Bill Boddy

From The Aeroplane to cars

Every week from about 1933 until the war I read The Aeroplane, edited by the great CG Grey (CGG), who ran it as a critically outspoken weekly which would be read by those otherwise disinterested in politics but keen on aviation. He did this from 1911 until the outbreak of WWII, as I described in Motor Sport in March 1995.

Aeroplane today is a high-quality monthly of historical appeal, edited by Michael Oakey; its recent masterful survey of the Concorde story and of 100 years of powered flight, together with the last typically critical piece CGG wrote for The Aeroplane in 1953 for its special number about 50 years of the aeroplane, was highly informative and enjoyable, as usual.

So intrigued by CGG's writings was I that I asked him about his motoring experiences...

He'd begun with primitive motorcycles. First came a loaned, very early MMC motor-tricycle, then a Singer with engine within its back wheel, an Ariel trike with trailer in 1899-1901 and a 2.75hp Ariel used all over Ireland, including message-carrying during the 1903 Gordon Bennett race. Next, an FN, kept running for him by Harry Ferguson of tractor fame.

Then Grey got into aviation, and drove a car for the first time, an Argyll, in which second and third gears could be engaged together --- but the stout gear wheels stood this. Grey was an observer in this British car on a test back and forth across Yorkshire.

The first car he owned was a small Clement-Bayard that "went like a wristwatch and charged up the young mountains at Upavon amazingly" on visits to the Central Hying School of the RFC. From one of the officers there Grey bought a little Calthorpe as WWI broke out, on which the dimmed lamps regs were cleverly, though quite legally, eluded, giving the light as of "a baby searchlight".

After the Armistice, Grey bought a 1904 Mercedes, which he modernised somewhat. It had "the most perfect gears" but the clutch, the famous scroll, was either in or out and you could not slip it, so he used to coast round corners with it out, as the pioneer drivers did.

Around 1920, there was a 25hp Talbot tourer, front seat and steering column again lowered. "It could move." A night run from Carfax, Oxford to Hammersmith Broadway in one hour was recalled when this 'Editorial Talbot' had "rattled itself to pieces and shed a stub-axle as it was driven into its garage".

Grey bought secondhand a "large, fat Flint saloon", likening it to "driving a four-poster bed" as it took its owner and his wife up to Scotland at a steady 50 to 60mph until it ran a bearing. But the tour via Kingussie, Fort William and Edinburgh back to London was completed by using plenty of oil. This car was a product of William C Durant's American motor empire, which embraced seven makes, made in a number of factories, the Flint taking its name from one of these. It was an inexpensive car with a seven-bearing Continental engine and a unique tubular backbone to stiffen its chassis. It appeared in 1924, and in one year 3000 were sold in the USA. It was made in 3.8 and 4.5-litre six-cylinder versions, and there was also a 2.8-litre four-cylinder Flint Junior that had only back-wheel brakes as late as '26.

In Britain, the Flint was a rare bird. Durant, with premises at Lodge Lane, St John's Wood, took a separate stand for it at Olympia, the spacious Big Six brougham priced at £550 in 1925. But that was all over by '26, as already by then George Newman, who raced Salmsons at Brooklands, was offering brand-new "shop-soiled" Flints, with full maker's guarantee, at discounts of up to £125, from his emporium on Euston Road.

CGG then decided he might try Amstrong-Siddeleys, first with a 15hp model, which he fetched from Coventry, asking, "How far have I got to drive it and at what speed before I can let it out?" to be told, "About as far as the factory gate". In 1931, it took him all round what was then the Irish Free State in just over three days. A 20hp of this make followed; Grey and his photographer Charles Sims had to go to Leuchars for RAF vs Navy manoeuvres in '32. Leaving the Edgware Road at 7.30am, stopping twice for petrol, they were in Edinburgh by 3.35pm, about a 400 mile journey arriving at the scheduled time for the 'Flying Scotsman'.

Grey then had a new Armstrong-Siddeley every year, but after Temple Press acquired The Aeroplane (to combat Iliffe's Flight), Grey was given a Wolseley 25 as a company car. Oil pressure was only 10lb/sq in and all the bearings failed. So the pressure was upped to 45lb and all was well. Twice CGG averaged 60mph from Newmarket to Burnham Market.

After a bomb destroyed his garage, Grey's last car was a 1936 Morris close-coupled coupe. It gave well over 30mpg of petrol and "I put in fresh oil out of kindness" in over 75,000 trouble-free miles, "give or take a few new springs, batteries and tyres". Its stiff steering was cured with wedges, the same method as CGG had used on the old Talbot.

It was in 1952 that I asked CGG about these cars. The following year he wrote the aforesaid last piece for The Aeroplane, posted it, and went on to an important dinner at the Admiralty, where he collapsed and died, aged 75.