Motoring Memories from Kenya

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Sir,

Prompted by some correspondence on tyre inflation in Motor Sport, I thought your readers might be interested in the first car my father bought in 1914, which had everything!

Although I was only nine, I have a very vivid recollection of the car and how it was bought. It was a 16/20 h.p. 4-cylinder Wolseley. The body was a Cabrio-Phaeton and was much lighter than the more expensive Cabriolet body, the chief difference being that the windows at the back did not slide down into the doors but had to be taken out on a summer’s day and stowed under the back seat. The hood, of course, was folded down. The window between the driver’s seat and the back could be wound down. The colour, a dark green with straw lines round the beading, was chosen from painted panels sent to us.

My father, who was then sixty, was not mechanically minded but he had a friend who was, and they went off to Birmingham to choose an engine. These were mounted on test beds and the one developing the highest brake horse power was chosen and installed in the chassis, on which the following equipment was standard;—

Electric lighting by CAV, with a separate switch for each lamp on the car, including one for changing the battery. If this were left on after the engine had stopped, the dynamo became a motor, as the current fed back from the battery, and it ran backwards, there being no cut-out. An SU carburetter, the piston of which was activated by leather bellows which had to be treated from time to time with neatsfoot oil to keep the leather flexible and to prevent cracking.

Finally, the piece de resistance, a compressed air self-starter.

If I remember rightly, the compressor was attached to the gearbox and brought into action by pulling a lever on the metal dashboard. The compressed air container was housed under the front seats and the dial showed a maximum compression of 200 lb./ sq. in. There was another lever for admitting the compressed air to the cylinders. This was only used when the engine was hot and only worked as a self-starter when the pistons had not stopped at top dead centre. When this happened, not infrequently, a half turn on the starting handle was required and away she went.

On the outside of the car, just above the running board, was a threaded pipe with a small wheel valve. To this was connected, when necessary, a length of rubber hose with a pressure gauge which was able to reach all four wheels. So, with a turn of the valve a tyre could be blown up to the required pressure, which was, as I remember, pretty high, say 40 to 60 lb./sq. in. If, of course, the operator was wool-gathering, the tyre did blow up and out!

This remarkable car, which was manufactured by the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Co. of Adderly Park, Birmingham, was, I am sure, one of the most advanced cars of its day. It is sad how quickly the marque lost its reputation in the twenties until it was finally bought up by Lord Nuffield and became part of the Morris Empire.

‘When I went up to Oxford in 1924, my parents decided to give me a small car, as they feared I would kill myself on my OHV Norton, and I chose the cheapest two-seater Lea-Francis. Remembering the smoothness of the SU on our old Wolseley, I decided to have an SU fitted.

In those days, the SU Company was, I think, somewhere in Hampstead, housed in what appeared to be old stables, and I took the car there to have the carburetter fitted. When I arrived, there was an unknown 6-cylinder car with the bonnet open, ticking over, and this car had an SU fitted to each cylinder. Soon after, a man in a grey trilby hat came out of the office, closed the bonnet, and drove away. One of the chaps said to me: “Do you know who that was? That’s Sir William Morris and he is trying out his new 6-cylinder model with our carburetters.”

An SU was fitted to my Lea-Francis with the utmost care and when a standard needle was not perfect, one was specially cut for my car on a tiny watchmaker’s lathe. The engine ran so smoothly and perfectly that when I once visited the Lea-Francis Works at Coventry, many came to admire the then little-known SU.

During the 1914-18 war, when the Wolseley was laid up, my mother had bought a 1912 A.C. My brother and I had learnt to drive on this wonderful little car, which had one huge acetylene headlamp mounted on the bonnet. Its great weakness was the shearing of the half-shafts and when this happened there were no brakes, as the only one that really worked was on the prop.-shaft! The gearbox was part of the back axle, as in the racing cars of today!

The Wolseley was replaced, on my advice, by a 14/60 Lagonda. The 4-cylinder engine had twin overhead [underhead—Ed.] camshafts and was, I thought, the perfect design. But alas, it ran its big-ends every few months and my parents’ opinion of me as a car expert fell sharply! However, I persuaded them to buy a 6-cylinder Sunbeam with a Weymann fabric body. This certainly was a very beautiful car and one I shall always remember.

Since 1930 I have lived in Kenya and have gradually worked my way up the car ladder. I started with a second-hand A Model Ford which cost £50, changing to a 6-cylinder Chevrolet in 1933. These both had locally made “Box Bodies”, which were the forerunners of the modern safari and station wagons. There followed then a very smart little Ford 10 tourer which really had a lot of power after a little was taken off the cylinder head to raise the compression. I remember being beaten by only a tenth of a second in my class in a local hill climb by a Chain Gang Frazer Nash, admittedly not very well driven!

With an increasing family it was necessary to have a larger car and I was lucky enough to get a New Plymouth Box Body for £250 on extended terms, as it was being sold off at near cost price because the agency was changing hands. This wonderfully reliable car did over 100,000 miles before I changed it for one of the first 204 Peugeots to arrive in Kenya.

In 1952 I bought a Jaguar Mark 7, the first model, which was the envy of all my friends in England, where I had taken delivery, but in Kenya it would not stand up to the bad roads and sucked in the dust like a Hoover, so I changed it for a Mercedes 300. This car gave no trouble but was far too cumbersome and heavy, so in 1958 I got my dream car, without ever having seen one. A BMW 502.S V8. This car I collected in Munich, where I was given VIP treatment by the management. It remained the only car of its kind in Kenya and I kept it for nine years. In 1961 I took it back to Munich to have front disc brakes fitted as the drum brakes were not really up to the speed and weight of the car. I told the Works to do whatever they considered necessary and this they did, even to changing the slow running screws on the carburetters as they had got slightly worn by ill-fitting screwdrivers. The bill, which included five new tyres and a spare wheel (to replace one stolen in Kenya) came to over £500! But I never had to have anything more done to the car before I sold it in 1967 to a man in Uganda for only £225—which makes me weep when I think of the status of these rare cars today.

I then invested in another BMW, this time a 2000 TI, for by now there was a BMW agency in Nairobi. This too was a splendid car to drive and never gave any trouble but, feeling I must have one more beautiful and fast car before I am too old and my reactions too slow, I took the plunge and last year went once again to Munich. This time I collected a BMW 2500, thank goodness before the Kenya Government raised the duty for cars over 2000 c.c. to 100%.

This really is a superb car and I await your comments with interest as I believe you, sir, are currently trying out a 2500. I may say I get Motor Sport by air every month and find it most interesting reading.

Kiambu, Kenya. N. R. Solly.