To Presteigne in “Agatha”, the Renault

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 [Although vintage cars have had quite a vogue of recent years, the journeys made on the public road with them have not been so numerous, so we make no excuse for the following account. I had a run from London to Shelsley and back with Chambers in this very car before she had even been overhauled, when she suffered lubrication and carburation hesitations. Now, the Renault has done another adventurous run and here is an account of it.—Ed.]

FORMED as a result of the steadily increasing interest in old cars which has arisen during the last few years, the Vintage Sports Car Club has recently been very much in the news. In March of last year it held its biggest event so far—a rally, in which nine pre-War cars successfully took part. Among them was the 42 h.p. Renault, “Agatha,” and it might be of interest to record the impressions gained in this thirty-year-old veteran during the rally, instead of the usual “Where are They Now?” article.

The venue was Presteigne, a place of which few competitors even knew the existence, let alone its location. However, on reference to guide books it was to be a “mkt. t., Radnorsh. ; pop. 1,102. which, being interpreted, means that is a small provincial town situated over the Welsh border.

Besides the actual run, in which the entrants had to cover as many miles as possible, there was a hill climb and a concours d’elegance, the final placings depending on marks gained in the three events and a formula which took into account the age and size of the car.

Among the cars entered for the pre1914 class were two from the Scuderia Mills—a 1901 Benz and a Renault which first saw the light of day six years later. The Mills family, leading Midland motoring enthusiasts, besides owning these two cars, have a 1914 Mercedes, an 1888 Santler, and a potent modern Shelsley special known as ” Red Biddy,” all reposing in their garage. The Santler, incidentally, is claimed to be the first car to be built in Britain and it appeared as a veteran car, even, as long ago as 1907. At the moment it is in the process of having moss and mushrooms removed from the woodwork, but will be revealed to the world in the near future.

Driving the Benz in the Presteigne run was John Mills. His elder brother, Anthony, was to have piloted the Renault, but a more pressing engagement claimed him and he deputed Anthony Heal, well known for his handling of the 1910 Fiat, to take his place. Accompanying him as mechanician was the scribe of this article.

The Renault is said to have taken part in the 1907 Targo Florio, and to have been handled by Szisz in various European races the next season, at the end of which it was bought by Harry Payne Whitney [or was it a sports job based on the 1906 G.P. winner ?–Ed.] (Readers may remember how this American millionaire achieved notoriety last year by announcing that he had been swindling everyone for years, in spite of the fact that he was President of the New York Stock Exchange. He has since been lodging at the President of the U.S.A.’s expense.)

To return to “Agatha,” Whitney shipped her to New York and used her until 1913 as a private car, when she was sold to Lord Kimberley. Nine years later she passed into the hands of a now famous surgeon, who ran her for two months, in which time he was fined three times for various offences. After that the Renault drifted from garage to garage until discovered, bent but unbowed, by Marcus Chambers, four years ago. Since then vast sums have been spent on tyres, controls and paint, to bring it into first class condition.

Seen lying in the dimness of a garage at dusk, the Renault appeared awe inspiring enough, but it was not until it was wheeled out into the open the next morning that its great size really became evident. With a steering wheel which stands nearly five feet from the ground and even then does not seem high in proportion to the rest of the car, the bodywork is painted a brilliant scarlet and the lorry-size wheels are dwarfed by massive wings. The engine is a four cylinder of 7.2 litres capacity and follows the usual Renault practice of being situated in front of the radiator. Of gears, there are four forward and a reverse, which can be changed only with difficulty because the lever works on a straight-through quadrant. Other controls are the three usual pedals, with the accelerator in the middle, and the ignition lever and pressure pump near the driver’s right hand. On the near side of the scuttle is a brass plate which bears the word “Agatha” written in fine large copperplate. Under it is painted, as if in afterthought, “That Scarlet Woman.” The small tail houses the 12 gallon fuel tank, and in the position occupied by the dashboard on modern cars are a row of drip-feeds and an oil reservoir of 1½ gallons capacity.

As it is impossible to start the engine manually on full compression, there is a small lever, placed near the starting handle, by means of which the exhaust valves can be lifted and left open while the motor is turned over on half compression. Directly it fires, the lever is replaced in its original position. Another point is that on starting from cold the engine must be revolved eight times— no more, no less—with the ignition switch off.

On the morning of the run, the motor burst into life at the third attempt, with a shattering roar. A few minutes careful blipping with the extremely stiff accelerator pedal were enough for the engine to be sufficiently warmed to tick over, which it did with little fuss and at a surprisingly low number of revs.

Meanwhile, the Benz was beginning to get under way, and as it moved off up the hill out of Leamington a cheer went up from the crowd, for though well accustomed by now to the motoring exploits of the Mills Bros., the whole town always turns out to give them a good send-off. We had a back view of three enormous figures sitting in a body mounted on high, narrow, Solid-tyred wheels, and as they clanked off towards the horizon in a haze of smoke we realised that for the rest of the run we were alone.

Our start was not exactly impressive as Heal had never been in the car before and had little idea of how it would behave. In bottom gear the engine was revved and the clutch let in. Amazingly smooth for its age, the car slid away from the pavement, but almost immediately had to be slowed to negotiate the traffic lights thirty yards up the hill. So far, so good, but it was when the green appeared that trouble started. Unused to handling the car, Heal found it difficult to engage bottom and the Renault began to run slowly backwards with the slope of the hill. This was checked but the lights were red again, and the gear had not been found by the time they changed once more. Vigorous hooting from behind showed that a jam was developing, a cloud of blue smoke effectively hid everything within a radius of twenty yards, and the cheers of the onlookers became more ironical in tone. For several embarrassing minutes we stayed there, while the lights winked red, red-orange and green, but then something happened in the gearbox and we had started. Within half a mile the rest of the field was out of sight, as the 42 h.p. of the Renault brought it up the hill at a speed far greater than that of the modern “fug-box.”

In open country “Agatha’s” performance soon became apparent. Once the system of gear shifting had been mastered, it was found that the acceleration of the veteran was equal to that of any modern 20 h.p. saloon. As the clutch goes in “Agatha” appears to arch her back, as a cat does, and then in moving off she heels right over under the tremendous torque exerted by the 42 h.p.

A cruising speed of 60 m.p.h. can be maintained indefinitely, though without any windscreen or side protection, needless to say, it soon became evident that it was going to be a chilly ride. But this was more than compensated for by the terrific sensation of speed given by the wind rushing past, and the thoroughbred feel of the car. Cornering is rock steady, and the crisp note of the exhaust has that healthy pitch which only a real motor can give.

Thirty miles from Leamington came the first stop when it was found that the suitcases strapped to the running board were in imminent danger of falling under the rear wheels. An emergency application of the brakes brought “Agatha” to a standstill in a reasonably short space. A rustic ran from a nearby cottage, attracted, apparently, by the noise, and after silently watching the refastening of the cases asked if we had made “this here contraption” ourselves— a remark which was at least original, for during the rest of the run spectators either opined that it was an old ‘un or else made cracks about fire-engines. Amusing to begin with, but the joke began to pall by the time we reached Presteigne.

At Oxford came the first scheduled stop. With a view to covering as many miles as possible so that the final placing should be high, Heal had worked out a route which resulted in a run of 180 miles, though the direct road from Leamington was about sixty. Telegrams were to be despatched front the turning points, notifying our arrival to the chief marshal, and as Oxford was one of these we drew up outside its chief P.O., from where the first was sent—with difficulty, because just before this the Renault had run into a snowstorm which, combined with the noise of the wind, had left the passenger in a slightly dazed condition.

From Oxford, the route lay over the Cotswolds to Broadway—a pretty drive, though rather bleak on this occasion, as snow was falling most of the way. But a two hour lunch stop at the Lygon Arms did much to revive the faintly flickering flame of life, and the run was resumed with more zest. At Worcester, the next telegram stop, there was some religious festival in progress, which did little to relieve the permanent congestion of the town’s narrow streets. However, “Agatha” was safely extricated and indulged in an interesting scrap with a Lea-Francis and a Norton on the road to Kidderminster.

From there we went north to Bridgnorth, an old-world town in which the Renault created little excitement, being only slightly older than most of the local utility cars. In climbing the steep hill -which leads out of the town there was some trouble when the engine started to misfire through petrol shortage at the same time that a lower gear was needed. Frantic pumping, though, and a quick change resulted in keeping the car going.

The next thirty odd miles passed eventfully, due to the sudden appearance of flocks of sheep, it being market day in a district which earns its living by keeping these animals, and the last ten miles of the run were strongly reminiscent of the Paris-Madrid race. In every village the streets were lined by excited inhabitants who cheered the veterans and the more modern cars with impartial enthusiasm. But the noise they made was nothing compared with that created by the hordes of urchins who descended on every car arriving outside the Radnorshire Arms at Presteigne, the finishing point of the rally.

By nine o’clock, when the run ended, there were some thirty vintage cars outside the Arms, of which nine were pre-war motors. Between them the veterans had covered over 1,500 miles, giving a mean of 170 miles per car, which is an amazing mileage for cars of which the average date of manufacture was 1907. The highlights were: Clutton’s 227 mile drive on the 1910 Fafnir, Seth-Smith’s handling of the single-cylinder Sizaire-Naudin for several hours with a leaking petrol tank, and an epic 101 mile run by John Mills on the Benz. Other finishers were “Agatha,” Forest Lycett ‘s 1913 Hispano-Suiza, Worthington ‘s Martini, Bradshaw’s 1908 Daimler, Timmis’s Mercedes, and Dick Caesar’s Belsize.

Next day the traditional Sunday morning calm was early disturbed by preparations for the concours d’elegance and hill climb, as the cars had to be ready at ten. For two hours the large barn-like garage opposite the Arms was full of figures rubbing brasswork, removing oil, and tinkering with engines, and the smell of metal polish hung heavily in the air.

Punctually, the veterans were lined up, their engines started, and it was as if the clock had been put back a quarter of a century when they slowly moved off in a haze of dust, with the Fafnir in the place of honour at the head of the procession.

Half a mile away, at the bottom of a hill, the convoy was stopped and the appearance competition took place. After that came the climb, in which the Renault covered itself with glory by ascending in 1 mm. 26 secs.-3 secs. better than the Daimler which made second fastest time. In the general classification, though, “Agatha” did not do so well. Through losing many marks in the concours d’elegance, her final position was fourth. First place went to the Daimler, with the Fafnir a close second.

It was nearly mid-day before the veterans had finished their climb, and as we had to be in Beaconsfield before dusk there was no lingering to hear the final results. Actually, the Renault arrived outside the Heal mansion in time for tea after an entirely trouble-free run, but it is best to leave a good margin of time when one is piloting a not-so-young car on a long journey.

The 150 mile run was accomplished with few incidents worthy of note. Along the road between Chipping Norton and Oxford ”Agatha” was paced by an Aston-Martin, so that for the 70 mile run to Beaconsfield she put up an average of just 47 m,p.h., doing it in an hour and a half. Not bad for a veteran. (With a, freezing side wind and several falls of snow, though, this could not be appreciated to the same extent as under warmer conditions.)

Being a Sunday, the Renault’s appearance caused a lot of excitement on the road near London, for the family “fug-boxes” were out en masse and an “Old Crock” always arouses keen interest in the soul of the Little Man. In towns, traffic would come almost to a standstill as people stopped to jeer at the old car, with noses pressed to the windows of their saloons, but in open country the laugh was with “Agatha,” which could pass them easily, doing 60-65 m.p.h. without the slightest fuss or bother.