David Scott-Moncrieff Recalls how he has Motored Since World War II
(Illustration captions by the author)
My stepfather-in-law has true Edwardian contempt for anything that is not of the very best. His clothes, like his guns and his shoes, were from the finest makers and he expects them to last. And I’m not at all certain that, from a strictly monetary point of view, it does not, in the long run, work out rather better that way. Coupled with this there is always the deep satisfaction one gets from possessing fine, hand-made things. He applies the same rule to his motor cars, of which he has only had three in his life. The first was a very sporting, yellow Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce phaeton which he bought in about 1912, the second a magnificent 40-h.p. Lanchefter touring car and the third a 3-litre Bugatti which he still runs. So my wife, whom I married in 1941, more or less grew up with a Bugatti and they have always, had a terrific fascination for her. She was quite determined that as soon as the war was over our motoring should be Molsheim-made.
The end of hostilities, however, found us with a dear little car which I had built up during the war for maximum petrol economy and reliability. I bought two 1929 9-h.p. Humbers, putting all the best bits into one and keeping the rest as spares. It really was rather a showpiece, especially the “engine room” where all cast iron was enamelled Napier green and everything else either buffed bright or plated. The body was cellulosed in the family colours of yellow and black. How all this was done in wartime will have to remain forever a mystery, but so many man-hours went into it that unkind people used to say that it was the reason that the opening of the Second Front was delayed so long. Shortly after “VJ”-day our dear little treasure was stolen by some Glasgow hooligans, who set fire to it. They were seen running away, but, a policeman preferred to take voluminous particulars of my insurance and driving licence to chasing the culprits. As well as this he inquired if I had set fire to it myself to get the insurance money! In a book I wrote soon afterwards I was able to say exactly what I thought about the Glasgow police which led to interesting repercussions in the local press in which the chief constable joined.
Our next car was a 5-litre, Type 46 Bugatti. This, as you may know, is a sort of scaled-down version of the Royale. Tradition has it that
In two years we covered an astronomical mileage, all over Europe from the Arctic Circle to Southern Portugal, had her rather tatty upholstery renewed in Finland, of all places, and encountered incredible adventures in her which make those of my old boozing chum Baron von Munchausen seem pretty small beer. But, all through, the reliability of the car and its almost complete freedom from trouble was quite unbelievable. The body was one of those rather pretty short, two-door foursome coupés, with a big trunk aft, that were so popular in the early 1930s. The bonnet was slightly longer than the body. Yellow and black, of course, the sort of job you see arriving noisily in the Place Vendome on a sunny morning. In spite of its elegance, it was a jolly roomy body, I know, because once in Estoril when my wife and I hadn’t enough money for our hotel bill we lived in it for a week.
But all good things must come to an end. Early in 1948 I had a nasty feeling (how right I was) that the older high-powered cars (ours was rated at 33 h.p.) were going to take a nasty tumble in price and that we had better unload. The wonderful old car went to a very good home, we got a few pounds more than we paid, and the new owner was delighted. What more could one want?
In 1947 we had bought a second Bugatti, one of the little Type 37A, full Grand Prix, four-cylinder, single-camshaft cars. You probably remember Charles Brackenbury used to be tremendously successful with one at Brooklands. This one had been fully road-equipped and had virtually only one owner since new. But it was not till 1949 that we got it. going really right., so you will hear more about it later.
When we sold the big 5-litre I thought that, as we already had the little Bug. for a “funabout” it might not be a bad idea to get something post-war and cheap to run. The Austin A40 had just been announced and I think that ours was one of the first. Now, a lot of very unkind things have been said about the A40, but I still maintain that apart from its back-wheel suspension, which was absolutely shocking, and a tendency to brake fade, it was a really topping little car. I could put thirty-five miles into the hour and still do thirty-five miles to the gallon. Further, a terrific scrap had in North Italy with a post-war Aprilia showed that neither car really had the advantage of the other.
“Little New Look,” as she was known, had the distinction of being the first A40 to be seen on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The Russian Soldiers, naturally jolly fellows unless the political officer attached to their regiment tells them not to be, were unstinting in their admiration. But they refused flatly to believe that it was not an American.
It was in this car that I went through quite the most petrifying ordeals I have experienced in thirty years of motoring. The first of July, 1948, was spent at Stuttgart-Unterturckheim. This was a day of celebrations, for not only was it my birthday but it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the day Alfred Neubauer and Ferdinand Porsche joined the Mercédès organisation. Next day we were to drive Neubauer to Berne for the Swiss Grand Prix. A little incident here will give you an excellent indication of the character of this stern martinet, who, believe it or not, when “off duty” is the greatest fun and a delightful travelling companion. When we picked him up we were rather distressed to see that he had a good deal of luggage, because the boot of our Austin was so crammed that the lid, had to be forced shut.
Neubauer opened the boot, took out absolutely everything and placed it all carefully on the ground. Then, like a stonemason when building a wall who never picks up a stone twice, he picked each piece up and fitted it, and his own luggage, meticulously into exactly the right place. The lid shut with a gentle, contented click. That’s Neubauer.
Later came my ordeal. We had made a slight detour to see the Hohenzollern Sigmaringen castle perched, like something in a fairy tale, on top of a mountain, and we were running behind schedule. Out came one of the battery of watches, a lightning calculation was made and I was told that the lost time could be made up before we reached the Swiss frontier. There was no doubt at all — it was an order. Somewhere about two hundred thousand people read Motor Sport; I wonder how many of those two hundred thousand would like to drive an A40 at just about the maximum average of which it is capable over an unlearnt road with the sternest critic of driving in the world sitting poker-faced in the back seat. I just didn’t dare look in the mirror to see his expression. I concentrated on the job in hand. Within a couple of miles of the Swiss frontier it was clear that we should arrive around one minute ahead of schedule. Only then did I raise the courage to look back. It was the nicest compliment I’ve ever had paid to my driving — the master was fast asleep!
The following year a firm of publishers who had done very well with a book of mine briefed me for a year’s work and when it was almost complete went into liquidation with virtually no assets. Publishers are curious mammals, believed, erroneously, to have some human characteristic. Part of their stock in trade is a very long barge-pole kept in the office with which they refuse to touch work prepared for any other publisher. I could not feed my squealing young on rejected manuscripts, although my wife’s gnats devour them with an expression of weary cynicism too horribly reminiscent of a publisher. So the A40 had to be sold to provide some ready cash. The Type 37A Bugatti was beginning to behave itself quite nicely but was obviously incapable of carrying either children or their considerable impedimenta. Most of the money we got for the A40 had been used so we had not very much to spend. Then, under a dust sheet, we were lucky enough to find “Anna Pauker.”
She was a virtually new and unused 1923 3-litre Le Mans replica Chenard-Walcker laid up for about a quarter of a century. The body was just the job for us, a roomy four-door Weymann saloon. This wonderful old thing thundered backwards and forwards between London and Scotland like an express train and gave very, very little trouble. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you what it has passed. When I laid it up a short time ago it had only done forty-four thousand miles in its life. And “Anna Pauker” is really rather a problem of mine. What on earth am I to do with her? She is obviously too good and in such 100 per cent, original condition that it would be unforgivable to sell her to be hacked out as a cheap transport and, in a few years, end up in a breaker’s yard. I’m hoping that some museum or large collector may take a fancy to her, either here or in the U.S.A. Money is of secondary consideration to a good home where she will be beautifully preserved.
“Anna Pauker” was superseded, as family transport, by a whole series of those charming little 21.6-h.p. Rolls-Royces. between 1925 and 1929. I love the dear creatures because of the beautiful “Swiss-watch” feel of them, but my wife screams with rage, frustration and impatience at the extremely indifferent performance. Although, in all fairness, it is really remarkable what good average speeds they put up in view of the fact that the absolute maximum speed, depending on individual cars, ranges between 55 m.p.h. and 62 m.p.h.
The nicest of them all was a 1929 (GFN Series) with a fabric sports saloon body by Paddon. Almost all her life she had one owner, a meticulously careful schoolmaster. I sold her to the clarinettist in Victor Silvester’s dance hand. I asked him what it was like to play woodwind in a world-famous band. I think I expected tales of mobs of squealing bobby-soxers begging for autographs and high life in the grand hotels. But he turned his mournful eyes on me and said, with infinite sadness.”You just blow and blow, there is no release till death.” It is fun finding out how other people live. My Rolls-Royce customer not only makes clarinet marmalade, he is also a great authority on wind instruments of all ages and countries. I asked him if he had ever blown a Tibetan thigh bone. He said he had but that it had very little range and made very flat and uninteresting musk.
What with publishers, thigh bones and “Anna Pauker,” I have left out the 3-litre Bugatti I bought in 1950 and kept for about eighteen months. It was a jolly nice car with an outstandingly pretty two-seater body and a disappearing hood. It devoured the miles with effortless ease and the single Schebler carburetter was most economical. I had a good deal of trouble with this car, but I must say, in all fairness, that all the troubles were caused by modifications away from standard Bugatti practice.
Here is just one example. Coming back from Dundee one day, the back axle started to make the sort of noise that cannot mean less than twenty pounds and might easily cost double that amount. However, I was lucky, crown and pinion were quite unscathed. A previous owner had bolted the former to its flange with bolts which were not only non-Bugatti but mild .steel! I replaced them with high-tensile ones and felt happy. I had no trouble whatever with the bottom end of the engine, which always showed exemplary oil pressure.
I was horrified to hear just recently from the present owner that all its bearings had run. I can only conclude that it is some other non-Bug. modification rearing its nasty delayed-action head. I do wish that people who think that they know better than the designer would remember the little tag about “The evil that men -do lives after them.”
Such, too, was the sad story of my wife’s second Bugatti, the 51A, which, due to someone else’s “cleverness” blew up thoroughly enough to cost her nearly two season’s motoring. In fact, although it happened in February, 1951, I only finished paying for it a few months ago.
By 1950 the 37A Bug. was going superbly and had already toured all over Europe, so my wife made a rather inauspcious entry to competition motoring by a rather vague marshal waving her onto the club circuit at Silverstone during practice, to go the wrong way round. It is difficult to know who was the most shaken, Avcril or the boys who came motoring at her head on. That year was quite a season. We could not afford a lorry or even a service car to travel round to meetings and hill-climbs, so we just strapped all our impedimenta onto the luggage grid and drove the car to meetings. I must say Averil took to dicing like a duck to water, a debutante to gin, or a good car to 80 octane. She learned a lot, gathered some silverware and even got a class record. We managed about fifteen meetings on less than two hundred quid, including everything, so, taking it by and large, it was a good year, which 1951 certainly was not.
I decided that Averil had got about as far as she could on her 37A so we sold it and got a 51A Bugatti. This is also 1 1/2 litres supercharged, but a straight-eight double-cam. I must say this little car held the road and steered better than anything I have ever driven, and the urge was really very considerable, infinitely more so than its predecessor of the same capacity. We decided to run it, by way of a debut, in that very tough all-girl lark round Europe, the Rallye Feminin. The second day, after qualifying at Montlhèry, a roller bearing on the crankshaft went, causing considerable damage. This was caused by an Oberklottfuhrer, who had owned the car before us, substituting oil metering jets of his own contriving for those of Le Patron. We sent the bits back to Molsheim. As I said earlier, I’ve only just finished paying the bill. Last year the 51A was the subject of some more than somewhat unsatisfactory business with a character called Ted Lloyd, late of Welshpool. The police at Leek. Staffordshire, who are extremely keen to interview him on the subject, would be most grateful for any knowledge of his present whereabouts.
During most of the post-war period we were rarely without an elderly Austin Seven. All these wonderful little cars had been through an astronomical number of hands and done an unknown mileage, and I have nothing but praise for them. The very worst that they ever did, and they all seemed to do it, was to choose a very dark night to start a little conflagration behind the dashboard with the result that all the lights went out. A few shillingsworth of wire soon put that right. I love their economy, simplicity and reliability. The last one gave fifty miles to the gallon.
We also had a couple of old “Rosalies.” These are the rugged rear-wheel-drive Citronës which they continued to make up to about 1936. They are the French farmer’s Austin Heavy Twelve Four, and if a French farmer can’t break them up, it’s darn tootin’ sure no one else can. I should think that they have more room in them than any other car that does an honest 30 m.p.g. They have their faults, particularly their deplorable braking system, but for a cheap hack it would be hard to suggest a more useful tool.
Well, that about completes the rogue’s gallery, except for the Talbot 105 and a 1932 20/25 Rolls, and our present stud. The Rolls was an excellent car and a joy to drive; further, it gave 21 m.p.g., which was better than I ever had from a Twenty. But in spite of all this I hated it because of its vast body. I always felt that I was driving three very unpleasant rich old ladies to church, their two mousy poor relations sitting on the face-forward occasional seats. All five pairs of beady eyes are glued on the back of my neck. I can almost hear the rustle of the imitation stuffed birds in their hats against the soft fawn head-lining. It was all thoroughly unreasonable, because in spite of its vast size the coachwork was really very pretty. And I was thoroughly unreasonably delighted to sell it.
I hail forgotten what a delightful car a good Talbot 105 can be. I bought it from my clarinet marmalade merchant. He had spent a small fortune on it and kept it meticulously well. This was all for the best as I don’t care to work on Talbots.
It must have been sometime in the late 1920s that the old Talbot company sold several cars to a circus proprietor who promptly went bankrupt. By the time they had got their claim in, all the elephants, tigers, tents, vans and everything had been seized except a huge family of double-jointed dwarfs from the Khirgiz Steppes with very long arms and fingers fourteen inches long. These touching creatures, now the property of the Talbot company, asked nothing better than to work a twenty-three-and-a-half-hour day seven days a week for only their daily nourishment of cabbage soup as payment. Once a year, on Saint Basil’s day, they would drink slivovitz until they rolled about the floor giggling happily. But by midday they were always back at work. Georges Roesch was asked to design a car to be built and maintained by these creatures. He did and they built them till the ‘flu epidemic of 1935 carried them all off in one terrible holocaust. Soon afterwards Rootes took over the firm. The editor of Motor Sport says that he is not prepared to believe this, but neither he nor anyone else has been able to produce any more likely reason as to why the Talbots were built the way they were. However, provided you don’t have to do anything to a Talbot there are few pleasanter cars. This one, was economical, too. Its musician owner had taken it to Zenith, who had endowed it with a brand new carburetter and a petrol consumption of a very honest 20 m.p.g.
So far this is the catalogue of our post-war motoring: four Bugattis, seven small Rolls-Royces, a Chenard-Walcker and a Talbot 105, which were all fun; and, on the strictly utilitarian side, an Austin A40, two “Rosalie” Citroëns and several elderly Austin Sevens. Nothing, even at the most inflated price period. cost more than £900, and everything we had has usually made its money back.
Our last three acquisitions were a 2.9 M.G. ex-police car, an 8-h.p Morris van, and, the last of the lot, a Lotus Mark VI. The M.G., an open tourer, is about the only car I’ve ever had that gave me 90 m.p.h. and 20 m.p.g., although not, of course, at the same time. The Morris van is ex-G.P.O. and, replacing an Austin Seven, as “family roller skate” does yeoman service. I must, however, sound a note of warning. The G.P.O. vans are not entirely of standard specification. Although most spares are interchangeable, some are not, and are difficult to come by. However, its 44 m.p.g, and infinite capacity for hard work and carrying capacity goes far to compensate for the not very exciting performance.
It is a bit early to say much about the Lotus as my wife has only had it a few weeks. But two things are readily apparent. One is that it costs nearer six hundred pounds to build one than the widely quoted figure of four hundred. The other is that it is worth every penny of it. I am not certain that we have not found, in young Colin Chapman, that very rare combination, a severely practical genius.
And so our motoring goes on. There have been highlights such as having the use, for some time, of a late model Continental Phantom II. one of the pleasantest forms of progression known to man. I never grudged it a single gallon of petrol, on which it rarely gave me more than nine and a half miles. My ultimate ambition along these lines is a 1939 Phantom III with overdrive. Pass me my opium pipe, friends.