Chapter 2 – Across France 650 miles 22/23 December 1938

It was very cold on the boat and the sea was decidedly rough. However, we lay down in our cabin for a time and then went down to the saloon for a meal. The time thus passed quickly and when the boat entered the harbour at Boulogne where we found snow falling fast and the ground thickly covered. A pleasant prospect for an all-night drive! We were through the customs in a very few minutes, special arrangements having been made by the AA representative to get us off quickly and with a few gallons of petrol in our tank, we started off to find a garage where we intended to fill up our huge 31 gallon tank.

However, it was warm in the car and I should add that we were quite pleased in view of the intense cold, to find that somehow, in the hurry of loading the car, we had somehow come away with Mrs. Symon’s favourite travelling bag, which we had not intended to bring at all. This bag will figure at a later stage of our adventures.

As we were climbing the steep winding road into the old town of Montreuil the engine gave two or three splutters and stopped dead. Humfrey tried the starter but there was nothing doing, so out we had to get. We were distinctly annoyed because it was snowing hard and it was obvious that we were going to feel both very cold and very wet.

We took the cover off the distributor, thinking that the points might have stuck. It seemed to be all right so he replaced the cover and tried the starter. Off went the engine and, rather mystified, we proceeded, having got both wet and cold, as we had expected.

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The cold was certainly awful and I was glad, when I took over the wheel at the end of two hours, to have something else to think of besides how infernally cold I was. It was about this time that ice began to form on the windscreen and we blessed our forethought in having brought with us a heated panel for the screen, without which it would have been quite impossible to see anything. The screen on the passenger side where there was no hot panel, was thickly encrusted with ice so that, Humfrey, after holding his hand against it for some time with no other result than getting his hand nearly frozen, said “Well, I can’t see anything so I may as well go to sleep.”

Above the windscreen of the car, Wolseley had mounted a thermometer. During the night the red liquid vanished into its bulb and did not reappear until after daylight.

We went steadily through the cold and the dark, till at last we were cheered by the breaking of the dawn. We then saw why it had been so appallingly cold in the car, for not only was the whole windscreen, except  the small heated panel, covered with ice to a depth of about ¼ of an inch, but all  the woodwork on the dash and doors was covered with ice also! Just about full daylight we stopped at Avalon for breakfast – it was 7.33 and we had come 300 miles in 9 hours. When we got out of the car we found that we were even colder than we had thought: we were both shivering and we each drank a large glass of brandy before we could think of breakfast while the kindly manageress of the hotel brought us hot bricks to thaw out our frozen feet. The thermometer in the courtyard of the hotel registered 12 degrees below zero, 44 degrees of frost! It was not surprising we had found it cold!

We found the hills from Saulien over to Chalon clear of snow but in a dangerously icy condition. However, we were in no hurry and eventually arrived at the Shell filling station about a mile south of Chalon. We had taken 2 hours exactly for the 76 miles. We never pass this place without a stop to greet our good friends, the filling station attendant and his wife. We had wired them from Avalon to expect us and we found them awaiting us on the doorstep. As usual, they greeted us with enthusiasm, and drew us into their warm room to participate of steaming hot black coffee and Vieux Marc. Of course they think we are quite mad but almost all French people of the lower classes think that that is the normal state of the Englishman! Then we went out to fill our petrol tank for the first time since leaving Boulogne 380 miles back. Our friends examined the car with the greatest interest, calling each other’s attention to the huge tyres, to the metal strips bolted to the back  (to be used, if necessary for getting out of soft sand), to the equipment of the instrument board for French people love lots of instruments, and so on. Then aback into their house for more coffee and more Vieux Marc and then, invigorated by the delightful welcome of our old friends and, a little, by the influence of their excellent liqueur, we resumed our way south over the shining ice-covered roads.

It was soon after we had left the Chalon filling station that we became convinced that the engine was misfiring. We had both thought that we noticed it before – the misfire was very intermittent – but had tried to pretend to ourselves and each other that it was purely imaginary. But now there was no doubt about it, the engine would cut out completely for a second or so and then resume its normal smooth rhythm. At last, there was nothing for it but to stop and make an examination. If there was anything wrong, now was the time to find it. For two reasons:- One was that we had plenty of time to spare which we should not have once we started off from Algiers and the other was that if the engine were to misbehave like this when we were crossing stretches of soft land in the Sahara we should, inevitably come to rest. The resistance of deep sand is so tremendous that even a temporary misfire is quite sufficient to bring the car to a sudden stop. And a sudden stop might mean hours of digging to get on the move again.

So, on all accounts it was desirable to find out at once what was the matter. Actually we discovered, or rather, Humfrey discovered the cause almost immediately. Almost the first thing he looked at was the distributor, (we had in mind possible condensation inside from the cold) and he was poking about inside it with his finger when he exclaimed “Good Lord, what’s this?” He held up a small carbon brush which he had found floating about loose. We examined it: it was unbroken and, as far as we could see, unused. It did not belong to any part of the distributor that we could discover. The engine started and ran perfectly and from that moment until the end of our journey to Cape Town the engine never once misfired. I cannot explain how it got there, nor were the Wolseley Company to whom we showed it when we got home, able to account for its presence.

Our scheme therefore, was that our Wolseley, would be kept on the quayside until the last minute, then driven in and turned round with its radiator against the port in the ship’s side, all ready to be driven out again as soon as the ship docked. This plan was carried out to the letter, the laggard boat train arrived, and eventually, just over 2 hours later, we started on our 19 hour crossing of the Mediterranean.

We could therefore not expect to arrive at Algiers before 9.30 instead of 6.30. Very annoying! However, it couldn’t be helped and we cheered up as the African shore drew near, and we saw the brilliant sun glistening on the tiers of white houses climbing up the steep hill from the sea that make Algiers a vision to be remembered.  And eventually we drew in to the harbour.

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.

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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.