Cars I have owned, by Geoffrey Stephenson – seen in the coat he exchanged for a motorcycle!
It is an unfortunate aspect of economics that with motor cars as with many other blissful practices the average man doesn’t begin to get his hands on the more attractive goods until he is almost too old to appreciate them. Still, youthful eyes can look upon some pretty horrid bits of kit with enthusiasm and pride of ownership. The enthusiasm keeps us on the road and the pride impels us to nurse them tenderly and devote many diligent hours to polishing and adjustment when we are grounded by shortage of fuel or other such hazards.
Certainly in my ease most of the earlier mounts were pretty tired hacks, and long journeys were not to be undertaken lightly. But I never seemed to mind the roadside wrestling with improvised spanners, the not infrequent walks home. And when I got married there was always someone to push.
On the profit side the Iessons learned have saved a small fortune in garage bills since, and I have learned much about my fellow men such as the cheery plausible rogues who look my hard-earned gold with a langnage all their own: “Good Runner,” for the one without brakes; “Enthusiast’s Car,” for the one that rarely ran at all.
Like most lads I first took to the roads on two wheels – in my case on a rather dreary 250-c.c. Calthorpe. At this age with the usual shortage of tools and cash for spare parts there’s much to be said for an apprenticeship with a simple single-cylinder motorbike: tax and insurance are cheap, running costs are low and there’s not much to go wrong at a stage when you don’t know too much about putting it right. Another bonus to all but the most foolhardy bestowed by the noticeable feeling of vulnerability is the early respect for roadcraft one learns. But I wasn’t content to motor on two wheels for long: winters were cold, and besides the skin on my hands, elbows and knees couldn’t be permancutly expendable! An opportunity for four-season mischief was soon sought.
The first car, which perhaps merits inclusion only because it was the first, was a 1934 Wolseley Nine. I remember it as something of a find, having been bought rather improvidently by a chronic invalid and upon whose demise 12,000 miles later languishing in a garage until I found it in 1945. A robust little car with a nicely made engine, it seemed the last word to me at the time, though it can’t have been much of a performer. But it was warm and dry – and my first. The poor Wolseley never got its breathing right after a bit cracked off the induction manifold. Nobody would weld it for me and all this modern plastic metal was not to be had then. So it was bunged up more or less effectively with plasticine and sold to another optimist. Next followed a ’37 Minx as far as I can remember, a car which doesn’t now even seem to warrant a new paragraph.
After this I, benefited from three hand-me-downs in a row front my father, a patient man who should have kept his garage locked. The first one was a ’34 Humber Vogue. This always looked as if it should have done great things, but the sluggish and thirsty four-cylinder s.v. donkey propelled it very moderately. Anyway, the cable brakes were so unpredictable that it would have been unwise to coax more than its indicated maximum of 65 m.p.h. out of it. Two hours painstaking and grimy adjustment would produce just one good stop; one never knew whether to squander it in a test application to see if the job had been done properly, or to save it for the first emergency. I had my only shunt in this car, running into the back of a bus which stopped much quicker than I could in Fenchurch Street – the bonnet came off and flapped across into the opposite gutter, like a great black night-hawk. Everyone was very civil about it, though the Old Man spoke to me a little sharply. Memorable, too, was the upholstering of the rear seat cushion – you blew it up. The car would then be full of beery fumes for five minutes until it went down again. Eventually the passengers came to resign themselves to a bruise on the rear axle every time we went over a cigarette end, rather than re-inflate the damn thing. Towards the end so much pressure was required on the brake pedal that the front floorboards would come up and tilt back the driver and his unsuspecting passenger to a jaunty angle – a useful side effect being the simultaneous application of the handbrake. It wouldn’t stop, so it had to go.
Then came a real motor car, in the shape of a 1934 Wolverhampton-built Sunbeam 25. This was about the last “real” Sunbeam to come out, though I believe that an even later series had a centre-change lever. On mine the change was on the right, and stirred the most beautiful twin-top silent-third gearbox. Changes between the upper two ratios really were as quick as the hand could move, with just a whiff of the clutch. First and second were straight-cut and unsynchronised and were not so easy to find. I had this car in Germany for three years and during my tour a complete overhaul of the engine was carried out by a small but competent local garage. The mechanics were most impressed at the high quality of the relatively small capacity engine – under three and a half litres to shift over two tons of metal and wood. The seven-mainbearing crankshaft with its circular webs reputed to have been machined from the solid billet was quite a sight when we’d managed to lift it onto the bench. I wonder it needed a flywheel. Even after the overhaul it ran on in terrifying low oil pressure, but a man I once met who had been concerned in the original building of these engines told me not to worry if I had any at all. It certainly pulled well and would project the massive body through space at over 80 m.p.h. I once towed a modern 1-1/2-litre-piece of tinware on a deserted autobahn (twelve years ago) for twenty miles at speeds in excess of the latter’s maximum. I know this was stupid and please I won’t do it again but it illustrates what a goer the old Sunbeam was. I brought her home from Germany in 1950 when I was to be stationed in London for a spell. Alas! the expense was too great and early in 1951 I sold her to a Sunbeam merchant somewhere in Honnslow. I got just enough on the deal to buy an engagement ring. “You won’t drive far on that,” the Old Man commented drily.
Next I found myself in Eire for eight months. There are few better places to go motoring, and the second-hand car market even in those days was sane enough. In a bit of a hurry I bouht not too wisely (but not too dearly) a 1935 Standard 12. This got me about adequately and left room for guns and greyhounds in the back. The only thing I recall now about it is the lesson I learned about the non-effectiveness in reverse of its Bendix brakes. I and a friend had set out to see his girl friend (I was now engaged, remember) who lived at the top of a steep hill when, halfway up, the fuel pump retired hurt. My ardent companion would not be deterred and perched himself on the front wing with a Guinness bottle full of petrol and rusty water persuaded from the tank with the indispensible fiddle-pipe. This was a great success until, our goal in sight, the bottle fell from his overexcited grasp.
We went backwards quite slowly at first but as I began to get the hang of steering between the stone walls in reverse I became a little more enterprising, which was a mistake. At this stage the disappointed swain had not realised that the pilot was not quite in control of the situation, and when he did get the message we were going too fast for him to bale out. We came into the junction at the bottom at a very fair clip and I tried to go left hand down a shade to follow the fortunately deserted main road. Self-centring in reverse being what it is, or, rather, what it is not, the wheel flew through my hands to full left lock. The car spun violently and, mercifully, absorbed all its energy pirouetting in the middle of the road, taking its bow gracefully on two wheels before crashing back on all four with an almighty thump. Enough mud fell from underneath it to fill all the pots at the Chelsea flower show. I wouldn’t care to repeat this manoeuvre and my mate says he won’t ever play on the wing again. But we both think it would be fun to watch.
Back in England having sold the Standard for £12, I acquired a “Y” Ford. Brakeless, lightless and steeringless like all its brethren of that type and age I was glad enough to be rid of it though it was followed only by an Austin heavy Twelve landaulette. If yon see this description in a small ad it means “old London taxi.” So it was, and gave as much fun. I kept it several months and spent almost as much time trying to start it as I did driving it: the magneto was passed its prime. But once it was going the occupants saw much of the country from the high old oversprung body. The front end just occasionally developed a touch of ground resonance which as any helicopter pilot will tell you, is not good. We had to sell the taxi before the starting handle wore out; the deep brown note of its bulb horn was sadly missed.
The last-described machine was a bit draughty, and when at the wheel I sometimes wore it rather raffish white coat with a king-size zipper. One day I met a motorcyclist at an inn who took it liking to this weird garment. I in turn facied his bike, so we traded on the spot. It was a 1922 Raleigh, with enormous wheels and a total-loss lubrication system. The front brake consisted of a block of some black stuff on a lever which was brought to bear on a V-section channel attached to the spokes. As far as I could see the effect of this contraption depended on the weather: if it was dry the brake block smouldered and smelled, and if it was wet it scooped the water out of the “drum” and threw it over your feet. There was no discernible effect on your rate of progress. It was a good machine for all that, and I was sorry to part with it.
The next addition was an “exhausted Seven.” This was the most witless purchase I ever made, the engine being in a shocking condition. Unfortunately the body was so attractive that I was beguiled by the previous owner into parting with £60 for it, heedless even of the fact that he wore P.T. shoes when we did business. Although of 1930 vintage, this Austin had a brand-new “rag” body and the notion of cleaning it with boot polish and brushes appealed to me. When other cars rusted if neglected, mine suffered from mildew. The front doors occasionally opened of their own volition and had therefore to be secured between the inside handles with an old pyjama cord. This provoked many vulgar and rather hurtful sallies from certain of my alighting passengers. The last-mentioned three were sold together for £45 and I went back to the Fatherland.
My first purchase on my return to Germany was a Hansa 1100 built by what is now the Borgward company in Bremen. This was a 1939 model, and like several other small German cars of that era was an odd mixture of ancient and modern. It was independently sprung on transverse leaf springs all round, although a front-engined car. The motort was a compact, efficient. o.h.v. unit but the torque multiplication was obtained through a nasty little crash box. At least it had four speeds. It looked not unlike a 11 c.v. Citroën and was as sure-footed – until I began to suspect that the independent rear end was beginning to get it on the steering act. Off it had to go.
An ex-W.D. Austin Utility with two Valor oil stoves connected in parallel and screwed to the floor in the back next gave indifferent service until I could get my hands on a delightful B.M.W. cabriolet. Although something of a hybrid – it had been assembled by an enthusiast in 1952 and seemed to be a 321/326/327 combination – it went well and felt good, the narrow 2-litre engine giving lots of urge low down. It was not, however, a fast car, having a maximum of under 80 m.p.h.; I fancy it was under-geared. The permanent freewheel on second as well as first gear caused many a set of pale ears amongst the “please may I try it round the block?” fraternity.
The B.M.W. was a good example of running into avoidable expense by delaying repairs because of short funds until the last moment. I did not replace some very worn universals in the prop.-shaft until far too late, so that a few months later the car devoured its back axle with an ugly crunch. The consequent obtaining of spare parts by the circulation of photographs of the broken pieces cost a good fat sum. I found the bits I needed in Hambourg in a small garage which had specialised in B.M.W.s since before the war. Under dust sheets in the workshop were an immaculate 328 model and a most exciting 1941 car very like a post-war Bristol 400 but with individual bucket seats in rear as well as in front. It might have been bought at the end of some legal wrangle at that time still awaiting a hearing for about £175. I still have the address…
By now I was serving in France, and the first opportunity presented itself to buy a new car. The Wolseley 1500 had just been announced and looked as if it couldn’t be bad – with some decent tyres and an anti-roll bar, and perhaps a little bit off the head. In my opinion it is under-braked and an over well suspended, and the first dampers were feeble (mine were replaced fairly under guarantee). But what else is there at the price? The Riley 1.5 is scarcely faster flat out; I know it revs. more freely in the indirect ratios but the engine probably won’t last so long. The finish is good and the whole car looks like lasting well – mine has nearly 40,000 on the clock and has only had a of decokes (and a new timing chain). Oil consumption on 10/30 multigrade is negligible still. But why don’t they leave out the backdoors and make it £30 cheaper? They’re too small to be of any real value. Whilst waiting for the 1500 I ran a ’54 Minor for a few months, after which the handling of the Wolseley was a disappointment.
The best comes last. In France I bought, for a song, a 1938 right-hand-drive Hispano-Suiza from the original owner. When delivered to me by his chauffeur there were but 50,000 miles on the counter and she was complete down to the detachable roof trunk, handbook and tools. This was the K6 5.2-litre model with the center-change three-speed box – perhaps not to be compared with a V12, but certainly the best car I have ever driven. It had a fuse for each separate circuit floor (four the two headlamps, for instance), hidden jewel boxes, separate heater for the back, wind-driven horns, and just about everything else. To drive it was not as smooth as, say, a Rolls-Royce produced at the same time, but there was a true vintage feel about it: steering and brakes were impeccable. I had to part with it before my return to England but for once I did so at a reasonable advantage. This was certainly the once in a lifetime.
That’s about the lot to date. I am as sorry s my readers that there haven’t been more truly sporting cars to describe, but funds have always limited the field a bit, and a tired sports car is perhaps the worst buy of all. I have left out many cars because nothing noteworthy about them or because I just didn’t keep them long enough. What are the lessons I ought to have learned? The most important one for the marginal motorist, as so many of us are at the beginning, is to beware of the vicious circle of buying a car so clapped out or expensive to run that funds can never be accumulated to move on to something better. And whatever may be said about compulsory testing of roadworthiness it will get a lot of junk off the bomb-sited and back into salmon tins where it belongs.
Elstree Flying Club
It is pleasing to note that private flying is not quite extinct in this country. Indeed, last summer Elstree Flying Club had so many students tinder instruction that they had to refuse any new ones. Now they have more Chipmunks, more instructors and look forward to operating from 8 a.m. until dusk seven days a week on the better days of 1960. You can book with them by telephoning Elstree 3070 – and social membership at half-a-guinea per annum sounds a good bet too.