Veteran edwardian vintage, January 1985

A section devoted to old car matters

The Motor Mountaineer

Some people think sheer motoring bliss is extending a good car on a long ruler-straight road or German autobahn, or taking it as quickly as skill will allow round a race-circuit. Others may prefer to test their driving prowess and the abilities of a car by taking it into the hills and mountains. A motorist of the latter class was the late Mr George D. Abraham. Living in the Lake District of England, he commenced motoring at the turn of the century, and enjoyed driving over the Passes that abounded near to his home, or joining friends on trips in the mountains of Europe. He was a close friend of the enthusiastic Summers family, and used to go in their cars on some of these journeys. He owned interesting cars of his own, and became well-known not only for making the first climbs by car of some of the more notorious Lakeland gradients but for his photography of the district.

Mr Abraham’s first car was a Sunbeam Mabberly, and others he owned included a 10 hp Humber, an Alldays & Onions, Albert, HE, etc, also a small Daimler in the early 1920s.

Mr Abraham’s photographs were made into picture postcards, he contributed many articles to the motor journals about his favourite pastime, and he was the author of books about it, such as “Motor Ways in Lakeland”, “Mountain Adventures at Home and Abroad”, “The Complete Mountaineer”, “On Alpine Heights and British Crags”, etc. I thought I had read most motoring books but have not seen any of these titles, which must surely now be valuable collectors’ items?

Space precludes a full account of all the motor mountaineering enjoyed by Mr Abraham but confining ourselves to the between-wars, or “vintage”, years, we find him in 1919 going on a tour of his well-loved Lakeland. The car used was a Light-30 Daimler with an open touring body, a new model for 1920. While Daimlers were hardly sports cars, this one can he regarded as the most sporting of the then-current range, with its 4.9-litre Knight double-sleeve-valve engine in the shortest of the available chassis, having a wheelbase of 10 ft 8¼ in comparison with the 12 ft 2 in of the 7.4-thee Daimler motor carriage. Moreover, this Light Thirty was supplied as a chassis only, so that some well-established coachbuilder would have made the touring body for the car (Reg No DU 9475) in which the expedition was made. Whose car it was is not known, but the driver was an officer and George Abraham was obviously impressed with the latest model from famous Coventry manufacturer, describing it as an altogether delightful car. “At great speed on wide highways, at mule pace on the narrowest of rocky mountain tracks, or on crumbling stony gradients verging on 1 in 3, the joy of movement was altogether delightful and so silent that frequently the presence of the engine was entirely forgotten.”

The party started the two-day tour on a cloudless September day, although the Daimler, with standard gear ratios and the Lanchester worm-drive back axle, had encountered rain and storm as it ran out from the Midlands. The test started from Dunmail Rise, hampered somewhat by last of the season’s motor coaches, but taken on top speed, to Ambleside. Kirkstone Pass was then tackled, calling for second gear but a restart on the loose 1 in 4 section was smoothly accomplished after a pause to take photographs, although the Daimler had a cone clutch. They then sped down to the valley, to Troutbeck.

From the shoreline of Windermere Abraham sprung a surprise on the rest of the crew by taking them up the “curliest and hilliest of roads”, Footstep. Easy to start with, the driver uttered a gasp as the well-hidden 1 in 3 hairpin was encountered. But bottom gear was deftly engaged and the hazard was soon a thing of the past… Then it was over a little-known Tilberthwaite mountain road, gained by taking an awkward corner on the southern side of Yewdale, before reaching Coniston Water. Through groves of huge and ancient trees the travellers came at last to the old farmhouse under the crags at the head of the valley, where the inhabitants were distinctly dubious when told that the Daimler was to tackle the old mountain road to Fell Foot in Little Langdale. Other cars had failed, they were told, which only made it more imperative to head the Light-30 through the gateway and up the grassy track through the birch-hung avenues.

If there had been exciting moments going up, it was the descent which proved the real test. After tobogganing down the slippery grass track and through a tiny gateway, the car became jammed at a bend between two stone walls. Front and back mudguards were touching but by skilful reversing they got clear. Then the now-rocky road twisted round a derelict farmhouse which it seemed for a moment might have to be dismantled to gain passage. Past that, and with the main road in sight, the Daimler became jammed between the walls of a very narrow stone bridge. Much time was lost and the sun was sinking beyond the rugged black crags of Pike o’ Blisco, while the hub caps were removed and a gate behind the car dismantled, in order to gain the road. After which it was back to Dunmail Rise, taking that Pass at speed in third gear.

An early start on the second day of the tour was delayed at Borrowdale to take on some mountaineering friends, so the Daintier took eight heavy men over Honister House, which it did as wonderfully as anything Mr Abraham had seen in Motor mountaineering, so quietly that the soft song of wayside streams could be heard, the engine also remaining surprisingly cool. (No wonder Daimlers were so popular in this first full post-Armistice year — HM The King had just used a 57 hp Daimler landaulette for his two-day dash front Balmoral to London, at the time of the national coal-strike…) The descent of stones and rocks of Hill Step caused no anxiety, even when a photographic halt was made on the 1 in 3¼ grade, the foot brake, now working on the back wheels, seeming a fine arrangement, with the hand-applied transmission brake as a reserve.

The plot had been to cover an entire circuit of Lakeland in the day, mainly by mountain roads, and this the Daimler did, climbing quickly over Cold Fell to avoid the detour of the coast road, lunch being taken at the remote Wool Pack Inn at Eskdale. It had been amusing to find the well-known King of Prussia Inn renamed the King George Inn, although the now inappropriate name was still on the rear wall… The big tourer coped ably with Duddondale, Kiln Bank Hill and High Cross, and came home triumphantly in the gathering gloom. Even its doors had opened and shut perfectly on the rough going it had traversed, a tribute to the method of carrying the body on an insulated sub-frame.

The following year George Abraham turned his attention to the Western Highlands of Scotland, driving there past Gretna and Lockerbie and up the windy heights of Beattock, in a disc-wheeled Sunbeam two-seater that was probably a replica Coupe de L’Auto model, Reg No RX 6182. It thought nothing of the long haul up “Rest and Be Thankful Hill”, signposted as climbing 461 feet in 2,161 yards, at Ben (me beyond Glencoe. It was as nothing to the Cumbrian gradients, Abraham thought. The Sunbeam was photographed on the Ballachulish Ferry, at that time and for some years hence little more than a rowing boat, and used the new road beside the railway on the bridge at Connel Ferry (fee I0/-= 50p). A wild storm chased the car over the moors to Loch Laggan but the short cut to Dalwhinnie proved easy, after which the Great North Road was regained.

By way of a change, late in 1920 Abraham went into the hills of South Durham and North Yorkshire with E. H. Lees, who raced an Essex at Brooklands, in that driver’s Hudson Super-Six tourer. Again choosing a glorious autumn day, for which our motor mountaineer seems to have had a happy knack, they left Penrith behind and the winding climb up Hartside was conquered, the gradient of this and other acclivities being carefully measured, which appears to have been part of the object of the outing — perhaps Abraham had been asked to contribute to The Autocar’s list of steep gradients in the British Isles? Coming down to Alston it was noticed that one of the three highest inhabited houses in England had gone, burnt down a few years earlier, but the paved main street of Alston was given as 921 ft above sea-level.

The “sturdy construction and splendid springing” of the Hudson was demonstrated on the 1-in-4 climb to over 2,000 ft over Teesdale, ending on the open moor above St Joseph’s chapel. Back on the level the Hudson ran its 60 mph as easily as it climbed the hills, its engine nicely balanced, Abraham thought waxing technical, because it had the crankshaft balance weights specially placed, instead of dead opposite the crank pins. Be that as it may, more hill-storming showed up the quietness of the lower gears before the real test came, namely, an assault on Summer Lodge Hill out of Askrigg, said to be the very worst hill in Britain. First they inspected what lay ahead on foot, then fitted the two Parsons-shod spare wheels, on the back-axle. In spite of the 1-in-3½ first corner and the 1-in-3¼ second corner, the Hudson skidded and bounced to the summit. After a comfortable night at the “Red Lion” at Leyburn, the Hudson was set to tackle Park Rash, which no car was supposed to have beaten. A mile of grassy track above Kettlewell and it was touch-and-go in the wet conditions, with the car flung in the air by numerous culverts, its wheels spinning wildly. But it recovered and made the top, aided by the chains. The descent was adventurous, but bottom gear and sound brakes diminished serious “tobogganing” and soon they were entering Wensleydale, “the perfectly-standard 1920 Hudson none the worse.”

It was the autumn of 1920 also before Mr Abraham was able to undertake mountaineering expeditions in his own car, although it had been ordered twelve months before, a penalty presumably of the foundry and coal strikes and the fact that it was from a small-output maker. It was a 14 hp 2.1-litre HE with a Morgan Zephyr tourer body of aluminium and steel with an unpainted bonnet t no wood) weighing only 22 cwt with full tank. The man who delivered it had seen 58 mph on the speedometer. In this new possession a full complement of occupants set out immediately to explore the Scottish Lowlands, deeming the state of the roads unsuitable for anything further north. The Cheviots were crossed at a time of record floods, the ascent from Eweswater being made in a downpour, the deep potholes turning the roads into a continual water splash. The remote Moss Paul Inn was passed in a crash of thunder…

The new HE reached Edinburgh in sunshine, having been washed at the roadside when a tap was spotted by a cottage, a kindly dame providing a bucket. Only mild mountaineering was encompassed on this journey of 550 miles, during which the HE gave better than 26 mpg. By the summer of 1921, however, it was “now perfectly at home on the biggest of hills”, and was used for a visit to Haweswater, in Lakeland, before that beautiful lake was made into a reservoir to supply water to Manchester. Was the old Dun Bull Hotel replaced, I wonder, by a new one after the reservoir had been constructed? Prior to that the HE had been used to explore John Peel country in the Lakes.

Mountaineering in earnest began later in 1921, when Mr Abraham joined a party on a trip to the Dolomites, in Geoffrey Summers’ post-war 40/50 hp Rolls-Royce tourer (Reg No CA 460) which he called “the dream of years”. After a rough crossing, they disembarked at Calais and set off along Route Nationale No 1, the surface of which was poor until Abbeville was passed. This was offset by the red blaze of poppies and crimson carpets of clover alongside the road. As the road surface improved the Rolls several times put its speedometer needle verging on the 70 mph mark. There Was difficulty in avoiding Paris but in time the travellers were enjoying a delightful run through the forest of St Cloud, the car so quiet, it was said, that the song of the nightingale echoed in the sombre woodland aisles.

Yet it had the Alpine Eagle engine. Arriving at Fontainebleau, where the town was en fête in honour of the centenary of Napoleon the First, a cold lunch cost £1.00, for what in England would have charged at not more than 5, (25p). Being English, and in a Rolls-Royce, perhaps hadn’t helped! The first afternoon of the tour was notable for a violent thunderstorm as the Royce ran down route No 5 bound for Auxerre. It was not to be, for overheating caused a series of tyre failures and three new covers and tubes had to be purchased before the trouble was traced to the disc on the wheels and after removing the outer disc the bursts did not occur again. More thunderstorms heralded the approach to Amberieu, but by running the car into the shelter of the ancient Hotel Lion d’Or, a drenching was avoided while an excellent dinner was enjoyed. The mountains were now approaching, but four level-crossings, normally shut on a Sunday, had to be opened by persuasion, before Aix-les-Bains was reached at nearly midnight. They used the Hotel Splendide Royale, ducal in style and the size of the bill…

Next day the 117 miles of the Col du Lauteret were climbed, diverting to Bourg d’Oisans, a refill of poor petrol costing the equivalent of 5/4d a gallon. They made it to the Grand Hotel at Briancon, after crossing the 6,808 ft Pass. A lead seal was attached by string to a front dumbiron and the Rolls was free to enter Italy. Bad roads and rain gave, poor first impression of Italy, and Turin was a place of strikes and disaffection. But petrol, sold by weight, was of better quality, at the equivalent of about 4/- (20p) a gallon. Past relics of the recent war the Rolls-Royce sped, to Bolzano and the true gateway to the Dolomites, the night spent at the Hotel Bristol. The RAC told the party they were the first motorists to tour these mountains since the war…

The expedition nearly came to an abrupt end below the Karer See. A stop was made for photographs but in moving the Rolls for a better viewpoint a passenger let off the handbrake while standing in the road and the car was just saved from plunging backwards to destruction by a great leap to it on the owner’s part! Thereafter the 40/50 made light of the famous Passes, although care was often necessary and the long wheelbase a disadvantage on the hairpins, of which 96 were counted on the Pordoijoch from Arabba on the run home.

At the summit the radiator of the Rolls was boiling, at 77 deg C, after the continuous last eight miles of 1 in 8. What a place for a speed hill-climb, observed Mr Abraham. After which the Falzarego (6,943 ft) was ascended, over slanting timber piles into the tunnel at the top.

The homeward journey embraced the Pordoi and Rolle (6,507 ft) Passes, with adventures, overtaking dust-raising timber waggons and live shells stacked by the roadsides. So to Verona and over the Little St Bernard into France. The six-day tour finished an hour ahead of schedule, the total mileage nearly 3,000 and the Rolls-Royce Performing unfalteringly. It weighed 38¼ cwt unladen yet gave just over 16 mpg and about 1,500 mpg of oil.

Late in 1921 Abraham was out again in Lakeland, trying the latest 11.9 hp Albert tourer, which although loaded to a weight of 18 cwt, ran smoothly from four to 40 mph in top gear (it had standard gear-ratios, bottom being 18 to 1, top 4.5 to 1) and proved the worth of its central, gate-change four-speed gearbox in a trip “over the roof of Lakeland”. At the tune the hills of Scotland, Devon and North Wales had been in the news as a result of their inclusion in some tough trials but Abraham remarked that no club had yet had the temerity to include Hard Knott and Wrynose in a day’s trial. Taken from west to east, starting from Eskdale and finishing at Little Langdale, they were formidable and only a few years earlier the rock-strewn western slopes of Wrynose Pass proved almost impossible, even for a Rolls-Royce. Yet the 1922-model Albert performed splendidly, its engine remaining cool in spite of having no fan and the metal-to-Ferodo plate clutch proving excellent. Incidentally, the rear brakes were Operated through steel-rope (axon Amilcars) instead of rods, to obviate rattle.

Upwards over the stern heights of Cold Fell went the Albert, and after a visit to the Eskdale narrow-gauge railway, the locomotive “Colossus” seeming about half the size of the car, and lunch at the Woolpack Inn, Parsons chains were fitted to the back wheels and the little car ascended steadily, stopping for photography, after which it easily negotiated the ten greasy hairpins. The radiator needed no water and when it was discovered that a camera lens had been left at the Inn, the car slithered down again and then made a non-stop wild second ascent to the summit of Hard Knott, the gate having been left open, the final 1 in 3 section being climbed slowly and the 1,290 ft Pass beaten, which the experienced Mr Abraham had never heard of before. The stony Wrynose (1,270 ft) was equally defeated and in the last rays of the setting autumnal sun the Dunlop-shod Albert passed the Three Shire Stone, where Cumberland, Lancashire and Westmorland join…

Then, as if to give Scotland its turn, Mr Abraham took another 1922 car, a new HE, over some remote roads there. Presumably, as the owner of one of the first HEs of this kind, he had access to this latest model, which performed troublefree. Its many warmly-praised good qualities were proclaimed to be “striking evidence that its Brooklands successes and performances have resulted in added perfection”— even if its best top speed was probably not much more than 50 mph.

In the summer of 1923 Abraham was out in the more remote and beautiful areas of his native Lakeland in his own 14/20 hp HE but it was a hill-storming run there the following year in R. T. Summers’ OE 30/98 Vauxhall (Reg No ER 807, the car now in the possession of W. A. Liddell) that was more exciting. This 30/98 had been raced by Summers at Boulogne the year before, attaining a speed of 102 mph, and on a russet and gold autumn day after a continuous downpour lasting for more than 24 hours the Vauxhall was driven along the sunny vale of Thirlmere, the magnificent highway devoured “at a speed not far less than the Boulogne average”, for the motor coaches had departed, leaving only the pot-holes they had caused. Yet through Grasmere the 30/98 was docile and smooth-running down to five mph without coming off top gear.

At the foot of Red Bank “second gear slipped home, the lively car leapt to life and the sudden acceleration seemed to make the seats catch us in the small of the back”. The gradient was 1 in 4 but the Vauxhall took it “like an aeroplane getting off the ground”. After which a right turn was taken and the lofty road by High Close followed, to the Langdale Valley. The sport now commenced. Parsons chains were put on and Blea Tarn Pass was ascended rapidly, the 30/98 skidding round the hairpins.

The brakes proved reassuring coming down into Little Langdale, and then a successful bottom-gear climb, steadily, at less than 20 mph, was accomplished up past Fell Foot Farm, notwithstanding that there were five occupants and their luggage in the car. At the top the radiator was boiling, no fan being in use, so the fibre blanking plate behind it was removed while things cooled. Subsequently, the temperature never rose higher than to its working figure of 80 deg C.

Hard Knott Pass had been conquered with but one reverse at the more severe of the slimy corners and the Vauxhall then accomplished the same feat up Wrynose, again with a reverse at the upper “hairpin”. To round off the day Kirkstone Pass was tackled after passing in the gathering evening shadows through Etterwater, the 30/98 taking the steepest final stretch at verging on 50 mph.

Enough has been said, I think, to show that Mr Abraham enjoyed mountaineering in all manner of cars, over a long period. Even today there is still a modicum of adventure about taking cars into hills and mountains. In 1956 I remember, as a photograph emphasises, having fun in Lakeland at the wheel of a Bristol 405, for example. But the motor-mountaineer a kw of whose expeditions we have been following, began when it was far more difficult to get a car “up and over”, making it possible to set some highly satisfactory personal records, in difficult terrain, for which he deserves to be remembered. W. B.

The Daimler’s 1919 Route

1. West side of Thirlmere, up Dunmail Rise, past Grasmere, by Rydal, to Ambleside. Up steepest side of Kirkstone Pass. Down to Teroutbeck, to Low Wood to shore line of Windermere. Skelwith Bridge, rh turn and up Foolstep. Through Elterwater, past Colwith Hill, and over Oxtenfell, Yewdale, to enter Tiberthwaite by an awkward corner on southerly side, before Coniston Water. Up mountain road to Fell Foot, re-joining main road at Little Langdale. Blea Turn Pass, into Great Langdale, by Red Bank to Dunmail Rise.

2. Over Honister House and down to head of Buttermere Valley, to Gatesgarth. Along shores of Buttermere and Crummock to Scale Hill and by Loweswater to Ennerdale Bridge. From lake up Cold Fell, and down to woods of Calder and over hills of Gosforth and Eskdale. From village of Boot over mountain road to Delgarth and Birker Moss. Over moors to Duddondale, past Scafell, up hill at Traveller’s Rest above Ulpha, and up out of Duddondale by Kiln Bank Hill. Join main Broughton Common main road at Hawthwaith to head of Coniston Water, and Tarn Hows, and diverge at High Cross up long climb to resume northern route.