"Just collect my car…"

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Holland-Birkett, well-known member of the 750 Club and an Austin Seven exponent, contributes something in lighter vein, for is this not a time of Christmas issues? – Ed.

“Just collect my car, old boy!” And yet how often this simple operation develops into an undertaking of the greatest complexity. I remember – since reminiscence is now the order of the day – the time when we collected my friend Frank’s Lagonda. Let me tell you about it from the beginning.

Frank had been building what was to be the last word in unblown 2-litres. The excitement of its maiden trip quite dwarfed another event on the same day, the declaration of war. Being a “Special,” the motor-car, of course, had certain teething troubles, and of these three were quite outstanding. First, the big-end bearings, in spite of a liberal oil-pressure reading, were seriously starved of lubricant. Secondly, the third gear, for some reason yet unknown, caused so much drag that the car gradually came to a standstill when it was engaged and it had to be missed out altogether. Thirdly, the clutch; never shall I forget it! Although unobtrusive enough when fully in or out, when taken up the drive it emitted a sound such that the British public, clasping its gas mask to its bosom, leaped for the nearest deep shelter every time Frank moved away in traffic. Otherwise, the motor-car was very fine; I liked it.

Now Frank became very busy finding a job, and to this end motored off in the direction of Birmingham. He arrived back by train with a naked con.-rod in his pocket – and a job in London, funnily enough. Would I take the rod to a “certain firm” to be remetalled, post it to Shipston-on-Stour, and, when it was fitted, just collect his car, as he was starting work immediately? Yes, I would!

I sprang into my “Ulster” Austin with the rod and practically outside the premises of the certain firm I, too, ran a big-end. This, incidentally, was due to fragments of a felt sleeve entering the crankshaft oilways. So, depositing his rod, I suffered a ‘bus back home and borrowed a Singer “Le Mans” (“just this once”) from one “Dicer” Dismore, with whom I shared a workshop. With it we got the “Ulster” home.

While the Lagonda rod was being metalled, posted and fitted, I busied myself by installing a standard engine into the “Ulster,” as being more suitable for wartime use than the temperamental and rather more thirsty original. Unhappily, one of the small-end locking bolts sheared on assembly, and in the annoyance of drilling out the stub I forgot to retrieve the head from within the crankcase. This later proved to be a Bad Thing. 

The day selected for the trip was the last before petrol rationing was due to begin, so the “Ulster” had acquired a greatly enhanced fuel tank capacity in the course of its overhaul. We set off early in order to get back for lunch and to miss the evening rush for petrol, the idea being to keep the tanks topped up throughout the trip. However, the first fly in the ointment soon reared its ugly head, because two or three times every minute a horrid rattle occurred from the depths of the engine, as if some small hard object were being flung about by the crankshaft, as indeed it was. In Uxbridge a sudden and much horrider noise precluded all further progression, and the sump was removed forthwith. The bolt head had lodged between the crankcase top and a piston skirt, and the con.-rod had “failed in torsion and bending.”

Half a gallon of petrol was bought and squeezed in, the car garaged, and we endured another ‘bus home. I hate ‘buses!

To ask for the Singer again so soon required more courage than I could muster, especially as its owner was asleep, being a night worker. So we took pity on the poor fellow and refrained from waking him. Although I affect to look down on the “Le Mans” Singer as being rather a promenade motor-car, I must confess that the trip up to Shipston was very pleasant indeed, 5,000 indicated r.p.m. being achieved from time to time on the indirects and the substantial weight giving a type of road-holding in marked contrast to that of the “Ulster.” The Lagonda, by a miracle, was ready, and having filled it up with petrol, rendered financial adjustment and started the engine, I arranged myself, for the first time let me emphasise, in the driving seat. I carefully depressed the clutch pedal, engaged what I thought at the time to be bottom gear and gently lifted my left foot while slightly increasing engine speed in the best text-book style. As the first blood-curdling notes rang forth the inevitable crowd gathered from nowhere (there being no shelters presumably) and settled solidly down to observe the giant black racer dash off at 60 m.p.h. The discerning reader will have guessed that far from being in bottom gear I was in third, which, as already revealed, acted as a middling efficient transmission brake. This, of course, prevented me from silencing the clutch by fully engaging it, and I was in such an agony of self-consciousness that, apart from a few feeble gropings with the left hand – this being my first experience of a right-hand gear lever – I was unable to make any serious attempt to sort out the ratio question until the town was left behind.

This done, progress became more nearly reasonable until the Oxford By-pass, when, coincident with a heavy shower of rain, the big-end melted again. Bearing in mind the condition of both the “Ulster’s” engines and “Dicer” Dismore’s habit of going to work by car every few days, it was one of Motoring’s Blackest Moments. Dismore, I might mention, is a gentleman with a forceful personality….

However, there was nothing for it, the Singer would have to tow the Lagonda, and like it. Which it did, until the Chiltern Hills, when it ceased to fulfil the second of these requirements, and it became evident that the one remaining functioning motor-car would be unlikely to continue as such if called upon to pull the Lagonda up that gradient. There was that hot smell, you know. This problem was readily solved by the timely appearance of that most helpful of all road users, Bert, the lorry driver. As if by magic the Lagonda was transferred to the other side of the hill and 5/- had changed hands.

But darkness was now falling, and at that time, it will be recalled, the blackout was still a novelty and thousands of War Reserve police, enthusiastic to a point of exuberance, were abroad looking for Germans and motorists. We felt that in these conditions the presence of a Lagonda on the end of a much-knotted and shortened wire hawser might prove something of a liability, so it was reluctantly garaged in High Wycombe.

The Singer, relieved of its encumbrance, purred sweetly through the dusk to Uxbridge, obviously none the worse for its over-loading. We found the garage where we had left the “Ulster” besieged by long queues of cars hoping to fill their tanks, and after wasting a great deal of time in this way, and being allowed but one gallon, we learned that rationing had been postponed for another week!

Then we towed the “Ulster” home, promising each successive W.R. that we were only going as far as the next garage, really, officer. And the now deeply respected promenade motor-car was safely returned to its sorrowing owner.

Permission to retrieve the Lagonda next day by means of the Singer being withheld, we had to find some suitable vehicle for the job, and this time Stuart Wilton came to the rescue with his 3-litre Bentley. He is one of the people by whom it is quite an experience to be towed, particularly in an unfamiliar car, as he assumes the towee to be his equal in driving skill. I am afraid that as a result of this ordeal the Lagonda brake linings reached unprecedented temperatures and lost most of their coefficient of friction, and I once rammed the Bentley heartily in the rear, luckily without damage. Thus was Frank’s masterpiece delivered back to him, four cars having been used, two of which finished in a state of advanced deterioration. Since then he has seen the Light, taken the Lagonda to pieces and bought an “Ulster” Austin Seven.