A Discourse on the World’s Best Car at the Time of the Armistice (Continued from the March issue)
Having proved that, on paper, in my opinion, Parry Thomas’ Leyland Eight evolved by 1918 and introduced to the motoring world at the Olympia Show of 1920 had no equal among the luxury cars of that period, it becomes necessary to consider how it must have appeared to those wealthy folk who were pondering the problems of which new car to purchase at the time of the Armistice that marked the cessation of that War to end all future wars.
Most of these worthy customers would have had little understanding of the cars offered to them in terms of the technicalities we have just disposed of. It is likely, however, that they lapped up what they read and heard, about what today’s Consumer Association would call the “Best Buy”. Many of them took in The Autocar, then the leading motoring weekly (every Friday, price 4d.), in spite of their lack of understanding of motor-cars. They presumably did this on the grounds that if you have a hobby you should read about it; and motoring was very much a new hobby in the 1920s. (At this time wireless enthusiasts likewise read the literature directed at them, but perhaps with more knowledge of what it was all about, for they were making their own crystal receivers and simple valve sets. Do you remember Popular Wireless, with its pictorial front covers, one of which depicted a man wheeling a baby’s pram in which resided his wireless equipment, while he listened-in to 2LO on headphones, with a frame aerial attached to the pram? The more advanced read Modern Radio and dreamed of ten-valve super heterodyne receivers able to pull in America, also on a frame aerial.)
After perusal of The Autocar, from which they could at least keep an eye on the rising price of petrol, lighting-up times, the touring hints, and the small advertisements of ex-Servicemen hoping to become chauffeurs in private service, these New Motorists would pass it on to the paid man in the garage, without gaining much confidence as to how to spend some £3,000 on an imposing, reliable, comfortable new limousine. But with that amount at stake, whether inherited or accumulated from war-profiteering, we can assume that they paid at least some attention to what the pioneer motor journal had to say about the kind of car in which they were interested.
What would they have discovered? Ignoring the comments of Continental testers, as early as April 1920 there was a test report on the new Lanchester Forty, It was a flowery piece of writing, which began by remarking that the Lanchester is “a type of super-cal which is about to mark a new era in motoring. Vehicles such as this”, continued the writer, “may be high in first cost, but true refinement is as valuable as it is rare. To connect the Lanchester with purchase money is almost sacrilege; it is worth seven lean years of hard work”. But parting with money was just what the buyer was about to do and it depended whose hard work you were using as a yard-stick! This Lanchester, with a rather rattly test tourer body, was demonstrated to the journalists by Mr. Millership in the Midlands, that worthy swerving up and down side-road banks to show the superiority of the suspension. It was then tried in Surrey by London members of the journal’s staff. The car was rumoured to do 90 m.p.h. and was said to be able to go from 2½ to 80 m.p.h. in top gear. It weighed 38 cwt. (47.8 lb. per b.h.p.) and its fuelthirst was approx. 15 m.p.g. Otherwise not much was revealed, except that the testing gentlemen had been quite captivated! However, their speed claims were quickly discounted in subsequent correspondence.
Just before this Lanchester road-test report appeared The Autocar had been out in the latest (1920) Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost tourer. They published a much less flowery account of their impressions. Indeed, they wrote that “To some extent the Taj Mahal and the Rolls-Royce may be regarded as parallel instances of productions as nearly perfect as the wit of man can devise, each suffering from the danger that the ordinary individual will be set against it before he sees it by excessive preliminary laudation”. After which over-embellished prose was out. But this was, of course, just the way not to turn people against the Silver Ghost! The 1920 model was praised for its excellent acceleration, its extreme smoothness of running, and its “perfect comfort”. Top speed was not tested but its driver (they meant the chap from R-R) put it at 78 m.p.h.
Our mythical, bewildered prospective purchaser, assuming that his order for a new car had not already been placed by 1921, was probably thinking it a toss-up between the Lanchester and the Rolls-Royce, in spite of their diametrically-opposed mechanical features, when more test reports arrived on his Friday breakfast table. In March of that year there was a report about driving a 37.2 h.p. Hispano-Suiza in Surrey, on Trade number plates and equipped with a crude four-seater test body. It was placed at the journal’s disposal by Mr. Nesfler of Entente Industriale Ltd., the Hispano-Suiza agents, and was untried and untuned; later there was brief experience with a touring model. The report was guarded, but spoke of the “truly terrific acceleration”, although in spite of its sketchy body and mudguards the car weighed over 37¾ cwt., the very powerful four-wheel-servo brakes, at the expense of a poor handbrake, and the beautiful springing. Noise was attributed to the o.h.v. gear, but the famous steering, which made this 12 ft.wheelbase chassis feel like a small car, was duly praised. At Brooklands, four up, the timed mile was covered at 75 m.p.h. and the Test Hill was climbed from a standing start at 21.07 m.p.h., three-up.
This eagerly-awaited report was followed by another on the Rolls-Royce in June. It was based on a mere 60-mile run, but on the latest tourer with modified back springs (more and pointed-end leaves, with unslotted main leaf) and thermostatic control of the water temperature. There was just a hint of periodicity or vibration when accelerating hard from 22 to 25 m.p.h. Top speed was suggested as about 70 m.p.h., and fuel consumption was 15 to 18 m.p.g. The car weighed over 40¾ cwt. without passengers, and would run at walking pace in top speed.
So what now? The new o.h.c. Napier 40/50 had been held up by industrial stoppages and design problems and although there had been the satisfactory RAC-observed Alpine Trial, it Was not until July 1921 that The Autocar was able to publish its own opinions of the car, and then the Acton Company had only been able to supply them with a demonstrator with 30,000 miles behind. . . .
Some post armistice rivals to the Leyland Eight—as the customers contemplated them
. . .it and all the varnish gone from its squeaky, rattling touring body. Weighing just over 37¼ cwt., this Napier went up Brooklands Test Hill from a standing start at 17.16 m.p.h. (the driver was presumably the works man, as he was said never to have seen the hill previously) but for some unexplained reason the car was not timed over the flying mile. It was said to be almost perfect in respect of traffic docility, had a very smooth clutch, very good but not the lightest of steering, and a fine foot-brake but a weak hand-brake. This was but a day’s test, with the writer driving for only 35 miles! The Napier’s petrol thirst was 13 to 16 m.p.g.
Those with the Isotta-Fraschini straight-eight on their “short-list” had to wait until the last day of 1921 before reading a comparative account of its road behaviour. Described as a 35/50 h.p. model, the test car had a rough four-seater body devoid of front door. It weighed 42¼ cwt. empty, gave 14 m.p.g., and possessed “two great features”, its good acceleration and its powerful fourwheel-brakes. The Brooklands speed and hill figures were, respectively, 66.67 m.p.h. and 16.0 m.p.h., this top speed being described as “fully sufficient for the needs of any motorist”(!) although on the road it was possible, under favourable conditions, to go a bit more quickly. The engine was over-cooled for Britain and the mixture control for the dual Zenith carburetters needed exact attention.
That, then, so far as the magazine-browsing customer was concerned, was that. Except that there was the Leyland Eight to be considered. If our shopper for a luxury car deigned to take in The Motor (Tuesdays, also 4d.) he would have read a report, by early November, 1921, on this new venture on the part of the great commercial vehicle manufacturer. It spoke of a top speed of “upwards of 90 m.p.h.”, flexibility from a walking pace, acceleration which was rapid “but in no sense of the word harsh” and a straight-eight engine that was “noiseless and entirely without vibration”. The unique suspension also won warm praise: “Looking over the side of the car, the back axle can be seen dancing madly up and down as it goes over bumps and ridges. Although the thin end of the quarter-elliptic rear spring is shaking like an aspen leaf in the wind, the chassis is firm and steady on the ground”. The quiet running was especially emphasised. Indeed, so silent was the Leyland Eight that the tester complained that the hiss of air from what he called the pneumatic foot-brake “appeared as a loud noise on an otherwise perfectly silent car”. He also found the brake servo to lag somewhat, and the brake pedal to lack feel. He was so enthusiastic, however, about the new car that he concluded the test-report with the words: “So perfect is the rest of the car” (this followed the comment on the brakes) “that the merest detail that is not wholly in accordance with it stands out with unnecessary prominence. There can be not a shadow of doubt, however, that the Leyland Eight is a truly wonderful car, for it not only incorporates the last word in modern automobile engineering science in its design, but additionally their effectiveness and value are proved in no uncertain degree by its extraordinary performance on the road.” Parry Thomas should, I feel, have
slept soundly that night. . .
The Autocar never got round to road testing this remarkable car before Leyland Motors’ policy changed and they abandoned its production. In 1922 the journal returned to the Lanchester Forty and 40/50 Napier, however, no doubt feeling that their first tests were hardly adequate. Archie Millership again indulged in pranks up banks with the former, but it Was established that a tourer weighing fractionally over 42¼ cwt, would do 76.93 m.p.h. over the Brooklands mile and 17.92 m.p.h. up the Test Hill, and return 15.4 m.p.g. It was also found that 10-30 m.p.h. in second speed occupied 8.4 sec. Equivalent figures for the Napier were 64.74 m.p.h. and 14.82 m.p.h., while 10-30 m.p.h. took 7 sec. in second gear, 10.4 sec. in top gear. The car weighed out, empty, at 36½ cwt. and used petrol at the rate of 16 to 18 m.p.g.
That last account was not published until October 1922, by which time our war profiteer had presumably decided what to invest in. He had perhaps heard that the Napier really needed a better chassis, disliked its comparatively short bonnet and central levers, and had lost confidence in it when it was rumoured that the only way Rowledge could Cure chronic crankshaft vibration was by using a lower compression-ratio in the last cylinder than in the other five. The Lanchester had an epicyclic gearbox but this sacrificed one forward speed compared with the normal 4-speed box, and as a chauffeur would be doing all the driving, what point in having a fool-proof change? Also, at the Club they may have hinted that there was an audible whine while the Lanchester’s engine was running with the lever in neutral. The Hispano-Suiza and Isotta-Fraschini had been presented in the breakfast-table reading as fast cars itching to be extended on foreign roads. The Leyland was too new to feel certain about and looked a bit lorry-like. So what happened? Our customer probably bought, as I might have done under the circumstances, a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost; for what the heart knows not it never grieves over. But assuredly the New Phantom was five years too late! (If company money was available I suppose I would have staked it on the Hispano-Suiza.) Or did our customer decide on inaudible pedestrianism and buy a sleeve-valve Daimler in which he travelled in an aura of Royalty and blue haze?
In fact, of course, he should have gone for the best of them all, the Leyland Eight. It is an odd fact that although speed was about the last quality wanted and in towns the chauffeur would probably be expected to keep close to the prevailing 20 m.p.h. speedlimit, top pace was still the snob criterion of a car. So let’s see how they rated, under that heading. Figures are difficult to come by. But the 37.2 Hispano-Suiza must have been good for over 80 m.p.h. The first Isotta-Fraschinis were not nearly so quick. George Lanchester has himself said that 80 m.p.h. was a trifle optimistic for his Forty, but that it would do a genuine 78 m.p.h. The Alpine Trial Napier was timed to do 72.38 m.p.h. over the Brooklands half-mile, on a low axle-ratio. I would not give an open Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost more than 82 m.p.h. But the Leyland Eight was credited by The Motor with exceeding 90 m.p.h. in early two-seater form and in its description of it spoke of “65 m.p.h. in third. . .
And the post-war designs as the engineers saw them …
. . .gear up hills”. Can Brooklands confirm such figures? Disregarding racing versions, such as the specially streamlined and geared Rolls-Royce which covered the quarter-mile at 101 m.p.h. in 1911 and Rapson’s single-seater Lanchester Forty in which Thomas lapped at over 109 m.p.h. in 1926, more normal examples of some of the cars we are considering ran at the Track. I have no comparable data for the two Continental cars but race lap-speeds can be found for the others, for two Silver Ghosts ran in the early 1920s, Bird experimented with a two-seater Lanchester 40 in 1921, Parry Thomas appeared in 1922 with a virtually-standard, if stripped, Leyland Eight two-seater, and some years later Alastair Miller raced a 40/50 Napier two-seater converted from a staid Lanclaulette. The state of tune of these cars must have varied to some extent yet they were, to all intents and purposes, catalogue cars stripped for the Track. Taking their best lap-speeds, the “results” of our “scratch race” would be:— 1st. J. G. Parry Thomas (Leyland Eight, 99.21 m.p.h.
2nd. C. A. Bird (Lanchester Forty), 96.71 m.p.h.
3rd. A. D. Sanderson (Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost), 86.02 m.p.h.
4th. A. G. Miller (40/50 Napier), 78.18 m.p.h.
These speeds seem to follow the road-test pattern accurately enough. Note that I have been absolutely fair, quoting the first racelap put in by Thomas. Later, and before he had streamlined the Leyland, he lapped in it at 104.85 m.p.h. The Leyland is thus seen to rate as by far the fastest luxury car of its era. Incidentally, the BARC Certificates indicate that in 1924 Thomas exceeded 100 m.p.h. for the f.s. half-mile on what seemed to have been a Leyland Eight chassis devoid of bodywork. I suppose I am one of the few present-day motoring writers to have had experience of a Leyland Eight. This was the car assembled by T & Ts in about 1927, after Thomas’ death, and was at the time owned by Sir Lionel Phillips. I wrote it up for Motor Sport of February 1938. It is the car now owned by British Leyland and is hardly comparable with the original cars, as it develops perhaps 200 b.h.p. It averaged 97.85 m.p.h. in the wet in the 1937 MCC High-Speed Trial, and when I went out in it, it exhibited the anticipated excellent springing and cruised at some 70 m.p.h. at 2,000 r.p.m. I took some acceleration figures with a cold engine and one “dud” plug, recording 0-50 m.p.h. in 12.0 sec. and 0-70 m.p.h. in 19.0 see., although the carburation needed attention. It is difficult to obtain comparable figures for the other luxury cars but when Cecil Clutton tried a 40/50 Napier for Motor Sport after the war, the best 0-50 he could achieve was in about 33 sec., although admittedly the car was a heavy saloon—not that the Leyland is exactly a featherweight!
On the whole, then, I think I may have convinced you that the best super-car of the early post-Armistice period was the one designed by Parry Thomas and built by Leyland Motors. In view of the subsequent speeds Thomas obtained from his Leyland Thomas cars (the Brooklands lap-record was his, at 128.36 m.p.h., by 1924) I think that had he remained with Leyland and had they kept the Leyland Eight in production, he would have produced a 100 m.p.h. saloonversion by 1925 or before. As it was, the first saloon to exceed the “ton” during an Autocar road-test was, I believe, an eight-litre Bentley. But not until 1931.
Today British Leyland make modern “Leyland Eights”, in the guise of the MG-B V8 and the Triumph Stag. They have a lofty heritage.—W.B.