Cars I Have Owned

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by L. R. Hiscock

A Trio of Open Ones. — The author’s Triumph TR2, Porsche 1600S and Jaguar 150s/e show discernment in the choice of cars. and a love of fresh air.

It was around 1919, probably for my seventeenth birthday, that my father presented me with an A.V. monocar. Those were in many respects the golden days of individuality, for if the A.V. was no engineering masterpiece, its rakish line and angry bark supplied all that was necessary to satisfy the most fastidious schoolboy’s idea of a “racing car.”

It was a single-seat contraption, a negligible chassis bodied by a slender sharply-pointed scarlet-painted shell made up of beaten-out biscuit tins and powered by a V-twin J.A.P. engine set over the back wheels. A two-speed epicyclic train supplied the gears (there was no reverse), starting was by a pull-up chain and the steering was by cable. Any passenger sufficiently bold to venture a ride sat side-saddle and entirely unprotected across the body behind the driver.

The A.V. met an ignominious end. Rounding a gentle bend in fair chat on the Portsmouth Road near Guildford, it encountered a herd of cows. Needless to say there were virtually no brakes and the result was calamitous. We swept the bits sorrowfully to one side and walked home. To add to our humiliation the cow that took the brunt — literally, the point — was completely unruffled.

Next came a Douglas motorcycle with sidecar. I had my eye fixedly on a Model-9 Norton on offer in Oxford and the Douglas, going cheap, was merely a stepping stone in the deal. Never having ridden on two wheels the journey from London was perhaps an over-ambitious undertaking. All went well, however, for the first part. Then, somewhere in the country, a temporary lapse in concentration, not helped by the fact that the throttle functioned in a reverse direction to that of the A.V., which also had a hand throttle, and the thing was out of control, across the road and through the hedge. Mercifully, it was more or less unscathed, and with a little gentle bending assistance from a passing lorry driver we were able to press on. The Norton proved quite an experience. It was fitted with a device called, I believe, a Phillipson pulley; which theoretically allowed the belt to slip sufficiently to provide a condition approximating to neutral. I suppose on the roads today the machine would be undrivable. You pushed madly and leapt on; if you failed on a hill, you went back to square one and made a fresh start. For my departure from Oxford I sat on and others pushed. What happened for the rest of the trip, at least as far as Camberley, remains a blank. It must have been slightly hazardous. Anyway, at Camberley, undoubtedly travelling too fast, we came on a blind hairpin, and well on the wrong side were caught fairly between an oncoming car and a wall. Damage, two bent footrests (where were my feet?), but nothing else that needed immediate attention. The local blacksmith fixed it and again all was well until we reached Guildford. Then came the Law ….

A straight-through exhaust was only partly to blame. I explained my ignorance of matters mechanical to a sympathetic ear; suggesting tentatively that perhaps a too-rich mixture might be responsible. Advice was at once forthcoming and with the greatest goodwill: to stop at the nearest garage and fill up with something different, something less noisy! Happy, simple days, long since departed. The Model-9, despite its limitations, was reasonably fast and great fun. Our yardstick in those days was 60 m.p.h.; now, of course it is the “ton.” It was replaced in due course by a 16H (three-speed box), another admirable machine, followed by a “90-bore” Zenith and a Martinsyde Quicksix. Of these the former was lethal and not even fast, the latter so dull that I remember nothing of it. There is, however, a story which, at this interval of time, might be repeated for the more broadminded. The Quicksix went to a sporting friend who in due course set fire to it and with the proceeds invested in a new suit, a gramophone and a wife!

Thus ended a sort of apprenticeship. I must have been around 22 and in my final years as a student, when my father, again to the rescue, bought, I think from Violet Cordery, a hybrid called a Silver Hawk. This in its day may have been fast, it was the forerunner of the famous Invicta and resembled closely in appearance the Riley Redwing. Miss Cordery had, I believe, raced it and it came to us with numbers (I wonder just how far that influenced the purchase!). Fitted with a 1½-litre four-cylinder overhead-camshaft Sage engine (quite advanced I suppose for around 1920 when it was born), it had gas lamps, wire wheels, with brass-stud tyres and battery on the running-board.

In those days, believe it or not, even a motoring holiday in remote Cornwall was a mild adventure, especially as one was young enough to dress the part, aero-screens, flying helmet and goggles all essential to the full enjoyment. Stupidly, perhaps, I then kept a ten-bob note in my driving licence against the inevitable cash shortage on the return trip. An encounter with the police in Romsey cured that. Stopped for exceeding the limit, I was fined £5 and told to think myself lucky to escape so lightly !

Following the Hawk came an H.E. (out of which it was necessary to chop a segment of steering wheel in order to see the road), a pleasant enough motor with a maximum of around 65/70 m.p.h., but fairly dicey in the wet.

Here one might pause. I was breathing on the window of Barclay and Wyse in Great Portland Street. There at the back, behind several standard Vauxhall Velox 30/98s, was another: a special-bodied 1921 model, ex-Humphrey Cook road and hillclimb car, the “Lady of the Lake,” then used by Barclay as a tender for the T.T. car. At Leslie Wyse’s suggestion we adjourned to the local. We took it round the block. We returned to the local to barter. The price was £350 or thereabouts. I scraped the barrel, put a cheque in the post for tax, rang my insurance company, and took home what proved to be a real motor car.

Someone once said that to see a person hitting a ball skilfully was to experience a number of pleasing emotions, but to let oneself go too unrestrainedly left nothing for the man who won the Victoria Cross. To all that has been written and said through the years about the 30/98 Vauxhall, only one thing need be added: that every word is true. Here was a car without peer.

It must be remembered that these were the early ‘twenties. The 30/98 was not fast by today’s standards. Furthermore, nostalgia has probably heightened its qualities and allowed one to forget the faults, if there were any. Enthusiasts for that illustrious contemporary, the first of the Bentleys, the 3-litre, will probably rate that it’s equal. I never owned or drove one, and cannot unfortunately recall the outcome of any battles. It would, however, outstrip the 3-litre Invicta, also of that era, though by no great margin.

There was a drill in starting from cold that may today seem tortuous but was in fact all part of the fun. Our senses then had not been dulled by sophistication; cars of this calibre were rare birds and everything to do with them was exciting. One pumped up pressure from the dash, primed through the plugs (even a Ki-Gass came later), stuffed a rag in the carburetter intake, sucked in on the handle and switched on. Usually a single pull-up was sufficient. Ticking over — the stroke, 150 mm. — produced a gentle rocking of the chassis and a beat you could count. The Velox did an effortless 70 in third and rather over 80 in top (3 to 1) at well under 3,000 r.p.m. Rear wheel brakes and one on the transmission were reasonably adequate, but it needed watching — though no more so than certain modern machinery — in the wet.

Such was my affection for this 30/98 that I owned her three times. On the first occasion she went in a weak moment in exchange for a standard Velox, but only for a few months. Then to W. B. Scott, from whom I bought her back. Finally and foolishly she gave place to a 12/50 Alvis, probably of financial necessity.

Over the next few years came all sorts of things, good, bad and indifferent. The 12/50 and then a 12/60 Alvis, both sturdy and satisfactory; a “Cup Model” Austin Seven which revved madly but, would not stand up to hard cornering, the fabric body disintegrating and the electrics always catching fire. A little Fiat of eight or nine horses, that had the heart of a lion and performed magnificently within its limits; a Hyper Lea Francis, ex-team car, that made so much noise for so little return that I flogged it for a Frazer Nash — and the least said of that heap the better. Out of around the thirty or so cars I have sampled to date, this was, way out and ahead of all, the worst.

We were, of course, young, enthusiastic and slightly mad. They were happy days because the roads were more or less empty. Probably that alone kept us out of serious trouble. Bob Beverley had an Austro-Daimler, Tim Carson a 30/98, Don Lewis Johns a Salmson, Spencer Wilkin a 45-h.p. Renault; other names have gone. The Austro-Daimler held the after-closing-time record from the “Talbot” At Ripley, to the “White Lion” at Cobham. Tim’s 30/98 was best from the 43-Club in Gerrard Street to the clock in Guildford High Street. Beyond those I remember only a drive from Guildford after dinner and on the spur of the moment to Weston-super-Mare and back before breakfast (the lady wasn’t there!) Carson was far and away the best of the drivers, one of the few with whom one always felt completely happy. Later he bought Barclay’s T.T. car, raced it a bit and held at least one Class record. I remember a sad occasion at Brooklands when, warming it up, a piston went, and an even sadder one when, the engine having been rebuilt, the frost caught it and split the block. I believe later Tim turned the chassis upside down and fitted the engine from the 30/98. [Illustrated in Motor Sport at the time. — Ed.]

And now to the Bentley era, first a standard 4½, then a Le Mans Replica 4½, and finally a modified Speed Six, ex-John Hindmarsh and Ken Waller. Robust and tolerably fast all of them, though never with the appeal of the 30/98. The Le Mans-type had been caned to glory before I had it and wasn’t the easiest thing to keep on the road. The Speed Six was a magnificent beast, murderous on petrol, quite delightful for a long journey. Later I bought a 4½-litre Park Ward drophead, which cost the earth in 1945, and although coming from one of the Official Retailers gave endless trouble, breaking pistons, half-shafts and heaven knows what else. Apart from which, 85 was about its maximum.

To complete the list before passing to more modern machinery, there was a Morris Cowley (excellent), an Amilcar (bloody), a 2-litre Lagonda (spineless, mostly through poor gear ratios), an A.B.C. air-cooled twin (good far what it was), a Standard Nine (jolly good runabout) and a Zephyr (dull but capable). Also a Speed Twenty Alvis, with no performance, that I bought around 1934. having failed to get delivery of an SS100, first announced at the Show around that time.

We come now to 1937. The Speed Twenty went to Henlys with no regrets in part exchange for the long desired 3½ SS100, 8,000 miles on the clock, price around £350. Here was a motor which matched the 30/98 in appeal and naturally completely outstripped it in performance. It gave no trouble whatsoever, handled magnificently up to 100 (on the clock), and was a sheer joy to drive. It went with me into the R.A.F. in late 1939, when its only fault — the petrol tank suffered under the rear whip of the chassis and repeatedly, despite the introduction of rubber buffers, split its seams — was by-passed by mounting a rather hideous substitute tank over the tail, in the manner of the early days racing cars. It lasted the war and into the peace and at rising 40,000 miles, when everything was getting a bit sloppy, wnet to a dealer in the North for £700. Shame on his head, I saw it advertised shortly after — with the clock wound back to 20,000!

After the SS too came the 4½ Bentley mentioned earlier, with first a Standard Nine and then an M.G. TD as a second car. The TD, almost new, was a washout: 65 m.p.h. I took it in desperation to Abingdon and even their tester, after fiddling, couldn’t wind it above 70. I remember the occasion for an incident which still seems uncommonly funny. It was just before Easter. I sat for an interminable time, far more than an hour, in the reception office in which there were two desks and two clerks. The desks were more or less bare and the three of us carried on a desultory conversation to wile away the time. Very occasionally the ‘phone would ring or someone would come in with a trivial inquiry. The only matter of any consequence that occurred, and caused quite a flap, concerned a request from a customer for a pot of touching-up paint. I cannot remember the details (it might have been a special colour) only that it was all so trivial that I was amazed, not only that there should be so little to occupy these chaps, but that this small item of business should cause such an upheaval. Then came the pièce de resistance. One of them turned apologetically to me and said quite seriously: “You know, it’s always like this before Easter. You get snowed under!”

The TD went, its place taken by a Triumph TR2, which I still have. To date it has done about 35,000 and merits nothing but the highest praise. People say they are tail-happy. I haven’t found it so. The front drum brakes are apt to snatch a bit when wet, but the weight layout, steering, gearbox and of course the engine, leave nothing to be desired. Value for money, first class. Certainly I shall have another. For more serious motoring we bought in 1957 (I think) a DB2 Aston Martin, 1934 vintage. I didn’t care for it. It may have been ill-treated, I didn’t like the driving position and I suspected, not without reason as things were to turn out, its road-holding. First I fitted a new set of well-known “speed” tyres. The car was almost unmanageable in the wet and the tyre manufacturers took them back, in silence, and supplied a further set of an improved pattern without charge. Returning from the South of France a year or so ago, the Aston began to lose oil pressure. I nursed it home and sent it to the works on the St. Austell-Paddington car ferry: it was by then, though running at normal temperature and apparently quite happy, showing virtually no reading on the tick over. The engine was a wreck and the works fitted a replacement and at the same time overhauled the chassis. It came back running like a sewing-machine. Sad to say, there was still the matter of road-holding. The back broke without warning on a steep wet corner out of Lostwithiel, the front followed and we hit a truck. The heap fetched £300 where it stood; it would have been unsafe and far too expensive to rebuild.

So what to do …? I wanted a Porsche — I’d ordered a D-type at the Show in 1958 and been unable to get delivery — but my wife wouldn’t wear an engine at the back after the Aston incident. We settled for a Jaguar 150 s/e drophead. Even it the back end is out of date it’s a nice motor car, wonderful value for money, bags of urge in great comfort. It took us to Provence and back last spring, at nearly 23 m.p:g. Of course I like it, why not? And of course one respects one’s wife’s opinion. Furthermore, I’ve only driven a Porsche once and then not for long. I wish I could forget it. Nice motor car …

In conclusion, things tempting that were resisted. A huge rotary-valve Itala, heaven knows how many horses, that had turned and killed its owner on the Hog’s Back. Jointly with Tim Carson (and not very seriously, although it needed only £50 apiece) Ernest Eldridge’s 300-h.p. Fiat “Mephistopheles,” hidden away in a Kingston garage. Pat Densham’s Brescia Bugatti. An unusual Thomas Special, closely resembling an early Aston. Last of all, and many years ago, a Tiumph 2000 roadster, immaculate and so far below the market price that there had to be a snag. There was, of course, as the R.A.C. discovered; several hundred outstanding on the late owner’s hire purchase!

Since the above was written it has been found necessary to add a postscript, raising a nice point — are the Porsche’s charms irresistible?

It is perhaps too early to form a judgment, for a new one, a roadster 1600S, 12,000 miles, has been with us only a fortnight. My wife’s enthusiasm is no less than my own! You drive it with your fingertips, the gearbox is like velvet. It spins effortlessly up to three figures, with plenty in hand, sticks to the road and stops. The finish and attention to detail, even down to the instruction book, inspire a confidence which brings home all too forcibly the shortcomings of many British manufacturers. Bearing in mind Bernard Darwin’s earlier plea for restraint in exhuberance, we’ll let it go at that. I wouldn’t be surprised if this motor isn’t the whole answer.