A Look Back to the Roads of the 1920s
(Continued from the October issue)
The 1920s motoring scene seems as far removed from the present as steam trains are from Inter-City diesels, or piston-engmed air-liners from Concorde. To recall something of what it was like to be out and about then, let as continue the saga of Owen John, pioneer motoring journalist and for a very long period a weekly contributor to Britain’s first motor journal. He may be termed a motoring pioneer in all honesty, for he was in at the birth of the horseless-carriage and owned a car of his own from around 1903, in the form of a primitive Brush, kept in what was at that time a notably “horsey” hunting county. In later times O.J. had a pre-Willys Overland, followed by the Crossley tourer to which he showed great allegiance, until it was replaced, still in the 1920s, by a complex Rover 14/45 hp saloon.
We left this versatile motor-noter sampling a 1922 AC light car and saying what an excellent proposition it was. O.J. was in a position to try many new models, although not attached professionally to any motor paper. Thus we find him attending the big demonstration staged in 1922 by Percy Richardson at Frensham Ponds in Surrey of the friction-drive GWK, which was to O.J. entirely convincing, as these cars “climbed mountains, charged trees, and waded about in water up to the axles, exactly as if these things were part of its ordinary routine, for the purpose of demonstrating that the transmission did not slip under circumstances and amid surroundings apparently specially designed to cause it to do so.” O.J. also thought the place where these tests were staged might be “in the Highlands, or Kerry, or Paradise itself’. After tea at the “charming and delightful” Frensharn Ponds Hotel he drove off with Mr Richardson, MD and “High Priest” of GWK Ltd, through the beautiful heather country into the setting sun, discussing what constituted a light car, as this four-seater GWK moved along at 40 mph.
The Highlands had been in O.J.’s mind since “the twelfth”, because he always went to Scotland every year for the grouse shooting, and had done this before there Were motors, which enabled him to sec how snuck the horses had benefited, in those difficult and bleak places, from the coming of the car. Indeed, said O.J., the motor-car had opened up Scotland to many who otherwise would have seen very little of it, if anYthmg at all, and Scottish hotels were .Proving, bethought, from the times when ” the guests departed the landlady was heard to say to the chambermaid “Only change the sheets if necessary“! And on this .cote, one of O. J.’s readers had recommended the “Ramsey Arms” at Fettercairn, near Brechin, it would be amusing to know whether this presumably outstanding hostelry still exists, as one of our readers informed me Sam’s Chop House in Manchester, which I mentioned as having been used by 0.1. in 1922, still does . . .
Having remarked that the Scottish Highlands were at their best in the autumn , O.J. went on to discuss the best ways of getting there, saying that those in a hurry, like himself he rather pompously explained, — “Personally, I am generally in a hurry because I am an industrious man” — made for Carlisle, where by 1921 the roads were as good as any to be found throughout the country. But it Carlisle was dour, turn left at Ecclefechan into Dumfries, said O.J., for under its cliffs and by the sea one might be at Hyeres, at Dawlish, or in Kerry, for climate and flowers and trees and midges. Expounding on other routes to Scotland caused O.J. to remark on how unfortunately congested, with innumerable motor coaches and excursionists, Kendal in the English Lakeland, and Lynton approaching “Lorna Donor” country, had become. Which reminds me that when D.S. J. and I tried the then-new V12 Jaguar some ten or more years ago, we took it to Scotland, which my companion had then not seen, and were disappointed at the tawdry tourist attractions and caravan sites all along the West coast; and only recently I heard the same view expressed.
O.J. not only enjoyed shooting but was a keen player of golf. In 1922 he was driven to “an extraordinarily good links near Oxford” in a famous racing car still known as the “Blue Bird”. The unnamed owner was described as a beautiful driver, who took no risks at all, but O.J. felt the fast journey hadn’t been good for his play. The racing car was called a good car, a fast car, that could make a horrible noise when it liked but also slide through towns and traffic as sweetly as the latest thing in tourers. Its seats, for a racing car, were not particularly uncomfortable or cramped. But O.J., because he was a bad passenger, was not really happy in it. It is intriguing to wonder which car he had been out in. Capt (later Sir) Malcolm Campbell named his racing cars “Blue Bird” and it may very well have been he who had driven the prolific motor-outer to his golf tournament. On the other hand, several “Blue Birds” had found other owners, so it may have been one of these. If Campbell were 0.1’s chauffeur, the cars he was racing that year were a 3.8-litre Talbot, the old 1912 GP Peugeot, and a 1½-litre Austro-Daimler. As 0.1. said the car was still called “Blue Bird” I suspect it was the venerable 7.6-litre Peugeot that he went out in, a car capable of lapping the Track at over 103 mph at the beginning of the 1922 season.
This reminds me of a newspaper headline that caught my eye when I was a schoolboy, around this time. It read “Husband of Racing Driver Apprehends London ‘Bus Driver”, or words to that effect. It seemed that the gentleman in question had been annoyed by the driving of the ‘bus driver in Piccadilly, who pulled up so sharply that some of the lady passengers were thrown almost to the floor, so he got down, went to the cab, and remonstrated with the man, before stalking off to his nearby club. It was the “husband of a racing driver” that had caught my attention. So who was he? None other than Major Menzies, whose wife worked for Malcolm Campbell and occasionally drove the big GP Peugeot in the lesser races at Brooklands. Which just goes to show how racing motorists attracted Fleet Street’s attention in those far-away days .
We are reminded that open cars were very much in vogue in 1922 by O.J. commenting that the hood of his Crossley had been improved by the fitting to the windscreen pillars of a pair of Tesco glass wind-deflectors, which enabled him to smoke while driving and kept out draughts and rain. The Crossley’s hood was wide enough for its owner to dispense with side curtains, but O.J. got in a nice dig at its manufacturers by saying that when he had taken delivery of the car in 1919 he was rejoicing in the hood’s strength as he drove home from Manchester in a gale, when the wind dislodged the back seat cushion and the side curtains allegedly stowed beneath it appeared to have been whisked out of it. “From that day to this I have never seen them again, nor had any in their place“, concluded O.J., who clearly did not believe they had ever been put into the car . . .
As we are looking at the roads, as well as at the cars, of just over 60 years ago it is pertinent to remark that O. J. thought then that in spite of the pessimism of the AA road reports that were then a feature of the daily newspapers, road surfaces were, in general, improving. He had been to Somerset for the partridge shooting and reported that apart from the mile into and the mile out of Marlborough — “a place so picturesque in itself that perhaps a perfect surface would be out of keeping” — there was little to complain of, albeit the main roads of Wiltshire were not quite as good as those of neighbouring Berkshire. In the old days, when Wiltshire roads were shocking, this was, observed O.J., more noticeable because they ran across big, wide lands and through country that seemed to invite speed. Trowbridge, in particular, was found to be a great advance, from the times when its alleged centenarians and bucolic football teams lined up with its awful roads. However, we are reminded of how very much conditions have changed by O.J. saying that so narrow were the roads that the local brewery traffic was likely to smash up the smooth new surfaces, as every wheel could but follow in the path of its predecessors — so a Trowbridge by-pass was called for.
The then-new Great Western Road at the back of Chiswick was something O.J. had not then experienced but he hoped the camber, as on the Newbury to Hungerford road, would not be too great. New dressings for roads were under discussion in 1922, and Shell-Men offered “Mexphalte” as one of them, and in that year of innovation crepe-rubber tennis courts had arrived to compete with the red brick hard courts. In discussing various routes from the South to the North of the British Isles, O.J. spoke of the “much exaggerated terrors of the road through the manufacturing districts between Warrington and Wigan”. The so-called terrors may have been overstressed then but not in later years when there had been such a great increase in traffic. I recall how colleagues and I, perhaps going North to cover the RAC Rally or suchlike, dreaded that part of the journey, for this congested area was virtually unavoidable until well after WW2 days. Which should make us all extremely thankful for today’s network of British Motorways, the only disappointing aspect being that such fine routes for essential transport are reduced in effectiveness due to unrealistic speed limits, from which stem a fearful waste of police manpower, in times of an incredible crime increase, as radar guns are operated. . . .
The next car sampled by O.J. seems to have been a rather unusual 10/15 hp Fiat. Unusual because it was called a sports model yet its English body, with every possible refinement, had a dickey seat. I know there was a so-called sports 12/15 hp Fiat with flared mudguards and included it in the recent discourse on bogus sports cars. But I do not recollect a car of this make and type listed as a sports model yet possessing a dickey seat — maybe the Fiat Register will enlighten me? Anyway, although O.J. said there was nothing about the Fiat that was sacrificed to speed or that made it anything but a gentleman’s conveyance, he was greatly impressed, after trying it under all manner of conditions, including over the then “execrable vileness” of Warwickshire’s rural roads. In fact, he said he had never enjoyed a car more. He described the Fiat’s springing as super-excellent (shockabsorbers were fitted), the brakes were what you might expect of a car built in the neighbourhood of the Alps, but it is another reflection on the performance — or non-performance — of most cars of the early vintage period, that speed was not great. O.J. “whacked up” 50 mph without trying but ordinarily travelled at 40 mph, which was regarded as quite good going from a small car in 1922. Even one which, as O.J. had not overlooked, was brother to the make that “had been whacking the whole World at most of the big Continental motor race meetings that summer”.
The comfort of this little Fiat got O.J. onto thinking about tyres and although Rapson’s were clearly his favourites he warmly praised the inventiveness of Dunlop’s. What, I wonder, would he think of their subsequent takeover in the 1980s by a Japanese company? He was also advocating British cars in 1922, believing that although the cheapest cars then available were the American “self-contained machines”, that they might not retain their youthful appearance for very long, or be kept smart, whereas people were buying
British cars of the best makes be they knew these would not be out of date or any less useful in a year’s time, and that any snags will have been made good and the car will not be practically unsaleable when the time came to get rid of it. Some of these cars were better after 10,000 miles than they were when new, thought O.J., bearing out my own theory that any car should give good service for its first 10,000 miles, but that quality cars shouldn’t reveal any weaknesses until they have served for at least 40,000 miles. 0.J. cited in this respect a 1912 Calthorpe owned by a parson which, apart from needing a lick of paint, was as good as it was seven years before, never went wrong, and so was trusted, and his own 1920-mode Crossley which after 20,000 miles was going as well as ever. . . .
One very interesting item emerges front these diggings into the past. The sayngil “The Quality Remains, long after the Cod I has been Forgottenis, 1 thought, attributed to Sir Henry Royce. Yet quotes Mr Willys as saying it, in 1922Presumably he said this either of the Crossley or the 20 hp sleeve-valve Willys-Knight he was then promoting, Either way, it is something Rolls-Royce historians may care to ponder. — W.B.
(To be continued as space permits)