Veteran-Edwardian-vintage, December 1963

A section devoted to old-car matters

The 67th London-Brighton Veteran Car Run, (Nov. 3rd)—or a Disappointing Day with a Decauville

Once again I was able to drive in that unique event, the R.A.C. London to Brighton Commemoration Run, through the generosity of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and the co-operation of the Midland Motor Museum at Measham.

For the 1963 Run I was lent an 1898 3 1/2-h.p. Decauville Voiturelle, formerly owned by Major H Fairhurst, recently redated a year earlier than the original estimate, valued at £1,250, and to be seen in the Midland Motor Museum, whose property it now is.

The Société Decauville, locomotive builders, turned to horseless-carriage manufacture in the very year this interesting vehicle saw the light of day, or, some authorities have it, in the previous year. It was made at Petit-Bourg, as the inscription on its brass hub caps suggests, and compared with such “primitives” as the Benz Ideal, Leon Boleé tricycle, Hurtu and Star of the same period, is a commendably advanced piece of engineering.

This particular Decauville Voiturelle had been sold to the Wills family and was carefully used, until Major Fairhurst bought it, as the third owner. He made very good use of the car in V.C.C. rallies and many Brighton Runs, preparation being in the hands of Mr. Leech of Norman Reeves of High Wycombe, before disposing of it to the Museum at Measham.

I was glad to have the opportunity of driving this Decauville, because, advanced as the conception was in 1898, it is still one of the genuine veterans, more difficult to master and certainly far more temperamental than the 1903 De Dion Bouton, 1903 Humberette and 1904 Brushmobile that Lord Montagu had kindly arranged for me to drive in recent Brighton Runs.

The Société Decauville did two very commendable things when they set about building their first automobiles. First ot all, they made use of the high-speed de Dion engine at a time when many manufacturers were wedded to the “turf-turf” form of power unit that was scarcely different from a stationary gas-engine. Secondly, they pioneered unit construction at engine, gearbox and final drive. Having decided on the de Dion engine, these French engineers insisted on having two cylinders. So they made their own crankcase and mounted thereon two 66 x 70 mm. de Dion air-cooled tricycle-engine cylinders, of the kind which have both automatic inlet valve and mechanically-opened exhaust valve in a pocket beside the cylinder, whereas later de Dion Bouton engines had the suction-actuated inlet valve in the head. The result was a 479-cc. power unit capable of the then very high crankshaft speed of 1,200 r.p.m. A substantial flywheel rather reminiscent of that on a Douglas, only thicker, was fitted at the back.

Having produced this fast and throaty engine, Decauville proceeded to place it under the seat, where very little cooling air reaches it, and with no fan to assist in stirring any breezes that do reach the cylinders. The only saving grace is that the riser of the seat possesses wickerwork apertures and that in its passage the unburnt mixture has to pass over the exhaust valves.

So far as the unit construction is concerned, excellent as this is, the constructors felt that, having contrived this, they had done sufficient, and the gears of the 2-speed transmission and the final-drive crown-wheel and pinion are as naked as the day they were machined! Lubricating them is a task for the oil-can, although Mr. Leech improved on this somewhat by taking pipes from the breathers to spray a little oil mist onto the gears, when he was servicing the car for Major Fairhurst. Not only is this unit construction of tiny vertical-twin engine, cone clutch, 2-speed exposed gears and exposed, straight-tooth final-drive crude, but to accommodate it no rear springs are used! In fact, the ride is comfortable enough without them.

The frame is tubular, and a very significant item is the use of sliding pillar i.f.s., the sliding steering pivots damped by a quite flexible transverse leaf-spring.

Steering is by a cross-tiller on a vertical column, with a grip for the driver’s right hand, and he sits on the off-side.

Carburation is by a surface carburetter consisting of two large brass tanks slung each side of the engine. That on the near-side is the tank proper, filled through a ridiculously small filler accessible on removing the seat cushion. The feed goes by gravity to the carburation tank on the other side, the flow controlled nowadays by an adapted Ford float. The exhaust pipe passes through this off-side tank to warm the petrol, and an air valve, controlled by a lever working in a big quadrant on the side of the body, is the main means of controlling the mixture and thus the engine speed. Two tiny brass levers under the driver’s legs on the seat riser look after ignition setting and throttle opening, and there is a sliding ignition switch, with locking screw, on the tiller arm.

Ignition is by a trembler-coil and 6-volt battery carried under the rearward-hinging front seat. Two pedals, entirely devoid of foot-plates, rise innocently from the floor, for clutch and brake actuation, and a rather inaccessible push-on hand-brake lever is found on the right, close to the seat. One set of brakes works on the transmission; the foot-brake operates strips that close onto very small, exposed drums on the back axle. This axle, incidentally, revolves in four bearings which call for further attention with the oil-can every 30 miles or so, bicycle-fashion.

The most prominent control of all is the gear-lever, an agricultural affair rising from the centre of the floor and moving from low speed, through neutral, to top speed over a notched quadrant; so that a ratchet has to be operated to free the lever.

Under the circumstances I felt that I had better become early acquainted with the Decauville. Unfortunately the problems of transport from Measham to High Wycombe, where Mr. Leech was to look it over, a disaster with the car’s own, yellow-hued trailer, and torrential rain, combined to defeat my object, and by 8 a.m. on November 3rd, as I was given starting orders along with Sammy Davis’ 1897 Leon Boileé and other primitives in Hyde Park, I had driven the car a few feet in Norman Reeves’ workshop and a few yards in the vicinity of the Albert Hall.

Consequently, I didn’t feel at all confident that I and my passenger, a Hants and Dorset coach-driver whose reward this was for having conveyed the greatest number of passengers to Beaulieu during the summer(!), would see the seaside that day. An ill-omen seemed to be contained in my unshaven face, the result of over-sleeping in a fashionable South Kensington hotel that had omitted to call several of the Brighton Run personnel, who make a habit of using its much-advertised facilities. Dressing with ten minutes to spare and gulping down one’s breakfast are not the best introduction to driving a strange, temperamental 64-year-old car on crowded Sunday roads. But stay, I shall be accused of making excuses….

At all events, the engine, which must develop all of 3 h.p. when performing properly, started easily when I wound furiously on the almost-upright, chest-level, starting wheel, which rotates the crankshaft through the medium of a free-wheel, and the early morning air was rent by a crackle of exhaust quite surprisingly lusty for so small and ancient an engine. Moreover, our pleasingly-patterned 28 x 3 Goodyear tyres were fully inflated, the bulb-horn worked and the clutch engagement proved to be unexpectedly light and progressive. The brakes?—well, adequate, if you steered for gaps as you applied them, although the hand lever has no ratchet.

Indeed, we were more fortunate than Count Lucio Labia, who had hoped to drive his enormously impressive 24-h.p. De Dietrich in the Run, a vast car, quite as exciting as most Edwardians, and as large, whether you are regarding its massive cylinder blocks or its vast tonneau body with towering cape cart hood over the rear compartment. Alas, this car, one of two the Count’s father abandoned in a London warehouse when he left England for South Africa before the First World War, since located and restored, was last seen exploding into the distance, Bob Warne at the wheel—and was a non-starter, due to coils that were reluctant to emulate onlookers in close proximity to the great machine, and tremble. However, from the same garage, Lord Montagu and Lady Montagu, driving, respectively, the Midland Museum’s 1901 Dürkopp and the Montagu Museum’s 1903 model-Q De Dion Bouton which I had such a good run last year, departed, to complete the journey successfully.

As for ourselves, the first few miles were fine. The Decauville took top speed, the exhaust bark dropped to a splendid “phutter-phutter,” and I estimated we were howling along at some 20 m,p.h., the tiller-steering not particularly difficult. Leaving the Park to pass Big Ben I put bottom speed in too casually and stalled the engine, but it restarted easily. We had a bit of a ding-dong with E. P. Sharman. alone on his fearsome 1897 Leon Bolleé, a voiturette the allegedly copyright type-name of which caused Decauville to term our car a voiturelle, and for a time kept station behind Rockcliffe and Johnson’s 1898 Benz dog-cart. But before long the mixture began to play up, a hold-up at the Kennington traffic lights (where the police stood looking on, apparently not allowed to wave us over against the red this year, although farther along the route they did this, extending all their customary, much appreciated, good-humoured help) got the engine pretty hot, and although we got up Brixton Hill, we never thereafter regained any speed.

It was a case of getting along at a pace which enabled youthful cyclists to pass us with ease, shouting “Get a bike” and similar biased bits of philosophy, before passing rapidly out of sight. I stalled the engine again, before learning to ease the clutch in, and now top speed was out of the question for more than a few yards, so it was fortunate that I had discovered how to get the low speed in quietly. The engine seizures became more frequent. We got down, increased the oil drips, lubricated the pinion and exhaust-valve stems, drove into a garage at Thornton Heath to top up the carburetter tank, into another one near Redhill to drain off the old fuel and refill both tanks with fresh spirit. “This has done it,” I thought, for whereas before the engine wouldn’t accept any air, now the air-control could be pushed right forward. But not tor long. Soon we were seizing up at frequent intervals, again, and although more Castrol was put into the oil tank, a check made that the lubricant was flowing and the main drip-feed opened right up, it was of no avail. Cars with numbers in the 200s were coming past, so we were very late, and when an 1896 Lutzmann overtook us easily I knew we should never get in by the zero hour of 4 p.m.

Early on I had merely thought the road from Streatham onwards must climb imperceptibly and that after Purley we should encounter some downhill going, get top, cool off, and might just average the required minimum 7 m.p.h. Now I knew we never would get any speed and would certainly never climb those fearsome gradients beyond Crawley, which seem never-ending and cruelly steep to drivers of cars built before the turn of the century. The traffic was by now impossibly thick, and although the police and modern drivers alike gave us every help, the engine, recovering somewhat alter the enforced pauses, never had a chance to keep cool. It seemed wrong to go on driving a piece of machinery in this condition and when the Decauville refused to climb as far as the Redhill traffic lights and, exploring every avenue, I checked the trembler coil and found it had ceased to feed both plugs, I had to accept defeat, remove the clothing that gives me a strong resemblance to Mon. Bibendum, get my passenger a lift, put the car in the garage and call it a day.

At the time I felt that a museum was the best place for this particular veteran. But this is unfair, for the design was ahead of its time, and it wasn’t this model, but the 1902 Deceauville, that caused Sir Henry Royce so much trouble that he set about evolving the best car in the World. . . .

It could have been much worse. We might have broken something. We could well have been drenched to the skin as well as disappointed. And British Railways, a London taxi and a Cortina GT contrived to have me home half-an-hour before the last veteran was due at the Madeira Drive, and long before my wife returned from Lord Montagu’s cocktail party at Brighton Motor Museum and the generous hospitality laid on by National Benzole. I hope next year I may be given another chance of trying to master the Decauville or some other “early primitive.”—W. B.

Those who fell by the wayside: W. Boddy (1898 Decauville), N. H. Mann (1899 Daimler), F. G. Smith (1900 De Dion Bouton), G. Sanders (1900 New Orleans), A. W. Emson (1900 Pieper), J. A. Wilson (1900 Pieper), J. S. Corry (1902 Benz), E. Jarvis (1903 Dr Dion Bouton), H. Barnard (1903 Oldsmobile, S. J. Mitchell (1903 Phoenix-Trimo), J. Leppard (1903 Tony Huber), D. R. Heyworth (1903 Wolseley), D. G. Blackford (1903 White steamer), M. Beaumont (1904 Imperial), D. N. Parkinson (1904 Peugeot) and A. E. Redsell (1904 Wolseley).

There were 244 entries, De Dion Bouton predominating, 219 starters, 203 finishers.