Cars I Have Owned
by C.L. Wills
Being half-Irish, I suppose I can be excused if I say my first car was a motor-cycle: I was still at school when I bought my first mechanically-propelled vehicle—a 500-c.c. Quadrant. This had a surface carburetter. an inclined engine, and Coil ignition.The difficulty was starting on a cold morning. I got over this by putting the flame of a blow-lamp on the induction pipe. I had a lot of fun on this bike, which had belt-drive and no clutch.
Eventually. I sold it to buy a Fairey. This was the predecessor of the Douglas and was made. I believe, by Douglas Bros., who were boot-manufacturing machinery makers. It had at horizontally-opposed, twin-cylinder engine, the snag being that the engine was mounted in the diamond frame by bolts through lugs on the cylinder heads. As the crankcase was unsupported and the cylinders were screwed into it, heavy torque, as in hill-climbing, caused the crankcase to turn slightly, the cylinders to go out of line, and the whole thing to seize up. It was great fun, on a wet night, taking the engine to bits on the road and re-aligning the cylinders. (When Douglas took over they cured the trouble by mounting the engine in the frame by the crankcase.) There was chain-drive from the engine to countershaft and a round leather belt to the back wheel.
My next vehicle was a de Dion tricycle which was converted to a side-by-side two-seater. It had the engine slung behind the back axle, with direct drive by pinion, and no clutch, A brake was fitted on the differential casing, like two turns of a coil-spring, which was wound tight to apply the brake; as it ran in oil it didn’t have much effect. The real joke of this outfit was that, as you ran alongside to start, as soon as the engine fired the front wheel commenced to lump up and down.
About this time. although I did not own it, I worked on and drove a single-cylinder Cadillac. This had a horizontal engine lying between the front and rear wheels, and driving by chain in the back axle; it had a huge outside flywheel, epicyclic gears, tiller steering, and hand brakes. There was no windscreen in the ordinary sense of the word, but a metal shield on the dash. The starting-handle, about eighteen inches long, fitted on the end of the flywheel. As it was almost impossible to swing over compression, the starting drill was to swing the handle up and down, then over: if you were Iucky she started. To move off you pushed a pedal down for low gear and released it to engage top: reverse was engaged by pulling at a long lever with the pedal in neutral. This reverse lever could, in an emergency, act as a brake. I remember, one one occasion when the brakes were not acting on a hill, I pulled on reverse and promptly sent my passenger over the windshield and into the road. This car pulled wonderfully steadily, the big flywheel helping a lot, but there was little acceleration.
About this time I bought an Olympic motor-cycle. This had a Stevens engine (at that time Stevens made proprietary engines but had not yet formed the A.J.S. Co.). It had a Longumaire carburetter and trembler-coil ignition, and was noted for a habit of chewing up timing wheels, so I didn’t keep it long. Next I became the owner of a Crescent cyclecar. I had a lot of fun with this. It had tandem seating, with the driver sitting behind the passenger and slightlyhigher, in hammock seats like deck-chairs. The Crescent WAS driven by a 1,000-c.c. J.A.P. engine, which drove a countershaft by a huge “silent” chain. This countershaft, which was set across the chassis, had adjustable pulleys on each end, and the gear ratio was altered by opening or closing these pulleys. The foot pedal had a keel-and-toe movement which operated a ratchet. Pushing the pedal gave low gear; releasing the ratchet by rocking the pedal and letting it move towards the driver raised the ratio; the number of ratios depended on the number of teeth on the ratchet. The 15-ft. belts on each side which took the drive to the back axle were kept at the correct tension by moving the axle backwards or forwards with a long hand lever working in a quadrant. The rear springing was by cantilevers and the front axle was pivoted in the centre and had a central coiled spring. Stranded steel cable ran from each side of the axle round a wooden bobbin on the end of the steering column. I had a rather startling experience with this car. On one occasion, after new cables had been fitted by the local garage, I got into the car and started off. Unfortunately, the cables had been reversed, but I pulled up without hitting anything, chiefly because there was no traffic on the road to hit; however, it was a most weird experience. I had another funny experience with this car. I was running down a straight road, with a pal in the front seat, when there was a terrific bang from the front. Freeing the engine and looking back, I could see the magneto rolling along the road. I shouted to my passenger: “The mag. has fallen off.” He looked up the road, then at the engine, still running, and said: “This is the first time I have seen a wireless magneto.” As the J.A.P. engine had cast-iron pistons and poor sparking plugs the cause of the engine continuing to run was, of course, pre-ignition.
I eventually broke up the Crescent and bought a Victor cyclecar. It had a vee-radiator with copper tubes, a twin-cylinder J.A.P. water-cooled engine driving through a cone-clutch by chain to a gearbox, direct Ackermann steering by a crank from the bottom of the steering column, and final belt-drive with fixed pulleys. One of the troubles was that you could lose a belt without knowing it, and this became rather expensive. We evolved all manner of gadgets to give warning of a lost belt but we still lost them. I had another funny experience with this car. Late one night half the gearbox fell out. I sorted out the bits and, the following morning, found I could get along by taking the cover off the box and changing gear with a long screwdriver, the only snag being that I had to get a push-start as the clutch was permanently “in.” This was all right until we were stopped by the driver of a Rolls-Royce, as there were cattle on the road. The Rolls owner, being a good sport. said: “We’ll push you off,” and called his chauffeur. Away we went and, as I turned to wave my thanks; there was the chauffeur, with a most distasteful look on his face, standing in the middle of the road brushing the dust off his hands. Whilst I was running the Victor I was building a cyclecar with bits and pieces of the Crescent, a baby Peugeot, etc. I also had a big Rex motor-cycle which I rebuilt with dropped handlebars and a lowered frame. It had a twin-cylinder engine of 750 c.c. and automatic inlet valves. Getting the springs on these valves to. the same tension and the same lift was a work of art. There was no clutch and direct belt-drive, with a gear ratio of about 4 to 1. I finally wrecked the Rex taking a corner too fast, but got hold of a Premier motor-cycle. This had a three-speed gear and multi-plate clutch in the back wheel, I think it was made by Armstrong-Whitworth. This gear was a constant source of trouble. The engine had an auxiliary exhaust valve sealed by a spring at the bottom of the cylinder. As the piston reached the bottom of the stroke gas pressure opened the valve and released the gas—at least, that was the theory. It wasn’t an outstanding machine. I had by now practically completed my cyclecar, but the 1914-1918 War broke out and l had to leave it. My father had a bad time getting it moved from the first-floor room where I had built it!
The next few years were spent in the R.F.C. and, apart from an occasional ride on a P. and M. and a Scott, we dealt only with Farman Long and Shorthorn B.E.s, F.E.s, R.E.s, Pups and Camels, not forgetting the Avro 504.
Returning to civilian life in 1919, I came across a G.N., and it could certainly go. I lost quite a few push-rods, however. The other snag was the detachable wheels, which were all too ready to detach themselves. All in all, though, it was a really nippy car and I drove it quite a lot between South Wales and London. I part-exchanged this G.N. for an Eric-Campbell. This was a really nice motor car, and after I had fitted shock-absorbers it held the road quite well. It had a radiator like a Rolls, an aluminium bonnet, Marks steering, and an o.h.v. Coventry-Climax engine, with Solex carburetter. The engine was miles ahead of anything made at that time but one trouble I had was broken valve springs. I got quite expert at fitting new ones, and could do what seems a lengthy job in a few minutes. Climbing a long hill in top, it would suddenly start to spit back through the carburetter and lose speed, which was cured by changing down. I looked for sticking valves and all sorts of things, and finally cured the trouble by fitting K.L.G. plugs in place of those fitted by the makers. The speedometer was driven by a flat belt from the prop.-shaft and, although it was spring-tensioned, we lost a lot of belts. Apart from these troubles the Eric-Campbell was a very nice little car and I was sorry when the makers packed up.
I part-exchanged it for an 8-h.p. Renault. The engine lubrication of this car was interesting, being based on the 80-h.p. Renault aero-engine. Oil was pumped under pressure to the main bearings. Screwed to the side of the crank-web was a banjo and oil from the main bearings was caught in this and ducted to hollow crank-pins, and so to the big-end bearings. One advantage of this oiling system was that the faster the engine ran the higher the oil pressure. Another good point about this Renault was that the bonnet was sealed and the flywheel had vanes on its rim which were a close fit in a tunnel surrounding it, so that, as the only inlet for air was through the radiator which was behind the engine, very efficient cooling was obtained. This fan was so powerful that it was possible to move the car by revving up the engine. The only trouble I had with this car was from the magneto.
As my family was now growing up I had to have more room, so I part-exchanged the Renault for a Riley Twelve saloon. This was a first-class car, being both fast and a good hill-climber, and it was about the most comfortable car I ever owned. The upholstery was like a spring-mattress. The four-speed gearbox, although it was a crash one, had almost as easy a change as a modern synchromesh box. Neither the gearbox nor the cone-clutch gave a moment’s trouble, and the gear ratios were so well chosen that it could pass many powerful cars with ease on hills. It had an aluminium coachbuilt body, properly painted with paint and varnish, real leather trim, walnut dashboard, quality instruments, etc., including proper ball-and-socket joints to the carburetter, etc., and Marks steering. It had one serious fault, however, which was why I eventually sold it. The oiling system was by pump to troughs underneath each crank-pin, into which the big-ends dipped and scooped the oil up. On long climbs the front big-end was starved. As the white metal was run directly into the con.-rods and Rileys would only supply new rods, this became expensive. It wasn’t a cheap car to buy, costing about £450, which in those days was real money. But you did get value, for it was a real engineering job from radiator to back axle. I was forced off the road one night by a drunken clot in a brewer’s dray, and although I skimmed a telegraph pole, taking off front wing and running-board, there was no sign of chassis distortion. They definitely don’t make ’em like that now!
I followed this with one of the first Hillman Minx, a nice little car and about the easiest car to service I ever owned. Decoking was kid’s stuff. The only snag was a terrific wheel wobble on tram lines or cobbles. This built up to such a pitch that the only cure was to stop the car. Hillmans, I believe, stopped it by fitting a phosphor-bronze washer at the bottom of the king-pins. I found the easiest way was not to oil the king-pins! I kept this car for about two years. It was the cheapest car I ever had, I spent exactly 7s. 6d. on it the whole time I had it, and that went to Lucas for fitting a new condenser.
After the Minx I had a six-cylinder 14-h.p. Vauxhall. It was a nice fast car but kept oiling-up the back plug. Even a rebore didn’t cure it; I always thought the trouble was due to oil being sucked down the valve guides. Rather a funny trouble occurred with this car. After the rebore I was driving down the Great West Road one Sunday when an awful noise came from under the bonnet, exactly like a big-end gone. I could not see any other cause so I took the car back to the people who had done the rebore and left it till the Monday, when the garage rang me up. I explained the trouble and when they started the engine I could hear the noise on the ‘phone. We both diagnosed big-end trouble. Off came the sump. All bearings were o.k. They started up and the noise was as bad as ever. Off came the sump again and the bearings were re-checked, but still the noise continued. Then we spotted that it came on as the generator started to charge. On removing the generator belt we found a long piece of loose rubber on the back of the belt. As the load came on the generator the belt tightened and the loose piece flew out, hitting the chassis each time it came round.
I sold the Vauxhall because it had no special appeal and bought a Citroën Super Modern Twelve. This car was a revelation, my only dislike being the noise of tyres on corners they were real low pressure tyres and you could corner miles faster than with traction la cour. The gear-lever, poking from the dash, was difficult at first, but you soon got used to it. A bad bit of design was that the cylinder block was very thin and the bolts pulled through the lugs, damaging the block. For roadholding it was in a class by itself. I sold this car only because I was afraid I would not be able to get spares during the war. I bought a Standard Nine and ran this all through the war. In spite of its being knocked about by blast during the blitz and having bits of shrapnel through the roof and wings, it did its job. It was lively but very prone to skid—I have turned round completely in this car for no apparent reason. The only real trouble I had was run big-ends.
During the war I bought a 3-litre Bentley, a long-wheelbase six-seater made by William Arnold of Manchester. After the war I had a two-seater body made for it by a specialist firm of body builders, this was a one-piece aluminium body and I did a few Continental tours with it. I decided later to completely rebuild it and I was lucky enough to get hold of a short-chassis frame. I started off by taking the engine out and getting the crankshaft reground and new main and big-end bearings fitted, the cylinders reground, and fitting high-compression pistons; I also got the clutch relined by Ferodo. I replaced the “B” gearbox with a “C” box, a Hardy-Spicer prop.-shaft replaced the Bentley block-type, a new 3.53-to-1 crown-wheel and pinion was fitted to the back axle, and at the same time the differential was overhauled. The wheels were rebuilt on 19 by 6.00 rims, and S.U. electric fuel pumps were fitted. With a respray it is now as good as the day it was made and can touch 90. I still have it and get great fun from it. It should be good for another 30 years.
I sold the Standard in 1947 and bought a Humber Hawk. This gave wonderful service and we did several trips through France, Spain, Gibraltar and across to Morocco, down to the edge of the Sahara, besides others to Switzerland, Italy and Jugoslavia, etc. On one trip I hit a ‘bus in Spain, the ‘bus got as much as I did. I got a bill for £60 yet I was able to drive the Humber home. It was a very comfortable car and, though not particularly fast, would cruise all day at 55.
My present car, besides the Bentley, is a Sunbeam-Talbot 90 drophead. It is a nice car, not as comfortable as the Humber perhaps, but very nippy. It is becoming less and less possible to enjoy motoring, due to overcrowded roads. I suppose we will soon reach the stage when a 2 c.v. Citroën or a minicar will be as fast as any other car!