My year's motoring

The Editor looks back on the cars he drove during 1952

The year 1952 opened with the 10,000th mile coming up on the mileage-recorder of the Morgan Plus Four two-seater I was using for editorial duties as I drove over Staines Bridge on the first, day of January. But enough has appeared, before and since that date in these pages, about the Morgan to justify no further reference to the car, except to remark that, minor defects met, it has provided brisk, willing, enjoyable transport and has always commenced promptly and has never once let me down on any journey. Not so much as a puncture has been experienced, although the Dunlops were run well beyond their allotted span. I was genuinely sorry when going down to watch the London M.C. Gloucester Trial last December, I met polished ice round a left-band bend on the otherwise dry safe road out of Stroud and, having got the Morgan out of a series of sudden, exciting gyratons I was  then on the wrong side of the road and went slap into a large farm lorry. That spoilt not only a car which had been a staunch, if sometimes temperamental, companion over eighteen months but did the same to a twenty-years’ claim-free record. I survived the horrid impact better than I should have thought possible, perhaps because, having started out at 5.30 a.m. I was wearing an astonishing number of clothes. Moreover, things might have been much worse and everyone, the village policeman particularly, was kindness itself. I retain a memento of this unhappy experience as I write these lines—a cracked and bent Conway Stewart fountain pen which was in my breast-pocket at the time; it works better now than before the impact, and I only wish I could have said the same of the Morgan.

Although it is not my intention to enlarge on the Plus Four on this occasion, I recall that, before any other car came along for me to drive, there were some very satisfactory runs in the “personal transport,” including that home to Hampshire in the early hours after attending a “Midnight Matinee” at the Curzon Cinema, out to Aylesbury and back to a Humber Register onslaught on the old Kop Hill, then to Denham and the pleasant surprise of finding a very good attendance there for the inaugural rally of the Vintage Aeroplane Club in spite of the date being in January and the wind icy. There was also the afternoon-and-evening run to Llandrindrod to see the Monte Carlo competitors go through, a leaden sky suggestive of an exciting snowstorm coming to nothing, although ice made the roads of Wales suitably slippery. This reminds me that we had been to the same parts a fortnight before, so that Lush could refresh his memory of the Rally route and we could see something of the V.S.C.C. Measham Rally. On that occasion we used an uninspiring but staunch Ford Eight van—and never dreamed that we were being driven by a member of the team which subsequently won the Rally outright for Britain !

The next diversion was a brief but spectacular ride beside Frank Kennington in a road-equipped version of a genuine 2.9-litre formerly-monoposto Alfa-Romeo. Moreover, we raced about the roads around Weybridge where fifteen years earlier such cars were a common sight—can it be that  long since Brooklands Track was denied to us ?

The next diversion was a journey to Lymington—where the Al-fin brake drums come from—and back in a vintage H.E. Six tourer, an experience all the more welcome for being unexpected and on account of the rarity of the mount. The run home embraced an experience both embarrassing and amusing. The fabric-bodied H.E. got along at a handsome 50 m.p.h. or so and my companion kept it bowling. After a time we were conscious of a big Humber on our stern-sheets, which had insufficient reserve of acceleration to pass us; but kept close to us for mile after mile. When it eventually came past, the front-seat occupants seemed interested to define the make of our car: their Humber was followed by a police Wolseley and it then dawned on us that it contained the Duke of Windsor, returning to his homeland for his brother’s funeral.

The first road-test of 1952 concerned a Citroën Six saloon. It was deemed a very good motor car by all who tried it and it “won my heart,”  so that I was truly sorry when Citroën’s man came to collect it. As our road-test report explained, this was a modern car endowed with the invaluable traction avant, yet with most of the desirable vintage characteristics built in. It is a big car, with lots of room within, of which the best use could be made by reason of the flat floor. No gold, I suppose, can be refined by the addition of gilt, and the Citroën has perhaps not the best of gear-changes, and would be improved by a four-speed gearbox. But it is a very fine machine, which one desperately wants to take on a long Continental run. A stone hurled savagely front the back wheels of a 2-1/2-litre Riley we were chasing rendered the toughened safety glass of the screen opaque. But we readily forgave the Citroën Six that, especially as a Citroën employee of long standing arrived the very next morning in a Light Fifteen with a nice new screen–and shared our enthusiasm for all f.w.d. Citroens while he fitted it.

Soon afterwards came vivid contrast, when I took Jeddere Fisher’s 1924 11.9 Lagonda coupé through the V.S.C.C. Light Car section of the M.C.C. Land’s End Trial.  Quite frankly I never expected this odd little small car, with its fascinating i.o.e. engine, to get up any of the hills, yet it failed me momentarily on one only, and the way it came home in its owner’s hands was a revelation in how a vintage light car can be made to cover the ground. Of course, this wasn’t a specimen straight out of a breaker’s yard or dealer’s emporium, for Jeddere had lavished much care on it, as had Ronald Barker before him. But this little car, with its substantial drophead body, was in original condition and possessed back brakes only and it did go uncommonly well, very wide-spaced gear ratios notwithstanding.

During this full but satisfying holiday weekend, which terminated with Goodwood racing per Morgan, I also drove Jeddere’s Lancia Lambda, with dire mechanical results which I maintain were not my fault. I had a Lambda during the war and have ever since said that one day I must have another. That was in the Good Old Days, so I paid £15 for mine, with two decent batteries, and when it called for fresh tyres two sound wheels shod with practically unused Michelin ” Zig Zags ” were found quite easily and cost me £1 each!

I sometimes see this Lancia Lambda of mine today and it is far, far smarter than when I used to motor it from one R.A.F. aerodrome (pardon! airfield) to another on Ministry of Aircraft Production petrol coupons and a good deal of faith and hope.

To revert to 1952, a-pre-war Fiat 500 came-up for test next, loaned by Mayfair Garages, who specialise in these little cars. Before going to collect this Topolino  I expected to find that I had outgrown, in a mental rather than a physical sense, I hope, a baby not sampled for many years. On the contrary, I enjoyed every mile I drove the Fiat, the reason, I think, being that it is a tiny car designed from the first stroke of pencil on paper as a handy economy vehicle. The Fiat is truly small, yet roomy within. It naturally isn’t fast, but its excellent roadholding and charming four-speed gearbox get it along well enough for most needs. It abounds with ingenious features spelling light weight, economy of construction or both, and it motors so effectively on a side-valve engine of only 570 c.c. capacity that there is food for thought as to why our latest economy car needs 230 c.c. more and o.h. valves. The Fiat baby, Mouse, Topolino, what you will, was intended as a two-seater, I know, but the exceedingly covetable 500C station-wagon of today seats four and the luggage, and, although the valves have climbed aloft, the capacity stays at this modest 570 c.c.

The car I tried didn’t quite achieve the hoped-for 50 m.p.g., but it did give a steady (and genuine) 47 m.p.g., very useful these days when our politicians rob us of 2s. 6d. out of every little gallon. So impressed was a friend by our write-up that he soon afterwards acquired a second-hand pre-war “500,” which, after an engine overhaul, gives similar satisfaction and service, not to mention economy. Mayfair Garages wrote a letter of thanks after my story had appeared, which was nice of them, but the fact remains that our test-reports are written to serve our readers and not those interested in selling cars. When a car proves so satisfactory that no adverse criticism is necessary and both parties like what they read, no one is happier than the Editor.

About this time, following a pleasant weekend at Spa for the Grand Prix, whither we went in a Transair Avro Anson, I got out from its winter hibernation my venerable 1926 Delaunay-Belleville. This car may resemble an early London taxi to the uninitiated and collect appropriate cat-calls accordingly, but it happens to be in remarkably fine mechanical order, the compression is so good that, trying for it with the precision-fitting starting handle, the first impression is that the four 80-mm. bore cylinders beneath the Bentley-like overhead camshaft have seized solid. Two Lucas batteries make light of turning the engine over and on the occasion in question, after draining the sump and refilling with fresh Shell oil, we trundled off to London-town to meet some of the charming cast of the forthcoming Gilbert and Sullivan film who were following one of the last trams to run in London, wielding their collecting-boxes for that worthy cause, the Infantile Paralysis Fellowship.

The Delaunay-Belleville refuses to be hurried and on this joyous occasion was left far behind by the Edwardian contingent—John Bolster’s 1911 Rolls-Royce and Lord Charnwood’s Coupe de l’Auto  Delage in which rode one of the youngest and prettiest of the actresses. Late that night the D-B. was put to bed amongst the blancmange-shapes in a London garage, preparatory to its owner flying to Rouen for the Grand Prix. From the course after the race we enjoyed a truly meteoric ride in an aged Mercedes-Benz ‘bus dripping with humanity, noted even more aged 7.5 Citroën and 7/17 Peugeots near the aerodrome, replaced parts of the Anson which sightseers had removed (I think they assumed that the machine had force-landed and were intrigued by our” Royal Mail” insignia !), and then made Rouen to Croydon in 75 minutes.

Here I may digress to remark that Motor Sport’s  private charter air trips have gone off remarkably well and have never failed to return the Editor to his Monday-morning desk, or “copy” to the night compositors. True, we have had our experiences, as when a cabin hatch blew out with a loud report over the Channel, the thunderstorm over the Massif Centrale when returning from Barcelona in 1951, and a fearsome gale as we returned from Dundrod, the only other aeroplane seen on that memorable occasion being an Auster going in the opposite direction at what looked to be 300 m.p.h. — newspaper reports suggest that it may have been the one which had a mild tumble on landing. But Transair have always brought us back alive and their Mr. Nunn does us proud on these hustling occasions.

Back to mere cars, I see that hereabouts I made three consecutive visits to Silverstone, respectively in the Delaunay-Belleville, a Buckler Special and the Morgan Plus Four. I do not know which was the quickest but I do know which occupied the longest time.

Soon after this we did some timed and fuel consumption tests with C. D. F. Buckler’s own Buckler Special and appreciated its very good road-clinging qualities, and what a willing power unit is the Ford Ten providing it isn’t asked to lug around too much avoirdupois.

An A.C. Buckland tourer appeared at the office during August and proved to be another modern with vintage characteristics, rather more literally so than in the pre-instanced case of the Citroën Six. One felt that the A.C.’s triple carburetter, light-alloy o.h.c. six-cylinder engine would have given better acceleration if not harnessed to a rather weighty car; as it was the lower ratios had to be used a good deal but this was no hardship with a sensible remote central change. But this A.C.,  which had covered a considerable mileage before I tried it, two Continental tours included, was one of those cars which felt as if it would keep going for a very long time with a minimum of servicing and finicky attention. The ladies admired it, too, and it gave my wife a chance to watch some of the after-dark practice for the B.A.R.C. Nine Hours Race, which was an important innovation of 1952. Going down to Goodwood on race day in the same car, I was able to appreciate, during that freak cloudburst which luckily broke an hour before the start, that this open car is truly weatherproof with hood and sidescreens erect, the Buckland having a very well-appointed body.

Next on the list for test was a very smart, left-hand drive Volkswagen. I loved every minute I spent behind the wheel of this rear-engined, air-cooled vehicle. It handled very well indeed in spite of being rear-engined, the gear-change was slow but a joy to use, and the car possessed so many sensible features, besides being notably comfortable and giving 37 m.p.g. The car I tried was Colbourne-Baber’s personal Volkswagen—he operates a business in Surrey reconditioning these cars for which the German people paid but never saw (not Baber’s fault!)  — and very smart it was, in two shades of blue. This car comes into the category of those I’m truly reluctant to return—they are not so frequent—and which, given the chance, I would take home and treat to a Marley garage all to themselves. No automobile yet built has been perfect but, given hydraulic brakes like the later models, this Volkswagen, in its class, was nearly so.

Before I returned his car to Colbourne-Baber I blew away any cobwebs I might have been harbouring in trying to drive Dr. Gerald Ewen’s 1908 G.P. Itala.  I write “trying” advisedly, for while I did the mighty mechanism no harm, I should have to go much farther than from Twickenham to Chobham to get the hang of this very exciting car—one of the really stimulating Edwardians. Yet in its owner’s hands it is as docile as a vintage Jowett.

My affections went out next to a baby Renault, rear-engined with the latest 750-c.c. power unit. It took some time to become acclimatised but after that I loved this sensible four-seater, four-door economy saloon, which did 45 miles on every gallon of Pool no matter how hard I hoofed it on the throttle pedal. And, hoofing, how that Renault could go!  I recall with pleasure a run home from Southampton, when I wanted my tea, and we picked off the bigger cars one by one, often because Renault roadholding, coupled with its small dimensions, let me nip by where others caressed the brake. The rear-placed engine (which made two small boys open their eyes very wide when I opened the boot !) does promote more than customary over-steer but this is never disconcerting. The Volkswagen handled better, if it is permissible to compare two Continentals of similar layout tried consecutively. But the Renault was a used specimen and I am anxious to sample again a new car from Acton. Both, in any case, were a pleasure to drive, and only the modern Morris Minor is comparable amongst economy cars from this side of the Channel.

I remember that I drove to the office in the Renault, handed over to a colleague, and late that afternoon set off in a Ford Consul with a photographer for the racing at Charterhall. I had been told that a Consul has excellent roadholding and cornering qualities and it has, although not in quite the high degree that the aforesaid small Continentals have. But the steering is smooth and accurate, the roll and over-steer controlled, added to which an-indicated 70m.p.h. can be held indefinitely, driving is entirely effortless and fuel consumption modest. There is bags of room for persons and bags and there is the world-wide Ford service behind this car. I will confess that I don’t much like looking at a Consul, yet were I in the market for a family car, I’d look no farther. We got to our hotel at Hawick in the very early hours and the day after the racing I pelted back from Scotland to London and home to Hampshire as hard as the Consul would go, but it never faltered. Ford’s publicity department said it was an early model and had done a big mileage and, please, I wasn’t to be critical. Heavens, I don’t see what there was to criticise. True, pressing on through London on the outward journey, eye on watch (the other must have been watching the road ahead and the mirror for cops !) wondering just when  I’d see a bed again, I got a nasty shock. The engine faltered and the brisk Consul pick-up faded away. The snag was soon apparent—a detached h.t. lead. If Ford Publicity considers that a defect, all I can say is, spare them from some Press cars of other makes that are presented smilingly for trial.

During Show Time, merry Earls Court time, I went vintage temporarily, with a loaned 1925 Morris Oxford two-seater. I was wary of this at first, because it had no oil-gauge and wouldn’t go on a de-amped battery. But it served mightily well over a long weekend and I crave further experience of the breed, if only for the luxury of that sure, silent commencement by dynamotor—after the battery had taken unto itself some charge. If some of you saw it stationary in awkward places during Brighton Run Sunday, that was due to a cussed habit it had of running its gravity fuel tank bone-dry but needing two gallons before it would prime, whereas we carried but a one-gallon tin.

A Ford Zephyr and a Bristol 401 came along for test almost simultaneously, so we went into Wales with the former and to Land’s End in the latter. My impressions of both appeared last month, so there is no need to reiterate so soon, except to say that the Ford is a first-rate car in its class and the Bristol first rate by any standards. The Bristol has been chided by other writers because its 2-litre engine calls for a good deal of gear-changing. To me, and the friend who accompanied me, that was no drawback and seems complementary to the Bristol’s exclusive character. Other scribes have found fault with the heaviness of the brakes and with that I agree, but my friend thought the reverse applied, and liked them. So there you have it. In future, whenever I see a Bristol 401 I shall respect it as a truly great motor car. If I had £2,000 to spare (oh is there purchase tax in addition ?), I wouldn’t hesitate to motor in a Bristol and certainly there is no finer automotive possession, because when you are not indulging in the epicurean pleasure of driving it there are all those fascinating fitments and controls to demonstrate to discerning friends.

For my sins, or those of a council which did not sand its icy roads, I “lost” the Morgan and as a substitute borrowed a Type 34 1-1/2-litre twin-Solex Fraser Nash-B.M.W. Outwardly here was a smart cabriolet in typical German style but wear had destroyed many of the fine qualities I remembered the B.M.W. to possess from experience pre-war of Type 45 and Type 55 cars. The transmission “clonked,” third gear jumped out, there were feet of play in the steering and the brakes pulled oddly to the left, while clearly no dampers remained on the suspension, so that driving had something of the uncertainty of controlling a small boat on a choppy sea. To an insurance company this sort of vehicle is only just becoming a bad risk on account of its age, yet I was refused cover by a well-known broker on my Delaunay-Belleville, with its taut steering and four-square brakes, because it had committed the crime of surviving in good order for over a quarter of a century!  Actually, this B.M.W. got along well enough and would even start in top gear as a stunt, while the engine revved very willingly and made exciting sounds; beneath its hard-worn mechanicals you could perceive the good features of its hey-day and the charm of a lively small six-cylinder engine in a lightweight car, and so readily does one become acclimatised to the car that subsequent motoring in the B.M.W. was almost enjoyable. Was it ominous, however, that all the toolbox contained was two tyre-levers and a tow-rope ?

Last on the 1952 list is a tuned Jowett Javelin in which I journeyed, appropriately enough, to the Jowett factory at Idle (where the flat-twin emblem which once formed the Jowett radiator badge occupies a place of honour on the walls of the office block), and thence to the R.A.C. Championship Trial. This Javelin went much faster than it suggested to the driver, covering long distances effortlessly and really quickly, as I perceived when determinedly-driven Rolls-Bentleys took many miles to come by and other Javelins (presumably untuned) fell away astern. The heater maintained a sensible interior temperature and a proper thermometer and oil gauge were fitted as extras, although they were out of range of the instrument lighting. The ride was outstandingly comfortable, the brakes effective and altogether this attractive, practical saloon appealed to me as offering very good transport, if not possessing over-much “character.” After nights in the frosty open it started reasonably well, if by grace of a good battery, and in petrol consumption and cruising speed it reminded me, as I traversed the same sections of the Great North Road, of the Consul. Consequently, I am interested to discover from contemporary data that the normal Javelin is appreciably faster, accelerates better and is more economical of fuel, although, of course, it is basically £225 more expensive.

The year 1952 certainly provided its full share of motoring entertainment and erudition. Now for 1953! — W. B.