Cars I have owned, by CG Grey

CG Grey will be remembered by the older readers of Motor Sport as the Founder and, until 1937, Editor of The Aeroplane.  He started that paper in 1911 and achieved world-wide fame for his outspoken, authoritative and always entertaining views on all aspects of aviation. I was an avid reader of The Aeroplane until Charles Grey retired from the editorial chair, and it may be that, unconsciously, I have followed, humbly, as a poor imitator, his methods in Motor Sport. Certainly CG Grey's aeronautical outpourings still give me great pleasure. Consequently, that I have been able to persuade him—at the age of 76 he is still a very busy writer—to contribute to the "Cars I Have Owned" series, is a matter for appreciable self-congratulation. Journalistically, I believe it is known as "a scoop."

It may surprise you that CG Grey should have had time for earthly motoring. But I would remind you that, as he himself used to publicly declare, he only ventured up in an aeroplane on one day a year, so that on the remaining 364 he could pose as an authority on such things—a typically "CGG" remark which no doubt infuriated the aviation pundits, as no doubt it was intended to, for Grey was ever a strong advocate of safety in flying, and still is.

So mainly be travelled by road, driving himself in his own and other people's cars, and driving hard, as he tells us so entertainingly in the article which follows.—Ed.

Your Editor has paid me the distinguished compliment of asking me to write a piece about cars I have owned—assuming that I attained to the affluence of owning, either in series or parallel, a lot of cars. If I wrote so, this piece would be very short, for I have owned very few cars—but I have had a lot to drive or maltreat as I willed. And I have had, for some 55 years, a fixed idea that a motor engine ought to be designed and built to run on full throttle as long as there is enough clear road to take it. Which idea isn't good for any car I have met.

Anyhow, the first motor-vehicle I had—for about half an hour— was a motor tricycle which was lent to me by Harry Parsons, of a pioneer firm in Coventry, the Motor Manufacturing Co, I think, in 1897 (or '96). He later made a fortune out of the Parsons nonskid chain, and became Mayor of Southampton and a member of the Harbour Board. A grand chap, worthy of all his success. Be died a year or two ago, on the verge of 80 (plus or minus).

That tricycle had hot tube ignition and you got it to fire by playing with taps on top of the petrol tank (under the top tube of the frame) until the gas that came off the surface was of an ignitionable quality when sucked into the cylinder in contact with the tube which had been hotted up by some mysterious means outside. And the sucking in process was generally done when cold by jacking up one wheel and pedalling hard till something went bang. When it was all hot one started by pushing the thing, preferably downhill, and jumping into the saddle before it ran away, as there was no clutch or ungearing apparatus, and the only brake was a spoon on the front tyre.

It took me to Kenilworth and back, helped by hard pedalling up Gibbet Hill in each direction. Harry Parsons was pleased to welcome it home in one piece.

My next, equally brief, effort was on a Singer, which had the engine, tank and all, inside the back wheel, which was itself a magnificent aluminium casting. That journey was from the top of Yeovil town to the station and back. The journey back was mostly pushing.

After that I had the frequent use, in 1899-1901, of an Ariel tricycle and trailer which belonged to George Crabbe, the inventor of the Crabbe brake—still largely used. I had helped him to put it on the market—eventually to make a pretty packet out of it—so I had a sort of lien on his motor. This had a battery and coil and spark-plug ignition, and was very superior. The engine gave, I think, 21 hp, and took the hills between Bristol and Gloucester and Bath with a bit of an effort—trailer and all.

After that I went to Ireland and had an Ariel belonging to the firm---21 hp—all to myself. It took me all over Ireland, and did good work despatch-riding during the Gordon-Bennett car race won by Jenatzy on a Mercedes in 1903.

The next motor was a comic. It was a 23/4 FN engine in a frame which consisted mostly of Bowden wires. Throttle, mixture, advance and retard ignition, front and back brakes, a clutch that was pulled in and pulled out, were all worked with Bowdens. As a friend who knew it said, "and you hoped for the best with a Bowden wire." An able mechanic who kept it working when in Belfast was named Harry Ferguson. He recently touched the great Ford Company for £3,000,000 or so.

Irish roads then (1905-6) were not good. They were generally channels for horses' feet between two rows of broken stones, with channels for cart-wheels outside those again. One day, I was careering along happily at 30 mph or so on a clear bit, and heading for the middle channel when the bottom tube of the frame pulled out and I slid for some yards—spraining a shoulder. A friend, on another motor, had a good view. When he came up and I picked myself up, he said, by way of consolation, "Begad, if ye'd ha' done that on those stones ye'd ha' cut rashers off yourself." And that was the nearest (touch wood) I ever came to a bad motor accident.

After that I came back to England and fell by accident into Aviation. But before getting right into it I had a trip as an "observer" in an Argyle car, back and forth across Yorkshire and Lancashire. On the strength of my talking motoring, the driver let me take the wheel. That was the first car I ever drove. My turn ended by driving down the narrow alley into George & Joblings depot in Darlington, onto the turntable, jamming on the brakes (back wheels only, then), and turning completely round—to everybody's surprise—as the turntable gyrated with the momentum of the car.

Next day, coming back, the confiding driver again let me take the wheel, and I did a spectacular skid just outside Wetherby. I can feel it still—another driving lesson. That car had a few quaint tricks. One was, that if you were really quick and clever you could get second and third gears in at the same time—and come to a sudden stop. Funnier still, the gears stood up to it, and you just got out, with passengers, and rocked the car to and fro till they came unstuck.

My next effort was a real automobile, of which I had the use from a friend until he repaid some small sum of money (it couldn't have been much) which he had borrowed. It was a tiny open Clement-Bayard, about the size of a Topolino, if I remember, but it went like a wrist-watch. At that time the Central Flying School for the Royal Flying Corps (Navy and Army) was being built on the top of that young mountain at Upavon, on Salisbury Plain, and the way it charged up those hills was amazing. Its top speed, I think, was about 45 mph.

Soon after that the 1914 war started and I bought a little two-seater Calthorpe, from an officer in the RFC. There was nothing remarkable about it. Motoring during the war was largely a problem of getting petrol and getting repairs done. I was all right for petrol— as a newspaper man. And regulations were not so strict in those days. I think that car must have been rebuilt at least once, a bit at a time, in aircraft factories. But I struck some good dodges.

The Calthorpe was a little narrow car and Army trucks then, as in 1939-45, were driven largely by ignorant hooligans who thought they had bought the roads. We only had paraffin sidelights carried on the outside of the scuttle. So I had a bracket fixed on the outside of each front mudguard, and at night I used to put the lamps on these, where they stuck out most of a foot on each side of the car. Even the Army drivers funked arguing the right to the middle of the road with a pair of lamps which looked as if they were on a pantechnicon.

Most of us had acetylene headlamps (no "electrickery"—as old man Cody used to call it—in those days), and the war regulations decreed that no lamp should have a glass more than 3 in (I think it was) in diameter. So some of us had the big glasses taken out and replaced by brass discs, in the middle of which was a legal 3-in glass. But we had the insides of the brass discs plated and polished. So the light from the normal reflector was reflected back onto it by the plated disc and refocussed and squirted out of the 3-in glass like a baby searchlight. But it was abnormally legal.

That car lasted out the war. Just after it ended I bought, for fun, a four-cylinder, chain-driven Mercedes of 1904 vintage—and it was fun. I had the seat put on the floor and the steering column cut down, so that it did not look too antique. It could only do about 65 mph but it was a joy to drive. If one let the car over-run the engine and chain was likely to jump the smaller sprocket, so one got the habit of kicking out the clutch when one slowed down. To this day I cannot go round a corner or slow up in traffic without de-clutching. And I hold that it is a good habit, because one accelerates and "picks up" the car on the engine instead of having it bucket about on the universal joints.

Also, that old Merc had the most perfect gears. The teeth were about as big as a modern dog-clutch, so one merely de-clutched, knocked the knob on the 2-ft gear-lever in the direction of the gear wanted, there was a hearty "klonk" and one let in the clutch. In fact one could change without using the clutch, merely by driving the car at the right engine-speed. And such a clutch. It was a band round the big hearty external flywheel and was worked by a cam arrangement. It was either in or out, there was no nonsense about slipping one's clutch. Directly the band touched the flywheel it was wound up on it and stuck. But the touch of a toe disengaged it. Those Merc designers did know their jobs. There is interest in recalling that the engines in the Mercs, which finished first, second and third in the French Grand Prix of 1914, just before the war, were the same engines which were in the fighters which played hell with the RFC in 1915 and '16, and were used in bombers much later. (All right, Mr Critic, I know that the Fokker which had the first synchronised guns had radial engines.)

Somewhere around 1920 I bought a six-cylinder, five-seat Talbot of 1912 from Vincent Nichol, one of the heroes of the RNAS, who had bought himself the latest thing in cars. Vincent warned me that the steering was beastly, one had to haul it round a corner and haul it straight again. So, having ridden bicycles for 30 years, I took it to my pet garage and told the mechanic to make two wedges each as long as the width of the front axle about 5/16-In deep, tapering to nothing, and just wide enough to go through the U-bolts that held the front springs to the axle.

He put those wedges between the axle and the springs, pointing forwards, so that the axle, and consequently the steering pins (or king-pins), sloped forward like the steering column of a bicycle. After that one had to pull the car round a corner, but as it straightened out the wheel spun through one's fingers like a roulette wheel.

As with the old Merc, I had the front seat put down about a foot and the steering column lowered to suit. Also, I picked up, out of a junk-shop, a tall radiator, off a much more modern car, and had new side-flaps made for the bonnet to match, so that it came nearly to the top of the scuttle—and we looked quite presentable. And the thing could move, although it weighed about 2 tons. I remember that one night I left the Carfax, Oxford, on the stroke of midnight and arrived at Hammersmith Broadway precisely at 01.00 hours (1 am to you), by way of Henley and Maidenhead. And if you can make that far off 50 miles you can have the difference.

Another alteration I had made is worth noting. The Talbot had electric lights, run off a big battery, with complicated switches. So George Handasyde—of the great Martinsyde aeroplane firm— rewired it with a row of ordinary household switches, one to each lamp, all along the dashboard. Thus, one could switch out the taillight if one were going a bit fast and passed a policeman. But the great invention was the dipped headlight.

I had the left, or near, bracket bent down and outwards, so that the beam lit up the gutter for yards ahead, and it had a 35-cp bulb (about). The right, or off, headlight was trained dead ahead and had the biggest bulb I could get—about 75 cp, I think. It was like a searchlight. The two switches were side by side, and drove on the big light only. When I met another car I just leaned forward and knocked one switch (the right) up and the other down with one movement. I found that cars came past, and were out of my way, much quicker when the big light was off. That was years before dipping and switching lights, with trick solenoids and such were invented and it was as good and more reliable.

Whoever re-invented lights that both dip together was a fool. In wet they reflect up from the road into the eyes of oncoming drivers. They belong in the same category of idiocy as cat's-eyes in the middle of roads, placed so that two drivers following them in opposite directions in fog are bound to hit one another. Another official imbecility is the official dictum that orange glasses or discs, in dipped headlamps are no advantage in fog. I have driven thousands of miles in thick fog with an orange disc and never hit anything, in spite of the findings of the National Physical Laboratory.

When the "Editorial Talbot," as it became known among aviation people, had rattled itself to pieces—and, incidentally, shed a front stub-axle as I was driving it into its own garage—I bought a large fat Flint saloon (secondhand) from the USA. It was like driving a four-poster bed, but it got along at a steady 50-60 mph. My wife and I took it to Scotland. Going at its all-out speed along that straight road into Haddington it started a knock—obviously a bigend. There was no hope of repair, and, given plenty of oil it didn't knock badly up to 45 mph, so we carried on up to Kingussie and down the Caledonian Canal to Fort William and back to Edinburgh and London, at a maximum 45 mph—purgatory. We found that a bearing had started to run, and then, as I stopped, had cooled off on top of itself, so to speak.

The great feature of that car was a silver clock which was screwed onto the dash. That was about 1930, and it is still the best timekeeper in the family. I have transferred it from one car to another, and it is the only reliable car clock I have met. Most of the others have packed up and refused to go at all. This clock is peculiar in having a slipping clutch that jumps with a loud cluck when fully wound, so that one can't over-wind it.

After the Flint came a 15-hp Armstrong-Siddeley saloon, preselector gear and all. I have never driven a sweeter car or engine. I remember that when I went to Coventry to fetch it I said to the foreman who handed it over to me : "How far have I got to drive it and at what speed before I can let it out ?" He grinned and jerked his thumb at the gate and said : "About as far as that, Sir." And it was so. Those engines were perfectly run-in before they were put into a chassis. That little Fifteen took us all round the Irish Free State (as it was then)—Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Bantry, Killarney, Limerick, Ennis, Galway, Clifden (Connemara), Sligo, Dundoran—and into North Ireland at Enniskillen in 31/2 days— rather quick touring, but the roads were grand then (1931).

Next year I had a 20-hp six-cylinder of the same make. That car did as good a drive as has anything of its type, I fancy. I had to go to Leuchers for some RAF versus Navy manoeuvres, so I picked up my photographer, Charles Sims (let him be my witness), at 07.30 (half-past seven in the morning) in the Edgware Road, we stopped for petrol about Newark, and again north of Newcastle (roadside garages serve you quickest), and we were on the North Brig at Edinburgh at 15.45 hrs (quarter to four, to you). We sent telegrams home to check on it. And the distance is just on or about 400 miles. The time was the same as the scheduled time of the Flying Scotsman at that date (1932).

After parking our baggage at the Caledonian Hotel, Sims and I drove up to the Castle and had tea in a dungeon or guardroom. And, after exploring a bit, we drove out to the Forth Bridge, to be sure of our road next morning. So a good day's work was done by all.

Next day we drove to Leuchars, watched the flying, and went to St Andrews for the night, where the Siddeley spent the night on the sacred gravel by the front door of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. She deserved it, and anyhow the hotel across the way had no garage.

I had an annual Siddeley by arrangement, after that, but it is not a good plan. No matter how well "run-in" an engine and chassis may be, I believe firmly that no car is at its best till it has had 10,000 miles of hammering on the road. Little accessories fall off. Gadgets that are not made by the car people break or seize up. So a car takes most of a year to "find itself"—like a ship. But all those Siddeleys could be steered with one finger, or the friction of a glove on the wheel. And, as my wife said, they "scuttered" round corners as a dog does in a hurry--they never seemed to swing or roll. The engines never gave any trouble. Their flat-out top speed was about 70 mph, but they could cruise all day between 55 and 65—as the Edinburgh drive showed.

In 1934, when Temple Press acquired The Aeroplane , a 25-hp Wolseley was allocated to me. That was real fast although it looked a most respectable family saloon. Its top speed was just about 90 mph, and it cruised around 75 to 80 mph. English roads at normal hours are not good for speed, but three times I got 60 miles into the hour, from Newmarket by Brandon, Swaffham and Fakenharn, to Burnham Market. But a queer thing happened to it when it was young.

The Morris organisation had only just taken over the Wolseley works—with Miles Thomas (now Sir Miles of BOAC) as supreme head—and it had not settled down. I was a bit suspicious of the oil pressure, which used to indicate about 10 lb/sq in when warmed up. I wrote to the works about it, and they said that 10 lb was all right if it went no lower. So one day, doing a steady 90 along that straight leading to Six-Mile Bottom, on the way to Newmarket, there was a row like a wagon-load of rails going over a level crossing, as all six big-ends dissolved.

When they had been reconstituted and the oil question reconsidered, the pressure never dropped below 45 lb. But another odd thing happened. I had left the car to have a tyre repaired, and the garage chap put a jack under the "banjo" of the differential, instead of under the hub-end of the casing, and split the welded seam of the box. The oil seeped out when it grew hot, and away went the teeth of the differential.

That was 17 years ago, and such things don't happen now. About that time the Wolseley participated in the only crash (touch wood) that I have had in 55 years-odd of driving. At midnight precisely, coming home from the office, I slowed to a standstill at a blind crossroad on Putney Heath, just far enough forward to see past the blind corner. A silly little man in a Ford Ten, with a man alongside him and two women behind, came from the open aide of the crossing and went slap into the right-hand side of the Wolseley's nose. He cracked the dumb-irons, bashed the mudguard, dislocated the radiator, and broke the feet off the crankcase. The Wolseley stood it like a rock. I hardly felt the impact. But the Ford bounced off, swung completely round, hit the kerb on the opposite side, tore off all four of its tyres. fetched up sideways against a tree, stunned the male passenger, and gave the two women hysterics. Also it disfigured itself somewhat. Presently police arrived, examined wheel-marks, told the little man he was an ass, and that was the last I heard of it, except from my kind insurance company. I sold the Wolseley some years and thousands of miles later during the war, as there was nowhere to keep it after we were bombed out.

Our last and present car is a little 12-hp, close-coupled, blue Morris coupe, first registered in 1936. It has done just on 75,000 miles, and last year I drove it up from Bournemouth on a Sunday, 120 miles, in three hours flat—so it can still move. My wife bought it from a woman friend who was going abroad in 1938. She said, "It is a dear little car, but you must keep the front tyres hard and keep the steering well lubricated, because it is heavy on the wheel." I drove it once round the block, and then straight down to my pet garage and said, "Make two little wedges .. etc., etc." (see treatment of the Talbot in 1920). So now it steers with one finger and comes back like a roulette wheel. Fancy Morris's making steering like that in 1936. But that was 16 years ago and they know better now.

It is still a dear little car, but cheap to keep really. It has had a few new springs, and, in 14 years, a few new batteries and sets of tyres. It has been rebored a few times and decoked. And my clever garage man has fitted scraper-rings so that it uses no perceptible quantity of oil. I only give it fresh oil out of kindness. And it does its 30 miles per gallon and then some.

The other day one of the partners in the garage said to me : "Here comes one of my regular sources of income. What can we charge you for now ?" I said, "Yes, my lad, I was looking at what I have paid you, when making up my income tax return. Believe me the whole lot in ten years isn't a fraction of what a new car would cost, if I could get one, and if I could afford it. And then this little animal would see any modern car of its size and power off the road."