CARS I HAVE OWNED
Tall, dark, sartorially-correct George Abecassis, partner with John Heath in the successful H.W.M. Formula II venture, contributes this article in the new series, in which racing drivers and other celebrities discuss the cars used for their everyday motoring. Abecassis has done plenty of motor racing, in Austin, Alta, Maserati, Bugatti, Cooper and other cars, but, at our request, in this instance it is of his road cars that he writes so entertainingly.—ED.
WIIEN (me considers how inaay people started in the same way. it is always with a certain pride that I recall that my first car was an Austin Seven. When I acquired it, it was perfectly standard ; it was a Chummy and it had a name painted on the bonnet : to wit-” The Rattletrap.”
At the time my mother had just collected me and what remained of my motorcycle front Paddington Hospital and it was agreed the next day that. if I would dispose of the bike, she would pay the difference on a car. For ” twelve pun ten ” I became a motorist.
I still believe to this day that if you know an Austin Seven right down to the last nut and bolt, and have had every part Of it break at some time or other-then you know something about. motor aers. Such was my apprenticeship.
The ” Rattletrap ” passed through many progressive stages. It was writ ten off once, had two home-made bodies, and eventually arrived on the line at Brooklands, complete with monoposto body, i.f.s., brakes and a blower. I learnt to drive on the ” Trap ” and I can imagine few more suitable vehicles.
One day I went to have tea with a friend of mine ; being well blessed with the world’s goods he had just bought. himself it brand new car. We were standing round his new acquisition. kicking its tyres, when at the side of his garage I spied four wheels peeping out from under a tarpaulin. It transpired that. they belonged to an old O.M. 11-litre tourer. The fabric body was in excellent shape and the only thing missing was the battery. The ” OMA,” as I always called it, became mine On the spot for the princely sum of thirty shillings ! If my memory serves me right the bat tery cost a trifle more.
I remember this car chiefly for its gearbox and powerful brakes. The former had that euphonic whine which one normally associates with Alfas. The ” OMA ” was, of course, my first sports car, and an Austin Seven is hardly a suitable criterion, but even after so many years I can say that it held the road exceptionally well and steered straight. The four-cylinder engine, having sidevalves and only 11 litres, never had much ” wumph ” but. the car wound up to an easy sixty for cruising and due to its low bottom gear climbed the average trials hill well, even with four up. Alas! One morning when creeping along in a dense fog I had a head-on collision with a Ford at a combined speed of no more than 10 m.p.h.-but the ” OM.A ” was wrecked beyond repair. It fetched just fifty shillings at the local dump—any only consolation a capital appreciation of one poling!.
I liked the O.M. so much that I was tempted into the purchase of another.
This time it was a six-cylinder saloon. because of the bonds of matrimony. It’s an odd thing about women that during the courting period they never Seem to complain of the absence of hoods or side screens, lint their appreciation of suelt
austerity rarely survives the marriage ceremony. The demise of the ” OMA ” certainly eaused neither wailing nor gnashing of teeth at home. The 0.M. Six, though still a side-valve, was a great improvement. It had an even 01111111M1M1111114/411111111110111tOWILIII111111111110011111111111111110111111111111111111t0 better -gearbox than the ” four ” and the engine was as smooth as silk. Unfortunately I did not have it long because it did the most. shattering thing one day whilst. I was waiting at some traffic lights. I suddenly heard 3. ” ping ” come from the engine and when we moved off we were on four cylinders. I stopped and raised the bonnet. Number two rod could be seen from the near side and number three from the off side. The crankcase was water cooled and the last. of the coolant. was just then entering the sump. The next. day my local dump could ofhr it choice of models in the nuirque The Anglo-Saxons are an odd race many ways, for although producing many excellent vehicles themselves they get callouses on their knees with worship of the produets of the Continent–yet they spurn the merchandise of their trans-Atlantie brothers. Perhaps because I’m not really an Anglo-Saxon I’ve never suffered the same handicap. For years I had admired those Chrysler roadsters, pre-1930, but it was only after the O.M. that I could afford to buy one. It was
my first introduction to hydraulic brakes, which, although of the external-contracting type, were nevertheless extraordinarily efficient. I marvel that for twenty years manufacturers and divers specialists have spent goodness knows how much time, money and energy in trying to devise solute alternative way of applying the brakes, when all the time there was this simple,
economic and efficacious method. It is only now that it has become the vogue. The other things which I learnt to appreciate with this Chrysler were powerweight ratio and reliability. I was always on time for lunch. It was not long before, as so often happens when one likes it car, I became enamoured oh’ a later model. I changed for a Chrysler 77 roadster. This was the model with the little flutes
on the sides of’ the bonnet and which set a fashion by its departure front the classic radiator block. This car really did perform. Unlike most American ears it had four gears, although first was an emergency ratio. and she would do about. 65-70 m.p.h. in third. The Brooklands lap speed was
jtIA NVith hood up I averaged 77.69 miles in the M.C.C. High Speed blind and I never lifted my hoof for sixty whole minutes.
I always liked !his car. particularly on a wet road : she had what. I now know to lie just the right amount of” under-steer.” The ratio was not excessively low and the suspension was just firm enough to resist
inutile roll on corners. There was no more roll than is now fashionable on most, modern sports ears.
Largely on the strength of the M.C.C. performance at Brooklands I received a very good offer, and never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, we parted company.
Only last summer I tried one of the latest. Chryslers in Switzerland and they still seem to come closer to European standards than any other American car. 1 always reckon that Walt. P. knew a thing or two.
Now came a short interlude with a most extraordinary hybrid vehicle. It was registered as an A.B.C., but I believe that only the frante belonged to that. make. The engine was a four-cylinder Coventry-Climax with an early Alta gearbox. One had to go right through first on the gate in order to engage reverse. The well-made coapo body was lavishly equipped. There was a very large number of instruments, and ignition was by both coil and magneto. However, it cured me once and for all of ` Hybriditis ” ; spare parts were always a Problem and finally the frame cracked. About a year previously (1934 1 believe) I had been walking down Berkeley Street when a most magnilicent Wolseley Hornet two-seater taught my eye in the windows of Mist/tee Watkins. It was obviously a one-off job. Subsequently the car was bought by the late Lionel Martin and soul by him to a great friend of mint,. with superb magnanimity the Said friend lent the car to me in which to compete in the London Lands End Trial. We got a ” first,” but on the ict urn journey I smacked a tree head-on, .due to a front wheel slide on a wet read. I I ought the car after it was repaired and ran it for some months. The two-seater body, maeltbuilt and beautifully made, had a long pointed tail and no doors. The engine had been ” attended to ” and believe that Lionel Mart in lapped Brooklands at 87 m.p.h with a maximum Of 93 m.p.h. I never attempted to emulate this performance as I had seen far too nitwit bric-a-brac littering the track at
various times which had found its way out of Hornets. Nevertheless it was a delightful road car. In those days I thought the brakes were fantastic, and the engine revved
willingly up to six thousand. There was a lot of chassis whip in the front which rather spoilt the steering on bad roads but under normal circumstances it was good. I suppose that it’s a combination of age and Circumstances which most affects men’s taste in motor ears, and I remember that, it. was an addition to the family which caused a violent change in mine. For the first time I went ” alisaloon “
and ” I combined the two in a 22-h.p. Ford V8. The eontinuell absence of sidescreens and the necessity of putting the hood up and down in the pouring rain when getting in and out of the I lurnet had finally worn me down and I was quite ready for such an ext ram change. The V8 was brand new and the first new car I had ever had. I took great cart in running it in and inaintained it “
regardless of cost.” as they say in the best advertisements. However keen is one’s interest in Motor cars they are, of eourse, primarily a means of transport between place ” A ” and place ” 13.” Unfortunately these are two places between which I have always had to travel in the shortest possible time. After 20.00n miles, culminating in a trip to Donington to watch the Grand Prix, the Ford was clapped out and I had to change the engine. Oddly enough t he original Firestone tyres did ii further 5,000 and I ahvays felt that these were the last. feature of the car. Still, apart from any hard driving I think that the 22-h.p. V8 was the only bad engine Had
Henry ever mule. It was noisy except at very low speeds and the increase in noise coincided with ever more persistent roughness. I felt that Providence had indeed been kind when I found a chap willing to do a straight swop for an Alfa-Romeo.
The Alfa was a 1,750-e.c. umiblowa model with a fabric saloon body by James Young. Chromium-plated wheels and brake drums rounded off a rather pleasing ” ensemble.”
One’s first experience Of a marque generally leaves fairly sharp impressions, and those two overhead camshafts buzzing away under the bonnet, combined with an absolute dream of a gearbox, bring nostalgic memories to this day. I must. also record that the brakes were disappointing and I eventually tired of chasing rattles about all over the body. The suspension was obviously too harsh for such dignified coachwork. Somehow the car seemed to require constant tinkering and when an axle-shaft broke my interest in this carriage evaporated entirely—as they say in the R.A.F. ” there were too many late teas on that job.” When the Jaguar 100 had been introduced I had been absolutely floored. What line ! What performance !–Boy, what a car ! So ran my appraisal. The ownership of a racing Alta is always calculated to strain the purse strings and mine were certainly no exception. Accordingly I had been unable to run even to the jaguar list price. For a whole year every time I saw one in the street I
had been intuit tempted to break the eighth commandment—the tenth already lay sluittered. At last I found a secondhand one, a 2i-litre. ” Superlative condition, hardly used, equal to new,” etc., the advertisement Itad screamed, and I must say that it was an accurate description. As I drove the car down from town, the whole outfit
had that ” tight.” feeling, not a squeak, not a rattle. The engine was tuned to the last ounce. I felt that I had indeed ” caught the moon from the bottom of the ocean.” People rave nowadays about the XI
bar liehind. In a mileage of 40,900 the engine was only decarbonised once. I I roke two crown and pinions, and InWly wrecked the gearbox one night through going too fast in reverse. Spares had the twin advantages of being ” off the ice ” and cheap. Neither ‘plane tickets nor suitcases of lira were required to run the -lag.
Technically the car had all I wanted. A Brooklands mean speed of 92.13 m.p.h. and really excellent brakes. The driving position, apart froi a a lit le end surassment with one’s clutch foot, was ideal for inc. The all-weather equipment was sensible and I soon learnt to furl the hood properly. alt hough I notice that most owner::: are lazy about this point. must agree that the front-t’nd was inclined to weave about a bit as we
approached the maximum but it was quite controllable and when one got. used to it, it wasn’t noticeable. tinder no circumstances—to be topical. —could one term it ” oversteer.” For ordinary road use, 0–0 m.p.h. in 12 see. soon gets you around. On a nut from Rheims through ClutIons-sur-Samte (or is it Marne ?) I covered 76 miles in one hour. Prince Chula once told me that he attributed much of the speed and reliability of his racing cars to the fact. that lie never altered them from standard. This policy I pursued With the Jaguar. In the Gold Star lbws: at Brooklands I had to give anything front 15 to 25 see. start to three other Jaguar 100s, all of which had a general assortment of highcompression ratios, coppered heads, outside tubes, clipped wings and whathave-you. I caught the
In the summer or 1939 I became desperately anxious to wilt one of the sports car races at the Crystal Palace, having been very lucky in the racing events, but dogged by insufficient speed and ill-luck in the sports with a borrowed 11-litre blown Alta.
I acquired for a time the 2-litre blown Alta, EOY S. then owned by It. Cowell. The Alta had just been reconditioned and I must say that it looked a picture. A previous owner lutd had all the suspension chrontinm-plated told also (lie brake drums. With due apologies to good old friend Geoffrey Taylor. my opinion is that the road Altus of that, era were in reality thinly-disguised racing ears. They certainly went through. all the motions of road vehicles but they combined them with what I would call the idiosyncrasies of the track. There was very little ” insulation ” between engine and driver, oil poured all over one’s feet and collected on the sketchiest, of floor boards. A certain proportion collected on the driver’s lace. DAR-consumption was very high, not because or the oil but due to the exhaust pipe which resides! just six inches above one’s ankle when tilling the bonnet, an operation which had to be performed with depressing frequency. A howling gale ballooned the trousers and in wet weather there was, as the ” Met ” narks say, ” precipitation.” Good points ? —Dear Lord, how that car could go. It took not mush snore titan 29 sec. to reach the ” ton ” front rest and one could exceed the speed limit on a dry road with both, rear wheels still splinting in a aloud of tyre smoke
Such blip. compensates for a lot, and I hardly ever noticed the absence of brakes for the impatient anticipation of another burst or throttle. This car held the road really well and was not characterised by the conventional stiffness of suspension which spoilt so many ears. The use of alloys in the brake gear and a tubular front axle mounded :11./OVe the chassis gave a very low unsprung weight. I still think that quarter-ellipties combined with radius torque rods is the best method of suspenslieg the eonventional rear axle. I achieved my ambition and won the sports car race. EOY 8 still holds the lap record by 3 see. front ” Bira’s Delahaye, in 2 min. 9 see, Whorl the day was dose! I stood in the Paddock and watched the sums estrying down
over the skyline roof tops. Some prescience of coining events diet sited my thoughts ; ” this is tile twilight of peace.” it was August 26th. On September 3rd the golden years of motoring came to an end.
The advent of war brought the JaguarAlta deal back to where we came in. I could imagine only one thing worse than the Jaguar under such circumstances and that Was undoubtedly the blown Alta. Whilst on deferred service I busied Myself with Modifying the front end to UN. I used bits of Studebaker, Buick, and sundry other ears and the final result was fairly satisfactory. The day I h•ft for Cardingtort 11. found I had mounted the dampers too low when a bracket broke and I never had the opportunity to finish (lie job properly.
life as ail A.C.2. with pay at seven bob a day hardly stretched to such an expensive form of motoring, in fact it didn’t stretch at all. I shall glass swiftly over war-tinte motoring because at one time I landed up on shank’s pony. A Talbot Ten coupe replaced old XG4673 and was demolished against a stationary lorry one night. A Rover Twelve sports saloon did yenlitall service for the latter part of hostilities until I discovered the Citroen.
The milt of the Citroen in this country is post-war. Pre-1949 there was little appreciation and a fair amount of sales resistance. Ten years of austerity have certainly sorted out which are good ears suet which are bad. Popular acclaim slow rates the Citroen in the former category. My first Citroen was an early model : 1935 vintage ; but the basic, body-cumchassis structure has not been changed to this day. The snag with the old model was that iii a rather over-zealous effort to achieve perfect steering geometry there were three track rods, twin swinging arms and two separate steering boxes.. The hook-up was done with, a multitude of ball-joints. The resultant wear in all these components. which was fairly rapid sometimes. gave a steering ratio
not unlike that of a steam roller. It wasn’t until 1937 stud the rack and pinion that the problem was solved. Unfortunately the spares department never solved the problem . of my 1935 model so I very soon moved on to a 1939. lit due course I acquired a new Fifteen iii 1946 and on this car I drove 33,000 fairly hard miles. No dissertation on the Citroen could be complete Without mentions of the most notable feature of the car : its pltenomenal ability to go round corners. There is no theoretical reason why a front-wheel driven car should be any faster in this respect than a rear w tee I driven se it’. Nevertheless the perfornetnes• t’itro01 is not
iniaginary, and without wishing to get involved in any ” Citroen presse ” kind of argument there are a !neither of factors which contribute to the contention.
The track is the widest conunensurate with wheelbase of any car in the world. There is a minimum of unspntng weight on all wheels, the front being sitspouted independently by wishbones and the rear, except for the absence of drive. is pure de Dion. The rear axle beam is slightly flexible in torsion and the mounting of the radius itrIIIS snakes it an anti-roll bar. With 56 b.h.p. and 22 cwt. we have a good power/weight ratio. The centre of gravity is very low. It woidd indeed be remarkable if a car with all these stabilising features was unable to perform on corners.
The French nations is well served by the Maison Citroen because no Erenehnian ever drives a car any other way than that out. The harder one drives a Citroen the better it likes it I believe that the reason why the French ears give less trouble than the English version is because the car was never really designed for Ole amount of starting and stopping we have to do over here. ” Pave” and the ” Route National ” are where the Citroen scores. One would not expect nt f.w.d. car to be mit it.s best in snow or ice, but in the great freeze up a year or so ago I VMS staggered by the car’s ability to negotiate
Snow drifts-some even as high as the bonnet. however, there are some failings. Conversation at seventy is liable to provoke laryngitis, and the only people who could drive comfortably in hot weather would Shadrach. Meshach or A bednego. In order to keep the weight concentrated at the front most of the luggage must go on the roof. Driven fast the wear in the drive-shafts is excessive and they
are expensive to replace. However, I could best stuamarise my opinion of the Citroen by saying that it is only now that other cars of twice the price are beginning to compete with it.
Even with the passage of time my love for the par sang still thrives. (‘oncurrently–as they term the hest selltences—I ran several examples of the classic marques. Quite a few; Alfas passed through my bands, of which easily the most notable was t he ex-Bagratonni blown 2.6.” I don’t care what anyone says about these Alfas, but I maintain tI at they all oversteer ; part ienlarly the super-short-wheelbase jobs. I CV elltwiny improved I I LI ” 2.0 by fitting 6.00 by 18 wheels and tyres on the back but at round about the ” cent lay my heart was always in my mouth In spite Of the size of the drums the brakes were not very positive its they were inclined to bell-mouth with too much pedal pressure. There is no doubt though that it is the engine which really Ina kes these cars. No other equivalent unit can compare with it. AM() 999 had a Iwoseater body by Castagna which is lower than the ‘Zagato and more pleasii as to lite eye. The fin which streamlined the twin spare wheels was quite it-resist ible. always thought it added at least five hundred pounds to the value ! It saddens me to recall that I 011ly managed a silent ehange front first to second once out of three, at best. I drove many a happy mile on the ex-Elairieos ryp, itugatti. Bot
can’t help thinking that the Bugatti chasSis begins where the Alfa leaves off. I am no die-hard vintage enthusiast but I wonder how many modern sports ears ltaitdle as well as AUL 23. The driving position is so designed Dud it is just about right for the shortest as well as the tallest amongst us. You sit in the car rat her than on it and this pis motes confidence. III spite of the rat her odd reversal of the qtusrter-ellipt Ms al the back, the car somehow manages to understeer. Good as the engine is, it is not as smooth as the Alfa and thu prospect of any overhaul with all those rollers is posit ively frightening. The Alfa and the Ittigatti Mika; one thing in common at any rate ; it is the very devil to get it the earlacretters. If a dosed car is a sine qua non then the Type 578 Atlantic Bugatti has much to offer. This is, of eourse, the mildowil version with high compression. Timis. can have been few road cars with whicii have so often exceeded tla: ntagie It was quite effortless. Nevertheless. the motor was not very smooth and owing to the absence of proper insulation of t he bulkhead one was always with it. For some extraordinary reason it was %-irtually impossible to start it from cold by any other method than a towthere being no provision for cranking. We finally got this matter ninety per cent. sorted out by fitting a Ki-Gas with it separate pipe to each port. In spite of my unstinted appreciatiou or this car ray experience with it was on ! he whole rat her heartbreaking. As with a racing version, Nemesis arrived with the winter. On a run down from the North tile clutch eventually slipped so badly that I could make no progress at all. I kit the car in a garage and carefully took the precaution Of draining the radiator. Some weeks later it was towed home and sonic silly clot idly tried to start the engine. Subsequently it was found that the nuosneto
no longer rotated and Lite full extent of the catastrophe Wm apparent. Every Otte of the timing gears had stripped, necessitating it complete overhaul, which, as the Germans say. is some ” dienst.” I had forgotten to drain the water pump !
It is perliaps uncharitable to use the term ” sublime to the ridiculous,” bui FM; a wit( de year I used a Morris Oxford (the choke of slid-ti a period was liaison’s its Uri signed the eiiv(‘nant). 1 Must say that for anyone in no great hurry I In: Oxford is a very good car. The suspension is soft and comfortable, but the rather high centre of gravity precludes any rapid cornering. The rack and pillion steering is extremely light and positive and is an outstanding feature. Unfortunately the engine. though exceptionally smooth and quiet, is not really powerful enough to pull a fairly high gear. The overall impression is of a rather ” horseless ” carriage. For those like Insmslf with no time for dilly-dallying the Morris Six, which I have now, is the better bet. The very pract aid hotly is the same as the Oxford
except It lim• extra length accommodating the engine. This engine I firmly I elieve could stand comparison with many more eXpensive units and it propels the car at 1 he impressi Ns• 11185 ifUMil 01 82.5 m.p.h..
All this talk nowadays of ban.e.p., piston area. piston speed. and the like, has undoubtedly had an influence on inalltifacturers and Buy tire now producing engines wit It rail ter steep power curves. This may be all right for the grandes routes tort I wonder whether it is quite the titing for the home country? Never have I done so iituclt gear changing. It has been said I lett the racing car of today is the touring car of tomorrow. Bearing in mind the 13.11.M. we might well address the industry with the eternal
qf lest ion, ” Quo vadis ? goest thou ?