, made a deep impression on the young author. Six of them were ranged against the lone Mercedes until 2.30am when it retired. Fleming replayed the duel in Moonraker, when Bond’s 1930 4½ litre Bentley engaged in a thrilling chase with villain Hugo Drax’s Mercedes. Only treachery led to the Bentley being wrecked. Superchargers fascinated Fleming, and he enjoyed a long friendship with C Amherst Villiers, who engineered them.”

You would have thought that with family money and a good income from the Bond books, Ian Fleming might have acquired a better taste in cars. In 1954 he had an Armstrong Siddeley, nothing wrong with that, my father had one in 1956. There was a Ford Thunderbird in Fleming’s garage at one time, but then took leave of his senses and had a Studebaker Avanti. This was a particularly disagreeable car. Not, perhaps, the worst I drove on the road test staff of The Motor (that distinction went to a Fairthorpe Electron) but close. The axle tramp was like a nightmare Morris Minor 1000. It took extraordinary leaps and bounds on acceleration and braking, no matter how reverentially you treated brake and throttle. Everything seemed seriously out of balance. Even though the passage of time has softened Raymond Leowy’s lines, it can be imagined how bizarre the appearance was in 1964.

The family Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 236. The Avanti road test was never completed. I had drafted it three weeks before the Studebaker Corporation stopped making Avantis, so it only made the pages of the magazine on 29 January 1964 as Lament for a Road Test That Never Was. It had been a bad time for American car makers; Studebaker was the latest old name to vanish, following Hudson and Packard into history. There had been trouble with the Avanti’s plastics body, so when Studebaker abandoned car production in the United States, retaining only its Canadian assembly plant, the Avanti had to go.

Under “Handling and brakes” I wrote: “Even on dry roads, the Avanti was not a particularly pleasant car to drive because of the change of attitude it adopted when you applied power on a corner. In the wet, the throttle had to be used very sparingly or the back quickly became uncontrollable, the vast power generating copious wheelspin, even in top gear. Alarming, not to say dangerous, even for quite experienced drivers.

The original Avanti report described the understeer (the weight distribution was 59/41) commenting that although twisty roads could be taken at a cracking pace in the dry, “fast bends were all too often taken in a series of jerks as steering lock, throttle and then opposite lock were applied in quick succession.”

The steering was heavy and driving slowly over bumps there was a lot of kick-back. As with another very fast American we tested recently, there seemed to be a case for tyres with better wet grip. And the injunction, contained on a little plate inside the glove compartment, that the tyres were only for “ordinary motoring” did little for the driver’s peace of mind on motorways.”

The “other fast American” was a Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray, which also features in Eric Dymock Originals to be published at the end of August.