[A CONTRIBUTION TO THE “CARS I HAVE OWNED” SERIES BY N. MASSEY-RIDDLE, NOW SERVING ON H.M.S. “ARK ROYAL,” AND WHICH WE ARE VERY HAPPY TO PUBLISH.—ED.]
AT the tender age, I decided I ought to have something a bit better than a bicycle with which to catch the eye of the potential girl-friend; and my good friend James Langrish and I set about the Motoring Problem. One bitter Boxing Day we tottered off to the local breaker to seek out the inevitable “Bullnose.” Can you imagine our surprise when we discovered that he hadn’t got one? Hefty Yank “sedans” by the score, but Of Bullnose Morrises—nary a one! However, I noticed a 1931 “Aero” Morgan lying on its side, well and truly smashed. The body was concertinaed and the front end of the frame cut away, but the engine was in excellent condition. Eventually we got the lot for 20/- delivered at the door of the ancestral mansion in plain vans, together with a new steering wheel, back tyre, lamps, and glass for the wind screens. We now set about the formidable task of rebuilding this mess—with no more knowledge of motors than Latin—and we both “failed” in that subject. I managed to get a cutaway drawing of the Morgan two-Speed chassis from “The Motor Cycle” and this proved invaluable. Luckily, I had an old 1920-something Morgan frame in my back garden. So without further ado I cut off the 1931 frame main tube just in front of the flange, and the older one at the requisite place, allowing for a certain amount of slide inside the ’31 tube. Luckily they were almost exactly the right diameter and provided a sliding fit, and the whole was welded up by a friend. I feel I must explain here that, although we had had no previous automobile experience, we had had considerable workshop experience with largescale model locomotives. This knowledge stood us in good stead. One point I must mention is that the track of the earlier chassis was some inches less than the ’31 type. This seemed to improve cornering compared with other Morgans we tried. (Martin Soames in his article in the issue of May, 1940, says that he dished his wheels inwards.) After many hours belabouring panels, spraying, straightening and replacing steering, etc., we got the car assembled. To our joy it was a complete success, local garage men taking it for a professional job and the previous owner not recognising his “write-off.” Factors I noticed about the car were:—
(1) It had a nasty transmission vibration period, probably due to the smash, the inner tube taking the reaction of the whip of the shaft. (2) The selector forks of the gear change wore away like mad, a usual complaint l fancy! (3) A foot throttle was impossible, due to bumps and stiffness of suspension, so hand type was replaced. There was also a “flat spot” in acceleration, which otherwise was terrific. (4) The improved cornering was a great boon and we never once managed to turn her over on the road. The tyres were 4.50″ x19″ front, and 4.00″ x19″ (due to width of forks) aft.
This little car was very successfully swapped for a 1935 B.S.A. sports three-wheeler, which we rebuilt when the body (as in Mr. Peter Clark’s case) disintegrated. Previously, we had improved the “Divine Providence Rear Support” by running angle-irons out to the tail when it sagged, and strapping up the driver’s door with flat-iron. But this was of no avail as the tail wheel-box subsided sullenly on to the rear wheel. We decided to build a closed body on the chassis after the style of the German three-wheelers; our previous panel beating and coach building had heartened us! This decision, however, entailed much hard work, thought and picturesque language, but we made a pretty good job of it, the whole miraculously weighing only 6¾ cwts. on the official corporation weigh-bridge when we re-licensed. This weighing was forced upon us, incidentally, by the taxation authorities! So power-weight ratio was pretty good. Compression was fairly high—the car would bounce on the springs rather than turn over on the handle. Starting difficulties were overcome by using a lorry high-capacity starter battery, bought new, and by flooding the “non-floodable” carburetter with a pin! When getting away smartly the front wheels would spin madly in spite of large-section tyres. The gear-change was remarkably good-tempered, and as with Peter Clark’s B.S.A., tappets needed setting every 200 miles at least, or they hammered their threads. We managed to tan the whiskers off a Singer Nine “Le Mans” up a well-known local hill—White Hart—to the intense discomfort of its somewhat effete inmates, who had swept past us, laughing, on the level, when we were flat-out at about 65. (These B.S.A.s seem quite consistent in troubles and performance, Peter Clark’s being about the same as ours—as were others we tried.)
During this rebuild we ran a 1928 Standard “Nine,” and a 1926 “Aero” Morgan with M.A.G. engine which we had picked up cheap. This Morgan was in excellent condition and much smoother than our 1931 version, although not so well suspended or as fast. It ended its days by being overturned and set on fire by the next owner when he was “dirt-tracking,” or so he imagined.
The Standard we got for £6 10s. 0d. with two new Michelin tyres aft and a car heater inside. Very chaste, although a missing self-starter was the snag. However, the engine was perfect and used no oil and was most economical, even with a heavy saloon body. We were quite sorry to see this car go when the B.S.A. replaced it. Incidentally, the B.S.A. was externally quite unrecognisable as such, with a special bonnet, polished moulded discs, duo colour scheme in blue and pale grey, sun roof, spot light and bumpers! Unfortunately it was soon written off—by fire.
After this game little motor we took things easily to conserve finance—the B.S.A. being a dead loss—and ran a very clean 1932 Morris Cowley saloon, an Armstrong 12/6 sports coupe—deadly machine—and a “Chummy” Austin Seven, of 1928 vintage. This latter car had a brand-new hood which later graced the Special 1926 Alvis “12/50” I rebuilt. All this time I was becoming more and more enthusiastic over real cars, although, perforce, tied to utility hacks. I am glad to say I was developing motor taste and good sense, and broke none of the “unwritten laws” mentioned in an excellent article in this paper. I say this with a certain air of pride as there were some bad people in the neighbourhood—one idiot with a Ford Eight saloon, with—oh, horror of horrors!—a “straight-through” exhaust pipe and cord-bound steering wheel; a cheap toy trumpet horn completed the picture. The other wretch had a Morris Eight tourer with a “Tubex” fishtail on a straight-through pipe, a fold-flat screen, a much-used horn, and imitation knock-off hubs. Another sacrilegious dog painted false racing numbers on his very touring Riley “Gamecock”!
At last luck and a real motor came our way—a 1926 Alvis “12/50” long tourer, for £5, after we had watched the price descend slowly from £35. “All good things,” etc.! The “12/50” is a marvellous car and I can’t say enough in its praise. However, more capable pens than mine have dealt with its delights. I modified this car considerably, with great success. I sat the driver about a foot further aft and extended the scuttle over his knees; lowered his seat, gave him an almost vertical sprung steering-wheel, built up an air scoop around it and fitted a polished walnut dash, which now included a rev.-counter; the body side was “cutaway” and moulded smoothly, by the driver’s arm. The chassis was shortened considerably, entailing much work on the back axle assembly. This also lowered the car. A slab-tank-cum-luggage box was built to increase rear-wheel adhesion, and the spare wheel mounted on it. A small occasional passenger seat athwartships was provided behind the driver as my friend and I usually carry our fiancées around—silk stockings having, I fear, a high mortality rate. The handy gear-lever, modern wings, Lucas P.100 headlamps and fold-flat screen gave the car a look similar to that of the British Salmson two-seater. The whole was resprayed cream to replace a somewhat objectionable red. This car gave really wonderful service and I was amazed at its reliability (not always the case with these motors, I have heard). Oil pressure was always low, but tappets needed little attention. Hill climbing was excellent, probably due to the weight distribution. This car went the way of all flesh in a crash, unfortunately, but the engine was retained (I found it had Laystall liners), and is now in my present car, a 1931 two-seater Alvis “12/50”.
But before I had the 1931 Alvis on the road I tried a 3-litre Lagonda. This car was very nice, steering being perfect (I noticed the front wheels layout considerably), and the brakes excellent. This unhappy car had its block cracked when I couldn’t get to it in time in the bad winter of ’38—but I managed to dispose of it satisfactorily for spares in spite of very rough coachwork.
About this time I had the good fortune to try three interesting cars which, however, were not my own. The most outstanding of these was a Type 55 Bugatti with “Aerodynamic” body, in the capable hands of my good friend David Griffiths-Hughes. On this car everything was perfect, steering a dream and acceleration colossal. Of course, the sheer stability goes without saying. One fault it had, however—it slung oil out, smothering the engine. It burned none, but wasted pints. This was especially noticeable on the surge forward of the oil when heavy braking was indulged in. But taken all round, a dream car— even with ten-minutes warming-up time prior to setting out.
The next try-out was an old 1923 H.E. 2-litre tourer. This car had quite praiseworthy acceleration although no flat-out speed. She had been cared for by Laystalls for a local gentleman, and came into the hands of a friend of mine who could not resist her when he found her at the local breakers. Eventually this enthusiast, another Hughes, exchanged her for a 1929 Rover “Ten” sports tourer with a jolly aluminium body, and quite good performance. As is well known, there is good stuff in the Rover, and the “Ten” was a marvel; petrol consumption about 35-40 m.p.g., while it would slog anywhere. Several chaps I know swear by these ears.
After these wanderings from the home stable, I returned to a 1931 Alvis two-seater, upon which I worked considerably, although not structurally, as the bodywork was rather nice, and in good condition. I installed the old engine from my first Alvis, re-covered the hood— a most satisfactory job—and built a fine bench-type seat with drop arm-rest from a Humber Pullman. We could then seat three under the hood in comfort. I also re-covered the doors and built pockets from the Humber panels. The dash was french polished, and instrument and body chromium restored. Lucas P.80 headlamps, Lucas “Mellotone” twin horns and a first-class Bosch spot light were fitted. The old Lagonda full-zip tailored tonneau cover was used satisfactorily. This little car has been a gem and I now have her stored until Adolf seizes up. Previous to this purchase I had joined the V.S.C.C.—excellent body of men. I had become terrifically enthusiastic over Vintage cars, and it was my greatest sorrow that I couldn’t do more for this club—a state of affairs I hope to rectify after demob.
The communal family hacks have been: a Morris “Fifteen” Six—here again, like one of Peter Clark’s, cruising speed was 60 odd. This car was amazingly quiet and smooth. Acceleration was also brisk, and like a later Ford V8 coupe, its stern dipped down when getting away smartly from traffic lights. I must confess we treated these cars absolutely abominably, especially the Morris— battered the wings like mad and “yellowed” the Triplex till the luckless driver squinted through a hole about an inch in diameter, feeling like a butler at the keyhole, the rest of the screen being practically opaque. The Ford coupe, 1936, was a typical Yank—if you like that sort of car—but had wonderful pulling power, although steering needed a knob on the wheel like those the steamroller drivers use! The humblest car of all is the present one—a Ford Eight two-door saloon, which can be, and is, slung about anywhere. This car draws spares from a 1936 de luxe saloon, purchased for a fiver from a breaker—the only faults being a ruined front axle and wheels, and wing and door shoved in. The virtue was a reconditioned engine and gearbox.
To return to my personal cars, just before the war I managed to get hold of a “Blue Label” 3-litre Bentley. This car was quite “touring” with heavy body and long chassis, but not to be ignored at the remarkable price. However, it has given just over 78 m.p.h. on the level since attention, and I had hoped to put in a new short frame from “Red Label” tourer I wot of, thus getting a reasonably good motor at a very satisfactory price. The “Red Label,” incidentally, had blown up. The Old “Blue Label” (as she still is), however, stands beside the Alvis due to the war. Two other ventures I tried just before this war were a 3-litre Invicta and a Rover “Blue Train.” (I can almost hear the sneers at the latter, but beggars can’t be choosers.) The Invicta I obtained amazingly cheaply by swapping my decrepit ’28 Austin “Chummy” for it through a breaker. I built a new large workshop on an allotment (rent 3/-, per annum) wherein to work on it. This car I still have. The Invicta is nowhere near finished, very extensive work being planned upon it. As with the first Alvis, the driving position has been moved well aft and the scuttle extended. A fly-off handbrake from the Lagonda has been fitted and the gear-shift moved outside the new body, which is a light aluminium pointed-tail three-seater, a la Bugatti. This body we brought down from London tipped into the rear seat of the Bentley. Top-deck passengers of London buses looked out at what they thought was a mobile “air-crash,” a rarity in those days. A new low radiator has been designed and made in the style of the Alfa-Romeo, of which I am very fond. Much as I admire the Invicta radiator, it was unhappily too high for my lowered driving position and scuttle. The steering wheel is Lagonda spring-type Bluemels, with Lagonda ignition and throttle levers, which are very positive and accurate compared with the somewhat crude Invicta levers, anyway, were rusted solid! A copper outside exhaust system was being made up, with “Brooklands” silencer, and 4½ Invicta front axle and brakes were fitted. New wheels replace the large 5.25″ x21″ size. The 4½-litre Invicta rear wheels, 6.50″ x 19″, and 5.50″ x 18″ S.S. front wheels were used. These gave excellent grip at the back and delightfully light steering. I notice that the Invicta steering is first class anyway, but these alterations, where body comfort hasn’t to be considered, even further improve it. All the Invicta instruments are being kept as they are of a very high quality. Usual sports equipment is planned—fold-flat and aero screens and abbreviated aluminium wings, etc. Two spare wheels are carried, one each side, just in front of the driver. Several alternative wheel and tyre sizes are available.
The Rover “Blue Train” I managed to work on at odd times before I started on the Invicta. I bought it for £4.10s. 0d., as it had its chassis badly bent by the sump oil filter and the front axle wasn’t too happy, either—the car only steering straight ahead or to the left. However my local breaker had a Rover “16,” and I swapped frames and axles, retaining the cycle-wing assembly of the “Blue Train.” Otherwise this car was in “Olympia” condition and had just had an expensive overhaul for a very fastidious commercial traveller, whereupon that gentleman jabbed his foot on the accelerator instead of on the brake and rammed an Austin Seven. He decided that labour costs for replacing a frame would bar that job and I managed to snap it up. The car was well fitted out, with polished discs, wheel covers, etc., and I fitted a few extras to make her complete. I remember that the twin Bosch horns gave a very aristocratic note. I quite realise the limitations of these cars—not to be compared with the excellent current model, which is a quality motor—but this particular one was an excellent example and well worth the time and money spent on her. I didn’t lose on disposing of it, either!
So we come right up to date; the Alvis, Bentley, and coming along, the Invicta. Meanwhile, one gets a lot of fun on an aircraft carrier even if there’s no motoring. . . .