Motoring as it was

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— A look back to the roads of the 1920s

We left Owen John, whose motoring diary this feature is unfolding, about to take delivery, around Christmas 1923, of his new 19 hp Crossley tourer, the replacement for the well-used 25hp Crossley that had served him since 1920. He had also just sampled a four-wheel-braked 15 hp Darracq provided by Colonel Warwick Wright, in this year of a braking revolution, and at a time when the Lanchester Motor Company was putting 4WB triangles on the offside rear mudguards of their 21 hp model, as a warning of how effectively it could pull up. The tale has oft been told of how, when asked why this innovation was not applied to the older Lanchester Forty, the Company replied that this was a car usually driven by experienced chauffeurs, who know how to cope with rear-wheel-braking, but the new Twenty One was for owner-drivers, who needed better brakes.. . .

Early in 1924 Owen John had discovered that part of the new road by-passing the terrors of Brentford and Hounslow was open at last — he was referring to what is now the Great West Road. Sixty years ago OJ found it “an empty, straight, open dreamroad that very soon ought to be the most popular bit of highway in all Great Britain”. It then commenced “out of a dirty little lane which comes in somewhere from the north to a spot about opposite the right-angled turn that the tram-lines to Kew and Hampton make”. OJ got on this then-new road when they were a car full, the rain was pouring down and a westerly gale was blowing in their teeth, but they rejoiced in running for nearly four miles along it.

I used this road a lot when I lived in Hampshire, even before there was a by-pass round Staines, which it led to from London, but have not used it for a considerable time. However, I believe it is still, in spite of its many crossings at which red traffic-lights can call a halt, a goodish exit from the Metropolis. Unlike Western Avenue, which is a veritable nightmare, in spite of similar multi-lane dual-carriageways, because the new overpasses and underpasses not withstanding, antiquated traffic-light junctions at Acton and beyond Northolt aerodrome, and the busy roundabout before the welcome run down onto the M40 Motorway, defeat the congestion the Shepherd’s Bush fly-over was intended to cure, as commuters to Hillingdon and Ruislip add to the traffic flow (although flow is not a term to appeal to those who inch at less than jogging-pace along this ghastly exit every evening!) and the aforesaid roundabout is occupied by those driving from Denham and Ivor Heath and vice versa. The whole thing is a calamity the like of which OJ in those peaceful 1920s could never have foreseen and as vehicle-owners are burdened with ever-increasing taxes by successive Governments, is a disgrace. (I feel for those caught up in it every day, especially those hurrying home to a dinner-date or TV show or whatever; having another 160 miles or so to go I can take this crawling progress rather more philosophically.)

We have digressed, so I return hastily to motoring as it was 60 years ago, although even then OJ was hoping for something to be done to reduce traffic hold-ups at places like Hammersmith Broadway, which was wishful thinking until the Shepherd’s Bush fly-over was constructed, and has since, as I have said, come to waste. Back in 1924 there was the new Berkshire windscreen-wiper, Houdaille shock-absorbers and Rapson tyres to enjoy, on the new Crossley. The last two, said O J, allowed him to treat “even the apparently shell-holed Ickneild Way with contumely”.

At first OJ’s new Crossley proved an obstinate starter but this was traced to an internal leak in the magneto after which all was well. So he set off solo on a tour of the Midland counties, in this snowy winter of 1924, finding the London-Maidenhead road very poor but after that as far as Henley and between Oxford and Banbury it was described as most excellent, thereafter very poor again until it met the London-Coventry road, and to add insult to injury the cakes in Banbury were found to have gone up in price but down in size. Can you still buy them, I wonder; when I emerge from that pleasing run over the hills and drop down to Banbury Cross from the Brailes, as I do on journeys from Wales to Silverstone; I ought to stop and find out but, as always, will no doubt be in too much of a hurry. Back to OJ, he lunched in Coventry, and then drove on via Stonebridge to Lichfield over a much improved secondary road, after which came “that most picturesque and twisty” road through Rugeley and Milford, parts of which reminded O J of the lesser mountainous going in Scotland!

He stayed at the Trust House by the railway station and reflected on how a driver of even a well-sprung car like his Crossley could detect differences in road surfaces which a passenger might not notice — and the Crossley not only had those Houdaille dampers but its springs were enclosed in Lubrigaters. . . . Next morning, in falling snow, O J went into the ugly collection of towns called Stoke-on-Trent. The run, on to Nantwich, in more snow, was made less good because of a sunken tram-line, which persisted all the way to Audley. Cheshire abounded with more cross-roads than anywhere else OJ knew — and in those days that meant infinite care. Chester itself abounded in “car dealers, absurd and obsolete tramcars and remarkably handsome motor ‘buses.”

I mention all this to indicate how much more motorists thought about the roads they drove over than we do now but will spare you OJ’s fulsome praise of his run back through Salop, justified though it is. Droitwich was looking very clean and prosperous, unlike the then wooden-shanty salt town of Northwich, and already, in 1924, Bromsgrove was becoming a suburb of Birmingham. OJ ran home in the snow through picturesque Tardebigge, sleepy Alcester, the outskirts of very unattractive Redditch, to wonderful, clean-as-a-new pin Stratford-on-Avon (the adjectives are his), and then fast over the jolly, safe, open white highway to Woodstock, so quickly indeed that the policeman given a lift was carried two miles further than he intended! Throughout the new Crossley averaged 20 mpg. After which OJ was off again, over the flat ways to the Fens, to seek the spring, which he didn’t find until he returned home to Berkshire, the weather being much as it is as I write this, over 60 years later.

OJ tarried in Thame, to drink a glass of port at the Spread Eagle, the hotel in this town described as “that antique survival” run by John Fothergill — and those of you who like good food and have not read his “Inn Keeper’s Diary” have missed a treat; there are sufficient mentions of good cars in it for it to have featured in our “Cars In Books” columns, a long time ago. After his port OJ drove on to Aylesbury, “with its sloping oblong of unattached statuary” which I suppose you will miss these days if you by-pass the old market town on the new ring-road; in fact he recommended seeing the oaken parlour of the “King’s Head”, and on to Leighton Buzzard, “where they make car bodies second to none”, Bedford, St Neots to Cambridge. Here OJ saw that huge effigy of Felix the Cat had been lashed by persons unknown at a giddy height on Trinity College and strongly recommended his overnight stopping place, the: “Lion” hotel. OJ did 100 miles in the Fens, considerable run in 1924, and wrote of their ditch-bordered straight roads with mathematical precision where they did bend, in some detail; I agree that even now there is motoring variety to be gained by driving over them, but whether the present Mine Host at the “Rose & Crown” in Wisbech still tends tulip and asparagus frames and makes successful concrete posts and pillars when not attending his famous cellars, I do not know. . 

Again on this trip road surfaces were very much in mind, those from Cambridge to Bishop Stortford being excellent, like most of the others; and it, was here that OJ extended his new Crossley “to see exactly what it could do in the most favourable conditions”. He does not quote its speed, for the overall 20 mph, speed-limit stilI prevailed, although he admits that commercial vehicles often exceeded it and then, or a little later, I recall those “express” services rushing fish and other such commodities from far places to the markets as fast as they could go, about which someone like Nick Baldwin will no doubt one day enlighten us. Bishop Stortford was disposed of as “a quaint dull little town with a famous church, and the birthplace of Cecil Rhodes, the once bad and twisty road from there to Ware now oniy twisfy, in 1924, this and Hertford described as “two nice, quiet towns”, but Hatfield and St Albans, even then, as “much too close to London to have any attractions to a man who drives his own car and values his own safety”; You should see them today, OJ ! .

But traffic sense has vastly improved along the years; in 1924 cyclists were described as the principal danger, with perambulators a good second. From Rickmansworth to Amersham there were roadworks, because even then the Electric Line had reached there, golf courses abounded, and it was beginning to be a populous area.

O.J. ended up by comIng over the hill’s to High Wycombe, thence to Stokenchurch, where my very first car, on ABC, threw a con-rod when on the way to a BOC,Prescott hill-climb – and, turning left, through “the gaunt, bare beechwoods by devious routes to glorious Huntercombe”. The M40 deflects the 1980s traveller from intimacy with such scenery but there have been times recently when the swinging fuel-gauge needle of the Alfa 6 has frightened me and I have left this useful Motorway for the A40 and returned to a taste of this scenery.

At Easter OJ and his family enjoyed the racing at Brooklands, his favourite vantage point the Members’ bridge, the weather very hot, the traffic from the other side of Reading to Weybridge heavy with careless driving frequent but no accident seen. OJ did a bit of “names-dropping” here, as it were, by saying the AA Scout “who lived in one of my cottages and had come to pay the rent”, found his arm was sore from so much saluting – another voice from the past, because this never happens now and died out when the Police began to ignore the 20 mph speed-limit. But history repeats itself, because the 1924 Budget had done nothing to help the home Motor Industry, any more than has the 1985 one.

After which the new Crossley went into dock for a new hood (I expect he meant a new type of hood, for the original one should surely not have worn out in three months or so?), and a new 14 hp Rover was sampled, driven 600 miles in a week. It had run only 30 miles when OJ took it over but he was told he could drive it as fast as it would go, and he said he had seldom driven a car of its size that gave him more joy or was less trouble to manoeuvre, but he was a bit too big for it. Inexperience caused him to pinch his hand the door handle, the doors were a bit slender, and coachbuilder’s fluff blocked the Autovac. Even a splendid thunderstorm between Ashby-de-la-Zouch and Atherstone did nothing more than indicate the effectiveness of the Rover’s hood.  WB.

, . (To be continued as‘ space permits)

 

V to C micellany.

Single-seaters taxed for road use are rare but good fun and Freddie Giles has the GNIAC Beetle licensed in this way. It was going very well after the last VSCC Silverstone Meeting, when we happened to be behind it in the Lancia Delta Turbo until we turned off at Brackley …

In the world of vintage club magazines, Janet Giles is now Editor of the Frazer Nash Chain Gang Gazette and David Thirlby has taken on this position with the VSCC Bulletin. Trevor Tarring has succeeded Dick Smith as Captain of the Frazer Nash Section of the VSCC. He bought his first Frazer Nash, and a GN, in 1958, for £110 the pair, after his Aero Morgan had proved a bit of a liability but he had much spare chain for it to use up!

Not long ago I wrote of the Sage engines and now hear that one has turned up at an auctlon. Its orIgins are unknown but it was in, of all things, a Morris Minor chassis.

Ronald Barker is rebuildlng,a Lafitte light-car which has a three-cylinder air-cooled radial engine that pivots to move the driving disc of its friction transmission in relation to the driven disc. It should make a nice contrast to Barker’s other rebuild project, a 9-litre Renault 45 . . . .

Our apologies for misprinting the makes of three of the cars owned by Mr PJ Mathew’s father in a “Vintage Postbag” letter last month; the “adder” was obviously an Adler and the “numbers” clearly Humbers!

And while on the “Oh Dears”, the aeroplane on which Grp Capt Edward Mole learned to fly at Digby (“Book Reviews” last month) was the Avro 504N (not the “50 5Ns”, as printed), there being a fleet of 16 of these, the book tells us, while the Senior Term was trained on Bristol Fighters, DH9s and Vickers Vimys. Ford-T Huck’s starters got the engines going, in those faraway happy days (1929). 

Over the week-end of April 20th the Light Car Section of the VSCC held its usual Welsh Week-End. On the Saturday, braving hail-storms, the 50 entrants (there were also five reserve entries) tackled driving-tests. Johnny Thomas’s 1904 Darracq was not ,readied in time and President Patrick Marsh had the magneto fall off his 1913 Bebe Peugeot in the middle of Wales. Every other car seemed to be an A7 (there were 20 all told), although variety was introduced by Janette Horton’s Ihd 1925 71/2-hp Peugeot on huge Dunlop Balloon tyres, and Stanton’s Rochet-Schneider saloon, which must have been a pretty static design from 1918 into the mid-1920s. Hickling’s Edwardian Buick was reported to have thrown two con-rods en route, the sort of very rotten luck that age of motorcar can well do without.

Onlookers could afford to be amused at some of the number plates on the competing cars. Peacop’s ohc Minor, for instance displaying “ET” while there were two “VWs” among the chummy A1s.

It is as I have said often before, invidious of someone who would very much like to be proficient at them himself, to write snide remarks when observing these driving frolics, so I will content myself with mainly praise. Thus I saw Matthew Blake conduct his A7 Chummy briskly in the first test in spite of stalling it’s engine, Jane Bullett go ambitiously in hers, Tony Jones do a neat quick run in his Chummy, as did Graham Rankin. Cochrane indulged his Chummy’s high-speed reversing, very neatly done, and Hill’s Triumph Super Seven was not hanging about either. Last  year’s overall winner, Thorpe’s Swift Ten, had too poor a lock to garage in one, but Trevor John must surely have made ftd in his 1930 A7? Ian Walker was there wIth his Gwynne 8 but having got into the garage didn’t realise there was more of the test to do. Wheeler was obviously running his Morris-Cowley on “Glico”, and the instant-reverse of the Trojans was clearly an advantage.

On the Sunday the trial took place, the sections all rather too dry. I abandoned reporting to go through it in Seymour Price’s 1929 A7 Chummy; not to be outdone by another reporter, who was riding in Barry Clarke’s A7 saloon! Price was using the correct updraught Zenith carburetter for the occasion, which, In traditional fashion had a blocked jet on the way to the start, and the transmission developed a knock afterwards, but he got to marker-15 on the first hill and cleaned all the others except the last one, rather surprisingly without taking an award. The Trojans did well, but it was notably the day of the GNs, Monica Gray, Charmian Skinner and Pam Arnold-Forster taking the honours, appropriately for this year’s 75th annjversary of these versatile cyclecars.  WB.

 

V-E-V Odds & Ends.

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Lagondas only win at Le Mans, the Lagonda Club is mounting a visit there this year with over 50 Lagondas, which will include all three of the Fox & Nicholl team 41/2-litres and a V12 Lagonda to represent the car that came in third in the 1939 race, running to a strict speed schedule imposed by its designer, WO Bentley, in preparation for a win in 1940. Details from Dick Green on 025126-3252.

Don’t forget the Riley Register Coventry Rally takes place on June 22nd/23rd, if you like Rileys of all kinds.

A reader wonders what became of Bert Birch, who looked after cars so effectively for Cambridge enthusiasts, before the war. Birch’s Garage is now a VAG agency. Our correspondent tried a £25 straight-eight Bugatti at the time but it was so apt to oil plugs that he played safe and bought a DIS Delage. He was a friend of Richard Marker’s and recalls the latter buying the Bentley “Old Mother Gun” after he came down from Cambridge. Before that Marker had an early Blue Label Bentley saloon and then a 41/2-litre Vanden Plas tourer, both of which Birch looked after at that time our correspondent Grp Capt John Atlham,rtd, had a £12 GN . .

Re the comments in “Book Reviews” about early motor accidents in Croydon, we are reminded that there is a plaque in Harrow recording that the first recorded death of the driver of a motor-vehicle occurred on Grove Hill on the 25th of February 1899.

JR Fothergill writes to say that the PI Rolls-Royce which Amherst Villiers supercharged with a blower driven by a separate engine and later owned by Capt Kruse, was originally disposed of to the Hon Dorothy Paget, the touring body being replaced with a Barker dh coupe body. . .

Later the car reappeared in Australia, to the mystification of even R-R Ltd, the present owner being Dick Connoly of Sydney, who keeps the car in beautiful condition. About the only trace of its supercharged days are the dry sump lubrication, and a host of Jaeger instruments, including rev-counter and altimeter, but it cruises effortlessly and quietly at 60 to 70 mph. The owner also has ingeniously fitted power-steering. He also owns a 1912 Model-T Ford Roadster, and a Model-T Ford brass-radiator speedster with ohv head, two carburetters, and a two-speed back-axle giving four forward speeds, said to do over 100 mph. Mr Fothergill remains wedded to his 1953 R-type Continental Bentley.

We published the incorrect Reg No of the Danish reader’s Alvis Speed-20 in the November 1984 issue; it is CS 231, should anyone know of the car.

Surprisingly, 138 National class-records made at Brooklands still stand, together with two made at Pendine and one, by Driscoll’s A7, at Southport pre-war.

Not quite relevant to this columna white 1955 Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire, Reg No ESV 758, was reported stolen in Harrow last April, so if anyone has seen it . . . There was a £200 reward offered by the heart-broken lorrydriver owner. – WB.

VSCC Plans

Emulating the Nurburgring, theVSCC has changed its annual Oulton Park race meeting into a two-day affair, with the 16 or 17 races run on both days, together with races for bicycles of all types, a static and running Concours d’Elegance, a vast autojumble, dancing, a late bar, buffet supperetc, the race entries are limited to 400 cars. So, although Brands Hatch is hosting an HSCC Historic Race Meeting over the same weekend, there should be lots of activity at the Cheshire circuit on June 8th/9th.

If all this is too much for you, VSCC racing will return to normal at Silverstone on July 6th.

 

 

 

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