Cars I have owned

By Major L. L. Gordon

I owe my early love of engines of all kinds to our local blacksmith whom I considered a pure genius. He used to give me talks on what made the wheels go round. He impressed upon me that the essentials to make any engine go were some gas and a flame to light it. This, I thought, wanted testing, so I retired to our harness room, turned on the gas (which had the old open-type bunsen burner) and lit it. To my disgust there was no explosion. I went down to the blacksmith and told him that I thought his theory was wrong. He said that I was wrong because I hadn’t listened carefully to what he said. He then went on to explain that the gas had to be contained or compressed, then when a flame got to it there would be an explosion. This also wanted verification, so I got a tin, drilled a hole in it., filled it with carbide, added some water, waited a while amid l then put a match to the hole. There was instant proof that the blacksmith had got something. I did, too, but let us not dwell on the painful details!

One day my friend told me that I could have “that” for £3 10s.  “That” was a tricycle affair with a wicker bathchair-like seat in front, to the back of which was fitted a pair of handle bars. Somewhere down below was a colossal, I think, Quadrant engine. We got it started and I drove home on it. The reception I got was most unfriendly and my period of ownership lasted for just that one ride.

The family then blossomed out with a 1904 Cadillac which, when none of the top family brass was about, I was allowed to drive from the front door round to the coach house. Strange to say, this car caused me to do more and faster cycling than I thought was good for me at the time. We lived near Chatham and made a yearly pilgrimage to the lovely St. Lawrence Cricket Ground at Canterbury for the Cricket Week. My cousin and I were given half an hour’s start on our bikes so as to be at the foot of Boughton Hill to push the car up. I remember that the authorities on the ground had to be warned of our arrival so that the grooms could hold the horses.  I recall, at much about the same time, a de Dion Bouton in which the back passengers sat face to face as in a pony trap; also a Stanley steam car, whose quietness and speed fascinated me.

However, the clearest memory of all concerns an occasion when we were motoring in the Isle of Thanet.  We were in the Cadillac and ran out of petrol, with no idea as to where more could be obtained. After a good deal of deliberation it was agreed that if whisky was filtered through a chamois leather it should get us somewhere. The chauffeur and I were sent off to the nearest pub to get some. “Six bottles of whisky, please,” said the chauffeur.  “You’ve got a hell of a thirst, haven’t you? ” answered the publican. We explained what we intended to do with it and it so impressed him that he decided to come back with us. We strained the whisky into the tank and the chauffeur went round to the near side to crank the engine,  which was under the middle of the car. After a great deal of winding there was a colossal bang and a large cloud of smoke. ” My God !” exclaimed the publican, ‘if it’ll do that to that contraption what must it do to my inside ?”

In 1912 1 went to California and became the proud  owner of one of the first Fords. It had a separate trembler coil for each cylinder low down on the dash in front of the passenger. It was practically a full time job for him to keep the points adjusted. From this I graduated to an E.M.F. (which make was facetiously nicknamed “Every Morning Fixing” or “Every Mechanical Failure”).  I believe the Studebaker people bought them out.

Life out there was very free and easy in those days. For instance, if one filled up with petrol, oil was supplied free. As a matter of fact, crude oil was poured on the roads to lay the dust, and that was all the attention they got. I remember that the Overland people brought out a wishbone-shaped front suspension with the point to the front; it was claimed to be unbreakable. The local agent decided to give an exhibition and asked me if I would drive one of the cars. We had to drive up a ramp and sail through the air and then drive on. The first two or three exhibitions went off well, but on my second effort both my front tyres burst and the whole front of the car collapsed—unbreakable springs and all!

There used to be an old car dump in San Francisco into which people ran their old cars and just left them. One day I wanted to go down to Los Angeles so decided to go to this dump and see what was available. I found a two-seater Nash in really excellent condition in every way, and off I went. On the journey I came upon a fellow with a brand new Excelsior motor-cycle which he had pushed for miles. They were heavy twins and it was a sweltering hot day. I stopped and asked him if I could help. He was too angry and exhausted to worry about anything.  “Yes,” he said, “give us ten bucks and a ride to Bakersfield and you can keep that so and so. “I gave him the money and duly took him to the town. I then hired a loafer to come back to the bike to give me a hand in lifting it into the dickey. When we got to it, I adjusted the points and she went like a bomb. I subsequently sold the bike for not far short of its new price.

In one way and another I owned (though having paid nothing for) some quite nice cars, such as Oldsmobile, Pierce-Arrow, and others which, though not free from trouble, gave me endless fun and broadened my knowledge.

It was with the previously-mentioned Nash that I had an experience which I hope I will never forget and I must have passed it on to hundreds of motorists ever since. I arrived back at the ranch in it simply bursting with pride, and on going up the steps of the verandah I met our Chinese servant. “Wong,” I said, “I have just knocked two minutes off the journey from Fresno.”  He looked at me for a few moments with that inscrutable look that only a Chinaman has, and then said  “and what are you going to do with the two minutes?”  Now, whenever I wonder whether to overtake or not I ask myself, “and what are you going to do with the few seconds? ”  May I commend that thought to every motorist similarly placed ? There would be a lot fewer accidents, especially on corners, if drivers would ask themselves that question before overtaking.

It was at this ranch that I had another rather humbling expeience. The route to a lumber camp passed quite close and one day I saw some lumbermen going by towing a Model-T Ford, so I went over and asked if  I could try and make it  go for them. “You’d be a —- clever so and so if you could” called out one of the men.  This put me on my mettle, so I called back asking if I could have a try. “Right-o, son, go ahead,” called back the man. I went up to the car, lifted the bonnet and nearly collapsed. There was no engine. ” What’s the big idea?”  I asked. “Waal”  drawled the man. “Murphy asked us to bring him back an automobile so I guess this is it.”

On another occasion I remember my father told me to go to the local store and fetch something. Instead of harnessing up the horse I jumped on my motor-bike and duly broke down. Father was terribly horsey and loathed anything to do with  petrol engines. He gave me a fine ticking off  which rather smarted, so I blurted out : “I like the smell of a car exhaust better than I do that of a horse and, what is more, you don’t have to sweep it up”  He look this most unfilial remark like the grand sportsman that he was and from then on, in the fullest sense of the expression, left me to my own devices. His satisfaction at having to go out and help collect my machine every now and then was exactly balanced by mine at passing him on my way back when he had only gone about a mile.

Now just a little story to illustrate how free and easy life was out there in the early lull 1910’s. I was driving past one of the scattered homesteads when the owner came out and waved me to stop. “Going to Fresno?” he asked.  “Yes, jump in.”  “I haven’t time,” he said. “Take this and ask X (I forget the name) to send me out a Flivver (Ford).  “This ” was a wad of 350 dollars. I had never seen nor spoken to that man before. Coming from the insular, that-isn’t-done atmosphere of England, the trait I liked best of everyone that I remember meeting in the California of those days was the instant and open-handed friendliness. I honestly cannot recall ever taking sandwiches. One just stopped and asked for something to eat and it was given with precisely the same ease as one would show to an invited guest. We were, as I have mentioned, on the route to a lumber camp. If we were out when some of them came by they would come in, look round, and help themselves to what they fancied, cook it, eat it, wash up, and leave a most generous sum on the table. We never lost a cent’s worth of anything. Mind you, it was a bit awkward to arrive home and find the larder empty and then have to go off and restock. These fellows appreciated that and so paid generously.

My father’s death and the start of the First World War took place within a few weeks of each other, so I returned to England and went to Sandhurst. Having friends at Newbury, I bought a twin-cylinder Clegg-Darracq which had the largest acetylene gas-generating plant on it I ever saw. That car could be heard and smelt for miles on a still night.

Those who know Camberley will also know the very sharp “S” corner under the end of Wellington College railway station. I used to think what a good idea it would be if a white line was painted down the centre to encourage people to stay on their correct side. I so impressed myself with the soundness of this suggestion that I wrote to the local authorities about it. Some days after I was summoned to the Commandant’s office and ticked off in no uncertain manner. “Gordon,” he said,  “I expect gentlemen cadets to be able to negotiate corners at all hours of the day and night without the aid of white lines, handrails and such nonsense. As you apparently can’t, you had better stay in barracks for a week and learn.”  Seven days C.B. for suggesting one short white line; what would be the corresponding punishment for those responsible for the look of the roads today?  (And this very corner now boasts white line and cat’s-eyes.  —  Ed.)

The war rather interfered with private motoring, but I remember, when I saw the original tanks on the Somme in 1916 thinking to myself that if I survived this business I must have a shot at driving one of those things. I hardly thought that I ever should and most certainly not with the results that I shall relate in a moment.

At the end of the war the regulars were brought home to reorganise so as to go back to Germany and relieve the territorials and Kitchener units. During this period at home I bought a Singer with the gearbox in the rear axle incorporated with the differential. All worked well going forwards, but it had a passionate dislike to reversing and showed it by shedding tears composed of bits and pieces. Then came what most have been about the world’s worst car, yet one of the all too few on which l made a profit. It was a Laurence-Jackson with an air-coooled J.A.P. engine and friction drive. It took my wife and I  two whole days of driving and pushing to get it from  Wolverhampton to Ripon, where we arrived too exhausted and shaken to care about living much longer. The carburetter controls were of the old type of motor-cycle levers mounted on the steering wheel itself, i.e., extra air and throttle. If one wanted to use them on a corner it was quite a work of art to get at them as the wheel turned. The whole outfit was more like a mobile (hardly self-propelled) vibro-massage outfit. However, all is well that ends well. Taking advantage of the absurd premiums one had to pay to get a new car, I advertised the brute for £50 more than I gave for it and the very first fellow who came along paid me the cash and departed, and thus gave me the finest back view I have ever seen.

After this dreadful contraption I bought a car which I then considered well ahead of its time—a Scripps Booth. It had a roomy and comfortable two-seater body and dickey. The passenger’s seat was set back from that of the driver’s to allow for a small swivelling seat to be pulled out from under the dash. My most vivid memory of this car was the occasion when, motoring somewhere opposite Runnymede,  I failed, in the thick fog at the time, to negotiate an acute bend and landed my mother-in-law, wife and brand new daughter in the Thames. My mother-in-law was the most placid passenger I have ever had. She sat there holding the baby up high till relieved of her and then opened. the door and arrived on the bank with the same unruffled charm as if she had just, got out of her carriage at some country mansion. The strange, and luckiest, thing for me was that, though we ended up sitting in water over our laps, the incident never had the, slightest effect on any of us as regards making us chary of motoring again. After all, what is there about diving off the bank into three or four feet of water  —  especially among relations?

My next car was a two-seater Bean. A very good car it was too, though I never could change gear on it properly, much to my wife’s amusement, as she did it every time without a sound. Soon after this purchase I was posted to Cologne, where I bought a tiny two-seater Mathis. It was an incredibly fast car for its size and had no differential. Cornering was a nightmare until I learned the art of driving hard into the corner, touching the brakes, skidding round until the front was pointing in the right direction and then carrying on. My wife came out with her stately Bean and came for a ride with me in the Mathis. That was her first, last, and only one in that car. It made a hell of a row, some of it intentional by means of an open exhaust and much of it not, and rather intrigued some young Germans who studied it. One, referring to the exhaust noise, remarked “schone auspoof ” (meaning what a lovely exhaust note) so henceforth the car was known as “Auspoof.”  Here, for the sake of linguists, let me say that I have no idea how to spell those two German words so have done so phonetically. From Cologne I went to Silesia on the plebiscite and was billeted on a nobleman who had the largest Opel I had ever seen. It had outside exhaust pipes about the size of Underground Railway tunnels. You said all you had to say before you got in and after you got out, for any form of conversation when on the move was quite out of the question. He often let me drive it and I never knew who was the most frightened, he, the local inhabitants, or I. I think it was fifty-fifty, or should I say thirty-three and a third, thirty-three and a third ?

After Silesia and various stops here and there I found myself in Ireland and seconded for duty with the Armoured Car Company of the 3rd Bn. Royal Tank Corps.

My own armoured car was a superb Rolls-Royce whose engine was so perfect that, after having stopped it for some minutes, I could start again by merely waggling the ignition advance and retard lever on the steering column. An unusual vehicle that we had was a Peerless armoured car that had a steering wheel fore and aft. When using the latter the other driver did the gear-changing and, of course, the original front wheels moved with the wheel. I won’t enlarge on the strange experience of having someone else to do your gear-changing, or the even stranger one of being the gear-changer and having to do it whilst back to the way of movement.

Now comes my first experience of tank driving. Luckily I asked my C.O. whether I could have a try and he consented. He told me to go along to one of the sergeants and get some preliminary instruction. His instructions were brief and straight to the point.  “Remember,” he said, ” she’s slow to answer the helm. Pull like hell, say the Lord’s Prayer, and then look where you are going.”  After all, I thought, no advice as to how to control a 20-ton or so vehicle that one had never even been in before could be clearer than that, so I jumped aboard. I found two long levers on either side of the driving seat and it was further explained that those were the things I pulled on the right one for turning to the right and the other to go to the left. He started her up and we moved off over the Marlborough Barracks square towards the main gate. Just before we got to it I pulled hard on the right lever and had got about half way through my devotions when there was a strange rumbling noise on the outside. I look through the driver’s aperture and to my horror found that we had turned sharp right exactly in the centre of the gateway and were proceeding (to use the correct military expression) straight down the centre of the wall with a slight bias towards the road. Unknown to me, the sergeant had pulled the other lever so we careered (I don’t know the correct military term for this kind of movement) over the road towards the opposite houses. Luckily for the inhabitants he also pulled the plug, or whatever you do to stop a tank, and we halted just in time. I stuck to cars after that.

After Ireland I returned to England and bought another Singer and a Calthorpe. These two cars took it in turns to tow each other home. The Calthorpe gave me one unusual experience. I was driving from Horsham towards Southwater when the rear off-side wheel pulled through its studs (remember, the artillery-type car wheels of those days were made, in some cases, of wood). I went down with an awful jolt, but quite unhurt. I got out to look for the wheel and while doing so was joined by an A.A. scout. From that day to this I have never seen that wheel again. A conjurer would be proud to know that trick. I can offer no explanation as to how or where it hid itself—it vanished.

After I had taken a short-time post with a large firm of car dealers the manager came up to me and asked whether I could drive anything. I told him that I thought I could, whereupon he told me to go to the works and drive the Alvis down to the showrooms in Piccadilly. I went to the works, where, to my utter horror, I found that the Alvis was the front-wheel-drive one which had just broken I don’t know how many records at something or other. The foreman started her up and I got in. He showed me the gear-change and wished me luck, but barely enough. I let in the clutch and I don’t think I touched the ground again for twenty yards. I went down Great Portland Street and into Piccadilly Circus making a row that would have stampeded the pyramids, and duly arrived outside the showroom. I got out wobbling, I am sure, like a jelly in a dodgem car, and asked the manager where I was to put it. He took me Into the front part of the showroom and showed me a place with about three inches to spare on either side between two magnificent Rolls-Royces, each of which was worth a king’s ransom. I got back into the car, which by now had attracted quite a large crowd, and wondered how the hell I was going to get it at right angles to the kerb so as to back in. As it happened I was one worry ahead of time for I had forgotten (even if I ever knew) how to get the damned thing into reverse.

Should I send for an ambulance first, or wait till I knew exactly how many to send for? Then I had a brain wave. I put my foot almost flat down on the accelerator. There were wild shrieks and everyone scattered, fearing, none more than I, the worst. Then my guardian angel must have seen my distress for I glided the car in absolutely dead right.

Now comes a period when I had so many cars and motor-cycles that, having kept no diaries, I am extremely vague as to the order of ownership.

I remember a Rhode—a delightful little car except that the point of balance was immediately over the back axle, or nearly so, because with anyone in the dickey the front wheels tended to lift off the ground, so that cornering at anything over slow speed gave a sensation of wondering what the future held in store.

Then came what must surely rank as the enfant terrible of any vehicle I have owned—a Seabrook. I believe I am right in saying that it had a Coventry-Simplex o.h.v. engine. It certainly had a long all-aluminium body so designed that the back passengers couldn’t see through the windscreen. The body was so flimsy that it warped with people in the back so that the front doors would not shut owing to the gap. The engine had a quaint predilection to catching fire either just after starting or immediately after stopping. However, by keeping a wet blanket always in the car, we treated those little peculiarities with the contempt they deserved. It was the swan song, or final bang, of this car which gave me an experience for which I have never been able to discover the cause. I know only too well what happened when connecting-rods and even crankshafts broke, but they would rank as minor mishaps compared to what happened on this occasion. I was coming down the hill on the London side of Chelmsford (there was, if I remember rightly, a golf course on my left) when suddenly there was a strange noise and bits of metal came through the bonnet. A lot must have happened in the next few seconds, but finally I came to an abrupt stop as if a leap-frogger had been stopped in mid air. This was when the broken propellershaft dug into the road. I got out and lifted what was left of the bonnet and found nothing there!  I mean precisely what I say. The engine and gearbox had gone—vamoosed. Looking back found them in small pieces scattered all down the road. That was over thirty years ago and I have yet to hear an acceptable explanation of what happened. With about fifty years of experience behind me in all, I still cannot understand why there was such complete disintegration. The disposal of this car was not done so neatly as that of a friend of mine who, coming home on six months’ leave, bought an old bull-nosed Morris for £5.  He drove it all over England and Scotland and then down to Tilbury docks, where he abandoned it. Some time later he got a letter from the police which was a mixture of admonition and regret, saying that the enclosed cheque for £7 10s. was all that was due after deducting their expenses.

Before I go on to the next car I must mention another occasion on which I had the mickey taken out of me. This happened somewhere round the same area as the last episode, on a very foggy night. I was following behind a car which stopped for what seemed to me an unnecessarily long time, so I got out to have a word with its driver. On walking up to him I could see no red light in front of him so I asked him what he was waiting for. “I live here,” he replied. I had followed him up his drive and so had several cars behind me. He had his laugh that night, but I shudder to think what the lawns and beds alongside his drive looked like next morning, for we all had to back and shunt over them to get out.

My next car was a 12-h.p. Austin known as the “L.G.O.C.,” afte the London General Omnibus Company. The petrol tank was under the driver’s seat, which probably tended to make him a bit more cautious than he might otherwise have been. Whilst owning this the 30-m.p.h. limits were introduced, but it made no difference as the maximum possible merely became the maximum permissible. I sold this car for £12 10s. to a London dealer in part exchange for a Humber in which I set off for Cromer. I broke down and sent to him for help, which arrived in the form of the old Austin, which duly towed us back to London.

Then came some conventional cars, including one which we christened “Cascara,” because we never knew when it was going to work, but it was such a relief when it did!

I have always liked humouring a car  —  not driving it. The modern powerful brutes don’t interest me in the least. To be considered legless and nearly brainless by the makers who want to sell me cars with self this and that annoys me. I know of nothing more boring than to sit in one of these dreadful things that are sprung like a trampoline. Some are called four-seaters, but could only accommodate two pekes if they sat up and leant against the back.

Many modern drivers know nothing whatever about the mechanical details of their car. They, so to speak, report for duty at their garage every morning and drive it all day with about as much knowledge of the works as did the old tram drivers. Their cars have automatic this, State-aided that, and they pay a lot more for something that saves them the trouble of even knowing when to change gear. Some have a light that comes on when you open a door to help you find the steering wheel!  I wonder whether any others of the old school feel the same way and like to “feel”  their cars and nurse them. It has always been my conviction, and always will be, that a good driver adds several horse-power to his car, so that he doesn’t need a sort of glorified single-decker to get from A to B just as quickly—especially on the crowded roads of today.

I am often asked what I think of lady drivers taken as a whole, and my answer must be that, taken as a whole, they are pretty good, but there are many of them who don’t miss by much, do they ?

Looking back over the years, one car has pride of place in my memories, though I only owned one. It is the Model-T Ford. It was the flimsiest, yet paradoxically, the sturdiest of any old-timer I could mention. It could squirt steam from every pore and everything on it be loose, yet it got you there. It was extremely temperamental for it might start with a quarter pull or backfire and break your wrist. If you stove in a mudguard you pulled it out and carried on. I saw a modern car a little while back that had had a nudge near its front lamp, and the body was so damaged that the back door wouldn’t open. Who opened the back door of a Model-T to get in. anyway ? Two experiences concerning these cars come to mind.

I had a Ford T truck in my Company which was a paragon of good behaviour. I asked the driver the secret of this reliability. With the knowing look of a craftsman when asked how he turns out such beautiful work, he somewhat surprised me by saying : “Liver pills, Sir; I pops one in the rad, every morning.”

The other experience concerns a time when I was staying with a farmer friend at Halesworth, Suffolk. He asked me if I would drive the milk to the station to catch the early-morning train. All went well until I came to a bend, when the steering wheel, like the housemaid’s cup, came to bits in me ‘and. It was made of dovetailed wooden sections. I walked back and explained what had happened, when my friend said  “I’m awfully sorry, old man, I knew it had a habit of coming off, but I never thought it would break.”  I like to think that we old-timers had so much confidence in each other that such little details as steering wheels being likely to come off were not worth mentioning. However, I went back with a box spanner and tommy  bar, fitted it over the nut at the top of the column and drove on with the milk.

Let me end with two little yarns that concern the only occasions in which the police have, so far, been in any way, concerned with my motoring. They both happened about thirty years ago.

The first concerns a time when I was sitting by the side of the road having sandwiches. A nice sports car drew up opposite and a nicely-spoken youngster got out and, in a polite apologetic sort of way, asked me if I could let him have some petrol as he doubted whether he could get to Ongar.  “Help yourself,” I said, pointing to my car, for it was s a common custom in those days to-carry a spare petrol can attached to one of the running-boards. He filled up, paid me, thanked me, and went off. A few minutes later an open pint-sized car, containing about two quarts of helmeted policemen; drew up at the same spot. The head man yelled over, Have you seen a yellow sports car go by?”  I told him that not only had I seen it but let the driver have some petrol.  “You bloody fool,” he yelled back. “it’s full of stolen pictures.” During this brief exchange the engine of their car stopped, which resulted in a furious hunt for the starting handle. As it couldn’t be found they all got in except two, who went behind to push. Just as they started I called out,  “Stolen car. I presume.”   I can only hope that the pictures that were stolen were as good as the chief’s face when I said that and the view of the backsides of the pushers disappearing over the back of the car when it started.

The second, and my last, yarn concerns the time when I had a very fast car in which I was tootling along quite slowly when a policeman jumped out from the hedge and signalled me to stop. He had opened the door and get in before he had asked where I was going. I told him where it was and he then told me to step on it. He glared furiously when I slowed down to go through a village and was sort of sliding about on the seat egging the car to go faster. After we had been going for some while he tapped me on the shoulder and asked to be dropped at the next cross roads. I stopped, he got out, shut the door, and then gave me a sort of thank-you salute and smile.

Have you ever driven flat-out for mile after mile with the law on your side ? Believe me, it’s a grand and glorious feeling. This experience has always been slightly marred by the wondering whether he really was a policeman!