[PCM Talbot of Winchester describes cars large and cars small—Ed.]
My motoring career started, like that of so many others on a motor-cycle. Back in 1914, when I had attained the somewhat tender age of 9, my mother took me on a day visit by train to see my uncle. His son owned a little Levis motor-cycle. Drive was direct by belt from engine to back wheel—no clutch, no gears—and one started by “paddling” it off. I was pushed off by my cousin and it needs little imagination to understand my joy as I was pushed off up the road, stopped, then pushed off back again. Came the time when we had to return home. The family walked about a mile to the station, but I was duly despatched and told to await their arrival. When I arrived at the station I found two ominous-looking policemen there, one on a bicycle and one on horseback. I could not ride on up the road for my legs were too short to do the paddle start, and I could not turn round without stopping. There I had to stay getting more and more frightened as the policemen glanced at me and then talked to each other. Eventually my nerves gave out and I burst into tears ! The police came over to me and asked my age. In utter misery I admitted I was nine. Shortly afterwards the family arrived and I was thankful to be allowed to get into a nice safe train. I believe my uncle promised I would not ride the Levis again and no more was heard of the matter.
The misery was soon forgotten however. My father had just sold his White steam car, after much trouble with bursting of the steam supply pipe from boiler to engine, and had bought a model-T Ford. In the summer evenings of the same year on quiet roads I was allowed to drive the Ford. The trouble was legs again, for, as some may remember, low gear was engaged by presssing the clutch pedal right down. This, of course, I could not do and my driving had, therefore, to be restricted to level roads and top gear only, my father taking over again whenever we approached a hill. The Model-T however, planted a seed which is still alive.
At the age of 16 I had my first driving licence and have held a clean one ever since.
In 1928 my motoring career was shared with my wife, an excellent driver who has always enjoyed motoring for its own sake, and who at that time owned a Sunbeam Twenty drophead. This was a very pretty car and carried us many miles on our honeymoon and afterwards. It did once bend a push-rod, but otherwise gave very little trouble and was very comfortable.
Ere long two seats were not enough and we exchanged the coupe for a Weymann saloon on the 1929 edition of the Sunbeam Twenty chassis. We neither of us ever liked this car. The suspension was very hard and we carried a sack of sand in a box at the rear to make the back seat usable. Perhaps partly for this reason, but not entirely, the roadholding was shocking. On one occasion when following a slow-moving Austin Seven we did two complete circles in the road ending up with all four wheels still on the road facing as we started. It was a dangerous car and I think we were lucky not to have an accident with it.
For station work, which was necessary daily, the Sunbeam saloon was a bit big, so in 1931 I bought an MG Midget—the first of the famous line. Compared with the Sunbeam, the MG’s roadholding was all that the Sunbeam’s wasn’t. It did the job I wanted it to do and its only disadvantage was that to maintain performance it really needed de-coking every 1,500 miles. By now I had somebody to do this for me, so there was no great difficulty.
The year 1931 was a very critical one in Bentley history and when the old Company ceased building motor cars the price of those they had built dropped considerably. We were offered a trial run in a Mulliner-bodied 8-litre and fell for it in a big way. The Bentley had done only 6,000 miles and was available in that year for £1,350. She had a huge glistening black body with occasional seats so that nine people could be seated, all facing forward. She had a bonnet which stuck out forrard like the bow of a battleship, and her dry weight was 23/4 tons. Few normal private garages would hold her and she spent many a night with nose in and tail out. For moving the family, as it now was, to the seaside the 8-litre was ideal; EVERYTHING could go in, nursery paraphernalia, cot, playpen and all. For touring by ourselves she hardly carried a load, but the polished mahogany folding tables attached to the occasional seats and the smell of the beautifully soft leather made even picnics a luxury. The Bentley’s petrel tank held 23 gallons; in addition to 2 gallons in the Autovac. I remember, on one occasion, ordering 15 gallons at a petrol dump. When that had gone in and I had asked for another 5 to be added, the winder of the petrol pump handle said, “How much DOES she hold, Sir” Of course, she needed a big tank—overall petrol consumption was usually about 8.75 mpg. Looking under the bonnet one needed no magnifying glass to discover the engine. Beautifully finished, it looked all of its 8 litres, and the pillar at the rear, which contained three eccentrics driving the overhead camshaft, made it look a great length. Accessibility was excellent. She had huge Zeiss headlamps which gave a good driving light.
On the road this 8-litre was a truly magnificent car to drive. The urge on her 3.78 to 1 back axle was fascinating and she could put the speedometer needle on the 100 mph mark with nine people sitting inside. The gearbox was a delight to use once one had become accustomed to it, but I must admit I never could get into first gear quietly if the car was moving. This did not matter much, for one seldom required to do so. One could not expect a car of this sort to be particularly fast through corners; she was “navigated” rather than “steered” round a bend, and she definitely preferred the long straights to the twisty bits, but she would never slide and one always felt one had complete control a her. Trouble—yes we did have some trouble with her. The lubrication of prop-shaft bearings in the differential housing was not quite adequate, but a slight modification to the feed cured it. She suffered from front-wheel wobble at one stage and rather frightening it was. We eventually cured this by fitting wedges under the front-axle beam. At 65,000 miles I had her de-coked, but this was found to be quite unnecessary and she was never done again. This was just as well because she had no detachable head and the whole of the cylinder block had to be lifted.
During the Bentley’s life the MG, which did look a little impertinent sitting alongside in the garage, began to get a bit tired and was replaced by an EW Hornet Special. This cost £274 in January 1934. It was a pretty little grey open car with a good performance and had a delightful gearbox, a short central gear-lever, and a free-wheel. I liked the free-wheel but my wife did not. That did not matter, for the Hornet would play whichever game we chose. In August 1936, the Hornet was sold for £125, having covered 38,500 miles. The cost per mile, including depreciation, was 2.46d, which would be difficult to beat.
In 1936 a Wolseley Fourteen saloon replaced the Hornet. It lasted until 1939, and I remember little either ill or good about it. With the 8-litre sitting alongside there were few journeys where one took the Wolseley for choice, only for economy.
Then came the great unpleasantness in 1939. The 8-litre was laid up on blocks, and a Series-E Morris Eight was bought for wartime travelling. The idea of the Bentley running on petrol coupons was just out of the question–it would barely have warmed up on its ration. The Series-E cost me, I think £180 in 1939 and did valiant service with very little attention throughout the war. At one time some WD surplus vehicles standing in a field were “melting” in the way they did. I helped myself to an ampmeter, which the Morris lacked, and fitted it. Several years afterwards, when I had bought a new battery and tried all else to prevent the headlamps dimming when the dynamo was not charging, an electrician discovered that it was my ill-gotten ampmeter that was causing the trouble !
In 1943 I came home on leave one day and gazed in sorrow on the 8-litre. She was looking dusty and dishevelled, and her huge 7 in by 21 in Goodrich tyres were beginning to perish and crack. A local timber yard, where the use of petrol mattered little, offered me £212 10s for her and regretfully I saw her go. After leaving me she had to work hard to earn her keep, and when last seen was looking rather battered; there was a rumour that second gear had gone.
I had vowed that only a Rolls-Royce could replace the Bentley. In 1945 I saw a Rippon-bodied 25/30 in a showroom and I asked for a trial run. She was brought to the wrong door, and I had to reverse her onto the road. In that 50-yard run backwards I fell in love with her. One cannot describe the feeling of driving a Rolls-Royce— one can only compare it with a horse that has the perfect mouth. Chassis GRP 21 was built in 1937 and was one of the last of the 25/30s, which in turn many consider to have been the last of the old type Rolls-Royce. She had the beautifully-made splined hubs, which must have weighed very heavy on the ends of the big beam front axle. When I took over GRP 21 she had done only 3,554 miles. Performance was, of course, in a different class from that of the 8-litre, but it was the way GRP 21 did it that mattered. With ignition fully advanced, hand throttle set slow and gear-lever in top gear a passenger could get out, walk alongside, and get in again. On the other hand, the back-seat ride was not popular with a family, who were now old enough to express an opinion ! Shortly after taking delivery I did a fortnight’s chauffeur’s course at the R-R School of Instruction. This was most enjoyable and heartily to be recommended to all R-R owners, for in that way they will realise the workmanship put into their car and how it should be driven. Unfortunately, as an owner I could not have a R-R chauffeur’s badge, in spite of passing the course. I seriously considered getting is friend to employ me for a time, and buying a chauffeur’s uniform, but even then one has to have had charge of a car satisfactorily over a considerable period to qualify. I had to console myself with quite a good report made about me, to me !
GRP 21 was not all that slow; she could pick up her skirts on occasion, and once slid 72 mites in 84 minutes. Even then she did not seem to be hurrying, and still remained her sedate self.
In 1950 the bank manager turned a bit nasty and the sight of the R-R radiator, often so wrongly connected with affluence, did nothing to soothe him, so GRP 21 was sold. My wife and I mourned her loss, but not so the back-seat passengers.
In the meantime, in 1949 the Series-E Morris Eight had also been sold, for the exorbitant sum of £375 in £1 notes. Those were the days ! It certainly did not owe me much after long and faithful war service and then 100 per cent, capital profit into the bargain.
The Series-E had been replaced by a 1949 Morris-Oxford at £550 and this car now had to do long and short journeys. It was a sobering thought on modern progress that the Morris Oxford back seat was acclaimed as the most comfortable yet. For the driver there was no comparison with GRP 21 and we had the usual troubles with rust, etc, but dealer and manufacturer played very fair with me. There now occured a long-drawn-out, rather miserable, movement of home. The Oxford was fitted with a roof rack and trailer and became the maid of all work. It carried on willingly till 1952 when the bank manager was in rather better humour. One day that year my wife and I went to try a secondhand 1950 Bristol 401 which was for sale. It was the first time we had travelled in a Bristol and my wife’s comment was “My dear, we must have it.” Of course I liked it too and with a part exchange offer of £850 for the Morris we fell for the 401. No AA or RAC examination—no request to see the registration book and we did not even look under the seat covers. Before the car was delivered to us prices of all secondhand cars dropped like stones in the odd way they did and, although we did well on the Morris we were left with an old 401, for which we had paid about the new price. We realised we were a couple of mugs and felt very foolish. However we still had a nice motor car and after some further expense, involving replacement of all three Solexes, HGD 247 was a joy to drive. The farther we travelled by Bristol the more we decided that it just suited us, only occasionally now was there a back seat passenger, the birds having flown, and when necessary there was ample room for him or her or even them. This was to be the start of our Bristol “era,” for in 1953 we were able to exchange, at a price, our first 401 for a brand spanking new one. LHO 401. There was not very much difference in performance— it was just that everything now was sound instead of being pretty shaky. LHO provided us with very much pleasure–she took us to Le Mans in 1954 and then on round Brittany. The next year she took us to Switzerland on a pass-climbing expedition—11 passes including “Stelvio” in ten days—with no worries. She used no water during this 2,000-mile tour and only one quart of oil. Here, obviously, was a car that would satisfy us for many years to come.
In 1955 only two short years after buying LHO 401 I was given a lift in a 405—only a few miles but it was enough. I fell in love at first sight and LHO 401 had to go. She must have been a good bargain for somebody for there was nothing wrong with her and I had no excuse for getting rid of her—except the 405.
A visit was arranged in July 1955, for my wife and myself to the Bristol factory and there we saw our own particular chassis in all its nakedness. Details of our whims and fancies were taken down and hastened to our council offices to book a 405 number. The council clerk could not think why I should want the number four hundred and five. Number one yes, or event 123, but 405 seemed pointless and even now few people notice it. Three months later OHO 405 was passed by Bristols as ready for her owner and we went to collect her. That evening at home I tried to adjust the steering wheel to suit the driving position of both myself and my wife. It was a bit stiff and after undoing the adjustment the wheel came right off in my hands ! I just could not get it on again and whenever I tried the horn sounded lousily ! An SOS to the distributor brought him post-haste next morning in the 401 to put things right and I obtained a photograph of LBO 401 and OHO 405 sitting both together on my doorstep; 405 is without doubt the nicest car I have ever owned. The 8-litre and 25/30 were both cars of great character, but the 405 has every bit as much. The 8-litre was once described as the “Speed Six put right, ” and I would describe the 405 as 401 put right. The gearbox with its short stubby gear-lever is ideal. I desire no automation here. Overdrive makes high-speed cruising quite natural and the cornering is such that one feels part of the car. The interior is plain but built by craftsmen and is just downright good. Such work costs money but is a joy to those who can appreciate it. I have one moan, and only one: the instruntents,although excellently laid out, are not above mass-production level, and in these days most of us know what that means. But my Bristol 405 is a car to keep for many years to come. I wonder !