Motoring as it was

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A look back to the roads of the 1920s

(Continued from the November 1984 issue)

We ended the previous instalment with Owen John, whose motoring life we are following, going on a tour of France before the summer of 1923, to see how a British-made 11.9 hp Bean would stand up to prevailing conditions on the European

Continent. It was while on this proving expedition with the Beans, from which the two cars used emerged well, that O.J. was made to think about fashion in France, his observations illustrated by sketches by his daughter of women’s hats in various districts (how nice to have an influential daddy who could get your work published in the leading weekly motor journal!) from which he turned to politics, observing that in 1923 you saw no unemployed on street corners in French towns as you did in English ones, no buildings he saw looked to be workhouses, and he encountered no tramps, yet Britain’s credit was then, so good that the pound sterling was worth 80 francs and America was happy, to sell goods to us – no doubt O.J. meant in the form of inexpensive cars.

There was a too-topical ring to some of O.J.’s 1923 observations. For instance, he noted the enormous industry (in a working sense) France was devoting to agriculture, saying that if in Britain also the Motor Industry came second to food production, she would have to be careful that the payment of out-of-work benefits did not supersede it… That was what having “bean” 1,200 miles about the Continent had impressed on O.J. After which he was soon back to purely motoring topics, and around Motor Show time was speaking about brakes, hardly unexpectedly because the 1923 Olympia Show saw a profusion of four-wheel-braked chassis, heralding the more or less universal adoption of such braking systems by 1924.

O.J. in his. discourse on the need for good brakes referred to skid-pans, which I at first mistook for slippery places on which to learn how to master skids, until I realised he was referring to the skids once placed beneath wagon wheels to help retard the vehicle; an alternative to chaining up one wheel. That took O.J. back to the horses only age, after which he made the sensible point that if in this country dependable brakes might not seem particularly necessary (in the context of 60 years ago, that is) after one had found oneself on a continuous 10 mile down grade with hairpin corners all the way, one’s viewpoint might change. Even in 1923 traffic was faster, more, accelerative, and more congested than in pre-war times, in fact, speed was up by five mph according to one authority, so it was not surprising that four-wheel-braking was on its way. Not only did they provide better stopping power, they reduced the risk of the “dreaded sideslip”. The latter was still open to debate in 1923 and to it O.J. added the sage point that what was needed was ‘ not just good brakes but lasting brakes, which was what most early cars lacked. He also made a point which I do not recall seeing in print before, namely that at this time there were cars in use in the summer as converted motor coaches with brakes that were merely tempting providence, and there were roads that were nothing but death-traps to cars not fitted with the best brakes.

You may regard this as propaganda for the coming spate of 4WB, of all manner of ingenious kinds, but nevertheless, I am reminded of two incidents from my childhood that bear favourably upon O.J.’s arguments. As a boy, avid to ride in a car on every possible occasion, I remember the summer Sunday when a relation’s brand new blood-red Willys Overland tourer was brought round and in it a party set out for a morning run; driven by one of the relation’s sons, as the chauffeur was not called out on the Sabbath, except for special occasions. There wasn’t room for me, and I retired disgruntled. Soon, however (retribution, perhaps?), the Overland returned and was hastily put away in the garage. They had experienced an accident at a local crossroads and the shining new mudguards and body were somewhat crumpled.

Now I think that at that time this British Overland, which had replaced an earlier model, still had rather ineffective rear-wheel brakes. It had collided with a taxi, which in those days often meant an ancient private-car with landaulette body. One of the sons had just been called to the Bar and over lunch it was proposed he should handle the case. Forever afterwards it was a family joke that he lost it, presumably from inexperience, because he eventually returned to Oxford as a respected don on the Law side. The point of this story is that in the 1920s there were a great many blind crossings at which good brakes alone could save a crash. There was a notorious one in Clapham Parkin SW London at which, with a school friend, I sometimes lingered, wondering whether we would see an incident. And sure enough, one day, with tootings on their bulb-horns, an ABC and a bull-nose Morris-Oxford failed to stop in time and collided, with again, minor damage.

The Oxford was one of those rather ungainly tourers, appearing top-heavy, that undoubtedly had four-wheel-brakes, unlike the ABC, but that did not prevent the accident, in spite of wide grass verges that improved the ‘ sight-lines. As to whether 4WB were skid-reducers, no-one was very sure in those mid-1920s, the aforesaid relation expressing as his opinion that such brakes would throw one in the ditch and he would never have a car with them, which he kept to in his Austin 20 and Chevrolet days but rescinded later, when using Austin 12s and 16s…

Before the days of universal 4WB I remember how alarming motoring along narrow, high-hedged country lanes was, rear-wheel anchors, sometimes contracting-band ones, often having to be used fiercely, to avoid contact with approaching vehicles. Today’s wider roads and all-over traffic signals have made this a thing of the past, apart from our efficient brakes. But although O.J. referred to the much increased traffic in 1923 compared with pre-war, he knew a cross-country route over the Berkshire downs, turning left at Newbury, by which, in his old Crossley, he could avoid the congested Bath Road, meeting but two other cars in 13 miles. Hope for that, today!

Alas for this splendid back route of 1923, a friend of O.J. was involved in a collision at the very spot where it joined the busy, signposted main road. O.J. was a brave man, for in print he castigated the policeman who should have been directing the traffic at this point (odd that the presence of one was deemed advisable if the lane was so little used), saying he was talking to his friends, probably about football, and even ” telling him that the police should remember they were servants of the public and not schoolmasters! l wonder how many times his rather conspicuous Crossley was stopped, after that – except that I suppose only chauffeurs, not policeman, had the motoring weeklies passed on to them in those days.

What was really vexing O.J. was the advent of white lines to guide traffic. He made the point that somewhere or other a car has to encroach on the wrong side of a road in order get to its right side, so that white lines, beginning to appear in 1923 note, should not be regarded as “a cure-all to those who cannot look deeper than the surface”, and that foresight became even more necessary than in the days when a driver used his own judgement. What, I wonder, would O.J. have thought of today’s confusion of single and double white and yellow lines on almost all roads, with side-runnings marked by a dazzling display of what O.J. dismissed as “diagrams, and persecutions issued for just momentarily crossing into a forbidden area when no other vehicle is in sight? But one thing he referred to is just as true in 1985 as it was in 1923 – that, as O.J. said, we must not place too implicit reliance on any hard-and-fast rules that regulate the behaviour of other people, and we must always be looking out for the fool in the other car…

Around Motor Show time in 1923 O.J. was sagely observing that there were no bad cars and it is interesting that only the other day in the Motor Sport offices we were observing much the same thing – some cars are better than others but really bad ones..? Whether this was true when O.J. made the pronouncement I do not know; I was 10 at the time and did all my motoring on paper. He was certainly right enough when he remarked that people love cars dearly and badly, want to buy one but they love the searching for it equally well – does this not apply to thumbing through the advertisements at the back of this issue? For some reason this led to O.J. being persuaded by S. F. Edge into a Cubitt five-seater. He described trying it in the county of even more flaming beech woods than Berkshire and as the Cubitt was made near Aylesbury – I used to pass the place as a boy, after it had ceased to make cars and become a dairy (which alas was not long after O.J.’s trial), in a Model-T Ford or Lancia country bus that used to wait for regular passengers between Waddesden and Aylesbury until they were ready to board and whose return time of departure was a matter for amicable discussion between the driver and these “fares” – he obviously meant Buckinghamshire.

Yes, it was in Bucks that O.J. tried the latest Cubitt. Curiously, he dismissed it in a mere eight words, although these were all of praise. It seems that the ploy was to dispel the adverse opinions being bandied about, concerning the Cubitt, by those who knew nothing of it. O.J. said he had only to invent a name for a car and these ignorant “experts” would pull it to pieces. This reminds me of an incident in quite another context. I once went to see a very famous motoring photographer, to make an offer (too low, as it happened) for his unique collection of glass plates covering many years of cars and motoring history. When I arrived he asked me, rather overconfidently I thought, of which make of car I would like to see his prints. Thinking to defeat him, I replied “Oh, of a Butterosi”. Blow me, within minutes he was handing me a set of shots of this very car, engine from both sides, dashboard, all-round views of it, etc… (his negatives are now in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu).

Having disclosed that the first Motor Show he attended was at the Crystal Palace, O.J, pontificated on the sort of people who attended these functions, not sparing the press, which reminds me that elsewhere he once took off in very amusing fashion the style in which different motoring-writers of the pre-1914 years would have written-up a new car – disguised as a “16-25 hp Boompje” after attending its pre-view… At Olympia time O.J. found himself in Liverpool, where; he observed, cars in use were, as a rule; streets behind those in the South.

He enquired of William Reece, the Ford agent who sold cars “from a palace made in the similitude of a French chateau” the reason but· did not get an answer! Incidentally, can anyone, Mr Burgess-Wyse perhaps, tell me more of this obviously unique Ford emporium? Cheshire, our chronicler admitted, took to automobiles long before they were common elsewhere and had super-excellent roads, if not much beauty, and the motor displays in Deansgate were almost as good as that at Olympia itself, but, Manchester’s traffic was criticised, from “lurries” drawn by three horses in line, and heavy motorstuff bumping and banging over the granite sets, to tramcars that blocked and darkened the streets. Another little scrap of history emerged from all this, when O.J. recalled that both Liverpool and Manchester once had motor shows of their own and that you were taken to the latter in steam-cars, the insides of which were like a burlesque imitation of a Chinese laundry…

(To be continued as space permits)

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