The letter from N. R. Solley of Kenya brought on such a bout of nostalgia that a rare putting of “pen to paper” seemed to he the only palliative! I think it must have been his reference to early Wolseleys and SU carburetters that brought the pains on, because as a very young man I worked for Wolseley Motors (proprietors Vickers Ltd.) from some time in 1924 until well after the acquisition by Mr. Morris when they became known as Wolseley Motors (1927) Ltd. I worked at both the Petty France Depot, the “super” showroom in Piccadilly opposite the Ritz Hotel—now I believe the National Provincial Bank (or whoever took them over!)—and also at the brand new service station in Manor Street, Chelsea—both sides of the road!
I well remember the 16/20 to which he refers and also the larger models—I believe the 24/30 six-cylinder. This nomenclature was again repeated in the 1920s by a much more modern machine with four-wheel brakes. Then, of course, there was the second series “15” four-cylinder with a 4-speed gate-change crash box, which really was a “crash box” to all but the very chosen few. Memory also retains the names or faces of some of our more colourful customers, including a one-time gun-runner who “directed” use overhaul of his “20-h.p. sports” from Brixton Prison. Also Sir Harry Peat who used to race a boat-bodied second series Fifteen; and the Head Waiter of the Hotel Cecil (which was, I believe, where the Shell Building now is in the Strand) with his Brooklands model 10-h.p. Wolseley. Mr. Fox and Mr. Nicholl—later Fox and Nicholl at the end of the first stretch of the Kingston By-pass—were the leading figures in this service establishment. As a special favour, service was also given to cars like a V8 Bianchi, and one of those beautiful 22/90 Alfas owned, remember, by a Major Gallatley.
We had no such benefits as the watchmaker’s lathe referred to by Mr. Solley at the the SU works. We were issued with what were called “blank” needles and jets, and very fine emery cloth torn into tiny strips, and a lot of skill did the rest—getting the mixture right on the idling first and then slowly stage by stage right up to the “top end”. BLIC lighting and ignition equipment was the order of the day on most Wolseleys of the 1920s apart from the very smooth two-cylinder Wolseley 7 hp.
Wolseleys got more and more in the doldrums; and we found it difficult to even look occupied, and then one day in 1927 a director of the old company named Glasebrook arrived in number 1 of the famous Wolseley Silent Six—this one with a very difficult gate-change 4-speed box—quickly changed to a “ball change” as it was known then. I was given the job of attending to the “sparks” and the SU carburetter, and our test depot went mad because we felt that at last Wolseleys had pulled the fat from the fire. Our joy was short lived because shortly after we became part of the Morris Empire. W. Morris knew what he was doing, because I believe the basic design of that car went on under different model names right through to 1939.
Shortly followed, in 1927/8, the Wolseley straight-eight with a central o.h.c. drive, but, with one carburetter and a badly shaped induction pipe. If the float needle allowed petrol to pass when the car was standing overnight, the contents of the “Autovac” found its way into No. 5 cylinder. On pressing the starter button things stopped turning sharpish when No. 5 cylinder’s valves were closed, and this resulted in No. 5 con.-rod in aluminium—presumably forged “Dural”—being bent badly! It wasn’t too bad when you knew the habit of the beast—but it could be disastrous.
A smooth, nice sounding but “gutless” motor.
After a spell later with RAG Carburetters off King’s Road, Chelsea, fitting carburetters to some very good and also some very bad motor cars, including single and twin-carb. four-cylinder and six-cylinder OMs, Tractas and the very heavy Rover 14 with overhead inlets and side exhaust valves, I moved on to work for Robin Jackson at Brooklands on more exciting and at times more unusual machinery—and just to prevent any further recurring argument, I was the bloke who removed the rear engine from the Alfa Romeo Bi-motore and did much of the work to prepare it as a single-engined machine!!
Denis Conan Doyle used to find peculiar cars at this period, and bring them to us to make them “go”. I remember Austro-Daimlers (22/90?), a massive four-cylinder Nazarro, a 40-h.p. four-cylinder Wolseley shooting-brake, etc. The normal business at Jackson’s “Robinery” was a delight because each car worked on was someone’s pride and joy! Cowell’s Austin, Hugh Hunter’s Alta, Money’s MG—faster than so many, and no one knew why—Goldie Gardner’s record-breaking engines, Alpleton’s 3-bearing crank Riley 9 Special, Fry’s Keiserwagon, Eccles’ blown Rapier, etc. It was difficult at times to keep one’s head down and work, especially when Chris Staniland decided to do a few practice laps on a 2.3 Bugatti, or Arthur Dobson attacked a record in his white ERA— or Dunlop Mac and his mates popped in for a chat!! Irving the Champion plug man, Francis Bean the very fast bike man, Sinbad Milledge—our Wizard of Oz, Waddy the hillclimb specialist whose car was never quite ready, and of course Robin Jackson himself, Curly Skelton Reg Seldon; and the nice man in Chertsey who built the “Multi Union” Irons Alfa P3 parts, and last Charles Brackenbury—alas so many very happy memories.
N. S. Robbins.
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