When I came in from my workshop last Saturday afternoon, I have to admit I smelled a little "garage-y," as Barb would say. I'd been working on a 1969 BSA 441 Victor motorcycle and, while not handling any truly pungent solvents, had picked up that vague aroma of ancient cotton-covered wiring loom and congealed motor oil that only old British bikes and cars of the Sixties can impart.
We were running late in meeting some friends for dinner and there was no time for me to take a shower, so I opened the bathroom cupboard and scanned its cluttered contents for some kind of aftershave that would overwhelm the Eau de BSA. And there on the shelf, I spied that classic wooden cap on a bottle of English Leather. Which, I noted, was made in New York. Nevertheless, it had an English saddle emblem on it and was the color of a light single-malt scotch, so I quickly splashed a small amount of this stuff in the area where my Colin Chapman-style sideburns would be, if I still had them.
Ah, that smell. Timeless, yet pure Sixties.
There was a time in my high school years, not long after the Beatles famously appeared on the Ed Sullivan show (the weekend of my 16th birthday in 1964) that virtually every young male in the school was slathered with either English Leather or a competing product called British Sterling. If you'd lit a match in our homeroom, the entire school would have exploded from the fumes.
When a bunch of us rode around in cars with our dates, there would be an almost eye-watering density of that musky leather smell in the car. And when I smell it now, it takes me back there. One whiff, and I'm in my dad's Mustang, driving through the winter night to pick up my date, headed for a high school dance where a no-doubt excellent group called The Fax from La Crosse, Wisconsin, would be playing. Psychologists tell us the sense of smell is the most evocative and direct path to memory, and I'd have to agree. Especially as a vintage-car buff. Someone should come up with an aftershave called Old Mousehide Car Upholstery. Or Mildewed Sprite Seats After the Rain. Powerful stuff.
But back to the less evaporative present. When Barb and I returned from dinner the other night, I walked out to my workshop to see if I'd remembered to turn down the heat. Before shutting off the lights, I looked around for a few moments. English Leather, indeed.
On the motorcycle lift was that old BSA (Birmingham Small Arms), and to my left was a Jaguar XK8 put away for the winter under its car cover. Next to that, a newer-generation Triumph Bonneville.
In our carpeted garage-band corner (where the superb yet tragically underrated Defenders practice every Sunday afternoon) was my Vox AC30 amplifier. The sound of the British Invasion. In front of the amp sat a Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar and Rickenbacker 12-string—similar to the models George Harrison played—and a Gibson Les Paul that can sometimes be induced to summon the spirit (if not the actual notes) of Keith Richards. On the wall above the drums was a poster of the Rolling Stones circa 1965. Our band does a lot of Rolling Stones songs. They're essentially our musical patron saints, and three of us in the band have been playing these songs together since 1967. We figure it should only take us a few more years to have them almost perfected.
Not to beleaguer the theme too much, but when I shut off the garage lights, I went in the house to read for a while. And there next to my reading chair were the two books Barb gave me for Christmas: The Last Lion, the third volume of the late William Manchester's Winston Churchill biography, and Who I Am, Pete Townshend's autobiography. That's the musician Pete Townshend of The Who, not to be confused with Hurricane pilot Peter Townsend, hero of the Battle of Britain. Pete Townshend, who grew up in England immediately after the war, is an excellent writer but seems to have spent more time grappling with his personal demons than the whole psych ward at Shutter Island. So I chose the Churchill biography as a retreat to the relative tranquility of the Blitz.
And last week, of course, we saw Skyfall, in which Daniel Craig's James Bond drives the sacred Aston Martin DB5 and wears suits (according to the papers) slimly tailored in Sixties style to revive that purposeful look of natty, understated cool. (What! Can this mean the end of baggy suits? I'll have to lose weight and do some sit-ups.)
All of which is a very long-winded way of saying I seem to be reswamped lately by British culture—especially Sixties British culture—and its audible echoes into the present day. It's as if a boomerang has made a vast circle in space and returned to hit me in the back of the head. All of which is fine with me, as I'm pretty much a child of the Sixties and have never completely escaped.
And it truly was the British Decade, in cars, motorcycles, and the arts. I offer as partial evidence Sean Connery, Ian Fleming, Julie Christie, David Lean, Marianne Faithfull,
Peter O'Toole (who's Irish, but played T. E. Lawrence, who was half Irish himself, on film), Susannah York, Alan Bates, Richard Attenborough, Tom Courtenay, Hayley Mills, Albert Finney, Terence Stamp, Diana Rigg, Beatles and Stones, Oliver Reed, Christopher Plummer, Michael Caine, Mike Hailwood, Triumph and BSA motorcycles, Peter Sellers, the Goons, Twiggy, James and Edward Fox, the Redgraves, Carnaby Street, Peter Max, Alec Guinness, John Fowles, David Hemmings, John le Carré, Terry Thomas, and The Prisoner with Patrick
McGoohan and his Lotus 7 scything through the nearly empty streets of London. Which brings us to cars. And their drivers. Try to picture, if you will, Formula 1 racing in the Sixties without Cooper, BRM, Lotus, Brabham, or the Rob Walker and fledgling Tyrrell teams.
Then take away Stirling Moss, Innes Ireland, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart, Mike Spence, Roy Salvadori, Trevor Taylor, Brian Redman, Jackie Oliver, Derek Bell, Richard Attwood, Peter Arundell … and a couple of those fast guys from the colonies Down Under who made their homes (and/or cars) in England. Jack Brabham, Chris Amon, and Bruce McLaren come to mind.
Are there any interesting British road cars from this era? Nah. The only ones I can think of are Jaguar E-types, MK IIs, and XJ6s; ACs; MGAs, Bs, Cs, and Midgets; Triumph TRs, Spitfires, and GT6s; big and small Healeys; Sunbeam Alpines and Tigers; Aston DB5s and DB6s; Lotus Elites, Elans, and 7s; Morgan Plus 4s, 4/4s, and SuperSports; Minis and Mini Coopers; Ginettas; TVRs; Daimlers; Morris Minors; Elva Couriers; Jensens; Lagondas; various manifestations of speed and/or luxury from Rolls-Royce and Bentley; and let us not forget the Fairthorpe Electron. And half a dozen others without which the starting grid of every sports-car race in which I've ever participated would look like a rained-out picnic at an abandoned air base. After a nuclear war.
And then there were the track-only sports racers from Lotus, Elva, etc., and the many sub-F1 formula cars, including Formula Fords, which originated in Britain and were produced there in great numbers and endless variety. Excuse me if this is turning into a column of lists, but pondering these things is like opening a treasure chest in which the inventory of coins and jewels (some more jewellike than others) seems to compound itself. Looking at the whole picture, it's hard to conceive that all of this came from a few small green islands off the northwest coast of Eurasia, produced by an amalgam of Celtic, Norman, and Anglo-Saxon cultural ideas. And a residual bit of Roma n Empiricism thrown in, which explains the occasional straight wall.
What you get from this combination is a curious kind of informed eccentricity, enthusiasm underlain with scholarship. It's this underpinning of fact and knowledge that makes Monty Python funnier than almost anything else, and it's the reason a car as unlikely looking as a Lotus 7 grips the road so well. There's something whimsical afoot, yet dead serious at the same time. Of course, it's now almost 50 years since the Beatles showed up in New York and gave this country some much-needed relief from the somber mood that followed the Kennedy assassination, which some have said was the true beginning of the Sixties. Yet the very best art, music, literature, and design of that era seem to have stood the test of time better than many things made since and have been judged worth reviving—if, in fact, they ever went away.
Five of my friends own modern Mini Coopers—including my old Formula Ford racing partner, John Jaeger, who has just opened two shops in the L.A. area to repair them. I've got a 2008 Triumph Bonneville and a relatively modern Jag in my garage, and the Stones are on their 50th anniversary tour as I write this. James Bond has been held over for weeks in our local theaters. The most exciting car I track-tested last year was an Aston Martin Rapide. Meanwhile, my much-younger brother is driving around Nashville in a Range Rover, and Downton Abbey just opened its third season as the most popular TV show on earth.
Will this trend continue once the members of my own generation start dying off or otherwise slowing down? Hard to say, but I think it will. The era is overloaded with classicism, and people of all ages are always looking for signs of substance. I guess that's the reason I'm reading about Churchill in The Last Lion even though I wasn't there.
When Barb and I were warming up the TV and making popcorn to watch the first new episode of Downton Abbey the other night, the phone rang. It was our friends Lew and Jane inviting us to dinner next Saturday. Lew explained that they'd just bought a new big-screen TV and wanted to try it out on us. "We just watched Doctor Zhivago the other night," Lew said, "and I was thinking about another classic big-screen David Lean movie." "Which one did you have in mind?" I asked. "Well, I just ordered Lawrence of Arabia on Blu-ray, and it'll be here Wednesday. Would that be all right?" I said it would. I have a VHS copy myself, but haven't seen it in almost a year. I consider it kind of an E-type movie; it never gets old and always looks good. And—more than half a century after its 1962 release—it can only look better on Blu-ray. I may have to splash on some English Leather before we go.
Peter Egan is R&T's Editor at Large. He possesses his very own sense of natty cool.