Veteran to classic

The roads of the 1920s

As the summer of 1926 approached, Owen John was doing his best to silence critics who still saw benefits in owning an open-bodied car, his taste having turned to a closed one in the guise of his 14/45 hp Rover. He was also thinking about motor-mowers (he would have been surprised that in our time these have been raced, with Stirling Moss handling one) and pondering on motor taxation and the bad aspects of some hotels, the last two topics being topical no longer. Already a note of acceptance of the car as a beast of burden instead of a means of sport had crept into OJ’s diary, with 30 million cars in use and this number increasing every year.

However, he found some of the old adventure when he embarked on a short holiday tour in France, in a Leon-Bollee Weymann saloon. After suffering a rough Channel crossing OJ found the car waiting for him on the quay at Le Havre (where he said it always rains) and its driver was taken as far as Rouen, where, after they had eaten an omelette and drunk coffee, he left OJ to his own devices. So it was on via Evreux, Dreux and Chartres and over the long, level plains of central France to Orleans, with squadrons of military aeroplanes overhead, the speedometer needle at about 100 kph.

There the Boule d’Or was still an old typed French hotel, where OJ enjoyed an excellent meal and a comfortable double-bedded room, all for a very modest charge, before motoring on to Bourg. along “as straight a road as there is in all France” to a memorable lunch at the Escargot d’Or restaurant, apparently used as a sort of regimental mess of the local garrison, which OJ thought was a good way of ensuring good food.

Continuing, OJ took with him a picnic meal, as many tourists in France still do, but stayed the night in the Grand Hotel de la Poste in Clermont-Ferrand, where the head waiter remembered London at the time of the Coronation of King Edward VII. There was prospecting for oil here, but it was on in the rain for the tourist, as the way climbed up into the mountains and down to where the May flowers were in bloom. The main road was frightening where sheer drops flanked it, the dust laid by the rain, but mud in the pot-holes and dogs sleeping in the middle of the highway remind us that this was 1926. On this Sunday OJ and his wife had an unsatisfactory lunch at the most highly-starred restaurant in Arles, and came out to find they had a flat front balloon tyre on the Leon-Bollee.

Being mid-day in France, and Sunday as that, the local world was asleep, and after OJ had changed the wheel to the accompaniment of a big town band, there was nowhere to get the puncture mended, the local garage being deserted except for a man demonstrating the merits of wood-alcohol fuel in a Berliet lorry. This was the more annoying because OJ was on his way to the opening of the new Miramas autodrome, about which Motor Sport had something to say recently, and all was about over when he got there. Never mind, he said, Segrave won the main prize, which OJ later saw on the films. A spectator coming away all but crashed into the Leon-Bollee, which did not please him either.

OJ had been hoping to enjoy the straight, fenced, very fast road he had known pre-war, from Arles and Salon, but found its surface had deteriorated horribly. And the patron of the nice little Grand Hotel in which he stayed in Salon complained that by mistake the AA had awarded its badge to another! The holiday was spent in Marseilles, where OJ felt it unwise to venture out in the car unnecessarily, the trailer-trams being a safer mode of transport. Meanwhile, no less a person than SCH Davis was taking an A7 Chummy from England to Cannes to prove that it could do the journey as well as any of the big cars used by the wealthy; the laden Chummy did 2000 miles out and back, at a cost of 14/- (70p) in repairs.

As for old OJ, to avoid the badly pot-holed Routes Nationales of 1926, he returned over second and third-graded roads, first making for Martigues, where there were big lagoons and the many bridges were the haunt of artists. Next it was across a road over a desolate plain OJ called “as odd a feature as there is to be found in all Europe.” This was La Cran, “flat, stony and absolutely unique”, which I imagine was the equivalent plain to that on which the Miramas track had just been built.

OJ let himself in for the “most fearsome and hair-raising climb that I ever want to do”, on a by-road before the end of the gorge, after leaving St Enimie on the way to Aurillac. The Leon-Bollee had to reverse at the corners of this steep zig-zag up to 2000 feet. They had two more flat tyres, in Limoges on Easter Sunday, dealt with smilingly by the Garage de l’Univers. They called in at Le Mans, home of the car they were using, where France had honoured Leon Bollee for his aviation work. This made OJ wonder if we would ever see an “Avenue Morris” between Oxford and Cowley, and a fine statue of Sir William turning its back on Magdalen Bridge . . . The 15.9 hp Morris-Leon-Bollee OJ thought even a finer bit of work than the cars “WRM” made in England. But the motor industry is ever fickle and this make never got very far.

In the General Strike of 1926 OJ drove his own Rover— “now absolutely up-to-date and inconceivably smooth running” — and Rolls-Royces, Lanchesters, Bentleys and Darracqs lent by friends, for some 1200 miles. The roads were busy with well-driven lorries and many convoys, but he saw very few accidents, although on a greasy bit of the Bath Road some labour organisers had driven too fast and ended up on the pile of cars which had also skidded. In spite of the desirability of keeping the roads free, fifty or so motor coaches had to be used to take the passengers from the Minnesota to London, trains being at a standstill. OJ overtook the convoy between Winchester and Basingstoke, before turning off for Reading. WB