By Air Commodore H. V. Rowley
I always read this feature of Motor Sport with interest tinged with envy. For most of the authors seem to be blessed with enough cash to provide a succession of exotic machinery beyond the purse of a poor Air Force Officer. But even a serving officer, not blessed with private means, may have quite an amusing lot of motor cars, in spite of his hobby being interrupted periodically by the Kaiser, Mr. Hitler, and long spells of foreign service.
It all began in 1910 when I had reached the advanced age of 13. We lived in a country vicarage so far away from anywhere that eventually I persuaded my poor old dad to buy a car for the family, on the condition that I would drive and maintain it. How he saved up the money on his income of £240 per annum I don’t know, but anyway, one day he parted with the noble sum of £40 and we became the only motorists in a radius of some ten miles. That first car was a wonderful machine called the Premier Motorette. Never shall I forget it, and we soon christened it “Rehaboam” after the somewhat eccentric Biblical character who promised, in a moment of abandon, to chastise his people with scorpions.
“Rehaboam” was a three-wheeler whose design was based on the famous A.C. Sociable. Indeed it was almost an exact copy of the A.C., except for a water-cooled engine of massive construction, having two enormous fly-wheels and two huge brass radiators, slung one each side of the single cylinder. As in the A.C., drive was by a single chain to the back wheel, in which was an epicyclic reduction gear. Steering was by tiller, engine control by Bowden cable and hand throttle, while the two-speed gear was operated by a combination of pedal and lever. It was a morning’s work to start it up, but, once going, the engine would thump along at a steady 500 r.p.m. quite regardless of throttle opening. Top speed was about 20 m.p.h. and speed on low gear about 2 m.p.h. On gentle slopes the procedure was to make the passenger disembark over the beetle-back tail and push to keep the contraption in top. Otherwise one had to come down to bottom gear and it was far quicker to walk. “Rehaboam” got sadly neglected while I was away helping to deal with the Kaiser. The radiators leaked and the engine was almost impossible to start. However, some courageous character bought it in 1919 for the fantastic sum of £65, having first of all cycled ten miles and taken both radiators off on his back to be mended. Each radiator was fixed by some 100-odd wood screws! I was delighted to see the last of “Rehaboam.”
Cars in 1919 were quite. beyond my purse so I had a glorious interlude of motor-cycles, graduating from a Douglas, via an I.O.M. Rudge to a magnificent Zenith with the famous 90-bore o.h.v. J.A.P. twin, belt drive, and the Zenith variable-pulley gear worked by the “coffee grinder” on the tank. Top gear was 2.5-to-1 and bottom about 4.5. A glorious machine on a fine day, when it would sail along at 50 m.p.h. with no noise but the exhaust.
In 1922 I was sent out to Baghdad, seconded to the Tank Corps to take over the armoured cars. I had never driven a car except ” Rehaboam,” so obviously I was just the chap for the job. The R.A.F.-often does things like that; it keeps one’s mind alert! Soon I was an instructor on the good old “Silver Ghosts,” and, ever since, I have had a deep respect for that magnificent car. Only two cars could deal with the desert tracks— the T-model Ford and the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. However, although I had an instructional car for my own use, I cannot claim to have been the owner of a Rolls.
Coming home in 1925 I decided on an A.B.C., and soon found a second-hand one within my purse limit. Many features of that car were years in advance of their time. The four-speed gearbox had a vertical gate and it was very pleasant to work. The back axle was a lovely design and so was the big, horizontally-opposed, twin-cylinder, air-cooled engine—on paper. But theory and practice do not always tally. The back axle worked but not always the engine. The oil pump was far from reliable and the roller-bearing big-ends, which looked so nice on paper, did not look nearly as good after they had made expensive noises. I remember the oil pump failing at Bury St. Edmunds one evening. Having a most important appointment with a charming young lady I had no time to attend to the pump myself; and, knowing that Cupid is no slave to time, I asked the garage to put the car outside when they had fixed the pump. I got back to the garage about 10.30 only to find a note saying that the driving shaft had gone—so hail the last bus to my station at Martlesham Heath. It was quite a stroll back, some 30 miles, but I was on parade in the morning.
However, I had a lot of fun out of the A.B.C., especially when I asked garages to fill up the “radiator” with petrol. Then one day a young lad without a driving licence rushed out of a blind side road in a van and caught me amidships. I took to the air without a parachute, landing some ten yards away in a garden on my left hand. That wrist has never been quite the same since. Finis A.B.C., and also bank balance; for I was only insured third party, and I could get nothing out of the revolting van-boy.
I was then posted to Cranwell and a car was essential in the wilds of Lincolnshire. After much haggling I got an old Austin Seven for £15, supplementing this with a delicious old racing Scott and in Ner-a-car. The whole stud cost me under £60 and I had a mount for all occasions. Then my friend “Mary” Coningham, later Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningharn, acquired a 250-h.p. Mercedes, and I took a half share in the running costs. It was very like driving a lorry but great fun, and it was supposed to do 110 m.p.h. We managed to just exceed the “ton” (as the moderns call it) on the Fosse Way, and our best effort was a trip from the Mess at Cranwell to the “Black Boy” at Nottingham at an average speed of 61.5 m.p.h. This meant howling down the Fosse Way flat out at 100 per, for going through Newark is a slow job. A lovely fast lorry the Merc., but what a lot of machinery to carry two or three people.
I enjoyed Cranwell but my bank manager became rather restive, so, on leaving to go to the Staff College, I disposed of my entire stud, including my share of the Merc., and bought a B.S.A. three-wheeler for a very few pound notes. For a three-wheeler this car was of very advanced design with its front-wheel-drive and easily detachable back wheel. Also, the big 90 deg. twin-cylinder engine would give just over 60 m.p.h. with very little fuss. Had the designer given this little car a wider track and a lower C.G. I am sure it would still be on the market. The main snags were a terrible thirst for oil and a tendency to waltz on greasy tramlines. Coming down a hill in Bath I did two complete turns, luckily without hitting anything. After this I christened the B.S.A. “Destiny,” after the famous waltz, and I was convinced that it would be the end of me one day. However, we both survived. I went off abroad and sold “Destiny” for the fine sum of £50.
Life in Iraq can be monotonous at times, especially when there is a sandstorm lasting two or three days. I amused myself planning my motoring for the future, and finally decided to have a real, proper, six-cylinder “cad’s car.”
That of course, means the S.S.1, and a fine car it looked, with very low modern lines and lovely leather, etc. But I had a feeling in my water that the engine would not stand up long to my style of driving, so I sold it in exchange for reliability in the shape of a Ford Ten. The engine of the S.S. blew up soon after. The Ford was my first new car in 20 years’ motoring, but one can save a few pence out in Iraq. It was reliable, dull, and dangerous, being far too top heavy. So I sold it and got married.
Now when the average enthusiast trots down the aisle he has to give up his sporting two-seater and come down to a sedate saloon. But my new managing director was an enthusiast herself, having won the Ladies’ Prize in the 1938 Scottish Rally, which means quite a bit of driving. We decided on a Morgan 4/4 and had the greatest fun with it, doing tours all over Scotland and France. Almost everything fell off the Morgan in turn except the engine, gearbox, and back axle, all of which kept in a piece despite hard driving. One day in Brittany we hit a “Caniveau” doing 60 m.p.h. and the Morgan was airborne for quite a distance. As it had practically no spring movement we landed with an ‘orrible thump. Much to our surprise the only casualty was the welded rod holding the two spare wheels. A French garage man made a new bolt-on fitting to our own sketched design for the equivalent of 2s. 6d. and a cognac.
Then I fell in love with the design of the Citroën. Unlike the A.B.C. this car fulfilled its paper promise: and, since 1940, my wife and I have had no less than five of these great cars, ending up in a new Light Fifteen, the second new car of my life. The purchase was financed from the sale of two old cars, which, of course, fetched phenomenal prices after the row with Hitler was over. There is no need for me to enlarge on the excellence of these cars, for readers of Motor Sport know them well.
In 1948, I had to dispose of my lovely Light Fifteen as I had lost my job and with it my petrol ration. Not anxious to see it rust away in my barn I advertised it for sale. To my astonishment I received a curt, almost rude, note from an organisation calling itself the British Motor Trade Association, saying that, unless I could satisfy their “chief adjudicator,” Sir Something Somebody, regarding my reasons for sale, they would see that I did not get another new car. Now my Citroën was bought before the invention of that Spiv’s delight called the Covenant, and anyway I had owned it over two years.
Full of wrath I visited the offices in London, only to be told in very rude language that neither the Secretary nor the “chief adjudicator” would grant me an interview. I wrote explaining that I had only two alternatives, i.e., to watch the car rust away or to sell it and so let someone else enjoy its use. I got an answer to the effect that the B.M.T.A. would do their best to prevent me motoring again in a new car. Thank goodness this unpleasant organisation can no longer interfere with one’s legitimate affairs.
After the Citroën came a Jowett van, one of the most useful, reliable and economical vehicles I have ever owned. Performance, however, hardly equalled that of a Citroën, so, to keep myself amused, I acquired an ancient racing Morgan three-wheeler, with a very lusty o.h.v. J.A.P. V-twin engine. But it was more terrifying than amusing, and frightened me even more than “Destiny.” So I replaced it with one of my old loves, a T.T. Scott motor-cycle. Finally we cashed in on both Jowett and Scott with a nice little profit. Now we have a Morris Minor each and great fun they are to handle, even though they may not be all that fast. But either little car would give a Bentley a run for its money over 20 miles of twisty country lanes.
Your rich enthusiast may think all these add up to a dull lot of machinery; but they have given me vast fun and a lot of experience at very little cost. I have reached the conclusion that the modern car is far nicer to handle than the old types, because the modern designers have at last appreciated the need for torsional rigidity. Now they are learning the lesson, taught by Citroën, that a steel box is lighter and far stiffer than an old iron bedstead with a body tied on tap. The design of the original Hurricane wing was very like that of an orthodox chassis, i.e., a couple of beams with x-bracing. Then Sydney Camm cut out the x-bracing and discovered that a stressed-skin torsion box was stiffer, lighter, and, funnily enough, cheaper to build.
Now I am definitely a small car fan and look forward to my next “tin box,” which will be a Ford Anglia. It will not go as fast as the old 250 Merc. on the Fosse Way, but will beat the lot on cross-country averages—excepting, of course, my racing Scott and possibly the Citroëns.