Motoring as it was

A look back to the roads of the 1920s

Continuing to look at 1920s motoring through the eyes of writer Owen John, what do we find? He had been driving, and enthusing over, the then-new (in 1922) 8 hp Talbot, the test concluding on the finest day of the year, when “the sun shone all through and set on the evening beneath the young moon in blood and six degrees of frost” — like the days of late April, 1984. On his way home O.J. had diverted to just past Long Compton, to look at the Roll-Right stones which, he observed, were there thousands of years before we came, and they will be there thousands of years after we are gone — he was writing this before the Age of the Atomic Bomb . . . “But”, he concluded, “what use are they — or we, for the matter of that?” Perhaps you should look for these ancient stones while they are still there. . .” This serves to emphasise that, in pre-war days, people used cars to see things with, apart from the sheer joy of driving them. These days, this seems less the case and some time ago the Editor of a weekly motor journal turned against motoring as distinct from driving, although his opposite number, on Autocar, sees the light and allows his staff to do marathon runs in new cars from time to time, with the “places visited” and touring as part of such exercises. Having written of touring, O.J. was taken to task for having described Lincolnshire as a flat county of straight roads. His critic referred to the route Boston, Wainfleet, Skegness (where they motor-raced on the sands), Ingoldwells, Sutton-on-Sea, Mablethorpe, Maltby-in-Marsh, Louth, Alford, Spilsby, Horncastle and back to Boston, when O.J. might find differently. Well, some of us may do so, at the time of the Cadwell Park races, but I wonder if the right-angle turns which O.J. disliked at Chatteris in the Isle of Ely still exist or, indeed, whether the route linking the aforesaid towns is as dauntingly twisty as it was in 1922, this being the purpose of the critic’s letter?

After the Talbot, O.J. went to Manchester, and tried the much-smaller Harper Runabout, a mistake perhaps for, as he said, a large man in a new coat and bowler-hat, for he found the Harper not imposing enough for his tastes, although it “went like blazes” during the little ride O.J. had on it. This led him to admit that he thought the motorcycle was but a passing phase and that in consequence the staff of The Motor Cycle were disgusted with him and refused to print his stuff . . . He felt that one day even the sidecar-outfits would be replaced by a machine very much on Harper lines, but somewhat larger and less cramped — a “plug” for the new Austin 7, perhaps? That all this was long ago is emphasised, at a time when Professor A. M. Low was experimenting with “wireless” on a 16/40 Sunbeam tourer, by two men having been killed in 0.J.’s own parish because the Model-T Ford they were in ran into a tree after its headlamps had failed and they attempted to get home, using only its oil side lamps.

With the advent of the New Year (1923) O.J. was permitted by William Morris to go off in the very first of the 13.9 hp Morris-Oxfords, a car which had run less than 50 miles, which O.J. thought a very trusting gesture to an amateur tester. He tried it hard, apparently, even unto driving it through a Leicestershire snow-storm. It was a four-seater and O.J. rejoiced in the adjustable front seats (what would one say today of a car without them? I think the last one I remember with a fixed front seat was a Morgan Plus 4, in the I950’s) and the excellent hood. He said of this £380 Morris-Oxford that “it accelerates like the Talbot, it holds the road like a Fiat, it glides on top like a Rolls-Royce and is fit to join the Great Company of the 15 hp Humber and the new 14.7 hp Crossley and lots of other good cars that only differ in their price and hardly at all in their performances”. After which, I am not surprised that someone told O. J. that every car he wrote about seemed to be the best in the World!

O.J. tried this new Morris for a matter of 200 miles, and did not check its thirst for petrol and oil, although he wasted half-a-gallon of the former liquid because the dashboard gauge was too modest. He felt glad that these Oxfords and Cowleys were challenging the Model-T Ford and getting the better of it because they were cheaper to run and more respectable to inhabit — in fact, the Ford was far less costly and it was the RAC horse-power tax than was helping to kill it off. The cost of motoring could certainly be reduced by not carrying more avoirdupois around than was necessary, thought O.J., after his experience of the quick and responsive Morris-Oxford. Money mattered in 1923, for the slump was not over and O.J. regretted the Indian War Office’s departure from an agreement with the Imperial Government to use only 30 cwt vehicles of standardised type, because many British lorries of this type were destined for a market that had been closed overnight. Reverting to the 1923 Morris-Oxford, O.J. thought it might have slightly larger wheels, and wondered what the six-cylinder Morris that was to be the next arrival would be like. (History relates that this was an abject failure.) The Oxford came equipped with spring gaiters (which reminds me that present-day vintage-car owners and restorers can still get, I believe, those excellent Wefco spring-gaiters, of very good fit and quality), shock absorbers (and what 1984 car lacks these!) and an Enots grease-gun.

For some considerable time, what with “smogless” areas, good lamps, town street-lighting and the rest, fog has almost ceased to be a motoring hazard, although I got momentarily lost in Ledbury recently, driving home from London in a Volvo GLS. So it is like a period-piece to read of how O.J., after giving his sons their Christmas treat in London (the matinee was “Charley’s Aunt”, the evening theatre “The Island King”) he picked up his faithful Crossley in the Strand at 11 pm and then ran into the most awful fog, the tram-lines in Brentford being some salvation. But it was still very bad, although a full moon was shining brightly overhead, and yellow handkerchiefs tied over the lamps helped little. Then O.J. bravely turned off all his lamps (illegal, these days) and for the first time since leaving Piccadilly, made real progress. The first 20 miles had taken two hours, then the fog lifted and the Crossley took the tired occupants home to bed and bedroom fires in less than 45 minutes for the final 30 miles. These days though, you would be lucky to average 5 mph getting out of London in the rush hour. O.J. was reminded by his experience of a fog so thick that he abandoned his 1903 Brush on the hills above Ashbourne for two days, and then had difficulty in finding it again. . . . That night in 1923 O.J. wished he was driving either a tram or a car with left-hand steering. And he was only in mist, not the “London peculiar” fogs, long since forgotten. I have to confess that I recall them clearly (if that is the word), and going out as a boy, bearing a white handkerchief that did not remain white for long, offering to lead drivers part of their way home. I also remember a similar dense fog in Derby, during the last war, exacerbated because, to disguise the Rolls-Royce factory from German bombing aeroplanes, smoke-flares had been lit on the pavements surrounding it. Amusing that, in his dilemma, O.J. found steam-waggons on oil-lamps proceeding normally; he rather unkindly suggested that this was because they were used to driving in perpetual fogs of their own making on a damp day!

The next car O. J. tried was a Gwynne 8, as 1923 got into its stride. It was the famous Chummy 3-seater version, handed over by a Mr George Mitchison. At first our amateur tester thought it so small that had it been fitted with a pram handle at the back, he could have wheeled it about. But, once started, he was in for a big surprise. He headed for the Malvern hills and the little Gwynne, costing under 200 guineas, waded through the floods to Tewkesbury and climbed all the hills it was put to without O.J. ever using bottom gear or feeling inclined to. Back through Broadway, the Gwynne hardly noticed Fish hill, which made O. J. wonder what Walter Staner of The Autocar would have thought, he and one of the Lanchester brothers having used this same hill years before to prove to O.J. what a capable cars big Lanchester was. When it began to snow, O. J.’s passenger got on the Underground from Hounslow Barracks but he drove on to Gt Portland Street, his only criticism of the Gwynne being that the clutch stuttered a bit when running slowly in top gear, and he had only an empty oil-can with which to treat the cone, and that his 16 stone and 6 ft 2 in was difficult to get through the driver’s door with hood up. Most excellent brakes, a simple gear change, and adequate lighting, were praised.

Otherwise, O.J. had not tried cars for some time, so he aired motoring politics and dared to disparage the continuing publicity value of MCC trials and even racing, although the entries for the former disproved his views. He also looked back nostalgically to Christmas parties and balls of long ago, made easier to attend with the advent of reliable cars. Such as going to a party in Wiltshire and driving after midnight to a Yeomanry ball in Chippenham, and then finishing the night with another dance 15 miles away, in Gloucestershire. O.J. expressed the view that the rear seating of a 1923 limousine was “nothing like as promiscuous as the cramped insides of old-fashioned horse carriages!” Jammed together, remembered old O.J., you were driven home at never more than seven mph, “with perhaps some relaxation all round of the more conventional bonds of daylight, and of more normal behaviour”. “What a thing to be young and beautiful and tireless”, concluded our motoring-writer, and I will go along all the way with that . . ! Continuing his rather surprising theme, I have long maintained that “motorsport” covers anything from driving a fast open car or competing in trials with an A7, to snogging in a saloon with the blinds drawn.