A Chauffeur's Recollections

So far no-one has written a book about chauffeurs but no doubt it is only a matter of time. Meanwhile, I have interviewed a number of them, devoted servants at the big houses of long ago, men who drove noble and famous people on their lawful, sometimes notorious, occasions, keeping the cars in the converted stable-block or motor-house, in pristine condition. They were as adept at grinding-in valves, vulcanising inner-tubes and carrying out more major repairs as they were at polishing the brass-work and cleaning the beautifully-painted and varnished coachwork of those highly-prized cars of yesteryear, which they regarded as their own, having often influenced the Master in his choice of a given make and model.

They were a race apart, these chauffeurs from the early days of practical motoring, frequently culled from among grooms and coachmen. They would hose-down, dry, and polish the car after each journey, as loyally as they had rubbed-down, watered, and stabled the hunters. They were on call day and night, whenever the Squire needed transport more convenient and versatile than that provided by the then efficient railway network.

Only the other day I drove up to Lincolnshire to talk with 90-year-old Mr. W. Tyreman, whose son had suggested that I might find his father’s recollections of interest—or more correctly Mr. Tyreman talked to me, as photographs from his long driving career stirred his still-alert memory. He was working in Winchester in 1901 when an autocarist with an early Benz hit a hump in the road which caused the car’s radiator to leak. The autocarist was Sir George Cooper, of the banking family living at Eastley Park. He requested repairs and the foreman put Mr. Tyreman onto it. The future chauffeur not only had the Benz ready on the Monday morning but brought it round for its owner, having probed its mysteries and found that he could drive it round the yard. This so impressed Sir George that he told the young man of a job in Harrogate, where a 1903 two-cylinder De Dion Bouton was used for following the meets. Brought up on horses, Mr. Tyreman was not particularly interested. But a photograph exists showing him with three fine horses, with the De Dion in the background. In fact, his licence, No. 98, is dated 1903.

He gained experience of the new mode of transport in the workshops in Gray’s Inn Road of J. E. Hutton, the well-known Brooklands entrant who had showrooms in Shaftesbury Avenue, and Jarrott & Letts, the Crossley and De Dietrich agents. In this way he drove all manner of exciting cars—Spyker, 8/11 Panhard, Tiller-steered Lanchester, White steam car, etc. He remembers one young Cavalry Officer accepting a sizeable bet with one of his fellow Officers, who thought his Renault would leave the other’s Mercedes standing. Mr. Tyreman was appealed to and changed the sprockets on the Mercedes, so that when the match-race took place, there was no doubt about the outcome! He also rigged up Nestle’s condensed-milk tins, so that an oil-drip could he provided for the driving chains.

He recalls two Italians, who couldn’t drive, working in a garage off the Cromwell Road on one of the first Dixi chassis, which had the same kind of carburetter as the war-time German Zeppelins, as Mr. Tyreman realised when later he had to take engineers to salvage parts from the one shot down over Cuffley. He thinks only three such Dixi chassis came to this country. He helped the importers drive theirs but they were trying to use paraffin and it soon seized up and had to be pushed back to the workshop.

Every summer Mr. Tyrernan used to go down to a riding school at Netheravon. While there he taught some twenty Cavalry Officers how to drive and he used to administer to the cars they bought in London. It was during this time that a chauffeur at the Barnes’ estate went off for a week-end and didn’t return. Two men had been down to replace him but they couldn’t start the car, which was a 10 h.p. twin-cylinder Wolseley. The valet asked Mr. Tyreman to try. He discovered that the former chauffeur had crossed the plug leads, to prevent anyone taking his place, and he soon had the Wolseley running. He used to hang an oil lamp above the gear-lever to help find the right place on the quadrant.

That is how Mr. Tyreman became a regular chauffeur. He then went to the Borwicks and still saw much of horses, because Capt. Borwick of the Scots Greys, became Master of the Pytchley. Before this he had driven a Coventry-Humber for another young Officer, in which he took him to his wedding in Yorkshire. Before the ceremony Mr. Tyreman was handed an envelope in which there was a note saying his Master could not afford a wife and a chauffeur, so he was to take the car into York, and sell it for as much as it would raise, keeping the proceeds.

The Borwicks replaced their Sunbeam with a very fine 24/30 Wolseley with one of the earliest cabriolet bodies by Barker. It was the actual 1910 Show exhibit, bought at the Show. It had dual ignition, the coil being used for starting it on the handle, after which it was switched to the magneto. It was equipped with Budge Whitworth detachable wheels, which Wolseley had been quick to adopt, so that no longer was it necessary to carry a Stepney spare rim as an insurance against punctures. This job lasted until 1913 and Mr. Tyreman then moved to Lincolnshire, driving an old live-axle Brasier down from York, a car with a marvellous closed body and much bevelled plate-glass.

When war broke out he joined the ASC, being associated with all manner of vehicles such as Crossley, Napier, Kelly, FWD, and the o.h.c. Maudslay. In Africa they had 100 Model-T Fords sent out to them, abandoning any that broke down. There were amusing incidents in convoy, when drivers accustomed to conventional controls would stamp on the pedal to stop, which immediately engaged low gear and caused the Model-Ts to concertina one into another . . .

After the Armistice Mr. Tyreman drove for a time for Sir John Latter, the shipping magnate, who had a Sunbeam and three Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts. He then went to the Dennis family, who were potato merchants with a big estate at Kirton, near Boston, in Lincolnshire. There he served for 16 years, 25 new cars passing through his hands. When he arrived the fleet consisted of two sleeve-valve Minervas, a 20 h.p. two-seater all-weather and a 30 h.p. vee-windscreen limousine, and a VS De Dion Bouton coupe with aluminium bonnet. Both the Minervas were good cars, although they only had back-wheel brakes. The smaller one was used for local runs and attending shoots, the big one for shopping expeditions and the weekly journey down to London and back. Of the De Dion V8 Mr. Tyreman says: “I have had trouble with cars, but never as much as with that one, mainly magneto failures, and it was a brute to dismantle”. Incidentally, the accompanying pictures of these cars were taken by the estate gardener, whose hobby embraced the new one of camera-craft.

Later the Dennis family changed to RollsRoyces, having a new one every two years. Their first was a 1926 Phantom 1 and they always had the bodies specially made for them by Windovers teak grained and black. Mr. Tyreman remembers going to the Motor Show with “the Guvnor” when they came upon a Minerva with a body by a different coachbuilder of the same colour as the family Rolls. Mr. Dennis told Mr. Tyreman to sell the R-R immediately and it went to the King of Afghanistan, for his use while he was in London.

The cars were not used abroad and had perhaps run only about 12,000 miles when they were sold. But Mr. Tyreman made a point of having them checked over at the R-R Service Station at Hythe Road, so that they went to their new owners in proper condition. And twice a year the R-R Service representative would call to inspect the cars at the Dennis estate.

This reminded Mr. Tyreman of the time when he was experiencing a sticky clutch and on the trial run he was obliged to make clutch-less gearchanges. This horrified the R-R rep., who reported to the car’s owner that if any damage resulted to the gearbox he would be in for expensive repairs. To which Mr. Dennis replied that he had travelled many many miles with his chauffeur and had never heard any untoward noises. Mr. Tyreman explained to the man from the factory that he had omitted to treat the clutch with a mixture of paraffin and oil; shortly afterwards R-R customers received a solemn circular from Conduit Street, advising such attention!

Two more recollections! I was told that if you looked closely at it a very slight blemish could be seen on one side of the body of the first Rolls. When Mr. Tyreman had called at Windover’s to collect the car they were trying to varnish this out but were not altogether successful. It had been caused when one of the coach-painters dropped dead smearing the finish as he fell. Then there was the Parson, who had bought an aircooled two-cylinder friction-drive Richardson and was having trouble with it. Naturally, he asked the chauffeur if he would look at it. Mr. Tyreman did so and a test-run was then undertaken. Unfortunately, at a sharp corner, the Parson contrived to overturn the little car. He was thrown out on one side, Tyreman on the other. The story goes that, on his knees, the Parson gave thanks to God for his lucky escape, adding as an afterthought, “And are you all right, Tyreman?” It may, of course, be sacrilegious. The Richardson was towed back to the parsonage behind a pony-and-trap . . . .

The first Rolls-Royce was replaced by a 1928 Phantom with another Windover saloon body having carriage-type lamps on the front pillars. In this Mr. Tyreman took the debutante daughter of the family to Buckingham Palace for the then-customary presentation to HM the Queen. He had driven several top members of the Royal Family when they visited the houses where he had been employed. Once a week the car was driven to Covent Garden and would be kept in a Mews garage overnight. Tyreman’s son was looking round the cars in the Mews when the Rolls was pointed out, with the comment “This is the finest car in London”, by someone who had no idea that his father was responsible for it. Incidentally, Tyreman Junr. was taught to drive by being made to reverse the Rolls out of one of the three adjacent garages on the estate and between two bricks, without being allowed to go forward until the bricks had been repositioned for another test.

Apart from the Rolls-Royces, the Dennis family bought foreign cars, but always a British one as well, apart from the Royces. Thus they had at one time a March Special Wolseley Hornet. In 1926 there was a 14/40 Delage with Weymann leather/cloth all-weather body by Janier of Paris. This was followed by a 3-litre 21-h.p. Delage with Van Vooren fabric body and in 1930 the RollsRoyce was replaced for good by a very fine long-wheelbase D8L Delage, with Henri Chapron limousine body. Supplied by J. Smith & Co. of Albemarle Street, Mr. Tyreman remembers these as “marvellous cars”. It was in the D8 that his Guvnor once looked in the mirror and said that there was a sports Lagonda on their tail. “Show her your arse”, came the order. So the chauffeur accelerated to 100 m.p.h. along the Newmarket road and the Lagonda faded from sight. When J. Smith was told of this incident he said the car wouldn’t do 100 m.p.h. So, for a £5 wager, Tyreman drove the Delage round Brooklands at 101 m.p.h., so his master won the bet— Smith still insists that the speedometer was “fast”.

It is little wonder that the chauffeur’s son grew up to be an enthusiast. Back in 1912 his father had to take the Rover up to Scotland through the night, on oil and gas lamps, as it was wanted at a shoot the next day. His employer said there was an empty cottage there, and as the family were on holiday invited him to bring up his wife and baby. They travelled to the nearest station, Lairg, some 30 miles from Tongue House, where they were met by the horse-drawn brake. But the journey back to York was made in the Rover, the son then three months old. It was the same child who, at a servants’ garden-party when her Ladyship said to him “I don’t suppose you know who I am”, replied “Yes I do. You are the lady who rides in my daddy’s cars”. Today he is getting good service from a Saab and kindly drove down from Bakewell to Lincolnshire to be present at my interview with his rather, who still lives on a Council estate named after his former master whom he served so faithfully for so many years. This visit ended on a motor-racing note, because I was told that, perhaps interested in the daughter, Esson-Scott and Penn-Hughes used to visit the Dennis mansion, the latter arriving in his latest Alfa Romeo, which he had just shipped from Milan by way of Harwich.

There is no better way of recalling the old times when the Nobility and Gentry and the affluent Tradespeople lived in great houses surrounded by acres of parkland, looked after by a butler and numerous servants, who, whatever the Socialistic view is, will tell you that they were well looked after and lived as one happy, respected family. If there are any other chauffeurs who had the care of diverse and interesting cars, and would be willing to talk to me, I should be glad to hear from them.—W.B.