Out of the past, August 1975

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Today impecunious young enthusiasts buy shot Minis and have their fun via Issigonis’s front-wheel-drive. When I was a young man in the early 1930s one looked for an old cyclecar, a worn-out Austin 7, or something similar. The reasons were just the same and so was the goal. The car had to be cheap, very cheap, to buy and to run, and also fun to drive, whilst providing transport to and from one’s place of employment. Another prime consideration was that it should provide reasonable “snogging” accommodation in the evenings. In those days no cars had heaters and most were open tourers, so the girls were not quite so fussy about protection from the elements. [I thought they preferred cinemas—Ed.] Come to think of it, the 1930s were not a permissive age so warmth in a snogging vehicle was not quite so necessary; one seldom took so much off! Anyhow the first consideration then as now was to find an old car which was cheap, and fun.

Ever since I was about twelve I had been wearing out my parents’ cars during the school holidays. Even before the “age of consent” (17, for a driving licence) I had driven a few sports cars owned by more affluent young men. After apprenticeship at Bentleys, which led to joining the firm as a Salesman, I got used to driving a lot of cars which were right outside my class. Various drives at Brooklands in Delage, Bugatti, and Bentleys gave me delusions of grandeur which I was financially unable to support, so other people’s cars, including my mother’s Austin 12 saloon for the evening, gave me all that I wanted until it became absolutely imperative that I should be more independent and have my own personal transport. Needless to say, I was penniless. I looked at several likely vehicles at about £10 but I just had not that amount of cash. I nearly fell for a twin-cylinder ABC Sports for £5 but it wasn’t a runner. Aubrey EssonScott, whose Grand Prix Bugatti I had been admiring, advised me to buy the ABC. He said that it was a bargain and that I should just take the engine down and put it together properly and then it would go like a bomb. That was out of the question as, although I was fair on the theory and a reasonable draughtsman, I had turned out to be the world’s worst mechanic. Victor Gillow, that wonderfully mad Riley racing driver, told me that I could have the remains of a burnt-out Riley Redwing which was in the yard behind his showrooms. He said that he would give it to me and it was almost a runner, but again I felt that I would never make it a proposition. Then I saw in the small ads. in the Autocar a 1924 8-18 Talbot two-seater, in excellent condition, for £6, at Pendeller Motors, Brampton Road, London. That had to be “for me”. I saw it, tried it, and bought it there and then. I owned it for about two years and it was one of the best buys which I ever made.

The 8-18 was designed by Coatalen, as I proudly told all my friends, and was first produced in 1922. [Yes, I have just restored the first production model and only survivor. I’m told, of the 1922 Talbot-Darracq Eight. —Ed.] The heart of the beast was a lovely little overhead-valve 970 c.c. engine. There was a three-speed gearbox with a nice stubby central gearlever, torque tube transmission, and (best of all) a solid back axle without any differential. [Best of all? Not, maybe, at the prevailing price of 710 x 90 tyres!—the present-day substitute for 700 x 80s.—Ed.) The chassis was very light and small with quarter-elliptic springs all round and a wheelbase of only 8 ft. 1 in. My complete car weighed 11½cwt. and, as the very freely revving engine gave about 20 b.h.p., the car had a really lively performance. My more affluent friends, John and Richard Bolster, were dashing about in real dog-with-chain Frazer Nashes so now I could emulate them further down the scale, as my tail slid too round all the corners. Richard said “Throw the tail away and cut a foot off each end of the back axle and then with a proper crabtrack you’ll really be able to go”. Of course, the idea was right but I just hadn’t the ability to carry out the operation. With that fairly wide track at the rear I was certainly handicapped and rear tyre wear was phenomenal. Even that wasn’t quite as serious as it might have been as Dunlop Mac and his boys round the back of the Paddock at Brooklands were good friends. It so happened that my very narrow section covers were exactly the same size as some that Dunlop had been using on a long-distance record bid. Heaven knows what it was—it might have been a bike or some miniature cyclecar; but anyhow Mac gave me a pile of “worn out” covers. Just the job, no tread so less friction for the solid back axle. Those were the days! No silly little tread-depth gauges required! Even in the early 1930s brakes were desirable but, of course, they were not such a vital necessity, since there was so little traffic around. My 8-18 had two brakes. The foot-brake operated on one rear wheel and the hand-brake operated on the other, the former making a hissing noise and a funny smell and the latter producing a juddering effect, but neither slowed the car much. This usually left me scanning the horizon for something to run into, like a haystack or the right sort of hedge. I soon became horticulturally knowledgeable and could recognise and evade a prickly hawthorn or holly on an instant.

Soon after my purchase I proudly showed it to Georges Roesch, the famous Talbot Engineer who was a friend of the family and one of my idols. Georges said in his well-beloved broken English) “Reevers, you ‘ave bought ze wrrong car; you should ‘ave bought ze 10-23, the 8-18, ‘es no good. Coatalen, ‘e made the chassis all wrong and I made it good in the 10-23”. [Yes, the frame did break, but could be plated—Ed.] Oh dear, I did want Georges Roesch’s approval and I certainly didn’t get it, but nevertheless I thought that the 8-18 was a super little car and the 10-23 rather dull. Over the years Georges never approved of my cars. Many years later when I bought Bentleys and Bugattis he would came up to me and say “Reevers, you ‘ave bought the wrrong car”. Even when I tried to buy a Roesch Talbot, the ex-Fox and Nicholl single-seater Ninety converted to a sports car by Hebler, it was the wrong Talbot,! A contrary but charming and wonderful man was Georges Roesch, so very well chronicled by Anthony Blight.

Whilst I was testing and demonstrating all sorts of glamorous cars at Brooklands I continued to use the little 8-18 Talbot for my personal transport. Friends down at the Track rebored the engine and pushed up the compression. Whilst the car was parked outside Campbell’s shed Alistair Millar broke the windscreen by putting the mast of a sailing boat through it, and then paid generously for it, enabling me to have a new folding screen made.

Although I never even contemplated competing with such a pedestrian car I, nevertheless, took it down to the West Country and stormed up a number of trials hills quite successfully. On one occasion I spent a jolly afternoon, probably getting in everyone’s way, driving round the Mountain at Brooklands. It was a practice session before a Bank Holiday Meeting and I asked in the office if I could do a few laps just to test something. I didn’t tell them what car I was driving and I guess that they thought it was someone’s Bentley or Bugatti as they were fairly used to me testing such vehicles. Anyway, off I went, flat out on the 8-18 with a top-speed of about 60 m.p.h.! Each lap as I came up the Finishing Straight the slight gradient approaching the Members Banking slowed me sufficiently to take the turn under the Members Bridge without lifting off. Climbing the banking itself brought me down to about 40 m.p.h., which enabled me to engage second gear. Down the hill to the Fork the speedo went off the dial, there was no rev.-counter, and my main excitement was finding enough brakes to negotiate Chronograph Villa. In less than an hour I wore all the covers down to the canvas and, seeing some important-looking officials around, I hastily returned to the Paddock. I thought that on one occasion I had got in the way of Staniland who was driving a 2.3 Grand Prix Bugatti, so when he came in I apologised. With typical charm he said that I hadn’t impeded him at all as he saw that I was only touring. “Only touring” be blowed, I was flat out dicing with death! Oh, how sadly we miss dear old Brooklands, and that happy-go-lucky carefree atmosphere of few regulations and practically no red tape. Remember that I was just an ordinary member of the BARC driving his old “banger”, but amongst the top drivers with the fastest cars on an official practice session.

At that time my family lived close to Barnet in Hertfordshire and my brothers and I used a little unofficial circuit of roads nearby. We used to sort-of close the circuit by posting chaps on the corners and crossroads so that fast laps could be timed. Quite illegal it was but then the local Sergeant was a friendly Bobby who knew when to look the other way. Early one Sunday morning I was attempting to better my best on the Talbot. A bald nearside front tyre gave way on a tight corner. There was a high kerb. I struck that kerb, the car turned a somersault throwing me out, and then it came back on its four wheels very bent and on fire. I was perfectly all right and only a little bruised, and even had time to run home and get my camera before the Fire Brigade arrived. That was the end of my 8-18 Talbot, but there are still a few around today, despite the fact that they are all about 50 years old. Will any of the present-day economy cars last that long? A. F. RIVERS-FLETCHER

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