1 August 2023 Susannah

Cars in Literature

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

July saw a red-letter day in the Fullerton house – or rather, in the Fullerton garage, for we finally took delivery of a new car.

Our old car had given us good service for more than 19 years clocking up almost 251,000 km, so it was time for a new one. We are now the proud, if somewhat nervous, owners of a Hyundai Ioniq, a fully electric car.

A new car has turned my thoughts to cars in literature. There’s the flashy Rolls-Royce in The Great Gatsby which seems indeterminate in colour, according to who describes it. Sometimes it is bright yellow, sometimes cream. It is, of course, the car that kills Myrtle Wilson when Daisy is at the wheel. Driving well or badly is quite a theme of the book, and cars are one of the examples of conspicuous advertising which Gatsby chooses in order to attract Daisy.

A favourite literary car is the one purchased by Toad in The Wind in the Willows. He’s a terrible driver and in one of the best literary quotes ever, we are told that “the rush of air in his face, the hum of the engines, and the light jump of the car beneath him intoxicated his weak brain”. Whenever I see some lunatic driving dangerously, I think of that quote and smile. Toad crashes the car he steals, and ends up in prison for reckless driving. Cars symbolise his immaturity, his disregard for others, and they also represent the modern, industrialised world so loathed by Kenneth Grahame.

James Bond drives many sleek and costly vehicles (his Aston Martin is probably the most famous), usually with an amazing range of gadgets attached, but did you know that the creator of James Bond also created a car named Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang? It’s a flying car that takes Mr Potts and his family on amazing adventures in the 1964 book Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car. My children when young adored the movie and watched it over and over again, so I grew very familiar with that flying car.

In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family crudely convert their Hudson Super Six sedan into a truck that will take them all to the promised land in California. Steinbeck provides the reader with a grim picture of used-car salesmen, while the cars on Route 66 become a symbol of America itself. In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck drives a camper van around America, and names the vehicle ‘Rocinante’ after Don Quixote’s horse. (I do like literary names for cars and must start thinking of a suitable moniker for our new car.)

Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy L. Sayers’s fabulous series of detective novels drives a Daimler that he has named Mrs Merdle, after a character in Dickens’ Little Dorrit because “of her aversion to row”. He likes a silent car that never makes a fuss (hopefully our new car will emulate Mrs Merdle!)

Then there are the cars that are intimately connected to a particular character, such as the Batmobile, the Weasley’s Ford Anglia which ‘flies’ Ron and Harry to school in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Noddy’s little yellow car in the Enid Blyton books, and Spider-Man’s spider-mobile.

Rudyard Kipling was an early motoring enthusiast, but did not drive himself – he had a chauffeur. He named one of his cars Jane Cakebread, after a notorious London prostitute, because his car, like Ms Cakebread, had so many convictions to her name. His blue Rolls-Royce is now on display at his gorgeous Sussex home of Bateman’s.

Can you add to my list of cars in literature? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

I provide these links for convenience only and do not endorse or assume liability for the content or quality of these third-party sites. I only recommend books I have read and know. Some of these links are my affiliate links. If you buy a product using one of these links I may receive a small commission. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but does help cover the cost of producing my free newsletter.

Leave a comment.

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until approved.
Featured image- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968 Warfield Productions movie, starring Dick Van Dyke, Adrian Hall, Sally Ann Howes, Heather Ripley, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062803/
Body image- Hyundai Ioniq, photo by Susannah Fullerton

Comments (19)

  1. Carol Noble

    I remember a film in 1950s called Genevieve which was the name of a vintage car. It was about the London to Brighton race for vintage cars.

  2. Ruth Wilson

    Does Driving Miss Daisy qualify?

    The problem with reading your wonderful newsletters Susannah, and the comments, that it add to the already impossibly long ‘Must Read’ list of books!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      The car is certainly an important character in Driving Miss Daisy.
      So glad you enjoy my newsletters, Ruth.

  3. Pam Lofthouse

    How about Inspector Morse’s burgundy Jaguar Mark II? Then again, in the early books Morse drove a Lancia! Apparently Colin Dexter initially said that Morse “would not have been seen dead in a Jag” but in later books, written after the success of the TV series, Morse drives the Jag.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That’s interesting – I didn’t know he changed to a jaguar because of the success of the TV series.

  4. Megan Pierson

    The Alice Newtork by Kate Quinn features a Lagonda. It is not given a name but I felt it was one of the characters in the novel.

  5. sally Petherbridge

    When I was ten, my mother took me and my brothers to see the just -released film, The Great race, about a car race from New york to Paris at the turn of the 20th century. It starred Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Jack Lemmon. I just loved it and saw it four times. Adventure, goodies, baddies, romance, beautiful dresses and the best pie fight you’ve ever seen in a movie. I don’t remember the cars having names but they were central to the story.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh I remember that film – also saw it as a child! Thanks for reminding me.

  6. Barbara Laughlin-Adler

    I recently read “My Italian Bulldozer” by Alexander McCall Smith and enjoyed it immensely. When Paul (the main character) tries to rent a car in Italy, he gets into all kinds of difficult situations, not least of which is that his only choice is to accept a bulldozer from the rental office. Absolutely delightful story – with lots of talk about Tuscany wines and foods to boot. Loved it.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That sounds good. Alexander McCall Smith is always a light and fun read. Thanks for the recommendation.

  7. Lynn Sitsky

    Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang comes to mind also Peter Carey’s A Long Way from Home about the Redex Trials of the 1950s,

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I included Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in my list, but what’s the car in Peter Carey’s book?

  8. Chris Browne

    Hi Susannah

    Like you, I always recall Mr. Toad when I see someone driving recklessly. I wonder if your readers know that the character of Mr Toad was based by Kenneth Grahame on his only child Alistair, who was of course the person for whom The Wind in the Willows was created. Grahame thought that Alistair was a bit moody, had a short attention span and was always carried off by his latest enthusiasm. Sound familiar?

    Sadly, Alistair committed suicide while he was an Oxford undergraduate. It is not clear what his motivation might have been. So when I reread The Wind in The Willows and enjoy Mr. Toad charging along in his own car and then the stolen car with his ears ringing with “poop-poop”, my thoughts always turn to Alistair and his sad and shortened life.

    My other favourite literary car is the crime novels of Edmund Crispin, the pseudonym of Bruce Montgomery. Crispin has his academic sleuth and Professor of English, Gervase Fen, driving a red sports car called “Lily Christine III” at high speed around Oxford. There is a distinct element of Mr. Toad in his driving style, and the car features in many of the Gervase Fen books, starting with the classic “The Moving Toyshop”, the third book in the series. In this book we are introduced to the car by the sentence. “A red object shot down the Woodstock road.” Fen’s driving is very scary indeed. Alluding to your accompanying article, English Literature might be taught in a much more lively manner if more Professors were like Gervase Fen.

    Best wishes

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks so much for your ‘car’ comments, Chris. I’d forgotten the one in the Crispin books, some of which I’ve not got around to reading, so must do so.
      Yes, I knew about poor Alistair – what a tragic life. Kenneth Grahame should never have married, but then we’d not have had The Wind in the Willows, which would be even more tragic. I have visited his grave in Oxford and assume you have too?

      • Professor Chris Browne

        Yes, Susannah, I have paid homage at the grave in St Cross Street; it is just 200 metres south of my old college, Linacre. Altogether a sad family story that ended with Kenneth Grahame living separately from his wife and son, until Kenneth and Alistair were reunited in the same grave. The play “The Killing of Mr. Toad” by ???, sets the Grahame’s tragic family life in the context of The Wind in the Willows.

        On a lighter note, did you know that Theophilus Carter, supposedly the model for the Mad Hatter, is buried in the same graveyard? Is a tour of literary graveyards of England too mawkish to consider?

        Best wishes

        • Susannah Fullerton

          I never knew that about the Mad Hatter. I never stop learning from you, Chris! I adore graveyards and have included so many on my tours!

  9. Melody

    The ‘fireapple-red shark convertible’ that Hunter S Thompson drove in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. I was recently in Las Vegas with my partner for a conference, and we hired a car to drive out to Hoover Dam and Boulder City — I wish it had been a fireapple-red convertible, but there was no insurance available. Not that it would have bothered Thompson to have no insurance, but I am not quite that gonzo.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have to admit I’ve never read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – another one to add to my list. Thanks for letting me know about another important literary car.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *