by W. Bancroft of Renfrewshire
When a near neighbour acquired a self-propelled vehicle my interest was aroused and has remained with me ever since. To get my neighbour’s vehicle ready for a run meant filling water tanks, filling paraffin tank, greasing steering and transmission and then lying down and lighting up the boiler. As this was rather a dirty job and I was a keen youngster it was my job. Once on the boil then, with coats and goggles, we could venture on the road. We had to stop for water every 10 miles and more frequently still to allow for the passage of horses, who seemed to take a violent dislike to the new transport. Maximum speed was in the region of 15 m.p.h. and the most scaring moments for me were when water got into the paraffin, causing intermittent bangs, from the fire. I thought the lot would go up anytime.
Anyway, after an argument with a stone wall, the steamer was replaced with a new kind of vehicle called a Benz, with dog-cart type of body, the steering, engine in what is now called the boot, and belt-transmission to the rear wheels which were about 4 in. diameter with front wheels about 2 ft. 6 in. diameter. The engine was a single-cylinder with tube ignition, open connecting rod and crankshaft and large diameter thin flywheel. Transmission from crankshaft to intermediate was by flat belts and the chain to the wheels. To start you had to light a blowlamp and play this onto the exposed part of ignition tube until it glowed. Having made sure your carburetter wicks were dry you then turned on the petrol to wet them and started pulling over compression with the flywheel rim. If all was in order the engine started and you shut down the lid of the boot and mounted behind the tiller. By a screw control you could tighten the belts and would move off. Top speed was in the region of 20 m.p.h. on a slight downhill slope. If forward motion was slowing down and the engine was still running it was an indication it was time to stop and cut a couple of inches from the belt, and then away again. The front axle was cart-type and rotated round a central pin. If you did not keep a sharp lookout for bricks or holes in the road and one wheel hit such an obstacle, the result was a pile-up with an involuntary decanting of passengers and driver.
I remember one particular spare we carried was a tin of golden syrup for use on the belts, to aid grip. My father decided he would try more modern transport and we acquired a de Dion. This was a magnificent vehicle with a gearbox and live back axle. The engine was a vertical single-cylinder in front, with a cone clutch leather lined. The engine was no trouble at all, for the tube ignition had been replaced with a coil and plug. The clutch needed quite a lot of attention, for if it was fierce you gave it a few squirts of castor oil on the leather linings, but if it slipped you tried road dust on the linings, but if it slipped any more you inserted bits of broken hack-saw blades under the leather to get it to drive. It was a grand reliable car and would thump along quite well so long as the tyres let it. A new gadget at this time was a spare rim and tyre that you could strap onto a punctured wheel to get you home. In your leisure time you could get busy with large spoons from the kitchen, rubber solution and french chalk and repair your tyres.
At this time engines were fitted to cycles so I bought a 2-h.p. de Dion. The engine was outside the front down tube with round belt-drive over a jockey pulley to the rear wheel. The battery for the ignition was carried in a compartment in the tank and throttle and air levers were mounted on top of the tank. It was quite usual before going for a run to call at the Singer sewing-machine shop for a spare 2 ft. of belting. If intending to travel more than 25 miles, then a spare accumulator had to be carried on the rear carrier. I used to wear a special jacket on these trips to counter the acid blobs jerked out of the accumulator. Incidentally, I had my first big crash on this machine. It was a common thing when the belt slipped to press the sole of your shoe onto it to tighten it and so get a bit farther along the road before stopping to adjust the jockey pulley or cut a bit out of the belt. I was doing this when my shoe toe caught in the jockey pulley and off I came.
I changed then to a better machine — a N.S.U. vee-twin. This had a peculiar drive in that the reduction gear was inside the engine-belt pulley so that the rear-wheel pulley was quite small and the best (belt) was slow moving. I never saw any other make of machine with this undergeared pulley. Next followed a big Rex twin that was a brick to ride and then a Zenith big-twin with Gradua gear (for the uninitiated this gear allowed the engine-pulley flanges to open or close and so raise or lower the gear and at the same time move the back wheel so that the belt remained tight). It was a grand machine and I wonder how the rear-wheel position controlled by screwthreads worked so well.
To return to cars, we now bought our first Rover—a 20-h.p. tourer. It had a heart-shaped radiator with a nice long bonnet and acetylene head lamps but still oil side and rear lamps. It had a four-speed gearbox and enthusiasts may be interested to know that direct was third and fourth was overdrive, and this was in 1910. Ignition had improved and we now had a magneto, but starting was still by accumulator and coil. You switched over to magneto when the engine was running. With the engine warm it was possible to switch on the coil, waggle the ignition control lever in the centre of the steering wheel, and so start the engine. It would go very well on the level, but was not a good climber and as reverse was a very low gear it frequently mounted hills in my native Lancashire in reverse. Of course you tried to rush hills to mount them and if you could see you were going to fail you dropped your sprag and some sprightly passenger dismounted rapidly with a block of wood, carried specially in the car, and scotched a back wheel. A slight mishap trying to take avoiding action against some sheep near Robin Hood’s Bay caused the wheels to disintegrate, this was the second lesson in using a transmission brake. The first one was not to use it on long descents or you would have to stop and put out a fire!
I next bought a Clegg Rover. This was a grand reliable car that cost £350. It had electric lighting but starting was still by handle (fixed). It was used as a hack during the 1914-18 episode and covered 80,000 miles and was then sold for £350. During this 1914-18 interlude I had lengthy periods with 10th M.A.C. and 226 S.B.A.C. driving Du Cros, Studebaker, Siddeley-Deasy and Daimler ambulances and Vauxhall and Sunbeam cars. I carry a reminder of the Daimler to this day, for whilst cleaning out the ports in the sleeves I moved the engine and lost a bit of finger. I also remember the Daimler had a gearbox and rear axle combined and third gears would go very quickly. The best of the lot was a Siddeley-Deasy with Knight engine and Lanchester springing. Lift the bonnet and all the “works” were exposed.
I lost my ambulance and spent some time in hospital in Aberdeen, recovering, and then went, “heavy,” with Peerless, Pierce- Arrow, Locomobile, Halford, Thornycroft, Albion, Maudslay and Holt Caterpillars. The best of the bunch, I thought, was the Thornycroft and the rear wheels, of strong steel-disc construction, served on occasions to protect me from bomb splinters. The chain-driven, dry-sump Albion was quite a little lady to drive, but had no power at all to cope with the rough stuff. If a chain broke it was possible to jam the sprocket and drive along at a very fair clip driving on one wheel. You could always tell where Maudslays were in use by seeing men walking round with valve pockets (poppets) in their hands busily grinding-in valves!
I then had a spell of very heavy stuff at Hesdin St. Pol, which I chiefly associate with being down on my knees turning over the flywheels of big Daimler engines, trying to start them and then, if the tank lurched, grabbing things that were nearly always red hot. One learned a lot of new words when buffeted about in the early tanks. During the advance into Germany in 1918 we found a 90-h.p. racing Benz, with four enormous cylinders and chain-drive. We used to start it by towing it with a lorry. On the wood pavings in Cologne between the Dom and the station its gyrations in the wet were truly alarming.
Then for a spell I moved to the lighter side and played with F.E.2Bs, R.E.8s and Avros. The F.E. was a pusher with the engine above and behind you and landings had to be made very carefully or the engine fell on you. The R.E.8 was a steady machine and it was common talk that if by some unfortunate circumstance you had to be up at dusk or near dark the engine ran so hot that you could see the rear pistons going up and down! Once, at Yatesbury, the machine cut out on take-off and the wheels rattled the roof of the officers’ mess — pilots came through windows without waiting to open them! The Avro was a grand machine, with no vices, and it was possible to adjust the cheese-cutter and fly hands off and have a quiet cigarette whilst the machine landed itself.
Back into civvies, I traded in the Clegg Rover for a Vauxhall Twenty tourer. The body was not so good so I had a two-seater coupe built locally and fitted, and it gave me a lot of pleasure. Lack of front-wheel brakes was a drawback. For local running and a spot of competition I still liked two wheels and I ran through Douglas’ 2¾ and 4-h.p., Harley solo clutch model (it got away with me twice, on running starts) Indian Scout, Phillipson Pulley Norton, and, best of all, an A.B.C. transverse flat-twin with o.h.v., four speeds, and leaf-springing. I thought it was many years in advance of any other machine on the market. I parted with the Vauxhall and then ran through a few dull cars, looking for something better all the time. I had Eric-Camphell, Morgan sports, Wolseley Ten and a nice-looking A.C. with polished aluminium body, but with a very uncertain combined gearbox and rear axle that made me sell it, a Morris-Oxford two-seater that was reliable but very slow, and then a 30/98 Vauxhall. This I really did enjoy, with its big four-pot engine pulling high gears. It was at first somewhat difficult to start and I had to develop a drill. From cold it was (1) pour some petrol into an empty cigarette tin and light it; (2) open compression-taps, smother conflagration and prime with the hot petrol and close taps; (3) jump into driver’s seat, switch on (and remember to leave the bonnet open before jumping in), press starter-button on floor until compression halted engine (and this was purpose of keeping bonnet open), watch fan blades, release starter for engine to swing back and in starter again and so on until the engine fired. Rear brakes only made things hectic on a wet day, especially in my home town, which had wooden setts in front of the Town Hall for quietness; twice my car tried to attend an annual meeting by swinging into the entrance.
Now I went East and my first venture was a Model-T Ford. It had very little in the way of brakes but reverse gear sufficed. It never let me down and it often carried four armed men into jungle country with food and beer, rifles and more beer, and also, after a good day, half a dozen crocs over bonnet and running-boards. It often travelled 10 to 14 miles in low gear through grass 6 and 7 ft. high and if it fell in a nullah we could lift it out. It also survived encounters with hyenas, jackals and crocodiles when on the way home in the dark. I also remember I got to be quite expert at rebanding the gearbox.
I left Ahmedabad and returned to Bombay when I bought a sports Austin Seven with polished aluminium body. It ran very well, but in the sun it was a roasting tin, and I parted with it before I was done to a turn. A 5-h.p. Citroen followed. It was quite a nippy little dandy, fitted with Michelin R.L.P. tyres. Once, ascending the Ghats going towards Poona, the flexible disc on the magneto-drive disintegrated and I had to cut, with a pocket-knife, a disc out of the sole of my slippers and fix that. It was used for two months like that until I got a proper spare. It was in this Citroen that I once had an incident between Poona and Belgaum. I got mixed up with about 20 elephants before I noticed no mahouts, and a kind of interest in the Citroen by the elephants, and suddenly realised I was mixed up in a wild herd — I don’t think that Citroen ever turned round so fast. They cleared off in about 20 minutes and I resumed my journey. After the Citroen came a Trojan, with solid, narrow tyres. You had to have a good search round to find the engine. On one occasion I kept going over a railway crossing and must have bounced over 2 ft. into the air. Another time I was going out to Jehu Beach for a swim and at one part it was necessary to charge through loose sand to avoid getting stuck. I duly charged and when I had to take violent avoiding action to miss a palm tree I forgot the solid rear axle and duly rammed the tree with a resounding big bump — there was a crash and a peculiar moan from my passenger as he subsided on the floor. I found that I had dislodged a coconut that had come through my hood top and knocked out my companion. He soon recovered. The biggest fault with the Trojan was that it was the only one in Bombay and people spotting the car knew I was around and that was not always convenient, so I parted with it. A Dodge two-seater followed and I remember the car with affection for it never let me down and gave a good silent ride.
A leave came up and so with a companion I decided to drive home in an eight-cylinder Cadillac. No incidents of note, except that between Damascus and Tiberius at a place called El Kunetora we ran into a snowstorm that marooned us. They had not had any rain for seven years, but we had to catch the whole lot in the form of snow. It took two days to clear a way and we joined in with a convoy of the Nairn Transport. During the enforced stay the French military forces supplied us with “soup” that I found out was made principally from sparrows they had shot.
At home, a 14/40 two-seater Vauxhall came my way, a rather heavily-built car but very reliable and comfortable. In the home stable we had a 21-h.p. Lanchester that was fitted with a beautiful locally-made body but the completed car weighed 2 tons. I know that the painting was by hand and was magnificent. Each year the body was rubbed down and 10 coats of varnish applied by hand, and this took six weeks. Mechanically the car was a treat to examine, but the soft rear springing used to make my wife “sea-sick.” Once, doing about 25 m.p.h. through Preston, there was a horribly expensive noise from the engine. A look under the bonnet showed a large piece of crankcase missing. The pistons were of composite construction, known as Inver-strut, and the two pieces had parted and it needed £70 to get the engine running again.
I went East again and this time bought a two-seater Lea-Francis, quite a pretty car but not suitable for use in the Punjab, so I parted and bought a Buick. This was a very good, reliable car and a few times in the dry season I covered more than 500 miles in the day with no effort. A year later I traded the Buick for a 17.7-h.p. Morris Oxford, a nice-looking job but not good enough for the conditions it had to work under, having no power to speak of and poor brakes. I made the mistake or setting up the front springs and got such terrific wheel-wobble I had to remove, temper and set them down again. Also, once in Lucknow I found a rear wheel a matter of 12 in. further out than it should be. I had to stud and weld the axle casing to get mobile again, for no spares were available in India. I changed to a new Model-A Ford four-seater, quite a good and a nippy car but I could not keep pace with the renewal of the welded spokes in the wheels so I sold it and bought a Dodge tourer. This was a comfortable, reliable car and the only incident of note was when my Indian driver turned it over avoiding a pi-dog. When I found I had no broken bones I demonstrated on my driver that I was not satisfied with being damaged for the sake or a pi-dog and afterwards no violent evading action was ever taken. These scavenger dogs are often riddled with rabies and ticks and often lie in the road. Being practically the same colour as the dusty road they are difficult to see. A year of very good service from the Dodge and I changed to a Morris tourer which gave me very much better service than the saloon. It never let me down even when pulling a trailer with my kit and office equipment, also ice box and the usual fillings. It could pull a load better than it could carry it but it was not as good a car for the conditions as the Dodge. Anyone who has travelled from Delhi to Mussorir over dry river beds will know the conditions I mean.
I had another change of climate and my car this time was an Oldsmobile. This car was very popular in the State of Rhode Island where I was now resident. I spent some time driving an eight-cylinder Cadillac between Montreal and Providence — one could buy a bottle at a time in the government-controlled shops in Montreal and I used to load up the car and return to Providence! I finally decided on a change of climate when someone pushed an old Ford in my path when I was doing about 80 m.p.h. I remembered the old flying technique of never turning on take-off failure so went clean through and over the Ford. Anyway, I did not fit in with the climatic conditions, for, after years in the tropics I found “below” was far too cold.
A spell in Ulster, where for transport I had a new £100 Morris and for amusement gliding. I fitted Derrington double-leaf front springs to steady up the front end and Michelin R.L.P. tyres that carried only sixth pressure (they were grand). I did 40,000 miles of very inexpensive running in this car. It would plod along all day at around 50 m.p.h. and give 50 m.p.g. of petrol. The only regular renewals required were the oil seals in the rear hubs. I could change the felts in 30 minutes, at a cost of 2s. One big snag was the cable-operated front brakes which were more ornamental than useful.
From Northern Ireland I moved to Kent and bought a 16-h.p. Humber coupe. A very comfortable car with poor brakes most of the time but if by sweat and tears you did manage to find the right adjustment they were good. I wanted something with more room so I bought a new Hillman Minx. On the first run from Kent to Blackpool I had to hold the gear-lever to keep it in top gear. A letter to Hillmans before I had cooled down brought a replacement box to a local agent, but I was to pay for labour. I refused to pay this with my new car and Hillmans agreed to meet the bill. I did 35,000 miles in this Hillman and the only regular renewals were king-pins and track-rod ends that lasted me about 6,000 miles. A spot of bother started again and I wanted a second small car for my wife, so bought a J2 M.G. The springing on this model was so hard that I imagine if I ran over a matchstick I could feel the bump. With the hood down the racket from the exhaust was enough to give me a headache so I parted and bought a Rapier coupe — very good engine in a car that was far too heavy. It was with this car I found how disconcerting it was to start the engine with the valve cover removed. It ruined my shirt and clothes with the spray of oil. I found valve adjnstment by means of shims a very laborious job. One day the Weller tuning chain tensioner broke up and did a very thorough dental operation on the soft tuning wheel. Spares were unobtainable so I cut a circle out of a sheet of Tufnol, cut the teeth on a shaper with the aid of a dividing head and finished off with a swiss file. It got me going again and the engine was still running sweetly when I swopped, with suitable cash adjustment, for a secondhand Morris Eight. I found this turned left-hand corners very easily but had to be forced round to the right. A look underneath and I made a quick disposal sale and to keep mobile bought a Morgan three-wheeler with Anzani engine for £10. It had three good tyres and a good hood. It required some hefty swinging to get a start and being resident in Scotland I found that the exertion of starting on top of porridge was not good for me so I parted with the Morgan for £20 and bought a Series E Morris Eight. This was satisfactory right from the start and carried me through to the end of the war. As I was on duty making things that go bang I was out at alI times and the Morris did 50,000 miles with me. I managed to buy a crashed G.P.O. Morris van with intact engine and gearbox and installed this whilst I overhauled my original engine and by selling the ex-G.P.O. set paid for the overhaul and left a profit. The war ended and I sold for £350 what I had bought for £150 and was thus able to buy a 1½-litre Riley. This had to wait awhile in the garage whilst I skated about Europe in a Humber battle-wagon. It was most exciting with this to go full out down an autobahn and then have to find anchors when you reached a bridge that wasn’t there. It was inviting a funeral to do it at night. I returned to the Riley and very early found that the smell of the new leather made my wife so sick she could not ride in it so, finding eager buyers queueing on the doorstep, it went. To tide us over until our next new car I bought a 1938 Fiat 500. Oh, dear — when I removed three carpets and a rug my feet went through the floor. The rear axle bottomed over any small hole and the clutch slipped, so off came the body and it was rolled over on the lawn and a new floor welded in and at the same time the mudguards were welded to the body, followed by a rub down and repaint. The engine, gearbox, axles, etc., were removed and a start made on derusting, welding-in stiffeners, and painting. All major mechanical parts were overhauled and reassembled. It then ran very well but I found, after expensive experience, that the crankshaft must be reground annually and over one-thou. clearance on rear main oil got through to the clutch. I also found it beneficial to renew the set screws holding clutch to flywheel and dip them in Hermatite before screwing home. The original cost was £250 and it took many months and a further £150 to get it to my satisfaction. Then it would purr along all day at 45/50 m.p.h. and give 55 m.p.g. I had done so much to this car that I knew each nut and bolt and which were Whitworth, Metric or B.A., and could remove the engine from car to bench in 1½ hours. I think this car has the best heating system I have ever driven at any price. It was only a cable and spring flap on the backhead between the radiator and was so simple and so good. My new car now came along — a 12-h.p. Wolseley. It was very nice and comfortable but just a continuation of the pre-war model — very heavy body with an engine that had not near enough power to propel it with vigour. As purchasers were about with ready cash, away went the Wolseley. and I think I took delivery of a new Ford Zephyr. This was a grand car and after renewal of a faulty clutch and silencer and a modification to the steering without charge by Gates of Woodford, it gave me excellent service. I had heard tales of back-axle trouble and all sorts of faults but my Zephyr never faltered in 37,000 miles and always everything worked and when I sold it it still had two of the original tyres. I could get a good 80 m.p.h. and 24 m.p.g. The latter good consumption was by careful carburetter tuning and cutting down the stroke of the accelerator pump.
I was now living in Scotland with a 7½ miles journey to the office night and morning over narrow hilly roads, with occasional visits to Glasgow. I found the Zephyr very skittish on Glasgow’s wet cobbles but soon found it was only a matter of driving technique to overcome the skittishness. A very good offer for the Zephyr and away it went for a Morris Minor convertible. This was a s.v. model and I found the lack of urge getting on my nerves. The gearbox was a delight to use, and it had to be used very frequently! The hood rattled and let in the icy draughts of winter so I changed for the o.h.v. saloon when it came out — a decided itnprovement in urge but nothing like the silkiness of the old gearbox. I started off with S.A.E.5 Plus oil in the engine and gearbox and covered 10,000 miles very satisfactorily before I changed to S.A.E.20. The only hold up in the 17,000 miles it has covered has been a broken fan belt. It has very good performance and first-class steering and roadholding. The only modifications have been to remove 1½ in. from the front-seat tubes and 2 in. from the rear tubes to bring my eye line below the sweep of the wiper blades and make seating more comfortable, fit a clip to the cubby holes to prevent ejection of contents, fit a radiator blind and temperature gauge ammeter, spot and reversing lights. My wife held on to the Fiat 500 until she wanted more room and changed for a new Ford Popular. This was a very rough vehicle both in noise and on the road so it was changed for a new-style Ford Prefect de Luxe. This was quite a comfortable car, but suffered from a noise transmitted through the gear-lever. The only offer Fords made was to change the gearbox, but with the remark “It may be no better than the existing one.” One so-called expert had the temerity to tell me the noise was in the air intake. When I played a tune by grasping with varying tightness the gear-lever he appreciated my language. No cure was in sight and as the noise irritated me a great deal I parted with the last Ford I shall buy, at a big loss to get rid of it.
Looking back on nearly fifty years of motoring, I would sum-up as follows :
The greatest pleasure to drive Vauxhall 30/98
The most comfortable Dodge tourer
The most reliable Dodge tourer
The best engine Ford Zephyr
The best heated Fiat 500
The most economical Morris Minor
The fastest safely Ford Zephyr
The biggest nerve-irritant Ford Prefect