Half-a-century ago

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The motoring scene in 1920/21

The half-century is a significant span of history and it behoves us to consider what it was like to be a car owner, what motoring was all about, in that now far-distant era, 1920/21.

By this time the better cars were reliable, silent and quite efficient. They could be of advanced design, for the single overhead camshaft, even for small cars, was not unheard of and the twin-cam power unit for racing or high-performance road work had been established by Peugeot eight years earlier, in conjunction with four inclined o.h. valves per cylinder. But in 1920, although cyclecars sometimes had final drive by belts, engineers would have been quite unable to believe that a rubber belt could be used to obviate noisy gear trains, the complex vertical shaft and bevels, or stretchable chain-drives, for camshafts situated above the cylinders. Yet this is becoming very much the case in 1970.

The need for something simple and fool-proof to oust the sliding-pinion gearbox was well appreciated 50 years ago, and had been established in the form of the friction transmission, but today’s complex automatic gear-change was far distant. Sports cars were popular and well established, but W. O. Bentley was content to use a single-overhead-camshaft 16-valve engine for his not-yet-weaned 3-litre, on the grounds that what had been good enough for Mercedes in the 1914 Grand Prix and Rolls-Royce in the air during the recently-concluded hostilities, should suffice for young bloods who would eventually buy his Bentleys. Ettore Bugatti did likewise, overshadowing the BDA Ford by half a century in the matter of multiplication of valves.

It must be realised that in 1920 neither the Austin Seven nor the Trojan two-stroke had been born. Economy-car motoring was the preserve of the cyclecar, the Big-Car-in-Miniature (.pretty expensive), or the in-betweens with cyclecar-style engine but proper transmission, bodywork and final-drive, of which the Rover Eight was perhaps the most successful.

With hindsight it can be said that even in 1920 the customer did not do too badly. In the luxury-car market the 40/50 Rolls-Royce had been established for 14 years and if its big, cluttered-up side-valve engine seemed outdated against the Hispano-Suiza, Napier, Lanchester, Ensign, Farman and Leyland o.h.c. designs, it was still the most trusted and the quietest motor car in the stables of England’s stately homes. The Alvis had only just arrived but there were such respected middle-class makes as Sunbeam, Buick, Fiat, Renault, Rover (with the solid Twelve), Vauxhall and Wolseley to draw upon, while the sportsman had the side-valve 30/98 Vauxhall, the Hillman Speed Model, the GN Vitesse, the sports 20/30 Fiat, the 11.9 Bugatti, and similar cars to enjoy. If air-cooling was not regarded as suspect there was the interesting ABC, with four-speed vertical-gate gearbox, to contemplate; if it was there was no reason, apart from economy, why the Jowett should not be bought in preference to a Rover Eight—they cost, respectively, £395 and £300, in October, 1920, ready for the 1921 sales-year. Small cars of more luxurious demeanour were becoming available, such as the AC (to which S. F. Edge was applying the same high pressure salesmanship as he had before the war bestowed on his beloved Napiers), the delightful but differential-less little Talbot-Darracq, the Eric-Campbell, Calthorpe,. and Meteorite.

Against such sage shopping had to be weighed the high price of the 1920/1921 cars. The 40/50 Rolls-Royce chassis cost £2,100, the new 40/50 Napier chassis the same, the Lanchester Forty no less than £2,200 as a chassis, whereas you were offered a complete Daimler 45 sleeve-valve limousine for £2,250 (chassis: £1,450). The desirable Hispano-Suiza could be bought for £2,100 sans coachwork, the Isotta-Fraschini for £1,850. At the opposite extreme there were the cheap and usually nasty, such as the 6 h.p. AV Monocar at £179, the Bleriot-Whippet at £250, the Kingsbury Junior at £295 or the Victor twin at £280. These were complete vehicles, but overshadowing them was the Model-T Ford, high, angular, black and foreboding, but with the reputation of a decade of service behind it, the universal vehicle, capable even of driving farm machinery when jacked up, and available as a chassis for £200, as a tourer for £250. The Model-T was, indeed, the all-purposes car of 1920, soon to be killed off by the h.p. tax. With its crash-proof, pedal-controlled gearbox, anyone could drive it. Spares were available at the grocers, in the USA if not in Market Deeping. It would carry farm animals, ford streams, clear sunken lanes—a true farmer’s friend. Otherwise, the better American cars were not cheap—the Buick wasn’t even costed in the current buyer’s guides, a Chalmers cost £825, a Cole Aero Eight £1,275 and even the vaunted 2.8-litre Chevrolet cost £395 as a chassis, the Overland £425. But these American tourers had simple bodywork, which probably added a mere £55 or £70 to the chassis price. Whereas, although the Morris-Cowley was listed at £390 in chassis form at the end of 1920, with an open body the price was elevated to £525. So America’s indestructible tourers, though uncomfortable, were popular.

The eight-cylinder engine was a U-thing in 1920, available from Apperson Cadillac, Cole, King, Oldsmobile and Peerless from across the Atlantic, from Isotta-Fraschini in Italy, Leyland in England (it was 50 years before another Leyland Eight, pace Stag, appeared), De Dion Bouton and Talbot Darracq (with vee engines) in France. Packard even had a double-six. But the average specification showed a preponderance of four-cylinder power units. Other forms of propulsion were in vogue, too. In Liverpool a Milburn electric coupé (price £1,385) was-attracting much attention. The air-screw method of eliminating gearbox and transmission was not only being tried in France on Anzani-radial-engined rear-wheel-steered cyclecars. A Bessor boat with closed aeroplane fuselage and rudder plied the Seine, powered by a 300 h.p. Panhard aero engine and four-bladed propeller, and in England the Miller-Metcalf “Amphyglider”, half car, half boat, used a front-mounted propeller, but probably never got further than the drawing board. The advantages of steam were also being freely discussed.

Nor was it the mechanicals alone that troubled drivers 50 years ago. They had to contend with many problems, punctures and police among them. To receive a speeding summons without being stopped at the time was not unknown in 1920—incidentally, it happened to me some 16 years later, in Worcestershire, when road-testing a Talbot Ten for Motor Sport en route to Shelsley Walsh. Nor are the injustices of varied fines imposed for like offences, or disproportionately heavy motoring fines, a plague solely of the ‘seventies. In 1920 a driver was complaining of a £3 fine and licence endorsement for forgetting to renew his driving licence, when a motorcyclist, who had driven so dangerously as to scatter pedestrians, nearly bowl over a policeman, mount the pavement and finally collide with No. 1 Cheapside, was let off with a 20s. fine! “Is my case on a parallel with this?” asked the aggrieved 1920 motorist.

Another plague was the menace of the chars-a-banc, particularly in scenic or seaside areas. These enormous, mostly solid-tyred vehicles were almost impossible to overtake and went very slowly. While the proposed speed limit for them of 4 or 5 m.p.h. seems ridiculous today, when coaches are often faster than cars and Motorway ‘buses do a legal 70 m.p.h., the 1920 “sharry-bang” went about its business and its occupants’ pleasure at around 15 m.p.h., holding up traffic which was legally allowed to do 20 and sometimes wanted to more than double this. There were complaints of rowdy occupants who flung bottles at passing cars and, what with crawling, water-vapour-exuding steam waggons and the possibility of meeting a traction engine round the next corner, 1920 driving suffered from its own special alarms and excursions.

Road surfaces generally were not good, traffic was largely uncontrolled, and it was an age when a driver relied very much on the chivalry of his fellows, should he be unfortunate enough to break down, run out of petrol, have an accident, or need witnesses in the event of a prosecution. There was no real congestion on the main and country roads of this little Island, but it was beginning to be a factor in the bigger towns. Someone, indeed, counted 523 cars in one day in the streets around the 1920 Motor Show in London, at which HM the King of Spain bought one of the new £100 Carden two-strokes. Another Royal visitor to the Show was HRH the Duke of York, who owned an Armstrong Siddeley and an Angus-Sanderson double-coupé.

Those makers who in 1920 had no engine manufacturing facilities were catered for by several proprietory power units, such as Aster, Ballot, Bovier, Chapuis-Dornier, Coventry-Simplex, Dorman (who surely beat Riley to the use of two base-chamber camshafts and short push-rods to prod o.h. valves?), Hotchkiss, Scap, Sage, Tylor, and White. The coming boom in motoring had been foreseen and from January 1st, 1921, the Government introduced the £1 per h.p. tax and insisted on licence discs being displayed, but, perhaps as a softener, had started work on the new road to by-pass Croydon on the journey from London to Brighton. It turned off at Thornton Heath Pool, went across Waddon Marsh to the left of the National Aircraft Salvage Depot and past what was then Wallington aerodrome (not yet Croydon Airport) to rejoin the Brighton Road near the Purley tram terminus. The cost was estimated at £148,237.

The shortage of new cars caused a rush of business in used ones and the small advertisements in the weekly motor papers grew in bulk. This was before the era of Chick of Larkhall Rise, Clapham, whose jolly advertisements enlivened used-car deals in later years. However, he had his 1920 counterpart in Douglas Cox, who had extensive premises at Lansdowne Hill, Norwood, and called himself “the absolutely straight motor man”. He reminded those who read him that the return taxi fare from London’s West End to Norwood was only ten shillings and that he reduced his prices by £250 a week on not less than ten of his cars. He advertised such a vast number of cars, motorcycles, commercials and chars-a-banc that one wonders how his yard held them all. But behind his amusing verses and wordings one senses that even used vehicles may have been hard to shift at this time of high unemployment and low wages.

The sport flourished, however. At Brooklands the fastest race-lap in 1920 was made by Chassagne in a 4.9-litre Ballot at 112.17 m.p.h., and in 1921 by Bill Guinness in the big V12 Sunbeam single-seater, at 120.01 m.p.h. The Air Speed Record at this time was 194.53 m.p.h. by a Nieuport-Delage 29 and the Land Speed Record had stood at 131.72 m.p.h. since 1910 (Oldfield, Benz).

Public-road speed trials and hill-climbs were popular 50 years ago, one reporter remarking: “It is desirable to have as passenger the prettiest girl available in her best—and most unsuitable—frock”. Another writer dwelt on the beauty of the women who went to Brooklands, although their decidedly “maxi” skirts and enormous floral hats must have kept their escorts very much out of contact, compared to the female clothes of today.

At Shelsley Walsh entries in 1920 ranged from the six-cylinder Indianapolis Sunbeam, in which C. A. Bird made f.t.d. at 34.9 m.p.h., to George Heath’s handsome Lanchester Forty saloon, which on its ascent surprised many, its “gear-changes faultlessly executed, offering, as they did, no chance for bungling”, being one contemporary Press reference to its epicyclic gearbox.

The better American cars were getting a hearing in this country, cars like the Marmon “34”, 22 h.p. Mercer, Model 59 Cadillac and the 12-cylinder Packard. At the opposite extreme, A. W. Gamage Ltd. sold an electric runabout, of 24-volts, tiller-steered, chain-driven, for £150.

A Mr. H. G. Evans scored an early victory for Alvis, when his disc-wheeled sports 10/30 won its class at the Rhubina hill-climb of the Cardiff MC. Famous people liked to be photographed with their cars. Sir Thomas and Lady Wilton had had a steel grey Lanchester Forty with black mudguards and valances and grey Bedford cord upholstery delivered to their Devonshire home. Sir Davidson Dalzeil ordered a Park Ward-bodied Charron landaulette. H H The Crown Prince of Kaparthala went in for a Rolls-Royce with William Cole all-weather body. The Convent of Notre Dame at Ashdown Park in Sussex invested in a Fiat taxicab. Lord Colwyn favoured a 24/60 Wolseley with NAP tyres and Lord Merthyr’s daughter was pictured in a 10 h.p. Humber.

New designs were critically inspected by would-be purchasers of new cars, the 8 h.p. Zebre with the smallest of the 1920 engines (998 c.c.) being found to have an oil filler extended up to the top of the cylinder block for easy filling but sealed with a pressed-steel lid which appeared to defeat its dual role of filler-cum-crankcase breather. New American chassis causing interest were the Jordan and the Huffman Six. The Georges-Roy arrived from France. With the war so recent, there was considerable interest in aviation, with an Air Show at Olympia, the Hendon Air Display held in a downpour, and Bert Hinkler pointing the way to economical aeronautics with his flight from London to Turin in the Avro Baby at 68.4 m.p.h. and 32 1/2 m.p.g., using a 1910 Green engine “souped” with alloy pistons and a special camshaft. Racing cars were easy to acquire, if you had money to spare, the 1912 GP Lorraine Dietrich being offered for £1,800, a 1913 GP Sunbeam for £1,550, Capt. Alastair Miller’s 1914 GP Opel for £2,100, a 1914 Brooklands Crespelle for £925, and a 120 h.p. racing Mercedes for £200. Mercedes were attempting to re-establish themselves in this country with the 7.3-litre 28/95 chassis. There were complaints that you could learn to drive on a Model-T Ford and then go straight on to a 30/98 Vauxhall, just as these days people go from Mini to Jaguar E-type, and as there was then no driving test it was presumably worse 50 years ago. The scarcity of cars encouraged car thieves, one of whom hired a Singer Ten with driver for several days, persuaded the chauffeur to leave the car at his hotel overnight, then departed in it, owing the hotel bill!

It was all so different, yet very much the same, if you follow me, back in the early 1920s, when cars looked and smelt like cars, roads could be plainly seen instead of being invisible on account of the traffic, and car owners took themselves very seriously, even to writing long letters to the technical Press about bad driving on the part of other road users. The Autocar, campaigning against bad behaviour by passengers in chars-a-banc, pompously stated that there was little they could do to reach these people, because they could hardly be expected to read that journal. Come to think of it, who in 1920 would have expected to see The Autocar and The Motor published under the same roof at 2s. 6d. each per week?; they were then 4d. rivals, published respectively on Fridays and Tuesdays, The Motor from Temple Press having got over its obsession for aviation but being more “newsy” and “journalistic” than the longer-established Iliffe publication.

Times change and cars with them—today, out of the vast variety of makes available (or listed) in Britain 50 years ago, only AC, Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Austin, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Citroën, Daimler, Fiat, Ford, Hillman, Humber, Lancia, Morgan, Morris, Oldsmobile, Peugeot, Renault, Rolls-Royce, Rover, Sunbeam, Vauxhall and Wolseley remain—and that is giving badge-engineering a big shove into the background…—W. B.