Some Cyclecar Reminiscences
AFEW years ago, when there was an idea of putting a motor car on the market at the magic figure of £100, there was a marked revival of friction drive. For the moment its various iniquities were forgotten and designers were greatly attracted by the advantages
which it could be stated to possess. The fact that none of these delightful qualities survived in practice, or were ever likely to, did not deter the sponsors of the ” new” type. Moreover it added to the fun, for the complete conviction of various people that this drive was to revolutionise the cheap car of the future, gave scope for endless ingenuity on the part of those who had to transform, into mechanical reality, the distorted ideas of crank designers.
The writer was for some time attached to one of these optimistic firms in the capacity of assistant designer cum tester cum anything else that might be required. The modern style of manufacture, with its highly organised works staff and a steadily moving p oduction line, undoubtedly produces the goods, but it lacks the cheerful variety of the old style. In those days motorcars were produced one by one and nearly everyone in the works had a hand in every part of them. Again a car once built was not finished with—far from it ! The trouble was only just started.
If anyone was optimistic or foolish enough to buy it; and it is amazing what enthusiasts there then were, this increased the resources of the firm, and encouraged the commencement of a few more vehicles. Production of these however, while not smooth at the best of times, was further interfered with by the task of keeping in some sort of order the machines previously supplied to the unfortunate public. Not many of these it is true, but we got to know every nut and bolt of each one before ong.
I started by talking about friction drive, and it is certainly in this department that things happened most frequently. One firm in the old days made a partial success of friction drive on a low powered car, and some of their products with gentle treatment continued to function long after their allotted span ; this was unfortunate, as it led others to believe in this form of infinitely variable gear. Apart from the fact that the public would never buy a car with this drive whether it worked or not, it is well nigh impossible to make it work. The idea is beauti
by ” Icarus “
fully simple, and the first drive on the pa.ticular make I was mixed up with was delightfully simple and cheap— but not for long.
This mechanical monstrosity was propelled, when the drive drove, by an undersized air-cooled two-stroke, the whole mass of machinery being housed in the rear of the car, and the engine cooled by a tiny fan which served to agitate the sultry atmosphere in this compartment. The design was so arranged that fresh air was not encouraged to enter, and the fact that the engine ever managed to propel the car as far as it did is a fine tribute to the firm who supplied it, and whose name is now famous in the motorcycle world. The fan was mounted directly above the big flywheel which was also the driving wheel of the friction drive. Its bracket consisted of a rod through the fan, bent down and passing through a piece of strip with a nut either side. Needless to say the nuts came loose and the fan turned round and wiped its blades off on the flywheel to the accompaniment of much chatter. This used to happen frequently in traffic and caused much embarrassing attention, only relieved when the fan belt broke and comparative peace reigned again. From these remarks, some readers may suggest that more often than not the engine ran without a fan. It did.
An automatic gear change.
One of the first essentials of a friction drive unit is that the driven disc should be square with the driver. The uninitiated might imagine that this state of affairs was easily secured by fixing the sha:t correctly in the first place and leaving it. This sort of thing unfortunately does not happen, as in the course of running nearly everything in the drive expands, contracts or alters in some way so that the adjustment is affected. This means that every unit must be adjustable in several directions and adjustments of this sort do not tend to make the job any cheaper to produce. Another trouble is that owing to the change of temperature the size of the friction disc alters again, upsetting the adjustment and also causing the discs to run across each other unasked, so changing gear whether the driver intended to or not. It was quite common to take a car out in such a condition that at the beginning of the test the gear lever always forced itself back to the lowest position ; but after a few miles, when everything was so hot that
the engine would hardly pull the car in bottom gear, it was impossible to stop it getting into top every few seconds. This led to further complications and it was decided that some firm locking device for the sliding wheel apart from the gear lever, either automatic or otherwise, was necessary. Everyone in the works had a go at designing their ideas for this fitting and many and weird were the gadgets produced. Most of them worked to some extent but none had any real advantage. However it made for variety, as no two cars were ever built with a similar fitting. The fact that it was hardly the perfect car for the owner driver is shown by the fact that before even the mildest excursion it was advisable for an expert to spend at least half an hour underneath playing with the works, to ensure that at least some power would be transmitted to the back wheels.
Giving demonstration runs was an anxious business in those days as even the simplest manoeuvre was liable to upset some adjustment, and the demonstrator would have to think of some plausible explanation as to why the car would not reverse or why a perfectly simple main road hill caused it to come to a rest with a distressing anvil chorus accompaniment from the power unit.
At a period where we had had so much trouble that there was at last some hope of being allowed to design something a little more conventional and reliable, some brave fellow in the works decided to undertake a journey to Devonshire for a holiday, hoping to combine business with pleasure ; though it is only a special type of optimist who could find sustained pleasure in continual adjustment of a refractory motorcar. By some miracle our hero not only reached Devonshire but actually returned therefrom, in the process performing the hitherto unprecedented feat of collecting another of our models, which had died quietly some 50 miles from London a few days previously, and towing it home, with his wife in the towed car. True, he had to stop owing to a seizure and fit a piston en route, but this was considered a minor adjustment compared with the usual behaviour ! When he arrived back at the works at the end of his adventure, the Powers that be (or rather that were) were so enthusiastic about the alleged success of the infernal machine, that we were condemned to a further period of trying to get them fit for the public.
A great point of this particular model was the fact that by the removing of the dummy radiator, considerable luggage space was obtainable in the front of the car, provided the driver was prepared to cope with an occasional suit-case drifting between his feet and the pedals ! During the great journey mentioned above, when going over a bump the radiator of the front car fell off, whereupon both cars ran over it, not improving its shape thereby. It was, however, kicked sufficiently straight to be re-fitted by the expedient of packing newspaper underneath it all round the bonnet. Unfortunately no one remembered to re-fix it properly, which caused an awkward moment a day or so later. Our manaking director, a charming man incidentally, but with no knowledge whatever of motorcars, was showing a prospective customer round the works, which were of course, combined showrooms and everything else.
While enlarging on the conveniences of this appalling contrivance, he mentioned the luggage capacity and. with a sweep of his arm ordered the radiator to be removed to demonstrate this. After a struggle this was done to reveal a large quantity of rolled up and torn newspaper draped all over the inside. It was one of those moments ! Following the view that there is nothing like trying a new model in open competition, we used to enter for trials and on various occasions even got as far as the start ; though I can remember no occasion on which one finished within the time limit set by the organisers. While it was sometimes possible to get the friction drive to grip sufficiently for normal rtmning, a steep hill nearly always caused it to slip, causing flats on the friction wheel. Trials secretaries had a nasty habit of including restart tests on bad hills and this caused us much thought and worry. Wonderful contrivances were fitted to our competition vehicles to enable extra spring pressure to be applied between the discs in emergencies, so that at least one get-away on the hill could be made without completely wrecking the drive. The extra spring pressure put so much load on the crankshaft that what little power the engine had was completely absorbed in rotating this distorted member. To enable the spring
pressure to be reduced the bright idea was conceived of countersinking small holes all round the centre of the driving wheel where of course the drive comes in low gear. This part of our specials was more reminiscent of a nutmeg grater than anything else, but by its aid it was possible, sometimes, to get away on a hill after stopping. The method of testing this was to put the car with the back wheels against a good sized baulk of timber in the works and then try to climb the car over it from a standing start, to the accompaniment of the roaring of the engine, clouds of blue smoke from the exhaust, and a frightful smell of burnt cork, or whatever friction material was in use on the car in question. Friction mnterial as used for brake linings had insufficient grip without excessive pressure and a more popular material was cork, either as a complete ring, or compounded with layers of other material to take some of the wear.
It must not be imagined that troubles with the engine and the friction drive were the only things which went wrong ; these were just the main things. Everything else that could go wrong on a car did. Some machines had coil ignition with the distributor
on the end of the dynamo and driven through a fibre pinion for the sake of quietness ; though it is fairly certain that any little extra noise due to a metal pinion would have been quite inaudible above the general turmoil. Owing to the fact that the dynamo was supported on a flimsy sheet metal bracket, the wheels did not keep in mesh for any great length of time and the teeth rode over each other and demolished the fibre pinion with a sharp shriek, leaving the car quite useless.
Apart from the fact that the engine was hopelessly overloaded, further overloading was caused by the enormous quantity of spares which it was necessary to take to have any hope to getting to one’s destination. A spare friction wheel, a few dynamo drive pinions, a piston or two and a good collection of nuts, bolts, rods, iron, string, and of course enough tools to dismantle any part of the car, were the chief requirements. I used to live about 15 miles from the works, doing the journey each day in a cycle car of another and considerably more reliable make. When feeling more than usually foolish it was my practice to attempt to take home one of the firm’s cars for the week-end. The fastest and most reliable journeys the cars ever made were when being towed back to the works by the
other cycle car referred to above. For towing purposes we had acquired a considerable stock of aeroplane shock absorber elastic and this made towing, usually rather a dull business, quite an exciting proposition. In a traffic block, when the policeman’s hand descended, the tower would often leap forward until he found his car brought up by some invisible power about 20 yards further on, owing to the towee being asleep or admiring the landscape and forgetting to release the brake. He would wake up suddenly and release it, to be whisked forward by the elastic with a resounding crash into the back of the towing car. This sort of thing brightened up towing considerably.
Manufacturing cars on these lines is hardly a commercial proposition, this being shown by the fact that none of the firms who did it are now in existence. However, given the peculiar sense of humour necessary to carry on this sort of work without committing suicide, much entertainment might be obtained from the mechanical horrors of those days ; though we are now in an era where motoring is a serious and reliable business, those who remember the productions of the crude old days will, I am sure, join in wishing that their relics may rest peacefully in their graves.
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