Cars I have owned

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Holland Birkett, Captain of the 750 Club, has his say in the matter of personal motor-cars. – Ed.

From the age of twelve I had been systematically conditioning my parents to my proposed motoring career, and so at sixteen I was sent off on a train to a place forty miles distant, to buy a motor-cycle from a friend of my father’s and ride it home. This scheme was hatched spontaneously in the parental bosom and showed that they were prepared to bow to the inevitable with good grace. Although primarily car minded, and a fervid Lancia Lambda enthusiast since early childhood, I surveyed my newly acquired 1922 chain-cum-belt, 2 3/4-h.p. Douglas with a fierce pride and joy. I soon found the 40 cruising speed intensely boring, however, and repeatedly seized the rear cylinder trying to maintain 45. When this happened I would take the engine to pieces, clean everything up, and reassemble it, taking either piston at random and fitting it into either cylinder. Once the rear big-end seized for a change, and not being white metal, the con. rod wound itself round the crank until it got to the piston, whereupon the engine, but not the flywheel, stopped.

Then I left school and got a job as a grease boy in a high-class motor works. For this I was to be allowed a car, but of not more than 10-h.p. The situation called for some little subtlety, so I located in turn all the worst and most horrible little boxes I could find, and dragged my poor father round to see them (in ‘buses), lamenting the while that Mr. Lancia had not thought to make a car less than 14 h.p. He held out for a week, but caved-in in the end when I arranged for him to be taken out in a Lambda so that they could demonstrate the suspension. He paid Mr. Nardini £45 and a ten-yearold, reconditioned First Series Lambda was mine.

Now to me the Lambda represented the pinnacle of motoring ambition, the focal point of five years of schoolboy enthusiasm, and yet I was in no respect disillusioned. It seemed to have every desirable property. The high-pressure tyres gave incredibly accurate steering, and rather more speed than some cars of the later series. The brakes were fantastic; the wheels could all be locked at any speed on a dry (or on a wet) road. It would always start easily and cruise at any speed up to 70. Although driven with all the verve and lack of understanding of my seventeen years it did not seem to wear out at all. In spite of the three-speed box the acceleration was quite respectable. And the cornering powers are, of course, proverbial; I was saved from a nasty accident when showing the car off to a sceptical acquaintance by being able to get round a roundabout at about 55 m.p.h. without overturning, although damaging the hubs and wheels to no small extent in the process. I have always driven fairly carefully since that occasion.

The many critics of the Lambda hold that they are sadly lacking in speed, but it is this car above all others that so clearly demonstrates the unimportance of this particular attribute on all but the autobahn type of route. When going from A to B (I am particularly fond of B) I used to put up excellent averages without exceeding the normal speedometer maximum of 72. On a certain 200-mile drive up A5 before the speed limit came into force my passenger kept a careful log of places and times, and we found we had covered one fairly unfrequented stretch of 15 miles within 45 minutes. In average conditions, a point-to-point speed of 15 m.p.h. should be well within the capabilities of any Lambda with no great exertion on the part of its driver.

My career as a grease boy having drawn to a conclusion, I decided against the motor trade, and was given the choice of a college training or a motor-car, and if the latter something cheaper to run than the Lancia. Not feeling disposed to any anti-climaxes, I chose college, and endeavoured to dispose of the car to the trade at a price in keeping with its value in my eyes. Like many another, I discovered that in the interval between buying and selling a car the fickle public executes a complete volte face in their demand for the type, so that the motor vendors can hardly be persuaded to have the thing cluttering up their premises! I got £15 in the end, and was allowed half of this sum to buy a motor-cycle on which to go to and from college. After deep consultation with Mr. Bourne, of The Motor Cycle, I bought a very bad example of a good make, a 1930 coil-ignition 350-c.c. o.h.e. Velocette, and I did no better for myself than if I had bought a good example of a bad make. Still, I suppose it was something to have had the right name on the tank. After getting concussion when doing less than 20 m.p.h. I sagely sold it to a man who exported it to Australia, and bought a slower and lower machine, in the form of a 250-c.c. Volocette, followed by another Velocette with 4-speed foot-change. In spite of being nearly 6 ft. 5 ins., and about 14 stone, I got on very well with the latter machine, provided I kept away from arterial roads. It was little faster than the Douglas, but enormous fun in traffic or in the rough.

During this motor-cycling period my father and sister both awoke to the fact that I had completely monopolised the Lambda, and that they, in order-to keep abreast of progress, should learn to drive. A local taxi-driver offered us a 4-seater open Fiat Eight, of about 1927 vintage I suppose, and my father spent his share of the proceeds of the Lambda on this. The phenomenally low price was soon explained by the repeated melting of big-ends, which, after dismantling, was located to an obstructed feed to the front main. Having settled this little trouble, my sister must needs come shooting out of a blind side turning and get the front end all smashed up by a Morris. Discouraged, my father had the car repaired and sold it for £13, this being the only occasion that anyone in iny family has ever made a profit on a transaction.

Finding Motor-cycles to be somewhat unstable on wood blocks and also lacking in social amenities, I decided that a car was, as ever, a necessity, although it would have to be run almost entirely out of fare and lunch money. Anyway, the G.T.P. Velocette was traded for a 1927 Chummy Austin Seven, and there began a season of desperate maintenance work to keep the car from gravitating to the breakers, whence it was years overdue. I contrived to make it work reasonably well and even fitted a remote-control gear lever and special dampers. When the car eventually returned to earth I was flattered to find that the breaker man who had bought it wanted quite a lot of money for these two items.

Followed a 1929 coil-ignition Chummy Austin Seven in like condition, and representing a similar problem. Being now more familiar with Austin Seven technicalities, I was able to keep this car motoring intermittently, but at maximum performance, for over a year, during which I covered about fifteen thousand miles. During the Easter vacation of 1937 I contrived to average almost 100 miles a day for five weeks in this and another Austin Seven. Hence the expression “good old days.” This mileage was in pursuit of that curious hobby of collecting fresh roads over which one has not driven before, and marking them in ink on a map. This practice arouses the greatest rivalry between fellow collectors, and accounts for some incredibly bad averages between two given points.

The period of derelict Chummies was considerably relieved by my being given almost completely free use of a current model Wolseley Fourteen saloon, belonging to a lady who automatically bought a new car each year and who preferred travelling by train, on the understanding that I used it to facilitate the social activities of her daughter. This meant frequent trips to their country house in Wiltshire, and soon I developed a distinct taste for last night driving. In recent issues of The Autocar there has been much controversy about the average speed potentialities of what Forrest Lycett refers to as cars “but little removed from mediocrity.” Assuming the Wolseley to fall in this class, I can state that, given reasonably empty roads, averages in excess of 50 m.p.h. are possible. There was an evening when I had reason to suspect that a certain gentleman, whose middle name should have been Casanova, might be making undesirable advances to the young lady of my choice, in the country mansion aforesaid. Leaving Golders Green crossroads at 11 p.m. precisely, I motored 108 miles by milometer in 1 hour and 55 minutes by the dashboard clock – and found my fears groundless! This works out at 56 m.p.h., and considering the excellent lighting set, the almost deserted roads, my good night-vision, and a mood not to be trifled with by any arbitrary considerations such as speed limits, I hope Mr. Lycett will be convinced. The Wolseley, though far from being a sports car (whatever that may be) had certain advantages over the general run of production saloons. There was a distinct attempt to keep the centre of gravity low, and cornering had only a trace of the nautical roll. Third gear was reasonably high, and brakes and lamps were excellent. Valve float occurred at a speedometer reading of 70 m.p.h., and I made a practice of cruising at just below this speed, which caused great consternation amongst the L 10 plugs.

Then the second Chummy fell finally to pieces and the Wolseley party broke up, and I had to cast about for some form of inexpensive fast motoring. There was a pathetic lack of interest amongst the other students at college, but a certain young lady whose home was in southern France had been a great exponent of ski-ing and had suffered the misfortune of a broken ankle. She was anxious to take up a new sport, and my experiences with Chummies and a fair stock of spare parts prompted me to suggest joining forces and buying an “Ulster” Austin Seven. This plan was carried out, and we obtained a very battered and neglected example which had heen either a T.T. team car or a replica. It was without its blower and generally in a parlous condition, having a high axle ratio, low compression ratio and non-overlap camshaft. It would do almost 50 down hill, but, even so, felt very much the real thing. We fitted a standard engine so that the other could be properly (we hoped) rebuilt, and changed to a 5.25 to 1 final ratio. The 4.9 to 1 axle had stripped on the first day, having been run without oil by the previous owner. Then I settled down in earnest to rebuilding the engine so that it would be sufficiently reliable to take to France on each summer vacation. I found that the crank was pressure fed but with 1 1/8 in. diameter journals, evidently from one of the old “Brooklands” cars. Quite unsuitable for my purpose, of course, but it had to stay owing to the usual shortage of funds. It was compensated for in a sense by the most beautiful set of con. rods I have ever seen in any engine, but too small in big-end diameter to fit any man-size crank. I should warn Austin enthusiasts that though they may be wizards with standard engines, considerably more magic is required to build a good “Ulster” engine from separately acquired bits. I find I always learn a lot each time I build it up, and also that I knew more at my mother’s knee than the man who assembled it before me will ever know.

The first trip to France was the best, in spite of the ill-prepared engine. The car was a sensation in Paris, and looked a real treat, all covered with mud, parked between an Isotta-Fraschini and a Bugatti in the Champs Elysées. It did not go particularly quickly, but with a little practice I could dice with, but not outdice, the Parisian taxi-driver. From a centre near Lyons a circular tour of the French Alps was ventured, and we found that the high second gear exactly suited the constant gradient on the passes of 1 in 10, and, had I known enough to alter the jet sizes to suit the rarefied air, the water pump would have taken care of the cooling. As it was, the engine ran weak at altitude, and boiled busily, almost failing to surmount the Col du Galibier in consequence. Still, a lot of quite exciting motoring can be obtained on the descent of the passes, particularly as they thoughtfully provide a loose top dressing on the hairpins, so that the tail can be slid round in the approved style. (Approved by whom?)

The funny little crank was a nuisance, too, because it had a violent vibration period at 40 to 42 m.p.h. in top gear, which was the natural speed for the sometimes 20-mile-long uphill approaches to the passes. And we thought the 4,500 r.p.m. necessary to jump this speed in secoud unwise in the circumstances. But all these little worries were more than compensated for by the scenery, which is beyond description.

We had the car rebored in France, because of the favourable rate of exchange and beeause the local garagiste gave us full facilities to work on the car, including red wine of the district ad lib. But intead of replacing the perfectly good fully-floating gudgeon pins, some standard  Rosengart ones with the central notch were fitted, with circlips in the pistons. Soon after returning to England one of these quite justifiably broke, miles away from home, and we had to motor with one rod and piston removed – recommended with baby crankshafts. The rod was straightened, rebushed, and a set of Specialloid pistons made. About this time we did the obvious thing and got married, and, it being the close season for France, decided to motor from John o’Groats to Lands End, starting and finishing in London, by way of a honeymoon. It is hardly neeessary to state that the crank broke in the most remote part of the Border country. We had to send home for the spare engine before we could go on motoring. But the trip was completed, after some further difficulty with aged magnetos, and some precious black lines were added to the collection on the map.

With only the duration of the summer term to do it in, some intense rebuilding had to be done. We managed to acquire a Laystall built-up crankshaft, looking like a row of flywheels and obviously incapable of perceptible vibration. It was a terrific job wangling it into the crankcase, but once it was spinning happily on new bearings we felt that Lyons was no distance at all. “Blown Ulster” rods, a high-lift camshaft with cams like thumbs, and a downdraught S.U. carburetter were also added. A reliable box of sparks being no less essential, Mr. Scintilla was approached not once but many times, and in the end he supplied a brand new type-PN4 magneto for a mere song, obviously to get rid of me. The Alta head was placed in the tail as a spare, and replaced by one giving a compression ratio of almost 8 to 1. A cunning bracket was made, and a pair of Zeiss headlamps and a spotlamp mounted, so that night would be as day. The chassis had been box-sectioned, Hartford dampers put on the back, and the 19″ wheels replaced by 17″ wheels, with new tyres (wedding presents, these). Then, barely able to scrape together the money for the steamer fare, we felt we had done the car proud, and, after all, studying for exams could always be done some other time! And in fact the car motored extremely well, cruising consistently at between 60 and 65 m.p.h., though not boasting any great maximum speed. With a 5.67 to 1 axle it would have been much faster, but would undoubtedly have buzzed itself to a standstill by being driven flat out for hundreds of miles on end. We found it quite unnecessary to exceed 4,500 r.p.m. in the gears, and it is my firm opinion that most of the talk one hears about unblown Austin Sevens and fantastic engine speeds is ill-considered and exaggerated, or at least refers to freak rather than average performances.

This second trip to France boasted neither a visit to Paris nor to the Alps, and terminated with a desperate drive hack to Calais through the most frightful thunderstorms to get home before the war started, which we achieved by a narrow margin.

The next car was purchased by my wife in the early days of the war, when we were living apart during the week and both needed a vehicle. It was a very battered and permanently dirty 1932 Austin Seven saloon, to which I had fitted, on behalf of the previous owner, a new 1937 three-bearing engine and 4-speed gearbox. This type of hybrid is always very amusing, because hitchhikers insist that it must he supercharged and I am sure that people who thought they could accelerate away from traffic lights must often have gone home and taken more water with it. One such gentleman was dicing his Standard Nine dow a a slight incline (myself in the passenger’s seat) with his speedometer registering 70, when my wife motored past in the Austin! It never had a speedometer, but I am morally certain it could not possibly have exceeded 60.

With two Austins in the stable, and having acquired parts front various specials never proceeded with, I had accumulated a formidable array of spares, so I bought the body and registration from Phil Hunter’s A.E.W. open 4-seater Austin, known as the 750 Club Secretarial Chariot, and started on a special myself. Now every home-made car ought to have a raison d’etre, an excuse for its existence, and a good one at that. Mine had everything except this one thing. In specification it was it nondescript all-purpose (which is the same thing as a no-purpose) hack. I lavished 15 months’ precious spare time and ingenuity on it and never really enjoyed driving it when it was running – I won’t say finished. It comprised a 1934 long-chassis van frame, with dropped front axle and spring rather as on the “Ulster” but not quite. The rear axle had a 1929 screw-adjustment torque tube and differential housing, with 1932 long half-shafts and casings, and a 1936 5.623 to 1 crown wheel and pinion. By the rules or Austin interchangeability this pinion shaft cannot be mated with the 1929-type torque tube, but by highly unofficial methods I made it work satisfactorily. The gearbox was the so-called close-ratio 4-speed type from a “Nippy.” Third is 1.49 of top gear! The rear dampers, a serious weakness in the average Austin Seven, were made with short arms from an old front damper and twice the usual number of friction plates, so that they were both smooth and really effective.

The engine was based on the standard 1932 crankcase and crank originally in the saloon, but fitted with a “Speedy” camshaft, “Nippy” valve guides and springs, and “Ulster” con. rods and cut down tulip valves. A hole was cut in the side of the crankcase, and a Ford Eight petrol pump mounted over it on an Elektron block, engaging with the eccentric on the camshaft. The head was Whatmough-Hewett in R.R.50 and ignition was by Scintilla Vertex, the automatic advance of which was specially made to suit the power curve associated with the camshaft. There was a downdraught Zenith carburetter and a four-branch downswept exhaust manifold by Ballamy. With surprisingly little trouble this heterogeneous collection of bits was persuaded to work completely in unison, and it pulled the 4-seater body along quite briskly.

About this time my wife’s health became too bad for her to carry on our business (for which the car was used) and so I had to leave the war job I had been doing and take it over myself. This gave me a huge increase in spare time, and considering the relatively liberal ration of 3 gallons per month to motorcycles, I decided to build myself a three-wheeled Austin Seven in the shortest possible time, and so reap the benefit in the last two or three months of motorcycle “basic.” I bought a Raleigh van chassis without engine or back axle for 25/-, cut off all but about 3 ft. 6 ins, of the side members, and installed three cross-members. On these I bolted four lengths of Austin chassis channel, two to carry the Austin rear springs, and two to carry the engine. An Austin rear axle was fitted in the normal way, and was coupled to the gearbox by a 6-in. prop. shaft. An Austin steering column was coupled to the Raleigh steering box on the top cross tube (which also carried the steering head) by a leather flexible coupling, a la Bugatti. Driver and passenger sit more or less on either side of the engine, and the clutch, instead of the gear lever, had to have remote control! The body was made of glue and plywood like a Miles “Magister,” and is very strong for its light weight. It can carry four at a pinch. Bonnet top and sides are 26-gauge corrugated iron, beaten flat with a mallet. There are the usual hood, tonneau cover, folding screen and instruments. As used every day it weighs almost exactly 7 cwt. This funny machine was then insured on the strength of an engineer’s certificate (he runs a Raleigh “Safety Seven”), licensed as a Raleigh tricycle with an Austin Seven engine, and motored to the September, 1942, Rembrandt meeting just ten weeks after the keel was laid. Then, after a few teething troubles were overcome, I went with my wife for a fairly considerable tour, she being out of hospital between two operations. We found that the most outstanding feature was the excellence of the steering. Of course, a motor-cycle fork obviously has perfect geometry, and no part of the steering linkage is unsprung. Moreover, there can be no question of inaccuracies of parallelism or Akermann angles. The car naturally rolled on corners, about as much as the average box, but was nevertheless perfectly stable. It is possible to lift a wheel deliberately and drop it again. This may also be done inadvertently, for one dark night I motored round a bend on two wheels and the frame, which means there is about 3 ft. of fresh air under the third wheel. The passenger (Phil Hunter) was asleep at the time, but suddenly woke up. As in almost every other road special ever built, the tyres rub against the body. The three tracks, always said to pick up half as many bumps again, have certain advantages. You do not get that unpleasant pitching movement that is caused by the back and front wheels of a normal car running over the same bump at certain speeds, nor do nails, etc., turned up by the front wheel get a chance to puncture a rear tyre. An even greater advantage is that over rough and muddy tracks the rear wheels are permitted to follow the irregularities of the surface without being influenced by the front axle acting through the torsional stiffness of the frame. Just as a tripod always stands firm, so the weight on the two rear wheels of the tricycle is always equal. This naturally tends to negative wheelspin, and I have found that quite a horrid morass can be negotiated with no subtler technique than by just motoring through it. Considering this, and the fact that the rear two thirds of the wheels drive it should be a useful trials device. For this purpose it will have to have the wider rear axle and a much more efficient cooling system, but meanwhile it is being used as the second car in my professional work, and has proved popular with the D.P.O., and extremely useful generally.

Returning to the chronological sequence of affairs. Soon after the tour in the tricycle my wife returned to hospital for a second operation, from which she did not recover. For some months I lost all interest in motor-cars and everything else. Gradually, I became aware of the need for some new and absorbing study; the Austins now all had unhappy associations, and I had little inclination to work on them. My disappointment in the 4-seater special grew to a positive hatred, and the saloon was too weatherbeaten ever to be used again, even had I wanted to do so. So it was with all defences lowered that I was struck down with Bugatti-fever in its most virulent form. And without any great expenditure I contrived to make a satisfactory adjustment to the stable. The 3-bearing engine and gearbox were taken out of the saloon and put into the 4-seater, which was then sold back to Phil Hunter who wanted it for a trials car. My very special engine then went into the tricycle, surprisingly enough making the cooling very much better than with the standard engine previously fitted. Then with the proceeds of the sale in my pocket, I packed up a huge crate of tools, batteries, string, wire and insulating tape, borrowed a pair of trade plates and went off by train to Torquay, where I had located, but never seen, a Type 40 Bugatti 4-seater. This incredible trip was written up in Motor Sport last March, by the Editor himself, who accompanied me, and whose back-seat driving was faintly audible above the rush of wind most of the way home. [Libel! – Ed.] The car was in generally good condition, but I knew from reading back numbers of Motor Sport that used Type 40’s are liable to break an exhaust valve at any time, so I was determined to have some specially made out of KE 965 steel before using the car for business runs. Unfortunately, this calamity occurred on the way home, ruining a piston. I had managed to buy a complete spare engine, so I was not unduly worried, and at the time of writing I am waiting for Messrs. Standard Valves, Ltd., to deliver the goods so that I can go Bugatting again. It is interesting that on dismantling the damaged engine I found another valve head and some bits of piston in the crankcase, relies of an earlier such episode. And on exposing the inside of the sump, which means lifting the rest of the engine off the base, I found more than an inch depth of black sludge – and the oil pipe to the pump came from below the level of it! Being all mixed lip with the cooling tubes, this was a bit difficult to clean out, but some hard work with an A.R.P. stirrup pump did the trick in the end. I shall not use the car again without fitting a Fram or other chemical oil cleaner.

My impressions of driving the Type 40 over a mere 120 miles are only provisional. Expecting something like a glorified “Ulster,” I was very surprised to find I was driving a typical Vintage motor, and at low speeds it reminded me strongly of a 3-litre Bentley or a “12/50” Alvis speaking in broad terms, of course. At 50 to 60 m.p.h. on the open road, however, it became what I take to be typically Bugatti, in that it seemed to “eat” corners and the steering was taut and accurate at all times, while the divers noises were also in keeping.

Owners of Type 43, 55 and 51 Bugattis whom I have met lately have tended to hold the Type 40 in contempt, as being intolerably slow. But if one remembers that it has been called the “Molsheim Morris Cowley,” and changes up at not more than 3,500 r.p.m., does not try to exceed 70 m.p.h., has good exhaust valves, and contrives to make the lubrication system work, I see no reason at all why one should not have a reliable and extremely pleasing touring car. I must admit that I think the “Brescia” Bugatti had a sounder engine, and that the Lancia Lambda is a better car taken all round, but I regard my Type 40 as a sort of apprenticeship to bigger and faster Bugattis. The stable which I would like to have after the war would comprise a Lambda for work, the tricycle for trials, the “Ulster” for unblown class H racing (if the 750 Club manages to organise any), and a Type 55 Bugatti for real motoring. I never anticipate being able to afford to race Bugattis, nor am I convinced that they are most suited to it. But I have gleaned that the Type 55 when in good order is fast, reliable, easy starting and everything that a road car should be, and it is now my ambition to own one. How to pay for it is another matter, but perhaps Father Christmas…!