Motoring as it was

A look-back to the 1920s
(Continued from the October, 1982 issue) 

The period just following the unrest caused by the war was an interesting one for those excited by the motoring prospects that lay ahead or concerned about how the Motor Industry was coping with the post-war situation. Thus we should not be surprised to find Owen John Llewellyn, whose driving career we are looking at, attending the 1921 Motor Show. It was split into two parts, Olympia and the White City. Those who didn’t much enjoy the 1982 Motor Show at the NEC outside Birmingham can take some heart, if not comfort, from knowing that they had their counterparts in London, that November 62 years ago.

For one thing, there were the same locked cars the visitors couldn’t get into, the same crowding that prevented many from getting a good look at the exhibits, the same need to stay overnight — “Owen John” thought the Show verily more beneficial to the hotels and theatres than any other function all the year round. But additionally, from the exhibitors’ viewpoint, there was the case of many visitors not getting to White City at all, in spite of a free ‘bus service laid on to convey them there, from Olympia. In that chill hall at White City (as an aside, those who know London will appreciate that both places still exist) there was plenty of room to look at the somewhat neglected cars.

This O.J. did, and not being prepared to stay in town, he found one night that he didn’t get back to his Berkshire home until nearly two in the morning, after driving the last 12 miles in fog. At the White City he admired the neatness of the Italian chassis, was awed by the big Hispano Suiza and Spyker, meditated on the Eccles caravan as a strange bedfellow to the cars (it was the beginning of a craze that is now an established non-taxed holiday gambit, to the detriment of road-congestion!) and the boat-show (nowadays another wide-reaching hobby, necessitating the separate Boat Show at Earls Court) and pontificated about the charm-in-motion of a steam-car, the Stanley steamer being on show. He was then taken to a typical Motor Show publicity stunt, when Col. Janson, who handled the Dutch Spyker car in Britain, took the Pressman outside Olympia just as a whole covey of Ner-a-Car motorcycles arrived, escorting Mrs. Janson (later Mrs. Stewart, then Mrs. Hawkes) who had that day completed a 1,000 “non-stop” run on one. The two-stroke Ner-a-Car had its mechanicals, apart from the air-cooled cylinder, enclosed and used big mudguards, so was ideal for ladies, but O.J. hated its name. I have an idea that O.J. himself soon became an owner, adding a Ner-a-Car to his Crossley as his means of private transport.

One of the stands that was tucked away in the White City recesses was that of Shell-Mex, who normally looked down on all London from their imposing office block. O.J. consoled them by saying, in effect, that, like the poor, Shell was a fact of life (I hope his analogy wasn’t intended to be sarcastic!) and that no-one could do without it, especially as the benzoic fuel O.J. favoured cost two shillings (10p) a tin more . . . He also enthused over the Eural horn, one of which he had been using for some time — it was sounded by a ring encircling the steering-wheel, for quick access to the warning note in an emergency and I am sure O.J. would have been surprised at how infrequently drivers of 60 years later used the horn, or that they had to press steering-spoke buttons, steering-wheel hubs or knobs on the ends of steering-column stalks to sound it, but never, unless they were driving a rare vintage car, a horn-ring. Incidentally, in those times of blind, unprotected cross-roads the ploy should have been to toot on approach and then listen for an answering toot, as with ships at sea. Hence the defence after an accident of “I sounded my horn, Officer”. These days, when I drive along a particularly winding, high-banked Welsh lane to take my wife to her art-class, I tend to wonder, slightly apprehensively, whether this use of the horn as a safeguard is still understood. . . .

Reverting to that dual-Motor Show of 1921, it is amusing to note that O.J. was predicting difficulties for the SMMT over having it at Olympia, “this gloomy overgrown Nissen hut” he called it, predicting that eventually it would become too big for any Metropolitan building. And, sure enough, he was right, for it moved to Earls Court and has now drifted to the Midlands, and is no longer an annual Show. However, O.J. was not looking that far ahead. He said that the public had got it into its thick head that the Crystal Palace, the one building in Britain big enough to put all the Motor Show under one roof, with grounds wherein demonstration runs could be given, was outside London, “and outside London they will not go”, opined O.J., “except once a year, to see the Derby”. He overlooked the growing interest in Brooklands Track, rather farther out than Epsom, and could not have foreseen that before the demise of the Crystal Palace in the next war and its eventual resuscitation as an LCC sports-centre, it would stage good motor-racing within its park, even if it never again became a place at which to hold the Motor Show, as it had at the dawn of automobilism. (Going back to circa-1921, I think a Used-Car exhibition was staged there and as a young boy I think I went to a big Aeronautical Exhibition at the Palace, with flying boats afloat on the lakes, or am I dreaming?) I most certainly went to motor racing there, often by No. 49 ‘bus when my Austin 7 Mulliner coupé wasn’t running, and we were testing a Mk.V Bentley the night the Crystal Palace caught fire. And had O.J. but known it, we now accept, willingly or not, a motor show very much further from London. . . .

In writing about such things O.J. got carried away, and called for London to have a great new Exhibition Hall, preferably in Hyde Park, which, he observed, had not been spoiled even by the “twin horridness of the Albert Memorial and the Albert Hall”. If that were not possible, then he advocated one on the Surrey side of the Thames — in effect anticipating the Festival Hall.

Such a Great Palace would create employment, O.J. said, which tempts me to ponder on whether if Brooklands is ever to be restored, there might well be many job-promotion schemes involved (one imagines that many out-of-work youngsters would see more point in that than many of the futile tasks now alloted to them) and as a less serious aside, whether the Veteran Car Club might not have been offered the Agricultural Hall, Islington, as its headquarters, even if in 1921 O.J. did liken it and Olympia to railway termini, rejoicing that both are hidden away, for the former was the scene of pioneer automobile exhibitions — W. B.

(To be continued as space permits)