Cars I have owned



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IT is with some hesitation that I follow upon the fascinating articles which have already appeared in this series— more especially remembering Mr. Cooper’s delightful “Scuderia Impecuniosa.”  Furthermore, my pen has been pressed into such constant service by the Editor in the last eighteen months that most of my cars have already been written about at some length.

Albeit, the Editor is dictatorial in his demands, and not lightly to be gainsaid. Incidentally, I wonder if readers of MOTOR SPORT realise what a superb job he is doing in keeping this paper going, as well as a full-time war job? I re-collect that I used to complain loudly enough about the work involved in editing even so modest a publication as the Vintage S.C.C. “Bulletin” in peace time. What an Atlantean burden, then, must be the organisation of MOTOR SPORT under present conditions? I think, however, that the gratitude all of us feel towards this fine effort must be some reward in itself.

My earliest motoring recollection is of mid-1914, when I was four years old. It is my father’s 1907 28 h.p. poppet valve four-cylinder chain-drive Daimler. This was a most successful model with real power, and when my father had built for it a wickerwork body covered with canvas, oil-painted grey, to keep the wind out, it had a formidable power weight ratio, although I understand it was the devil to keep on the road. This was a very good body. The scuttle sloped well up to the steering wheel, having only a tiny screen on top. The people sat on cushions direct on the floor, and the body sides came practically to their chin level. I do not think there was a hood; in fact, apart from the general lines my keenest recollection is of the oiling arrangements which were by bottle and chain. That is to say, the oil collected itself in the traditional row of bottles on the dash and was at intervals let go by pulling a sweet little metal chain. To be allowed to do this was a special treat. It was my ambition to wind up the engine of this mighty monster, so one day, when no one was looking, I seized the starting handle and thrust it home. But the spring was too much for me, and the handle came out again and bit me smartly in the forehead, throwing me over backwards. I was, I think, too cross to cry, and my parent too frightened of what my nurse was likely to say to him to give me much sympathy.

He sold the car in 1915 to a man who was going on his honeymoon, but he went over a hedge in the first few miles.

The impoverished post-war period brought few exciting motors to enliven an enthusiasm already so keen that my school report, when aged ten, complained that I really must realise that there were other things than motor cars. However, runs on a big Mercedes, an early 8-litre Bentley and an exquisite two-seater sleeve-valve Mars, stand out in my recollection of the early twenties. In ’23 my father had one of the first Amilcars to reach this country. It was, I think, 8 h.p., and rather good looking in a spartan way. It would do 50 m.p.h. Shortly after this he was stricken by an illness which has left him a partial invalid ever since, although it has never robbed him of his motoring enthusiasm. But it put an end to all interesting motoring for the time being.

In 1927 I learnt to drive on a 1919 left-hand drive 10.4 h.p. Citroen which was the faithful family hack during seventeen years of almost incredible vicissitude and neglect. This car, incidentally, must have contravened the law in an almost unprecedented number of respects, despite which it regularly transported my grandmother to perform her magisterial duties on the local bench; a most enlightened bench, be it said, the chairman of which takes the keenest pride in keeping his 1909 Delaunay-Belleville shooting brake and 1912 Rolls-Royce in immaculate condition.

In late 1927 my father—by then just well enough to drive again—was given the now well-known 1910 16 h.p. Fafnir and it was the first high-quality car I had driven. It served him day in and out till after the war started, and only twice broke down in those twelve years; once with a seized clutch withdrawal gear and once with a broken petrol pipe. It continues to give both of us as much joy to drive as any other car in existence, and I expect we shall both get very drunk to celebrate its relicensing after the war. The top speed is about 48 m.p.h., though I once touched 60 downhill.

Finance prevented me from becoming a car owner till 1933, when I was twenty three. I then bought an early square nosed Morris Cowley (ML 423) of 1925 for £12. I drove it about 8,000 miles in six months and sold it for £8 when the tyres had worn out. An utterly unremarkable and admirable hack car. I then bought a 1923 8 h.p. Humber (YL 5563) for £5, but it was more worn out than anything I could have credited, and I was hard put to it to cover 2,000 miles in three months, after which it finally collapsed. It had, nevertheless, been a nice car in its day, and was well made.

Next came ten pounds-worth of most remarkable motor car. It was labelled Frazer-Nash and it was a Frazer-Nash. But for all that, it had a large coach built boat-type body, artillery wheels, and— shaft drive. The ‘Nash Club was not unnaturally alarmed when I applied for membership, but they let me in, hinting that I might perhaps have a little bit of tin to hide the back axle. It really seems that a few such cars were made by the firm in 1923 and it was at least traditional to the extent of possessing an Anzani engine. It had three noisy and widely spaced gears and a 4.4 axle ratio. Normal maximum was 55 m.p.h. After quite a short mileage PD 8133 went too quickly round a corner on May 27th, 1934, in Epping Forest. Over-aged 710 x 90’s gave way, and she fell over side-ways. I was removed to the North Middlesex Hospital which was close by, and as there were no private wards I was put in the public accident ward—there was never a dull moment. Having put a rib through a lung as only one of many injuries I was scheduled to die, and my sorrowing parents were rushed to their rapidly fading rosebud.

However, I had already decided that a real Frazer-Nash was the only proper answer, so after four days the coffin was countermanded. The authorities said I should be there for eight weeks at least, but I explained that I was leaving in three weeks, and in three weeks to the day I walked out of the hospital. It was superbly equipped and staffed and there is no doubt that they saved my life with great skill. I have cherished recollections of the man in the next bed to me who had made advances to a gypsy lady, so the gentlemen gypsies shot him in the backside with a shotgun and he was spending his days in a very bad state, prone upon his front. He was doing that when I arrived, and he was doing it when I left, and I believe he went on doing it a long while afterwards.

The following September saw me the owner of a real dog-with-chain Frazer-Nash, ND 9617; a 1924-5 car with a very light black fabric two-seater body, f.w.b., Anzani engine and three speeds (4.1, 6.2, 10.1). This car cost the princely sum of £70, ex-works, being the cheapest they had, and the most I had ever paid for a car. This was my first experience of a real sports-car and it seemed to me incredible that anyone could ever bear to own anything but a Frazer-Nash. It certainly was a most invigorating car, though the maximum was only 72 m.p.h. (3,600 r.p.m.). During eighteen months of ownership it gave me a lot of pleasure and a lot of small trouble, including the not unusual cracked block round the holding-down lugs. As far as I was concerned, it stayed cracked.

The engine was three-point mounted, and for the front mounting the nose of the timing-case was poked through a bush. As the timing-case and the crankcase were both aluminium, and the bolts holding them together were both slender and far between, it followed that the arrangement was not endowed with everlasting life. Fortunately, there was just enough metal to bore out the studholes and fit oversize bolts.

Then, the front shock-absorber bushes were made of some very friable sort of wood, which fell out now and then, and as they were responsible for locating the front axle, the result, when next the brakes were applied, was very striking. At anything over 3,400 r.p.m. the engine simply spurted oil out of the breather, but I cured this by putting a sock inside the breather. I suppose it then breathed somewhere else, but I never bothered to find out.

This car won me several awards in early Vintage Club trials, but after I had had it some fifteen months I fell under the spell of Tim Carson’s 30/98s— he had about half an acre of them then— and soon bought his own 1921 E-type (XE 7987) for £30. It was in pretty bad condition so far as incidentals were concerned, and, like the ‘Nash, it gave me an enormous amount of pleasure and minor trouble. The 3 to 1 top and tremendous low-rev. power were as much a thrill then as they are now, and the car would cruise at whatever speed you wanted. Eighty m.p.h. was its normal maximum, but it went over 90 once or twice downhill. But 820 x120 tyres and rear brakes made fast driving a real strain in modern traffic and around Christmas 1936, after a year’s ownership. I began to see that it was not a really practicable touring car. I accordingly sold it for what I gave, and I believe it was never driven again.

The ‘Nash and the Vauxhall overlapped for a time, but I had kept the ‘Nash too long. Frazer-Nashes had gone B.M.W. and the second-hand ‘Nash market had lost its gilt edge, so I was obliged to accept £25 from Surrey Car Sales, whence it was bought by that picturesque personality Rupert Pitchford, who spent an enormous sum of money on it, converting it to four speeds before driving it quickly into a hard bridge on some Scottish rally, which quite wore it out.

I learnt a lot about driving from these two cars and shall always treasure a grateful and pleasurable recollection of them.

For some time previously I had been falling under the spell of the Dawkins brothers’ 2-litre Ballot saloon. The speed, silence, comfort, brakes, and capacious and handsome coachwork of this superb car, and all for 14 h.p., were, indeed, something altogether out of the way; but unfortunately the one I bought, a 1928 model (UC 6945) was completely worn out; although it was charming when it went, it by no means always agreed to go. I suppose it was unreasonable to expect much more for £22, which I think I gave for it. After owning it for some six months, while returning from Salisbury on June 12th, 1939, a young child of about seventeen, driving a 25 h.p. Rolls-Royce, cut in in front of me and we met head on—not very fast, but with an aggregate impact of some 70 m.p.h. I suppose. Actually, I very nearly got out of his way, and the Rolls was not much damaged, but the Ballot was quite flattened, and they had to pull the body to pieces to get me out. I was not much hurt. I fought the case myself, as I was only insured third party, and the proceeds were sufficient to contemplate purchasing a 3-litre Bentley, which I decided was to be my next mount.

However, I am getting ahead of myself, for in June, 1930, immediately after the Ballot debacle, I had the honour to become possessed of the Itala (LD 2301). So much has been said about this car that I will not dwell on it here, beyond saying that the thrill of driving it equals that of driving the Fafnir, and I know of no car that gives me a feeling of such complete confidence. “Floretta” is by no means the fastest of the Edwardians, but there is not one of them—even “Vieux Charles”—for which I would willingly exchange her. Now that I know her so well she seems the most docile of cars, but I well remember the awe with which I first drove her, and thought it impossible that any single man could possibly start the machinery.

Soon after I bought the Itala I sold a half-share in her to Peter Robertson-Rodger who, although he does not often drive her, is most enthusiastic nevertheless.

Shortly afterwards—December 1936— Rupert Pitchford and I bought the 1921 3-litre straight-eight Grand Prix Ballot from Jimmy Fleet of Pembridge Motors. It cost us £60, but I traded the 30/98 in for my share, so that it cost me no initial outlay. Its career in the hands of Malcolm Campbell, Clive Dunfee and Joan Richmond is well known. Unfortunately, a man called Shipwright had owned it after Joan and he had made a chronic mess of it, even committing the capital felony of taking off the beautiful Ballot badge and re-naming it “Shipwright Special.”

“Shipwreck Special” would have been more apt by the time he had finished with it.

However, although we never got it going properly, I did once attain 115 on the Railway Straight, and the steering and road-holding were just like a Bugatti. I bought a couple of 1921 T.T. Sunbeam engines with the idea of making one good one and putting it in the Ballot chassis as the engines are very similar in design; but endless delays, including a great deal of dishonesty on the part of a Belgian rascal, then trading at Hampton Court who sold me one of them, made for very slow progress, and the war intervened before the scheme could be brought to fruition. Sick of the whole business, I sold the remains of the Ballot to Anthony Heal for a small fee, but after the war some sort of a bedstead will have to be found for the Sunbeam engine. Incidentally, I spent quite a tidy sum of money trying to pin a writ on to the said Belgian, but he was always too quick for me.

After the Ballot saloon (generally known from its name and ample proportions as the Balloon), I decided that a drophead coupe 3-litre Bentley should combine reliability, tractability, comfort and performance in reasonably equal proportions, and Marcus Chambers found just the thing in June 1937, in the shape of a 1925 Red Label, and sold it to me far £65. Theoretically, XX 6824 should have been in very good condition, but actually it was far from it, and Marcus certainly treated me very well over replacements. Gradually we got the car absolutely right, and by early 1939 it was in superb condition. It is true that the Bentley has not much performance, but when you have learnt how to drive the thing the cornering is really superb, and a keen gear-shifter can press along surprisingly swiftly, Seventy m.p.h. cruising at 2,500 r.p.m., too, has undoubted charms. I once attained 93 m.p.h. downhill.

More than two years of ownership found me still with a very genuine liking for the car, but unless one was feeling really in good form the driving of it was rather a labour, and my mind was already beginning to revolve around a Type 49 Bugatti, although I had, at that time, strange to say, hardly ever been in a Bugatti, apart from short runs in “Black Bess,” a late Type 44, and an early Type 57.

Very early during the war, when I still had a little money, I decided that it would be a good moment to “lay down” a Bugatti, for use in the post-war period, and after trying a 1932 Type 49 and a 1934 Type 57 I fell at once for the Type 49, despite its very moderate performance as compared with the Type 57; and so GY 89 came to me front Lemon Burton, and for a very reasonable sum I became a Bugatti owner.

Lemon warned me that the car really wanted money spending on it, and a few trial runs showed that this was the case. Most serious was that Ettore, who has never, I suspect, had a very high opinion of lubrication, had taken none but the most rudimentary precautions about oiling the camshaft, with the result that the wretched thing had practically worn away. However, W. J. Shortt waved his magic file upon it, and working entirely by hand he has completely reshaped it, making up the valve timing with added shims, so that the performance is now fully up to catalogue standard. The single Schebler carburetter gives phenomenal economy for the size of engine (3.3 litres), and sixteen sparking plugs all in a row ensure American standards of top gear flexibility—10 m.p.h. or less, with rapid pick-up from it is easy money. This model also has the funny, heavily finned, east aluminium wheels which I think very handsome and give modern standards of deceleration. Steering is as only Bugatti knows how, and the car can be driven equally effectively like a woolly American or a “racer” at will. The body is a splendidly designed close-coupled four-seater saloon by Youngs, which is still almost free from rattles after eight years. Peak revs. are about 1,000, equal to 80 m.p.h.

However, I am again running ahead. In October, 1939, I decided that motoring must cease, and the Bentley was put to bed, while the Bugatti went immediately after its purchase to be ministered to by Shortt.

Had it not been for my many kind friends with cars, I do not know how I should have survived the last motorless year, but I devoted a lot more time than before to my equal enthusiasm for 16th and 18th century music and musical instruments, of which I have a small collection; and there have been vivid drives on Anthony Heal’s 30/98, 1919 5-litre Ballot, and 1924 2-litre G.P. Sunbeam, also on Ariel and Peter Clark’s 1914 G.P. Mercedes and Le Mans H.R.G. The great V12 Lagonda and what is to be the world’s best all-rounder, the post-war I.F.S. Rolls-Bentley, have brought experience of a novel and delightful kind, and have there not been a few delirious miles at the wheel of Forrest Lycett’s 8-litre Bentley? I had over 100 m.p.h. on the road on both the Sunbeam and Lagonda, while with Lycett driving the Bentley passed 120, and as passenger to Anthony on the Ballot, 109 came up—both these last, on the Oxford By-Pass.

As a chartered surveyor, the London Blitz brought an altogether unexpected spate of work, and to get through it, I simply had to run a car again. As I had just sold the Bentley for a little less than I gave for it this meant the Bugatti, and I must say it has more than fulfilled the rosiest dreams I had dared to indulge in about it; a rare car.

One or two details remain to be told. By 1939 I thought my 30/98 days were over, but in July I had a card from Tim Carson saying he had a superb 1922 E type in and wouldn’t I please give it a kind home. So I bought XK 1455 for £12 10s. 0d., and it certainly is in miraculous order, though not very fast. Bitten with the idea of making a really first-rate E type, I then bought the ex-Andrew Leitch car from Andrew Fairtlough for an even more modest sum, and an early O.E. type front axle, and intend to amalgamate them as soon as I have a chance to do so. I also have the permission of none less than Mr. Pomeroy, senior, himself, to depart from standard to the extent of underslinging the back axle, which is easily effected. During a most amusing conversation with the Great Man at Laurence Pomeroy, junior’s, recent wedding he kept on decrying the 30/98, to which—somewhat nettled–I finally replied, “Yes, but dash it all, sir, you must admit it is a jolly fine car,” to which he responded, “Well, yes, I quite agree, but it has taken me twenty years to realise it!”

When I tried the Type 57 Bugatti, before buying the Type 49, it was garaged with Street and Duller, and there I saw to my surprise the ex-Bertram, ex-Cobb, ex-world’s record, ex-Brooklands lap-record 10½-litre, V 12 Delage. Enquiry revealed that it would change hands with a whole lorry-load of spare parts for a surprisingly small sum; so Shortt and I bought it, though Shortt has subsequently sold his share to Peter Vaughan. It appears to be in excellent order, though needing a general clean-up, and it did 148 practically the last time it ran, at Littlestone. This represents peak revs. (3,200 r.p.m.) on its highest ratio crown wheel and pinion. I have not yet driven this car, but visions of taking it up Shelsley make it most important to win the war as quickly as possible.

Another late-comer was one of the handful of 1911 57 h.p. sleeve-valve Daimlers, primarily designed for George V’s state cars. Anthony Heal, Richard Shakespeare and I went shares to save AC 2332 from destruction; but I must say it takes up rather a lot of room! Would anyone like to give it a kind home?

During the last year, my father (who, by the by, has become an ardent Bugattist as a result of my Type 49) has been sharing my mother’s 1929 Austin 12-4, which she has had since 1936, when the Citroen was traded in to the local wood merchant in exchange for cutting down a tree. The Austin is the best hack for local work that could possibly be devised; but the brakes and road-holding — oh, my!

A recent appointment to be second in command of a widely spread Home Guard Battalion has now made it necessary for him to have a whole-time car. The Fafnir was rather too cumbersome for the job, so as the latest addition to the family he has just bought a 1936 16 h.p. Triumph Gloria saloon in excellent condition, and a very nice car it promises to be.