Some day, I hope, someone more fortunate than I am, in that he possesses a complete “run” of the Autocar, will compile an anthology of the letters addressed to that journal by the late Mr. S. F. Edge. He was, I should think, easily the paper’s most assiduous correspondent, and his effusions covered the whole period from the early days of motoring to the very end, I take it, of his active association with the industry.
Nominally, of course, this spate of free contributions was concerned with topics of general interest to the world of automobilism; but with a sort of engaging naiveté, their author seldom failed unblushingly to drag in some complimentary reference to the products with which he was associated. In the early days, when the Napier was pioneering the six-cylinder principle, there was a wealth of correspondence about the superiority of the “Six” over the “Four” — and, incidentally, about what a much better car the Napier was than, say, the Panhard or the Mercédès. Later on, to the virtues of the six-cylinder engine were added those of three speeds over four, gearboxes in the back axle and disc wheels; all of which, curiously enough, were features of the 2-litre A.C. Mr. Edge thought highly of all these things, and said so, more than once.
Of course the somewhat sweeping claims put forward did not pass unchallenged; indeed, the publicity value of the correspondence would have been greatly reduced if they had. In the early days it was usually Mr. Weigel who took up the cudgels on behalf of Continental cars in general and the Panhard in particular. Enthusiastic owners of other cars than Napiers frequently issued challenges, of one sort and another — when, that is, Mr. Edge did not get in with his challenge first. Very occasionally, the protagonists shifted the seat of their wordy warfare to the road or track, and a good time was had by all.
But it was in the early ‘twenties that Mr. S. F. Edge really came up against an adversary worthy of his steel, in the person of Mr. H. R. Pope. Every time that Mr. Edge wrote to the Autocar, he could practically count on Mr. Pope to reply. Mr. Pope lived in Cannes, and did his motoring in the Alps, across France, through Spain or down to Florence. He had never, he stated, regarded England as a motoring country and, as if to emphasize the fact, he was apt to pepper his letters with French and Italian words, instead of using their more obvious English counterparts. Although he did not actually say so, I suspect that he regarded light cars in general, and British light cars in particular (even including the A.C.), with the most profound contempt.
Just when readers were being most seriously impressed with the superiority of the 12-h.p. A.C. over the 13-h.p. something else, Mr. Pope would weigh in airily with some remark such as, “I am driving two cars at present, a big, somewhat heavy 100-h.p. 1914 type, and a small modern 3-litre car . . .” At times he would play devil’s advocate for a moment, even belittling the arguments of an ally who criticised left-hand gear-levers on the score that most people were right-handed, with the bland admission that “I don’t think there is much point in his remark about most people being right-handed. I was for fifty years, but the evening of the day I first used left-hand change my left hand was so dexterous that I unconsciously at dinner drank the wine of my left-hand neighbour.” And then, just when his supporters were afraid that their champion had deserted the cause of what he called “the chassis de grand luxe et de grand tourisme,” Mr. Pope wound up with the crushing peroration: “Left-hand change, like three-speed gearboxes, disc wheels and imitation honeycomb radiators, remains, in my opinion, cheap and nasty. It is only when their advocates try to bluff that the chassis fitted with them is in the class of high-grade cars, however, that I criticise.”
Unquestionably, after this effort, Mr. Pope remained the unchallenged master of the field. But, as he himself might have said, if he had ever deigned to write in Latin instead of in Italian, “Quem deus vult perdere, prius dementat.”
On July 6th, 1923, Mr. H. R. Pope, on the face of it quite gratuitously, airily opened a communication to the Autocar with the words: “It would not surprise me that in a couple of years a car without front wheel brakes was démodé. Neither would it surprise me that it was not.” No suspicion of a claim by Mr. S. F. Edge had provoked this astonishing outburst; indeed, as the A.C. had not got front-wheel brakes, Mr. Pope quickly found himself in the embarrassing situation of having the advocate of “cheap and nasty” three-speed gearboxes and disc wheels as an ardent ally. But really, one feels, he had no one but himself to blame; for surely this was no way for the champion of the “chassis de grand luxe et de grand tourisme” to write. In order to judge just how unsuitable it was, it is necessary to consider for a moment what was the position of four-wheel brakes at that exact juncture.
It is, I think, generally admitted that it is to a British maker, in the shape of Argyll, that must go the credit for being the first to standardise front-wheel brakes; but, alas this enterprising manufacturer quickly yielded to the outcry against his dangerous innovation, and the brakes were removed from their offending position in deference to the national demand for safety first on the roads. Next it was the turn, in, I think, 1910, for Isotta-Fraschini to embark upon this hazardous expedient, and although Italian motorists apparently saw less deadly peril in being able to stop quickly than did their confrères in this country, Isotta-Fraschini for long remained unhonoured and unimitated in the matter. When Peugeot, Delage and others insisted on front-wheel brakes for their 1914 Grand Prix cars, Mercédès still considered them too dangerous even for racing.
French manufacturers, however, who had seen how the Peugeots and Delages could negotiate the Esses opposite the grandstand on that July day at Lyons in 1914, were impressed, and when, in particular, the six-cylinder Hispano-Suiza appeared in 1919, it was fitted not only with four-wheel brakes, but also with the Birkigt mechanical servo, which greatly enhanced their value. I think it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that this system, produced as early as 1919, while it was expensive to manufacture (a consideration of whith Mr. Pope was constantly saying that he took no account) was almost if not quite as effective as any which has been used since. Small wonder that by October, 1922, the Autocar reported that “the French firms using brakes on the front wheels are in the majority.” What is extraordinary is that at the same time it should have been necessary to add that, “on British cars they are still exceptional, though actually they are used on what will probably be the smallest car at the Show, viz., the 7-h.p. Austin, while on the six-cylinder Sunbeam they will be optional as an extra. On American cars front-wheel brakes have yet to appear in this country.”
Here, then, surely, was a feature of the “chassis de grand luxe et de grand tourisme” which typically distinguished it from the cheap and nasty little cars that toddled out to tea on Sundays. But the truth of the matter was that Mr. Pope was no longer (if, indeed, he had ever really been) disinterestedly pleading the cause of the chassis de grand luxe, produced regardless of cost, for le grand tourisme continental. Mr. Pope, I understand, was at the time the agent in the South of France for the Itala, and Italian makers seemed as reluctant at that epoch to follow in the pioneering footsteps of Isotta-Fraschini as were British manufacturers to tread in those of Argyll. “I can testify from my own experience,” complained Mr. Pope, “that orders are lost to makers who do not fit front brakes, the loser in my case being a first-class Italian maker . . . F.I.A.T.s, Lancias and Italas are made at the foot of the Mont Cenis, which is 14 miles long. The braking powers of these cars have always been famous, as well as the enterprise of their designers. I submit that there is but one deduction to be made from the fact that up to now these makers have not delivered cars to the public with four-wheel brakes.”
In other words, Mr. Pope had suddenly adopted the role of Mr. Edge, and, incidentally, was playing it without the skill born of two decades of practice. Of course the hounds were on him in an instant. Mr. John Jay Ide, after 5,000 miles with a Hispano-Suiza, surely a chassis de grand luxe et de grand tourisme if ever there was one, “had never had the slightest trouble with the brakes. The charm of driving this car is enhanced by the servo-brake.” “Observer,” writing from Amsterdam, had “had experience of 35,000 miles with a six-cylinder Hispano-Suiza” and declared that he would “never buy another car not equipped with the Birkigt brakes.” Harold Bowden, who owned both a Rolls Royce and a Hispano-Suiza, believed that “if fitted with front-wheel brakes the Rolls would be perfect, but until I drove the Hispano I did not realise this.” Even in his Italian citadel, Mr. Pope was not safe. Whatever he might say about Lancia, as Alec. Keiller pointed out, four-wheel brakes were fitted to the new “Lambda” model. Even F.I.A.T. and Itala, added F. Ross MacMahon, who had just added front-wheel brakes to the Palladium, had shown cars so fitted at the Motor Show.
Of course, Mr. Pope hit back, but it was soon obvious that he was fighting a rear-guard action. He changed the subject to ignition systems, and in February, 1924, loftily informed a poor little man in Manchester who could not get his engine to start in the cold weather, “I have just ordered a chassis for my own use, fitted with double ignition by Bosch. It is the latest novelty on the market. One ignition is with the magneto and the other with a distributor joined to the batteries.” But Mr. John Jay Ide, the Hispano owner, had not forgotten those insults levelled at his front wheel brakes the year before. “Would Mr. Pope tell us,” he inquired shrewdly, writing from Rome, “whether his new chassis has four-wheel brakes?”
Mr. Pope had reluctantly to admit that it had. But, he added, “I am not responsible for the design of this chassis. Had I been, I would have retained what I consider the best brake of all — the differential brake. It appears, however, that even in a chassis de luxe made for a very restricted clientele a maker has in these post-war days of high cost of living to pay some regard to prime cost.” It was the last despairing cry of the Edwardian age.
Curiously enough, in the whole course of this correspondence, Mr. Pope does not seem to have put forward the one valid argument which, I imagine, was rendering Italian manufacturers reluctant to fit brakes on their front wheels. Their cars, or many of them, as he duly pointed out, were built at the foot of the mountains, and designed with Alpine conditions very much in mind. Great attention was consequently paid by their designers to the matter of brakes, but since four-wheel brakes are most notably useful at higher speeds than are usually used while descending the lacets of an Alpine pass, good two-wheel brakes served well enough for the purpose. And in addition to good brakes, a feature of a chassis which is essential for its convenient use in the mountains is a good lock. Now undoubtedly, I think, the earlier four-wheel brake designs tended rather seriously to interfere with the lock, and I am inclined to hazard a guess that even to-day the ratio of turning circle to wheelbase is not in general so good as it was in the case of many contemporary Italian cars with brakes on the back wheels only. I am, I admit, arguing rather airily in this matter, because turning-circle figures for the pre-front brake era are not, I find, easy to come by: they were not then, as they are to-day, regularly given in reports of road tests. Mr. Charles Freeston, as an authority on Alpine motoring, might, I thought, be helpful on the subject; but he seems in practice to envelope it with a certain obscurity. “The only self-propelled vehicle that is adequate,” he remarked in “The High-Roads of the Alps,” published in 1910, “is the motor-cab, which . . . must turn within a circle of 26 feet. Now this is an ideal to which the touring car cannot possibly conform. . . . To show, however, how even touring cars vary in this respect, I may mention that I have seen a six-cylinder touring car turn round quite comfortably in a London street, with eight feet to spare, while a four-cylinder car with a shorter wheelbase, could do no better than cross to the other side, its front wheels ending up at right-angles to the kerb. . . The owner . . . should first test his car’s turning capabilities in a road of moderate width; and if he cannot turn completely round with ease, he will only be looking for trouble if he goes to the Alps.”
Now this sounds a pretty formidable test, because I should hardly have thought “a road of moderate width” was more than 30 feet broad, and a touring car would thus be asked very nearly to conform to the impossible ideal of the motor-cab. Certainly many London streets are no wider, but in “The Alps for the Motorist,” published in 1926, Mr. Freeston, complaining of the poor turning ability of the cars of “some twenty years ago,” says, “the utmost one could do even in the widest part of Piccadilly, when starting flush with the pavement on one side, was to bring the car round until it was at right-angles with the opposite kerb and no more.” If this was where the six-cylinder touring-car turned round with eight feet to spare, it was not so much like a motor-cab in this matter as might at first appear. But then I do not regard “the widest part of Piccadilly” as a “road of moderate width.” However, be this as it may, I would hazard a guess that the 10-15-h.p. F.I.A.T., without front brakes, was about the handiest thing on a hairpin that I have taken round one.
There was no reason, however, why British manufacturers should have suffered from this elaborate complex about locks, and the question remains as to why British motorists, so long after first-class four-wheel brakes were available, were still content to be without them. I think that the answer must be that, in general, the cars of the period were so abysmally slow. Not but what, of course, there were exceptions: in 1923 a “30/98” Vauxhall, on test by the Autocar, covered a mile at Brooklands at 82.57 m.p.h. But I think that the recollection of such performances tends to obscure the remarkable sloth of the generality of contemporary motor cars. In an attempt to establish the fact, I have taken the trouble rather carefully to analyse the road tests of our contemporary around this period. Unfortunately, these were not carried out with the consistency which has become de rigueur to-day, and by no means all cars were given a speed test at all. I suspect, as a matter of fact, that it was the slower cars that were let off; and as a good many of the cheaper ones were not fitted with speedometers, the tester could scarcely guess at their speed capabilities. But of the cars that were taken over the mile in the latter part of 1922, the 1,496-c.c. Palladium, the 1,420-c.c. Lagonda, the 1,087-c.c. Rhode and the 3,956-c.c. Buick all failed to average 50 m.p.h. At the other end of the scale, the 6,177-c.c. Napier did 64.74 m.p.h., the 28-60-h.p. 4-litre Vauxhall 62.5 m.p.h., the six-cylinder 2-litre A.C. 60 m.p.h., the 4,730-c.c. Studebaker 57.15 m.p.h. and the 14-40-h.p. 2,297-c.c. Vauxhall 52.18 m.p.h.; but the 1,370-c.c. Belsize-Bradshaw only did 42 m.p.h. on its speedometer and the 1,944-c.c. Standard “over 40 m.p.h.” In 1928 and 1924 the record was very similar. The majority of the cars of the period obviously cruised in the thirties, and, so long as no one else had them, front wheel brakes were hardly a necessity. It was different, perhaps, for “the chassis de grand luxe et de grand tourisme.” At any rate even Itala dropped the last of its models with only rear-wheel brakes in 1925, F.I.A.T. in 1926. Decidedly, by this time a car without front-wheel brakes was démodé. Mr. Pope, one presumes, was more hurt than surprised.