With Special Reference to a “Hotted up” Model-T Ford
It was in 1914 that my father decided to dispense with the pony-carriage which had served as family transport throughout our schooldays; in its place he installed our first car, a brand-new five-seater Ford model-T “de luxe,” price £135. (The standard type cost £125 — what was left out to meet the £10 reduction I cannot now remember nor imagine.) To my great delight I was appointed chauffeur; I’d already had a few driving lessons on a similar car and took on my new responsibilities with enthusiasm, which, however, waned somewhat when I was made to realise that they did not entitle me to take the car out as and when I pleased. So I badgered the old man until he provided me with one of my very own — a secondhand 1913 air-cooled Humberette, bought for £50. This, incidentally, was the only secondhand car I have ever acquired. While it gave me much joy to be a motorist in my own right, so to speak, the vehicle itself proved unable to cope with our rough country roads. Perhaps my inexperience had something to do with it; at any rate, it was forever giving trouble. Indeed, it celebrated its arrival by shearing the cotter pin by which the drive was transmitted from the axle shaft to one of the rear wheels; it also succeeded, during my first effort to start it up, in setting on fire the petrol from an over-flooded carburetter. It had a maddening trick of dropping the rear end of the cardan shaft on to the roadway at most inopportune moments. It did about 50 m.p.g. and about the same of oil; its maximum speed was 32 m.p.h. I sold it after enlisting in the — as it then was — Mechanical Transport section of the Army Service Corps. The Ford was left to the mercies of our handyman, who in a fit of alcoholic exuberation drove it through a hedge into a field where it rolled right over and back on to its wheels. After repairs and renovations my sister took charge of the driving until my return as an ex-Serviceman, complete with gratuity and an enhanced though debased vocabulary.
In the Army I drove various vehicles. Amongst these was a three-ton Daimler ammunition lorry which had solid tyres and, as was common in those days, no electrical equipment beyond the magneto; it had a sleeve-valve engine which ran like a dream but was a nightmare to start, by hand, of course, after it had been standing in the open all night. There was also a Crossley wagon of the type used by the Royal Flying Corps — all right for running about on aerodromes and main roads, but far too low slung for the hazards of the Middle East. Out there, my old friend the model-T Ford justified its existence; these cars proved that provided you could keep them running, they would take you almost anywhere, road or no road. The difficulty was to get spares. It was not unknown for us to travel on tyres stuffed with grass to replace inner tubes damaged beyond repair, or with the contact points on the coil make-and-break renewed with blobs of melted-down rupees — shortlived expedients which got you at least part of the way back to base.
Our next automobile, which was to take over from the family Ford, was an Albert, an open four-seater of 11 h.p., an attractive-looking post-war production costing over £600; when we sold it, less than two years later, it fetched only £140. We said goodbye to it without a tear, for it had been a disastrous investment. It had fundamental weaknesses of design and material in chassis and body that resulted in continual repair work. Some faults, such as intermittent steering wobble and the failure of the doors to remain closed for any length of time when the rear seats were occupied, couldn’t be cured at all. And that, for my father, was the end of his car-owning career, save for an almost equally unhappy part-share in a Chalmers “Hot Spot.” I did one tour in it, to John o’ Groats, during which it lived up to its name by burning out four of its six exhaust valves; new ones were unobtainable so far north and the cylinder head had to be replaced with these valves still in situ — the return journey can be imagined.
When the Albert first arrived, I was given the Ford, I think as a reward for not having allowed myself to be “bumped-off ” during the war. I spent a memorable year or more and all my available cash, converting it into a sports runabout, doing single-handed all the work of lowering the chassis, hotting-up the engine — which included fitting a special 16-overhead-valve cylinder head — and building the body.
I’d known for some time that this car would be mine some day and during the waiting period had occupied myself making plans for carrying out the transformation. I knew what I wanted, I thought I knew how to achieve it — now, at last, I could go ahead and put my ideas into practice.
Have you ever tried to remove, single-handed and without block and tackle, indeed with little more than a hammer and a set of tyre levers, a five-seater car body from its parent chassis? I hadn’t, anyway. I did it by first unscrewing everything unscrewable — yes, I did have a spanner or two—and then, after ripping out the upholstery, I demolished the rest of the bodywork panel by panel, until it was all in bits, all of which went on the scrap heap.
At that time, there were on the American market numerous gadgets for the enthusiast who wished to “irnprove” his standard model-T. I made a selection of these and had them imported by an agent. The most impressive — and expensive — of these was the 16-overhead-valve cylinder head; others were a crown wheel and bevel giving a 3 to 1 top-gear ratio, brackets to undersling the chassis, and an outsize carburetter. A set of aluminium pistons replaced the original cast-iron ones. The 1914 radiator was rejected in favour of an up-to-date one—of 1916 design!
Lowering the chassis involved cutting right through the two main side-members, telescoping them 6 in. and bolting them together; for this I had to acquire a hacksaw and a brace and bits. It was a frightening job but turned out all right. To fit the new pistons the cylinders had to be rebored. This was done for me free of charge by the local Ford agent, who by this time was displaying a cynical interest in my activities.
The steering column was raked to a more appropriate angle; this necessitated a couple of special steel wedges which were made for me by an engineer friend who has since become much more famous as a golfer than I ever did as a sporting motorist. The petrol tank I moved from its position under where the front seat had been, to the rear of the chassis where the boot would be when I got the body built. The chassis was then ready for a try-out, an exciting moment but as the licence had expired and wouldn’t be renewed until the car was completed, the tests had to be restricted to a quarter-mile stretch of private road, conveniently adjacent. Later, I borrowed trade plates for trials on the public highway, during which I had to suffer much derisive comment from the local urchins who gathered round every time the car came to a standstill.
The body I made of three-ply wood, with an aluminium bonnet. The latter was of the type later to be known as “crocodile”; the cutting of the top panel to exact shape gave me a few headaches. It was moulded to the required curvature with the aid of the old-fashioned family mangle! Mudguards I had to have made specially, and the hood also.
Much of the work was done at nights, with little or no assistance, in a disused unheated coach-house, lit by one solitary paraffin-oil stable lamp. Night after night, when my day’s work was done, I got into my dungarees and went out to carry on alone with my self-imposed task—a labour of love, really. And so in time the dream became reality. The whole job took well over a year of my spare time.
Speeds of 70 m.p.h. were attained, not, I may say, in any great comfort, for roadholding was not one of its marked characteristics. The biggest thrills were derived from its acceleration in the lower ranges, between 30 m.p.h. and 50 m.p.h., and in its top-gear hill-climbing abilities, which, for those days, were remarkable.
I entered it in one of two local events. In one of these it did a standing-start half-mile in 35 seconds, gaining second place to an enormous Indianapolis Sunbeam. It was not so fortunate in a hill climb held at Cairn o’ Mount in Perthshire. After crossing the finishing line ahead of a competitor who had started one minute before me — the climb was over a mile long — I found I had been disqualified for not carrying a spare wheel (R.S.A.C. “Touring” regulation). It had fallen off on one of the steeper stretches, being merely slung loose in a grid at the back of the boot. After a brief existence in this form, during which it gave me quite a bit of fun, I had to part with this Ford, chiefly on account of the new £1 per H.P. tax, which, at £23 per annum, I could not afford.
An 11.4 h.p. Standard tourer followed, a much more appropriate mount in view of my increasing domestic responsibilities. It lasted for six years, during which it served me well enough, covering the length and breadth of Britain more than a few times, suffering nothing more serious than an occasional broken spring, due perhaps to overloading. This was the car to which I fitted a home-made set of trafficators—and winkable at that—which were so much before their time that nobody, except me, knew what they were for, so I had soon to abandon this attempt at pioneering.
In 1930 I bought a Singer Sixteen. This was a nice enough machine in many ways, but it was marred by inherent faults: wire wheels, the spokes of which were forever breaking; brake cables with an S-bend in the middle, where they jammed and soon wore through; indeed the whole car seemed to wear itself out in no time. It was followed by an Austin Ten, which gave place after a few years to a Twelve of the same make. These two cars gave me good, reliable if unexciting service, the Ten proving the rather better job of the two.
1939 saw the acquisition of the car I was perforce to retain for a much longer period than any of its predecessors. This was a Vauxhall Ten; I had it for 16 years, until 1955. It was laid up for the latter part of the war; apart from that, it was seldom off the road. I lost track of the mileage after two renewals of the speedometer head; as it grew older, replacements became increasingly necessary — new engine, silencer, parts of the differential, and various other items — all normal enough requirements in the circumstances. The gearbox never gave me any trouble whatever, and when I sold the car it was still looking quite smart in its original paintwork.
And so to the present day, which finds me with a 1955 Ford Prefect. In spite of the minor defect of its characteristic gearbox “sizzle” and its rather small dimensions which do not accommodate my increasing girth any too well, particularly on entering the driving seat — it’s really my vital statistics that are out of accord with my pocket! — I find it satisfactory and of most pleasing appearance. I had one initial complaint — an alarming drumming that vibrated throughout the whole car at certain engine speeds. After a few unsuccessful experiments the trouble was traced to nothing more serious than a loose bolt in the rear anchorage of the exhaust pipe. Two turns of a spanner effected a cure. The only other criticism I could make would be that the car seems quite unaware of the high cost of petrol! But then you can’t have everything — and her performance is really very good indeed.
As to the future, I’m in no position to prophesy. But if you ask me, what of the past? I’d say, if anyone knows what happened to a car bearing the registration No. G6386 — my home-converted Ford runabout — I’d be most interested to hear of it.