The secret of the Sphinx

Most cars change hands whether in the parquet floored showrooms of Bond Street or on a bomb site in Bootle, in an atmosphere of sordid commercialism. Even the best of friends forget their friendship as they haggle, red in tooth and claw, over the sale of a motor car. JU5873 would have no truck with such bourgeois dealings. She was bought, as befitted such a sophisticated aristocrat, over tea, tea taken from a Crown Derby service, on a Sheraton table in a Queen Anne drawing room. Thus, graciously, this unique and lovely lady stooped to conquer, leaving her heated coach house for the draughty garage of a country schoolmaster.

She really was unique. Her chassis was one of the very few Armstrong-Siddeley Sports Seventeens, made in 1935 as little sisters for the Siddeley Specials. Her carriage work was a close-coupled 4-seater drophead coupe by Salmons and Sons, of Newport Pagnell. The original owner had bought her for his wife at the 1934 Show as atonement for having purchased a Rolls-Royce Phantom II for himself. The Show chassis was stove enamelled in nile blue to match the coachwork and when we bought her she had been so well kept that the maker’s names on the leather spring gaiters were easily readable.

The “sports” denomination was hardly justified, I suppose, by her performance but in 1935 there were few cars on the road which could accelerate from a standstill to 50 mph in under 17 sec, from 20 to 40 mph in top in 121/2, sec, and achieve 70 mph whenever and wherever asked. But any suspicion of the mailed fist was clothed in a glove of the plushiest velvet. In low gear it was possible to move forward perfectly smoothly with the engine running at its slow tickover speed, while the only noises produced by this engine were the rustle of tappets and the sibilant hiss of the very complicated Claudel-Hobson carburetter. And what a picture that engine was for an enthusiast, with its gleaming stove enamelled valve case, egg-shell finished block and head, copper piping and burnished alloy Manifolds.

I have no space here to give a detailed specification of her mechanism but it included such useful features as a centralised lubrication system, a magnificent set of built-in jacks, dipsticks for the gearbox and rear axle, completely sealed brake drums, and ducted ignition harness which could be removed in a single unit and replaced without any possibility of mixing up plug leads. Most of all I delighted in the Wilson pre-selector gearbox, which was mounted halfway down the chassis, as is the gearbox in a Morgan Plus Four, to equalise weight distribution and render a long, whippy prop-shaft unnecessary. I mourn its passing more than that of any of the other mechanical devices which, since the war, have disappeared. The pre-selector gave all the advantages of foolproof and easy control that the modern automatic transmission offers, without being so complicated and without ever robbing the driver of positive and delicate control. Ours never gave any trouble whatsoever, in spite of the gloomy preclusions of jealous cog crashers. After all, Wilson boxes were considered reliable enough for London ‘buses!

The fine engineering standards of the chassis were complemented by the coachbuilt body, which was constructed almost entirely of aluminium. This, coupled with the use of aluminium alloys in the engine and gearbox, kept the weight down to 28 cwt, very modest for a 21/2-litre car of its day. Two features of the coachwork were outstanding. Firstly the air cushion seats, by far the most comfortable of any car I have tried, possessing the peculiar advantage of being infinitely adjustable in shape to fit the varying anatomy of the car’s occupants. Secondly there was the Tickford hood which you wound up and down with something like a second starting handle. I never ceased to wonder at the neat way this hood folded itself up out of sight, even the apertures for the metal struts being closed in their due time by little spring-loaded walnut plates.

My present car, vintage 1960, has developed a vibration at the base of its gear lever. To have this remedied it will have to go to a garage as it is utterly impossible to reach this intimate part of its anatomy without a lift or a pit. Yet on the Armstrong I would have challenged anybody to name a component which I could not attend to in my own garage. By removing the seats and the floor boards one could have, in effect, a bare chassis to work on in about ten minutes.

She dated from the days when cars just steered instead of under-steering or over-steering. Steered, what is more, even round sharp corners with but one finger on the wheel. Now even Rolls-Royce have to fit power assistance to their steering.

Yet she didn’t even qualify as a post-vintage thoroughbred! Somehow I don’t think she cared. From the little silver sphinx on her radiator to her stainless steel back bumper she was an individual not to be subjected to any arbitrary classification. When she eventually had to go due to her close coupled rear seats being a little too close coupled for our needs, we didn’t merely sell a car. I feel we passed on, to the young enthusiast who bought her„ a trust to preserve part of a better and more gracious age. But possibly she was just what our garage man said she was, a …. fine motor car.—TPM Horner, BSc.

That EHP.

The handsome EHP with mahogany-planked body, now with 13/4-litre Alfa Romeo engine, that was in the Paddock at the April VSCC Silverstone Meeting seems not to have been GW Olive’s car, as stated, but that entered for Brooklands races in 1927 by R de Reuter, for AW Hayes to drive, this driver also appearing in Olive’s aluminium-bodied EHP on one occasion. The de Reuter car seems to have had plenty of trouble, its best lap speed being 83 mph. Both these EHPs of 1927 had 4-cylinder supercharged 68 x 103-mm (1,495 cc) engines. —WB

Model-T Register Chiltern Rally (May 6th)

The model-T Ford is particularly fascinating, it is such a basically simple yet effective car—even the Citroen 2 cv and Renault 4L are not a substitute, for you cannot take off a tyre and drive a threshing machine with them! St. Albans Market Square was willingly set aside by the Police for an assembly of model-Ts on May 6th, whose owners afterwards drove cross-country to Little Gaddesden, taking in a brake-test and hill-climb en route. On this cold and damp Sunday morning the natives of St. Albans gathered in numbers to watch these model-Ts assemble—and all the expected interest welled up, as someone told of two model-Ts he knew to be laid up, but for sale, someone else guessed correctly to within a year the date of a 1926 tourer, and the crowd in general marvelled at the arrival of a 1912 2-seater that was boiling quietly to itself. They watched a fine all-black coupe with an Ontario registration plate roll off its trailer, and the efforts made by Young’s to commence their one-ton truck after this, too, had been off-loaded.

All the others came under their own power, one from 150 miles away, and mostly they ran far more quietly and with less vibration than anticipated, having been carefully rebuilt. In the afternoon the run took place, which I watched from a delectable 1-in-6 hill in a narrow cutting near Tring, known locally as the “Crong,” and quite close to Dancer’s End, where speed hill-climbs attracted the GN Specials in the 1930s. The model-Ts made light of this winding hill, apart from Norburn’s black-radiator tourer, which jibbed momentarily due to a low petrol level, causing a yellow cabriolet to come to rest behind it. Soon, however, all were on their way and the Chiltern lanes echoed again to the whirrings and clatterings of the World’s first and only truly universal automobile. A charming girl in a Mk II Jaguar, held up on the hill, showed interest rather than disapproval—these ungainly but well-remembered products of Ford seem to be forgiven most things !—WB.