Cars I have owned

Gordon Woods, the well-known Frazer-Nash exponent, tells of his troubles, trials and high spots.

My first introduction to the Sport came as a small boy still at school, when I was taken, as a treat, to Brooklands by a friend who was a great enthusiast and to whom I owe my sincerest thanks for introducing me to the grandest sport of all; for I think it was the tang of Castrol-R from the exhaust of his Montlhèry M.G. Midget that got in my nostrils and therefrom changed the whole course of my life.

I was still too young to drive when I bought an old Austin Seven of 1924 vintage, and pulled it to pieces, much to my family’s horror. I eventually prevailed upon another of my more adventurous friends, who held a licence, to drive it and, believe me, we had more adventures than we ever bargained for, as all journeys were carried out by night, since no insurance company would insure it, and tax had to be borrowed from another car. These adventures nearly ended with disaster on two occasions. First, when all the lights went out when descending the road from Epsom Downs. We were fiat out (nearly 50 m.p.h.), careering madly from side to side, my friend holding the hand-brake with one hand, the wheel with the other, and standing on the foot-brake. I was holding the door shut, and at the same time the bonnet closed, as both had the unfortunate habit of jettisoning themselves without warning. Suddenly everything went black; a terminal had nearly fallen off the battery, which was under my seat. The sudden blackout gave me such a shock that I must have jerked my seat, which pressed the terminal back on to the battery, and there was light – enough to see that we were heading straight for the cemetery wall, a resting place we afterwards thought was a trifle premature!

The second occasion which I remember with much amusement was caused by my inability to hold the bonnet on any longer when we were proceeding at terminal velocity. The said bonnet was torn off by the wind, and on looking round we saw it had deposited itself just in front of the bicycle of a hefty policeman who was endeavouring to cycle fast enough to take our number. Needless to say, he did not take it; nor did we stop to collect the remains of the bonnet after he had hit it.

After this the car proved too much for us, so I exchanged it for another Austin Seven. This time I paid six pounds (twice the price of the original Austin), but then this was a model as late as 1925. She seemed quite modern to me, so much so that I built a special body on her, made, of all things, from zinc sheeting and plywood. I bought the steering column off a 2-litre Lagonda from a breaker’s yard, and this I adapted to the chassis, putting the seats over the back axle so that my already prodigious length of leg could be accommodated, and causing the bonnet line to run the full length of the wheelbase; the seats themselves were mounted on outrigger pieces of wood, a piece of zinc sheeting screwed to their backs thus holding the spare wheel mounting. The great snag with this car was that the Lagonda steering gear, when connected to the Austin front-axle layout, gave a steering wheel ratio of half-a-turn from lock to lock. It was a trifle hectic.

Now, although I held a driving licence, I was still unable to obtain insurance on the Austin, so I could see no chance of using it on the road until the sudden realisation that there was nothing to stop me using it on the Track, as I had just joined the B.A.R.C. as a junior member, which allowed me to use the track whenever I wished. As soon as this thought came to me I made careful plans, and the very next week-end saw me making for Brooklands, swaying crazily on a tow rope attached to my friend’s “N” type M.G. Magnette. Apart from running over the tow rope once or twice, everything went smoothly. Arriving at the Track I filled up with petrol to the brim of the tank, which was gravity feed, situated above the engine, and in my excitement I forgot to replace the filler cap. The gatekeeper caused us some amusement as he looked critically at the car for some moments, and before he opened the gates, advised me not to exceed the century mark, as he doubted if the tyres would stand up to it! I was towed out on to the Track in true racing fashion, and immediately we gained the Railway Straight, I put the Austin into second and, holding my breath, let the clutch in with a bang. From then on things happened so quickly that I can hardly remember their true sequence. What actually occurred was that the tow rope was slack when I let the clutch in, and it consequently brought the car up with a hefty jerk, throwing the majority of the contents of the petrol tank out of the open filler cap over the engine, which was hot, as I had started it several times on the way down. There was one sheet of flame, which leapt up past the plywood bulkhead, melting the rubber soles of my shoes and setting my trouser turn-ups alight. I was told that the manner of my departure from the Austin driving seat could only be described as meteoric, and the next five minutes were indeed hectic.

It was after this that my first real motor-car came along. It was found in an old lock-up – a 1931 Frazer-Nash with a side-valve Anzani engine. It was a crude and temperamental motor-car, but when it went, it went fast, and after three or four weeks rebuilding of the more dilapidated portions, I got it on the road, my first car. Yes, it was even insured. Soon I got to know its tricks, and when it was likely to break a chain, which it did often. I think it was these troubles that first aroused my enthusiasm for the “chain gang.” The Anzani engine is, to my mind, a wonderfully reliable, light and powerful piece of machinery, and its only snag is its extreme roughness, which always plays havoc with the chains, and its appearance, which can only be likened to a piece of rusty agricultural machinery. The first piece of unpleasantness occurred when the crankshaft broke in half when I was going quite fast, necessitating a rebuilt engine. I did not grumble, as the engine was in such a poor state that something was bound to go sooner or later, and the rebuilt engine never gave any trouble right up to the day I sold it, even though it was completely submerged in water for twelve hours at one period.

The next mishap gave me a chance to completely rebuild the body, which I did to the best of my ability. I had gone down to visit my brother at his service station on the Brighton Road, and when the time came to return there happened to be nobody about to help me start the Frazer-Nash, which always required pushing. So I had a brain wave. I would push the car myself from the outside, and when it was going fast enough I would ram the outside gear-lever home, and when she tired whip it back into neutral. With this idea in my mind I pushed it up the slight slope at the far end of the garage drive, jammed the throttle open a trifle and summoned up my strength. As soon as I had got her really moving I jammed it in third and she tired immediately but, alas, the throttle was too wide open and the engine would not allow me to get the third gear out, and before I knew where I was the car had torn itself away from me and was bounding off by itself across the rough meadowland that separated the garage from the river, and before my horror-stricken eyes it at last hit a tree, turned sideways and rolled over the bank to disappear into the water. On reaching the bank myself a sorry sight met my eyes; the car was the right way up still, submerged to its sidelights in water and surrounded by an ever-growing cloud of oil. The bonnet had come off and was half-way down the bank, and the spare wheel had completely detached itself and was floating off downstream. I rushed back to my brother, who had nearly burst his sides laughing at the whole affair, which he had seen from the window, and armed with his walking stick I pursued the spare wheel downstream, eventually falling in during my frantic efforts to get it out.

The following day I borrowed the breakdown lorry from the local garage, and with the aid of this my brother towed me downstream to a part where the banks were less steep. This journey remains in my memory as being the most hazardous ever undertaken. The edges of the stream were very rocky and it was decided that I should stand astride in the cockpit and steer up the centre of the river hoping, of course, that there were no holes in the bed en route. There was one, and to my horror, half-way along the radiator suddenly dipped and disappeared below the surface, but it was only momentarily, and we managed to get through it. During the final salvage operation, which consisted of lifting the car by the breakdown crane bodily out of the river and over the bank, the chassis was actually twisted to such an extent that at one moment the front axle was almost at right angles to the rear one, and yet, later on, when the car was back on the road again, the chassis did not seem in any way distorted or malaligned. The next few days were spent removing barnacles and seaweed. It was then that I decided to rebuild the rear end, fitting a larger tank and generally modernising the shape of the body. Unfortunately, I did not make a success of this, as the back of the body used to slide across the top of the petrol tank on corners owing to insufficient support. causing the car to appear to lean over on bends when seen from the rear. After a time the rear of the body fell into such disrepair that when a well-known trader advertised a 1932 T.T. Replica Frazer-Nash for sale, I somehow scraped the money together and bought it, trading the old ‘Nash in part-exchange. The following day the trader rang up in a furious temper, saying that when he took the tonneau cover off the back of the old ‘Nash to get at the chains, the body literally fell to pieces in his hands, and what was I going to do about it. I told him: Nothing! The new car was just what I had always wanted, a genuine T.T. Replica and with a history, for it had been highly placed in three Alpine Trials. The engine was, of course, the standard “12/50” Meadows and not the original, but it seemed to give plenty of power, and 80 could always be obtained on the level. The brakes were a trifle shaky, however, due to expanding drums. Petrol consumption was in the region of 30 to 32 m.p.g. Taken all round, it was a very good car and gave me a lot of fun for over a year. But soon the old urge for yet a faster ‘Nash came upon me, and seeing a Gough-engined T.T. Replica for sale, I regretfully parted with MV1620 and bought this.

My first acquaintance was decidedly negative, and throughout the time I had the car the more I drove it the less I liked it. On ringing up the Fraser-Nash works to find out its history I was greeted with great sympathy and told that the car had always been known as “The Pup,” and was originally fitted with a Meadows engine, which blew up! The o.h. camshaft engine which replaced it was one of the first productions and had never run properly since it was made. On closer investigation of the car I found the chassis was broken in two places, both of which were badly plated, allowing the car to sag visibly in the middle, and the steering box was mounted on a lump of wood, which gave it a strange springiness quite foreign to Nash steering. Later I went down to see the designer of the engine, and he took one look at it and said, “Sell it quickly, it’s one of the first and it is impossible for it to run without trouble!”

This was the last straw, so naturally, when I saw a Frazer-Nash Six for sale I determined to sell or part-exchange “The Pup” for it as the advertisement said, “completely reconditioned,” a phrase which caused many a laugh afterwards.

After a few letters to the owner, Sir Anthony Stamer, extolling the merits of our two cars, we met at the “Wheatsheaf,” Virginia Water, and changed cars in a level swop. I will not bother you with our individual feelings as we drove away in our new cars, as Tony has already done this in his own reminiscences.

I was exceedingly impressed by the new car, despite the lack of reverse gear (an almost incurable fault). The engine was wonderfully smooth and would happily turn over at 5,500 r.p.m., very different from the old Meadows, with its peak 4,000 r.p.m.

I motored many happy miles in TJ2556 Until eventually the water pump started to leak badly, and I decided to remove it and repack the gland. This was when I got my first shock, for after disconnecting the drive, nuts, etc., it did not want to leave the side of the crankcase at all. When it finally did, half the crankcase flange came with it, as the Wonderweld put in by the former owner had eaten the inside out of the electron crankcase and the flange had been stuck on with a mixture of red lead, Neverleak, chewing gum, and what have you. There seemed nothing for it at the time but to put it back as I found it, which I did, only substituting a piece of cork jammed in with gasket cement for the flange pieces. This dodge lasted perfectly until I sold the car. Tony had sold the car with the explanation that it had been filled with Wonderweld owing to “a slight internal leak which he could not find.” This leak gave the amusing situation that there was oil if you opened the radiator filler cap, and water if you looked at the dipstick. Another spot of bother was the nearside sleeve in the back axle, which had practically worn through, allowing the back-axle near-side ball race about a half-inch float up and down in the torque arm housing, also giving a variable wheelbase on acceleration and braking. In spite of all this I was very fond of the car and it gave me the greatest pleasure. I finally sold it, and helped the new owner to completely rebuild it. I was amazed at the perfect job made of the electron crankcase repair by a firm of scientific welders on a nearby aerodrome.

During the gap between buying a new ‘Nash and selling TJ2556, I bought for £12 a 1928 Austin Seven, with a homemade saloon body, a truly remarkable car, always known as the “Baker’s Van,” which it certainly resembled. Soon after I bought it I used it as a conveyance for five people to a small celebration, and the following day I had to remove all the celluloid windows, as an elbow had been put through each one. One hot day I opened the screen to add to the blast, and as soon as I got “cracking” the vibration loosened the glass, which no longer had any support, and it promptly fell out on to the road via the bonnet. As it was now impossible to keep any headgear on owing to the slipstream, and as the steering was slightly uncertain and the brakes conspicuous by their absence, the car was re-christened the “Gremlin Box,” a very apt name.

It then happened that I made the acquaintance of a garage owner who possessed a 1937 Frazer-Nash Six, one of the last to leave the works, or so he said, and it turned out that he would be willing to part with it for an enormous amount of cash. As there seemed to be no other possibilities about, I was forced to accept his price in order to acquire the car (ALO300), which was in perfect condition except that the steering was so heavy that I nearly went straight on at the first corner. After checking up the king-pin angles I decided that the axle must be on back to front, which proved to be the case, as on replacement the steering was as smooth and responsive as ever a ‘Nash steering is. I still run this car during the week and it gives me perfect satisfaction. I cover about 180 miles and never once has she let me down. ALO300 is to me the dernier cri of ‘Nashing, and it is with the greatest regret that I shall have to betake myself to learn something more of this “flying game” with the few who are many.

My sentiments as regards Frazer-Nash’s are simply that I can think of no other sports car that can motor me as fast so economically or that could cause so many amusing incidents. Or at the same time be taken as part and parcel of one’s character. I may also add that one of the truest sayings I have heard about a Frazer-Nash is: “It wasn’t designed, it merely happened!”