Out of the Past, June 1995

It is interesting to discover what cars people owned in vintage times and in what sequence, or so I find. So I was pleased when a thoughtful reader sent in a transcript of some notes from a little book left by the late John Buchanan of Kirkcudbright. This gentleman felt the urge to set out what he remembered of the earlier motoring days, having discovered, as a youngster, as so many of us did, the pleasure to be gained by spending a few coppers on The Autocar and Motor Cycling. That interest had been started by finding a 1911 copy of the former journal, containing a report of the GP de France at Le Mans, won by Victory Hemery’s FIAT S61 from Frederich’s little Bugatti.

After some pages recalling many makes of cars and motorycles, rare ones liberally included, we come to the nitty-gritty of this old notebook, the recollections of personal driving and vehicle ownership. I cannot do better than quote verbatim:

“The first shot at driving was in a T Ford, which I managed to control fairly easily due probably to the fact that it was brand new; the next time I “took a wheel” was being towed in an old Riley 2 seater which had a V-twin water cooled engine — and a broken axle-shaft. At that time Fords were the most readily obtained chariot, and many and varied were the bodies fitted to the old “T” chassis, also conversion sets from left to right hand drive, one of which I remember took the clutch and first gear pedal and the footbrake pedal to the offside, but left the reverse pedal for the passenger to play with, if he so willed. Some of the super-sport bodies looked very potent, but were not too popular when the transmission bands required relining and the cover removed and refitted. This led to a little bad language, as anyone who has experienced the thrill of refitting a transmission cover, with its sundry gaskets and saddle felts, on a normal get-at-able Ford will appreciate.

“Fords, I think, bring back perhaps more memories than any other steed, and the spectacle of a bloke starting a Ford on a winter’s morning always appeared a highly dangerous operation. The steed stood on three legs, the fourth being jacked up, canine fashion, on the spindly jack which Henry provided, the hand-brake lever forward into top gear and the engine wound until the winder was rewarded with a response from one or two cylinders and in due course the third and fourth came to the rescue; in the meantime the throttle was about half-open and the whole concern was doing a sort of St Vitus dance on the jack with the rear wheel spinning madly. Eventually all the cylinders performed reasonably normally, and the machine was lowered to terra firma, a half-brick being the usual parking brake. One could normally detect cigarette smokers, and their favourite brand, by having a squint at the coil box, the coils being packed with various appliances in an effort to retain a sound contact.

“The wealthier class of Ford owner often had some form of oil level indicator, which saved the knees of your pants, since it was no longer necessary to crawl underneath with a pair of pliers and fiddle with a couple of taps to check up; also a Blue Blaze commutator, or even a magneto — usually perched on a Woolworths sort of bracket and driven, between breakages, by a bit of push-bike chain.

“About this time, we had Citroen with left-hand drive, Model 4 Overlands, Chevrolets, Durants, etc. The brake lining merchants must have had a boom around this era, and owe much of their success to some of the cheap Yanks. The Overland, too, had a detachable starting handle, which lived up to its name rather too literally, and the handle quite often slipped off while winding, describing an arc of some 1800, usually to the operator’s face. What manly beauty I possessed was not improved by Overland handles.

“Overlands later produced their 13.9 with a Morris engine, and the latest types had four-wheel brakes; I do not remember the retarding properties being improved to any extent, but the pedal was certainly harder to push.

“I have happy memories of numerous runs in Rover 8s — air cooled horizontal twin side-valve engines — and Bayliss Thomas, the original 10/4 sidevalve, and later the overhead valve model which was renamed the 9.

“About this time I acquired my first motor bike, a Baby Triumph 2-stroke, which gave me an introduction to motor-cycle dealers’ showrooms in many parts of the country.

“Eventually the Triumph found other hands, and I acquired a Cotton, with 350 sidevalve Blackburne engine — a grand job. Apart from a weak petrol tank, and spokes of none too heavy gauge in the rear wheel, this steed gave me thousands of happy miles, with lovely handling properties, which helped me to keep pace with those with hotter engines but less steerable bicycles.

“The Cotton was followed by a series of Sunbeams, a 499cc solo of 1926. A 493cc ohv model-9 of 1927, and a 493cc ohv model-9 of 1930. The latter was a beautiful machine for everyday use, and would still I think be an ideal mount for anyone who wants reliability with freedom from footling attentions, and a good performance withal.

“After the Sunbeams I took to an Austin 7 of 1929 vintage, a super-sports bodied Boyd-Carpenter special. This had a useful performance, and was pleasant to handle, but had the disadvantage of looking as though capable of 80. Flat-out speed was around 55-60, so considerable care had to be exercised when touring, as there is something disconcerting about tearing along flat-out, with a very ordinary saloon driver, probably bowler-hatted, on your tail.

“The next effort was a BSA 3-wheeler, the air-cooled twin, of 1932 vintage. A hardy machine, which carted me around for some 30,000 miles, and incidentally turned a somersault one morning en route to work, depositing me head first in a hedge, wiping its body off in the process. A very expensive somersault! Pocketed exhaust-valves, and flattened — or more — front springs, were my chief bug-bears, and hill-climbing one of the chief delights; over a hilly 25-mile route I could usually manage to hold an MG J2 fairly comfortably.”

It is good to know that this enthusiastic motorist and motorcycle rider was also interested in racing, for among his papers were programmes for the 1936 British Empire Trophy Race at Donington Park and a 1939 MGCC Rally. It seems that Mr Buchanan was by then making every effort to join the RAF.