Motoring with Bill Little

JEB (Bill) Little, a friend of Kenneth Neve's, is one of those enthusiasts who as owned a great variety of interesting cars. Although expressing some regrets that he was born too late to know vintage cars when they were at their best, he takes consolation from the fact that coming to driving-age in the mid-1930s, such cars were not worn out and could be bought for very much more sensible prices than those now prevailing. Enthusiasm for motoring was no doubt fostered by two very aged Renaults owned by a local doctor, and then going out in the family cars.

Little's father started motoring in 1923, with one of the new 12 hp Daimler tourers with the 11/2-litre sleeve-valve engine — "Not one of their most successful models, it would boil on any sort of incline." It was replaced with a 16/40 hp Sunbeam, a much better proposition, in which young Bill and his sister would be packed with the luggage in the rear compartment on long holiday journeys. This tourer was followed by a Sunbeam saloon, which the boy regarded as rather pompous. This was kept until 1927, when Mr. Little Sr., had a brainstorm and invested in a vast Cadillac V8, after his wife had perhaps persuaded him not to buy a La Salle two-seater with a separate compartment for golf-clubs.

Little's father drove with more enthusiasm than skill; in an involvement with a Daimler Double-Six this ended up in a field and the Cadillac in a graveyard, uprooting two gravestones. It suffered only a punctured tyre and a bent running. board ... A fast run from Fowey to London is remembered, Mr. Little crouched over the wheel of the Cadillac, which was capable of some 75 mph. After three years of this, sanity returned and another Sunbeam was obtained, Martin Walter of Folkestone making a close-coupled four-door saloon body for it. This took a long time to complete and young Bill used to go from his school in Dover with his father to see what progress had been made. By 1932 Mrs Little decided to have a car of her own, an Austin 7, which was kept in a lock-up 500 yards from the family house. The boy was allowed by his understanding mother to fetch the A7, often four or five times a day, and naturally he chose the long way round, until a neighbour remarked to his father that he didn't know his son held a driving licence ... Incidentally, Mrs. Little changed her cars every 12 months and along the years had three Hillman Minx, two Fiats (a 508 and a 500), a Talbot Ten, a Rover Ten, and after the war two A7s and two A10s. A happy trick was to hold the back wheels of the Fiat 500 clear of the ground and drop them when the revs had got to around 3000, not very kind to the axle. . .

After two years and two broken door pillars (Mr. Little liked to slam doors shut!) the Martin Walter Sunbeam was exchanged for a standard Sunbeam two-door saloon, kept until 1936 — "the most successful cars in our family and I can't think why they were sometimes called `bad cars that were well made". After that came a "rather dreadful Dodge". Bill Little having left school and being old enough to drive, he badgered his father for a car of his own. This wasn't conceded to but his mother said she would buy him one, if a £5 car could be found, perhaps conscious that she would then get to drive her own once in a while! This first car was the inevitable A7 Chummy. As Bill says "It has always been my contention that this is the very best car with which to start one's motoring and even at present-day prices I still think pre-war A7s give the greatest amount of fun, added to which spares are still obtainable..

The A7, a 1923 model, was driven home from Hampstead, where it had been bought from a doctor, and as Bill had, and still has, a fascination for tailed bodies, the touring body was removed. The intention had been to find another car and fit the pointed-tail body from it to the Chummy chassis. A suitable car was found in Bromley, a 1922 Anzani-engined Eric Longdon with straight-through copper exhaust-pipe. The body exchange proving impossible, the A7 chassis was sold for 30/– and three months spent on rebuilding the new acquisition. Alas, no money remained for licensing it, so apart from a few moonlight trips — "it was most satisfactory, but appallingly noisy, with a complete absence of brakes" — that was it.

By the time he had finished his training and became a minimal wage-earner Bill looked around the London used-car dealers of these times — Vale Engineering, Guy Griffiths, both in Maida Vale, Vadum of Willesden, specialists in Salmsons where you could get a San Sebastian for £42, Bill Black's 30/98 emporium in Paddington, and B & G Motors of Camden Town. It was from the last-named that a GE Brooklands-model A7 was bought, with a standard engine; another was available in full race trim but was too expensive. Bill found it rather cramped, being over six-foot tall and "with a passenger it was decidedly familiar", but proved a delightful little car, able to do about 60 mph. Next came a "push-pull" Salmson, the original engine of which Bill's school friend John Bobby had blown up. A replacement engine was found but the bearers were too wide and, having no file, they were rubbed on the garage floor until they fitted the frame! The car had an Amilcar tail, which may be why it appealed to Bill Little. It was a pretty little job, but every ten miles or so it was necessary to stop and replace at least one plug and it had a habit of distributing push-rods around the countryside.

Bobby bought a San Sebastian Salmson but Bill replaced his with another A7, a special with eight lamps on the front which had probably never worked and a body of lino on a plywood frame. Even so, it took its new owner on his longest drive to date, up to Leicester to visit John, who had discovered the Lancia Lambda, to which he remained faithful until after the war. After the A7 came an Anzani Frazer Nash from Guy Griffiths, the absence of a pointed tail solved by buying from Black a wrecked Vernon Derby minus its Ruby engine. This provided a steel body of the desired form for the `Nash, which was sold eventually for the price Bill had paid for it. This led to a Tipo 509 Fiat, which in spite of its ohv engine would only go to about 45 mph, although it was so low-geared that it would climb almost any hill in top. One endearing feature was the starting handle which fitted into the frontal dynamo; when the teeth were worn it would fly out and savage the unfortunate who was cranking-up. Bill says that judging by the battered headlamps and n/s front mudguards often seen on these cars, this must have been a universal fault. But it did give some 40 mpg ...

Attaining the age of 21 in 1935, Bill was helped by his parents to replace the wrecks that had long littered their front garden and buy a respectable car. Great Portland Street yielded up a 1934 Vale Special (SG 3999). His father insisted on an AA inspection but this merely required some paint on the front valance and the rev-counter connected. The Vale had every conceivable fitting, including 18" imitation brake drums concealing the 8" real ones! However, it also had non-standard Rudge knock-off wheels and Bill remembers it as the first car he had owned in which he stood a chance of getting to his destination and in a reasonable state of cleanliness. The snag was that the tiny sv Triumph engine and the rugged construction — it was said it took two men at Vale's to lift the front axle — killed any pretensions of performance. After nine months, being passed on a slight incline by an aged A7 was the last straw ... It went back to Vale's in part-exchange for a 1926 2-litre OM (PH 4907).

By this time Vale Engineering had ceased to make cars but Bill Boucher who had taken it over was helping the amusing "Fatty" Semmence to build the Semmence Special — never a dull moment! Bill Little remembers Semmence making him an enormous fish-tail in the space of 30 minutes (price 7/6) and the stories of items that were put on the ends of unsuspecting customers' exhaust-pipes cannot be told here! The OM transaction included a repaint, which was done in the reddest red over all the grease, mud and filth already on the Cadogan body. Although a two-seater, six could be accommodated in some discomfort; the hood was also apt to collapse and engulf all of them. The OM is remembered as very well built, a joy to handle and effordess to drive. It was the first car with decent performance and character Bill had owned and it clearly whetted his appetite ...

On another visit to Vale's he saw an unusual-looking Lea-Francis (JO 8288) and as Scott-Moncrieff used to say "a bargain was struck". Naturally it had a pointed-tail body, which Lord Avebury was supposed to have put on it for the 1933 LCC Relay Race at Brooklands. Otherwise, it was a normal Hyper Leaf with No.8 Conde blower, Bill's first supercharged car. Hoodless, with two aero-screens, it was "most exhilarating and reasonably reliable", except when the screws of the blower vane housing fell out and jammed the blower, or when an oil-feed problem to this component resulted in a smoke-screen along the N. Circular Road that the Navy might have envied. Enthusiasm for fast motoring was stepped up by a visit to a BOC Chalfont hill-climb. Here Bill push-started Doreen Evans in her Q-type MG and saw Mervyn White's Tracta destroy the starter's "hockey-stick" with its spinning front wheels. From Bill Black he later acquired this Tracta as a "basket case" but a vital part of the FWD mechanism was missing, so he had to return it.

Next, a Brescia Bugatti (BXK 216) was bought from Ronald Read, with a non-original wide-track front axle. It was not a success, being unreliable and the twin mags mis-firing continually. It soon gave way to a 1924 2-litre T35A GP Modified Bugatti (BJ0 882). When its miscellaneous plugs, one from Woolworth's, had been changed for a set of Bosch plugs it made the most wonderful sound Little had ever heard, an 8-cylinder Bug on full song. It gave its new owner a few memorable moments. As when he was doing a voluntary job in the Crystal Palace Press Office and was allowed on the circuit. His left trouser-leg got caught in the carden-shaft universal and was torn off; going home he stalled the engine in a S London market and ribald were the calls as he got out to crank-up! The exhaust system did not survive a gate-stop and the girl friend had to nurse it for 20 rniles, and all the bolts in the transmission torque-member sheared on a run to Brooklands. But, says Bill, "it was a wonderful one and gave me many hours of pleasure and very little trouble."

The long-suffering girl friend calling for better weather protection, the Bug was sold and a £65 41/2-litre Bentley replaced it. It had a cut-about Harrington body and was disastrously thirsty (13-14 mpg), even with petrol at 1/6 a gallon — "On the credit side", he recalls, "the performance and brakes were good and the Avon Duo-tread tyres so durable that I never saw the second tread ...”

Anyone who is having insurance difficulties with old cars may be amused to know that looking back to 20 years ago, Bill Little was on a series of 60-day cover notes because he changed his cars so frequently. Asked for an engineer's certificate for the first time for the GP Bugatti, he removed the brake drums in the hope of improving the anchorage, only to find unlined aluminium shoes which, as they had no rivet holes, suggested this was quite normal ... The engineer declined a test run!

The thirsty Bentley was taken after three months to Bill Black, and Bill Little came away with a 5th Series Lancia Lambda, the Aston Martin "Razor Blade" and a big Amilcar saloon, the last presumably because Black needed the space. The "Razor Blade” was given the Amilcar front brakes (after which the Amilcar was scrapped) and a GP Bugatti tail. The engine was run without being stripped but no harm was done and when war came the historic single-seater was sold for £17. Gerald Crozier had taken over Griffiths' premises and he found Little a T40 Bugatti, which gave little trouble apart from side-swiping three cars parked outside a church in Redhill, in a snowstorm, when the on brake cable jumped its pulley ... Six months later "a revolting three-carburettor Alvis that would not go, would not stop, and looked frightful", was quickly taken back and replaced with a rather breathless Fiat Balilla (ARO 762). After a full engine overhaul the Fiat was lent to Bill's friend Anthony Howard Piper, naturally known as Peter, and in return he lent Little a Wolseley Hornet with a 16 hp Sunbeam engine, to use on his honeymoon — but the bride preferred to travel by train!

With the imminence of war two years later, Peter joined the RAF and one night in a pub bought the Fiat, an MG-C, the ex-Dick Nash "Spook", and at least two other cars, for £50. In case the owners changed their minds he enlisted the help of some airmen to remove them the same night ... A scruffy Triumph Southern Cross, after its seized engine had been freed, and a Hillman Aero Minx coupe gave war service, the latter an inadequate performer, with poor brakes. Then the "Spook" was bought from Peter for £50, a very wet tow behind the Balilla from Cambridge to Bill's new abode at Potters Bar being recalled. After dropping the sump and examining the bearings of the sprint car's Corette-blown Anzani engine it was sometimes run up during the war for the joy of smelling burnt castor oil. London air-raids destroyed the Little family business and in 1944 Bill moved to a new task, in Bristol. The "Spook" was towed there but apart from fitting new instruments and dashboard, nothing more was done to it and it was sold eventually to BAC test-pilot Dick Northway. He blew the engine up when testing the car on Filton airfield and replaced it with a Mercury V8. "Where is it now?" Bill wonders. "Probably running about as a TT Replica."

To be continued next month