G.N. and Salmson
[By way of a change from the usual "Cars I have Owned" articles we present this contribution by W.L. Jennings, a great Salmson enthusiast who has owned five of these cars. – Ed.]
It would be rather hard for me to say just when my motoring experience first started. I had ridden my brother's motor-cycles for a number of years before the advent of the first machine that I jointly owned with him – a 2-h.p. Oleyon; a very similar machine to the old 2-h.p. Humber, which old-timers will well remember. Just one incident stands out in this otherwise dim past. I had newly left school and was awaiting my entry into the Service (last war!) and was full of hope, but small in stature. My brother had removed the pedals and chain from this machine in order to fit foot rests to give a "T.T." aspect, and with chopped handlebars and open exhaust it certainly looked "the goods" for those days. He also placed the controls and exhaust valve lifter near the steering head, I presume for the same reason, and one fine morning took the Oleyon out on the road for trial.
I well remember he tried it up a long straight with a gentle grade, and the old machine went up the hill like a two-year-old, myself running behind in its dust. Next I was given the honour of "testing" our machine, on which we bad both spent long days of overhaul and repair. I can't remember the whole gamut of bikes I had in those early days, but a very pretty little 2 1/4-h.p. New Hudson two-stroke with single speed, a 3 1/2-h.p. Rudge that wouldn't budge owing to a duff magneto and a 3 1/2-h.p. three-speed Indian with a single cylinder that gracefully reclined against the rear tube of the frame, but which went like the wind, stand out in my memory. After this I got my heart's desire in motor-cycles – a Douglas, and with mechanical inlet valve, too! It had only one speed and chain-cum-belt transmission; the date was 1913, I believe. I loved this old machine and had some very happy times on her, and I think that perhaps when I rode away on this first Douglas (and please don't forget she had a real mechanical inlet valve to boot!) it was the happiest and proudest moment of all my motoring career. During a period of service in the last war I owned several more motorcycles, including a second single-speed Douglas, a lovely mount in those days, although one had to run very fast before getting on, due to the high-speed engine. Just why Douglas ever made a single-speed model as late as 1913 I can't explain, but the fact remains they did; maybe they thought the physical exertion was good for one, and certainly it kept me awfully fit….. I also rode thousands of miles on W.D. Triumphs, Douglases and the like. I was now very anxious to get a car, but a further period away at sea made this impossible until 1923, when I got a G.N. of 1920 vintage. It was quite a nice little job for those days, and I did a number of long runs on it and was, of course, very pleased with my first four-wheeler – there is nothing quite like the "first one," even if in the light of present-day experience it would seem, to say the least of it, rather crude!
I believe they sold for £265 in 1920, with the following equipment: One licence holder, one bulb horn, one windscreen and hood, one jack and one tyre pump; lighting set extra. I had a total of about six G.N.s of various types, two of which had aluminium racing bodies. They were fast and powerful, and the large two-cylinder engine was only just turning over at 40 m.p.h., but they were definitely rough and very noisy. The steering lock was small and the wheels had a nasty habit of throwing their hub caps and coming off en route. With one of the racing models I landed nose down in a deep ditch on one occasion, but little damage was done, as the G.N. would stand a lot of knocking about.
After disposing of my last racing G.N., I came across a 1923 sports Salmson chassis, the body of which had been lost in a fire, and so one day I set forth, a host of spares tied all round me, seated on a box tied to the chassis driving my heart's desire at long last – a French four-cylinder with a racing record already to its name that any firm could be proud of. I had admired and longed for a Salmson ever since they first came into the public notice and, after seeing the 1923 200-Miles Race, in which the Salmsons put up such a fine run, I was set on getting one as soon as one could be found at a price within my reach. Before going any further, I should state that I once drove, though did not own, one of the Salmson-built G.N.s, and the fine construction and lightness of steering and driving, compared with the English-built G.N., at once won my whole-hearted admiration. I saw very plainly that "something" which a Frenchman puts into a racing car and which so often is missing in others.
The four-cylinder Salmson was a sports model with single push-rods per cylinder, which were very troublesome to set, but it was a lovely little car and, though the top speed was only about 60 m.p.h., it would maintain a very good average on a long run and was a most pleasant car to drive. I fitted it with a light aluminium 2-seater body, somewhat after the lines of the 1923 G.P. Fiats; it was quite a good body for touring as the tail gave ample storage room, the spare wheel being carried at the side. The aluminium sheeting around the dashboard had no beading or padding, just a sharp edge, and it would have provided an effective guillotine if a too sudden stop had shot the passenger forward! This, however, never happened in my time….
I sold this car as, with ever-mounting aspirations, I wanted a G.P. twin o.h. camshaft model with four-wheel brakes, and after a while I got a 1925 G.P. car. This was a much better car and I had some very good times indeed with it, but the speed and acceleration were not quite what I had hoped for and were never as good as that of my later models; no amount of adjustment or tuning would produce the results I wanted, although the performance was somewhat improved. The brakes were very good indeed; when the right correction and adjustment was arrived at they were not only very powerful and smooth in action, but would keep their correct adjustment almost indefinitely. The steering lock was too small and the springing rather on the rough side; but, nevertheless, I liked the car very much.
Still stepping upwards, my next car, a Salmson of course, was a 1926 G.P. "Special," with five (roller) bearing crankshaft, special pistons with tubular rods and four-speed gearbox. When I got this car it was in rather a sorry state, with a large hole in the crankcase and one or two rods and pistons broken. I patched the crankcase, fitted new rods and pistons and gave the engine a general overhaul, and after many moons of patient work got it on the road, and at last I had a really fast car. Acceleration and speed were excellent – about 70 to 73 m.p.h. in third gear and around the 80 mark in top gear. In short, a very good car indeed, but again the springing was not quite nice, although, if I remember rightly, this one had Hartfords front and back. The body also seemed on the small side compared with the other G.P. models I had. This was the early 1923 type, and about the middle of the year they fitted an altogether better body. I later sold this Salmson at a handsome profit and was once again on the watch for another. In the meantime, however, another car came into use, a Swift 8-h.p. "Chummy" 3-4-seater, date, I believe, about 1923 or 1924, and as I was now married and was living in the country it was a very useful little car. It had very bad moods of refusing to start and most sadly belied its name, for the top speed, flat out with the loud pedal pushed right through the floorboards, was 32 m.p.h., and at this speed it required a superman to hold it on the road. For running down to the station or shopping it was useful, but on a long journey it was rather trying, the low speed and hard steering making it very tiring to drive.
We once did the journey from near Bromley, Kent, to Hereford and took about nine hours, starting about 2 p.m. and arriving at 11 p.m, and it was about the most tiring journey I have ever made.
After a while I discovered, in Rugby, a late 1926 G.P. Salmson fitted with the aluminium long-tail body beaten out in one piece, which was a truly lovely little car. The engine, gears and axle were all in good condition, but the car wanted a general overhaul and new tyres, so we went up to Rugby with several spare tyres and tubes and, after completing the purchase, pulled the car out of its garage, which, by the way, was in a monumental stone mason's yard, and proceeded to fit new tyres all round. We then partook of a snack lunch seated amongst the gravestones, and finally got on to the road.
Previous to coming up to Rugby I had been driving a new 16-h.p. Humber "Snipe," a very fine car indeed and in a quite different price category from the Salmson, but as soon as we had cleared the town and got into somewhat open country I was again impressed by that unfathomable something which seems to be inherent in all good French sports cars, and it did not take me long to discover that I had a very good example indeed. Speed and acceleration were both very good, springing and road-holding much better than in previous models, and the body fitted was slightly larger, with better disposed seating, which made the car much more comfortable.
After getting the car home a few general adjustments were made to engine, brakes and steering were adjusted, and a checkup made all round.
I made a number of long runs and spent several holidays with this car, one run being through Wales, taking in the North Wales coast road and inland route via Snowdon, where a stop of several days was made, then on to the North of England.
On the very twisting and hilly roads of North Wales the rather small steering lock, solid back axle and three-speed box were a decided disadvantage and counted against the car, but on the more open road the good acceleration and speed made up for this. Top speed on this model was about 63-65 m.p.h., and had a four-speed box been fitted I think this would have been slightly improved on and something over 70 m.p.h. attained. The car's greatest charm was the high average that could be maintained without any effort, 55 to 60 m.p.h. being a comfortable rate.
This model was one of the best starting cars of the sports or racing breed that I ever owned, about two or three half turns being enough to start the engine from cold. I wish I could say the same of all my others! During the whole time I had this car I never had a single mechanical breakdown or a stop on the road and the car was used fairly hard throughout, though I must admit I gave it very good attention and servicing when at home, which I consider essential in the upkeep of any car of racing type; some need much more constant adjustment than the Salmson ever called for.
Whilst still owning the G.P. I purchased what I think was the best bargain in cash value that I ever made in motor-cars – a 2-seater 11.9-h.p. Calthorpe, purchased for £3. This was a very good vehicle of its type and in very good order, and I was surprised at the strength and perfection of its construction; it would have done credit to a car of much higher value, but, unfortunately, it was obtained only for its engine and gears, which were removed and placed in a narrow-gauge locomotive, where they continued to do years of running on passenger hauling and, I believe, are still in service.
The next Salmson I owned was a 1924 G.P., which was quite fast, but, owing to its being only two-wheel braked and rather well worn, was not up to the standard of the others. However, I did a fortnight's holiday tour in it, again through Wales and the North, and it served very well, though when travelling near Blackpool one of the front wheels broke off at the stub axle whilst running into an "S"-bend. Luckily speed was low at the time and we ended up broadside on in the road, headed into a bank; just previously speed had been about 55 m.p.h. and had the axle decided to have broken then it might not have been so comfortable.
I used this Salmson for quite a time and, apart from the above incident, it gave good service and was a nice car, but, as was to be expected, it was not up to the standard of the later models.
Looking back now on this marque, with which I had a fairly wide experience, I consider they were really good cars and in their class quite the best. In considering the merits or otherwise of any car one must to a certain extent compare with others falling into much the same price category and engine capacity. Salmson, like Bugatti, sold to the public racing or sports models almost identical with their own racing cars, and the owner of one of these had a vehicle which must have directly benefited by racing experience and to a degree much greater than such firms as Talbot-Darracq and Delage, who sold cars bearing no resemblance whatever to their racing team cars. Salmson and Bugatti, by racing the cars they sold to the public, were handicapped by a set price limit, since the cars for public sale had to be produced at a reasonable and set figure and were not constructed regardless of cost; yet both these famous marques, when run in a true road race, came through with flying colours.
The earlier Salmsons could have been improved with a somewhat wider track and larger brakes and also lower chassis, and the former would have given a wider steering lock, but all these features were introduced into the later "San Sebastian" models of late 1928 and onwards. The cone clutch was not always all that could be desired, but this was also remedied in 1926-7, by the very sweet yet positive plate clutch then introduced. Apart from these points, the Salmson was, to my mind, a fine car in every respect, and my memories of them are very pleasant ones. Finally, Salmsons have a record which I believe no other car can lay claim to, namely, winning four 200-Mile Races, finishing first and second in two of them, taking first and often second places in nearly every Continental road and track race from 1921 until 1928 in the 1,100-c.c. class, twice winning the Rudge Whitworth Cup in the 24 Hours' Race at Le Mans and twice finishing first and second in the Targa Florio (1,100-c.c. class) and beating all classes in winning the J.C.C. Production Car Race of 1926. Though not owning them, I have driven very long mileages in Benz, Sunbeam, 2-litre Delage (a perfectly lovely car in the sports tourer class), Talbot-Darracq, Arrol-Aster, Austin Sixteen and Austin Twenty, and Humber "Snipe" cars; and, last but not least, have been passenger in a White Steamer.
But I still regard the Salmson as my favourite and have been fortunate in recently obtaining a late 1929 underslung G.P. model, which I hope to rebuild during the remainder of the war, when I am not away at sea.