The roads of the 1920s
We left Owen John early in 1926, trying the advantages of four-wheel brakes on what would now be vintage cars—in this case a Bean 14. He did so again when lent a Vatahall Fourteen by Shaw & Kilburn (where even after WW2 our road-test Vauxhalls were handed over in London). OJ was full of praise for this fine British car, which ran like velvet and whose brakes were “little short of perfection”, in contrast to those he once criticised on another Vauxhall for causing a wild skid.
This latest model was used for a run in Hampshire. OJ wrote about the beauties of this county — its fine manor houses and grey churches, wild ponies on the road in the New Forest, a danger of which drivers are still warned. But besides the fine houses, he found that there were far too many shack-like dwellings in Hampshire. Well, that was a long time ago and I think they have now gone, just as the once very “shacky” town of Bracknell in Berkshire is now a brash New Town, its tower blocks and vast roundabouts almost a worse evil than the sheds and shelters in the woods which their development dispelled.
OJ saw Basingstoke as “a not very interesting or typical provincial town”. although in my day, before it was entered and exited via enormous traffic roundabouts, it seemed a pleasant if narrow-streeted market town. What OJ would make of it now is better left unimagined. . .
He thought, once on the road to Alton, that the country all around became quiet and very pleasant, which is as true today as it was in 1926 and which is possibly why the first Anglo-American Veteran/Vintage Rally held in this country, was routed that way.
OJ stayed at Southsea, a nicer seaside place than most out of season, and interesting when the big ships passed by — but he was charged for a night’s stay about as much a week in provincial France would have cost, including 2/- for leaving the Vauxhall in a lean-to, and three male servants lined up for tips as his party left.
Then it was on to “sloppy Gosport” over the floating bridge, to “pleasant Fareham” and on to Southampton, where the Dolphin Trust House served them almost too much food. The drive home was via congested Romsey, where sympathy was felt for the hard-worked traffic policeman, Stockbridge, Winchester, “quaint Andover” and Newbury. If you have occasion to drive this route in the 1980s, you will appreciate just how much “motoring” has altered.
Slow lorries were a nuisance in 1926, as they are today, and OJ complained about them. In those times lorries really were slow, most cars possessed poor acceleration, and the problems of overtaking cannot be understood by those who never knew the winding, cambered roads of the 1920s and 1930s. It must also be remembered that rear-view mirrors were not then compulsory, and that lorries and buses were beginning to have enclosed cabs, which made it difficult for drivers to see cars coming up behind, assuming they had any wish to give way. OJ thought risks were encouraged by these factors, but he returned that 14hp Vauxhall safely.
While he thought the new run of cars with this horsepower all much the same, he was delighted with the Luton product and pleased that it was British. He observed, however, that it was after a year or so that things began to tell, not when a car was young and fresh. This is why I have yet to write up my experiences with my Ford Sierra XR4x4 — its first year is scarcely complete, though in 16,000 miles to date not so much as a lamp bulb has failed.
Even by 1926 one can sense that motoring was becoming more commonplace. Fewer incidents happened to OJ on his outings in Crossley and Rover, and he was to remark that year that motoring abroad had ceased to be a great adventure.
Cars were by then impervious to the weather, as gadgets grew and improved. OJ wrote of the Berkshire windscreen wiper on his Crossley, which only stopped in really heavy snow storms and which worked without a “clack”. He also mentioned the hued horn-ring fitted to the steering wheel, which not only sounded the horn but, pressed one side or the other, operated turn-indicators — but it needed Georges Roesch to build the latter into a car.
OJ’s next obsession was the congestion prevailing in Manchester, where he travelled in the snugness of a 9/20hp Rover saloon. In 1926, apparently, trams had precedence and buses only ran from where the tramlines stopped; and one still encountered slow lorries drawn by several horses in tandem. which were never impeded but themselves impeded the traffic when they stopped (for hours at a time) while bales of cloth were flung into them from the upstairs windows of rag-trade warehouses.
OJ put Manchester ahead of London for traffic congestion, though the solid Victorian newspapers there never complained about it. Yet Deansgate was the greatest street of cars anywhere, with Crossley inhabiting the ground floor of the Royal Exchange; and Rosenfields in New Bury Street, almost out at Salford, staged a veritable Olympia Show of their own. And, in those far-away days, The Autocar had its northern offices in Deansgate, the only central Mancunian thoroughfare where the traffic more or less managed to move along.
In around March 1926 OJ replaced his 19.6hp Crossley with a 14/45hp Rover saloon, feeling that advancing years called for a closed body and four-wheel brakes. He had owned Crossleys since 1919, his present one bought with some 35,000 miles on its odometer in 1923; apart from two “run” big-ends, the second caused by a poor repair after the first failure, he concluded: “reliability, thy name is Crossley”! It is rather startling to realise that at this time Scotland Yard forbade the use of front-wheel brakes on London’s buses and made steel-studded tyres compulsory on taxicabs.
With his new Rover, OJ waved the flag for Britain, which it would be no bad thing to see repeated by those buying new cars today. Interestingly, it seems the 14/45hp Rover he had driven across France into Switzerland, and later up to Scotland and back, was the very first of these Poppe-designed cars to be made. That one gave not an atom of trouble, and although OJ admitted that these Rovers had an engine very much out of the common, which even sounded and felt different, he had great faith in it. Had not this Coventry company just been awarded the Dewar Trophy by the RAC? In fact, this particular Rover never quite made it, and now we see the Japanese helping once-proud British engineers build Rovondas. . . .
OJ saw 1926 as a year of change in road transport, but we could never, these days, be happy with semaphore-type direction indicators, cable-operated 4WB and the tyres which were in use at the time (even when they were Rapsons, which “at 15,000 miles are not as good as they were when new”, and all the other things vintage-car enthusiasts now find so fascinating on today’s cars.
Next, OJ waxed lyrical about the county of Wiltshire. I think I had better not repeat his theatrical eulogy in so prosaic a magazine as Motor Sport, but you can take my word that he was very enthusiastic over it — except that is, for Salisbury, whose streets were far too narrow.
The vast Wessex Garage near the White Hart where, surely, MCC trials competitors used to refresh themselves in the course of long journeys west? was “choc-a-bloc” when OJ went on a market day. He was also very cross about the barbed wire and other disfigurations around Stonehenge, which I believe Lord Montagu is having cleaned up.
Continuing on the theme of Wiltshire, OJ remarked on the road improvement between “most elegant Warminster” and “somewhat uncomely Trowbridge”, where an embankment had been substituted for Bliss Bottom. He discussed Bradford-on-Avon (where Moulton suspension and bicycles come from) which its inhabitants considered the most beautiful town in England. This he agreed with if Bath were omitted — especially its Hall, a replica of which was used as an example of British architecture in Paris in the year the Eiffel Tower was built.
Coming home from that Wiltshire drive, OJ encountered the monthly street-market in Wootton Bassett. He was advised by a smiling policeman that he could try to penetrate the cows, calves, sheep, gaitered men and Ford cars and trucks if he liked, but that it would be quicker to go another way. It was then the same once a month in Highworth and Cricklade. Times change …
Perhaps it was the thought of such holdups, and the increasing traffic, which made OJ ask all-the-year-round drivers not to use their cars over the Easter holiday; though he confessed he would probably take his family to Brooklands “to see sights and hear sounds that have not their equal all the country through”. For, he said, “Brooklands on a fine day is one of the wonders of the modern world”. Personally, I cannot see what the weather had to do with the wonderment which I was to experience in my turn, but so be it! WB