There are so many restrictions appertaining to present-day motoring in Britain that it is refreshing to look back to the years of comparative freedom. I am aware that vintage motoring today is probably less hazardous than it was in contemporary times, because well-preserved or meticulously rebuilt cars are not often the subject of police attention and, because roads have improved, the frequent punctures and the dust and mud of former days belong to the past. But when one has said that one has said all. For motoring was delightfully free from restrictions when vintage cars were new models in the dealers’ showrooms.
The 20 m.p.h. speed-limit still prevailed, but it was generally regarded as so absurd that it was seldom enforced, or was certainly not the menace it had been in Edwardian days. It was not until the ‘thirties when police patrol cars began to appear and traffic density had so appreciably increased that the restrictions began to pile up. Even then, providing your papers were in order, which referred particularly to the new compulsory third-party insurance, you could get away with near-murder.
The freedom of the nineteen-twenties is nicely portrayed by an article which appeared in the issue of Motor Sport dated July, 1926. This described how an anonymous motorcycling enthusiast succumbed to a desire for some-thing on four wheels. He met this by buying a heap of odd parts and a box of small assorted junk described as a “6-h.p. Peugeot chassis, less engine”.
This eventually emerged as a high chassis with a wheelbase of a mere five feet, sprung on full-elliptics, with extremely sturdy gearbox and back axle and a near-vertical steering column. The gear-lever was on the steering column and there is reason to believe that this ancient Peugeot may have been a genuine veteran—not that anyone cared, in 1926, with the first Brighton Run a year hence.
A 1920 8-h.p. air-cooled side-valve J.A.P. engine, with rather tired valve springs and piston rings, which had come out of a Morgan, was persuaded into this chassis. Two bucket seats, with cushions but devoid of upholstery, were fitted, a can rigged up over the engine to carry petrol, and our ex-motorcyclist was ready for a trial run. The clutch, having but 3/8 in. movement, was fierce and also dragged. The left foot had to be used as a clutch-stop, by treading hard on a metal disc bolted to the clutch. Control of speed was by hand-throttle. In this form the vehicle was taken for test on to the high road, sans number plate or licence, for the excellent reason that these did not exist! This was prior to fitting floorboards and seats, both occupants squatting on one of the tubular cross-members. As the owner’s left shoe was devoid of sole after the test run, and the clutch had slipped in the 4½-to 1 top gear, a piece of one-inch oak was bolted across the frame to act as a clutch stop of stouter proportions, and a tin of Erusa belt-grip was induced into the worn-out leather lining of the clutch.
The vehicle was then licensed, as a Peugeot-J.A.P., private car, two-seater, red. It wasn’t red but the idea was that it would be if it ever aspired to a body. The taxation people believed it all and allotted it Reg. No. ER 1976. The builder was a Cambridge undergraduate, and the first long maiden trip was from Cambridge to London, accompanied by a fellow motorcycle enthusiast who sat on a suitcase with his feet over the back. Apart from frequent stops to clean out the Solex carburetter, all went well until the o/s rear wheel tried to come off and had to be split-pinned. Braking was a “complete myth”, but transmission friction was sufficient and, apart from a broken oil-pipe, the Peugeot-J.A.P. got to its destination, on hotel in the Strand, at an average of just under 15 m.p.h.
This caused such enthusiasm, on the part of the car’s owner if not the hotel staff, that he was soon busy lengthening the wheelbase by 2 ft. 3 in., initial trouble with a prop.-shaft that was out of balance being cured by using a Rover Eight 3-prong spider. The next activity was to enter for a one-day motorcycle trial. Mudguards of galvanised-iron strip, secured with string, proved entirely satisfactory. Eventually, after sundry adventures, a watersplash was entered at the flat-out speed of 45 m.p.h., because the foot-brake bent sideways, jamming the driver’s foot between it and the steering column and the hand-throttle had stuck wide open. Both occupants were drenched, the driver’s fur hat availing him no protection, but the old J.A.P. engine cut out only for a few seconds.
After this the builder decided that his A.J.S. was more fun.
Can you imagine getting an M.o.T. certificate for this vehicle today, or getting it past any competition scrutineer? But in far-away 1926 these things were possible. Those were the years of freedom, when the road-testers for the motor papers had so little traffic to contend with that it was quite usual to stop the car, often near a bend, set up the plate camera, and take any photographs required. Oh, happy by-gone days!—W. B.