Cars I have owned

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[So we come to No. 10 of this Series—by Sub-Lieut. G. P. Shea-Simonds, R.N.V.R.—Ed.]

I RESOLVED before starting to write this short history of my experiences to stick rigidly to the subject as expressed in the title above; I am therefore going to write only about the cars that have, at one time or another, actually been my own property—as distinct from the quite considerable number of others that I have begged., borrowed, hired or otherwise been interested in during my motoring career.

My first car came to me on my sixteenth birthday as a present from my father, to whom I shall always be eternally grateful for all his tolerance and generosity in connection with my motoring from that day onward. As the law, of course, only allowed me three wheels to motor on at the tender age of sixteen years, the first car had to be a tricar a J.M.B. being the make in question. This little car provided me with a lot of amusement and was, on the whole, a very workmanlike job. The open two-seater body was nicely finished and quite pleasant to look at, and the performance in view of the small power unit—an air-cooled, 500 c.c., single-cylinder J.A.P. engine—was very reasonable; the acceleration was lively, if not exactly fierce, and 40-45 m.p.h. could be obtained without much difficulty. There were, it must be admitted, one or two disadvantages : although the suspension, steering and brakes were more than adequate at all times, the car was rather too light, which called for considerable care when negotiating left-hand bends with an empty passenger’s seat; and this same lack of cwts. could also be annoying if one forgot the exhaust-valve lifter before jumping heartily on the kick-starter, which was situated on the off-side just behind the driver’s seat and was the sole means provided for getting the engine started! The only other fault I had to find with this car was the lack of a reverse gear; and in this respect I must confess the lightness of the machine was a blessing.

My next car was a 1934 Morgan sports two-seater. After a few months of motoring with the J.M.B. I had begun to hanker after something with rather more performance; and the new car, with its 1,100 c.c. o.h.v. water-cooled “V”-twin J.A.P. engine, certainly gave me what I wanted in that respect. It was well-finished and equipped—two great assets being a reliable self-starter and a reverse gear—and when the engine (which was unfortunately rather tempremnental) could be persuaded to hold its tune, capable of putting up a really potent performance. The close ratio gearbox was a joy to handle, and the getaway and acceleration were most satisfying. The Morgan would cruise very comfortably at 50-60 m.p.h. and flat out speeds of over 80 m.p.h. were well within reach; and the car was, taking things all in all, very pleasant to drive.

After the Morgan came a 1935 “P” Type two-seater M.G. Midget. I started competition motoring with this car; and the engine, which always responded nobly to all the tuning and minor modifications to which it was subjected, did excellent work in a number of reliability trials, sprint events, a hundred mile race on the sand at Southport and the 1935 R.A.C. Rally—my co-driver in this event, by the way, was the late Luis Fontes, who was destined to become famous in later days as a racing motorist and airman. The M.G., after a fair amount of attention and tuning, finally developed a very useful performance for an unblown “850”; a carefully-adjusted clutch-stop did much to speed up the changes through the rather annoyingly wide-ratio gearbox, and this considerably improved the getaway and acceleration, while the flat-out speed when the car was running stripped was a genuine 95 m.p.h.

Towards the end of this year I got rid of the Midget; and while I was looking round for another car, I discovered and acquired the famous “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.” For a time I toyed with the pleasing idea of overhauling “Chitty” and using her on the road ; but the problems of tax and insurance, together with the knowledge that a great deal of time and a not inconsiderable amount of money would have to be spent in getting her anywhere near safe for ordinary everyday motoring on crowded roads, knowledge which, I may add, was very forcibly thrust upon me while driving the monster down from London to Reading (!) all combined to put paid to the project. So “Chitty,” although I finally did rebuild her and get her into very fair running order, spent a number of years in honourable retirement in my garage, emerging once in a while to be started up and motored round a field or up and down a private drive—and, upon one memorable occasion, to display the full majesty of her vast 23-litre engine (no bonnet, of course!) and impressive rear driving-sprockets and chains by touring round the course at a sprint meeting to the accompaniment of a thunderous roar and flashes of flame from six stub exhausts.

As I had finally and regretfully decided that it was going to be impossible to run “Chitty” on the road, and as I had parted with the M.G., I found myself once more looking for a car; and, for my fifth motor, I chose a 1935 Austin “Ten” Abbey Special. Like my previous cars, this was an open two-seater, but, although it had a neat body and was pleasant enough to drive, I found its performance disappointing.

I was, therefore, not sorry to part with the Austin, and, in its stead, I acquired an Oldsmobile. This make had, at that time, just been reintroduced into the country, and mine, which was a 20-h.p. two-seater Drop-Head Coupe, was one of the first of its type to be put on the road over here. It was quite a typical example of American car design, rather vulgar to look upon, but comfortable and well-equipped—with a car-radio and sundry other gadgets—and it was certainly capable of a useful performance. The getaway and acceleration were very satisfactory, and one could get a speedometer reading of 90 m.p.h. almost anywhere; but I never really resigned myself to the “super soft” springing—independent coil springs in front—and the inevitable rolling and swaying when cornering always seemed rather unpleasant. In spite of this, however, the car served me very well and provided me with a long spell of trouble-free motoring.

I had always been secretly rather disgusted with myself for going “soft” with the purchase of what my hardier friends were prone to refer to scornfully as “that Yankee Gin Palace of yours”—one of the worst offenders in this respect was my friend, and your correspondent, Sir Clive Edwards, Bart.!—and so, although I still retained the Oldsmobile, I got hold of a very amusing little car to play about with in spare moments. This was a very special Austin Seven; the frame had, by some clever juggling, been completely underslung front and rear and an exceptionally low-built and sketchy aluminium body had been fitted. This body was officially a two-seater, but I don’t think that two people could ever have managed to get into it at the same time—I certainly never carried a passenger while I had the car. The engine was a “hotted up” standard unit fitted with a special exhaust manifold and twin carburetters. It produced plenty of power, and, thanks to that and a very nice gearbox, the little car had an excellent performance—I have no figures to hand, but I can remember her fierce acceleration and a top speed approaching 80 m.p.h. The Austin was very amusing to drive and, considering the ultra-low centre of gravity and lack of weight, quite steady on the road but unfortunately I am very tall; and, in spite of having the pedals cranked and the bottom half of the steering-wheel cut away, I always began to suffer agonies of cramp after about twenty minutes in the driving-seat. So, after a few months, the Austin was sold—I hope to a more reasonably-sized owner—and the Oldsmobile went soon afterwards.

A 4½-litre “100 m.p.h.” Invicta with an open four-seater body was my next buy. In spite of what has been said about this particular model—Forrest Lycett, I observe, even goes to the lengths of referring to his as a “great schism”!—I had a great deal of very enjoyable motoring out of mine. The engine when properly in tune gave out a more than adequate supply of b.h.p. (although I must admit that reliability was not one of its more conspicuous qualities) and the car was undeniably fast — 115 m.p.h. when stripped—in addition to being possessed of really savage acceleration. Tyres and plugs had rather a thin time, and a decidedly special technique was called for when cornering, especially on a wet surface; but for all that the car was great fun to drive, and generally performed well in competition—in particular, I can remember one very enjoyable “Mountain” race—and on the road.

I followed the Invicta with a car that is still in my possession to-day—although the h.p. tax and petrol rationing have unfortunately kept it behind the garage doors for several months now—a “Speed Six” Bentley. This car has always been, and will always remain, my own idea of perfection in everyday motoring. It has undergone numerous modifications and alterations during the time I have owned it, and now, with a specially shortened chassis and a beautifully-finished open two/three-seater body, gives me everything I ask in the way of performance, reliability and comfort. If I really got down to a description of the Bentley I’m afraid I should go on enthusing for pages without number, so I will content myself with saying that, if anyone should happen to want more details of the car and its history, information concerning it may be found in MOTOR SPORT for the month of May, 1939.

In the early days of the “Speed-Six” I had a rather bad crash with it in a speed trial and work of repairing the damage to the car looked like taking a long time. Accordingly, I bought what proved to be a very interesting car—a 1936 Squire open two-seater powered by a “blown” 1½-litre four-cylinder engine and equipped with an E.N.V. pre-selector gearbox. This car had a very lively performance, it was delightful to drive, and the roadholding and brakes were excellent. But the body provided little space for a tall driver, and luggage accommodation was also very limited, so, shortly after the Bentley’s return to the road, the Squire departed.

During the latter months of 1938 I went to work as a farm pupil, and I felt that the “Speed-Six,” which at that time had just received its new body, would not be improved by bouncing about over fields and cart-tracks—and probably having to spend nights in the company of fowls or pigs! So the Bentley was left at home, to be used when I got away for week-ends, and I obtained a very ancient 12-h.p. Morris saloon for the princely sum of £5 10s. This veteran, in spite of being almost unbelievably noisy and distinctly odd to look at, did yeoman work for me; it was remarkably reliable and quite pleasant to drive, although its undeniably low sense of humour, which used to manifest itself most particularly on frosty mornings, led me to christen it “Aristophanes”!

“Aristophanes” lasted until I happened to catch sight of an old 3-litre “Blue Label” Bentley tucked away in a roadside garage at which I had pulled up for petrol. There was nothing for it. I parted with the Morris and a cheque, and became the owner of the 3-litre. It was a grand old long-chassis open four-seater tourer of 1925 vintage, and, after a much needed overhaul and the fitting of a large Zenith carburetter in place of the original 5-Jet Smith, performed very well indeed. It handled satisfactorily and the roadholding and brakes were good, while the exhaust note can only be described as superb. I ran the 3-litre as a companion to the “Speed-Six” for quite a time after leaving the farm, and had plenty of good motoring with it. Then I decided to try my hand at building a single-seater “Special” for sprint events and hill-climbs, and the old Bentley 3-litre went in part-exchange for a partially-completed chassis. The Special was corning along very well until the war put an end to its development. It consists of a 2-litre, 6-cylinder A.C. engine (year : 1927) blown by a chain-driven concentric vane-type Zoller supercharger, this power-unit being mounted in a frame consisting of the front end of a Lea-Francis chassis, with special outrigger springs and a “Leaf” front axle, and the back half of an A.C. chassis which carries a “Leaf” rear axle on its original springs. The power is transmitted to the rear axle through a dry plate clutch and a pre-selector gearbox. The car’s radiator started life in an Austin Seven, and the original “Leaf” steering-gear has been retained, although the box has been modified in order to bring the wheel to a central position. The car, although it was still in a rather rough-and-ready condition and without a body, ran in one event before the war—a hill-climb at Burghfield, organized by the S.O.D.C. and the Frazer-Nash and B.M.W. C.C.—in June, 1939. It put up a very satisfactory show, but now it has joined the “Speed-Six” in retirement until the end of the war. Thanks to Adolf and the rest of his insanitary compatriots, I eke out my meagre petrol ration month by month in a small saloon, but I must admit I do enjoy the limited motoring I get with my present car. It is a 1937 Ford “Ten” De Luxe, and I can honestly say that I have nothing but praise for its behaviour up to date. The engine develops a remarkable amount of power, runs very smoothly and is not greedy on oil or petrol; and the car is comfortable with plenty of leg and head room (this is important as far as I’m concerned), while the suspension, brakes and road-holding permit pleasantly rapid progress at all times. In fact, I’m almost grateful to Hitler; at least he has been the means of finding me a good small car—indirectly, it’s true!