The memoirs of Forrest Lycett

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24

The owner of the 8-litre Bentley looks back down 45 motoring years

IT is a safe bet that at the time Hitler launched the greatest gamble ever few sports car drivers “coming under starter’s orders” had been motor-car fans before even setting eyes on a motor-car—not that that is an enviable distinction! As a result of listening to “motor talk” I was already under the spell when first I saw a motor-car during the 1896-7 Christmas holidays. But what a disappointment. Instead of the swift, powerful creation of boyish dreams, I beheld a diminutive, wheezy contraption completely dwarfed by its occupants—two giant individuals swathed in outsize raiment. Brought to rest on an incline before a shop, this wretched contrivance, when called upon to resume, could do no better than trickle backwards into the gutter, whence it proved unable to extricate itself until assisted by one of its occupants. A most inauspicious introduction to the “New Movement” and one from which it would not have been surprising had a cherished ambition one day to possess a horseless carriage of my own never recovered. But ownership, even of the humble motor-cycle, was still many moons removed, though the interval was destined to be relieved by a number of interesting contacts.

At Lowestoft, during the summer holidays of 1899, I had my first ride—a shilling-a-time, round-the-houses affair. In fact, I had so many rides that the spectre of insolvency was never absent. I also experienced my first skid, the driver failing to check a slide on the ever-present mud during wet weather. So much mud was there that the local job-master—somewhat of a wag no doubt—would on occasion turn out on a horse-drawn mud-sleigh—a flat-bottomed device which slid with astonishing smoothness upon the ubiquitous carpet of slime.

Early 1901 saw me packed off to south Germany, a country boasting few cars at the time, yet I was fortunate in scrounging a number of rides in both Benz and Mercedes cars. June, 1902, saw me back in England for a coronation which did not materialise and to get down to a job of work. Before buckling-to, however, I visited a cousin who generously allowed me to ride his motor-cycle, a Minerva of incredibly low horse-power. My uncle, too, allowed me to take the wheel of his Renault, but this, performed as it was under the owner’s watchful and hypercritical eye, proved a terrifying experience.

The star-turn of 1903 was a 6-day Easter tour with my father on a 4-h.p. de Dion. The route, which included the Cotswolds (!), was not more than 400 miles, yet seemed to provide an unbelievable amount of motoring, in spite of no serious trouble being experienced. Twenty-five years later, driving a 4½-litre Bentley, I went over precisely the same ground in a day, returning home in time for dinner and a visit to the pictures. . . . .

March 1904, the year of registration, driving-licences and similar necessary evils, saw me an owner, but of two wheels only—a 2¼-h.p. surface-carburettor Ariel motor-cycle. Despite the archaic gas works, even at this early date an object of derision, this was by no means the impotent machine one would suppose; on the whole it was pretty reliable, too, except for one incurable defect—the determination of the automatic inlet valve cotter-pin to fall into the engine, whence it could only be, recovered by removing the cylinder. Five times I performed this operation during a memorable run to Dover which occupied fourteen hours. Next followed the 3½-h.p. version of the same marque. Increased power, as I was soon to learn, meant increased trouble. In addition, over-heating was ever-present, so I was glad to be rid of the pest, though it was to find myself out of the frying-pan, etc. I had fallen for a type of vehicle which was rather in vogue at the time (early 1909)—a tri-car. Mine rejoiced in the name of the Mars Carette (“Mummy’s little carrot” to the coarser of my acquaintances, but to me a perpetual source of trouble). As its name implies, it possessed three wheels and the passenger was accommodated in an exposed position at the front. The brakes possessed no practical value. There were two forward gears and the motive-power was a 3½-h.p. White-Poppe engine, which was good (White & Poppe engines always were) but the remainder consisted of 2 cwt. or so of unmitigated rubbish. Nevertheless, I persevered with this conglomeration of iniquity for fully a year, and even retain memories of a most enjoyable South Coast tour, but that the enjoyment was derived solely from the Mars Carette I am not prepared to swear. Stand back, you boys!

Resolved that dignity and three wheels were incompatible, I cast around for a fourth, my choice, influenced by the state of the exchequer, alighting upon an 8-h.p. (or was it 9-h.p.?) Sizaire-Naudin. This proved a most satisfactory little car; in fact so enamoured was I with it that in due course I invested in the larger 12-h.p. model, not unknown to some of your present-day readers—Mr. John Seth-Smith for instance! Here again increased power spelled disappointment and tears. Inherently unreliable, which among other ways found expression in repeatedly strewing the highway with the entrails of a most complicated form of universal joint, it would often develop a refusal-to-start complex. When in this mood none but the bravest durst approach it, for it possessed a back-fire like unto a blow from a steam-hammer. In those days most garages numbered amongst their stock-in-trade an individual whose proud boast it was that he could “start anything.” Exigencies of business demanded this. I have seen these worthies, following the request for “just a bit more spark, sir,” hurled across a garage like ninepins. On several occasions the thing savaged me unmercifully in my own garage; in fact, it is a little surprising I am writing this nonsense with my right hand! Deciding at length that what I really needed was a motor-car and not a wild beast, I got into touch with the advertiser of a make of car probably unknown to the majority of your readers, to wit a Motobloc, of 12/14-h.p., manufactured at Bordeaux. A feature of its engine was a central flywheel. It also possessed mechanically-operated overhead inlet valves. An early complication in the negotiations was my failure to interest the vendor in the Sizaire in part-payment. Clearly he knew something! But in addition he was a gentleman with a very big G, for he casually remarked. “You can take the Motobloc and settle up when you have sold the Sizaire.” Twenty-nine years later he—his name was Steele, not so his heart—paid me a surprise visit in my pit at Shelsley Walsh. (“Still enquiring about the balance of the purchase-money?” How dare you, sir! Besides, have I not said he was a gentleman?) The Motobloc was a great little car and I kept if for fully four years. As an example or its capabilities, unless baulked, I always looked to climb Handcross in top— a remarkable performance for a car of the power at that time. Parting with it with deep regret, I next acquired a 1912 15-h.p. Straker Squire; the coal-scuttle-bodied model. Though a trifle faster than the Motobloc, it had nothing like the stamina; all the same, l put up a number of pretty long runs on it and it was certainly 100 per cent. reliable and continued to be so years after I sold it. Next on the list was a 1913 Alphonso XIII Hispano-Suiza purchased secondhand from Malcolm Campbell. Though reliable, the car lacked the performance I had expected. I don’t think I ever got 60 m.p.h. out of it. Now, a Hispano that really was fast was the ultra-short-chassis model owned by my garage man, which he occasionally loaned me. This car was capable of a genuine “70,” if you could keep it on the road.

My Hispano realised £350 when I disposed of it early in 1915. Then came my last pre-war (Kaiser’s, not Hitler’s) purchase, a 23/50-h.p. Talbot, a ”rough” job, no doubt, but a real “goer,” superior to the Hispano in all departments. Petrol shortage, not to mention lack of opportunity, put an end to my car-motoring in 1916. The Talbot was disposed of, realising £330. In 1919 it changed hands for £800, being smashed to atoms not long after in the New Forest! In addition to the motor-cycles mentioned, I had owned two or three others, the most potent being a Rex. In their early days Rex motorcycles had proved somewhat as their name suggested, but before going out of production a quite sound machine was being marketed. In 1919 I acquired a twin-cylinder Douglas motor-cycle, which tided over the gap until I was again on the look-out for a car. So restricted was the market around Christmas 1919 that only through an influential introduction to a dealer could one hope to secure a car. One of the first offered me was, by a strange coincidence, my erstwhile Hispano —for £800. An absolute gift, I was assured! Eventually my choice fell upon a late 1913 20/30-h.p. Lancia, “sacrificed” at £800. In addition, there had been much expensive entertainment of the vendors. Fortunately, the Lancia proved a trouble-free acquisition. Had it done otherwise matters would have been serious indeed. It served me faithfully for over four years, though much of the time I was running a motor-cycle in addition. In 1924 the Lancia, though still serviceable, was far from ornamental, and I decided a change was overdue. But to what? Inclinations lay in the direction of a 30/98 Vauxhall, my garage man having on occasions lent me his. Though impressed by the acceleration and speed, it yet appeared to me hardly a 100 per cent. job, as was a friend’s 3-litre Bentley I had driven for a few miles. Such was the frame of mind I was in in mid-June, when news came through of Duff and Clements’ success at Le Mans. That settled matters, and within a month I had become a member of the select, band of Bentley owners—a distinction, now perhaps an idiosyncrasy, which has persisted except for a short break in 1929 (“the great. schism”) until to-day. In all, I have owned nine Bentleys, —five 3-litres, two 4½-litres, one Speed-Six and the 8-litre. I still own a 3-litre, a 4½-litre and the 8-litre, all, of course, laid up at the moment, though the 8-litre saw the light of day for a while last year. Mileage totals approximately 280,000, covered with a minimum of trouble, in fact until 1938 I did not experience a breakdown. The 8-litre, in nearly 70,000 miles has failed me but once—at one of the 1939 Lewes meetings when a gear-wheel “picked up” on its shaft. Such reliability has, however, not been experienced with the dozen or so other cars I have owned since 1924. Of these, the best, far and away, was a 1930 Aston-Martin, on which I covered about, 20,000 miles, often exceeding 400 miles in a day. The worst was a 4½-litre Invicta for which, early in 1929, I had been induced to trade-in my faithful 4½-litre Bentley in part payment the “great schism” already referred to. The makers, like others before them, imagined that a short cut to success lay in placing a larger engine in a chassis hitherto accommodating a small one with reasonable satisfaction. The result was disastrous and I paid a heavy price for my faithlessness. About this time a comedian was singing a song, “Everything happens to me.” It always struck me as so appropriate to my Invicta. Eventually I repurchased my beloved Bentley for hard cash and when at last I got rid of the Invicta, 7,000 miles had cost me £600 in depreciation alone. Another car was a “Grand Sport” Salmson, but, like the Mars Carette, it was composed of a good engine and much rubbish. How I never turned the thing over I cannot imagine, especially as its new owner did so within a week of purchasing it. At present I am running a brace of Lancia Aprilias. good enough little machines in all truth; but why people make, and others purchase, cars with so-called automatic advance and retard ignition I cannot for the life of me imagine. Nor does all-round I.S. appear to me all it is cracked up to be. But full 30 m.p.g., coupled with very useful performance, is not to be sneezed at these days.

To return to the Bentleys, however. Always I had been one to get a bit further afield in a day than the other fellow, but the Bentley necessitated revision of hitherto accepted standards. Almost the first Sunday out I drove to Nottingham and back with an ease which amazed me. Thereafter I was exceeding 300 miles in a day as a regular thing, but it was only with the acquisition of the 1926 model that I really appreciated the meaning of the traders’ slogan, “distance no object.” I derived great satisfaction from inviting people to go for a run and then proceeding to motor them almost into insensibility. Very silly, of course, but at the time I was a mere youth, scarce in the middle forties.

Naturally, victims were selected with discretion. There was that City acquaintance, who was for ever talking about his drive to Newcastle in a day. . . I at length persuaded him to accompany me on the Bentley to see whether I could not do likewise. At Catterick Bridge, feigning distress, I was advised to “give it up, old man.” After a drink at Newcastle I announced my intention of pushing on to Alnwick. “You’re raving mad,” was the rejoinder. Arrived there, the great moment came during dinner, when the victim confessed he had had about enough himself, adding that it was a pity we weren’t spending the night in a better “pub.” “Don’t worry about that,” I remarked, “we’re not sleeping here.” “Where, then?” came the question. “Why, at my place in Kensington, of course.” And sleep at my place we did, for had I not surreptitiously removed our suitcases from the car before leaving London? Then there was the victim who was motored non-stop to Land’s End—290 miles—merely because he talked rather a lot about a non-stop run to Honiton. Needless to say, a supplementary petrol-tank figured in the Bentley’s equipment then, as, indeed, it does to-day. Another unfortunate, having been dragged to Edinboro’, was directed not to dally over his after-dinner coffee as we were just about to start back for Newcastle, the idea being to “do” the Lakes the following morning, This portion of the journey proved eventful. Rounding a bend, the headlamps revealed a miniature battlefield, the highway being littered with motor-cycles and recumbent figures. It transpired that two motor-cycles, with pillion-riders, travelling in opposite directions, one on the wrong side of the road, the other with no light, had just collided. (I have often pondered the legal answer to this.) Sorting out the resultant mess and conveying the worst injured to his domicile took some time, but Newcastle was reached eventually, the Lakes visited the following morning, and the return to London made via Wakefield, Stratford-on-Avon and Winchester. Total mileage, slightly over the thousand.

The foregoing and other iniquities were perpetrated on 3-litres, but my longest day’s run was on a 4½-litre to a point beyond Berwick-on-Tweed and back to London. The intention had been to make it Edinboro’ and back, but fog intervened, as was to be expected in mid-November. Altogether it was not a pleasant outing, though destined to be relieved by an incident at the finish. My passenger (not a “victim”) had purchased at Grantham on the outward journey, with the object of placating a disapproving spouse, the biggest pork pie I have ever seen—a delicacy of which she, and I suspect he, were inordinately fond, like Henry II of lampreys. Reverently the giant comestible had been reposed upon the rear seat under the tonneau-cover, but a search failed to reveal its presence on our return. Yet, stay! What is that fatty sphere, no larger than a blood orange, cowering in yonder corner? And so it was. The squab becoming displaced, the wretched pie had travelled unknown hundreds of miles on the wire net. Ruefully my passenger bore the offending remnant home as proof of good intent, yet he was never to accompany me again. Sad, indeed, for he was easily my best passenger. And to think that on occasions when life had been at low ebb I had suggested, “What about a chunk of that pork pie?” only to be met with, “Much as I’d like to, I simply daren’t, old man.”

On the Continent, my motoring having been confined to normal hours, I have put up no very long runs. Evreux to Bordeaux and Cadiz to Madrid on the Speed-Six, Dieppe to Basle on the 4½-litre No. 2, and Heidelberg to Dieppe on the 8-litre, are about my longest day runs. It was in Spain ten years ago on the Speed-Six that I first attained a genuine 100 m.p.h. on a public highway. Since then the total covered in excess of that speed must be fairly respectable, as in addition to the Speed-Six and 8-litre, 4½-litre No. 2 could attain three figures quite readily. In1934 I started to take a mild interest in competition, which brought about a diminution in my annual touring mileage; even so, right up to the outbreak of war I would cover 500 miles or more during a week-end. My competitive days being now over, I shall hope, with the return of peace, to go back to long-distance touring. I have carefully avoided technical matters, for the simple reason that the majority of MOTOR SPORT readers are far more knowledgeable than I. Beyond being of a somewhat inventive turn of mind and possessed of an uncanny anticipatory sense of impending mechanical failure, few people who have motored as long and as much as I have know so little about motor-cars. Anyway, I am thankful to have lived, if not to have been born, in a motoring age.