One day in June 1936, so the story goes, Rachel, the wife of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, was planning to drive from Rome to Ostia on the coast, about twenty miles away. Over breakfast, her husband said: “I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a very unusual experience today.” Indeed, she and her chauffeur were only a few miles past the city limits when they encountered a traffic jam. “What’s happening here?” Madame Mussolini demanded. “It looks as if everyone is breaking down at once ....” her driver began. His own motor then coughed and died. He coasted to the edge of the road. “I can’t understand it!” Several minutes passed, but then suddenly all of the stalled motors roared back to life again. “There was a universal shrugging of shoulders as the fuming drivers got back into their vehicles and continued to Ostia.
This story was told by John Keel (The Cosmic Question, 1976, p.35), who, however, did not specify his source – possibly it was Albert Zarca, Mussolini sans Masque, 1973, which he mentions in a footnote. It was said to be the result of secret experiments by Marconi, who had moved back to his native Italy and was employed by Mussolini. Whilst trying to develop radar, he had inadvertently hit upon a radio frequency that caused internal combustion engines to stall.
A similar story went around in Germany, where a large transmission mast had been built on the Brocken (traditionally a meeting place of witches) in the Harz mountains. “As usually reported, the phenomenon consisted of a tourist driving his car on one of the roads in the vicinity, and the engine suddenly ceasing to operate. A German Air Force sentry would then appear from the side of the road and tell him that it was no use his trying to get the car going again for the time being. The sentry would, however, return and tell him when he would be able to do so. The sentry appeared in due course, and the engine started.” (R. V. Jones, Most Secret War, 1978, p.50)
Another version came from the United States: “What about the boy in Appleton, Wisconsin, whose short-wave set hit a magnetic frequency which not only paralysed automobiles within three miles of his home, but any plane flying over his house? Chet L. Swital was sent by his paper from Chicago to cover the story and when he reached Appleton he found the place crawling with FBI men. They confiscated the boy’s short-wave set and shipped him, his family, and the mystifying radio to Washington for further study. This was in 1941.” (Frank Scully, Behind the Flying Saucers, 1950, p.201.)
An obvious question arises: if the Italians or Germans or Americans were possessed of such devices, why did they not use them during the war? In the age of the propeller airplane they would have been lethal. Though the British government they did not believe these tales, during this period they a lot of time and effort to disinformation, hence, “... we thought that it might be a good idea to start the same tale going in England to see whether it would puzzle the Germans. The story spread rapidly, and we heard of it from time to time, with ever increasing detail. The last I heard of it was a family of Quakers, who of course never lie, driving across Salisbury Plain when the engine of their car stopped. In due course a soldier appeared and told them that it would now start again, and so they were able to continue on their way.” (Jones, idem.) So perhaps the other stories had a similar origin.
Of course, the Second World War produced a number of rumours about secret inventions, some of which, such as the atomic bomb, turned out to be true. Death rays were popular, and perhaps not entirely fictional. Another story about Marconi was that he experimented with microwaves, and found that they were killing sheep on nearby farms. Some were deliberately invented. When R. V. Jones was working on infra-red as a way of detecting aircraft at night, which was abandoned when radar proved to be more effective, he told one man that they were working on a way to make ships invisible. They had so far managed to make a gunboat invisible, but the crew could still be seen. (One wonders if this has any connection with the yarn about ‘The Philadelphia Experiment’?) When radar did get working, the RAF put it about that they were able to locate the enemy at night by feeding their pilots carrots so as to improve their night vision.
These stories evidently came to the ear of Bernard Newman, author of The Flying Saucer, 1948. This was inspired by a remark of Anthony Eden, former foreign secretary (and future prime minister), that the Cold War had made enemies of nations who just before had been united against the Third Reich, and that a new common enemy would be beneficial. “What we need is an invasion from space.” In the novel, a group of scientists took him up on this and faked an invasion from space for the purpose.
Flying saucers only appeared peripherally: I get the impression that he was already at work on the book when the first UFO flap began in the summer of 1947, so he added a few pages based upon what had appeared in the press, though they did not really affect his plot. The science in it was shaky: a man who was supposed to be the world’s leading physicist stated that the atom bomb worked by “a chain reaction of electrons” (he meant neutrons). So it is not surprising that he went on to do the impossible, and next to their dummy spaceship erected a transmitter that caused engines to stop in the vicinity, so that people would think that alien technology was at work. One might have expected that that would have been the end of the matter, but ‘car-stops’ have been reported in many UFO cases.
It would be futile to attempt to list them all, but here is one of the most puzzling: on the night of 2nd November 1957 (coincidentally, or not, this was the night that the Russians launched their second satellite, Sputnik II), police in Levelland, west Texas, received phone calls from six different men who had almost identical stories. Each had seen a large glowing object near the town, usually thought to be more than 100 feet long, whereupon their motors failed and their headlights went out. After the object departed, the vehicles returned to normal. A seventh witness later reported the same thing to the Air Force. (Allen Hynek, The UFO Experience, pp.159-64.) Dr. Donald Menzel, who initially thought that the object might have been ‘an unusually bright meteor’, later observed that at the time the area was experiencing unusual weather, rain and lightning, so that the object must have been ball lightning, which can range in size from a few inches to several feet. He did admit that there is no ‘entirely satisfactory’ explanation for ball lightning, and that ‘some scientists have doubted its reality’.
“The truck’s engine may have died for one of several reasons. The rain during the evening could have seeped under the hood and soaked the ignition or dampened the spark plugs. The feed line may have been clogged. Or the region of highly rarefied air created by the ball lightning may temporarily have deprived the engine of oxygen.” These would not explain the headlights being extinguished, however, and it is odd that it should happen to seven drivers in the same district on the same evening. Nevertheless, “Only the saucer proponents could have converted so trivial a series of events – a few stalled automobiles, balls of flame in the sky at the end of a thunderstorm – into a national mystery.” (Donald H. Menzel and Lyle G. Boyd, The World of Flying Saucers, pp.174-80.)
In 1966 a man named Mel Noel claimed to the media that he had been involved with a secret U. S. Air Force group who had investigated UFOs and made contact with them. In one talk he gave that was transcribed and printed, he made a few howlers, such as saying that one Air Force document was headed: ‘Top Secret: Destroy Before Reading’. He said that a group of scientists in South America had been building flying saucers under guidance from the space people, and that one would land on the set of the Jackie Gleason show in Florida. “He backed his tale with frayed clippings of Marconi’s alleged experiments.” Needless to say, this landing did not occur. “Mel Noel disappeared back into the cosmic woodwork.” Unfortunately, it is not clear whether these clippings referred to engine failures or something else.
The Colorado UFO Project observed that “There are many UFO reports in which it is claimed that an automobile’s ignition failed and the motor stopped, and in some cases that the headlights failed also, and that after this happened, a UFO was seen nearby. Usually such reports are discussed on the supposition that this is an indication that the UFO had been the source of strong magnetic field.” Of the people that they personally interviewed, however, there was only one such, and that “was made by a diabetic patient who had been drinking and was returning home alone from a party at 3 a.m.”. Tests showed that, to stall a car, a field greatly in excess of 20,000 gauss would be required, and that this would permanently affect the magnetisation of the car. (Dr. Edward Condon, Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, 1969, p.38.)
Occasionally stalling turns up in accounts of hauntings. Rolling Acres Road in Florida is reputedly inhabited by the ghost of a murdered woman. A group named ghostbusters “went there to check it out, and the car we were in stalled. It took better than ten minutes to get it cranked. I think it had something to do with that road.” (Charlie Carlson, Weird Florida, 2005, p.161.)
Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror has been described as a novel. But the Lutz family, who lived there, were real, and maintained that the book was at least based upon what happened to them, though amplified by Anson’s imagination. The story is that one afternoon they got so frightened by the spooks in their home that they decided to leave there and then, but their van would not start, so they had to remain. At seven o’clock the next morning they tried again, and this time “The motor turned over immediately.” (Jan Anson, The Amityville Horror, pp.167, 179.)
I do not have any personal conclusion from all this. Some of these stories, clearly, are myths, so this may or may not be true of the others. I do know a woman with a car whose engine often conks out, not due to the presence of aliens or ghosts, but because it is a clapped-out old banger!