The Editor drives some of the older Vauxhall, Austin and Bentley cars
Although there is no denying the publicity value of the older cars, some manufacturers have been either a bit late in collecting representative examples of their earlier products or, having collected and restored them, have allowed their collections to become scattered, even neglected. At the opposite extreme, there are now some splendid one-make museums in existence, pioneered on a major scale by Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart
Vauxhall Motors of Luton may not have their own museum as such but they are most conscientious about the historic cars which they have acquired and restored. These are kept in one building at the Luton headquarters and are looked after with skill and enthusiasm by Alan Garland. While they are now less apt to be used for the more strenuous runs, they make ample appearances in suitable events and are available to Vauxhall and Bedford dealers for special display purposes. How different from another large British manufacturer, which allowed two of its extremely interesting pre-war racing cars to become sadly neglected and, when asked if I could drive one of its notable vintage models, told me that it was not sure where this car was stored and then that it was undriveable.
A D-type Vauxhall Staff-car
No such casual approach to the past can be laid at the door of Derek Goatrnan of Vauxhall’s Public Relations Department. He is proud of his Company’s small but effective fleet of pre-war cars and it was with his encouragement and co-operation that Motor Sport drove and described them, back in 1965. At that time a First-World-War Vauxhall Staff-car had been acquired but it was in a very sorry state and restoration would clearly take a long time. This work has since been completed and Mr. Goatman lost no time in inviting me to drive this rare and interesting car.
It was found in a scrapyard in the Brentford area some 28 years ago, its body chopped about, a five-gallon oil-drum serving as a fuel tank, and the mechanical decay severe. Today, thanks to Alan Garland and the encouragement of Vauxhall Motors, it looks as if it is about to leave the final assembly shop, en route for the Western Front.
The rebuild has been no mean feat, even with the facilities available. When dismantled, the old Vauxhall, which is one of the D-type, 25 h.p., four-cylinder, 95 x 140 mm. 4-litre models which the War Office put to such good use from 1914 to 1918, was found to be very badly worn in many ways. The c.i. pistons were a motley assembly, some with thick, some with very thin rings. The clutch plates were badly pitted, the gears had teeth broken off them, and even the cross-shaft in the steering box had somehow become bent. Practically nothing is known of how this came about or how the car was abused after it went into civilian service. But it seems highly likely that it was used as a garage towing-hack before Vauxhall’s rescued it and took it away to Luton for a comprehensive rebuild.
Garland says that if the original pistons had not been in such a poor condition he would probably have used similar ones for the restoration. As it was, he had a set of aluminium ones made up, after the block had been sleeved to its correct bore size. Incidentally, all Vauxhall’s cars of appropriate age are registered with the Veteran Car Club, who were notified of this change in piston material and the fact that replica mudguards had been made up. That apart, Garland was able to restore most of the original parts.
When the immaculate restoration had been completed the VCC was asked to date the car. Dennis Field made his usual thorough investigation, discovering that the Vauxhall seemed to have been first registered in East Ham in May 1919 but that the faded WD number IC-0721 on its bonnet applied to one of two of these 25 h.p. Staff-cars that had been landed in Egypt in 1916. True, the engine and steering box were stamped 1918, but these could well have been replaced after the Vauxhall had seen heavy war service. So Mr. Field was willing to regard the car as a 1916 model. However, Vauxhall Motors felt that the number might have been copied from a contemporary photograph and preferred to have the car dated 1918. It is a disappointing fact that neither the RAOC nor the Imperial War Museum were able to supply any information that might have established whether this is, indeed, one of the Vauxhalls that served in Egypt. They did not even say when the WD number was issued.
As it now stands, the car is a credit to Vauxhall’s, being an excellent example of the D-type of the war years. It has a typicallyVauxhall side-valve engine, with the wide tappet clearances of 60-thou., fed by a Zenith 36HAK carburetter via a water-heating annulus, and cooled by a water impeller recessed In the front of the block, augmented by ‘a fan with its blades ringed with wire. Ignition is by a Bosch ZR4 magneto that dates from mid-1913. There are priming taps in the head, but no self-starter. The engine no. is D2318A.
The engine drives through a multi-plate steel-and-phosphor-bronze clutch and fourspeed gearbox to an axle with a straighttooth final drive giving a ratio of 3.64 to 1. The chassis is likewise typically Vauxhall, with half-elliptic springing, a straightforward steering box, a 12-gallon rear petrol tank, and a tube radiator with the tall filler slightly canted forward to conform to the lines of the car. The wire wheels are shod with Dunlop herringbone-tread 880 x 120 tyres. The body is a roomy tourer, the back seat well away from the front one, so that the Military top-brass sat with plenty of space before them, their feet on a big carpeted footramp, in splendid but draughty isolation, for there never appear to have been any side curtains.
This was the kind of Vauxhall which, along with Sunbeam-built Clegg Rovers and Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts, was much favoured by the War Office during the Kaiser War. The D-type Vauxhall, based on the 25 hp. model which had nudged 100 m.p.h. on Brooklands, was in production for the War Office by 1915, when it was built at Luton at the rate of seven a week. During 1916 the output rose to eight a week and it went up fractionally by 1917. Some years ago I met in Fleet, Hampshire, a fine old lady of 90, who remembered driving these Vauxhall chassis to the docks in all weathers during the war years and she reckoned that, given the opportunity, she could still handle one. It was such a Vauxhall tourer that took King George V as far as a car could get, to Vimy Ridge in 1917. One of them was employed by General Botha in E. Africa and in another Allenby entered Jerusalem. They saw service in India, Arabia, Palestine, Cairo, Mesopotamia, and even in Petrograd. One of them set a record from Boulogne to Paris of 4 hr. 10 min., in the service of the King’s Messenger Motor Service. In all, 1,998 were built for the War Department, suggesting that as the war went on, the weekly output was increased. Contemplating this fine specimen this year, I felt that I ought to be wearing uniform, instead of an office suit.
The D-type is again gleaming and immaculate. It has a Brolt generator, and brass headlamps that could be CAVs (the name plates have been almost polished out). Splendid new button-upholstery has been installed, made by a Vauxhall pensioner. The kick-plates under the doors read simply: “Vauxhall, Great Portland Street, W.” An interesting detail is that no exterior door handles are fitted, but whether to reduce cost, conserve war-time materials, or deter undesirables from opening the doors, I know not, Anyway, the driver has to enter from the n/s, as there is no door his side, for the spare wheel lives there. Naturally, the finish overall is khaki. There was a minimum of instrumentation to confront a Driving-Orderly. Down on the flamewall there are just two brass-rimmed small dials, the left one showing fuel-tank air pressure, the other oil pressure. These had been elevated to a wooden panel at some time in the Vauxhall’s life, but the original holes were left uncovered and indicated the correct location. To the right of these is the electrical panel, with ammeter, and a thick ignition turn-switch.
The engine has its own air-pump, that takes over from the hand-pump on the left of the dashboard to maintain the fuel feed. The oil pressure shows 20-25 lb./sq. in. at cruising pace. My first impression was of the truly lofty seating and the fact that the scuttle and single-pane screen cut off any sight of the front mudguards—indeed, only by leaning forward could I glimpse the radiator and bonnet, with their Vauxhall flutes.
When my turn came to drive I found big font-pedals, with a roller accelerator between them, an inside r.h, gear lever, and a slender outside handbrake, outboard of the spare wheel, which I had to lean out to grasp. Once pulled back, however, this brake lever afforded unexpectedly powerful retardation, via the rear wheel drums. The brake pedal operates a transmission brake, best used merely to steady the car.
The thick-rimmed steering wheel controls accurate but sticky steering, quite light and not abnormally low-geared. Its hub carries the ignition and throttle levers and, in lieu of a choke, a smaller lever labelled “Rich-Normal-Extra”. The ignition control can he ignored, as the four-cylinder engine demonstrates its surprising smoothness. The performance is sedate but very soothing, for this is a very strong, well-sprung, flexible motor car. The indirect gears are, however, very noisy, and not due only to wear.
As we travelled the roads of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire sitting high in this fine Vauxhall touring car, I reflected that, slow as it was, it must have seemed amply fast to Generals used only to horse-flesh, although I would have thought twice about drIving it the length of the battle-front under shell-fire. Had I been driving Allenby, let alone King George, I should presumably have faced a Court Martial, because at first I made some awful graunchcs from the gearbox. This arose because I had assumed the gate to be as on a 4.1/2-litre Bentley or similar vintage car, or indeed, on my 1924 Calthorpe I had recently been driving. There were many permutations of gear positions in she vintage years, some of them very confusing, but generally the lower gears were inboard. On the Vauxhall the gate is conventional, except that you go forward-outside for 1st, and bring the heavy lever across towards you, forward, for 3rd. Having located bottom, the next problem is to snap the lever quickly from 3rd into top, because if you are too slow the dogs will growl loudly and leave you in neutral. Once understdod, there is nothing to it, and the clutch is commendably smooth. To engage reverse, you lift a simple catch and shove the lever beyond top.
I greatly enjoyed my experience of driving this Vauxhall Staff-car, even if we encountered a heavy shower and had to erect the hood, which straps down in front.
Apart from this D-type and the other well-known veteran, Edwardian and vintage Vauxhalls in the Collection, which include open-bodied 14/40 and 30/98, Alan Garland is restoring one of the first Bedford commercials and I noticed a Chevrolet truck and a Vauxhall Ten saloon awaiting his ministrations. Mr. Garland tends to wrinkle his nose at the Ten but, remembering its baby-car m.p.g from what was a full-sized family-car, it ranks as another Vauxhall milestone.
Some Austin Sevens
Immediately after sampling the old Vauxhall it was over to Knebworth House, where the 750 MC was holding an ambitious Pressday, to enable the staff of motoring papers to discover just why the members of this Club rave about their 747 c.c. cars. The Hon. Lytton Cobbold has already had Autocross and an RAC Rally stage in his grounds, and now an amusing little road circuit has been arranged, on which to try the assembled Austins. It was mostly too narrow for passing but was very reminiscent of pre-war Donington, with moments when I thought I was approaching Red Gate Lodge corner at Ouhon Park and another when I thought I was dicing down to the memorial in Phoenix Park.
An informative booklet had been prepared about the. cars we were permitted to drive and the entire function emphasises how alive the old 750 MC is. I drove first Reg. Nice’s 1930 Ulster. This was his “Sunday-best” Ulster (he has two) and it was fun personified.
The Ulster sat down well once pulling brakes had been allowed for, I was confronted by “real” instruments, the owner’s suggested rev.-limit of 4,000 came up easily, and the exhaust snarl, especially on the over-run, made me change into 2nd with the long, central gear lever just for the sheer joy of promoting these exciting sounds.
Next I tried Pat Thornton’s 1928 Chummy, a very smart example which has been to Holland, entered the EEC via Brussels, and has even been observed by the RAC to do more than 43 miles an a gallon of petrol while averaging 24 m.p.h. round and round Silverstone—some way from my 60 m.p.g./ 50 m.p.h. target, hut interesting nevertheless. I found the pace subdued, and the Chummy felt lifty on the corners and I had to lean forward to coax in 2nd gear in the tiny open gate. It was convenient to depress the starter button with the left foot. The engine was commendably smooth, although original except for the bigger crank; it is unusual for a 1928 3-speed unit in having coil instead of magneto ignition.
Finally, I got into Frank Anderson’s rather rough and ready 1933 “65”, by sliding hack the tiny bolts that held the door shut—a dodge we used to employ before the war on much-used Chummics. Not so satisfying as the Ulster, this was quite a good sports Austin, hut as it has a standard engine it also has the saloon-type ball-gate 4-speed gearbox, controlled by a long lever. It contributed its quota to the once-so-familiar sounds my many Austins used to make—the zizz of a dry clutch thrust-race, the slight harshness of incipient clutch-slip, the rattle of a starting handle, the suspension clonks, the snick as a gear lever went home, the buzz of rising revs., the soft purr of a well-assembled power unit, the thrumming of impending crankshaft vibration. Also, there was the “underhand bowling” action you used to change up . . .
Nostalgic is an overused word but how else can I describe it? To thus turn back the clock to the formative years of a Club that is as active and ambitious as ever, and to obtain a glimpse of how motoring looked to Army Brass-hats of five decades back, fully justified the four and a quarter hours it took me to drive home in the modern BMW.
Bentleys at Silverstone
From Austin 7s to something larger and more potent! Having allowed me the privilege of driving his ex-Birkin blower-4.1/2 single seater Bentley on the road last year (Motor Sport, October 1973) “Rusty” Russ-Turner generously suggested that I should try it on the track after he had re-fitted those exciting twin 62 ram. SU carburetters so that it could be run on methanol. Consequently, last April I was made a member of the BDC for a day, signed a blood-chit, borrowed my youngest daughter’s parachuting crash-helmet, and directed the BMW to the well-known Northampton circuit. Unhappily, the best laid plans . . . Rusty took the resplendent red Brooklands Bentley out to warm it up and was soon back in the Paddock, with water pouring from the engine. Another block had cracked. Considering that they cost him some £1,000-a-piece, he remained surprisingly cheerful . . .
In lieu of my drive in this very historic Bentley, I was sent out in Russ-Turner’s cut-and-shut blown 4.1/4-litre, retaining most of the original pre-war items, a sort of gentleman’s sporting two-seater rather than a racer.
Thus I found the Bentley facia with the high-quality instruments and switch panel, although of course lowered and differently arranged. The pre-war Bentley r.h. gear lever, with a handle instead of a knob, is inside the car, the typical, matching brake lever outside the shapely body. The car has proper wings, full-width and aero screens, and comfortable bucket scats. The engine is bog standard, even to its c.r., apart from. attention to the bearings and an unrestricted exhaust. It gains its urge from a big Wade supercharger on the o/s, sucking from twin SUs, which have an air-filter box over their intakes. All this interesting machinery projects from the bonnet side. The installation was done for “Rusty” by Adlards Motors. The supercharger is driven by a toothed belt, with a jockey tensioningpulley, from the front of the crankshaft. It runs at engine speed and blows at up to approx. 7 lb./sq. in., which is perhaps 13 lb. higher than is really good for the engine’s sustained health.
The chassis is one of the 1939 MR type, with the overdrive gearbox. This, in conjunction with a 3.9 to 1 axle, the highest ratio made by Rolls-Royce, gives a decently high set of gears, using 6,50 x 16 Dunlop Racing back tyres. The weight of the car is in the region of 27 cwt., of which the blower installation accounts for approx. a hundred-weight. Top speed is about 115 m.p.h.
I think “Rusty” is tickled to have two blower Bentleys, one almost vintage, the other a p.v.t., and he is now converting his two-seater 4.1/2-litre vintage Bentley to Villiers forced induction.
As I have said, the 4.1/4 is a civilised pre-war Bentley Special, retaining the original (lowered) radiator, and keeping its fuel in a slender rear slab-tank.
I enjoyed some modest lappery in this Bentley, keeping the engine down to 3,500 r.p.m. as requested, as it was still stiff. I found this came up very readily in 3rd gear, representing some 85 m.p.h., with plenty more to come—the danger mark on the tachometer is at 4,500 r.p.m., which would normally be used. The gear change justifies the “knife-through-butter” tag, being delightfully smooth and willing. The Bentley mechanical servo brakes are retained and are smooth and powerful. The steering is likewise delightfully smooth and light; the wheel-hub retains the plated minor control-knobs, including that for stiffening up the back half-elliptics. On the corners the car sat down well, understeering slightly.
That, then, was my day at Silverstone, apart from some enjoyable laps in a very taut and smooth Morgan 4/4 with Ford 1600 engine, which the BDC Competitions Secretary had brought along, as his 4.1/2-litre Bentley was temporarily devoid of mudguards. I felt mighty sorry for Russ-Turner, who was hoping to run the single-seater at Ghent, with the big carburetters, and now had insufficient time in which to repair it.—W.B.