How Much Automotive History Can You Learn From One Page Of A Bond Novel?

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Ian Fleming, the original author of both Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car and more famously James Bond, was known to have a passion for all things exciting in life, especially automobiles. His fourteen published James Bond novels are ripe with his view of motor racing and motor vehicles, capturing both the mechanical and emotional appeal of the automobile.

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Reading through the ninth published James Bond story, Thunderball, the abrupt and passionate manner in which Fleming describes his characters and the manner in which they share our world, managing to provide the most astute and simple details, grounding them - even decades later - in a recognizable and inviting context if fascinating. The opening paragraphs of the second chapter in the book describes James Bond’s apprehensive trip via taxi to the nature clinic his boss has insisted he visit:

“Shrublands”

James Bond slung his suitcase into the back of the old chocolate-brown Austin taxi and climbed into the front seat beside the foxy, pimpled young man in the black leather windcheater. The young man took a comb out of his breast pocket, ran it through both sides of his duck-tail haircut, put the comb back in his pocket, then leaned forward and pressed the self-starter. The play with the comb, Bond guessed, was to assert to Bond that the driver was really only taking and his money as a favour. It was typical of the cheap self-assertiveness of young labor since the war. This youth, thought Bond, makes about twenty pounds a week, despises his parents, and would like to be Tommy Steele. It’s not his fault. He was born into the buyers’ market of the Welfare State and into the age of atomic bombs and space flight. For him life is easy and meaningless. Bond said, ‘How far is it to “Shrublands”?’

The young man did an expert but unnecessary racing change round an island and changed up again. ‘About half an hour.’

He put his foot down on the accelerator and neatly but rather dangerously overtook a lorry at an intersection.

‘You certainly get the most out of your Bluebird.’

The young man glanced sideways to see if he was being laughed at. He decided that he wasn’t. He unbent fractionally. ‘My dad won’t spring me something better. Says this old crate was okay for him for twenty years so it’s got to be okay for me for another twenty. So I’m putting money by on my own. Half way there already.’

Bond decided that the comb-play had made him over-censorious. He said, ‘What are you going to get?’

‘Volkswagen Minibus. Do the Brighton races.’

‘That sounds a good idea. Plenty of money in Brighton.’

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This serves the story as a way of expressing Bond’s post-war cynicism and puts you in the mindset of the character. What some may find to be a boring and unnecessary conversation actually serves as a way for Fleming to pass judgement on who might be reading his stories, and in the context of this story sets up James Bond as a knowledgeable man who has interest in exciting things such as motorsport. It plants Bond in the world, disdainful of the youth while sharing the young man’s passion for motorsport and motorcars. It also shows us that Ian Fleming knew motorsport as well.

Having grown up around the big aero-engined “locomotive” racing cars that inspired him to write Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, Ian Fleming was a casual follower of local motorsports. Later in life, after the success of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, he wrote a television treatment for his still-new Bond character revolving around Stirling Moss being the target of a Soviet plot. That treatment was turned into a full novel titled Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz earlier this year..

The Austin Taxi

In the chapter, Fleming refers to the vehicle initially as an Austin Taxi, and later as a “Bluebird.” The Austin taxi’s developed before the war had multiple variations. The first were very tall, earning the nickname “High Lot” and “Upright,” and were popular for providing ample space for wearing top hats, which were a large trend at the time (1930’s). Later, Austin managed to lower both the roof and overall height of the frame setup, classified as a “Low Loading Body,” which is most likely the one used by the young man in the story. The description of the vehicles as an “old crate” is accurate, as the design is essentially a box and motor on a frame.

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The Bluebird

What James Bond is most likely referring to when he calls the young man’s taxi his “Bluebird” is the Blue Bird / Bluebird land speed record breaking cars built by The Bluebird Motor Company in the 1920’s and 1930’s as a reflection of the way the young man is driving. The way Fleming notes that the man at first thinks he is being laughed at by Bond reaffirms this assumption. The first car used to break records was a 18.3-litre V12 aero-engined 350 horsepower monster fittingly called the “Sunbeam 350hp” in 1922. The first car to carry the Blue Bird name was a 22.3-litre W12 aero-engined 500 horsepower car, which later reached 206mph after an engine upgrade (24ish-litre 875 horsepower “Napier Lion”) in 1928. The grandson of the original owner of the Bluebird Motor Company continues to attempt breaking water and land speed records today.

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Brighton

At first I took a rather literal translation to the mention of the driver taking a microbus to the Brighton races, thinking he would be entering the bus into competition and racing it. However, there’s no history of such a thing taking place in the period, and the taxi driver is far more likely talking about taxiing the wealthier people attending the horse races Brighton is known for, and getting more bang for his buck with a bus.

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If it wasn’t obvious through the various Bentleys and Aston Martins James Bond has driven over dozens of stories, Ian Fleming was a pretty big car enthusiast. The amount of casual but no-longer common knowledge he managed to squeeze into one conversation in just one of his stories is fascinating, and it’s a part of why his stories are so involving and interesting to read. His ability to ground the characters and stories in small details like these, and then balance it with the camp, escapism, and ridiculous romanticism that make James Bond unique, and very much the cultural icon he is today.

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Stay tuned, as this is only a fraction of the interesting automotive history behind Ian Fleming.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

DISCUSSION

By
BonafideSupraman

Okay, so I read Casino Royale a couple years back, and something struck me as potentially incorrect (or maybe it’s just that my understanding is off). I would like to run by my fellow Jalops. In it, James Bond owns a Bentley that is described early on thusly:

Bond’s car was his only personal hobby. One of the last of the 4½-litre Bentleys with the supercharger by Amherst Villiers, he had bought it almost new in 1933 and had kept it in careful storage through the war. It was still serviced every year and, in London, a former Bentley mechanic, who worked in a garage near Bond’s Chelsea flat, tended it with jealous care. Bond drove it hard and well and with an almost sensual pleasure. It was a battleship-grey convertible coupé, which really did convert, and it was capable of touring at ninety with thirty miles an hour in reserve.

Bad ass, James Bond, bad ass.

But later on, Bond’s in a car chase and there’s this passage:

Bond’s mind raged furiously on with the problem as he flung the great car down the coast-road, automatically taking the curves and watching out for carts or cyclists on their way into Royale. On straight stretches the Amherst Villiers supercharger dug spurs into the Bentley’s twenty-five horses and the engine sent a high-pitched scream of pain into the night. Then the revolutions mounted until he was past 110 and on to the 120 m.p.h. mark on the speedometer.

(Bolding and Italics mine)

On initial reading I was thinking maybe he was saying the base engine only developed 25 horsepower and then the supercharger added more, but it looks like the engine generated around 110 hp (according to Wikipedia). Plus, I doubt you could do a buck twenty with 25 horsepower.

Maybe he was saying the supercharger added 25 hp? Or maybe they calculated horsepower differently in the early 50s? Or perhaps “horses” refers to something different, since he doesn’t explicitly say “horsepower.”

It also seems like an odd typo, because the words are written out. I could see if it was in number form and 250 lost a zero to become 25, but that’s not so easy to do when it’s written out. Perhaps the editor converted it from numbers to letter and accidentally dropped the zero, but that seems like a lot of mistakes.

I don’t know, that really stuck with me reading the book because there seemed to be such a fanatical attention to detail regarding cars, but that figure seemed way off.