Veteran to classic

The roads of the 1920s

In 1927, at a time when the 21hp six-cylinder Delage saloon (the 3-litre descendant of the Delage I wrote about last month) was being praised for its very smooth engine and admirable brakes, and when Armstrong Siddeley was handing out souvenir matchboxes shaped like its famous vee-radiator (if any still exist they must be valuable now), the chronicles of Owen John were once more considering the advantages of closed coachwork.

His discourse brought OJ a letter from the owner of a Lanchester 23 coupe, who kept a mechanic to look after it. Although nearer 70 than 60, he said he kept the top down for at least 19/20ths of a journey, did 200-250 miles a day very frequently, and would almost prefer to go by train rather than travel in a closed car. This correspondent also said he never drove “through glass”. What he meant was that he kept the windscreen open and regarded the screen-wiper as the invention of the devil, but his comment does smack of the man who told his barber that his hair wanted cutting badly!

Reference to this Lanchester rerninds me of the very pleasant lunch I had recently with Mr and Mrs Paterson of Great Missenden and Mrs Betty Mobbs.

Mrs Mobbs is the daughter of Frank Lanchester (the brother of George) and both were prominent in motoring circles from the birth of the technically-advanced Lanchester cars. She retains her interest, lapping Silverstone at the Motor-100 celebrations in a veteran Lanchester and riding in these cars whenever she can at VCC events. She also remembers presenting a bouquet to Queen Mary in 1919, when her father was President of the SMMT, and still has letters written to Frank Lanchester by King George VI, Rudyard Kipling (a confirmed Lanchester enthusiast) and other celebrities.

She told me she was taught to drive on a Lanchester 40, with the epicyclic gearbox controlled by a conventional lever, after which she and her sister were given a little Peugeot. Today, in her eighties, she drives a much-liked Montego which her chauffeur/gardener brought round after lunch. Mr Paterson is a keen VCC member, owning a 1903 American Winton which is well-known on the Brighton Run, and has bought an 1899 Locomobile steamer in America which is about to be restored and have its wheels de-chromed. He drives a Lancia Delta GT, and his wife a Peugeot 205 Automatic.

Reverting to OJ, he spent his usual Easter break in 1927 mowing his lawns with the Atco, having made a short tour over the Cotswolds just before the roads became crowded. He regarded the regions round Cirencester and Fairford as the jolliest springtime country, but after enjoying sun and air, and dropping into the Severn Valley, down came the mist and blinding rain. Well, it is quite often so: rain ahead as you approach Wales. When I first went to live in the Principality, Cecil Clutton enquired if it rained a lot there and, receiving a reply in the affirmative, said: “Yes, that’s what Wales is for”!

Having remarked on the wonderful beauty of the Abbey, OJ ate his picnic lunch on Tewkesbury bridge, which you could not do in today’s traffic. A steamer was hauling a long string of canal-boats from Sharpness ship canal to Stourport, and was making heavy weather of it, I doubt if you can see that anymore!

Winding up the windows of his Rover (now referred to as a Rover Sixteen) to make his point about closed cars, OJ then drove to Gloucester. Here he found the cathedral, except for its tombs, “about as dull and insipid as any ecclesiastical edifice” he had ever entered. It was only after I had got well lost in Gloucester some time ago that I discovered there were docks containing quite big ships there, but I have gone past them several times since, on the way to talk A7s with a well-known expert in that field.

Incidentally, call his 1924 Rover a Sixteen he might, but OJ’s hint that its engine was different from most indicates that it was, in fact, the 16/50hp.

OJ then went on to Stourport, encouraged by a wireless eulogy of Worcestershire (the media was already influential!), but thought this town no more delightful than, say, Brierley Hill or Bilston — smoke was pouring black from its chimneys, the pavements were dirty, and the canal basin and old-fashioned locks were hidden from the casual tourist.

Bewdley and Kidderminster OJ regarded as beautiful and he noted that the latter was the birthplace of Sunday schools and postage stamps (it has a statue to the inventor of the stamp, apparently), but these days both towns are by-passed, so any beauty they may have is lost on the majority of travellers.

OJ never forgot for long his pioneering motoring days, and he now recalled that one of the most delightful rural roads had then been that direct from Wolverhampton to Kidderminster. By 1927 he thought little of Stourbridge, Dudley, or even Old Hill and Kingswinford (the last-named I associate with the Barnes brothers’ Autosports ventures) and of Wolverhampton OJ had little to say, except to congratulate it on the honours recently won on the beaches of Florida by Segrave and the Sunbeam, in becoming the first to exceed 200 mph officially.

On this trip OJ and his Rover were bound for Birmingham, where he was to help Mr WR Morris (before he became Lord Nuffield) to open Mr Paskell’s new Colmore depot on the site of the old Calthorpe factory. Mr Morris gave £25,000 to Birmingham Hospital and all had a happy time. OJ then drove none other than Rover’s managing director JK Starley to Coventry in his Rover. Over a road still under improvement and very busy, Starley said that with the never-ending glare of headlamps (dipping not being universal 60 years ago) that night, it would have been more pleasurable to go by train.

The roads out of Wolverhampton and on to Towcester in 1927 were good, but the latter was overcrowded with lorries — even today, when the M1 clears much of this, parkers and traffic lights somewhat retard the flow.

Someone who felt OJ had been unfair to the American cars of the mid-1920s wrote from South Africa, reminding him that in 1927 there were twelve-year-old Model T Fords running about there and still giving satisfaction to their owners. In fact, he continued, the town’s magistrate used a 1913 Ford every day; in Richmond a fleet of Hupmobiles (two of them 1913 models) did a daily passenger and mail-bag carrying run of 250 miles; and two Studebakers which had each done more than 200,000 miles did a similar service in Kimberley, often loaded with six passengers and their luggage and towing heavily-laden trailers, over 150 miles of semi-desert to Kuruman.

So American cars did not always fall to pieces (0J denied having said they did), even if the inexpensive ones were squeakier, noisier, less comfortable, less economical and unattractive when compared to the cheaper English cars. WB