Veteran to classic

The roads of the 1920s

We are coming close to the end of the Twenties, whose motoring life we have been recalling through the diary of journalist Owen John, and it was at the close of 1928 that OJ recalled how pioneer automobilism was far more of a problem for amateurs to take up than for those who, even at or before the turn of the century, had been brought up as professional engineers — men with cotton-waste in their pockets, who were used to spanners, slide-rules and the like, and were perhaps even acquainted with the mysteries of electricity.

As one of those amateurs himself, OJ had had to learn the hard way, asking for a push after his primitive autocars had stopped for reasons he only faintly understood; and he said being able to solder was important in the days before Bowden cables had been perfected, when fluids freely leaked.

As for antagonism to early motor-car drivers, he recalled that this was more a feature of towns and suburbs than of the country and once, outside Stafford, OJ received profuse apologies from a man whose cow had run into his car's radiator. At first, the hunt would take to the fields if a car approached, and call abuse over the hedges, though by 1928 hunting folk came to the meets by car and some were even beginning to bring the horses in motor-vans.

Pioneer motorists also had to learn how to repair punctures, whereas cyclists could do this with their eyes shut. The solution, for the rich, was to have a Continental chauffeur who was well versed in under-bonnet affairs; OJ mentions one noble (does anyone remember who this was?) who rejoiced in a black driver and others who had bearded Frenchmen to maintain their motors.

This was in the days when cars had neither windscreens nor dashboards, hoods were not thought of, doors unimaginable and, said OJ, one of the most famous of all French cars gave no more protection for the driver than the outline of its bonnet which was like a squashed half-barrel on its side. He helped Sir Alfred Mayo-Smith to make a windscreen for one — was it Hotchkiss or Delaunay-Belleville? By the time the vintage movement was well into its stride I had a 1926 15.9hp ohc version of the latter great make. Whilst it had a windscreen, the beautifully-appointed Maythorn body was otherwise open at the front, and people used to hail it, mistaking it for a taxi!

Long before they thought of horrors such as the depletion of the ozone layer and atmospheric pollution, OJ observed that weather conditions seemed abnormal around Christmas 1928. That was fine, since it prevented frost troubling his electric-light plant and domestic boiler and causing such skids that roads became dangerous. OJ thought that skidding was the cause of most accidents and that was certainly so in the case of two of my four personal major shunts (a Fiat Topolino when braking in rain and a Morgan Plus 4 on black ice; the others were being rammed by a bus during the wartime black out in an A7 Ruby, and crashing at a blind crossroads in a Ford Mexico — there's honesty for you!).

OJ was on about "safety first" in 1929, when so many entirely blind crossroads still existed, such as those at Wallingford and Reigate which were so obviously dangerous that drivers treated them very carefully. About this time, when I was a boy, I remember one such hazard in Clapham Park, where a Morris-Oxford four-seater and an ABC collided mildly, the former finishing up on the grass verge in spite of having four-wheel braking. Even in these enlightened whitelined traffic-lighted 1980s I can name three difficult junctions on my route from the office to home, plus an unprotected blind crossroads in Ledbury.

That OJ was writing a long time ago is emphasised by his account of a journey to "the bleak but busy north" on the coldest day of 1929, in an un-named saloon whose radiator muff had to be unfurled to prevent it from boiling, the explanation being that the base of the radiator had frozen. After that he cruised up over the "lonely, lovely road" to the deserted Cat & Fiddle, down into Macclesfield and home again. OJ found Manchester "as dirty as ever, Peter Street a disgrace" and he said Deansgate was beginning to look shoddy, although its showrooms were as fine an automobile exhibition as ever; he especially disliked the Manchester trams, noisy in the extreme. Next he drove a "little MG Sports" from Manchester to Trowbridge in truly icy conditions (getting bad wheelspin when trying to restart after taking on petrol in Keynsham), and continued up to the hills where Somerset becomes Wiltshire, on what was said to be the latter's highest main road, at "Sally-in-the-Wood". Very little is said about the MG, so perhaps the slippery going removed its good points from OJs mind. Or, if it was a new Midget, maybe the elderly gentleman disliked little sports-cars!

OJ had discovered a new road just north of the Trent in the Forest of Needwood, above Coleshill, where a great concrete structure was being erected, reminding him of something similar that rose up at Shoreham during World War One, was never used, and was later dismantled. What was this, one wonders? In contrast, there were the fountains at Water Orton, with an experimental aeroplane (an autogyro?) hovering above, on the way to Fort Dunlop (which was being extended), and the fine new dual-carriageway into Birmingham.

The destination was the Black Country, with trades to be found nowhere else than in the dozen square miles bounded by Walsall, Wolverhampton, Stourbridge and Brum. OJ lists coffin fittings, ships' berths, cisterns for railway carriages, roller blinds for cars, lenses for lighthouses, machine-gun bits, stirrups and "Egyptian" souvenirs for tourists! He also mused on the picturesque names of Black Country places, remembering that even Rugeley nearly changed its name to Palmerston at the suggestion of the then Prime Minister.

He had worthy of the best French hotels at the "Victoria" in Wolverhampton, a town now without trams, but where once there had been steam-trams (which made it unwise to open upstairs windows), then trolley-trams and stud-fed ones. By 1929 the almost noiseless locally-made six-wheeled Guy trolley-buses prevailed. Leaving Wolverhampton, OJ suddenly found himself on the New Road to Birmingham, which he felt would one day make a fine link from the south to the north.

Then, after more praise for the benefits the Channel Tunnel was about to provide (sixty years on, and it is still not open!), OJ was off on a French tour in a new I5.7hp Crossley. On that note we shall stop, for one more installment from these ancient diaries of a long-gone and altogether more leisurely age of motoring will bring us to the end of the forgotten Twenties. WB