By J. Richard Aley of the Ecurie Chequers here seen in his highly – satisfactory 1¼-litre H.R.G.
While none of the dozen cars I have owned have been of the exotic variety, I think I am safe in assuming that most readers will have owned many of the types at some time or other, and if my experiences are not unique perhaps they will at least recall some happy memories.
Apart from the series of depressing but reliable Austin saloons owned by my father pre-war, my four-wheel motoring began in 1950. Previous to this I had had five hectic years on two wheels, beginning with a 1925 round-tank 250-c.c. B.S.A. when I was only 15 and too young to ride officially on the road, and ending with a 1946 Norton model-18. Of course these were the glorious days of motoring when petrol cost 2s. a gallon and although officially rationed was fairly plentiful if one knew the right people! Also there was plenty of money around in this post-war period, so that it was practically impossible to lose on any motor vehicle no matter how much had been paid for it. For instance, the B.S.A., which was given me by an indulgent father for passing School Certifticate — which is also an obsolete vintage exam. today — cost £5 and was sold six months later for £20. This in turn was augmented with the proceeds from a distant uncle dying and bought a 1935 Sunbeam for £40, which in turn was sold for £70 to make way for an ex-W.D. Triumph. And so on . . . As this is not a motor-cycle magazine I will not dwell here, except to say it was the wildest, most dangerous, cheapest, coldest, dirtiest, but most instructive period of my life and one through which every driver should go.
By 1950 I had a yearning for more wheels under me and started thinking seriously at first on three-wheeler lines. A year earlier I had had brief acquaintance with an early two-speed Morgan and so when I found a 1933 Super Sports advertised in the local paper I wasted no time in becoming its owner. Reliability was never the Morgan’s strong point but when it went it did so in no mean manner, showing all the acceleration for which these models were so renowned. Its big V-twin J.A.P.only liked running at one speed and misfired badly both above and below this optimum, the gearbox was not easy to master and it was easy to change gear with the brake lever, but, despite all the prognostications from hopeful friends, it never actually turned over, although on one occasion it was only brought back to the straight and level by the combined efforts of driver and passenger emulating the crew of a racing dinghy over the side. Alas it was soon obvious that the Morgan was not a serious means of day-to-day transport and so it was sold, at a mere £40 profit, although it showed a distinct disinclination to leave me by first casting its windscreen into a potential purchaser’s lap on a demonstration run and then by breaking its transmission when it was being delivered.
Its place was taken by a 1931 Singer-coupe. Apart from having a good set of tyres this car was in awful mechanical condition and its appearance was much worse. However, it had the twin-carburetter Le Mans engine, which made it excitingly — and dangerously — fast, and in any case it was my first real car. I tried to teach my wife to drive on this and as we were not married in those days I did not complain when the rear axle proved inadequate and disintegrated under the strain. While petrol was rationed this car was very adequate but when the day of “Jubilo” arrived something more reliable was indicated.
As I had no money at the time my mother came to the rescue and between us a 1939 Austin Eight saloon was purchased. I never liked this vehicle, particularly as it proved the contention I have held ever since that economy motoring is very expensive! During the year we had it this little brute broke its gearbox, got all its wiring irreparably confused, threw off its rear “shockers,” was permanently brakeless, gutless, and characterless. In fairness I most admit that it took me long distances all over the country and had had lots of ill-treatment before it became mine. Also it ranks as the last car I have sold at a profit.
Next came a 1938 Morgan 4/4 four-seater. This was my first sports car and naturally I was proud of it. To my mind this is a little car spoilt by over-flimsy construction, for its performance was excellent, with a maximum of about 75 m.p.h. yet at the same time giving about 35 m.p.g. — about the most economical car I have ever possessed. I cannot remember, however, completing a journey anywhere without having to stop and make some mechanical adjustment or tie on some part that had fallen into the road. Luckily at this time l had access to a well-equipped workshop and I think that at least one day every week was spent in maintenance. In nine months it broke its chassis, with surprising results to its roadholding, burnt out innumerable valves, broke four tappets at four different times, boiled and leaked water, and the body fell apart, to name only a few of its major shortcomings. Bright red, with gleaming chrome, it was fun despite all its faults, and, being young and enthusiastic, in those days I always drove open with my “flat ‘at” pulled well down, so that I generally looked and behaved exactly like something straight from a Brockbank cartoon.
Early in 1952 I exchanged the Morgan, which had finally get the better of me, for a J2 M.G. This was another pretty little car, being painted bright blue, but was slow, heavy on petrol and oil, made far too much noise, was bitterly cold to drive, and bounced all over the road. However, and this was important after the Morgan, in the three months I had it it broke nothing despite being belted through trials, rallies and sprints nearly every weekend. Like most of my cars it was horribly ill-treated. I remember one Friday evening in late January driving to Cambridge for a car club meeting through deep driving snow and trying to keep up with a friend in his TA M.G. We came to a traffic hold-up, my friend, who was leading, stopped — I didn’t. The result was a very bent front axle and spring leaves all over the road, but, undeterred, we towed the wreck home and the next morning reassembled the springs with 2s.-worth of new bolts, heated the axle well and truly in the forge, bashed it straight with the largest sledge-hammer we could find and, lo, the car was competing at Peterborough in a trial on the Sunday morning.
Although during this time nothing actually broke on the J2, I always had the feeling that it was only a matter of time before the whole thing flew apart, and so when the opportunity arose to exchange it for a 1934 M.G. NA Magnette tourer I jumped at the chance. After the little one the Magnette seemed huge and its six-cylinder engine beautifully smooth. Alas, its performance was disappointing, with a maximum speed of about 60 m.p.h. and a phenomenal petrol consumption if driven hard, although it would rev, off the “clock” in the lower gears. It gave good service during the summer of 1952, however, although for some weeks an elusive fault in the ignition, eventually traced to a faulty condenser connection, caused me to use much bad language.
By this time I had been badly bitten by the competition bug and I longed to have something more suitable again. A Ford Special presented itself and so the Magnette went. When I took over the Ford it was one of those curious vehicles with engine half-way along its chassis, built to the old trials’ formula. The driver and passenger sat over the back axle of its shortened chassis, so the front wheels were in the air most of the time. No sooner had I bought the wretched thing than the regulations for trials were altered and the car became obsolete. In six weeks, in the middle of winter, I rebuilt the whole plot around a standard Ford Eight chassis frame, in a bitterly cold workshop. Like everything I have ever built in my life the workmanship was awful and the appearance not much better. However, the result achieved the aims for which I had hoped. It was strong, possessed good acceleration, not good but predictable roadholding, and yet was made entirely from cheap and expendable components. I kept this car in this form for six months, during which I drove it every day on the road to and from work and at the same time finished reasonably high in the entry list of every competition for which I entered, no matter what kind. The car gave pleasure to everyone, ranging from the small boys (who gathered beside it in the street to inquire not if it were a racing car but what sort of tractor it was) to the staff of my wife’s office (who all used to gather at the window each morning when we arrived at work to see her climb out over the side wearing a tight skirt).
Unlike most Ford Specials of the period, this one did not have the normal Ten engine but an Eight, fitted with an overhead inlet valve head rather like the L.R.G. on present-day Elvas. Many people suggested different manufacturers for this head but I never succeeded in learning what make it really was.
At this time Fords were figuring prominently in my motoring for, as a business car, my company had just re-equipped me with a new Anglia to replace the 1938 Hillman Minx I had had previously. This was a vast improvement, for I now had a reliable means of conveyance instead of a vehicle that I had to tow to start one day a week and which spent at least one whole week a month in the agent’s hands. I had the Anglia for three years and in that time it never let me down, averaged about 35 m.p.g. driving hard, and was very sparing on bits and pieces and tyres. This, to my mind, was the real economy car, simple and robust for long life rather than aiming at the very maximum in fuel economy.
Then one day I found a TA M.G. that had been written off as a result of a collision with a telegraph pole. From the bulkhead back there was little damage, the engine and gearbox were unhurt, but the front end was not very happy. I debated the question for some days and then took the plunge, buying the remains for, I think, £35. What made the project possible was that two good friends who had a small country garage were prepared to accept this odd collection of broken pieces as a challenge to their not inconsiderable skill. For three months we laboured and finally, on the Friday before August Bank Holiday, ERA 273 saw the light of day again as a complete motor car. As we could not obtain a new chassis frame we had rebuilt the old one, boxing in the front half to make it stronger than the original. A new radiator had been fitted and the wings beaten back into shape. Finished in brilliant white with blue wheels and radiator grille, it was a fine tribute to the workmanship of a small country garage and made me feel very pleased that I had brought it back to life. Then started the panic. It was at 8 p.m. on the Friday when I took the car up the road for the first time, feeling very tired from a week of constant work, and yet next morning it was due to appear in a race at Davidstow in Cornwall, 300 miles away. An all-night drive took us westwards but, alas, in the early hours of the morning, in the middle of Exmoor, one of the rear trunnions broke and the spring came out of the chassis to rest on the under side of the petrol tank. With the spring cushioned by a wooden tent peg we continued to Bideford, where l finally managed to get the use of a welding plant and effected a repair. Of course this delay had lost us the Davidstow race, for by the time we arrived at the circuit practice had finished and in any case I was too tired to even bother to unload the camping kit from the car and attempt to race. What a pity, for the weather was beautiful, making one of the very few fine race meetings at this ill-fated circuit.
After this unhappy start the M.G. made amends in the next few months and won me several awards at lots of different kinds of meetings, besides providing some good reliable and reasonably fast motoring around the country. After some thousands of miles of this it became pretty obvious that the odd knockings and rumblings coming from the engine department could not be ignored for ever, and although the car was still running as well as ever it was obvious that sooner or later there would be a loud bang, a pool of oil in the roadway and no engine to speak of. So we pulled out the engine and had it reconditioned. It was a pity I decided on this course of action because the car was never happy again. First it was found that the crankshaft was worn to a size where grinding was impractical and so it had to be built up by some metal spraying process that neither I, nor apparently the firm that carried out the work, understood, and, as a result, before the car had covered 500 reconditioned miles, all the oil pressure had disappeared and we were back where we started. Results were rather better the second time until one day, when the car was just about run-in, we found lots of oil pouring out of the water overflow pipe from the radiator. On stripping the engine this time we found that, like most TA blocks and heads, it was cracked in all directions and reboring and general fiddling around had opened up the whole lot, so we were getting water where we should have had oil and vice -versa.
By now I was thoroughly fed up with the sight of the inside of the engine so I adopted what I always consider the best course in such contingencies and sold the car to a not-too-local dealer. For the next few months I motored around in a 1949 Ford Eight van, a vehicle I would still recommend to anyone in search of basic transport or a second car to a more interesting machine.
At this time I was contemplating buying an old “500” and driving only in sprints but I failed to find what I considered a suitable car at the right price. This question of price I have always considered important, for apart from the fact that I have never had any money I have never seen much sense in laying out most of one’s resources on a competition car and then having to put up with purgatorial daily motoring. Unless it is possible to lay out over £1,000 on a competition car and then run one’s racing like a business to get the money back again, I think it is better to compete in the cheapest car possible and save the bulk of the purse for lightening the daily burden by having a decent car.
All my good intentions about never owning an open car again went by the board one evening when I found in a garage a 1,500-c.c. H.R.G. which I immediately recognised as the car that a few years previously had won lots of awards in M.C.C. events and held the hill-record at Trengwainton in the hands of Dennis Scobey. Although the garagist had priced the car optimistically he proved so amenable to haggling that I bought it there and then, although as usual I didn’t really have the money to do so. For once in my life I did not regret afterwards and I consider the next year’s motoring as the best I have yet had.
Immediately after buying the car I had a new set of big-ends fitted and the engine checked and, apart from a new clutch fitted six months later, the usual servicing was the only attention the car had whilst in my hands. In this year I drove the “Hurg” every day on the road and competed somewhere nearly every weekend, and yet in the whole time I spent only about £20 on it, apart from petrol and oil. Here again wasa real economy car! Sufficient has already been said of the H.R.G. to make it superfluous for me to extol its virtues, except to say it was the best of the old school of sports cars and I think the best all-rounder ever produced anywhere. And don’t be put off by the legend of the H.R.G.’s rough ride. Certainly it is what I consider to he a “he-man” car but I personally never found it tiring to drive on a long journey. A reasonably long wheelbase coupled with a good driving position accounted for this.
But no car is perfect and the “Hurg” was no exception. My cars have to live outside and carry me around in all kinds of weather, so it was not surprising that by the end of the winter I was beginning to wonder whether I couldn’t find a saloon with which I could still take part in competitions but which would allow me to arrive at my office looking less like a deep-sea diver.
After studying my pocket and lots of road-test figures I decided that the best bet in the small-car field was the Renault 750. This was on two counts. First, it had the reputation for being very robust and unbreakable in the engine department, and secondly it appeared to respond to tuning better than the average small car. Luckily I found a 1950 model at the right price that was in good condition with very few miles on the “clock.” I bought this and kept it 18 months — longer than I have ever before kept a car — during which time it was progressively modified and hard used.
Where competitions were concerned it was entered for every kind of event but never really did well in any. This, I think, was not so much the car’s fault as mine for trying to over-reach myself. For instance, during the early part of the 1956 racing season I entered it for several National race meetings and even for one International race meeting where, of course, it was totally outclassed. Also, most of the modifications were made by my own fair hands, and even my best friends in their most charitable moods — or when full of beer — admit that I am not an engineer. However, with an 8½-to-1 compression-ratio, straight-through silencer and manifold carrying a 30VIG Zenith, the little beast went very well and produced figures equal to much more expensive conversions available to anyone with £30 in his pocket.
Whitsun brought a comic-opera Saloon-Car Handicap at Snetterton, where the whole of the Cambridge University Auto Club, who were acting as my pit staff, took about five minutes to change a plug. Nuvolari Aley then roared back into the battle, performed two laps so rapidly that his aforesaid pit staff retired to the beer tent, and then became mixed up with another competitor at the hairpin and went off the track, straining his back in the process. Two days later, Sir Thomas Beevor, who for years has been my racing partner, bent his Cooper rather badly at Cadwell Park. As neither of us had any money that was the end of our 1956 car-racing season. Tom spent most of the rest of the year travelling backwards and forwards to Surbiton to look at the Cooper as it took shape and I retired the Renault into a road car and concentrated on hydroplane racing, a sport in which I had for some time become interested and one which I recommend to other motor-racing enthusiasts who, like me, just can’t keep up with rising costs.
Now I do not think that anyone, if asked to select a car to tow a boat and trailer around the countryside and at the same time carry all the necessary racing impedimenta, would select a Renault 750. Nevertheless the poor little thing never complained, despite lack of co-operation from a trailer that wouldn’t steer — more Aley engineering! — and on one occasion disgraced me by towing with such spirit that it took two policemen in an A90 five miles to overtake us and I lost £12 in consequence!
Like all Continental cars the Renault is drawn with slashing strokes on the canvas so that it is composed of good and bad features, in contrast to the dreary mediocre of most British cars. Mine was full of French temperament and no matter whether I was kind or swore in a variety of languages it was always master and always had one more trick in the bag. I shall never forget the occasion when, for no reason at all, it decided to fetch up in a hedge beside a perfectly straight stretch of road and I witnessed the disconcerting sight of the roof rack, still carrying my racing outboard engine, setting off up the road on its own.
Then there was the occasion during that disastrous Whitsun weekend when the near-side rear wheel and half-shaft came adrift. (While not wishing to depress present Renault owners I would mention here that on early models these components seem to be located in the axle casing by only one circlip.) Luckily this occurred in a small town right in front of the home of the best motor engineer in the place, who not only came to our rescue with a comprehensive tool kit but proceeded to do most of the work whilst his wife entertained us to coffee.
Minor things like this apart, the Renault was a good little car which served me well and proved that it is not necessary for a car to possess high performance to be interesting, but after 18 months of hard usage I was glad when the opportunity arose to exchange it for a Citroen Light Fifteen, which really is much more suitable for my use. I have not had this car long enough to become a fixed traction-avant fan and so I will refrain from making any comments that might start a long and involved argument in the correspondence columns. However, I do possess two friends both of whom have vintage Bentleys and, in spite of what a prominent motoring cartoonist may think, I have proved that the “traction engine” can corner faster than either of them.
This I thought was the end of the story but, on reading through my account I see I have missed two cars from the score. The first was a 1934 Riley Nine “Ascot” drophead coupe which I owned for a few months concurrently with the Morgan, but which I never really liked, although it was very reliable and did a genuine 35 m.p.g. As far as I am concerned its chief call to fame was the fact that I sold it thinking it to be brown in colour but later saw it after the proud purchaser had polished it and found it to be a not unattractive red! It served me well though and was an excellent standby to the Morgan.
The other car I have omitted was another reliable servant, in the shape of a 1934 Ford V8 coupe which I had to take in part-exchange for the Ford Special. I ran this for many thousands of miles during the summer of 1953 and it is remarkable in my mind for the fact that, apart from one gallon of petrol every 20 miles, I never spent a penny on it. It possessed bald tyres and a light back-end, making it very interesting on a wet road.
I will conclude by saying that in a dozen years I have owned about twenty assorted vehicles, some more decrepit than others, and spent a lot more money than I could afford, but if I could relive my time I would probably do just the same all over again.