Cars I Have Owned

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76

by J. D. Hart, A.M.I.Mech.E.

During my engineering apprenticeship, in the mid-thirties, my transport had changed from bicycle to a motorcycle, and then as the five years were completed, to my first car.

This was a 1933 J2 M.G. Midget purchased in 1939 and sold in 1946, after driving many thousands of miles and learning a lot about motoring. The performance must have been similar to the latest Austin Healey Sprite; 75 m.p.h. anytime, just over 80 under favourable conditions, with about 30 m.p.g. no matter how it was driven. The most out-standing feature of the engine was its ability to rev. in the intermediate gears. It seemed never to peak and only impatience to get into top gear set the limit. Many heart-stopping moments were experienced because of the 9-in. dia. cable-operated brakes. The spongy feeling did not inspire confidence but for some reason they seemed to produce increasing retardation with duration of application (contra-fade?) which always saved the day.

The crankshaft did not break as many did, but a con.-rod snapped and came through the cylinder wall, and big-ends “went” once or twice. The gearbox and back axle gave absolutely no trouble, the Autolift petrol pump was a menace, loose spokes caused many punctures, but it was a good car and made me an “enthusiast.”

A new TC M.G. was then ordered. Delivery time was about six months, so a 1939 Series E Morris Eight four-door saloon was purchased as a stop-gap. Eighteen months later there was still no sign of the M.G. and the Morris covered 12,000 miles in my hands. It provided very reliable and economical transport but that was all. On a level road the speedometer could not quite reach 60 m.p.h. but overall consumption was 39 m.p.g., while on a trip to Cornwall it returned 43.

By now C. A. N. May’s “Wheelspin” had been read and re-read many times and a decision was made to enter trials immediately. The Morris was traded-in for a 1937 TA, M.G. Within a few days the long steel wings were replaced with alloy blades, the springs were set up 2 in. higher than standard, the gearbox as stripped and a different pair of layshaft drive gears fitted. 6.00 in. x 16 in. wheels and tyres were obtained for the rear, and .070 in. machined off the cylinder head. The result was quite a lively car on the road, with virtually a three-speed gearbox, bottom gear being too low for anything but climbing unclimbable gradients. The raised centre of gravity did not have any noticeable adverse effect, except that the front wheels were apt to “flap” if a bump was hit when cornering fast; no doubt the steering geometry was not quite what it should have been.

In trials this M.G. was disappointing. The decline of the “standard” sports car was in full swing and monster “special” went the vogue, while the 1,172 c.c. “specials” were just finding their grip. The TA floundered in deep mud with hopeless power/weight ratio, weight distribution and lack of ground clearance. 6.00 in. x 18 in. rear tyres and 1½ cwt. of sand in an ex.-W.D. ammunition box over the rear axle was tried, but except for an occasional award in a Club event, the exercise was not successful.

On its only outing to Silverstone the TA disgraced itself by knocking out a big-end on the club circuit. The offending rod was removed with its piston, and a hose clip with a strip of jointing material clamped around the crankpin. The appropriate push rods were removed and we set off on the long drive back to Sevenoaks. At any speed over 20 m.p.h., our three-cylinder M.G. produced terrible vibrations, so our progress was very slow. After a few miles an explosion under the bonnet brought us hurriedly to a halt. Every joint in the engine was leaking oil and our conclusion was that the not-in-use-but-still-sparking sparking plug had fired the oil vapour in the crankcase! We removed the plug lead and had no more trouble.

Shortly after this the TA took control on a fast corner, collected a telegraph pole and turned over. All on a third-party insurance policy. During the rebuild that followed the car was returned to standard.

In the meantime inexpensive transport was required; it took the form of a 1930 Riley Nine Monaco. This proved to be a real “banger,” first the big-ends failed, and then the mains, so the car was sold to a garage in Winchester and we completed this first journey by Public Transport. The only novel thing about this car was the gearbox. To change from second to third the lever had to be moved opposite reverse and then back and into third, otherwise ghastly noises ensued. Also, my one attempt at a snatch change from first to second resulted in the lever being in second gear position and the box locked in bottom. Although it was economical and had an unexpectedly good top gear performance it was my only Riley, so my troubles with it must have biased me against the marque.

The M.G. was still in the throws of its complete re-build, so a 1929 Austin Seven saloon was reluctantly purchased for economical transport. But it proved to be the first of many, and since that date (1951) I have seldom been without an Austin Seven hack.

This 1929 model was aluminium-bodied and must have been one of the first with coil ignition. My impression on taking over was that it would be foolhardy to go more than five miles from base with it. It soon had my full confidence, although eventually the “bent wire” crankshaft broke, after a senseless flatout burst, downhill! The engine was rebuilt with a used crankshaft (£1) and was back in service in a few hours.

Meanwhile. the M.G. was sold and the building of my own trials “special” was started—Austin Seven Ruby chassis, two-tier cantilever rear springs, E.N.V. wide-track back axle, offset torque-arm to “dig-in” the rear wheels evenly-with torque reaction, Ford transverse front spring and axle with no roll resistance.

After months of work my rate of progress was such that it was obvious the 1951-2 trials season would be missed, so the whole thing was dismantled and sold and a Ford Ten Special purchased. This building experience made me realise what many other enthusiasts have discovered, that to assemble in one’s spare time a car with parts from different manufacturers, without a welding plant and a really comprehensive set of tools and lots of spare material, is a formidable task, even if you have the necessary knowledge and skill. Another lesson, already known, but not experienced was soon to be “driven home,” the gain in performance by “adding lightness.”

We travelled to Cornwall to buy the Ford Special in what we thought was quite a lively 1939 Standard Eight, but returning in company with the Ford it was an absolute sluggard, because it was about 4 cwt. heavier. The power outputs were about the same, as the Ford engine was standard except for the Eight head and both had about the same top speed, but the difference in acceleration and hill climbing was staggering.

The Ford Special had been built in the North of England and had rather a heavy chassis frame, split-axle front suspension, standard Ford back axle and suspension, Eight gearbox, shortened prop.-shaft. dropped radiator (no starting handle) and quite a good (by trials car standards) body of timber and aluminium. There was a full-width screen and an ungainly hood. It weighed 11½ cwt. On the road the front suspension was good, although no shock-absorbers were fitted, but the rear end made constant steering correction necessary on any but the smoothest roads. A transverse stabiliser fitted later reduced this need but at the same time stiffened up the whole system.

In trials the performance of the “Special” was a tremendous improvement. The 6.00 in. x 16 in. Oxborrow retreads on the back actually bolted to the wheel rim on one side, with four bolts each, and running at about 4 p.s.i. really gave some grip. But it was not a potential winner in any Championship-class trial. The power/weight ratio was just not good enough, so off came the front steel wings to be replaced with alloy blades, the full-width screen and hood were removed, and the battery was moved aft and 4.00 in. x 17 in. front tyres fitted. A fantastic hand rear brake was made by welding a 2 ft. length of tube straight to the lever behind the gearbox. The slightest forward pressure on the lever would lock the back wheels. The engine was fitted with a Davis manifold with twin downdraught S.U. carburetters and a four-branch exhaust to a short exhaust system. This gave a great increase in power output, low down, where it was wanted in trials.

But the “Boys” were still many moves ahead of me with engines, seats, radiators, etc., behind the back axle and very little weight on the front.

Then the R.A.C. clamped down with a new comprehensive set of regulations for trial cars, which stopped the building of very-special “specials”, and even affected my ordinary “special.” The engine was too far behind the front axle so the chassis was cut in two alongside the engine and the front section (complete with axle, etc.) moved back to give the required dimension and the chassis made whole again by welding. Also, 5.00 in. x 18 in. standard road tyres had to be fitted to suit the new regulations.

My interest in the car was on the wane and it was sold soon after the chassis shortening. It was really at its best in driving tests and when, with tickover set at 1,000 r.p.m. to prevent stalling (violent braking caused the petrol to “wall forward” away from the jets) it could see off most opposition in any class.

An H.R.G. then attracted me. A “wanted” advertisement produced only two replies. Negotiations then started but nearly a year passed before a trip North on the Flying Scotsman was made to collect a 1946 model 1,100-c.c. version from Scotland.

In the meantime a 1931 Austin Seven saloon was purchased but was soon replaced by a 1928 Chummy, the desire for fresh air motoring still being very strong. Two more Austin Sevens were then bought and robbed of their best parts, the remainder being sold. A few months of “marginal motoring” followed, but only a few, then the desire for more performance resulted in a jump from 7 to 30 h.p. It was a very early Ford V8 with a two-door aluminium saloon body and a screen about 6 inches deep. It had been used by a Ministry and was overhauled and re-registered in 1950. This latter fact caused my Insurance Company some concern. A 1950 car worth only £60 in 1953 and only third party cover required! This vehicle introduced me to a new type of motoring, a large “woolly” engine with a reasonably light chassis and body.

After six months of very pleasant motoring at 18 m.p.g. the car was sold. The 20-year-old Ford had needed only one replacement brake shoe and petrol and oil in 6-7,000 miles. depreciation nil.

The H.R.G. was still not ready for collection (the unfortunate owner had broken the crankshaft during negotiations) so another Austin Seven was purchased, a 1934 saloon in very good condition, the engine was “tuned,” i.e. hot-spot removed, block and inlet ports relieved, straight through silencer and short pipe. One front shackle was welded to the axle and a transverse stabiliser fitted to the rear axle. Perspex windows replaced the large door windows and the rear tyres were clamped on is with motorcycle security bolts. The drop arm was lengthened to give less than one turn of the steering wheel from full lock to full lock.

In this guise the Austin proved no mean performer in club events and gained several awards. In mud or snow it was excellent, with its quick steering, in special tests the snatch change from bottom to second, (possible only on the early four-speed boxes) with accelerator hard on the floor was invaluable, whilst the Perspex windows not only saved weight but probably saved us from injury on two occasions when the car turned on its side.

Meanwhile the disappointing H.R.G. was bought. The stiff springing made my stomach uncomfortable on long trips, the high gearing made for too many gear changes, and the heavy pedal pressure needed for the cable brakes proved very tiring in traffic. On the top straight at Brands Hatch the needle would slowly creep round to 70 after a change from third at 60. It was fitted with the later type manifolding, the engine giving 44 b.h.p., but had 17 in. wheels, later cars having 16 in. The “hurg” was very economical, giving 40 m.p.g., the steering was excellent and it could be hurled into corners with complete confidence but somehow it wasn’t my cup of tea, so it was sold. Then a bargain successfully tempted me, a 1934 M.G. NA, Magnette. This was the 8-ft. wheelbase model with a 56 b.h.p., 1.271-litre engine, a good basis for a fast “special” for road work (more misguided enthusiasm)! The body was whipped off and sold. The chassis was completely stripped and rebuilt with a squat modern radiator (35 lb. lighter). The engine was rebuilt with Cromard liners, ground crank, lightened flywheel, ⅛ in. off the head, domed pistons. etc., also short twin exhaust system, drilled brake drums and lowered steering column, etc. The lightened flywheel made a wonderful difference to the pick-up and gear changing, and with only a bare chassis to pull, the acceleration felt terrific.

The question of a body had to be faced. A home-made aluminium job would have been below the standard set by the “better-than-new” chassis, only a new fibre glass, one would be suitable. The chassis was not stiff enough, however; the flexing would damage the body. On the other hand, if the chassis was made stiffer the road-holding would suffer as some whip was all part of the M.G. design. Also most bodies produced at that time (1954-5) were not suitable for an 8-ft. chassis. So the project came to a dismal halt.

All this time the 1934 Austin Seven saloon was giving yeomen service, but a performance car was needed until the M.G. was finished. A friend mentioned seeing an interesting car in a farm building on Hayes Common. On investigation, it turned out to be one of the immediate post-war Monster trials “specials.” A 4¼ -litre Hudson straight-eight “Powerdome engine” (128 b.h.p.) in a chassis with a wheelbase of about 8 ft. and a high stark two-seater aluminium body. 7.50 in. x 16 in. rear and 6.00 in. x 16 in. front tyres were fitted. It had not been used for several years and was without a battery, so we towed it away, without any trial, for £35.

A new 120-amp/hour 6-volt battery and a new set of h.t. leads, and the engine started on the button, not with a shattering roar to match its appearance but with a quiet purr, the silencing system being most efficient.

On the road, speed was at first limited by a vicious front-wheel wobble which set in about 30 m.p.h. The cause was eventually traced to the lack of castor angle. The radius arms had been set to clear the revamped chassis and most of the castor action lost. The fitting of packing pieces cured the trouble.

The acceleration proved to be tremendous and the rear wheels could easily be made to spin when in the intermediate gears. Starting from rest in top gear, the clutch could be fully released at 5 m.p.h., then without any transmission snatch the Hudson would accelerate straight up to 90 m.p.h. at which speed it became rather difficult to control. This smooth, effortless, top gear performance provided a new and impressive motoring experience. Its only competition appearance, whilst it was in my hands, was in an Autocross. On paper it appeared to be a potential winner but on the track it was found to be impossible to turn the steering wheel fast enough to do credit to the quite good cornering capabilities of the car. A decision to make the steering higher geared, however, was never put into force, as the petrol consumption, through the 2¼-in. bore Carter carburetter was checked and found to be as formidable as the car performance (11 m.p.g.). So the car was sold.

Nobody wanted to buy the body less M.G., so it was dismantled and the parts sold separately.

A search was then made for a good second-hand Triumph T2. Most of those inspected had very poor paintwork after only 12 or 18 months’ service. Eventually a resprayed 1954 model was purchased just before Easter 1956.

The odometer was on 19,000 miles, it had wire wheels, heater, full tonneau, aluminium bonnet, and door handles, were fitted to the boot lid (an excellent idea).

On the road, my first impression, was pleasure at the wonderful ride compared with cars owned previously. The steering was geared too low; the shattering exhaust noise, when the expansion box resonated at 2,400 r.p.m., would have to be silenced. It was soon discovered that the wonderful ride was obtained at the expense of road-holding in wet weather. The rear wheels would spin and the front wheels would fail to steer the car unless the engine performance was used with great discretion. Michelin “X” tyres would no doubt have partially cured these faults, but then as other TR2 owners told me, the loss in ground clearance could cause “grounding” on Continental roads and also cause the original deep type doors to foul and jam on even lower kerbs.

But the acceleration and speed were there and this car somehow asked to be driven hard. The top speed of 102 on the speedometer was not often seen, but the 80-90 range was soon very familiar. All this with 34 m.p.g. still seems incredible, but careful checks were made and a 2,400-mile trip to Rome and back actually returned over 40 m.p.g. (without overdrive).

The TR2 was used for a few Club races and sprints at Brands Hatch and Silverstone, and other TR owners, met on these occasions, complained of brake fade when racing, but in my case none was experienced in 10-lap events, no doubt due to the wire wheels. Some suffered big-end troubles but may car had no failures, although on stripping the engine at 28,000 miles they were found to be well worn so new shells were fitted. All four pistons were cracked right across the crown and were replaced with a stronger type, as fitter to later models. It was also discovered at this time that the advance and retard mechanism had seized up, in the retarded position, and that the ignition had been set (before coming into my hands) fully-advanced. This might have been the cause of the pistons fracturing. Freeing the mechanism and setting the ignition correctly made no noticeable difference to the performance, but, of course, the “tick-over” was greatly improved.

At first tyres were wearing at the rate of 7,000 miles per set of 4, running at the recommended pressures, but later 35 p.s.i. (as used for racing) was used and found to be satisfactory on the road, and greatly reduced the rate of wear. The king-pins needed lubrication every thousand miles, otherwise the steering became very insensitive.

It was a great car and provided a year of real pleasure motoring before it was sold.

But those twelve months were not exactly trouble-free–a rear wheel bearing, three rear axle seals, three cylinder head gaskets, two speedo cables, a water pump, a wire wheel, a brake and clutch hydraulic cylinder, two clutch pedal springs, a gear-lever cover, four pistons, four big-ends and the silencer all had to be replaced before the car had done 30,000 miles. Most of these were teething troubles and later TRs were modified to combat these faults, but unfortunately, as is usually the case, the weight of the car also increased, and then the engine power output, to offset this increase in weight. And so the outstanding economy of the early TR2 was exchanged for more reliability in the later models.

Shortly after selling the Triumph an advertisement for an immaculate 1936 Lanchester 14 caught my eye. To own a car with a fluid flywheel and preselecter gearbox would be a new experience! The bodywork and interior were certainly in typical Lanchester condition, but because the engine was rather noisy, the seller agreed to reduce the price by 20 per cent. This suited me, so the car became mine.

The Mulliner body was a four-door six-light saloon, the most interesting feature of which was the flat floor. This was made possible by worm-drive rear axle and gearbox with side-mounted selector mechanism. The powerful handbrake was low on the right of the driver’s seat, so with the gear selector lever out of the way on the steering column it was practically as easy for the driver to slide across and use the near-side door, as the off-side. Of course it had a sunshine roof, opening windscreen, cigar lighter, manual as well as automatic ignition control, reserve tap, self-cancelling indicators, constant-voltage regulator, etc.

The engine was an o.h.v. six-cylinder with non-detachable head, but separate cylinder block. The valves were held closed by normal springs and the rockers and push rods onto the tappets with hairsprings. The fluid flywheel drove a Daimler four-speed epicyclic gearbox.

On the road the Lanchester rolled smoothly along, in fact everything appeared to have been designed with smooth operation as a major feature. This characteristic of the car was so strong that the driver soon drove in sympathy. Quick acceleration, snappy gear changes and dodging through the traffic all seemed unnecessary and undesirable. To glide quietly and smoothly along without disturbing the passengers and other road users became the aim. I still own this car.

At the beginning of 1958 an Austin Healey 100 came into my possession. It had obviously been in a crash or had been rolled over. But the price was reasonable and it appeared to have been repaired properly.

It was one of the first Healey 100s produced, and had the four-cylinder A90 engine and gearbox, with overdrive and the high axle ratio. Some of the body panels were made of aluminium 60-watt long range head lamp units were fitted, otherwise the car appeared to be in standard form.

It was collected in Oxford and the journey home to Kent commenced. Before long the real reason why the dealer would not let me drive the car became apparent, and also why he had handed it over where he did, many miles from his base. The steering had every vice that steering can have and long before the journey was finished it was obvious that some real trouble had been purchased. When the steering mechanism was examined next day every ball joint was found to be badly worn and without lubrication. Adjusting, tightening and greasing the whole system made a tremendous difference and the pleasure of Healey 100 motoring commenced.

The large four cylinder engine with its Weslake-designed head certainly produced lots of power over a wide rev. range, which was just as well because it reduced the need to use the wretched three-speed gearbox. The actual change was unpleasant and the ratios were not progressive when the overdrive was used. For acceleration to maximum speed the overdrive was best switched off until 85 m.p.h. was reached in top gear. On the other hand switching on the overdrive in second at about 60 m.p.h. produced a much quicker full-throttle change into a higher ratio than could be made with the gear lever. It was then not worth changing into direct top, so one went straight into overdrive top.

A feature of the overdrive which could be disconcerting was when it “changed down” when one was braking hard. The sudden additional braking effort would cause the rear tyres to squeal on a dry road.

But for me, this quick-acting overdrive gave the car its main appeal, that of providing effortless high speed motoring. Once on the move the gear lever was seldom used, top gear and overdrive top, with the automatic change, providing all that was required. The quick acting and sensitive steering, the powerful brakes, and the good road-holding generally, gave one complete confidence. The speedo-meter needle hovered in the 80-90 m.p.h. range, whenever traffic conditions allowed, with the engine revs, a mere 3,000.

For domestic reasons the Healey was soon sold but it came nearer to my ideal motor car than any other owned to date. Compared with the TR2, everything was in its favour except petrol consumption and the gearbox. But for many enthusiasts these two features are of vital importance, so both cars are, quite justly, probably equally popular in this country.

The Lanchester was brought into service again until a 1937 Austin Seven Ruby was discovered, to be sold cheaply because of a chronic engine disorder. The trouble was only a loose flywheel and cost nothing but a few hours’ work to repair! The car was immediately put into commission and the Lanchester laid-up to have a decoke and new rings, etc.

It took several days to re-acquire the taste for Austin Seven motoring, but soon the engine was being driven to peak revs. in each gear while lightning moves of the steering wheel kept the car on a steady course when exceeding 35 m.p.h.

The two dynamo terminals were connected with wire to increase the output and a hardboard-duct fresh-air heater made and fitted, otherwise nothing needed any attention and the car was driven for months without any trouble.

A switch was then made to the Lanchester again. This heavy 1½-litre car now returns 25-26 m.p.g. on short and 30 m.p.g. on long runs. But the revs. have to be kept down because the crankshaft is 005-.006 oval and the big-ends soon become enlarged by the hammering, if the car is driven too hard. To have the engine reconditioned would now cost twice the value of the whole car, so it will be used until a serious breakdown is imminent and then scrapped.

But another pre-war car of character selected from the always interesting advertisements in Motor Sport, will follow the Lanchester, probably next year.