Cars I Have Owned

[In which Capt. Rex Stevens, R.E., describes the cars which he drove from 1947 up to this year, both in this country and on the Continent.—ED.]

To submit an article in this series one has to be either famous or enthusiastic. I am not famous. The cars which I shall describe have all been of the “bread and butter” variety, but nearly all of them have given me great joy and made me an ardent enthusiast. This then is my excuse for recording my experiences, with nine foreign and two British cars, during the past nine years.

My release from the Army came in early 1947. After acquiring a wife, my thoughts turned to motor cars. Together, my wife and I went through thousands of advertisements in national journals and in local papers. How discouraging this occupation was at that time. It became an event when we found a vehicle that was within our slender means, and those which came within this category were usually almost as old as I was.

At last we heard of a nearby farmer who had a 1931 Morris Major which he was prepared to “sacrifice.” We made a sacrificial offering of £165 and drove away in the first car we had ever owned. The front seats had been re-upholstered in first-quality sackcloth, and there were no shock-absorbers on the car whatsoever.

I owned the Major for a longer period than I have owned any other car to date, for two years she did all we asked of her, and this was much. Many times she towed a trailer, loaded with a sailing dinghy, from one end of the country to the other. On other occasions she was driven on to the beach, and used to pull dinghies out of the water and up the shelving shingle. Never once did this car let me down, the engine “pulled like a train” and the hydraulic brakes were as good as, or better than, any that I have tried since. If the B.M.C. made as good a car by today’s standards, as this must have been by the standards of 1931, I would order a new Morris tomorrow!

Like all good things, the Morris came to an end. One sad day she failed to record any oil-pressure at all. My garage man said that the necessary overhaul would cost more than the car was worth. In any case I had no money, so it was out of the question to consider an overhaul; but as I relied upon a car for my livelihood I had to do something. I drove up to the secondhand car dealer who seemed to stock the cheapest cars in the city. Here I was lucky, for I found that I had known one of the chaps, who ran the place,  when he was a Sergeant in the Army during the war.

Among the stock in this establishment was a 1930 12-h.p. Fiat roadster. This car had taken my eye some months previously when it was in the hands of another dealer, but the price had been prohibitive at that time. Since first I had seen this car it had been mutilated; the dickey lid had been removed, the bulkhead cut out, and an attempt made to convert it into a four-seater tourer. The attempt was pathetic, and the “hood” was a strip of railway tarpaulin which was stretched from the windscreen pillars back to two lengths of waterpiping which had been mounted vertically on the port and starboard quarters of the car. It was explained that this conversion had been undertaken so that the late owner would not have to leave his mother-in-law at home! The engine of this Fiat was first class, and I was given a most convincing demonstration. The car, with me on board, was driven up one of those very narrow cobbled paths which link the main roads on a terraced hillside. This track was closed to traffic officially, and to achieve this end ancient gun barrels were stuck into its surface at regular intervals. The Fiat was undaunted, and climbed without falter, carefully avoiding the gun barrels. I was impressed. And very happy when the dealer agreed to do a straight swap with the Morris. Incidentally, the Morris then became the only car in the dealer’s yard which would start on the button, and in spite of no oil-pressure it was still being used as a tow-car when I left the city twelve months later.

When I got the Fiat home I examined her closely: apart from the mutilation she was very sound. I had her fitted with a new hood, which was cut on the lines of that fitted to the two-seater Morris Eight of 1936/38 vintage. This hood hid the scars made by the previous owner and gave me a covered space behind the seats where I could stow my young son in his carry-cot. A length of 3 in. by 3 in. timber, bolted across the body behind the bench-type front seat, restored some of the stiffness lost by the removal of the bulkhead. New side-screens, a coat of brushing Belco to the body, and silver paint on the wire wheels, made the car quite smart.

After a few weeks the starter ring on this Fiat gave up the ghost, I could not get a replacement, and I had no starting-handle. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that I was able to use this car for business for over a year, with neither starter nor handle. The secret was that I was working in Sheffield at the time, and it was always possible, with a little local knowledge, to park on a slight slope without incurring too much inconvenience. My garage fortunately was at the top of a sloping drive, and thus for almost a year the car was always started by gravity.

The Fiat was no flier, but some mornings on my way to work I would find myself stopping at traffic lights alongside a famous trials driver in one of his well-known specials, and when he was in no particular hurry I often arrived at the next set of traffic lights while he was still there waiting for the green.

During a year’s motoring in this car I used less than four pints of oil, and had no punctures. Finally, the firm for which I worked said that they really could not continue to pay me car expenses while I drove such a revolting motor car: their insurance company would not include me in their block policy, and I must get a more modern and respectable vehicle. I got £45 for this fine old car, which had been the price when I had swapped the Morris for it.

By this time large saloons had reached a reasonable price, and for £120 I bought a 1934 Morris Sixteen saloon. This was rather a nice car, with walnut door filets and dashboard, and equipped with free-wheel and automatic clutch. The performance of this car was undistinguished, although she would get along at an indicated 60 m.p.h. I was doing this speed one afternoon on a second-class road in East Anglia, when I was challenged by a large Daimler coming up astern. I pressed the Morris a bit more, ready for a mild dice, but the hooting from the Daimler became more insistent so I let it sweep past. Seated in the spacious rear compartment was His Majesty King George VI. The two attendant police Wolseleys also swept past me, and I continued on my way much subdued.

This Morris continued to serve me satisfactorily until I rejoined the Army in 1951, when I sold it in the weekly auction at Maidstone market.

A few weeks later I bought a lovely 1928 Fiat 509A two-seater. This had had a ten-coat respray, and looked very smart. The performance was remarkable, for a car with such a small engine, and it was by no means young. Within days of purchasing the 509A I was posted to Germany, so I left the car in the hands of a friend who made a better job of selling it than I would have done myself. In 1952 Germany was an enthusiast’s paradise. Secondhand car prices were realistic, and anyone with £100 could get a nice vehicle. I found that I could spare £50 and with this sum I purchased a circa 1937 Chrysler Airflow saloon with overdrive and radio. Driving this car along the Autobahn at an effortless 80 m.p.h. was a new experience for me, and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. A really wonderful car this Chrysler, and, as has been said so often, years ahead of its time. It was definitely ahead of its time in one respect, and that was the failure of its manufacturers to provide it with a starting handle! For this reason I had to part with the car. Due to some misalignment somewhere the starter drive bell-housing would crack with monotonous regularity. Finally the scrapyards in the district could no longer provide me with replacements; welding was tried without success. It took almost a platoon of soldiers to push-start this three-ton motor car, as this was not always convenient, the Chrysler was straight-swapped for an Opel, small enough for a man and his wife to push if necessary.

The little Opel was purely a hack, and as such it did its job well enough. It was while I was running this car that I found and purchased the first “real” car that I owned. This was a Horch cabriolet, resplendent in black and cream cellulose, and with a V8 engine. I bought this car as it stood for £25, and as it stood it had no battery. I borrowed a battery, installed it, and pushed the magnificent starter button in the centre of which the ignition light was set like a ruby. The engine “sighed” into life, and gently turned over like an electric motor. I trembled with excitement and climbed behind the wheel. Pressure on the accelerator brought forth a wonderful power roar and I quickly drove out of the village and picked up the Autobahn route for my run home. What steering, what brakes, what a car! Of course, there had to be a snag and I had not gone far along the Autobahn before I found it. The needle of the oil-pressure gauge began to fall, and soon a horrible little noise became apparent above the normal noises—it sounded like a stone being rolled around in a cocoa tin. The frequency of the noise remained constant, regardless of the speed of the engine, and I comforted myself with the thought that this might be some slight fault that could be easily and cheaply rectified. The oil-pressure continued to drop. I got the car home and family and friends gathered round to admire it. It was something to admire, and it oozed quality. The Zeiss direction indicators, faired into the windscreen pillars, were works of art, and the Bosch headlights threw a beam that would not have disgraced an ack-ack site.

I drove the Horch about for a few days, feeling rather like Himmler but when the cocoa-tin noise intruded it turned my stomitch over. At last I braced myself and drove into the Auto Union agents and asked for a diagnosis. The car was sufficiently unusual to attract the attention of the mechanics, who gathered round in interest, but they had no sympathy for me. I quickly got my answer; a complete engine overhaul was needed and would cost the equivalent of £100. I hadn’t got the money so I drove the car straight to the breakers. It was probably selfish of me, but I could not bear the idea of someone else buying the car for a song, putting it right and parading it before me. The breaker gave me 15s. more than I had paid for it, and I stood by while he put the cutting torch right through its middle.

I still had the Opel, which I quickly sold, then added the proceeds to the money I had got from the breaker and bought a very nice 1936 1 1/2-litre B.M.W. saloon for £65. This car taught me that one can expect very fine performance from a vehicle of moderate capacity. It was the Type 315, with twin Solex carburetters and the acceleration was very good. The top gear ratio was low and for the year that I owned this car I always found my hand wandering to the gearlever in an unsuccessful attempt to get into top, when top had already been selected. Although this choice of ratios gave a top speed of only 65 m.p.h. the car was extremely flexible, and I made several fast runs between Bielefeld (Germany) and Antwerp (Belgium). Fast by my previous standards that is, for the average was just over 40 m.p.h. This car used no oil, but for months I suffered agonies as I gazed at an oil gauge that permanently recorded next to no pressure. This state of affairs was altered when one day I found oil on my trousers from a leaking gauge. A new gauge was fitted which showed that the pressure was excellent.

About this time I was permanently posted to Belgium. Once again I got a completely new view of the secondhand car market. Belgium was one of the few countries in which there was no restriction on car imports. Here I saw American and Continental models that I had not previously seen. It was not long before I fell for a Yank. A 1947 American Ford V8 businessman’s coupe was offered to me for £125. This was a very smart job in black and chrome, with fog-lights, spot-lights and all the “gubbins.” Tax on this car was fairly heavy, and she used a lot of petrol, but I consoled myself that Ford spares were cheap. However, after a visit to the agents for a new choke-control, new points and a new diaphragm for the petrol pump, I received a bill not far short of £15. This changed my views about Ford spares!

The car went well, but had nothing about it. The bonnet rippled like a field of wheat in a breeze, and I soon felt that this was not my sort of motor car. After three months I sold it and looked for something more economical. I then searched for a good Lancia. I looked at several Aprilias and an Ardea, but none of them was in good condition. During this search I found a superb 1951 Fiat 1,100E. I have yet to find a secondhand car in Belgium that has not got a “reconditioned engine,” but the Fiat genuinely had one, for I saw the work done. I paid £250 for this car in 1954, and it was worth every penny; I am, of course, disregarding the fact that its price in England would have been twice this amount.

With the 1,100 I entered my first rally, something I had been wanting to do for years. It was a local affair, over some 100 miles. The organising club very kindly translated the regulations into English and we set off in high hopes. Half-way round the route we were crossing a lifting bridge; the surface was wet, and smooth. I took a brief look at the river we were crossing, asking my navigator whether this might not be one of the boundaries which we were forbidden to cross. When I brought my eyes back to the road I saw that the traffic in front of me was braking rapidly, the Opel Olympia in front of me was obligingly lifting his tail under braking, to enable me to slide right under his rear bumper. My radiator grille took the impact and badges rained down from my badge-bar. The Opel was also in the rally and we pressed on, having wasted the minimum time taking insurance details from one another. We finished 19th out of 150, and I was delighted to receive a prize, a large bottle of Eau de Cologne, which I took proudly home to my wife. It cost me nearly £20 to get the front of the car fixed and my wife considered that this was the most expensive bottle of Eau de Cologne that she had ever had.

I had a good year’s motoring from the Fiat, covering some 20,000 miles. In March, 1955, she required some attention, mainly to the linkage of the steering column gear-change. I drove into the Fiat agents and there saw for the first time the Fiat 600. I was much intrigued with this wonderful little car. The “in transit” price to an Englishman in Belgium was the equivalent of £335. Here was a chance, to fulfil my desire for a brand-new car at last. A good part-exchange price was offered for the 1,100, and I placed an order there and then for a new 600.

The car arrived from Italy at the end of April. I carefully ran it in and in June was able to drive down to Le Mans without restriction. I went down in company with a Citroen Big 15, which I did not hold up unduly except on the long straight roads of France.

In August I piled my wife, two children and all our baggage into the “Popolo” and set off for Southern Italy. On the second day of the run we were just leaving Basle when “expensive noises” became apparent in the gearbox. We carried on to St. Gallen, where, being a Sunday, all garages were closed except the magnificent establishment of General Motors. Here they worked for two days to discover and rectify a loose nut on the end of the lay-shaft. We pressed on after this delay, crossed the St. Gothard Pass with ease, and eventually arrived at Positano.

On the return trip, in order to catch up with my leave, which was fast expiring, I drove from Bolzano to Antwerp, 1,300 kilometres, with only one stop for lunch. That I was not unduly tired after this run, in spite of being 6 ft. 3-in, tall, speaks volumes for the comfort and performance of this little car.

Back in Antwerp I presented the Fiat agents with the bill which I had received from the G.M. garage in St. Gallen. In spite of the fact that I was an Englishman who had bought an Italian car in Belgium, and had it repaired in an American garage in Switzerland, Fiats paid up, to the last penny, without argument and within ten days.

The car has now done 28,000 kilometres in just under a year. The engine appears to have “lost its edge” slightly, but the agents are doing their utmost to “sharpen it up” again. They could not be taking more trouble if the car were one of the world’s most expensive, instead of one of the cheapest.

I am now in the middle of that enjoyable period, which may last a year or more, when one considers what the next car will be. It looks to me as though the Home Industry needs support just now, so for that, and other good reasons, I think the next one may be a Morgan Plus Four four-seater with TR2 engine. We shall see . . .