Watching Downton Abbey with an Historian: Cars, Cars, Cars -The Toast

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Season 6, Episode 7

This week, Downton took a field trip to Brooklands, the historic motor racing track in Weybridge, Surrey. Henry Talbot has invited the Crawley family to watch him race, part of a charm offensive to win the hand of Lady Mary, who is, of course, haunted by memories of the death of her first husband in a car accident.

Downton Abbey features gorgeous period vehicles in nearly every episode: charabancs, ambulances, and especially, the luxurious cars enjoyed by the members of the family. The first petrol-powered cars appeared on British roads in 1895, and the first car factory in Britain opened in Coventry two years later. The 1920s saw the rapid expansion of private driving: the number of car licenses in Britain rose from 187,000 in 1920, near half a million in 1924 and just over one million in 1930. Yet the density of cars lagged far behind the United States: in 1924, there were seventy-eight residents per motorcar in Britain, and only seven residents per car in the United States, a level not reached in Britain until 1963.

W.G. Barlow in a Bentley at Brooklands, 1922. W.G. Barlow in a Bentley at Brooklands, 1922.

Motorcar racing, as a sport, was not far behind. Brooklands was the first purpose-built racing course in Britain. Hugh Fortescue Locke King decided to build the track at his estate in Weybridge in order to allow British racers and car designers to keep up with their continental competitors. The track opened in June 1907. After a wartime hiatus, it soon gained momentum again, and by the mid-1920s, it was forced to impose stringent regulations on racing times in order to placate neighbors who deplored the noise and the crowds. This was an era of glamorous motor racers and well-publicized attempts to break records. As Tom shouts gleefully to Mary, they’re in it for the speed!

The race that draws the Crawleys is a something of a face-off between Henry Talbot and his best friend, Charlie Rogers. On July 11, 1925, a real-life version of this race pitted Parry Thomas, driving a Leyland-Thomas, against Ernest Eldridge in a Fiat ‘Mephistopheles,’ in what Brooklands historian David Venables describes as “perhaps the most heroic race ever run at Brooklands.” The two drivers passed and re-passed each other, maneuvering through skids and slides to maintain the lead. Each lost a tire tread, but they pressed on, and finally Thomas won. He had averaged 123 miles per hour and set a new lap record of nearly 130 miles per hour (considerably faster than the pace set in Downton’s staged race). The Autocar’s harrowed comment: “a more horrid spectacle to sit and watch has probably never been seen in motor racing.” Lady Mary would surely have agreed.

Parry Thomas Parry Thomas

Racing was a dangerous business. The first fatal accident at Brooklands occurred only a few months after it opened, when Vincent Herman lost control of his Minerva when he swerved to avoid another car that had lost a tire. Parry Thomas was a racer in the mold of Charlie Rogers: obsessed with cars rather than glamour, the bachelor dressed unassumingly in sweaters and flannels practically lived at the track. Like many of his colleagues, he died as he lived. In April 1926, he broke the land speed record at Pendine Sands, breaking 171 miles per hour, but he was killed trying to break his own record there a year later. He was buried with his racing goggles in Surrey after a private service at Brooklands. The death of Charlie Rogers shakes Henry Talbot deeply, but both men would have known that the risk of fatal injury was part of the game.

In Sunday night’s episode, Brooklands is not only the scene of racing triumph and tragedy. It is also a stage for heterosexual romance. Mary and Henry continue their delicate dance of desire and doubt: while other characters doubt whether the heiress and the driver are well-suited, I found them to be perfectly matched in their vanity and relative vacuity. Meanwhile, Edith and Bertie Pelham continued their sweet courtship, and was that a flicker of interest I saw between Tom Branson and Edith’s charming editor? In any case, the gender lines are strictly drawn: the men are wild about cars, and the women are… not.

In fact, although Brooklands was slow and reluctant when it came to including women as members and drivers, they were there from the start. The first person to complete a lap of the course was, likely, Ethel Locke King, Hugh’s wife, who took over the running of the whole operation after his death in 1926. Dorothy Levitt got the opportunity to serve a motoring apprentice in Paris, training as a mechanic and chauffeur, while working as a secretary for the Napier Car Company. On her return, she became a prominent racecar driver, doing speed events as well as long-distance races, which she drove accompanied by her Pomeranian dog, Dodo.

Even off the racecourse, driving was a far more complicated endeavor in this era than in ours, requiring owners (or their chauffeurs) to be proficient in a range of technical skills and able to repair breakdowns and mechanical failures on the road. In addition to racing, Levitt gave women driving lessons, and in 1909, she published “The Woman and the Car: a Chatty Little Handbook for all Women who Motor or Want to Motor.” The book was full of useful advice, including the suggestion to carry gloves, chocolate, and a revolver in the car at all times – an image that conjures Miss Phyrne Fisher, somehow. Its photographs featured encouraging captions: “The Adjustment of the Foot-Brake Is a Matter of Seconds,” for example, or “It Is a Simple Matter to Remove a Faulty Sparking Plug.”

By the 1920s, although technical skills remained important, there were also repair shops and garages in most towns, many located on main roads and bedecked with enamalled advertisements in order to serve passing motorists as well as locals. Tom’s plan to open such a shop on the edge of the Downton estate is a sound one. Perhaps the most famous garage of the era was the ‘X Garage’, financed and run by Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs and her army of friends and lovers. In addition to repairs, storage, and local trips, the X Garage offered chauffeured holidays in Austin touring cars, specializing in trips for grieving relatives to view the battlefields and graves of World War I.

Cars are sexy, beautiful creations that promise a world of speed and freedom. They are also symbols of risk and danger. By the episode’s end, neither Mary nor Edith is entirely ready to embrace the risks of a new relationship. But, as Tom says, “Being hurt is part of being alive.”


Georgine Clarsen, Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)

Ann Kramer, ‘Levitt, Dorothy Elizabeth (1882–1922)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2013

Kathryn A. Morrison and John Minnis, Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture and Landscape in England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012)

Jo Payne, ‘Thomas, John Godfrey Parry (1884–1927)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

David Venables, Brooklands: The Official Centenary History (Yeovil: Haynes Publishing, 2007)

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