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Lagonda LG45 Rapide –  undiluted class

Words: Mark Dixon; pictures: Jordan Butters

One of the most flamboyant British cars of the 1930s, this Lagonda LG45 Rapide was well used by its first owner – who overcame serious adversity to drive it 

Back in 1984, the then-owner of this Lagonda LG45 Rapide was driving through Shropshire when he decided to stop for petrol. As he later described it: ‘All of a sudden, an old, battered car came onto the forecourt at much speed, skidded to a halt, and the driver exited, shouting “I passed my driving test in that car!”’ 

What’s remarkable about this encounter is that the person doing the shouting had passed his test in Bedfordshire, a long way from Shropshire, and it was during the late 1930s, almost half-a-century earlier. Richard Neil was a pupil at Bedford School, where one of the masters owned the Lagonda. Richard had a picture of himself taken beside the car, wearing his Scouts’ uniform, on the day it was delivered, 30 July 1937. 

In pre-war Britain, a Lagonda LG45 Rapide was one of the most exciting cars you could purchase. Capable of well over 100mph, with glamorous coachwork courtesy of Lagonda’s own Frank Feeley, it was the equal of anything the Continent could offer. Yet, in some ways the story of its first owner, that schoolmaster, is more stirring than the car itself: a classic tale of the human spirit triumphing over adversity. 

Hugh Dixon Carr was born into money, part of the family that owned the Brown Muff & Co chain of department stores in Yorkshire and the North-East – known as ‘the Harrods of the North’. But his life was far from easy. At the age of 16, he contracted the devastating disease of polio, now virtually eradicated but in the 1930s a common scourge of children. It left his legs paralysed, to the extent that doctors feared he would not be able to stand again; in the event, he managed to walk with the aid of sticks and led as active a life as possible, taking up canoeing, which he found good for building up his upper body strength. But polio killed any hope of romance for him: when he contracted it, his then-girlfriend left him and he remained a bachelor for the rest of his life. 

The result was that, in true ‘Mr Chips’ tradition, his school became his family. The parents of the young Richard Neil took him under their wing and they all spent a lot of time together, including going on camping holidays. Richard learned to drive in the Lagonda and passed his test with it on his 17th birthday. 

Hugh Dixon Carr was 43 when he bought the LG45, a step-up from the 3-litre Lagonda that he already owned. He certainly used it to the full, covering 40,000 miles in less than two years. That included a trip to Norway, where the Lagonda reputedly was the last car to squeeze onto a boat out of Bergen before the Nazi occupation in 1940. 

Because of his disability, ‘HDC’ had a number of modifications made to the car before delivery. They included an alteration to the hand throttle, to allow maximum thottle opening, and brake lights wired into the handbrake so that he could warn drivers behind that he was slowing down. Although he looked after the car meticulously – a nephew recalled him always wiping it down with a leather, if it had to be put away wet – the seats had to be retrimmed in the years after his death, because his leg irons damaged the leather when he slid across the driver’s seat to get behind the wheel. 

Today, BYG 7 presents just as she would have done 83 years ago when she left the 

Staines works, striking in Belco ivory over beige leather, with lofty patrician grille, helmet rear wings and chromed flexible exhaust downpipe sheaths. The chromed ‘GB’ letters on the tail are the same ones fitted for Dixon Carr’s Norway expedition, and the specially extended advance/retard and hand-throttle levers have been burnished by decades of use. 

The position of the right-hand, floor- mounted gearlever means that any sensible person will enter the driving compartment from the passenger side; HDC actually had the doorhandle removed from the inside of the driver’s door because he never used it, although it’s since been reinstated. Facing you is a classically British dash in varnished wood, with a fine display of Smith’s black-faced dials. The speedometer reads up to 110mph and the revcounter to 5000rpm, with a warning line at 4000. An added refinement is a twist-knob on the left of the dash, for weakening or enriching the fuel mixture. 

Magnetos on, ignition retarded, push the button marked ‘Start’. The big-six fires straight away and idles with a deep-chested burble. It’s a Lagonda-tuned version of the well-proven Meadows straight-six, further tweaked with a Harry Weslake-designed cylinder head. Amusingly, when a Weslake-modified engine was first tested by Lagonda, there was much outrage because it didn’t show anything like the 20bhp increase in power that Weslake had claimed. Only when an inspector was sent over from Weslake to investigate was it found that the exhaust pipe from Lagonda’s test rig, which discharged into a coke-filled pit, was clogged with old oil and soot and was causing falsely low readings – symbolic of how run-down the Lagonda factory had become before it went into receivership in 1935. 

While the engine oil is warming through, a quick recap about Lagonda’s state of health as a company when BYG 7 was built in 1937. Rescued by a consortium headed by 29-year- old solicitor Alan Good, it had WO Bentley on the payroll as technical director (poached from Rolls-Royce), experienced ex-Rootes man Dick Watney as managing director, and youngster Frank Feeley as an innately gifted draughtsman. The plan was to take the company even further upmarket by making fewer but more expensive cars, initially all with 4.5-litre straight-sixes while Bentley’s ambition of a short-stroke V12 was realised. 

But while all Lagondas were exclusive, the LG45 Rapide was more exclusive than any of them. Only 25 were built and this example cost £1250, which would have bought three terraced houses in London at the time. It’s easy to imagine the impact that chassis 12235/R must have had on the youngsters at Bedford School when it was delivered to Hugh Dixon Carr. Bu think what it must have been like for the 16-year-old Richard Neil to learn to drive on it! You have to wonder whether he would have been fazed by the centre throttle, something that would be anathema to today’s drivers. Fact is, though, you quickly acclimatise to it – and if you’d never driven anything else, you’d know nothing different. Even now it’s a large car, although a tall driver will find him- or herself perched uncomfortably high, such that the big Bluemels steering wheel rubs on the thighs and a decision has to be made whether to look over the top of the windscreen or duck down beneath it.

Maybe the seats are set higher than in period, because Hugh Dixon Carr was quite a big chap, and so was chairman Alan Good – he measured 6ft 5in and weighed over 20 stone. Fortunately, the sun is shining today, so there’s no need to put the hood up, although it’s good to know that Lagonda went to a lot of trouble to make sure it remained leak-proof and securely attached to the header rail at speeds around ‘the ton’. It’s a perfect car for touring, the right-hand gearchange giving lots of legroom, and the cut-away doors doing the same job for elbows.

Speaking of that gearchange, it’s refreshingly easy to use, with synchromesh on second, third and fourth – which, amazingly, still works fine. Second to third can be a bit tricky sometimes, but doubtless practice would soon make perfect, and coming down through the ’box is, if anything, even easier provided you double- declutch. To select reverse, you squeeze a trigger on the gearlever to release a lock-out, and move the lever right and down. 

As you’d expect from a 4.5-litre straight-six breathing through twin SUs, there’s masses of torque and it will pull the car along from idle speed in third gear. That also means you rarely need even to approach the 4000rpm warning line on the revcounter; performance is brisk from quite low down, and you have no fear of holding up traffic on an A- or B-road. Using moderate revs means you’re only dimly aware of the engine’s grumbling exhaust note: it’s a slogger, not a screamer, and any blare it emits at speed is soon swept away in the slipstream. 

A-roads suit the Lagonda better, in fact, for the front beam axle can be deflected by abrupt changes of camber on poorer roads, and bumps can set up a series of oscillations through the suspension. While the steering is precise, it’s also on the heavy side even when you’re on the move, so you can’t drive on auto-pilot. 

It’s an easy car to live with, however, as is evidenced by the detailed logbook kept by its second owner, Roger Firth – who bought it in 1975 and has enjoyed it ever since. Hugh Dixon Carr found that his disability made driving the Lagonda increasingly difficult, and after 1956 it was laid-up at his house until his death in 1974. Roger set about tracing as much of the car’s history as he could, and was lucky enough to retrieve all its post-1950 repair invoices from the local garage that had looked after it. He also spoke with garagemen and HDC’s nephews to obtain their recollections. If he hadn’t made the effort to do this in the ’70s, all the knowledge would have been lost – so, as they say in HDC’s native Yorkshire, ‘think on’. 

Although Roger had to do quite a lot of repair and recommissioning work after buying BYG 7 (a note from the garage who’d retrieved it from HDC’s property after his passing said that ‘it was only running on four legs’), he soon had it back on the road, and he used it extensively from the mid-1970s onwards. What’s most notable from his journey logbook is how little trouble the car gave – the most significant seems to have been wiper failure due to solidified grease in the motor. 

Earlier this year, Roger Firth summed up: ‘Throughout my 45 years of ownership of BYG 7, I have done my utmost to ensure that, as custodian of this very fine, interesting and important car, it has been maintained to the highest of standards, with the mechanical work being carried out by me personally, of which I have enjoyed every moment.’ 

It’s obvious that you could not wish for a better pair of owners than HDC and Roger Firth, the car’s only keepers in 83 years. Its next ‘custodian’ will have a lot to live up to – but what a privilege it will be to undertake.

Factfile – 1937 Lagonda LG45 Rapide 

Engine 4453cc straight-six, pushrod-operated OHV, two SU HV5 carburettors Power 150bhp @ 3800rpm (claimed) Transmission Four-speed Lagonda G10 manual, rear-wheel drive Steering Worm and peg Suspension Front and rear: beam axles (live rear), semi-elliptic springs, lever-arm dampers Brakes Rod-operated drums, no servo Weight 885kg Top speed 108mph 0-60mph 13.2sec 

This article was originally published in Octane 210, December 2020

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