The roads of the 1920s

We are well into 1928 in the Owen John W diaries, and he was pressing on as busily as ever.

On a run up to London from Charing, near Margate, two things had impressed this pioneer autocarist: one was how well driven were the many motor coaches he encountered, for overtaking them was easy compared with earlier times. The other was the Tudor House, which apparently supplied refreshments at all hours of the day, much as Little Chefs do now.

It was then a new mode of tea-shop, “amid flowerbeds and green lawns, a low, four-square flagged courtyard enclosing an exquisitely-designed oak and stone house, about as perfect in taste as the neighbouring fuel stations are otherwise. Visitors’ cars are parked far away so as not to spoil its appearance and the staff seem all to be pretty girls, Tudor in everything but the length of their skirts”. I hope this pleasant place, and the mini-skirts, still grace Bearsted, which OJ had reached along a new highway which extended beyond Charing, where ordinary roads continued for another 15 miles, “beyond the high hill with the wonderful view”.

But the roads of 1928 gave rise to two complaints. The first was the growing number of petrol stations — as many, said 0J, that he was seldom out of sight of one or more such depots, for even local pubs were apt to buy a patch of land at a nearby crossroads and set up pumps. The Petroleum Act had become law, and the House of Lords had debated, but still the pumps multiplied. . .

OJ’s other worry was the increasing number of roadside vendors of strawberries and Kent cherries, although at least those he saw did not adopt Hampshire’s suicidal methods of trying to effect sales by dashing out into the road.

Old OJ was asked to help judge the Bournemouth Concours d’Elegance, and what he said at the time is still very applicable to such events today. He averred that “Elegance” implied just that and not “accessibility of batteries and tool-kits”, quoting the poet by saying that beauty had no limitations and could not be measured with a foot-rule! He saw Continental concours as jolly affairs, happy and carefree, whereas that at Bournemouth “savoured of the piety and thoroughness of the BBC”.

He was not given much of a view of the final selections, with the crowds pressing round the cars, and he observed that whereas Paris had but to decide between Venus, Minerva and Juno, he had 16 cars to look at and only three “apples”, of varying quality, to distribute amongst them! Any way, said the sage OJ, a concours d’elegance should be a beauty show, not a post mortem.

I know how he must have felt. I used to be asked to help judge such events, but no longer do I accept. Unless one is a make-specialist, one is not much use at contests devoted to one kind of car or variants thereof; and at general events of this kind originality is sometimes regarded as important, sometimes not, too few judges are often required to cover a great many entries in too short a time, and competitors tend to take it all terribly seriously and get upset at anything they regard as incorrect marking. OJ found that his enjoyable lunch was cut short by his judging duties, and he deliberately departed from some of the rules laid down. This Concours he described as lacking gaiety and going miles off the mark — he even compared it to a comic-dog show they had had at Purley, which raised over £100 for charity . . .

However, all was not lost, because in conjunction with the static show there was also a Monte Carlo-type rally from John 0′ Groat’s (won by Donald Healey’s Triumph Super Seven, by a very narrow margin from an Anzani Frazer Nash driven by K Marsh, its alloy body well strewn with spare wheels and petrol tins and occupied by an intrepid lady navigator on the 809-mile run). Even on this event Mr Ebblewhite looked after the timing, and in the matter of beauty AL. Baker’s Minerva, well-known at Brooklands, battled with Grahame-White’s big Hispano Suiza and the Maharanee of Baroda’s 40-50hp Rolls-Royce. But maybe Prince George Imeritinsky had had more fun in his 41/2-litre Bentley (registration UC 8791) on a tour of remote parts of Europe, including Skodaland, on which he covered 5000 miles in four weeks. . .

OJ went home through the New Forest in the Lanchester in which he had been to the Bournemouth Rally; since it was a new model, I expect it was a fine 30hp straight-eight. After crawling and accelerating alternately as far as Lyndhurst, OJ purposely took the fork in the Romsey road where so many drivers went wrong (thus leaving most of the traffic behind) as far as Salisbury, the quiet English valley developing into downland.

There was a bit of a hill up which the latest Lanchester showed its paces, and from the summit could be seen the spires of Salisbury Cathedral, fine country houses, and beyond all “the swelling contours of the Plain itself, just as primitive and rolling it must have looked before modern man came along and did his best to spoil it”.

To avoid the fast road to Andover OJ went north, finding an almost empty road to Tidworth, as jolly a road as anyone could wish for when driving a car as fast as the Lanchester. Making for Hungerford, by way of Collingbourne Ducis, a fingerpost (no doubt long since gone) directed him to a remote part of the downs, but a lane back to the main road was discovered after the pot-holes had endorsed his good opinions of Lanchester springing — and there was a time when the springs for these cars were made very carefully indeed.

Continuing home through the remote, mostly thatched, village of Shefford and the little place called Wantage (which once had both railway and canal but by 1928 had neither), OJ again got all sentimental about the view from the southern slopes of the downs, when all of a sudden you saw “a panorama of which one can never tire; almost the whole of the Upper Thames Valley, flanked by the Cotswolds and the Chilterns behind Aylesbury, with the spires of Oxford rising among green trees — a more typically English landscape than any other; it simply could not be anywhere else and it lacks nothing because nothing could improve it”. How many think like this as they burn up the Oxford ring-road of the 1980s, I wonder?

Later OJ was off through well-looked after Sussex and Surrey, where the houses looked uniformly neat — perhaps newly-painted in honour of Goodwood, “of which autocratic Sussex is very proud”, but that was long before motor racing arrived there — on his way to a weekend in Littlehampton, where he had to pay 4s 6d for a breakfast devoid of grapefruit!

The car he used was an Austin 16, the latest elegant model, and as usual OJ had only indefinite praise for it, except to say that it had the steering-lock of a London taxi . . . WB