Article by Jeffrey Susla
In a 2011 article for The Spectator, Kate Grimond (Ian Fleming’s niece) eloquently writes how Fleming’s only story for children finally appeared in illustrated print. In “The tale of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang” Grimond notes that the young Ian Fleming stayed at Higham Park in Surrey, where he learned stories about how Louis Zborowski’s Chitty Bang Bang racecars were built there before going on to British racing fame. Fleming modelled Caractacus Pott’s magical car on both the original Chitty, along with including aspects from Fleming’s own cars, of which he owned several in his lifetime. While still a teen, Fleming drove a 3-litre Bugatti at 100 mph, a speed notable for both the top ground and air speed for the fantastic flying and amphibious car as described in 1964’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Grimond writes, “There is more of the Bond oeuvre rooted in reality than is generally realized.” The histories of the four Chittys are well documented. Linda Clark has a chapter on the Chitty history in Strange But True Tales of Car Collecting (Motorbooks, 2013). Doubtless, Fleming based much of what he wrote on his travels and personal observations. I came away from my recent re-reading of Chitty with something else in mind entirely. Without his earlier experience in thriller writing, I think Chitty’s composition would have been far more difficult for the invalided Fleming, so much so that without Bond’s previous exploits, the children’s classic might never have seen the printed page.
In 1961, at age 52, Fleming had a heart attack. After treatment at the London Clinic, then convalescence in a south coast England seaside hotel along with a stay in Dieppe, France, Fleming wrote Chitty out in longhand. The idea for the book came to him earlier, its genesis was that of an ongoing bedtime story that he told to his only son, Caspar. In creating Chitty however, Fleming recycles many Bond elements which give excitement to his younger readers, and a wink and a nod to his thriller fans.
Chitty is the only Fleming book that opens with a dedication—in this instance to the memory of the original Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. In it, Fleming describes the car’s engine and drivetrain. It was grey in colour and had a short, but distinguished racing history. Bond’s own Bentleys and Goldfinger’s Aston Martin are also grey. While not a dedication, Fleming begins From Russia With Love, with an author’s note about the location of SMERSH headquarters in Moscow. Fleming also has an author’s note in Thrilling Cities. Each dedication/introduction provides a factual basis for the story about to be told.
While Caractacus Pott is far removed from James Bond in terms of temperament, they do share similarities. Both are retired commanders (Pott from the Royal Navy) and Bond (from the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve). Pott and Bond take newly earned money (one from the sale of a candy recipe to Lord Skrumshus, the other winnings from a high-stakes bridge bet with Hugo Drax in Moonraker) and purchase a car with it. Each man is not afraid of driving at speed and disdains traffic snarls. Chitty first goes aloft outside Canterbury to avoid one, and Bond complains of congested traffic in Moonraker, where he drives around the “bottlenecks of Ashford and Folkestone” Both rescue their cars from previous damage—Chitty is destined for salvage and in Casino Royale, Bond’s Bentley is damaged during the Le Chiffre chase. Bond’s Thunderball Mark II Continental Bentley was purchased after “some rich idiot had married [it] to a telegraph pole”. [Car enthusiasts note that Fleming meant the Mark IV.] Coincidentally, Pott has the hood ornament of the Paragon Panther changed to a small airplane with a propeller; the Bentley’s winged B became an octagonal silver bolt. As does Chitty, Bond’s earlier 1930 Blower Bentley has Marchal racing headlights along with an Amherst Villiers supercharger. (While Villiers is not mentioned in Chitty, Fleming wanted the automotive engineer and portrait artist to do the original illustrations for the book.)
Pott and Bond enjoy similar breakfasts, especially four eggs, bacon and coffee. Pott tucks in after creating his “Crackpot Whistling Sweets” and Bond, much to his housekeeper May’s delight, orders four eggs, hickory smoked bacon, and coffee prior to his departure for Nassau in Thunderball. Both Chitty and most of the Bond novels contain detailed descriptions of food, too numerous to mention here, but Fleming appears to salivate over the delicious crust of a Parisian baguette, and the superior French butter to that mostly found in England as Jeremy and Jemima “set to with a will” their captive breakfast. The passage is vaguely reminiscent of Bond’s meal with Junius Du Pont in Goldfinger, where “both men ate steadily and with absorption and hardly exchanged a word until the dish was cleared.”
Chitty’s French locations are places Bond knows well. After the tide comes in unexpectedly, the Pott family goes on a trip to France, courtesy of Chitty, which has miraculously transformed itself into a hovercraft. Chitty navigates away from the South Goodwin Lightship, which Bond sees and hears in Moonraker. The car comes ashore south of Calais, at the base of a chalk cliff, quite like those found at Dover, where Bond and Gala Brand escape with their lives after an explosion topples part of the cliff on them while sunning themselves after a swim in the Channel. Pott later arranges to have Joe the Monster’s stored munitions blown up while in a chalk cliff cave, but he and his family watch the explosion from a safe distance. Bond travels through northern France in Casino Royale, returning to it in Goldfinger and much later in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The Pott family spends their first night in Calais at the Hotel Splendide, which is also the name of Bond’s hotel during his gambling match with Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.
Seeking revenge for what Pott did to his arms dump, Joe the Monster has his henchmen kidnap the sleeping Pott children, who are taken from their beds and tied up in a knotted bundle with their own sheets. This manner of confinement was also done to Vesper Lynd, whose velvet dress was pulled over her head and tied with a rope, as Le Chiffre drives away from the casino with Lynd in the back seat, knowing Bond will follow.
While kidnapped, Chitty senses the children are in danger, and from behind the hood mascot, a small antenna rises, which keeps tabs on the children during the night as they are transported to Paris, the path of which Pott follows the next morning to rescue the children. Not only does this device resemble the Homer Bond uses to track Goldfinger’s trip from Le Touquet to Coppet, but also the aerial antenna which rises out of the rose bush in For Your Eyes Only’s, “From a View to a Kill”.
What is most remarkable about Chitty are its gadgets—most of which come as a surprise to Pott. In addition to its ability to fly, travel on water, built-in radar, it also has lighted switches that tell the driver which lever to lower or knob to turn. While not the fantastic Aston Martin D.B. 5 featured in the “Goldfinger” film, Bond’s D.B. III also possesses switches “that alter the type and colour” of the front and rear lights to avoid detection while following Goldfinger, along with reinforced bumpers, a concealed compartment for a long-barreled Colt .45, and many hidden storage spaces.
Two other similarities between Chitty and the Bond novels bear mention. The first is that Chitty contains one of only two food recipes that Fleming included in his works; Monsieur Bon-Bon’s recipe for “Fooj”. Fleming’s other recipe is for “Scrambled Eggs ‘James Bond’” which appears in the New York section of Thrilling Cities. The second is more important and telling—Fleming’s story is, like the Bond thrillers, so terribly “British”. Chitty is an homage to British industry and resourcefulness. Resulting from funds earned after the creation of musical confectionary, Pott builds a magical car mostly out of recycled and retooled materials. In return, Chitty awards her (“all bits of machinery that people love are made into females”) reinventor with life-saving mechanical devices.
Chitty takes us on a colorful tour of southeast England, including Canterbury and Dover (flying over the Cathedral and Castle), the Goodwin sands and its’ Lightship, only to end our voyage across the English Channel. The Bond stories occur on four continents, our resourceful, globetrotting hero defending the crumbling Empire of his country, no matter the cost. For Caracatus Pott, his philosophy was one certainly shared by James Bond. “Never say ‘no’ to adventures. Always say ‘yes,’ otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.”
Jeffrey Susla is a retired educator who lives in Connecticut.
Joe Berger Illustrations for a series of three books featuring the eponymous flying car, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce