Cars I have owned

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24

This contribution to the series is rather unusual, being in the form of a letter to the Editor from Capt K Richmond, RA, of India Command. Riley enthusiasts will find it of especial interest. Ed.

It is a most unusual thing for me to rush off and write to the editor of any journal, but the September issue of Motor Sport arrived in this rather remote corner yesterday, the first actually since my wife placed a regular order for it. For many years now I have been one of your “casual customers,” but from now on I hope it will continue to arrive at regular intervals. Anyway, I do think you deserve a word of appreciation for maintaining the interest level so extremely high in these difficult times, and for catering so well for the tastes of those people who still think in terms of Motoring as distinct from transportation. I cannot claim to be anything more than a keen looker-on at the game, as such cars as I have actually owned myself have had to be run as cheaply as possible, without courting the inevitable financial suicide that participating in competitions would have brought about ! I do, however, claim to be an enthusiast, if only on the basis of having consumed every copy of the two weekly publications we all know so well, since 1923, when I started worshipping at the shrine at the tender age of eight ! However, the War has seriously interfered with that also, and in a way, now we are all more or less cut off from that sort of thing, I count myself one of the lucky ones in having a long list of memories to fall back on. How much more fortunate am I, who can remember with a thrill reading the account of the GP at Tours when Segrave won and the first Bentley success at Le Mans in the hands of JF Duff, than the mere beginner, whose memory does not reach back as far as the days when “Bira” (to whom no slight is intended) spent his time going round every corner at Donington backwards in a Riley “Imp” ! Unfortunately, there is no one with whom I am in immediate contact at the moment who shares my tastes, so that may account in part for you having to suffer this outburst.

My apprentice hand was first tried, at the aforementioned eight years, on a 27-hp Buick tourer of 1921 vintage, owned by an uncle ; it was on this that, while sitting close beside the driver, and propped up by him, I used to do all the gear changing, such as it was, and the steering. Thus was my imagination fired, and I already saw myself as a member of some future Sunbeam GP team, and from then on I poked my nose under every available bonnet, talked to any driver who would listen, and devoured every bit of reading matter I could lay hands on. In short, I was what was popularly known as “motor mad.” I still am.

I could not hope to compete with that most interesting series, “cars I have owned,” but the following notes on my family’s various cars may be of slight interest, so WPB or no, here goes. [False modesty, sir !—Ed]

 My father and I visited the 1923 Show, as a result of which he purchased his first car, a 10-hp Galloway drophead coupe. Having lived for many years in Scotland, this was bought largely for sentimental reasons, as during that time he had acquired a great respect for Scottish engineering, and he liked the idea of a miniature Arrol-Johnston, which indeed it was. This Galloway was really an excellent little car (though not so little in its overall dimensions) and gave us many thousands of miles of completely trouble-free motoring, even if the performance was not brilliant. It may be remembered that a team of these cars performed very well in the Scottish Six Days’ Trial of 1924. The clutch, a leather-faced cone, was positive, very positive indeed, but nothing in the transmission broke in spite of the wild leap which marked each of my father’s inexpert getaways. She had a maximum speed of 50 mph, and had a very pleasant four-speed gearbox, with right-hand change. In the autumn of 1925, the local agent showed my father another Galloway, which was to be next year’s model, he said. We were suitably thrilled, as on inspection it proved to have a 12-hp engine, of very clean push-rod design with lots of polished aluminium alloy about it. The clutch was now a single plate and there were four-wheel brakes. We took delivery of our sample, a 4/5-seater de luxe, on Christmas Eve, 1925, and for the next two years this car was on the road every day, and we got about 40,000 miles out of her. She was very reliable, and would be advertised in America to-day as “rugged.” You just could not break her, and although her all-out speed was no more than 58/60 mph, she would cruise all day long at 45 rnph, and frequently did. Her consumption was better than 30 mpg, and her upward gear change was recalled forcibly to me in later years when I drove a friend’s “12/60” Alvis, and once more sampled a quick change. I last saw her in Bexhill in 1934, when she was towing a massive-looking motor boat on a capacious trailer, so she was still being a good friend to someone, and I hope the friendship was reciprocated.

By the Show of 1927 my father was showing signs of the coaching he had been receiving at my hands, and was getting really keen. Anything sporting was out of the question, for family and business reasons, but the more bread-and-butter machinery did not appeal at all. At that time, the Arrol-Johnston company had just amalgamated with Aster, and the first product under the new regime was on the Dumfries stand at Olympia in 1927. This was the “17/50” Arrol-Aster, and we fell in love with it ; she had a 6-cylinder engine with single sleeve valves, mounted in a massive chassis with a wheelbase of 10 ft 7 in. She had the bodywork then in vogue, a fabric saloon of very smart lines (dummy hood-irons and all) which embodied an the disadvantages of Weymann construction without the advantages. She had one-shot chassis lubrication and brakes adjustable from the driver’s seat, and in more ways than one was years ahead of her time. Accordingly, we took delivery of one of the first to be delivered, and began the running-in process. The engine was uncannily quiet and really smooth, but as time went on we realised that the performance didn’t really seem all that good. Additionally, the bodywork showed signs of early disintegration.; doors dropped, and if they closed properly, would fly open at most awkward moments. However, the makers took the liberal view of the times, and back to Dumfries she went, to be returned about a fortnight later with the Smith 5-jet vertical carburetter replaced by a pair of horizontal Cox-Atmos, which improved the performance, while the body had been stiffened and was now merely a coach-built one covered with fabric instead of paint. Needless to say, no charge whatever was even hinted at for these modifications, and the car then proceeded to knock up forty-odd thousand miles in the course of the next thirty months. Her outstanding features were her sweetness of running, her silence, her effortless 60 mph cruising, her great comfort and roominess—and the vast volumes of smoke which were left behind when accelerating. I cannot remember the figure for oil consumption, but it was staggering. As witness to this, we bought a 57-gallon barrel of oil and kept it behind our garage, but it lasted a comparatively short time ! In the autumn of 1930, to our great regret and at the time embarrassment, she finished her career with us on the wrong end of a tow-rope, most of the expensive parts of the engine having been spilt on the road, through, I suspect, my having delayed my change up to third by one or two rpm too many. In her way a grand car, and had as much been known about metallurgy in those days as they know in these days of the Bristol “Hercules” and others, I think the single sleeve valve would not have died the death it did. On the subject of the Arrol-Aster, how many people remember ER Hall’s speeds in the TT of 1929 on one, when he gave the Bentley boys something to think about ?

My father went to the Show of 1930 in rather a more conservative frame of mind, in view of the low value of the remains of the Arrol-Aster, with the result that he ordered an Austin Sixteen “Burnham” saloon. In its way an honest sort of job, but deadly dull. It had a most disconcerting trait of spinning like a top on greasy tramlines, but luckily none of these episodes ended in tears. None of the widely advertised methods of correcting skids had the slightest effect, and once the tail started to swing, to shut the eyes and commend one’s soul to Allah was the most effective technique. Still, she served her purpose, but when her time for disposal came along there were very few expressions of regret to be heard.

Owing to an outbreak of marriage in the family, my father thought he would give a small car a year’s trial, so he bought a Wolseley “Hornet” saloon at the 1932 Show, and for the next twelve months we gave that little car every sort of “tousing,” short of actual neglect of proper maintenance, which was never spared. For about 16,000 miles that “Hornet” was driven flat out where possible, up hill and down dale, and not a penny piece in repairs did it cost. It is very pleasant to be able to say that in view of the very mixed reports that gained currency at the height of the “Hornet’s” fame. Eventually, my parents grew rather tired of the fore-and-aft pitching motion brought about by the short wheelbase and overhang at each end, and the opportunity of a very advantageous trade-in presenting itself, we took over a shop-soiled 1933 Riley “Twelve/Six” ”Mentone” saloon, and that car certainly did something to us, as since then my father and I have owned seven Rileys. This Riley gave us something we had not felt for years—a one piece feeling ; beautiful roadholding, hairline steering, which is best described, I think, as “unconscious,” an engine so sweet-running that its performance was deceptive, and best calculated by the lack of delay in getting to point B from point A. Our best trip in this car was from Eastbourne to Peebles, a distance of 450 miles, which was done in a gross time of 13 hours, with myself driving the whole distance, and in the presence of two stern critics, my parents, who had arrived at the time of life when adequate respite for meals means rather more than a mph or two on the average in the golf-club bar. That Riley was absolutely tireless, and held a steady 60-65 mph up the Great North Road with no fuss whatever, and, although some of the people who put up 90 mph in MG “Midgets” must surely have been on the road that day, we were passed only once, and that was near Leeming, and the car was a blown 41/2 Bentley. Incidentally, that experience has been repeated many a time and oft ; that is, a 60 mph cruising speed takes you past most, and you yourself get passed very, very seldom.

In the autumn of 1934 our beloved Riley found a new owner, and at the Show her successor was chosen ; this time it was a ”16/60″ Humber saloon, and a great disappointment, she proved to be. Between my fetching her personally from the works in November 1934, and her final banishment in May 1935, she gave us quite a lot of trouble. Apart from petty annoyances unbecoming in a new car, well looked after, she suffered from trouble with the thrust bearing to the final drive pinnion, and the rear main bearing proved extremely efficient as a sump scavenge pump, so that the whole of the undercarriage and back panel of the body were smothered with oil. The cumulative effect of these things, coupled with a failure on the part of service to produce a satisfactory solution, resulted in my father’s motion of a vote of no confidence, and the placing of an order for a new Riley “15/6” “Kestrel.” This was a very good-looking car, and embodied several features of our own specification ; we collected her ourselves from the works, round which we were given an extensive tour by Mr Tom Sangster. This car was treated like a baby for its first 2,000 miles, the throttle never being opened more than half-way and free use being made of the gearbox, although no particular limit of road speed was set, the car just settling down to any reasonable speed it felt, like on the whiff of gas we allowed her. At 2,000 miles the oil in the sump was changed for the third time, and, finding herself on the Eastbourne-Bexhill road on a beautiful summer morning, she begged me to let her have more than her customary ration of throttle ; needless to say, I obliged, and the speedometer needle went round to 70 mph with commendable lack of delay. Just as I decided that this would do for the time being, my ears were assailed by that highpitched squeal which heralds a seizure : I coasted to a standstill and, full of remorse, had a look round and a cigarette to calm my nerves while I contemplated what I was going to tell father ! However, after a short time, she started up. and I took her home, running very unevenly, and there made my confession.

When calm was restored, my father put in a ‘phone call to Bill Slingsby, then service manager at Coventry, and told him what had happened, and what would he suggest, please ? Mr. Slingsby suggested that he would get a new engine built up and tested, and would have it sent to our local agents for installation in our chassis, and would we kindly not tell too many people about the affair because he didn’t like to think of his engines seizing up all over the country. In due course our new engine arrived and the old one was sent back to Riley’s, who traced the trouble to a faulty piston which had “picked up” and made a mess of one of the bores. That episode confirmed us as a family in our loyalty to Riley’s, one of the few firms who welcome owners to their factory and regard ”service” as something more than a word on the lips of glib salesmen.

After that our “Kestrel” never looked back, and in spite of being in daily use for business, she was runner-up in her class at the 1935 Concours d’Elegance at Eastbourne, being beaten by a sister car in cream and green, attended by a pair of’ lovelies dressed to match, a combination against which a mere male was powerless. We ran this car for 18 months, and she gave us every satisfaction, her roadholding, braking and steering being well up to the high standard we had by then come to expect ; the typical high cruising speed on a small throttle opening was one of its most pleasant features. Acceleration from low speeds was not out of the ordinary, but over 30 mph it was perfectly satisfactory. The main snag, in my view, was the Wilson gearbox, although in the Riley, by the addition of the Newton centrifugal clutch, the hideous screech on getting away from rest was eliminated, as was the churning of the bands while ticking over in neutral. In January 1930, I bought my first Riley, and it joined the “Kestrel” in the family garage ; she was a 1934 “Special Series” 9-hp “Lynx” open 4-seater. She had done 14,000 miles and was in really good order. I used this little car for business in London and made the trip down to Eastbourne and back every week-end for about nine months. She was not terribly fast, but would stand full throttle absolutely indefinitely, and revelled in a run such as London to Norwich. On one such trip she did a stretch of 19 miles, ending at Barton Mills, in 20 minutes, and altogether, throughout that summer she had very little mercy and gave me a tremendous amount of fun and a lot of really first class trips. Her only competition was the Riley Motor Club Hill Climb, at Lullingstone, in Kent, in June 1939, where she compared very favourably with a lot of her relations. We had intended having a crack at the Scottish Rally that year, but my friend who was going to share the trip with me could not arrange his annual holiday to suit, so we had one of our own at a later date. In the autumn I met an enthusiast who fell in love with the ”Lynx,” and in a moment of disloyalty I accepted his offer for her (cash was always a major factor in my personal motoring !) and we parted. For some quaint reason I then bought a new Ford Ten, largely for its acceleration, I suppose, but found that all the characteristics of roadworthiness that the Riley had led me to expect were lacking. She rolled abominably on corners, her brakes required constant adjustment, and her absence of roadholding had to be experienced to be believed : in some ways I suppose it was my fault as I used to put her at corners the speed my Riley used to take them at, and many were the stirring moments I had as a result. I just could not get used to the soft springing and “jelly on wheels” feeling of the contraption, and was really very glad when one day my father asked to borrow her. He was back in ten minutes, shaking like a leaf and muttering, “This thing must go.” And I was told to sell her. Fortunately, our local agents had a beautiful 1936 PA MG Midget which they were selling on behalf of one of their customers whose creditors were creeping up on him, so I handed over the Ford and a small bag of gold and started to get to know the MG. She was an extremely pleasant little car, with a delightful gearbox and an engine of dynamo-like smoothness ; her thirst for revs, was terrific, and it was very easy to put the needle of the rev-counter into the red area in moments of excitement when using the gearbox. My three cardinal points of roadholding, steering and braking were all well developed in the MG, and she really was a pleasure to handle on fast road with enough curves to keep the interest from flagging. I should put her maximum speed at 75 mph, althongh I once got a reading equivelent to 82 mph on a down-grade on Purley Way. Of snags there were very few ; there was, of course, the usual oil-leak from the overhead camshaft drive, and my own specimen developed end-float on her crankshaft, which made the bevel gear-camshaft drive noisey when ticking over, this noise diminishing when the clutch was freed, thus pushing the crankshaft forward and meshing the bevels more tightly. This end-float also had a bad influence on the big-end of No 4 con-rod, which developed bell-mouthed characteristics. The foregoing were the only troubles I experienced with the “Midget,'” and for ten months she served me very well ; but I was beginning to yearn for something with rather more space for kit and a little more elbow-room, as my usual passenger, now in Italian hands, was a burly chap and had to adopt a rather sideways attitude to give him free aceess to the gear lever. At this time I happened to call on Messrs Jack Hobbs, of Willesden, on the off-chance that they might have something attractive in the Italian line. They had. It was my old “Lynx”, her previous owner having yielded to his wife’s persuasion and bought a “Kestrel.” Well, rightly or wrongly—-but I have never regretted it, I swapped my “Midget” for the “Lynx,” and two old friends took the road together again. In the meantime, my father had also bought another Riley, this time a new 1937 “Adelphi” 11/2-litre, so by this time we had become really Riley-minded.

In the autumn of 1937 a period of more than usual financial stringency coincided with the return of my brother-in-law from overseas service with the RAF, and I yielded to his tempting offer to sell him my “Lynx.” In the two years before the war he did a big mileage in her, and just before the outbreak had completed a rebuilding scheme, with the result that she was as good as new, and very much better than any cheap new car to anyone at all interested in design and workmanship. She is still on jacks in Montrose, waiting for her owner’s return from another overseas tour, and has years of useful life ahead of her. At the Show of 1937 there appeared on the Riley stand a new model of great promise, the 16-hp “Big Four” with overdrive ; at the time my father’s 11/2-litre was giving him every satisfaction, and he could not think of a reasonable excuse to part with her. However, after the local agent had given him a demonstration run on a familiar road in the new model, he began to salve his conscience by suggesting that covering a big annual mileage as he did, it really was more economical to run a new car “as you always knew everything was on the top line.” Anyway, the “Big Four” replaced the 11/2-litre, and between January, 1938, and October, 1941, that wonderful car clocked 60,000 miles, and apart from periodic decokes and tyre replacements, she did not cost a penny piece in repairs in that fairly considerable mileage. To my mind, the Riley Sixteen did not get anything like the publicity it deserved, and I know of no other car of comparable price, passenger accommodation (the roomy “Adelphi” body was mounted on the chassis), or economy of running which could get near it if its driver thought otherwise. You may recollect that the performance of the “Kestrel” which you road-tested and reported on in your issue of June 1938, was pretty good. Our “Adelphi” had a speed of 85-90 mph, and with a following wind, frequently throughout her life with us she put the speedometer needle well past the 90-mph mark. On her overdrive top gear of 3.97 to 1, 2,000 rpm represented 40 mph, so that the effortless cruising speed was limited by road conditions alone rather than by the limits set by the engine. I remember with great joy a dust-up I had with a 31/2-1itre SS, acknowledged by many to be a pretty quick car, which started at Newark and ended at the Scotch Corner Hotel, with the Riley the winner by 15 secs ! Using the gears, the acceleration was as good as one could wish, and judging by the number of cars famed for acceleration that one could beat at the game, it was very much above good average. The steering was typically Riley (and I always maintain that there are very few firms indeed who can teach them anything about steering), and the enormous Girling brakes were powerful, positive and–a great point to my mind –consistent. Neither my father nor I use brakes very much, but when we do we like them to be good. The gearbox was straightforward synchromesh which in conjunction with the overdrive, gave five well-suited ratios. On the subject of the overdrive, I would prefer to have a positive control over it, rather than the centrifugal control combined with freewheel as was customary. To my mind the answer is a normal gearbox with an auxiliary ratio to give the overdrive, engaged, if necessary, by a separate control. In justice to the system as used in the Riley, though, I must say that the change from normal top to overdrive was extremely quick, smooth and positive. On the subject of the free-wheel, I cannot make myself like the feel of a car freewheeling at any speed, one seems to have the machinery under very remote control indeed. The Riley Sixteen was easily the finest car that left the Riley works, and it Is a matter of great personal regret to me that it was evolved too late to save the company in its financial difficulties. In its modified form, as produced by the firm under the patronage of Lord Nuffield, it was a fine car still, and I am sure that when peace returns it will add to the reputation of its makers in no uncertain manner. With its orthodox transmission, I wonder how much of the charm of its performance on the overdrive has been lost, as I believe the present top gear ratio is round about 4.25 to 1, which is still quite high for present standards.

The surge of power throughout the range of that big 4-cylinder engine was a joy, and one person, at least, who received a surprise from the innocent-looking ”Adelphi” was the managing. director of the Sussex distributors for Wolseleys, who thought that his new short-chassis 25-hp Wolseley coupe was a fairly fast motor until he failed to catch the Riley over quite a fair distance. A great car, of which more will be heard in the future, I feel certain.

In the summer of 1939 the urge to become a Riley owner once more got the better of me, and I set out to find a “Gamecock” in reasonable condition at a reasonable price. After a long search, I found the one I was looking for, and once more the old sock was emptied and GX2452 was mine. She was a grand little car, had had a lot of attention from a devoted owner, and had been reconditioned at the works quite recently. I immediately set off for a tour of Scotland in her, during the course of which we got to know one another pretty thoroughly, finishing up with a run from Merchiston, Edinburgh, to Swiss Cottage in ten hours dead, though I won’t pretend that my lunch took me longer than is necessary to sink a pint of bitter and a sandwich. Her handling was delightful and can be dismissed as typically Riley. The diminutive gear lever was a joy to handle, making clutchless changes a simple matter, while I am convinced that there are few cars sold to the public which are faster round a corner than she could be. Great fun could be had by watching V8s and similar ironmongery coming up fast astern, only to come unstuck at the first bit of swervature that had to be negotiated. A driving mirror provided a lot of innocent merriment in those days. My car had rebuilt wheels with enormous Michelin RLP tyres, and whether they detracted from the performance in other ways I know not, but they certainly gripped the road in all circumstances and made cornering possible at speeds which would normally produce embarrassing results. The war came, and. the “Gamecock” accompanied me to the various gun-sites around London at which I served in those days, and eventually down to Cornwall, where she successfully dealt with Bluehills Mine, but petrol was by then becoming increasingly diffieult to come by, and the ”Gamecock’s” outings became fewer and farther between, except for duty runs. In the spring of 1941 service overseas appeared imminent, and the problem of her future then reared its ugly head. In the part of the country where I was then stationed suitable storage accommodation was not easily to be obtained, so I decided that a good home for her was better than leaving her to rot away for a matter of years in uninterested hands, so she was sold to a very enthusiastic RAF man near Plymouth, from whom I later heard that she was going strong and was providing him with just the sort of motoring he had looked for for years— so the loss of her was somewhat eased in the knowledge that she was in the hands of someone who would appreciate her. Incidentally, it’s odd to refer to a “Gamecock” as ”her,” but I see no way round it ! To continue, unfortunately my trip overseas was postponed, and I would have given a great deal to have had my ”Gamecock” back, but that was out of the question, and petrol rationing did not make any search for a car worth while in the circumstances, so my private motoring came to a full stop at that point. In the autumn of 1941 my father obtained a most attractive offer for his “Big Four” from some lucky man engaged on essential work, who could get the petrol which was denied the less fortunate basic-dependents, so she went from us, with nothing but the feeling on our part of “When shall we look on her like again ? “

Now the only Riley in our family is my old “Lynx,” just completing her fourth year on jacks ; I hope that the passage of time has not dealt too hardly with her. There is the future to look forward to, and when sanity returns I must confess my ideas centre round a “Special.” At the moment I have visions of a Riley “Imp” chassis, with a 11/2-litre engine and crash box. Impossible ? Maybe, but I really think there you have the makings of a fairly potent motor-car, and without the slighest technical knowledge to base my opinions on, such difficulties as no doubt there would be do not appear to me to be insuperable ; anyway, I shall have to renew my allegiance to the Blue Diamond in some form or another, and am looking forward once more to watching Percy Maclure performing his miracles at Donington and the Palace. By the way, what would he have done had he been put at the wheel of the new type ERA ? Perhaps we shall still see ; to my mind, he is the best driver we have, a controversial point, I know, but it is an opinion shared by many others, and without wishing to detract at all from the really wonderful car he has built up out of basically sports-car components, I long to see him competing with the rest on a car of at least equal potentialities. When that happens, perhaps it will be generally realised just how good he is. Or will he have to dress up in overalls to match his car, with zippers on every available square inch and surround himself with blondes before he gets the recognition he deserves ?

I am horrified, on reading this over, at the extent to which I have gone burbling on, and duly offer my apologies. However, I will send it, if only for you to read the first paragraph, which was, anyway, the original reason for writing you at all, so please forgive the rest, and if you like, blame the climate ! I have run across practically no enthusiasts out here, with one notable exception, namely, BW Fursdon, of rally fame, who is a captain in the RASC in this Division. I think it advisable to add, in view of the foregoing, that my only connection with the Trade, in any shape or form, is that of customer !