[Continuing this revived series, we have a contribution from Rex Young of Bristol. — Ed.]
In my case, graduation from two wheels to four followed the conventional pattern, though the two-wheeled period was somewhat sporadic, partly due to its coincidence with the 1914/1918 war, when wheels were few and riders were fewer. It was initiated towards the end of my schooldays in 1916 and during the brief visit of a motor-cycling uncle, whose ancient Chater-Lea stood invitingly outside the front gate while he and my father were conferring within the house. Seizing the moment, I leapt upon the machine, and in almost complete ignorance pulled and pushed every lever I had carefully watched him pull or push during previous visits. This worked with such astonishing success that I managed to survive a flat-out tour of the immediate neighbourhood and arrive back at the house still in one piece, to find my father regarding me with angry and purposeful gaze from a front-room window. During their panic-stricken examination of the still-smoking Chater-Lea which immediately followed, I escaped to the lavatory, wherein I stayed until parental wrath had cooled.
Thus blooded, I subsequently rode borrowed motor-bikes at various times whilst on leave from the Royal Flying Corps in 1917/18, and with this background of precarious experience hired a two-stroke Levis for a weekend in 1919, which was returned to the hirers in such a state that I had to push it two miles to their premises, prop it up against an outside wall with many parts hanging by a thread, and escape with my cash deposit before they had time to wheel it into their shop. Subsequent correspondence with them revealed that it had fallen into twenty pieces when they performed the latter task, but a clear conscience spoke when I advised them in reply that the machine was very near that condition when they had hired it to me at the outset. From this time on I aspired to a steering wheel in place of handlebars and begged, borrowed and stole many hours at the wheel of any car that came my way. But the days of my youth were impecunious beyond the average, and four wheels eluded my ownership until 1926, when I bought my first car whilst on leave from the White Man’s Grave area of West Africa.
This was a large 1922 22-h.p. Buick tourer, price £65, and on it I taught my wife-to-be the art of driving, or at least I thought I had until one fine afternoon, whilst drawing with a flourish into the large open courtyard of a select country hotel for afternoon tea, My Lady confused accelerator with brake-pedal, and the Buick rammed the large bay window of the hotel lounge with a crash that brought three large tiles off the roof and twenty-three people to their feet in the tea room. With great sang-froid I ignored this incident and we entered the deadly silent but thickly populated hotel lounge for tea. (Have you ever felt like the subject of an H. M. Bateman cartoon? Write to me for still-remembered details.) It was only after tea that I had to change both front wheels, knock out two buckled front wings, and laboriously refill a battered and leaking radiator before we could complete a chastened homeward journey on which, needless to say, My Lady sat on my left and not on my right.
Apart from this contretemps, there was a later one in which, after an enthusiastic “blind” up the Great North Road to show the Buick’s paces, a neat bank-clerk friend of mine was transformed in a trice from natty White Man to startled Black Man during an under-bonnet investigation when, on my pressing the starter after inviting him to “tickle the carburetter a bit,” there was a loud bang, a large cloud of smoke, and the dipstick departed rocket-like over his left shoulder, leaving his face completely bathed in coal-black hot oil blown up from the sump, whilst my mother and my fiancee shouted “Fire” in strangled voices from the rear seats. Broken piston! Our subsequent unseemly mirth was not appreciated by the victim until he had been led to the driving mirror, whereupon it became quite clear that he did not know whether he was Amos or Mose.
There was yet another incident when, returning from a dance and crossing Hampstead Heath at midnight on the eve of my return to West Africa, chafed wiring caused the Buick to burst suddenly into flames, whereupon my fiancee and I leapt hurriedly to the far side of the road, from which vantage point I surveyed the conflagration with supernatural calm, and countered her nervous gasps about “doing something” with the remark: “Why worry? — the insurance cover is eighty-five quid and we’ll only get thirty if I have to sell her!” Whereupon the fire promptly went out of its own accord and accomplished poetic justice. But this old Buick seated five people in comfort, could do 65 m.p.h., and did about 15 m.p.g. Good value for £65? We thought so anyway — especially with all that fun thrown in.
Succeeding furloughs from West Africa during the next five years saw each leave period filled with assorted motoring. A 1928 Austin Twelve-Four gave good service and no trouble, though it made my right leg ache like mad trying to get more than 50 m.p.h. on the clock, which was impossible. Then came a 12/50 Alvis “duck’s-back” two-seater; quite a goer this, and great but draughty fun. The suspension was hard, but roadholding very good for its day, and the roaring exhaust-note from a large-bore copper pipe was most satisfying.
Next on the list was a 1925 Crossley fabric saloon . . . adequate comfort, 70 m.p.h. maximum, and elegant appearance for its day. My brother later took this car back to West Africa after finishing one of his leave periods in England, and it gave good service for many months under tropical conditions. Crossleys made quite a motor car in that era. Its forebears were the military staff cars which were used in the R.F.C. and R.A.F. during the 1914/18 war.
But by 1931 the White Man’s Grave was no place for me with a well-car-trained wife and a baby son, and a new job on the road at home gave scope for a succession of further cars, purchased mainly for business use but which mostly had to serve our pleasure as well as my daily toil. In 1931 it was a new Morris-Cowley saloon on which I did 30,000 miles with a high measure of reliability. Half-way through the year I also bought, for £50, a neat M.G. two-seater, one of the early “Morris-Oxford” M.G.s, in scarlet and buffed aluminium, for the enjoyment of weekend fresh air, of which we had plenty. A delightful car! Fast, utterly reliable, and with good roadholding without too firm a ride. My passengers often remarked on the comfort, all, that is, except my wife, whose frequent refrain at that period was: “Can’t you ever go slowly? ” But she later developed into the World’s Best Feminine Passenger, so this earlier training must have had an effect.
These two cars, the Cowley and the M.G., were swapped as a pair in 1932 for a new Austin Ten saloon, and this, the first of the Tens, did a year’s mileage of 30,000 with wonderful freedom from trouble, and was then replaced by a 1933 model. The 1933 car gave excellent daily service in all weathers except for one brief period when a quite mysterious knock in the engine resulted in my driving it up to the Longbridge works for a diagnosis. Oh! palmy days of good value and keen competition! Austin’s tester merely listened to the knock, nodded his head, and said: “Mileage 10,000 Sir? Right — leave it here for two days and it’ll be ready with a new engine — no charge!” To which, of course, I smilingly agreed, little thinking as I left him that within an hour I should become the owner of yet another car.
But that is just what happened, because, taking a sudden violent dislike to the thought of a monotonous train journey back to my home in Cambridge, I wandered into Reg Taylor’s garage in Birmingham, saw a 1923 3-litre Bentley tourer all ready to drive away for £50, bought it on the spot, and in less than thirty minutes was Bentley-ing (for the first time, and what a treat!) back to Cambridge. And in case that purchase sounds too easy, let me say that I didn’t know where the £50 purchase price was coming from, though Reg Taylor took £4 in cash, which was all I had on me, and my cheque for the balance. But the Bentley, which was painted Cambridge blue was therefore destined to come to me, likewise captivated my wife — or so she said! — and an accommodating bank manager’s charming confidence in my very small life policy did the rest, God bless him!
In the Bentley we had many exhilarating runs along the Newmarket road and around the Fen country. It started always on a half-turn of the handle, ran in the sixties like a train on rails, and never gave us a moment of mechanical trouble. The thoroughbred of 1923 was still a joy ten years after manufacture, and indeed for all I know it may still be running yet. Thus did “W.O.” and the men who made those doughty cars gain yet another disciple.
The only snag was that wherever and whenever I left the Bentley parked in Cambridge, we would return to find it surrounded by a gaggle of enthusiastic undergraduates, some of whom would invariably endeavour to negotiate a sale. But unfortunately for them their capacity to find my price was always greatly inferior to the quality of their enthusiasm, until eventually one amazingly generous and headstrong student offered us the clean swap of a 1932 Alvis Silver Eagle fabric saloon, whose paces in a trial run broke down our resistance, and the deal was closed. As my wife said, one did not often get the chance of clean-swapping a ten-year-old car for a two-year-old one — even if the former was a Bentley — and besides, the saloon would be so much kinder to her permanent wave! This unbelievable deal made us feel Alice in Wonderland for quite a while, and even today I still think that student must have been crackers, though I must confess that I missed the old Bentley for many months after it had gone.
We ran the Alvis until my brother came home on another leave from the tropics, and he took it over for use on his furlough, during which it served him well, later to be the subject of a profitable sale on his return to the land of blazing sunshine and mosquitoes. This car had a heavy feel and was somewhat tiring to drive on long journeys, but underneath the heaviness one could always feel the blood of the thoroughbred. Alvis was a potent name in the nineteen-thirties, and a number of their cars of this series are still running today, twenty-four years after manufacture. As somebody used to say somewhere: “It makes you think! “
In 1934 I was still very Austin-Ten-minded as regards a car for business use, but this time I wrote to the makers asking if they would supply me with one of their ordinary Ten saloons, but fitted with their special Sports Ten engine which had just been introduced in an open tourer for that year. They obligingly agreed to do this for £30 extra, and that year, after a scrupulously careful running-in, I had great fun every day on the flat roads of the Fen country, because nobody could understand how it was that my humble Ten, in appearance just like dozens of others, could whip past any of its brothers on the road and show their drivers a rapidly receding rear number-plate. In my local garage one day with the car for some routine attention, I overhead another customer ask the foreman: “Ah ! — now who is it who runs that little Austin there? I’ve chased that Bee all over Cambridgeshire and never caught him yet!” Only my most colossal frown from behind the enquirer’s shoulder prevented the foreman from giving away a close-guarded secret, and even so he couldn’t resist telling his customer that I certainly had a Bee under my bonnet. With the sports engine the little Austin was good for an honest sixty-five, and could be coaxed up to nearly seventy under the right conditions.
Early in 1935 we moved to Surrey, and I promptly fell for a new shining Rover Ten in Kaye Don’s showroom in Epsom; this despite a price of £248 which, believe me, was quite a sum for the modest enthusiast of the mid-thirties. This deal therefore involved selling our sports-engined Austin Ten for a good price, and after five long and industrious evenings of cleaning, adjusting, and polishing, my first customer arrived. He was visibly impressed whilst walking round the car in my garage, and remarked that it looked in nice condition. “Yes, quite honestly, she is,” I said: “In fact there isn’t a scratch on her anywhere!” Whereupon the silver treble of my six-year-old son and heir piped up from behind the car: “Oh daddy! — you know there’s a small scratch here on the back mudguard — you rubbed at it for hours yesterday!” Bless my little son and his transparent honesty! The customer laughed his head off, paid my price, and departed well pleased with his purchase. Next day I took delivery of the Rover.
The Rover Ten of 1935 was a motor-car of good metal and was made by craftsmen, and this one carried us nearly 100,000 miles, from then until the year of the world war, for the price of two rebores, six sets of tyres, and other normal replacements only. So marked was the behaviour and performance of this car when compared with the normal off-the-peg mass-production types of the period, that I had no desire to change except for an occasional hankering after an open model. A 55 m.p.h. easy cruising speed and a 75 m.p.h. speedo maximum satisfied my business-trip requirements, and my wife liked the Rover’s smooth comfort and the free-wheel cruising of our week-end pleasure jaunts. It came with us from Surrey when we moved to Bristol in 1936, and was replaced in 1939 by a small Standard Eight saloon (price then £125, complete ex-works!), on which during the war years I did nearly 70,000 miles with an economy of running costs and upkeep that was not only appropriate to the times, but was also a tribute to the design and workmanship of the makers.
From 1946, and for three years following, came a succession of post-war models which, as a business executive, served the needs of my daily travels in the West Country. Hillman Minx, 1946. Another Hillman, 1948. Vauxhall Wyvern, 1949. All three were excellent as business cars but not, of course, entirely satisfying to one who, despite advance to middle age and a susceptibility to grey hair, still rushed off to Lulsgate, Castle Combe, and other local rendezvous when opportunity provided.
But in 1950, after years of financial tight-rope walking with commitments which precluded too selfish an expenditure on the kind of cars one dreams about, the old urge returned, and in an effort to satisfy my wife’s requirements as regards not disturbing her permanent wave, more important now than in earlier days, and my own desire for speed coupled with my business needs, we invested in the compromise purchase of a Humber Super Snipe, 1946 model, which for the past five years has served us most loyally. My wife can sit serene in the comfort of big-car suspension, while I can use a heavy right foot in my endeavours to get the needle on to the “eighty” mark — and the Snipe doesn’t need much encouragement for that.
“Five to Eighty in top” was the sales slogan for this model, which was a statement of honesty and truth. ln addition, the car will tow my thirty-foot sailplane trailer at 60 m.p.h. (Husssssh!), and take our touring caravan all over Devon and Cornwall with effortless ease. And this is where you’re going to laugh, and the laugh is on me. This quite fast though sedate carriage has not held me to the compromise that was in mind at time of purchase. Its 80 m.p.h. gait has only served to ginger up my appetite, with the result that 1951-52 brought me steadily back to the unfulfilled longings of a far-away youth.
First, a 1932 4½-litre Invicta, still sound and good for 85 m.p.h. with roadholding to match. Unfortunately a friend fell so heartily for this car that in a weak moment I sold it to him at the price I’d paid for it and within a week of buying it. Then a Fiat Balilla (1935) in original condition complete with finned beetleback. This little car really showed my wife and I what small-car motoring can mean in open-air exhilaration — and hang that permanent wave! 75 m.p.h. with 30 m.p.g. was not to be sniffed at, either. The ride of the Balilla had that elusive indefinable something which seems to be inherent in most good Continentals. It always felt glued to the road, and the robust and beautifully-designed little engine could stand incredibly high revs, without protest. This car remained with us and gave us lots of fun until I saw a Riley Imp advertised in Motor Sport, whereupon I promptly put pen to paper, but was after all too late to get the Riley. However. I put the Balilla into showroom condition and found a purchaser. Yes! — he came via Motor Sport too!
Then, while looking round for its successor. I heard of a 2.3-litre Alfa-Romeo that was available for sale in Bristol, and in negotiating for this Italian creation I touched the peak of my motoring experience. This car was a four-seater long chassis Tipo 8C, first registered in 1935 and very similar to the one owned by the late Hawthorn Senior at Farnham, Surrey, and which was most nostalgically described by the Editor in Motor Sport of August, 1951. The owner, with a charming nonchalance, permitted me to: “Take the car anywhere you like for the afternoon, old boy, and bring her back this evening!” What a man! And what a car! Shades of Paradise. There was I with a sleek blown Alfa, bronze and blue, with a tankful of petrol and a fine, sunny afternoon. The acceleration ! The roadholding! The steering! The brakes! . . . but words fail me. Even with hands and feet like velvet in tribute to the owner’s generosity, nothing could stop that superbly-made car. We reached, and held, ninety-five with ease on A38 down towards Bridgwater, my passenger, a fellow sailplant pilot, sitting bolt, very bolt, upright with billiard-ball eyes glued on the blurred ribbon of road that swept beneath the Alfa’s wheels. He was far more used to cruising silently beneath the summer cumulus clouds at 45 m.p.h., which, of course, is even more fun than double that speed on the road, but in a different category of ecstasy. But how right was the Editor when he extolled the virtues of that sister car in Surrey. Viva Alfa-Romeo!
If I was an Eastern Potentate with eight beautiful wives, I’d have given the Alfa owner seven of them in exchange for that poem on wheels. But what he wanted was £700, and I hadn’t got the wives, or money then, anyway, and bank managers are so nervous these days, so it couldn’t be done. Still, I did “own” that lovely car for a whole unforgettable afternoon, and sympathetic readers will thus understand my including it in these notes. However, I still hankered for a tuneful exhaust and a healthy slipstream, and on a visit to London in June, 1952, a chance call at Potter and Richards brought to light a nice Riley Imp, of well-preserved appearance and seductive mien, which was awaiting a new owner. Robin Richards spoke well of the car, the car spoke well of itself, and Charles Mortimer’s name was on the registration book, and the result was that Riley Imp BUW 904 came into my “stable,” looking very small and racy beside the dignified bulk of the Humber, but soon knowing that it was the apple of its owner’s eye and the recipient of all his spare-time attention.
This little car, the first Riley I had owned, made me fully appreciate the keenness of all Riley fans. Seventeen years old, my leisure hours soon restored an immaculate appearance and a lively condition and although, to be honest, its disposition was somewhat temperamental and it needed lots of tender care to give of its best, it provided exhilarating acceleration, an easy cruising speed of 55/60 m.p.h., and a maximum of . . . ? — well, who could be a brute and belt a seventeen-year-old car up to 5,000 r.p.m.! But the Imp did stand nobly up to 4,500, at which revs. the “clock” showed seventy-five and the engine ran like silk. Normal running gave 35 m.p.g., and on any kind of road journey one could put forty miles into the hour without stress. And all this on 1,089 c.c.! An engine with the heart of a lion.
Well, then Sir Leonard Lord and Donald Healey got together, and out came the Austin-Healey 100, and from that moment there was one car I wanted above all others. But to want it was one thing, and to have it was another, and I had to do quite a bit of financial juggling to pull £1,063 out of the bag, reasonable though this price was for a car in this category. However, they say that if you want a thing hard enough, it usually happens that you get it, and in March of last year, my Riley Imp found a new home in kind hands, and a shining black Healey 100, with scarlet hood and interior trim, took its place in my garage.
Mind you, when I told my wife that we should now, at long last, be able to sample the joys of reaching 100 m.p.h., and more, on suitably safe stretches of main highway, her eye took on that far-away look and she murmured something about my being old enough to know better. But it was clear that she adored the Healey’s lovely lines and sleek appearance, likewise the comfort of that attractive cockpit behind the rakishly sloped screen. Subsequent experience has confirmed her adoration.
Yes — what a car. Quite the pinnacle of all my dreams in no less than thirty-five years of enthusiastic motoring. Ample and luxurious accommodation for two. A luggage boot of generous proportions still unusual in a sports car. Perfect all-weather protection, or pure open-air motoring at will. Acceleration in the breath-taking category, maximum speed ditto, steering and roadholding of the first order. Delightful, low-revving, economical cruising in overdrive — I’ve averaged 25.5 m.p.g. in 7,000 miles touring to date. And the ability to cover a main road journey in such effortless fashion that it is difficult not to put fifty miles into the hour. Moreover, a lovely ride; not too soft; not too firm; but just right. I could go on extolling its virtues, but will refrain from becoming too poetic out of sympathetic consideration for all those keen TR2 fans whose letters recently flamed in Motor Sport’s correspondence columns to defend their mounts in the then-current Healey versus TR2 controversy. I must say, however, that in my humble opinion the Healey 100 is the fast touring car par excellence, at its price. Not having diced it on the track or in trials, I cannot speak of its merits in that field, but on the road it is a truly satisfying machine, and moreover, it has real character. Thank you Donald Healey, and thank you Sir Leonard Lord, for the many hours of pleasure I have had since you produced this smooth masterpiece of a fast car. However long the journey, it rejuvenates, and never tires, its driver.
Well, that’s where I am to date, as near to perfection as I can hope to get without an unexpected and most unlikely addition to my future bank balance, and the road to the Healey has stretched over a period of thirty years and has followed the previous ownership of 20 cars of assorted pedigree. But despite my grey hair I reckon I can still aspire to a DB4/4 before I have to put that bath chair on order. Anyway, there’s no harm in aspiring, is there? — for in the field of sporting motoring one never knows what will turn up. Long live the sport! sez I, and so, without a doubt, sez all of us.