By 12/50 Alvis from Belgaum to Kemerton
Through the thoughtfulness of a Motor Sport reader I have been reading a most interesting book, published in 1932 and inscribed rather optimistically “A Guide for Future Travellers.” The reason that I am dealing with it under the above heading instead of in the “Cars in Books” feature is that it is a motoring book in its entirety. The reason why the sub-title of this book, written by an Indian Civil Servant, as the author is careful to state after his name, is optimistic in that not many motorists are likely to have followed his 12/50 Alvis from Belgaum to Kemerton, which means the 8,612 miles from India to England!
The book, which motoring historians and, I am sure, the 12/50 Alvis Register are well aware of, is called “A Light Car Odyssey” (“India” Publications, Ltd., 1932), and seems to have been written, and written extremely meticulously at that, by R.W.H. Davis.
In spite of the book’s title, the car used was a 12/50 Alvis sports saloon, the 2-door model with a big oval back window and rear petrol tank, magneto ignition and bolt-on wire wheels— in a picture of it outside Bombay, the author wearing a topee, the two top panels of the divided screen open, the Reg. No. is seen to be 6413, but the letters are unfortunately obscured. Presumably the author thought of his 12/50 as a light-car after the big American cars encountered in India, just as Austin’s 12/4 may technically be a light car, but a heavy one!
The Alvis started along the red road out of Belgaum to Poona on 1.3.31, breaking its radiator stay on the poor surface and having difficulty in finding petrol in Satura. At Poona two hours were spent making a new stay, and in Bombay the Alvis, which had covered already over 50,000 miles, mostly at high speed, was overhauled. Nothing occurred, except for a man being murdered outside the hotel window.
A triptyque for Syria cost £52; author and car were photographed for the A.A. Magazine, which caused Davis to remark: “Marco Polo was spared these travel occasions. God forbid that I should appear in the Times of India.”
In a chilly Bombay garage the car was overhauled, even to polishing the reground cylinder block, fitting new big-ends and replacing the main body timbers with teak. Six new Michelin tyres were purchased. Notes were compared with someone who had driven a Willys-Knight from Manchester to Calcutta.
The discovery that duty on the car wasn’t recoverable if he drove it home was countered by memories—”Dressing for dinner in a superheated cabin with a total stranger is certainly one of the major horrors of life. I preferred a week in the trenches. Also the smell of a ship is probably the vilest stench in the world. God grant my future is not to be spent at sea. . . .” After seeing his first “talkie” (Chevalier), Davis got away on 15.3.31. The car was standard except for extra leaves in the front springs and slightly modified steering, but a spotlamp had been added. It carried many spares, including special tools from the Alvis works, and two folding beds, fitted over the front seats after these had been folded down. The chassis and body had been repainted.
In spite of very careful fitting by excellent Bombay garage mechanics (4-thou. clearance on the skirts), the pistons “continued to stick every now and then, any 3rd-gear work being too much for them!” However, by 16.3.31 they had reached Mhow, in spite of Davis having “an abominable cold” and where he describes the hotel as one which “would, I suspect, not to be first in a Hotel Beauty contest,”
And now I quote verbatim, for the pleasure of my friend Laurie Sultan : “At the garage here tonight .. . I came across the Castrol representative. He has promised to make arrangements for my supply throughout the trip. The engine spurns other oils. I lately had occasion to use a well-known oil of another make recommended for the engine. The pressure was very low, the performance inferior, and when the time came to remove the oil from the base chamber the smell was so abominable that no one had the courage to draw near. This apparently as a result of the proud boast of the manufacturers that they had succeeded in mixing an animal fat with the mineral oil of which it is chiefly composed.”
Speeds of 60 m.p.h. had been possible on the smooth roads but soon both Alvis and driver overheated, the latter needing bed, and a doctor.
On again, the author learning how to use his Kodak, the Alvis averaging 40 m.p.h., until, near Jodhpur, the engine grew fractious and then broke the starter; it was discovered that nearly 1,200 miles had been covered with the choke butterfly 3/4-closed! After the oil, “mud proper, flottant on a field sable,” had been replaced by Castrol the Alvis was railed from Jodhpur to Hyderabad.
The Alvis first stuck in the sand about ten miles out of Kotri, a bush tightly wound round the prop.-shaft further retarding it— delay, one hour. A level-crossing was closed for an hour, so the average to Karachi was 16-17 m.p.h. Here the back axle had to be removed, but only to enable two extra leaves to be added to each back spring. A back mudguard was damaged in reversing out of the Sind Club on “one of those ridiculous lamp-posts behind.” A new radiator hose was also fitted.
After delays going back to Hyderabad for the spare magneto and to bed with severe colic, Davis got off on 31.3.31, driving for 17 hours with only 25 minutes out of the car, to reach Larkana. It needed eight men pushing, and bottom gear, to ford the Sann river.
April Fool’s Day saw 52 miles covered, to Ruk Station, but the Alvis had to be dug out of the sand bunds by Davis and his Indian servant Abdul Kader—”The chassis of the car must be incredibly strong.” The hard earth surface of the Baluchistan Pat to Sibi was wonderful—”good for any speed—100 m.p.h. or over” [Unlike British Motorways 35 years later!—Ed.].
So this adventure progressed. The Alvis gave no trouble, apart from a broken luggage grid—”It is of poor material”—and a small crack in the radiator, as far as Dalbandin where a day was wasted when reverse gear stuck in, “owing to the cold, I think.” But digging out of sand and mud and crossing river beds was commonplace. At Duzdap, a mud town on salt, a mechanic put the reverse gear right and attended to the battery. The grim desert stretch from Hormuk to Safidawa was marked by a couple of punctures, and before Quain was reached the magneto rubber coupling split into two and was repaired with difficulty and four steel pins. Up to Meshed bottom gear was needed round many climbing hairpins and the altitude reduced power.
Three more punctures had been experienced when Damgharn was reached—”I have never had so many on new tyres before”, and another on the route to Teheran, past snow-capped peaks in a chilly atmosphere, up gradients “very trying for a small engine without a fan.” Teheran was violently disliked ! To Kermanshah, “a very long day in the saddle [An expression perhaps to be expected of someone who in 1931 still called his Alvis a “motor” -! —Ed.), with the engine performing excellently.” The average was over 30 m.p.h., the only setback a broken spare wheel carrier. Daily punctures were now a burden, and approaching Baghdad a sand-storm followed a swarm of locusts, help being offered to the crews of two marooned bombers before the speedometer was put to 45 for the run into the busy town.
Teheran to Baghdad in 36 hours including a night’s sleep, was regarded as “rather exceptional [is it still ?—Ed.), and here the engine was decarbonised by Abdul Kader, 445 miles having been covered so far.
Fortified by new plugs, oil and double-filament bulbs, the Alvis accompanied the Nairn 50-m.p.h. 18-ton 6-wheelers across the desert to Damascus. This cost £10 a tin of petrol 13s. 8d. without “even the saving grace of politeness”; 568 miles in 17 hours, a Nairn driver sometimes taking over the Alvis as Davis slept. It had many punctures and a pot-hole broke the n/s of the screen. It was faster than a Nash by day, slower at night. In Damascus the author bought a carpet and two large vases from an attractive Syrian girl in the hotel curio shop, excusing this weakness on the grounds that “long journeys through womanless countries have an adverse effect on one’s strength of mind, when later any woman pressure is brought to bear.” This Indian Civil Servant hastened to explain that he was not “married or even engaged,” an asterisk adding “Both since remedied “! A cabaret, “where we saw many ladies dancing, clad in exiguous clothing,” seems to have been less interesting than a magneto overhaul,” which made a vast difference in the running of the car.”
Relief is evident in the transition from east to west at Tripoli, and “the last 40 miles into Aleppo can be performed at any speed of which the motor is capable”—here the Alvis gave over 31 m.p.g.
Now a noise had to be investigated, necessitating removal of radiator and timing case to see if a loose dynamo had damaged the timing wheels. This took “about half an hour” and all was well. At Alexandretta three British flying boats, consigned to the British Vice-Consul, arrived from Baghdad and alighted in the harbour—distant days!
Rivers had to be forded and the car stuck in a cornfield—”It is impossible to describe all the queer situations in which the car found itself. The very low bottom gear was invaluable, especially for driving up steep grass slopes.. . .”, on the 62 miles to Jehan. Real difficulties, over deep mud and rock, persisted to Adana, and brushwood had to be laid to cross fords. At Adana the base-chamber was dropped to investigate a tapping noise, two big-ends being taken up a thou. and the tops taken off the teeth of the timing gears, which were mysteriously bottoming, though main and camshaft journals were still drum-tight. “I do not think, however that this is a bad record for a machine which will soon have run 60,000 miles, the last 6,000 under very distressing circumstances, and largely not in top gear.”
The worst conditions of all were encountered between Adana and Talas, two buffaloes unable to get the car out of the mud at one point, while the roads in Kaiscri “defy description” maximum 5 m.p.h. The dynamo had by now become “obdurate.” There was only one day without a puncture after Quetta and in Angora “30% of the Turkish small boys threw stones at my motor.” Bad roads dislodged the o/s screen and stones broke both alloy number-plates.
More fearful Turkish roads to Adu Bazaar, the bottom of the oil-float chamber being carried away going into Handek, hardwood and soap effecting a repair in two hours. Alas, the next day, en route for Gulumbe, the old wound was struck twice; the first time it was again mended with wood, but the second time an overnight stop was necessitated, as all the oil ran out. Before this the adventurers often had to construct a road and the front axle was slightly bent—” two well-known American cars were bent four times. Another automobile on a similar journey bent its front axle eleven times. It is difficult to bend an Alvis front axle. Ours has survived everything but Turkey.” But more trouble lay ahead, as, numb with cold, the screen still broken, they drove towards Mudanya—a back tyre burst and both front springs broke on the appalling Yenishehr road.
The Alvis was shipped to Stamboul, with much trouble with unshipping it and the Customs. Eventually it was off, only to burst another tyre outside the Tokatlyan Hotel.
The damage repaired, the journey continued, Kader still in his turban, Davis the only person in a dinner jacket in the hotel dining rooms. Between Stamboul to somewhere near Lulebourgas the Judge (for this was Davis’ profession) was falsely accused of failing to stop on the command of a non-existent policeman and taken in charge. . . .
That contretemps over, all the studs in one back brake drum sheared, allowing the wheel to spin freely. A roller race had been damaged but by packing half the rollers into the race with grease, the couple were able to continue, only to be rewarded with four more punctures. But the axle stood up for the 2,000 miles separating the car from the works in Coventry. So they came to Zagreb, averaging perhaps 20 m.p.h. over horrid roads, all four springs flattened, only an inch between chassis and front spring rubbers. A sidelamp was bent on a bullock cart and 22 kilometres out from Mestre the engine stopped dead for the first time in its life. The dynamo spindle had snapped—” . . . . the first time I have ever heard of such a thing. . . . I cannot blame Alvis, as they do not manufacture the component.” This was a too hasty report; later the timing wheel teeth were found to be badly damaged. This was on 23.5.31.
Spare parts were air-mailed and after Davis had met his brother, as arranged, outside the Lloyd Triestino office in Venice, just as they had planned months before. The parts arrived but were delayed by the P.O., another broken spring was repaired and they continued on 28.5.31. The spare magneto having been shipped home, the only one immediately played up! “The timing may be one tooth late. With an old engine it is difficult to say; one tooth makes 5.3° difference in the Alvis. It requires works experience to know how to time an old engine in the best manner.” (no 12/50 Register then !—Ed.)
Kadar repaired the speedo. cable, the plugs were changed, then at Bolzano the valve timing was advanced one tooth and “the engine now had the old bark [that 12/50 bark!—Ed.) once more.” Thus, through happy Germany and gloomy Belgium they ran home. Crossing by the Boulogne-Folkestone boat, the Alvis made Piccadilly Circus in 2 hr. 35 min., later stopping to photograph Abdul Kader (still wearing his turban) on the Great West Road. At 9.30 p.m. on 9.6.31 the expedition ended at “The Grange,” Kemerton, “possibly the most pleasant view on the long journey.”
The book concludes with very detailed appendices. Mileages on the Smiths speedometer were 1% greater than those on the Consul-General of Meshed’s 30-h.p. Buick, less than those shown by a Studebaker. The total corrected distance was 8,612 miles, and the Alvis averaged 25.16 m.p.g. in spite of being partially choked for 2,000 miles and so much low-gear work. The Burmah-Shell Co. supplied petrol on the Querta-Duzdap section; B.P. was used in Persia. The Michelin tyres covered the full distance, five really, as one was badly cut early on, and “in no single tyre was the canvas showing at the Alvis works the day after the journey. Such a performance is almost incredible.” Davis concludes : “Wherever possible, and as the makers advise, Castro! was used in the engine and chassis. This oil needs no recommendation from me.” The cost of the trip ? £383 5s. 11d.
Finally, the author praises his staunch vintage car in the following terms : “It, and the same six Michelin tyres, had borne us with little complaining for nearly 10,000 miles and had touched 60 in between Folkestone and London. Not only so, but the car, when we left Bombay, had already accounted for 50,000 miles. This is a wonderful record, all the more so when it is remembered that these cars are not intended to be built for such work nor are they sold or advertised for bad road work at all. In point of fact, I say from my experience that they represent quite the world peak in small car manufacture.” [I should be quite pleased to get similar service from a 12/50 after 60,000 milesl—Ed.)
I make no excuse for having devoted much space to this book, which should intrigue members of the 12/50 Alvis Register, some of whom have completed similar ambitious journeys in more recent times, because the 12/50 Alvis is likely to be frequently discussed when the Hull/Johnson Alvis History is published by Macdonald around Christmas time.—W.B.