[Following many requests, here is a resumption of a popular series of articles, of which we hope to include a few more during the winter months. This one is written by John Pole, at my request. I have met Mr. Pole only once, when he left his wife and family on the top of a trolleybus to jump off and inspect a two-cylinder Renault I was trying to tow through Isleworth with a 12/50 Alvis on my “basic petrol ration” early in the last war. He rejoined his wife by a later service …
But who can forget one so tremendously enthusiastic over all forms of motoring, especially when Pole joined Noel to run the fabulous aero-engined Mercedes in the 1929 500-Mile Race, this affair being remarkable in itself but the more so because these brave adventurers really were called Noel and Pole and were unrelated. – Ed.]
I have noticed in this series in Motor Sport that the Editor takes a pretty elastic view of the above title. “Cars I Have Known” would often be a better title, and then motorcycles creep in as well (and why not?), and I’ve a feeling that a few aeroplanes may be detected in this contribution of mine before it’s over. I have been besotted by the internal combustion engine, man and boy, for something like fifty years, be it on wheels or wings, and there is bound to be some over-lapping.
Fifty years? 1910? ln this year, at the tender age of five, I have a clear recollection of being driven down Pont Street, S.W., in a wicker-work sidecar by a friend of my father’s. I think that entitles me to my half-century! Serious infatuation, however, started two years later. ln 1912 my father bought a 12-h.p. Lion-Peugeot from the Peugeot showrooms in London just near the Scotch house. It was a green tourer with a khaki hood, brass lamps and a radiator with the name Peugeot and a lion on the front. A large brass carbide generator and the Stepney spare were on one running board, a tool box on the other, with a top tray and two drawers. A splendid R.A.C. badge in brass and coloured enamel (I have it still) was fixed to the radiator cap. I also still have the fur rug which was purchased for the car at Harrods. The Peugeot salesman’s name was Leno, son of the comedian Dan Leno. I worshipped that car and worked like a slave polishing the brass work. I wasn’t allowed to touch the varnish. The car was kept at St. George’s Garage in the Fulham Road, under a blue dust sheet. We toured all over the place in the Peugeot just before the 1914 war, and it once did 58 m.p.h. on the Brighton Road. Lighting up in those days was a major operation. The car was pulled up and the passengers often went for a short walk while the acetylene generator was coaxed to give a steady pressure of gas and the burners were pricked clear with a pin. One day on tour we were trying hard to reach Exeter before lighting the lamps but the gloom got too bad and my father stopped the car. He got out and turned on the water in the generator and then committed the classic bloomer of waiting too long before opening the first headlamp and applying a match to the little china burner. The lamp had filled with gas and when the match was applied the whole thing exploded with a bang that must have been heard in Exeter half a mile away. Memory holds a clear picture of my father in the gloaming tearing off his coat, which was on fire, and dancing on it in the roadway to put out the flames.
The Edwardian motorist invented his own brand of clothing, father affected a rather lfoppy, wideawake hat which I thought was rather dashing at the time. By contrast my mother was compelled to forgo her more elaborate confections. “Go upstairs and tell your mother to put on a small hat,” I remember being told just before the start of a journey in the Peugeot.
My own first driving licence was dated October 1920, but it was a few months earlier that I had my first ride on a motorcycle. I was still at school, near Ware, and out for a walk one day with two friends, we found an elderly clergyman in a state of near apoplexy, sitting in the grass by the roadside. Near him, lying against the bank, was a direct belt-drive two-stroke, make forgotten. The clergyman had been lunching at the “White Hart,” Puckeridge nearby and had been unable to start his motorcycle afterwards. I had never had my hands on a machine before, but I had scraphooks full of clippings about motorcycles, and I knew “Hints and Tips” by dear old “Ixion” by heart. With the insolent assurance of the schoolboy enthusiast, I volunteered to put the thing in order. The poor old gentleman must have been very far gone to have agreed. However, almost at once I found the petrol tap turned off and the carburetter empty. I turned on the tap, flooded the carburetter, and pushed the machine along, holding up the decompressor as instructed in many a catalogue. The little two-stroke started at once, not with the boundless energy of the modern high efficiency unit, but with just a gentle phut-phutting silkily transmitted down a rubber belt, onto a road surface of white dust.
At the end of 1920 a cousin bought at new 2-3/4-h.p. Douglas “Colonial” model, complete with three speeds, footboards, undershield, clutch and kickstarter. This was a lot of equipment for this famous machine, which had been such a pillar of strength for the 1914-war depatch rider, with only two speeds and no clutch. My cousin’s macchine cost 105 guineas new. In 1921 I learnt to drive a car, a 15-h.p. Straker-Squire belonging to an uncle. It was a khaki-coloured, ex-W.D. Staff car, a tourer with cone-shaped discs on the wheels. It was built like a battleship, and was it ghastly thing to start and to drive, with heavy steering and a gear change that was a nightmare to a learner. I remember my lessons spread over several months, with long intervals, and I would go several lessons without being able to get into top gear. On a cold morning, two hands and the right knee were required to get the gear lever across the gate, the cart grease in the gearbox being of the cosistency of a “Mars” bar. To start the Straker-Squire, pressure had first to be pumped into the petrol tank with a bras-barrelled pump clipped to the dashboard. The carburetter was flooded, at lump of rag stuffed up the air inlet, ignition retarded, and then you swung and swung!. If it was very cold weather, you poured a little neat petrol into eath cylinder through priming cocks. Petrol engines had never had it so rich. Of course, air to make a combustible mixture came up from the crankcase, past the pistons.
There was no car in our family at this time, the Peugeot having gone by auction at Aldridge’s in 1917. But in 1923, my cousin’s 2-3/4 Douglas came into my possession and I loved that machine like a brother. I bent the handlebars down a bit, fitted a pair of straight-through copper pipes, Terry valve springs, a high-lift cam wheel, a pair of aluminium fir cones over the exhaust valves and bid defiance to the local 16H Nortons and long-stroke Sunbeams. I even made my first appearance at Brooklands on it in that year, in a one-lap race for beginners run by the West Kent M.C.C. On the line .were about forty machines, mostly wicked-looking A.J.S.s and Cotton-Blackburnes. I was dazed by the uproar that arose when the starter’s fIag fell and then suddenly I was alone. The field had left my poor little Douglan standing. I motored alone round the vast solitudes of the concrete track, and then found to my horror that the next race was lined up and waiting for me to get out of the way before being sent off. I tried to look as if I’d had a breakdown through over tuning, and crept away back home to Essex.
Many other two-wheeled ghosts crowd into my mind from this period: a Rudge Multi, a Brooklands’ Norton, a Zenith Gradua; I rode them all. Oh, and I nearly forgot a solo Henderson, nearly 1-1/2 litres: “Pin back your ears, and cut the ozone on a Henderson!” was how their advert. went. You sat bolt upright with immense, wide handlebars, like steering a horse plough. But I think the most interesting, historically, was a machine belonging to a friend, reputedly built by one of the Collier brothers of Matchless fame. The engine had an authentic history, and had been raced by a Collier in the Isle of Man before the 1914 war. It was a single-cylinder 500 c.c. push-rod o.h.v. unit, with a very long stroke. The cylinder barrel had only three fins, close together under the head. The machine had a direct belt drive of 3 to 1 and you had to run like a madman with it to get it going. It originally had solid front forks, but they broke one day near Chelmsford and when my friend came out of hospital he fitted a pair of Rudge forks. It was painted red and was known as Rufus. The magneto was bolted to a little platform in front and driven by an exposed bicycle chain. The whole thing fell off one day while I was riding it and I spent a long time searching the roadside for it, an unusual occupation even in those days when accessories fell off like autumn leaves. My contemporaries will remember, I’m sure, combing the grass for the other half of the belt fastener, push-rods, carburetter tops, and such like hardware essential to further progress. The Collier machine when I knew it would still do sixty.
Somewhere about this time I used occasionally to drive a 7-h.p. Citroën Cloverleaf, and I remember liking it immensely. It was very simple and easy to understand, like an overgrown toy.
In 1924 I acquired my best loved motorcycle of all, a 1921 494-c.c. o.h.v. Douglas. It was in mint condition and cost £45 at a firm in Great Portland Street. It hall a Bonniksen speedometer, and by this would hold 70 m.p.h. indefintely. Road-holding Was excellent, although a rather long wheelbase gave a slight disinclination to corner fast. I remember early one Sunday morning arriving at speed at the town of Brentwood. I put my foot on the brake pedal – nothing happened at all. I had no front brake (I’d taken it off because I didn’t like it), so I tried the gearbox – nothing there either. I was now arriving at the cross roads at the beginning of the High Street, and I slid forward onto the tank and put the soles of my shoes against each side of the front tyre. I went over the cross roads at about sixty like this and managed to stop half-way down the High Street, by the Post Office. I found that the nut had come off the end of the knock-out rear spindle and the wheel had floated free of all brake and drive mechanism. Fortunately not a soul witnessed this circus act.
One of my friends had a special machine which had been built by a man called B. Weatherall for the 1923 Senior T.T. It had a 500-c.c. o.h.v. Blackburne V-twin engine and had a very hot reputalion locally. Weatherall, I think, did start in the race but had some kind of trouble. He later manufactured a small two-stroke called the R.W. Scout, in two sheds outside Billericay on the Southend Road.
I had a ride one day on a Ricardo-Triumph. Ricardo was a great expert on flame rate and turbulence, and the Ricey-Triumph was one of the results. It was well made, but I could easily beat it on my 494-c.c. Douglas. Its distinctive exhaust note was like hitting the end of a pipe with the palm of your hand. One used to be told that the first engine Ricardo made for the Triumph Company wouldn’t run at all. Apparently the turbulence was so great it blew the spark out!
In this year, 1924, my father bought his second car, a 15-h.p. Wolseley tourer, by Vickers. It was a real quality car like a Sunbeam, but a dreadful mess mechanically and was always breaking down and stranding us. For our holiday that year, we borrowed a 1913 16-h.p. Peugeot tourer. The car belonged to a friend of my father’s who had three Peugeots, his chauffeur, incidentally, having been racing mechanic to Goux, one of the early Peugeot racing men. I drove the family to Swanage and conceived a real affection for it. I remember one afternoon dismantling one of the rear hubs out of euriosity and discovering that it was full of little springs arranged to give a cushion drive. My uncle now got rid of the Straker-Squire (he raffled it on the Baltic Shipping Exchange) and bought a most beautiful 12-cylinder Packard with all English touring body. It was a huge machine, pale blue and cream, and was just like steam to drive. My cousin and I wound it up to 72 m.p.h. near Hatfield Peverel once, and it was as quiet as a Rolls.
In 1926 the 494-c.c. Douglas broke a piston. I sold the remains for £8 and tonight a new EW 2-3/4-h.p. Douglas. I modified the engine considerably, raising the compression and also made a very low riding position. Fifty miles later a con.-rod went with appalling internal results. I was very cross with Douglas’s, and they were very cross with me for mucking about with it. However, I put a new engine in it and sold it. I then bought if 1925 750-c.c. Douglas but never cared for it much. It was really a sidecar machine and was heavy, majestic. and dull. This was the year of the General Strike, and I drove my father and a friend of his to London in the friend’s recently acquired 10/23 Talbot tourer, a little gem of a car. This year also I paid my only visit to the I.O.M. T.T. races. I don’t remember anything startling about this trip except a Belgian in the Junior Race riding holding his broken throttle wire in a pair of pliers, and a Brough-Superior solo going along the promenade in Douglas with eight people on it. Talking of Brough-Superior reminds me that a man in Chelmsford had one of the flat-twin Broughs, and there was a Wooler in Stock, also a flat-twin and known as the “Flying Banana.”
In 1927 I sold the 750-c.c. Douglas and bought a rather special A.B.C. with an engine raced at Brooklands by one Capt. Maund. It was a very pretty machine, much lowered with dropped handlebars, and a little stub gear lever in the four-speed gate. Gear-changing was done with throttle wide open, the engine being cut momentarily by an ignition cut-out button on the gear lever. It had special heavy push-rods because the standard ones were thin and sprung out at speed. In this year I joined the Territorials, the 23rd London Armoured Car Coy. We drove 7-ton Peerless chain-drive armoured cars about St. John’s Wood, the neighbourhood of the H.Q. being signposted by bent lampposts. These lorries were on solid tyres and were very hard to see out of. My personal responsibility was a 3-ton Leyland lorry on solids, and with acetylene lighting. It was full of character and very likeable, though extremely tricky in the wet. One of our members had a T.T. Humber car of, I think, about 1910 vintage.
Also in 1927 I had my first flight, a joy-ride at Romford in a Mono Avro. It wetted my appetite and although I subsequently did a lot of flying, I always preferred being on wheels. Just after the ride in the Avro I bought my first car, or, to be exact, I was part owner. A friend of mine heard of a racing car for sale at the R.A.F. station of Duxford, near Cambridge. My friend had an Austin Chummy, a current model then of course, very modified as to engine and capable of about 65 m.p.h. We tore up to Duxford one winter Sunday in the Austin, and the car on offer turned out to be a Gregoire and one of the 1912 G.P. team cars. It had a 3-litre engine with side-valve T-head. There were two plugs per cylinder and a single Bosch magneto with a double distributor. It had a three-speed gearbox, and two speeds in the back axle which were changed by a separate lever sticking up through the middle of the floor. The owner of the car was under close arrest at the time for dropping a signal rocket down the Mess chimney and setting the place on fire. At that time there were 111 Squadron, 29 Squadron and 19 Squadron, at Duxford„ all flying Grebes. We conducted negotiations for the Gregoire with a friend of the owner and bought it for £8. It had a two-seater touring body on it. We came back to Duxford the next Sunday to take the Gregoire away. We brought a third friend, and his family 14-h.p. Standard tourer. We started away under power, the Gregoire going very well until the vernier coupling of the magneto sheared and we had a major fire under the bonnet. A chauffeur from a passing Daimler leapt out with a fire extinguisher and the car was saved. We towed it back home to Billericay with the Standard. The Gregoire was subsequently stripped down but found to be in such terrible condition that it was never reassembled. I remember it had long thin connecting rods, drilled away like lace, and each of them had broken at some time and also been welded. The 1912 Grand Prix was a two-day race and the Gregoire team refused to run on the second day because the cars were unsteerable at over 80 m.p.h. The remains of the Gregoire unhappily went to a breaker, except for the beautiful Bosch magneto, which ended up on the tractor of a local farmer.
In 1928 I joined the R.A.F. and went off to Sealand near Chester to learn to fly. I bought a Full Brescia Bugatti four years old for £150. It had a pretty little cloverleaf French body. It had faults but they were totally outweighed by its outstanding virtues. Just think: it was 1924, 1-1/2 litres unblown, well over 80 in top and over 70 in third, absolute hairline steering at all speeds and over all surfaces, and light high-geared steering at that; superb road-holding of the old-fashioned hard-sprung variety. It was easy to start once you got the hang of pushing it and jumping in. The compression ratio was high, about 9 to 1 I think, and it had practically no flywheel and a solid but minute starting handle. In later years I managed to swing the 12-litre Itala solo, but I could never swing the Brescia. However, if you flooded the carburetter, propped the throttle open a bit with a match, ran with the car in neutral and then banged it rather brutally into second gear, it always fired. The gear-lever was then pulled back into neutral, the car steadied with the outside handbrake, and the operator leapt lightly into the cockpit. There were no doors. The brakes were on the back wheels only and were very poor. At least there was a footbrake on the transmission shaft but it had no ideas between dangling like a halter and locking everything up solid. Emergencies were dealt with entirely by power, gearbox, and the steering wheel. I used to go home to Essex from Chester for week-ends in the Bugatti and frequently put 60 miles into the hour. Please, my young readers, remember that this was 32 years ago and the roads were very empty …
At Sealand I made the acquaintance of Phillip Glenny, who had earlier collaborated with Col. Henderson at Brooklands to produce the Glenny and Henderson Gadfly. Glenny designed this light monoplane, which had tea spoon ailerons at the wing-tips and a five-cylinder Salmson radial engine. He also wrote it off in a meadow by the Thames, “all on a summer’s day.” He was approaching the meadow on a turn when the engine suddenly cut out. He just managed to clear the water but couldn’t quite lift the machine onto the other bank, which he hit fair and square, with the wheels. There was a frightful bang and the next thing he remembers was running through the grass in a stagger, just not falling on his face, with the Salmson radial bowling along beside him like a hoop! At Sealand, Glenny had a Frazer Nash with a four-cylinder blown two-stroke engine designed and made by himself.
Beloved as my Brescia Bugatti was, I hankered after a change, and in 1929 bought a 1924 12/50 Alvis with a two seater and dickey body. It was obviously built to hand on from generation to generation, and was a fearful lump of a car after the Bugatti. It used a quart of oil every 50 miles. I had been posted to 111 Squadron at Hornchurch in the meantime, and just after arriving there, I changed the Alvis for a little 9-h.p. French car called a Rally. I saw it in a showroom in Great Portland Street and was utterly bowled over by its racy appearance. It had a very narrow razor-blade body with a long tail, the passenger sitting almost behind the driver. It had a Ruby engine, swept scuttles, no screen, and was painted scarlet. It was fairly fast, about 75, but was directionally unhappy at this speed. It was not nearly as nice to drive as a cousin’s Amilcar. I raced the Rally at Skegness on the sands and won the event for sports cars, but on a protest I was transferred to the racing car class. Here I was third to two blown Austins.
In 111 Squadron I met John Noel, a kindred spirit who owned a most beautiful Mercedes of 7-1/2-litres with a maximum speed of about 105 m.p.h. One day we were together at the Mercedes works in Grosvenor Road and we saw an immense racing car standing in a corner covered in dust. It had a 1919 six-cylinder Mercedes aero-engine of 17.8 litres. It was for sale and John Noel bought it, the plan being that we would race it together at Brooklands and on the sand. Top gear was 1.7 to 1, top revs. 1,800, and the theoretical maximum speed allowing 5 per cent. loss through wheel-spin, was 147 m.p.h. We thought, quite rightly as it turned out, that the car should be very reliable. It weighed only 30 cwt. and everything would be lightly stressed. In particular we thought it was a natural for the 1929 500-Mile Race at Brooklands, which had just been thought up. This was to be an uninhibited blind for all and sundry, with Ebblewhite sulking in the paddock. We didn’t know of anything else that would lap at say 120 for 500 miles, so we hurried the big Merc. down to Hornchurch and sent in an entry. The week before the race we took it to Brooklands and John Noel found no trouble in lapping consistently at 122 m.p.h. I was lapping at 115 and getting experience, as this sort of motoring was new to me. At that stage Dunlops torpedoed our plan. They, misjudging the car’s appetite for tyres, frightened us into lapping at 100 only, so that we had no chance of winning and finished 11th, and on one set of tyres which were hardly marked. Most of the old aero-engined hybrids of that period tore their tyres to ribbons, but the white Merc. was an exception. She only started to get a bit lively over about 115 m.p.h. We also ran the car at Skegness on the sands on one occasion but the constant mesh stripped so we decided that sprint races were not her metier. If you stood right behind the car as it accelerated hard you could see it twist through about five degrees as the power tried to fling the chassis round the crankshaft. But the white Merc. was viceless and thoroughly lovable. I shall never forget the godlike sensation when the accelerator was pushed down and all those litres swept you effortlessly into a deceptive three-figure speed. I love to watch the modern racing car in action, but its deadly efficient hysteria doesn’t inspire me with the sort of affection aroused by those monstrous old cars of the pre-1919 era.
At a cinema in Romford, somebody in 111 Squadron saw a film about polo being played in America on T-model Ford chassis. We decided that it would be an ideal sport to play on the aerodrome. A car breaker at Rainham undertook to supply 12 T-model chassis in running order at £5 a piece, but alas, higher authority stepped in and forbade it in case we churned up the ground. I sold the Rally about now and bought a 1926 side-valve Anzani Frazer Nash. It was very likeable and of course perfect for the do-it-yourself speed enthusiast. Everything came to bits like Meccano; gear ratios were altered to suit the mood of an afternoon. The side-valve Anzani was infinitely patient with the odd timings, cam shapes, choke/jet combinations, etc., with which it was insulted. At one stage, my own ‘Nash had such pronounced castor action that it would hardly move out of the straight at over 40, and the steering column was so lowered that I couldn’t sit in the car with an overcoat on. When I bought it, the undershield was full of black slime, and I found two driving chains and three tennis balls concealed beneath the surface.
Also at Hornchurch or Duxford at this time, somebody had the Brooklands Wolseley “Moth,” and a 7-h.p. Mathis with a 3-litre Austro-Daimler engine. The latter had one speed, direct to the back wheels, the owner obtaining a neutral by propping the clutch out with a piece of wood. There was also a 1917 SE5A with a Wolseley Viper engine in flying order; the owner of this aircraft had a down-at-heel 1913 Rolls-Royce “Silver Ghost” tourer which had been built for Marconi.
In 1930 I was posted to the Central Flying School at Wittering. I did a straight swop of my ‘Nash for a 1925 Full Brescia Bugatti. It had a two-seater and dickey body which I took off and built a sheet steel racing body for it with a large tank at the back. Unfortunately, this Brescia, unlike my first, was not a great success. I had a lot of trouble with the engine, and could never get that crisp eagerness which was so characteristic of my first one. I did a lot of work on the engine and accumulated a file of correspondence with Louis Mantell of Solex regarding camshafts, carburetters, choke and jet combinations, etc. I spent hours on the Great North Road near Stamford with a box of these latter sent up for trial, but I finally concluded that it wanted a better mechanic, than I was.
A complete reaction then set in and I acquired from my brother a 1928 Triumph Seven which he had had since new. I have nothing but praise for this delightful little car. It was driven hard, first by my brother and then by me, and held for miles at 55-60 m.p.h. I was back at Sealand instructing at this time, and in 1931 I was posted to the Cambridge University Air Squadron at Duxford. I sold the Triumph and bought a new current model, and it was every bit as good. I remember one day flying a C.U.A.S. Avro along the Newmarket Road. I saw a large Rolls tourer, chauffeur driven, an elderly gentleman with a white beard in front, well wrapped up in a rug, and two elderly ladies in the rear also well tucked up behind the raised screen. It was a lovely piece of old-fashioned “grand tourisme.” The hood was neatly tucked away and they were bowling along towards Cambridge. I throttled the Avro back and slid down alongside the Rolls, just off the hedge. Tremendous interest in the car, and the elderly gentleman leans over and speaks to the chauffeur. The Rolls starts to pull away and I open up and keep level in the Avro. We got up to a steady 80 m.p.h. and held it for a couple of miles or so before I had to pull up and away for some trees. That particular summer was also remarkable for me for a flight in a captive balloon at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain.
At the end of 1932 I returned to civilian life, and a 1927 12/50 Lea-Francis tourer with two carburetters replaced the Triumph. The Leaf was in spotless condition and a very nice car indeed, smart, lively and beautifully made. It had a maximum of about 70 and was capable of good average speeds with comfort. However, the itch to change overcame me in a few months and the Leaf gave way to a sedate 16-h.p. Sunbeam Weymann saloon. It was very smart and dignified and by no means the sort of car to muck about with. Specialising it would have been like playing a practical joke on a duchess. After about six months with the Sunbeam, a kind of madness came over me and I bought a new three-wheeler Morgan with a Matchless engine. I had always disliked and feared the three-wheeler with pretensions to speed and this horrible little triangle on wheels confirmed everything. I know there were Morgan fans, perhaps still are, and I remember well a gentleman called “Ware” racing one at Brooklands in the ‘twenties. But not for me; the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle should remain equal. Add one to one steering and no wonder Euclid leapt out of his bath! Anyway the Morgan went at a dead loss after about five weeks and I convalesced in a new £100 Morris Minor. Yes, my children, in those days you could sail into a showroom and buy a whole new car for one hundred smackers. And within its limits, jolly good value too. Moreover the rest did me good, and six months later I was back in character with a 1925 22/90 Alfa Romeo with a large two-seater and dickey body. It had one of those lovely neat box-like engines that the French and Italians made in the I920s. Turned aluminium covers and just a brace of carburetters fastened on one side. Electrics by Marelli, I think, and a maximum of about 70. Up to about 50 it was a little solemn, but over that speed it suddenly came to life in your hands and seemed hundred-weights lighter. Very good steering and road-holding.
1 think now its about 1934, and away went the Alfa to be replaced by a Third Series Lancia Lambda, a car which was utterly different from anything else and permanently charming. The three-speed box was a bit of a bore on English roads (the car was designed specifically for long straights or steep Alps), but the whole thing was a functional masterpiece. My brother was so taken by my Lambda that he found one for himself, a Fifth Series with an English body. We had a classic scrap once, quite unpremeditated, from Battersea Park to Billericay in Essex; my Third Series was a little faster, but his Fifth had four speeds and neither could shake the other off. Very illegal I’m afraid, but it was a long time ago and I certainly wouldn’t indulge in the like on today’s roads. A friend of mine had a 1923 3-litre Bentley which he had had from new. I borrowed it about this time to go to lpswich for some reason or other. It had a long chassis and a five-seater touring body, and no front brakes. It was delightful to drive and I had a glorious hell-for-leather to Ipswich and back in pouring rain.
In 1936 I bought the now well-known 1908 G.P. Itala. I had sold my Lambda and bought a 1927 12-h.p. side-valve O.M. with a handsome little two-seater body with flared wings. The O.M. had a rather unexciting performance and got hot and bothered if cruised at more than 50. I sold it and bought a Seventh Series Lambda with a Weymann fabric saloon body and wicker seats in front. It was just as nice as the Third Series and a little snugger in winter.
Now the Itala; in 1927 I stopped for lunch one day at the Scole Inn, at Diss, on the Norwich-London road. After lunch I happened to wander round the back of the inn, (incidentally, still a most lovely old place and well worth a visit), and I saw a gigantic old touring car filling a shed, and covered with crates, bottles, chicken muck, dead weeds – everything. The proprietor of the inn told me it was a 1908 racing Itala, given to him by a friend, driven up from London in 1920 and never used since. In 1936 an interest in old cars had started and I remembered the Itala. I went to Scole one Sunday and sure enough the car was still there in the same old shed and looking dirtier and vaster than ever. I bought it for £25, and a week later I went with two friends and a 30-cwt. Morris truck with tools and equipment to bring the car away, under its own power if possible. It took us three days to make it driveable. A lot of wiring and water tubing had to be replaced and the old tyres cut off the rims. The low-tension ignition system was a mystery to me, as was the petrol feed which appeared to be maintained by pressure from the exhaust pipe. However, we got petrol to the carburetter, and then I thought we had better tow the car around for a few miles in gear to free everything up before trying to start the engine. We had a solid tow bar on the Morris and this was hitched on and the Itala towed out on to the main London road in neutral. When we were in position, I put it in second gear and with the clutch out we started rolling. At about ten miles an hour I cautiously let the clutch in. There was a shuddering convulsive earthquake beneath me as four ancient pistons started to sweep 12 litres of cobwebs and dead spiders out into the silencer. And then, without a trace of warning, the great engine burst into life with a shattering roar. The hand throttle had been left half open and the ltala surged forward against the solid tow bar before I had a chance to depress the clutch, which anyway nearly required two feet to it. It was too much for the poor 30-cwt. Morris. The kick in the pants from the Itala sprung the chassis and the bottom fell out of the cast aluminium gearbox. My own exultation was something I’ll never forget. We had not put the bonnet on and clouds of dust and dirt swept over me as I kept the engine revving. The tow bar was unhitched and I drove the car back into the yard. The next morning a ceremonial farewell drive was arranged and all the Stole Inn staff, chambermaids, waiters, the cook, everybody, climbed onto the car and I drove them up the main London-Norwich road about a mile and then back. There were about 20 people clinging on somehow and amidst the screams of the females we probably did about 70 or 80 m.p.h. Nothing and nobody was licensed or insured and nobody fell off and got killed.
After the Seventh Series Lambda saloon, I have slightly lost touch with my cars. There was a succession of ex-breaker’s yard models (none the less interesting for that!) which I drove about the fields on the farm near Ongar where my wife and I were living. There was one Austin Seven Chummy which made me so angry one day that I drove it into a cart shed near Brentwood and went home by ‘bus. I never saw or heard of it again. Another curio was a 7-h.p. Peugeot which I bought for 30s and after 5,000 trouble-free miles, sold for 50s. It had a front transverse spring with about eight leaves in it, like the springs on a railway coal truck. It was extremely slow, with a maximum of about 30, and made such a mechanical uproar that people used to look round. While we were at Ongar, I discovered in a remote part of the farm a 1909 three-cylinder Vauxhall. It had been bought new by the owner of the farm and had not been used since just before the 1914 war. The last time it had been out was to take the family over to Ware to see a balloon go up!
In 1937 I was in Rome and drove one of the new 5-h.p. Fiats, Topolinos they called them. I was very impressed with it and in 1938 I bought one myself. Just after the war started in 1939, I swopped the Fiat for a 1935 B.M.W., which I kept through the war but never really liked. I eventually sold it to the Aldington Brothers in Isleworth and bought a Ford Ten tourer with an LMB conversion. It had been blown at one stage in its career. I liked the Ford quite a lot, and certainly the front kept very flat when swinging briskly round a corner.
Just before the war started, I had joined the Sperry Gyroscope Co. and was instrumental in persuading them to buy for general interest, a unique gyroscopic car. This was a two-wheeled vehicle with a wheelbase of about 16 ft. It had originally had a four-seater tourer body and a 20-h.p. Wolseley engine. This was in 1912. When we got it, it had the front half of a Morris Oxford body and a 1928 Morris Oxford engine of 14 h.p. It had been designed by Louis Brennan, one of the fathers of the gyroscope, and had been demonstrated to the War Office before the 1914 War, as a military vehicle. It had two little retractable wheels at the sides to hold it upright when it was at rest without the gyros running. Amidships, there were two large, heavy, electrically-driven gyros with vertical axes. Immense batteries drove the gyros and the mechanical linkages and electrical circuits were a Disney Fantasia. We did once get the car to stand up by itself. It was quite uncanny to watch, as it rocked slightly from side to side all the time, and when you pushed it, it pushed back! I drove (or rode !) it several times with the gyros still and it behaved like an elephantine motorcycle.
Just after the war I sold the LMB Ford and became enamoured of a 1926 14-h.p. Bean tourer, which I heard was up in Scotland, not having been used for 15 years or so. I bought it, unseen, and it was sent down to me on the railway. It was a great success, a lovable car, full of character. I drove the family all over the place in it, and I kept getting ex-Bean old-timers coming up and patting it.
I met people who had driven Beans across deserts, in India, in the Australian bush, and they always spoke of a trusted friend.
And so to recent times; the Bean (it is still giving excellent service in Malden) gave way to a beastly little 12-h.p. Standard shootings brake. This was swiftly followed by a very good 14-h.p. Standard saloon, and after a year or so I bought my present 1948 15-b.p. Citroën, which I have had for four years. And what a wonderful car it is; as rugged and as simple and as indestructible-as a T-model Ford, and the design is sheer genius. It will respond to intelligent handling in a way that is quite remarkable, and unbelievable things can be done with it on corners. And on top of all this it is virtually foolproof. Let Aunt Esmeralda, in an absent-minded moment go into a corner at an impossible speed. She just turns the wheel and her Citroën will probably get her round. If it can’t, it will slide bodily and quite flat and in one piece, off the road. from where it can be driven back again (brick walls excepted). But let an informed Citroënist find himself in a corner with more velocity than he can comfortably accommodate, and all he does is to wind on a little more rudder and tramp heavily on the accelerator. I have not driven one of the new basking sharks which Citroën now supplies, but its got a high standard to maintain.
And that seems to be all for the moment: I feel no particular temptation to change the Citroen, except perhaps for a Mini-Minor. I haven’t tried one yet but it does seem as though it might have a little bit of all the things I have liked best in a car, simplicity, a good power/weight ratio, safety, and a light briskness of character.
Nuvolari the master
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