Monday, July 7, 2014

Betty by the Numbers: Cars Redux

If you've taken a look at The Huge Roses, my Betty homage, you may have noticed a Rolls Royce Phantom and an elderly Subaru.  They are, of course, sub-homages to TGB.  (If I were fully homage-ing, I would have my heroine drive an American make, but elderly Subaru are the quintessential New Hampshire vehicle for students, recent grads, and almost anyone else in the state who's not wealthy.  Rich folk drive younger Subaru, ha ha, and the RDD comes to grief in a rented Mercedes -- you don't drive rear-wheel drive in New Hampshire in the winter, for silly's sake!)  I love Betty's anomalous interest in, and knowledge of, hot car models.  It adds a touch of butch competence to the froth of dresses and souffles in her stories.  The great medical scenes of the early canon lay the foundation of gender-irrelevant competence, but the car-knowledge is a fun garnish.  So here's a redux of BbtN: Cars.

Did you know this figurehead-thingy is called 'The Spirit of Ecstasy'?  I have got to hitch me a ride in a Rolls...

Well, this slice-and-dice proved something I’d kinda noticed whilst paging through the canon:  as Betty aged, either she or her editor decided detailed information on our hero’s chariot was unneeded or unwanted – or else Betty lost touch with or interest in the automotive world.  In the last 68 books, from 1985 on, our hero drives either a Bentley or a Rolls (sometimes called a Rolls-Royce), with the very occasional Jaguar, Daimler or Rover for back-up.  Only two of those late books identify which model of Bentley, and there are no specifics on the Rolls-Royces.

That’s a long way from the early years, when every Rolls is a Silver Shadow drophead coupé, Merlin or Corniche; Rovers are Land, Range or TC 2000s; and Aston Martins, Panthers and Lamborghinis zoom across the Afsluitdijk.  One notices, too, that in later years our hero is apt to explain his Rolls or Bentley by saying that he needs a big car to accommodate his large frame.  In earlier years, he was apparently content to cram himself into a sporty Italian model that must have required tucking his knees into his underarms.  And, incidentally, those cars were seriously ugly – check all the photo research the Founding Bettys have generously done.

Of course, in early years he also had a back-up car, to vary the ergonomics a bit.  In the first three years (1969-71) and nine books she published, Betty’s menfolk average 2.1 cars each.  From 1972-79, over 37 books, they average 1.7 apiece, and then from 1980-2001, 89 books, we’re down to just 1.1 vehicles per man; 80 of them have a single auto and nine have two – Titus Tavener of Dearest Love (1995) has three.  The average for all 135 heroes is 1.3 cars each.  The most conspicuous consumer of automotive goods is Fraam der Linssen of Ring in a Teacup (1978), who kept a Panther 4.2, a Rolls-Royce Carmague, a Range Rover and a Mini.  Which one do you think he passed down to Fraam Jr. sixteen years later?

The final count:  of the 180 cars Betty names for her menfolk, Rolls Royce wins the checkered flag, with 59 product placements.  The Bentley folks are close behind, with 50 mentions.  Since 38 of these children of fortune own multiple luxury automobiles – let’s just tot up some maths here – that means 44% of perfect husbands drive Rollses and 37% drive Bentleys.  Only two heroes – Jonkheer Max van Oosterwelde of Visiting Consultant (1969) and Radmer ter Bavinck of The Moon for Lavinia (1975) – drive one of each.

And what do the gentlemen drive when not in those exemplars of British automaking?  Other exemplars, mostly:  eleven Daimlers (typically Sovereigns) and ten Aston Martins lead the pack, with nine Jaguars almost keeping pace.  Six Rovers and six Bristols make a nice showing.

I was surprised to find four Panthers on the list.  That has got to be some kind of early-childhood fixation of Madame Neels’s, because no one could love that thing on first sight.  There are also four Minis, which are more likely to be wifeys, as no one as vast as an RDD will be comfy in a Mini.  The ones, twos and threes include:  Jensen, Volvo, Iso Grigo, Mercedes, BMW, Citroën, Porsche, Lamborghini, Iso Lele, a shabby Fiat, Maserati, Lagonda, Ferrari and – say it with me – “The Man in the AC 428 Fastback!”  I do think it impressive, and interesting, that Betty Neels had so detailed an interest in automobiles.  I read once that she didn’t know how to drive (it was in a Harlequin author profile, in response to a question about what she’d do differently in her life, or something like that), yet she obviously had strong opinions on how, and in what, it ought to be done.  She routinely praises her heroes for fast driving, and a few heroines in earlier books have ‘advanced driving certificates,’ as a point of pride.

And back here at home, I recently quit my career and had to give up the dream of augmenting my nearly-new Corolla with an elderly Miata for summer days.  Ah, well.  It’s worth it not to have a career that makes me stress-eat to the point of not being able to wedge myself into a Miata anyway.  And the Corolla has a sunroof, so life could be worse!


  1. Fraam will get the Range Rover. It's the only one that's sure to be in one piece even when he's finished college, and it will be good for beaches, sailing, hiking and all healthy things sons of RDDs are likely to be into. :)

    Sorry about the Miata. I'm 5'10", but would drive a VW convertible if only I were 10" shorter. Jaunty sports cars have always seemed to me to be designed for ladies and gentlemen of challenged height. My head scrapes the roof (no 'big hair' allowed), my knees are crunched against the dash, there's never enough room to stretch the legs, the gear shift catches and runs the tights, getting in and out is a pretzel trick best left to the spry young things, and banging one's head on the door happens coming in or out. (Not to mention the dress rearranging itself on the way out. Always wear underwear in case the paparazzi is taking pics!)

    Catherine (a Betty van den Wasatch), Prius owner since 2004--sadly, no sunroof or moonroof :(

  2. One of the reasons Tom Selleck always jumped into his red Ferrari as Thomas Magum was not that it looked more dashing but was the easiest and fastest way to get into it. No pretzel trick involved. He was too tall for the car, really.

  3. The Subaru - very cleverly done. The Subaru in The Huge Roses is the American heroine‘s equivalent of the Fiat in the Canon.

    Fiat - Non-RDD Owned

    Sister Peters in Amsterdam, (1969) – Jan Hein, the useful owner of the brocade waistcoat – Jan was easing his little Fiat 850 coupé through the centre of the city, looking for an empty parking meter.

    Tabitha in Moonlight, (1972) – Tabitha – It was almost ten o'clock by the time she left the hospital in her small Fiat

    Heaven Is Gentle, (1975) – Eliza – She left the hospital after a long day's work, driving her Fiat 500, a vehicle she had acquired some five years previously and saw little hope of replacing for the next few years at least.

  4. Sun and Candlelight, (1979) – Alethea – Alethea went home for her days off at the end of the week, travelling down to the little village near Dunmow in her rather battered Fiat 500 on Friday evening, happy to shake off the hospital and its unhappy memories for a time at least.

    Judith, (1982) – Judith – 'Even if I leave in an hour,' she warned him, 'I shan't be with you much before supper time— I've only got the Fiat 600, you know.' She added: 'It will be more than an hour—I've got to pack and fill up...'

    Off with the Old Love, (1987) – Rachel – She sped there as soon as she had handed over the keys to the night staff nurse, and tore into the clothes she had put ready—a tweed skirt and a sweater, for the evenings were still chilly at the end of March—snatched up a jacket and her overnight bag, and, pausing only long enough to exchange a word here and there with such of her friends as were off duty, hurried down to the car park where her car, an elderly small Fiat stood in company with the souped-up vehicles favoured by the younger housemen and divided by a thin railing from the consultants' BMWs, Mercedes and Bentleys.

    An Ideal Wife, (1989) – Louisa – 'I must take the car some time soon—' she had a little Fiat of her own '—and drive down to Stalbridge and see Aunt Martha.' She was a lady of great age, her father's elder sister. They seldom met but they liked each other. There would be no need to tell Felicity when she was going. Louisa put her head on the pillow with a contented sigh and went to sleep.

    There is one RDD I remember not only owning a Fiat but actually driving it himself when he had to work, The Little Dragon‘s Jeroen van der Giessen. That was one of the reasons why the heroine thought he was poor.
    They were standing on the edge of the Markt where he had parked his car, while she urged him to get in and drive away as nicely as she could without actually giving him a push, when Doctor van der Giessen's battered Fiat drove slowly by.