Driving through London recently, an oval-shaped radiator was espied just inside the doorway of a public garage. As we expected, we had discovered a Delaunay-Belleville. It was a landaulette of about 1925 vintage, in immaculate condition and well-shod. Enquiry revealed that it was not for sale. “Could we see the engine?” Our request brought an aged man down from the ladder from which he was cleaning the roof of a Rolls-Royce hearse. He fumbled for a moment along the top of the Delaunay’s dusty bonnet, found the tiny lever he was looking for, lifted it„ and both sides of that bonnet fell away to reveal the beautiful o.h. camshaft, 15.9-h.p. engine and a steering-box that in itself was a work of art. Which reminded us that in his “Autobiography of Owen John” that writer recalls a remark made to him by Walter Stamer, when he was Editor of The Autocar, to the effect that there was far more workmanship in the bonnet of a Delaunay-Belleville than in the whole of most ordinary bicycles. Keeping company with the particular example we had discovered was, we noticed, a “Trikappa” Lancia. Curiously, a week later we heard of another Delaunay-Belleville, a 1924 car of the same model, but with a drophead coupé body, used daily in Birmingham. Its owner described it as a cross between an Austin “Heavy Twelve” and a “Blue Label” Bentley.
The same day, it so happened, we encountered another rare car, better known as to make, just as unusual as to type. It was a 1925 Alfa-Romeo “15/55,” with a four-cylinder engine having push rod valve-actuation, like that of the six cylinder “22/90” model that was contemporary to it. The radiator resembled that of the later 1 1/2-litre cars and proudly bore the Alfa-Romeo badge; the body was a roomy drophead coupé. The wire wheels were shod with 815 by 105 tyres, there were front brakes fascinatingly operated by cables running down through the king-pins, and these were backed by a ribbed transmission brake. John Green had bought the car from its original owner. He has had excellent service from it, getting 23 m.p.g. from the single Zenith carburetter, and up to 55 m.p.h., although we gathered that the centrally-controlled 4-speed gearbox was afflicted with Italian ideas of gear-ratio, limiting cruising speed to something in the region of 43 m.p.h. Green, whose late uncle, incidentally, was Judge at Brooklands from 1908, has probably the oldest Alfa in regular use in this country.
The next discovery was a 21-h.p., six-cylinder, artillery-wheeled Lorraine-Dietrich drophead coupé of about 1925 vintage. Examination of the data plates revealed that it was a type B36, with a type 25″ engine, of 75 by 180 mm. (3,445 c.c.). The facia contained the usual charming assortment of French words and a Le Nivex fuel gauge made, surprisingly enough, in Manchester. A massive radiator, very much in the vintage tradition, carried the beautiful “L-D” badge (the two storks above the Cross of Lorraine possibly a thought disturbing to impoverished enthusiasts), and there was another, for good measure, on the big stoneguard. The starting handle detached, to expose a horrifyingly small shaft for it to engage, and other features noted were very long minor control levers, each rather like a modern pre-selector control, to bring their knobs close to the rim of the steering wheel, and wind-down quarter-light windows. Opening the bonnet revealed an engine with exposed push-rods of knitting-needle calibre on the off side and the sort of Zenith carburetter you find on a big-port Alvis, feeding through a rather fine semi-recessed manifold on the near side. We suspect this Zenith replaces the original triple-diffuser of another make. The exhaust manifold, on the off side, and its spidery off-take pipe, were deemed rather odd and, as the new owner observed, rather sadly we thought, the engine is littered with Mr. Delco. An interesting detail was the in-line actuation of dynamo and water pump from the rear of the camshaft, via a series of spokes to give a sort of cush-drive.
Not long after this we contacted yet another rare Continental — none other than a 14-h.p. sleeve-valve Voisin, of about 1929 vintage. Before we went to see this car we expected well of it — could one do less after perusing an instruction book which is worded so delightfully? “No one complains when almost every month something goes wrong with the bathroom geyser. When a fuse blows in a house, nobody blames the electric light company. When a stove refuses duty, workmen are summoned to effect the necessary repairs. In all these cases the unhappy possessor of this recalcitrant apparatus pays without demur the cost of the necessary repairs. How different is his attitude when he is called upon to remedy some unimportant breakdown in his car. The chassis of the modern motorcar must embody an electrical generating station, a hot water circulating system, and a highly efficient mechanism for the economical extraction of the calories contained in the fuel. This intricate entity is called upon to carry over the roughest roads a structure, titled with the comforts so often absent from the most luxurious smoking room, without noise and without sense of motion. This tour de force the motorist expects shall be daily accomplished without a hitch. Should anything go wrong the blame is at once visited upon the makers.”
Well, the particular Voisin we had found had avoided such aspersions; its owner had purchased it with 18,000 miles on the milometer, attracted by the slogan “The Incomparable Voisin,” and it has now run some 80,000 miles without a hitch. In appearance it is one of the most handsome cars you could wish for, the shapely radiator and bonnet blending well with a typically French coupe de ville body by Galle. The “smoking-room luxuries” are evident in beautiful inlaid woodwork in the interior, which is divided from the front compartment by a wind-up window. There is a useful pocket at the foot of this division, wherein are stowed two tiny occasional seats. The dashboard is of the neatest, with small-dial rev.-counter, speedometer, 8-day clock and ammeter. Ignition, mixture and hand-throttle controls take the forn of worm-action knobs which move out or in with half-a-turn, while pressure on a dummy spoke to the steering wheel operates a subdued horn. The ignition key locks the light switch and the frontal aspect is helped immensely by the small size of the Marchal headlamps. Under the bonnet the sparking plugs are found to be concealed beneath a dummy valve-cover and fed by a distributor conveniently high-set on the near side of the block. On this side, too, are the two neatly-ribbed exhaust manifolds, while on the opposite side is a dual Zenith carburetter, stayed to the head and serving as a mounting for the coil. The vacuum reservoir for the very effective Servo brakes is behind the radiator, also on the off side, while a dynamotor nestles beneath the radiator. The Knight sleeve-valve engine, we were assured, gives no trouble providing it is turned over once a fortnight while the car is laid up in the winter. According to the instruction book this 14-h.p. unit of 2,330 c.c., gives no less than 27 h.p. at 1,500 r.p.m., 46 h.p. at 2,500 r.p.m., 58 h.p. at 3,500 r.p.m., and 60 h.p. at the peak speed of 4,000 r.p.m. — which perhaps justifies a statement that “the lubrication of a sleeve-valve engine requires a little more consideration than the lubrication of a Ford engine “
The scuttle petrol filler carries a useful French-calibrated fuel gauge, and the radiator cap is graced by the inimitable Voisin bird-mascot, its wings held to its body by screws — which reminds us of a delightful legend that Papa Voisin used to go out with a batch of ten or so test chassis, riding first on one soap-box seat, then on another, and only producing and fitting his famous mascot to a car’s filler cap when he had approved its performance. Be that as it may, this particular product of the Société des Aéroplanes G. Voisin is obviously a car of quality, the like of which will, alas, never again be made. Its owner fully expects it to be as good five years from now as it is today, on its eighteenth birthday, and if he observes another dictum from the instruction book — “Let people pass who are in a hurry. You will always find them later, at the side of the road and eventually in the repair shop” — his faith is quite likely to be upheld.