On some motoring aspects of the present war

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I THINK we can fairly safely assume that war is a novel experience tor the great majority of present-day motoring enthusiasts. Although I was of this world during the 1914-18 affair, I was not much disturbed by the unrest until my father failed to return. I was told he died painlessly, which was probably true; he was blown to fragments. We have had other wars since that time, but somehow most of us have managed to regard these as remote and have probably found them of no great interest, except where there is a military tradition running in the family; admittedly, some of our keenest enthusiasts come from homes in which warfare means something more than mere headlines in the newspapers.

But to the majority of us, war is a new experience, unwanted, but seemingly inevitable, and when it came on that fateful morning of September 3rd, 1939, lots of young men and young women who had made motoring something more than a hobby, must have been concerned as to how this interest was going to be affected. It seemed that private motoring might well come to an immediate standstill, or that air raids might render conditions so grim that, for a time, at any rate, motoring for pleasure would have to cease. Up to the time of writing this article, nearly seven months after the outbreak of war, such a state of affairs has mercifully not come about, and the black-out, fuel rationing, the 20 m.p.h. limit, and the increased horse-power tax combined, have not entirely spoiled motoring for relaxation. But on that sunny September Sunday we could none of us foresee these things. Consequently, lots of us hoped to turn to driving in some official capacity, serving King and Country, while retaining our contact with matters motoring. In some cases, of course, untold good luck presented 1,030 h.p. or so to play with up in the sky. But amongst those who could not hope to get into the R.A.F. were lots of enthusiasts, expert at driving all kinds of motor vehicles fast on the road and successfully across slimy country, who were bursting to do any sort of useful job in this category, sacrificing sleep, regular meals, safety and peace-time interests, if need be. I think it was, and still is, a crying shame that they got so little encouragement. I believe that the Army and Air Force have drivers who are called upon to drive fast staff cars quickly over considerable distances. But exceptional experience as a competition driver or as a sports-car owner is no guarantee, on enlisting in the R.A.S.C. or that one would even be given the routine driving of lorries in convoy—although women of the A.T.S. and W.A.A.F. seem to have fallen into some attractive driving jobs at home. Civil Defence offers no solution, because the ordinary motorist has been given the job of driving A.R.P. vehicles ‘ without test or scrutiny and the imposition of an all-time 30 m.p.h. speed limit, the very limited range of operation, and the restrictions seemingly imposed by the authorities to curb individual motoring initiative, render such driving jobs unworthy of the experts’ attention. Where you find well-known drivers in such jobs you can bet that they are only there because there is so little else to do these days, because their keenness to serve in a war-time motoring capacity makes even the most insignificant driving job better than nothing, or because they find certain advantages in being guests of His Majesty in an A.R.P. depot, at £3 a week to stand by and wait, for the balloons to go up.

I can personally verify that an occasional practice “turn-out,” in a ten or fourteen horse-power family saloon is inadequate compensation for standing-by under very unpalatable conditions for continuous periods of up to twenty-four hours, suffering indignities that certainly were not foreseen when signing on the day war broke out, as a volunteer driver, experienced and anxious to do anything. The Government cannot be expected to provide an interesting and exciting job for every enthusiast who wants one, but I do think that much more care and thought could have been given to the enrolling of applicants for official driving duties from the commencement—which was long before the possibly excusable  “rush-period ” from September 3rd onwards. Men and women. who had never passed any sort of driving test, people whose licences had been suspended or allowed to lapse, and drivers who became involved in accidents because they had had insufficient experience of handling quite ordinary cars under difficult conditions, would never have got into A.R.P. if experienced, practical motorists had been given a free hand in the engaging of driving personnel. As it is, many such persons got into A.R.P. and are in it still, and at many stations the fleets are in charge of a head driver whose qualification for the job consists of having been a commercial traveller in the piping days of peace or the proud owner of an eight-horse saloon, or, in many instances, of even vaguer motoring associations than these. Whereas, if general conditions were not so utterly impossible, and some encouragement had been given to the experienced enthusiast anxious to serve his country, lots of really useful drivers would have been forthcoming for A.R.P. duties, who would have worked as real volunteers and would not be costing the ratepayer 8d. each for every hour they are on duty. Women had obviously to be taken on as well as men against the day when the majority of male drivers would be engaged on military duties. Here, however, the same things apply, those experienced women competition drivers who in peace-time competed in races and trials on a level footing with mere men, have not been generally encouraged, or have not had any inclination to become A.R.P. personnel. Such women would be the best possible persons to take charge of and to instruct those who now emulate them in dress but whose motoring ability falls down when it comes to manipulating bulky vehicles, or changing wheels and suchlike. I note that someone who lives in my locality and who prefers to write under the nom-de-plume of “Chassis,” in a recent letter in “The Autocar,” suggests that the majority of the bright young things who handle ambulances do so for the joy of being allowed to wear “slacks” and tin-hats, and not on account of any special keenness for motoring as such. That he has not been convincingly contradicted seems to prove how true this is. I rather fear that “Boots the Chemists” are being unduly optimistic in addressing expensive advertising to she who has exchanged the wheel of her sports model for the wheel of an ambulance . . . What is going to happen if ever extensive enemy air raids make it necessary to rush A.R.P. vehicles to objectives at considerable distances from their bases (as was foreshadowed by the recent Chatham rally and by even more recent long-distance tests) perhaps in darkness and bad weather, I prefer not to think. I only hope we may never be troubled by such raids, but if we are, the expert driver may be seen in his or her true light. I am not alone in criticising A.R.P. drivers, for both Dobs Knight in “The Autocar” and W. G. McMinnies in his petrol-vapouring in “The Tatler” have had tales to tell of funny happenings at ambulance depots and during ambulance “turn-outs.” Credit should be given to the London County Council for instituting a simple test before enrolling drivers for the Volunteer Ambulance Service—a test which I took recently from the lofty driving seat of a delightfully. ancient W. & G. The tragedy is that those who were bursting to help seven months ago may now be in other jobs, or have been rendered less keen and efficient by sheer boredom. The R.A.F. has been. particularly concerned to counter the effects of boredom on its pilots and I shouldn’t be surprised if therein lies the answer to the frequent leaflet raids over Germany, which most of us regard as such a waste of valuable fuel and an unnecessary risk to personnel. The enthusiasm of the expert fast driver to serve in some really useful capacity when war was declared was something of immense value, if only those in authoritative positions could have seen it. So it is a great pity that a register of such drivers could not have been formed at the War Office, so that those offering proper proof of their keenness and driving ability would at least have been able to feel that they might be wanted for useful motoring jobs someday. As it was, the War Office was delighted when “The Light Car” appealed for details of driving experience amongst its readers and it elected to receive this information, but instead of accepting such applicants on their merits, it demanded, in the end, that all should join the R.A.S.C. as privates, or buy a commission if so disposed, and then be placed in suitable positions subsequently. I imagine this interpretation of the scheme was a great disappointment to Eric Findon, the Editor, and naturally lots of good material failed to enrol because it had no desire to become lorry driver’s mate, and had no definite guarantee of anything better. I still think expert drivers may be in demand if things get really hot on the western front, or if the enemy carries war in the air over our more thickly populated areas, so, even now, such a register, providing it is really official, might not come amiss. The danger of communication being impaired should extensive bombing of railways occur was mentioned in the Civil Aviation Argument, and if aerodromes are also bombed, fast cars properly handled will be wanted, and wanted badly. Here is a great opportunity for Commander Armstrong or Captain Phillips or someone else at the R.A.C. to do something on behalf of those who, in peace time, supported the club’s events and competed under its rules and regulations. The “under thirties ” should certainly be included, if such a register were ever to materialise, because they could then be transferred from the military positions they were in as jobs arose for them to do.

Apart from official service, the war has done no good to those in the motor trade or those just keen on motoring for relaxation; if I except some nice personal “mentions” in the weekly motoring Press which I certainly would not have got had there been more news about! Nevertheless, we contrive to continue motoring and fuel rationing is our biggest worry, now that lighter evenings will reduce the strain and danger of the black-out, and the inconvenience of its attendant 20 m.p.h. speed limit. At one time I thought that this enforced mileage limitation might result in the enthusiast using his car as the family man uses his mobile glasshouse. This possibility is suggested by an experience which I had last year. Usually I avoid like the plague runs to near-London seaside resorts on summer Sundays, and usually there has been no time to spare away from motoring fixtures. One Easter, I took an Austin Ten down to Eastbourne, drawn by the sun, to return in a sleet-storm, and on one other occasion I crammed seven people into an elderly Austin Twelve tourer and made Hastings the objective, vowing afterwards never to face such unruly traffic again. However, last summer I again went to Eastbourne on a Sunday, in a decrepit Austin Seven. The traffic called for considerable concentration, and on arrival we sought to find a comparatively peaceful beach. It was then that I realised what “motoring” means to folk who do this kind of thing every week end. They feel a perhaps justifiable thrill at discovering new haunts in the locality of one or other of the resorts which always constitute their objective, and such discovery forms a topic of proud conversation with fellow sun-worshippers all the following week, while the physical and nervous energy expended in getting safely through the heavy traffic encountered on both outward and homeward runs, makes them feel they have done some real “motoring,” even though the speedometer registers less than 150 miles. They know nothing of motoring as we know it, and would probably not enjoy it if they did. The man who plans for a year ahead how he will go from London to Cornwall in a day, at the start of his holiday, will have no desire to drive all night to a trials’ venue, returning through the following night, for instance. I almost begin to wonder if limited mileage will drive the enthusiast to emulate these happy, cautious car-owners. But I doubt it, because he will know how to find interesting and much quieter spots even nearer at hand, perhaps with some trials’-going thrown in, and will probably make such venues a playground when long runs are out of the question. Those who are fortunate enough to get extra petrol for fast motors have clear roads and should be able to set up some excellent averages, while going about their lawful business. My sympathy goes out to those who can only claim basic rations. We have become used to seeing uniforms everywhere— to encountering military traffic and troops on the road, to seeing balloons floating over our cities, coping with our masked lamps after dark, paying through the nose to motor at all—but it is very difficult indeed to get used to planning one’s motoring on a basis of 50 miles or less a week. Yet enthusiasts contrive to enjoy motoring, and some of our greatest enthusiasts, now on active service—I only hope that between them they have managed to snaffle the really interesting jobs—will look forward to doing so when home on leave. But an increase in the fuel ration would be the best thing possible, for the Trade and the car-owner alike. Many people who expect to be in khaki by the end of the year, perhaps by the end of the summer, and so are justifiably seeking the greatest of good times now, feel the petrol ration more than any other war restriction. Yet, now we are at war, we must tolerate this, and the black-out, with a good heart. The traders must think themselves lucky to have the Motor Trade War Executive to air their grievances and watch their interests. With cars maintained on the road as they are being maintained at present, and government work given to the smaller firms, I think the Motor Trade may be afloat, even if badly waterlogged, when this war is over. Our leading manufacturers seem to be so nicely occupied with big government contracts that unkind people are saying they may well be sorry when this conflict finishes. All credit therefore to Alvis, Austin, Daimler, Hillman, Humber, Lanchester, M.G., Morris, Riley, Rover, Singer, S.S., Standard, Sunbeam, Vauxhall and Wolseley, etc., for still making cars of which we Britishers may be justly proud.

A motor race or two and some car trials would lighten our darkness. Messrs. Clutton and fellow plotters are doing all they know about the former, and if Authority can think of any reasonable replies to their arguments in favour of having a war-time race, I know that I cannot. Car trials have not happened yet, and, granting the greater fuel consumption of a car, and the difficulty of finding sufficient good hills in a compact area, the fact that the bicycle boys are running their trials and scrambles with big entries does not do much credit to the car clubs. Especially as some enthusiasts are taxing two cars and would willingly spend the fuel ration for one month on the sports job, in driving in a trial.

However, socials were slow to pick up after the outbreak of war, so we can go on hoping . . . And war or no war, we can truthfully say that motoring is still the best means of relaxing and forgetting present worries. Even those keen folk who were building up specials cars for competition work for which there is now no suitable employment, must agree that the war is enabling them to put more care into the construction of cars which they hope to use as soon as hostilities cease. Personally, I give thanks that we have had seven months during which the women and children, apart from ourselves, have been spared the horrors of raids from the sky. When depression assails us, let us remember that, picturesque as uniforms may have rendered fashionable West End hotels and restaurants, they are not so pleasant seen on the departure platforms of Victoria Station. Many youngsters with whom we duelled on the road in the past, and with whom we shared the interest and incident of races and trials, have already left their cars behind them and have gone out to play a sterner game; to them the chance of motoring even 200 miles a month under civilian conditions must seem too dear to allow of any grumbling.

So let those of us who are not yet taking an active part in this war keep our chins up, even though we secretly crave the time when conditions return to normal, and any shooting to be done can safely be left to Messrs. Klemantaski, Brymer and Co.