How the poor live

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An impecunious enthusiast tells of some inexpensive fast motoring.

By way of variety this chronicle of car ownership is in a descending scale, and is appropriately titled “How the poor live.” It might well be read at intervals to other contributors in order that they might the better appreciate their lot.

Omitting a collection of vintage (and almost veteran) motor-cycles, which deserve a story of their own, I must mention my first two vehicles, which were purchased for business only. Because though Ihey have no real part in this chronicle, they were the prelude to the meatier episodes of my motoring career. A sedate Clyno “Royal” 2-seater motored unccomfortably and most reliably for many thousands of miles on its fat Michelin covers. Followed by a new 1930 fabric Morris Minor, the purchase of which has always rather surprised me in retrospect. After the Clyno I found the Minor very beneficial to the liver. However, apart from her tendency to hop from twig to twig, once run-in she proved so willing that the fatal urge seized me, and there followed in rapid succession a special gasket and valve springs, a sprung steering-wheel, altered steering-column rake and a Derrington exhaust system, and the Minor and I began. to go places. Returning from a Shelsley meeting she recorded 45 mph in second gear by speedometer, and would proceed to 60 in top with ease.

The first protest came from the wheels, which loosened up nicely and were replaced gratis at intervals by the makers, who finally supplied a set of heavy-gauge spokes, which did stay put. The engine, however, took no exception to the treatment at any time, and many an M-type MG we hunted down between us. Finally, the repeated failure of the off-side door to close led me to investigate the chassis, which had an unhealthy look on close inspection, and I felt that we should part.

Being by now thoroughly infected by the road-burning bug, a greater mass of metal seemed indicated. The old-type Bentley was then far beyond my means, a good specimen of a “Red Label”calling for around £200/250, so I sought for cheaper substitutes. I first tried a venerable OM, a 2-litre 6-cylinder sv model with a fixed head, much blacklead and metal-polish on the exterior of the engine, and much wear inside. I had just enough sense not to be carried away by its Alfa-red bodywork, and proceeded to sample a Hadfield Bean, wearing a very Van den Plas style body, a radiator slightly resembling a Ballot, no wing valances, and an imposing, corded Rene Thomas steering wheel. It certainly wore its trappings with an air, and I might have fallen but for a snobbish reluctance to being spoken of as a Bean owner. The would-be vendor of this ponderous affair, on the assumption that a man who would consider a sports Bean would consider anything, then produced at my door a most astonishing Salmson, in the shape of a Grand Prix chassis fitted with a coupe body, the only word for which was bizarre. It bore some faint resemblance to a body once fitted, I think, to a Show model Lancia “Lambda,” known as the “Airway,” and was so narrow that a steering wheel of about 9-in. diameter was necessary, and so low that a summer-weight cap was the only permissible headgear. Protruding well into the slipstream on the roof was mounted a colossal searchlight, the traverse and elevation of which were controlled by an elaborate remote control from the chart-room. The chassis itself seemed a good specimen, but anyone who has experienced the usual GP Sammy symphony of gearbox, axle and ohc in an open model will readily appreciate the possibilities in an enclosure with such excellent acoustics, and I regretfully passed her by.

I had had a very pleasant association in the past with a 2-litre HE, and sought a good 2/3-seater of the breed, but was unable to locate one, and about the same time I also tried out a 1922 “30/98” Vauxhall, which I should undoubtedly have bought but for a bad shimmy in the steering and a petrol consumption of around 18 mpg, which did not accord with the mileage allowance which my job provided. Rear-wheel brakes only did not appeal to me, and the car’s general performance was definitely below par.

However, a London salesman engaged in selling a 3-litre Bentley to a friend of mine at length produced a very good “12/50” Alvis with Cross and Ellis 4-seater body, and I joined the Alvisti forthwith. The car was in good shape generally, and had just left the paintshop in a fetching combination of cream and green, and I surveyed her with some pride. The oil consumption was somewhat heavy but was corrected by Mr Wellworthy at the expense of the vendors. She had also a had period of vibration in the transmission at about 50 mph, which was traced to faulty alignment of the taper-roller universals. This trouble eventually called for a trip to Coventry, where the makers put the matter right. The third and last trouble was the fracture of a gearbox bearer arm, which may or may not have been caused by my enthusiastic setting, and use of the external clutch-stop, which during its brief periods of correct adjustment gave a positively Bugatti-like upward change, and was hard to resist. She gave an unfailing 25 mpg, a cruising speed of 50/55, and a maximum of 74 mph when wound up under favourable conditions. Her tyre life was poorish, 5,000 miles doing her rear covers no good at all. After about 20,000 miles of agreeable motoring with her a decline of my personal fortunes set. in, and at this point I sank to my lowest motoring level, morally if not financially. I required shekels urgently, and a covetous acquaintance offered them for the Alvis, together with an alleged “sports” Fiat ohc 8-hp. carriage. About the perpetrators of this very poor joke I know nothing, and I have only seen one similar car in the official garage at Exeter, in, I think, 1934. I was too sleepy at the time to notice whether it was a competitor in the MCC trial, but heaven help its owner if it, was. Mine, at any rate, was a wicked piece of work. It certainly looked every inch a “ricer” from the front, was smothered in chromitun and vivid blue paint, boasted Rudge wheels, flared wings and a pointed tail similar to a push-rod Salmson. I did check the axle ratio, but have forgotten the answer ; around 8 to 1 to judge by results. The engine had a taste for revs, but desire outran performance, anything over 40 mph producing a crop of run big-ends. I can recall seeing the rear axle drawn back and the steering column lying athwart the seat when I called to inspect the progress of the second crop of replacements. Apart from this little failing a push start was invariably called for, her starter being a snare and her hand arrangement a menace, engaging (or not) with a mythical dog in the front of the generator, which protruded between the dumb-irons most impressively.

Coming thoughtfully away from that repair shop I pondered ways and means of ridding myself of this pestilent motor car. I need not have worried. Within two days there occurred one of those happenings which do so much to restore one’s faith in the ultimate goodness of Providence. There came to my door one bearing news of a fellow townsman, a stranger to me, whose wife had seen the Fiat parked somewhere, and had been most captivated by it. The stranger had a car which he suggested might appeal to me, if accompanied by a suitable cash adjustment. (Had he but known it, a Triang pedal car would have looked pretty good to me at that juncture.) When, however, it transpired that the car in question was a “Brescia” Bugatti, I swallowed hard, assumed an air of such nonchalance as I could command, and promised to “call to-morrow,” thereby exercising more restraint than I have been able to muster before or since. Tomorrow proved the fairy-tale a fact. It was a “Brescia,” certain coin did pass to my credit, and I came to possess the secret ambition of half a lifetime. Incidentally, when next I met the ex-owner he had removed a knuckle and inflicted a grievous scalp-wound upon himself with the starting handle of the Fiat, and had affixed an ingenious arrangement of crossstays which rendered that barbarous attachment (?) innocuous if ineffective. It says much for human nature that he was still quite friendly, and in fact he proceeded to tame the car into a quite reliable conveyance, which regularly carried him and his wife to Blackpool and back, a distance of about 200 miles.

Had the ” Brescia ” fallen to pieces within the hour I should still have loved her, but she did not. I am not sufficiently au fait with Bugatti data to know all the varying strata of “Brescias,” but my specimen was definitely primitive ; a long-chassis model shod with 710/90 tyres, innocent of front brakes, and graced with a comic mahogany 4-seater body of Parisian make, with about 6 in of freeboard. Despite the length, the back seat accommodation was purely nominal, but a point in her favour was the provision of two spare wheels very rigidly mounted over the rear tank. Suspension was damped by “tape-measure” type snubbers (which worked), roadholding being far superior to anything that I had previously encountered. Engine and transmission were in excellent order. Two large Solex carburetters were fitted, and ignition was by a single Bosch magneto. Generator and rev-counter were driven by flat belts from the rear of the camshaft, tensioned by a spring-loaded double jockey pulley, and an air pump assisted the hand pump on the dash to maintain tank pressure. The clutch gave no trouble during my ownership, but never allowed a gear to be engaged easily when stationary. Of the gearbox I can only say that when all other motoring memories have faded, I shall still recall with delight the thrill of mastering its delicate technique, and the really satisfying results that could be obtained when full use was made of it. Petrol consumption in these circumstances was in the region of 17 mpg, but it was worth it. I used the car for both business and pleasure, despite the gloomy prognostications of my friends, whose prophecies of frightful disasters never materialised. I can recall only two spots of bother, apart from the occasion when I rashly used the starter with the ignition fully advanced, when the housing fractured and the starter fell into the tmderpan. The first was when a gudgeon end-cap got adrift and scored a cylinder wall, the second when the rev-counter drive broke away, unravelled its flexible casing and proceeded to flail round on the end of its belt, knocking visible dents in the aluminium bonnet before my horrified eyes. The latter trouble was soon remedied, and the scored bore was almost successfully welded by a blow-pipe wizard in a local town.

I am not positive of the actual maximum speed, as I never mastered the gyrations of the 2-needle Bonniksen, but I calculated that 1,000 rpm gave approximately 20 mph, and when out in company with a “Blue Label’ Bentley I was able to get away from him, clocking a spirited “three-six” in top. The contretemps with the scored block coincided with the arrival of a long-delayed holiday, and since at the end of my trip I was scheduled to transport sundry lares et penates to my new home, I bought for £10 a 1924 sv Alvis 2/3-seater, in fair mechanical condition, but very rough as to bodywork, and very bald as to tyre treads. A greater contrast to the Bugatti could hardly be found, the Alvis being heavy, most comfortable, and quiet on the intermediate gears, giving a steady 40 mph cruising speed and 30 mpg. Regarding oil consumption the less said the better, but throughout three weeks of hard motoring, frequently carrying three passengers on the roomy front seat, no trouble of any sort was experienced, and on my return (the dickey seat packed with assorted furniture and household spares) I continued to use her for business purposes for several months. The “Brescia” continued to he used for fun, but the time came when, after some 20,000 miles, extensive work was required before she could be called 100 per cent roadworthy. Her bodywork also was unsatisfactory, and the hood had languished in the coach-house since the wet night when we discovered that it could only be erected from without, when it effectively barred all attempts to re-enter the car—Houdini himself could not have done it—and though I covered much squared paper endeavouring to design a new body that could be home-constructed, the length of the chassis always defeated me. All this, coupled with the fact that I was financially incapable of carrying out the mechanical restoration that was required to make a good, sound job, led me at length to part with her reluctantly in exchange for a “14/40” Sunbeam tourer, which had been stored for some time, and seemed to be in good fettle.

The Sunbeam should have been a good car. The workmanship was beautiful, steering excellent and brakes effective, and the body positively luxurious in its appointments. But the truth of the matter was that I could arouse myself to no interest in this car whatever, and continued to mourn the Bugatti. I did not even do anything about a petrol consumption of 14 mpg, and when I joined the ranks of the unemployed some months later, I parted with her without regret to a friend. He worked on her extensively, and I believe that Sunbeams overhauled the engine, the car covering another 70,000 miles in his hands. Had I known what I know now (tragic words) I should have held on to the Bugatti by hook or crook, and restored her piecemeal to something like her original condition. I have never ceased to regret that I did not, and would dearly like to learn her subsequent fate. Her registration number was XL5361, and I believe she was given a 2-seater body of sorts at a later date.

A major crisis in my affairs at that point ended my motoring career for the time being. When it began again some eighteen months later it was even lower down the scale, and from that point onwards has been concerned quite frankly with products of the breakers’ yards, some 20 of these intriguing cars having provided me with a deal of fun and a surprising amount of motoring in the last 10 years. But that is another story altogether.—GHD.

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