I have read with interest the stories of old time motorists, and their many fine journeys and trouble-free runs. However, there is another side to the picture, that of the ordinary motorist in a rural area with the type of car that was not in the R-R Daimler, or Lanchester class. I was brought up in a small Devonshire village surrounded by steep hills, every hill had a loose flint surface, and it seemed that every hill was approached by a hairpin bend with a gully across the road washed out by rain. It was under these conditions that my motoring experience began.
My father was a very experienced marine engineer, much sought after by local motorists for his ability to make things on his lathe. About 1912 he saw an advertisement in a motoring journal for a “light car” called in this country a Rollo, costing £100, so he place an order for one. In due course it was delivered by rail to our local station, and by horsedrawn lorry to our home. After a short examination, my father, in a few short rude words, expressed his opinion on the mechanical design.
The vehicle was powered by a JAP 10 h.p. V-twin, started by a long starting handle inserted under the offside front mudguard. It had a fan driven by Whittle belt and a long chain-drive to a cross shaft with expanding pulleys at each end. From there the drive to the rear wheels was by rubber V-belts on each side. The expanding pulleys were operated by means of a foot pedal, which also acted as clutch, slack in the main belt was taken up by moving the back axle rearwards. The rear axle position was controlled b a large lever to the right of the driver. Brakes were V-shaped shoes, operating on the rear wheel pulleys.
All these features of design caused my father to raise his eyebrows, but when he examined the steering, I learnt a lot of new words. The front axle was mounted on a central pivot and operated by wire cables over the pulleys to wooden drum mounted on the end of the steering column. The cables were fixed to the drum by ordinary wire staples.
The driver sat in the rear seat and the two passengers sat in front. Many ladies’ hats with bunches of flowers or feathers suffered as they obscured the driver’s vision. Following considerable modification to the steering and brakes, we prepared to take to the road. The engine was started with skimmed knuckles, and accompanied by a great deal of noise and more swearing. I was installed in the passenger seat to operate the drip-feed lubricator and was assured that I had no future if I failed to let the oil drip stop.
The engine was revved up and the expanding pulleys closed and the car leapt forward. We progressed flat-out through the village, round the hairpin bend and up the hill. We stopped at the top to allow the red hot engine to cool. Then we travelled some five miles into the country and arrived at a spot suitable for turning around. As there was no reverse the car had to be turned by means of pushing, it was then noticed that one drive belt was missing. We found it on the way back with the fattener pulled out. Immediate repairs were made as all drivers carried a belt punch in the large tool boxes carried. In those days punctures were frequent and had to be mended at the roadside. We were shod with Kempshall tyres protected by steel studded rawhide gaiters clipped under the wheel rim. These gaiters were steel hard in a dry weather and slimy when wet. It can be imagined what it was like driving this vehicle in towns with wood-block paving and tramlines.
I have heard it said that this vehicle was the greatest joke ever played on the motorist, but I gained much experience and many new words used in motoring. About 1914, father rebuilt this car, with a Sturmey-Archer gearbox as a normal two-seater with a dickey seat, only the engine, wheel sand a few pieces being used from the original Rollo. This car was sold about 1916, after father had joined the Army. During those years there were no “Mole Grips” so I became assistant, being able to get under the car and put a spanner on the other end of the bolt. All special tools and spanners were hand made, adjustable spanners were forbidden and each spanner had to be made the correct size and length to suit the nut. I learnt how to clean “wipe contacts”, how to adjust trembler coils, and spring-loaded inlet valves the care of accumulators, and the meaning of acids.
In 1915, I bought a 2¼ h.p. Royal Enfield two-stroke, which I rode for many miles with no licence using benzole as fuel. In 1919, I had become 16 years of age and was granted a Driving Licence which I have held ever since.
Then I started as an article pupil with a civil engineering firm in Exeter. Motorcycling became part of my job as well as maintaining plant including a steam concrete mixer with a Merryweather engine and boiler, a “Lion”-engined water pump and many other pieces of antique machinery. Naturally motor cycles had to be replaced with something faster. Among those I had were 3½ Burnley and Blackburn and 4½ New Hudson, a flat twin Brough, a Scott Squirrel and my last and biggest a 4-cylinder Henderson.
In due course, I married, motorcycles were out, and I bought my first car in 1926. This was a V-twin oil-cooled Belsize-Bradshaw, bought secondhand for £45. It was a coachbuilt drop-head coupé in excellent condition. It was reputed to have been the property of Louis Frissaud and exhibited at the Motor Show. As it had silver-plated fittings and a bronze-plated chassis this may have been true. The cylinders were within the crankcase and cooled by oil jets while the cylinder heads were air cooled by a fan on the flywheel. This vehicle was trouble-free and I drove many miles in it.
My next car was a new 12/24 4-cylinder Citrëon saloon. This had a normal engine but with magneto ignition; it also had four-wheel-brakes and a vacuum servo. It was a comfortable car, but hair-raising to drive in towns on a wet night as all the glass was vertical and every outside light was reflected many times in the windscreen. I never did find out why it was such a bad starting motor car, I changed the carburetter and magneto but nevertheless wore out two starter motors and two starting handles. The brakes which were cable operated were good on the front but the rear brakes went out of adjustment when two people sat in the rear seat. It was quite usual to stop on a slight slope, apply the handbrake, help out the two passengers and find the car moving off.
About this time hydraulic brakes were being fitted, so I bought a secondhand Chrysler close-coupled 2-door coupé. This car was also reputed to be something special, it had a heater fitted into the floor at the rear which operated when the exhaust was diverted through it. Naturally its heat varied according to speed and care had to be taken or it would get red hot and damage shoes worn by the rear passengers. The brakes were hydraulic contracting bands and when adjusted properly were very good. The handbrake was also a contracting band on a drum on the propeller shaft. The s.v. engine was very good and was fitted with magneto and coil ignition. I ran on coil as with the magneto the engine was likely to backfire on starting and wreck the starter motor. It had artillery wooden spoked wheels with split rims for tyre removal. It was a good reliable car and easy to drive, I believe it was a Model 70. I only sold it because I got a canal job where a motor boat was provided and there was no car mileage allowance.
During the time I owned the Chrysler I also owned a 6-cylinder Standard overseas model taken in payment for a bad debt.
This was a fine looking car but I never had a trouble-free run in it it blew cylinder head gaskets, dropped big ends, and fired in the crankcase very time on starting from cold. It was not an easy car to sell but I got rid of it in the end for £25.
I was without a car for about a year and then bought a secondhand 12 h.p. Citroën floating power. This meant that on tick-over the engine danced on rubber. It was a nice quiet and comfortable car but again I had trouble with the cable-operated brakes so I sold it and purchased a secondhand FWD Citroen for £45. I soon found out why it had been sold so cheaply.
It wore out front tyres in 400 miles and had a terrible rattle somewhere in the chassis. I soon found out the reason for the tyre trouble, the front wheels had been adjusted to toe-in instead of toe-out. The rattle was also cured by stripping the trim and taking out a dried lemon from the chassis member. This was a beautiful car to drive and once the tricks were known it was easy to service. For example the timing point was set by inserting a 3″ nail in the boss on the clutch housing and turning the engine until the nail registered with a hole in the fly-wheel. The ball joints in the steering were secured by a heavy circular section spring ring. No tool could ever prise them out, but a small nail driven into a hole in the side would do the trick. After the car had covered 75,000 miles I decided that new pistons and liners were required. These were purchased from Citroens for £6.10s. the set, cheap by today’s prices. The engine and transmission were held in the chassis by four large nuts and two small bolts, and the whole thing was easy to dismantle. I started on Friday night and did the whole iob including a valve grind, and had the car on the road Sunday morning.
In 1939 after the war had started cars were very cheap as petrol was scarce, and I bought a similar car with four new tyres and Michelin wheels for £15. By cannibalising I built one good car from the two, but due to joining the Forces I had to lay it up until about 1946. After the war I put a new battery in, filled the engine with oil and ran it several hundred miles.
I then got a job in central Londonn where novae was required, and garaging was a problem so I sold it for £240, a good profit. After about two years I was sent to a job in the Gold Coast, now Ghana.
There I bought a new 6/80 Wolseley. This car had a wonderful o.h.c. engine with twin SU carburetters and a very easy tappet adjustment. My job took me over hundreds of miles of badly corrugated roads. The front shock-absorbers, two telescopic on each side, soon burst and were replaced with Ford make that gave no further trouble. The steering was inclined to get stiff after a long run over wet and muddy roads due to the design of the king pins and the worm and peg steering box. This fault I never cured although I covered many hundreds of miles. I sold it in the Gold Coast on returning to England.
Then I achieved my life’s desire. I bought a Packard Super Eight 1938 model from Leonard Williams who had maintained it from new. This car was a superb piece of engineering in every way, it was absolutely quiet and in spite of weighing about two tons and having 7″ tyres the steering was light and precise. This was due to an all roller bearing steering box and king pins mounted on ball and roller bearings. The specification was quite modern with an automatic choke that worked, an anti-stalling device, thermostatically controlled radiator shutter, i.f.s., anti-roll bars, an oil heater when cold, and a cooler when it got warm. The body was good and the doors shut with a thud. I did cover many thousands of comfortable motoring miles with this car and sold it for £100, on being sent abroad again.
I went to the Sudan where I was told that there were plenty of cars to be bought. On arrival I went shopping but due to a dock strike in England the only new car to be bought was a Series II Morris Minor 4-door. I bought it as I had to have transport, and it cost £800. Imagine my feelings driving a Morris Minor after a Packard Super Eight, however I grew to like it. It had no faults, and the petrol consumption was so low, after the Packard, and it was being driven night and day by my wife and myself. After covering some 40,000 miles I had it rebored and fitted with Hepolite pistons.
I was in the Sudan for 13 years and drove 110,000 trouble-free miles, only replacing tyres, brake linings and batteries etc. It was in such good condition that I sold it for £400 when I left the Sudan.
My next job was in Libya, enquiries around Tripoli showd that the best service was given by Volkswagen with a large service department and team of German servicemen. I bought a now 1969 1500 Beetle that was specially prepared by Volkswagen with a strengthened chassis, twin air cleaners, heavy duty shock-absorbers and all ready for desert work. This vehicle gave trouble-free motoring until I left in 1974 when I packed all our luggage in the back and drove along the North African coast to Tunis, and then by ferry to Marseilles across France and it Southampton again by ferry. I am now retired and still have the Beetle.
I still retain my interest in fine cars, but may have to restrict myself to cheap reliable transport. May Motor Sport continue as I am quite sure it gives much pleasure to many motorists.
Stoney Cross, R. F. Allen