Churchill and Cars. Was Winnie a Petrol Head?

Winston Churchill in 1901, the year he bought his first car
– a Mors manufactured in France.

Author: Edward Lyddell Sawyer (1856-1927)

 

Without doubt Sir Winston Churchill will go down in history as one of the most influential people of the 20th century; a century when man’s ‘best machine’ was the gas (or petrol) guzzling internal combustion engine. So, did the dawn of the motor car and the adventurous soldier, writer, politician and statesman connect in any meaningful way? Churchill was born in 1874 and always had a soft spot for the horse drawn era, yet as a boy he must have been aware of inventors like Karl Benz introducing the world to horse-less machine-driven carriages. Churchill did embrace new technology and in 1901 when he was 26, he bought a French built Mors; this car was a disaster and could have been the inspiration for Harrold Lloyd’s famous silent movie ’Get Out and Get Under’.  Mors, as you may know, is Latin for death but ‘Winnie’ didn’t give up on this motor car especially as, at this time, he was deputing all the grunt work of cranking, driving and repairing to his chauffer. By 1911 the Mors had been scrapped and a relieved Mr. and Mrs. Churchill spent £700 on a Napier 15hp landaulette, a grand looking set of wheels in which they toured Scotland and visited the King at Balmoral.

 
 
 

In the 1920’s Winston was often behind the wheel much to the concern of his passengers and the occasional traffic policeman. When taking his children to view their new country home at Chartwell, the enthusiastic and famous politician recruited passers-by to help him with a push-start; after an exhausting uphill attempt there was great embarrassment when Winston realised he had neither switched on the ignition nor released the hand-brake. More than once, the gear-crashing government minister had a brush with the law like in the mid-20’s when he mounted a pavement in Croydon to avoid a traffic-jam. His excuse of needing to catch a ferry to France didn’t avoid a ticking off from the police and it certainly failed to impress his passenger and bodyguard, Inspector Thomson from Scotland Yard. Churchill’s choice of car at the time was a Wolseley 10. He liked open-air Wolseley’s and Austin saloons but by the late 20’s Winston largely became a back seat driver and, once again, let a chauffeur take the wheel.  

 
 
winston-churchill-1954-humber-pullman

1954 Humber Pullman used by Sir Winston Churchill.
On display at the Louwman Collection in The Netherlands.

Credit: Alf van Beem

Churchill was interested in any form of new transport and learned to fly before WWI although there’s no record of him earning his wings. He was responsible for, or certainly involved in a crash landing at Croydon in July 1919 after which Winston was ordered to give up his flying antics, a directive that came from Mrs. Clementine Churchill. Behind the wheel or steering a joystick, Churchill had the reputation of being a menace. But surely walking across a street would be less of a challenge to the great man. Churchill was nearly killed in December 1931; not by a would-be assassin but by being run over by a car on Fifth Avenue in New York. The future wartime leader, whilst on a lecture tour in America, was late for a social engagement and when crossing the busy street looked left when he should have looked right, momentarily forgetting that Britain and the US drive on opposite sides of the road.  The 26-year-old driver was traumatised by the incident as he saw the 57-year-old statesman being rushed to hospital where he would be treated for a fractured nose and ribs along with injury to the scalp. He was in hospital for a week but was well enough to write an article about the accident for the Daily Mail netting him $2500. Winston accepted that he was responsible for the accident and invited the luckless driver for afternoon tea. Mario Cantasano had been driving within the speed limit; experts claimed that just another 5 mph more might have killed Churchill and then the world would have been a very different place once Hitler had started his rampage. There was a silver-lining to this incident. America was going through its Prohibition period but somehow Winston left hospital with a doctor’s prescription for alcohol at mealtimes; thus, when he resumed his lecture tour, Churchill was permitted to imbibe his Johnny Walker Red Label Whisky and Pol Roger Champagne at lunch and dinner. Interesting!

A 1923 Wolseley, similar to the cars driven by Churchill
during the decade when he was often seen behind the wheel.
His cars would almost certainly have been black.

Credit: Charles01

Churchill approached life with gusto and his fun with cars probably peaked in the 20’s, thereafter he looked for comfort and showed brand loyalty to Austin including a 1935 6/18 and a ’38 Cambridge, a few Wolseley’s, Daimler (a 1930 ‘35’), Hillman (for family members, a Husky and a Minx), Morris Oxfords, a Land Rover and several Humber Pullmans; this list is made up of cars that he owned, borrowed for long periods or government cars whilst he was in office. In his extensive worldwide travels he was a passenger in thousands of different vehicles – riding with Presidents, Generals, celebrities, friends and family in a range of petrol driven motors and military vehicles. What about a Rolls Royce? The Churchills did own a Silver Ghost for a few months in 1921. From a Roller to a Hillman Minx, the family had a variety of wheels. Although not a dedicated motorist, cars played an important part in Churchill’s 90 years – a time that coincided with the fast-moving growth of motoring and a changing landscape across the world as highways were built; many of us see it as the Golden Age of Motoring when cars had real character.

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