Veteran Edwardian Vintage, August 1983

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A section devoted to old car matters.

Another facet of Vauxhall history—The Ill-fated 1914 TT/GP Cars

Under Laurence H Pomeroy, their Chief Engineer, Vauxhall’s produced several road racers, starting with a side-valve 3-litre for the 1911 Coupe des Voiturettes Legeres. It was driven by AJ Hancock (who graduated from Vauxhall’s running-shed to become their leading racing driver and eventually the Works Manager) but retired with a broken con-rod. A team of similar 3-litres was used for the 1912 Coupe de L’Auto, and presented a real challenge to the all-conquering Sunbeams (and another page in the short-stroke-v-long-stroke battle), until Watson’s broke a big-end bolt, Hancock’s, when set to win, a piston, and Lambert’s Vauxhall also expired, with big-end failure.

Two of the same cars, with revised gear-ratios, were run in the 1913 Coupe de L’Auto, but Watson’s back-axle broke on the last lap and Hancock, although fourth, behind a Sunbeam but ahead of Rigel, was no match for the other two twin-cam Peugeots, driven by Boillot and Gauss. So for 1914, when Vauxhall’s decided to concentrate on the TT and GP races for bigger-engined cars, something had to be done. Peugeot had pointed the way by pioneering the twin-cam multi-valve engine and Vauxhall now cautiously adopted it, but with only slightly-inclined valves and with rockers imposed between them and the camshafts, which were driven by a vertical shaft at the front of the 90 x 130 mm (3,308 cc) engine. The chassis was quite advanced, with springs passing through the front axle. But cantilever back springs were used. Kent Karslake has remarked that the carburation problems that robbed the Vauxhalls of any chance to show their paces in the 1914 GP “may not have been an unmixed evil, as their cantilever rear suspension was afterwards recognised to be unsatisfactory. . . .” Quite why this springing was adopted, apart from a desire to reduce unsprung weight slightly and achieve a long springbase, I do not comprehend; but it will be recalled that it figured on an experimental 30/98 in 1915, so presumably LH Pomeroy had an obsession with it. . . .

Vauxhall’s were notorious for late preparation of their racing cars, and the 1914 TT was no exception. So it was hardly surprising that Watson’s crankshaft broke in the first four miles of this two-day 600-mile race. Higginson’s (the Autovac manufacturer whose demand for a faster car than his course-record La Buire at Shelsley Walsh had resulted in the birth of the 30/98) shed one of its bolted-on balance-weights from its crankshaft in the last practice period and was only readied just in time to start, and to no effect, while Hancock’s, underweight at the weigh-in, was delayed by carburation troubles and a broken water-pipe, and it crashed later, going through a wall and rolling over; Hancock being injured. A twin-cam Sunbeam led home the sleeve-valve Minervas. . . .

According to Pomeroy, Junior, literally the same chassis were used for the GP, with new 101 x 140 mm (4,487 cc) engines to meet the different capacity limit, 31/2 weeks later. If this is so, only three of these TT/GP Vauxhalls was built, presumably. For the GP the crankcase-breathers protruding through the bonnet top were abandoned and the radiator, with unusual forward-extended header tank, was uncowled. The six-spoke steering wheel was of nautical style, Pomeroy having apparently been impressed by the one he saw on the steamer which brought him back from the 1912 Coupe de L’Auto race!

In the TT, Vauxhall No I had been given to works-driver AJ Hancock, No II to Vauxhall-agent Willie Watson, No III to private-owner Higginson. For the even more prestigious GP, run weeks later, Hancock had No I, but the American champion Ralph de Palma, seeking his fortune in Europe, was allocated No II (he had driven a Fiat in the 1912 GP), Watson being relegated to No III. Again, it was to no avail. Watson had carburation trouble, de Palma broke his gearbox, and a piston broke in Hancock’s engine on the first lap. However, there is a poignant little twist to this. Hancock, who rose to a very high position at Vauxhall’s, was elected President of the IAE in 1935/36 and in his Presidential address he said: “I can recall a great satisfaction in my life, many years ago, when Mr Pomeroy (his close friend) and I were sitting with hanging heads on two upturned buckets somewhere in France at Grand Prix time, tired out and beaten men. Everything had bust up or broken down, in all three cars we were running. Every effort I had made seemed to have brought to nought the months of brilliant engineering Mr Pomeroy had lavished on these three cars, now humiliated wrecks scattered around us. We slowly looked up at each other and Mr Pomeroy’s infectious smile broadened until we were both roaring with laughter and contemplating the ‘next time’. The war, however, came too soon.”

After the war, as with the unsuccessful 1922 TT cars (Motor Sport. December 1982, February 1983). Vauxhall’s made good use of the ill-fated 1914 GP cars at Brooklands. They had the sense to change to half-elliptic back springs and the worm gear driving the overhead camshafts (perhaps worn out after the GP) was replaced by a bevel gear. In 1920 they were too busy at Luton clearing up after production of shell fuses and military chassis to think of racing but at the 1921 Brooklands’ Whit-Monday Meeting, when the public had begun to flock to the Track, Vauxhall No II, green-hued as at the GP, was running, driven by MC Park, in charge of finished cars at the factory.

It lapped slower, if accelerating far better, than Cook’s 30/98 in its first race but was second to Chitty-Bang-Bang in a later one and was second again, on its fourth appearance, this time behind Duff’s even older Fiat, before the afternoon was over. This must have pleased Vauxhall’s MD Percy Kidner, because Vauxhall III joined its sister at the Summer Meeting, entrusted to Swain, foreman of the running-shed at Luton. From then on his car was almost always the faster, eventually lapping at 108.74 mph to Park’s 102.69 mph. In spite of this the two Vauxhalls were paired on the same mark, unless Swain had been re-handicapped, which must have irritated Park. During 1921 Park was not placed again but Swain won a Lightning Short Handicap from Chitty and a “100 Long”, as well as netting two second places and one third place. Kidner had it back in the preferred red livery by September, whereas Park’s car remained in GP green.

The following season Kidner entrusted one of the 1922 TT Vauxhalls to Park, and the 1914 cars becoming available to bidders. The Hon GA Egerton, who also raced a Bentley, took over Park’s 1914 GP car but had no joy with it, and I believe passed it on to GET Eyston. By this time HF Clay was using another in sprint events in the North of England and that this must have been the ex-Watson Swain car, perhaps supplied to Clay by Watson, who drove it in the GP and was, I think, Vauxhall’s Liverpool agent. The ex-Hancock number I GP car was obtained by HV Barlow (flamboyant driver of a 211/2-litre Benz) which had blown-up in the GP and had probably lain at Luton ever since. It had a different radiator perhaps the distinctive 1914 one was best during the war, and retained those cantilever back springs. At Whitsun 1922, it lapped at nearly 89 mph. When the Benz became available Barlow passed on to the keen newcomer, DJ Gibson a few days before the August racing. In Gibson’s first race it fizzled out, with a faulty ignition-switch. Later on that 1922 Bank Holiday afternoon Gibson went out for the “90 Long”, Park on scratch 14 seconds behind him with a 1922 TT Vauxhall, but Holder’s Vauxhall with bored-out 30/98 engine and Clement’s Bentley leaving seven seconds before Gibson, who had his cousin as passenger. From Pond start to the Fork he did 88.27 mph, with which Swain would have been satisfied. On the next lap, travelling too high on the Byfleet banking and getting into trouble at the reverse curve, Gibson then tried to pass the car ahead on the outside. The Vauxhall collided with the fence, rebounded back onto the Track, and rolled over and over. Gibson was killed and his cousin badly injured. The latter, in delirium called out “Get back over the line”, which endorses the view that the car had been wrongly placed before the accident.

That was almost the end of these unhappy cars, until Andrew Baynes entered one for the 1931 Branches Park speed-trials, running it again at Hexton Hall in 1932. By then virtually forgotten, Motor Sport called it “a really delightful TT Vauxhall”, and certainly it wore a radiator cowl, as the 1914 cars had in the TT although probably not the original one. Assuming the Gibson car to have been too badly damaged to be rebuilt, this must have been either the Clay or Eyston Vauxhall, probably the latter. This car, too, was later involved in a fatal accident, this time on the road, after which it was scrapped. These particular Vauxhalls were certainly ill-fated! — WB.

“The Ton”

Looking at Autocar’s list of performance data for cars of 1975 to 1983, in which 254 out of 415 have been timed at over 100 mph, a speed which in vintage times used to be known as “doing the ton”, I thought how illogical it is that whereas nowadays it is illegal to do anything like this speed (except on certain German motorways), when there were no restrictions (apart from a 30 mph limit in built-up areas) very few cars would struggle up to the magic “ton”.

Quite small-engined family-saloons are now capable of exceeding 100 mph but before the war, and especially during the vintage years, a car that would do a genuine 100 mph was rare indeed. Today, when it is safe to do such speeds, it is forbidden. In the vintage era, on the then-narrow, cambered roads, with crossings from which other cars might pop out, it was regarded as something of an adventure to achieve or exceed “the ton” and even hardened motoring writers were apt to tell of how they first did it. I was first driven on the road at 100 mph, or maybe at a whisker below this, as a schoolboy, in a 36/220 hp Mercedes-Benz, along the Barnet by-pass. Some years elapsed before Forrest Lycett made this a pretty commonplace experience when I was riding with him in his special 8-litre Bentley, in which I have exceeded 110 mph on the road, and more on Brooklands Track.

This was exceptional, because very few cars would reach “the ton” before the war. Looking again at those reliable statistics presented by The Autocar, one finds that in 1929, the first time in which an analysis of all the year’s road-test figures was compiled, no production car had attained the magic 100 mph. Even in 1930 “the ton” was not attained, the fastest car tested being a blower-41/2-litre open four-seater Bentley, which went over the Brooklands 1/4-mile at a timed 97.82 mph, its speedometer showing 101 mph, the excuse for it not making the century being made that it was “all but brand-new”. How comparatively pedestrian were the cars in this last year of the vintage period can be gauged by an average top speed of 63.4 mph from a mixed bag of 42 British cars, 64.62 mph as an average from 11 Continental cars, and 68.82 mph from 20 American automobiles. Yet it is not as if the journal concerned had concentrated too much on inexpensive cars — the average price of all those tested came out at £556, at a time when the previously mentioned blower-41/2 Bentley sold for £1,720, but then you could buy a 7 hp Jowett saloon, least expensive of all the cars tested, for £177.

In 1931 the first “over-the-ton” speed was clocked, significantly by a luxurious closed car, in the form of an 8-litre Bentley Saloon, which did 101.12 mph. I believe I am correct in saying that not for a long time after that was 100 mph exceeded by The Autocar’s testers, with one notable exception. Certainly in 1931 nothing had approached the pace of that magnificent closed Bentley, the quickest open car speed having been 82.95 mph by a 3-litre Lagonda Special tourer, although a 5-litre Bugatti saloon recorded 88.23 mph. The notable exception in these unsuccessful bids for “the ton” came in 1932, when a very covetable supercharged 2.3-litre Alfa Romeo two-seater did 106.8 mph. That was, indeed, a road-tester’s highlight before the war, for the best The Autocar got in 1933 was 92.31 mph, from a Rolls-Royce Phantom II Continental saloon. Fastest in 1934 was by a 54/220 hp V12 Hispano Suiza coupe, which did the level “ton”, ie 100 mph sans any decimal points, putting to shame a 41/2-litre Lagonda tourer which clocked 95.74 mph. In 1935 there was a tie between a Railton sports-tourer and a 41/2-litre Lagonda Rapide tourer, both of which did 100.58 mph.

By this time mean as well as best timed speeds were quoted, usually over the 1/4-mile, but occasionally the 1/2-mile or a kilometre would be used. I confess that this puzzled me, because although Brooklands could be booked for attacks on short-distance records, which involved two-way runs necessitating closing the Track to other vehicles, this was covered by the Time-keepers’ fees, and I could not envisage mere journalists being afforded the same facility — in fact, one of the cardinal sins at Brooklands was to be found driving the wrong way, or clockwise! It then dawned on me that road-test “mean speed” meant simply the best of several flat-out runs, perhaps timed at different parts of the Track. (That Railton’s mean speed was, incidentally, 0.54 mph better than that of the Lagonda’s.) Even the new 41/4-litre Bentley saloon didn’t do better than 94.74 mph in 1936 and its mean speed was under 91 mph. It was left to the blown Mercedes-Benz 500K to exceed .the ton” — 100.56 mph or a mean of 96.26 mph, while among open cars, the latest 41/2-litre Lagonda was down to a best of only 96.77 mph. This was retrieved in 1937, when a six-cylinder Lagonda Rapide tourer did 103.45 mph, in which year a supercharged Cord FWD saloon managed 102.27 mph, although its mean effort was way behind that of the British car (in 1938 a V12 Lagonda saloon also did 103.45 mph on Brooldands).

Nor did The Motor do much better. Even the “100 mile” low-chassis 41/2-litre Invicta did not do more than 90 mph over the Brooklands’ 1/4-mile when tested in 1931, although that year an open 38/250 hp Mercedes-Benz had been timed at 103.2 mph (incidentally, The Motor had set out its own timing-markers at quarter-mile intervals round the Track the previous year) and in 1934 a 54/220 hp V12 Hispano Suiza Vanvooran coupe had done 103 mph, in 1935 a Light Sports Railton had done 107.14 mph and a 500K Mercedes-Benz coupe 102 mph with blower and overdrive (The Autocar got 100.56 mph).

So, with comparatively few pre-war cars being able to exceed 100 mph even when in tip-top condition and on Brooklands, to reach “the ton” on a public road was indeed rare, especially in the vintage days. When it was achieved it bordered on high adventure, as the speedometer needle crept upwards, to be held for a brief period at three-figures, with the ever-present thought that a little car ahead, its driver unaccustomed to such speed, might pull out into one’s path, or something emerge from an unguarded side-tuming or crossroads — for had not the great Paul Zuccarelli died after a farm-cart had come from a side turning on the long straight near Nonancourt while he was testing a Coupe de L’Auto Peugeot in 1913? To experience just for a brief spell 100 mph come up on the road was once a thrill, one that belongs to pre-war days; a thrill that has gone forever, with the passage of time. — W.B.

V-E-V Miscellany — The article about the late Oliver Bertram’s motor racing in the June issue aroused a lot of interest, judging by correspondence received, and led to RJ. Burrell reminding an that Oliver’s BRDC badge, on which his name is engraved, now graces the Bentley-Royce, a car well-known to spectators at VSCC races.

The Yorkshire Evening Post having carried a story about the Jowett CC, one of its readers was reminded that in the late 1920s the recently introduced Jowett Long saloon was sent on a publicity tour to the Middle East, where it was photographed beside the Golden Gate in Jerusalem, the resultant advertising picture being captioned: “Ancient & Modern: Ride on, ride on in Majesty” which caused a clergyman to comment that this hymn went on, “In lowly pomp ride on to die”. . .

As we mentioned last year, the Fairbourne Railway, over which the scale-model locomotive built to the order of racing driver Count Louis Zborowski sometimes works, is being formed as a Charitable Trust and to save this interesting miniature line those interested are being asked how much they would be prepared to subscribe; details from LN Harban, FRPA, 2, Tremorfa Close, Fairbourne, Gwynedd.

The HVVS has its Southern Area 12th Bournemouth-Bath Run scheduled for September 4th, if you want to see the older commercial vehicles on the road. Its current magazine includes an article on horse-drawn brewery vehicles, a reminder that this Society has wide interests.

The School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Regiment’s A-Company has a rally for historic and classic vehicles at Bordon, on September 17th. Last year this attracted 150 entries and it includes a charity fete and autojumble. Details from: ASM Pratt, SEME Regiment, Bordon, Hampshire.

Somewhat outside this column’s normal range, which is pre-1940, a reader who owns the only Morgan Plus-4 coupe built to private order by Cooper Motor Bodies of Putney is rebuilding this 1952 car and seeks information about it. He hopes to contact Mr Teasdale who worked on the car at Cooper’s (it was built for a Mr Norman Clarke) or others from that Company who remember it and in particular to find out the type of radio and sliding roof originally fitted, as the intention is to do a total restoration to original specification. Letters can be forwarded.

The motor car has been blamed for many things, one of the oddest being that around 1907 it caused the sale of ostrich feathers to decline in Kenya, because as ornament in ladies’ hats they were blown away by the boom in fast open cars.

According to The Times, more than 60 old cars, from the 1920s, have been discovered in nissen huts on a Norfolk farm, including a couple of 1934 Mercedes d/h coupes.

A reader is working on a study of Salisbury’s, the lamp manufacturers, of Long Acre, who pioneered the hub lamp for ordinary bicycles, parallel spring bracket and wind-up burners, before going on to produce such motor lamps as the large Salisbury Florios and Salisbury-Bleriot self-contained acetylene lamps in the early 1900s. Any information about the Company, however small, would be appreciated.

A big historic vehicles rally is to be staged at Holker Hall, Grange Over Sands, Cumbria on August 14th, the home of the Lakeland Museum. Details from: C Johnson, Holker Hall, Cork in Cartmel, Cumbria (Tel. Flookburgh 044-853 328).

The 50th anniversary of the death of Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin was commemorated at the Blakeney village church in Norfolk In June. Forty-five Bentleys converged on the church at which Birkin is buried, and an address at the graveside was heard by many associates of the “Bentley boys” including Guilin Ramponi, Wilkie Wilkinson, Amherst Villiers, Bill Rockell and Harold Whitlock.— WB.

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