By L.R. James
I FIRST learnt to drive as a boy at the end of the Kaiser War on a Ford model-T van owned by my grandfather. My job was to “ crank her up “ after each stop for delivering bread, and in return for this service I was allowed to take the wheel on country roads. If there was any nonsense about driving licences in those days nobody told my grandpop about it.
Between the Wars I was one of those keen cycling types to whom petrol was anathema. Even now, my motoring miles as a driver are about 50,000 less than the distance I have pushed the pedals round. Also, believe it or not, I have not yet beaten my tandem bicycle time of a mile in 59 seconds (downhill but timed by the great F. T. Bidlake) in any car which I have owned.
Early in 1945 I was posted as Adjutant to an R.A.F. unit in Burma. There I was given a Willys Jeep, two hours, and an airstrip on which to learn to drive, and about three weeks later I passed the official test for all vehicles up to cranes. As Mess Secretary one of my duties was to keep six Officers supplied with fresh meat. Local game soon got scarce and I believe I was the originator of mechanised snipe shooting. You sit on the hood frame, pull out the hand throttle, and steer with the bare feet … to stop . . . just kick in the throttle and stall the engine. Birds can then be shot when they are flushed by the Jeep’s inexorable progress through swamp and bushes. This method worked well and produced record bags until one day, when my glasses were misted over, I drove slap into a hole full of water buffalo taking a muddy siesta. I was thrown off, and had to pursue the Jeep in bare feet while being chased by an irate cow. I also lost the Mess gun.
After demobilisation in 1946, I found I had petrol coupons for 40 gallons but they were not valid for a hire car. Looking around, I found a 1924 Swift Ten jacked up in a neighbour’s garage. He consented to transfer the log book if I licensed and insured it, and gave me an option to buy for £80. When filled with petrol, oil, and water, and given a new battery, this ancient started at the second pull, and I set off straight away on a very rash tour of Devon. I was quite clueless on mechanics, and about 20 m.p.h. was the best I could get until a filling station owner at Devizes pointed out that she was only tiring on three cylinders. A new plug pushed the speed up to 35, but I took two hours for the 200 miles to Paignton—a time I had bettered on a bicycle. The old Swift gave not a moment’s trouble in a thousand miles except for an excessive and growing thirst for oil . . . it was one pint per gallon on the way home. I just knew enough, then, not to take up the option.
I bought my first car for £30 in 1950—a 1930 Morris-Cowley tourer with the square radiator—on Christmas Eve, haggling in a village pub long after hours. She seemed a bit warm when I reached home. The clot who sold it to me omitted to say that the radiator had been drained. This car gave yeoman service for two years of daily use and the only trouble I had was an electrical failure one dirty wet night; I remember I had to walk home two miles in my slippers. I particularly liked the dynamotor starting; so much nicer than horrid Bendix noises. When the leaks in the hood became intolerable (it was now almost one solid piece of Bostick, and £20 was quoted for a new one) I sold the Morris to a nurseryman for £45 who did not mind a little water on his boxes of plants. It was still running last year. My next was a 1932 Austin London taxi, price £75 complete with a new leather hood, fitted with doors, and a tip-up cinema seat in the luggage compartment. It had been in use for 24 hours a day for 20 years, and had just returned from a trip to Southern Italy, but was in perfect order. Given time, it would approach 50 m.p.h., but this was not advisable unless there was plenty of road in which to stop. I spent pounds and hours of work on the brakes, but I could never get any sense out of them, or pull up on the 1-in-7 hill on which I now live—presumably they were not intended for anything steeper than the ramp at Waterloo Station, the only other vice of the taxi was the starter, which jammed about every other time. Sometimes it would “rock out,” but usually it meant crawling underneath with a spanner to loosen the bolts, and always on wet nights. Another drawback to a taxi is the frequent risk of finding it occupied (no door locks) by an irate lady waiting to be driven to the cemetery—but then, on the other hand, a taxi can be parked with impunity on a taxi-rank. An old taxi weighs over 1 1/2 tons so one cannot expect much performance with a 12-h.p. engine, but it is certainly robust and reliable, and I had no trouble or expense to speak of in two years. Eventually, I sold it to a syndicate of season-ticketholders who had no ‘bus in their village.
My next was a 1932 7.9-h.p. Jowett with an enormous body and no performance whatever—I only bought it because the brakes were good and it was safe for my wife to learn to drive on. It was economical and reliable and roomy, but if we went to the local at the bottom of our hill for anything longer than a quick one, we had to drive around until she was warm enough to get up the hill again. She would not make it, cold, even with a 22-to-1 bottom gear.
Then I bought a 1928 52/22 Wolseley, a Weymann saloon in real pigskin with a German silver radiator and bags of brass to clean. This car looked a million, but it was a poor starter and quite often I had to sprint for the ‘bus on cold mornings. The handbook said—” This vehicle should be kept in a heated motor-house and should not be placed near to the walls in case it derives damp therefrom.” My garage at that time was an unheated field. I never really liked the Wolseley—it had mean and nasty ways. The bottom hose went about ten minutes after I had put in three quid’s worth of Bluecol (it had a 6 1/2-gallon cooling system). Once I drove through a puddle and it sent a powerful jet of dirty water up the gear-lever which hit the roof and descended on my wife’s new hair-do and best party frock . . . and to make matters worse, not a drop fell on me. The engine sounded potent but actually it was gutless, and I was pleased to get rid of it in exchange for a 1927 Austin Twelve, also a Weymann saloon in nice order, and in every way a desirable vintage piece. Every possible bit of metal was brass, including four priming taps on the cylinder head. I never had to use these, since she started every time the starter did not jam. However, on this model the makers had thoughtfully provided a square end on the starter spindle that always yielded to a spanner.
I think the old Austin Twelve was the best and most enduring family car ever made at its price of about £185 in 1927. I saw the twin of my car a year or so ago in a Sussex village outside a garage. On making inquiries, the proprietor said he sold the car, new, to an elderly couple, who had recently brought it back complaining bitterly that the speedometer did not work, and adding that “Nothing had ever gone wrong with it before.” (This was about 1956.) He was able to fit a new cable within the hour.
The Heavy Twelve is not all that economical, but what I spent on petrol I saved on repairs. In cold weather I always drained the radiator, but once I left a spoonful of water in the pump, which froze and sheared the drive when I started the next morning. A clot of a mechanic at a well-known garage removed the locking nuts’ left-hand thread with a right-handed hammer and chisel, but the old car still behaved well with thermo-syphon cooling for the rest of its life. The 1927 model still had the gate-change (all brass, too); you had to wait for it, but it was easy to make clutchless gear-changes. I found a local mine of scrapped taxis and laid in a huge stock of spares but never used any of them in the two years I had her, apart from a tyre or two. I sold her to a police officer on leave from Kenya, and he had no trouble in six months’ extensive touring in Britain, and she is still in good hands.
I only parted with her because I was tempted by an even better old Austin . . . this time the Sixteen Tourer at £45, and described, more or less rightly, as the best-preserved 1932 model still running. This was a delightful motor for summer touring and not all that draughty in the winter—if you wore a leather coat.
It had what was called a ” one-man hood,” but I always got myself blood-blisters with two assistants, and one tended to leave it up all winter and down all summer. It would cruise all day at so, but I could never make a mile inside the minute. Of course, the starter jammed, but by 1932 Austins had heard about it and had very thoughtfully made a cunning little trap-door in the floor so that, provided there were no carpets down, the driver could free the starter from the driving seat. I wonder what the latest Austins have ? The only real bother I had with the Sixteen was a slipped timing-chain and the aforementioned clot dropped the old chain in the timing case, and spent six hours at ten bob an hour in getting it out.
I was completely happy with the Sixteen, but it would have needed a new hood and side-curtains for the following winter and, while I was scraping the barrel to find £30 for this purpose, I fell for a 1931 14.9-h.p. Star Comet saloon in practically showroom condition for £100. I have now driven it daily for 2 1/2 years and the repairs have been a new wire to the ammeter, repacking of water-pump glands, and relining the brakes. Every instrument works, the clock keeps perfect time, and the amenities include fog, interior and reversing lights, reserve petrol supply, battery charging plug on dashboard, aluminium body panels, sunshine roof that is waterproof Auster screen, and indicators. The engine, 63.5 x 110 mm., six cylinders, was designed by Irving of ” Golden Arrow ” fame, and has seven massive bearings, and there are seven more for the o.h. camshaft. It refuses to pink in top at 8 m.p.h. There are only 1 1/2-turns from lock to lock, but I must admit that the lock is poor and the steering, which is delightful at speed, is hard for parking. Lubrication of springs and brakes, etc., is effected by two panels of thirteen grease nipples on the engine block. There is no fan . . . so you have to keep going or boil after climbing hills like Hindhead. Petrol consumption averages 25 m.p.g. and her only temperament is a tendency for the brakes to freeze on in zero weather.
Everything about a Star is massive . . . the radiator cap weighs 3 ½ lb. and the front axle is heavier than that of a Rolls-Royce. I find the performance more than adequate for my modest needs . . . she does Newlands Corner every day in top. There were only about a hundred of the small Comets made (my number is 68) and I believe she is the last survivor-perhaps a reader can dispute? The previous owner ran it for 23 years, changed over to a Rolls 20/25 and, I gather, regretted the swap.
While it helps, of course, you don’t have to be wealthy to enjoy vintage motoring. All my cars have been used as daily hacks, for holiday touring, and V.S.C.C. meetings, and have had to manage with the minimum of attention, except at week-ends. The most I have paid for a car is £100.