Sideslips by "Baladeur"

The Chronique des Pasquier, by Georges Duhamel, is a serial novel in ten volumes, and as it is possible that some of my readers may prefer to take their French literature in smaller doses, they may, as a result, have missed the rather exquisite passage in the third volume which describes the reactions of an ordinary young Frenchman to his first journey in an early motor car. As a rule, of course, any record which has survived of such experiences has been set down by the enthusiast rather than the layman, In this case the description is supposedly fictional, but according to the critics the whole book is largely autobiographical and I can hardly doubt that a real experience of M Duhamel’s, or more probably several experiences, are enshrined in this particular passage. In any case, it amused me sufficiently to make me think it might amuse my readers also ; and I have therefore essayed a translation. which I hope does not do undue violence to the spirit of the original French.

The year, then, is 1900, and the narrator, Laurent Pasquier, and his friend Justin Weill, both of them aged nineteen or twenty, are approaching the house at Creteil, in the suburbs of Paris, of the former’s father, a somewhat eccentric individual, who has become a doctor, rather late in life, when the bit about the motor-car begins.

“My father was coming out of the house. He came down two or three steps, cleared his throat and looked up at the sky.

” ‘Well,’ he said, ‘its a fine day, or very nearly. I’m going to take out the “horseless.” Have you got a mind to come too, young gentlemen ? ‘

“We accepted with dignity, without showing the least enthusiasm, although the proposition was far from displeasing to us.

“My father disappeared into the corridor … and then reappeared. He was wearing a silk top-hat, which he took off every now and then to smooth the nap with a stroke of his elbow. He had abandoned his favourite stock and a white pique tie was knotted under his chin. Ordinarily he had no dislike for his tail-coat, but in honour of this mild end-of-season morning, he had taken down off its peg a mouse-grey jacket.. . This severe dress … was softened a little by a pair of lemon-coloured gloves which smelt somewhat of petrol and by a pair of yellow boots. . .

” ‘Young gentlemen,’ he said, ‘kindly open the doer. We will get out the machine.’

“Our house had been built about the middle of the 19th century, in the old fashioned style, between a courtyard and a garden. . . On the right and the left of the courtyard . . . were two buildings, one of them used as a shed, the other as a stable. At the back of this latter we could hear Ham stamping his scanty litter. My father had given our horse this name because he had a black coat . . .

“We opened the door of the shed. Inside one could see, near the buggy in which my father usually made his rounds, an extraordinary piece of machinery, which at once we inspected with respect and curiosity. It was my father’s latest fancy, his latest folly.

” ‘Now then, young gentlemen,’ he said, taking off his jacket, ‘give me a hand.’

“Pulled and pushed, the horseless carriage came out into the light of day. It was a sort of two-seater phaeton with high wheels edged with black rubber. In front of the driver’s seat, on the top of a vertical shaft, was a steering handle which turned on a quadrant in the shape of a sundial. The engine was at the back, between the two larger wheels, in a big wooden box, painted bright red outlined in black. This box was opened by means of two sloping shutters, like cellar doors in some vine-growing countries. Two beautiful little lamps, with spring candle-holders and plated reflectors, suggested that it would not be impossible to go out at night.

” ‘Don’t get in just yet,’ said my father,  ‘we’ve got to attend to the machinery.’

“He got out an oil-can, a rag and a tin of petrol, and began to walk round the car, giving us a series of explanations. ‘It’s a petrol car,’ he said, ‘ with a Daimler engine, which is the real engine of the future . . ‘ “

What he actually said in the original French was “le vrai moteur du progres,” and I hope I have not unduly strained the sense in translating his remark as I have. If not, one may he permitted to agree with Dr Pasquier, at least in the context, say of 1894, if not quite so markedly, of 1900. But I wonder whether M Duhamel is perhaps confusing two cars of the early days ? A Daimler engine, in France, suggests a Panhard et Levassor, but a Panhard et Levassor with the engine at the back would have been a real rarity. It might, of course, have been a very early Peugeot, dating from before the introduction of Peugeot’s own horizontal engine in 1896; but then, one would expect it to have a double-grip tiller, instead of a “steering-handle which turned on a quadrant in the shape of a sundial.” In fact this feature is so reminiscent of a Benz that I suspect Dr Pasquier of being in error in thinking that his car had a Daimler engine at all. Or else, perhaps, M Duhamel is confusing say a Panhard with, probably, the French edition of the Benz, known as the Benz-Roger. However, let us return to the doctor’s explanations.

” ‘ . . . It’s not, of course, quite the latest model. Nowadays they make more elegant cars. But I wouldn’t trust myself in one, the mechanical aspect is sacrificed to luxury. Safety first, I Say “

Once more I must interrupt the good doctor to applaud his sentiments. Apart front his aberration in thinking modern cars more elegant, he might have been a member of the Vintage Sports-Car Club.

” ‘ Now just look, young gentlemen,’ [he continued], ‘ how I start it up. It’s perfectly simple : I undo this tap, I turn the switch and now I take hold of the starting flywheel.’

“He had opened the motor box. Inside one could dimly see a mass of metal”—-I do not feel that I have done justice to mine triperie metallique, but inspiration fails me.—”and, in particular, a heavy cast-iron flywheel, mounted in the same plane as the wheels, which my father was grasping with the whole of his hand. He held his breath and made an energetic effort to impart a rotary movement to the flywheel. The machine gave a long snort, sneezed, and then gave vent to something like -a bark.

” ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ said my father, this sort of motor is properly called an explosion motor. If it bangs, it’s because it’s going to start.’

” ‘Oh ! ‘ we declared proudly, ‘we weren’t in the least bit alarmed. In fact it’s quite interesting.’ “

Insufferable young men !

“About ten times my father pulled the flywheel without result. The engine coughed, sniffed and gave something like a death-rattle, without making up its mind. Then, suddenly, it started : ‘tap, tap, tap,’ and the whole car began to tremble, with a noise like a fusillaide. My father, still smiling, put his jacket on again, then his top-hat, and then his yellow gloves. He said:

” ‘Laurent, you get up behind. I’ll put the cushion for you. Your friend can sit beside me.’

“We arranged a black leather cushion on the motor box. A small footboard and two iron hand-rails assisted my equilibrium. My father and Justin took their seats. The car, turning on itself like a dog that wants to bite its tail, made for the exit.

“It was all very yell for Justin Weill and me to adopt a reserved attitude towards modernistic extravagances in general and the experiments of may father, Dr Pasquier, in particular, but the idea of going through Creteil in this strange equipage gave us a certain amount of pleasure. I sat a little sideways on, to see where we were going. The rue du Moulin has not got a very good surface. As the car, after exploring a pothole with one wheel after another, clambered up the other side, I clung on like grim death so as not to be thrown from the saddle, or what did duty for it. My father, very upright, very calm, his top-hat at a confident angle, his right hand on the tiller and his left on his hip, seemed to be perfectly master of this tempestuous force. As we reached the place de l’Eglise, he took off his head-piece and saluted several people in a very elegant manner.

” ‘I am not vindictive,’ he said—and this made us smile, as he was decidedly vindictive—’ but. I would like to meet that idiot Blottier to show him that, as far as ideas are concerned, I’m younger than he is.’

“At this precise moment, and without any apparent reason . . . our car plunged to the right and mounted the pavement. It ran along it for seventh yards and ended up with its muzzle against the chemist’s shop.

” ‘The steering lever is a shade too light,’ said my father, ‘but it’s of no importance, as I was just going to go to the chemist’s anyhow. Pull the car back carefully, my boys, and get it on to the roadway.’

“We did our best to carry out this order. A small crowd of idlers had collected in the meantime and when my father came back to set the engine going again, we had to request the curious to make way for us. The journey was resumed. It was a soft, mild autumn morning. Large clouds looked as if they were seeking a suitable spot in the countryside on which to release a steady downpour.

” ‘If it rains, Justin,’ said my father, ‘ open little umbrella which is in the wickerwork case on your left.’

“At this moment the rain started. Justin opened the umbrella and prepared to protect my father and my father’s silk hat. We had left the houses behind. . . . The rain hesitated and stopped. The ground sloped away towards the houses and gardens of a hamlet. The car went along emmitting a fine string of detonations which died away in the distance. Every now and again it missed a beat or gave a long drawn out bang. My father smiled in a calm manner, which, in my heart of hearts, I thought rather remarkable.

” ‘This car can do eighteen or even twenty or twenty-two kilometres an hour,’ he said, ‘But I don’t know it well enough yet to try and get the maximum out or it as the road surface is wet. It’s got an admirable engine, as I’ve already told you. Unfortunately the brakes do not inspire me with equal confidence.’

“We had now reached the steepest part of the descent. The car felt the gradient and bounded from bump to hole. My father seized the brake with his right hand and murmured ‘I had better not let it take the bit between its teeth.’

“We had all stopped talking, like experimenters at the critical moment of their test. I was gripping the handrails with my full force and through the leather of my brogues I felt the soles of my feet acquire prehensile powers and grip the footboard. My father inurinured, in a calm tone of voice, ‘we are doing perhaps more than twenty-four or twenty-live kilometres an hour. Do you feel the wind of our passage ? ‘

“Then he said no more and I think that we were all of us seized with a slight anxiety. We reached a bend in the road. In front of us was a small ditch and a modest mound, then a few square feet, of stubble and finally the wall of a property, behind which were some yellowing tufts of acacia.

“I half saw all this in a sort of flash of illumination. My father announced in toneless voice, ‘I turn the tiller to the right because we want to go to the left.’ I heard this reasoned, coldly mechanical remark and then suddenly the car, instead of turning to the left veered to the right, pitched into the little ditch, mounted the bank, relieved itself with a flick of its tail of its three passengers and made a plunge towards the wall.

“In spite of the violence or the shock, we all three picked ourselves up at once. I caught sight of my father running after his top-hat, pick it up, smooth the nap with a stroke of his elbow and then turn towards us smiling. ‘that,’ he said, ‘is the phenomenon known as the sideslip. No harm done, young gentlemen ? ‘

“We reassured him. I was a bit shaken but unhurt, and the same went for Justin. We all transferred our attention to the machine, and my father gave a cry of triumph. ‘I told you that the engine was splendid. Listen, it’s still running. Unfortunately the steering is damaged. Yes badly damaged, even. It’s going to be impossible for us to continue our run. Give me a hand, boys. Wait a moment, let’s work to rule. I stop the engine. Good, it stops. I inspect the front axle. One must, you see, treat this sort of machinery exactly as if it was in patient. Ah ! the transmission is broken and the axle out of truth. It’s possible that the brake . . . Anyhow, so much, the worse. Let’s think a moment.

” ‘Monsieur Pasquier,’ said Justin, ‘would you like us all to join forces and haul the machine back on to the road ?

” My father shrugged his shoulders. ‘Don’t think of it,’ he said. ‘A car of this kind weighs at least three hundred kilogrammes. No. Wait a bit, young gentlemen, you look after the machine and I’ll go home and get the horse and a rope. It won’t, certainly, be a very glorious return. So much the worse. If people are inclined to laugh, I shall show them just what I think of them.’

“My father was not the man to reconsider a decision. He took out his handkerchief, brushed off the lapels of his jacket some bits of moss and brambles which were still sticking to it, and went off, saying, ‘I shall be back in twenty minutes.’

“A little later Justin said ‘here’s your father, and there’s somebody else with him.’

” ‘It’s M Herbelot,’ I said, ‘the man who comes by the day to feed the horse and wash the chaise.’

“Our two saviours approached, leading the horse by the bridle. Ham in 1900 was still quite a young animal, with a lively disposition and a good coat. My father, always an absent-minded driver, had started letting him down right from the beginning, so that the wretched animal was often bleeding at the knees, and was always plastered with tar. When he saw the automobile, Ham began to whinny, and cast anxious glances from side to side. The worthy Herbelot had already unrolled the rope and was improvising a means of towing.

” ‘Don’t harness him up too short,’ said my father, ‘let him have room to move

“Having attached the rope. Herbelot took the horse by the bridle and began to talk to him. The beast gave vent to a short and anxious sigh, he moved his legs and the automobile at once turned round on its back wheels. The horse began to tremble, and then suddenly, hearing behind him, as he shook himself, the clatter of this terrifying machine, he took fright, reared up, let out several kicks and finally, with his mane flying in the wind, went off at a gallop across the countryside, taking all the ironmongery with him.

“The situation was beginning to get out of hand. Herbelot, Papa, Justin and I hurled ourselves across the plough. Papa was still wearing his top-hat, he skipped along like a goat and did not allow himself to be outdistanced. The countryman was panting a bit. We all shouted, which seemed to make the horse very excited. He bounded over the furrows, the machine in tow rolled, yawed and pirouetted. Finally it overturned. Our horse, out of breath, lay down on the heavy ground. We soon came up with him and hastened to cut the ropes.

” ‘There’s not much wrong with the horse,’ said Herbelot, ‘but the machine’s wrecked. It’s going to be a sad loss.’

” ‘As to that,’ said my father, ‘we shall see. I’ve got it on approval and I’ve not yet paid for it. If necessary, I shall go to law about it. I don’t like to be made a fool of. Anyhow, I shall return it.’

” ‘Perhaps that would be just as well,’ I replied. ‘ It doesn’t look to me to be in perfect condition.’

“My father shrugged his shoulders and gave me a look which was anything but sweet . . .”

If I had been Dr Pasquier, I think mine would have been a trifle-sour, too.

Book Reviews

“How To Hop-Up Ford and Mercury V8 engines,” by Roger Huntington. 150 pages. 2 dollars. ” How To Hop-Up Chevrolet and GMC Six-Cylinder Engines,” by the same author. 158 pages, 2 dollars. (Floyd Clymer, Los Angeles.)

These two books pack in an immense amount of data on two subjects their titles make self-evident. Moreover, they are written in a breezy, lighthearted manner which is all the more acceptable for being unexpected in technical books of this kind. R Huntington has no illusions about “hopping-up,” which, after all, is only modifying to obtain an increase of power. He points out that manufacturers dislike it and that it is a practice of the comparatively impecunious, who would otherwise buy a bigger engine or a real racing power unit. He writes in an almost European style, albeit we read into the mind of “Leadfoot Louie, the moron hot-rodder,” profiting by Louie’s mistakes and misadventures. Incidentally, the Floyd Clymer’s Motor Book Special with two “Hopped-up” Mercury engines has been timed in America to do 221.4795 mph; 250 bhp is said to be extracted from its sv Ford V8 engines, and over 300 bhp in ohv form, on alcohol fuel. And the Chevrolet Powerglide can be made to give nearly 270 bhp on methanol, the GMC truck engine over 200 bhp on pump fuel, it is claimed. Fangio drove a Chevrolet engined Special in South America in 1950.

Tere is much in these books (indeed, whole chapters) applicable to the hotting up of any engine, and they are certainly entertaining in the way they impart knowledge. But obviously it will be in the States where the speed shops sell the special camshafts, heads, manifolds, etc, referred to, that they are likely to become automotive best-sellers.—WB.