Motoring Variety in Australia

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52

The second part of G. SANDFORD – MORGAN’S absorbing article, which commenced in last month’s issue.

A friend started a scheme, in conjunction with Messrs. Brown and Dureau, for marketing special-bodied H.R.G.’s in Australia, listing a light sports-racing two-seater with exposed wheel aerodynamic bodywork on current European lines, called the “Woodside” model, after the South Australian circuit, and a monoposto racing version known as the “Bathurst” model, after the New South Wales circuit. His own car was fitted with the first of the “Woodside” bodies, and was in this form when it came into my hands. It was most exciting to drive, with a maximum of slightly over 100 m.p.h., very good acceleration, and steering and handling qualities in a class of their own. The beautifully light and sensitive steering is quite the best l have ever encountered on any car, enabling it to be “placed” with absolute accuracy in any conditions, with a delicacy and balance which made driving it a sheer delight. It was one of those cars in which you can come into a corner 10 m.p.h. too fast and, by its perfect manners, it will take you through without even looking as though it would allow you to get into serious trouble. At first I found the steering so light that any conscious steering of the car resulted in its weaving all over the road, but soon discovered that by merely resting my hands on the wheel and “looking” where I wanted to go it could be placed with the greatest possible accuracy, far more like a motor-cycle, in this respect, than a car. One feature which deserves high praise is the delightfully simple method by which the castor-angle can be adjusted on this chassis.

The brakes, cable-operated in Elektron drums, required lots of weight, but were then very powerful and quite fadeless even when raced on an airstrip on a day of 110 deg. F. shade temperature. Unfortunately, the H.R.G. proved unsuitable for general use, mainly due to its unbelievably hard springing, which was repeatedly breaking the body and causing bits to fall off it, while a journey over roads normally considered to be quite good could be so hellishly uncomfortable as to mar any pleasure which may have been derived from the car’s good qualities.

When I sold the H.R.G. I had to take a fairly new Standard 8-h.p. tourer as part payment, but this seemed such a nasty little car that I lost no time in exchanging it, the same afternoon, for a TA type. M.G., fitted with 16-in, wheels, and painted an unusual and attractive shade of blue. I think I actually had the Standard for about four hours !

The TA gave the usual enjoyable and trouble-free service I had come to expect from the M.G. marque, and, with its fat 16-in. tyres, was the acme of comfort after the H.R.G.

To digress for a moment, if the Editor will permit it, to mention a car I didn’t own but one which I knew very well. Just before selling the H.R.G. I went to Melbourne with a friend of mine to buy the only two-seater “Competition” Allard which came to Australia. The firm handling the Allard had brought out three models in 1948, a tourer, a drophead, and the two-seater, and although eventually managing to sell the other two cars had been quite unable to dispose of the two-seater, for some inexplicable reason.

On arrival, we were ushered into the luxurious office of the Sales Manager, and after discussing all sorts of other topics finally, in great trepidation, we offered him several hundred pounds less than the list price. Instead of being taken aback he quite happily, and with suspicious haste, increased our offer by £100 and offered to toss to decide whether we should pay his price or ours! We won the toss, and hastily settled for it before he changed his mind. His secretary, who was in the room throughout, didn’t turn a hair, so I don’t know whether this was his normal method of winding up a sale or not. He may have been influenced by the fact that, having got a piece of steel in my eye while driving down from Sydney in the H.R.G., I was wearing a villainous-looking bandage over one eye, this lending a vaguely piratical air to the whole affair. Incidentally, I found that cold sober and with only one operational eye I couldn’t judge distances at all, but after celebrating the Allard and loading Rodney Lord, who later drove a Healey in the Mile Miglia, onto the liner Strathnaver, en route for England. I found no difficulty in engaging in a bending race in and out of the pillars on the wharf in the H.R.G.

The Allard was my first experience of relatively soft independent suspension combined with excellent handling, and in no time I was completely converted to this school of thought. It was the sort of car in which you felt at home immediately, it suspended outstandingly well on all surfaces, while steering and brakes were beyond reproach. It got very hot, in the not uncommon way of Ford specials, and seemed a bit undergeared for our conditions, but all told it was a very satisfying and attractive car with many practical advantages.

By now the TA, which had apparently done a colossal mileage, was showing signs of being in need of expensive revival, so while getting it into saleable condition I bought a 1923 M-type 14/40 Vauxhall tourer. This car had spent most of its life in the hands of the original owner, who had bought it in England and brought it out to Australia with him. It came to me with a very comprehensive selection of spares, most of them still in their original packing as supplied by the factory nearly 30 years before. This was the two-wheel brake, three-speed model, with disc wheels. It was very well preserved, having done about 85,000 miles in and around Sydney during its life, and it gave the same pleasant and satisfactory performance I had been given by the other 14/40’s, not being unduly hampered by having only three gears.

With the passing of the 14/40 and the TA came an almost new Fiat 500C with Italian body and folding lid, surely one of the most outstanding cars on the market today. This incredible little car, so beautifully built and equipped that it is hard to believe that it is a cheap mass-produced vehicle, would cruise all day at an indicated 55-60, accomplishing 60 miles on each gallon of fuel, rode superbly over shocking surfaces, and, an important feature in this country, was completely dustproof. Its steering, handling and braking were of such a high order that if I could ever get a competition car with similar characteristics I would be quite content to keep it for the rest of my days. Admittedly, it had to be driven very energetically to attain reasonable speeds, but this was not tiring for the driver, while the car seemed to revel in this treatment, and, so driven, on the winding mountain roads between Bathurst and Sydney, would do the 132 miles over the Blue Mountains in three hours, a time difficult to equal with my TC.

During this period I bought another 30/98, this time a very original E-type, E366, which belonged to two elderly ex-British Army officers who lived at the bottom of a deep valley near Jenolan Caves. These two delightful old gentlemen were to be seen thundering around the district in the polished aluminium “Thirsty.” sans hood, and rushing up and down the terrifyingly narrow and winding track out of their valley, not in the least impressed by the unfenced 500 ft. drop which awaited them if they missed a gear-change in the almost brakeless E-type. The harsh suspension not being in harmony with their advancing years, the Vauxhall was replaced with a 1911 three-speed Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, a highly suitable vehicle, but one which required faultless judgment if it was to be fitted round the numerous hairpin bends in one sweep.

The Vauxhall suffered from a serious internal collapse soon after my purchase, and was sold as soon as it was revived, to pay for itself. I now moved back to Adelaide where, in a moment of lunacy, I bought an immense 20-h.p. Minerva landaulette which had covered only 21,000 miles since it started life in 1926. Its handsome sleeve-valve engine was very smooth and quiet, and dragged the 42 cwt. along quite well, but its many years on blocks, near the sea, had resulted in corrosion attacking gearbox and rear-axle bearings, so when the novelty wore off, it was quickly sold. I think what fascinated me most was its winding glass-division, its beautiful grey Bedford cord in the rear compartment, and the pale blue silk blinds which shielded milady from the inquisitive passer-by. Oh, yes, and it had a speaking-tube too, of course.

Swinging from one extreme to the other, the Minerva was followed by another Ford-engined special. This was originally one of the first S/C 1,750-c.c. Alfa-Romeos, carrying a light competition Zagato two-seater body, with cycle-type guards. It had been bought at the Alfa works and brought back to Australia by a Mrs. Jones, of Sydney, one of a well-known motoring family. When, as a child, I lived in Sydney, the Alfa lived quite near, its exciting appearance and the thrilling scream of its blower being enough to make at least one small boy nearly fall out the window whenever it went past.

Much water had flowed under the bridge by the time I got it, and a Mercury engine had replaced the twin o.h.c. Alfa-Romeo unit, while it was fitted with 2LS hydraulic brakes, ex-Douglas aircraft, on all wheels. The Zagato body, though scruffy, was still unaltered, so after repainting it the appropriate red, and a general refurbishing, it because quite a pleasant motor-car again. It retained the Alfa handling and good looks, had magnificent brakes, and went very well. It had the legs of the normal run of XK120 Jaguars in local hill-climbs, but the advent of a J2 Allard caused it to be rather outnumbered.

One thing I remember with this car was a frantic back-axle rebuild. Just before a hill-climb. We finished assembling the main assembly about 2 a.m. on the morning of the event, after which I had to drive 15 miles with the housing perched in the dickey-seat of my Morris Cowley coupe. We managed to get it going in time, but I distinctly remember sitting on the starting-line, waiting for the all-clear while an obliging bystander frantically pumped up the tyres, which I hadn’t previously had time to check.

The Morris-Cowley was a dear old bull-nosed coupé which had done an enormous mileage in the hands of a district nurse, and, although rather breathless, still ran very sweetly. It had been a well-known local entity for many years, universally known as the “Hat-Box.” One of the annual motoring events in Adelaide is the Veteran Rally, an outing which always attracts a good showing of pre-1914 machinery. With a hankering for a Veteran or Edwardian to play with it was only a matter of time before I became part owner of a 1909 10-h.p. Type 40 Napier. This stout old lady was found 150 miles from Adelaide, having been in daily use until seven years before. After pouring oil, water and petrol into the appropriate places it started easily, ran quietly and smoothly, and, after pumping up its tyres, took us back to Adelaide with no trouble, at a steady 40 m.p.h. and 25 m.p.g. Unfortunately, it had been fitted with an undistinguished “modern” body in 1919, but at the only Veteran Rally I was able to use it we were delighted by the way we shook off a 1912 Hupmobile and were only just out-performed by a gigantic Gobron-Brillié.

One of the nicest things about the Napier was the engine, which rotated left-handed. Our favourite pastime was to ask one of the uninitiated to swing it for us, and then stand back and watch the unfortunate trying to start it by swinging the engine right-handed.

I also had an Alvis Speed Twenty tourer for a short time, but it had started life as a Charlesworth saloon and suffered decapitation at a later date. This had left the body so loose and unsupported that it went over bumps in sections, like a caterpillar. On closer investigation it proved to be much more tired than had appeared at first inspection, so I didn’t keep it very long. It showed signs of having been a nice car earlier in its life, the all-synchromesh gearbox being a particularly pleasant device. It was the only car I’ve had with a wireless fitted to it, a thing which came in very handy on my return trip from Melbourne, since I flew over one Saturday morning and drove it back that night. The reception on the period wireless was anything but good, but it kept me awake through sheer annoyance, if nothing else.

Whilst having a drink one day in a country pub, I happened to meet a bloke who was driving around selling malted-milk mixers from a Phantom I Rolls-Royce Coupé. In the course of conversation he told me about an elderly gentleman in the district who collected Rolls-Royces, his stable at the time consisting of a Phantom II saloon, a very pretty Phantom I close-coupled sports saloon, a Phantom I chassis, and three Twenties. It was rumoured that he might be persuaded to sell one of the Twenties, a 1923 three-speed model, carrying a Barker touring body.

Some years before I’d had very pleasant motoring in a friend’s three-speed Twenty, and had always rather hankered for one myself, so it was only a very short time before I’d managed to meet the delightful Rolls-collector, and not much longer before I was the proud owner of a Rolls-Royce Twenty.

This car had apparently done a gigantic mileage, but was still smooth and silky, with practically no play in any of the controls, while the barrel-sided Barker touring-body was the prettiest I have ever seen, of its type, anywhere. My previous high opinion of Rolls-Royce products was taken to new heights by my experience with this car, and, coupled with what experience I have had with the later R.R. products, it leaves me with no doubt that, so far as I am concerned, they really do make “the best cars in the world.”

Despite their reputation for sloth. I found the Twenty to have quite adequate performance for its purpose in life, as witness the fact that I once covered 900 miles in 24 hours, in considerable comfort, and in anything but ideal conditions. This was part of a 4,000-mile trip I made in mid-winter, in a year when practically the whole south-eastern part of Australia was under record floods.

Everywhere I went traffic was held up by flood-waters, but the old Rolls pressed happily on, with fan-belt off, and radiator-shutters closed, apparently quite content to tackle a river, if necessary. It nearly met its match one night whilst, with the headlights under water, we were fording a fast-running creek when it fell into a huge hole in the creek-bed and stalled. By all the rules this should have been the end of everything, as the water must have been over carburetter level, and should have been up to distributor-level, but when, without the least hope. I pressed the starter, it started imntediately, on six cylinders, and drove calmly out with water cascading off it, just in time to avoid a huge tree which was swirling downstream all ready to do for us. Another point in favour of the Rolls was that I found it a very straightforward car to work on, apart, of course, from the labour involved in undoing the multiplicity of small nuts, bolts and studs with which everything was held together.

One of the few cars for which I could have been persuaded to part with the “Twenty” Rolls now came on the market, so it was sold to an appreciative friend, who, appropriately enough, is a Professor of English. Its replacement was another 3-litre Bentley, a 1952 Speed Model, this time, with A7 type gearbox and 3.53 back-end, and fitted with the same type of Vanden-Plas four-seater body, aluminium-panelled in this case. Although not in the Concours condition of the previous 3-litre, this car has been well cared for, performs well, and still gives me great pleasure to drive and own.

For competition purposes, the Alfa-Mercury was replaced by a car I had long admired, this being one of the M.G. NE Magnettes built by the factory to win the 1934 Ulster T.T., which purpose was duly accomplished, as most people will remember. This machine was one of the actual racing team, afterwards passing through the hands of Mr. R. R. Jackson, according to its history, before being brought to Australia by Mr. J. O. Sherwood, of Sydney. It has had a very successful racing career in this country, and came to me just after having had a very complete rebuild. Although originally unblown, it was raced in supercharged form successfully for some time, and, although I still have the blower I haven’t used it in this guise, since local regulations make it preferable to use atmospheric induction. It is now back in its T.T. form, in which guise it goes well, and, after a few initial bothers, seems very reliable. With its glorious exhaust note, straight-at differential, the same type of E.N.V. racing gearbox as the C-type, and its general air and feel of a works racing-car, it is a most exhilarating device. I remember one gloriously crisp morning, running down to a sand-racing meeting in company with its cousin the K3, differentials singing and exhaust-notes mingling as we cruised together at 75-80. making the sort of rare memory one likes to think back on.

To bring this account up to date I now come to my latest acquisition, a Morgan Plus Four two-seater. Although I had little respect for the previous 4/4, it only needed a short ride to convince me that the Plus Four had a lot to recommend it. Since owning one it has, with one or two reservations, only gone to confirm my first impressions, for I found it able to cope quite well with bad road surfaces, giving a good balance between softness and controllability, while the general handling characteristics are well above average. With its relatively big engine in a light chassis, 68 b.h.p. and 16 cwt. fully equipped, it goes very well indeed, the nice Moss gearbox with its close ratios helping it along in fine style. The brakes work well, even under racing conditions, so long as zinc-bonded lining is used, but they are rather prone to squealing at normal speeds.

The body is comfortable and seems to hang together quite well, although racked about somewhat by the very light chassis. On the debit side, most of the front suspension is too light and is gradually being replaced by more robust bits, while, although the car steers reasonably well when everything is right, the steering-box is a most inferior and badly designed component. which wears very rapidly, and, in my opinion, the Morgan people would be well advised to change it, preferably for a rack and pinion unit. I can’t help looking askance at the steering connections, made from flexible rod, which, on the 4/4 at any rate, have been known to break, and also at the hub design, particularly since seeing a brake-drum, complete with wheel, break away from the hub on another Plus Four, not a very endearing habit. The gearbox builds up internal pressure and forces the oil out of the front seal. and, if you are unlucky, onto the clutch as well, and the radiator is neither big enough nor is it fitted with an efficient design of core, with the result that overheating is all too easy to promote, but in spite of all these things I still like the Morgan. The Vanguard engine has not proved as reliable as I expected, since on the two occasions I have raced the car it has been put out with valve trouble both times. The first time, the head broke off an exhaust-valve, a not uncommon Vanguard trouble in Australia, while the second time the cause was the breakage of the rather flimsy keeper, both being costly occurrences when they happen. On the whole though, a quiet, smooth and reasonably comfortable car for ordinary use, but one which, when need be, can put up a very good showing in competition, and will, I hope, give me a lot of fun before the time for replacement arrives. It has recently been fitted with two S.U. carburetters, a cylinder head which gives 8:1 compression ratio, and a Lucas magneto, all of which have increased the performance in a gratifying manner. At the same time the instruments have been rearranged, since the normal arrangement is hard to read in a hurry, and a revolution-counter has been fitted. When the valve-gear has been re-vamped to allow the 6,000 r.p.m., which the engine will now attain, to be utilised, it is to be hoped that the performance will be quite useful. Although not strictly eligible, this account would not be complete without mention of three cars which, although I didn’t own them, have taken me, between them, upwards of 70,000 miles on business occasions. The first of them, a Renault 760, was a car I thoroughly disliked, and I have never been able to understand the wide enthusiasm for this little car, particularly since most of those I have met seemed little or nothing better than mine. Compared with the Fiat, which sells for slightly less, the Renault was shoddy and tinny in the extreme, harsh and noisy in the transmission and engine, while it was shockingly uncomfortable on surfaces which the Fiat scarcely noticed. After 12,000 miles of by no means hard usage the engine, suspension, and road-wheels were all fairly sick, while quite early in the piece the swinging rear axles, with no lateral location except a small pin on their inboard ends, developed enough movement to steer the back of the car noticeably, all of which made it quite dangerous on a loose surface. On top of this, the Fiat, with almost 200 c.c. less, could out-perform it with no great difficulty.

The other two vehicles were both Austin A70s, the original Hampshire and the later Hereford. These cars, with their exceptionally smooth, sweet, and quiet engines, and relatively high gearing, have very long legs indeed, being quite content at 70 m.p.h. all day, while even higher speeds can be held in the higher-geared Hereford. They are very controllable, even when thrown about quite excitedly, and stand up well to hard usage, since the earlier car completed 115,000 miles before the need for major work made replacement advisable. Their main trouble, as with most English cars in this country, is their complete lack of effective dust-proofing, and, despite efforts being made to combat this menace, particularly with the Hereford, the position doesn’t seen to be improving. It is a factor which influences sales to a considerable extent, if the car is to be used away from city areas, and is all the more serious when it is appreciated that the Continental machines, and even the Holden and Australian bodied American cars are, on the whole, very good in this respect. Incidentally, the XK120 Jaguar has the reputation of having reached an all-time high in dustiness.

Otherwise, the Austin’s other lapses have been confined to the electrical equipment and suspension-damping departments, but these are both faults which, unfortunately, they share with far too many other English cars for them to be laid only at Austin’s door. In my opinion, as far as the Hereford is concerned, in general handling, suspending and performing, it compares favourably with the Fiat 1,400, which, to anyone knowing this impressive Continental, will give an indication of my high regard for the English machine.

On looking back over this account, the only conclusion I can draw is that although I am now a confirmed believer in GOOD modern cars, with all their advantages, there still seems to be a definite something about unspoiled vintage machinery, not the least being the latter’s amazing resistance to wear, so that, amongst the cars which I hope to be lucky enough to own in the years to come, I know that I will never want to be long without a thoroughbred machine of the vintage era. It does seem that, so far, I’ve been happiest with the Bentleys I’ve been lucky enough to own. I think this is probably so, although I don’t really know why – perhaps it’s the immense air of confidence which the Bentley seems to inspire. I have never bought a new car, and it seems very doubtfull I ever will, mainly because the sort of car I would like to buy is completely beyond my reach, anyway.

If anything can be said for this owning of a succession of queer, mad, or just plain worn-out motor cars it is that, in spite of spasms of loathing the sight of the things, there is a vast amount of fun to be had from it, even if I can’t always manage to feel sufficiently calm and detached to realise it. It teaches you all sorts of odd things about mending machinery, especially since out-of-the-ordinary motor cars seem to suffer from such odd illnesses, and you meet such pleasant people during the battle to put things right again.

I hope I’ll be able to have some more interesting cars in my quest for the perfect vehicle (secondhand), but I don’t suppose I’ll ever find it. Even if I do, I don’t doubt for a moment that I shall quickly get heartily sick of its very perfection and speedily replace it with the first mad, attractive and impractical vehicle which cornes along.