Things in general

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20

[This feature was left out of the January issue owing to pressure on space and is resumed herewith —Ed.]

ISN’T it curious that a sport essentially opposed to anything like team-work should have led to the formation of such a number of clubs? Logically, we ought each to plough a lonely furrow, scowling nazically upon anyone else who dares to be on the road at the same time; instead, we band ourselves together just like mere golfers, or tennis players. However, the war has put most clubs into cold storage; a few enthusiastic officials keep a sort of token flag flying, but memberships and subscriptions have been suspended with surprising unanimity. One of the few clubs which have to carry on is the Bugatti Owners, but then, they have the Prescott estate on their hands, and I haven’t heard that rates and taxes have been suspended in their case, though a great effort like Prescott deserves it. [The B.O.C. has abandoned social and competitive meetings and only “carries on” by preserving Prescott. —Ed.]

If things had gone according to plan— I mean OUR plan and not Uncle Hitler’s plan—last month’s issue of MOTOR SPORT would have told us all about the Veteran Car Run to Brighton. Of course the fixture was washed out, a thing that even last year’s rain—and how it did rain on the Madeira Drive!.—was quite unable to do. Rumour says that the old cars have been dug in for the duration; if so, it will not be novel, for many of them reported as having been disinterred from rubbish heaps or from the accumulation of years of untidy agriculture. I do hope though that my own favourite, apparently evolved from the notion of a Victorian ice-cream barrow, will not suffer from sandbags piled upon its machicolated awning. If the word did not suggest to some of us the Edwardian vehicle, the Veteran Car Club might well adopt the phoenix as its badge, since the early motors seem to be immortal. But I would not have you believe that the veterans ran as well when they were new as they do on their annual outing. Far from it! In their own day they were the last word in unreliability, and brought small fortunes to countrymen possessing a horse and the requisite harness for towing. Not every farmer would condescend to lend a horse though, even when rouleaux of gold were dangled before his eyes; motors were too much hated for that. That seems odd to some of my readers, but, you see, in the days we are talking about we had a touching faith in the super-excellence of our roads. Telford made them, and though they had deteriorated, they couldn’t be improved: the inches of white dust in fine weather and of mud in wet were part of their excellence, just as much as the roughness, the looseness and the ruts. So, if you happened to be a cyclist, or a pedestrian, or even the driver of a horsed vehicle, a passing motor covered you thickly with dust and choked you as well for an appreciable time, horses (or their owners) were scared, and dwellers near main roads couldn’t open their windows or doors to get fresh air. No wonder motor-cars were hated, as well as the not too considerate plutocrats who drove them!

Quaintly enough, all these discomforts were no new thing; it had been forgotten that when the roads bore all the traffic just the same complaints were made, for since the rise of the railways our highways had become more or less deserted until the cyclist first, and later on the car, gave them a new lease of life. Somewhere about 1760, Dr. Johnson wrote in “The Idler” of his sufferings when on a summer holiday at Islington; he tells the same tale about dust and noise. It was not until some genius thought of tarring the roads that the public forgot its earlier antipathy, and took the car to its great heart. That reminds me that I saw the first attempts at tarring French roads after the War; a leisurely peasant was sprinkling a little tar parsimoniously upon the dusty crown of the road, while Authority looked on from a safe distance and indulged in the pleasures of hope.

“Debellare superbos,” saith the Vulgate; it’s a fact that the mighty have been abased. The humble, as the Vulgate also saith, have come into their own, especially those who have backed the modest and usually vintage Austin Seven. A correspondent of mine says that Pool spirit agrees with her rather hoary vehicle, the little engine chugging away as merrily as if it were still pampered with real petrol. The ration prevents her from knocking up the quite impressive mileage she used to do pre-war, but she gets the best out of the teaspoonful they allow her. Now, while the Bugattis, the Alfas, and all the other thoroughbreds she used to envy are a liability and not an asset to their owners, the little Austin is an asset and not a liability to her. Well! as an old and wise motor-wallah once said to me when I wept over the expensive temperamentalness of a certain car, “You will have a thoroughbred and now you’re finding out that thoroughbreds have more delicate constitutions than hacks!” Pool petrol, however, was still in the womb of Time— would that it had remained there.

Looking over those old log books, I found that Santa Claus usually produced a Christmas run from his poke for me. Last time I was caught at Brighton with impassable roads and two feet of snow, but this time Christmas was sunny and fine, at any rate in the part of the country in which I happened to be. I passed over Queensferry Bridge, which I call the Gateway to North Wales—the only car, where, on summer Sundays, I have had to inch forward in the long line of fugitives from Liverpool and Manchester pining for the coast resorts; then on to the steady rise through Hawarden, with its memories of Mr. Gladstone, upwards and upwards to the top of the world, Llandegla Moors. A turn left, a drop into second gear, the top of the great bowl of mountains, down the Horseshoe Pass into Llangollen, from there through Wrexham to the “Grosvenor” at Chester for a well-earned lunch. The next day was not bright, but I picked up a run (and some mud), while for a change we had snow on the Wednesday. Those runs were a joy; there’s something different about a thoroughbred even though rationed petrol has almost wiped out the memory of real motoring!

Thoroughbreds! They have a reputation for temperamentalism, which the vulgar bluntly call unreliability. One such car was for three years alternately the apple of my eye and one of the plagues of Egypt; she might reel off her 300 miles without a falter, or she might quite well turn sulky in the first thirty miles. You never knew what she would do next, but you might be sure it would be something she had never done before, and which would be extremely bad for your bank balance. Time after time she lay in dejected fragments in the shop, while my old friend, the garage proprietor, cheered me by asseverating that, after this, she really couldn’t give any more trouble for a long time. And time after time, finding a lonely place miles from anywhere, she would throw something, quite unrepairable without a costly tow back to London.

Her worst effort was a valve-head through a piston; they still keep the piston as a curio!

For the last few years, however, I have been driving Aston-Martins. Some of my friends who run Bugattis and Alfas chaff me, but I answer them in the time-honoured phrase of the ship’s officer who was chipped about the alleged superiority of the German lines :— “You see, we take you all the way, whereas they only take you as far as they go.” It certainly can be said for the little 1½-litre Aston that you will be sur-prised and even pained if you don’t get to your objective without fuss and bother. Originally, when Lionel Martin first evolved the side-valve Aston, he is said to have determined to produce an English Bugatti; if he and his successors have not quite kept pace with the great Ettore, at any rate they have always turned out a car of distinction and reliability. Last year I thought of making a change—isn’t it lucky that I didn’t?—but I couldn’t happen upon anything which seemed within streets of the old favourite. When that change will come now is on the lap of the gods.

The other day I heard from Colonel Giles, engaged in awfully hush-hush activities. He told me that Prescott was being kept in good order, and that racing could take place there at any time when circumstances again permitted of it. Although his military ability is being well utilised, I fancy his heart is still on or around the Cheltenham hill, and that he dreams of the time when he will again survey the fun from the rather precarious eminence of his shooting-stick, as erst was his wont. Meanwhile all Bugatti Owners can do is to send their cheques in promptly, for rent, rates and taxes still go on in spite of the general topsy-turviness of things. It would be unthinkable for Prescott to be allowed to fade out after such great things have been done there.

All the speculations made by those who have a right to speculate (and by those who haven’t) about what would happen in war-time were very much out when we last had a difference with Jerry, and it may quite well happen that speculation to-day is just as idle. But we may be allowed to wonder whether something new in the way of racing cars will emerge after it is all over. In 1914-1918 designers apparently forgot cars altogether, with the result that racing started again several years behind-hand ; will the same thing happen this time? And even if the racing machine has to be shelved for the duration, there is plenty of room for thought about the ordinary car such as is offered to you and me. However difficult it is to do such things during the war, manufacturers ought to be pressed unremittingly to become performance-conscious. I know they say that the public isn’t interested in performance, but is exclusively interested in seating room, ash trays, and bird-cage concealments to radiators. Is that true or just auto-suggestion? They say nations get the governments they deserve; if they get the cars they deserve, we don’t evidently deserve much! Some of us still swear by the survivals of the past, such as the old Bentley, the contemporary Bugatti, and the Sunbeam once associated irrevocably with the great name of Segrave.

Engine design, I fancy, got one of its greatest setbacks when the great Parry Thomas lost his life on Pendine Sands. I have examined one or two of his designs, notably the “flat-irons,” amazed at the up-to-dateness of the lay-out. By the way, visiting Pendine about a year ago, I was told that the mound raised to mark the tomb of the luckless “Babs” had been levelled by the local golfers, who found it annoying.

There’s a lot of newspaper talk about accidents which, it would seem, have arrived at alarming proportions since the black-out fell upon us. These accidents puzzle the ordinary man-on-the-road, first of all, because it is so rarely he sees an accident, and secondly, because he always asks himself how any given accident happened. Most people take the thing pretty calmly, relying, I suppose, on the good old legal maxim that “concerning things which do not exist, and things which do not appear, the ratio is the same.” But latterly, with traffic clear roads, I have noticed that we are getting careless again; we cross the road without looking right and left, the cyclist swerves in front of an advancing car, and the Great Panjandrum’s carriage issues from his drive without due thought. All that lends a zest to driving, for these things are hazards which it is a joy to avoid. The other night a friend gave me a short lift, when suddenly he had to put all his anchors on when a dim procession of seeming shades suddenly, solemnly and slowly marched across the road a few feet from his bonnet. Remonstrance with the shadowy beings elucidated the fact that they were four policemen going on duty in line ahead. No doubt the excellent officers were thinking over the innumerable rules and regulations they have to administer, but one would have thought that they wouldn’t have set such a bad example to the often absent-minded beggars they are supposed to shepherd.

Among the unassuming folk to whom I take my hat off is the bus-driver. One evening, a friendly one gave me the chance of sitting in his seat at a country terminus, just to see what it felt like. Believe me or not, it was hardly possible to see the radiator cap, and I would not have moved that bus for a rouleau of notes, or even for a tankful of Ethyl! Yet these good fellows good-naturedly and patiently drive full loads of passengers on runs which must have nerve-shocks every few seconds, while it is pretty certain that their load of remuneration is by no means equal to their load of responsibility. In normal times, we could learn a lot from the commercial driver, with his almost unfailing care, good temper, and patience; I’m sad to say that they have often been a silent rebuke to me when haste coupled with obstructive crawlers have made me forget my usual sound principles.—J. D. A.