Motoring as it was, a look back to the roads of the 1920s. (Continued from the May issue)
Using the observations of motor-noter OJ for our look back on the vanished automotive scene, we find him, in 1922, saying that there are two things those who can should not deny themselves, a comfortable bed – because one spends nearly half one’s life in it – and a car, because otherwise one might just as well be in bed; I hope this sage thought will not be misconstrued in the more promiscuous 1980s. Anyway, OJ also said something which might go for enthusiasts today as in 1922, when he remarked that motoring is making oneself one with the car, feeling for it, diagnosing its idiosyncrasies, sympathising with its troubles, understanding its habits, making it do what one wants it to do, and finding out why it does not or it does.
I know this applied even to new cars 60 years back, whereas it hardly does to the uniform, dull new cars which so many people buy today; but it is still a valid observation among those who motor in used vehicles, perhaps on the proverbial shoestring. Having uttered thus, OJ told of the service his Crossley was giving, and we learn that it was painted grey, and that it didn‘t look too bad with the nickel parts shining, as OJ always required them to be (odd-job man, perhaps?). Thinking of the first tour of 1922 in it, he noted that the roads would be better than ever, thanks to the improvements made by the otherwise unemployed who had been given jobs thereon. This makes one wonder why a similar solution might not be found to some of the horrific unemployment of 1983. And if anyone is so assinine as to ask which roads require improving, let him or her talk with those drivers who daily proceed at five or eight mph. for mile after mile, as checked quite recently on the digital speedometer of an MG Maestro, in the evening congestion out of London towards Oxford, because only too late are underpasses being constructed at the busy junctions of the A40. The stupid thing is that, although one is being built, and is now causing so much delay, as traffic approaches the Ruislip/Uxbridge crossing, there is no sign that anything whatsoever is being done to ensure that, once it is flowing speedily under that by-gone bottleneck, it will not continue to be halted, seemingly interminably, at the roundabout before the run down onto the M40, which blissful release, after over an hour of creepy–crawly from the City, is encouraging many drivers to disregard the 70 m.p.h. speed-limit on the Motorway.
It was different in OJ‘s heyday, when traffic speed was generally lower and he was calling for caution in forcing light–cars up to 50 m.p.h., remarking that the joy with all cars was surely to get exactly the pace out of them that suited them, and no more. To the joys of his Crossley, this motoring philosopher had added a Ner-a-Car, which he found he was able to ride away on his first try, although he confessed that he weighed 14 stone, was of a mature age, and had not rldden-a motorcycle since 1903 and then into a laurel hedge. Rather foolishly, OJ allowed his daughter, in wide-brimmed hat and below–knees skirt, to try it. She, too, rode away without previous experience of a motorcycle, and soon took it over as her own, rather as my daughters used to commandeer things like Honda S800, Fiat 500, Austin-Healey Sprite and VW Beetle, before they were married.
As Easter 1922 approached OJ reminisced about Continental tours he had enjoyed in the early days of long ago, presumably to induce motorists to get out and about in their cars. If I dare quote: “A darkening lane twisting through a glade of rusting canes, a turquoise twilight overhead, the smell of unseen smoke in one’s nostrils from garden fires, a wooded hill beyond that would be almost a mountain save for the outline of the Alps themselves in the north, one more turn of the road, and in front, the Mediterranean.” OJ was, I think, remembering a day long, long ago even in 1922, when the crew of what I think may well have been a big poppet-valve, chain–drive Daimler, by mistake found this difficult way to the sea at St. Maxime, as they emerged from the “thick-wooded Monts des Maures” . It was a road OJ considered some big 1922 cars would scarcely manage, and maybe the road from Le Luc, where one turned south off the main Avignon-Frejus road, to run through “quaint Cogolin”, was just as beautiful, but one day he hoped to find that other route again, preferably on a day when “the hot sun makes the wide, dusty highways shimmer and dance in its heat”. In 1910 cars were rare things along it.
Another memory of OJ‘s was again of “a hot sun shining out a flawless sky on to a white dusty road carved through an endless common of palmetto scrub. Close beneath a blue-wavelet fringed sea breaking leisurely against red rocks, two comic-opera cloaked policemen watching with folded arms four large Englishmen wrestling with a brand–new tyre, and a merry crowd of bare-footed children clustering round, apparently utterly oblivious that they are being sworn at by four real and practised experts.” That was in the days before the Stepney spare-wheel, when, incidentally, the local wine cost but “a penny or so the litre“.
Another OJ memory was of going by train to Bordeaux to join up with a brand-new big Clement-Talbot that had been shipped from London Bridge and when unloaded on the quay, among the endless wine barrels and dried fruit-boxes, displayed on its brass radiator the deep grooves cut by the chain that had held it firm while on the boat. OJ had never driven such a car, and before he tried he had to pass a test for a French driving licence. Fortunately the examiner owned a garage in Bordeaux and anxious to sell OJ a full tank of essence, passed him with flying colours. The Talbot was equipped with the then-new Kempshall tyres, thought to have been the first all-rubber non-skids, which were tested in the snows of the Pyrenees up to Mom Louis, the first car to arrive there that year from Quillan.
OJ disliked the main routes, delighting in Continental byways, so that one wonders what he would have thought of the habitual use now made of Autoroutes, Autobahnnen, and Motorways in general?
In spite of his persuasive recollections, that Easter of 1922 he did not propose to go further than over the Mendips, hoping to find better roads at Savernake than at Christmas, and down by the Severn Sea, perhaps to breezy Burnham for its glorious golf-links. In this OJ differed from Sir Eric Geddes, who, having completed his Economy Report (in which it was stated that motor transport had effected substantial savings for the Post Office), had resigned his seat in Parliament and was off for a Continental holiday in his 40/50 hp Rolls-Royce open tourer (R–2500), which was equipped with Rodace tyres, and had two spare wheels strapped on the o/s running board. By the way, a topical touch is that it was about as cold and wet and nasty that year, with snow on the roads at Easter as it has been in 1983. If it is any consolation, in 1922 this gave way to a heatwave, as may be the case by the time these words get into print.
Anyway, OJ set off in his old Crossley, with its battered and twisted mudguards, its cracked paintwork, its worn upholstery, but its engine going as well as ever: Only recently I used the M4 to enable me to get from Wales into Somerset and on to Devon in an MG Maestro without going through Bristol or Bath. Had I been coming from London the same would have been possible which reminds me that, when he used to visit me, DSJ. liked to come via the infamous Severn Bridge, saying that unless he crossed some water he did not feel he was going to a foreign country; and if you go by way of Gloucester or Stow, there is no bridge to remind you of this.
Sixty-one years ago there was no Motorway, but OJ, too, contrived to avoid Bristol and Bath by going along the old Bath Road as far as Beckhampton. “tidy home of good race-horses”, then branching off over eight miles of wide, unfenced downs “almost under the masts of the wireless station” to Devizes, after which he went down “the long, dull hill, parallel with the famous flight of locks that keep up the nearly deserted Kennett and Avon canal“, almost as far as Seend on the Melksham Road, turning off for Trowbridge, where, in those times, the road was almost certain to be under repair. So to Norton St. Philip, with “one of the oldest Inns in the World”, and “after skirting the Somerset coalfield”, OJ. turned right about three miles from Wells, to drive straight as an arrow for mile after mile, along the top of the Mendips ….
Although he had been writing about motors since 1903, OJ had never previously praised Brooklands, to which he went occasionally as an ordinary visitor, having, in fact, been driven down on a six-cylinder Napier by Cecil Edge to Locke-King’s house, to see the track when it was under construction. In 1922 he very definitely made amends. (I wonder if the Brooklands Society knows this? Nothing of it has yet appeared in its ever-excellent Gazette). It was done after OJ had been driven to the 1922 Royal Meeting, in a Silver Hawk (in some ways the forerunner of the Railton), which at his wish “dawdled through the sweet May countryside and went up hills like a rocket”, and had come home in a “dandy little Humber”, as kinder to his long legs and hatred of flies in his eyes, than the proffered HE racer. He saw Miss Ivy Cummings win the big race on the card – “the one they all wanted to win” – namely the Duke of York‘s Long Handicap, in her aged Coupe de L’Auto Sunbeam. And he expounded on things I had not known previously such as that Count Zborowski’s Ballot was started with a crow-bar (unless OJ had mistaken Chitty Bang Bang for it) and that in the Paddock sports-cars like the Steyr Alpine and the Spyker were competing for the spectators’ attention with Lee Guinness’ big V12 Sunbeam … WB.
(To be continued as space permits)