POETRY IN MOTION; the Nation's Favourite Poet, Rudyard Kipling, Was a Man Mesmerised by Technology. When the Lanchester Brothers Brought Their Birmingham-Built Car to the Writer's Attention, He Signed Up and Had the 16th Lanchester Delivered in Person by Its Inventor. Ross Reyburn Reports
Reyburn, Ross, The Birmingham Post (England)
Few people know that the great engineer Dr Frederick Lanchester (1868-1946) produced the first British car in Birmingham in 1895.
Even less well known is the fact that he also drove down to Sussex to deliver a new Lanchester motor car to the poet and writer Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) in 1902.
That journey was to prove the start of a friendship between the two famous figures inspired by a mutual interest in this adventurous new form of transport monitored by police constables out to catch people driving those new-fangled machines above the speed limit.
The Lanchester/Kipling link is vividly chronicled by Bristol writer Meryl Macdonald in her new book The Long Trail - Kipling Around the World (Tideway House, pounds 16.95).
'Such was the intimate size of the motor industry in those days that Kipling's new motor was delivered to the door by its inventor, Frederick Lanchester, in person,' writes Macdonald, a distant relative of the writer.
'Lanchester became a regular visitor and friend-in-need to the Kiplings. The two men would speculate for hours on the reasons for the latest breakdown and swap yarns about their adventures on the road and the 'book-'em-or-bust' habits of the local constabulary.'
Kipling had first encountered 'one of those motor things' when the Daily Mail's Alfred Harmsworth called at his home at The Elms in Rottingdean in 1899 to discuss his newspaper's 'Comforts for the Troops' fund and invited him to go for a spin.
'The poison worked from that hour,' he said of that 20-minute drive with the future Lord Northcliffe.
His first car was a Locomobile, an American steam car he dubbed 'the Holy terror' that was forever breaking down, running on its mix of petrol, steam and water.
'I suppose she will settle down one day to her conception of duty but just now her record is one of eternal and continuous breakdown,' he said of the vehicle.
But then along came a Lanchester delivered to Bateman's, his Sussex home in Burwash near Lewes. When Max Lawrence, who had recently joined the Lanchester Engine Company as works manager, came to Brighton to visit his sister Mrs Cope Cornford, head of Roedean School, in the autumn of 1901 he took Kipling out for a trial run.
Macdonald relates that as the Lanchester was climbing a steep hill above the English Channel, Kipling rashly inquired about the car's breaking powers. Lawrence stopped the car and let it run backwards towards the edge.
With a sheer drop looming, he applied the brakes halting the car.
'As they resumed their forward journey Kipling admitted that yes, he had been frightened,' records Macdonald. 'But I thought what a bad advertisement it would be for the Lanchester company if they killed me, so I sat tight.'
The following June in 1902, Kipling bought his first Lanchester, a two cylinder 10hp air-cooled model and number 16 off the assembly line and so began his friendship with the car's creator.
It is not difficult to imagine Kipling's enthusiasm for a Lanchester after his problems with its American predecessor.
As Macdonald says: 'From its superb springing and pre-selector mechanism right down to its foot bulb horn, the Lanchester was both innovative and comfortable, its designer largely the unsung father of the British motor car.'
Peter King in his book, The Motor Men - Pioneers of the British Car Industry (1988), went further saying that 'in some senses' Lanchester was the founder of the modern motor car.
'His design had four-wheeled steering and while other early cars were virtually motorcycles, his car was clearly the direct descendant of the vehicles we see on the road today.'
It was predictable that Kipling the storyteller would feature the qualities of this remarkable car in his tales. His Lanchester had a detachable and interchangeable body and in Kipling's stories, The Horse Marines and A Tour of Inspection, Macdonald describes the writer making 'full and comical use of its potential for disguise'. …