Cyclecar Capers

Only comparatively recently has the Light Car & Edwardian Section of the VSCC concerned itself with increasing numbers of vehicles of the cyclecar class, which provide fun for their drivers, amusement for those who watch them performing, and which represent preservation of another link with motoring’s heritage.

I was born in the cyclecar era but by the time I was able to contemplate buying a car the breakers’ yards were devoid of such primitive means of dubious transport, and you could not, incidentally, find an A7 Chummy for love or a even fiver. (Which makes me wonder from whence all those which compete in today’s VSCC events have sprung?) As I grew up I read avidly, among other motoring weeklies, The Light Car & Cyclecar but by then the journal with the fine photographic front cover retained “Cyclecar” in its title more for sentimental than practical reasons, the only survivors of the breed, and these were by that time distinctly thin on the roads, being the Morgan and the GN…

Of course, the VSCC had had migratory specimens on hand from time to time — Arthur Jeddere-Fisher’s El Pampero, the Sima-Violet, and a few others. But the true renaissance of these fascinatingly crude devices in VSCC terms has been a quite recent, but very enjoyable, happening. However, it has been known to some that I had my cyclecar baptism in 1950, in a Tamplin, so perhaps it is not unseemly to recall what really happened on that occasion.

It was like this. The late Mr A W F Smith had a fine collection of the older motor-cars and an equally fine library built to accom modate his motoring books, at his house in Sussex. He had, moreover, made a speciality of vintage light-cars and cyclecars. Having developed this collection, either he, or one of his sons, suggested that an entry be made of some of his small cars in an MCC long-distance trial. So for the 1950 Exeter they entered a 1920 Tamplin tandem-seater, a 1921 E100 Carden with a vertical-twin air-cooled two-stroke engine in its boot, and a recently-acquired 1924 New Carden, of similar specification. These received numbers 240, 241 and 249, respectively. Neil Smith was to drive the Tamplin, with me as ballast behind him, J Rose the £100 Carden with my friend Tom Lush as navigator, and Roy Smith the 1924 New Carden.

The whole exercise was taken very seriously. The Smiths had prepared their mounts very thoroughly, to comply with the law — in fact, Neil carried a copy of the “Vehicles Construction & Use Act” with him, so as to combat any Police interference we might encounter. The Tamplin, while being kept as original as possible, had been equipped with new tyres, duplicated Bowden control-cables, an additional brake and its long rubber final-drive belt was replaced by more durable industrial belting. The old B & B carburettor had been changed for an Amal, and even a sort of fireproof bulkhead contrived, while an unwrapped brand-new 26×3 tyre was taken along.

At the time of this winter trial Motor Sport fortunately had the latest Aston Martin drop-head coupe for appraisal. So in this, Michael Tee with the cameras and me with notebook (and much warm clothing) drove to the start at Virginia Water, after having survived the hazardous task of clocking a 0-100mph acceleration-time on an ice-bound road. Having arrived, we were told that the 1924 New Carden had sheared a crankshaft key that evening, so wouldn’t start, but that we were due off in the Tamplin at 2.30am, on what was an extremely cold night.

As this gruesome time crept up Neil flooded the carburettor, treadled the internal foot-starter, and the air-cooled 980cc side-valve vee-twin JAP engine inside the fibre-board shell of the Tamplin rattled its response. We had found Smith adjusting the clutch, which had been slipping on his journey from London along the A30. Now, as we approached the arc-lit start-area, it refused to free and we had an anxious time as he tried to prevent the eager cyclecar from creeping away before its correct starting time, smoke pouring from the clutch. Out on the A30 at last, pointing West, Smith made more adjustments, the clutch being all but useless until he had dismantled and reassembled its plates. The improvised brake, consisting of a length of belt over a drum, was removed at the same time, as it was thought to be binding.

So our commencement of the long night run was hardly auspicious, especially as Neil’s brother and Lush in the Carden had pulled up behind us, with fuel starvation. All the rest of the 300-or-more entry had long gone before the two cyclecars did so, accompanied by the Aston Martin and a Ford V8 tender-car. I was now to discover lust how cramped and uncomfortable a Tamplin is. My legs had to more or less hang over the side, so close is the back to the front seat and there was also the discovery that lighting consisted of two small gaslamps, augmented by an electric spot-lamp on the near-side horizontal strip of wood that constituted a mudguard, and a temperamental acetylene rear-lamp…

Eventually we both got going, alone in the night, the Tamplin’s clutch still slipping but its brake quite effective on downhill stretches, although protesting by spitting out sparks. The AM had gone on ahead to get photographs, the Ford had mislaid itself, and at the first time-check we would be at least 1½-hours late. . . Getting up to the Hartford Bridge flats and up other gradients tried the transmission sorely; the Carden returned to look for us, then stormed away. At Basingstoke it became essential to re-line the clutch, with a piece of carboard cut into rings. We were now so late that simply to try to complete the route became the aim. For a time things then went well. The clutch had been locked, so the JAP was able to do its best, and we ran through the deserted countryside at 40 to 45 mph. The marshalls at the Controls had long gone but we pressed on, the cold now much worse, the fields snow-covered. But the bicycle-sized tyres coped well with ridged ice, as sleet began to fall on entering Honiton.

Smith asked was I alright, as he stopped for a swig of brandy; I did not like to tell him I had been so warm that I was trying to take off my scarf — the reason being that I was sitting (not “sat”, which seems now to be the common usage) so close behind his broad shoulders that they formed an effective wind-break!

The Carden had suffered continual petrol starvation and had stopped in Mere, along with the Ford V8, so we were now on our own. We had been doing some 40 mpg but now over-filled the tank over the engine (its nose-cone inscribed ”Tamplin No 92″) so that petrol fumes soon made me feel sick. At Exeter there was no time for breakfast. Neil purloined a garage’s Ford van and went in search of clutch corks, in view of a stop/start test to come. No luck, so he carefully re-assembled the cardboard rings, which had once been a Lagonda CC routecard…

En route to Fingle Bridge we were in good spirits, until the the exhaust valve cap in the JAP’s front cylinder flew out — and vanished. The AM arrived, after a photosession at Fingle, so I went back to Exeter in it, hoping to buy a replacement valve cap. But after walking the streets in torrential rain from one motor-cycle shop to another, no luck. In the end the Tamplin was left in Exeter, to which it staggered on one cylinder, and we came home in the comfort of the Aston Martin.

Refusing to give in, Neil Smith then took me then on the 1951 Land’s End. This time, not far from the start, the engine, and chain-driven 3-speed Sturmey-Archer gearbox tore out of the long-suffering fibreboard “chassis”; that was very definitely that! We were then living in nearby Fleet and although my wife doesn’t drive a friend was staying with her. A ‘phone-call in the dismal a m aroused them, and I persuaded Jill to dress and drive my Morgan Plus-4, which she had not seen before, out to rescue us… Father Smith was found, asleep, in the Ford tender-car on a Camberley garage forecourt. So in the end we all got home…

Still undaunted, we did it again, Tamplin repaired, on the next Exeter trial. It was third-time-lucky. If you count as lucky being towed up all the Observed Sections, walking up (both of us!) beside the thing up mainroad hills, Neil taking 20 links in all out of that single driving-belt, having to twice repair a split gearbox pulley, and, lightless, spending a night on camp beds in West of England Cars’ showroom in Yeovil, which they hospitably opened-up for us at lam on our slow progress home (I hope they are still in business and prospering!). The Jowett Javelin tender-car had deserted us. I got home 36 hours after starting out and Smith went on in his Tamplin to the far side of London, remarking that he would have time to wash it before tea… So much for the adventures that long-distance cyclecar-ing can encompass.

Surviving Tamplins:

MD 7280: Southampton motorcycle dealer (1940), Smith Collection (the one in which WB rode); Now in Dutch museum.

BL 8547: Lady first owner (1921), Harry Bowler (1951), Cecil Bendall, Jack Maurice. Restored by Dr N P Blakeney-Edwards (1969); Now owned by Peter Harper.

Y 7731: G M Evans, Puckington Vicarage, Illminster (1921); Hewens Garage & Engine Co, Taunton; J Crowhurst, Taunton; G Silver, Forest Gate; F C Krailing, Halstead (1922); O R Owen, Capel Curig (1923); the Smith Collection (1951-68); Yorkshire Car Collection (1968-94); Alan Whitehead (1994 on).

BW 3779: Thought to be experimental 1918 works car, bought second-hand by Braggins, Banbury (1919); Welsh farmer (1964); D Baldock; Stanley Mann; Richard Crump; owned by Chris Gordon since 1989; won the 1992 VSCC Edwardian H’cap at Oulton Park at 37.09 mph (best lap 38.4 mph).