CARS I HAVE OWNED
[G. Anthony Phelps, A.T.A. Pilot, tells of his motoring education.—Ed.] FROM previous contributions to this series I gather that practically every
MOTOR SPORT reader was bred from the very beginning in the right school and desired always only good tough motor-cars. In my case it was quite different Being brought up, and in a manner of
speaking educated, in California, the Mecca of my motoring world was the “roadster “—the shrine at which worships all American yoe th. California has a State Law which permits the very young to drive with the
consent of their parents, who also have to stand responsible for any damage that their progeny inflict upon the persons, goods or chattels of other citizens. It says much for the indulgence of American parents that, financial con
ditions permitting, such consent is seldom refused, and the number of accidents resulting is considerably less than you might expect. The campus of Hollywood High School, as I remember it, was one mass of cars,
most of them ancient and battered, but all luridly coloured and bearing the signs and slogans of the fraternities numbering the owner among their flock.
learned to drive on the parental Pierce Arrow, and subsequently became the owner of one of the early Lycomingengined Cords. Being very young at the time (14) and having no previous experience for com parison, my memories of this car are doubtless distorted. It was my first car and I would have been just as proud of any other. The impressions, and they are no more, which I have retained are probably inaccurate, but I quote them for what they are worth. As far as I remember, the brakes, steering and roadholding were superior to the average American car of that time, although doubtless not up to British standards. It was cotainly festish, with acceleration as good and better than most, and I soon
discovered that my F.W.D. enabled me to corner rather faster than my friends. They, in turn, discovered that it was unwise to hang too closely to my tail on a gravel road, as the Cord had an amusing
habit of picking up rocks with its front wheels and hurling them backwards with the velocity and consistency of a battery of machine guns.
It was heavy on tyres, and gasoline, even at eight-for-a-dollar, represented a permanent problem. I would like very much to get hold of one of these motors to see how the im pressions I have retained compare with fact. [We saw one on the road recently.— Ed.]
I had to part with it when my parents returned to England and I perforce with them.
The chief memory I retain of my welcome home for the first time is one of an intensity of rage and bitterness at discovering that I would not be allowed to drive for a long, long time. At school I was foolish enough to talk about my Cord ; the nett and only result
being to enhance the reputation apparently enjoyed by Uncle Sam’s citizens for an ability to shoot a really colossal lie without blushing. I degenerated to a bicycle and realise now that I am alive only by the grace of God and Mr. Girl ing.
In course of time I acquired a motorcycle driving licence, and a T.T. Scott, on which I did many miles at dangerously high speeds. The previous owner had used it for grass-track racing and, among other tinkerings, had skimmed the flywheel, and for sheer urge away from the lights that piece of machinery was undoubtedly unique. I still possess this very potent bicycle, but have not had the courage to ride it for a long time. Finally, the great day arrived when British law admitted that I had reached an age of sufficient discretion to drive a’ motor-car on the King’s highway. In spite of the fact that many competent judges doubted this, I paid the necessary five shillings and was presented with an
M “-type M.G. Midget as a birthday present the same day.
During the interim period of not being allowed to drive I had become considerably bloody-minded about the whole thing. By direct comparison with Transatlantic products I despised British motorcars. They seemed to me to be absurdly small and expensive, appallingly sprung and lacking in performance (top-gear, of course).
The exception was the Bentley, whose superiority to anything in the world (coupled with hero-worship for those who drove them) I willingly admitted, but it was hardly to be expected that my parents would present me with such. In fact, they needed a lot of talking off an Austin Seven saloon, so I was therefore in a somewhat critical frame of mind over the M.G. The first owner of the car had died when it had covered only 490 miles, but prior to his demise he had fitted many extras, including a remote-control gear shift, a rev.-counter and an oil temperature gauge. The fact that I did 34,000 miles without the necessity for a rebore I attribute to intelligent co-operation with this latter instrument and the use of upper cylinder lubricant: The Midget started my education. More and more I became impressed by its qualities. The steering was delightful and I liked the feeling of being part of the car, as compared with the remote control of the family Studebaker. The brakes, in themselves’ I found efficient, but almost impossible to keep balanced and, coupled with the narrow-section tyres, there was never a dull moment when driving fast in traffic on a, wet road. It conveyed delightfully the impression of speed, but was not, of course, fast. It once touched, and only just, 70 m.p.h. on a down gradient at the expense of a big-end, but normally I should say 65 m.p.h. was the absolute maximum, and that not for very long. It did, however, give off 35 to the gallon. When the time came for me to have a new car I was not at all sure of
what I wanted. I still liked driving the Studebaker, with its feeling of luxury and lots of power, but disliked its general characteristics.
However, my choice had to fall within certain fairly narrow limits as I was restricted to 10 h.p.
A friend of mine was having a lot of trouble with a ” J.1 ” M.G. Midget, so I decided to change my brand. I tried out a Le Mans Singer which had done 3,000 miles and found the steering to possess 80 degrees of free play. Furthermore, on the demonstration the starter cheerfully bit half-a-dozen teeth off the flywheel, so I told the salesman to take the thing away.
Finally, a clever man with a small moustache sold me a Riley “Lynx.”
In view of the experience of others I imagine I must have been unfortunate, but I can remember practically nothing good to say of this motor-car. It gave off little more than 20 to the gallon, it was no faster than my M.G., the brakes were spongy and it was always going wrong at the most embarrassing moments. I finally decided to wash my hands of it when it broke a half-shaft one night at the top of Newlands Corner, whence I had repaired to show a girl friend the view by moonlight—no, she didn’t believe it either, but it’s true ! I sold the Riley and, as the family were away, used their new Packard for a couple of months, and I suppose it was this that made me buy a new Ford “14/9 ” D.H. coupe. (My longsuffering parent having at length washed his hands of my motoring expenses.)
For people who like that sort of thing it is good value for money, being very reliable and capable of standing any amount of ill-treatment ; but all the same, it was pretty horrible. I am certain such cars can’t be as dangerous as they seem, but, oh boy, do they seem ! I sold it when I went to Singapore for a year, but did a lot more motoring in similar models. In Malaya motoring is transport, nothing more or less. Cars are borrowed as casually as cigarettes and
treated with as little respect. Consequently, almost everyone runs a Ford.
My return home was followed by a period of really acute financial depression and my motoring was done on a variety of vehicles costing between £7 10s. and 115. Nevertheless, I think the experience was almost worth it. I learned much about the infinite number of things which can happen to stop an old car from running, although never why they always occur late at night, miles away from anywhere and when it’s raining.
There was a £7 103. 1928 Austin Seven “Gordon England” saloon, which chugged around quite happily after being fitted with little bolts from Woolworth’s to keep its doors shut and adaptors to keep its plugs (der n, until one April day the magic of spring proved too much and, in an endeavour to do 50 m.p.h. downhill, it broke its crankshaft. There was an early Morris Minor which I bought complete, but with the engine
resolved into its component parts. Inspection proved it similar to my late Midget, so I hied me down to an establishment that you doubtless wot of, which specialises in aids to tuning for little boys, and acquired an alleged high lift camshaft, together with odd and sundry other performance-producing parts (alleged). I also had the flywheel and the head skimmed. The result was rather astounding. The Minor did things a hich no Minor was ever
meant to attempt. Its acceleration astonished and it fairly gambolled along at an indicated 65-70 m.p.h. Naturally, this didn’t last for very long and I was not surprised when everything deteriorated at once and oil flowed in a steady stream out of the clutch casing via the back main, at the rate of lA gallons per diem.
A dealer who had a car I desired refused to take the Morris in at all without being paid for the job, so it was wheeled into a shed and left there. It has only recently been given to the nation as scrap, so perhaps its gallant little soul lives again in realms of formerly unimagined speed. Finally, there was a 1928 ” 14/9 ” Ford sedan for which I paid £9 2s., taxed and insured, and which went remarkably like a tank until I sold it for £20. I feel that it was at this point that my education was really completed. From a friend I
took over a very early Anzani-engined Frazer-Nash. It had a home-made body, which looked like hell, but weighed only 50 lbs. It would do only 70 m.p.h., pushed, but made 0-60 m.p.h. in 12 sees. The brakes were doubtful, but the magnificent (albeit heavy) steering and acceleration kept me out of trouble. The, flywheel had been skimmed down to a wafer aria the compression ratio was something frightening, so that keeping it running in traffic constituted no mean feat. All this, coupled with its general appearance, provoked much ribald comment and many superior smiles from the owners of S.S. Is. and IIs. and “J “-type M.G. Midgets. They never stayed superior for very Jong, and I remember with gruesome satisfaction one particularly messy specimen with pimples, in a ” J.2 ” M.G. who in a desperate attempt to hold the ‘Nash away from the lights for the fourth time, apparently went up to the odd rev. too many in third, for he coasted to the side with an expression of pain on his face. In the end, the ‘Nash started blowing cylinder head gaskets with fairish consistency every 200 miles. Machining the head did not effect a cure, so I sold it to a dealer who had better be nameless. He was quite unperturbed when he heard that a new gasket would hold long enough for a demonstration run I At this time I was given a 1928 2-litre Lagonda saloon, which impressed me so much that I scraped together my all and pledged my future to acquire a 1932 supercharged open tourer of the same marque. It is one of the major regrets of my life that I ever sold this car. All things taken into consideration, I think that this motor-car gave more than anything in its class yet built. The chassis must be as large and heavy as any engine of that rating was ever asked to cart about, and there was as much
room within as in many cars of twice its engine size. Road-holding, steering and driving position could hardly be bettered. The maximum velocity of mine was never quite up to others of the breed, but, considering that it averaged 24 m.p.g,, I was quite satisfied with my 86 m.p.h. By driving conservatively I could get 26 m.p.g. Many and bitter are the verbal brawls in which these consumption figures have involved me, so you may just take them or leave them, as you please.
Acceleration seemed unimpaired, and the following figures are accurate and represent the average of a morning’s fun at Brooklands, when the car was really trying (all are from a standing start) : 30 M.p.h. in 5 secs., 40 m.p.h. in 9.3 sees., 50 m.p.h. in 12.5 sees., 60 m.p.h. in 18.8 sees. From a flying start a timed half mile was covered at 86.7 m.p.h. I realised at the time that this latter figure could be considerably improved upon, but as it would almost certainly have been at the expense of consumption, I never bothered.
It gave me no trouble at all, with the exception of one broken timing chain (the fitting of which is a job full of pitfalls for the unwary), and always started easily, providing it was given the right treatment. A wonderful motor-car. During this time I had taken unto myself a wife and in a weak moment I bowed to force majeure and sold the car because it was open. Ichabod I
My next was a 3-litre de-luxe saloon of the same make, which was one of the most lavishly equipped cars I have ever had. It was very reliable with the exception of the generator, which was driven direct from the front end of the crankshaft and was always going wrong. The armature apparently suffered from a fixation that it was a skipping rope and acted as such with dreary frequency until I mounted it on a bracket and drove it via the tan. A little more substance in Mr. Lucas’s rear armature ball races might have helped, I felt. The performance was useful without being in any way phenomenal, and it was very, very comfortable, which was important, as business necessitated my doing a lot of Continental touring at the time. Eventually it was stolen by some drunken army officers and crashed. For a short time after this I ran a ” 105 ‘”Valbot saloon and a Speed Twenty Alvis, concurrently. The Alvis was a 1934 edition, with an open Van den Plus body reminiscent of the old Bentley, but closer to the ground, T.T. wings, and outside gear shift and hand-brake. I aave only seen one other like it. The theory was that I would use the Talbot on such ceremonial occasions as demanded a closed car and the Alvis for my own amusement, but between the two of them I found that my motoring was interfering seriously with such items of the overhead as rent and overdraft. Both ears averaged about 13 m.p.g. ; the Talbot sometimes 14 and the Alvis usually 12 m.p.g. Of the two, the Talbot was the better car. The Alvis was more fan to drive and up to about 80 m.p.h. had considerable urge, but it was never quite right for very long. Little ends were particularly troublesome
and big ends were apt to fall down on the job after even a moderate spell of hard driving. The Talbot was a sweet motor-car and gave no trouble at all.
It clocked 90 m.p.h. regularly and the brakes were better than any I have ever had. Gentle pressure on the pedal and the whole two-and-a-bit tons had stopped in an amazingly short length without any noticeable or violent deceleration.
The only thing I really had against it was its saloon body, although I intensely disliked the pre-selector gearbox. My prejudice against these is, perhaps, illogical, but it persists to this day. I therefore sold the Talbot when my father gave me an almost new V8 Ford saloon for which he had no use, feeling that as a saloon it could be used for the ceremonial occasions aforesaid, and at that time I was still hopeful of possibilities in the Alvis.
This Ford I honestly believe to be the most lethal thing on the road. The steering could be wound or unwound without any appreciable result, roadholding was non-existent, and braking erratic. I finally wrote it off in the wet and was fortunate to escape uninjured. Perhaps it is only fair to state that at the time I was returning from a flying club dance in the wee 8I118,’ hours ; but, even so, I am sure that no other car would, or in fart could, have flown off the handle as did that one.
A year before the war I sold the Alvis and bought a 1937 Lagonda ” Hapide,” fitted with a drophead coupe body (the force lnajeure again). It had done only 22,000 miles when I took it over, but I had the engine completely rebuilt after much discussion as to possibilities, and it now does 107 m.p.h. in top am! 80 m.p.h. in third, with a very useful acceleration curve. Slow running has suffered somewhat in consequence, but I have never been bothered by this fetish for a dead smooth tickover at ap.m.
This car gave me everything that I must have (if not all that I want) out of ordinary motoring, being a compromise between performance and comfort. It was heavy on tyres and plugs, but apart from that I have no criticisms.
Came September, 1939, and the Lagonda and ” Pool” were quite unable to find any basis of agreement and so it was laid up. The Government had compensated to a certain extent by providing me with over a thousand of Mr. Roll’s wonderful horses for the sole transport of’ myself and the necessary pieces of equipment for blitzing the benighted ” boche.” This gave me a new conception of powerweight ratios and was nice enough in its way., but hardly suitable for buzzing down to the local. To meet this latter requirement I purchased yet another Ford. This time a 1934 Eight, priced at £8 10s. Much as I hate these ears I was forced to respect this one. When the end came it had done well over 88,000 miles and had never had the lid off, the friend from whom I took it over admitting to having murdered it and continuing to run it out of sheer curiosity to see just how long it would go. The whole time I had it it was running in defiance of every known law of mechanics and yet the performance seemed unimpaired, while the number of pilots who managed to fit themselves in, on and around it late in the evening was amazing. In its own small way it was
proof of how an engine can be educated to high speed. As mentioned, the previous owner admitted to having murdered it, and in fact used to run it up to 35 m.p.h. in second, which is pretty horrible if you’ve tried it, and while the word performance can hardly be applied to a car of this nature, it had certainly more pep than any similar model, and I honestly think it was as fast as my ” M “-type M.G., if not as pleasant.
Although these things bounce about like ping-pong balls they are not nearly as dangerous as Mr. Ford’s larger products, providing one masters the technique, which is simply to keep your foot hard down at all times. Corners can be negotiated at what would appear to be a suicidal rate if you put the wheels in the gutter or on the white line and really pour the coal to it, but heaven help you jr you dare lift your foot before you’re right round.
Perhaps the most interesting feature was the manner in which petrol consumption went down as that of oil increased. These engines Must possess latent Diesel tendencies. Things had just reached the interesting stage of 40 miles to a quart of oil and 43 to a gallon of petrol when we staged our own little bit of meel.anised warfare with an unlighted tank in the. black-out. The tank was undamaged, . . . When I came out of hospital the first car I could get hold of was a 1931 Singer Nine saloon, in which I chugged around
to the accompaniment of a varkty of very mid noises for about a month. How a car which is so generally horrible was ever sold at all is beyond my comprehension. Yet, strange to say, it started very easily and used no Oil at all and conveyed the impression, perhaps false, that it would continue to go on in its own awful manner indefinitely.
I am now trying out my first Axis, or really I suppose Axis-American, in the form of an Opel ” Cadet,” which I have not had long enough really to get used to. It has done 24,000 miles, and oil consumption is nil. It is, however, heavy on petrol, averaging exactly 28 m.p.g. on short runs to and from the aerodrome. The steering is unexpectedly good, oneand-a-quarter turns to either lock, and the turning circle is reminiscent of a taxi. Also there is as yet no free play on the wheel. At first it secined just like an American car in miniature, but, baying accustomed myself to the independent front-end suspension, I find it more stable than first appearances led Me to believe. Corners can be fair rushed round once you realise that the whole outfit is not going to do a Hick roll but merely dive down on one wheel, giving the effect of a stall Ulm in an aeroplane ; it seems to have no tendency to slicie, even in the wet. The brakes are adequate but coarse, rather like the American aeroplane brakes—all on or all off—and while very short stopping can be achieved, an unsuspecting passenger is likely to be stressed to a considerable negative ” G ” in the process. The cog box could be improved considerably by the addition Of another ratio and the swapping process on the
way up is either laboriously slow or positively brutal, I have been able to improve this somewhat by removing a couple of coil springs nhich impeded the movement of the length of steel Wire which did duty as a gear lever and replacing this latter by something more nearly resembling the real thing.
It stands out in the open all night and yet starts immediately from cold and without resort to the choke if vigorous use is made of the accelerator pump. In fact, I have never had a car which starts so easily, which perhaps is just as well, as normally there is no starting handle or provision for one, although I have rectified this Once again, this is the sort of vehicle to which the word performance can hardly be applied, nor does ene expect any. It does 95 m.p.h. on the clock, for what that is worth. Everything has been scaled down to the ” nth ” degree of lightness and the interior is positively ascetic. However, it is no more horrible than the average British small family saloon, and in most ways I think superior, and will serve me (I hope) until real motoring is possible once again.
These reminiscences cover a period of 14 years and have left me with a very clear idea of the sort of motor-car I want and the realisation that, unless a metamorphosis takes place in the minds of motor-car manufacturers, I shall have to stay in the past to get it. Or is it too much to hope that, when this fracas is over, motor-car makers will also get back to sanity and start once again to turn out ears built to standards of engineering instead of to the dictates of feminine fashion ?