Memories of some foreign vintage cars

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Being fragments from an age of individual cars and proud owners

SOME of my earliest memories are of studying exciting pictures of fast-looking cars against a background of palisade fences, trees and strangely-dressed people. Probably pictures of Le Mans in the early twenties.

This early interest in ears is not so strange, because at that time my father was a partner in a small garage business at Colas Mews, off Kilburn High Road, NW6, and I was frequently taken there in the course of afternoon walks. My father had served his apprenticeship in the Gobron-Brillié works (known as ‘Gobblers” thereafter) and read and spoke French fluently. Possibly as a result of this his clientele always seemed to include a fair proportion of owners of French sporting and luxury cars, which in any case were the vogue in those days.

Some of these clients were young blonds, probably still at Oxford or Cambridge; who loved to pit their French sporting cars against the Vauxhalls and Bentleys of the period. One such was Mr. J. S. Oliver, who in his 3-litre Chenard Walcker had put up f.t.d. in a French hill-climb. Another was the Hon. Edward Rice, who later owned a 2-litre Chenard, one of my father’s favourite cars. In fact, my father always contended that two litres was big enough to give enjoyable motoring, without the bulk and weight which often comes with bigger engines—a view which seems to have many adherents today.

At about this time—probably 1923/24—Automobiles Bignan (England) Ltd., were looking for a garage to appoint as a service station and my father and his partner were recommended to them, probably by some of the Continental car-owning fraternity. Colas Mews was not too far from their West End habitat, being about midway between the Marble Arch and Bentley’s old works at The Hyde, Hendon.

Anyway, the arrangement came into being and the name Bignan became very familiar to me. I still have a book entitled “La 2-litres Bignan—Description Reglage et Entretien”, another—”Quelques consells pour bien conduire votre Bignan 2-litres” and a third, bearing their 14, Jermyn Street, Piccadilly address, “Descriptive Instruction Book on the Viel carburettor as fitted to Bignan chassis.” As with most Continental cars of the period, they were rather angular, especially their radiators, which were rather like a razor-edged version of the MG without the central strip and with the filler cap bulging forward in the top casing. One particular car that I remember was a fabric saloon with narrow, steeply inclined doors and a small, pointed tail, that was supposed to have belonged to a French actress who had grown too fat to use it! That chance remark must have made quite an impression on my childish memory—I believe that I was quite amazed that anyone would let themselves get too fat to use such an exciting car!

Another memory I have is of being introduced to M. and Mdme. Gros as they were about to set off in the blue demonstration tourer. Gros was one of the works’ drivers and quite a hero. An easily accessible testing-ground was Fitzjohns Avenue, Hampstead, with Netherhall Gardens reserved for standing starts. And there was much talk of “desmodromique”, a term which I did not really understand until the Mercedes of the ‘fifties, but “Bignan desmodromique” had a lovely sound and the car was regarded as being somewhat fabulous. Bignans were usually very elegant, especially with French coachwork and I am always disappointed that none ever seem to come to light in vintage collections.

I did read of one being unearthed a few years ago in Germany of all places but I do not know what developed. One of the last that we looked after in our garage was a 2-litre, originally with four-door all-weather body, later converted to a pointed tail open two-seater with flaired wings. Unfortunately, this car was left out one winter’s night before the days of anti-freeze and the block cracked; as the two-seater body had proved impractical in our climate, that was the end of that. Secondhand French cars with cracked blocks (and obsolete models at that) weren’t much sought after before 1939. The last of all that came to us was a fourseater tourer with SCAP engine, a not very exciting car but with an attractive French taxi bulb horn.

About this time also I first encountered the name Aston-Martin (spelled with a hyphen in those days), another make which my father always revered as being a delightful car to drive. This first Aston was seen in Hamilton Terrace on the occasion of the Eton-Harrow cricket match and is remembered as having its close fitting rear mudguards behind the wheels rather than in front. An arrangement which my father described at the time as “Very doggy but not very practical.” Thereafter, I always fervently hoped that they would win the JCC 200 Miles Race.

Then about 1927/28 the previous partnership was dissolved and my father opened a business at 24, Little Chester Street, off Grosvenor Place, SW1, at the insistence of some of his West End based patrons. Financially it was not a good move but it brought a wealth of interesting cars to his garage.

By this time Mr. J. S. Oliver had taken interest in the business and having run the gamut of Bignans and Chenards, had acquired a 28/80 Panhard-Levassor. This was an enormous beige-coloured fabric saloon, with four enormous pistons which in retrospect seem to have been about four inches across. The engine was, of course, sleeve-valve and I well remember the hours that this car was left idling after a rebuild, filling the place with noxious fumes. Later this “running-in” of tight sleeve valve engines was done by means of a belt from an electrically-driven lathe. The Panhard was a fine performer but rather tricky in the wet. Another earlier French car, even trickier in the wet, was an equally enormous Delauney-Belleville two-seater coupé, owned by Mr. Rice. This would do a volte-face as soon as look at you if the brakes (rear-wheel only) weren’t treated with the greatest respect in the wet. Another 28/80 Panhard owned by Mr. Oliver was a dark coupé de ville, remembered chiefly for its enormous Stephen Greble spotlight on the off-side running board. Everything about these 28-80s. seems to have been a bit larger than life.

There was another Panhard coupé de ville, a six-cylinder I believe, owned by Mr. J. S. Oliver’s father, Frederick Scott Oliver, the Historian and Director of Debenhams. This car was also tricky in the wet and broke some of its wooden spoke wheels against a street island one night in consequence. A smaller six-cylinder Panhard was owned by a Dr. Wilson of Paddington, who became rather tired of the heavy oil consumption and the haze of blue smoke the car always trailed—a fault of many sleeve-valve engines. Almost in desperation, my father fitted spring-controlled Wellworthy piston rings, regarded as rather a daring experiment in view of the thin sleeves which might have seized. In fact, the experiment worked quite well and the oil consumption was curbed considerably without harmful effects.

One of the most trying jobs I remember at Little Chester Street was lowering the cylinder block onto a six-cylinder Panhard crankcase, entering the paper-thin sleeves one by one into the bores until all were safely home. Any casual callers at such times received rather short shrift, as any damaged sleeves would have meant getting fresh ones from France at considerable trouble and expense. To say nothing of the delay.

We still had a 2-litre Chenard Walcker on the books at the time I speak of—1930-31—and my father had acquired the 3-litre former hill-climb Chenard as a family car-cum-garage hack. It was an imposing vehicle, with a big vee rear windscreen and Hallot servo braking, with drums only on the front wheels, the rear wheels being braked via the prop. shaft. At about the same time, a relative was using a 22/90 RLS Alfa-Romeo as a family car cum garage hack at Eltham. Happy days!

An earlier garage hack at Little Chester Street was an Angus-Sanderson, which had an unfortunate habit of breaking half-shafts, a grave defect in a towing car! The Chenard was succeeded by an Austin Heavy 12-4, which would tow anything we asked of it, including the heavy 28/80 Panhards.

Another make which replaced the Bignans and Chenards in the favour of the Francophiles was the Voisin. These again were usually very elegant cars, with sleeve valve engines but rather more complicated and less robust than the Panhards. One of them was declared by the mechanics to have different sized metric threads on the off-side from the near-side and the clutch-gearbox mechanism was so intricate and inaccessible that my father used to say that “it needed a doll’s hand on the end of a stick to get at it”.

There is no doubt that in the twenties and early thirties these medium sized French sports and fast touring cars were very good and gave their British counterparts something to think about. It is a pity that more have not survived, their disappearance probably being due to their not being understood by the majority of garages in the late thirties and to their being a long way from their works and supplies of spare parts. The fabric bodies would not last too well either. In addition, a number of the smaller French manufacturers succumbed to the Depression of the early thirties.

Bugattis did not come much to our garage, the only one I remember being an open four-seater tourer whose owner carried a leather bag full of spare plugs slung under the bonnet! There was a very nice two/three-seater Lorraine, with push-rods like knitting needles. This was a good car which belonged to a young artist who among other things did cartoons for ‘Men Only’!

An English family living at Storrington had a big Rochet-Schneider coupé de ville with artillery wheels, driven by an equally big Frenchman, This car was garaged with us when it came to London. Eventually, in the late thirties, it was replaced by a straight-eight Packard, which the Frenchman came to love almost as much as his Rochet.

Around 1932-36, the Oliver family had two big Farmans, one, a rather ugly, square-ish fabric saloon, the other a very elegant coupé de ville in dark green with polished aluminium disc wheels. This, with its gracefully curved V-radiator and flowing lines, was a most attractive looking car, with certainly rapid acceleration and a good all-round performance, I believe. The cylinder block of this car became porous and was sent away to be “Fescolised”, a process I have not heard of since but which I seem to remember was moderately successful at the time.

The blue Farman saloon/limousine belonged to Mr. F. S. Oliver and frequently brought him and his wife (then both elderly people) from Jedburgh to London in one day quite comfortably. Eventually it was replaced by a Morris Isis and passed into the hands of an Edinburgh bookmaker; its end is unknown to me. The only mention I have seen of Farmans for many a long day was in MOTOR SPORT about two years ago, when there was a picture of a tourer which had come to light in India. The Morris Isis which replaced the blue Farman gave very good service and put up as fast times from Jedburgh to London as the Farman. It didn’t look as imposing though!

By this time the beige 28/80 Panhard had been replaced by, of all things, a Graham Paige. Mr. J. S. Oliver had driven one of these with their “twin-top” gearbox in the USA and liked it. Consequently he had a chassis shipped to France to have a four-door body to his own design fitted. This chassis was destroyed by a fire at the French coachbuilders, so a second was imported. At first it was finished in chocolate with gold leaf line and waist-line inserts in the doors. Later it was finished in light beige, which looked better. Large Zeiss headlamps were fitted and all badges (the heads of the three Graham brothers superimposed on each other) removed; it really looked quite imposing. One motorist became quite irritated because he couldn’t identify it and was told by the chauffeur that “It was the new Trojan”! In fact its general outline was not unlike the Trojan which then had its engine in the boot.

Graham-Paiges performed well at Brooklands and this one had a good turn of speed. It ran off the road one day when travelling fast in France, for some reason which was never quite clear. It was repaired and was still in use at the time of the owner’s death in 1939.

A new generation of French cars then began to appear at our garage, the first being a four-cylinder 2.4-litre Hotchkiss drop-head coupé. It was a good, sound, unexciting car, shortly followed by a 2 1/2 litre six, which had more performance. The green Farman was also replaced by a Hotchkiss, which looked rather cheap but performed well, apart from a clutch which slipped at frequent intervals and was temporarily cured by squirting a fire extinguisher into it! Later, a Paris-Nice 3 1/2-litre Hotchkiss came on the scene; this was getting back to the days of real French motor cars.

Another customer at this time had a 14-h.p. Delage coupé, to which he had some repairs done in Cambridge, involving dropping the sump. Subsequently the big-ends failed, so he had the car put on the train to us. The sump had a gauze filter half-way up its depth—the previous repairers had put a sheet of cardboard across the gauze to keep it clean whilst the sump was off—and had forgotten to remove it!

Other cars that I remember, particularly from my eighteen months working life at my father’s garage, included a light-chassis 4 1/2-litre Invicta, with drop-head fabric body. The 4 1/2-litre Invicta was replaced by a beautiful Figoni-bodied straight-eight Ballot, the coachwork being patent leather. The only memorable thing about this car, apart from its superb looks, was its habit of catching fire round the carburetter when starting from cold, necessitating someone leaping forward to beat it out with his cap. Now you know why good mechanics in the thirties wore peaked caps!

We also had a customer with a straight-eight Stutz, a “Black Hawk” model with flaired wings, from the tips of which the mud flew back onto the windscreen in wet weather. But they looked good. My father once drove me at 80 m.p.h. along Alleyn Park in SE London in this car, a feat I have never been able to equal and am not likely to now! In its declining years this car developed a wheel wobble, which with its huge tyres was rather alarming. This we cured by fitting wedges between the leading edge of the axle and the springs. Another car which suffered in the same way was 1 1/2-litre Aston-Martin International, which on a particularly ripply bit of road coming out of Hyde Park Corner would nearly shake its windscreen off at 15 m.p.h. The cure was the same as with the Stutz. This car belonged to a friend of mine and on first seeing it my father remarked that “An Aston was rather like a film star, all right to have an affair with but not to get married to”. Anyway, my friend had a long and happy affair with his Aston, until early in 1940 it ran a big-end in Norfolk and he let a colleague have it for £5. For £5! Ichabod!—J. Classey.