An Army Major, who prefers to remain anonymous, writes of high-performance rather than of sports cars, and his views should be of considerable value to those who intend to build and to sell such cars after the next armistice. Early sports car experience renders the author a discerning purchaser of quality cars and he is not afraid to voice his opinions. – Ed.
Only the dire threat contained in Motor Sport that the publication might have to cease unless further material was received has prompted me to write of the 30 “cars I have owned” since my motoring career began in 1931 with the birthday present of one of the earliest B.S.A. three-wheelers. I had learned to drive at a very early age, but this was the longed-for day on which I might officially get a licence for a “motorcycle or tricycle.” Of the troubles which beset the B.S.A. the less said the better. Perhaps they were due to the number of gadgets with which I smothered it; anyway, the acceleration was excellent and my pride in it immense. My seventeenth birthday allowed me promotion to an M.G. Midget with fabric coupé body and celluloid panels in the roof, which leaked. It was a most satisfactory little car, was extraordinarily smooth around 50 m.p.h., and could put up an excellent average speed in spite of a maximum of only 60 m.p.h. Its only fault was the un-pleasant smell which used to fill the driving compartment on a steep ascent. The urge for a change made me trade the M.G. for a “show model” Singer Nine sports coupé, the rev.-counter of which gave a much more impressive reading than the equally large-diameter speedometer. When stationary, this was a very attractive little car.
Wanting real performance. I tried a supercharged f.w.d. Alvis and then an Alvis “Firefly,” but my final choice was an American example of the then new V8 Ford. This was far the best V8 I have ever owned or travelled in. It was absolutely trouble-free, extremely fast, and safe enough if the roads were dry. If they were wet it was suicide to exceed 30 m.p.h., and at length family pressure and financial assistance caused me to exchange the Ford for one of the first front-wheel-drive Citroen Twelves delivered in this country. If this car had been 10 m.p.h. faster I should probably have it now, for I have never known its equal for riding comfort, and the roadholding, silence and first-class “English trim” made it outstandingly good value for money. Unfortunately. 62 m.p.h. was its maximum, and after driving it at this speed for some months I felt it would be as well to dispose of it; so, after trying a Wolseley Fourteen, a, Hornet Special and a Standard “Speed” 10-12 h.p., my choice was a 1933 Talbot “90,” with an incredibly ugly Maddox saloon body. The previous owner was a newspaper baron and the car was reputed to have done a very nominal mileage, but it gave endless trouble and repairs were both difficult and expensive. Nevertheless, on the few occasions when it did go it gave me immense satisfaction, was really fast in spite of the ponderous superstructure, and possessed a charm which I find entirely absent in its 3 and 4-litre successors.
The urge for reliability and this unfortunate excursion into the second-hand market made me buy a new 1933 Ford V8 fixed-head coupé. but this car never appealed in the way the earlier left-hand-drive model had done, and at. 5,000 miles it was exchanged for a “K-type” M.G. Magnette, with very smart, special drop-head coupé coachwork. I did about 10,000 very enjoyable miles with this car, which would do a genuine 80 m.p.h. and 90 showing on the combined rev.-counter and speedometer. Its failings were a certain vagueness of control at these speeds and the continual “grounding” of the large rear trunk over rough going. After having the long-awaited 2-litre M.G. on order for some months I handed over the Magnette with real regret. Reputed to be the first 2 litre delivered, my car possessed in full those faults which I believe were later eradicated. The back axle was appallingly noisy, the steering the heaviest I have ever handled, while first and second gears would have shamed a W.D. lorry of the last war. After six months the makers replaced the gearbox free of charge. On the credit side the car was exceptionally comfortable, and in spite of indifferent acceleration could put up astonishing average speeds owing to its ability to cruise indefinitely between 60 and 70 m.p.h. whatever the road surface. On the Oxford By-pass I had the speedometer showing 94 on several occasions. so no doubt the 2 litre could exceed 80 m.p.h., and it also pulled a heavy two-horse four-wheeled trailer without complaint.
Feeling that this latter demand was unreasonable, I looked round for an elderly vehicle suitable for this purpose. A 1933 V16 Cadillac was ideal and in most beautiful condition, but the tax was too high. A Straight Eight Buick 37-h.p. English-bodied coupé suffered from chronic wheel-wobble and the demonstrator was quite unable to sort out the (reputed) twelve speeds of an enormous Maybach box. This latter car was an astonishing vehicle. formerly the property of a foreign embassy and very impressive in appearance and on the only two ratios I could select. Eventually the choice was a 1932 Straight Eight Renault which went like a rocket and was infinitely flexible. The wheelbase was so long that it seemed to bend in the middle round corners, but I came to prefer it to the M.G., and as a compromise exchanged both cars for a new 1937 V8 Ford cabriolet. After the only two accidents I have had, I managed to persuade a friend to buy a 4 1/2-litre Bentley and sell me her year-old Railton with “University Special” coachwork, telecontrols, large-dial instruments, radio and selected lamps and horns. In 30,000 miles the Railton never gave a moment’s trouble and firmly convinced me of the advantages of the Anglo-American blend. Up to 70 m.p.h.. nothing could live with it. Road-holding, brakes and steering were all up to the best British sports car standards, in spite of reports to the contrary, and the silent, effortless performance was fascinating. A tendency to overheating and a heavy appetite for tyres were the only faults. I sold the Railton to a friend who offered me more for the car than I had paid for it in spite of the mileage and the fact that it had pulled a trailer through two seasons’ hunting and racing.
Being now in the rare and enviable position of having no old car to “trade in” I determined to take my time and “explore every avenue” before buying anything else. Having a little more money I investigated the 3 1/2 litre Bentley, “Speed 25” Alvis and V12 Lagonda, but the first seemed too cramped, the Lagonda lacked “urge” below 2,500 r.p.m., and the AIvis controls were heavier than I considered desirable. The leading British makes having failed to satisfy, I turned to the U.S.A. Both Packard and Buick cabriolets had much to recommend them, but I could not reconcile myself to their mode of cornering while the tax of the Cord was a stumbling block, although I was very taken with its qualities. This brought me back to Anglo-American possibilities and I took out a 32-h.p. straight eight supercharged Graham “British Special” on test. This car had a very smart Coachcraft drop-head coupé body and was impressive but too cumbersome; the “British” features seemed limited to Lucas P 100 headlamps. A Straight Eight Brough Superior and a supercharged 22-h.p. 6-cylinder of the same make seemed mere parodies of my beloved Railton, and I turned to a miscellaneous selection. An elderly but very low-mileage 1 3/4-litre supercharged Alfa-Romeo coupé alarmed me on corners, but I probably never got to know its peculiarities. A 3 1/2-litre S.S., and a S.S. “100” with Newsome drop-head coupé coachwork, were disconeerting at speed and I did not care for a Type 320 or for a Lincoln “Zephyr” V12 coupé.
A kindly dealer allowed me to borrow a 25-h.p. Rolls Royce for a week-end, but I grew tired of small family saloons leaving me at the traffic lights and it was now obvious that another Railton was the answer. I duly acquired a “Cobham” saloon with “razor-edge” lines, again by Coachcraft, and had the rear wheels enclosed and various other “extras” fitted. This car had much lower-geared steering and softer springing than the earlier model, and I am not certain that this was an improvement, while the windscreen was too shallow and the aluminium body liable to dent if it was man-handled in a public garage. It was, however, a wonderful car and I ran it until the end of 1940 with absolute satisfaction.
The outbreak of war and marriage intervened at much the same moment and I found a 1929 10-h.p. Swift 2-seater in original and perfect condition to supplement the Railton. This sturdy and excellent little car gave place to one of the last “12/40” Lea-Francis 2-seaters, which was first registered in 1934 and had done 60,000 with its original owner. The Lea-Francis was still as good as the day it left the factory and its gearbox, brakes and easy-starting were delightful. I added several thousand miles to its total before petrol rationing persuaded me to exchange it and my horse-box for a new 1940 Vauxhall Ten. I always regretted the Lea-Francis and was very sad to find its stripped and mouldering remains on my return from France in the very barracks from which I had sold it. The Vauxhall, however, showed me how quite astonishingly good British small cars had become. It was extremely comfortable and silent up to 50 m.p.h., and gave better than 40 m.p.g. After 5,000 miles I exchanged it for a new one, which I had delivered to my home and stored as a post-war nest-egg. My wife continued to use the Railton while I was in France. On my return it seemed obvious that this was uneconomic and that post-war conditions would preclude the use of such a car, so with much heart-burning and considerable financial loss I sold the Railton.
A utility substitute for wartime conditions was secured for £27 10s. A 1935 fixed-head Vauxhall Fourteen coupé served me most loyally on basic and supplementary rations until October, 1942, when I sold it for £65. Apart from a set of tyres it had not cost me a penny and no abuse could disturb it. Concurrently with the Vauxhalls I ran a number of cars. A Type 40 Frazer Nash-B.M.W. 2-seater was great fun and tempted me to find a Type 327 B.M.W. coupé, but I never succeeded. A recent 14-h.p. Vauxhall lacked the personality of the old coupé and a 1940 Renault Twelve failed to appeal and was not a member of the stable for long.
A trial run in a 2.6-litre M.G. was sufficient, but that in a “Nuffield” Riley Sixteen would have ended in a purchase had the suspension been independent. An unsupercharged 22-h.p. Lammas-Graham, reputed to have been specially tuned and fitted with “Technauto” front springing by Ramponi, was fast and silent but most uncomfortable and I did not keep it long. An “8.3” Renault was in use for six months and provided a remarkable performance for so small a car with such an outstandingly roomy body, but the brakes were a weakness and it was replaced by a 4-seater Fiat “500.” This had a very smooth engine and was really amusing to drive, but for some reason the petrol consumption was heavy and so I sold it at a profit and got a 2-seater version instead. This may be an exceptionally good one, but it averages better than 60. m.p.g. on long runs and is a fascinating little car which I have now laid up for the duration and want to fit with an Arnott supercharger if I can find one. I am now running an older drop-head Fiat “500” which will eventually be used for spares but which is the most entertaining little car in the meantime. Apart from the microscopic battery I have had no trouble whatever with any of these three Fiats.
Having accepted an offer of twice its new list price I wanted a good low-mileage car to store for post-war use in place of the Vauxhall Ten and considered a Riley Twelve “Sprite” drop-head saloon, but, having tried one, decided instead on one of the rare 14-h.p. 2-litre Sunbeam-Talbots after a very brief trial in London. A short time ago a few days’ leave enabled me to drive the Sunbeam-Talbot a little farther and I was rather disappointed by a car that should, on paper, have an outstanding performance. It seemed too low-geared, with a slow and heavy change, while the springing appeared unnecessarily firm. The finish, however, is good and its lines are quite excellent, the added bonnet length over the 10-h.p. model making all the difference. Unfortunately, I have now been out in a Lancia “Aprilia” and my ambition is to own one of these cars as soon as possible – so if anyone has a low-mileage 1939 version for disposal I hope he will get in touch with me. Put off by their strange appearance in pre-war days I never considered one of these cars and only now realise what I have missed. As a regular soldier I have always thought myself reasonably patriotic, but it now looks as though my stable will be a hundred-per-cent. Axis, with two “Topolino” Fiats and a Lancia!
All the above cars have actually been my property for at least two months each, and I must add a 4-cylinder B.S.A. 3-wheeler run during the few months of “basic for motor-bicycles only,” a 1 1/2-litre Praga, which I bought for a six weeks holiday in Czecho-Slovakia, and a 45-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini which I had on long trial. My memory of the B.S.A. will always be the cleaning of the chromium-plated wire wheels, while the Praga, although designated “sports grande luxe,” had a maximum of 45 m.p.h. and closely resembled a farm tractor. The old Isotta had the most powerful brakes I have ever known, both before or since, but its enormous size made garaging a nightmare and one man felt entirely lost in its interior.
The only “regrets” during these twelve years have been a 1935 “Speed 14” Rover and a 1940 “12/70” Alvis, both of which would have been mine had the distributors been a little more generous in their part-exchange allowances. I believe the Rover’s triple carburetters to have been rather difficult to tune and the engine of the Alvis rocked most alarmingly on the flexible mountings at idling speeds, but both cars were very pleasant to drive and I should like to have owned them.
And now speed the return to normality.