Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - and a ghost

Higham House near Patrixbourne, Kent, was built in 1904 for the colourful Count Louis Zobrowski. The count, son of a Polish aristocrat and American industrial heiress, is now largely forgotten but one of his many inventions has become a legend. It was Zobrowski who invented the famous car Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Zobrowski had for years been interested in cars, as had his father before him. He raced Bugattis and competed in both Europe and the USA. Then, in 1920, Zobrowski travelled to Germany to purchase a number of Zeppelin engines no longer needed by the German military after their defeat in World War I. Back at Higham House, Zobrowski bolted one of the 23 litre engines to a Mercedes chassis. He added a four-seater body and complex gearing system before starting the car up and taking to the road outside his house. The monstrously powerful car swooped out of the driveway and roared through Patrixbourne on a test run. A few months later, Zobrowski again drove the newly named Chitty Chitty Bang Bang through the village on his way to Brooklands race track.

In public for the first time the car astounded all present by powering round the circuit at an average speed of over 100mph. At the next meeting, Zobrowski tore down the final straight at 120mph. Over the following months Zobrowski and his car beat all comers. The car was so fast that it seemed to fly. Together with his team of mechanics, led by Captain Clive Gallop, Zobrowski set new standards of excitement both on and off the track. The mighty Chitty Chitty Bang Bang dominated the race track, while Zobrowski cut a dash with his immaculately tailored clothes and dressed his team in matching outfits and spectacularly coloured caps. With their glamourous parties and race-winning cars, the Zobrowski team became the most envied in the motor racing world.

At the end of 1922 Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was retired from racing and kept by the Count for outings along the country lanes near his home. The deep, throaty roar of the massive engine became a familiar sound around Patrixbourne. Then, in 1924, Zobrowski agreed to drive a new Mercedes car in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. For some unknown reason, the car careered off the track and Zobrowski was killed. The Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was sold to another racing driver who used it a few times, then broke it up for parts.

But the car was not forgotten. The fame it had acquired prompted the author Ian Flemming to use it as the inspiration for a flying car in his children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But the car has returned in spectral as well as in fictional form. Not long after reports of Zobrowski’s death reached the villagers of Patrixbourne, they again saw him and his mighty car dashing along the lanes around the village. Most often the car thunders down the old A2, turns off to power at high speed to Higham House and swoops into the driveway. It used to be reported that as the car raced up the driveway, the front door would mysteriously open, but that particular manifestation no longer seems to occur.

from HAUNTED PLACES OF KENT by Rupert Matthews. Buy your copy HERE

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