Sixty of the best
I have always loved sporting cars and still do today, though after more than 60 years of motoring I am nearing my seventy-eighth birthday. But up to my early twenties, motorcycles were my great love, and most of the 35 or so I owned from the age of 14 were high-performance machines.
An exception was my first, an Alldays Allen 2-stroke, product of Alldays and Onions, which I rode to school at the age of 15. I must have looked an utter twit riding in mortarboard and gown, but they were obligatory.
On one occasion I ended up with the bike on top of me after this offending garment got mixed up with the belt pulley. This greatly improved the appearance of that stupid item of apparel, leaving it in tatters, in which repulsive state I proudly continued to wear it!
Other exceptions, were my three flat-twin Douglases, and a “Fanny” Barnett which was always driven on full throttle. This treatment invariably ended with the tiny engine overheating and partially seizing, necessitating a short rest by the roadside, after which the Villiers 2-stroke continued to perform as well as ever.
My James V-twin ‘500’ was a sedate but smooth machine of no little charm. More sporting acquisitions included a pretty Chater-Lea with an unusual overhead face-cam, a Scott Flying Squirrel, and a 250cc ohv Excelsior, followed by an AJS, a Cotton-Blackburne, an International Norton and an ex-IoM DOT 250, which had finished fourth in the TT ridden by one of the Tremlow brothers.
I persuaded the Excelsior Company to sell me one of their works racing machines, which I proposed to ride in the Leinster 200 road race in Ireland in May 1931. It was a beautiful and functional machine with four speeds, 8in brakes and a 41/2-gallon tank. I was proud to be riding alongside (until they passed me!) such famous riders as Stanley Woods, Eric Fernihough and Archer.
The War saw me finally bowing out of motorcycle ownership, but during live years in the RAF I did own two more machines, an Ariel Square-Four and a KIT Velocette. The latter I used in partially-stripped road-racing trim as daily transport between Marlborough and Shellingford, about 25 miles each way very enjoyable, except when it rained!
My first car was an Albert two-seater made by Gwynne Engineering Co of Chiswick. It boasted a classic radiator (modelled on that of Rolls-Royce but gave absolutely no power. I bought it for £17.10s at a cattle auction in Haverhill. I did not have this considerable sum on me (or indeed anywhere else), but the auctioneer trusted me, and allowed me to drive it the 20 miles home.
I was 17 or 18 at the time, and had little idea how to handle a car, but in those days one taught oneself and I cannot recall any great difficulties. I had fun until one night it caught fire. I managed to extinguish the flames by throwing sand over the engine (from a convenient roadside supply), but sold the car soon afterwards to a local lay preacher. May God forgive me!
Then followed a Gordon England Cup Model Austin Seven, very sporty in those days, and after that an Austin Seven Swallow — one of Mr Lyons’ early efforts, and nearly as aerodynamic as his best sidecars. In due course this was changed for an Aero Morgan 3-wheeler with a water-cooled ohv Blackburne engine, which on occasion would shed its push-rods. I learnt a lot from this contraption. It never went far before stripping one of its dog-operated gears, but I always managed to get home somehow on the remaining one.
Tiring of this, I traded it in at Shepreth Motors in Cambridge for a really sporting Salmson. With its twin-cam engine and four-speed box this was rather a rare bird in England; it was very stark, its narrow-gutted body necessitating a staggered seat for the unfortunate passenger, whose job was to maintain adequate fuel pressure by frequent and energetic hand-pumping! It had a bolster fuel tank mounted transversely behind the cockpit, no attempt being made to provide a tail, shapely or otherwise. The rear axle contained no differential so the rear track had to be very narrow.
In fact the Salmson just fitted the gauge of the tramlines of those days, so life was hectic if you lost concentration and got both rear wheels stuck in these lines, as I did several times when motoring in Richmond and Twickenham.
I had a very smart and sophisticated girlfriend in Ipswich whom I particularly wished to impress, so I invited her to the Motor Show at Olympia. All went well until, approaching Colchester, there came a frightful bang from the Salmson’s rear axle. The crown wheel had stripped its cogs — for the second time.
Leaving the Salmson, appropriately nicknamed “The Snag”, in Colchester to be sorted out, we finished our journey ignominiously by train. But the Motor Show was a great success, the evening ending when our party of ten was thrown out of Lyons Corner House at Oxford Circus for the second year running. Our only crime was uproarious behaviour.
The Salmson’s replacement was an HE, the last car made by the Reading Herbert Engineering factory before it went into liquidation in around 1932. A boat-tailed two-seater body had been fitted by Martin Walter, with elegant flared wings. The HE had a fascinatingly smooth side-valve six cylinder engine with a Whatmough alumniurn cylinder head, and Clayton Dewandre brakes. Everything was very solid and beautifully constructed but I foolishly sold it to a dealer in Handsworth, Birmingham, delivering it to him one Sunday and returning by train. I remember worrying in case the cheque bounced, but it didn’t.
I re-bodied a rare 11/2-litre Targa Florio Ballot and “wished” it on Jack Bartlett, whose remark, following a run round the block in it, was: “What a depressing motor car”! However, he reluctantly accepted it in part exchange for a 2-litre Lagonda tourer.
This seemed utterly reliable, and I suppose I should have kept it. But I hankered after the more sporting low-chassis Speed Model, and Rowland Smith was advertising a beautiful ex-Brooklands “Double-Twelve” example with 24-gallon tank. I could not resist it, so I turned in the older Lagonda. I enjoyed some very satisfying motoring with this delightful machine, which would run without pinking only on Cleveland Discol fuel.
A local sporting parson, the Rev Needham Davies, used all his persuasive powers to make the car his. The first thing he did once he had his way was to lift the head, remove the copper gasket fitted for road use, plane the surfaces of head and block and re-assemble sans gaskets, so he could wind the car up to 100 mph with consummate ease! I rather wished I had not sold it! I had my eye, however, on a lovely old 30/98 Vauxhall (chassis OE109), owned locally by a Major May. As he was giving up farming and returning to London, he offered me the car, but on the day I drove it away there were tears in his eyes and I felt despicable. Alas, six months later I became too financially embarrassed to run it, and sold it to a charming young lady, the Hon Ruth Cockayne, to whom I delivered it somewhere in Queen’s Gate. I got £225 for it. Miss Cockayne told me she intended driving it to Russia — a somewhat adventurous project in those days . . .
My Riley Redwing, with polished aluminium body and bright red mudguards, was reputed to have been owned by Henry Birkin. It gave yeoman service, and was plesant to handle, with no vices. Later, I fell for a 1930 Alvis 12/60, with a handsome boat-tailed body, and an extra “dickey” seat in the tail. It was a magnificent animal, with a deep and satisfying exhaust note, and utterly reliable; the finely-finished engine was a joy to look at and work on.
I decided I must own an Alfa-Romeo, and a visit to Jack Bartlett’s impeccable showroom revealed a supercharged 11/2-litre twin-cam six-cylinder model with an English sporting open fabric body. I parted with £225 and drove it home, the blower emitting a piercing scream as engine revs rose. I ran it for one long summer but at 12-14 mpg it was fast getting me into the red, so I returned this incredibly smooth and silky six to Jack, and came away with a 11/2-litre Aston Martin, one of the Phoenix Park team cars, like that driven by the great SCH Davis.
My next car was a supercharged C-type MG Midget. This frequently oiled-up plugs, and anyway had to go after my latest acquisition, a wife, received a burn from the outside exhaust-pipe. Besides, the cockpit was too small to hold Sandy, our bulldog!
We needed a more sober car in which my wife could learn to drive, so we chose a new DKW two-stroke cabriolet at the 1937 Motor Show. This was a great success. It would cover 145 miles on three gallons of petrol mixture and, apart from an unpleasant two-stroke “rattle” at about 52 mph, it was an excellent car in every way. It quite converted me to front-wheel drive, which was not used by any British manufacturer of the day, although Alvis, of course, had earlier built and raced FWD cars.
It seemed unpatriotic to run a German car during the War, so the “little wonder” had to go. We got rid of it for a song, and I joined the RAF.
I bought an oldish Austin Ten saloon to get me home on the several 48-hour passes I wangled, but soon fell for a car of more sporting character, a FWD BSA four-wheeler of pleasing, albeit docile, performance. Before long I changed to a Lancia Apriilia pillarless saloon, and after months of undiluted pleasure (using it daily to and from the airfield) I bought, unseen, an International Aston Martin.
The owner sent it by rail in a special wagon from Rotherham to Swindon, where it was off-loaded for me to gaze at for the first time. After much loving care and work, this now-classic model endeared itself to me, in spite of being extremely noisy. Some time later I heard of a Mk II long-chassis Aston Martin for sale at a Swindon garage. I bought it for £475 after frantic appeals by telephone to my bank manager in Suffolk. The older “Inter” was sold, but the Mk II made a worthy successor. Every morning I ran t he engine at 1200rpm in the garage, to heat thoroughly the Castrol ‘R’ in the tank slung between the front dumb-irons which served the dry sump engine; after breakfast I would leap into the car and drive as fast as I could go over the Wiltshire and Berkshire downs. An Australian friend began to covet this car and continually plagued me to sell it to him. When the German War was nearing its end, I finally agreed. He took it to Sydney, and wrote to say it was a real crowd-stopper there! Before he shipped the car it had been beautifully repainted black, and the wire wheels chromed and highly polished.
Between the acquisition of those two Astons I discovered in a breaker’s yard at Wootton Bassett a 1922-24 supercharged Mercedes-Benz. I paid £12.10s after haggling, and borrowed a sledgehammer to remove and dump the ugly Germanic body. I then ran it in pure chassis-only form, the driver’s seat lashed on with leather straps! It had a beautiful 11/2-litre overhead-cam engine, with the usual supercharger drive from the front of the crankshaft, rod-operated by extra throttle pressure which engaged the blower by means of a small multiple-disc clutch. The sudden high-pitched scream as the blower came in was, like the resulting acceleration, most satisfying, and had dramatic effect. Pedestrians fled in terror, and cyclists wobbled or fell off.
Another excellent car I owned about that time was a pretty little Morgan 4/4 drophead coupe, finished in cream. It was unusual in having a push-rod engine from the Standard Car Company, instead of the more usual Coventry-Climax ioe power-unit. Performance was surprisingly good, due to a favourable power:weight ratio. The chief flying instructor on my RAF station fell in love with it, and begged me to let him have it. I would not, and soon I found myself posted elsewhere. Was this coincidence?
After the War I returned home to another succession of cars. A blown Lagonda 2-litre Speed Model with Cozette supercharger was sold within months to the late Pierre Marechal; a 1900 De Dion Bouton was laboriously restored from near-scrap; a 1902 51/2hp Peugeot was driven in the London-Brighton run of 1947; a 1911 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was saved from the knacker’s yard, as was a Type 44 Bugatti (sans bodywork but otherwise complete), whereas my 1911 Siddeley-Deasy was almost in mint condition.
When I heard of a 2-litre Lagonda fabric-bodied pillarless saloon with a seized engine, languishing in a shed behind the Griffin pub at Ingham, I purchased it for a song, towed it home, removed the head and injected into the cylinders a special aircraft penetrating oil. After a week I was able to turn the engine over on the starting handle, and on re-assembly this car performed very reliably, grossly overbodied though it was.
The last Aston I was destined to own was another Bertelli. It was a Le Mans 2/4 seater, and I had it re-cellulosed in true British Racing Green. Highly polished, the whole car gleamed and looked almost new! Then came a succession of MGs (PA, PB, TD and TF two-seaters), and a couple of MGBs for good measure, followed by a Jaguar XK 150 coupe with the 3 SUs and 265bhp engine. Finally, there were a couple of Mk III Sprites and a Riley Pathfinder. Alas, my present car is no classic, but a 1967 Mk III 1275cc MG Midget. However, I have owned nearly 60 vehicles in as many years, and I hope that, before the chequered flag falls for me, there will be a good few more classics yet to come. BCW