Veteran to classic

The roads of the 1920s

In continuing to look at the diaries of Owen John — as far as the Autumn of 1925 — I think I may have discovered why this prolific motoring writer chose to have a closed 14/65hp Rover when he eventually discarded his faithful open touring Crossley.

After delivering a lecture to the Oxford University MC (which seemed to have alarmed him as an old Cambridge man), OJ went out in a Weymann-bodied saloon Morris Oxford, made by Morris Garages, forerunner of Cecil Kimber’s family of MGs. This experience caused him to wonder about the nomenclature of the different kinds of bodywork used on cars, both open and closed, and to wax enthusiastic about this closed Morris. He said he doubted if he would ever be contented with a touring car again.

He found this Weymann Morris Oxford as Light as any open car ( presumably he meant of the equivalent size) and just as elegant as any “shut” one. It offered more room than most “solid bodies”, and its windows did not rattle. In fact OJ, often fulsome in his praise, called this M-O the quietest thing on wheels he knew.

The drumming associated with coachbuilt bodywork had gone, and the “faint sickly smell” of the most expensive and aristocratic of closed bodies was absent (I can only recollect the smell of leather upholstery, sun on varnish, and petrol, as fascinating schoolboy memories, but maybe I never rode in sufficiently aristocratic cars; although I do recall that the back side-windows of an early Austin 20 landaulette rattled until little threaded pads were set against their glasses.)

OJ gilded refined gold, if a Morris can be thus described, by saying the windows of this Weymann-enshrouded one made it just as good as any open car with the hood up, and a great deal better than such a car with the hood and side curtains in position.

Thus in 1925 was the world becoming more and more closed-car minded; I assume experts are aware that the Morris Garages of Oxford made these 14-28hp Weymann Oxfords? OJ said the company, existed to improve Morris cars, both by adding to their speed and supplying them with bodies which were in parts different from the ordinary run of their brothers and sisters. From which, of course, stemmed the remarkable family of MG sports cars, commencing with those handsome bull-nosed models with dual colour schemes . . .

OJ talked about women’s influence on the increasing universality of coupe and saloon bodywork. Women had got into smoking (causing tobacco shares to double in value), boot-repairing, hair-cutting and tailoring, and now they were dictating the kind of bodies cars must have, leaving mere men only to jack-up cars for them, inflate tyres, and pay for running expenses and the lady’s meals. Brave chap! I suppose heaters, self-starters and direction indicators were also accelerated into use by women drivers.

The Olympia Motor Show used to have a considerable coachwork section, but at the 1925 Exhibition there was no place occupied by the Morris Garages among the sixty stands, from Alford & Alder’s show of bodywork on AC, Crossley, and Renault chassis, to the specially-bodied Lanchester saloon and Chrysler Six all-weather shown by James Young & Co of Bromley. Nor does the MG Weymann Oxford appear to have been displayed on the Morris Oxford stand, where for £350 you could buy the standard four-door Oxford saloon upholstered in Bedford cloth, with inlaid woodwork, parcels-net and a roof-ventilator.

It was at about this time that the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed his infamous “raid” on the Road Fund, which gave OJ much to complain about. Interestingly, although car taxation has fluctuated over the years and petrol-tax has been savagely added to the older engine-size and cylinder-bore taxes, the Thatcher government has surely been the first to give a concession to the older cars since the rebate on pre-1913 engines was withdrawn long ago?

OJ sounded a topical note, remembering the recent 1987 cold spell, when I was without running water for nearly a fortnight, but when the Ford Sierra XR4X4 made light work of ice and snow on the considerable gradient of my drive), by saying that it was not easy to drain the radiators of many 1925 cars, though this should be a very simple operation. Being happier with draining than anti-freeze when frost is expected to strike, I couldn’t agree more, thinking in terms of vintage cars. Most moderns come with foolproof, if complicated, cooling systems (likely as not of the sealed variety) but some years back a Morris 1100 ruined its engine because its sealed coolant system had been sent out with ordinary H2O therein.

Incidently, I sometimes get cross when the windscreen washers of test cars freeze up but their radiators and engines do not; this a matter of filling the reservoirs with antifreeze, although I would have thought a simple additional precaution might be to direct some of the heat from the exhaust manifolding toward, them.

But writing in 1925, OJ was thinking in terms of what we now term vintage cars, and his diary remarks had some point for me especially — a recently-purchased plastic A7 Ulster was found to have a petrol tap at the base of its radiator, which wouldn’t turn for draining because it had been araldited. The reason is obvious if you think about it – push a petrol tap down to turn on the flow, but turn a radiator tap up to do this, otherwise it might fall down and drain off all the water while the car is in motion.

OJ’s Crossley presumably had a difficult radiator tap, for he confessed to not draining off the water in winter, but simply relying on lots of old rugs and carpets with which to cover its bonnet, as his coachhouse was “more or less frostproof, although not warmed”. It is curious that although he praised the Boyce motometer for telling him the state of his radiator when motoring, he did not use a safety-lamp as under-bonnet protection in the garage (a word he would hate me for applying to a private motor-house).

His digression from attacking the Chancellor led OJ on to a description of an essential winter journey to the south midlands, where he had to drive the Crossley with care in the snow, never sure whether its wheels were on hard ground or grass verges. (This reminds me that the only blemish sustained by the aforesaid Ford Sierra was to its offside mirror, when, although I had driven into a snowbank, an oncoming driver on the narrow Roman Road by-passing Hereford refused to use the several feet left to him).

It must have been under rather similar conditions that OJ drove that winter journey, with the sun shining, hood and side bits up, to his obvious enjoyment. Dorchester, with its “lovely old abbey just off as dear an old street as ever was” had already, he observed, been spoilt by innumerable petrol-pumps and blatant tin signs.

He entered Oxford, reminded that Magdalen Tower belies the idea that one never sees the best of anything at first, on the “High” (no longer as reposeful as it was:, and along the “Corn”, which he thought by 1925 nearly as ugly as Boar Lane or Briggate in Leeds. And OJ did not like any of the main ways out of Oxford, encountering peace and quiet only well beyond Woodstock or Kidlington. How fortunate that he cannot see it today!

Children were sliding on the winter road as they had probably done for centuries and a four-horse team was met, hauling a timber waggon up a hill. OJ declined to lunch in Bicester, not considering it a particularly cheerful place in itself.

Going along the much improved Aylesbury road, to turn off for Hawthorn, “by the old windmill” (I bet it hasn’t survived) then south to “friendly Thame”, across country known in those days to few other than hunting folk, he lunched in great style at the famous Spread Eagle, run by the great Fothergill. No more was said of the journey, apart from a near miss by the Crossley when a lone, lost motor lorry was encountered, so the lunch must have been good!

At Christmas 1925, OJ was in his anticipated form, telling of previous years when he would motor on Christmas Day so as to eat two dinners. He would spend the afternoon, in the years between 1903 and 1913, driving his Brush or Talbot over long empty stretches of the Mendips and past black colliery country, to the foot of the Wiltshire downs.

He remembered, before the motoring era, a blizzard which caused the Royal Mail coach to be a guest in his parents’ stables for a fortnight, and how, in Devonshire in 1881, they had to live on what they could shoot, as the lanes were hedge-high with snowdrifts and transport impossible. Perhaps the winter of 1987 was not so bad, after all!

And in 1925, OJ wrote his usual ghost story, centred round a ghost car. The Autocar even published it! WB