To Brighton in a Foden Steam Wagon

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Last year the Historic Commercial Vehicle Club held its first London-Brighton Run, which I reported after going through as passenger in Rootes’ 1909 solid-tyred Commer Type WP3 omnibus.

This year I felt I should travel on a steam wagon and a ride on Messrs. T. T. Boughton & Sons’ 1928 Foden was immediately forthcoming. This wagon (No. 13138) was rebuilt some years ago at the suggestion of Mr. H. W. Hearn, who had joined this well-known firm of winch-manufacturers after a lifetime of driving steamers of all kinds — Garrett, Mann, Allchin, Sentinel, Ransomes, they all draw first-hand reminiscences from Mr. Hearn. At the time of the Suez Crisis it was got ready for serious haulage work, in case petrol was rationed for a long period. It has been driven to innumerable rallies since then, covering 2,000 miles last year, and proudly displays plaques earned at events as far afield as Cornwall, Somerset, Norfolk, Essex and Stafford. On the run to Cornwall it consumed 5 cwt. of coal in 160 miles.

It is always driven to rallies, not conveyed on a low-loader like so many of its kind, and I had the happy idea of accompanying it on its journey to the start, as well as riding on it in the “Brighton.” As I swung the Triumph Vitesse into Bell Lane, Amersham Common, a steadily rising cloud of smoke told me that the Foden lorry awaited me in Boughton’s yard. Sure enough, there it was, resplendent in new livery, every square inch of brass-work gleaming, a Guinness advertisement flanking its drop-sided body.

Soon we were on our way, through Chalfont, across to Uxbridge and down the long straight road past Northolt Aerodrome into London, sitting so high that the scenery was visible over the highest fences. The noise was deafening to one unaccustomed to it, the ride comfortable, the brakes, two rear wheel sets applied by two separate pedals, extremely powerful, so that our driver, sitting on the extreme right of the glass-fronted wooden-roofed cab, pulled up far more readily than most motorists for pedestrians about to step onto crossings.

Most of the noise comes from the long driving chain, over 30 feet long, which has been in continuous use for a quarter of a century. Before the driver, in a cut-away in the front of the cab, revolves the flywheel, and the piston rods, and big-ends concealed only beneath a lift-up metal flap, rotate before one, a blur when the road is level and clear, visible as the Foden slogs up-hill to a fine even beat of exhaust. The only gauge in the cab, brass-bound naturally, indicated 200 lb./sq. in. so consistently that it might have been out of order, a tribute to the driver’s skill in never once letting the engine blow-off, and to his young son’s expert services as stoker. It seemed to me that driving was a very busy task but when I asked Mr. Hearn if it was tiring he replied “No, only interesting.”

So we progressed at 20 m.p.h. on the level, half that speed up the steeper hills, the stoker changing gear with alacrity on a shout from the driver—this cog-swopping involving sliding over a horizontal polished steel lever and dropping home its locking pin. This Foden possesses three speeds but only middle and top speeds were used, middle sufficing even for the pull up into Chalfont, and up Battersea Rise to Clapham Common.

To one who imagined that steam lorries were fearfully slow and had to make frequent stops for water, it was a revelation that Boughton’s Foden did the 40 miles or more from Amersham to the Museum of British Transport at Clapham in approximately two hours, with one short pause to check the big-ends, and with enough water at the finish for another 15 miles or so. Never once had there been a “close-call,” the powerful brakes and Ackermann steering coping with Saturday morning traffic, which was heavy, especially over Putney Bridge, through Wandsworth, to our destination. Here the Foden was parked and sheeted up in readiness for the Run on the morrow, after the water-pump gland had been repacked. It is shod on 40 x 8 pneumatic tyres, Pirelli Carriload twins at the rear, a Pirelli Carriload and a Henley on the front wheels.

On the Sunday we had a completely trouble-free and pleasant run to Brighton, four-up, for one of the typists from Boughton’s came along, the entire firm being apparently Foden-conscious; on arrival the Managing Director gave a hand with the polishing. The run took 3 hr. 5 min., Clapham to Brighton, with quite a long pause at Bolney, the water supply, 200 gallons in the main tank, another 120 gallons in the auxiliary tank. lasting the entire 54 miles. Perhaps 1 1/2 or a cwt. of coal was consumed. At first the K-type General omnibus held us up but once clear of it after Sutton hill, we got along well, although A. R. Williamson’s 1926 Sentinel steam tractor, driven down from Stoke-on-Trent with only three stops for water, went by on the long straight into Crawley and disappeared in the distance—model-T Fords and Trojans could also draw away from us. Even the Brighton Rood hills, however, never bought us off second speed and on one we restarted in top.

Soon after Bolney the Sentinel was seen pulled off the road taking on water, so our Foden was the first steamer to arrive on Madeira Drive, followed by the Sentinel and Sparrow’s Foden tractor which has been low-loaded to the start, Ryden’s own 1916 wagon being a non-starter, while J. Fisher’s 1922 Foden from Burghfield Common had arrived dramatically, also on a low-loader, filling Clapham High Street with a dense cloud of high-pressure steam, the boiler plug having fused before it was even unloaded! In the best motor racing tradition it had a long-range (water) tank fitted specially for the Run but it hadn’t arrived in Brighton when the driving tests commenced.

The Boughton & Sons’ Foden ran impeccably for the 100 miles I rode on it; it has decided me that, if ever I have to order a fleet of commercial vehicles, they will be steamers! —W. B.

Commercial comments:—the entry of this year’s Run, sponsored by National Benzole, totalled 89, including 11 taxis and eight fire-engines. Oldest was the 1912 14 1/2-litre 6-cylinder-in-three-pairs-of-two Belsize fire-engine. Lord Montagu drove the second oldest, Rootes’ 1913 Commer fire-engine, which got in on time after three stops to replenish the radiator. One taxi was a Beardmore.

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Model-T Fords and Trojans were out in force, the ladies in Hill’s ex-R.A.F. Trojan tender wearing big picture hats. Very commendable—V. E. Brewster’s 1922 l.h.d. 7-cwt, model-T Ford van. A. Norman’s 1922 model-T wine merchant’s van was also extremely smart.

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Best Bros.’ very rare 1914 Wolseley lorry chassis made the Run on a Thames Trader, but B. Monk drove some of the way in his 1922 De dion Bouton road-sweeper, with circular Solex radiator. It has the sort of de Dion back axle you wouldn’t want on a racing car.

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Reversed front 1/4-elliptic springs graced the 1926 Overland truck, the 1930 Albion-Merryweather fire-engine bore the name “Mrs. Frequently” in its bonnet. A 1931 Morris looked like a replica truck on a private-car chassis, but the Army Austin 7 was genuine. A few of the vehicles were scruffy, notably, the H.C.V.C.’s 1931 Reo coach, which displayed a “just Married” placard. But the Club’s ex-R.F.C. solid-tyred Leyland Chivers van was as presentable as ever.

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The Trojan brougham was on solids. Most interesting entry? In my opinion the 1915 Selden lorry, also on solid tyres. Harrods’ 1919 Walker battery-electric van made it on its own “juice.”

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L. Matthews’ 1914 Warwick was entered as a “news-delivery” cycle but looked like a normal passenger version. The H.C.V.C. should refuse entries of private car chassis, even when endowed with van or truck bodies, unless proof exists that these were put on in vintage times.

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Once again National Benzole laid on hospitality at Brighton, commendably free from fuss or advertising intervention.—W. B.