Veteran-Edwardian-Vintage, February 1957

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A section devoted to old-car matters, both current and contemporary

Fifty Years of a Nobody’s Motoring

Back in the dim ages, as far as my memory serves me, my first recollection is of a de Dion Bouton which my father used to take out on our country roads, by himself, despite the fact that he was very unpopular with various friends, who still rode in their carriages, because the horses would leap for the nearest hedge as he careered by. I have only the haziest memories of this, in those days, formidable vehicle as I was very young at the time; I think it was about 1900.

Raleigh motor-cycles are the next recollection. Father was then Works Manager of the Raleigh Cycle Company and although he had become very famous as a long-distance racing cyclist and holder of many records, he was very keen on developing the motor-cycle side of their business and often used to drive to the works on one. This machine had the engine over the front wheel. I used to meet him on his return, at the end of our long drive, and get a ride home. This consisted of my being hoisted into the saddle and father running beside holding the handlebars, the engine tuff-tuffing away in great style. To me it was Heaven; to Dad heavy exercise. He finally developed a very good and reliable motor-bicycle and managed to make a Land’s End-to-John o’ Groats record on it. The engine by then had got to the conventional position in the frame, between the wheels, and even had a two-speed gear. It was, I think, well ahead of its time.

A few years later father became Works Manager of Beeston-Humber, and my car-education really began. Humbers were making various models, of which I can remember a 30-h.p. four-cylinder and an even larger six-cylinder which had a round radiator and bonnet, rather like the early Delauney-Belville of those days.

I still waited at the end of the drive, but now it was very different. The firm’s testers used the main road outside, and, knowing me, would often stop, and in I would get. I say “in”: it was really “on,” as the body was only a light wooden test seat bolted on to the chassis. Away we would go, with considerable noise and no windscreen or doors—a small boy’s paradise.

I also used to get occasional trips with our family doctor, on his rounds, in a small Humber, which I think was a single-cylinder, but it hadn’t the thrill of the big test jobs.

I did my first long run when Dad took the family up to London for a few days’ holiday in one of the big sixes; we passed every car we came across on the road, Dad made certain of that! In 1907 he took a Beeston-Humber team to the Isle of Man, and himself won the Heavy Car Race driving a 30-h.p. four-cylinder model.

Later my parent became Works Manager of Clement-Talbot at Ladbroke Grove and we moved to London. By then I was at a boarding school, but my holidays were spent as much as possible at the Ladbroke Grove works. Talbots made various models, both four- and six-cylinder, ranging from 12 to 25-h.p. They had a very complete team of racers of all sizes and competed in the hill-climbs of the day, and at Brooklands. The car of all cars was the single-seater 25-h.p. four-cylinder of 101.5 by 140 mm. The well-known racing driver and motor-agent, Percy Lambert, drove it for the firm at Brooklands, and won various races and broke many records. He was my idol, and I shall never forget him. I went down to Brooklands many times when the “25 ” was being tried out there, and on one never-forgotten day was driven there from our home on Putney Common, perched on the narrow tail behind Lambert’s head, my father following behind in our own “25 ” in case I became unshipped! However all was well, although police traps were numerous in those days and the Brooklands’ silencer wasn’t even invented, so Percy kept the revs. well down.

Percy Lambert was the first man ever to put 100 miles into one hour, which he did to the tune of nearly 104 miles in 60 minutes; a plaque to commemorate the feat was placed on a wall at Brooklands. Many in those days tried to accomplish this. I remember Hornsted in an enormous Benz which then held the flying mile record at 127 m.p.h., and which was many times the size of the Talbot. But it was one thing to do 127 m.p.h. over a short distance and quite another to run all-out for one hour, so the Benz never made it.

The Talbot could still stand further tuning and in its final form it lapped at 114/115 m.p.h., doing over 120 down the embankment straight. I rather think that the stroke had been increased to 150 mm., but I am not certain if it was on this car or another 25-h.p. racing car at the works. Tragedy finally overtook Percy Lambert while attempting to beat his own 104 miles in the hour. The car had found still more horses and soon settled down and I believe the 50-mile World record was broken at an average of about 112 or so [110.96 m.p.h.—Ed.]. Then a back tyre burst not long after passing the Vickers’ fork and the cover in some way worked inside the wheel rim and jammed a back brake. After various complete circles, with Percy Lambert fighting for control all the time, she went up to the top of the banking just before the Members’ bridge. By then all “way” had been practically stopped, and if only the car could have gone on over the top of the banking at the low speed, Percy Lambert would probably have got away with it. As it was the car stopped on the rim, and then, owing to the angle, toppled over, finally coming to rest on all four wheels at the bottom of the banking with practically no damage. Lambert broke his neck when she turned over; he was unable to get out quickly as the single-seater narrow body had been specially made for him and was a tight fit. My father, by virtue of a self-starter, a rarity then, on his own “25,” was the first person to reach him, but it was all over. I believe the car was later driven home under its own power, there was so little damage …

We did a lot or motoring in those pre-1914 days in our own “25,” which, being the Works Manager’s, was a good ‘un!  Although a standard model it was really tuned and there cannot have been many cars on the road then which could show it a back view. As far as I know Dad was never passed in it; he certainly wasn’t when I was a passenger. I recall holiday trips down to the West Country, Devon or Cornwall, with myself sitting beside father and my mother in the back in an enormous veiI tied tightly on, and surrounded by luggage. One summer he came down to my school and took three pals and me out on the Bath Road. The speedometer needle went up and up, the back passengers all leaning over the front seat to watch, and on it went to the speedometer’s limit-80 m.p.h. This was real speed on the road in 1912/13, and back at school my stock rose to considerable heights!

The self-starter mentioned earlier was a curious contraption, a large circular brass cover mounted on the front where a normal starting handle had been, rather like the dynamo cover on a Speed Six Bentley. Inside, believe it or not, was a very strong clockwork spring. This was, for the initial start, wound up by handle; on pressing a starter-switch on the dash the spring proceeded to wind the engine round, and as soon as she fired the engine in turn wound the spring up again, and a ratchet-release left it wound up, ready for the next occasion. It was quite simple and worked well, in fact I don’t ever remember it packing up. I cannot remember the name of the makers.

The car was never raced, although father did drive it on various occasions on Brooklands, the speedometer needle hard up against the stop down the Railway straight, at well over 80 m.p.h.

I had a thrill once on that same straight in another Talbot, one of the racing team, a two-seater of, I think, 15-h.p. I was a passenger with one of the firm’s drivers, and a plug blew out and went straight through the bonnet top with a noise like a supersonic bang! We were lapping at about 80 m.p.h. at the time and drove the rest of the way to the tuning sheds on the three remaining cylinders!

I only once competed in a hill-climb in those early days, not as a driver, I was too young, but as ballast in one of the Talbot hill-climb cars at Aston Clinton. I believe we did best in our class. I did, however, drive our own Talbot, against all rules and regulations, one school holiday, in Richmond Park, for a mile or two, with my father keeping an anxious lookout for cops.

In August 1914 we were staying for holidays, with the “25,” at Swanage, and I can still remember a fast ascent of Kingston Hill close to Swanage, the big car tearing round the bends and Dad doing beautiful work with the heavy brass gear-lever. War broke out and that was that. Dad sent a telegram to the War Office, unknown to my mother, as he was a retired Volunteer Officer, and he received orders almost forthwith to proceed to Aldershot to become second in command of a Kitchener’s Army Infantry Battalion. The “25” proceeded at high speed back to London and I went to an Army Tutor’s for Sandhurst, as I had just left Marlborough.

In spite of the war, a new motoring excitement at once came my way. I met the late E. A. D. Eldridge, who was at the same establishment in Lexham Gardens as myself. “E. A. D.” was a wonderful driver even then, and having, I think, family riches, had a quite imposing stable. He often came to work from his home in Harrow in the family 40/50 Rolls-Royce open touring model. He possessed a very “hot” Morgan three-wheeler and two motor-cycles, a Rudge drop-frame T.T. model and a Triumph single which had a twin-plug head. All of these he drove at high speed and he was equally at home in the Rolls or the Morgan. I journeyed many miles with him in both cars and enjoyed every minute of it, and it was obvious to all then that he would get to the top, as of course he did. Even in those early days he was very keen to have a go at the cycle-car hour-record, and he must have been considered good as I remember that J.A.P. put a special engine in the Morgan and tuned it for him. It went like the wind, but the war put paid to any attacks on the record. By then I had acquired a driving licence—I was over 17! “E. A. D.” let me ride both the Rudge and the Triumph, but not drive the Rolls or the Morgan.

The time came in 1915 when I went to Sandhurst and never saw “E. A. D.” again. At Sandhurst I had the only lucky win of my life, I won a motorbike in a 10s. raffle. This was a twin Rex of 5/6-h.p. with a curious form of valve gear and a Roe two-speed gear. It motored quite well, and I rode it home to Putney after I had passed out, and later to Felixstowe where I was stationed. There a brother officer fell in love with it and I did a level swap for his 2 ¾-h.p. Royal-Enfield, which, although much smaller, was much younger, so I hoped I had got the better bargain.

I then went out to France, leaving behind the Royal-Enfield. A year later I was back again, in hospital, and later, on light duty, I hankered after something really large and fearsome. I saw a 7/9-h.p. Road Racer Indian for sale in Godfrey’s and did a part-exchange for the Royal-Enfield, only having to add a fiver for the Indian. This enormous machine had a single gear, and a clutch operated by a long lever in a quadrant on the right side of the tank. The drill was to open the twist-grip throttle a little, put the clutch lever at half position in the quadrant, and then push like hell. Just as one was nearly exhausted the big machine would fire and a frenzied leap was made into the saddle, the clutch lever pulled right back, and away you sped. It was a lovely machine and I have never, in spite of its weight and height, known better steering with the dropped racing-type bars, which were also adjustable. If a steep hill was encountered you could slip the clutch a little and hope for the best, but the big engine had such power that it could climb most things. I was then posted to India and didn’t see my Road Racer again for a couple of years. In India I had no bike, but did ride an exciting four-cylinder Henderson owned by a pal; it was even larger and heavier than my Indian. Here I also had a ride in an enormous V-Six Packard owned by a local Rajah.

On my return I used the Road Racer on leave and rode it to my next home station, eventually selling it. I then bought a 5/6 twin Indian with a three-speed gear, but I never liked it as much as the old 7/9 and finally sold it, then went abroad for a couple of years again. On returning I married and went to New Zealand, my wife’s home country, in 1922.

Another phase of motoring now came my way. I call it the American era. We started off by buying an old 27-h.p. Buick two-seater with detachable dickey seat for two at the back. This model had a right-hand gear-change and also no valve cover to the o.h. valves, wooden wheels, and, of course, no front-wheel brakes. It had already done a considerable mileage with a doctor friend, but it motored beautifully over the then very rough New Zealand up-country roads and we frequently used to do a 250-mile run to a small township in Central Otago, over real rough roads and tracks a lot of the way. We later bought a new Paige-Jewett open four-seater also of 27-h.p. and had some very good fun with it. For its type it was fast in those days and, like the Buick, at home on bad roads.

Each year the Otago Hill-Climb was held outside Dunedin and attracted many and various types of sports cars and hotted-up tourers. This was the first time that I really heard a Bugatti in action. A Brescia came down, I think, from Christchurch, and did fastest-time-of-the-day. The hill was exciting. It was a short cut up the hillside of one mile, with various hairpins, the road going more or less through the middle of a farmyard half-way up, and with a maximum gradient of, if my memory serves me right, something in the neighbourhood of 1-in-4. We had a go with the Jewett and my wife managed a very fast time in the ladies’ class. Another year more records were broken, and amongst others a 12/50 Alvis and an interesting small Beardmore with an o.h.c. engine made their appearance.

Then beach racing started not far from Dunedin and all and sundry had a go. The cream here consisted of two racing Sunbeams, owned by a New Zealand enthusiast, a four-cylinder T.T. type and a straight-eight Grand Prix model. I was taken for a run in the straight-eight and we got up to the 90s. The course was an oval, with one-mile straights, and round a barrel sunk in the sand at each end. Cornering was terrific and sand flew in all directions with dire results on covers and on the machinery generally. Chrysler two-seaters were then well to the fore, winning several races in the touring classes. As we had then sold the Jewett four-seater and had bought a Jewett coupe, we borrowed a friend’s open Jewett for this event. The silencer was removed and with a roar almost as good as the Sunbeam’s we did our best, but the Chryslers had the edge on us and we only got a third place. Another interesting car here was an Austin 20-h.p. sports, driven by a local trader, but it had an off-day. Another friend in the trade hotted up a Jewett, put a narrow two-seater body on it and shortened the frame as well, to do which he had also to shorten the prop.-shaft. The car went well and I drove it on a few occasions, but it could never cope with the real racing stuff, and as it wasn’t allowed in the touring classes, it just didn’t fit anywhere. It performed well in the hill-climb, thanks to its shortened chassis, but again was not geared right for the hill. It was the fastest Jewett, however, I ever drove, and could go something better than 85 m.p.h. As a sideline I owned a 17C Norton for a short time; this was the colonial version of the 16H, then equipped with a side-valve engine and a raised frame. It was a good machine but although I fitted a Binks carburetter and a straight-through copper exhaust pipe which gave a lovely note, I only used it for home-to-work runs. It was my last motorbike. In Dunedin I again saw a 12-cylinder Packard, the same model as I had driven in India, and I had an exciting drive on one occasion, having been loaned a Stutz Bearcat for a day which belonged to my local garage.

After this we returned to the U.K. and eventually I joined a small motor firm in London as a salesman-demonstrator. It was unfortunately shortlived, but before it closed down I drove a lot of types, from 40/50 Rolls to Austin Seven. An interesting small sports car there was a Mathis, with a six-cylinder o.h.c. engine, but as it only possessed a three-bearing crankshaft it was a much better “looker” than performer. The pillarbox-red Amilcars, of which we sold one or two, were much more potent. But it was here that I got back, as it were, to Brooklands, because we had A. F. Ashby as our Works Manager. He was gradually building up a name for himself with his Riley Redwing. This car he tuned up extremely well, and on several occasions took me down to Brooklands with him to practise and tune-up. I think his first success with it was to win the Disabled Drivers’ Race at a speed which completely bowled out the handicappers. When the firm broke up I lost touch with him.

Later I joined a well-known oil company as a county representative, but illness eventually cut that short. One interesting job I had there was to take a drum of oil to Welwyn Garden City to be tested in the famous 4½-litre blower Bentleys at Dorothy Paget’s workshop run by Clive Gallop and Tim Birkin. I had the great privilege of meeting them both and seeing the 4½s on test. At this time I had a Morris-Cowley two-seater, fitted an aluminium cylinder head, and had a lot of fun. The performance was stepped-up considerably, and it would definitely out-motor any normal Morris and many other cars. It performed particularly well on long rises, keeping up 40/45 in top while others were well down to the 30s in a lower gear. After this I ran an 11.9 Clyno for a time, a very good little car indeed in its day. It was also an excellent hill-climber and had a more comfortable and better-looking two-seater body than the Morris-Cowley and four-wheel brakes, the front drums larger than the rear ones.

Soon after this I got a secondhand 12/50 Super Sports Alvis beetleback. I got it in London through friends in the trade, and I was informed, as I took it over, that it was a big-port model and could really go! It certainly could, as I found out when I drove it back to Bath, where we were living at the time. On arrival we stripped the engine down, decoked, etc., and fitted a Klinger high-compression gasket, and it again out-motored many of its own family. It was the outside exhaust type, black with red wheels and chassis, etc., and I had a very happy two years, in which I did a lot of motoring at high cruising speed, and it never let me down; 3,000 r.p.m. was 60 m.p.h., which the car would cruise at all day, and I could get a genuine 70/75 m.p.h. when required. The exhaust note was a joy, and the good old Alvis crackle could be heard through the fish-tail at anything over 40, in top, but one had to be very careful in steep and narrow streets such as in Bath, where, down to second gear, it caused startled looks from all and sundry, unless the revs. were kept down. Petrol consumption was very low in spite of the big Solex, and oil consumption, as they say was negligible. I often wonder if YK348 is still going.

My next interesting experience lasted for a day, in a very different type of car. Friends in the trade asked me if I would take a Rolls-Royce Continental Phantom II to Brooklands for the day, where the car had been hired by a film company. I collected two photographers and away we went. I drove them to Brooklands and round the Track, as they wanted to see what it was like at speed, and so did I. It was perfect, but a bit different from the Alvis. The film company had taken the entire lunch-room at the Flying Club and we had an excellent free lunch, afterwards watching a Moth do several landings with the leading-lady as a passenger, while the cameras did their stuff. My turn with the Phantom then came. The scene was not on the Track but through the woodlands between the entrance road and tunnel. I had to drive, with the leading-lady sitting in the back seat, past a row of cameras. The first time I did it I went too slowly for them, so did a second run at much higher speed. This, however, was too fast. but a third run did the trick, and after this I drove the photographers back to town, unfortunately without the leading-lady! It was a good day, but somehow I missed seeing the film. It was called, I think, “Zigane.” That was about my last encounter with vintage cars, although I subsequently drove many post-vintage thoroughbreds such as a 3½-litre Bentley, Rolls-Royce, etc., as well as a 3-litre Bentley, and my present car is a 1933 L-type M.G. Magna sports saloon. — Major L. P. Mills.