By Brian Carson
Looking backwards across the span of six and thirty years, I can see the ghosts of many of the old conveyances that I have owned since those halcyon days of motoring that are now affectionately called the “Vintage” era.
Amongst the hosts of new designs that appeared during the early nineteen-twenties were a few that failed to capture the imagination of the public merely because they were both too revolutionary and far ahead of their time. One of these was the little A.B.C. Scooter which was, of course, the forerunner of the thousands of scooters that are on the roads today.
I was a schoolboy when a neighbour pulled down his shed and unearthed a pair of these vehicles, and with the help of a friend, and a treatise entitled “Motor Cycling Made Easy,” we managed to put one of them into working order. The book deserves mention, if only because two paragraphs of it remain in my memory. Under the heading “If the engine will not start” was the advice “Put the machine on the stand and pedal vigorously for ten minutes.” While calculated to spread alarm and despondency was “If the engine stops suddenly with a loud hammering or clanking noise, probably several new parts will be required.”
The engine fitted to the A.B.C. was a small, overhead valve unit mounted directly above the rear wheel on a level with the saddle. The weight distribution had not been calculated very well, for the front wheel would leave the road if the brakes were applied too suddenly. The cylinder had neither a fan, nor ducts to provide cooling, and air flow round it was blanked off by the posterior of the rider, who however got ample warning of imminent seizure by a searing heat scorching the seat of his breeches.
The desire to own something more powerful was gratified when my friend the late Geoffrey de Havilland and I bought and shared an ancient Douglas. Since those days the Douglas firm have suffered many vicissitudes and although the basic conception of a flat-twin engine still remains, there has never been another model to compare with the belt-driven, clutchless and kick-starterless machine which so endeared itself to the motorcycling fraternity. The Ex-(Kaiser)W.D. mount can almost be regarded as having been the “basic trainer” of yesterday, for it taught hundreds and thousands of enthusiasts to ride. Our old 1917 model certainly looked as though it had been “stormed at by shot and shell” but Geoff was most meticulous, and he insisted on putting it into as good condition as our two shillings a week pocket money would allow.
Motorcycling was strictly forbidden at school, and the penalty for riding or harbouring a machine was instant expulsion. This, however, did not in the least deter a small and very select “Scuderia” who met on Sunday afternoons in an old water-mill at Dadford (a village whose street is worn by the tyre ruts of pilgrims to the shrine of speed at Silverstone). Here, “trials” were held whenever at least two out of the three old mounts that we owned were roadworthy.
The “trials” were of a singular nature, and began with the entrants very seriously donning heavy coats, large caps and false moustaches. The participants were then given the name of a faraway town, and commanded to ride there and back before evening roll-call at 5.30. Winners were selected from competitors who were able to prove that they had covered the course by producing a tram ticket. Losers were inevitably punished by the prefect who administered several strokes of the cane if the competitor was unable to answer to his name at roll-call. On one occasion Geoff and I were shambling along with the Douglas refusing to fire on more than one cylinder when there was a raucous “gurk” from a klaxon in the rear. It was immediately apparent that we were being tailed by none other than the headmaster seated in a “Bullnose” Morris.
Recognition, it seemed, could not possibly be avoided, particularly since one half of Geoff’s moustache had blown away. However, just as the Morris was drawing level, the other cylinder decided to chime in, and we shot round a corner like a rocket.
Stag Lane Aerodrome in those days was quite a place. With Amy Johnson, Jim Mollison, Jean Batten and Sir Alan Cobham very much in evidence, the whole place seemed pervaded with a spirit of reckless adventure. Weird and wonderful types—both aircraft and individuals—were to be seen in the hangars and on the tarmac. There were those who ran alongside the tiny DH53 monoplane, powered by its twin-cylinder Blackburne Tomtit engine, holding the ends of the wings until it became airborne. There was the old gentleman who solemnly paraded his Avro 504K to a height of about five hundred feet, when there was a rending crash, and the Le Rhone shot out of the fuselage to land like a V2 in a clump of bushes at the far side of the aerodrome. He made a three-point landing without it! There was the little Moth racing monoplane [The 186 m.p.h. DH71—Ed.] that screamed across the factory chimney to take a World record for the fastest light aeroplane. Most mysterious of all was perhaps the green racing Sunbeam that stood in a corner of a hangar. It was reputed to have been one of the team cars, but our most diligent enquiries failed to reveal why it was there, or to whom it belonged. The bonnet had no louvres. In place of them was a wire grille. The instruments were all marked in French, including a small box on the mechanic’s side of the scuttle which proved to be a counter for recording the number of completed laps of a circuit. The tail was wedge-shaped, and behind the staggered seats was the spare wheel carried vertically. The portion of the tyre which protruded from the body was covered with a “blister,” similar to the 1925 version of the Brooklands Austin Seven. The car was still there when I left Stag Lane during the early 1930s, and it would not surprise me if it is still mouldering away in some long forgotten store-room.
My arrival at Stag Lane was on a curious mount known as a New Scale. Needless to say the prefix to the name was a misnomer, but legend had it that the machine had a Tourist Trophy history. The big port Blackburne engine was still fast, though unreliable, and when it packed up, as it frequently did, it was necessary to remove it from the frame and carry it upstairs to my bedroom in the digs. This operation had necessarily, too, to be performed darkly and at dead of night after ascertaining that the landlady was safely ensconced between her sheets. Then the engine was worked on at night and secreted in the cupboard by day, away from her prying eye. One dismal, wet Sunday when it had been reassembled following lengthy repairs, the good lady was rudely awakened from her afternoon siesta by a staccato roar from upstairs. Flinging open the door of the third floor back, she was greeted by an acrid cloud of smoke through which she vaguely discerned the well-known figure of the lodger gavotting around the floor, trying vainly to hold down the washstand to which was bolted a motorcycle engine running flat-out and out of control.
My next lodgings backed on to a builder’s yard, where a very old Morgan stood propped up against a tree. As it was awaiting transport to the breaker’s yard I was able to purchase it very cheaply. Even in those days it qualified as “Vintage” for the body consisted basically of a large and commodious seat, perched on three spidery wheels. Beneath a kind of inverted coal scuttle pierced with a heart-shaped hole was a lusty M.A.G. engine which age and decay had seized up solid. The rest of the coachwork was a small lid covering the top of the rear tyre which supported the hood.
Much effort was expanded in renovating the Morgan, and eventually, after receiving a coat of green paint from a tin reserved by the builder for decorating lavatories, it looked quite respectable. I was soon to discover that starting a Morgan is a closely guarded secret, handed down by word of mouth from father to son, and unwillingly divulged from owner to owner. The ritual begins with rummaging about for a huge handle. When this is found it is carefully wiped clean of oil, grit and horse-hair, and the end is examined for wear. It is then ceremonially inserted into an obscure hole at the side of the body, the whereabouts of which is known only to the owner, and the person who wishes to start the engine, henceforth known as the winder, takes his stance facing the ultimate line of march. The winder’s right hand grasps the handle, while his left hand pulls back the trigger which lifts the exhaust valves. Winding now commences. Slowly at first, then as the flywheel gains momentum more and more furiously. The creaking and groaning body rocks on its springs like a horse being broken in. The chassis writhes like a tortured serpent, as the winder executes the final culmination to a war dance. Suddenly, there is a resounding and shattering backfire from the engine. The silencer tinkles across the road. Windows fly open and there is a tirade of abuse, to a cacophony of barking dogs. The curtain falls on the owner making a hurried exit amid a pall of smoke and belching flame with the silencer on the seat beside him.
My old Morgan was illuminated after sundown by acetylene lamps. Seldom was it possible to get all three lamps to light at the same time. In the very likely event of being unable to get any light at all, it was normal to drive the machine into the nearest hedge, put up the hood, produce a hip-flask and await the dawn. I was just settling down in a thick privet somewhere between Andover and Basingstoke one dark night, when a hoarse voice hailed me, and offered me a tow. The good Samaritan proved to be a motorcyclist mounted upon an N.U.T. combination. In the wickerwork sidecar sat a huge, formidable and aggressive woman, who I immediately adjudged to be his wife. A clothes line was produced and after it had been passed by the scrutineers, the cortege consisting of the N.U.T. towing the Morgan followed by a clubman riding a tricycle, and tailed by a couple of urchins, shambled slowly off into the darkness. Speed increased with growing confidence, and all went well until we started ascending a small knoll. Suddenly there was an alarming crash followed by a small shower of sparks. The sidecar body, complete with its disgruntled occupant, parted company from its chassis and skated off down the road.
By some extraordinary mischance, the incident was unnoticed by the rider who careered off into the darkness, leaving me to the tender mercies of his wife, who promptly set about me with her umbrella.
The Morgan was part-exchanged for a 1914 Morris-Oxford and a large plate camera. It was immediately apparent that the seedy old two-seater body scarcely befitted a student of aircraft engineering, so to my everlasting shame it was removed from the chassis with crowbar and hatchet. Attention was next given to the White & Poppe engine. This was carefully tuned and the throttle butterfly was connected up the wrong way round.
After toiling away with the handle for hour after hour, the engine burst into flames. At the sight, a quick-witted individual promptly emptied a bucket of sand over the antediluvian magneto which had an armature that ran between a pair of large horseshoe magnets, and that was that.
With a pair of old DH9 seats set across the chassis, and a “bolster” tank made from an old brass geyser to which was strapped a miscellany of old tyres, the Morris when viewed from afar could have been mistaken for a racing car of a bygone age. Floorboards were considered to be an unnecessary refinement which by preventing the occupants suffering the ravages of weather and being sand-blasted by pebbles and flakes of cow dung, destroyed the illusion of high speed. The brakes were never up to much, and one day after ascending the summit of Notting Hill with Geoff at the wheel, we were suddenly faced with the palm of a policeman’s ham-like hand. Pulling up directly beneath his elbow appeared to annoy him, and our mouths sagged open as a thin, fountain of water from a small hole near the radiator cap cooled his furious, red face.
Time marched on, and more affluent circumstances endowed me with an Amilcar. A curious, scarlet machine known as the “Petit Sport” it vaguely resembled a praying mantis on wheels. Being tail high was an odd feature of its design, but so also was the engine. This was extremely primitive in conception, and as it relied entirely on splash lubrication from the rotation of the flywheel, it was most unwise to indulge in prolonged bursts of speed. A single nut and bolt retained the steering wheel to its column and after the bolt had fallen out while I was negotiating a sharp bend round a cemetery wall, I sold the remains of the car quite cheaply.
I suppose the excellent road-holding qualities of the Amilcar must have endeared me to the marque: or perhaps it was the slick salesman who described the Grand Sport as the “Poor man’s Bugatti.” Anyway, 1929 saw me with a 1927 Surbaisse with a smart, two-seater door-less body by C. H. Duval. The car had covered seventeen thousand miles, and as soon as I had taken delivery, all the usual Amilcar traits began to manifest themselves. The Ducillier dynamo needed constant attention to keep it charging, and one day whilst ascending Loudwater Hill near High Wycombe there was a piercing screech and the engine stopped dead. Carefully removing the timing chest cover resulted in a cascade of engine oil and pinion teeth. Every cog was wrecked. This might not have been calamitous had there been a new set to be had outside France. Eventually, the E.N.V. Engineering Co. came to the rescue; their Continental representative obtained a set from St. Denys. With the gears came a letter from Messrs. Amilcar stating that the failure was regretfully caused by an alloy idler which had been fitted to some cars for experimental purpose. Attached to the letter was a staggering bill to show that I had paid dearly for the experiment.
Any interference with the timing cover of an Amilcar means that the owner must sooner or later suffer. With a hammer and chisel he has welted the brass vernier magneto coupling off its shaft. Whether he has gently tapped or clouted it in the right direction or the wrong makes no difference, for he has destroyed a very fine screw thread for which no tap exists in the country. The recognised remedy is to rethread the shaft to a recognised size and braze a standard nut on to the coupling.
Before laying the ghost of PH 2920 I must mention the subject of loose flywheels, a fault which beset many Amilcar owners. On all Grand Sport and Surbaisse models the flywheels were a keyless taper fit to the crankshafts. The thin locking nut, invariably damaged on removal, could not be tightened up on assembly by anybody not having the proper spanner, which was rarely in possession of anyone other than the concessionaires. Creep soon rendered the taper faces useless, and thereafter no amount of lapping or grinding was of any avail. It is well known that when vehicles were returned to the concessionaires as a last resort, the trouble was often overcome by judiciously welding the crankshaft and flywheel together.
Many mundane vehicles later, I saw in an old coach-house a curious little three-wheeler known as a D’Yrsan. Its advanced specification included a tubular frame and front transverse suspension. A French Ruby engine drove a gearbox giving three forward speeds and reverse. I believe three models were marketed by the D’Yrsan Company. There was a tourer with a fabric body looking very similar to the three-wheeled B.S.A. which had acquired the unenviable reputation of being very easy to turn over. There was a sports model which was very rare, and rarer still was a record-breaking replica with a most beautiful, sleek, streamlined body of mottled alloy that proudly graced the concessionaires’ Newman Street window. My D’Yrsan was a “special” which somebody had underslung and had fitted with an overhead-valve Ruby in place of the side-valve unit. They had also imparted it with a body of pleasing appearance that looked as though it had been modelled on the lines of the 1 1/2-litre Grand Prix Delage of the Robert Benoist/Louis Wagner period. But as I had turned my attention to a 14/40 Sunbeam the D’Yrsan was neglected and it remained in a shed for many years until I gave it away.
The Sunbeam was something of a mystery. It had belonged to the Chief Draughtsman of Messrs. Bentley Motors, and consequently had been greatly modified. The engine had received attention and had been given Martlet pistons, a higher compression ratio and two S.U. carburetters in place of the single Claudel Hobson originally fitted. The coachwork, an original Sunbeam body of the type known as the “Sports Tourer,” had been enhanced by a pair of long, sloping 3-litre Bentley front wings.
These modifications to the engine, and the careful tuning that it had undoubtedly received, made the Sunbeam the most delightful car to drive. The mystery lies in the fact that when I went to Messrs. Sunbeam a few years later in quest of spare parts I was informed that the parts I required were not available as my car was one of a very few that had been built as a team of trials cars, and that these cars had been classified by the works as 14/52s.
In 1949 I was fortunate enough to unearth another of these so-called 54/52 cars (XU 2573). The prefix to the engine number is “D”. Some day perhaps when I have been able to find a pair of front brake drums for it, some knowledgeable pundit of the V.S.C.C. might be able to identify it, and tell me more.
Meanwhile, back to past history, and to the extraordinary Redwing Riley with an 11.9 side-valve engine and a most beautiful, scarlet monoposto body, bought from a dealer in a sordid Paddington back street. The Alfa Romeoesque coachwork was both a masterpiece of art and execution, but unfortunately the low lines of the car had been achieved by mounting the radiator half-way between the dumb-irons. The driver therefore sat teed up on top of the chassis members hardly able to get his legs beneath the dashboard, and quite unable to view the instruments.
The Redwing was not very fast and could easily be passed by the little Ford Eight which had just come into production, and as a buttress against the jeers of the occupants of these cars, it was necessary to adopt a nonchalant “Of course it’s much too fast for the road” attitude with the steering wheel held limply between two fingers and a heavy right boot buckling the plywood floorboard.
A pair of enthusiasts down Rochester way bought the Riley, and when I received a letter from them asking me for the history of the car, I was able to tell them that it had been made when off his beat by a London policeman.
Then came a funny little short and narrow chassis 3-litre Invicta. Reputed to have been specially made for his wife to the order of a Spanish Grandee, it had a high but very attractive saloon body with silver-plated fittings, silken blinds and scarlet upholstery. It was in beautiful chauffeur-kept condition, but the twin carburetter overhead-valve Meadows engine lapped up oil as a starving cat laps up milk.
Late one night on the way back from Oxford to London a stupid clot shot out backwards in his Morris from the drive of his villa. How he missed death I do not know, but I just missed him, hit the kerb, righted the car and hit the kerb on the opposite side of the road before I saw the dashboard turning upside down. The Invicta slithered down the road with its wheels pointing at the moon. The fabric Weymann body burst open and from corresponding hedges on either side of the road, my wife and I staggered out… entirely unhurt. There was little left of the Invicta. The steering wheel had been flattened; even the radiator cap had been pushed into the header tank. However, even the car lived again for it was painstakingly restored by an enthusiast who fitted it with quite a respectable four-seater body and in this guise it was to be seen amongst the spectator’s cars at almost every race meeting, although I never met the owner.
The day after this unfortunate incident I bought what was destined to be the first of a number of M.G.s. This was a 1927 14/40. Many people are under the impression that these early M.G.s were merely standard Morris Oxford chassis which had been endowed with sporting coachwork. Certainly, the engines were Hotchkiss in appearance, but they all seemed to deliver more of “the goods” than those fitted in production Morris cars. One school of thought attributed this to chance, and held the theory that they were in fact standard units, but because they had shown a superior dynamometer reading, they had been put aside and singled out for M.G.s. Be this as it may, 14/40 M.G.s were a very real sports car in every sense of the word, and combined a very fair performance with utter reliability.
Having grown accustomed to interchanging 14/40 parts with Morris Oxford components, I was rather surprised to find that an 18/80 engine was by no means the same as a 1932 Isis. I made this discovery after a friend had wrapped my open four-seater round a Bond Street lamp-post, bursting open the radiator, bending the chassis and cracking the cylinder block. To my chagrin and dismay, an Isis engine which I had purchased for no small price, would not fit into the chassis after this had been uncoiled.
In my opinion, the 18/80 was one of the most handsome production cars of the post-Vintage period, even though the closed versions were inclined to look a bit massive and heavy, an illusion that was heightened by the fact that they were invariably painted black.
The Rover Sixteen of 1929 could never be classified as being in the range of popular cars. It was a bit too expensive to buy and to run… even at a time when commercial petrol was tenpence a gallon. But my Meteor will always remain memorable for being an absolute joy to drive. The steering box was placed high up on the scuttle, enabling the steering column to be horizontal, which put the wheel in just the right position for comfort. The brakes were excellent, and the road-holding superb. The engine, like all large Rovers, was almost fantastic. As silent as the grave, it was so beautifully balanced that it gave one the impression of being in command of a powerful turbine.
No Vintage narrative would be complete without mentioning the ubiquitous Austin Seven, and of the several that have punctuated the roll of “cars I have owned,” the old Ruby saloon that I bought for a song when the blackout started and petrol rationing sent prices tumbling to rock bottom, will never be forgotten.
Memories of this little car are those of January 1940, a month which came in with arctic weather and heavy snow. Ten days’ leave from Mill Hill R.A.O.C. Workshops were spent in moving house from South London to St. Albans, and most of the ten days it seemed were devoted to running alongside the car which was loaded down to the springs with baggage and carried a huge balloon of household impedimenta tied to the roof with string. Between us, my wife and I dug it out of snowdrifts and coerced it up hills by pushing it while the engine whined away in first gear.
My arrival in India in 1942 coincided with the fall of Singapore and a consequent chronic shortage of military vehicles. As a temporary measure the authorities decided to purchase from civilian sources sufficient vehicles to tide over the crisis. Needless to say all new and good secondhand cars had long ago been commandeered and now all that were left were the dregs. Having been adjudged to be suitable for vetting, I imagine merely because I was hanging about in Bombay waiting for something to turn up, I was posted to the appointed place to await results. They were not long in coming.
Early the following morning the venue was an unforgettable sight. Dreams of avarice had sprouted a veritable forest of ancient and decrepit old conveyances which stretched beneath a heavy pall of acrid smoke as far as the eye could see. The shouting resembled an angry rookery to the background of a loud cacophony of pistons striking worn cylinders and the rumble of big-end bearings. Broken-hacked old horses had towed vehicles that “required slight attention” and several tyres had gone flat due to the copper rivets that held patches to the outer covers, having penetrated the inner tubes. Incidentally, riveting patches to outer covers is considered to be good bazaar practice, and it is not unusual for a complete tread from a tyre which happens to be too large, to be riveted to a worn cover of the required size. And in the midst of this circus of venerable Hupmobiles, Buicks, Maxwells, Overlands and Reos, stood—like a tarnished jewel—a Brescia Bugatti.
It was a very early model with an open seater body, now occupied by no less than six persons and four children, seated on every conceivable portion of the car including the bonnet. The fact that it not only went, but also sounded reasonably good, is sufficient to confound many critics who couple the name of the car with many adjectives denoting unreliability. I have always maintained that the only reason for a Bugatti being unreliable and prone to explode is because itching fingers cannot resist trying to tune it while totally disregarding all instructions issued by Molsheim. This view is borne out by a friend of mine who was “something quite big in the City.”
One night whilst walking along Great Portland Street after a very good and expensive dinner at Quaglino’s, his attention was attracted by a lighted showroom window, in which stood a very smart little runabout, painted pale blue. A few days later he scandalised his friends and associates by sedately arriving at his office in a straight-eight Grand Prix Bugatti complete with blower. His knowledge of cars was very strictly limited to driving them: he neither knew nor wanted to know anything about the “insides.” That Bugatti, maintained exclusively by Bugatti at Brixton, never objected to being driven through traffic. It never oiled up its plugs, and it lasted for several years… or did they surreptitiously change the engine?
With the ending of the War, many warriors whose existence in foxholes, bashas, and desert sand had been made tolerable by dreams of open roads lined with public houses that they were going to visit while driving the fast, sleek, sports car that their gratuity would provide, found themselves bitterly disillusioned. So did I when I discovered that it would take much more than all the gold I possessed in the World to buy back the KD M.G. that I had sold my corporal for £7 10s. on the night before my embarkation. All I could afford was a 1932 Austin Seven which I found lying in a barn with a broken half-shaft.
In this little car I travelled thousands of miles on behalf of my employer, and for it I have nothing but praise. One of these journeys was sufficiently singular to recount, for I believe it to be as strange as the article by Mr. William Boddy, published some time ago in the Veteran and Vintage Magazine, in which he conjectures on the existence of a “phantom garage” said to have been situated in the heart of Mayfair prior to the First World War.
On this occasion I had arrived somewhere near Berkeley in Gloucestershire, at the fall of a November night. As a thick fog rolled down from the Cotswold Hills, visibility was soon reduced to zero, and I decided to put up at an inn for the night. Whilst imbibing mulled ale at the bar I was approached by the only other customer, a very old gentleman of beatnik appearance whose long white hair, lay in folds around his collar. While I was extolling the virtues of my old Seven, he cut me short with “I have a hundred cars at home as old, and very much older than yours.” Perhaps my incredulity annoyed him, for he thereupon offered to prove it. The following morning, we repaired together to a large, rambling old mansion surrounded by acres of overgrown grass, and gone to seed apple trees. Through the mist, I saw to my unmitigated surprise that beneath each tree was the remains of a car. This was no breaker’s yard, for the cars were all of the most desirable and exotic types. Radiators of Rolls-Royces, Hispano Suizas, Minervas, Humbers, De Dions and Bentleys protruded from the undergrowth like large, green verdigris tombstones. Many of the cars were as old as the dawn of motoring. After curtly informing me that all the cars were “new” at least when they arrived at their last resting places, the old gentleman gave me to understand that my presence was no longer desirable, and that nothing whatsoever was for sale.
Perhaps somebody living in the vicinity can throw some light on the mystery. For my part, I can only conclude that the old recluse hated motor cars and hoped to delay their emancipation by purchasing as many as possible, or that his only enjoyment lay in the thrill of buying them and driving them away from the showroom. Perhaps, too, he might have been so meticulous and exacting that no vehicle satisfied his requirements. Who knows? [I, too, have seen this graveyard, from which, alas, the cars have since been dispersed.—Ed.]
All I know is that my 1939 12/70 Alvis amply satisfies my requirements in this day and age of rat-racing, when driving is a nightmare of weaving one’s way through an army of clots and old tradesmen’s vans, all intent upon a breakneck effort to get to the coast.
Meanwhile, if I ever have any spare time before old age paralyses the hand that holds the spanner, my private museum will consist of the Sunbeam and my little Berlinetta Aerodinamica Fiat.