In Search of an Ideal...



Wherein Douglas Tubbs relates some experiences in looking for a car he has not yet found

THE recent, Krieg which has been going on in MOTOR SPORT instigated by Clutton and prosecuted (almost) by the “modern” troops who understand the Vintage tenets, viz.. that cars were good up to 1930, mostly bad up till 1936 or whenever the V.S.C.C. was started, and were only resuming their vintage excellence when stopped by the war, prompts me to tell you my experiences in looking for a proper car.

I originally learnt to drive on one of the old Swift Tens. It was a delightful little car as I recall it, having a nice signal-box gear handle on the right and a clutch stop. This Swift was replaced by another, this time with four speeds. The clutch stop gave a feeling of condescension over all cars not so provided which has never really, to my shame, been overcome. Which makes the car I at length bought seem all the more strange. The problem was the usual one, I suppose, whether to get a really old car and thoroughly do it up, or spend my all on a two-year-old and just hope. Unhappily my longing eyes were deflected, by parental blandishments, from such worthy things as “12/50” Alvis and Brescia Bugatti. (“Just think . . . £12 a year tax, you know, and besides these old cars are always going wrong! “), and I finally bought an M-type M.G. Midget, already two years old. Thus began the search for the Proper Motor, which is still going on. My wants are quite simple; all I require is a car which handles well, is comfortable enough to take out the delicately nurtured, that will cruise happily at, over seventy, and will not go wrong in thirty-thousand miles. I am still looking.

An M.G. Midget was enormous fun in 1933; faster than the bulk of the cars one met on the road, quite good off the mark, but not really tough enough to put one in serious jeopardy. It would do about seventy, eventually, what with polished ports, a thin Klinger gasket and one of Mr. Derrington’s £25 camshafts. It was after I had had it for about a year that the idea of blowing it first came up. A low-boost Centric was buttoned on to the near side of the engine, driven by belt, and its smell led all the way round the back of the block, and into the induction manifold on the off side. The arrangement, worked surprisingly well, and the resulting car gave enormous joy. Instead of the habitual 65, this particular Midget had more than 80 m.p.h. available, and counted  Alvis and Frazer-Nashes its playmates. It earned its nick-name of the “Bloater” by doing half-an-hour’s lappery during an M.C.C. “blind” on three pistons, with smoke coming out through the fourth. It was a most exhilarating little car, and only broke its two-bearing, 50/- crankshaft twice. One time, with rather more “blow” than anyone quite expected, it did 0-50 m.p.h. in 9½ secs. [And the Meadows H.R.G . takes 9 4/5 secs.—Ed.]

The Midget, through no fault of its own, was then sold. The problem now was economy. Having been brought up to consider side-valve machinery more reliable than o.h.v., I at length bought a small red side-valve “racer,” which revved like an electric fan, but didn’t go places at all. I will draw a veil over this episode.

After this shocking debacle my faith in nice motor-cars was restored by a ride in one of the best-handling of all 1936 small cars-the Balilla Fiat. For sheer delightful driving I have never found a small car to touch it, but to my undying regret the funds necessary were just beyond my grasp. Instead, an old fifth-series “Lambda” was obtained, shortened to a 9′ 4″ wheelbase, and done up (nearly!) as good as new. It took us and our luggage down to Budapest in great style, and was so stable that when a front tyre burst at 65 m.p.h., we thought it was something going bang in the engine. Eventually the old car rather gave out, as we were misinformed about the rear-axle ratio, and always cruised at 65. This turned out to have been excessive.

The year 1937 was spent in the United States, driving a 1933 (English 1934 type) Ford V8 Convertible Coupe. (“Cab” for short, in the U.S.) Of all the cars I have owned this was quite the most useful all round. She was comfortable enough to take my mother for a 3,000 mile motor-tour front Boston to Virginia and back in a fortnight, she always started on the starter, though often left out in the yard even in temperatures of -15º, was good for over 80 m.p.h., would cruise at 75 on the highway, and yet not be a handful in traffic. And when tired of ordinary motoring you could take off across country, shooting at the lesser American fauna with a .22. Really a most “general purpose” motor car. Fitted with a new motor when I bought her, the only replacements in thirty thousand really hard miles were a front spring, broken by a ten-inch pot-hole at Flagstaff, Arizona, and an electric petrol pump. Bought for £55, kept, fifteen months and sold by the wayside for £30 in time to catch the boat, she was quite the luckiest car I have ever owned.

Returning to this country after this intensive enduring education, the problem of what car to buy was even more difficult than formerly. Lack of funds precluded buying a large and expensive car, the tax and high insurance rates as well as garage charges in London would rule out the Americans, even if I had overcome the disdain of my Vintage friends. And the car had to be a saloon, for use in town. I tried all the British cars of less than fourteen horsepower. Some steered like trucks. The majority steered like sailing dinghies. Picking the filthiest sludge-driven winter’s day, I drove all those that survived after trying their steering for play while still in the showrooms. A Standard Twelve failed this test the best of all, with 45° of play at a mileage of 10. Pausing only to give the unfortunate salesman the biscuit, we left. I thought that the Austin, fell into the “dinghy” category, the Rovers were too “aunty” for words, the M.G. seemed altogether too ersatz, and its gear ratios all wrong, the Riley was too dear, and too heavy, and not fast enough. Harking nostalgically back across the Atlantic. I tried a Ford Ten. It frightened us very much at forty-five on the wet Kingston By-Pass, and in my opinion was not “dinghy”; it was tout bonnement  “ice-yacht”!

Forsaking these shores at last, after this perilous patriotism, I tried the new independently-sprung 10/12 Fiat. It seemed the perfect answer. The steering was beautiful, the road-holding extremely good, the car was comfortable to ride in, it did thirty to the gallon, and you could see out of it. The gear-ratios, were just right; they gave speeds of about 20, 37, 50+ and 72. She was built for good average, speeds, but was quicker off the mark than most of the little red English “racers” one met. Probably her best day’s trip was from Perpignan, in the Eastern Pyrenees, to Berne; 320 miles in 18 hours, with five hours off for sights and food. She seemed about the perfect small touring car, and, if the driver felt like “playing bears,” the gearbox gave full scope, and the steering and springing backed him up. It fell to pieces, of course, in the end, because it had too much “grand-prixing.” It took us to Le Mans, Albi and Berne, always hurrying on the way, and hurrying round the circuits after the races. We envied Mr. Camerano, who did so well at Le Mans in a saloon identical with ours. The chief trouble was caused by the Totalitarian ball races, which were a bit soft, for an this hurrying.

In March, 1938, it began to look as though the only solution of our problem was to keep one car for being sedate in, and get another, and altogether tougher vehicle, for “adopting a crouch.” We eventually came by the “30/98” Vauxhall chassis that R. J. Munday used to race at Brooklands, and which was said to have housed the “Gold Star” engine. The chassis was number 220. The engine, however, was quite a. touring motor and was content to drag the rest along at about 90 or a little more. Much (too much) has been written about “30/98” versus Bentley. Anyway, I can’t join in as I have never owned a Bentley, and the only Vauxhall I’ve driven is my own. For what it’s worth, though, I think it’s only fair to make the point, which I have never seen mentioned in print, that the 4½-litre Bentley was designed in I927, the year the “30/98” went out of production.

The appeal of the big engine, the high-geared steering and the hard springs soon “got me” (though not my girl friends). Captain Hornsted found me a few brakes, by coupling up all four drums to both hand and foot controls. It gave a markedly picturesque appearance to any fast driving; especially in towns.

Motoring was now expensive. One paid a heavy tax and double garage. Also, it seemed a shame to leave the Vauxhall at home when going abroad to follow the races. So the Vauxhall was kept permanently at Dieppe, an arrangement that obviated all the troubles of owning a large car in this country, i.e., tax, insurance, high storage-rates, crocked roads, dense traffic and big repair bills, There was, in fact, no tax at all, insurance was cheaper than here, garage was six shillings a month, and when a badly fitted piston ring caused a seizure, the block was removed, new rings fitted all round, the scored cylinder honed, the whole issue re-erected, the ignition and fuel systems checked over, all for £3 10s., believe it or not. And M. Caralpt, of Perpignan, the garagiste lent me his car in the interim He was a very experienced fitter, having once successfully raced a B.N.C. for the works.

If you want to “make haste slowly” or find yourself a long way away, ahead of schedule, there is nothing, short of the new luxury cars which have learnt their vintage lessons, to beat the old four-cylinders. My first run in the Vauxhall, driving leisurely and enjoying the moonlight, came within ten minutes of the Midget’s best time from Cambridge to the Tower at Finchley, for, not having a speedometer fixed up in the “30/98,” what, to the untutored small-car driver, seemed about 45, turned out to have been more like 70.

In the year before the war the Vauxhall gave us some very invigorating runs, notably from Dieppe to Pau, where we saw Brauchitsch win, and Fifi Etancelin handle the very short Grand Prix Talbot. His cornering on that very tricky little “round the Park” circuit was the most elaborate thing you could wish to see. His arms worked like a specially tuned beam engine. Chaboud also drove, seated in the S.E.F.A.C., which was lapped by the six-cylinder Delahaye.

After Pau we went right across the Pyrenees to the East, but not before dicing round the old Grand Prix circuit where Birkin drove the race of his life in the Blower 4½-litre Bentley. After one lap in his footsteps, so to speak, the course left us gasping.

The end of the Vauxhall is almost too sad to tell. After taking us to Le Mans, to spectate, she had a couple of months off. Then, in August, we went to the Cote d’Azur. The day we were due to leave, a valve broke round the cotter-groove, so we returned to England in a friend’s car, meaning to take a valve down at a later date . . . . and, well, you know what’s happened since. If you want to buy a “30/98” cheap, the address, so far as I know it, is “Garage Majestic, Marseille . . . ” unless, of course, it’s been moved!

The Fiat eventually died, having become rather ankylosed with the passage of the miles, and was superseded by a Type 45 B.M.W. This car was in terrible condition when bought, but had returned to proper form by this month. So she has been laid up till petrol is easier to get. Despite “Pool,” the petrol consumption worked out at 26-30 m.p.g., with 85 jets in the two Solex Vergasers. Speed with these jets was limited to just over 70 m.p.h., but none the less, the pickup went with quite a swish. B.M.W. steering is only to be compared with Bugatti. The lock is enormous, no effort is necessary, the car goes where you want it to, and the ratio is quite high. The road-holding, too, is exceptional, though I would ask for hydraulic brakes.

Purely for reasons of petrol economy, I now run about in another “Axis” motor—the large four-seater, two-cylinder two-stroke, front-wheel-drive D.K.W. which is fitted with a free-wheel and an openable top. Who said you couldn’t sell an unorthodox motor car in quantity? Petrol consumption is better than 42 to the “Unit,” there’s lots of room for four large people, and cornering presents no problem, as the Pomeroy Technique [Laurence Pomeroy of “The Motor” owns a D.K.W. also.—Ed.] always seems to work. You arrive at the corner “full chat,” steer like mad, and then continue on along the straight to the next corner. Complete stability throughout. Flat out speed, unassisted by wind or gradient, is 52; average speed across country, 36. The springing is extremely good, and not at all “eight horse-power,” and a good time is had by all.

Pleasant as most of the above cars have been in their several ways, none of them has fulfilled the modest ideal with which this nonsense started; the problem was to find a car that handled well, was comfortable enough to take out the delicately nurtured or the motorphobe, could be cruised reliably at over 70, and wouldn’t go wrong in 30,000 miles.

There follows a table applying these tests to the cars I have owned; and perhaps it might amuse readers to apply it to their own cars. Surely in this day and age I am not asking the British motor industry for something it hasn’t got? Such a machine ought to be available now, with a 2-litre engine, and should sell for £400. Has anyone found the answer?



Cruising Speed in m.p.h.




M.G. 1931



Poor for speed (83). Brakes not powerful. Medium lock. Medium visibility.

Good in sports fashion with hard shockers. Not a car for aunty.

Nil, with compressor.

M.G. 1933



Boggy but fast cornering. Steering too low geared. Poor lock. Poor visibility.

Very little for man and beast.

Scarcely any; engine or body.

Lancia 1926



Very good. Direct steering, kicking slightly. Wonderful lock. Good visibility. Grand cornering.

Body a bit sketchy.

Very good if not overdriven.

V8 Ford 1938



Better than you might think. Brakes not up to speed. Reasonable lock, medium visibility. Quite good cornering, but you can’t go G.P. in a Ford.

O.K. for the highway, cattle track, logging trail of the city.

Very good.

Fiat 1938



Steering very nice. Slight roll on fast corners. Excellent brakes. Enormous visibility.

Very good for 12 h.p. Hydraulic shockers dealt with all shocks effectively.

Good; don’t cane.

Vauxhall 1925



Steering high geared. You can still hurry in the wet as the front end stays put. Brakes bad.

Only for an enthusiast.

Very reliable car, but decayed with age.

B.M.W. 1936



Very good. Light, high geared steering. Cable brakes not powerful enough. Excellent lock, good outlook.

Very well sprung. No roll. Not much room for four!

Should be satisfactory.




Very good. Cornering a marvel. F.W.D. limits lock.

Excellent for four people in an eight horse.

Good, I am told.