The Christmas Light Brigade
Our Founder Editor was joined by members of the VSCC Light Car Section to recreate a festive cross-country dash
Among the Motor Cycle Club’s prominent and exciting fixtures was its ‘London to Exeter and Back’ Run, which started in 1910 on December 26 27. Unlike the ‘Land’s End’ or ‘Edinburgh’ the Exeter admitted solo motorcycles, sidecars, cyclecars and cars. The event was to commence in the evening and finish at the same place the following evening, covering a distance of 333 miles with two stops — one in Salisbury and one in Exeter. At first the only awards were Gold and Silver medals, but the Bronze medal started in 1922. On the first event they had 70 motorcycles, one cyclecar, a Morgan Runabout driven by HF SMorgan and one car, a Thames driven by CM Smith. They started at 7pm from the Bell Hotel in Hounslow and arrived back there by 6.40pm the next day. By 1912 the event was held on December 27-28 because it clashed with a Sunday.
I had much fun running my personal version of this historic Run, on Boxing Day. My idea was to repeat the routes of previous years.
In 1953 I had hoped to do this in my 1922 8hp Talbot-Darracq but it failed to even reach the start, due to a faulty coil. The next year — 1954 — I was accompanied by Gerry Crozier in his 1928 Trojan tourer and we used the 1922 MCC route card, as this was the first year in which the T-D could have been entered. We thought the whole thing jolly sound fun, so I made the suggestion to the VSCC Light Car Section for owners of the right kind of light cars to join me the following year.
Thus in 1955 some 17 appropriate cars driven by their sentimental owners followed me in my Talbot-Darracq from the Market Square in Staines to Exeter and back. We followed the 1922-24 route as closely as possible, except that our average speed was 24mph not 20mph and we finished at Hartley Wintney. I coped on side lamps, as the headlamps resulted in a dead ‘short’ and my fabric hood blew away before the first refuelling stop at The Phoenix. Unlike in the 1954 Run I failed on Salcombe and White Sheet Hills. Thirteen of the 17 starters finished the 307 miles — admittedly we did not have the bad roads, the mud, or the primitive tyres and tubes that the competitors of 33 years earlier had to contend with, but we had the same satisfaction of accomplishment.
The ‘Replica Exeter’ was not run in 1956 on account of petrol rationing, but in ’57 Denis Jenkinson and I went as passengers in Derek Graham’s 1929 Trojan over the 1922 route, with five other vintage light cars. I had a try at driving the Trojan but made an awful hash of braking and clutchless upward changes. I eventually got the hang of it and found it fascinating driving a distinctly unorthodox car.
In 1958 I took my recently acquired 1924 12/20 Calthorpe with 17 other vintage cars and used the 1924 route for the ‘Boxing Night Informal’. I picked up Motor Sport’s Continental Correspondent in Staines. We had a momentary panic when the petrol tank ran dry, then at Lobscombe Corner the carburettor leaked and on the home run we had magneto and other problems. Other than that we had a good run, including climbing all the hills successfully, albeit shedding my passenger on Salcombe Hill just before the top. At White Sheet Hill, an observed section in 1924, they had to drive the last 20 yards in 15 seconds to receive a gold medal. This year Tom Lush and John Nelms provided a restart test, which 10 cars completed in time, but four did not have enough power to complete successfully. Seven of the cars finished the 320 miles with us, the others turning off for home before reaching Staines.
In 1959 23 cars, seven of them those enormously powerful vintage cars and one nonvintage, elected to run the 1925/6 route. I again took my vintage Calthorpe, and with Jenks as passenger/starter motor/navigator/engineer and wet-nurse, we climbed all the hills but only just managed 15sec at White Sheet Hill, compared to 7.8sec the previous year.
By 1960 I had 36 cars join me in this informal post-Christmas expedition and for a change I borrowed the Montagu Motor Museum’s 1921 AC Anzani bulbous-back tourer. The AC proved not very comfortable but snug for the three occupants: Bob Warne, the museum’s engineer, the Continental Correspondent and myself. Over distinctly slippery roads, with the AC boiling on the hills and having to change its batteries, we dropped behind, until between Honiton and Marlpit Hill where a freak fall of sleet had caused chaos. Various passengers had to walk down the hill to assist in sliding cars round and down, for them to find another way to Salcombe. Some others had another try, for instance a 9/20 Humber with deflated back tyres and rope round the driving wheels, eventually making it to the top. This year took a heavy toll on the cars mechanically but no expensive repairs were required and most of the drivers enjoyed the experience. The AC returned home in first and top gears only and eventually lost drive between the engine and back axle, so had to be abandoned, with the museum’s engineer returning to Beaulieu in the Editorial Mini-Minor.
In 1961 we started correctly from the Slough Trading Estate using the 1926 route, and for the third time I employed my recently fettled 1924 Calthorpe. The number of enthusiasts taking part had come down to 28, including a good number of Austin Sevens and Mr Capewell’s 1930 MG M-type, which had an accident and had to be abandoned. But the event showed how well vintage light cars could cope with icy roads, including the one-in-five descents. Out of the light cars that had started or joined in the event on route, only six failed to sign off. Luckily it was two days before the ‘big freeze’.
In 1962 I did not organise an ‘informal’, as I was dubious about the RAC insisting on very detailed route cards for a privately organised competition (which it was not). Mr G Bailey in his 1927 Morris-Oxford saloon, accompanied by two other vintage cars and a modern Fiat 600, attempted the Run but only got to Honiton before deciding to turn back, due to the bad weather conditions.
Blades of glory? WB’s propeller mystery…
Being interested in aeronautical history as well as the motoring past, when I heard of an aeroplane propeller that was liable to be scrapped in Croydon I duly went to collect it with Denis Jenkinson and brought it back home in his truck.
It is a wooden four-bladed propeller which has a span of about 115 inches, and stamped around its hub are the words ‘BE2C SINGLE SEATER L. P. 2422 + 6298 12. CYL. RAF 4’. On one of the blades is a coloured transfer in the shape of a shield with the words ‘LANG PROPELLER Ltd. WEYBRIDGE’ and on another of its blades are painted, in faded gold, some 32 names such as those of: ‘G. Manion 1st AM, H. Glover 3rd AM, B. Reid Stocker T. Notley MM Serg. killed and G. Bock F. Serg’.
None of which is a great deal of help to me in clarifying its historical past. The history of this object is still obscure. In spite of my affempts and various other people puffing in much research on such history to clarify this, no reference of this object to my knowledge has ever appeared.
I also have another aged propeller; this one is also wooden but much smaller, measuring 78 inches from tip to tip, and is only two-bladed. Stamped around its hub is ‘HR A 110492/42’.