Recently I was perusing through a few back numbers of Motor Sport, when I came across the issue for November 1971. I read with some interest your article on page 1142 headed “Veteran Edwardian Vintage”, as that was the period when I was employed in the motor industry. I felt perhaps you would be interested in having a few comments from a gentleman of 92 years old, who until recently was servicing his own cars and still driving. I was initially employed by Dennis Bros., of Guildford, who at that time were manufacturing bicycles and steel pony carriages. These later developed into the manufacture of a motor car, fitted with a single-cylinder Aster engine.
Always seeking a better living. I changed my employer and joined Messrs. Laurier and Marner of 311 Oxford Street, whose rear entrance was in Dering Street, the street referred to in your article. This old firm was already a well-established manufacturer of horse carriages for the aristocracy, and hirers of City and Suburban electric cars. At the time they employed me they were about to take an interest in petrol-engined cars. First, however, I would like to talk about their electric car activities. These hired-out electric cars were often driven by elderly coachmen, who until they came to us had only handled horse-carriages. One of my tasks was to teach these coachmen how to drive an electric car, which I did by taking them round Regents Park. I could recall many amusing instances as we drove, or rather dodged, our way round the circuit.
These cars were often severely abused after delivery, such as starting in top speed and changing down into reverse, both of which subjected the electrical and mechanical parts to abnormally high torque loads.
I have used the term speed and not gear as these electric cars were rather unusual in their control. The driver had a revolving drum which, when rotated, first connected the batteries and motors in parallel, then the motors were connected in series. Finally the motors and batteries were all in series. The problem of a differential was overcome by placing the motors’ rotor on the axle, and the armature on the axle casing.
Hirers of these cars expected a completely silent mode of transport, a feature the more fastidious hirer insisted upon. The abuse previously mentioned caused the reduction gear pinions to wear rapidly, thus making the gears wery noisy. Many hours of midnight oil were burnt trying to restore this silence back to its original level.
As may be expected the abuse also severely overloaded the batteries, causing rapid deterioration of the positive plates. The batteries were returned to the manufacturer, Electrical Power Storage (ELS), for repair.
Later I became responsible for their petrol-engined car activities, the most prominent makes being the Argyll and Mathieu cars. These we both assembled and overhauled. The latter work was carried on in our modern underground workshops. Cylinder heads were not detachable, therefore a de-coke necessitated the removal of the cylinder block from the crankcase, exposing the pistons, con.-rods and crankshaft, giving us the opportunity to carry out a detailed inspection.
Spares were in very short supply, therefore most parts required were made in our own workshops. The only machines we had were vertical drills, and six-inch cutting and surfacing lathes, on which I have made more halfshafts than I care to remember. Crankshafts were not ground as they are today, but had plain white metal bearings which were remetalled by hand, being finally finished using hand tools such as scrapers and plenty of patience.
The bodies were built by us to the customer’s own specification, including his choice of accessories like lamps, horns, speedometers, etc. Special fittings, for example brackets and handles, were made in our own forge.
On completion the body was fitted to the chassis, leaving me with the job of having to start the engine. This was no mean feat since, in the absence of starter motors and coils, these new and very tight 40 h.p. engines had to be turned over by hand sufficiently fast enough to get the magneto to function. When the car was finally ready I delivered it to the new owner, often staying until he was completely familiar with it.
Apart from these overhauls and initial assemblies; we also carried out everyday running repairs, like relining brakes and leather cone clutches. Tyres were of course a great problem in those days. A point of interest to today’s motorists is that in driving a heavy Landaulette from London to Bournemouth On studded tyres, size 935 by 135, they were so hot on arrival that you could not bear to place your hand on the tread. Although studded tyres only gave us 3,000 miles of motoring, due to these high temperatures, they were still cheaper to use than a plain tyre. A well-known manufacturer for this period who did not make a studded tyre was Palmer Cord, who are still well known today in aviation circles. All removals and fitting of tyres had to be carried out with the wheel still fitted to the car. Later we had the luxury of spare rims, as we have spare wheels today. Many times I have been called out on wet and dark nights to carry out the lengthy operation of changing a tyre. Remember that the average road was not as good as today’s unsurfaced drives. The skill required in changing a tyre was to be able to remove and refit five special securing nuts and bolts, without ripping the inner-tube in the process, the Palmer Cord being the most difficult.
Petrol in those days cost well inside five-pence a gallon. It retailed in green three-gallon drums, each having a brass stopper and key. This petrol was marketed under the name of Charles-Caple and Leonard.
Bridport H. W. Walken (Age 92)
[It is not every day we get a letter from a 92-year-old reader.—ED.]