Veteran to classic

The roads of the 1920s

At the end of 1928, Owen John was commenting in his diary on a Citroen Six chassis which was on display in the company’s palatial Devonshire House showrooms in Piccadilly at the time of the Olympia Motor Show. I am not certain when Citroen took over these strategically placed and historic premises, but it was probably there that I went with my mother in 1924 to buy a car.

Times were hard, business anything but brisk, so the young salesman who advanced to meet us must have felt happy at the prospect of a sale. He was less pleased when we asked for one of the excellent clockwork Citroens then available, having moreover to climb up a step ladder to bring down the box. And, since I preferred the reproduction of a 7.5hp two-seater to the four-seater tin-plate model, all he took was 10/6d, and not 15/– for the one my mother was offering me!

Browsing through these old OJ diaries, one is reminded that by 1928 light aeroplanes were very much the “in thing”. So much so that a leading motoring weekly devoted an editorial to discussing the advantages and drawbacks of the aeroplane versus the car.

Racing drivers were beginning to use light aeroplanes, of which the DH60 Moth was then the leading machine, for travelling to and from race circuits, and the Hon David Tennant (whom I associate with cars such as Beardmores and Leyland Eights) kept his Moth at Brooklands, he and his wife using a Chummy Austin 7 as tender to it. Soon, however, many drivers discovered that the weather all too often grounded them in those pre-radio and beacon days, and gave up flying as transport. It is different today, but in the intermediate period the lure of flight cost Graham Hill his life.

I find confirmation of the unsuitability of small aeroplanes as serious pre-war transport in a very entertaining book, Judge For Yourself (William Kimber, 1986) by Sir Peter Bristow, a High Court judge. Describing his air experiences (he first flew in a Moth at Heston, was taught in them at Lympne, soloed on an Avro Cadet at Hanworth in 1934 and flew nearly 1416 hours in all), the author says that even with wartime Percival Proctors the success of A-to-B flights was one in three attempts in winter, twice in three in summer. I was glad to find in the same book a reference to the V12 Lincoln Zephyr belonging to Ewen Montagu (whom I once interviewed for Motor Sport), which was used to travel to a case in Droitwich.

In November OJ again went to the dinner which followed what he still termed the “Old Crocks’ Run”, travelling to Brighton in a big Daimler but missing the actual procession because it took place on a Sunday and his duties as a churchwarden kept him late. He complained that after-dinner dancing was restricted to those wearing evening dress, which those returning home that night did not have with them. As compensation, that vintage Daimler was “swift and silent”.

None other than Sammy Davis, speaker at the aforesaid dinner, was speculating in 1928 on what fun it would be if there was racing on Boxing Day — although few would want it after the Christmas festivities — reminding his readers that the MCC London-Exeter trial used to start on Boxing Night but was now a day later.

I have attended motor racing at Brands Hatch on Boxing Days, when Graham Hill came as Father Christmas, and for some years my “Boxing Day Barters”, run with the support of Motor Sport, started on Boxing Night. But now the celebrated MCC event (although, thank St Christopher, still with a night section) is not run until well into January, and racing at Christmas has ceased. Maybe, as Davis observed, we are less tough than the drivers of vintage times …

Oh, and while I am digressing, did you know that when the M-type MG Midget first appeared it was called by one well-known motor journal the Morris Midget? In 1928 another section of the Barnet by-pass was completed, although trees had yet to be planted alongside what was then a very open road. And early in 1929, on a journey to Coventry to try the latest Humber, OJ was pleased to find Daventry by-passed. Even now such by-passes still await construction, but in my home area only recently Kington, Bewdley, Leominster and Ledbury have been thus relieved of through traffic — and some of the romance of the road has evaporated.

It was in the snows of January that OJ made his journey to Coventry. He was full of praise for the road which ran from Oxford to Northampton “cutting across to Towcester”, by which I assume he meant what is now the A43; he said no other long-distance road equalled its “never-ending-ness”, like a rail-less railroad, huge with traffic. He turned off it to get to Daventry and Coventry, and I think perhaps the route was rather different then.

Coventry brought forth more praise from OJ for its magnificent churches and other ancient buildings which, he said, should be made to stand out from the central expanse instead of being encumbered by very second-rate buildings: “Coventry is worth preserving, and improving, for where else do history and manufacture, proverb and legend, jostle each other more closely?” Well, it took Hitler to do the improving!

Here OJ took over a new 20/65hp Humber (the first four-cylinder car he had driven was a Coventry Humber, in 1906; his Talbot had been a two-cylinder). He took it up the excellent, but once very much otherwise, road to Stonebridge and Lichfield and on through Rugeley to the Potteries, still the old narrow lane with most of its endless corners. From Rugeley to Stone, via Weston, the going improved and thereafter became very good. Turning half-right where the tramlines of Birmingham were being removed, a fine road sped the Humber to murky Stoke-on-Trent, where OJ noted the new Michelin factory which employed some 1500 men. At Leek the snow lay thick and crisp and even, so after a lunch at the “excellent” Red Lion Hotel, where Frenchmen were also eating the roast pork, he left the busy silk town and drove over the hills to Ashbourne, a foot of melting snow, dense fog and lots of traffic bringing out what OJ called “the vintage of the new Humber”. He thought the braking power as good as any of the features of this roomy, well-sprung car, which “behaved delightfully” on the 120 mile test. Avoiding Derby and more hills, he returned via Uttoxeter, Abbott’s Bromley, Bagot’s Park and through “all sorts of quiet little Meynell country villages” to Lichfield again, where the snow had turned to rain. WB