Rudyard Kipling was not only a legendary storyteller and chronicler of the Empire but also a car enthusiast, discovers Ian Morton

He was a prolific writer, the first Briton to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, who nonetheless declined the appointment as Poet Laureate and turned down a knighthood. Rudyard Kipling was feted in his day for his portrayal of stiff-upper-lip Englishness – even though his traditional values and literary reputation are now occasionally vilified by fashionable revisionism. This is the familiar Kipling. However, there was another side to him. The author and poet had a passion that later went on to be shared by millions. He loved motoring.

Kipling was drawn into the fraternity of the road by newspaper magnate Alfred Harmsworth, who drove down to Rottingdean on the Sussex coast in October 1899 to demonstrate his Panhard car to his literary friend. Motoring was “like being massaged at speed”, Harmsworth declared. Kipling and his wife, Carrie, took a 20-minute trip and were equally enthralled. The outing left them ‘white with dust and dizzy with noise – but the poison worked from that hour’, Kipling declared in Something of Myself.

Kipling and his wife were enthralled by motoring

He hired a car he called The Embryo, a Lutzmann Victoria of carriage crudeness with a single-cylinder engine and belt drive, capable of 8mph. The weekly cost, including chauffeur, was 31/2 guineas. When it arrived, it was “pawing the ground before the door” and the children started dancing around it, according to their cousin, Angela, granddaughter of Edward Burne-Jones (who later became the novelist Angela Thirkell). Kipling promised the children a ride, but “the monster” refused to start. “We sat and sat in it while the chauffeur tinkered at its insides, and then had to get out with a promise for a real ride some day,” Thirkell wrote.

The GWK light car was one of the vehicles Kipling took an interest in

The GWK light car was one of the vehicles Kipling took an interest in

Kipling and his wife used it through the summer of 1900, ostensibly for house-hunting although he admitted that they simply enjoyed the “small and fascinating villages” of England. They were driven 20 or 30 miles after breakfast, lunching in hotels and returning home in the evening on virtually empty roads. In 1901, Kipling purchased a USbuilt Locomobile steam car that spent much of its time off the road, mainly because the petrol burners habitually blew out in a crosswind. On one 19-mile trip the car “betrayed us foully”, he wrote to a friend. “It was a devil of a day. It ended in coming home by train.” The car was noiseless, he conceded, “but so is a corpse”. Kipling felt he had been let down. “Her lines are lovely, her form is elegant, the curves of her buggy-top are alone worth the price of admission, but as a means of propulsion she is a nickel-plated fraud.”

British cars and innovation

The underwhelming experience with the Locomobile directed him towards British cars and genuine innovation, qualities that were combined in the Lanchester produced in Birmingham by Frederick and George Lanchester. They were designed as a motor car rather than a carriage adaptation, and with a power train that owed nothing to stationary engines and transmissions. Kipling’s 1902 purchase had a centrally mounted 10hp air-cooled engine with horizontally opposed cylinders.  Plus each piston had its own crankshaft and flywheel assembly, and two contra-rotating shafts to provide mechanical smoothness, a solution that later appeared in many modern engines. Unfortunately, this car, too, was trouble. On its delivery trip from the factory to Rottingdean, driven by George Lanchester, it suffered 21 tyre deflations.

A portrait of Rudyard Kipling from 1865

A portrait of Rudyard Kipling from 1865

Flats were commonplace at that early stage of motoring. Tyres were poorly constructed and road surfaces were rugged, so a set on a light car was expected to last no more than 2,000 miles and on a large car perhaps 1,000 miles. The Lanchester’s delivery journey proved to be a foretaste. Once in Kipling’s ownership, it broke down so often that he christened it Jane Cakebread after a prostitute notorious for 93 convictions. This is possibly the first recorded instance of a pet name for a car. Kipling became an addict. In 1903, the car underwent a six-month overhaul but still broke down so often that Lanchester provided a full-time engineer at 30 shillings a week, as well as a driver. Only after June 1904, when the firm supplied a new 12hp car that Kipling named Amelia, did the author experience comparatively trouble-free motoring. 

The fuel for Kipling’s passion

Amelia fuelled Rudyard Kipling’s devotion to motoring so much that he said a car was a means of indulging one’s sense of English history. “A time machine on which one can slide from one century to another,” he said. Plus, he added, cars were good for the nation’s temperance and education, since drivers needed to remain sober and to read road signs. After trying a Siddeley in 1905, Kipling bought a Daimler he called Gunhilda. But in 1910 he was won over to what became known as ‘the best car in the world’. Travelling through France with his wife, Kipling encountered two friends in Avignon. These were the motoring peer Lord Montagu, who was trying out a new 60hp Rolls-Royce, and Claude Johnson, managing director at Rolls-Royce and the man known as the hyphen in the brand’s name.

Kipling accepted the offer of a spin and the party drove into the Alps, soaring up winding passes beyond the snowline as mountain panoramas unfolded with a grandeur beyond the expectations of even the much-travelled author. He followed up this experience with a lift to Paris and promptly ordered a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost with limousine landaulet body by coachbuilder Barker. It was delivered in March 1911 – all for £1,500. He wrote to Johnson: ‘This place, which was reasonably quiet, simply stinks and fizzes with every make of car except R-R. It’s a Christian duty to raise the tone of the community. So when you’re ready, send it along.’ However, a fire at Barker’s and royal requests for coaches for the forthcoming coronation delayed the order.

Rolls-Royce raised the tone

Rolls- Royce lent him a car, then sent a Hooper-bodied limousine. Kipling rejected it and decided to pull strings through Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook. He was also his friend, investment adviser and a Rolls-Royce shareholder. Aitken wrote to Johnson: ‘I warn you that Kipling is being lost to you entirely through downright neglect and ill usage.’ Johnson’s response was that, because of Kipling’s ‘complaints and wailings’, he would be glad to be rid of him, but the matter was settled amicably and the author took delivery of The Green Goblin. He ran it for two years, then part-exchanged it for another Silver Ghost 40/50hp he called The Duchess, which took the family to France in March 1914. Kipling kept it for seven years and sold it for £200 more than it had cost him, remarking dryly that Rolls-Royces were the only cars he could afford to run.

With their lives overshadowed by the fate of their 18-year-old son, John, unaccounted for after a Loos action in 1915, the Kiplings motored many miles after the war. They hoped to find someone who knew what had happened to him. They travelled many more to cemeteries as part of Kipling’s work as an Imperial War Graves commissioner. However, fast motoring could still enliven their day. Leaving the Villers- Cotterets cemetery where an Irish Guards memorial was mooted, The Duchess ‘broke all modest records… the first 16 miles in 25 minutes,’ he wrote. Then, at 46mph, they were overtaken by ‘a light blue two-seater with lots of luggage behind’.

Kipling in hot pursuit

Kipling ordered his chauffeur to set off in pursuit. The Rolls wound up to 50mph, ‘but even then we could not see him’. However, on a Scottish bend taken too fast, The Duchess came into her own: the car, he wrote, ‘hung on with her teeth and toenails, shattering gravel like shot under her mudguards and literally swearing like a cat on a wall’. Kipling owned three Silver Ghosts through the 1920s. He sold one back to the company, which shipped it to India where it was converted into a mobile temple. In 1928, he bought a Phantom 40/50 with his favourite black-and-green coachwork, dubbed Esmeralda. With blue Windover body, this car passed to the National Trust and is housed at the Kipling family home, Bateman’s, in Rottingdean.

But his enthusiasm was beginning to wane. In 1930, Rudyard Kipling lamented that careless drivers and accidents were taking the fun out of motoring. Nevertheless, in 1932 he bought a Phantom 1 20/25 with body by Abbott of Farnham, specifying that he could wear his top hat in the back. Although trips to the south of France and Marienbad were taken by train, the chauffeur drove the car from England to meet them. The Phantom 1 was Kipling’s last car. He died in 1936, and Carrie three years later. The next reference to it seems to have been a 1963 advertisement in The Times, offering it for sale with the stipulation that ‘only Empire loyalists or persons of similar persuasion need apply’. 

The famous author was ‘no driver’

Keen on swift regal motoring though he was, Kipling was no driver. Chauffeurs sustained his passion and, for all his writings, a handful of simple lines published in the Daily Mail in 1904 seem to offer his motoring epitaph. It was entitled The Dying Chauffeur: Wheel me gently to the garage, since my car and I must part. No more for me the record and the run. That cursed left-hand cylinder the doctors call my heart Is pinking past redemption – I am done. They’ll never strike a mixture that’ll help me pull my load. My gears are stripped – I cannot set my brakes. I am entered for the finals down the timeless untimed road To the Maker of the makers of all makes.

Acknowledgements: Toni and Valmai Holt, The Kipling Society, Motor Sport
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