A Happy Alfa Romeo Owner
Sir, After 30,500 miles (in under 28 months), I have just changed my Alfa Romeo…
JJ Hall needs no explaining away to those who remember the old Brooklands days or are partial to vintage motor-cycles. During the war Jim Hall wrote an article about old motorcycles which unearthed hundreds of the things, and virtually led to the formation of the present successful Vintage Motor-Cycle Club.
Another early essay in motor journalism was his delightful war-time writing in Motor Cycling “We Remember” and “We Remember Some More.” At Brooklands Hall had many adventures, on two, three and four wheels. He now writes for us an amusing account of many cars he has nearly owned, modestly refraining from mentioning his recent long Continental and American tours in Austin and other cars. In the picture above Jim Hall takes time off from motoring to study Andre Simon’s authoritative book “Drink.” Suitable containers for carrying out research on this subject will be observed, and amongst the pictures of Hall’s friends on the wall are those of such celebrities as JA Prestwich, Teddy Prestwich, JB Morton, Hilaire Belloc, DB Wyndham Lewis, Leslie Henson, Gordon Harker, Basil Radford, and the late Algernon Blackwood.—Ed.
I doubted if this article would ever appear because it is very short [short but very sweet, Ed]. I find when I try to look back over thirty years that my memory, as to the motor cars I have owned, seems to be especially dim . . . perhaps because during the first ten years of that period I was riding motor-cycles for pleasure and for a living, and cars played a very back-stage part in my life at that time.
Then again, the title “Cars I have owned” makes me scratc,h my bald head . . . it sliould be called “Cars I have nearly owned.” Reminding all and sundry that there is such a thing as “statute barred,” I must confess that I doubt if I ever owned any. It was always some unsuspecting hire-purchase organisation who owned the cars I drove, and I think it is unlikely that one ever finally became my property, unless it was some piece of real nonsense which I had picked up for the odd £10.
However, I will do my best to remember what I can and see how it pans out. I remember my first four-wheeler, an AV Monoear. .. I had always wanted a Monoear because in my schoolboy desire for glamour I thought it would make me look like a “racer” and I went about in it, in particular up and down Brighton front, feeling like a racer and looking like a fool. It had a V-twin JAP engine about eight inches away from the back of my head, the steering was worked by a piece of wire rope round a bobbin on the steering column and thence to each front wheel. I remember no other details about this vehicle except that a piston broke and I replaced the heavy cast-iron piston, which came out in pieces, with a light-alloy Ricardo . . . the only one I could find to fit. I did not know about balance in those days and in it went, and it, wasn’t long before the whole affair shook itself to pieces.
The next car was an open two-seater bull-nosed, brass-radiatored Morris-Cowley, about 1921,22, with, I believe, a Hotchkiss engine. A stout little job which went well for over a year with no trouble.
Then I acquired a model-T Ford. It was the model-T Ford on which I had learned to drive and which belonged to Hilaire Belloc. Always I shall remember the great man, in black oilskins and an old yachting cap, who used to sit perched up on high and rush about the lanes of Sussex with the greatest gusto. My particular Ford had some form of overdrive and went like a bomb. The method of stopping this vehicle was the one great thing that I remember about it. If you were in a hurry, you just pushed your foot pedal from top gear straight into bottom, and if that didn’t stop it quickly enough, you pushed in reverse, and that certainly did the trick. What is amazing is that the remarkable Ford epicyclic gears stood up to this nonsense indefinitely.
A “dear old pal” in the motor trade, just to do me a good turn, persuaded me to exchange the Ford for a smart-looking Scripps-Booth two-seater, but he did not tell me that the welded crown-wheel would only keep in one piece for about ten miles . . . that is all it did. I never saw my old pal again . . . scoundrel !
Somewhere around the year 1924 I acquired a real vintage specimen, a 1912 Bothwell. The engine went beautifully, the half-shaft would not go at all. It was either lent to me or sold to me by Teddy Prestwich, of JAP (the present managing director). He says he cannot remember which, but as he neither got the car back nor ever had the money for it, the result was the same. I believe it finished up at Shanks’ Garage, Weybridge, who probably kept it in payment for months of garage space while I was trying to find some bits so that I could get it going.
I have suddenly remembered a car which I did actually own and pay for, and, what is more, paid for in one lump. It was one of the first Petit Sport Amilcars which Vernon Balls imported when he was operating from Putney. A favourite aunt had left me some money, £500 I believe, and I bought it new for £310, and I shall always remember my astonishment when Vernon accepted my cheque and let me take it away on the spot. It took about three months to spend the balance on riotous living and I had to sell the car.
There was, of course, the big wedding present. I remember getting married in 1926 (who wouldn’t!) . . . we went into Henrietta Street Registry Office with the taxi-driver who took us there, rang up my old pal JB Morton, “Beachcomber” of’ the Daily Express, told him to hop round a bit quick and bring a bottle of fizz in his overcoat pocket, which he did. The whole thing took about five minutes . . . we drank the champagne and charged off to Victoria Station, where said wife jumped on a train and disappeared to Italy. In the interval between her disappearing and her return, I thought a big gesture should be made on her arrival and acquired a brand-new Morris-Cowley coupe, which I took to Smiths in Great Portland Street and had equipped with almost every gadget known to the world of motoring. I remember also my wife’s brother who, among other things, manufactured magnificent leather overcoats, and I had one made in blue to match the car. All of this I had lined up on the quayside at Southampton—somehow she came back by boat—and with a sweep of the hand presented her with the goods as a wedding present, with a gesture the Aga Khan might have used to tip the hall porter five shillings. The gesture, unfortunately, did not last very long—I’d had to pay £50 down and £13 a month. I managed to pay the £50 down somehow and I think perhaps the first two months’ instalments, but the sad day came when the car had to go back, and as for the leather coat, there has been a strained atmosphere between me and my brother-in-law ever since.
At this time my brother had acquired a Lancia Lambda, and I was fascinated with the way this car held the road. and by some means or other acquired one myself, which I ran for a year of happy motoring. The one peculiarity this car had was that each morning it was necessary to take out all the plugs, just run a knife-blade across the points, which appeared to remove some iron-hard carbon, and the car would start immediately. If this operation was not carried out, nothing would induce it to operate at all. The technical boys will give the answer to that one!
One of the most remarkable cars I used for some months was a two-seater 32-hp Moon, which had a straight-eight Continental engine. I obtained this car by the simple process of reading all about it in an American catalogue and writing off to the company in the USA, saying I thought it would be a good idea if they sent me one of these two-seaters. I pointed out that if what they said in the catalogue was true, it would be good publicity if I put up a timed run at Brooklands and tried to average 80 miles an hour for 12 hours. They thought it was a good idea too. The car was duly delivered through the good offices of their concessionaires at that time, whose name, I think, was NorthWest Motors, and who operated from Liverpool. Various troubles occurred which were responsible for the run not taking place … not all of them were to do with the car, although I remember having considerable trouble in obtaining fuel feed at continued high speeds. Its chief feature was its astonishing acceleration. It had, when tested by the Motor, the best acceleration figures from, I believe, to 70 miles an hour of any car of any type tested that year, which I believe was the year that Mike Couper won the 2-litre class of the Double 12-Hour Race in a Lagonda—I was running his pit at the time. I remember on many occasions we would start off up the straight together and for the first few hundred yards I always got great glee out of swishing away from him in his racing Lagonda as if he were suffering from paralysis. Mark you, I only say for the first few hundred yards.
Another car that I had for a time was a show model Galloway coupe, in bright yellow and black, and fitted out with every possible device in the way of interior decoration. This I remember driving in the London-Land’s End Trial in 1920-something, with Mike Cover as a passenger. I remember striking a large rock trying to round the first hairpin at Blue Hills Mine and finishing up with a silver medal . . . that also was eventually returned to the makers (the car not the medal).
Somewhere squashed in between, or in front, or behind, was a brand new Austin Seven, which, as everyone knows, was a magnificent little car; an Austin 12/6 which everyone knows was not a Wolseley of some eight or nine horsepower, of which the chief thing that I remember was that to start it you just pressed the accelerator ; an old Austin “12/4” which I bought for £15 and which was so large that if the question arose of one not having the price of a hotel bill, it was quite easy to sleep in the back.
Somewhere in this welter of four wheelers there was much coming and going with vehicles only possessing three. This commenced with an Omega with an JAP engine, which proved a reliable vehicle on the road and which I subsequently took on to the track and broke a certain number of records.
I then got hold of an HP threewheeler, an astonishing little vehicle which had a 350-cc, two-port JAP engine and which was built at Byfleet in Surrey. Apart from the fact that it had a completely unsprung back wheel, which was all right if you were tough, it went remarkably well—well enough when we’d done a bit of work on the engine to take out on to the track, where it obtained between 20 and 30 records in the 350-cc three-wheeler class. I then graduated to a Beart Morgan, to which Teddy Prestwich fitted a special 750-cc ohv twin. This functioned extremely well and, again with a few modifications, we took it out on to the track for records and did quite well till the famous day, after having just broken records from one to three hours and 50 kilometres to 200 miles, the back tyre burst and it somersaulted several times on the railway straight at about 80 miles an hour, With somewhat disastrous results to my head, to my backside, and to my ankles and my legs and my elbows, and if you want to know what happened to my poor passenger, call on my old friend VW Derrington, at his famous establishment at the bottom of Kingston Hill, and he will tell you all about it. . . he was the passenger.
I also had a Jowett two-seater. The foot-brake, operated by a band that went round the prop-shaft, would stop the car with great violence at any moment you required to do so. It was a delightful brake—I could fit a new brake shoe in about five minutes. All you did was to pull out two split pins, throw the old brake band over the nearest hedge, put the new one on, replace the split pins, and away you went.
I eventually got a sports model of this car on the road and finally took it to Brooklands and, driving with AH Grirnley, who is OC their Development Department, broke the 12-hour record in the 1,100-cc Class, which at that time was held by Marendaz and Kaye Don in an Amilcar. If I remember rightly, it averaged over 52 or 54 for the 12 hours, which, considering we changed three cylinder-head gaskets in that time, was not too bad.
The next car I can remember was one of the very first of the Fiat 500s which were put on the market, and I remember on this occasion the transaction was organised by Conway West Motors, of Woking, Conway West having put up with my troublesome transactions for many years. It was, I think, the first Fiat 500 ever to be seen in the Isle of Wight, which island I darted round for some weeks in this astonishing little car with its beautiful roadholding and brakes and gears on which you could play tunes.
I swopped the Fiat for a “Le Mans” Singer which I got through the good offices of Jack Holbeach, who at that time was with Thomson and Taylor, of Brooklands, and maybe he still is. My chief complaint about this car was that its performance did not live up to its looks. It had a large tank with quick-filler cap behind your head and an exhaust pipe which allowed the engine to make a noise which had high hopes of something really quick, which it wasn’t—perhaps it was never meant to be—but it was a reliable, pleasant car to drive and one in which you got plenty of fresh air and a fine view of the Countryside.
Another thing I remember about this car was that I omitted to inform the hire-purchase organisation through which I got the Fiat that I had changed the Fiat for a Singer. This created quite an uproar, but they were extremely civil about it and, having signed all the necessary documents which made them the legal owners of the Singer, we disposed of it to clear the matter up. At this point I thought it was time I called a halt to this sort of thing. . . got a proper job with a firm who supplied their travellers with cars, and have never owned, or tried to own, a car since, and have lived in comparative peace.
This “brief encounter” may sound very disgraceful., but remember most of it took place when one was very young and wild and foolish. There were a good many of us down at Brooldands who were in much the same boat in the early ‘twenties, and it was all done in a very light-hearted way and received in the same spirit by the victims.
I would now announce in a loud, clear voice, that for the last 20 years I have been a pillar of respectability (who the hell said, “Oh Yeah” ?).
Sir, After 30,500 miles (in under 28 months), I have just changed my Alfa Romeo…
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