By “Baladeur”

In an earlier article of this series, I indulged in a day-dream to the effect that, having been born in 1870 (which is actually a little bit before I did see the light) and having inherited a fortune of £1,000,000 at the age of twenty-one (which is actually about a million times the sum I did come into at that age), I had, from 1895 onwards, consistently bought what I considered to be the best car of the day, limiting myself, however, to one car at a time. And at the end of that article, the war of 1914-18 had found me the proud possessor of an Alpine Eagle Rolls-Royce. At this point I propose now to resume my fairy-story and see what would have happened to my motoring career between the wars.

I should have taken the Rolls, no doubt, to Lyon for the 1914 Grand Prix, but even if the Mercedes victory on that occasion had brought back affectionate memories of the “Sixty” I had bought in 1903 these would soon have been erased by wartime Germanophobia. Instead I should probably have retained as my most notable impression of that race the performance of the French cars such as Peugeot and Delage with their front-wheel brakes. (I might have had them on the Isotta-Fraschini which I am supposed to have bought in 1909 if I had waited but one more year for it; but they had not yet been proved by racing — on the results of which I was usually accustomed to base my choice of a car — and I should doubtless have reflected that Mercedes had tried them earlier — and had pronounced them to be unsafe.) I should have been in France again, no doubt, in October 1919 for the first post-war Paris Salon, and at the Salon I should have seen the new six-cylinder 100 by 140mm. Hispano-Suiza, with its overhead camshaft engine and servo-operated four-wheel brakes. Remembering the réclame of the little Alfonso model before the war, and the success of its prototype in the 1910 Coupe de l’Auto; reflecting too upon the reputation of the wartime aero-engine I should certainly have fallen for the 37-h.p. Hispano, which was indeed the most elegant mechanical production of the immediate post-war world, and have exchanged the Rolls for one as soon as I could get delivery of it, say in the spring of 1920. The valve gear might have seemed a bit noisy at first, after the silence of the Silver Ghost, but I should have been charmed by the liveliness and stopping power of the car.

When Grand Prix racing started again in 1921 I should have been inevitably impressed by the fact that the real engine development for which the war proved to have been responsible was the perfection of the straight-eight, a type of power-unit which Duesenberg, Ballot, Talbot and Talbot-Darracq all used in the race at Le Mans. Even before this I should have been vastly intrigued by the announcement in 1920 of the straight-eight Leyland, with its 89 by 146 mm. 7-1/4-litre engine, but in my snobbish way I should probably have looked a little askance at a luxury car built by lorry-makers. By the time I had been to a few Brooklands meetings in 1922, however, and had seen Parry Thomas’ car lapping at over 110 m.p.h. I should, I think, have been convinced, and at the motor show that year have ordered a Leyland Eight. In so doing I should only have, been just in time, because all too soon the car was to go out of production.

It was a feature of Grand Prix racing in the ‘twenties that those makers who indulged in it, with the exception of Bugatti who at first only made comparatively small cars, made little effort to produce standard models which were likely to attract people such as my daydream self. I should have continued, therefore, to admire the performances of the Leyland at Brooklands and elsewhere, but in spite of its speed I do not know that I should have found it ideally handy on the road. It must be assumed, too, that having been an owner for two and a half years I should have been infected with the Hispano disease, and I should not have failed to remark the Hispano victories at Boulogue and Monza. If I had taken the Leyland down to Sicily for the Targa Florio of 1924, too, I must have been profoundly impressed by Andre Dubonnet’s performance on the Hispano with the new 8-litre 110 by 140 mm. engine, in which he kept up with the finest racing cars of the day and finally finished fifth. As soon as the new 45-h.p. model became available to the public, in the autumn of that year, I should, I think, have returned to any first post-war love.

Before the war I should probably have chosen to escape the worst of the English winter by motoring down to the South of France, but by now, I should think I have inclined to push on in the early spring into Italy in order to land up in Sicily in time for the Targa Florio. How grand those runs would have been in the big Hispano!  At the end of them I must have been impressed with the Bugatti victories of 1925 and 1926, when Costantini, dubbed the “wizard of the Madonie Circuit,” carried all before him; and when, later on in the latter year, Ettore Bugatti announced the production of the “Royale” I should have inevitably hastened to Molsheim to inspect it. I might not have admired the Packard body fitted to the original chassis, which fitted where it touched, but a motor car with a straight-eight engine of 125 by 150 mm. bore and stroke and a capacity of 14,726 c.c. (these were, I think, the original dimensions) could not have failed to stimulate even any jaded palate. I do not know how much M. Bugatti asked his clients for his golden product but I should think that even a millionaire must have blenched a bit when he was presented with the bill. However, my investments would have been standing fairly high in 1926, and Stock Exchange markets still rising, so that I think I should have gritted my teeth, paid up; and, as soon as delivery could be arranged, probably towards the end of 1920, become the almost embarrassingly proud owner of a Bugatti Royale. (Readers of this novelette may exclaim in disgust at this point that I am guilty of a gross anachronism in crediting its hero with a “Royale” as early as 1926. It, was not, I think, until the ‘thirties that the model was actually listed, and I do not know whether in reality any outsider got one as soon as I have supposed. But the big Bugatti was certainly announced in 1926, by which time the prototype had been built, and perhaps some millionaire who ordered one at once will let me know how long he had to wait for delivery.)

[I believe intending purchasers had to spend three weeks at M. Bugatti’s country house before he decided whether they were suitable for his car; but from what I know of our contributor and have read of Ettore, I feel sure that would have presented no difficulty and Millionaire Baladeur would have got his “Royale.” — Ed.]

In the meantime my interest in Grand Prix racing must have brought the supercharger very prominently to my attention. At Tours in 1923 I should have seen the brilliant failure of the supercharged Fiats, and at Lyon in 1924 the equally brilliant success of the supercharged Alfa Romeos. Neither Fiat nor Alfa Romeo offered me a supercharged model for my own consumption, but even earlier than this I should have watched the Mercedes with occasional supercharging in the Targa Florio, and before very long standard models similarly equipped would have begun to attract my attention. Had it not been for the big Bugatti, I might well have fallen for a supercharged Mercedes in 1926, although the 33/140 h.p. 6-1/4-litre model which would have been offered to me at that time was a rather high, ungainly car. A couple of years of the Bugatti, with all its grandeur, might, however, have made me yearn for something a little smaller, and when there was announced for 1928 the low-built 36/220-h.p. 98 by 150-mm., 6,800 c.c. supercharged Mercedes-Benz, I think I should have fallen for one, say in the autumn of 1928. If I had waited another year, I could have had the classic supercharged Mercedes, in the shape of the 38/250 h.p., but I do not think I should have made the exchange. After the Bugatti, I should have found the lebensraum in the 30/220 h.p. restricted enough and I should probably have regarded the even scantier body of the 38/250 h.p. as entirely inadequate.

I should have got a big thrill out of the Mercedes, even if, to tell the truth, I might have been a trifle disappointed with its performance if measured in cold blood against the stop-watch on the doughtier of opponents on a route nationale, and by this time I must have begun to pay increasing attention to what was going on year after year in the Grand Prix d’Endurance at Le Mans. At first I should have regarded the cars engaged in this event less as the great ones of the earth doing battle for the mastery (as in the earliest days of motor racing) than as lesser-aspirants for honours, trying to win their way into the ranks of the élite. But when I had seen the Bentley victory of 1927 with the 3-litre model followed by the 1928 victory of the 4-1/2-litre and the 1929 victory of the 6-1/2-litre six-cylinder, I should have realised that here was a new force to be reckoned with. Then, in 1930, came what to me as a Mercedes owner must have been the classic race of the series, when the lone SSK driven by Caracciola and Werner did battle with the Speed Sixes and the Blower 4-1/2s and two of the six-cylinder Bentleys finished in the first two places. After this, when in the autumn of that year Bentleys announced the eight-litre, I think I should quickly have put in my order.

My new car would have had a six-cylinder overhead camshaft engine with dimensions of 110 by 140 mm, and so far the specification would have coincided with that of my 45-h.p. Hispano-Suiza of half a dozen years earlier. Mechanically it would probably have been more silent, and it would have had a four-speed gearbox. I do not know whether in its standard form it would have been any faster. But I do not think that it would have had that lightness of control, particularly in the gear-change, which I should have remembered in the Hispano with regret, not only while I owned the Bentley but also the Mercedes. Such being the case, I think that when I went to the Motor Show of 1931 and saw the new 12-cylinder Hispano-Suiza I should have decided to make yet another change, even if I had no recent lesson learnt from racing to guide me in the matter. I should have been shocked at first by the thought of push-rod operation of the overhead valves on the new Hispano, but I should have reflected that the engine dimensions were 100 by 100 mm, and that never before should I have used an engine with so short a stroke, in spite of its having a capacity of some 9-1/2 litres. If I had ordered a 12-cylinder at once and got one of the early ones, I should still have had the familiar Hispano right-hand gear-change and I think I should have felt that I was driving the smallest car of any I had owned since my 45 h.p. of 1921.

Ignoring the gap of four or five years caused by the war of 1914-18, I find that I should have kept each of my cars on an average rather over 18 months, but as by now I should have been over sixty I might have been less inclined to frequent change than in my giddier youth. Quite apart from this consideration, however, it is a real indictment of the ‘thirties that I defy anyone, even in imagination, to achieve so rapid a succession of one superlative car to another. This was indeed the decade of the mediocre. As far as I can see I should have kept the Hispano for four years until the autumn of 1935, when, if only for the sake of a change, I should have exchanged it for a Rolls-Royce Phantom III. This, with engine dimensions of 82.5 by 114.3 mm. had a capacity less by over two litres than that of the Hispano — and, incidentally, the chassis cost nearly £1,000 less. But with the millionaire’s foresight in such matters, I might already have seen trouble looming on the horizon by now. Once more, in 1939, I should have found myself, at the outbreak of war owning the make of car which would hold its value best until peace returned.

The fact would probably have been of interest only to my executors. By now I should probably be dead, which, if I wanted to go on buying cars of the calibre of those I had owned in earlier year, would be just as well. Looking back on my deathbed, on my motoring experiences, I should have been conscious that, like everyone else, I had missed some of the good things. In particular, perhaps, I should have regretted the lack of a 30/98 Vauxhall and of a Grand Prix Bugatti, which had neither of them been quite suitable for a middle-aged millionaire. I should have regretted, too, that I had not worked in a sleeve-valve engine. But apart from these omissions, how much, I wonder, could my readers improve on my imaginary choices? In order that they may try their hand at it, I set out below the list of the cars I think I should have bought.

  • March 1895, 3-1/2-h.p. Peugeot, two-cylinder, 75 by 108 mm., 954 c.c.
  • March 1897, 4-h.p. Panhard et Levassor, two-cylinder, 80 by 120 mm., 1,206 c.c.
  • Oct. 1898, 8-h.p. Panhard et Levassor, four-cylinder, 80 by 120 mm., 2,412 cc.
  • Oct. 1899, 12-h.p. Panhard et Levassor, four-cylinder, 90 by 130 mm., 3,308 c.c.
  • Oct. 1900, 24-h.p. Panhard et Levassor, four-cylinder, 110 by 140 mm., 5,322 cc.
  • Dec. 1901, 60-h.p. Mors, four-cylinder, 130 by 190 mm., 10,087 c.c.
  • April 1903, 60-h.p. Mercedes, four-cylinder, 140 by 150 mm., 10,236 c.c.
  • March 1906, 60-h.p. Itala, four-cylinder, 140 by 150 mm., 10,236 c.c.
  • Oct. 1907, 90-h.p. F.I.A.T., four-cylinder, 140 by 130 mm., 8,002 c.c.
  • April 1909, 100-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini, four-cylinder, 130 by 200 mm., 10,618 c.c.
  • Nov. 1910, 22/80-h.p. Austro-Daimler, four-cylinder, 105 by 165 mm., 5,709 .c.c.
  • Oct. 1913, 40/50-h.p. Rolls-Royce, six-cylinder, 114 by 121 mm., 7,410 c.c.
  • April 1920, 37-h.p, Hispana-Suiza, six-cylinder, 100 by 140 mm., 6,597 c.c.
  • Nov. 1922, Leyland Eight, eight-cylinder, 89 by 146 mm., 7,266 c.c.
  • Oct. 1924, 45-h.p. Hispano-Suiza, six-cylinder, 110 by 140 mm., 7,983 c.c.
  • Nov. 1926, Bugatti Royale, eight-cylinder, 125 by 150 mm., 14,726 c.c.
  • Oct. 1928, 36/220-h.p. Mercedes-Benz, six-cylinder, 98 by 150 mm., 6,800 c.c.
  • Oct. 1930, 8-litre Bentley, six-cylinder, 110 by 140 mm., 7,983 c.c.
  • Oct. 1931, Hispano-Suiza, twelve-cylinder, 100 by 100 mm., 9,425 c.c.
  • Nov. 1935, Rolls-Royce Phantom III, twelve-cylinder, 82.5 by 114.3 mm. 7;340 c.c.