Vauxhall motors' collection of historic cars

WITH the present widespread interest in the historic-car movement it behoves any manufacturer having a worthwhile heritage to maintain examples of some of the products on which present-day fortunes were built. Quite a lot of our bigger manufacturers do this. Ford, B.M.C., Standard-Triumph, Rover and Rootes, for example. One of the most representative collections is that of Vauxhall Motors of Luton, which I had the pleasure or inspecting last June.

The cars lined up on the sports ground for my delectation ranged from the 1904 6-h.p. single-cylinder Vauxhall, so well-known to Brighton Run spectators, to the Company’s extremely covetable 1926 30/98 Vauxhall Velox fast tourer. The oldest of this assembly of half-a-dozen models ranging over the formative years of the Vauxhall Company was not registered until 1950, hence its three-letter registration plates. Vauxhall Ironworks of Wandsworth Road, London, made similar cars of 5 h.p. experimentally in 1903 but this 6-h.p. version is one of the first six production models. The single-cylinder 4 in. x 5 in. (1,029 c.c.) engine is mounted horizontally at the front, with the crankshaft located transversely. Ignition is by trembler coil and a pump driven from the exhaust valve camshaft assists water circulation. Transmission is by a 2-speed epicyclic gearbox and final chain drive, and engine speed, controlled by altering the tension on the spring of the automatic inlet valve, is governed on the exhaust valve to give maxima of 8 and 18 m.p.h., respectively, although a foot pedal cuts out the governor for bursts of sonic 25 m.p.h. Steering is by tiller and there is no differential but internally-toothed free-wheels in the rear hubs serve as a substitute. Suspension is by coil springs. When new these little Vauxhalls cost 130 gns. There is evidence that a reverse gear would have been incorporated had the design not been superseded by a later version.

This particular car was apparently sold to a client in Australia, then spent much time there and in America on display in agents’ showrooms, returning to its parent company, now at Luton, after the second World War. By this time Vauxhall Motors had decided to restore the old cars in their possession, giving this formidable task to George Sears, a native of Harpenden, who has worked with Vauxhalls all his life and worked in the Service Department since Jan. 1940. To their everlasting credit they told this skilled and sympathetic engineer to spare no expense, and since that time George has painstakingly rebuilt and maintained magnificently the old Vauxhalls which are his responsibility. In the case of the 1904 car considerable rebuilding was necessary when the work was put in hand in 1949/50. The original radiator tubes of corrugated bronze had perished, so Sears made a new radiator of 3/8-in. copper tubing and rebuilt the complicated control system incorporated with the steering tiller from imagination. Percy Kidner, who was joint Managing Director with W. E. Gardner when the car was built, helped a great deal, naturally, but the work had to proceed from memory only. The 2-seater body was hand-painted and varnished and an old upholsterer was brought to the factory to re-make the seats on his own terms, as he has done for all Vauxhall’s subsequent rebuilds.

This splendid veteran Vauxhall has taken part in the last 15 Brighton Runs, driven on all but one by Mr. Kidner. One inherent fault of these original Vauxhalls was crankshaft breakage. Mr. Kidner recalled that he used to drive one to Scotland and halfway back, bang would go the crankshaft. This calamity overtook the reconditioned car about 16 years ago but Sears had the boys at Luton cut down a Vauxhall half-shaft and this was used to reunite the fractured shaft. It has served ever since. On the 1964 “Brighton” the back axle broke four miles from the finish but this, too, has been skilfully repaired.

I did not drive this Vauxhall, because I knew Sears would suffer as I taught myself the peculiarities of the unusual controls; the Vauxhall Ironworks catalogue said that control is “rendered so easy and light that a perfect novice can readily drive without difficulty,” but I do not regard myself as a perfect novice. However, from a run he gave me round the sports ground roads I could appreciate in what very fine mechanical fettle the car is—so smooth, tractable and comparatively vibrationless for a primitive single cylinder.

Historians know that between 1905 and 1906 Vauxhall built a short-lived 3 in. x 3 3/4 in. 7/9-h.p. 3-cylinder-in-line car and an 80 x 110 mm. (1,675 c.c.) 9-h.p. of the same type, following the introduction of a 12-h.p. 3-cylinder model in 1904. They would be disappointed if Vauxhall Motors’ collection lacked a 3-cylinder. Fortunately, it does include one.

This car, the 1905 9-h.p. version, believed to be the only surviving example of this model, had languished in the factory for years but in a very neglected state. When the Vauxhall Directors, abetted by the Publicity Department, decided to restore their veterans, Sears set about a complete rebuild of this rare 3-cylinder. The design is interesting, comprising three separate T-head “pots,” cooling by a scuttle water tank and a gilled-tube radiator at the front, cone clutch, 3-speed gearbox, and chain final drive. There is only one ball-race in the car, for the clutch thrust, all the other bearings being plain, the Tufnol timing gears run naked, unashamed and unlubricated, and the tappets are within the crankcase and the very devil to adjust. The engine is rendered extremely accessible because the wide bonnet boards of the typical early Vauxhall taper-bonnet are easily removable, and it has a separate exhaust pipe for each cylinder, falling into a big silencer. The brake handle has a steel ratchet lever, the gear handle a bronze ratchet lever, probably to provide quick identification between two very similar external controls. The cost, new, was £250.

The weakness of this engine was its tendency to break off its cylinders at the flanges, and George Sears found he had only one of the original cylinders and pistons, while crankcase and sump were badly holed. The gears in gearbox and differential were hopelessly chewed up. However, Barimar welded up the alloy, Sears hand-scraped the bronze bearings and joint faces, and by sticking together pieces of the gears with plasticine patterns were procured from which the boys of the Vauxhall Apprentices’ School re-cut new gears—today the interior of the box is like new, as George proudly showed me. Eight different colours were revealed when the 2-seater body with its high bucket seats was stripped, preparatory to repainting in brush-applied Lonsdale yellow, varnished over.

I had a spell of driving this 3-cylinder Vauxhall. It is, again, a very docile car, and once the art of driving on the tiny hand throttle under the steering wheel has been mastered and the gear positions found correctly on the notched quadrant, the task is easy.

This is a transition from the veteran demeanour of the 1904 and 1905 Vauxhalls to the lusty Edwardian. This fine motor car was the standard model of 1909/11, a development of the first 4-cylinder Vauxhall of 1908. When new it cost £350. The engine is a conventional side-valve 80 x 110 mm. (2,350 c.c.) driving via a 3-speed gearbox to a normal back axle.

Vauxhall were lucky to get this one. Built in September 1909, it ended up in a gipsy car-breakers in Cornwall, after being used by a Plymouth motor trader; but luckily a Vauxhall dealer, knowing of the Company’s desire to preserve the cars it had built, told them of it, and restoration began in 1952, the car, again the sole surviving specimen, although 537 were built, being ready for the V.C.C. Windsor Rally of 1953. That bare statement gives no clue to the vast amount of work this entailed for George Sears. Although the engine wasn’t running too badly the entire chassis had to be dismantled and rebuilt and the body, a big 2-seater with small holster petrol tank on the platform behind the seats (on which someone had put a kind of box), restored. The ball-races were a tricky problem, the original German ones having survived unbroken but being badly worn, likewise the very tough German king-pins. Skefco found new ball-races, the original pistons, con.-rods and clutch Were retained, and the Luton carpenters repaired the body, painted red and cream, although the original scuttle and screen were retained. Esso found a “Pratt’s Motor Spirit” can for the running-board holder.

The work was well done, as anyone who knows George and the Luton mechanics would not find surprising, and the old Vauxhall proved capable of 50 m.p.h., going to 57 m.p.h. on occasions. The cone clutch, incidentally, is of unlined brass, with the small taper facing to the rear, typical of Vauxhall clutches of this era. It needs occasionally treating with oil but can be engaged smoothly. Indeed, I found this splendid Vauxhall very easy to drive, the massive outside gear lever moving positively through the gate, the brakes very effective, the view of the road superb, the steering extremely light. Altogether, a very choice Edwardian, of no mean performance. The plate on its dash makes sense, too. It reads B0934, which, translated, means model B, built in 1909, the 34th car of this series.

By this time enthusiasm for the old models was such that Vauxhall Motors badly wanted to add some larger, and vintage, cars to their collection. Laurence Pomeroy, son of the designer of the legendary “Prince Henry” sporting Vauxhall, had been given a fine 1914 example, but Vauxhall’s model is an early one, which was sold to a customer in Sligo, Ireland, came to Coventry in about 1935, was laid up in a private garage from 1938 to 1946 and was drivable when acquired for the Luton collection.

This version has a gaiter in the n/s side-member where it broke by the dumb-iron, a failure on the early models which soon led to a strengthened chassis and a different radiator mounting. “Prince Henrys” have the vee-radiator, this one mounted on top of the chassis. The rather ugly touring body is by W. Watson of Liverpool. The inlet manifold is unheated so Sears feeds hot air from an exhaust-manifold muff to the intake of the carburetter, which, unhappily, is a too-recent Zenith. The only other non-original feature is the Autovac fuel feed. Running on very big wheels this “Prince Henry” performs effortlessly. I must confess, however, that it was some miles before I began to master the double-declutch gear-change, the lever needing strength to shift it, which spoils the timing. The accelerator is placed centrally.

This particularly fine example not a most interesting and important Vauxhall model makes a very pleasing stable companion to Luton’s 30/98. It was bought new by Norman Edwards, the pottery manufacturer, of Stoke-on-Trent, in April 1923, who used it for 30 years, except during the war, and still took it out occasionally until 1955. The Vauxhall dealers who supplied it, Tom Byatt Ltd., then took it back and presented it to Vauxhall Motors. It has, naturally, been beautifully restored, even to templates for the button upholstery and I was extremely glad of a chance to drive a 23/60, a car I worked on as a young apprentice. The inside r.h. gear lever is very tall and absolutely to hand, the Highlight of the afternoon, of course, was driving the truly immaculate 30/98, an OE-model Velox tourer, which had only run 600 miles since a complete engine overhaul. It has an unpainted bonnet to offset the yellow body, split-rim wheels, outside handbrake lever working on the back wheels, the brake pedal, close-set to the central roller accelerator, actuating a transmission brake and the front brakes via the notorious kidney-box linkage. There is no rev.-counter and we kept to below 60 on the small speedometer in deference to the recently rebuilt engine.

Even so, this 30/98 showed ample “life,” accelerating strongly, its gearbox easier than the others to master, the ride surprisingly supple, the driving position absolutely right. It was motoring of the most enjoyable kind, so that I could have gone on forever in the hot sunshine of this memorable June afternoon.

There was less exhaust-note than I had expected, and the impression was of a refined, thoroughbred, very lithe sporting car. Little is known of the history of this 30/98, which has the balanced crank, so that it should be safe up to 3,500 r.p.m. when run-in, but it was first registered in March 1926 and owned by Mr. Richard Smith of Newbury in 1942. Incidentally, there is to be another assembly of 30/98s at Vauxhall Motors in 1966.

No praise is too great for the restoration and loving care which Vauxhall Motors have bestowed on these old cars and their sagacity in giving George Sears the full-time task of administering to them. He is shortly to retire, when his place will be filled by the equally enthusiastic Alan Garland, but I shall be very surprised if George keeps away from the cars he has so ably put back on the road or from future “Brightons” in which the 6-h.p. Vauxhall is running, and he is sure to be consulted from time to time by the colleagues who are carrying on his noble work. The old Vauxhalls are by no means museum pieces—the 1909 car, the “Prince Henry,” 23/60 and 30/98 were all taxed at the time of my visit and they are driven frequently to rallies, and used for publicity purposes in connection with sports days, the opening of new showrooms, pubs and so on. Driving them considerable mileages, Sears has never had any trouble with the replacement Dunlop tyres which are fitted to all Vauxhall’s rebuilds and without which few old cars could be kept on the roads, and he gets petrol consumptions of 30 m.p.g. from the 1904 car, 26 m.p.g. from the 3-cylinder, 25 m.p.g. from the 1909 model, 22 m.p.g. from the “Prince Henry,” 15 m.p.g. from the 23/6.0, and 16-18 m.p.g. from the 30/98.

There is also a 1914/18 War Department Type D 25-h.p. Vauxhall, first registered in East Ham in 1921, in process of restoration and, thanks to a tip from a MOTOR SPORT reader, an early Bedford box van may by now have been added to this splendid collection—one of the finest manufacturer’s museums in the country.

A memorable day included lunching with Bill Ward, Manager of the Overseas Tooling & Assembly Division, who was a boy in the Service Department in the hey-day of the 30/98. He recalls being sent North to fit a new piston in a customer’s Vauxhall before the Whitsun holiday of 1925 and being detained there, much to his displeasure, as he was due to ride as Major Coe’s mechanic at Brooklands on the Bank Holiday. Buying a paper on the Monday evening he read of Coe’s serious accident, when the racing-bodied 30/98 had overturned on the Railway Straight. He was with Coe when he raced this Wensum at Boulogne (alas, it ran a big-end) and remembers Betty Carstairs’ 30/98 and Sir Ronald Gunter being deposited on the Track when the seat of his racing Vauxhall collapsed, the body being a very light structure braced internally with wire stays. Great days, which my brief encounter with these beautifully restored Vauxhalls rendered all the more nostalgic.—W. B.