Cars In Books, April 1975

This series has been running longer than I care to remember and sometimes I think that authors of new autobiographies take a hint from it and name the cars in their lives because of it. I am also helped to extend it by the thoughtfulness of readers who send me appropriate extracts from books I would otherwise not know of.

This is the case with a surely very rare and certainly most interesting publication forwarded to us by Mr. James Ayre of Honiton. It is a duplicated book, but very accurately done, made for the 1st Stepney (Toyribee) Scouts in 1933. It seems to have been sold at some time, for 3d., to raise funds for the St. Barnabas Scout Troop. Now it must be very much more valuable. The title is “2,400 Miles To Camp” and the author was Rover L. Stirling.

His story, as I have said, so well reproduced by The Rex Press of Stepney, interested me greatly, because it is the account of how five scouts, Rover Stirling, A/S/M Ashdown, T/Ldr. Gardner, and 2nd Scouts Ego Egleton and Joe Canham, journeyed from London to Gordollo (Budapest) and back, for the 4th World Scout Jamboree, in a 12 h.p. o.h.v. Talbot-Darracq two-seater that was then eleven years old. It is larger brother to an 8 h.p. Talbot-Darracq of the same age that my son-in-law has just meticulously restored for me. The car left Stepney with front seat and dickey fully laden, on July 28th, 1933, after a GB plate and a fire-extinguisher had been screwed onto it. All the occupants were in blue Scout uniforms and wore their chinstraps after one hat had blown off in Tunnel Avenue. A domestic frying-pan had been picked up en route to the Blackwall Tunnel, food was bought near Eltham, and the night spent in a paddock at Sellinge. The T-D was embarked at Dover the next morning, on the Autocarrier, with 80 other cars. The boat sailed 1 hours late and circled for 20 minutes before berthing at Calais. They left at 4.10 p.m. and encountering pave, wondered how anyone in a car had beaten the “Blue Train” (shades of the fame of Dudley Noble’s Rover or the Alvis Silver Eagle ?). Soon, however, the road became excellent, so the intended self-imposed 50 m.p.h. limit was abandoned and after checking oil and tyre pressures they sped along. A pint tin of gear oil was lost overboard and never found but otherwise an uneventful run saw the party camping that night at Amiens.

An early start was made on the Sunday and the day’s run finished in darkness and rain, three miles before Strasbourg, a distance of 320 miles. The only trouble had been a blocked petrol filter. It is astonishing that a bucket of water hung from an outside door handle retained its contents, although the going was rough enough to break a windscreen support. It says much for T-D springing! Stops had been made for coffee and to visit the church at St. Quentin and the Cathedral at Rheims. The night was spent in a muddy field. On the Monday the T-D boiled furiously up the hills beyond the Rhine Valley. It was oiled and greased at an AA garage in Freudenstadt. Later a nail entered a back tyre but it had been treated with “Otomatic” and didn’t puncture.

The cleanliness of Germany, compared to France, was commented upon (I remember the same feeling when going from Souchaux to Stuttgart in the 1950s) and the travellers had been told at the frontier that their uniforms would not give offence. The young Nazis encountered later were very friendly—this was 1933, remember. That day, including delay at the Frontier and crossing the Black Forest, the T-D covered “only 280 miles”. The scouts slept most of the way, as they were so often to do, while their Leader drove. A dawn start was made on the third day, oil was taken on, and a quarter of an hour was lost replacing a valve rocker that had jumped from its seat after a back-fire (surely the other way about, in fact ?). Austria was entered but they avoided Linz. The windscreen now collapsed completely. Luckily the rain had stopped but after trying to drive wearing goggles, the screen was made secure with more rope and sticking plaster, because the driver “couldn’t hear the engine” with it off—a nice vintage-car comment! It is interesting that difficulty was found in negotiating a signpost-less Vienna. After that the road became very bad and they finished in darkness again, sleeping where they sat, in the car.

Another dawn start, with all but the driver still sleeping, and the fine Budapest highway was soon reached. It is amusing that the scarcity of other cars was put down to the cost of petrol-2/9d. (say 14p) a gallon! The -T-D cruised at “a steady 60 m.p.h.”, not bad for a heavily-laden 1922 car of 12 h.p. The tyre that had taken the nail now deflated, so it was changed, in the sun but under a Mulberry tree, a spare tube being used, as the “spare wheel was not reliable”, typical of the optimism of these hardy travellers. They duly made the Jamboree, being led to the field with great ceremony, only to be stopped at the gates by the inevitable police refusals.

The homeward run began on August 10th. Almost immediately much annoying tyre trouble was experienced. (“Fine practice in the 8th Law”—which, not being a Scout, I do not comprehend.) The wooden-spoked spare wheel, which was some 2 in. too large, had to be used in place of one of the steel-spoked wheels, but a garage repaired the last slow puncture. A plague of mosquitoes by the Danube ruined that night’s camping. Otherwise, apart from a torrential rainstorm which temporarily drowned the engine, delay at an accident, and stopping to help the driver of a small Opel find a wheel that had detached itself from his car, they caught the Autocarrier with time to spare, after a wild dash to Calais.

Back in England, slow progress was made due to inadequate headlamps, the exhaust pipe tried to fall off, and then a terrible noise began in the transmission. But although a friend was asked to meet them in case of need, the old car managed to make its garage in Downham unaided. It transpired that a tooth had come out of a differential bevel gear and had ruined the final-drive gears. But the Talbot-Darracq had done 2,400 miles in 2 1/2 weeks, cruising at 50-55 m.p.h. for hours on end. Average fuel consumption was 25 m.p.g. As to oil, the author remarks, “less said the better”. But from the warm tribute paid to Castrol XL (“refused all substitutes”) I wonder if free cans had been supplied ! The total cost of the holiday per head was—£3.50!

A longhand note with this book says that the morning after the tour a good used crownwheel and pinion were obtained for 13/6d and that the T-D was then used for a further five months, running well. It then “developed multiple failures and died completely”, so a friend towed it to Ruxley Dip on the Maidstone Road, where it was sold for scrap, for £1. (Could this have been the condenser within the Delco coil playing up, I wonder, which once puzzled the experts on my own little T-D and caused me to scrap a 1923 Jowett without discovering its malady ?) Anyway, what a charming account of how well an old car served, in the mid-1930s. Of the T-D’s crew, one was shot down while flying a fighter in the last war, another died of a heart attack only last year, the other two are unaccounted for. The author is alive but his publisher, R.W. Pinchbeck, “one of the original 1908 Boy Scouts”, who even managed to get four pictures into the little book, died a few years ago. Incidentally, these T-Ds may have had weak back axles, for a 12 h.p. tourer that S.C.H. Davis took abroad on a road-test for The Autocar when it was a new car, had to be abandoned on the Continent with axle failure.

Having read of the Scouts’ journey to Budapest, it was interesting to find a similar journey, but in another period and context, described in “High Road to Command”, the Diaries of Major-General Sir Edmund Ironside, edited by his son, Lord Ironside (Leo Cooper, 1972). The book tells of how Major-General Ironside was sent to Budapest in 1920. He was told he had to go by road and at the Army depot in Earls Court he found two new 18 h.p. Rover-Sunbeam tourers awaiting him, which had been transferred from the War Office to the Foreign Office as a book transaction of £600 each. They turned out to be 1919 models, laid up for a year and needing an overhaul. They had oil sidelamps and acetylene headlamps and the General makes it plain that he would have preferred Cadillacs, with electric lighting. These had long ago been snapped up, however, so the Sunbeams had to do. On Chatham Hill one driver got his gears jammed and the night had to be spent in the Police Station. They eventually sailed from Folkestone and disembarked at Boulogne, getting to Paris by midnight the next day. Slipping clutches, low petrol pressure, and collapse of the lights had delayed them. Also, the tyres were rotten and they had many punctures.

The journey continued indifferently to Basle, although French motor mechanics did much to patch up the ailing cars. Bad roads did not help and petrol was scarce in Switzerland, where out-of-work chauffeurs were encountered outside the hotels. Chains were needed going into Bucha but still the cars slid downhill in bottom gear, out of control. At Salzburg, when garaging his “old crocks”, Ironside saw two great Mercedes, nearly new, one blue, the other red, which he could have bought for £75 each. The journey from London to Bucharest took from March 13th to 27th.

Two days were allowed for the journey home, one car having been left at Klagenfurt. But on the first day they had to be pulled out of mud holes four times, covering only 85 miles. There is a splendid picture of an Army driver, his trousers rolled to his knees, sitting astride the bonnet of one of the RoverSunbeams, driving two horses as if he were in charge of a horse-drawn vehicle, as in fact he was. The car is seen to have very heavy mudguards, the front ones with outer valances. The cars carried Union Jacks but these had to be removed in Italy, where Communist feeling was running high. Hundreds of lorries, presumably Fiats, filled with armed men are mentioned as moving from town to town to prevent strikes.

The cars boiled up the Susa Pass, where chains were again needed, and they had to be allowed to cool off. The Pass was then found to be closed. The outward route had been via Paris, Langres, Belfort, Basle, Zurich, Bucha, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna.

On getting back to his rented cottage in High Wycombe, General Ironside bought “a small and very old car”, but does not say what it was. Later in this fascinating book there is the description of the General’s journey to Baghdad, where he had a touring Army Vauxhall for himself and “a Ford box-car for my servant and kit”. In these they did the 117 miles to Kermanshah in eleven hours, including a long halt. Then the “wretched Vauxhall” needed repairs, so the Ford was used for the 140 miles to Hamadan. A series of punctures was the only trouble and one gathers that Ironside had considerable regard for these Model-Ts, which were certainly required to cover long distances. Another 140 miles, to Karvin, were completed with “the Ford running well”.

The 100 miles to Teheran took about 3 1/2 hours, the Ford slowed by many “Irish bridges”. In 1920 the General flew from Kirvin to Baghdad in a DH9A. He was too big to strap himself in, but sat tightly within the gun-ring, in the Observer’s seat. The flight took five hours, mostly at 3,000 ft. If today’s Army Commanders had to fly in open cockpits, let alone in primitive biplanes, for such a length of time, there would be some complaints! Coming back there were adventures but the Ford, although hampered by bad lights, did the 180 miles satisfactorily, after which ponies had to be used. Incidentally, it is amusing to read that the head Ford agent in Mesopotamia proposed to buy every car offered at the sales of Army equipment when the British withdrew from Persia and then destroy them, as he didn’t want a glut of old cars to ruin sales for new ones. He had managed to get up from Bushire in two Fords and used troops to break up and burn his purchases—which must have accounted for many Army vehicles which would now be vintage models.

In Teheran on New Year’s Day 1921 there were no cars on the streets, as petrol cost £1 a gallon—which has a topical ring about it! Another journey Ironside had to do was made in an RAF tender, which I assume was a Crossley. Twice this spun round on ice and in ten miles had broken down. Ironside completed the journey in the attendant Model T. He then tried to fly to Baghdad, after 500 camels had worked for eight hours flattening a runway. But the DH9A froze an oil-pipe and in trying to force-land, turned over. There followed a pony ride, of incredible suffering to reach a waiting Ford, the pilot never having ridden before. The weather was so bad that a Legation doctor’s two Overlands had been snowed-up for a week. In the end Fords came to the rescue and the last 117 miles to the railhead was done in six hours.

Later General Ironside describes how he and his servant took off from Shaiba, during his Cairo mission, to fly to Baghdad, and in another ‘plane to Mosul. The old DH9As were delayed by tyre trouble and in a dust storm his overturned on landing, with severe injuries to the General—there are photographs of the aeroplane “before and after”.

After his recovery, Ironside was given the appointment of Commandant of the Staff College at Camberley. That was in 1921 and “My wife and I bought a new car”—again the make isn’t quoted. Before the appointment took effect he was able to go to sea with the Fleet, on the invitation of his friend, Sir Charles Madden, C-in-C of the Atlantic Fleet—who took “a little 10 h.p. Wolseley. . . with him in the Flagship wherever he went”. (One wonders whether Vickers’ connections with building ships and cars had any influence on this choice ?) The Wolseley was used to show Ironside the Fleet in Weymouth harbour before they sailed, as he was still unable to walk after the aeroplane crash. A most interesting book, the military side of which, and the appeals for the Fleet Air Arm to be formed, have no place here, but are highly recommended.

Returning to fiction, a reader, Mr. T. Rose of Woodford Bridge, has sent me a copy of part of an adventure story from a 1924 “Grey friars Holiday Annual for Boys and Girls”, in which a great car called “Grey Goose” is engaged in a race against the London-Liverpool express, from Aylesbury via Winslow, Buckingham, Rugby and Stafford. It meets with some rather improbable close shaves en route and all its bearings are irretrievably ruined during the journey. The car is described as a 200 h.p. monster, later as of 100 h.p. This made me wonder if the author of the then-popular Greyfriars stories was a Brooklands fanatic. He makes the luckless passenger pump oil to the sorely-tried engine when it boiled up a long hill between Rugby and Stafford, which suggests a pre-war GP car, perhaps. “Grey Goose” is described as having “a powerful racing engine”, kept in pristine condition. The artist, Arthur Jones, who dates his picture 1923, has, however, clearly based his conception of “Grey Goose” on a 1922 TT Bentley. Does the Bentley DC know who he was ?—W.B.