Setting the record straight
Eric Jackson wrote his memoirs for many reasons, one of which was to set the record straight. There is a lot of erroneous information out there. The major culprit was, surprisingly, Ford Motor Company’s own publicity machine. But actually, it is easily explained and is understandable.
Naturally, details of Eric’s exploits were the subject of Ford press releases. Record-breaking trips were widely reported in the newspapers, on radio and on TV. After some of Eric’s trips and rallies Ford published books about the event. For example, there is a book about the round the world drive that is full of Ford errors. But of course, the writers’ task was to sell Ford cars, not to record the truth for future generations.
In some cases, they were not errors. Sometimes Ford had to play down events, such as Eric and Ken crossing through the Cameroons by sneaking through a remote area with no border patrols. It wouldn’t do for Ford to suggest that their drivers acted in any way illegally, understandably. Sometimes, a little poetic licence occurred when Ford themselves made a mistake. For example, time was lost due to Ford giving the drivers the wrong time for a ship’s saling – which they therefore missed. It was much better to explain the delay by saying that there was a mechanical failure which the intrepid heroes repaired. Sometimes Ford enhanced reports with ‘facts’ to make them more acceptable in their news stories. Strangely, some of the more dangerous aspects of the trips were played down or ignored altogether. This is because Ford promoted the safety of their cars.
Then, over the years, stories seen in the press have become ‘facts’ and have been published on the internet.
Here’s a perfect example:
In May 1967 the RMS Windsor Castle was involved in a dramatic race from Cape Town to Southampton against a motor car. It began after 1Union-Castle Line claimed sea travel was the fastest means of travel from South Africa after air. The Ford Motor Company disputed this and threw down the gauntlet for the ship to race one of their cars from Cape Town back to England. So the RMS Windsor Castle took up the challenge and in May 1967 raced home against a Halewood built Ford Corsair 2000E in a dramatic and nail biting race between these two Merseyside built machines. Sadly despite the high profile nature of this race 2sadly press coverage was muted. The ship and the car (with rally drivers Ken Chambers and 3Eric Chapman), left simultaneously from Cape Town dockside to a great send off bound for Southampton. The liner’s 7,000 mile sea voyage was pitched against the 9,700 road journey. Chambers and Chapman had many adventures along the way. Including a moment when the 4Corsair fell into a 6ft, water filled pothole and had to be rescued by 30 locals and 200ft of rope. Other challenges included petrol shortages (5nuns once gave them beer as a substitute!), armed Congolese soldiers forcing frequent stops (their 6support team and plane were locked up for several days), plus 724 tyre changes and 37 puncture repairs. Even, just before reaching Southampton, they were pulled over by West Sussex Police and cautioned for having a 8dirty number plate! Accounting for the driver’s 9air travel, the race was 10declared a draw, although the Corsair arrived the 11evening before the ship sailed in.
As the editor of Petrol in my Blood here’s what I have to say about the above:
In additions to my dad’s handwritten manuscript, I have tapes of him recounting various trips. I also have huge boxes of newspaper cuttings, old ads, Ford books, photographs and every single piece of memorabilia of my dad’s career. During the editing of the book, I have also carefully researched hundreds of facts and figures. Let’s take the errors above one by one.
1. The Union Castle Line made no such claim. Ford’s Walter Hayes was dining with directors of the line who bragged about the speed of the voyage. Walter immediately saw the opportunity to promote the Ford Corsair.
2. The press coverage was huge. I have a collection of press cuttings. There is no way that the Ford publicity machine would have missed this promotional opportunity. Ford Motor Company was delighted by the coverage received in the newspapers, on radio and TV.
3. There were only two drivers, each with two names. The writer of the above managed to get one wrong! If 25% of the names are wrong, doesn’t this imply that 25% of the entire piece is also wrong? You’d think that the names were important enough to check, and the information is readily available. Surely, none of the ‘facts’ in the piece were checked.
4. Six feet? Thirty locals? A 200 foot rope? Who measured the rope and the pothole? Who stopped to count the locals? I have traced this story to a Motoring News report from May 25th, 1967. The size of the pothole and the exact number of locals isn’t mentioned though.
5. It’s true that the drivers received assistance, at a time when they sorely needed it, from Belgian nuns in the Congo. Indeed, the nuns saved their lives. They were remarkable, courageous people. The beer as a substitute for petrol is also pure fabrication.
6. A team of journalists, along with Ford man Edgy Fabris, flew to Africa intending to get stories and photographs of the drivers en route. They found them and spent about half an hour with them. They were not a support crew – there was no support crew. It is true that they were arrested but this story was sanitized by Ford. The truth is in the book.
7. Just like the pothole and the rope, who was counting? The only people who would have known were the drivers and they had much more important things to concentrate on!
8. It is true that they were pulled up by the police. A dirty number plate wasn’t the reason. (Although it makes a good story!)
9. Ford’s official story refers to an airlift over the Cameroons. This is not true. In fact, the car crossed the Cameroons illegally. It’s understandable that Ford wanted to hush this up.
10. The race was not declared a draw. Union Castle themselves put out adverts saying “we were beaten, fair and square” (the punch line being that the car was faster, but the ship was more comfortable). I also have photographs and newspaper reports.
11. The crew did not arrive the night before the ship. That would have been impossible. They arrived three or four hours before the ship was due to dock.
Another interesting thing about the media is that stories get muddled over the years. Something that happened in the London to Cape Town trip might be reported in the round the world trip for example. I have a great example of this on my desk in an article about the Windsor Castle race. This article seems to be the one responsible for the erroneous information published on the internet. The article, written forty years after the event, reads:
Finding a plane to airlift the Corsair 1000 miles to Tamanrasset, and the use of brute force and sheer people power to get it on to and off the aircraft, is a story which Jackson often related in future years.
Yes, it was – in a way. It’s just that the airlift actually happened four years previously and on another continent altogether! If there’s one person who has heard the stories ‘Jackson often related in future years’ it was me – I was a captive audience. And I remember the story from 1963. In the USA. The idea of two blokes, even though they were equipped with what Petrol in My Blood refers to as “Uncle Henry’s dollars”, finding a suitable plane and pilot, in Africa, in those days … well, it’s just daft. Even if it were possible, it would have taken days and the race would have been lost.