Motoring as it was

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A look-back to the 1920s 
(Continued from the February issue) 

We left Owen John, the motorist whose 1920 activities we are following, looking at, and reflecting upon, the 1921 London Motor Show, held in the halls of Olympia and the White City. Having had quite enough of this exhibition, O.J. thought again of the open road, the beauties of the English countryside in the autumn when the woods are a welter of golden glory and the fields a crazy quilt of colour. He then went to bed and on awaking found the whole earth white with snow — as it seems likely to be at any minute, as I write this! That was followed by discovering, back in 1921, how the then-modern rubber tyres took no notice of the slippery conditions that used to send cars skittering all over the place and into the ditch. I think O.J. was either lucky or was being over-kind to the tyre manufacturers with that remark because it seems to me that even on our far more grippy tyres of the 1980s, there is precious little control left if you run onto frozen rain under snow, or worse, onto black ice. Many years ago I had a bad prang in a Morgan Plus-Four, after sliding on a corner coated with black ice, for although the use of opposite lock eventually straightened things up, I was by then on the wrong side of the road and slid on into a stationary lorry. Only the other day, driving the Alfa 6 westwards from London, a blizzard quickly covered the road with snow and on the really slippery bits, the car was quite out of control for several yards, only cornplete ignoring of the brakes, using “hold-I” of the auto-transmission to bring speed down, saving that slide into a ditch. Here I may say that I had foolishly continued my customary route home, going from Stow-on-the-Wold to the M5/M50 before Tewkesbury, a lonely route, and although I was confident of getting down the hills thereon safely, in that bottom gear, I was not in the least confident about getting up those which lay ahead, and quite expected to have to spend the night in the car, so I regretted that I had not forked right opposite the one-time Harry Ferguson estate, for Broadway, Worcester, and similar civilised places. I was, therefore, both relieved and very impressed by the manner in which the Alfa Romeo clawed its way up the slippery gradients on my deserted cross-country route — as O.J. was full of praise for the grip of 1921 tyres, so I was grateful to the Michelin XVS covers on the Alfa, allied to rear-wheel-drive with a limited-slip differential. . . . 

Reverting to 1921, where on this page we are supposed to be, I see that on his winter drive O.J. found that as soon as his engine had warmed up, so did the car’s occupants’ toes (how spoiled we are, with today’s heaters!) but that the fog brought about by a snowfall was not easy to negotiate, 62 years ago. He also worried about a cracked radiator, or worse, if the car was put into the unwarmed motor-house, without first draining-off the cooling water. “. . . though perhaps nothing happens”, he observed, “one’s conscience is apt to smite one in the stilly night”. Well, most of us must have experienced this anxiety before anti-freeze became the norm, unless using an air-cooled engine. O.J. overcame his conscience (was that the right word?) by investing in a CL heater, said to have originated to keep aeroplane engines always ready and willing, during the war. Well, you can still buy similar safety lamps in 1983, for between £3 and £4, which not only safeguard the car’s cooling system in winter, but by keeping the sump-oil viscous, help a vintage car’s starter, in the cooler weather. They are designed on the miner’s lamp principle I think, and burn paraffin, staying alight for many days on one filling — I am surprised to find that O.J.’s heater was a petrol lamp, which sounds rather inflammable. . . .

O.J. had bought another gadget at this time, in the form of a 7/6d (37½p) boot-scraper, to fit to his Crossley’s running-board — but when was a new car last made with running-boards?

The Show had made old O.J. a bit small-car conscious and he confessed to thinking about having one, but only in addition to a bigger car. He loved driving a small car when he was alone, but found them impossible if four people and their luggage had to be accommodated, although by luggage O.J. was thinking in terms of a change of clothes for all the family if on a visit, golf-clubs, tennis-rackets, guns, cartridges, or the spaniel dog. Otherwise, he found small cars as fast as he wanted to go, and appreciated their economy. One is reminded by this that car-ownership was still something of a snobbish affectation in those early post-war years and O.J.’s unconscious recognition of this makes one appreciative of today’s small Hatchbacks, which absorb our less “county” possessions so much more easily than the 1921 light car. When it comes to small cars, he pointed out that there had been no need to go to the Show to see them — the eternal “Lizzies” (Model-T Fords), he said, were ever a show in themselves and the roads of 1921 were covered with them, in all their forms and shapes. “They are not chic, they are not particularly comfortable or luxurious in their ordinary condition, but they ‘take you there and bring you back’, and they never complain or expect to be treated like a pampered pet, and they are often the first stepping-stone to the acquisition of other kinds of cars”, observed O.J. Which I was amused to read, because not long before I had “crossed-the-border” out of Wales to look upon Fords of just that sort, including a re-created sporting one about which I may be telling you, later on. . . . 

We are, of course, in an age when O.J. thought nothing of flooding the carburettor of his Crossley to get it to start on a cold morning and when the question of whether or not to grease the road springs was such a pertinent topic that he was calling for an RAC trial or an AA inquiry into it. Even now there are those who think that you shouldn’t grease the leaf springs of a vintage car because this reduces their frictional benefits and that to fit gaiters to simply keep the freshly-applied grease in means that the springs are never re-greased, assuming this to be thought beneficial. I can only remark that when a son-in-law refurbished my 1922 8 h.p. Talbot-Darracq a few years back we were very favourably impressed by the prompt and inexpensive manner in which the Wefco people supplied, through the post, spring gaiters which fitted its four ¼-elliptic springs like gloves, and how much smarter they look than exposed springs. (l think Wefco are still supplying them.) O.J. confessed in 1921 to using Duco gaiters on the springs of his big Crossley and found this 35 cwt. car with its tyres inflated to 45 lb. at the front, to 50 lb. at the back, then rode more comfortably. 

All this “dates” this piece, but it comes as something of a shock to discover that in 1921 rear lamps or even reflectors on pedal-bicycles were not a legal requirement, as they had been during the war apparently. In fact, O.J. himself confessed to riding home three days a week from the railway station a light-less bicycle, which he threw into the ditch if a motor vehicle was heard coming up behind. His excuse was that this was “one of the loneliest lanes in the land”, so that few cars used it. (It was somewhere in Berkshire, I think, and I wonder what it is like, today!) One evening O.J. felt a bump behind and went back to see a hare he had run over, which he had for dinner. Motoring was a more leisurely pursuit than it is in the 1980s and it is amusing that in 1921, although most cars were by then equipped with electric lighting, she term “lighting up” was still in use, a throw-back to the age of oil and gas-lamps on motor vehicles, obviously.

(To be continued as space permits) 

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