Cars I have owned

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52

By F. Ivan Carr (Continued from the December issue)

Two days before war broke out I was in London, it was all too obvious that the end of peace was just round the corner and there was talk of the immediate prohibition of private motoring, so I determined on just one more “blind” before the lights went out. The red Aston and I slept at the famous George Hotel in Stamford, and at 4.30 next morning a sleepy night porter woke me with a strong cup of tea. Just as the church clock struck five we hauled out of Stamford. It was a run to remember all one’s life. The roads were clear and dry and bathed in autumnal sunshine; the car running to perfection with a tank full of Cleveland Discol; 57 miles in the first hour, 61 in the second—a road blockage just north of Scotch Corner held us up for three minutes, yet at precisely 9 a.m. I walked into my office in Carlisle to see the letters, before seeking a much-needed breakfast.

All through the war the Aston carried on. It hurt me to neglect it, but in those days there were more important jobs to do. It attended Home Guard parades, trundled over ploughed fields, earned festoons of Sea-Cadets, and at the end of the war, like the rest of us, was a little jaded and faded and tired; so in 1946 I gave it what it so much deserved, a thorough overhaul and a new coat of scarlet paint.

The sheer excellence of this car impressed me vastly, so it was natural that when, in 1946, my wife again wanted a car of her own, I should advise a 2-litre Aston-Martin saloon. A baker friend of mine had one, and it came to Carlisle. Sadly it must be confessed that it was a wash-out. In 1937 the Company had adopted a retrograde policy. The dry-sump and much of the excellent finish of the earlier cars gave place to a very ordinary engine and a lamentable lack of spit and polish. The result was an unhappy car. There was nothing much wrong with it really, but it always seemed to be ashamed of itself, rather like an Eton schoolboy turned bookie. My wife felt the same about it, and in the end we took a shamefully large profit on its sale and invested a part of the proceeds in a much older Mark IV Aston of 1-1/2-litres, and I am sorry to say that this car, too, was a disappointment. It was a drophead coupé, and it proved utterly impossible to eliminate the irritating rattles and squeaks which came from the many joints of the roof. True it had breeding, which the 2-litre car so sadly lacked, but it had done a big mileage and I never succeeded in restoring it to concert pitch. We sold it at a disgusting profit.

And then in 1947 I did a mad thing. You will remember that the Triumph Company at one time built three cars which closely resembled the Alfa-Romeo. One of these three came on the market, and I foolishly fell in love with its immaculate condition and glittering chromium plate. The dearly beloved red Aston went to Sheffield, and an abominable impostor took its place. Next to the Maserati it was the worst of the lot, and never again shall I have anything to do with a copy. The Triumph (it went by another name at that time) looked like an Alfa, sounded like an Alfa, and even on occasion motored like an Alfa,  but somehow it was all hateful, simply because it was NOT an Alfa. It felt bogus. But apart front that it had a most grievous defect, for the rear main-bearing had apparently no proper oil-seal, and what’s more there was no room to fit.one. The result was that its oil consumption was really horrific and oil simply poured through the bearing into the flywheel well and from there on to the road. I tried fitting a petrol pump to collect the oil from the bottom of the flywheel well and return it to where it belonged. This helped but was far from a complete remedy, and still the well filled up to the level of the inspection hole, and then out it poured on to the road. I puzzled long and unhappily, not to say expensively, and then … suddenly the complete solution struck me. half an hour’s work sufficed to make a shaped wooden cover to block the inspection hole. I fixed the cover with a single central bolt, and pulled it down on to a cork gasket. The cure was complete and immediate. I discovered afterwards that three previous owners had sold the car simply because of this oil leak, and I was pleased with myself for having cured it.

After that the Triumph gave quite good service for a time, and certainly it was the most unfailing starter of any. But somehow I could never forget that it was illegitimate, and became very keen indeed to get rid of it.  A chance to do so cropped up, and there was no mourning at its demise.

The last four cars are so fresh in my memory that a little more detail may be of interest. For four years a Type-57 Bugatti saloon served my wife with unfailing fidelity, and only passed on a few months ago. Somehow it was a car for which it was difficult to feel any great affection, yet it earned wholehearted respect by reason of its good qualities. It came to us after it had travelled a distance equivalent to a journey half-way round the world. I gave it the customary careful overhaul, and then month after month, and year after year it did its stuff. Always fast, always trustworthy, always the joy of perfect roadholding and cornering. No trouble of any kind, save only that it was a little difficult to start in frosty weather . . . Yet dull, a trifle dull. It carried great loads of equipment.. Now and then a yacht’s dinghy was lashed to its roof.  It went shopping, and it went down the Great North Road when my wife visited relations in the south, and when in the end we said good-bye to it one winter’s day in Stevenage. and saw its rear number plate fade away into the distance, we felt regret, but no shade of emotion. Yet it was a grand and faithful servant.

Today three cars live in the garage. My wife has taken possession of a Lagonda, and appears to enjoy driving her. This is one of the Fox and Nicholl cars built for the French G.P. of 1936, which in that year was a race for sports-cars. She is a 4-1/2-litre two-seater, and is a GRAND old car, in the old tradition. Trustworthy, fairly fast, infinitely reliable and it great joy to drive. For eighteen months I used her before passing her over to the domestic department. Now she is, so to speak, pensioned-off, and spends her life collecting groceries and taking sick villagers to see the doctor, and sick dogs to the vet. Yet now and then she comes out of her retirement, and when she is really warmed up, and when she has 20 per cent. of benzol in her big tank, then I think she recalls past glories, and the rumble of her exhaust would awaken the dead . . or the Spaniard called Leoz who drove her in far-away 1936. She is maintained in good order, and we keep her clean and immaculate, as she deserves to be kept, for does she not wear British Racing Green ?

Alongside her dwells “Grock” (GRK77). “Grock” is the only V12 Lagonda racing car in the world, or so I am told. It was built for the Le Mans race of 1939 and came in third. Two sisters were destroyed by fire and only one remains. In the winter of 1951-52 I neglected other duties and spent about four hundred hours in its service. The result is that today it is as fit as it has ever been in its life… What a car, what acceleration, what comfort, what breath-taking speed !  You only have to put your foot down for a few seconds and the gentlemanly rumble changes to a savage roar; 100 m.p.h. is common-place, and though I have passed my 46th birthday, yet “Grock” sometimes takes me up to between 100 and 110 on the road, and that in perfect safety. It is indeed a thing of beauty and a joy, if not for ever, yet for some years to come … I hope.

And then it is so docile. If you wish, it will dribble along at 10 m.p.h. in top gear, twelve cylinders doing their work almost noiselessly: then drop down into second, put your foot down hard, and the revs fly up to 4,000 and “Grock” becomes a roaring monster. It has everything. There is no car happier in traffic, no car a greater joy when the Great North Road is deserted at 5 a.m. on a summer’s morning. It starts unfailingly, and daily takes me to my mundane office, and nightly it brings me home. I hope the car is as happy as it has made me.

Intentionally, I have left to the end the first string of my small stable. Soon taxation will disrupt and dissipate the garage here in Crosby, but at this moment between the Lagondas stands the prima-donna, none other than the ex-Nuvolari, ex-Eccles, ex-Lemon Burton Type-59 G. P. Bugatti. The Type 59 was originally a supercharged 3.3-litre straight-eight, and was the last two-seater racing car built by Le Patron. Mine has been enlarged to 3.8 litres.

For five years DBL 351 has lived here. Two and a half winters have been spent in perfecting it. About 400 hours have been used (or mis-used, according to your philosophy) in making the car as perfect as I can contrive.

It is a good plan, when you have a car to rejuvenate, to start with all the little things, then they really get done, and furthermore, when you come to the big jobs, then the little ones are not there to nag at you. Thus I spent the first winter in tidying up. The body rattled and was loose, so I removed all the screws and re-tapped the holes and fitted B.A. screws instead of the Bugatti type. The hand-operated air pump was shifted from the passenger’s lap to a more convenient place. The old G.P. exhaust manifold and pipe were refitted, and twin S.U. fuel pumps proved more handy than the original pressure system. Places were found for the jack and copper hammer, and much time was spent in lightening the spare-wheel bracket, the starter gear and the dynamo mounting. These fittings had been made, apparently, by the junior acting-deputy blacksmith’s assistant, at a time when the head blacksmith was on holiday; they were very vile and would have made Le Patron turn in his grave. Then many happy hours were spent in cleaning and polishing, for here was beautiful machinery which must be treated with reverence, respect and awe.

Neat cycle-type wings were made to replace the ugly mudguards originally fitted by the j.a.d.b.’s assistant who converted the car for road use. Then there was a tiny oil tank to fit, to feed oil to the hitherto-starved blower bearings. The fuel tank came out and was carefully cleaned, and even the electric clock was persuaded to work and keep good time.

The second winter was spent on the engine. It took three full days’ work to strip it, and when that was done it became clear that the bottom half was in first-class order, but the top half was not so hot, for one bore was scored and two pistons were slightly cracked. Necessity makes inventors of us all, and I made a hone which effectively cut five thou. out of each cylinder. That job along absorbed five days’ work. Pistons were a big worry, but in the end I discovered by accident that Ariel motor-bike pistons were precisely what was wanted, and what’s more they could be bought in all degrees of oversize. ln all, 550 hours were spent on the engine, and great was my satisfaction when the job was finished, for then all cylinders pulled their weight, and no oil leaked from the innumerable joints: oil consumption jumped up to 400 m.p.g., and when a set of used plugs were sent to Messrs. Lodge for inspection, they reported that the plugs “showed an engine in perfect condition, and plugs ideally suited to their work.”

In the autumn of 1949 there remained only one job to do. The old Zenith carburetters were crude and inefficient. S.U. helped, and supplied an instrument equal in choke-area to the two Zeniths; it was touch and go whether it would fit into the limited available space on top of the blower, but it was wangled in the end. A hand control for the adjustable jet was fitted conveniently at the side of the steering-wheel, and the results of this change were phenomenal. On a mixture of 25 per cent. methanol and 75 per cent. petrol the car did no less than 23 m.p.g. with the jet at its weakest position and travelling slowly. Of course, that mixture is far too lean to risk opening out, and normally I am content with 19 m.p.g. and all the verve and acceleration of which these cars are capable. For really high speeds the jet is opened fully: thus I get the best of two worlds.

I wish my literary skill were adequate to describe the vivid performance of the car as it is now. Every journey in it is a poem of motion, and in addition to the joy of owning so fast and perfect a racing car, I now have a fairly docile machine which will tick-over, start fairly well, run without undue embarrassment in traffic, and accelerate like a bomb. Furthermore, when life seems a bit dreary one can go and look at it in the garage !

The G.P. Bug. is licensed for only three months-in the year.  Since the completion of its overhaul in 1949 it has given no trouble of any kind, until October of 1951 when it cracked the aluminium cross-member just, forward of the gearbox. This was a big worry, and by far the most difficult repair I have ever attempted. However a steel skin was made and fitted most carefully over the damaged cross-member, holes were cut for the three shafts and bearings that are carried by the cross-member, and I am well content with the job, which is light and stronger than the original.

Incidentally, I found two great lead blocks, each of them weighing 1 cwt., which some previous owner had fitted into the channel of the chassis frame. They make excellent weights for fishing nets and mackerel lines !

This brings me to the end of my tale, such as it is, but before signing off perhaps a few conclusions based on 25 years of owning, and repairing, and maintaining fast cars may be of interest to enthusiasts. I do not think that independent suspension is as valuable as it is thought to be. The V12 Lagonda, for all its wishbones and torsion rods., is not the equal of the G.P. Bug. for roadholding, cornering and comfort. Supercharging is useful on the road, provided the pressure be not too high. But only in open cars, not in saloons. There has been little advance in sheer speed during the last twenty years, but there has been much progress in handiness, brakes, flexibility, steering and roadholding. If you want an efficient car, then cleanliness is of the essence, and the very first job is to get it clean. I have yet to see a dirty car which is in good order, or a clean one that is not in pretty good shape. In these days it is the condition of the car that matters, more than the reputation of its maker, though the latter is always important.

Of all the cars I have been so privileged and lucky to own, the three best, in order of excellence have been: No 1, the 3.8-litre Bugatti; beyond question it comes first.  No. 2. the scarlet 2-litre Aston-Martin, my faithful servant for ten long years. No. 3, the Le Mans Replica 4-1/2-litre Bentley. (The V12 Lagonda is too new for me to be able to pronounce a considered judgment, yet.)

If it were possible to have the last twenty-five years over again, I would of course avoid the half-dozen duds of which I have written, but apart from that I would do much the same. It has been great fun and well worth the money, and even the duds taught me more than the good ones, so perhaps they were worthwhile too. You will say, perhaps, that it has been a selfish and expensive hobby, and there is truth in both charges; but not all that much truth, for there has been the pleasure of lending a car now and then, of watching an enthusiast’s face as he takes the wheel, and only a few weeks ago a gentleman came from Cairo to see the G.P. Bugatti !

May I end on a serious note ? The more you give, the more you receive. That surely is true of all our human activities. It is true of our friends, of our associates, of our businesses, and of those we love. It is equally true of motor cars; if you will give to your car devotion, attention, intelligent, industrious and thorough service, then it will give you much real joy. But if you don’t do these things, then you will never reap the harvest. That’s all there is in it, really.