A Glimpse of the 'Twenties

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Sir,
In the joyous times around 1925 I was stationed at Duxford Airfield in Cambridgeshire. By day we used to perform feats of aviation (exercises, gunnery and so forth, with a few aerobatics usually thrown in) in antiquated biplane fighters.

My grandson, aged six, seeing photographs of some of these machines said : “Golly! you must have been able to go at a terrific speed with all those wings.” I said : “No, indeed, you couldn’t do more than about 150, slightly down hill.” Comment from grandson : “Gosh! How slow.”

In the evenings, nearly all of us used to “motor” (I mean really motor)!

There was a spare hangar at that time and the Station Commander very reasonably allowed the motorists to use it. It was always a hive of activity and interest. One of the more opulent among us had an ancient Rolls but I think even he, in his opulence, found that his 12 m.p.g. or so rather restricted his movements. Another had a 3-litre Bentley, but he too suffered from m.p.g. trouble.

After these two “grand seigneurs,” We tailed off. Everyone had what he could find and what he could “raise the wind” to buy. There was everything from good serviceable machinery down to dreadful, if not dangerous and contemptible, contraptions.

One man had a small red Bugatti, I think with some form of supercharger, which spent nearly all its time in pieces. Its owner had a curiously expressive face. When you entered the hangar, if he had on a face of thunder or even of gloom you did not approach, unless actually summoned to hold something while he did something. At other times when things were going well he was quite charming. On rare occasions there came from the hangar a howling and a screaming, audible all over tile station. All the motorists in reach flocked to the hangar. The Bugatti emerged, its owner wreathed in smiles, with a noise like the wrath of god and a cloud of castor-oil smoke. He disappeared up the road at a phenomenal speed, but, to the best of my recollection, invariably “blew up” within about three miles and had to be towed in by one of the humbler vehicles.

One of our star exhibits was the “steamer,” a real old tall machine, I think with tiller steering. It was owned and operated by a syndicate of three or four, all of whom seemed to be fully occupied on checking up generally, pumping and reading gauges when movement was contemplated. Hot smells and a rising crescendo of “fizzings” predominated. However, once moving, it generally went. (Does anyone remember its make ?—Ed.) One Friday evening a Wing Commander, a rather fierce type, was striding furiously up and down outside the mess with a suit case. He had ordered a taxi to put him on the London train and it had let him down. The chief of the syndicate approached and said : “Can I run you to the station, sir, we’ve just got steam up ?” The “Winco,” worried about his train and seeing nothing else in sight, accepted. Halfway to the station he observed a large dial with a red segment through which the needle was rapidly creeping. “What’s that ?” he said. “Steam-pressure gauge, sir.” “What is the red segment ?” “Well, sir, we shouldn’t really be in that, but I think it’s all right.” “Where’s the boiler ?” “Just under the seat, sir!” The “Winco” couldn’t bale out so he had to stick it, and he caught his train. Later that grand old vehicle, a constant source of amusement to the whole station, burst into flames half a mile down the road and burnt itself out. The syndicate walked home and drank a lot of beer.

We had, of course, a station doctor, a fussy little man who laid himself open to jests. He had an Austin 7 which he worshipped. He never walked at all.

The R.A.F. being hopelessly healthy and there being then practically no married families he had hardly anything to do. Having coped with anyone who was slightly ill, he would set forth in his Austin and motor along the front of the hangars and call on the three squadron offices, intent on talking and hoping that someone might make tea. He then turned round and motored back via the more numerous flight offices on the same quest. Frequently during his “morning’s work” he would remount his steed only to find that he was towing a dustbin lid or had a kipper cooking on the hot end of his exhaust pipe, or some such horror. Finally, having spent much of his morning on his back removing garbage from underneath, he would arrive at the mess for lunch in a thoroughly bad temper.

My brother, at that time a junior officer in the Navy, was learning to fly at Netherayon, no doubt as a change from steering warships through the sea. He found that life on the plain called for a car and wrote to ask if there was anything decent at Duxford, within his price. It so happened that a colleague was exchanging his Rover 8 for something more formidable. The owner was a careful and knowledgeable motorist and the Rover an excellent little air-cooled flat-twin, with a roomy 2-seater body. I recommended it strongly and my brother duly arrived on the following week-end to take over.

He was charmed with it and put in much practice first round the airfield and then on the road. Though an excellent motorcyclist he had never driven a car.

After an entertaining week-end we had for some reason to go to Cambridge on the Sunday evening. We had a merry evening there and returned to Duxford at about 11 p.m. There, my bother transferred himself and his bag to the Rover (which we had filled to the brim) and took off unconcernedly for Netheravon (some 150 miles or so); through the night. He arrived, I gather, in the small hours of Monday and was on the top line for early flying. I repeat, he had never driven a car before, but that is how. things were in the ‘twenties. (continued)