-4 THE WARTIME MOTORING EXPERIENCES 0
of Flight-Lieutenant T. A. D. CROOK This refreshing article describes some unusual motoring undertaken during this war, in cars ranging from a Fiat “500” to a “38,250” Mercedes-Benz, and gives readers an insight into what it is like to own one of the fastest road cars—Crook’s 2.9 litre twin-blower
Alfa-Romeo.—Ed. ET it first be stated that the only excuse I have for writing the notes
which follow is my -desire for MOTOR SPORT to continue publication for the duration and for evermore. I understand that the Editor requires as many reminiscences as possible, so here are mine.
My pre-war motoring in numerous Sports cars was probably attended by the same trials and tribulations as those experienced by fellow enthusiasts who have written previously in Moroa SPORT ; thus, having been fortunate to cover quite a good war-time mileage in interesting. ears (and other forms of transport I) the notes which follow will deal mainly with the period September, 1930, to December, 1943. During the summer of 1939 most of us felt that war was somewhat inevitable, and so, I suppose, I Was not alone in making the best of what must quite probably be the last sports.car, holiday for some time to come. The month of August, 1939, Saw foe revving around at maximum boost, and inflicting on the good, people of N. Wales the disgraceful shriek of my blown M.G. Magnette. A very few days before the declaration of
war the people of Llandudno were gratified to hear the last shriek of the Magnette, for, accompanied by illy inseparable friend and fellow-exit h usiast, Donald Cochrane (since killed flying in action in Malta) I rounded the Great Orme at a healthy 6,200 r.p.m. in second, in hot pursuit of a 3i-litre S.S. 100, the Owner of Which was staying at the same hotel. The shriek turned to a sullen rattle as we came to an abrupt halt. Hasty inspection revealed a large quantity Of XL in the radiator and an equally large quantity of II20 in the sump. Nor was water and oil alone in the sump ; it also contained two melted pistons, a crumpled con.-rod and some small pieces of metal purporting to be little-ends. Truly a sight for the squander bug, had he been hatched at that time ! Readers will note that I quite unblush ingly quote 0,20o and will be expecting to read of the grab rails, fulllength tonneau cover, St. Christopher badge, and all the other conceivable extras which usually make such engine speeds possible I Let it be said immediately, therefore, that this was no ordinary Magnette, being, as a matter of
fact, Doreen Evans’s ex-trials jab (BLL492) (three only of which were constructed by Bellevue Garage for Miss Evans, Denis Evans and Kenneth Evans), and which car, since leaving its birthplace, had been adorned—for better or for worse—with a large Marshall supercharger delivering upwards of 10 lb. per square inch boost. I acquired this car in Lancashire earlier that year, following ownership of various M.G.s, including .1.9, J.3, P, P13, L and Standard N types. This Evans Magnette proved the most reliable of all prior to the incident just described ; incidentally, whilst at Bellevue it. performed consistently Well during the 1935 season, when the three cars (BLL491, 13LL.492 and BLL493) were driven as a team. The main idea had been to keep the Ave igh t down by means of a very light hotly 6N I’:. sans doors, heavy seats, massive instrument boards and the like. The maximum speed when unblown, I ani told by Bellevue, was in the neighbourhood of 85 m.p.h.. and with the addition of the supercharger I timed the car at a little over 90 on one occasion. Considering tin’ moditicatians to the engine done at one time or another, induct ing complete balancing, high-lift camshaft, Scintilla Vertex magneto and striking starkness of bodywork (which could be, and On many Occasions was, dented by hand !), 90 m p.h. is no great maximum. The reason was, of course, a back axle ratio lower than standard, fitted for trials’ purposes. So that, to reach 90 m.p.h. the engine had to be whipped up to over the 6,000 r.p.m. mark. • At this gait it emitted a delightfully purposeful whine, and left the mark like a Nazi to the air
raid shelter, but was not calculated to ensure the continued operation of the moving parts for ever. The getaway of the Magnette was, truthfully, very impressive, and tests with a 2i-litre 5.5.100, and a 4.3-litre Alvis proved that the ,Magnette was always firSt, up to 70 m.p.h. Usually such purposeful acceleration was accompanied by much wheelspin, the shrieks of terrified women, bolting horses. barking dogs, policemen with notebooks, and all the fun of the fair ! But the acceleration was good, and the Magnette had been raced in the 100-mile race at Southport and other events. Incidentally, this car should be quite useful for speed trials. and I am considering modifying it further after the war, amongst other things linering the cylinders down to reduce the capacity to within 1,100 c.c., it being at present 1,287 c.c. (The engine is basically N-type.)
These are the thoughts which occur to me now, but craftily, and with the obvious approval of all Wales, did I then say, 1` Away to the scrap-heap, indeed to goodness ! ” The transfer to my home in Lancashire, on tow behind my sister’s Austin Investment, just beat the Fuehrer, and the Magnette was safely laid up before war broke out. The announcement of hostilities on the wireless coincided with my announcement to the family that I intended purchasifhor a Bugatti. I don’t think my mother knew exactly which was the more serious of the two blows, for experience with my first Bugatti (an elderly ” 2.3 “) was hardly one of reliable motoring. One long run, in fact, of ” I am going to be towed,” “On tow,” or “I mine here on tow, old boy,” and the family cars, invariably Austins, had always been the towers !
The arrival of war postponed the arrival of the Bugatti, however, and although I went into residence at Cambridge for the ‘Michaelmas term, 1939, I left to join the R.A.F. in October, 1939, enlisting at the time as a flight mechanic. By the time I had finished my disciplinary training, I found I would be able to keep a car on my station, provided it was one with good fuel consumption and of reasonably sober appearance. My eyes met those of my sister and she knew her Austin was about to join me on my travels ! Nothing could she do to prevent this, for I arrived suddenly on leave and requisitioned the Investment within a
few Minutes, travelling down to the neighbourhood of Bristol with a tremendous amount of luggage, amongst which was the Magnette’s supercharger surreptitiously concealed for later use ! On arriving at the camp, I fitted the blower (run at reduced revolutions to curtail the boost) which certainly made things bum, albeit the braking and roadholding of the Austin were quite in adequate for the startling rest-to-50 figures, and many were the phenomenal avoidances. The acceleration, inciden tally, startled one of our instructors, who searchingly inquired where the power came from, and to whom I reified that his instructing me on the tuning of
” Ke itrels ” and ” Merlins ” had Dixoaised me ! I did not know exactly bow long the bearings and crankshaft of the Austin would stand up to the boost, but, having a shrewd idea, I removed the blower before I undertook two longish runs—
one on leave to Lancashire. the sepond on posting to an O.T.U. Furthermore, I was running on the basic ration mainly then, and economy superseded enthusiasm. Tne blower was never refitted to the Austin, for early in 1940 I discovered I was due to proceed overseas at short notice. I truly thought motoring of any description had disappeared, and so I applied for leave petrol—and got it—for seven days’ embarkation leave. I decided I should spend half the leave in London and the rest at my home in Lancashire. The London idea seemed very popular with five other airmen also, who unhesitatingly loaded full overseas kit and themselves into the long-suffering Austin in si it” of the protesting springs, which were always giving trouble anyway. Upon arrival in town I espied Don Cochrane motoring towards Marble An h in his T-t ype M.G. I stopped him, and it was arranged that I should spend the first part of my leave with him, and that. we should then go up to my home. It was decided to use the M.G. for that journey and to dump the Austin for later collection by my sister. The dumping of the Austin and the airmen happened outside the ” Cumberland,” and a Oft of clothing parade took place, much to the amusement of onlookers, whilst all the kit, which had been thrown in regardless of ownership., was sorted out. A memory of this was brought back on board ship when it was discovered that scarcely any of’ us had our own khaki shirts and shorts, and when the order to Put on tropical kit was issued, the sight was fit for publication in Punch! It was on my way out to the Middle East, too, that I suddenly discovered that I had left. the Austin in a London garage, but had retained the ignition key and door key and garage ticket. I later learnt that my sister had entered and started the car with a little hairpin manipulation,
only to be stopped at one of the invasion control stops, where a policeman discovered a pair of airman’s pants and an B.A.F. greatcoat in the car, which took some explaining. After a day in London, Cochrane and I set out for Lancashire in the M.G., but it was not until late evening that we had got going, and we were further delayed in Nottingham, en route, partly due to a choked carburetter, and partly due to the fact that the ale houses were still open. It was not until 11.30 p.m. that we got going again from Nottingham, and be tween there and Derby there was a sharp sizzling smell which brought us to an abrupt halt. This might have been one of two things, (a) an electrical fault, or (b) the fish and chips scattered all over the car might have touched something
hot. Armed with this fault-finding table we drew up, and discovered that the whole electrical system had packed up. Unfortunately it was pitch dark and we had no _ torch, so that the arrival of a light in the distance was considered something of a godsend. On drawing level with us, however, and being called to assist, there was one terrified shriek to the effect that the rider did not talk to strange men, and Eve passed on her way with her light. A second cyclist, however, was braver and, after informing us that it was ” :Mad Elizabeth ” who had just passed, she loaned us her light, and a loose battery connection was discovered. Much time had been wasted, so it was decided to ring up home and herald my approach. But leaning against the side of the first ‘phone box we reached was a lady’s cycle, and inside the box was ” liad Elizabeth,” doubtless ‘phoning the police. On the arrival of the :M.G. she gave another terrified shriek, seized her bicycle and motored away, disj laying considerable acceleration on the getaway.
I learnt over the ‘phone that a telegram awaited me at home, instructing me to return to unit by rei.eille, so we had to turn round and give up all idea of the Lancashire run, and concentrate on returning to camp. Fortunately the M.G. ran .very well and I arrived with about 20 minutes to spare. I was able to use the M.G. for the journey to the dispatch centre, and Cochrane kindly let me drive the whole way.
After some while at a base in Egypt I was posted to the desert, and opportunity of further motoring seemed to rapidly disappear.
After several months had passed, however, I was returned to a base again and seized the opportunity of buying a car, as a drowning man seizes a straw (or dinghy !). In Egypt, in 1940 and 1941, cars were still cheap enough and petrol was approximately ten piastres (about two shillings) a gallon. and was unrationed ! My first car in Egypt was a rather ancient (1027) Ballot, which had an enormous body on it, which, although possessed of but little urge (it would scarcely reach 50 m.p.h.), served me well for trips to Cairo and back. Inevitably this car was overloaded with leave-seekers, and hardly a mile was covered with less than six people aboard.
Such overloading, however. was nothing compared with the lima er of persons carried in the local inhabitants cars, which usually had at least four further persons clinging to the running boards. On arrival at Cairo one afternoon the Ballot was rammed by a taxi which came out of a side turning at peak revs. From the running boards of the taxi leapt seven angry Egyptians, and for the next few minutes a further six squeezed through the doors until we were on the one hand 13 Egyptians, and on the other hand six airmen, all talking at once and estimating repairs to our chariots. Immediately a large crowd developed, as always happened, and the occasion was converted into a general demand for ” baksheesh” from a further dozen persons, who obviously had just arrived and had no connection with the affair whatever. Eventually I weeded out the actual driver and owner of the taxi—one Abdul—and tried to force an agreement before sun
down ! Ills estimate for repair to the wing of the taxi was 215 (Egyptian), but after a little persuasion this was reduced by 21 per step, until eventually he appeared delighted to accept 50 piastres (ten shillings) to tow the Ballot into a garage and forget about his dented wing.’ My car was towed away by Abdul amid loud cheers, but the general argument was still going strong when we left ! Repairs to the Ballot were estimated at 210 by the garage, but mercifully this expenditure was never made, as I was posted back to -the desert again very shortly after the incident, and sold the car as it stood.
I often saw Abdul again when I returned to Cairo some months later. He was rather a good type, being always able to deal with ticklish transport considerations after our evening celebrations in Cairo. At Christmas I gave him a box of cigarettes, which pleased him greatly, and he Showered the blessings of Allah upon me, telling me that I would soon be rewarded for my kindness. The next time I saw him I was commissioned, and Abdul immediately seized upon the opportunity of informing me that Allah had rewarded me.
On commissioning and returning to the Western Desert I was, amongst my usual duties, also entrusted with the care of the squadron transport, and was able to drive everything from a Coles crane to a dispatch rider’s motor-cycle. Full use was made of this opportunity, and I drove some very interesting vehicles indeed. One such machine was a Dodge fitted with alternative drive at will on either the front wheels, and back wheels, or all four wheels. This machine could do anything but cook ! It was very handy for use in loose sand, and, if I remember rightly, had seven forward speeds and three reverse.
During mOvements of my unit I was later able to use a 10-11.p. HarleyDavidson motor-cycle, and this was most exciting. It is a heavy bike, of course, and was rather tricky on loose sand. Once one had mastered the foot clutch (press to engage) and the amount of throttle to give on the getaway, however, it was certainly a great thrill to drive. No speedometer was fitted, but on the main desert road I must have touched 80 m.p.h. on one occasion. The springing was most comfortable and I, personally, liked very much the upright riding Position and cradle handlebars.
In 1941 I was in hospital for nearly two months. On admission I found that one of the orderlies, an Italian prisoner of war, was an ex-Ferrari mechanic, but he did not speak sufficiently good English to be conversed with. After leaving hospital and receiving three weeks’ sick leave, I decided to purchase another car to take with me. This took the form of a very well-kept 1937 Chevrolet coupe, which I purchased in Ismailia, and which showed considerable urge, although I do not, in general, like the driving qualities of American ears. I used this car for my leave, and travelled all the way to Palestine and back in it without a moment’s trouble. Mostly I held 65-70 m.p.h. on the speedometer on all the straight stretches, and took the twisty mountainous roads and passes near Jerusalem with great eclat. I
visited Tel-a-V iv , Haifa, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and Jaffa, amongst other places, in this Chevrolet, and in the three weeks covered nearly 2,000 miles. The petrol consumption worked out at exactly 20 m.p.g.
Coming back from Cairo to Alexandria in this car on the last day of my leave, I encountered a heavy sandstorm which reduced visibility to practically nil for about 25 miles. On inspecting the engine in Alexandria it resembled a sand pie, but a good air cleaner was fitted, and after cleaning this out and generally washing down the car, it seemed none the worse.
I left the Chevrolet with a charming Greek family in Alexandria, whom I was now very friendly with, and I used to allow friends going to Alexandria from the desert to use the car during their leave. Regrettably, one friend overdid a corner and turned over. That was a had thing, especially as he had the rather beautiful daughter of the house with him at the time, which double tragedy left me quite irritated ! I was unable to get down from the desert to view the damage, but, from his description of the accident, and remark that ” it was quite bent, old boy I “1 had a fair idea of what to expect.
About this time I had the opportunity of driving a few captured enemy vehicles, in addition to numerous Allied service trucks. One such enemy vehicle was the famous Volkswagen, which was fitted out as a sort of transport-cum-sleeping-berth (doubtless for some brass bat), but which had a very poor performance when I tried it. I once set out at dusk to visit another squadron but a few miles off, in a Chevrolet 3-tonner. A.sandstorm developed and it got very dark. I set off back to my own unit and get completely lost, so much so that after travelling round for about two hours the Chevrolet ran out of petrol and I had to spend the night in the cab. Nights in the desert can be pretty cold, too, and I had only a shirt and shorts on. I swore loudly, therefore, when, on waking up, I discovered I was within sight of my own tent Several opportunities arose during
quiet periods of driving trucks down to Alexandria for exchange. Perhaps the most pleasant of these was a run in a light Ford wireless van, with the radio playing some swing music and the thought of the first bath for some months rapidly becoming a reality !
Leave came round again at last, and I had one look at my Chevrolet coupe, and my worst fears were confirmed. The thing was so much scrap-iron, the engine being pushed back about half a foot; that I disposed of it immediately. The dealer in Alexandria to whom I sold it, however, had a very line-looking specimen of shortchassis supercharged 2-seater MercedesBenz in his window. I therefore cheered up quite a lot. This car was for sale at 2150 Egyptian (the Egyptian pound being a little below sterling then). I am ashamed to say that I do not know the actual type of that car, not being well versed in Mercedes numbers, but it was the 40-h.p. affair, with the blower engaging on full depression of the throttle. (Presumably a “88/250,” rated at 37 h.p. —ED.} I think it had been owned by a naval officer, or was subsequently purchased by one. Eventually I persuaded the dealer to hire me this car for the period of my leave. A goodly deposit and fantastic hire price had to be left, but the enormous amount of real driving I had with the Mercedes throughout my week’s leave certainly made it worth while. Intending to go up to Palestine again, I set off almost immediately, and once out on the Alexandria-to-Cairo desert road I immediately wound the speedometer up to the 100 m.p.h. mark. That Mercedes could go, and I made Cairo in no time. Shortly before reaching Cairo I picked up an army officer whom I had last seen at the 1938 Donington Grand Prix, thus demonstrating what a small world this k. 1 v,avc him a lift into Cairo, screaming past convoys to the obvious envy of the les fortunate types in the lorries, and he at once expressed his desire to spend his leave with the Mercedes and me. We decided to stay that night at Cairo, he having booked a room at the Mena House. and we suitably
discovered once more how expensive a night out in Cairo can be ; at ” Shepheards ” or the “Metropolitan Dug Out,” for instance The Mercedes caused a considerable stir amongst the troops in the capital, and quite a crowd gathered when it was being garaged.
A very fine three days was spent in Palestine, the Mercedes performing wonderfully well. Including the drive from Alexandria to Palestine, and the running about in Palestine, and the return run, we topped a goodly mileage. I forget the actual mileage we did eat up, but vividly recall that the petrol consumption was about 8 m.p.g.! Not being bothered with rationing, it was merely a question of how long the piastres would last out which governed our mileage on that trip. The highest speed touched (in the speedometer was between 105 and 110 m.p.h. This felt like a very genuine “century,” although possibly, not having driven at that speed since some two years before, I might have over-rated the Mercedes. The car seemed in good condition, anyway, and emitted a delightful screech when the blower was cut in.
The journey to Palestine was uneventful enough, my friend and I driving 50-50 all the way, this being agreed upon on my suggesting that he should pay for half the petrol. The petrol gauge being graduated in Continental fashion, fullhalf-quarter-empty, we found it better to drive for a quarter of a tank each than to take any accurate mileages from the mileometer and when we got going properly the passenger could almost see the gauge going down ! On the return journey I had the same experience as I had had with the Chevrolet, for a simply outsize sandstorm rolled up, and things got most unpleasant. The Mercedes had no hood or sidescreens, and personal discomfort became acute. There being no sign of life for many miles along that route, we decided to go on in order not to be completely buried ! A crate of beer bottles under the tonneau became speedily empty as we wetted our parched throats. At about 11 p.m. the storm got so much worse and the wind rose to gale force, that we were to a large extent comforted to find a broken-down stone-house, such as one often finds in the most out-ofthe-way places. This was literally no more than four broken walls, sans roof, and into this shelter we drove the Mercedes on the leeward side, and prepared for the night, putting all the clothes on which we had with us, and tying socks round the air intakes of the car. The wind howled all night, and the protection of the wall was but little compared with the amount of sand blowing in. When morning came, a great heap of sand had almost completely blocked the narrow entrance, and the wind showed no sign of abating. It was impossible to get the car out, as we were not Monte Carlo-Rally equipped, and as quickly as we cleared the entrance so it piled up again. So we were forced to wait until the wind went down. Both of us were darned hungry, and the few remaining sandwiches we had were 50 per cent. sand anyway. A veritable story-book situation seemed to be imminent, and we were considering making a log of our trials and hardships, which would be found years later and published in Mown SPORT !-
when the storm went down as quickly as it had arisen. So that by approximately 2 p.m. the sun was shining and we set to work to clear the entrance. This took about two hours, and would probably have taken longer had not my army friend been due back at his unit that same night. A small bet was made as to whether the Mercedes would start or not. I said it would not, and winning the pint on this occasion was of but little comfort, for the car practically had to be decoked before it fired. The whole engine seemed to be literally clogged up with sand, as well as every nook and cranny of the bodywork.
By 6 p.m. we came out from our enforced “pit stop” hungry as hunters, sullen as storm troopers. “You could hear the grating of the sand against the pistons,” said my army friend later that night (which statement was, I believe, entered in his unit’s “Line Book.”).
The Mercedes made grand time to El Kantara, where we stopped for refreshment and a much-needed bath, and from there on to Cairo the speedometer was seldom below 75 m.p.h. I dropped the Army in Cairo, and stayed there myself overnight, setting out for Alexandria at about three o’clock the following afternoon, having washed down the Mercedes and refilled the tank. Several times the speedometer passed the 100 mark, and I whined past convoys with great glee. The road from Cairo to Alexandria (which they call the desert road) is almost straight. Just after passing the half-way mark, where there is a hotel of sorts, and an army sign reading ” It’s better to arrive late than in pieces,” an offside tyre burst, with the speedometer reading just below 90 m.p.h. After a series of phenomenal avoidances between a Jeep and a medium-sized tank, I slithered off the road, coming to rest about 60 yards away in soft sand. The Mercedes was well and truly stuck, and the tank had to be requisitioned to pull it out. Fortunately no damage occurred, so a repetition of an argument similar to the one with Abdul was unlikely to arise. The army officer in the tank expressed his desire to drive the Mercedes, and drove away at speed in it, mastering the gearchange immediately, very expertly, whilst I had my first taste of driving a tank in exchange This was quite thrilling after one got used to it, but it left me with a sort of aggravated St. Vitus dance for the next few days, a state of affairs the M.O. was quite unable to diagnose. That run in the Mercedes was quite my most thrilling drive in the Middle East. It may have been equalled, however, when, just before being posted home, I met a Greek enthusiast who promised me a ride in a blown Alfa-Romeo which had been sent up from Eritrea. The car was not ready when I returned to the desert, but it so happened that I would be able to fly down to Alexandria at that time, and when I received my friend’s letter to say the Alfa-Romeo was cracking, it neatly coincided with such an opportunity. On approaching to land at an aerodrome near Alexandria we noticed some form of parade in progress on the ground. As we taxied in, several officers ran towards, us, for apparently an important personage was arriving by air, and the arrival of our Lysander was in
some mysterious way connected with the affair. On discovering who was aboard they ordered us to taxi well out of sight! The incident was most unfortunate, for in our eagerness to disappear we practically covered the parade with clouds of sand from our slip stream, which must have made us most unpopular !
I had only a short while to spend sampling the Alfa-Romeo, but on the Alexandria to Cairo road a truly remarkable velocity was reached.
There was a lamentable lack of fast sports machinery in Egypt, the majority of the sports cars there being well-worn and weary. In addition to that Mercedes and the Alfa-Romeo, I saw a 1 Fare Bugatti—possibly a Type 37A—(at any rate a 4-cylinder blown job) which sounded very well. In Ismailia there were two ancient Laneias and a Lea-Francis. I also met several 1,100-c.c. Fiats, one of which was supposed to have been driven in the Tobruk-Tripoli race, but that I very much doubt.
An R.A.F. flight-lieutenant of my acquaintance had a fairly new green T-type_ M.G. which went well, and the Group Captain Station Commander at one of the base stations had a T-type M.G. coupe finished in light grey.
Another friend purchased an elderly Amilear whilst on leave from the desert, and spent much time spraying it bright red, overlooking the fact that only the King of Egypt (and possibly other Royalty) are permitted to use a red car. His first drive through a local village was something of a silly symphony, for there was absolute pandemonium, the amazed locals being possibly unable to decide whether he was the King, or whether he should be arrested for his impertinence I don’t remember him clearly stating which was the most embarrassing, but the car was quickly re-sprayed opalescent blue.
Whilst in Egypt, on return from the Western Desert, and awaiting transfer to England, I had an opportunity of viewing a number of sand yachts constructed by various Air Force enthusiasts in peacetime. Most of them were very neatly made affairs, and showed much ingenuity. All were the same in principle, incorporating an old car chassis with crab track wheels. Most were 2-seaters, driver in front and passenger in rear holding the sail. This was a most interesting afternoon for me, for I used to do some sandyachting myself whilst at my preparatory school in Parkgate, Cheshire, where a number of such yachts were constructed for the use of the boys.
Amongst the fastest in the world must be the Cairo-Heliopolis trams, which always appear to travel flat out and are invariably packed to capacity with hitchhikers clinging to the sides and jumping on and off whenever they please, with remarkable skill. It was quite a frequent occurrence, incidentally, for a small boy to jump on the tram, clean your shoes, and then jump off again, for the sum of half-piastre (about a penny). Another interesting feature is the Cairo to Helwan railway, which is a diesel train and goes very fast. For the suni of five piastres a friend find I drove one of these from lidwan to to Cairo, with the complete approval of the railway authorities.
An amazing sight. was to be Seen during the blitz on Alexandria, for most of the workpeople used to leave Alexandria and sleep in nearby fields and villages when things got hot. The evening trains from Alexandria to the suburbs were, during that time, absolutely packed, and about 100natives per carriage were sitting on the roof, complete with full kit.
On my way back to this country in 1942 I Vitii LCA Durban and Capet0W11. and the hospitality shown to British troops of all ranks is marvellous. In 1942 petrol rationing in South Africa had just been brought in, but, even So, quite a fair basic allowance was given, and immediately the ship docked crowds of cars would assemble, and offers were made ‘ to take us wherever we wished. Whilst I was with my squadron in the Western Desert I had the pleasure of meeting a large number of South Africans whose squadron was operating nearby, and. having found them such extraordinarily nice chaps, it was no surprise to find their homes and families just as hospitable. In Capetown I walked into .a bookshop to get a motor paper, and an enthusiast immedkttely introduced himself and offered to drive me to the Grand Prix course, which I had never seen. He was running a 3-litre ” Red Label ” Bentley, and introduced me to his friends, owners of a “30/98 ” Vauxhall, a J.2 M.G. fitted with a blower, a Sunbeam, and a FrazerNash. This meeting was most pleasant. Iwas admirably entertained, and visited
the Table Mountain and other places of interest, and also SAW one of their films taken at the last South African Grand Prix. Arrived in England, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a car which I have long been interested in, and which must be one of the fastest and most potent road ears in the country, was now for sale. I refer to Robert Arbuthnot’s 2.9-litre short-ehassis Alfa-Romeo. As this car was written about, and briefly roadtested by Cecil Clutton, in MOTOR SPORT for January. 1942, it will be unnecessary for me to go into the full details of its design, a design which in any case is now well known, the engine being the same as that used in the monoposto Alfas of the
1985. season, One such inonoposto (now the property of Kenneth Evans) having won the 1935 German Grand Prix with Nuvolari conducting. There are only two short-chassis 2-seaters of’ this actual type in this country, Robert Arbuthnot’s, now my property, and Hugh 11 unter’S. As is very well known by now, Minter’s car won the 1938 Milk Miglia at record speed in the hands of Biondetti, that being the last Mule Miglia to be held in Italy. Robert Arbuthnot sold the car to Townley, of Barton Motors (Preston, Lancs.), and Townley only ran it for a few miles before selling it to me. I have been able to cover about 3,000 war-time miles in it,. and it has come up to all expectations. Apart from the terrific acceleration and high maximum speed (Arbuthnot has reached 130 in it) the roadholding and cornering qualities are other excellent features, it being fitted with independent suspension on all four wheels. For those who did not read Clutton’s article or my notes in The Autocar (Deceinber 18th, 1942) the car is a straight-eight (two blocks of four separately, in line), with twin overhead camshafts driven from the centre, two Roots superchargers (one for each block of four cylinders), twin carburetters (Italian Webers), and a capacity of 2,904 c.c. (R.A.C. rating 23 h.p.). The gearbox is in unit with the back axle. The wheelbase (hub to hub) is 8 ft. 10 in., and that of Hunter’s is 9 ft. 2 in. Hunter and I are rather perplexed about the 4 in. difference. Possibly mine has at some time hit a solid object and shrunk, alternatively Hunter’s car, in winning the Mille Miglia and various speed trials, might have stretched in its hurry ! Hunter’s car i8 fitted with lighter bodywork than mine (although I have weighed mine and it weighs less than 1 cwt. more), with two spare wheels and running beards and full squab Seats, etc.). When Arbuthnot had this Alfa it was tuned and maintained by Ramponi, and although entered for the 1939 Le Mans 24-hour race, was not actually rated, and has not yet been used in competition. On purchasing, I collected the Alfa in Preston one Saturday afternoon in may, 1942. It performed exceedingly well, even on Pool petrol, and made short work of the distance from Preston to my objective in Lincoln, although I kept the engine-speed well in hand, the car being new to me and the petrol obviously not
ideal. On the way down to Lincoln I passed a truck full of Italian prisoners. They cheered like mad as I passed and almost fell off in their enthusiasm to have a good look. This was the first occasion
on which I had passed any Italians in the car. I noticed the same procedure on every subsequent occasion, both whilst driving the Alfa and my 1,100-e.c. Fiat. One Sunday afternoon, whilst whining down Ermine Street towards Lincoln at
a reasonably good velocity, the twin Italian NVeber petrol pumps decided to let it be known that they were of Axis manufacture and do a little sabotage. This resulted in considerable over-heating due to fuel starvation. I parked the car in Lincoln to investigate. This was the first time I had done so in a public garage, and I was quite surprised at the resultant stir. Practically 50 per cent. of the Forces in a cinema queue left the queue to look at the Alfa, for instance, and when I returned to the garage after making a ‘phone call, the car was completely surrounded and two people were actually sitting in it and waggling the gear-lever to and fro. Others had the bonnet open examining the guts. The attendant who had been instructed to keep people off told me he was powerless to stop it. As the petrol pumps were very inaccessible, I had to leave the car overnight before .working on it. The whole car looked like being very badly scratched if I left it as it was, however, so I Covered it with a tonneau cover, wired down the bonnet, and hoped for the best. Even this did not deter the more adventurous enthusiasts, for on returning the following evening the camouflage had been disturbed, the bonnet unwired, and the ignition switch left ” on.” The hitter did not matter, fortunately, as the ignition is by Scintilla magneto ; had it been coil it would probably have long since burnt out, for wherever the car was left it was invariably tampered with. I attached a bomb pin to the key, later (with the usual warning notice !), but this only deterred the very young, and brought much derision from some A.T.C. cadets. I got the two petrol pumps off, after much difficulty, they being placed awkwardly just in front of the scuttle and low down on the near side, behind the superchargers. One pump required an expert overhaul, and as I could do nothing about that. locally, and did not feel like leaving the Alfa in the garage much longer. I contacted Robert Arbuthnot, who collected the car h few days later. The Alfa was laid up for many months before it was on the road again, as High Speed Motors fitted new pistons and made further modifications at the same time. The two Weber pumps were dropped in favour of twin S.U.s, and I have had no further mixture troubles. This is perhaps as well, for this particular Alfa model must be run at the exactly correct mixture, for, if run too weak, it is liable to crack the blocks, the water flow being Very narrow, and upwards of £200 damage can be done very quickly ! The brief runs I had been able to do in this car in 1942, coupled with a good mileage on a friend’s 2.3 ” before the war, and my short run in Egypt, con verted me into a disciple of the marque, and I felt very lost without the car when it was taken away for overhaul. So much so that I visited High Speed Motors whenever possible to gaze on the car in
various stages of overhaul, thus familiarising myself thoroughly with the various components. Hugh Hunter (who has always been most useful in giving me all possible information about “2.9s “) and I started a lengthy correspondence about our cars in 1942, which we still continue regularly,
and which is most entertaining. I also correspond regularly with a Mr. Dale, a British Alfa enthusiast in Egypt, whom I hope to meet, as he is coming to England this year.
In June, 1942, Hugh was still running his Alfa on the remainder of the basic, and he invited me to spend the week-end with him and try it. Considering that the car was about to be laid up for the duration, this was most generous of him. During my drive in his car I was indeed glad to note that its performance felt approximately the same as my own, although, of course, whilst being used in competition, he was using a set of higher compression pistons than those fitted when I was driving. I had felt that his car, being specially constructed for the Mille Anglia, might have been quite different from mine. It was also most interesting to see his numerous cinema films and to recall thereby his 328 FrazerNash-B.M.W. and 2-litre Alta.
On leaving my own Alfa at High Speed Motors, I decided to purchase a motorcycle for getting about on. Following my experience with the Harley-Davidson abroad, I felt that such a machine, could one be found in good condition, would suit me very well. Tony Birch, now with Robert Arbuthnot, found one for me, but the tyres were in very poor shape, and as no new ones could be obtained, I purchased a New Imperial instead. Although slow compared with the HarleyDavidson, of course, this machine was quite nippy and had a comfortable spring frame, so was very nice to ride (whenever I could stay on the thing !). I was staying with Hunter again at the time and rode the bike down to his home in Esher. On the following Monday morning I followed him in his ” 500 ” Fiat along the Kingston by-pass, when I got into a wobble, and instead of passing in true Stanley Woods style as expected, I very soon became airborne. The whole incident was viewed by Hugh in his driving mirror, and was apparently very spectacular. The net result was the loss of one R.A.F. uniform, and cuts and bruises. But I was able to get on again, as the bicycle was not damaged beyond a few dents, and proceeded to Bellevue garage, where Denis Evans (who only the previous day, at Hugh’s, had prophesied my early downfall !) supervised some very fine first-aid work. I struggled back the 130-odd miles to Lincoln, courage returning gradually with every mile, but I felt very stiff and sorry the next morning. The bike was treated with great respect for the next few weeks and served me well for local runs. I used it throughout the winter, but regrettably had two further accidents, (a) avoiding a jaywalker among the Saturday night crowds in Lincoln, and (b) avoiding the squadron
dog on ice, and on both occasions more uniform was ruined, but I was O.K., as was the bike. I used to feel the cold acutely after each run, it being my first winter back home, and as I was sleeping in a hut in camp, the coke fire of which was always attended by some technical hitch, I
put two under-sump heaters in a trunk under my bed every night, with surprising results ! Life was by this time enlivened by the addition to the squadron of my sister,
who had joined the W.A.A.F. as an M.T. driver, and could be seen dieing round the perimeter track with great verve and enthusiasm by day and night. In early 1943 I became convinced that I was not a top-line motor-cyclist, and
as coupons for uniforms were becoming short:, and the Alfa was nearly ready, I put the bike aside, and waited for completion of the Alfa with increasing anticipation. In May, 1943, the great moment arrived, and Hugh Hunter arranged to meet me at the R.A.C. after collecting the car. The increasing number of Americans in London showed great enthusiasm for the Alfa, and we Opened the ” hood ” several times for them to inspect the engine. On setting out for Lincoln, however, we had gone but a few miles when the Scintilla Vertex magneto seized, possibly due to the car being laid up so long, and the journey had to be postponed. Robert Arbuthnot had this quickly fixed, and we got going two days later, and had a very good run to Lincoln, albeit engine speed had to be kept low, due to new pistons. Cruising along gently displayed once more how tractable the ” 2.9 ” is, it being unnecessary to change gear even whilst toddling through crowded streets, if the mood so directs. We stopped at Stevenage for one night on the way, spending an enjoyable evening with John Appleton, and I had the opportunity of viewing the Appleton Special before leaving. (How different it is to see this potent machine on blocks and the car-splitting exhaust note -absent for once !) I used the Alfa throughout the summer of 1943 and it proved most reliable. It always starts straight away with two shots of Ki-gass, and seems to like the newer red tetra-lead-ethyl Pool petrol better than the former issue. I used One per cent. light engine oil in the petrol tn assist the lubrication of the blowers, and
a double dose of upper cylinder lubricant. In August, 1943, I had a little trouble with the transmission, which necessitated fitting a new sleeve. This was sent to High Speed Motors, and was back again within a few days, which is good going
considering their essential war-time work. The petrol consumption at touring speeds is quite amazingly small. Running from
my lodgings to camp it was only necessary to wind the hand throttle in a couple of turns to make the Alfa travel the whole way at 2,000 r.p.m., when one could almost sit with hands in poekebi. I used to leave the car outside my fiat in Lincoln sometimes, and through the
open window, concealed behind curtains, my wife and I could hear the remarks of passers-by. All turned round to look at the Alfa, and statistics showed that one in four paused to examine it more closely.
Some onlookers could not understand the presence of one dial reading 240 (this being the speedometer calibrated in kilometres per how), and another reading 69 (r.p.m. by 100), and there were many queries as to whether the car would do 00 m.p.h. or 240 m.p.h.! I was always waylaid by dozens of airmen going on pass, and they used to book up and reserve a place weeks ahead. During last summer I was in London and drove Arbuthnnt’s 1,100-c.c. Fiat, when accompanying him on an essential run. In October, 1943, it was beginning to get cold in Lincolnshire, and as the Alfa was being used on a number of short journeys and was unable to reach its correct running temperature quickly enough (it takes about ten miles to warm up thoroughly, having dry sump and five gallons of oil contained in a rear tank) I decided to put the car away % I then collected one of Arbuthnot’s 1,100-c.c. Fiats. Mine is a 1940 saloon, and goes extremely well, starting and warming up Instantaneously and being very lively on the getaway. Approximately 50 or more is available in third gear, and the acceleration is good, as is, of course, the petrol consumption. The speedometer goes right off the dial (which reads to 80 m.p.h.) in a very short time. My Fiat has a highcompression head, and as it has been carefully tuned, I imagine it can reach about 75 m.p.h. (I do not know the actual speedometer error). I recall that one of these cars was road-tested at 72 m.p.h. pre-war. The engine revs, like fury, and it has said good-bye to two local ‘l’-type M.G.s. I normally drive the car at very reduced speed, of course, and the petrol consumption, as I have said, is very creditable. Certainly I prefer my Fiat to any English car of similar capacity and first cost. The independent front-wheel
suspension and excellent fluid brakes are other features which I admire. The visibility is excellent, due to the sloping bonnet, although the fact that the windscreen is permanently closed is a snag in foggy weather, as I have discovered in the last few weeks. I recently took my Fiat on leave to Lancashire and it performed very well. The only trouble so far was with the dynamo, the commutator of which went west. However, 48 hours after ‘phoning High Speed Motors another was here and fitted. I intend to slightly increase the charge during the winter months.
In October, 1943, life was enlivened at the aerodrome by the arrival of one, Alan Skerman, together with John Hay. These two enthusiasts rolled up in a 41litre Bentley, which had been much modified, including the subtraction of roughly a font from the wheelbase and the addition of twin rear wheels. They had discovered the Bentley in a field, and were transferring it to London for storage. My aerodrome was fortunately exactly on the route, so they were able to attend a squadron party, and view the Alfa, at the same time. Due to the fact that they were only granted petrol for moving the car, I was unable to drive it, but it looked very well as it left the camp and accelerated away. Up to December, 1943, I had only on brief occasions sampled a 500-c.c. Fiat. I drove Hunter’s little ” mouse ” when I was staying with him on several occasions, but until December had never undertaken a long journey on such a car. It was, therefore, pleasant to be able to drive a friend’s car from London to Lincoln in December, this car being for use in Lincoln. It was a 1937 example, rather worn and weary, but I set off from London at lunch-time and, after getting
used to the various weird noises which apparently meant nothing, I had a good trouble-free run, arriving at the aerodrome by tea-time. The petrol consumption of these ears is well known to be excellent. The particular model I drove must have been extraordinary, for I went mile after mile and the fuel seemed to remain at exactly the same level. The narrow width of the “500” was most useful in overtaking convoys on the Great North Road and in traffic, and they certainly must be a valuable war-time possession with the current petrol rationing in force.
The Alfa is still in Lincoln, well laid up in a lock-up garage ; I also have a Rudge motor-cycle which I intend to set about reconditioning if ever I have the time, and which was purchased quite reasonably. The New Imperial has now been sold and is still running well.
There are two cars which I am looking out for and wish to purchase. I refer, first, to a 328 Frazer-Nash-B.M.W., which marque I have driven some mileage but never actually owned. Should any of your readers know of one of these cars at a reasonable price, I should be interested to hear of it. Secondly, I would like to own one of the special superstreamlined 1,1007c.e. Fiat saloons, the 2-seater type with pointed back which was introduced just before the war, and road-tested in the Motor. I should be very pleased to hear of one of these for sale. Both are for post-war use.
Finally, as the Alfa is laid up in Lincoln, it occurs to Me that enthusiasts stationed near Lincoln might like to view it. Provided I am stationed here still, I should be pleased to show it to anyone who rings me up at Lincoln 8365, and would entertam them as far as my limited time and war-time difficulties permit.