Motoring as it was

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To set the period we have arrived at in following the motoring of Owen John, as we have been doing in this look-back to the 1920s, we are at the point in his diary where he was praising Mr Lionel Rapson for having won the Dewar Trophy in 1923 with his puncture-proof tyres and Gordon England’s A7 for having done so well in that year’s 200 Mile Race at Brooklands. I have heard this O.J. described as not much of a writer but he hit the nail squarely on the head in the latter instance by saying that, good as the winning Alvis was in that third JCC long-distance race, it was the A7 that was the true hero of the day. O.J. saw in it, and those motor-gliders that had just ceased performing at Lympne, forerunners of the time when economy in power would entail economy only in extravagance. When you regard the sheer efficiency and performance of today’s smaller cars, from the VW Golf GTi downwards, how true this was!

As for the Rapson tyre, I have dealt fairly fully with the remarkable inventor, Mr Rapson in these pages in the past, because he belongs to history. But back in 1923 the Rapson was the tyre for carefree motoring, only a few years had elapsed since 3,000 miles was a fair life’s work for any tyre. Rapson changed all that and provided protection against punctures into the bargain. You get a good insight into what it was like to motor in the old days where O. J. says: “Early tyres were impossible… new ones, like some new gloves, split in the putting on, the tubes were a fluke, tyre valves were a gamble, jacks were idiotic, and on top of all these horrors a tube had to be changed in situ wherever one might be or what o’clock it was, patches had to be pasted on every size and kind of hole, in the days before detachable wheels or the Stepney.” It was true. Even in detachable-wheel times the second blown out of the day meant recourse to exposing the tube, and those patches…

As a motor-mad schoolboy I can remember how frequently happy holiday jaunts to the beach, say from Penarth to Porthcawl, were delayed while a wheel was changed or a tube mended. And how the chauffeur in a relation’s motor house seemed to be forever repairing tubes and picking Welsh flints out of worn-smooth covers. Even when 1 had bought the second car I ever owned, some 12 years or more later, and its well-used beaded-edge tyres gave out on the run from Worcestershire to London, wayside garages still had vulcanisers at the ready for patching the already patch-infested tubes. So we 1981s car owners should be grateful at our immunity from tyre trouble, which may be why jacks have hardly improved in keeping. Mark you, O.J. also made the sage observation that when a tyre lasts six times as long as it used to (and the figure six can be increased when comparing 1920 with 1980) only one tyre would be sold instead of six. Which is why what one might suppose might be an always thriving tyre industry is ailing at the present time, with even Dunlop in the doldrums, apart from bothers its reorganisation is causing Sir Michael Edwardes….

Another worry O.J. was expressing at Motor Show time in 1923 was that although at last this country had begun to protect its home Motor Industry against imports, with a 331/3rd duty on foreign cars, but those from Canada let off a third cheaper, how far some American cars were made there and how far they were assembled in the Dominion? Even Mr Justice Darling, it seems, had wondered out loud why a farmer must buy an American car because the roads of Wiltshire were becoming unsafe for horses (If ever my idea of a book about “Cars In Court” gets going I shall have to try to discover in what context that arose). O.J. said he had seen how much British stuff was added to Fords (it was the age of the Model-T) in the course of their erection at Grafford Park and he had heard that a Ford paid not more than £3 in import duty. He tried to get out of this by saying he did not regard a Ford as a meance or a rival of any British car because the majority of Ford owners would never have owned any car at all unless the Ford had existed at its price. It had created automobilism out of a class that never otherwise would have dreamed of driving cars. Indeed, O.J. went on praising the Ford, even to suggesting that Henry Ford might be made President of the USA — there, Mr Regan! But the threat of the imported car was dawning. It is a problem we face today with Japanese imports, and with Nissan hastening to build such cars in this country. In fact, there are not so many inter-links between one manufacturer and another, from Mercedes-Benz downwards, set on ex changing technical information, components, and more or less, complete designs, in the interests of improved cars, between makers and Nations, starting with the Orientalised BL models (pace Rover!), so complicated to unravel, that I wonder if this is why all cars may be getting better and better but are also becoming inevitably more alike? Back to the 1920s, to a time a very long while back, when Rolls-Royce were just adopting four-wheel-brakes — and now they have such brakes power-applied, was observing that the dickey-seat was just about out-dated; he could not think of a more uncomfortable sitting-place but fortunately what he described as his luxuriant dimensions and ferocious appearance had so far kept him from being offered such a riding-position. Now, by the end of 1923, the “chummy” body or four-seater with adjustable seats had arrived so that all in it were covered by the hood. (These days we drool about those makers brave enough to list models which can be opened up, like those tourers of old, to all the winds that blow…)

Which I suppose is what led O.J. on to tell of a friend of his who wants a new car, a saloon car, but could not find such a car in Bond Street, so went on to Pall Mall this is still late 1923, so those sleuths among us can, if they wish, have a go at deciding what makes were involved) where the famous car he sought was available in closed form only in the big models, whereas something of about 14 hp was required. So friend moved on to Great Portland Street, where he bought what was needed from the agents, arranging to take delivery in a day or so. But when he drove off he got as far as the Park when it “turned rainy”, and both the windows refused to go up. He took the car back and disappointed his son, for whom the new car wat intended as a surprise package, by arriving at Eton on St Andrew’s Day in one of his pre-1914 cars. I put this m as a reminder poor pre-delivery checks are not a malady entirely of the 1900s…

Before 1923 was out O. J. had his first proper experience of four-wheel-brakes, on a 15 hp Darracq lent to him by Col. Warwick Wright. His description of setting off from London in the rain and gathering dusk along the route out through Brentford and past all the villages that had sprung up by the wayside of the once flat, dull plain that was known to his forefathers as the fearful and desolate Hounslow Heath, the new Great West Road not yet being open, and of discovering just how wonderful the the brakes were when a schoolchild fell in the mud in front of the Darracq after stepping off the pavement without looking, conveys what an often forgotten gap there is between motoring then and now. O.J. says he “trod on the brake” and the car just stopped dead. No skid, or any suspicion of one. These days, when we start and stop all the time on that sort of road no-one would expect to skid when braking from that kind of crawl. And mud? In Hounslow?

The Darracq Fifteen proved a very nice car but one that would have been better for a four-speed gearbox. Next day it was taken over the Cotswolds into Worcestershire in a fog that the 4WBs deprived of much of its terrors. Alas, near Alcester the Darracq stopped with a cough, because a bolt had broken and the petrol pipe between the tank and what passed on a French car for an Autovac fractured. A chauffeur-driven Rolls 20 splashed by as fast as it would go but the driver of a Ford stopped to help with the dismantling of the vacuum-tank in the gathering darkness.

Four miles further on the Darracq stopped again. Again the vacuum-tank that the French could hardly call an Autovac ran dry and was again filled from O. J.’s spare can. In Redditch the broken pipe was repaired at Messrs. Pins — the town where they once excelled in fish hooks and needles until Germany made them more cheaply, but now circumnavigated by a confusing new ring-road. O. J. then continued along the black, tram-ridden, dark, greasy road through Bromsgrove, Stourbridge, and Halesowen to his destination at Brierly Hill. Trams? Next day found a further test for the Darracq’s all-wheel braking on the Oldbury, Smethwick, Birmingham road at its greatest. That set him off enthusing over 4WBs as today people do after having exerienced the ABS anti-lock braking systems. Perhaps it was not quite coincidence that at the time of these observations by O.J. a photograph surfaced of the hack of A. H. Pass’s new 20/60 hp Sunbeam Reg. No. XP 91 with a notice over ns number plate reading “Attention, Four Wheel Brakes”…

Apparently Warwick Wright had expected more praise for the Darracq than O.J. had accorded it because he wrote to say that on its return he had had it “taken down” and it had been found that the ignition advance and retard wasn’t working. So the amateur tester was to have another stab at it, which is more than has happened to Motor Sport on occasions when similar things have gone wrong with road-test cars; for instance after a 1½-litre RM Riley suffered from sticking valves we returned it to the agents, Jimmy James Ltd if I remember correctly, and never saw it again…

O.J. had, however, waxed very keen over the brakes of that Darracq and he now confessed to having had a skid so bad as to raise a considerable claim on the Autocar Insurance Company (has it survived?) due to an accident caused, according to O. J: by his having been sent out on a test car with a deflating tyre — which I think must have been a Studebaker Six. So perhaps naturally he was all in favour of brakes you could slam on without them making the car deviate from the path intended by its driver. And come to think of it, how seldom do we have to do such full emergency braking, these days.

In the New Year, that is to say 1924, O.J. had cause to think about the cars he had owned as he was giving up his faithful friend the 1920 25 hp Crossley in favour of a new 19 hp of the same illustrious make. Looking back, the car had never let 0.J. down on the road though it had twice in a month run a big-end (and when did you last experience bearing failure with the ordinary sort of modern car?), the radiator had given some bother, but it was an early 1920s brand and improvements had been made since. But at Christmas 1923 the old car was still giving good service, if by then decidedly shabby, like many of the RFC Crossley tenders still to be seen then out and about on the roads. 0.J., who wrote motoring ghost stories must have loved the ending. He drove his old car out to dinner five miles from his Berkshire home, on to a hunt ball, then back late at night into its garage, waiting for the new owner to depart in it next day; it was then that it started to Klaxon all it could and O.J. had to open its bonnet and tear off the connection to stop the noise!

What previous cars did O.J. own up to? His first was a 1903 two-cylinder Mutel-engined, chain-drive Brush. There followed two good and sound Talbots, the Zedal which I referred snout long ago in this column as taking 0.1. into Paris with a box containing the seat and other vital parts intended for its new chassis (he had in 1923 met Mr Beal, the British Zedal concessionaire and had tried the very beautiful 1924 Zedal), after which there were cars of all sorts of odd sizes and kinds that burnt no impression on the heart (incidentally, the man who departed on the Zedal never paid for it), and after 0.J. had disposed of an Overland he bought his first Crossley. All open cars, I believe, which again dates this piece. — W.B.

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