[In this instalment of a popular series, Ivor Perren of Trowbridge describes the sort of cars a post-war enthusiast could buy with small bags of lolly. Ed]
My story, I suppose, is much the same as that of countless other enthusiasts. I have not owned a 3.3 Bugatti, nor did I drive a de Dion Bouton in 1904, neither can I lay claim to 50 mph averages from Paris to Monte Carlo in the vintage years. You see, I am a mere stripling, weaned in a post-war environment of shortages, high prices, and junk-heap sharks. In this atmosphere I first invoked the internal combustion engine to aid me in my perambulations between A and Beer, and like many others decided that funds were sufficient for but two wheels.
My first rnotor-cycle was a fine old “sump” model 350 BSA, whose engine and mechanical parts were in better condition than many of its post-war fellows—lesson No. 1! At this time there was no basic petrol ration, which fact confined my use of the machine to illicit nocturnal sorties, usually preceded by the arrival of a friend, son of a wholesale tobacconist, carrying a suitcase full of small bottles of lighter fuel. Thereafter, motor-cycle followed motor-cycle in rapid succession; rattling Ariels, faithful Beesas, unfaithful Panthers, thumping Nortons, burbling twins, buzzing two-strokes, inflammable Rudges, raucous “big-port” Ajays, and a New Imperial—one was enough. Most had their idiosyncrasies. Some are blurred beyond recall, but I do remember a beautiful “Cammy” Norton which would only go quickly when cold, and a Douglas with the greatest aversion to potential buyers that I have yet encountered. This motor-cycle upbringing has left me with a great respect for the genuine motor-cycle enthusiast. I have struggled all day to repair a car by the side of the road, and no one could care less. On a bike, a pause merely for a cigarette has been sufficient to produce offers of assistance from almost every passing motorcyclist. They, together with long-distance lorry drivers, are in my experience among the most courteous and sensible of all road users. After all, the motor-cyclist can least afford to make mistakes.
At last came an opportunity to graduate to four wheels. A friend offered to share the cost of an MG Magna, which was for sale in the neighbourhood. The car was duly purchased. At this time, however, I did not know that he who shares your car inevitably turns out to be the last person with whom to share anything. So it was. The MG proved to be much the same as many other ageing MGs pokeless, unreliable and possessed of a firm desire to explore the verging countryside at speeds over 45 mph. It was sold eventually for something Over £200 ! How the old order changeth.
I then busied myself about the acquisition of a replacement vehicle with my share of the sale. You could buy little at that time for £100. Finding myself in the Stockwell Road one day, I chanced to notice in a grubby shop window a grubby postcard hearing the information that a Singer Sports could be obtained for the sum of £90. In an hour or so I became the owner of a grubby little car. It was a pathetic creature of uncertain vintage, at a guess I would put it at 1929. The beetle tail had been mutilated, and its improvised windscreen somewhat resembled the end of a greenhouse. The next four days were spent persuading this little horror to traverse a distance of some ten miles through busy London to my home, Within minutes the car was demonstrating its fetching ways by selecting two gears at once and locking the transmission in the middle of Tooting Broadway. Thereafter the journey was made in a series of hops, punctuated by mechanical failure, and each morning I would return by public transport to a place of abandonment a little nearer my ultimate destination. I remember that one night on the unlit Kingston Bypass. while searching, dog tired, for the nearest bus stop, I fell into a deep pit of stagnant slime. I stank. It was almost worth it, though, to observe the passengers’ reactions to the resulting apparition when I inflicted myself upon the next bus. Small wonder then, that when I finally closed the garage doors upon the beastly thing, I did my best to forget its existence. In some secret manner, however, it transmitted its depressing presence, and by the end of two months I could ignore it no longer. With the aid of a friend I commenced making the car roadworthy and respectable. Strangely enough we found nothing seriously wrong mechanically, and after a few months’ work it took the road, looking quite attractive and going well. The engine was the usual ohc contrivance, but obviously younger than the chassis, which, combined with a really light body, resulted in a surprisingly accelerative and reliable little car.
Appealing as it was, the time came when I desired a more inspiring vehicle and I disposed of the Singer with no difficulty at a slight profit. It had often struck me that looking for a car is much nicer than the worry of running one, and on this occasion I turned to the back of my Motor Sport with a sense of pleasant anticipation. After a few fruitless but enjoyable journeys during the subsequent weeks I decided to buy a rather pretty 1928 Amilcar Surbaisse which seemed well worth developing. Its charm was such that I turned a deaf ear to an ominous howl from the back axle. For those not familiar with these cars, they are typical small French sports cars of the later ‘twenties, with their “Grand Prix” bodies, staggered seating, solid back axle and lusty 1,100-cc engine. I shall always remember the drive home, for this was the first time I had experienced the vintage qualities at first hand. I noted with pleasure that “one-piece feeling,” the high-geared positive steering, the mellow exhaust burble from a slow-revving engine, the absence of roll and the feeling that one could go round corners quicker than most. (Lesson No 2) A week or so of pleasurable short trips followed, and then, joy of joys, the end of petrol rationing ! I joined the queue, had the tank filled to the brim, and set gaily off. I pulled alongside a piece of tinware at the next set of traffic lights, and glanced disdainfully across, the lights turned green, I let in my clutch, there was a sickening crack, the tinware moved off and I was left sitting there, my engine racing and the car motionless. It did not take me long to realise that the propeller shaft, had broken, a not uncommon Amilcar malady. I was bitterly disappointed, and worse was to come, for on dismantling I found the crown-wheel and pinion to be broken. This had obviously been responsible for the sheared propeller shaft.
At the time I was virtually broke and even in the unlikely event of finding replacements, I could not have bought them. So the car lay dormant for many months, until I had accumulated enough cash to attempt repairs. As was to be expected, my search for an Amilcar crown-wheel and pinion proved quite fruitless. Finally, I wandered into Elephant Motors, Elephant and Castle, and their name shall ever be blessed in my mind. The assistant went to endless trouble and produced an amazing assortment of veteran, vintage and modern cwps which he thought might be suitable with a bit of juggling. In the end we selected the most likely, which, incidentally. was brand new, and I tentatively asked the price, fully expecting anything between five and fifteen pounds. “Fifty shillings,” was the reply ! I hastily paid up and departed before be changed his mind. While handing out bouquets, another firm I would like to recommend is John Bland of Wandsworth. Yes the same Mr Bland to be seen scrutineering at VSCC race meetings. He did the machining necessary to fit the new parts and mended the broken propeller shaft for a very moderate sum. While the car was off the road I took the opportunity of stripping the engine and tidying up generally, including new upholstery, wiring, exhaust system and 17-in well-base rims. At the end of all this an atractive little Amilcar emerged and for a considerable period transported its owner between A and the aforementioned with but brief interludes to attend the hurts of a tired vintage engine.
One of these interludes was responsible for the appearance of the next vehicle in this chronicle. Lesson No 3 might almost be –never buy decrepit tinware to replace temporarily-expired regular transport for you will merely find yourself repairing two cars instead of one. Tempted by a low price I bought a 1932 Hillman Minx. I suppose this must have been among the earliest of the now fashionable cheap and nasty cars. A veil is best drawn over this episode as the resulting expletives would lower the tone of this magazine. Suffice to say that the only thing which worked properly was the horn, and on the day of sale even that refused to function.
Not long after the exit of the Hillman an acquaintance mentioned the existence not far away, of a 9/20 Humber performing the undignified function of lawnmower at a country house. Now I have always had a yen for one of these old cars as a second string, so I resolved to rescue the tinny thing if possible, and restore as necessary. I was not prepared for what I beheld however, for someone had inflicted a box-like abortion upon the Humber’s gentlemanly frame, to which was now tethered a mowing device. After some haggling I bought the car having finally been persuaded by the offer of a fine vintage horn to go with it. The Humber was a pleasant car to drive, with its sturdy right-hand gate-change and elevated seating and it was a disappointment to me that I was unable to complete the restoration through shortage of time. An advertisement in Motor Sport produced a very enthusiastic enthusiast and a bargain was struck, but I never heard whether he completed the restoration. I like to think he did.
The Amilcar provided me with very interesting motoring—garage and road varieties—for a considerable time, and I had now reached the point when I wanted something both more potent and more reliable. It had transported me to and from those wonderful post-war race meetings, inching its way hot and bothered, in miles of queues, usually arriving at the course with but three cylinders, or even fewer in operation. It had after suitable attention conducted me over many workday miles since then. It had become very difficult to part with. However, I steeled myself and with pennies jingling visited a certain well-known West London sports-car dealer, who I suppose “shall be nameless.” Here I was much taken with a trim-looking Riley, but was treated with such indifference by the sales staff that I decided, there and then, to keep the Amilcar and modify it to obtain the speed and reliability that I required. What comes next will no doubt offend the purists. I set about installing a Ford 8/10 engine, gearbox and a Centric supercharger. The work was carried out under singularly adverse conditions, without electricity or gas, and with only the aid of a few hand tools plus an ever-faithful Tilley lamp. The Amilcar chassis is extremely narrow and the Ford unit was only just persuaded into its new abode. I believe the 1929 chassis takes to the operation more kindly because of a repositioned cross-member. There were many headaches of courrse, but all were eventually resolved, and the engine installed and almost hidden from view beneath the supercharger and attendant oil tank, induction tract, engine-cooling arrangements and vertical BTH magneto. I had long been sensitive to the appearance, besides the function of things mechanical, and on this occasion I surveyed the resulting layout with some satisfaction and concocted a suitable underbonnet colour scheme. (The accessory storekeeper looked very dubiously at my wife when she refused his plug leads because they were the wrong colour. At this point, it is perhaps fitting to pay tribute to this long suffering helper who abets my motoring activities and shares all the work involved.
When at last the Amilcar took to the road in its new form I was well pleased with the results of my labours. In defence of my actions I can now say that Ihe car proved to be more reliable and quick, yet retained the original admirable handling qualities and, of course I could buy engine and gearbox spares off the shelf. Owing to pressure of work I was never able to develop the performance, but even so, acceleration was rousing and petrol consumption 30-36 mpg.
To digress for a moment, I should like to mention the good service I received about this time from Surbiton Engineering, whom I discovered through the Motor Sport article “Light Engineering Facilities.” This firm carried out a rush job most efficiently in time to enable me to compete in he Gosport Speed Trials.
As a means of transport, while working on the Amilcar, I acquired a comely old Standard of about 2-litres. Its date of birth was obscure but was probably about 1929. It had a solidly-built drophead body with dickey, and beautilally smooth and equally robust, if rather thirsty, six-cylinder sv engine. The car was quite pleasant to drive and thoroughly reliable. Occasionally, however, when the brakes were applied really hard there would be a nerve-shattering convulsion, shaking the car from stem to stern, and all braking effect would immediately cease. The occurrence of this phenomenon while descending Highgate Hill at rush hour provided sufficient stimulus for an investigation of the brake linkages and axle mountings, and after some head scratching the trouble was overcome.
With the return to the road of the Amilcar, the Standard was sold and I settled down to many enjoyable miles of quite brisk motoring. All good things must come to an end though, and the time eventually arrived when, for a variety of reasons, I required a more powerful and more robust motor car. An advertisement in Motor Sport produced a bevy of potential buyers for the Amilcar, and sadly we watched the first of their number drive it away.
Thinking that I might have had onions for lunch on the occasion of my last attempt to buy a car. I once more made my way to the aforementioned sports car specialists. Once more I found something I was all set to buy, this time an Allard, and once more I was thwarted in my purpose by the reception I encountered. The World is a wondrous place ! Shortly afterwards I came across quite a workmanlike Ford V8 Special, which had been professionally built in 1951 and was somewhat reminiscent of a sealed-up Dellow in appearance. The price attracted me and a deal was completed. I still have the car which has so far given yeoman service. Specification includes tubular chassis, coil-spring rear suspension, hydraulic brakes, shortened wheelbase and track, and slightly breathed-upon Mecury engine. which all combine to turn the scales at about 17 cwt in road trim. Performance ? A standing 1/4 mile takes 16.4 sec, and maximum is something over 100 mph, exactly how muc I do not know. Petrol consumption with two twin-choke Strombergs is 20 mpg, while with the standard induction system it goes down to 25 mpg. On the road the car is quite fun (I must confess that it gives me a certain infant pleasure to leave XK120s at traffic lights, in my undistinguished vehicle !). Cornering, while not wonderful is adequate, breakaway occurring, gradually on all four at a rather lower speed than one would expect. The steering I would prefer to be lighter and more accurate, but then I would prefer a DB2. In the speed events so far entered the car has secured several places against, it must be admitted, but light opposition. I am now busy preparing for the present season and, having breathed upon the engine a little more strongly, propose entering more events this year.
As a second car I have reccntly bought an old 9-hp Singer Special, undetered by tales of broken crank-shafts from my friends. However the ohc Le Mans engine seems a willing little unit, in spite of some opposition from its twin Solex. I was pleased to find, also, that it corners quite well and has adequate hydraulic brakes, which is about, all one can say about this somewhat negative small car except, perhaps that it is the coldest car I have ever driven.
And so the catalogue is complete, barring a mention of my evergrowing collection of those delightful Dinky toys and scale veteran and Edwardian cars. But, like most others I get that periodic itch to buy another car. Mostly such thoughts are stifled at their very birth by the appearance of little buff envelopes upon my doormat. However, sometimes when my money-box is heavier than usual, my mind runs riot. Up go my feet, out comes Motor Sport and the small ads are before me. “I wonder if there are any veterans . . . that Healey looks interesting . . . wouldn’t mind a good Bug, if I could find one … or a Bentley. . . or a 30/98. . . or a Jag. . . or a J2 X. . . or . . .”