Roads in the 1920s

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Continuing the saga of motoring-writer Owen John and his 1920s experiences, it is remarkable, looked at today, when the driving seats of most cars adjust in every possible way, and sometimes heat themselves as well that in 1925 it was found necessary to praise the 9/20 hp Rover Weymann saloon’s adjustable front seat. But that was an age when closed cars were by no means universal and so O.J. was also singing the praises of a saloon at a time, with spring not far off, when it was raining most of the time, as it has been this year; he reminds us that in 1924 one of the heaviest snowfalls happened just as spring was supposed to be enjoyed…. Certainly 1925 matched 1986 for poor weather early in the year and caused O.J. to long for the Continent and hope for the fine new road promised one day, that was to run all along the coast from Arcachon to Biarritz, on to Bayonne and to the very gate of Spain, which would enable motorists to bask in real imitation of high summer in the plains beneath the high, white Pyrenees, until at very old Perpignan you come out on the blue Mediterranean beyond the reach of the dreaded Mistral and all its sunny treachery”.

Well that smacks of the adventure of touring in those times, but I wonder whether we are sufficiently appreciative of modern motorways and autobahns and autoroutes, or whether we think their very efficiency spoils the fun of touring? It must be largely speculation as to when congestion began to spoil the enjoyment, even if at first ever so little, but in 1925 O.J. was pondering on the fact that the Moms people at Cowley were turning out well over 1,000 cars every week and that thousands of people were buying them and were setting off for Devon and Somerset and Cornwall, and he only hoped they ,would find room. Around 61 years after that was penned I drove again from the office in the City of London towards the M40 and again we crawled along yard by miserable yard, at such a crawl the speedometer didn’t record, and the electric fan kept coming on, so many cars were there on an inadequate stretch of road, so that when the blissful freedom of the motorway was attained, a long 1 1/2 hours after setting out, more than a few drivers speeded up to an indicated 100 mph — and if the Authorities do not like this they have themselves to blame. (How may of the sufferers have sent my suggested postcard of protest to Mrs Thatcher, I wonder?)

This alone should make it pleasant to read of the roads of long ago, when they didn’t truly know what congestion was! Under those conditions. in the springtime of 1925, O.J went down to the New Forest in Hampshire and the praise he bestowed on it as a tourist’s delight would surely have pleased very much the present Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. O.J. did not much like Hampshire as a whole, finding it along with some other counties, apt to have too many little brick houses in its little towns, and this made him want to see ,Cotswold villages scheduled as objects of national interest before they shared the same fate — he sorrowfully wrote that democracy and beauty had not learned to go hand in hand and lovely villages were often the sole property of one rich, autocratic individual. Well they have since then, changed Bracknell from a shack town into a tower-block New Town, and if you want to see an impeccable Cotswold village I would recommend turning left to Stanway, before climbing up the long, twisting hill leading to Stow-on-the-Wold…

The car O.J. took down to the New Forest was an 18/55 hp Talbot a car rare then and of which only a very few have survived. He expressed himself as very pleased with it, although the wind blew it about on the road above Fordingbridge, so that the hood shuddered and smacked and rattled, and dust, such as had not been seen for years, whirled away in clouds across the heather. Yet so snug was this touring car with hood and side curtains up that the occupants lunched within it beside the Christchurch Avon, a very fine salmon fishing river in turbulent mood. O.J. found the Talbot silky and responsive and its four-wheel-brakes perfect. He was a great believer in 4WB and was thinking of ordering them for his Crossley. He warned, however, against untrustworthy systems being fitted by manufacturers just to be in the fashion. Without expecting to get much satisfaction, he had asked his insurance company what reduction on premium charges they would make if he fitted them to his own car. This was when hydraulic operation was almost unheard of and designers had to rely on mechanical linkages (although in America Duesenberg had pioneered hydraulic brakes on the Model-A in 1921, the Chrysler 70 made in larger numbers, had them by 1924, and in Britain by 1925 Horstman and Triumph had followed suit the latter using Lockheed brakes which it was to put on its Super Seven a few years later), Henry Royce was even then experimenting with such braking but was troubled about what would happen if the hydraulics failed and had patented a means whereby the engine would be shut down by automatically closing the throttle, should this occur. In fact, Royce’s 1924/25 braking system was a form of power hydraulics, as used, with many fail-safe devices on the Silver Shadow, but at that time he clearly did not altogether trust the system, which is why the famous Rolls-Royce mechanical servo brake with mechanical linkages was developed for use on late Ghosts and the forthcoming New Phantom. It remained in use, of course right up to the time of the Shadow’s introduction. Reverting to the Talbot, O.J. found that it was perhaps a thought under-tyred, that shock absorbers would have helped the supple springing, and that it would have been an improvement had speedometer and clock been transposed and a larger petrol tank and a screen wiper been fitted. I hope this may be of some interest to those STD folk who run what is now a decidedly uncommon car. — W.B.

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