Cars I Have Not Owned

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Here, as a change from “Cars I Have Owned”, Alan Southon, whose vintage H.E. was recently described in “Motor Sport,” writes from the trade angle, of some ancient and modern cars he has driven and worked on. – Ed.

I have owned less than half-a-dozen cars during the past eighteen years and therefore I am not able to contribute an article under the more familiar heading; but I have, during that time, driven a very large number and variety of cars (over 120 different types), during my association with the motor trade, first as an ordinary mechanic and later as a workshop foreman.

I must confess that I approach the subject of writing about motor cars with some trepidation, as in the past I have been rather caustic about the series “Cars I have Owned.” Some I found very interesting and instructive, some even humorous, while others have, unfortunately, been written in very bad taste, in which sentences such as: “I next bought a Soandso 2-litre, but on the way home the engine did not like 10,000 r.p.m. and blew-up’ “; “The car was a beast and I sold it shortly afterwards,” etc., appear all too frequently. Anyway, for better or for worse, I will comment on some of the more sporting types that came my way all too infrequently.

When I left school I was earmarked for the aircraft industry. Unfortunately, owing to the depression then prevalent (1927), my apprenticeship to a firm of repute did not materialise and I entered the motor trade instead, being apprenticed to a small workshop in my home town.

This garage was catering for a fairly elderly type of customer and also attended to the requirements of a well-known family hotel; association with “The Sport” was rare. The workshop was, however, well equipped and I was undoubtedly lucky in that respect.

We were, at that time, agent for A.C. cars and I was more or less brought up on them. I had dealings with both the 4 and 6-cylinder models of early and late vintage up to 1930, and to my mind the 1928 2-litre “Six” was, and still is, one of the most pleasant cars to drive. I refer to the standard two-seater of that period. This particular model, with the tall radiator and disc wheels, was a very pleasing car to look at. It possessed good performance and was quite comfortable, was well appointed, and had a type of hood that one man could raise and lower single-handed. The last-named, combined with wind-up windows of safety glass sunk into either side of the body, made the car exceptionally warm in cold weather. I have driven various editions of this type for hundreds of miles and always found a quiet satisfaction in the way they handled.

The 1928 model was better than its predecessor with the low radiator and sloping bonnet, and in my opinion, better than its successor, “The Magna,” which was fitted with a bigger body and Rudge wire wheels.

All the 6-cylinder A.C.s round about 1928-30 were basicly the same, although there was one I came across with an aluminium head in which the valves seated direct on to the alloy, only the sparking plugs having inserts. This type did not appear to have any snags and the valve seats did not give any trouble.

True, the 6-cylinder cars did suffer from star-wheel failure in the differential, pieces breaking off the wheels and wrecking the bronze worm wheel, but providing attention was paid to the lubrication of the combined gearbox and rear axle and the assembly filled only with Price’s “Motorine Amber Gear Oil A,” no trouble was experienced with the worm drive. Nearly all the failures in this department were caused by the incorrect lubricant. The suspension was peculiar, being quarter-elliptic at the front as well as at the rear, but with the shock-absorbers stiffened up the car was steady enough. A weak point in an otherwise well-designed engine was the water pump mounted at the front of the overhead camshaft, the gland of which frequently leaked and allowed water to drain into the sump. The pump also had a habit of shearing off its shaft at the coupling, and boiling resulted almost at once.

Apart from the Solex carburetter that was standard on the earlier cars, the later-type engine was fitted with a very successful Stromberg, a feature of which was that you could regulate the fuel-level in the float chamber without disassembly, by means of an adjustable collar at the top of the float needle, consisting of a lock-nut and screw with screwdriver slot. A window or plug was provided in the side of the float chamber through which the fuel-level could be viewed. It is the only type of carburetter I have seen in which the float-chamber level could be adjusted in this manner. Another type of carburetter fitted was the Zenith 104-1/2, a type not met with before or since.

Fairly extensive runs on one of the little known 1 1/2-litre 6-cylinder A.C.s (car No. 14148 — engine No. E.16/5004), provided an interesting comparison. This car, externally, was identical to the standard 2-litre; I understand that only half-a-dozen were manufactured. The bore was reduced from 65 mm. to 56 mm. while the stroke remained at 100 mm., and the engine was, therefore, rated at 12-h.p. R.A.C. This and an axle ratio of 5.0 to 1 instead of 4.5 to 1, appear to have been the only differences. The tyre size remained, as before, 27″ x 4.40″. As regards performance, it was a little more sluggish, which was not surprising considering the chassis and coachwork were as for 2-litre.

During 1929, while I was learning about A.C.s and other cars, the owner of the garage bought a 1923 Alvis “12/40” 2-seater with dickey, and I was put to work on it. A remarkable car for “keeping on going” in the traditional Alvis style, and although its maximum speed was in the region of 50 m.p.h., it was a pleasant little car to drive and used to go up hills about as fast as it came down them. The exhaust-heated induction pipe was a little troublesome unless well cleaned out, but apart from that I cannot recollect any snags, except, of course, for seized valve caps (which was a fairly common feature in all cars so equipped), and the timing-gear rattle; in most respects it was very similar to the later o.h.v. models. It was cellulosed green when the overhaul was completed and we (the owner and I) went off to Lynmouth for a week-end, where, first, a half-shaft worked out endways, there being no spring or distance piece to locate the fully-floating shaft. This was incorrectly diagnosed as a broken axle shaft. While we were waiting for a new shaft to be sent down the mistake was rectified, and then the shaft really broke on a rather snatch stop and restart on Countisbury Hill, so the new shaft was needed after all and the week-end developed into a week.

Subsequently we had two more of’ these cars, both 2-seaters and both 1923 vintage. They never gave any trouble and were used for garage hacks when not otherwise engaged. They were not spectacular in performance, which was just as well bearing in mind the two-wheel brakes, or in looks, but the coach work was in keeping with the artillery wheels and small-section tyres.

It was about this time that the son of a local solicitor brought in a 1 1/2-litre 4-cylinder Type 469 O.M. of 1925 vintage for a rebore. A most interesting and lively car, it had been fitted with high-compression pistons and an oversize Solex carburetter. Equipped with a light, fabric, open 4-seater body finished in black and red, it was a very handsome sight and it certainly could “march,” even in its rebored state. It must have been fairly non-standard, as I remember that after the block had been re-ground it was sent up to Rawlence in London to have special Martlet pistons fitted. It possessed the most unfortunate gearbox and it was the very devil to change gear on without making a noise. The ratios were, however, as far as I can remember, well selected and I preferred it to the later 2-litre 6-cylinder O.M.

Little of interest happened at the garage around the early 1930s except for a brief visit of a Bugatti driven by a Frenchman, probably a Type 43. He needed a set of sparking plugs of a type that at that time were not available at our “factors.”

I also had a ride in, and subsequently drove, one of the first Railton “Terraplanes,” and after the rather heavy stuff I had been accustomed to, I must confess I was somewhat shattered by the acceleration and a demonstration by the owner of 0-60 m.p.h. in about 12 seconds. They are now common knowledge and I have since learnt not to classify them as interesting cars, though if one must have a car with an American power unit, then have a Railton, of course.

About this time I was taken to see the second day of the 1930 “Double Twelve” and this, plus the enthusiasm of my oldest friend, caused me to take an interest in cars from a sporting angle, a point of view that had been lacking previously.

I eventually found myself workshop foreman at a service station four or five miles from my home, and here by virtue of the enormous turnover of cars of all types I had continual opportunity to sample new and interesting types; though the workshop facilities, in spite of adequate floor space, were very meagre.

One of the first interesting cars I was able to drive was a 3-litre Sunbeam tourer, a car with plenty of urge, but far too flexible at the rear; there was a tendency for the back to heave up and down on the cantilever springs in a manner that affected the brakes. This may have been faulty shock-absorber settings, but I never had time to find out. By far the most interesting car was the ex-Fane 328 B.M.W., none other than “GMC.1,” which appeared one day from the local School of Artillery, suffering from misfiring. A test run round Stonehenge indicated faulty plugs, but even so, with constant misfiring, I touched 90 m.p.h. without much effort. This was an astonishing car for acceleration and light steering, but on a straight road with not too good a surface and a strong cross-wind, I felt I could have done with an extra heavy passenger to hold us down. Here let me record the excellent service Frazer-Nash’s offered. As the plugs were a type of racing K.L.G. not normally found outside the Track, I rang up Isleworth and first post the next day the necessary plugs arrived and an overjoyed owner was able to motor off on leave at speed!

Another car, in a rather different category, that I drove quite often, was a Mercédès-Benz 170, an amusing little car without much performance, though attention to the carburetter improved matters considerably. It possessed the most remarkable over-steer characteristic I have ever met and nearly caused me to upset when rounding a local corner at speed. I subsequently found that the only way to take a corner fast was to start unwinding the steering while still only half-way round; this never failed to do the trick and one could then guarantee to come out of a bend facing the right way.

I was never quite convinced that independent suspension at the rear as well as the front was really necessary, and recent experience has tended to strengthen the belief that the rear end should be sprung in the conventional manner, or better still, with reversed quarter-elliptics. I have, however, not tried a car with De Dion rear end. A humorous sidelight on this car was to be found in the instruction book where, under the heading of ignition timing, one was instructed to: “Turn the engine until the mark on the flywheel was pointing immediately towards above”!

My experience of Alfa-Romeos up to date (1938) was confined to the single-cam 1 1/2-litre type with the flat, square radiator. These were pleasant cars to drive, but not particularly lively. Imagine, therefore, my joy when a blown 1 3/4-litre, twin-cam arrived one day; fitted with a Zagato 2-seater body it both looked and sounded good. The test run, however, proved disappointing owing to misfiring at anything over three-quarter throttle, and since the owner was unable to afford a set of the necessary plugs, it had to be left at that. Nevertheless, it was an exhilarating car to drive, with a delightful gear change, light and accurate steering, and what promised to be fierce acceleration. The noise had to be heard to be appreciated, what with the blower gears, timing gears straight-cut indirects in the gearbox and, finally, a straight-cut bevel.

As a complete contrast we had the misfortune to take in for repair one of the earliest Marendaz 1 1/2-litres. This particular specimen had a side-valve Anzani engine and what appeared to be a Clyno rear end. [D. M. K. Marendaz recently denied in the Press that Clyno parts were used on his productions. — Ed.] The gearbox, if it could be called such, was literally a square aluminium case that looked as though it had been cooked up over a coke fire. There did not appear to be any definite method of locating the main and lay-shafts, with the result that two sets of gears could be selected at once with the greatest of ease. Fitted with a pointed radiator and a short 2/4-seater body, it looked not unlike a scaled-down Bentley, but there the resemblance stopped. It was a nightmare of a motor car in every respect and never went out on test without having to be towed back. It caused me many sleepless nights, as we could never get down to the fresh original jobs without something fresh cropping up. I think practically everything went wrong with that car, including a fire under the dashboard. I had a most unpleasant half-hour trying to convince the proud owner that he had bought a “pup,” and that it was not our fault. I still feel that he thinks we broke up his motor car on purpose.

At such times as it did motor in top gear, however, it was quite lively, though it possessed one of the highest first gears (3-speed box), and quite the fiercest clutch (cone) ever experienced.

A very well-known racing driver was a good friend of ours while he was stationed near us and provided me with the opportunity of driving an 8-litre Bentley (long chassis). A truly collossal car this, which impressed me most by doing 40 m.p.h. in second gear without “batting an eyelid.” At higher speeds (and it could be wound up in spite of it heavy saloon body) it needed all the road and, I imagine, would be an absolute terror on a greasy surface. Manoeuvreability was not one of its outstanding features and it could not be driven into the normal garage without at least one reverse; once in the building it took up the space of two normal cars and was always in the way.

The same driver also possessed, at that time, a 1,500-c.c. Fiat. saloon which, in striking contrast to the Bentley, was lively and handy; it had some of the Alfa features in its direct and light steering and I was favourably impressed with the way in which it handled. The engine, too, had plenty of urge, considering it was a perfectly standard car.

Talking of Bentleys, a car for sheer excellence of performance was the 3 1/2-litre saloon owned by an R.A.F. officer. The effortless 80 m.p.h. past Stonehenge and the ” going-up-in-a-lift ” effect on a slight rise of the road near there I will never forget. The complete silence at speed, save for the rushing of the wind, was a contrast to the “banging 60 m.p.h.” (or thereabouts) of a 2-litre Lagonda that passed me going the opposite way.

Needless to say, owing to the excellence of the construction and assembly of this car it was seldom available for a “test-run.” The only snag to my mind was the time the oil took to warm up. Starting from cold, on quite a temperate day, some six to eight slow miles had to be covered before the needle of the oil gauge could be persuaded to leave the “maximum” stop.

For a time we had a 4 1/2-litre Bentley V.D.P. long-chassis tourer for sale and it frequently took me to lunch on the pretext of a likely buyer. Despite its long wheelbase it handled very well and was equipped with a “D”-type gearbox, which, unless my memory fails me, used to give 70 m.p.h. in third up the hill to the Old Castle Inn outside Salisbury. I had a fair amount of experience with Lagondas, chiefly the 2-litre, and one belonging to a friend of mine, fitted with an extra large powerplus supercharger and S.U. carburettor, was always good for 80 m.p.h. I did not like Lagondas as the chassis, used whip at the most unexpected moments. I must confess, however, they never failed to get me round a corner. The other 2-litres I have in mind ranged from 2-seaters to saloons. But, whatever the coachwork, they always suffered from a depressing number of re-occurring troubles: sheared water-pump shafts and leaking glands, “missing” second gears, clutches in which the wick feed on the spigot either dried up or flooded the clutch with oil, big-ends that continued to “run” unless the end caps of the bored-out crankpins were removed and the sludge cleaned out, and, of course, there was the inevitable cracked chassis just under the hinge of the front doors. However, out of this tale of woe there was one other interesting 2-litre, an alleged “Double Twelve” car (PG.8804). The engine had been fitted with twin Zenith Triple Diffuser carburetters and twin fuel lines from the A.C. pump to a 25-gallon tank housed in a rounded tail. The fuel tank was equipped with a 4 1/4″, quick-action filler cap, and a reserve oil tank had also been fitted. An open, close-coupled, light fabric body had been fitted and an undertray extended the full length of the chassis. There were also many other detail alterations. Externally the chassis and transmission looked orthodox, but I had the impression that she was higher-geared than her sisters (standard tyres). Whatever her history she had a very good performance for an unblown 2-litre.

The next car that comes to mind is the ever-faithful Lancia “Lambda.” I have driven various types and for sheer overall length they take some beating; this handicap, however, does not seem to affect the astonishingly small turning circle these cars have. Fuel consumption tests on a 7th Series worked out at 20 m.p.g., running as near as possible to 48-50 m.p.h. with the engine in a far from new condition. This was with the standard carburetter setting and running on National Benzole. Lancia (pronounced “Larnche-ah” by the Italians) reminds me of 1939, when I used to motor every weekend during the summer to friends of mine some 40-50 miles from my home and there drive a “Dilambda” for them, as the owner was temporarily out of commission. A more pleasant car in its class it would be difficult to find and the claim of nine to 90 m.p.h. in top gear was no idle boast. I covered many hundreds of miles in that car, a Tickford saloon, in complete comfort, yet with all the urge and performance one could desire for long-distance motoring. With a trailer in tow and a racing car up, it made little difference and we had many happy weekends attending race meetings that year. A curious feature of these cars was the slight front wheel flap that used to come on at exactly 48 m.p.h. and go off at 52 m.p.h. At first I was disconcerted because it occurred at the most useful period of the speed range, but once accustomed to it I used to wait for it when accelerating and feel quite happy about it. The “Lambda” sometimes suffers from the same peculiarity but lower down the scale, generally at about 30 m.p.h.

The Lancia “Aprilia,” both in open and closed form, have come my way and I have been most impressed with their acceleration and roadholding. They can, so to speak, be flung round a corner with one wheel in the ditch, without turning a hair. The “Augusta” had similar qualities, but was more sluggish and most versions in this country seem to carry typically-heavy British coachwork.

One day a customer called with a Talbot “90” to say that, while speeding on a straight stretch of road, a loud crash had occurred in the engine, but on stopping to investigate he could find nothing wrong. Admittedly the engine was “missing” on one cylinder, but for this particular car that was nothing unusual. However, I could see nothing wrong and the engine sounded perfectly O.K. as regards noise, and as the customer was in a hurry we arranged that the car should come in on the morrow for a more careful checkover. The next day he returned to say that the noise had repeated itself, but had now ceased. The car was run on the hydraulic lift and when raised we observed, believe it or not, that one of the connecting rods had broken off short and was protruding from the crankcase in such a way that it had lodged under the engine tray and was, consequently, not visible from above or below until getting right underneath. What appeared to have happened was that, at the original crash the rod broke and subsequent ones were heard when it slipped back into the sump, only to be thrown out again. The fact that the big-end was still intact and secured to the crankpin naturally maintained the oil pressure, failure of which is one of the guides to such a breakage. It only goes to show how lucky some people are when it comes to a “blow-up,” and also how easy it is to make a mistake when diagnosing a fault. (Incidentally we never found the piston, which was presumably lost on the road !)

During the year before the war we decided to build a “Special,” based on the Triumph “Dolomite” engine, for we were agents for these cars and it was thought that racing successes might boost sales. The question of a chassis was decided when a Track Riley single-seater was located in North London, and I had one of my coldest rides being towed home; as there was no engine or gearbox, and the springing was incredibly hard, it was also one of the Most uncomfortable.

The Triumph engine was duly installed and an Arnott blower driven by many belts. The first trouble was gross overheating. This eliminated, it would not stay on the road if motored fast, as I discovered to my discomfort when running at Lewes.

Fitting larger-section tyres at the rear, on smaller rims, cured this to some extent, and fitting new brake linings (Girling system) considerably reduced the stopping distance required. Scheduled to run at Shelsley Walsh (the last meeting of 1939), on practice day the amateurish coupling between the Triumph gearbox and the Riley torque tube sheared and that was that. This was particularly annoying as it was the only part of the car that I had not atually seen assembled myself and after a post-mortem I marvelled that it had held up so long. In spite of weighing the earth this “Special” would clock the magic “hundred” on the road without much trouble, but as there were so many things that needed doing, which because of the summer rush of work never got done, the whole project was dropped and the various bits disposed of separately. The body was an off-set single-seater with a wedge tail and a “30/98” Vauxhall fuel tank was mounted alongside the driver with the filler neck protruding through the left-hand side of the body. There was also a most unsightly bulge in the bonnet caused by the side-mounted blower that was driven by many belts from the nose of the crankshaft.

I have driven quite a few Triumphs, of various types, of which the 14-h.p. 4-cylinder is in my opinion the best all-rounder, though it cannot be classed as a sports car. I have also handled the earlier “Sports Saloon” fitted with the Coventry “Climax” engine having the extraordinary arrangement of one downdraught and one horizontal carburetter feeding into a single induction pipe. Quite what. was to be gained by this arrangement never discovered, except that it seemed to motor just as fast with either of the carburetters cut out, as it did with them both functioning. This car, in any case, had no real performance and hardly justified the designation “Sports.”

Well, that is about all I can call to mind at the moment and represents but a fraction of the hundreds of vehicles I have driven on test or delivery at one time or another. Repetition is generally the order of the day in most garages and it would be unusual for anyone to handle more than four or five distinctly different cars during the course of a normal day and, taken as a whole, the work is not as interesting as I have tried to make it appear.

One conclusion that I have come to as a result of this moderately extensive experience is that it is astonishing how very few cars can be made to exceed 60-65 m.p.h, with ease on the average give-and-take road.