Veteran to classic

The roads of the 1920s

After getting over his unhappy experiences as a judge at the Bournemouth Rally, Owen John had something to say in his diary about the Brighton Motordrome which was a 1928 proposal. Nothing was to come of it, but at the time OJ thought that out on the Downs such a track would not disfigure the scenery or cause noise problems, and that the acrimonious criticism the suggestion had aroused was out of proportion.

However, ordinary folk were not in the least interested, he felt, so a by-pass road to relieve a watering-place which “seemed to get noisier and less fashionable every year” would be a better way of spending the money. I recall how in much later times the Mayor of Brighton said any publicity his town could get was welcome, and if Eastbourne got more it was bad — which is probably why so many motoring events have been held, or have finished, along Brighton’s Madeira Drive, resurfaced as a motor-course in 1903.

The Midlands would be a more appropriate place for such a track, OJ observed, but a proposed Birmingham race-track was likewise still-born; meanwhile Brooklands went on modestly and happily as it had done since 1907…

OJ said that, when the Channel Tunnel arrived, Brighton and other “dear old resorts” would become back-numbers in the motoring sense and “charming old-world Brighton, with all its old-world atmosphere and attractions, would once more fulfil its original destiny and become the last resort in which weary Londoners will be happy to end their days.” Well, if Mrs Thatcher’s plans mature, we may soon be able to judge whether OJ’s 60-Year-old prophecy comes true. Meanwhile, miracle of miracles, in the 1980s we have road-racing through the streets of Birmingham.

As 1928 drew towards autumn, OJ took a holiday in France without a car, which was, he found, a mistake. To hire a taxi was expensive; motor coaches were of the kind popular here in the early 1920s. Perhaps fed up after Bournemouth, he ignored the Deauville concours d’elegance, thereby missing seeing Miss Paddy Naismith taking part with her elegant 2-litre Ballot (ML 5569, should it have survived), wearing a long tie down to below her waist (beware the exposed wheels of sports Bugattis!)

Deauville had become a noisy town, and if the electric-horn was taboo, the tooting of bulb-horns made up for this. OJ encountered many Rolls-Royces, all very elegant and expensive-looking, owned not by English tourists but by Continentals. Chauffeurs slept peacefully behind the steering-wheels of most of them, for the average daily journey seemed to be about 16 miles in as many hours. One taxi, however, displayed a notice saying it was about to leave for Biarritz, and on to Nice for the winter— romantic, although OJ recalled similar romance when two-horse landaus carried fashionable folk from Paris to Aix and on to Vichy and Cannes, drawing together for protection through gorges and forests and getting snowed up on the heights of the Cote d’Or, or held up by brigands in the Provence mountains.

One delight at Deauville was to see local resident Monsieur Andre Citroen taking loads of bathers, including children, in a caterpillar Citroen, careering over the wet sands and into the sea itself. France loved this jolly millionaire, who kept open house for all his friends in the manner of olden times. Madame Citroen’s new car had just arrived and it created an impression even there — a most eyeable Citroen with chauffeur in matching uniform.

OJ’s friend George Washington from Canada was there, too, in his Maybach with the multi-ratio electric gearbox, but rain prevented OJ from going out in it. The weather still controlled motoring pleasure, in those times. But motoring went on, here as in France, and although the Alfa Romeo Section of the VSCC probably already knows it I will record that Mrs Styles (wife of the British Alfa Romeo concessionaire) had just driven a twin-cam 1500cc Alfa from Milan to London in 26 hours.

Reverting to Deauville in that late summer of 1928, the children were enjoying racing on the beach in all manner of miniature cars, from the costly electric Type 52 Bugattis to miniature Amilcars and Salmsons, and one which looks very like a Lines Bros or Tri-ang pedal car with bull-nose “radiator”, though whether intended to be a Morris or a Bentley I never knew. Sotheby’s in Sussex recently had an auction of just such children’s cars, and one of those under the hammer was this very Tri-ang miniature, valued in these greedy times at between £1000 and £1500.

Other things OJ noticed in France, apart from the excessive motor-noise in Marseilles, were that garages at the seaside towns were larger than those in England, that closed cars definitely predominated, that many had the Rene Thomas sprung steering-wheels which OJ himself had on his 10/25 Rover and which eased neuritis in the arm or shoulder, and that many contained luggage in neat rear trunks. Back home it was still usually a matter of humping things inside or roping cases onto the luggage-grid, the dirtiest part of a car.

Incidentally, this causes me to wonder why, in the present day and age, people still require booted saloon bodies, when hatchbacks are so commodious and easy to load and the one-time shortcomings of rattles, draughts and badly-fitted fifth doors have been eliminated from such designs?

In 1928 about the only tiny car to boast a trunk was the Triumph Super Seven fabric saloon, and on many larger cars grids were still fitted. However, at Olympia, trunks were making a tentative appearance on British and American cars and the 20/70hp Whitlock had a neat one incorporating a tool-locker and polished aluminium picnic table. Gordon England had the right idea, and Georges Roesch was an early user of trunks on his Talbots.

Although he had ventured to France without a car, and hated it, OJ admitted to having taken the 10/25hp Rover Riviera saloon to that part of Europe from which it took its name. He later set off on a business run through Essex to Norfolk and Cambridge, and home to Berkshire by way of Baldock, using a high-powered, straight-eight American car which, for no stated reason, remained anonymous; but a reminder that 1928-29 was the advent of this kind of power-unit. And as 1928 drew to a close OJ was happy that his Dunlop tyres lasted 14,000 miles on his heavy Rover, and that his 1904 licence was free of endorsements. WB