The Roads Of The 1920s

It is so very true that there is nothing much new under the sun, or the moon or the stars, and I was reminded of this when I came upon a note in Owen John’s diary, written sixty-one years earlier almost to the day. OJ was pressing for cyclists to pay tax, like motorists have to. He made the point that it would bring in several millions, “a thing by no means to be despised in these hard times”.

Now we appear to be back to those hard times, if the media is not misleading us and the Wall Street crash is no myth. These days there are too few bicycle riders, in relation to car drivers, to make collection of a cycle-tax viable, even to help pay for the sensible cycle-tracks which flank many main roads. And if I press the matter too vehemently the CTC will come down on me like a fallen racing cyclist. But that is what OJ was hoping for, back in 1926.

The Olympia Motor Show was coming up, which caused OJ to recall the days of the early Crystal Palace Motor Shows, when you could try out cars in the grounds and there was plenty of space in which to perambulate the halls. Those just back from Motorfair might care to ponder on this. Even I am not so old as to have been to a motor exhibition at the Crystal Palace, although as a boy I went to an Aeronautical Show there, and faintly remember aeroplanes suspended from the glass roof and flying-boats parked on the lakes.

Motor Show time was when many people chose new cars, whether “paper-shopping”, with those bulky show numbers of the weekly motor magazines in their hands (how we devoured them as boys, if we could afford the 6d they cost!), or seriously shopping. It was a time to ponder what made a person decide to invest, not in Austins, but in some rare and seldom-encountered make. For instance, the celebrated lady explorer Roseta Forbes had taken delivery of a Waverley saloon (not, I hasten to add, the little £100 job the firm had just announced) and, with no disrespect to that company whose light-cars used to bowl round Brooklands, it was not a car you saw very often on the road, even in 1926.

But no doubt she had a good reason for her choice. I have told you previously of how two spinster sisters endured one Olympia Show until their feet began to ache, and then bought an Ariel light-car because their tape-measure told them it would at least fit in their garage — a sound choice, as it happened, for they used it every summer and were still doing so 25 or more years later.

In 1926 Olympia shared prestige with the Paris Salon, though the French show was not then an annual affair. OJ saw the London display as emphasising the future of six-cylinder engines, cellulose painting, high-waisting and covered bodies. But he was not too sure he liked high-waisted bodywork, as seen on the new Riley Nine, fearing that vision might resemble that from an armoured-car (as it did on later, long-bonneted vintage cars with shallow windscreens, which contrasted with the areas of glass we are endowed with today).

He regretted the day Lanchester had forsaken its bonnetless cars with such generous space inside the body; at that 1926 Show the roomiest car he sat in (you know how motor show visitors will insist on getting in the cars, although so much more can be decided after a run on the road!) was a Rippon-bodied Rolls-Royce. Closed cars were very much the in-thing, though had the Show been held in springtime OJ thought more visitors might have bought open vehicles. But not in October, when going home was a case for riding inside a bus rather than outside.

Here is a reminder of those spartan times when, with standing room used up in London’s buses, the female typists, clerks, and receptionists had to join the men “on top”, protected if it were raining only by umbrellas. It was spartan, too, because cars were without heaters. OJ was waiting and hoping for exhaust-gas heating in saloon cars, apparently not having realised that water from the engine cooling system was more suitable for the job . . .

At Olympia OJ had discovered Lanchester were using a wonderful new metal for the bright parts of their cars, which did not require nickel or chromium-plating and which would polish up indefinitely and not rub off. I think it must have been stainless steel; come to think of it, Talbot-Darracq was using it for radiators long before 1926 . . .

It was a period of mounting traffic congestion, as more and more private motorists took to the roads. The RAC was trying to get certain inns to provide meals at 2/6d for car owners, which OJ said he would try; he hoped they would not be set up simply as second-class fare. Today the growing number of “Little Chefs” serve a similar purpose, even if you cannot get beef and pickles or bacon and eggs at that price, and when I saw a Silver Shadow in one of their car-parks the other day, I realised these are now classless, and certainly not second-class, establishments for the quick meal.

In 1926 that was a long way away. Those open-top buses prevailed in London, where I used to ride frequently in majestic, but solid-tyred, Tillings-Stevens petrol-electrics on the No 59 route; in later times I could get back for a high-tea on a No 49 (routes at right-angles, as it were) from the motor racing at Crystal Palace, when my A7 was out-of-sorts.

OJ also noted that wireless was improving apace, presumably meaning as car-radio. I recall amateurs making crystal-sets, if they were as impoverished as I was (I made two, one of which would pull in 2LO some 40 miles from London, but it was a toss-up whether to use a variometer or a sliding-coil tuner, as one read the weekly newspaper Wireless Pictorial, and tried desperately to understand the more technical monthly Modern Radio, as deep as the articles in The Automobile Engineer of those days) or one-valve or multi-valve receivers, if they were better off. The ultimate, I remember, was to be able to get America on a frame indoor-aerial . . .

After looking round the Show OJ remarked that cars were beginning to all appear alike, but that he did not care for mascots, especially comic ones, as a means of making them more individual; I do not care to contemplate what he would have thought of the “dangling dollies” with which some folk try to inject some individuality into their modern cars. Rolls-Royce people will probably never read this column again when I tell them OJ did not even consider the Rolls-Royce mascot (which he called “the angel”) to look exactly right, although he confessed to much admiring “the solid grandeur of the Hispano Suiza stork”.

As 1926 ran its course, OJ went off in a 16hp six-cylinder AC at the invitation of S F Edge. It was regarded as quite another type of car to the Nippy Nine and 16/50 Rovers which OJ owned. Told to do his worst with it and present his criticisms (a brave thing to do, for Edge was sure to counteract them), our amateur tester seems to have taken the line of least resistance by saying of this two-seater AC that all his objections had already been rectified in the latest edition!

He confessed to finding the AC Six economical with petrol and oil, quick up hills of a severity that once called for finding an alternative route, and enjoyable to drive at 60 mph. The low weight of this 16/40hp car gave not only good acceleration but less for the brakes to do, and OJ experienced but one skid, when he foolishly stood on the pedal after overshooting a turning off the Bath Road.

Into a tearing south-westerly gale across Salisbury Plain, the AC and the wind made whistling noises which made the car’s occupants wonder what on earth was happening (the only reference which suggests the AC may have been a trifle noisy), and they came back through the New Forest in sweeping rain.

To greet the New Year OJ decided on another Continental tour, all the way to sunny Spain (where he had gone more than 20 years earlier in a big poppet-valve open Daimler). This time he proposed try an 18hp six-cylinder Armstrong Siddeley “to find out if it is really as perfect as everyone who has tried it maintains it to be” . . . WB