149 Cars

(In this interesting contribution, G. R. N. Minchin, at our request, describes some of his 149 personal motor-vehicles. – Ed.

My present two cars are my 148th and 149th, and let me say that if anyone should think this is a record, it is not, as I know someone who has had 212!

In my opinion every real motorist should start with motor-cycles and thereby graduate to cars. A sweeping statement perhaps, but I doubt if many will disagree with it. A driver doesn’t know what a skid is or when it is likely to occur unless he is an experienced motorcyclist.

I went as a schoolboy for a trip to Chamonix in the summer of 1907 and there in the hotel were two Englishmen who had ridden out from England on motor-cycles. This seemed an incredible thing to me, considering the notorious unreliability of motor-cycles at that time. I got into conversation with them and they told me they had had no trouble at all, but that there was only one make in the world which could perform like this, a machine called a Triumph. Theirs were 1907 3½-h.p. Triumphs.

Then and there I was determined to have one; but I might as well have wished for the moon. On arrival in England I found there was a paper called The Motor Cycle, which I started reading from cover to cover.

A few weeks later found me on the long single platform of the Great Eastern Railway Station at Cambridge, arriving for the first day of my three years at the University. The platform was heaped with undergraduates’ luggage and looking for mine I saw what I then knew to be a brand-new 1907 Triumph with a label addressed to some unknown, but one at my own college.

Before the term was finished I had withdrawn my Post Office savings, overdrawn my college account and was the proud possessor of a 1905 3-h.p. Triumph (not magneto ignition), which I had bought from a greengrocer in South Wales. After family rows had subsided, I went for a trip that very Christmas vacation to Devonshire. I got there and eventually skidded back, too.

The next summer, during a very boring exercise in surveying on the Fens, I described my bicycle to young Mr. Lloyd-George, an undergraduate of my year and whose father was then Chancellor of the Exchequer. We decided to abandon the lecture and go and see the Triumph. Before nightfall the machine was his and I had achieved my ambition and owned a 1907 3½-h.p. Triumph, the property of a college friend who was getting a 1908 (which had handlebar controls).

I mention this piece of early history, the acquiring of one’s first motor vehicle, because I think that many car owners will find their own experiences not very dissimilar.

Mr. Lloyd-George got a trailer for his machine and that summer took his mother, Dame Margaret Lloyd-George, in it to open bazaars in Wales.

I later had 1908, 1909 and 1910 Triumphs and still later a 1912-13, my last motor-cycle. On these I did tours of France, Germany and other countries in Europe with no real trouble at all. At the risk of violent contradiction I will say that I doubt if the machines of today, nearly 40 years later, are much better. They are far heavier, more complicated, expensive, less good on petrol consumption, much harsher with chain drive and certainly no more reliable. Perhaps some who knew those pre-1914 Triumphs may not disagree. My undergraduate friend who sold me that first 3½-h.p. Triumph, now a magnate in the motor industry, I know, does not disagree.

In 1910 the urge for a car overtook me and as a motor-cyclist I was much taken by the single-cylinder Sizaire-Naudin, which was very economical and had a remarkable performance, almost like a motor-cycle. Incidentally, it had independent front wheel suspension and was very reliable. Far more reliable in fact than the modern car plastered with unreliable gadgets and working parts totally ungetatable. More growls from present-day enthusiasts?

I had heard of one at Mann Egertons, so some of us went up to Norwich from Cambridge one Sunday to see it., After many trials and much haggling I bought it, but when it came to taking it away they said this was impossible, as it was not registered and had no numbers.

This didn’t deter us, and let me here recall a thing probably unknown to present-day motorists. In the early days, pre-1914, no sporting motorist ever thought of paying a tax. There were no displayed licences then, and it was almost a matter of honour not to have a tax. To have one was almost as bad as having a hood or a screen!

I saw in a corner two number plates— I shall never forget the number, BJ 578 – and I said what was wrong with them ? Oh, they said, those came off a steam traction engine. Good, I replied, just the thing for me; so they were put on and off we went.

As no official enquiries for taxes or other things ever reached me, I thought these were good numbers, so used them again on the next car I had and the next, till finally there were 26 cars in existence with numbers BJ 578.

I gave it up when a friend to whom I had sold a Metallurgique came to see me, leaving his car outside my house, just behind my own Metallurgique. The house was next door to the police station and these two BJ 578s stood there for four hours, but nobody noticed it. I doubt if anyone would.

Those early days at the University were the high-water mark for the sporting motorist, names like C.S. Rolls, Moorhouse and Van Raalte standing out. The latter two staged a race through the main streets of Cambridge early one Sunday morning which will never be forgotten by those who saw it.

Moorhouse had a 90-h.p. chain-driven Grand Prix Fiat, painted bright blue, Van Raalte a bright red Kaiserpries Minerva, live axle. It was a race from the market square to the station, about 1½, miles, the loser to pay the fines.

I kept the crossroads by the Roman Catholic Cathedral clear and they passed me at about 85 m.p.h. Van Raalte scored a comfortable win. At the subsequent police court proceedings (fines about £40), the chairman of the bench made an attack on Rhodes-Moorhouse saying what a worthless good-for-nothing young man he was.

Five years later, when the world was ringing with the story of one of the bravest deeds ever done, the sacrifice of his life by the first airman V.C., Lieut. Rhodes-Moorhouse, I hoped the magistrate was sorry for what he had said.

A series of Sizaires followed the first and then came the 4-in. Darracq, which had been driven into 2nd place in the 1908 Isle of Man T.T. by Mr. George.

The newspapers at the time were very supercilious about a four-inch race, as it was called, it not being generally appreciated that the only restriction on the cars entered was that the bore should not exceed 4 in. and not more than four cylinders be used.

This car I obtained from a young Brooklands enthusiast called Malcolm Campbell, who was acquiring the 59.6-h.p., 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Darracq. The first car he called “Blue Bird.” He had had some success with the 4 inch, getting a second and one or two thirds. This rather damped my chances and I remember in one race a back wheel came off at about 80, but with no serious results. The early detachable wheels were very apt to detach themselves at wrong moments.

Later I took over from Campbell his big 59.6 after he had had a very narrow escape when a front wheel collapsed at over 100 m.p.h. in the finishing straight. This was a lovely car to handle, the engine doing only about 1,200 r.p.m. at 100 m.p.h. The slow deep burble of the exhaust of those big engines was a joy unknown to present-day 6,000-r.p.m. enthusiasts. The engine had three plugs per cylinder, two separate magnetos and a coil set. The propeller shaft was a square section open shaft and if the engine speed got too low and if one tried to accelerate the shaft took another twist and looked more and more like twisted elastic The brakes were practically non-existent. I started preparing it for Brooklands and got a 4-speed box from Paris to replace the 3-speed, and fitted R.W. detachable wire wheels, but the war intervened and I later turned it into a sporting 4-seater and fitted one of the first electric starters to it. It caught fire in Ireland, where it had been sold and the engine was put into a boat.

I visited the 1912 French Grand Prix at Dieppe, won by Boillot on a Peugeot, and incorporated in this race was the Coupe de l’Auto’ the small car race, for cars of under 3 litres! An English car called a Sunbeam was 1st, 2nd and 3rd, and the marque became world famous overnight.

The 1913 Grand Prix at Amiens was again won by Boillot, but the Coupe de l’Auto 3-litre was a separate race held in the autumn and it developed into a great struggle between the English Sunbeam and Vauxhall cars, the former defeating the latter, although Peugeot won t he race. I remember going to this race with Campbell, Lee Guinness and others, all on Douglas motor-cycles and for some reason which I do not remember, we slept out in the fields!

The Sunbeam achieved its 3 litres in an engine 80 by 149 mm., the Vauxhall 90 by 118 mm. The most violent correspondence raged between Mr. Coatalen of Sunbeam and Mr. Pomeroy of Vauxhall as to the merits of each design.

I was very taken by the Vauxhall design. It was a very pretty car having an aluminium steering wheel after the fashion of a ship’s steering wheel. I bought one of the racing ears, the one driven by Hancock, and went in it to the 1914 Grand Prix at Lyons and watched the great struggle between Boillot on the Peugeot against Lautenschlager On the Mercedes, the latter just proving victorious, Mercedes having returned to racing after an interval of 7 years.

The Vauxhall was too light, it broke springs in France and half way back from Newhaven to London the crown wheel fastening went. It was lucky for me it happened in England, for a few days later war was declared.

I remember blaming Vauxhalls very much, and when they said that the duty of a racing car was to finish first and then fall to pieces, I asked if it was right to sell such a car? In the end they took it back and I got a Prince Henry type, the forerunner of the “30/98,” a very much better and most fascinating car.

In the year 1911 I had a 4-cylinder, 15-h.p. Crossley. A car which was up to date by today’s standards and it had four-wheel brakes, which gave no trouble at all.

In 1913 I remember having a big Napier and had great difficulty in selling it. Finally. I got Mann Egerton to take it and they gave in exchange four 50/60-h.p. Ariel’s, enormous cars with Roi des Beiges bodies so high one needed a ladder to get into the back. A formidable proposition to dispose of these (and me not in the motor trade), but I scrapped the bodies and got Gordon Watney’s, then builders of sporting 4-seater bodies on big racing ears (chiefly Mercedes), to fit such bodies and eventually I disposed of them all.

The last one was to go to a buyer at Oxford and I set off one Sunday morning to go to lunch with him at his house. I took two friends, one a well-known comedian, the other an ultra-fashionable Old Etonian, the typical pre-1914 young man about town.

The petrol tanks of those big cars held 40-50 gallons and the fuel was raised mostly by exhaust pressure, a most unreliable system. We set off in good style, caps back to front, as was the mode, but about Slough the petrol feed began to give trouble so a rubber pipe was fixed into the tank, the comedian made to sit on the step, like racing-car mechanics of earlier days and keep up the pressure by blowing. It was enough to burst anyone’s lungs to try this for a minute or two, but for 40 miles! Every time the car slowed on a hill we screamed for more pressure.

Near Henley, about lunch-time, the first tyre trouble began. Whilst the comedian lay exhausted on the grass at the side a the road, the other young man, gorgeously dressed in a new grey check suit, was pressed in to help. He had to sit down on the road and hold things whilst I struggled with the detachable rim.

It was a blazing hot day, but eventually the change was made; unfortunately the tar had melted and our friend was firmly stuck to the road! We reached Oxford about six with two of the tyres stuffed with straw.

I mention these details because those who knew motoring in those days will recognise them as entirely normal. One had to be prepared for such happenings and the recounting of similar adventures in one year of early motoring, especially with racing cars, would fill a big book.

I had a series of cars of the same make, five or six Metallurgiques, for example (a Belgian car, for the benefit of the “present-days”), and I had one of the three famous ” Billiken ” Mets., the Prince Henry Type built for the Prince Henry tour of 1909. These were 27-h.p., 4-cylinder cars, 105-mm. bore, with a really phenomenal performance and acceleration, judged on today’s basis. There was a normal camshaft on each side of the engine, the o.h. inlet valves, worked by rockers, were practically the same size as the bore and there were two small horizontal exhaust valves on each side of the engine, 4 per cylinder, the tappets of which were most difficult to keep adjusted, and Bosch magnetos, painted bright red, one on each side.

Probably no engine at that date had been so completely filled with gas or so well scavenged. Lovely steering and gear change, as had most high-class sporting cars at that time.

A big chain-driven Berliet was another car I had, but the way it threw its chains was most alarming and I had to discard it before being decapitated. A big 60-h.p. Opel was another with 16 plugs in its four cylinders. Its steering failed one day and I went into the thickest holly hedge I ever saw at about 40 m.p.h.

About 1912 Austins made a 40-h.p. car called the Defiance. It did 81 over the flying mile at Brooklands, but its gears were so noisy I got rid of it.

In the post-war era of 1919-20 ears fetched fantastic prices; 1913-14 Rolls-Royces £6,000-£7,000, which is actually much higher than today’s prices. But in 1921 the price of such cars fell in a few weeks to £350. History will in due course repeat itself.

In the early 1920’s I Started my long series of R.-R. cars with a 1910 40/50 Silver Ghost, a 1912, 1920 Phantom I, 20s and 25s, – 17 R.-R.s in all, and of course one was spoilt for everything else.

I had, however, many other cars of different makes, sandwiched in. A 3-litre Bentley, old type, two 3½-litres, two 4½-litres and on these various cars went several times to Le Mans.

In 1927 I was the only spectator of the initial crash at White House Corner and I ran down the road to stop other approaching ears. A very tricky business in the dusk.

During the recent war the petrol controller frowned on 30-h.p. cars, but said he didn’t mind up to 16-h.p. At his suggestion I tried a 320 Frazer-Nash B.M.W., which I liked. Later I had a 329, 321 and 327/80, and had as much pleasure from them as from almost any of the cars I have owned. The steering and suspension are superb. For the moment I have two uninteresting utilities, but one, a Light 15 Citroen, is a far better car than many people realise. My favourite amongst all these cars? Impossible to give as one, but divided between

1913 – 26/60 Metallurgique.
1920 – 40/50 Rolls-Royce.
1929 – 20 Rolls-Royce.
1936 – 4½-litre Bentley.
1939 – 321 Frazer Nash-B.M.W.