RACING AND THE PUBLIC
RACING AND THE PUBLIC A BRISTOL CIRCUIT? SOME reference has been made recently In the…
In which F. J. A. Hobbs, of H.W. Motors, looks at the cars he has owned and known from the angle of an enthusiast with motor trade facilities.
My motoring career really started when as a very small boy I thought of nothing else, and I still have a copy of The Autocar Show Report 1919 bought for me when I was five.
It was some years later before I had a chance to actually ride in a car, a 1913 Napier fitted with a 1920 landaulet body. My parents were old friends of the chauffeur and as soon as I was old enough to cycle I used to ride the eight miles to his house every Saturday to go with him on his evening trip to the station. I can still see the brass radiator with its tall filler neck and the huge acetylene headlamps. The engine was a large side-valve, dead quiet and smooth as silk. We never exceeded 35 m.p.h. but this seemed a terrific speed at the time.
My motoring was confined to these trips until 1928, when I left school to work in a local garage. I was put with a mechanic of the old school, a taciturn man who, given a pile of metal and a lathe, could have made a car himself from scratch. Mean and unpopular with his mates, I found him difficult to work with, but he was an artist at his job and I never forgot the things he taught me or the standards he set. My wages were five bob a week, but I would cheerfully have done it for nothing.
Almost every type of car came my way, many makes which have been extinct for years now, and I remember working on Calthorpe, Hands, Gwynne, Belsize-Bradshaw, A.B.C., Calcott, etc. The first car I drove was a Calthorpe, only a few yards it is true but I managed to change gear. I also remember two large six-cylinder Fiats, I believe they were about 40 h.p., with a radiator not unlike a Rolls. These were wonderful cars, one with a fabric saloon body and the other a two-seater-with-dickey, painted to resemble grained wood. This was quite an eyeful in its day and had a good performance.
At this time we had a pre-1914 Renault in use as a breakdown vehicle. This had a four-cylinder engine in two blocks of two, bags of copper pipes, an enormous flywheel-cum-fan which thrashed away under one’s feet, and a gear-lever working in a quadrant. A decompression tap helped starting, which was a job for a very strong man anyway. Large artillery wheels shod with beaded-edge tyres were covered by long flowing wings. Painted in fire-engine red throughout, it was a truly awe-inspiring sight to a boy of fourteen, and I longed for the day when I could drive it to a breakdown. Long before I could do that it was sent to the local breakers.
There were many fine cars in those days, of all nationalities, and as the proprietor of the garage had a liking for cars out of the usual rut I managed to get acquainted with a good variety. The various Sunbeam models were favourites of mine; their beautifully finished engines and impeccable road behaviour made them cars to be proud of. Sometimes whilst on a test run the mechanic would let me drive on a quiet road and I would whip up and down through the gearbox for the sheer joy of using the beautiful righthand lever. It was a sad day indeed when these cars were turned into glorified Hillmans. Amongst the Continentals, Isotta-Fraschini, Austro-Daimler, Delage, Ballot, Voisin, etc., come easily to mind, whilst in those days American cars had a personality of their own. How many people remember the four-cylinder o.h.v. Essex, a sound engine comparable with many similar European designs? Another littleknown car was the Brocklebank, and I was delighted to see an item in the April 1959 issue dealing with this rare vehicle. We had two of them, 1928 saloons in brown and black with disc wheels. They possessed many good features, the brakes being outstanding for the period, and the bodies were first-class. They were however, troublesome cars, particularly their clutches and rear axle shafts. The easy maintenance mentioned in the article was certainly needed and although they were very smooth running the poor performance obtained was insufficient compensation for the lack of reliability.
Like many people who learned to drive in that period, my mainstay was the bull-nose and later flat-nose Morris. There must be thousands who remember these cars with affection and the recent article on the bull-nose in MOTOR SPORT was of great interest.
At one stage we had a 1923 CaIcott, which was offered for sale. The prospective purchaser was satisfied with everything except maximum speed (35 m.p.h. was its top whack), and nothing we could do would increase it. Not unreasonably, he insisted on at least 40 and eventually a solution was found. The speedometer was driven by a belt from a wooden pulley on the propeller shaft, a larger pulley was made up and a further demonstration arranged. Forty-six m.p.h. soon appeared on the clock and shortly afterwards a delighted owner drove off in his CaIcott.
My driving licence came through on my 17th birthday and I was able to drive legally. We were running a 1926 16-h.p. sleevevalve Daimler as a works hack, with a very tricky gearbox which I had mastered driving around the works. I set off on my first solo run with this car, and as I changed from second to third a harsh shriek came from the clutch mechanism. Apart from wondering what it was I thought nothing of it, until I arrived back, to be greeted by a wrathful foreman who informed me that if I made all that noise changing gear I had better stick to my bike and leave decent cars alone. In vain I protested it was the clutch and for two weeks suffered the humiliation of not being allowed to drive the Daimler. Then one day I was out with the foreman in the car and it happened to him. He was decent enough to apologise and once more I was allowed to drive it. The funny thing is that although we had the car for a long time afterwards it never made the noise again.
This car was replaced by a bright yellow 1919 Bianchi tourer with brass radiator and lamps and very, tall screen with no wiper, a real tough old motor car and indestructible. Only rear wheel brakes were fitted and, as these were usually filled with sticky gear oil from the differential, stopping was quite a problem. It also had the habit of engaging two gears at once, and I became adept at leaping out, removing the floorboards, and freeing the selectors with a tyre lever kept handy for the purpose. This once happened to me right in the middle of the maze of tram lines at Tooting Broadway. It proved difficult to free that time and before long there were lines of trams held up in all directions. Eventually I emerged from the depths with a red face and, ignoring the ribald remarks of the onlookers, gave the engine a swing. The engine backfired and the carburetter caught alight, another frequent occurrence. The drill for putting it out was to swipe it with a heavy damp cloth, also kept handy for the purpose, and this I did. After this I proceeded on my way, leaving behind me incredible chaos to be sorted out. In those days no-one seemed to mind this sort of thing very much but I wouldn’t like to repeat the performance today. As I got older and progressed in my job I managed to get my hands on such vehicles as Bentley, Invicta, Lagonda, Stutz, Alfa Romeo, etc., all wonderful cars and a joy to drive. The Invicta had a particular appeal and I had some enjoyable runs in a 4-litre drophead coupe. In those days I kept a little book with my own ” speed record ” in it, and the Invicta was the first car I drove at 90 m.p.h. The magic ” ton ” did not come until some years later, on a ” 2.3 ” blown, Zagato-bodied Alfa Romeo.
In 1933 the garage changed hands and the new owners dealt almost entirely with bread-and-butter cars, mostly Fords. We also became distributors for Citroen and had as a demonstrator one of the first F.W.D. cars to be produced at Slough. The trouble this machine gave could not possibly be described in a short article or in printable language. The performance, roadholding, etc., was, of course, exceptional at that time and full credit is due to the manufacturers for persevering with the design until it reached the standard of the excellent post-war model.
After the usual motor-bikes I bought my first car in 1935, a 1928 Morris-Oxford coupe with dickey. The owner could not afford a new clutch so I got it for £3 5s., taxed and insured. This car gave fantastic service; apart from my own use I used to hire it to the lads for their snoggin’, 2s. 6d. a night, 5s. Saturdays. When the tax and insurance ran out I sold it for £4 10s. to a lady wanting a temporary vehicle whilst her own was being repaired. After three weeks she received her own car back and asked me to dispose of the Morris for her. It was now taxed and insured for a further three months so I made no effort to sell it until they expired, when the local breaker took it for £3 10s. She then gave me a pound for selling it, so it wasn’t a bad deal! Throughout all this period it never missed a beat, seldom had more than one gallon of petrol in the tank, and never once had a drop of new oil in the sump, all topping-up being done with drainings from new car first-service oil changes, carefully run into a clean five-gallon drum . . .
The inevitable Austin Seven came next, a 1926 ” Chummy,” a stout little car and well worth the £5 10s. I paid for it. At first it used more oil than petrol and on the 7-mile run from Walton-on-Thames to Kingston would sometimes exhaust my whole supply of eight spare plugs, the ones removed being literally dripping with oil. A visit to the breaker’s produced four later-type pistons, in good condition but slightly oversize. A couple of hours with the lathe soon fixed that and I ceased to be a mobile smoke-screen.
Another Austin Seven replaced this, a 1931 coachbuilt saloon in mint condition. This cost the fabulous sum of £28 10s, and, as I couldn’t raise it all at once, my boss, who was a jolly good sort, put up the rest and stopped five bob a week out ot my wages. As this took some time I kept this car for a long period but never regretted it, as it was my pride and joy. I have seen it once since the war, still going strong.
A succession of cars followed this; I found it easy to buy cheap, do a few jobs, posh up the coachwork, and sell at a small profit. The garage changed hands again and once more I handled a better class of motor car and also did a certain amount of work in the compressed-air field. I used to tow portable compressors around with a 1933 model-B Ford. This was a staunch car and took a tremendous beating as these compressors had to be towed to and removed from the most awkward places. I remember once going to a sewage farm in North London. Reporting at the gate, I was directed down a narrow track, flanked on each side by a seething, steaming, marshy area from which came a powerful smell. I belted down this track and at the end turned into a yard, but as I did so the wheel spun in my hand, and I found the draglink had become detached from its ball joint. A few yards earlier and I would have been in the fertilising business in a big way, and a certain well-known expression would have been so literally true that I still shudder to this day.
It was in this type chassis that Fords put their later famous V8 engine, creating thereby about the most dangerous car on the roads at that time. Into this flimsy, transverse-sprung chassis with no road-holding worth talking about, mediocre steering, and non-existent brakes, was put an engine so powerful and smooth that people found themselves in impossible situations before they realised it. We used to tow them in by the dozen. Nevertheless, properly handled, it was a delightful vehicle and represented wonderful value for money.
The outbreak of war found me with a Rover, sluggish but sound, and very roomy. To eke out the petrol ration an Austin Seven ” Ruby” was purchased and a “Red Hunter ” Ariel l bike to keep my hand in at fast motoring. On entering the Service I sold them for £70, a step I was to bitterly regret after the war.
During the war period the garage had been bought by H.W. Motors, later to achieve fame as H.W.M., and I was very pleased to receive a letter from the late J. B. Heath asking me to go back as Works Manager. As soon as possible I did this and found, to my delight, that participation in racing was on the agenda. Like most enthusiasts in this area, I had haunted Brooklands for many years, but, alas, this chapter of motor racing was closed.
Our first meeting was at Elstree, with an E.R.A., followed by Gransden Lodge, Prescott, etc. In those days the racing department of H.W.M. had not been formed and we worked it in with normal garage business. I acted as mechanic at the meetings, and for anyone requiring a new motoring experience I can recommend being towed from Walton-on-Thames to Prescott in a 1½-litre s/c single-seater Alta behind a large Hudson, driven flat out the whole way by George Abecassis. Being so low in relation to the Hudson I could not see ahead and obstacles seemed to loom up from nowhere. I felt like a tin can tied to a cat’s tail, swerving violently from side to side and bouncing up and down on springs that were rock solid under road conditions.
Meanwhile, interesting cars were coming out of hibernation and I had pleasant runs in Bugatti, V12 Lagonda, assorted Bentleys, Hotchkiss, Alfa Romeos and similar vehicles. One car I will never forget was the ” 3.3 ” G.P. Bugatti, ex-Arthur Baron, ex-many famous drivers and a beautiful machine in every way. We fitted sketchy wings and a silencer and it was driven to the various meetings for which it was entered. As a road car it was tremendous fun, with more power than one could use, but with wonderful road-holding and handling. We later sold it to Ken Bear and it was a terrible tragedy when this great Bugatti enthusiast lost his life in it some months later.
At the end of 1946 we took the Alta to Geneva for the Grand Prix des Nations. The car went well but was quite outclassed by the Type 158 Alfas. My great moment came on the eve of the race when, after practice, scrutineering took place at a point about halfway round the course. After it was over the mechanics drove the cars back to the paddock and believe me, it was some dice. If the drivers could have seen us once we disappeared around the first corner they would have rated their chances of appearing on the grid next day pretty small.
About this time we also had several six-cylinder 1½ litre Maseratis and a B-type E.R.A. With this latter car John Heath and I had a pleasant trip to Lausanne in 1947. Again we were completely out-classed but in spite of a slight shunt in the early stages the car finished quite well up.
During this period I had a number of cars myself, including my first new one, a Ford Prefect. With a few mods and some soundproofing it was much smoother and quieter than the average Prefect and coped very well with ordinary day-to-day motoring and the odd trial, driving-test meeting, etc.
At the garage we had acquired an ex-works Riley Nine and I was able to enter it in the Brighton Speed Trials. Also entered was our 2-litre blown Alta, to be driven by J. B. Heath, but at the last moment he could not appear and as a result I drove both cars. The Riley, although slow, served as a cure for ” first-time ” nerves, and I thereafter succeeded in making third-best sports-car time with the Alta. I was delighted with this as the first two cars were Bugatti and Alfa Romeo, respectively, over a litre more in capacity, and their drivers much more experienced.
We then purchased a K3 M.G. Magnette which had been attacked by vandals, chopped about, bodged here and there, and generally mutilated. In spite of this treatment it still had character and I persuaded the Directors to let me rebuild it during the winter months. I stripped it down to the bare frame and carefully rebuilt every component. A Laystall crank was purchased at fabulous expense (not mine I’m glad to say !), everything was cleaned and polished, the blower resurrected and overhauled, bearings remetalled, and every part of the engine meticulously checked and reassembled. All the chassis components were overhauled, and after many weeks it was ready for the body to be fitted. This item had been at the coachbuilders for repair. A crude previous attempt to lower it by cutting 3 in. out of the panels was properly carried out and all the cracks welded, etc. In order to bring the radiator into line I had a new block made, 3 in. lower but with increased depth to keep the capacity the same; the cowl was altered to suit, and I made up special mountings. I also made a dural instrument panel with a neater arrangement for the dials and switches.
Time was running short as I had entered the car for the opening Prescott meeting and all the work was being done in my spare time. I tried it for the first time on the evening betbre and as it seemed to go reasonably well, returned to the works to give it a quick spray in green to cover up all the bare metal, welds, etc. Rather ashamed of its scruffy appearance and with my fingers well crossed. I set off on the 100-mile trip. The car felt beautifully crisp and taut and by the time I got there I was really happy with it. I was soon on the line for my very first run up the hill, and to my great delight came second in my class.
I finished the car off, had it professionally painted, and proceeded to enter it for everything going. During 1948 I ran it several times at Prescott, at Great Auclum, in the Brighton Speed Trials and various other events. I was nearly always placed but never scored a first. To round off the season I stripped off the wings, etc., and ran at the opening Goodwood meeting in the racing-car class. Throughout the year it never missed a beat and needed no maintenance at all. It was driven to and from the meetings and was used for pleasure also. Never before or since have I been so attached to a car and I am grateful to my employers for providing me with it. The car was sold at the end of the season but I did run it again at Lulsgate in 1950, when I came third in a scratch race but let the car down by spinning off in a handicap.
I then took over the ex-Eccles, ex-Ian Metcalfe single-seater ” offset ” Rapier and entered it for the Easter Monday Goodwood meeting. I lowered the rear suspension, fitted 16-in, wheels at the rear, altered the damper settings, but it was still not suitable for the bumpy circuit Goodwood was in those days. It was good fun though, and having got used to the car I entered it for Prescott, It seemed quite suitable for this event, especially as I had some twin rear wheels and there was lots of power low down. But on my first practice run the Zoller blower literally flew to pieces as I reached Pardon comer,and that was that. It took a long time to scrounge enough parts to make up another blower and it was not until Brighton came round that I was able to run the car again. On my first run it went well, putting up best time of the pre-war cars in the class, but couldn’t hold Cooper 1000s and the like. During my second run a sinister knock developed and I coasted in with a big-end gone. I rebuilt it during the winter but when the next season came round there was no reason to suppose it would not be as expensive as the previous one and as the car had very little chance of success anyway it went into retirement and was later sold.
About this time I decided to have a really good car of my own and looked at various examples of Alvis, Talbot 105, Lagonda, etc. I finally settled for a 1939 Alvis ” Speed Twenty-five ” saloon. This was always a favourite model of mine, and with i.f.s., servo brakes, twin exhausts, etc., was equal in specification to most post-war cars. I had it rechromed, recellulosed in B.R.G., fitted with new headlining and carpets, had all the interior woodwork re-polished, and it was a joy to behold, giving me a social status quite unjustified by my humble means.
I ran this car with great pride until early summer, when I decided to take it abroad for my holiday, but on learning the cost of transporting it across the Channel I exchanged it for a Morris Minor, as I felt I would like to eat also.
This Minor, my second new car, was an exemplary vehicle in every way. Sluggish low down, it would cruise all day in 50-60 m.p.h. range, and astonishing average speeds could be put up without ever exceeding this speed. Two Continental trips were done in this car, one with four people and luggage, but it never faltered. The SustenII, Furka and Simplon passes were taken in first gear nearly all the way, the engine revving hard but losing power if second was engaged. My most terrifying experience in this car was when going to the French Grand Prix at Reims. We got in a stream of traffic about ten miles from the course, everybody flat out and driving like maniacs, passing inside, outside, on the path, hooting and pushing with absolutely no quarter asked or given. My poor wife was petrified and as for me, if I had been driving in the race I would have welcomed it for a spot of peaceful motoring . . .
Meanwhile the H.W.M. had come into being, and whilst I was not actively connected with it I helped when I could and at one time or another managed to drive most of the cars. The story of these cars and the effort put into them has been told by much more able pens than mine, notably by Alf Francis in his outstanding book, but I feel I must pay my own small tribute to the drive and enthusiasm put into the project by the late John Heath, not to mention the finance. Only those who worked with him can really appreciate how much it all meant to him.
I did a certain amount of motoring and competition work in M.G.s, including the first M.C.C. 1,000-Mile Rally to Torquay, sundry sprints and trials, etc. I always thought that, apart from the steering, the TC, was a better car than a lot of people reckoned, and the three different examples, all perfectly standard, which I used during 1949-50 performed very well indeed. Since the end of the war we had been distributors for Aston Martin and Lagonda but so far they had produced nothing exciting. The 2-litre four-cylinder Aston was a nice enough car, providing one was prepared to drive with an umbrella up, waders on, and a groundsheet over one’s lap when it was raining. It is also difficult to say anything kind about the original post-war Lagonda, but with the advent of the DB2 the motoring scene was brightened considerably and I was to start an association with this model which I still thoroughly enjoy today.
I first drove one when Abecassis brought his team-car to the garage one Sunday morning and asked if I would like to ” whip it round the block.” He didn’t have to ask twice and I was off in a flash. I had with me a great friend, Stephen Teltsch, my navigator on many night trials, etc., and running at that time a blown TD M.G. He was so thrilled that he ordered one on the spot and just before Easter 1952 I collected it from the works at Feltham. It was one of the first off the production line, and looked a picture. I had some wonderful runs in this car, both as a passenger with Stephen, who is a first-class driver, and when I borrowed the car myself. There were few about at that time and it was impossible to stop without a crowd gathering; complete strangers would come up and ask to see the engine, discuss the performance, etc. In August my wife and I took it to Lynmouth for the week-end and stayed at the excellent Bath Hotel. The next week-end the flood disaster struck Lynmouth and all the cars in the hotel car park were washed out to sea; one week earlier and the Aston would have gone with them.
Since this car I must have driven some hundreds of Aston Martins—DB2, 2/4, Mk. 3, DB3, DB3S and the latest DB4. Although not without their troubles, they are wonderful cars and for the sheer joy of driving take a lot of beating. I frequently do a trip to Swansea to see my good friend and great South Wales enthusiast Dick Williams, of the Mermaid Hotel, Mumbles, and I find I can do the run in less time than in any other car, without consciously hurrying or taking any risks.
Many other interesting cars came along, such as a 300SL Mercedes-Benz, a car I never really liked although fantastic in performance, and the V12 Ferrari, a much nicer car and very potent. The one we had was previously owned by the late Tom Cole and had a good racing history. My Alsatian, who over the last eight years has become a real connoisseur of fast motor cars, thought it just the thing for a trip to Wisley Common.
The XK series of Jaguars seem commonplace now but the first ones were awaited with interest. My first drive of an XK120 was very pleasant and a recent drive in one of the few XKSS in the country gave me something to think about. The various post-war Bentleys, including “Continental,” although very fine cars, have never really been my ” cup of tea” and I distrust them intensely in the wet. No doubt this is a fault in my driving as I see other people pushing them along in the rain and they seem to get away with it. Another intriguing car from the Feltham stable was the V12 Lagonda two-seater sports, looking like a larger DB3S and sharing a lot of the latter’s characteristics. We purchased two of these cars, of which, I believe, only three were made. Beautifully smooth and tractable, with nice steering and brakes and impeccable road-holding, these cars were superb to drive and went like the proverbial rocket. When they first arrived at the works I jumped into one and belted up the road, only to be stopped after a couple of miles by a policeman, who pointed out that I had no excise licence, no number plates, no mirrors, no horn and a practically open exhaust. Very humbly I made my excuses, expecting the little black book to come out any minute. Instead he said, ” Isn’t it a beauty ; can I see the engine ? ” We spent about ten minutes going over the car when he suddenly remarked, Here, you had better push off, if another copper comes along he will probably pinch you.” So I came smartly back, thankful that some policemen are also enthusiasts …
Amongst the smaller cars I still reckon the M.G.-A the most pleasant to drive, although I was disappointed with the Twin-Cam. As far as small saloons go my first drive in an Alfa-Romeo Giulietta was an eye-opener, what a beautifully balanced little car it is.
Coming to the last year or so, the Facel Vega has been my main interest. We took over the importation of these cars when they were an extremely unknown quantity, but they have caught on to a remarkable degree considering their price. At first I was reluctant to accept them as a substitute for my beloved Astons, but as I drove them more and more and we ironed out the initial snags they gradually took first place in the ” If I win the Pools” stakes. For sheer effortless performance in dead silence they have no equal, and twice last winter, under filthy motoring conditions, I have driven over 500 miles between breakfast and dinner without a trace of fatigue. Last year I took one to an informal testing evening organised by the Hants and Berks M.C. and was amazed at the interest shown by the lads. They were queuing up for rides all night and I haven’ t spent such a busy evening for years. I also took one to Great Auclum to use as a course car and although I made no attempt to dice, it handled beautifully for such a big car on a short and twisty course. We now have our first Facellia and when it is fully run-in it should be quite something.
So that’s about it, in 32 years of the motor trade I’ve seen a lot of changes, and not all of them for the better either, and I’ve driven a lot of cars. I once made a list of all I could remember and thought of 119 different makes. Not a record by any means but with all the different models of each make it is a lot of cars. I’ve enjoyed them all and feel grateful that my work has also been my pleasure. Somehow I cannot imagine the next 30 years being so exciting, but who knows ?
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