[In this article, the well-known motoring writer, F. L. M. Harris, describes motoring as it was after the 1914/18 battle. So long as history repeats itself, we need not be too pessimistic about the chances of getting some sort of fun soon after the next Armistice. F. L. M. Harris is Editor of “The Sports Car,” which has suspended publication for the duration, and is also the genial General Secretary of the M.G. Car Club. For many years he was Editor of ″The Light Car” and “Motor Cycling,” and we are indebted to him for again putting paper in his typewriter on our behalf, in these busy times—he now looks after balloon barrages for the R.A.F.—Ed.]
THIS has nothing to do with the kinds of car in which I hope to drive to the dole queue when the current period of upset is over. The Editor has asked me for some reminiscences of post-the-last-war cars. Twenty-five years ago we used to sing :
When this (blue pencil) war is over,
Oh! How happy we shall be.
When this (blue pencil) war is over,
We’ll all have sausages for tea.
It was going to be Utopia. A land fit for heroes was coming into being. All our dreams were coming true. They were mostly dreams of “Prince Henry” Vauxhalls, and “Shelsley” Crossleys, snorting triumphantly along magnificent rebuilt highways.
In the last war all the country’s roads became terribly pot-holed and stayed in that condition for years. They were macadam roads with no concrete foundations, and in those days there were no such things as lorries with pneumatics. For nearly five years huge vehicles on solids battered away at the high roads, until many of them offered an agonising ride on a motor-cycle or a small car.
In 1917-18 I had a 1912 Model T Ford for long runs (never mind where the petrol came from!) and a two-cylinder Darracq-Peugeot-Belsize Special for snooting around. The Ford tyres were 30″ x3½,” on the back and 30″ x3″ on the front. The “Bitsy” had 650 x 65 tyres all round.
For a while, in 1919, I had a Coventry Premier light car, but I never really liked it after I dismantled the back axle and put it up with the pinion the wrong side of the crown wheel. It then had, of course, three speeds astern, and one ahead. That axle was a pest—and it was not by any means unique. Axle troubles were widespread on the dreadful roads, whilst one was constantly stopping on long runs to refix lamps, wings and so on, which shook loose.
The year 1920 brought in its early stages an acute realisation of the fact that after a war comes a mess. Everyone was very broke, petrol was just over 4/- a gallon, and anything on wheels was fetching fantastic prices.
After collecting a “common danger” endorsement while riding a 1913 single-geared 2¼ h.p. Levis two-stroke, I bought a Girling three-wheeler. It was made by a Mr. Girling who later held a big job with Ferodo, and whose name is now very well known.
This machine had a single-cylinder engine, and friction drive, with a shaft and bevel to the rear wheel. The front tyres were pneumatics, and the back tyre was made of wood, covered with rubber rings like the old-fashioned rubber heels. Steering was by tiller, on the lines of the A.C. Sociable, which the machine generally resembled.
The naughtiest thing it did was to break a steering arm, which Barimar very cleverly repaired. Steering breakages were common at that time on account of the state of the roads, and I recall two other steering failures in 1920, both clean fractures of very fatigued steering arms.
In those days there was a weekly journal styled “The Car Illustrated,” which had been founded pre-war by that great pioneer, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. Later it came into the hands of Ed. J. Burrow, of the Cheltenham printing and publishing firm, and then was acquired by W. H. Berry, at that time motoring editor of many journals including The Times, The Evening Standard, and The Daily Dispatch. Berry wanted an editor to run, his newly acquired motoring journal and I leapt at the job.
“The Car Illustrated” (it later became “Car and Golf” and was merged with “The Motor Owner” before finally passing out) was the R.A.C.’s official journal, and set out to be a comprehensive weekly motoring magazine. We had such distinguished contributors as Owen John (Llewellyn) who wrote “On the Road” for many years for “The Autocar,” and Bill Whittall, Malcolm Campbell’s father-in-law, and at that time connected with “The Illustrated London News.”
From the editorial chair of “The Car Illustrated” I went up north to attend the birth of the Angus Sanderson (remember its wobbly disc wheels?), and of the Ruston Hornsby (with a great bulge at the back to accommodate the hood).
I tested countless cars, many of which must now be forgotten. I cannot turn up their names from an R.A.F. job remote from old records, but who can recall the Carrow, the Surrey, the Sequeville-Hoyeau [the remains of one of which lie to this day on a dump near Sheffield—Ed.], and the Albert? Memories which stick are of a back wheel becoming detached from a Cubitt and of a huge Cadillac which cost 6d. a mile for petrol alone!
About 1922, the last word in steam cars arrived from America. It was a Stanley, and was notable for its two axles being connected by wooden bars rather like the horizontal bars in a gym. The idea was to improve suspension and steering, which it seemed to accomplish. The car was very fast, and it flashed up hills if you conserved steam pressure while approaching them.
On several occasions in traffic the pilot light of the burner went out, and this led to dense clouds of paraffin vapour suffocating everyone around when the steam pressure fell and the main burners were automatically turned on.
With highly interesting machines of this kind I used to go to Brooklands meetings and to hill climbs and speed trials, which were very plentiful. But I won’t reminisce about the events of those days—the job has been done too often.
To one remote event I set out in the first 7.5 h.p. Citroen to be landed in England; the job with a two-seater body, before the clover-leaf came out. It failed me very badly in a most outlandish place, making a noise as if it had run out of petrol. Alas! Investigation showed that the camshaft was not going round.
About the same time, a G.N. served me a dirty trick by shying one of its push-rods into the ditch. There were plenty of spring U-bolts and things of that kind in the toolbox, but no pushrods. Some steel knitting needles were used, bound together with thread. The G.N. was fascinating, and it had good looks, but it was more of a hobby than a car. Something was always dropping off or falling to pieces.
A.C. at that time made a very fine-looking sports-car of 1,500 c.c., the Riley “Redwinger” was coming along, and the “12/50” Alvis was on the drawing board.
The outstanding machine of the period was the Brescia Bugatti, and between 1923 and 1925 one recalls nothing that could compare with it. Amilcars and Salmsons were well in the racing picture, but the Bugatti was the job for fast road motoring.
They were odd machines in some respects. Feed them on costly plugs and they would devour them greedily, but something unheard of at about four bob would last for thousands of miles. The clutch was addicted to seizing, but could be freed by injections of oil and paraffin. I made many runs “clutchless,” there being no suitable syringe available.
The technique was, of course, to push-start in second or third and thereafter to judge the gears. A traffic stop naturally meant switching off. One memory is of assaulting Bwlch-y-Groes, and successfully scaling it, in a Bugatti with a bottom gear of 10 to 1.
Horstman, Hampton, Deemster and Crouch were well-known light cars of the time. The Gwynne Eight (the Albert’s young brother) was a topper, but was born a bit too late for various reasons.
Salmsons, Senechals and Amilcars as sold to the public were, for the most part, considerably slower than their appearance suggested. The absence of weather protection greatly restricted their sales, and they are remembered as fussy machines geared all wrong for trials, but rather fun on a nice day. Their spindley controls and flimsy construction were out of keeping with contemporary thought, which ran to bulky bronze castings as fit items for adoration.
The 3-litre Bentley had many worshippers, but I took a pretty poor view of a very early thermostat fitted to one, which stuck shut in the 1922 (or 1923) “Exeter,” and declined to open, thereby costing me a “gold.”
Overhead valve conversion equipments for side-valve engines were being developed in 1923-4, and were obtainable for several popular cars. But sporting motorists went in for hundred-per-cent. discomfort, and it was not until a year or two later that speed, comfort, silence and safety began to get hand in hand.
The “12/50” Alvis was an outstanding car. A bit heavy, and expensive, but right on top. I picked up an early model in Coventry, and drove it to Birmingham for the night, garaging it there. After dinner I took it out for a run for the sheer joy of handling such a delicious machine. It deserves an honoured place in motoring history.
In 1924, the R.A.C. held their last Six-days Trial. It was for standard light cars, and among makes entered (and not mentioned above) were the Galloway, the Rhode, and the Lea Francis. The former made no great impression, but the Rhode came close to being a very notable car. Its big fault was a lubrication system which was inadequate for the high revs. of the engine.
The Lea-Francis gained great prominence from the R.A.C. trial and I hastily sold my 11.4 h.p. Lagonda to have one specially built for me. I wanted the 10 h.p. chummy-bodied R.A.C.-trial model, with the two-port 1,496 c.c. Meadows engine. What a machine! It looked like a sober barouche, but could crack at about 80. It climbed Porlock in second gear with a bellowing exhaust, and was one of the best cars for Alpine work that I ever owned.
At this period I was editing “The Light Car” and its companion journal “Motor Cycling,” and often on such occasions as the Scottish six-days trials, I used to drive a Morgan, to be in both camps, so to speak. H. F. S. Morgan, with the co-operation of J.A.P. and Anzani, offered the man of modest means the comfort of contemporary sports-cars, coupled with magnificent performance at a very modest price.
A recollection of 1926 is leaving London on Sunday morning, and driving a Morgan to Edinburgh in the day. Monday to Saturday was spent on the 1,000-mile trial, and on Sunday I drove back to London. About 2,000 miles in eight days, including all the toughest stuff the Highlands have to offer. On a two-cylinder three-wheeler, with a two-speed gear.
Morgan certainly made a most wonderful machine, and you still Wonder whether he would have prospered more or less if, in those days, he had listened to critics who asked him for detachable wheels, four cylinders, three speeds and so on. These things came many years later when everything had changed.
Some readers of MOTOR SPORT may be interested to learn how my attachment to the M.G. marque came about. It was, of course, later than the times about which I have been writing, because the M.G. Midget was not born until the end of the 1920s, and the 14/40s and 18/ 80s were, at that time, out of my reach.
In the long ago I was at school at Abingdon, where my uncle, George Morland, carried on a large and successful brewery that flourishes to the present day. When a car factory was opened there, making just the kind of machine which had always been my passion, what more natural than that I should take rather a special interest in it.
I had known Cecil Kimber for some years as a clever designer, and a prominent figure in motoring sport, whilst H. M. Charles, who was his first lieutenant in the design of the racing cars, had served for several exciting months with me in the early stages of the 1914-18 war. Whenever opportunity offered in the late 1920s and early 1930s I used to go down to Abingdon to get the lowdown on the latest racing machines and to enjoy the good comradeship of the delightful folk that Kim has always had around him. Mine was the decision that caused a letter to be published in “The Light Car” suggesting the formation of an M.G. Car Club, and its inaugural meeting at the “Roebuck,” Broadwater, was held within a couple of miles of my home.
When, at a later stage, the club. wanted a secretary and a magazine, I found myself possessed of the leisure and the opportunity for both activities, and I am looking forward to taking them up again as actively as ever when this blue pencil war is over.