[A look at how Californian enthusiasts motored, by Rex Hardy, now resident in this country and still enjoying good cars and light aeroplanes—Ed.]
Like an ageing bon-vivant relishing his memories of Ziegfield’s Follies and the girls who came after, I have lately, from the half-century vantage point, been reminiscing about the cars I have known and admired down the years. A recent long-deferred effort at sorting boxes of old family photographs has inspired me to set down some of my recollections which may be of interest to others of nostalgic taste.
The first “auto” (as we called cars in my youth) I can recall clearly was a Cadillac tourer owned by my father in the early nineteen twenties; what I most vividly recall was a vacation trip to Palm Springs, in the California desert, and my father’s boast that we were travelling at more than a mile a minute! Father, a lawyer, never in his life understood the difference between a hub-cap and a valve-cap, but he had a rather racy (and sneaking) taste in cars and he was very proud of that Cadillac which, unlike most of its drab brethren of the day, was painted in a colour described by him as “Café au lait“. Another holiday trip took the Cadillac and the family over the 10,000-foot-high Tioga Pass, crossing the High Sierra into Yosemite Valley—the road then unpaved and still with the tight switchbacks familiar to the pioneers and gold prospectors of the region. Other examples of my father’s out-of-character enthusiasm come to mind: an elegant Marmon coupé, a Paige landau, an early Chrysler cabriolet, which was reputed to be very fast and which emitted an appropriate noise, and, in the mid-thirties, a really sporting Auburn straight-eight four-door convertible.
This one I used to drive during University holidays and its recollection comes back clearly. It was finished in the then-new metallic lacquer, bright blue, and it had a dual-ratio rear axle which provided, in effect, six forward speeds. This strange arrangement was accompanied by a free-wheeling provision operated by pressing a large button in the gear-change knob. That Auburn was technically interesting in other ways, too. There was a control on the dash for varying damper firmness and when a lever on the floor was raised the silencer was by-passed, with thrillingly audible consequences. Toward the end of his life father ran a 3.2 Jaguar, with which he was secretly quite pleased but over whose expensive ailments he constantly complained and about which he once wrote a vigorous letter to Sir William Lyons with almost instant results from the chastened American dealer.
In addition to the cars of my immediate family, memory brings a succession of machines belonging to my grandparents. Grandmother, having received a fright on her first horseless-carriage outing at the turn of the century, vowed never again to board one of the noisy things; never, to her death in 1949, did she make any attempt to learn to drive, but she did recover from her fright sufficiently, after World War I, to purchase a Cadillac limousine—dark olive-green like those that followed at ten-year intervals—and in these imposing barouches she passed many a happy hour. I myself spent an agreeable summer, during school vacation, filling the gap left by the departure of Clarence, her improbably-named chauffeur, who had resigned from his good job to become a strong-man in a circus. Clarence was succeeded, when I returned to my books, by a Filipino even more improbably named “Jesus”, which he pronounced “Haysoos”. Grandmother thought this name in some vague way blasphemous and insisted on referring to the fellow by his surname which was, I think, Amado. Jesus, if grandmother’s ghost will forgive me, was excellent at cooking, which is more than can be said of his driving, and on cook’s nights out always came in from his apartment in the garage to take over the kitchen—an arrangement not, thankfully, reciprocal. He somehow got into debt and left abruptly one day, never to be heard from again.
My grandfather, undaunted by the Twentieth Century, drove himself, and I remember a succession of large tourers, including a Hudson, a Chalmers, and his last one, a Studebaker President of really classic good looks with the enormous headlamps and long graceful wing-line of the period. Grandmother wisely preferred to avoid travel in any vehicle conducted by her husband—a sensible precaution since at least once annually the poor man was involved in a coming-together with another car. “Damn fool,” he would mutter, “drove right into me.” How this could be we never understood clearly because the damage to grandfather’s car was invariably confined to the prow. Insurers and licensing authorities ultimately conspired to ground him late in life (but luckily before any fatalities).
My boyhood in the ‘twenties was illumined by the various cars of the times and I and my colleagues spent many an idle kerbstone-sitting hour identifying the passing makes by their wheels, distinctive radiator shapes and the like. I learned to drive late in the decade in a Jewett (a repellent car) owned by my Mother (even in those far-off days the two-car family was the rule in California), and an indulgent Papa bought me a new Model-A Ford roadster for my 14th birthday—oh, happy, happy day! That event, in 1929, coincided of course, with my qualifying for my first driver’s licence. The age limit has, mercifully, been since advanced but when I was 14 we all had more sense than modern youth—didn’t we? Two months later the stock market collapsed, to ring in the great depression, and I don’t remember owning another new car for the next 20 years.
That bright green Model-A was, I suppose, the real beginning of my love affair with the automobile. Many of my friends owned similar cars and our hours after school and on weekends were filled with modifying and with what we called “hopping-up”. Any driver who chose to leave his car in any condition resembling the original was regarded with contempt and the changes we rang on Dearborn’s specification were many and horrible. Lowering of springs, seats and steering were easy; installation of a fuel tank in the rear (the Model-A, remember, carried its fuel over the dash) offered a more severe problem. Exhausts came in for many a trick; we tried straight through pipes, flexible tubing, echo chambers and many another. The very early Model-As used fuel tank caps and radiator caps of identical appearance and we thought it most amusing to exchange the two on unsuspecting friends’ cars. The cap for the radiator had no vent hole—the other did—and locomotion ceased soon after the switch. A few minutes’ work and two or three dollars to the local machine shop sufficed to mill a few thou. from the cylinder head, giving, we confidently believed, more horse-power, and almost certainly pre-ignition and dire consequences on the 17 cents-per gallon fuel then available. Downdraught carburetters were in vogue for those who could afford them and those days saw the commencement of drag racing, albeit in a most informal style. It was our custom to race up and down on the deserted suburban streets at night and on weekends to trek out to the now-famous dry lakes in the desert, to see how fast we could make these roadsters motor. There is a kindly providence….
In the much simpler world of 1930 there were large, expensive cars and there were smaller, cheap cars and everybody knew which were which; in the latter class were the Fords, Chevrolets and Plymouths. After the great depression many of us reverted to the Model-T Ford which had been the mainstay of the prior generation. They were fun to drive, uncomfortable, unreliable and cheap (I bought a 1914 model in 1934 for $15.00 and a year later sold it for $20.00 and thought I was a pretty shrewd trader; $2,000.00 might get you a similar model today). By the time I reached University Model-As could be had for $50.00 to $100.00 and I went through a succession of these. The summer of 1935 saw me borrowing my mother’s car, a Ford V8 then, for a trip of 6,000 miles from California to New York and return. This expedition, as well as I can remember, went off without a hitch, although looking back to those days of antiquity it is hard to imagine how this could be.
It was during those days, too, that I realised that aeroplanes, the province of fictional heroes, might be flown for relatively modest sums and that time spent in this pursuit was considerably more enjoyable than the study of, say, the history of Latin America in the 18th-century. Good thing, too, because a few short years later those open biplanes had become four-engine bombers and I was flying them in the neighbourhood of people who were shooting at me! Until 1946 my only cars were occasional cheap hacks purchased to get me around during periods of home leave from overseas. With peace came a flying job but, at first, no new cars; production was slow to get under way and influence was required to procure anything driveable. The first car I could come by was one of the new Studebakers with the exciting Raymond Loewy styling which was to be so much copied, and this took care of driving needs for a year or two, although without much excitement.
Suddenly, though, everything changed. The MG TC came to USA! During our earlier driving years most of us had never seen a foreign car but we now learned that other countries built them, too. I had, in fact, enjoyed an advantage over most American boys in having grown up in Southern California where, on occasion, one might spy a film star driving disdainfully down the boulevard in such exotica as Hispano-Suiza or Bugatti (I can recall Richard Barthelmess in a crocodile-hide covered SS Mercedes), and the Rolls-Royce legend was well known. Nevertheless, such marvellous creations were so far beyond our normal experience that we never gave a thought to possible ownership.
So I tried, in a rationalised excuse at being practical, a Hillman Minx, enjoyed because of its differences from the local products and because of its evident high-quality construction by comparison with the American cars. Our own were, in this period, reaching for bottom in such matters as handling characteristics, decorative taste, and care in assembly and the imported cars appealed for their unique and interesting behaviour of a sort not found in the Detroit machines— and for their glamorous appearance. A bit more fun for me came from a much-tinkered-up Singer 9 which had to go when, in 1952, a few Morgan Plus 4s were brought into California. Mine, light yellow with black wings, was a very satisfying car and brought much of the fun I remembered pre-war. Out came the tools once more, put away with boyhood, and soon came the games. We started hillclimbs, races and rallies and while we had not much knowledge of what we were doing, we had marvellous times. We learned a lot from Ken Miles, who had come over from England to see to MG service, and from Huschke von Hanstein, who brought the first Porsche Spyder we had seen to a hill-climb in the Mojave Desert.
It was during the Morgan’s tenure that I saw my first Aston Martin. What I saw was a DB2 at a Concours d’Elegance in which I was proudly exhibiting my Morgan and the same week, in a garage, I encountered a pre-war International driven by a supercilious tweedy gent who condescended to answer a few questions. “Easy hundred per, Old Boy,” he said, in what I have since learned was excess of enthusiasm—or National pride. All the same, desire was born, which burned ever brighter for five years or so during which I tried to forget with a succession of diversions that included a Triumph TR3—fun, but not quite a thoroughbred, a Mk V Jaguar—elegant, but unhandy and expensive to keep running, an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint—truly delightful but not yet an Aston Martin. Each of these cars took me to work and home again and did their bit in the occasional rally, club race or hill-climb but the inevitable finally came about and I found a DB2/4 that I told myself I could afford. It was in very fine condition and brought a pride of ownership and pleasure in driving that I hadn’t known since that first Model-A. In concours the car brought admiration, in Autocross it whipped the Jags and Corvettes, in all-night rallies it was comfortable and, best of all, it brought me into active contact with Dudley Coram and Aston Martin OC friends in Britain.
Nineteen-fifty-nine brought the American International Rally, intended to be our answer to the Monte, etc., and my opportunity to compete—as it turned out, almost the only private entrant—in what I fondly regarded as International Motoring Sport. The 3,000 miles and four days spent on this exercise provided some of the happiest of my motoring memories. The Aston and I, with a brave co-driver, managed a penalty-free series of runs from California across Nevada and into Idaho, over the Rocky Mountains to Colorado and Kansas, west again to Santa Fe, New Mexico, until trouble befell us on the final night. Troubles would be truer: first our Halda packed up; next we lost the route; then, having regained it, we foolishly refuelled at an Indian trading post in the Painted Desert—with what subsequently turned out to be low-octane petrol. During the final run into Las Vegas (required average speed 63 m.p.h.) detonation and over-heating put an end to our competitive effort and after limping several hundred miles back to San Francisco the Aston required an expensive engine rebuild. So ended my go at International Sport and so also ended the American International Rally, which proved so costly to the organisers that nobody has dared to promote one since.
That excellent car, however, did its daily job with great style and performance and did the now-and-then rally, too. Dining this period of driving England’s best, useful home transport was provided by a Ford V8 station wagon which gave us our first experience of automatic shifting and a good five years’ use before being replaced, as an experiment, by a VW ‘bus, The experiment soon ended because, while reliable, the VW was simply too slow for California highway driving. A Borgward Isabella Kombi followed (satisfactory but unexciting) and then a 2.4 Jaguar. Two years, two valve grinds and hundreds of dollars later this passed on in favour of a Mercedes 220—an altogether satisfactory, reliable and enjoyable car which looked and behaved as well after five years as it did at the beginning. Next came an Oldsmobile station wagon, to fit a growing family. Friends laughed at this concession to modern life but with optional heavy-duty suspension, quick steering (power, naturally), improved automatic shift and air conditioning, this car provided, in the California context, a high standard of family motoring.
Meanwhile, back to fun and games: Exposure to AMOC publications and the memory of that International Aston Martin—now ten years back in history—conspired to cause me to sell the DB and to convert the proceeds to a European trip and a pre-war Aston. With the kind aid of Ray Stokes, Hon. Sec. of AMOC in London, a suitable 1935 Mk. II was located and seemed to me the absolute epitome of the sporting car. True, we had magneto trouble on our first outing —a pilgrimage to Aston Clinton—and we were forced to abandon ship in Brighton in favour of British Rail because the gearbox suddenly refused to provide anything but reverse. But the car did give us a most pleasant way of exploring the English countryside. The Mk. II was left in the hands of a London specialist for a chassis rebuild and general tidying, with an estimate given of three or four weeks for the job. An anxious year later—spent successively in a beat-out Morris Minor and a somewhat weary but still enjoyable Porsche 356—our lovely Mk. II arrived in San Francisco. Uncrated and on the road it lasted only ten miles when a valve head broke off, which broke up a piston, which broke off bits of cylinder liner, which put a hole in the block. Oh, woe! Since the engine must then of necessity come out, it seemed best to do the entire job properly and not so long afterwards the reward came with a Best-of-Show award at a big Concours d’Elegance. Not only was the car a beauty contest winner but this handsome example of a true thoroughbred was to carry me back and forth to work for a couple of years and was to provide some memorable touring up and down the California coast and over the Sierra Nevada range, with no problem more severe than an occasional water-pump aberration, easily put right at home.
This car is still driven daily by my friend Dr. Bob Mills, but is his only because I was offered an opportunity to purchase LM20, one of Bertelli’s Aston Martin team-cars of 1935. No Aston enthusiast could pass this up and the Ulster soon arrived from its home in Australia in superior condition, mechanically and cosmetically. LM20 had run twice at Le Mans, gaining a third and a fifth place overall, two class wins, once finishing first among all British cars, and set a 1 1/2-litre record that was to last for 15 years—not to mention winning the Rudge Cup. Thirty years later it was still doing fine—and this one would do the “hundred per”. I had the prideful pleasure of taking a prize with it at the very prestigious Pebble Beach Concours and later in the same month winning trophy in the Martini Hill-climb at Virginia City, during the course of which, in my excitement, I took the revs several hundred over the permitted 5,200 with no apparent ill-effects.
After more than 25,000 delightful miles in these two cherished old cars, age (mine—not the car’s) and time-consuming responsibilities suggested more modem everyday transport and I reluctantly passed the Ulster on to another lucky enthusiast and placed an order for the new Porsche 911. This car must certainly rank with the best of grand touring automobiles; we picked ours up at the Stuttgart works and spent three glorious weeks in Alpine touring. The first few hundred miles were run with strict obedience to the factory restriction of 4,500 r.p.m. and this kept us to 90 on the autobahn, to be passed by one Mercedes after another; thereafter we attacked the classic passes—Stelvio, Great St. Bernard, Susten and others, with abandon and my reaction to it all is that this sort of motoring in a modern high-performance car tops all the rest.
Where it will end I can’t imagine. The Porsche did a fine daily commute job with an occasional weekend tour thrown in for a year or two and was then, in a moment of weakness, traded for a 6 1/2-litre Ford Mustang, which is better than expected, less complex to maintain and more comfortable than the Porsche.
These reminiscences were set down in 1967, put away and forgotten. Since then I have retired and moved from California to England. To bring the catalogue up to date, we collected a Rover 3500 on our arrival at Prestwick and used it for house-hunting in England and for a Continental tour during the first summer, when we took it, en famille, around Spa and the Nurburgring and to Villars to view the hill-climb. Too small for our family needs, the Rover gave way to a two-car combination: S1 Bentley and Mini. The Mini is still in use and carried wife, daughter and the author on our UK drivers’ licence tests, all of us gaining passes first time out thanks to the conscientious tutelage of Mr. Weever, proprietor of the Wye Bridge School of Motoring (usual disclaimer) in Hereford. After a very inexpensive (in terms of depreciation) year’s motoring, the Bentley was replaced by a VW 1600 Estate, impressive for its fuel injection but lacking two doors to be properly useful. A Peugeot Estate with the extra two doors now copes with the trunks, tuckboxes, bicycles and other scholastic impediments endlessly being transported to and from boarding schools.