Sideslips by "Baladeur"

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56

In 1916, as is clearly stated on the fly-leaf, I was presented with a copy of The Cruise of the Gyro-Car, by Herbert Strang. I was nine years old that year, and I read the book, I remember, with avidity. It is what is known as a “boys’ book,” that is to say the characters, in accordance with a convention rigidly enforced by juvenile readers, live in a curious sort of monastic vacuum, in which women may scarcely be mentioned and may certainly play no part in the drama—rather as if these characters belonged to the more extreme sect of sports-car owners, who go in continual dread lest feminine influence should force them into saloons. Having recently re-read the book, I have come to the conclusion that in spite of this drawback—if, indeed, it is one—there were solid grounds for my enthusiasm for it in 1916. The story is primarily about two brothers, one of whom, Maurice, is a suave young diplomat, while the other, George, has invented a mono-track car, kept upright by gyroscopes. Maurice, in the course of his professional duties, is entrusted with the delivery of a despatch, so important that the peace of Europe depends on it, which has to be taken from London to Sofia; and as a result of a cleverly contrived concatenation of circumstances, the brothers decide to take it in the gyro-car.

Owing to suspicions about the intentions of the German and Austrian authorities, they cannot go by the direct route. Instead, they motor across France, cross the Mont Cenis in the dark and hare down through Italy to Brindisi; cross the Adriatic to Albania and finally arrive in Sofia. All the time they are pursued by the most unscrupulous foreign agents, usually in a giant green racing car, until they get among the bandits of Albania, whereupon the story takes on the hair-raising, and somewhat banal character, familiar to readers of boys’ papers.

During the first part, however, while they are still on their way to Brindisi, the interest is almost wholly motoring, and the tale is correspondingly original—even if it is a trifle dated at times, as in passages such as this: “The brakes, now fast set, were unequal to the demand upon them. Experienced motorist as he was, George had the sickening feeling to which the most hardened never becomes accustomed; the car was skidding.” (But before the reader smiles too indulgently, just let him think what he would do, if he felt the back-end break away, and the thing was a gyro-car! George “managed to steer it past a stone post at the roadside, shaving the obstacle by an inch” ; which is more than some of us ought have done.)

In spite of the desperate character of their journey, and the fact that the gyro-car, according to George, who, however, like most builders of “specials,” may have been optimistic, was capable of 80 m.p.h., they do not go very fast as a rule. In England, of course, they are scared about the 20 m.p.h. speed limit, but for all that, “when they had passed through Gravesend, George ventured to increase the speed to thirty-five miles.” Between Calais and Paris, “it would be easy, he thought, to maintain an average speed of at least twenty-five miles on a highway kept in such admirable repair as are all the French main roads”; but before George is dismissed as a sissy, the reader should know that they were motoring at night, and that “the powerful acetylene lamp which he carried at the front of the car shed its rays many yards ahead” [my italics]. Besides, “George was not accustomed to steering the car at a rapid pace by night . . . so that they found it by no means easy to maintain the speed that George had mentioned.”

By the time they got to Paris, it was daylight, and “George drove the gyrocar through the Champs-Elysées at a much higher speed than he would have dared in Hyde Park.” Of course, things may have changed, but if my own, more recent, experience is any guide, the really daring thing would have been not to drive down the Champs-Elysées at a much higher speed than one dares to use in Hyde Park. They left Paris by N.5 (though Mr. Strang does not call it that) and race across the Pont de Charenton, “being now beyond the probable risk of interference, George increased the speed to thirty-five miles an hour, which he maintained for forty minutes, until they reached the outskirts of Melun.” This is a pretty accurate computation, as it is actually 37 kilometres from the Pont de Charenton to the centre of Melun. They got to Dijon in seven hours, which prompted Maurice (who had been having a nap) to declare “it’s over three hundred kilometres from Paris—a hundred and eighty miles. You must have been tearing along at a terrific pace.” According to the Guide Michelin, the distance is actually 323 kilometres, so that they had averaged about 28 m.p.h., and I don’t wonder that Maurice was a bit shocked. When he took over after lunch, “being cautious by nature and training, he contented himself with a speed of twenty miles.”

You can’t afford to dawdle like that, though, when you have got desperate spies on your trail, and by the time that Maurice had been doing it for three hours, they espied a dust cloud behind them. George had a look at the “powerful car” which was the cause of it. “By gum!” he cried, “it’s coming at a spanking pace. It must be a racer.” The brothers thereupon changed places (apparently while the car was moving, which was clever of them) and “George immediately increased the speed to forty miles.” Still the green racer gained on them, and George, now thoroughly wound up, “advanced the speed lever, and increased the pace to fifty, and finally sixty miles an hour, at which rate the car dashed through Javat.” And even 60 m.p.h. wasn’t really “final,” apparently, as a few lines further on, “the kilometre stones flashed by at two a minute.” That was more like it, that was 75 m.p.h., George evidently wasn’t such a boaster after all.

But he was still a bit windy about the law. “A sign-post with a staring warning, ‘Allure modérée,’ at the entrance to Montrevel, forced George to reduce his speed to fifteen kilometres; but since this applied equally to the pursuing motor he did not care a rap for that, as he said.” George evidently did not think that foreign spies in green racing cars were such desperate characters as I should have; but I am afraid that his confidence was misplaced, as, a few lines further on, “Maurice, looking back, descried the pursuer rushing along at a reckless speed, its dust trailing behind like the smoke of a steam engine.” George had to step on it again.

Things went on like that all the way to Brindisi, more or less, and I don’t wonder that at the age of nine I found it all terribly exciting. But what I really wanted to know in 1916, and what nobody could tell me, was whether such a thing as a gyro-car really existed. What I am chiefly intrigued to know now, on the other hand, is how much Herbert Strang knew about it. The book, unfortunately, is undated, but in the course of the story, the author refers to the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which took place in 1908, as having happened “some years before.” On the other hand, his outline of the political situation in the Balkans seems to make no reference to the Balkan War which was fought in the autumn of 1912. It would not be surprising, therefore, if the book had been written in the earlier part of 1912, and in that year a gyro-car had actually been built in England.

The only thing that is rather surprising is that Herbert Strang should have known anything about it. I can hardly believe that he had his ear glued very close to the ground of automobilism; indeed, I am rather inclined to doubt whether he knew how an ordinary motorcar worked, after reading the following description of how George set off in his. “He turned the starting-handle, mounted into the car, depressed the clutch pedal, and having advanced the speed-lever a little, ran up the path, out, at the front gate, and disappeared.” Again, after a breakdown at a terrifying moment, Maurice asks, “What was wrong with the engine?” To which George replies: “The carburetter. The nozzle was foul, so that the petrol couldn’t get into the float-chamber fast enough.” One would have thought that the trouble would have been that it couldn’t get out of it.

However, Mr. Strang obviously knew something about gyro-cars, and I suspect that he knew that in 1912 a gyro-car had been made by the Wolseley company. Its designer, however, instead of being a 19-year old English youth called George, was a Russian lawyer, called His Excellency Count Peter Schilowski. Even that fact, however, was not lost on Mr. Strang; while his hero had to be George, his villain, the unscrupulous foreign agent, was called Count Slavianski. Afterwards he seems to have had qualms about this. “I say, Maurice,” said George . . . “would a nobleman descend to such dirty work as spying?” “If he’s a spy, he’s no more a count than I am,” Maurice replied. In fact he is finally demoted to plain Max Mumm and given a job as a club porter in Vienna. But then, of course, since 1914, spies have gone up, and noblemen down, in the scale of respectability.

But to return to the gyro-car. The machine built by the Wolseley company for His Excellency the Count had two wheels arranged in tandem, mounted in forks, suspended on cantilever springs. These wheels, for some reason, perhaps because the car was designed with military purposes in view, were shod with solid rubber tyres, and the whole construction was on most massive lines, the total weight of the car being about three tons. It is obvious that such a weight could not be balanced on two wheels by the passengers, even if the whole six for whom accommodation was provided, on three seats, leant the right way at the right time, and in fact its equilibrium was maintained by a gyroscope, which was arranged to spin horizontally in the centre of the car. It weighed about 600 lb., which sounds quite enough, but which was, after all, less than 10 per cent. of the total weight of the car. It was driven by the petrol engine which provided the motive power for the car, by means of an electric motor, at about 1,500 r.p.m., and absorbed a maximum of about 1.25 h.p., which does not sound much. I do not propose to attempt a description of the mechanical means by which pendulums induced the gyroscope to prevent the car from heeling over, which would be practically impossible without a diagram, and very difficult, for me, even with one. Suffice it to say that there seems to be no doubt that, with the gyroscope working, the car, while stationary, would stand upright, without using the sprag-wheels which were provided, one on each side, in case of emergencies, and that people could get in and out without its toppling over. The machine was powered by a 16-24-h.p. engine, and, instead of claiming a maximum speed of 80 m.p.h., like George, its inventor declared that its maximum speed was “very moderate—somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 m.p.h.” Actually, it seems very doubtful if it ever went even as fast as that.

In his recent book, “Wolseley,” Mr. St. John C. Nixon quotes an interesting excerpt from the lest report on the car made by the Wolseley Experimental Department. From this it is clear that the tester was pretty scared of the company’s uncouth product. “On November 27th, 1913,” he reported, “I made an effort to move the car which was successful . . . We drove the car backwards and forwards for a distance of about 6 ft. many times . . .” Gingerly does it . . . “Eventually we drove the car the whole length of the Arden Works, backwards and forwards, with four passengers. Then His Excellency decided to take the machine over on to the track, impressing on me that we must go very gently . . . I then drove the car steadily up the Arden Road . . . slipping the clutch on the first gear all the time. We took a wide sweep into Bordesley Green Road, and suddenly, when opposite the Directors’ Mess Room, the vehicle heeled to the near side and dropped on its sprag. It was lifted by eight men, the engine was restarted, and the car driven back to the Experimental Department . . .”

In spite of this unfortunate mishap, just outside the Directors’ Mess Room, too, His Excellency was not discouraged, and, in April, 1914, he actually had the hardihood to bring his gyro-car to London. “I cannot forget the sensation,” he wrote afterwards, “when . . . I drove on it unexpectedly in Regents Park, crossing crowded Baker Street and other neighbouring streets . . . Hundreds of people stopped astonished in the streets when they saw the slow, quiet progress of this strange vehicle.” Apparently it did not fall over this time, but, unfortunately, ” the outbreak of the Great War stopped the further development of commercial vehicles, and diverted my attention to other matters.”

“The Inventor,” says Mr. Nixon, “disappeared suddenly”; and he goes on to describe how the Wolseley company, believe it or not, finding the gyro-car in the way, and not knowing what else to do with it, buried it. Five years later, they dug it up again, and put it in their private museum, where I must really go and have a look at it some time. “It is a striking example,” adds Mr. Nixon, “of misapplied talent on the part of the Inventor, and ingenuity on the part of the Wolseley company, in turning out something, the like of which the world had not seen previously, and as far as can be foreseen, never will again.”

But can one foresee as far as all that? Not, apparently, unless one can claim to know more about gyroscopes than His Excellency Count Peter Schilowski. The inventor may have “disappeared suddenly” in 1914, but what Mr. Nixon does not seem to appreciate is that he had not disappeared for good. In spite of being a Count, he seems to have survived the Bolshevik Revolution, although in the course of it he did, apparently, lose his title. Ten years after his sudden disappearance, however, he reappeared, not as Max Mumm, a Viennese club porter, but as Dr. P. Schilowski (or Schilovski), President of the Gyroscopic Society of Petrograd, under which guise he published that year in London a book called “The Gyroscope and its Practical Construction and Application,” which I have not read, and an article in the Autocar, which I have.

In the course of the latter he was quite unrepentant about his experiments with the gyro-car, and apparently suffered no qualms that he had been misapplying his talents. “To-day,” he was still prepared to declare, “. . . between 30 and 40 per cent. of fuel is expended for overcoming the tractive resistance due to the running of four wheels on an uneven surface and round curves”; and he still claimed that the way to overcome this waste was by means of the single-track vehicle. (“I can go faster,” said Herbert Strang’s ‘George’ to his still supercilious brother Maurice, “than a four-wheeled motor of double the horsepower.”) Nevertheless, continued Dr. Schilovski, the gyro-car of 1912-1914 “had not satisfied the inventor . . . the car could not with facility take the curve in the direction of the rotation of the gyroscope, and a rough turning could even upset the vehicle.” This was a pity, as otherwise “the running was ideal, even on very had roads [and] the consumption of fuel was considerably less than normal.” However, he was able to state, “. . . the drawback in the rounding of curves is now completely overcome . . . a very simple device for altering the eccentricity of the suspension of the gyroscope removes in future any apprehension in that direction . . . What is now required is . . . a little outburst of energy and interest for the device on the part of the motor industry.”

As far as I know, the motor industry has since burst out with no energy or interest for the device whatever. It seldom does, with any success, where anything revolutionary is concerned, unless somebody first tries it out on a racing car. I am not quite sure whether you would be allowed to run a four-wheeled car in a Grand Prix if all four wheels were in tandem. But in any case, one would probably arouse more energy and interest, in the early stages, if the race were exclusively for gyro-cars; and it only remains for somebody to run one. I commend the idea to the R.A.C., as likely to provide an original curtain-raiser to their European Grand Prix at Silverstone. [And with this, and a 500-c.c. race and the proposed race for early racing cars, we shan’t have time for a Grand Prix at all, shall we?—Ed.]

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