Among the items that the police catalogued in Elvira’s bathroom (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/elviras-reading-matter/ ) was a business card from J.Smith and Co Motor Agents. They operated from 28 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, and held the concession for the importation of the French luxury cars, Delage. Given Elvira’s love of her model and her regular scrapes and crashes, she was undoubtedly a very valued customer.
The Delage was a very apt car for Elvira to own. Everything French, to Elvira and many of her set, signified pleasure and panache. Paris, Cannes and Toulon were Elvira’s regular haunts and French style, in shows, fashion or design, was a matter of wonder and worship. The Delage cars were both fast and chic (as well as being reassuringly expensive). The car had come to prominence partly through a 1920s’ motor-racing rivalry with Hispano-Suiza (whose London agents were also in Albemarle Street) and partly through a series of seductive Art Deco adverts in the fashionable magazines of the day
J. Smith and Co. capitalised on this and, being situated where they were, were ideally placed to market the vehicles to Mayfair and Knightsbridge’s wealthy inhabitants. I don’t suppose their turnover was enormous but then it would not need to have been. Exclusivity was part of the charm.
I can’t be absolutely positive of this, but Delage cars do seem to have had a particular appeal for female drivers. Many of the photographs from the 1930s show the car next to a pretty young woman but, unlike the more familiar “cheesecake” models of the 1950s and 1960s, many of these women look as if they might actually own the car. The combination of privilege, social freedom and sexual independence discernible in these images is not , I think, accidental.
In England, some of these associations might be down to a woman whose exploits Elvira (a keen sports fan) would have certainly followed. About the time Elvira purchased her Delage, the Queen of Brooklands was the diminutive Kay Petre, then the best known female racing-driver in the country. In the early thirties, the much-photographed Petre drove a Delage.
Here are some more examples. The emphasis is on glamour and modernity in equal measure. The wealthy young woman in a sports car is a key iconic image of the inter-war years and Delage, who essentially fitted racing-car quality engines into luxury bodies, enthusiastically fed, and fed upon, that image.
The gender and class politics of the relationship between women and automobiles in the eras before mass car ownership are complex and fascinating. Machines and technology generally were then, as to a great extent they are now, seen as belonging to the male domain. Women in charge of powerful cars presented a challenged a whole series of accepted hierarchies. This resulted in some very recognisable “new” stereotypes.On the one hand you have the “masculine women” – figures such as Elvira’s friends Joe Carstairs and Heather Pilkington – then you have the “Iris Storm” characters, whose taming of the “male beast”, the car, symbolised their own (hetero)sexual freedoms but also hinted at voraciousness and promiscuity. Funnily enough, Elvira can make claims to represent aspects of both “tendencies” These and other matters are discussed in two books on the history of women and the motor car
I ought to mention that one aspect of Delage’s English advertising campaign was that the car was both fast and safe. In Elvira’s case, this obviously fell on deaf ears.
Albemarle Street has other connections with Elvira, some actual and some coincidental. Staying with the motor trade for a moment, Sir Malcolm Campbell had a car sales venture there in the early 1920s, during which time one of his financial backers was Joe Carstairs.
The nightclub “Uncle’s” was situated in Albemarle Street. Known as “Nunky’s” to the Bright Young People, who had an annoying fondness for infantilising the language, it was a favourite watering-hole of Charles Graves and he would have doubtless taken Elvira there during their ill-fated engagement.
An earlier sexual scandal, one which still resonated among Elvira’s friends, had started at the Albemarle club (No.13). This was where the Marquis of Quensberry left his calling card for Oscar Wilde (“the posing somdomite”), thus provoking the libel action which was to destroy Wilde’s career. Other literary connections could be found at Murray’s (No.50), publishers of Lord Byron and later John Betjeman.
Brown’s Hotel is also on the street (No.33). The remarkably unchanged Brown’s was the real-life inspiration for Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel in which the murderer is a young woman named Elvira. All very psychogeographical, I feel.
UPDATE I’ve just come across these pictures of Josephine Baker. Baker was an artist much loved by the Bright Young People. Elvira saw her shows in Paris. The cars are, of course, Delages.