A Selection of reviews of
Cambridge Evening News - 10 April 1999
Reviewed by Rodney Tibbs
A past dusted off and brought to life
When I was a young reporter on the Cambridge Daily News,a phone call from Donald Dale, who then lived at Histon, was most welcome.
Something interesting or quirky always lay at the other end of the line.
Once I was allowed to stand on the trapdoor of the gallows on which the last man to be hanged in Cambridge prison started his final journey. Then there was the occasion when I was shown a huge limousine said to have been built for King George VI. We enjoyed a picnic in the rear of that one simply to demonstrate the dance-floor sized rear end.
Donald Dale was a man who was fascinated by everything and who, as a result, became fascinating himself.
Now his son, Rodney Dale, has put together a gloriously unshapely collection of memoirs, largely about his father but also about himself and his family, under the title Halcyon Days - the sort of book that only comes along once every so many years and which sticks to your fingers like glue.
Donald Dale's prime interest was in cars. In the book, we follow the adventures of him and his family, starting in the thirties and coming right through the very best days of motoring when petrol was a shilling or so a gallon and cars were sufficiently uncomplicated for a happy amateur to get his hands on them a make them better.
Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, Daimlers and makes like Bean, Clyno, the Humberette and others all chase each other through the pages of this classic Cambridge publication.
But for anyone who lived through that period, there is more to this amusingly written volume than simply one man's preoccupation with the bizarre and the recalcitrant.
Here is a glimpse of a Cambridge on which the sun has just set. Names like King and Harper, Hallens showrooms on Hawthorn Way Corner, Les Rich's yard in Coldhams Lane and other places from which bits were obtained glitter like nuggets in a coal yard.
And there are references to some marvellous Cambridge characters, like Devi Das Agarwala who arrived from India with nothing. He found a job on a building site and eventually became a highly successful businessman who set up the Kismet Indian restaurant in Northampton Street and launched Maxspeed in Mill Road.
Rodney Dale stitches his own and everyone else's recollections into this remarkable book. There is the memory of taking the driving test after two lessons at Marshall's driving school at 7/6d each. And battles with a paint I remember well called Brushing Belco, which was supposed to give a smooth spray finish but didn't.
The number of vehicles (fire engines included) that went through the Dales's hands is listed at the end of the book and it takes over a page to catalogue them all. Each is the reason for many highly amusing paragraphs, which are so personal as to take this volume well on its journey towards being a classic.
In a memoir, Donald Dale once wrote: "Old men die at three in the morning." He chose that time to die himself at the remarkably early age 63. My father died at three in the morning as well and, come to think of it, so have many others I have known.
Sage and acid observations like this elevate Halcyon Days to an important place on any Cambridge bookshelf. Mine is alongside that of Gwen Raverat, and you can't say more than that.
Classic Car Mart - May 1999
Reviewed by Mike Worthington-Williams
Books on the 'Cars I have Owned' theme (or 'One Man's Motors, if you prefer) have always fascinated me, and one of my favourite titles is Charnock's 'Mind over Motor'. 'Halcyon Days' is not essential history, but is a wholly delightful read, recalling as it does the author's adventures with a flat twin Rover Eight, and the many delectable cars which his father owned back in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. They include a whole succession of Bentleys, including four 8 litres, a blown 4.5 litre, another 4.5 litre and a couple of Speed Sixes - and none of them costing more than £100!
These were interspersed with as catholic a selection as could be imagined, including a Cluley, a Lorraine-Dietrich, a Darracq, a Bullnose Morris, a couple of Daimler straight 8s, a Maybach (yes, really), a Star, a Swift and a Siddeley Special, to name but a few. The book does not concern itself solely with vehicles, however, being more in the nature of an autobiography in which the author traces the progress of his rather eccentric family, and also details and illustrates some of the vehicles they owned in antiquity - a Humberette, a Panhard and a Minerva.
University years, his war service and his exploration of breakers yards and garages back in the Forties are all recounted, and it is sobering to be reminded that most of what makes such interesting reading took place within the lifetime of the Editor, and it is perhaps the reminders and parallels with my own early motoring days which make this book so poignant. Inevitably the author's father bought vehicles from the late Cecil Bendall - who didn't in those days? - and the overwhelming impression left by the book is that motoring in those days was enormous fun, regardless of whether or not you had any money. I'm glad I experienced the same period, and for those of you who didn't (or did!), then 'Halcyon Days' will bring it all vividly alive for you. Highly recommended.
Town and Country News - April 1999
Back to Early Motoring
In Halcyon Days - Recollections of Vintage Motoringauthor Rodney Dale takes us back to what he considers to have been his own halcyon days, starting in his childhood during the second World War when his family became car owners. Rodney's somewhat eccentric father, Donald, had inherited his uncle's family business, giving him the means to pursue his own hobbies, and that meant buying unusual old cars. His eccentricity is well illustrated by the fact that he brought the family's first car, a 1928 41/2 litre Bentley, or rather just its chassis, in 1944, when petrol rationing was in force and he didn't even know how to drive! The numerous and varied cars that Rodney recalls his father acquiring and disposing of will fascinate those with an automobile interest, while for those without such an interest the equally well remembered characters of the family and their friends and acquaintances make absorbing reading. Chronicled in a dryly humorous style with a wealth of incidental detail that greatly adds to the sense of being there, Rodney's reminiscences show just what an adventure owning and going out in a car was in the post war days.
From his father's many cars, ranging from a tiny Fiat Cinquencento 'Topolino' to a Bentley Standard Six which 'was the size of a small house' (and the last time Rodney saw it had been converted into a Speed Six and was for sale at £300,000!) Rodney gained a love of working on and driving his own cars, the first of which was a Rover 8, though with windscreen from a Triumph and mudguards made from the bonnet of an old Hispano-Suiza! Among the numerous photographs and technical illustrations which illustrate the book are many of the little Rover in which Rodney and his friends toured Cornwall almost immediately after he passed his driving test. Recollections of his friends' motoring escapades bring added colour to the text - one such incident which took place in Wroxham amply demonstrating the unsophisticated nature of personal transport at the time: in an emergency stop the driver had to push so hard on the brake pedal that the front seat tipped over backwards and the steering wheel rim detached from the spokes!
These reminiscences bear out Rodney's belief that his youthful years coincided with an interesting technology and the last days of elegant motoring for all, and those who were there will find themselves reminded of the fun and innocence of those days, while those too young to have experienced them will be amused and amazed at the differences between then and now.
Halcyon Days confirms delightfully that adventure and fun were two of the mainstays of early motoring, along with a degree of mechanical know how of course, and that there was a carefree spirit then that has all but disappeared on modern roads.