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HOLMES’ ACTUAL career as a consulting detective barely overlapped with our era of the motor car. On the other hand, as Holmes will never cease to exist, I will likewise address this topic in the broader sense. I offer a Canonical reference to Holmes and the automobile.
In “His Last Bow,” which takes place in August 1914, Holmes and Watson thwart the nefarious plans of Von Bork, chief agent working with the Baron von Herling, secretary of the German legation in London.
The Baron runs a “huge 100-horse-power Benz.” This evidently was a specially prepared road car, as a more typical production Benz of the era was a 16/40 (16, its taxable horsepower rating; 40 hp its output). By contrast, the race-tuned—and 21.5-liter!—engine of the record-setting Blitzen Benz produced 200 hp.
German competitor Daimler (maker of the Mercedes) produced a road-going 28/95 in 1914. But surely Watson, an evident enthusiast as we shall see, would not confuse the two automakers, as Benz et Cie didn’t merge with Daimler until 1926.
In any case, it’s clear that automobile nomenclature was not unknown to Holmes. At one point in “His Last Bow,” double-agent Altamont (spoiler: Holmes in disguise) uses the phrase “sparking plugs” as code for “naval signals.”
Later, the action picks up: As the big Benz “swung round the village street it nearly passed over a little Ford coming in the opposite direction.”
It’s no surprise that an ubiquitous car of the era would be “a little Ford,” no doubt a Model T. By 1916, for example, fully 55 percent of the cars in the world were Model T Fords.
And guess who was in that Ford?
“His car passed ours,” says Holmes later. What’s more, in the earlier Strand Magazine version, he adds, “But for your excellent driving, Watson, we should have been the very type of Europe under the Prussian Juggernaut.”
How characteristic of a modest Watson to excise from the Canonical text this praise of his driving.
Von Bork is eventually captured, and “After a short, final struggle he was hoisted, still bound hand and foot, into the spare seat of the little car. His precious valise was wedged in beside him.”
“ ‘I trust that you are as comfortable as circumstances permit,’ says Holmes.”
“Start her up,” concludes Holmes, “for it’s time that we were on our way.” ds