A SECTION DEVOTED TO OLD CAR MATTERS
A Country Garage Between The Wars
THE other day I drove in an Alfa Romeo Giulietta 2.0 into the complexities of Woodley, from the M4, to chat with Mr. H. E. Neville, now aged 82, who remembered when this was all open country. He came to Wooburn Green with his parents, who were starting a public house there, in 1900. This venture was not a great success but the grandfather found a much better one, “The Wheatsheaf’ at Littlewick Green, in 1907. The boy was sent to Marlow Brewery to learn a trade. They had a very big engineering shop in which all their machinery and vehicles were serviced. They were then running a fleet of Aveling & Porter steam-wagons but before the first World War three petrol lorries of the same make (which may be a surprise even to commercial-vehicle experts) arrived, named on brass plates “Onward”, “Forwards”, etc.
The war broke up the boy’s apprenticeship, because this Brewery works was turned over to making 4.2 shells and Stokes’ mortar-bombs. However, Mr. Butts, the Works Chief Engineer, had been very kind to the lad and he had acquired useful engineering skills. He went to Skinner’s, the agricultural engineers, who served the area Reading, Maidenhead and Bracknell. The Managing Director had a four-cylinder, chain-drive Napier which was still on tube ignition and Neville helped to convert this to low-tension magneto ignition. The Chief Engineer, Mr. Butts, let the boy drive when out on test. The Director was a fussy man, who might return after only ten miles or so, insisting that the driving chains be taken off the boiled in tallow.
At this time, around 1916, the International Harvester Co. of America was exporting Amanco stationary engines with a wonderful system of hit-and-miss ignition, at a cost of about £75 each. Neville was provided with a BSA motorcycle and sidecar and used to go round the farms, installing and servicing such engines. One day an enormous Samson Swingrip three-wheeled tractor arrived at Twyford station. Neville was told to fetch it. He cycled to the station and was awed by the size of the thing. However, he got it started in front of an interested crowd and drove off. The springless ride was fearful and he was in trouble with the Police for frightening horses and for the noise. The tractor was taken to Hawthorn Hill racecourse for test but the ground was soggy and its weight caused it to bury itself. It was abandoned there for a long time. . . By then the BSA had been replaced by a Model-T Ford truck.
Neville’s ambition was to join the RFC. He stayed at home for a week to make his point and after a test in Reading he was accepted, and sent to Blandford. It was bitterly cold there and the “black-influenza” epidemic of 1917 laid him low before he had been enrolled properly or provided with full uniform. He saw next to nothing of the Sopwith Pups and Camels and the next thing he knew he was in Millbank Military Hospital in London, suffering from complete loss of memory. When his mind cleared a little he managed to tell the doctor that his uncle was Chief Warder of Brixton Prison, that ex-military man was contacted and arrived as quickly as possible to take the boy away. Back home after the war, with no trace of the papers he had signed for five years in the RFC, he opened a cycle-repair business in Littlewick. He then sold new Dot bicycles, which cost £3 10/- each but had to be taken in batches of half-a-dozen. Demobbed officers and men were buying old cars and so the cycle business became a garage. Petrol was sold by the can until Mr. Bates, the Shell-Mex rep., persuaded Mr. Neville that a pump would be better. They cost an impossible £110, but by taking a cut of 1/2d. on each gallon of petrol sold, Shell-Men supplied one for £10 down. You dug your own hole, 14′ x 10′ x 10′ deep — he still remembers the dimensions! — and the petrol company fitters did the rest. The hole was duly dug outside “The Wheatsheaf’ and the tank was delivered. Mr. Neville had an old Durant tourer, and with it and some chains he tried to drag the tank into the hole but was projected across thermal for his pains, as the tank slid half home.
Soon another pump was installed and local cars, such as Rovers, especially the 8 h.p. flat-twins, and the aforesaid venerable Napier, were being serviced. A trickle of sales also began, a lady being sold a Vulcan, a good car but like a tractor to drive. Vincent’s of Reading helped with sales of later cars, such as two Daimlers, and a taxi business was built up, at first with a brass-radiator Model-T Ford tourer, for which a special hood was made, as the one fitted took much time to erect. Later an Overland-Whippet was used and when the daughter of the Director of a big London seed company was getting married Mr. Neville was asked to take the honeymoon couple for a fortnight’s tour of Wales. He left the garage in charge of his mechanic and his wife and in some trepidation set off for this long tour, to Aberystwyth, Snowdon, and back via Ludlow. The charge for this tour? —£25. . . A big carrier was made for the luggage and two spare tyres were carried beneath the chassis. The Overland Whippet gave no trouble and proved ideal for traversing the very rough tracks leading to Welsh churches in which the lady was interested.
Another hire-car was a Series-A Moon, bought at a Foxley’s sale at Holyport for £21, a saloon which had only done 17,000 miles and had four-wheel-brakes. Its instruction book still exists. International Cars of Manchester ran a fleet of Moons and would send any spares needed by train the same day, on receipt of a telegram. It had also been possible to buy a Moon tourer with almost brand-new Dunlops and unscratched running boards at a well-known London motor-auction for a fiver, as the RAC horsepower tax had rendered the older large-engined cars unwanted. The engine, back-axle, etc. were transferred to the other Moon.
The garage had the only petrol pumps between Maidenhead and Reading but a Brewery Group proved difficult about expansion, in spite of what the great KC, Mr. Hutchings, did to help. So in 1940, after his pumps had been commandeered by the Government for supplying kerosene to nearby Waltham aerodrome, Mr. Neville opened his Lee Green Service Station and was soon selling 5,000 gallons of Cleveland a week. He used to go to Brooklands with Baldwin, the Zenith rider, in those between-war days and I think we will talk again soon.
continued on page 1629. By Benz to Brighton