“The Voice of them All,” so well known to B.B.C. Listeners, writes of his Motoring Experiences
Looking back over the years, it seems that apart from the practice of owning other people’s “voices,” I have indulged in the ownership of some twenty cars, at least as varied in character, and in many cases as difficult to master.
I well remember the severe “telling off” administered by father when caught in the act of “twiddling” in the seat of his Prince Henry Vauxhall, as I sped my imaginary way along the lanes of Knockholt. Such exquisite pieces of machinery were not designed as the playthings of small boys and polishing the headlamps was as near as I got to the driving seat thereafter; he had kept it in perfect preservation and it was the “apple of his eye.” Before long, however, my father passed on, and with him motor cars passed out of our family for some years until, at the age of 17, I became apprenticed to the motor industry and part-owner of a 1927 two-seater bullnose Morris. The car was used to collect spares, and I was allowed to use it at weekends after being taught to drive by another apprentice of extremely small stature — which necessitated my driving with my knees under my chin, as he had bolted the seat in position. I paid 10s. a week and at the end of the year it became mine. My visits to race meetings especially at Brooklands (Oh how we mourn its loss) became more and more frequent, especially if Sammy Davis was participating, as he was my absolute hero, equalled only at times by the great “Tim” Birkin in the single-seater Bentley; after that I believe came the Hon. Brian Lewis in the Talbots and George Eyston in the “mint humbug” M.G. Come to that any racing driver of repute was to me at that time “out of this world.” It was on such a journey to Brooklands that I nearly removed Fox and Nichols’ front, window as I emerged round the corner in what I imagined to be a “drift.” The garage had used the Morris the day before to assist at a breakdown job and about 3 cwt. of steel chain, hooks and tackle had been left in the boot. Added to the worst performed example of a drift, the centrifugal throw of this ironmongery against the side of the boot caused me to execute a geometrical evolution which would baffle description, even by John Bolster. I proceeded to Brooklands at a crawl with the painful realisation that I was no Nuvolari.
The very nippy old bullnose was traded in for a fabric-bodied Morris Isis saloon and after some patching gave good reliable sluggish service, which infuriated me and delighted my mother. The trade crisis loomed up and alas the Isis was exchanged for a push-bike. The circumstances exasperated me beyond endurance, and I would beg or borrow a drive from anyone either mad or sympathetic enough to loan me a vehicle.
Eventually I entered into part-ownership with a student of a dilapidated “2.3” Bugatti tourer, which was, however, gratifyingly fast and had just about the hardest suspension I have ever had the misfortune to drive over a tram track. It had a hood like a colander and an exhaust like a pack of hounds. My friend was fined for “noise” and ” driving without due care and attention,” and we sold the Bugatti to a vicar’s son as a last resort to find the money. I often wonder what happened to both parties. I left the garage eventually, having been offered a considerably better salary on the sales staff of an accessory firm, and from there on to a large electrical manufacturers, and was at the same time “entertaining” in my spare time. Eventually after some years I became a professional and owned a Riley Falcon and also a Riley Lynx, but once again my career was cut short by the war.
During the five years of my Service life I had a “go” at almost everything on wheels, including a large Austin ambulance which I backed into a pond through looking at an attractive A.T.S. driver instead of where I was going. Cherchez la femme was all very well, but to have to be towed out by two of them was better than the severest reprimand. Came 1946 and I was in “civvies” again and was able to earn a reasonably respectable living owing to the kindness of friends at the B.B.C. who had given me broadcast contracts during my “leave” periods; to them I am eternally grateful. I purchased a Riley Alpine which had been about twice round the clock in the hands of a farmer, and prices being astronomical I took it as it was and set about a rebore. In that year I owned three Rileys, an Alvis Speed Twenty (1933 tourer), and then settled on a very lovely Kestrel which had been completely rebuilt by an acquaintance and, after bartering somewhat and flogging the Gamecock to a publican, BXU became mine. One of the most amusing experiences of my life happened with this car. My wife, declaring that she had an “urgent call” to make, vacated the car in a wooded section of the road over the “Hog’s Back,” and whilst waiting I switched on the radio which had been left at full volume; before I could adjust it, the voice of Dick Barton shouted loudly, “Come out, you swine, I can see you.” With a stifled scream, my wife leapt out and attempted to dash for the car, completely forgetting that her legs were in captivity; strangely I have never since had a radio in a car.
The following spring I bought a Jaguar 2 1/2-litre saloon as my growing family required more room for luggage and I had been offered an exceptional price for the Kestrel. The Jaguar spent an uneventful life with me, except that I shall always associate her as the car which conveyed rue to Windsor Castle to do my first private show for the late King George VI and his gracious family. A wonderful man, and a wonderful memory indeed. Returning home in the early hours, the Jaguar nearly ran down a row of policemen who jumped out into the road waving lanterns. I realised that they must be checking road traffic into London, as just prior to Christmas a considerable amount of black-marketeers were at work also it was during the period when all basic petrol allowances had been curtailed. Seeing we were all in full evening dress I fully expected demands as to “why on essential petrol?” The inspector inquired firmly “Where have you been?” To which I replied truthfully, “To see the King and Queen.” Expecting a retort of not to be “funny,” I was saluted, and wished goodnight. To this day I am convinced that policemen know the truth when they hear it!
I exchanged the Jaguar for a Rover Sixteen and whilst the motor was extremely smooth, the steering seemed to transmit an abnormal amount of road shock and would waltz somewhat at 70 and over in spite of all being apparently correct, and soon I fell for a very pretty “Martin Walter” special-bodied 1 1/2-litre Jaguar coupé. The body was, however, so low-built at the rear that changing a wheel in the middle of Epsom High street at midnight became a major gymnastic feat, even when assisted by two R.A.F. types and a gentleman so like Jean Chassagne in appearance that I fully expected to hear the words “Maintenant c’est à moi” as he laid down his coat. After several “flats” I could no longer stand the rigmarole which had to be gone through, which was all right if one was not dressed to appear in public, which was inevitably the case. (I bought it from a doctor, so perhaps he had had to change a wheel also.)
I then took delivery of my first post-war car, an Alvis Fourteen coupé. It steered as a thoroughbred should, and the suspension was excellent, except that it seemed incredibly hard compared to other people’s, and it was while I was pondering that I was offered 3 1/2-litre Vanden Plas pillarles saloon Bentley at a very reasonable figure. It was impressive, silent and yet extremely “gutty,” and went considerably faster than many 4 1/4 R.-B.s I had driven. I sold the Alvis the day it came out of covenant, and used the “R.-B.” for some months when I decided to exchange it for a very beautiful 1937 Park Ward 4 1/4. The engine was like silk, the gearbox like velvet, and suspension to fit. It was the most beautiful car I have ever owned of its type, and the Rolls servo-assisted braking system made it equally the safest, and there (for me at any rate) was the snag! It was too perfect, and twice I had nearly fallen asleep at the wheel for sheer lack of engine noise.
No! I decided. This was somehow not my make-up, and it was once again in the moment of indecision that my mind was made up for me when a friend arrived in a large blown Lagonda and wanted me to accompany him to Granville Grenfell’s workshop at Weybridge. The ride ruined me completely. I had become once again the slave of audible exhausts and throbbing machinery.
Within a week I drove out of Davis Motors the owner of a 4 1/2 Lagonda coupé. I had defeated myself in a fight against my better, family self which told me I wanted a Rapide tourer, my wife influencing me in the end when she saw a photo depicting three “outside exhausts” which literally terrified her with the thought of speeds over the “ton.” She has never really liked speed and feels an uncontrollable desire to recede down towards the floorboards as the needle progresses round the clock. Any driver exceeding 50 is liable to find her wrapped round the clutch pedal, in fact several have. It was about this time that she flabbergasted me by telling me she was going to take up driving herself. So we decided that two cars was the way out of many arguments, one for family use and one for my journeys and speed events, etc., and thus we bought “Mirabelle,” a Morris Eight whose adventures I will not dwell upon, nor upon “Ada,” a Standard Nine, for that matter. I had used the Lagonda, however, at Brighton, Gosport, and Firle hill-climb, having modified her somewhat, and, prior to selling her, took the final bend at Gravesend speed trials in such a manner that Gordon (Jaguara) Parker swore that the timekeeper bolted from his table, thus giving me a faster time than I had made. As Victor Herne and Cliff Davis stood around looking at me as if they agreed I presumed that I must have looked somewhat alarming, but protested that I had realised just what I was doing, to which Gordon retorted that he had hoped I had for whatever it was I had certainly done it, and proved it by showing me a fantastic photo a week later, about which he has pulled my leg ever since. This car seemed to enjoy odd situations for on my return from Firle I had been directed inadvertently by Freeman-Wright’s mechanic to a rather posh private estate where the houses had large grass lawns as pavements in front of the gates. Being dark and misty and unsure of our way, we suddenly discovered, via a jar to our spines, that we had dropped into a deep gully about the width of a tyre across and covered by grass growing over the edges. This drainage gully, it appeared, stretched the entire length of the road and we were firmly locked up to the running-board and looked like spending the night there. We selected a large property with a light showing in the window and pulled on a large iron contraption which started up a chorus of bells which would have awakened the dead, accompanied by snarling and growling at the letter-box. A lady holding a mastiff by the collar opened the door and, being mindful of our somewhat dilapidated appearance (boots, duffle coats, caps, goggles, etc.), we doffed our caps with oily hands, and asked if we might use the phone. I completely forgot that I was carrying a large copper wheel clout in my other hand, which must have convinced our hostess that we were a couple of “coshers.” She nodded extremely nervous approval and we clattered over her parquet flooring on tip-toe with dog snarling at our rear. I got through to Mrs. Wright and explained our difficulty and asked her to send the “boys” along (a foolish word to choose).
Our hostess gazed from the doorway and, when Mrs.Wright asked “Which Peter?” and I replied “Peter Cavanagh,” was convinced I was not only dangerous but using someone’s name to try and fool her into the bargain. We got the car out and someone “borrowed” a flagstone from a front drive, which I fear was not returned in “as new” condition. I remember we did mention we were enthusiasts from the Bentley Drivers’ hill-climb, and I had visions of Colonel Berthon being set upon by in fierce army of landscape gardeners.
For a short period I owned an S.S.100, which was not a clever buy as far as luggage went, and my large case balanced on the ledge behind the seats would deal my pianist a frequent slap on the back of the neck. This car was decidedly nose-heavy without a full petrol tank and on one journey when I foolishly dashed up to Harrogate in a gale actually “took off” on a couple of somewhat distressing occasions when the howling wind got under the flat sail-like front wings, and was not altogether assisted by coming over a bridge face to face with a flock of sheep. She would think nothing of half revolving in front of a tram on wet wood blocks at the slightest application of the brakes and, though all appeared correct on examination, we were convinced that there was something “odd” about “Bee-bee,” It was either pig iron for a passenger or a perpetually full tank (which on “basic” was impossible).
A Citroën Light Fifteen followed, and here I will add my bit of praise to what has already been said by the “F.W.D. brigade.” It felt “safe,” it cornered “on lines,” and it went like a little arrow, ignoring snow and wet alike, and only owing to gear position re my wife did we change for a Vanguard, only to find that the soft suspension didn’t agree with the children’s tummies but the Citroën had gone elsewhere. A night of climatic beastliness on top of Hindhead owing to a dud condenser and coil decided me to carry a box of small spares, for most of my journeys find me winding along the roads of Britain at two and three o’clock in the morning; We changed the Vanguard for a very fine Railton drophead coupé and some money back. Why these fine cars have such a low secondhand value I cannot understand. They have excellent power-weight ratio, giving vivid acceleration and economical fuel consumption, coupled with a fine suspension, and an hour in one of these cars will convince anyone that Reid Railton certainly knew what he was doing. She gave trouble-free service over many a long distance during the year in which we had her, and is now, I believe, in South Africa giving an equally good report of herself.
About his time I bought a 1935 Le Mans 4 1/2 Lagonda tourer and she was rebuilt to factory condition over a long period, including such “mods.” as raised compression, Martlets, twin exhaust system, large-capacity setup, dual-stage oil pumping, etc. I entered her for Firle and her practice run was encouraging. On my first official run I came ripping up to the first tight bend when out of the corner of any eye I got a split-second glimpse of two men watching from the bank. Bertie Moir and “W. O.” It may sound odd to may younger readers that such a situation should have any repercussion on a driver about to take a fast bend, but upon me the effect was instantaneous. I eased off, corrected my slide with all the military precision I could muster, and prayed that my “line” might be that of a slide-rule, for one sign of “chancing it” or “hamming it” and would wish the hill to swallow me up, such is my respect for these men, their records, and what they stand for. As soon as I had disappeared round the bend my magneto cut out and I climbed the remainder on coil and one set of plugs. The rain started and, with thoughts of only half power and executing that wet corner under the eyes of the “masters,” I limited it. I would not expect anyone to understand why. Just embarrassment; perhaps; but I am like that!
I entered her for “Brighton” the following season after more body rebuilding, etc.. and she got away well with considerable wheel-spin as the torque low down was quite tremendous for the weight, and just over the halfway mark my power dropped off and I suspected fuel starvation. It was, however, the “Jonah” magneto again, and in the circumstances 37 sec. dead did not seem too bad. I ran her very little during ownership as the rebuild was continually in progress and having renewed the magneto got her in peak condition when health troubles intervened, upsetting work, and I dutifully sold her with deep regrets. She is, I believe, overseas — a very beautiful motor car which should be a delight to her owner. Between times I co-drivered a friend’s Fiat Ballila at Brands Hatch speed trials and we won our class.
Today I own a Mille Miglia Healey saloon and I am going to say here and now that I confess I am delighted with her. She is hearty, robust, and has that indescribable something of a “vintage” car about her. The almost-racing-car chassis and suspension gives a confidence which I have yet to find in a post-war modern (under the three-thousand-pound mark), and with “over the ton,” 30 m.p.g., and more acceleration I can take the family shopping or wait for the starter at will.
I have learnt much from my motor cars and, like all of us, have cursed and praised them alternately. I have always kept them scrupulously clean under the bonnet, for to me the man who never lifts the lid until something fails, and leaves the mud of winter until it is covered by the mud of autumn, is an assassin who has no respect for his motor car and should not expect it to have respect for him. I have always found that care lavished upon my mechanical friends has been amply repaid. Having driven many miles in borrowed motor cars, I have often been appalled at the condition which people seem to think “safe,” let alone anything else, and I am sad to say this has not always excluded sports-car owners. As for brakes! I wonder if some people know such things exist.
As my average journey in a weekend is usually somewhere around 200 miles I get ample time to study other vehicles, and I have come to the conclusion that “Joe Dokes” doesn’t seem to think anything unusual of wheels which have rims like a switchback and wobble at various fascinating angles, and although I may stick out the proverbial neck when I mention “bobbing birds” and “dangling dollies,” it is perhaps wise for their fanciers to carry on using them as it gives one fair warning to be prepared for unpredictable behaviour! “Family” saloons driven at the high speeds available in these times continually give me heart failure when I see them coming round bends, not for my own car or for my ability to avoid them, but for the poor wretched suspension and the blissful ignorance of the drivers who do not apparently realise that their mounts were built for the purpose of conveying them in comfort to their destinations at a good average speed and not to emulate Gonzalez in the B.R.M. This is no state of complacent smugness, but bitter experience learned from my own failures and stupidity in earlier days, when, thank the Lord, I had the road to myself; and I often leave in the middle of the last race to avoid becoming enveloped in a sea of “popular ironmongery” where “Every man his own Hawthorn” becomes the vogue. (No offence “Mike”!) I have an incurable love of motor cars and admit to being a “dyed in the wool” enthusiast and, who knows, some day I may be able to say a DB3 Aston Martin is a “Car I have owned”!