The Roads of the 1920s

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Having returned from his Continental tour in a 14/45hp Poppe-designed Rover tourer, as we described in the November 1986 MOTOR SPORT, Owen John, whose vintage exploits we are looking back on, decided he could forego the 1925 Olympia Motor Show, important as that was, and take his usual autumnal voyage to Scotland for the shooting season, staying 20 miles from the nearest railway station. Apparently the summer that year had been a beautiful one and before setting out for the North, OJ reflected that winter is for the young, although this thought, motoring-wise, was somewhat tempered by the experience of going out in what he described as a “four-wheel-braked balloon tyred small coupe, available for something less than a couple of hundred pounds”, a de luxe car for cold weather, “complete in every detail”. The best value for money ever, in OJ’s opinion, and he was consumed with envy of it. The make of this inexpensive coupe was not divulged but I at first assumed it to have been the Austin 7, unless OJ had come upon a 7/12 hp Peugeot. But as he expected that there would be a bigger crowd round it than round any other car at the 1925 Olympia Show, I decided he must have sampled the Birmingham baby — until I discovered that there was no miniature coupe on the Austin stand that year, nor was there such complete enclosure on the tiny chassis from Sochaux, so I suppose what was in OJ’s mind was the £195 “three-quarter” Morris Cowley coupe . . .

For his visit to the Highlands OJ took the same Rover that had carried him so reliably on the Continent, which it now did again in Britain, behaving as well amid the Grampians as it had done in the Jura. In fact, the only trouble was a cracked exhaust pipe on the last day of the holiday, this making for quite “a Brooklands air”, which was repaired at Brackley with 1/6d-worth of asbestos — no worries then about contamination from the stuff! Going up to Scotland OJ had the second, and last, puncture of the run, in the dark about ten miles from Kendal, so in the gloom and rain they sought shelter at the County Hotel. It was clean and comfortable but so close to the railway bridge that the trains seemed to come almost inside the bedrooms.

The road over Shap had improved by 1925. Carlisle was gloomy as it usually was (OJ’s view, not mine), but on crossing the Border and driving over the long, straight, excellent road to the colliery districts near Hamilton the rain stopped and something like the 1925 summertime weather returned, as the Highlands were entered about Callander. The Rover’s destination was Killin, at the head of Loch Tay, where OJ said the water of this warm lake never freezes, and where a car could, in those days, apparently belch at the “White Castle” in a happy glen where no traffic passed and no-one and nothing would interfere with it — but what of today?

There for a fortnight of happiness the Rover, in the company of other good cars, was a carrier of rods and guns and rifles, until it was time to return, down the long glen to Aberfeldy under lowering clouds that wept with the returning holidaymakers, and to ever-increasing civilisation at Perth and the crowded hills down to the Queensferry steamer (yes, a steam-ferry here, in 1925), where the crossing was regarded as costly, at 10/- (50p). At the end of the journey the 14/45hp Rover was called “a very wonderful car”, and OJ hoped his experience of it, totalling 3,000 miles, would help to assuage the doubts “of those motorists who feared novel designs.” Indeed, so uneventful had the two tours been that he fell to wondering what his children would find to write about cars, when they grew up. (Whether they followed in their father’s pen-strokes in this respect, I know not — but cars are still being written about just as avidly, over sixty years on . . .)

Other motoring writers aired their opinions at this time about their favourite routes. In this context S C H Davis wondered whether he had a “favourite” road, saying it depended so much on the mood, on one’s restless desire for something different, on a hundred other incalculable things. But, if he were pressed, he would go for the London to Whitstable road, which Sammy knew well and often loved the best, with the Elephant and Castle, New and Old Kent roads and Lewisham increasing by contrast the beauty to come.

Beyond Wrotham, he said, the road was the realisation of a dream in the early days, when horse-folk mocked, a road built for cars, its switch-backed, track-like surface calling for speed. From the shoulder of Wrotham Hill, far below, for mile on mile, lay the Weald, and from fir-crowned Wrotham Heath a shining, smooth, tar surface, just winding enough to be interesting, ran to Maidstone, the ruins of Leyborne Castle on one side, of a Benedictine Abbey on the other, a neolithic dolmen not far off. Every village, said Davis, was history; the run up Detling Hill, wonderful panorama on one side, wire and gun-pits on the other, followed by the long, sinuous stretch to Sittingbourne, was delightful. Of another character was the road to Ospringe, where the earthly remains of Roman legionairies were dug up for all to see. Sammy called Faversham sleepily picturesque, save for occasional explosions (bombs were presumably still being disposed of), and the beautiful country lanes round Graveney led, he said, in much dust, (1925 remember!), beside oak and ash and thorn, over the marshes of duck and smugglers, to a village made famous because of man’s liking for a bivalve. A typical bit of Sammy Davis writing.

Davis’ colleague on The Autocar, A G Douglas Clease, opted for the Valley of the Wye, from Chepstow to Monmouth, a fine river-route, the road crossing the Wye at Bigsweir and again at May Hill. On this route, the observed Clease, were the delights of Tintern Abbey and in Monmouth, the remains of the Castle where Henry V was born, The Monnow Bridge, “and other ancient glories” although it is odd, as a motoring journalist, that he did not refer to the monument to the Hon C S Rolls…

“Runabout”, who looked after small car interest for the Autocar, preferred for his favourite road, that to the West. He suggested starting at sun-up, somewhere within 50 miles of London, and doing the first two hours towards Cornwall at a “racing average” – optimistic maybe in the kind of cars he was supposed to test, unless of Brescia Bugatti or B & M Aston-Martin persuasion! After eating a second breakfast in the region which he saw as the portal to the west, the sinuous slopes of Yarcombe its real vestibule. Past pink and yellow-washed cottages he would go, into Exeter, to thread the narrow-streeted traffic cautiously; and so to Dartmoor and its ever-changing moods – sullen and uncanny at twilight, open and brilliant in sunshine. Of Cornwall, the intended destination, “Runabout” wrote in lavish praise, to explain why, a given choice, he would always turn his bonnet west.

The editor of the Autocar, for I think it was he, preferred the Great North Road, “there is none to compare with it” – a route I would have thought singularly narrow and tedious in those ‘A1’ times. And curiously, this writer showed as much interest in seeing the monster green Great Northern locomotives hauling trains beside the road, and in the St Leger, “that most English of all sporting events”, recalled by the open race-course beside the road at Doncaster, as in things motoring! Even “Runabout” saw the Great North Road his favourite if speed was the aim, the run from Loch Maree to Gairloch or that from Glen Urquhart and Drumnadrochit to Fort William if fine scenery was sought, or a route that must remain secret if the person at the end of it was the attraction…!

“Vagrant”, who specialised in touring articles, at that time in Angus-Sanderson tourer, quoted his favourite road as mere mile of beauty, right by his Surrey home, reached by leaving that once-famous cycling and motoring landmark, “The Hut”, opposite the lake at Wisely on the Portsmouth road, and taking the second turning on the right – from which direction wasn’t specified. “The Hut” is no more and one wonders what this lane is like now, assuming it is still there. “Vagrant” waxed lyrical about it, its lakelet, its rhododendron jungle, its miniature hilltop surmounted by great pines – all very much like the “Brooklands country” not far away… OJ himself voted his favourite a pre-historic fair-mile way, which he sometimes used when he was bound for the horse-racing at Newbury, a place equalled for solitude “only by the quiet upper reaches of the Thames.”

Well, roads have changed, alas perhaps, but I still believe that motoring should be of as much interest as the motor-car. One of my favourite runs is that from Knighton near the Clun Forest, to Bridgnorth, leaving the brief stretch of the A49 after Bromfield and then crossing the Ludlow race-course for Culmington and Diddlebury, although the “back way” from Hereford, along the Roman Road, to Norton Canon and Holme Marsh to Kington, and home, takes some beating …

Having come back from Scotland, OJ was on about non-skid roads and non-skid cars — he was told the Rover he had used was incapable of skidding — and he was glad to find more rough-matt road surfaces than the once-usual shiny black ones. How he would have enthused over the present-day advance in four-wheel-drive and anti-lock brakes! He got back in time to go to the show after all, and he was impressed with supercharging, especially as applied to the Mercedes although these cars were not shown at Olympia; in fact, he quoted Shakespeare about how a giant’s power should be used, saying that supercharging was the “bit in hand”, the balance at the bank, obviously thinking in terms of how Mercedes applied it, the blower coming in only when the accelerator was about fully depressed. He thought supercharging “will arrive”—and now we are in the turbo charged age! OJ, at the show, noted that the new Crossley Six had a reserve petrol supply operated from the dash, in conjunction with Autovac feed, which he saw as a great advance, and that reminded him of the petrol tank on the faithful Rover he had just discarded, which was under the chassis, filled through a filler on the near-side runningboard; refuelling must have been awkward in France!

After which, OJ went out in a 35/130hp ( his figures) Daimler limousine, first on a night of gales that blew down the trees across the “wet, shiny roads” (what of those new matt surfaces, 0J?), on as black a night as ever was, to a dance 35 miles from home. The big, powerful, closed car rose to the occasion, taking all the family in comfort and security, before it was tested “over the hills and about” the next day, and OJ thought it in the van of all cars in performance as well as appearance. “A big Daimler”, he said, “is the most imposing vehicle, and represents automobilism in full dress uniform”.

This test reminded him that the first cache had driven was a Daimler, a car which originally had hot-tube ignition, and which had to wait a week to have the conversion to coil and sparking-plugs because the works were busy with the completion of King Edward VII’s Daimler. Incidentally that very early Daimler was used for many years to carry bell-ringers from one town’s church to another, and OJ thought it might still be currently in use for that purpose . . . In 1907 OJ had gone with Raven Hill of Punch across France and down the east coast of Spain in a very fast and reliable Daimler, only taking a train from Madrid to some 200 miles south of Barcelona because the supply of tyres ran out. OL wrote a book about it, which Raven Hill illustrated, and I have a copy somewhere, to remind me of the excellence of Daimlers then, as the big limousine reminded OJ in 1925. WB

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