This contribution to a popular series comes from William Charnock, who, although well known as the motoring bard and a Bentley enthusiast, has had a far longer motoring career (and, need we add, an entertaining one) than we, and possibly you, realised. — Ed
In following these fascinating articles, I have noticed one predominant fact: almost all the contributors have possessed indulgent parents, appreciable means or considerable mechanical skill, and sometimes a combination of all three. We have thus been able to sample, vicariously many voluptuous conveyances we may never hope to own, and to share in feats of workshop virtuosity we may never dare to emulate.
Here, by way of contrast, is the thirty-year saga of one who has been able to spread the bread and butter of everyday transport but thinly with the jam of performance, and for whom the chance to be automobilious in the grand manner has never presented itself. Moreover, I am the world’s worst mechanic; although an engineer, I am the wrong sort for this caper, and a lifetime of lumps of concrete tends to develop the “bash and hope” mentality at the expense of skill and patience. As a result, my garage contains a vast chest, a sort of mechanical mortuary, full of broken bits with stripped threads which may come in useful one day, but never do. I have always known better than the makers so that my own particular road to hell is paved with bad inventions, my motto is “Omnis mihi accedit,” and even that is probably wrong, for my Latin is about as ropey as my motor cars.
Through these reminiscences, by the way, rank an almost unbroken thread of motor-cycles, beginning in 1920 with a Rudge full of anno domini and, now that these have been transferred to the owner, culminating in a Triumph Twin. The Rudge broke exhaust valves and only last summer the Speed Twin broke its handlebar lug — plus ca change… Believing, however, that these brutish but lovable devices are of little interest to the connoisseur, I propose to skip them.
In 1924 I acquired my first car, a two-year-old 2-litre H.E. three-seater. The appearance was vaguely raffish—imagine an illicit and loveless union between Bentley and Bugatti—but I had worshipped the thing since its inception. My total driving time previously had been limited to 40 minutes tuition on a Rover Eight and 20 on a moribund G.N., and I had never gone solo; not a promising start with what was then regarded as a pretty potent carriage. The pirates of Great Portland Street having delivered my green and aluminium wonder at the front door, I had my first bash in our crowded suburban High Street on Saturday afternoon. Round and round we went, the car and I, down the hill in neutral, round the block in first, back into the High Street groping for the still-unattainable second, despairingly into neutral once more. A lot of buses got behind schedule that day and the afternoon shoppers had a riot of entertainment and only a few hairbreadth escapes. After that, I taught myself on bitterly cold autumn mornings when the roads were deserted and cats and milkmen the only mobile hazards.
It was a grand car in many ways, faultless steering, first-pull starting on the handle and, once mastered, a lovely gearbox. You drove looking through the huge steering wheel, the scuttle lifted along a continuation of the bonnet hinge to give instant access to instruments and wiring, and there was a vast undertray, from the filth of which I fished the nucleus of my prized collection of O.P.T. (Other People’s Tools). Fifty-eight m.p.h. and never a bit more came up on the beautiful and accurate Bonniksen speedometer, and the tremendous exhaust note, suggestive of dinosaurs at play, helped the local rates quite a bit in fines. The cops were never far from our door with those little blue papers -15 m.p.h. in Mitcham, no lights in Wakefield, dirty number plate in Kingston — those were the days! After several thousand miles, one of the tubular dural conrods buckled, at 30 m.p.h. in top, and although it was straightened by the local Vulcan and resumed duty, the bodywork was beginning to fall to bits and I felt that the time had come to apply for a legal separation. Fascinated by the activities of the late Cecil Kimber down at Oxford, I turned in the old H.E. against a new Morris Garages Special. As Stewart and Arden’s minion drove it away, the instrument panel split and sagged down onto his knees. Alas, the minute allowance on my credit note had already discounted all such little jokes.
In August, 1925, I took over my first M.G., one of the earliest produced. Unambitious in conception, it motored only slightly more briskly than the standard Oxford. Instead of “sit up and beg,” it was “lie down and peer,” with the steering column raked right back and the seats on the door. However, one felt a hell of a chap and all the solid Morris virtues, were there — one hoped. The finish was in varnished aluminium, which today would be described as “polychromatic jewellescent stardust” with dark red wings, chassis and leather. Like many cars or the period, it suffered for lack of a substantial bulkhead and the gravity petrol tank hung thereon would slip its moorings and bounce on to the engine. The cushions were hard as nails, the springs (with Gabriel “snubbers” like overgrown tape-measures) soft as jelly, but it bounced there and back for over 24,000 miles, using only two lots of pistons and bearings in the process. My favourite memory of the red M.G. concerns a nice misjudgement of width between two horse-drawn carts in Oxford Street (shades of today’s driving tests!), and of both dignified rear wings nipped upwards simultaneously into the then fashionable flared shape. Incidentally, I once did this trick between two trams in Woolwich on a motor-cycle, instantaneously converting “full T.T.” handlebars into “upright touring” and landing halfway up the tram’s stairway on the outside. The public didn’t need the Crazy Gang and radio to get their laughs in those days.
In 1927, still hankering after “real” sports cars, I bought as second string a 1925 Redwing Riley. The wings were the authentic colour, the body an emetic primrose which I at once had repainted in glossy varnished black for the ruinous sum of £3. Within a week the rear axle collapsed and no half measures, and, having got that one sorted out, I ran it up to Riley Service for a few small jobs. That night the Thames overflowed into Riley’s basement, inundating my Redwing like the submarine it resembled, Rileys were very good about it, giving me almost a new car, which I promptly spoilt by fitting Whitehead front-wheel brakes. These did absolutely nothing, save to provoke the dreaded sideslip, sometimes to order and sometimes not. The. Redwing had a maximum of 58 (they all seem to have had their ceiling around this speed) and rattled through 7,000 miles, rattle being the operative word. It was very comfortable, however, and, with its slender tapering tail, a pretty enough little thing. This tail housed the third seat, reached by opening a microscopic hatch. If a bulky character were inserted therein, it proved almost impossible to get him out and we nearly sold the car with a corpulent aunt growing out of the “carosserie” in this way.
In time the red M.G. gave way to the blue M.G., a 1928 flat-chested version and a much more sophisticated job. This car really did out-Morris the Oxford, putting the usable maximum up into the sixties and being solidly built all round. With cellulose finish, “balloon” tyres and every mod. con., it was a great step forward. This model was the first to carry the famous M.G. octagon. It was everywhere, even to the instrument dials, and it came as almost a disappointment that the steering wheel retained its archaic circular shape. The headlamp dipper worked off a massive right-hand lever which matched the central gear-lever. On going aboard over the doorless off side, one lever went up each trouser-leg with unfailing accuracy, to the delight of one’s crew, and eventually made bicycle clips part of the conductor’s uniform. The blue M.G. did 27,000 faultless miles in all and, to show how finicky one was in those days, I only sold it because a crack appeared in the panelling of the scuttle.
The Riley, palsied within and without, was next traded in for my first closed car, a 10/25 Rover sportsman’s coupé. This term has always seemed to me a misnomer; why only the sportsman should suffer impaired visibility through those blind rear quarters I have never understood, unless it were to conceal his nefarious back-seat activities on run-you-home-after-the-dance occasions. But I digress. This little Rover had the most beautiful tan leather upholstery I have ever seen outside Rolls-Royce, but it was never really happy with me, nor I with it. It was undergeared and underpowered and prone to break its external oil pipes, and when the 1929 Show produced the Light Six Rover, one of these was promptly ordered. This was the model which started the fashion for beating the Blue Train across France, later to be done much more convincingly by Alvis and Bentley. However, for a car costing some £380 only, it was a considerable achievement. The Blue Train Rover has been damned by abler pens than mine; everyone hated it, but other men’s poison has often been my meat and here was a car that I never regretted. Perhaps I persevered more than most, through that first dreadful year of defective safety-glass, wheel-wobble, split radiators and broken half-shafts, but Rover’s honoured their two-year guarantee to the very limit. With a 45-b.h.p. 2-litre o.h.v. six in an 8 ft. 10 in. chassis, full four-seater, two-door Weymann body, exceptionally raked screen, right-back sunshine roof and neat cycle-type front wings, this superb little car had many features well in advance of its time and many more for which one looks in vain on modern offerings. It was admittedly very tail-heavy and the magnificent luggage grid provided could not be loaded to capacity without causing the front end to come unstuck altogether. Its virtues when negotiating mud and snow, however, were obvious, and chains were never needed to promote wheel-grip.
The road-tests never did this car justice and, with Mr. Derrington’s “deep-note” exhaust system unleashing unexpected m.p.h. and m.p.g., it would give these to the tune of 73 and 23 respectively, as well as producing a spirited rendering of a Speed Six Bentley in good voice. Clutchless changes up and down were the order of the day, a form of virtuosity which I have never mastered on any other car, and even when the torque-tube broke, surprisingly elongating the wheelbase, or when the rear-axle casing came in three, that car still got us home, groaning along on binding brakes at walking pace. Even now, I grow misty-eyed over the old Light Six, and if the V.S.C.C. still retains a specimen, I salute it in all reverence. Only when the impending addition of a carry-cot to the family impedimenta made the restricted back seat unsuitable did we turn it in, after 50,000 memorable miles, for another Rover.
Meanwhile the blue M.G. had given place to a 1930 four-seater blown Lea-Francis. Here were all the authentic noises when you opened the tap: blower whine, exhaust snarl and the wind in the willows. If one was to retain that easily indicated 80, it appeared that the Cozette needed overhauling every few thousand miles, and a stopping distance of 90 feet from 30 (with vacuum servo), plus 14 m.p.g., always seemed to me inadequate. The Leaf had a curious canine quality; it wagged its tail at all times, panted when excited, and leaked oil, petrol and water all over the place. Finally, I had so many mods done to it at once that I had to flog it to pay the resultant bill. After a decent interval, I bought a new Hornet Special, and after an indecent one, about ten days, I sold it. My wheelbase was just too long to fit into the thing.
About this time, matrimony loomed and it seemed a good, if scatterbrained, idea to get a real cad’s car, use it for the honeymoon and grin and bear the inevitable loss on subsequent resale. I chose a 2-1/2-litre S.S. tourer, just then coming into production. This was in 1933 and, far from letting it go a few weeks later, my wife and I finally said a sad goodbye to it in April, 1949. Here is another instance of a sound car dismissed by the cognoscenti as trash. Despite the rude nicknames it endured, the S.S. in its day climbed the “old” Honister, Hardknott and Wrynose and was going strongly on Alms Hill, Henley, when it belly-grounded on dead leaves. Once it won its class in a Concours, was utterly comfortable for unbroken runs of well over 300 miles, closed up as snugly as any saloon, cruised at 55 (70 on the clock!), and gave anything up to 24 m.p.g. It was always a vile starter from cold, gumming up, even with thin oil, beyond belief. To remove the front tray and use the handle was a major operation, and when you had finished your right hand usually needed a few minor ones. We got 35,000 miles from this prehistoric Jaguar and then, some years after the War, came a monumental dice back from the West Country with a Red Label Bentley. Before starting, I imposed what handicaps I could, urging my opponent to take on a goodly quantity of beer and agreeing on a route which I knew and he didn’t, but the S.S. had to work for it living harder than usual that evening, and next day second gear failed to report for duty, having distributed itself throughout the box. Had this happened to a Bentley back axle (it can, you know) there would have been loud cries of “hard luck, old boy”; as it was, all I got was: “More clot you, for driving such a thing.” After suitable dental renovations, I realised that the time had come, etc., but for sixteen years it had been a good partnership. I often see the S.S. about, with a further 20,000 up and bores and bearings quite happy, so it would seem that even trash, suitably cared for, can survive.
But, to go back a good many years to the Rovers. In 1935, the old Light Six gave way to a new Fourteen with the long-tail saloon body. The performance fell sadly short of its predecessor with much less engine to pull slightly more weight. I never thought I’d be able to get used to this and to the inferior gearbox and low axle-ratio, but needs must when finances drive and I knew I’d got to keep it. Slowly the green Rover took its place in our lives as had the black 2-litre.
When the war came, it stayed with me to the bitter end, as long as the last dreg of legitimate petrol was available, dumped in the mud up and down the country and languishing on bleak camp sites for months on end. Finally, with a few gallons still on board, it was laid up in great haste for the duration. Later, while on leave, I got it out once more to use those few precious gallons before they turned to gum. The battery was finished, the (then irreplaceable) Bowden clutch cable broken through rust, the free-wheel unserviceable, and yet for several days we motored, after a fashion. How one got under way with these disabilities is best forgotten; it was a brutal business but the gearbox bore it manfully. Today, 81,000 miles are on the clock, after an initial rebore at 73,000, it still gives its original 26 m.p.g., the general performance is little changed, and my son, for whose carry-cot the car was originally chosen, now drives it on L-plates. To me, this is the very zenith of car-ownership, to have possessed a vehicle, of however modest a type, capable of giving service and pleasure to two sucessive generations. The V.S.C.C. does not recognise the Rover as a post-vintage thoroughbred; it is just a beautifully made piece of craftsmanship which seems ready to go on for ever—doubtless there is some difference between the two.
In 1943, the Army having declared me unfit for human consumption, I returned home to do some furious thinking. With conditions of 1919-20 still much in mind, two facts were cruelly obvious: never again would I be able to afford new cars, and the post-war price of secondhand ones was going to be very, very steep indeed. It behoved me therefore to accumulate sufficient transport of good quality to keep mobile for an indefinite period once the war was over. The first problem was storage and this was solved by renting half an ancient barn in which my friend the local coal-merchant had laid up some of his lorries for the duration. It was a fearsome place, pitch dark, the floor uneven and dusty, the great somnolent trucks bristling with projections to catch the unwary head or elbow. But it was at least dry and the only hazard the rude birds of the air roosting high up in the gloomy roof. Storage assured, I got down to it on Saturday afternoons by bus, train, bicycle or flat feet. Cars lay everywhere in evacuated areas of the South Coast, many choice pieces unattainable through my inability to discover the owner’s identity, but the majority had endured the open too long to be more than sources of spares. My first catch was a 1936 Talbot 105 saloon for £50, rusty, sabotaged and sad, but with its previous history readily obtainable. With sundry bits missing from the big Zenith, this car was miraculously delivered under its own steam (or rather black smoke) to the barn. The petrol gauge read “empty” and it was not until many weeks later that I found 16 gallons of high-octane in the tank and once more blessed the previous R.A.F. owner. There followed a cone-clutch 4-1/2 Bentley Albany saloon, mechanically excellent but unfurnished, for £90. Prices were not going my way so I took a dive into the lower strata of really rough ones and fished up another Bentley, a plate-clutch Mulliner saloon, for £35 – a runner, even if somewhat out of training. I took delivery of this worthy old gentleman on a tow-rope behind a paralytic taxi, barely able to pull itself let alone the Bentley. Progress was negligible and the blackout was threatening, so in desperation the Bentley’s Autovac was filled with lighter fuel and it burst into song, ran over the tow-rope and almost took the taxi unawares. However, journey’s end was reached at long last, and without the Bentley having to tow its unwilling host. £90, then £35. I felt that things were improving and that my third Bentley should come gratis or even with a cash bonus. But it was not to be: £12 was demanded for the next 4-1/2, a superannuated fire-tender and a non-runner. The beautiful instruments had succumbed to some nasty little boy’s whim and their delicate entrails hung in dying agony, but I paid up promptly; you had to in those days to forestall other scrounging types. Then the Ministry of Home Security stepped in with an embargo on resale of ex-C.D. vehicles except as genuine scrap, and I got radiator, wheels and shockers but no more. The junk dealer who, throughout this epic quest had been my informant, go-between and general spiv, held my £12 still and was loath to return it. Finally he made the blind offer of whatever car next turned up — it was sporting bet and I took it. A week later I was presented with a 1935 Silver Eagle Alvis, three years unemployed in an field, sump full of water, bonnet full of convolvulus.
I have written elsewhere the tale of this Alvis over the seven years so the briefest recap will suffice here. In her original sloppy state and with a terrible home-built three-seater, she went fantastically well for a lash-up. Thus encouraged, I have had her meticulously rebodied and rebuilt to my own ideas. Somewhere in the long list of mods, a ghastly howler has crept in and the sparkle has gone from her performance. By further experiment with exhaust manifolding, carburation and pistons, the correct results would perhaps be forthcoming, but I have neither the money nor the ability for these. Perhaps I expected too much in first place, but the experiment has been made and that it has failed is no one’s fault but my own. I am left with a full four-seater giving, up to its maximum, a take-off comparable with an Speed 25; very nice, but of little use against modern opposition sprints and hill-climbs. I could have got the same results more cheaply by buying a 25 in the first place but I would have missed years of absorbing muddle, of hilarious exaltation when the stopwatch wasn’t working properly and of chaotic despair when it was. She is a delightful car to handle and almost unburstable, so perhaps all the effort that has gone into her has not been wholly wasted.
The two Bentley saloons were slowly and painfully cannibalised into one good one and one not-so-good (there are no bad Bentleys) and the latter sold for what it would fetch in 1946. Again, ignorance I did the wrong thing, retaining the Albany on account of its better lines and letting the Mulliner go. Later of course I learnt not only that Mulliner coachwork lasts for ever, but also that the Bentley plate-clutch is a better proposition for everything save sheer performance than the earlier cone type. However the old Albany 4-1/2 served as an introduction to the B.D.C., gave me 9,700 surprisingly economical miles and was not sold until 1951 when it had become surplus to requirements. Meanwhile, in 1949 the S.S. plus a small bag of gold was exchanged for a “real” Bentley, a 1930 4-1/2 motor, box and axles in a 1927 Red Label chassis with the standard V. d. P. body. For me, this car represents a sort of Journey’s End—a final compromise between the ideal I have been seeking all my life and the deadline of what I can afford. The performance is too well known, as are the snags, to need repetition and the general handling is good enough to be very safe but not so good as to make you forget the job in hand until you hit something — a fault which I feel is becoming apparent in some of the pluperfect modern cars. Above all else, the Bentley has so much tradition and character in its make-up that the most commonplace journey never fails to take on an undefinable “first-day-of-the-holidays” quality. If this sentiment makes me a member of the lunatic vintage fringe, then I would not willingly be sane.
There remains, in the family stable, the Talbot. The cold war of 105 versus W.H.C., now in its eighth year, still shows no appreciable gain for either protagonist and no end is in sight. Both combatants are beginning to feel their years but after 17,500 bitterly contested miles, there is no question of abandoning the struggle. The car has a superb brain, thinking ahead with icy precision, so that that little nonsense with the gearbox bands or distributor or water pump may occur at the exact moment of maximum inconvenience. He has to date developed some 45 distinct faults and as each is laboriously rectified, several others rise in its place. He has now retired for his annual sojourn in hospital with one broken front spring, screen-wiper gears stripped, a hole in the front exhaust pipe and a suspected bent starter spindle. That is about the average score for three months’ running and is not unsatisfactory. If ever the day comes when I give best to this diabolical vehicle, then I shall have taken the first step into sedentary middle-age and a peculiar zest will have gone out of life.
So here I am, with “all those cars” as the neighbours say, Rover, Alvis, Bentley and Talbot, each no better than it should be. The total outlay from scratch has been less than that needed to acquire, say, a Mk. VII Jaguar, and the sum spent on actual repairs no more than the P.T. on the same car. I have learnt a great deal, wasted a little money and a lot of time, watched my son develop into an enthusiast, scared the daylights out of myself more than once and met a lot of mad and charming people. I have never been other than last in my class in speed events, I have never achieved an average high enough to be disbelieved, but a third of a million miles have gone by, it seems, in a flash and I have, I hope, been spared some of that smug pomposity which so often comes with the fifties.
As has become customary in this series, may I sum up in brief? I like motor cars to be cheap because there is less at stake and anyway, I damned well have to; I like them old for only then are they seasoned and unobtrusive and friendly, and that bashed wing is no longer the heartache it once was; I like them to give some trouble, for trouble disciplines the spirit, driving out conceit and complacency, keeps the brain alert and, above all, opens a door upon the co-operation, and comradeship of one’s fellows for which there is no other key.