Chapter 1 – Preliminaries

Welcome to Bertie Browning’s diary. I will be taking extracts from each chapter to give a brief overview of this amazing journey. My words are in italics.

In 1938 Bertie Browning and Humfrey Symons “were to start on our long-looked for adventure: our attempt to set up a record run by car from England to the Cape”.

One of their 3 goals was “To set up a record for the whole journey from England to the Cape. This distance is 10300 miles and no one had ever attempted to do the journey in really fast time or, if they had, they had fallen by the wayside.”

A word as to who “we” are. H E Symons was the “skipper” of the team. Once the first Grande Vitesse of “The Motor”, latterly motoring correspondent of the Sunday Times, the Sketch, the Cape Argus, the Johannesburg Star etc. A brilliant driver, safe and fast, the best driver, in fact, that I ever sat in a car with; with tremendous powers of endurance and a great gift for making high average speeds without driving needlessly fast; an indefatigable worker with and unfailing store of energy; an organizer with a wonderful gift for attention to detail; able to maintain an atmosphere of unruffled calm in emergency – as you shall learn – and a marvelous knack of falling on his feet.


Myself, a good deal older than Symons, a good deal more cautious, with great stamina and a record of 33 years driving without a crash: a record, alas! to be lost on this journey.

We were old friends – we had indeed shared homes for 3 years before Symons’ marriage – we knew therefore each other’s failings and besetting sins. We had driven together for thousands of miles and had complete confidence in each other, a very essential fact for a journey such as this. We both love long distance driving and have done a great deal of it. For instance, Symons has taken part in 8 times in the Monte Carlo Rally, king of long distance motor competitions and I in 7. We had the same outlook on things, enjoyed the same jokes and had the same ideas.

W.M.W. Thomas, the Managing Director of Wolseley’s Motors Ltd agreed to provide a car equipped to our specification for the Cape Record run and then work really started. The car was a standard 18/85 Wolseley chassis with salon body. The rear seat was removed and a 31-gallon petrol tank fitted in its place, the original rear tank being dispensed with. Nine-inch tyres were fitted in place of the standard 6.25-inch to give a larger bearing on the ground surface and to facilitate dealing with soft sand and mud. Tanks were fitted on the floor of the rear compartment to carry 10 gallons of water, the amount demanded by the French regulations before any car is allowed to start the Sahara crossing proper. The two front seats were arranged to let down, and seat cushions to fold forwards so that full length (5ft 10½ inches long beds) with Dunlopillo mattresses were obtained. They were very comfortable. All other details as to special equipment will be found in the appendix.

Humfrey and I agreed at our first conference that we would divide the preliminary work between us. He would deal with everything to do with the preparation of the car and I, having more leisure time than he and a “kind of flair” for the work, would undertake all the work referring to routes, schedules, etc. We interviewed everybody we could think of who could give us valuable information and, among others, the Foreign Touring Department of the A.A. and the Shell Co. very kindly put their whole of their vast organisations at our disposal. Nothing was too much trouble for them. If we wanted information as to whether a certain ferry in the middle of French Equatorial Africa ran, or could be persuaded to run, at night the Shell people were quite prepared to cable inquiries for us. This they actually did with reference to the ferry across the river at Bambari with the result that when we arrived the natives were awaiting us.

The Shell Company was involved in ensuring that filling stations would be open when they needed to be. Bertie describes it as follows:- What record-breakers by air or by land owe to the marvelous organization of the Shell Company and to the good fellows in charge of their various areas, is quite beyond expression. Suffice it to say that every Shell filling station and local depot between Algiers and Cape Town was advised by them, not only of the day but of the exact hour of the day or night when we expected to reach them.

They had worked on two schedules and “after two months of really hard work, during which I worked about seven hours a day, all the schedules were worked out; the slowest showed 21 days to the Cape and the fastest, which was christened “W.H.” (“Wildest Hopes”) at 17 days.”

On visiting the Wolseley Factory they were thrilled with the progress and the men working on the car. “When we visited the works together, I felt the same. It was quite wonderful to see the interest that everyone took in the “African Car”; one felt that it was THEIR car and by Jove they meant to see it was a worthy example of the Wolseley Factory. On the day we arrived we were in the works ‘til eight o’clock at night and none of the men who were working on the car even thought of the time or anything else except of the “African Car” and making sure that everything was just as we wanted it.”

On the day of departure, 23 December 1938, the A.A. advised them not to travel due to bad weather. The message from Mr Donald of the A.A. Foreign Touring Department was “Here is their (the A.A) message. They say “It is inadvisable for motorists to attempt to travel from Boulogne to Paris at present. They should put their car on the train.” This did not deter them. This was Bertie and Humphrey’s dream the “Cape record! Cape record! For years we had dreamed of this next adventure, had discussed ways and means whenever we met and the words “Cape record” sang in our ears like a clarion call to romance”.

We asked the AA Port Representative to sign our book as evidence of the exact date and hour when we left Folkestone. Long distance record-breaking is timed definitely from start to stop. By this I mean that the time taken for a given journey is reckoned from the moment of departure until the moment of arrival at the destination. In several cases considerable doubt has been cast on the time that have been given out and we were determined that in our case we would arrange to have documentary evidence. We had therefore had a book printed both in English and French which we proposed to get signed by some responsible person on departure, on arrival and at several places en route. There could thus be no question that we were at certain points at certain times and on certain days.

So their journey began and they had little idea of what lay in stall for them in Africa.

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