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Authors: Jim Wilson

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Jack seems to have been spurred on to greater business activity following his marriage to Annabel, both on behalf of Amalgamated Press and on his own account. With the help of Rothermere’s celebrated financial and business advice he set up a number of businesses in Amsterdam, London and later in Hartlepool. They all seem to have prospered. When business allowed, Jack and Annabel were enjoying a high-society life in London. They took up residence at 25 Park Street, Mayfair, one of the capital’s most exclusive addresses. The two made an attractive and glamorous couple, and it was not long before they were being welcomed into some of London’s most glittering society circles. The London scene in the climate of the 1920s was lively and carefree. The war had emancipated many women, irrevocably changing their place in society. Those who could afford to go to the best restaurants, to theatre premieres and be seen at society events enjoyed the freedom and the gaiety of the new era that peace had brought. There was a feeling, following the misery of war and its horrific human toll, that life was for living; a spirit reflected in the music, the dances, the fashion and the generally lighthearted attitude of the time. Jack and Annabel revelled in the newfound freedoms in the dance clubs and the revue bars. Smart venues, like the Embassy Club in Bond Street, were favourite haunts of glamorous ‘couples around town’. In the overcrowded cellar room that was the Embassy, members of London’s high society, all in evening dress, clustered at packed tables around the tiny dance area, the genial host Luigi in attendance, and Ambrose’s band playing the latest quicksteps and foxtrots for the couples who squeezed onto the club’s crowded dance floor. It was here in the early 1930s that the Prince of Wales and the still married Wallis Simpson would engage in raucous and lively conversation, while the long-suffering Ernest Simpson sat patiently in a thick fog of cigarette smoke on the periphery of the royal group. It was a place to be seen, and the Kruses were among the patrons who frequently danced the night away there.

In 1925 Jack and Annabel moved further upmarket to Upper Brook Street in Mayfair, where their next-door neighbours could hardly be higher up the social scale. Lord and Lady Mountbatten were not only cousins of royalty, they were influential in many areas of national life. Lord Louis was destined to become the last Viceroy of India, and later Chief of the Defence Staff. He and his new wife lived and entertained lavishly. It was said Edwina Mountbatten never understood the idea of living within one’s means, the cash simply flowed.
2
A friendship with the Mountbattens was an entry to the top rung of society. Edwina and Dickie Mountbatten had married in the same year as Jack and Annabel. She was the granddaughter of the hugely wealthy Sir Ernest Cassel; he the son of the former Prince Louis of Battenberg. At Brook House the Mountbattens employed twenty-seven indoor staff and two outdoor staff when they were in residence, and fourteen indoor and three outdoor when they were away. This was the neighbourhood, and the aristocratic surroundings, in which the Kruses lived. And they kept up appearances themselves. In the summer they moved temporarily out of the city, renting houses in Sunningdale or Sunninghill near Windsor where they could escape from the bustle of central London and enjoy the ‘season’ of society events that inevitably included racing at Epsom and Ascot, polo, Wimbledon and the Henley regatta. It also meant that they were close to Fort Belvedere where the Prince of Wales had his residence, a magnet for all who aspired to the peak of society, and where Prince Edward entertained and pursued the favours of his mistresses.

In 1927 Annabel and Jack bought Sunning House at Sunningdale, a huge mansion standing at the heart of Sunningdale golf course. Together they virtually rebuilt the house, employing Spanish and Italian craftsmen to give it a distinctive ‘Mission style’ look. Inside, Annabel furnished the rooms with expensive antiques, collecting many of the pieces through her visits to the major London sales houses. The couple lived at Sunning House in conspicuous luxury and they employed servants on a scale more appropriate to times before the First World War than after, rivalling the aristocratic Mountbattens. Fifteen servants ran the domestic side of their lives, while a further seven were employed to tend the gardens and look after Jack’s growing stable of sporting and touring cars. Of the seven outside staff, four were gardeners and no fewer than three were chauffeurs. In the grounds of their mansion they built a tennis court and a luxurious swimming pool. An extensive garage wing was added to the main mansion to accommodate Jack’s cars – his fleet generally consisted of seven vehicles at any one time and most were iconic models of that most elegant era of motoring. During the years 1924 to 1937, records now in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu show that Jack purchased no fewer than forty-seven cars.
3
Twenty of them were Rolls-Royce in a range of different models and styles – broughams, cabriolets, drop-head coupes, saloons, and sports tourers. The rest were mainly Bentley, and latterly Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Lancia and Mercedes-Benz, with a Buick, a Lincoln Zephyr, an Invicta and a Ford as ‘also rans’. Side by side with Jack’s cars in the garage at Sunning House were Annabel’s vehicles, most of which displayed her personal crest and monogram emblazoned on their polished coachwork.

Jack had a voracious appetite for the fastest and most elegant models, and from the early 1920s he developed a well-recognised love for the finest hand-built cars the Rolls-Royce factory could produce. He was widely recognised as one of that famous manufacturer’s leading and most discriminating customers, always in search of the optimum model for competitive events, sometimes changing cars so rapidly that he would keep a car for only a few weeks before swapping it for a new model. In the eyes of many experts, he represents the ultimate motoring sportsman of the ‘Roaring Twenties’. In the correspondence columns of the motoring press he sparred with the Bentley Boys, that famous group of sporting characters led by Tim Birkin, who so captured the imagination of the public at the time. Several of Jack’s cars still survive in different parts of the world, now hugely valuable because of their provenance and carefully tended by discerning collectors. Some have remained in England and are listed in the register of famous classic vehicles; others have passed to collectors abroad. The cachet of owning a vehicle that had once been in Kruse’s ownership is enough to add thousands of pounds to its value today.

Although having chosen Sunning House as their main home, the Kruses had not entirely abandoned life in the city. Annabel maintained an apartment at the Grosvenor House Hotel, and a permanent suite at Claridge’s. She was a major supporter of charities, as is clear from some of the entries in the court circular published in pages of
The Times
. For instance, in 1930 Annabel is mentioned as one of a handful of people sponsoring boxes, at a cost of 250 guineas a time, at a Midnight Revue organised by the impresario Charles Cochran at the London Pavilion, in aid of the Prince of Wales’ personal fund in support of the British Legion. It reflects her friendship with Edwina Lady Mountbatten, who was chair of the organising committee.
4
Annabel and Edwina were both free spirits.

Kruse has been described by some commentators writing of that era as a cross between a character from
Jeeves
& Wooster
and James Bond.
5
Whether he himself would have recognised that caricature is debatable, but what was probably his most famous car does in an indirect way link him to Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator. In 1925 Kruse bought one of the first ever Rolls-Royce Phantoms, registration number 31HC, and in his quest to acquire the ultimate grand tourer he commissioned a talented engineer, Charles Amherst Villiers, to extensively modify it and fit it with a supercharger. Such modification of a Rolls-Royce was unheard of then and since. The purpose of the supercharger was to force more air/fuel mixture into the engine and increase the car’s potential speed. The result was described in the motoring press at the time as ‘The Stately Super-car’. It was an elegant car, a one-off and a classic example of the early days of supercharging. Jack himself referred to it as ‘the first and last supercharged Rolls-Royce’.

Villiers was an engineering genius. He had built up a considerable reputation tuning cars for the celebrated racing driver Raymond Mays, increasing the power of his Brescia Bugatti, and successfully modifying his 1.5 litre AC sports car. Villiers later supercharged a 1922 Tourist Trophy Vauxhall. His most famous accomplishment was designing Malcolm Campbell’s land speed record-breaking Bluebird. These achievements had been noted by Kruse, and he gave Villiers virtual carte blanche to rework his Phantom. Villiers was in fact a close friend of Ian Fleming. Indeed, when he wrote his Bond books, Fleming cast his master spy as a fast-car enthusiast who owned a supercharged 4.5 litre Bentley, which was his passion. As Bond enthusiasts will recall, he drove it with almost sensual pleasure. Fleming would have known that in 1929 Amherst Villiers, with the agreement of the Bentley company, had modified a number of 4.5 litre production Bentleys, fitting them with superchargers so that a team of these special ‘Blower Bentleys’ could be raced in 1930 at Le Mans. He would also have known that the forerunner of the supercharged Bentley was Kruse’s ‘Stately Super-car’, fondly christened ‘Sheila’.

As well as being an engineer, Villiers, who was a cousin of Winston Churchill, was also an accomplished portrait painter. His portrait of Fleming hangs today in the National Portrait Gallery. As a young journalist Fleming, as his Bond novels confirm, was devoted to cars, and in 1930 he reported the Le Mans 24-hour race for the press agency Reuters. The following year he participated in the Alpine Rally with Donald Healey as his co-driver. They won their class in a 4.5 litre Invicta. Kruse and Fleming were certainly known to each other, since Alpine rallying and touring was Kruse’s first love and both he and Fleming participated in the same rally in 1931. As the two were acquainted, it is not entirely fanciful that Kruse’s flamboyance, love of powerful, elegant motor cars, and his considerable wealth and charm may well have made him, at least in part, a role model for the famous character Fleming later invented.

It took Villiers two years to supercharge Kruse’s Phantom, working on it at premises he acquired at a disused mill at Staines in Berkshire. To ensure he was not deprived of his favourite Rolls while work progressed, Kruse obtained a second Phantom. Villiers decided that the supercharger should not be driven by the Phantom’s engine, because to do so would rob the car of its main unit of power, reducing the output the modification was aimed at achieving. Instead, he designed a separate unit to drive the blower. This extra engine, which had its own ignition and starter, produced an additional 10hp. It was mounted beside the nearside front wing, where the spare wheel would normally have been housed. Two spare wheels were mounted on the other side of the car to provide the necessary balance for the 200lb engine/blower unit. The Phantom’s dashboard was equipped with some fourteen instruments, which included an altimeter for use during Kruse’s Alpine trips. There were also additional controls to prime and start the blower engine. The interior seats of the Rolls were pneumatic. However, the considerable additional weight, the whining of the blower, and the roar of the exhaust must have all made for an exhilarating, memorable, if queasy and ear-splitting, ride for those on board.

Villiers began testing the ‘souped-up’ Rolls at the Brooklands racing circuit, home of the British Grand Prix, in September 1927, running the modified chassis with a rig of testing equipment precariously balanced alongside him to assess the supercharger’s effectiveness. Kruse was getting impatient to take delivery of his new ‘baby’. He wanted to prove that it was the top British performance car in existence at that time. While he waited for delivery of the supercharged Rolls, possibly prompted by the exploits of the famous Bentley Boys, Kruse succumbed to the other prominent all-British marque, and in July 1927 he took delivery of one 6.5 litre Bentley with another, a Plas Tourer, as back-up for good measure. Yet despite having spent a great deal of money on his two Bentleys, Kruse was not won over by them.

The modified Phantom was at last ready for delivery in early 1928. Villiers himself delivered the car to Sunning House, only to find Kruse away on one of his frequent business trips to Europe. Villiers invited Annabel and young John Kruse to join him on a test run. He took them on a hair-raising trip to Bagshot and back in a heavy rainstorm. It must have been a hectic and far from comfortable first ride. John Kruse recalled glancing at the speedometer on the dashboard and seeing it indicate 110mph; there were no speed cameras or speed checks in those days, and no motorways either! The cost of the Phantom’s conversion amounted to a small fortune, the equivalent of five standard Rolls-Royce cars, but Kruse was happy to pay the price. Indeed, on top of the bill, as a thank-you gift, he gave Villiers an almost new straight-eight, 2 litre Bugatti!

The supercharged Phantom proved an extraordinary and thrilling experience to drive, but because of the additional weight and noise, it was fairly impractical. The supercharger did not kick in automatically simply by accelerating. The driver had to lean far over to his left to prime the additional engine and then warm it up on the choke before engaging the supercharger. At speed, this manoeuvre would have been decidedly risky without the assistance of a chauffeur. This was not the only downside to the car in its reconstructed form. One of Kruse’s chauffeurs, Reginald Powell, recalls that when the supercharger was engaged, fuel consumption plunged from 12–14mpg to something between 7–8mpg.
6
But fuel prices in the 1920s were not a significant concern to someone with Kruse’s financial resources. Despite the time and money Kruse had lavished on his supercharged Rolls-Royce, he rapidly became disillusioned with it. He decided it was not the ultimate sports tourer he had hoped it would be. Nor was it the perfect sports tourer for which he had been searching. If a car did not match up to his high expectations, Kruse had a reputation for changing models with undue rapidity, undoubtedly to the satisfaction of the companies with whom he dealt. By April 1929 he had sold the supercharged Rolls to the famous Dorothy Paget, known as ‘The Queen of the Turf’ for her almost obsessive involvement in horse breeding and racing. In 1930 the Hon. Dorothy Paget temporarily switched her allegiance from the horse-racing track to motor racing, spending what today would be regarded as a fortune backing Birkin’s Bentley team.

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