Veteran to classic

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91

The roads of the 1920s

We left Owen John contemplating a winter tour in an Armstrong Siddeley, a tour he undertook over Christmas 1926 and New Year. He seems to have had initial misgivings, not about the car, but about the prices prevailing at that time in France, which did not appear to have changed since the Franc stood at 249 to the pound Sterling. However, a good dinner in an hotel at Autun improved the outlook.

It is interesting, since I was recalling early dabbling in wireless in this column last month, that the hotel had a seven-valve set but only an indoor aerial, so that Toulouse came in, but not Daventry. Which decently dates this piece!

Of the six-cylinder 18hp Armstrong Siddeley motor-carriage, OJ said that it started when he asked it, went like a clock, devoured the long, straight French roads at about 55 mph and gave over 20 mpg. The springing and the Dunlops were wonderful, the car remarkably comfortable, and the only criticism was a whistle from the windscreen in a headwind (OJ had remarked on something very similar on the AC Six he had tested previously — one just hopes he had not got his notes mixed!).

Leaving Folkestone at 1 am, they were on the road to Paris by 1.30pm, the crossing was smooth, although (to continue the “wireless” theme) 2 LO got the weather forecast wrong, which rings a present-day bell!

The Paris-Amiens road was in excellent order. The first night was spent at the Hotel de l’Univers, but dinner was eaten in the Hotel de la Paix, which was about eight francs cheaper. When in France do as the French do, was OJ’s formula for saving money — and it probably still applies.

Hardly surprisingly they soon ran into snow, but the Armstrong Siddeley pressed on where others were en panne; they (and another Englishman with a Crown Magnetic) stopped to see whether a Frenchman who had run his little car into a ditch was hurt (he was not) while all the French drivers went by! A fine concrete road led to Grenoble, where OJ would, had he been young, have gone to University to learn French and enjoy this beautiful town.

The winter tour continued into Spain, with nothing worse than a rattling spare wheel on the Armstrong Siddeley, caused by pounding over poor French roads. In contrast, Spanish roads were very good, OJ comparing them with those he had known in 1907, on a memorable tour on a 20hp Daimler whose tyres and tubes lasted less than 2000 miles.

They made it to Barcelona and went to see the steeply-banked Sitges race-track, which was like “one continuous Brooklands Members Hill corner” (it is still more or less there, I believe, and someone should preserve it, surely?). OJ and his companions continued to Tarragona, very much enjoying the cathedral and the unique view from its palm-flanked terrace, and on to a very twisting hill-road beyond, where the “extraordinarily big front wheel-lock” of the Armstrong Siddeley was praised. Which reminds me, I overlooked the good lock on the Ford Sierra XR4x4 I wrote about last month— mark you, I was writing of a car which has given not an iota of bother in 25,000 miles, whereas OJ had to tighten up the clutch spring and have a puncture repaired in 2000 miles of touring on the Armstrong Siddeley. He was unable to grease it, having lost its fancy grease-gun, but it enhanced its reputation for sturdiness and good going. . .

The tourists found that where the royal road used to cross the river Ebro, a line new bridge had just been opened by King Alfonso, saving some 30 miles’ detour. But the road itself was fearful, although a steam-roller was at work on it. However, they arrived in Valencia, only to find it as cold as Scotland in February.

Returned home, OJ explained that the one puncture on his tour was caused by vandals in a Spanish village on Boxing Day, not by nail or weak inner tube. It caused them to stay the night at a most welcoming inn, in the village of Vinaros, after a garage key had been found and the faithful car locked away. The petrol cap was lost along with the grease-gun, but otherwise 2500 miles touring left the Armstrong (it was, by the way, the Short Eighteen model that OJ had been trying, tally intact.

OJ was impressed by the club-like atmosphere of Spanish garages and by the fact that most cars were chauffeur-driven, at least in the towns. He was lavish in his praise of the high quality of Barcelona taxis — which was hardly my experience when I required them from airport to circuit for the Spanish Grands Prix of the 1950s!

Of cars seen, there were a few British makes: a Rolls-Royce or two, several Crossleys (OJ would have had no difficulty in spotting those!) and one Sunbeam. In Valencia, a Morris Motors’ sign was about the only intimation that there was such a place as Great Britain, apart from the passing of the Armstrong Siddeley so noted for its pace, comfort and reliability. Nine-tenths of the cars encountered “were Yankee to the buffer-bar”, which OJ thought odd, remembering that it was to America that Spain had lost most of her overseas empire. There were “a certain number of French and Italian cars to be seen.”

Although the car from Coventry had performed impeccably for 2520 miles, it refused to start when it got to Paddington Station on return front the Continent, for OJ to catch his train home. It was quite dry of fuel, which must have pleased the chap who had been detailed to collect it! Old OJ also admitted that near the Elephant he had driven the wrong way round one of the first gyratory-systems, or roundabouts. The policeman who wanted to know why was satisfied when told that OJ had just come back from France, which certainly smacks of 1927 rather than 1987. It also makes one wonder about the wisdom of the Channel Tunnel, which will waft drivers more quickly from one driving rule to the other and in which you might, or might not, have bought shares. . .

Perhaps OJ felt a little guilty of having bestowed so much praise on the car he had been loaned for his tour, because he was soon recalling how staunchly his own 15/45hp Rover and the family’s little Rover Nine had been performing: Of the latter he wrote (and if this is not period stuff I do not know what is): “It has been taken to hunt and hospital balls, from Hertfordshire to Gloucestershire, and all betwixt and between, including a seaside visit to Somerset, a dash to the Craven country, has attended beagle-meets and shoots, very often spending the nights under the stars outside Shire halls, corn exchanges and other places where they dance, yet has turned up as fresh as ever to do ordinary chores.”

OJ’s daughter said it went at 60 mph, and his only hope was that the family had oiled it as they should or, better, persuaded the chauffeurs to do it for them. Its only malady was a sticking starter and Mr Baker, the Reading Rover agent, was about to check on that. As for the bigger Poppe-designed Rover, OJ was glad to get back to its cosy sheltered interior, its draughtless comfort, its spacious leg-room and above all its simple and quiet gearchanging, the last-named a quality he thought should cut more ice with the usual run of drivers.

Which reminds me that the gearchange on the Citroen BX GTi 16V I have been driving is one of the nicest I have handled for some time — among many other outstanding attributes of this car, which is as different from the common run of automobiles as the 15/45hp Rover was in some if its mechanical features of vintage times. WB