The Roads of the 1920s
After his 1926-27 winter tour of France and Spain in the 18hp Armstrong Siddeley, Owen John, on whose diaries our continuing story is based, wrote that at Christmas there is no place like home, and that he had only gone abroad because he had promised a boy that if he could not get home he would spend Christmas with him. I share OJ’s sentiments, but family invitations led me to foreign parts (Hampshire) over part of the 1987 holiday; at least I was secure in the knowledge that, should snow and ice attempt to cut us off from Wales longer than intended, I had 4WD at my command.
That winter, when Riley Nines had artillery wheels, when the Laffite (an example of which Ronald Barker is now rebuilding) was advertised new at £100, and when a supercharged Amilcar won the Monte Carl Rally, OJ was expressing his dislike of a proposal to label English villages with particulars of their historic features.
He made the point that his own Berkshire village could boast “clustering cottages about an elm-shadowed, lingering by-way affording fascinating glimpses of the exquisite river embowered amid its shady willows, and with a vista of the beech-crowned Chilterns on one hand and the far green Berkshire downs on the other” – that is how some motoring writers expressed themselves in those days! So what, wondered OJ, would they put on this village’s label? Should the inn be mentioned, or (a topical note here) or would some motorists object to mention of the liquor trade?
His personal view was that “SMQC” on such a label would suffice, standing for si monumentum quaris circumspice, to which he would add the words “but drive slowly”.
Alas, he said, the village had already become “an open sewer for all the world’s motor-lorries” by 1927, and I expect those elms have become diseased and died.
Today we have name-plates for most villages a road passes passes through. But the days are long gone when these consisted of those round, yellow- and-black AA plaques, which are now rare collectors’ items, but which The Autocar once bravely campaigned against (under the heading “The Yellow Peril) using many photogravure-plates to illustrate their spread.
OJ, in fact, went further, saying he could put up a plaque at his own front gate, telling drivers of a clump of trees, on a road running parallel to his, called Kingstanding Wood, which was said to mark the place from which King Alfred watched the defeat of the Danes by the Saxons more thn 1000 years before. This, he thought, would lighten the traffic past his own front gate; but since drivers would have to go there to see the instruction, I am not quite sure I understand
Incidentally, I expect the officers of the VSCC, whose headquarters are in Newbury, will know of that knoll OJ was thinking of, even if the trees themselves have gone. In modern times naming villages and towns at their approaches is a safety move, because, unless one has a navigator alongside, it is difficult to keep to one’s correct route or know where to divert from it without glancing at a map — and a driver in doubt, and consulting his maps while on the move, can be a hazard. With these labels and motorway-size direction-signs at ordinary junctions as well as on motorways themselves, safety has taken precedence over environmental concerns. But more than sixty years ago OJ was able to remind those in favour of labelling our villages of “Bill Stumps, his mark” and Pickwick!
Returning to wintry England early in 1927 after his Continental tour, OJ was soon on again about the benefits of closed bodywork. He said that even on the Continent it was rare to meet anything other than closed bodies, except for super-sports-type cars. This remains true today — one thinks of the remaining MGs, Triumph TRs and the like, which are still so often encountered, even on fine days, with their hoods up. This is rather surprising, because if sensible clothing is worn it is possible to enjoy open-car motoring even in the winter, especially as Classic sports cars presumably have effective heaters.
This notwithstanding, I confess there can be a strong desire to make use of such weather-protection as is provided. I was once flown up to the Lotus works to one of the late Colin Chapman’s well-attended Open Days, departing there-from in a stark open Lotus Seven. I resisted the offer to have hood, or at least sidescreens, put up before I left, but it was not far on my long run back to Wales that I pulled in and erected the side bits — the wind was especially biting across the Norfolk plains that day, and I did have a considerable distance to go . . .
Instant snugness must have sold cars in the past, when two-seater convertibles were available; I recall how easy it was to reach back and haul up the top of the Jowett Jupiter, without even having to stop the car, when a spot of warmth and comfort seemed in order. You have to have a close-coupled two-seater for this to be possible; I wonder which of the convertibles still on the market has the most easily-erected hood?
Reverting to the threat of village signs, it was the RAC which was behind the idea in 1927 and had already erected one of the first in Monmouthshire — on the road from Chepstow to Newport, about 12 miles from Caerleon (which amuses me, for I know this road well). This proclaimed the Roman Venta Silurtun at Clement, its town walls and gateways, forum and temple-arena, memorial to a famous Roman General, Altar of Mars and mosaic floor, as well as the parish church.
Tourism by motor was very much the “in thing” in 1927 (although hardly described as such then), and Wookey Hole near Cheddar, which today we see advertised on television, had just been made the subject of a promotional book. I imagine the RAC village signs were blue-and-white, in cornpetition with the yellow-and-black AA plaques; since there were fewer of them, they should now be that much rarer museum items.
I have mentioned quite recently my partiality as a boy for walking the road between Waddesdon and Aylesbury, or Waddesdon and Bicester, taking a census of cars which passed by. From memory, I would place this between the years 1926 and 1930, so I was a little surprised to discover that in early 1927 OJ wrote that “once upon a time it was interesting to sit by the roadside and count the cars; today it is far more improving to mark the diversities of heavy traffic, and to note how many old lorries still exist that one can see both smashing up the surfaces with their flat, broken, solid tyres, and assisting their own decay in the process”.
Perhaps traffic was greatly increasing nearer to London, but I recollect the footpath-bordered Aylesbury road as being comparatively deserted, at least until the end of the vintage years. I would have warmed to those aged commercial vehicles detested by OJ. Certainly I remember a great many Ford 7-cwt delivery vans and Ford one-tonners (some of the latter with solid back tyres, some with Baico and other wheelbase extensions), all invariably dripping water from their radiators as if suffering permanent colds . . .
Buses had become as comfortable as a good car, and now OJ was anxious to see their stopping-places controlled by some authority; sour grapes, maybe, because his Crossley had run into a villager’s garden after encountering the local milk cart parked in its accustomed spot and a lorry passing it.
OJ’s love of the closed car was answered by a doctor who wrote to him to say he had commenced motoring in 1908 with a Turner Miesse steam-car, and that his present car was a 12/30hp six-cylinder Talbot two-seater, which had run 10,000 miles without ever being fully closed up— although it was out 365 days (and many nights) a year. The good doctor said his wife was even more keen on keeping the car open, and told OJ to take a walk down Harley Street; he would find it full of saloons which belonged to patients, but if he entered the Mews behind he would discover that the doctors used open and sporty cars — Dr JD Benjafield’s Le Mans Bentley among them, one imagines.
CJ’s Easter wanderings in 1927 took him to Manchester, where he tried the latest Crossley and was duly impressed. He also paid a visit to Rippon Bros in Huddersfield, where they were putting a new body on a 1915 Rolls-Royce for a local client. What a compliment, said OJ, to the lasting powers of Rolls-Royce’s famous cars. WB
Anyone who remembers, or studies, the vintage road scene must include the country bus. There will be memories of one’s own local bus service of those times for example — in my case of a Model T Ford and Lancia plying the Waddesdon/Aylesbury route over what is now the busy A41. I have a friend who has been in a Monte Carlo Rally-winning car, but who likes buses so much that he has twice travelled round the coast of Britain as quickly as possible by regular bus services, for the sheer fun of it. It was he who was with me when, during the early days of World War Two, I sampled for Motor Sport the Scottish Motor Traction run from London to Scotland (then the longest regular service in this country) in AEC and Leyland diesels, and got snowed-in for my pains. .
Joe Lowrey BSc, another astute bus observer, helped to fill the pages of those wartime Motor Sports by writing, not an article in the contemporary Cars I Have Owned series, but one entitled Buses I Have Caught — in which he recalls AECs boiling furiously on the gentlest climbs through Epping Forest and “Ribble” Leylands maintaining a surprising turn of speed over the Cross Fell ascent, before turning to the various buses used in different parts of the country in wartime. In this connection I remember being in a cafe at Blackwater on the Hampshire/Surrey border during the war, when the driver of an AJS coach came in to ask for help, saying he had a number of old ladies on board and a con-rod had come through the crankcase on the run down from the Hartford Bridge Flats. No mechanical remedy was forthcoming but some Canadian Army chaps, hearing his plight, soon returned with an army truck, in which they conveyed the ladies to their destination. They had no apparent trouble at a time when for British troops and civilians fuel was strictly rationed . . .
All this came to mind after reading The Hereford Bus, in which there is a very detailed appendix listing buses used in this area from the earliest times to WW2. I was intrigued by the wide variety running in the Hereford area between 1919 and 1930, that is, in the vintage years; these comprised AEC, AJS, Albion, Bean, Beardmore, Belsize, Chevrolet, Crossley, Commer, Dennis, Daimler, Ensign, Fiat, Federal, Guy, Garford, Gilford, GMC, Garner, Hallford, Hupmobile, Karrier, Lancia, Morris, Maudslay, Maxwell (I went on an Historic Commercial Vehicle Run to Brighton in this one in 1964, in the company of the girls from television’s Black And White Minstrel Show; it is now in the NMM at Beaulieu), Overland, Oldsmobile, Palladium, Rea, Star and Talbot. What a time to be young, with all those different makes to ride in!
It was similar with London taxis — as a boy I used to persuade my mother to hang about the cab-ranks, so I could try a “new” make. As the aforementioned appendix gives registration numbers, it would be possible to work out how many of each make of bus were used by pre-war operators, who in such well-remembered names as Hereford Transport, Pettifer’s, Primrose Motor Services, Sargeant of Kington, Wye Valley Motors, Yeoman’s and Bengry (whom rally drivers will know). Certainly Model T Fords predominated in the vintage years; I counted 38 (against 17 Chevrolets, the next most popular make) before I gave up. WB