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James Bond`s gadgets, guns, gizmos and cars of the Fleming era

09-Apr-2008 • Literary

At the dawn of a new consumer age, Ian Fleming gave Bond his own love of techno-trickery and marvellous machines - writes Ben Macintyre in The Times.

Ian Fleming understood the attraction of “things”. Not just material things (though he and James Bond certainly appreciated those) but things that did things, for the 1950s and early 1960s was the great age of the gadget: ever more sophisticated cars, domestic appliances, trains, planes, spacesaving devices; machines to make life easier, faster or, in the case of weapons, shorter. This was an age when food mixers, Teasmades, televisions and fridges were arriving in British homes in increasing numbers.

When describing technology or modes of transport in his books, Fleming worked hard to get the details right, and when he got them wrong (as he not infrequently did) he was grateful to readers for pointing out his mistakes. “I take very great pains over the technical and geographical background to James Bond's adventures,” he wrote. Whenever possible, he consulted experts. Minute technical descriptions have since become a stock-in-trade of the thriller writer, but Fleming was among the first to realise that readers (particularly male readers) have an almost insatiable desire to be told the precise make, size, shape and structure of every machine, even if the details are forgotten the instant they are read.

Secret service gadgetry - masterminded by the irascible Q - plays a crucial role in the James Bond films, reaching an almost ludicrous level of inventiveness. But gizmos are also present in the books, courtesy of Q-Branch, the genuine wartime equipment unit under the extraordinary inventor Charles Fraser-Smith. Based in a tiny office near St James's Park, Fraser-Smith dreamt up an array of ingenious gadgets: a hairbrush containing a map and a saw; magnetised matches that doubled as makeshift compasses; a pipe lined with asbestos that could be smoked without destroying the documents hidden inside (though it might well destroy the smoker); a shoelace that could also be used as a handy steel garrotte.

Fraser-Smith was one of the great unsung lateral thinkers of the war: he devised chocolate laced with garlic so that agents dropped into France might swiftly acquire pungent breath, the better to mix with the locals; and a screw-off button with a special left-hand thread in which miniature documents could be hidden. This, he believed, would take advantage of the “unswerving logic of the German mind”, as no German would ever think of trying to unscrew something the wrong way.

Fleming's knowledge of wartime espionage technology is crucial to his fictional gadgetry. When Bond heads to Mr Big's island in Live and Let Die, he has a full underwater equipment shopping list: “Frogman suit complete with compressed-air bottle. Plenty of spares. And a couple of good underwater harpoon guns (the French ones called “Champion” are the best). Good underwater torch. A commando dagger ... and some of the shark-repellent stuff the Americans used in the Pacific.” Plus a limpet mine and plenty of Benzedrine.

In From Russia with Love, Bond is kitted out with the full spy briefcase, a “smart-looking little bag” containing: 50 rounds of .25 ammunition between the leather and the lining of the spine, 50 golden sovereigns in the lid, a flat throwing knife in each of the sides, a cyanide suicide pill in the handle (which Bond flushes down the loo) and a tube of Palmolive shaving cream - the top of which unscrews to reveal the silencer for his Beretta, packed in cotton wool.

Bond's communist and criminal enemies share his taste for elaborate gizmos and weaponry. In Casino Royale, Le Chiffre conceals “Eversharp razor blades” in his hatband, shoe heel and cigarette case; a gun hidden in an innocent-looking cane is the first method employed to try to kill Bond, and a “small carpet of steel spikes” is used to stop his car. Blofeld displays a lethal grasp of science, growing the castor bean plant, which is used to make ricin, a deadly poison favoured by terrorists today. Dr No has a flame-throwing Jeep and Oddjob, famously, a hat with a lethal metal rim.

Fleming's crooks also display a firm grasp of high technology - high, at least, by the standards of the time. Seraffimo Spang, boss of the Spangled Mob in Diamonds Are Forever, has a Cadillac with the windscreen ground to the precise prescription of his glasses; this may have enabled Spang to drive without spectacles, but imagine the experience for a passenger of seeing the road coming towards you through someone else's prescription lenses. Clearly the disinclination to wear glasses was some sort of criminal affectation in Fleming's (myopic) eyes: Dr No wears contact lenses and so does Blofeld - in the latter case, tinted dark green.

When challenged about his criminals' more fantastic inventions, Fleming would cite the reality of Soviet spy technology, most notably “the Russian spy Khokhlov with his cigarette case that fired dumdum bullets”.

Nikolai Khokhlov was a KGB spy whose exploits rival any of the models on which Bond was based. In 1953, Khokhlov was ordered to kill a prominent anti-Soviet Russian émigré in Berlin, but instead he defected to the West, bringing with him an extraordinary array of murderous gadgetry, including two guns, housed in metal cigarette cases, which could fire up to four hollow steel bullets, and a miniature revolver that fired poisoned bullets.

Khokhlov's defection was a sensation, but perhaps still more astounding was the Soviet riposte: in 1957, while attending a conference in Frankfurt, Khokhlov drank a cup of coffee that had been laced with radioactive Thallium. His face erupted in black, brown and blue lumps, and his hair fell out in handfuls, but astonishingly, he survived. A copy of his remarkable book In the Name of Conscience inevitably found its way on to Fleming's bookshelves, and from there into his fiction. The gun concealed inside a copy of War and Peace and wielded by the Soviet assassin Red Grant in From Russia with Love owed its inception to the Khokhlov haul of lethal gadgetry.

In May 1956 Fleming received a reader's letter complaining that Bond “has a rather deplorable taste in firearms”. The letter-writer was Geoffrey Boothroyd, a 31-year-old ICI technician and an amateur firearms enthusiast of remarkable expertise, who insisted that Bond's Beretta pistol was “really a ladies' gun, and not a really nice lady at that”. On Boothroyd's advice, Bond swapped his Beretta for a Walther PPK 7.65, because Boothroyd thought it was the best automatic of its size with ammunition available around the world.

Boothroyd lent Fleming his own Smith & Wesson .38, which the artist Richard Chopping used as a model for the cover of From Russia with Love. Fleming's promise that this would make Boothroyd's gun “forever famous” was only a slight exaggeration. In Dr No, “Major Boothroyd”, the secret service armourer, receives a flattering encomium from M: “Major Boothroyd's the greatest small-arms expert in the world.” In the films, the characters of Q and Major Boothroyd are melded, appearing in every film except Live and Let Die and Casino Royale. Boothroyd was now forever famous.

Fleming's interest in machines found its most extreme expression in his love of cars. He wrote, and avidly read, motoring journalism, fell in love with cars passionately and promiscuously, and penned the most famous book about a car ever written: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - published in 1964, the year of his death. Fleming owned a diverse succession of cars, from humble bangers as a young man to the magnificent black Ford Thunderbird that he bought when he was famous, a car that Ann Fleming considered “above our price bracket and below our age range”. Fleming also changed cars regularly. After a succession of Renaults and an unsuccessful Daimler, with money from the film rights to Casino Royale, Fleming decided in 1955 to splash out on an American car, the “Studillac” - a Studebaker with a Cadillac engine.

Fleming was a restrained driver, which is more than can be said of Bond, who exhibits all the symptoms of road rage - shouting “silly bastard!” when forced to overtake on the inside. In Fleming's expert hands, cars became a form of costume for the players in the drama. While Drax drives his German Mercedes, Blofeld is to be found behind the wheel of a vulgar red Maserati, and Goldfinger luxuriates in his vast, gold 1925 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, a fat, overweight monster of a car which must have been hell to drive without modern power-steering.

If the villains' cars represent power, wealth and a certain cruel sophistication, then the cars driven by the Bond women are pure sex: Tracy di Vincenzo's Lancia Flaminia Zagato Spyder gives off a “sexy boom” as she guns its engines. Domino Vitali drives a natty blue MG in Thunderball, while Tilly Masterton steers a grey convertible Triumph TR3.

Bond's first car is the battleship grey 1933 4.5-litre Bentley convertible with French Marchal headlamps and Amherst Villiers supercharger. Bond bought the Bentley, we are told, “almost new” in 1933, and cherished it throughout the war. Bond's taste for Bentleys can be traced back to 1930, when Fleming reported on the Le Mans 24-Hour race for Reuters and witnessed the great Anglo-German contest between the 6.6-litre Bentley Speed Six and the 7.1-litre SS Mercedes-Benz.

Bond drives three types of Bentley in the books, and only one Aston Martin - in Goldfinger - yet this is the car with which he will be forever associated, thanks to the films. Bond selects the Aston Martin DB3 from the secret service pool. One senses that Fleming considers the car a little ostentatious, as Bond's cover at the time is that of a flashy young buck: it is grey, and equipped with headlights that can change colour to provide disguise in the event of a night-time chase, a radio receiver, reinforced bumpers and a Colt .45 in a secret compartment.

In the films, Bond's cars are fitted with every sort of device, starting in 1963 with a car phone (then the height of luxury), and going on to include ejector seats, tyre-shredders, weapons systems, anti-pursuit mechanisms, and so on. Both Fleming and Bond took pleasure in modifying cars, and in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Fleming invented the ultimate convertible.

As a collector of facts and things and people, Fleming knew that the essence of excitement was to convince the reader of an underlying authenticity. “I do take a lot of my plots from life,” he said. “They are certainly bizarre, but they are also made up of real things.”

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