Vintage Veerings

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I can never resist talking to people who remember the old motoring days. So the other day the Alfa 6, its carburation out of sorts, was nevertheless headed along the beautiful Wye valley road, a fisherman’s delight, from Builth Wells to Llswen, past the lake at Llangorse, and over the pack-horse bridge at Llangynidr, which the big car fitted snugly, to pick up the navigator for the day. Then, after a snack at Chepstow, it was on to the M4 and into Wiltshire and Hampshire, heading for Andover and an appointment with Mr A. J. Stevens, whose smart AJS saloon, which he found in Leicester some time ago, he bought on the spot, having it beautifully restored. I had encountered Mr Stevens, one of five brothers of the famous motorcycle manufacturing family, and his AJS earlier this year at the VSCC Light Car Section Welsh Weekend and was impressed to find the car in such appropriate hands.

Since then Mr Stevens has discovered, in nearby Fordingbridge, a two-seater AJS, similar to the one Keith Hill has run in VSCC events for many years, and this, too, has been restored to pristine condition, both cars having been made late in 1930. As I hope later on to do a further article on this make, suffice it for the moment to say that Mr Stevens has been collecting documents about AJS products, among which we were able to look at a photograph album, circa the mid-1920s, of the famous AJS works in Wolverhampton in the hey-day of motorcycle production. The size of the factory shops, divided up into 100 ft x 40 ft sections, was surprisingly large; they were at the time making 25,000 motorcycles a year, say 500 a week or about one every five minutes, both solo and sidecar outfits, 2,000 workpeople being employed. Production of AJS radiograms was also going well, in the Stewart Street shops!

Incidentally, it may not be generally known that the AJS takes its initials from the only one of the five sons of the founder who had the necessary three Christian names. He rode in the TT and there is a photograph of the present Mr A. J.’s father and mother competing in a trial with an AJS sidecar outfit. Also, one of Eric Williams being congratulated after winning the 1914 TT for the Company, which he did again for AJS in 1921. The main factory was in Walsall Street, Wolverhampton, with sidecars being assembled in the Graiseley Hill shops and the radios and loudspeakers in Stewart Street, although the Company had begun in Retreat Street in 1909. Inspection of the old pictures of the factory interior showed rows of four-seater bodies and one pointed-tail sports two-seater body in the AJS works, apparently sub-contracted for the nearby Clyno Company.

After the decline in motorcycle business in the early 1930s, the Stevens brothers made Stevens motorcycles in the old Retreat Street works, and when that faded somewhat a 5 cwt Stevens three-wheeler van was introduced. Mr Stevens recalls going on a holiday with his father in one of the later ones, the legend painted on the body reading: “Water-Cooled Commercial — Ask The Driver For A Demonstration”. He has a very rough one now awaiting restoration and also owns a Stevens 350 cc motorcycle, the latter of interesting memories, because after the firm had closed in 1937 he and his father built up a last one from parts, which the lad rode until war broke out. He then went to serve with the Forces Overseas although he was too young to be called up, and he never saw it again. Today, this great enthusiast for the old AJS days lives in a charming house near Andover with his wife, who uses a Mini, while Mr Stevens has a Renault 18 Auto with personalised number plates, incorporating Wolverhampton registration letters and the number 350 to recall his 350 cc Stevens motorcycle. . .

On the way to keep this interesting appointment we had looked again at the old Brunston hill-climb course, now a private farm road, and going on to Winchester had passed the Old Forge in Wherwell, where allegedly the only three Coventry-Victor flat-twin-powered Wherwell cyclecars were made in 1920/21. One wonders whether they were tested up the 1 in 12 hill we had just descended before the main road swings sharp right away from the village? Incidentally, the old building bore a “For Sale” notice, so on a far more humble scale, here is another historic building perhaps about to suffer the fate of the London Talbot factory?

The reason for driving on to Winchester was to talk to a lady whom Lord Montagu had told me should be worth meeting. This very jolly 76-year-old lady claims to have been almost born in a 1904 Mercedes Forty, because when the moment approached, the Mercedes starting-handle savaged her father and the doctor had to attend to him before turning to the forthcoming birth. In those days before World War One the children used to be taken to the seaside in this Mercedes, their sand-buckets useful when they were sick. . . The old car is remembered as still in use in Oxford, as a laundry-van, at least up to 1915. Mrs S, as I will call her, had family associations with the firm of Coxeter & Sons of Abingdon, which looked after retail sales of the Birmingham-made Abingdon, soon after the turn of the century. By a remarkable coincidence, my companion’s father had known the Coxeter family, although neither he nor Mrs S had ever met before. . . .

The Coxeter Motor Co had made bicycles before repairing horseless-carriages, and was run by Bertram Baker Coxeter and his three sons, Mrs S’s brothers, of whom J. H. Coxeter ran the garage in Park End Street, Oxford. Naturally, the talk was of early motoring. Mrs S’s uncle had a car registered FC3 and at the age of nine she learnt to drive on a Buick, kept during the war, and at 16½ took out a driving-licence, using the car as a school-girl, with her pigtail tucked into her coat! Before that the family car was the inevitable Model-T Ford, but her legs were too short to reach the essential pedals. The Ford led to fabric-bodied GE Austin 7s and as there were connections with Stratton-Instone, the family also had big Daimlers and no fewer than four sleeve-valve BSAs, including the rare 12 hp six-cylinder model. Other family cars in the snapshot alburns were a fine Lancia Lambda saloon, a disc wheeled 14/40 Vauxhall tourer, an aunt’s sporting 10.4 hp Calthorpe, while an Arrol-Johnston was mentioned. Humphrey Cook was Godfather to the sister of Mrs S, which led to being taken to Brooklands when she still had to be carried, and memorable visits there after WWI, all the great cars from “Chitty” downwards to fast GNs being spoken with a clear and nostalgic memory.

There had been rides in Cook’s Prince Henry Vauxhall and in a 1923 23/60 Vauxhall “Blue Mist”. There was also a red Model-T Ford with sixteen-valve ohv conversion head, built by Kingsley’s son, which the girls named “Daddylonglegs” and which was tried out up Kop Hill, conveniently situated not far from Oxford. When she met at a party the musician she was to marry, he, knowing of her love of cars, took her to a 1930 Brooklands meeting, and then asked where he could take her to dinner. They dined well at Oatlands Park Hotel in Weybridge and the evening was to have ended with seeing “The Three Musketeers” at the Drury Lane in London. Alas, the gentleman, who had a bullnosed Morris two-seater, had never driven in London and after sailing under the outstretched arm of a policeman at Hyde Park Corner they got lost and the theatre performance had ended when they got there. . . After marriage, the cars were mostly a series of Austins, and some American saloons. In recent times Mrs S. has been very well served by a Datsun, which she disposed of after it had done 66,000 trouble-free miles, replacing it with her present Ford Fiesta. “I used to drive at 80 mph,” she said as we were leaving, “but now I have to try to keep to 60”.

After which we commenced the run past the historic hangars at Upavon, the one-time headquarters of the Central Flying School, using but a short stretch of the M4, arriving back at midnight, a good day’s motoring. In case it has been noticed that I have been going after elderly ladies of late, I hasten to say that this is simply because anyone who started driving before or during the First World War is likely to have recollections of lots of cars. — W.B.