Cars I Have Owned

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60

Ivan Carr is not perhaps so well known as some of those who have been invited to contribute to this revived series of articles. But his selection of cars and his keen appreciation of them fully justifies inclusion, as you will discover as you read on.—Ed.

My love of racing cars and racing motor-cycles had its origin long ago, before the cult of which Motor Sport is the chronicler.

My father was a pioneer, and built his own steam car, using the engine out of a steam-driven motor mower. He drove this steamer from Carlisle to Edinburgh in two days, and this was heralded as a notable feat. The original car had three wheels and it proved highly unstable on corners, so much so that it frequently decanted my mother into a ditch. So my father converted it into a four-wheeler, feeling that since it would now be supported at all four corners, it would be much less likely to upset. His hopes were dashed to the ground, for it was even more unstable than before.

In 1913 this remarkable man bought an ex-racing 3-litre Gregoire. It had no body to speak of and a fine bolster tank. Slim, sketchy mudguards covered the narrow tyres, and an outside exhaust pipe ran down the port side. Many were the hours I spent as a boy of seven sitting at the wheel in the garage.

The 1914/18 war broke out, and about 1915 the car was sold, for my father had bought it for my elder brother, and he was killed at Delville Wood.

1920 came and my father, always a most enterprising man, made two purchases. A Sunbeam car, then the acme of a motorist’s ambition, and a Baby Triumph motor-cycle for me. He was a trifle previous about the latter, for I was not yet 14 years of age and had to wait six months before I could obtain a driving licence. But in those days there was a greater benevolence about the police force, and I used the Triumph extensively, albeit discreetly.

Always the urge for something “just a little bit faster” has been at work, and in 1922 I persuaded my indulgent papa to sanction the exchange of the Triumph for a 2¾ A.J.S. These were quite grown-up motor-cycles and for three years I learnt much, fell off frequently, and discovered how to ride with reasonable competence.

At this time I was at school at Oundle and obtained permission to travel from Carlisle to Oundle on the A.J.S. These were exciting journeys, particularly the return home for the holidays, but once I arrived at school the A.J.S. had to be locked away in a stable until a day or two before the end of term. Then the House Master gave permission for it to be cleaned and prepared for the run home, and great was my joy.

In 1925 Norton announced the arrival of their first o.h.v. model, and I believe that mine was the very first o.h.v. Norton to be sold to a private customer. How I wangled it I cannot remember; perhaps it was less the skill of my diplomacy, and more the generosity of my father. Anyway, at the beginning of the Christmas holidays I rode the A.J.S. to London to effect the exchange with a London dealer. His premises were south of the Thames, and I recall the horror of riding the A.J.S. through the dense London traffic on a rainy December day. I became hopelessly lost and fell off many times as the narrow tyres slid on the slippery, oily road surface.

The Norton assuredly had something. I had ordered that it be equipped with a Binks “Mousetrap” carburetter, and for some unknown reason there was also an aluminium side-car. I say “unknown reason” for at this time the first girl-friend had not yet loomed over the horizon. The Norton was grand; true it wore out the bearings of its overhead rockers with astonishing rapidity, and its rear-wheel bearings only lasted about 1,000 miles. But it could GO. I had ordered a “close-ratio” gearbox and 55 m.p.h. was available in third and perhaps 70 in top.

Schooldays came to an end. My long-suffering parent again put up the necessary and the Norton departed and a 680 Brough-Superior took its place. This was another thoroughbred, though it too suffered from overhead rocker bearings of astonishing frailty. The first girl-friend had appeared by then and I used the Brough for transport from the place where I was learning my trade to the place where she lived. Some very excellent averages were recorded, for in those days the roads were clearer by far than they are today.

The 680 Brough went the way of all flesh and was replaced by something MOST exciting, no less than an S.S.100 Brough. This was a 1,000-c.c. V-twin designed to run on alcohol. It was a beautifully made and finished machine, and was really quite faultless. It was my pride and joy, and I maintained it in perfect and spotless condition. That was 25 years ago, yet some of my fastest runs were made on the Brough, times unbeaten by my present 3.8-litre Bugatti. Truly there has not been so much progress as people think during the last quarter of a century.

Competition between men is of the essence: to many it is the spice of life, and I am not advancing it as a merit that I have little desire to beat other people. But to me, racing and the winning of races was never an end in itself. None the less, the glamour was attractive, and in 1926 I competed regularly at Southport and other venues in the North. By now I was beginning to earn, and a combination of my earnings and an unwise economy in dietary, coupled with a contribution from my ever-indulgent papa, resulted in a sum sufficient to purchase a Morgan. A fine little machine it was too. A 1,100-c.c. Blackburne V-twin of great potency drove it, and when I had machined ⅛ in. off the cylinder heads it really did go quite fast. There was much to commend this engine. For instance, it only took an hour to whip it out of the frame. This was fortunate, for it suffered from constant clutch and flywheel troubles, and to gain access to these it was necessary to remove the engine in toto. Now and then I won a race or two, and this gratified my father and encouraged him to invest further in my “racing career.” I found a firm which purported to make a three-speed gearbox for the Morgan and during the winter of 1927 this contraption was fitted. It was an utter failure, for the all-sufficient reason that it was quite impossible to change gear, so the old two-speed rig had to be refitted.

At this time the Southport M.C. began to stage long-distance races, and it occurred to me that if I widened the Morgan it would be less likely to overturn on corners. I removed the front of the chassis and fitted new cross-tubes of much greater length, which resulted in the little machine being wider than it was long, in fact it was wider than a Rolls-Royce. These “improvements” were a complete failure, and it never again won a race. The Blackburne engine had one distressing defect, in that it invariably ran its rear main-bearing after about five miles flat out. In this I was a little more successful, for an oil-feed direct to that bearing corrected the trouble for ever.

I was very small fry, but I can remember one Saturday Segrave turned up in one of the Sunbeams, and I am even now proud to be able to say that I have “raced against Segrave.” Not that my opposition worried him much, for he came past the Morgan like a hawk overhauling a wren !

The S.S. 100 Brough was also raced now and then, but it had an unhappy habit of burning a hole about the size of a half-crown in its rear piston.

As a result of my “improvements” the Morgan became almost useless, and furthermore the current girl-friend disapproved of its starkness; so it was disposed of, surprisingly enough to a clergyman. A brand-new Morgan took its place. This machine had only one merit, its colour, which was a pleasant light blue. Apart from that its J.A.P. engine was definitely the inferior of the older Blackburne, and I never cared much for it. It seemed to be an effeminate, degenerate little affair.

One day in 1929 I was walking down Great Portland Street, then devoted almost entirely to motor-car shops, when I espied the culmination of all my aspirations; no less than a Type 35A G.P. Bugatti. This was the so-called “G.P. Modifie,” eight-cylinder unsupercharged. I gazed longingly into the window and returned home.

Really my father must have been a most patient and forbearing man, for yet again he opened his purse-strings, and the blue Morgan and the S.S.100 Brough took up their abode in the showroom, and the Bugatti came to Carlisle.

Just before I leave two- and three-wheelers, however, there are three more bicycles that remain in my memory . . . I had a good friend and he and I used to exchange mounts temporarily. For an odd weekend or two he lent me a “long-stroke” Sunbeam, a veritable Rolls-Royce of motor-bicycles. Smooth, steady, with a gentlemanly subdued exhaust note, it was a “gentleman’s machine” in every way. Even its enamel was a discreet black, with a gold line. Secondly, he lent me a 500-c.c. T.T. Douglas; one of the first with the gearbox above the rear cylinder. It was a fast-running engine and I did not like it much, for the fuss of very high revs has never appealed to me.

The third bicycle belonged to me for a short time. It was a T.T. Scott and had actually raced in the Amateur T.T. in the hands of a Carlisle man. Its roadholding was a delight, and somehow the purr of its twin two-stroke engine was a joy; but it had roller-bearing big-ends, and they were worn and loose and noisy. The trouble I experienced in overcoming this snag gave rise to a prejudice against roller-bearings which has lived with me to this day.

I drove the Bugatti away from Great Portland Street and turned north into Regents Park. Within five minutes the police were on my trail, and the first quarter of an hour in that car cost me a £3 fine. It was an unhappy beginning: no more happy was the run north. I had a friend with me and we had yet to discover how to work the little engine-driven air pump which provided pressure for the petrol tank. Consequently my friend had to pump vigorously every couple of miles, otherwise we ran out of petrol. This he hated!

At Bramham Moor a most horrifying noise developed. A knowing garage man diagnosed “big-ends gone,” and shook his head in an even more knowing way when we confessed that the car had only just been bought. However, urgent enquiry showed that the noise came only from two sheets of aluminium vibrating edge to edge. The windscreen rattled, so we stripped it off, and as it was made of plain glass it was abandoned in a ditch and we drove on in a sirocco. There was much changing of plugs and a good deal of blue smoke; none the less, it was soon obvious that I had a REAL motor car. It had everything—noise, dirt, smell, acceleration and real speed.

For two years this car served me very well indeed. My father was deeply interested in its mechanical perfection; so much so that he bought a 3-litre Type 44 saloon for himself. So there were two Bugattis in the family. He frequently drove with me in my car and I remember that he greatly enjoyed “watching the front wheels go round “; an occupation which I observe is frequently appreciated by my passengers.

During the second winter I decided to decarbonise the engine. No sooner had I begun than I regretted the decision. What a job! However, the work was completed and I am a little proud of the fact that, single-handed, I refitted the cylinder block and entered all eight pistons without breaking a ring.

In 1930 my father died and I lost my best friend. He had been my constant collaborator in all these mechanical adventures and in all sorts of other adventures as well. I was left with a 3-litre Sunbeam, a 3-litre Bugatti saloon and my own Bugatti. The Sunbeam was sold quite easily, and a friend of mine in the Trade exchanged the two Bugattis for a 1928 4½-litre Bentley. The values are interesting in these inflated days. This superb car, only two years old and quite perfect in every way, was priced at only £450! It was indeed an exquisite vehicle with a black fabric body, brown wheels, and brown leather upholstery. It had only done 10,000 miles.

While I respected it and felt very lucky to own such a really beautiful motor, yet it was not a racing car, and consequently was not really my “cup of tea.” So it was not long before it was exchanged for a 4½-litre Le Mans Replica Bentley. This was Eddie Hall’s old car and it had had a hard life. Its oil consumption made me gasp, and the rattle of its “hour-glass” pistons would have shocked my father profoundly, had he been there to hear. I discovered that the rivets of the chassis were all loose, so these had to be replaced by fitted bolts, carefully split-pinned. The engine overhaul was entrusted to Bentley’s depot in Glasgow, and the total bill for a reground crankshaft, rebore and new pistons totalled only £20. Bentley’s manager in Glasgow, Mr. Peach, became a good friend, and the service Bentley’s offered at that time was really superlative.

I have been lucky enough to own many notable cars, but Hall’s old Bentley is one of the happiest memories. From 1931 to 1934 we came to know each other well. No doubt the old girl would feel clumsy and out of date now and the brakes even then were quite inadequate, but she had a strong character and real personality. The deep rumble of exhaust, the great size and weight, and complete trustworthiness endeared her to me. And she could travel. I recall leaving Kippford very late one night and driving to such good effect that I was home only 53 minutes later, though the distance was 54 miles. That Bentley was one of those cars which became a part of one’s life . . .

In 1933 M.G. marketed their P-type Midget, and it occurred to me that a P.2 would make a highly satisfactory second string to the Bentley. This beautiful little car cost only £200 new, and with its o.h.c. engine and close-up wings it was very good value. In those days, nearly twenty years ago, it was possible, by a little negotiation, to buy a new car at less than the list price, and I think I only paid £190. It was a dear little car, and I had it painted British green to match the Bentley. Yet it was not a racing car, and so, foolishly as I now think, I exchanged it for a white, blown Montlhery M.G. Midget. This was my first supercharged car, and it was one of the worst. The blower pressure was high (about 14 lb. per sq. in.) and this resulted in a distressing habit of frequently blowing its little head off. The first time it did this trick my diagnosis was at fault, and I wrongly thought oiled plugs were the trouble. This bad reasoning was perhaps excusable, since the engine passed out at the bottom of a long hill, and furthermore there was no starting handle to test compression. It was a warm summer’s evening, and I started the familiar routine of fitting clean plugs and switching hot plugs to cold, oily cylinders. Eventually every spare plug I had was fouled, so I improvised a plug-drying furnace. Time slipped past, the shades of night fell, the birds ceased their song and all nature slept. Midnight came, lightened only by the dull glow of my wood fire. I became dirtier and dirtier, and more and more determined. “If only I can fit four hot plugs simultaneously, then,” said I, “all will be well.” 2 a.m. came, and by now the battery was exhausted, so that I was reduced to pushing backwards up the slight hill, jumping in, and engaging second gear for “just one more try.” Not unnaturally all my efforts proved unavailing, for in fact the cylinder head gasket was well and truly blown. Somewhere about 4 a.m. sheer physical exhaustion forced me to seek rest and blessed sleep in a dry ditch. Next morning (Monday) I was a couple of hours late at the office, which earned a very dirty look from the boss; this, I felt, was a little unjust. He also had some pertinent remarks to make about my personal cleanliness, not to speak of the aroma of wood smoke which still clung pungently to my clothes.

The Montlhery Midget was unsatisfactory, for it was at this time an experimental and largely undeveloped design. Still, it taught me many things, and on the one and only occasion when it went well it did cover 57 miles in precisely 58 minutes.

And then in 1933, out of a clear blue sky, came illness. Devastating, frightening, very nearly fatal illness. The M.G. was exchanged for a Talbot, my first and last saloon. It was quite satisfactory in an uninspired sort of way, but I was jolly glad to get back to the 4½-litre Bentley, just as soon as the doctor allowed me to do so.

The Talbot was exchanged in 1934 for a wife and for good measure she brought with her a Lanchester Fourteen, one of those self-changing saloon affairs, very suitable for a lady, but maybe a trifle DULL. So I set to work, allowing my wife to drive the 4½. It was expensive and a little trying, for she was not an especially skilled driver; however the charm of the Bentley began to have its effect and the first move was to exchange the Lanchester for a 2½-litre M.G. Still a saloon, but we were moving in the right direction …

The M.G. was a very fine car. Roadholding, steering and braking were superb, and the engine seemed tireless and willing. Still it was a saloon, so I kept up the pressure of salesmanship and in the end triumphed, for my wife fell in love with a 1½-litre Aston-Martin. The M.G. departed and a Mark IV Aston took its place. This was in 1935, and the Aston at that time was priced at £610, by far the highest price I had ever paid for a car. However, a good price was realised for the M.G., and I felt that the battle was won and my wife finally converted to proper motor cars! And indeed I might well have been right, had not the Aston been so abominably badly sprung. Bess admitted that it was “a thing of beauty” but it was not a joy for ever because every time she went out shopping in it, it broke all the eggs and shook her about until her teeth worked loose. Then its dynamos failed one after another, and although Feltham gallantly replaced them with new ones, yet it was an irritating habit. All the same, the Mark IV was a grand car and it saddened me when it went away.

In its stead a 1¾-litre supercharged Alfa-Romeo took its place. My wife loved it but I was not so keen for I thought it noisy and a little fussy. I concluded that a supercharger has no business to be shipmates with a saloon body. It had tremendous acceleration and proved to be completely reliable, and the sheer quality of its workmanship and the beauty of its design were a joy. It proved to be a faithful and fast second string to the Bentley, which was still rumbling away in the midst of all this change.

Now you may think that to exchange cars with so much abandon must have been a very expensive game, but I assure you that it was not, for it was possible to chop and change and gain a few pounds here and lose them there, and in addition one gained invaluable experience. Furthermore, it has always been my habit to set to work and, so far as I am able, restore each car I have owned to first-class order. Thus I sometimes received more than I gave.

In 1936 I saw advertised the car of my dreams. This was the Le-Mans Speed Six Bentley, which had won the 1930 Double-Twelve Hour Race at Brooklands, and was second at Le Mans. It was advertised by Bentley Motors themselves and it came up to Carlisle for me to try. A very superior chauffeur brought it to my house, but even his insufferable and supercilious snobbery failed to put me off, and after the exchange of only £50 the dear old green 4½ went rumbling away and this vast “Speed Six” was squeezed into the garage.

Never have I mourned the loss of a car as I mourned the departure of the 4½. She had served me so well for so long; and for my part I had served her for many hundreds of hours. But the “Speed Six” took the edge off my sorrow, and anyway I was too busy to grieve for long, for the new Bentley needed much loving care. To begin with some moron had painted the old lady a disgusting shade of muddy grey, and I had to scrape all the offending paint off and sand-paper the whole car and respray in decent British green. Six months work yielded results, and at the beginning of 1937 I had restored the old car to something like its original condition. The great petrol-tank had a filler about the size of a soup plate, and the consumption called for all the capacity of the tank, which was 45 gallons. The huge engine was a delight, and having finished all detail work and repainted the body, I ran the car up to Glasgow and Mr. Peach decarbonised the engine and turned it out quite perfect and almost noiseless, Yet it was an embarrassing car to own for its elephantine size and its majesty collected a crowd wherever it went, and it was almost impossible to stop in a town, for the whole place would instantly down tools and gather round in a dense huddle thus making it impossible for the owner to gain access to his property!

It had long legs indeed, and after carefully testing the speedometer against the stop-watch, I was confidently able to claim over 100 m.p.h. on several occasions. Like the 4½, its brakes were its great weakness and its speed was really of little value, for one had to be certain of a good half-mile of unobstructed road before it was possible to put one’s foot down good and proper. I fitted a vacuum servo motor to assist braking and it was a success, save only that it appeared to result in a definite time-lag between application of the brakes and the desired retardation.

It was in 1937 that I saw an advertisement for a 2½-litre straight-eight Maserati only about two years old. It was a magnificent-looking car and I fell in love with it right away. The engine was finished more superbly than anything I have seen before or since. The cylinder head had no gasket and fitted the block so perfectly that only a smear of Osotite was necessary. The long bonnet and rather square-sectioned radiator were a delight, and a Roots blower did its stuff at the sensible pressure of 7/10 lb. per sq. in. It had a scarlet aluminium body with a certain amount of luggage space behind the seat.

But all that glitters is not gold, and of a long string of fine cars this was far and away the worst. The engine was as has been said, a thing of beauty, but that beauty was but skin deep. It had connecting-rods of astounding weakness. They were tubular and of the same diameter throughout their length. That diameter seemed to be little enough at the top end, and was hopelessly inadequate at the lower end; the net result was that these rods broke and bent with distressing frequency. The second grave defect was that the pressure pump and the scavenging pump for the dry-sump lubrication system were too nearly the same size, and this resulted every now and then, in a great building-up of oil in the crankcase, to such a degree that the tank became empty, but everything else became full, including the passenger’s seat and the driver’s shoes, ears, nose, eyes and throat. These two defects were embarrassing, particularly when the car was used for commercial travelling (I am a flour miller by trade).

One fine summer’s day I left London about midday, and 3 p.m. saw the Maserati 20 miles south of Stamford. Suddenly there occurred a most almighty scrunch, followed by a number of lesser tinkles and cracks. A moment’s inspection showed what was wrong, for the jagged end of a broken connecting-rod protruded through an ugly hole in the crankcase, and had indeed dislodged the magneto, pushed it sideways, and destroyed its coupling to the engine.

Now it so happened that it was more than ordinarily important that I should be home next morning; for one thing there was a business crisis at hand, for another my very best friend was to he married to my most-liked cousin in the afternoon.

I held up a passing lorry and scrounged (for a consideration) a tow to Stamford. There I repaired to that garage which was the. manufactory of Pick cars in the early twenties. About 4 p.m. a highly co-operative mechanic and I set to work. Frequent practice makes even a complicated task fairly easy, and I knew my way about that engine as well as a commuting Londoner knows his ‘bus routes. We stripped the cylinder head off in double quick time. Off came the sump, and then we fashioned a patch for the hole in the crankcase, and exchanged the dynamo coupling for the damaged mag. coupling. The broken piston was brutally broken out of the cylinder with a chisel, and a piece of hose was securely clipped round the vacant big-end journal to hold the oil in, after removing the residue of the broken rod.

About 10 p.m., having refreshed ourselves generously at the local pub (draught Worthington), we started to re-assemble, and at 3 a.m. next morning the engine fired on seven cylinders. At 3.30 I was on the road again, and next morning I walked (albeit a trifle shakily) into my office at the regulation time of 8.45 a.m.! In the early afternoon, bearing a striking likeness to a rather weary waiter in a third-class hotel I attended my friends’ wedding. An ample, but discreet, dosage of champagne restored my lagging spirits. . . and then, to bed, more blessed than I can remember . . .

The Maserati was quite hopeless, for in spite of its many perfections, yet its two crying weaknesses quite spoilt it. I wish now that I had had more guts, and obtained eight proper connecting-rods. Then, with an enlarged scavenging oil pump, I believe it would have been very good indeed; but as it was I determined to dispose of it at the very earliest possible moment.

It was necessary at that time to go to London every five weeks for medical treatment and on one of those visits in 1938 I saw in the premises of the Winter Garden Garage a 2-litre Aston-Martin which greatly attracted me. After a period of vigorous negotiation the Maserati departed unnoticed and without mourning, and in its place there came to Carlisle a grand and most gallant little car.

You will remember that in 1936 Aston-Martin built three 2-litre cars for Le Mans. For some reason they were never raced. This car of mine was one of them, and a better friend no one could wish to have, for it had every virtue and no vices. It was fast, with a maximum of 104 m.p.h. Splendid hydraulic brakes matched its cornering and roadholding; furthermore, it was dead reliable and an unfailing starter. All through the war and on into 1947 it served me with complete satisfaction.

(To be continued)