Cars in Books, July 1968

This feature has been reinstated by the kind loan, from a reader who runs a modern Alfa Romeo and who is rebuilding a 1750 Alfa Romeo Zagato found in a very dismantled state (he needs a supercharger for it) of two books I had not previously encountered.

The first of these is a travel book, or a motoring book, if you like, in its own right, so that this is more a belated book-review than a car in a non-motoring work. The book is “By Car to India”, by Major F. A. C. Forbes-Leith, F.R.G.S. (Hutchinson, circa 1925). The car used for this adventurous 8,527-mile journey was a 14-h.p. Wolseley Colonial model tourer, “an ordinary standard model” except for extra tanks and running-board tool-cases. The author says “This fitted our requirements for size, capacity, power and low petrol consumption, and, although extremely flexible, was certainly the strongest-built car of all the scores of makes that I inspected”. One hopes he may have been influenced to some extent, too, by the Wolseley record-breaking exploits on Brooklands Track, as described in Motor Sport last March. The Wolseley was fitted with Ranson oversize tyres.

Reading this account forty-four years after Forbes-Leith and his two companions set out, I was struck by some interesting parallels with present-day events. For instance, after the car, named “Felix” after the famous walking-cat in the current film, had been given a civic send-off from Leeds and London, it crossed to France, where “Everyone was working at full speed, and there was every sign of the greatest prosperity. We were informed by the A.A. agent that in Paris that day there were only sixteen registered unemployed” (some “the”!). Indeed, they were so busy in France that no labour could be spared to repair the war-ravaged roads, over which the Wolseley Fourteen tourer, carrying 680 lb. of equipment, later increased to 850 lb., exclusive of 36 stone of occupants, “a very heavy burden for a light car”, had to run.

The journey commenced on April 28th, 1924, and all went well at first, apart from a close shave when a train suddenly turned across the road in a village before Montlemar. French drivers were regarded by the Major as very reckless and when he reached Italy he observed that all the cars seemed to be driven “to the full extent of their engine power”, in clouds of dust. It is amusing, too, with Sweden’s recent change-over to driving on the right hand side of the road, that at this time, in Italy, they drove mainly on the right in the country, but on the left in the cities, but with trams keeping to the right and most drivers keeping well to the middle of the road! Incidentally, the author pays tribute to Mussolini for restoring Italy to prosperity and refers to the long-haired young men of Fiume, known as “D’Annunzio’s Lions”, who exercised absolute rule over the City, no police or other power being strong enough to control them—a foretaste, as it were, of present trends in Europe! In contrast, Trieste earned high praise.

The Wolseley was carefully looked over every morning, and nursed along. It carried negligible spares—just spring leaves, spare magneto, brake linings, spare piston and con.-rod, nuts and bolts and a couple of spare tyres, and tubes. One suspects that the author’s journey may have been subsidised by Vickers, for he warmly praises the Wolseley, even to mentioning how, suddenly encountering a one-in-four downgrade coming into Fiume, disaster was averted by “the judicious use of perfect compression and beautifully adjusted brakes”.

Trouble first struck just beyond Osyeck, when a wheel nearly came off, all but one of its “studs and bolts” having apparently been removed by Germans when the car was left overnight in the hotel courtyard. How they removed the studs isn’t explained, but the book says new ones had to be made. Resuming, Belgrade was reached down two narrow planks at an angle of about one in three from the barge, tethered alongside the steamer which had brought the Wolseley across the Save and the Danube. After a discourse on the rosy future of Jugo-Slavia from the trading viewpoint, the Major continued his travel tale, reminding those of us who read his book today that in 1924 motor-cars were practically unknown outside the cities, that bullocks and horses took off at their approach, and that his Wolseley was the first car to cross the Dragoman pass between Tsaribrod and Sofia for over a year. And even then, the river bed had to be waded, with difficulty, at one point.

In Sofia the party had audience with H.M. King Boris I, a great motoring enthusiast, who also ploughed his estates with a Fordson tractor. He took the greatest possible interest in the Wolseley, even to “separating a tyre from a tube, and trying the self-starter”. The author had the highest possible opinion of Bulgars. Before leaving Sofia the Bulgarian A.A. arranged a send-off of 30 cars—what makes and ages, one wonders, can have been in this procession, in that remote place, in 1924?

Thereafter the story is the usual one of continual battles with mud, sand, landslides, recalcitrant customs officials, and bandits. The Wolseley covered 2,912 miles without a falter, or a puncture, to the Balkans. I do not think it was very fast—just over 40 m.p.h. is the highest pace mentioned and even when out-pacing hostile horsemen who were firing on it, it was only forced up to 35 m.p.h.

But it was supremely reliable. Apart from a bent steering worm, after the steering box hit a rock, and one broken spring leaf (the car was sans shock-absorbers), no mechanical troubles are mentioned, yet the going was uncommonly tough, as witness a running time average of 2½ m.p.h. for 28 days, or 950 miles, between Scutari and Payas. The crew, excepting the Major, may have gone sick, one eventually dropping out altogether with typhoid fever, but the Wolseley went on and on, even covering the 548 miles of desert in 24½ hours running time, without so much as a puncture. It was the first car to cross Asia Minor.

In Persia, at Daligan’s South Gate, Major Forbes-Leith saw “an aeroplane lying there. It was an ancient relic of the Wilbur Wright period”, which a Frenchman had force-landed while trying to fly it from Bushire to Teheran as a trainer for the Persian Air Force—I suspect it was a Maurice Farman Longhorn or similar, and not actually a machine of 1903!

In the end this Wolseley tourer, which must have been the overhead-camshaft model, made Quetta. It had run a total of 8,527 miles, “3,000 or which were entirely void of any road”. Indeed, “1,500 miles we had travelled on waterless desert, 100 miles on bottomless sand, and for 249 miles we had bumped over railway sleepers”. The bill for repairs was—£2 17s. They had only two punctures in their Rapsons. No wonder Major Forbes-Leith compared the Wolseley favourably with the cheap American cars of those days.

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The other book is a flying book I had not encountered previously, namely, “Cape Town to Clyde” by Richard Humble (Longmans, Green, 1932). It describes how Humble and his wife flew this route, finishing at Renfrew via Heston in 1931, and is mainly advice for those intending to do likewise.

Humble scarcely mentions the aeroplane used, except that it was a de Havilland called “Thistle”, with a Gipsy II engine which survived temperatures of over 90ºC. It is mainly from Colonel the Master of Semphill’s Foreword and the frontispiece picture that it is identifiable as a D.H. Puss Moth, delivered ten days before the start of this 10,540-mile flight. The pilots were sensible, even cautious, so, apart from getting lost once or twice by mistaking native tracks for main roads, and getting turned back by bad weather, there is no drama.

But anyone flying this route today, in a private aeroplane, might benefit from reading this careful, informative account by a pilot who had no radio to help him on his way. It is amusing that, in 1932, Humble was still calling cars “motors” or “motor-car”. In fact, the only one referred to by make is an ancient Ford, presumably a Model-T which proved very dilitary when used as transport at Wadi Haifa. There is a motor racing connection, in that, the night before he was killed, Comdr. Glen Kidston had marked the Bor-Sobat road on the Humbles’ map, when he called to see them in Johannesburg.

At Benghazi the Puss Moth took off with the Imperial Airways “City of Glasgow” piloted by Capt. Jones, who was bound for Matsuh and at Wadi Haifa it was in the company of an R.A.F. Vickers Vimy troop-carrier. At Littorio aerodrome a motor trolley (surely of Fiat manufacture?) hitched itself to the tail-skid and towed the Puss Moth backwards at 20 m.p.h. up a ramp into the second floor of the hangar. Incidentally, in 1931 the Johannesburg Light Plane Club possessed three Gipsy Moths and two Puss Moths, Imperial Airways used flying boats between Juba and Khartoum, and petrol was so scarce at Chinsali that, having taken the last eight gallons, Humble remarked: “I am afraid our friends would not be able to use their cars for some days after we left”!

The Puss Moth, which was loaded to 1,979 lb., which included 35 gallons of petrol and 1¾ gallons of oil, averaged 98.5 m.p.h. flying time for the entire journey, consuming petrol at 5.4 gallons an hour and oil at 1.5 quarts an hour. Maintenance cost £13 and the running cost came to 1d. per mile per person, or a total of 2.45d. per mile per person, inclusive of hotels, taxis, etc. Happy days!—W. B.