Motoring as it was

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A Look Back to the roads of the 1920s
(Continued from the June issue)

Continuing the saga of Owen John, the Crossley-owning motor-noter of 1923, we find him, after enthusing over the new Gwynne Eight, going, for his annual Easter tour, to glorious Devon, in splendid weather and a new Bean. This had a four-speed gearbox and O.J. waxed enthusiastic about that, saying he had never realised the value of four speeds as he did on the journey up along, all along, out along the hills down to the lovely Dart. O.J. even concluded that until the time came when every car had an infinitely-variable gear he would expect to find an ever increasing number of small cars being provided with four instead of three forward speeds. O.J. proclaimed quite rightly that gearboxes were given men to use and not to slog up hills in top, and what three speeds can do, four speeds can do much better, he felt. All of which is amusing now that even quite small cars can be had with automatic transmission, no car has less than four and many have five forward gears, and the infinitely-variable transmission, as pioneered by DAF with belt-drive, if we overlook the early, crude friction transmissions, is now the subject of re-introduction in sophisticated forms.

While on holiday in Devon O.J. missed the Land’s End Trial, but insisted that the Bean would have taken a gold with any of them! In fact, in that 1923 MCC event the home, Bean driven by S. Griffiths did just that, whereas E. N. Hughes’ took a bronze medal. They met a family who had just changed a faithful and reliable 1909 Wolseley for a new American automobile, the make of which O.J. did not disclose. But it lacked any place for stowing luggage, the spare wheel mounting at the back precluding a grid, the running boards being tiny, the hood in repose “sticking out like a furled mainsail”, while, said O.J., there was room for only two pairs of legs behind and the seats of this American car were described as raised, hard and narrow. So the Wolseley was remembered as a far better carrier of luggage, although this new car climbed the Devon hills “like a scalded cat”, looked in O.J.’s opinion “like a superior and slick hearse” and was great fun to drive, but his little Bean was regarded as much more gentlemanly to observe. I do not know what those clubs that now cater for vintage and classic American cars will think of that, or whether they could identify the car. . . .

Coming home from Devon, O.J. found Ilminster about to have the real race meeting that had replaced its mere point-to-point, Langport its usual sleepy self, Somerton only redeemed from being the ugliest town in the county by neighbouring Street, and Glastonbury “trippery” and plain. That left Wells for him to praise, which he classed with Bath and Torquay as one of our very few lovely towns. He felt that there was too much brick and slate in Somerset for the towns to have good architecture until you got near to Wiltshire, but O.J. admitted that the country made up for that. All that was in the context of over sixty years ago, of course.

Before his Easter holiday O.J. had been motoring in Sussex, staying at the late, great Harry Preston’s “Royal York” hotel. He had not stayed in “London-on-Sea” since the Boer War, although he had lunched there when on his way to see the “Shell fuel-testing machine” at Shoreham, by which I assume Harry Ricardo’s variable-compression, knock-provoking test-rig was implied. But in February 1923 O.J. likened this part of the Sussex coastline to the Riviera, lamenting that trade was being taken therefrom by the fact that — interesting in this 1980’s age of reduced price travel — the first-class return fare to Monte Carlo in 1923 was about £11, and hotel prices in lesser Riviera towns had come down after the Germans had left, made even more attractive for British visitors by the rate of exchange being 76 old-francs to the pound. But O.J. found Brighton even more bracing than Yarmouth, good for the appetite, and no chill fall in temperature at sundown, even in February. Anyway, the “Royal York” had fires to sit by and its waiters actually asked if plates should be replenished.

O.J. noted luggage-laden cars arriving at the hotels with not a station cab among them, proof that the motor-car was in use for touring, even if the run from London to Brighton was no longer any test of a car, as had been the case in days gone by. The road down, however, 60 years ago, had excavations across the downs and was very steeply cambered — a far cry from the A23 today! O.J. ran out to Shoreham, thinking the coast road like that between Marseilles and Spain on a smaller scale, with oil-tanks, gas-retorts, tar-distilleries, ugly factories, old hulks, and so on. Going home from recent Brighton Runs by that route, as the start of the long haul to Wales, I would say not much has changed! Except that in 1923 Shoreham bridge was under repair, the biggest ‘buses having to take the “millipede” bridge, and new Lancing College had just appeared, it seems, on the hill above Old Shoreham Church, with a tower projected for it, whereas now the roads hereabout have been recently widened and I don’t recall noticing the College tower . . . Back in 1923 O.J. was on his way to a big white, brass-twinkling steam-yacht with its owner’s Rolls-Royce almost alongside it, the green canvas over the top hamper the only reminder that its destination was the Bay of Biscay and the whole of Spain, before it would dock again. The owner isn’t named but I have an idea that car and yacht may have belonged to Lt-Comdr Montague Grahame-White, RNVR . . . That was when even the Brighton Aquarium was a Victorian relic, long before they had had a Motor Museum next door.

All this time O.J. was using his 1920 Crossley as his personal car, remarking that even older cars were still serving their owners well, and that a new bonnet could transform even a 1914 vehicle. Indeed, he recalled using a Daimler in 1907 for a winter run over the high lands of the Côte-d’Or, the car roaring down into quaint old-Dijon, scene of the recent exciting French GP, this Daimler having dashboard oilers refilled by pulling on a little chain, the point being that, according to O.J., there were many old Daimlers still in use in 1923 with this lubricating system, although one hopes not in the freezing weather O.J. was recalling, when a blow-lamp had to be bought with which to thaw out these very oilers — precarious for their glasses, one might think. On the subject of the older cars O.J., when enthusing over four-speed gearboxes, recalled a big car which had one speed only, plus an emergency bottom gear, that was no longer in production. This presents something of a poser, but I think O.J. may have been thinking of the first Sheffield-Simplex. Incidentally, I do not know whether O.J.’s claim to be an amateur tester was enhanced or disgraced, when his Crossley shed its near-side front wheel, subsiding into a ditch, fortunately in a country lane into which it had just turned, to regain a lost route. O.J. and his daughter walked back, found the errant wheel, and it proved possible to refit it and proceed but the trouble was caused because the locking-nut had not been properly tightened by the owner, or even inspected for the past six months or so! This is a reminder that the bigger Crossley had a centre-lock nut, although not eared, for retaining its wheels.

W.B.