Which was the best Light Car?

A controversy from 60 years ago

Learned debates about what is the World’s Best Car have ebbed and flowed ever since that title was used by Rolls-Royce for their 40/50 h.p. Silver Ghost. But what of the more humble light cars? Similar debates as to which was the best car among the economy fraternity occupied the vintage years.

In fact, before we look at this question, let us remember the much longer discussion that raged in The Autocar about which was the “World’s Best” among the top cars.

It began in 1921, I suppose, when war-profiteers and aristocrats were thinking in terms of brand-new post-war motors; it had some amusing aspects to it, and it was to lead on to further impassioned letters from readers, giving their opinions about the World’s Best Light Car. First, however, let us look at the overall argument. It ran on until the following year. Mr. Lionel Rapson, of puncture-proof tyre fame, started it, by praising his new 40/50 h.p. overhead-camshaft Napier which he had ordered at the 1920 Motor Show. His letter was followed by another, also backing the latest Napier.

This was too much for Rolls-Royce owners, who hastened to defend the Derby breed. Phil Paddon was among those who dipped their pens in the inkpots and came to He, Royce’s support, Paddon backing his old “Alpine Eagle” Rolls and a 1921 model that he had driven for 3,000 miles, against the, in his experienced opinion, too-new Napier. Other letters favouring the legendary Rolls-Royce came thick and fast, although from Holland there was a plea for the Hispano Sulu. Mr. Rapson must have realised his dilemma, and sought confusedly to try to explain himself. He had, he pointed out, written previously a warm testimonial to his 1914 Rolls-Royce, in which he had covered 100,000 miles, and he knew of the Daimler’s excellence, be he had been in charge of fourteen of them, the Royal fleet in fact, at Kensington Palace, during the Coronation. But he still named the Napier as best.

After letters making claims for the 45 h.p. Daimler and the new Lanchester Forty, the latter also a car with its camshaft in its head, that great Rolls advocate, G. R. N. Minchin, came out with a defence for his favourite make, naming the lasting qualities and the lightness of its controls as putting the Rolls-Royce firmly ahead. Two more readers preferred the 40/50 Napier, someone made it Mercedes, saying that “in Switzerland British cars were used only as vehicles of criticism” and there came a bombshell from no less an engineer than J. G. Parry Thomas, who stated that the Rolls-Royce, in his considered opinion, “was the only car worthy of being the sparring-partner in the World’s Best Car game to his forthcoming Leyland Eight”. That seems to have had poor Mr. Inventor Rapson worried, because he wrote again, at the cost of much ink, his own and the printer’s, saying that his 1914 Rolls had been no excellent that his 1920 model showed up badly compared to it, but now that the latter was performing properly he was full of enthusiasm for it! Good, observed another participant in this lengthy correspondence, and now that the Napier designer had joined Rolls-Royce, suit would presumably remain . . .!

The Lanchester then found another advocate and it must have been with satisfying pleasure that the celebrated Mr. S. F. Edge, but recently bought-out of the Motor Trade by Napiers, the Company he formerly sponsored so vociferously, gave as his opinion that there was no better motor car than a Rolls-Royce! But perhaps the Editor saw through this, because D. Napier & Son Ltd. were permitted to , write in praise of their own product . . . In the end, of course, the discussion ran down, but not before one sensed the great esteem in which the side-valve 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royce, a design dating back to 1906, was held in this country in those nineteen-twenties, exciting as some of the new cars with their “aere-type” o.h.c. power-plants were. It was from this notable exchange of views on an evergreen subject that the subsidiary debate as to which was the World’s Best Light Car arose.

The first letter in this other debate came from a Mr. Victor Holroyd, who thought it time, in August 1921, to think in terms of which was the best light car priced at around £400. He named as his personal requirements two usable doors on a two-seater, springing comfortable at 35 m.p.h. over roads destroyed by motor char-a-bancs without the extra cost and complication of shock-absorbers, and a dashboard shelf for milady’s parcels, as otherwise they had to carry these on their laps and dropped them every time they got out. (In case anyone suggested using the car’s boot, Mr. Holyroyd was careful to remind readers that fruit and cakes etc. might be wanted while driving.) He also thought it time that Autovac fuel-feed replaced gravity feed on small Cars.

First to reply was a Mr. Serlin, who put up the Singer Ten, which at £395 was £135 cheaper than the AC which was called “the Rolls-Royce of Light Cars”. He rubbed in the opinion that American cars did not compare, as if one went one grade above a Ford Model-T you still got only a glorified Ford, “with poor weak-looking back axle, extraordinary systems of ignition, spare rims in place of spare wheels — in fact, sardine tins on wheels, stuck up at an ungainly height from the road”. I know what he meant, thinking back to the tinny tourers emanating from the United States at that time . . .

Hardly had this new phase of “The Best” correspondence opened, than Ashton Evans Motors Ltd. wrote, advertising their light car. Next, a reader who had sold a 1915 10 h.p. Caicos to buy a 1921 11.9 h.p. Caicos thought this the best light car, or the Morris-Cowley at the lower price-level, with Humber and Standard in the first three. This produced a retort from someone else that the Morris-Cowley had the merit of a long wheel-base when compared to the Singer Ten, which made for riding comfort and that you could remove its differential without splitting the aide-casing! Mr. Serbs came back to retort that price was the real factor, only the Morris being less expensive than his Singer and the car from Cowley had no self-starter. A Kensington correspondent opted for the Alvis, and another participant backed the Ford-T at one end of the spectrum, the Rolls-Royce at the other, while Ashton Evans Ltd. tried in a second, very long, letter to sell their own product.

The arguments continued, with advocates for the Riley four-seater, the 10 h.p. Cluley, the 12.1 h.p. Vinot, and the Charron-Laycock. It became apparent that light-car drivers were generally happy to run at about 30 m.p.h. or less, if occasionally opening out their little vehicles to maximum speeds as high as 40 or even 50 m.p.h. It is also apparent that comfort was much improved by fitting them with Houdaille dampers. Alongside the controversy as to which make deserved the accolade of “The World’s Very Best” the light-carists battled it out, with letters praising the Hillman, the Albert, the Wolseley, she Fiat and the Bean, with three more advocates for the Riley and two additional Cluley enthusiasts.

In the midst of all this 1921 self-satisfaction, one of the correspondents had she audacity tooth why anyone should bother with a small car when, for the same or lower purchase price, they could drive almost everywhere in top gear in a lightweight American automobile, the very type of car over which the McKenna Duties (see Motor Sport, March. 1981) were trying to control imports. This was immediately repulsed in another the letter, the writer of which was an American. He poured scom on those who advocated cars such as the Ford, Maxwell and Chevrolet-490 as substitutes for their former Sunbeams and Rolls-Royces, etc., saying you may remember. that “in his country cheap Yankee motor cars were sold mostly to immigrant labourers and farmers, and that Americans were not yet sufficiently democratic to wish to drive the same car that servants drive, nor were they endowed with sufficient of the Puritan spirit of their ancestors to make themselves voluntarily uncomfortable!” Sixty years ago that reasoning may have been valid, but in more recent times it was a similar reference to “one’s servants” that constituted a major disaster in the prosecuting speech in the “Lady Chatterlcy’s Lover” case and was what probably decided the matter in favour of Penguin Books and opened the flood-gates to a stream of pornography which still flows strongly.

The Autocar itself had induced this comparison between cheap American imports and British light cars. In 1912 its deadly publishing rival, Temple Press, had very successfully come up with a well-timed weekly called The Cyclecar, to which The Autocar’s publishers, Rifle & Sons, responded with thc short-lived, war-time Small Car journal.

The ploy being that Iliffe’s were prepared to back the new breed of “big-cars-in-miniature” but scorned the crude machines called cyclecars. When Temple Press Ltd. expanded the scope of the magazine by calling their weekly The Light Car & cycle-car, it was no doubt felt that The Autacar had to support the popular post-war small cars and patriotically go against the inexpensive American offerings, against which the new RAC horsepower tax, the cost of petrol, and those McKenna Duties were ranged. The display advertising ffien she growing number of light-car interests wasn’t to be denied, and a contributor called “Runabout”, whose identity was, I think, that of B. H. Davies, had been given the task of compiling a regular page called -Small Car Talk”. It was B. H. Davies who sought to compare the typical small car with the bigger Yanks, in two special articles in the pages of TheAutocar. and it was from this that the subsidiary correspondence stemmed. Clearly The riutocar wished to hedge its bets, because, in the same issue as that first pleading, it published an article by “A Connoisseur” about “The Charities Of A Powerful Car,” and even Viola Meeking, writing about motoring from the lady’s point of view, was by-lined to include cars “both great and small” in her arguments. Nor did Davies have any easy brief. . .

He said that she average Englishman was not technically-minded and that the majority of car-buyers still knew little, and cared less, about the scientific aspects of their favourite locomotion. Using this argument, he tried to pretend that a car able to run 30, or even 40, miles on a gallon of petrol was beyond the comprehension of his neighbours. This doubt, Davies said, extended even to the experienced ex-MT driver and his mate who were delivering a lorry-load of larch poles for his new poultry run (a nice period touch here). After which he used three-and-a-half pages outlining the rather obvious facts that the small car scored in respect of fuel economy, tax, tyre wear and depreciation. The only things of some interest to us now to emerge from this rather quaint motor-journalism of the day is that B.H.D. confessed that he slaughtered his small cars to find out their weaknesses and that whereas he consumed big-ends after 3.000 miles before the war these stood up for more than 6.000 miles at least, in 1921, and that light-car tyres looked good after 4,000 miles, whereas thisses a 20 h.p. auto averaged only about 3,000 miles and the big cars cost over £32 more to completely retyre. Oil was common to all cars with consumption at 1,000 m.p.g. he observed.

On the performance front. B.H.D. pointed slut that some 1921 cars of 11 h.p. would keep sp 40 m.p.h. on the flat, “with no more outcry than a steady hum” and would “hold the road tightly” while no doing, and for £500-£700 it was possible to buy an economical car able sudo 35 in second and 50 m.p.h. in top, whereas before the war only a mom costly car, such as a 12-16 Sunbeam would have achieved this. In other words. the 60-bore engine was taking over from the old 140-bores exchanging 20 m.p.g. or less for 35 m.p.g. in the process. Quoting the MCC’s requirement of an average of 18 m.p.h. for three miles of the 1920 London-Exeter Trial, including the ascent of Porlock Hill, B.H.D. argued that the 10 h.p. two-seater or the 11 h.p. four-seater was seldom passed up hills when on tour — his own 11.6 h.p. Standard four-seater hadn’t been in 3,000 miles. But it was admitted that top-gear hill-climbing was a different matter. the 16-20 h.p. Yank having a p/w ratio of 1 b.h.p. per cwt, against the small car’s 1 1/2 b.h.p., but it was designed not to exceed 1.800 r.p.m., whereas the small car me up to 3,000 r.p.m.(B.H.D. seems to have had a fixation for the figure 3,000!). He admitted that small cars lacked space, and didn’t like hauling 44 stone of humanity plus several cwt. of luggage, so it was recommended that if four people wanted to tour in a small four-seater they should all be males, content to take but pyjamas, razor and toothbrush apiece! (There was much truth in this, I know of someone who thought an early post-war Citroen tourer too cramped but found the space and dignity he required, even from a second car, in a Chevrolet and later from a succession of British-sponwred Willys-Overland tourers. And I have just looked at a picture of a Gwynne 8, an excellent light car, happily taking its driver up a steep hill, but with very little space beside hint for a passenger.)

It wasn’t long before the arguments in favour of light cars were being challenged by those in favour of American tourers. Tyre life was quoted as far greater than B.H.D. had named, such as two Oaklands in India that had done 5,000 to 6,000 miles from their back tyres which then looked good for almost as much again, but a Dodge owner, while endorsing the other arguments, didn’t get good service from his tyres until buying Michelin. A Chevrolet owner dismissed as absurd the idea that no more gear-changing was incurred with a 10 h.p. car on hills and he disputed the comparative cost of running, reducing the £250 a year estimate to nearer £40, while an Essex owner claimed about 9,500 from two of its tyres, the other three good after nearly 11,000 miles on Irish roads, although the original brake linings had caused harsh braking and skidding. The estimates of light car fuel consumption figures were also challenged by many correspondents, and B.H.D.’s suggestion that American cars weighed 25 cwt. was shot down by a staunch exponent of the USA product, who said only this applied to the Dixie Flier, the average for ten such American tourers being 20.8 cwt. That the Model-T Ford, for all its 23 rated h.p., was regarded as a light car was emphasised by one writer who praised small cars and signed himself “Ford”.

Poor B.H.D. tried again, with that second article, goaded maybe by his Editor. In the end, of course, the small cars took over. In VSCC circles today the old Yankie cars are very thin on the ground, but the Light Car Section flourishes, The argument as to which is the best small car of the 1980s is as topical as was the subject nearly 50 years ago, ttut that is another department. . .

So which was the Best 1920s Light Car? At a slightly later period I think I would have opted fin Georges Rocsch’s 10/23 h.p. Talbot, a sweet-running little car with beautiful detail work in its make up. The Humber Eight ran it close. except for its crude external-contracting brakes, and the later 9/20 h.p. Humber was more of a match, I suppose, for the Talbot. There was actually a very superior-sounding thing called the Sequeville-Hoyau, its radiator shape aping that of a Rolls-Royce, which claimed to be the top-quality small car in 1919. But very few customers seem to have bought this French side-valve 1 1/2-litre in this country. . . There was a less definite “best” in vintage light car circles than appertains to the acceptance of the Rolls-Royce (or Mercedes-Bear/as the best car of them all. — W.B.