Cars in books, January 1972

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From a chapter in “Bears In The Caviar”, by Charles Thayer, of the American Embassy in Moscow (Michael Joseph, 1952), comes a remarkable contribution to Rolls-Royce legend or anecdote. The author recalls the Rolls-Royce limousine, of about 1913 vintage, which he bought from Sir Stafford Cripps, then British Ambassador in Moscow, around the year 1938. It had belonged to a British subject who died in Leningrad and Sir Stafford Cripps had put it up for sale in order to settle her estate. It was bought for 50 dollars and a damaged typewriter and tuned by Stannard, the chief American mechanic in the Embassy.

The Rolls-Royce then went so well that Russians who were amused by its crate-like body were challenged to a race, over a kilometre. The author describes such a race against a Russian Ford which had a top speed of 65 m.p.h. The old Rolls was out-accelerated by the Ford but worked up to “a good 75 m.p.h.” and forged ahead, to win by 100 yards. It cost the Russians 20 roubles. The author describes how he steered while the mechanic “twisted valves, pumped pumps and adjusted levers”, and finally ”slipped into a super-high-speed gear”. All of which suggests legend rather than fact, unless the passenger was pumping up air pressure, advancing the ignition and “tuning” the governor. How speed was judged to within five m.p.h. when “the speedometer didn’t work” and how the mechanic changed gear from the passenger’s seat with the r.h. gear-lever is inexplicable, but I add this piece of Rolls-Royce lore to the mounting stock of legends.

The author goes on to say that after several more successful races he was warned by Walter Thurston, the then-Embassy Counsellor, that racing in a Rolls-Royce on Stalin’s favourite highway (the Mozhaiski Chaussée—”the one good road in Russia”) was a little undignified for diplomatic secretaries. The old car was kept running when war broke out, as a possible escape route from Moscow, but was hit by a German incendiary bomb when standing in the Embassy back yard. It was not badly damaged but the radiator was apparently sold for its nickel to the Soviet Scrap Metal Trust for 75 dollars. Later, so we were told, Leino, the American-Finn Embassy carpenter, turned the back seat into a water closet for use by Government staffs at the Ambassador’s residence at Spaso House—”probably the first Rolls-Royce water closet in the history of plumbing”. Fact or fiction, I wonder?

“Those Were the Days” by Edward N. Hewitt (Duell, Sloane & Pearce, 1943), lent to me by David Thirlby, contains some significant motoring reminiscences. There is a reference to “a fine looking electric car” bought by Mrs. Hamilton Fish of Gramercy Park, presumably before the turn of the century, which, because she did not understand its controls, ran down a Negro pedestrian on Third Avenue three times in succession, as she reversed to and fro, as in a comic film-strip, without hurting him, which reminds us that ladies used electric cars in the pioneer days. But apparently this put Mrs. Fish off them, as she is reported to have left hers where it finally stopped and never used it again.

More significant are the author’s remarks about the cars for which he was responsible. He was a chemist at the family glue factory but had designed an automobile, on which he had been working for several years when his father died in 1903. He secured a partner and set up to make the Adams-Hewitt car in an old livery stable between Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue, New York, a block away from the family factory, which by then extended from Madison to Fourth Avenue, all the region round about being then open country. Hewitt took his small single-cylinder car to England and formed the Adams-Hewitt Company (see “Fragments On Forgotten Makes”, No. 6 Motor Sport, September 1958). He says that about 3,000 were made before the venture failed, “due to very bad management”. Hewitt’s agreement provided for obtaining any engines and gearboxes and other parts he needed at a very low price—”much cheaper than the figure at which they could be made in small lots in the United States, at that time”. He therefore began production in America, from a new factory at East 31st Street, New York. But the vogue for the single-cylinder car had passed. Hewitt had been deterred from designing a multi-cylinder car because machine tool work for them was so costly. He now “designed and built the first V-eight engine made in this country” (America). It was exhibited at the 1907 Madison Square Garden Show, along with Ford’s first Model-T. Hewitt says the Model-T was not even complete but that Ford got lets of orders on account of its low price, whereas he only obtained a few orders for the expensive V8 Adams-Hewitt. Incidentally, a complaint had been received from Nairobi, where an American had a single-cylinder Adams-Hewitt bought in London, that its speed was too low, as it only just escaped from a charging rhinoceros!

Hewitt turned to designing heavy trucks, with forward control, driver and mate seated one each side of the engine. These became the Mack trucks and the author claims that he was the first to rubber-mount truck engines, exhaust-heat the inlet manifold and to use a “squig” shape combustion chamber, which Ricardo later patented but had to withdraw when shown the original Mack cylinder. Hewitt also claims to have introduced “helper” springs and re-bound springs for heavy trucks.

The first Hewitt-designed Mack truck was a 5-tonner and in 1906 he claims to have built the world’s first 10-ton truck. Apparently 40 of these were used by Burns Bros., the coal merchants, who are said to have had them until 1916, after which their long-wearing axles were in demand for trailers carrying heavy iron beams in New York, where, Hewitt says, they were still in service in 1943. Another Hewitt product was a horizontally-opposed two-cylinder truck with underfloor engine, of which “about 200” were made before cheaper machine tools made it more economical to install a four-cylinder engine.

The book relates how the Hewitt Motor Co. became associated with the Timken Roller Bearing Co. and lent it much money on the instigation of their manager, Mr. Preston, who absconded, having spent the money on unsuccessful gambling, and committed suicide. The old business grew too big for its premises and Ambrose March raised 600,000-dollars capital in a day, to found a new factory at West 64th Street and 10th Avenue, but the Mack finance suffered at the time because they, according to Hewitt, had taken on the Saurer, then, apparently, “an out-of-date truck design… not suitable for manufacture and sale in this country”. [I rather think post-war Saurers retrieved the position!—Ed.]. Hewitt was out-voted and Mack and Saurer amalgamated. The Mack name was retained for publicity purposes but all subsequent designs, Hewitt says, were his. He was still a Mack consulting engineer in 1943. The first 5-ton Macks went to the Valvoline Oil Co. and Lion Brewery of New York took several, after querying the thinly-worded six-months guarantee!

The original Hewitt factory in America became a garage, in Mrs. Hewitt’s name, when the company moved to the larger premises, this garage claiming to be the first with a ramp instead of an elevator for getting cars to the upper floors—that was in 1910/1911.

In a separate chapter Hewitt describes the Locomobile steamer of which he took delivery in 1899, on the same day that Edison’s eldest son, Thomas, acquired his. The only other car in the region at that time was William Vanderbilt’s Panhard. Adventures with escaping flames, auto-feed troubles, low water level, broken wheel spokes, etc. are described, the Locomobile’s water range being 20 miles. Broken wheel spokes were replaced by suitably-modified umbrella ribs. A 140-mile run was once accomplished in a day but when the Locomobile’s errant flames set fire to the spare tyre and scorched the luggage hamper so that Mr. Hewitt’s trousers therein were damaged, the creases giving way that night at a dinner party given by the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, the Locomobile was never used again!—W. B.

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