Forty years of Renault

The Editor chats with H. F. Welham

The other day I two-stroked in a road-test D.K.W., skirting old derelict Brooklands Track and passing the A.B.C. factory at Hersham, on my way to Surbiton to chat about Renault cars with Mr. Welham. Regard this pilgrimage as a journey of defiance, if you like, at a time when patriots are cancelling holidays in France and turning their backs on French wine, women and cars. I can only plead ignorance of politics and consequent confusion as to whether to follow Macmillan or Beaverbrook...

You can tell Mr. Welham's premises in Surbiton Hill Road by a gay poster on the outside wall depicting a veteran Cadillac refuelling in America at a petrol pump displaying the letter S—for Sinclair gasolene—and a big painting of his well-known 1904 Cadillac beside the firm's signboard.

Originally this hill into the now extensive Surrey town where Cooper racing cars are made was called Wagon & Horses' Hill and a brick wall flanked its left-hand side, through an aperture in which you enter the Welham courtyard, formerly a stables, taken over by King Edward's chef on his retirement, and where the local tramcars were built. The chef lived in the house that is now the Wagon & Horses Public House.

It was here, in those leisurely, traffic-sparse days, in 1921 to be precise, that Mr. Welham put up some of the first petrol pumps in the locality and converted the premises into a garage. His original contact with cars was with the Loughborough Motor Works in Brixton in 1909, where he worked on taxis and de Dions. Joining the French Army on the outbreak of war, he served with the French Red Cross until August 1915, driving an Alfa-Darracq ambulance. He was then transferred to the R.A.S.C. as a skilled mechanic and coppersmith (pay 7s. 6d. a day), went out to Gallipoli and Salonica, and was invalided out when the Armistice with Bulgaria was signed. For a while he was with the Elite Garage in Streatham, repairing Renault cabs for the General Cab Co. It was this knowledge of Renaults that caused Mr. Welham to deal, first in Renault spares, later in Renault cars, at his Surbiton garage.

At first he went to France and brought back these cars but the McKenna duties killed the profits, so in 1924 he became the Renault agent for Surrey. Previous to this few new Renaults were imported, an outcome of the Moroccan war. The Renaults, when they did arrive, were the model KJ 8.3-h.p. and mass-produced 13.9-h.p. cars. The latter was apparently a very good car, but a slogger, its 2-bearing engine having a top speed of 2,900 r.p.m. The 8.3-h.p. model had an exceedingly low top-gear and invariably carried a heavy body, so its maximum speed seldom climbed above 40 m.p.h. The KJ version, having a slightly higher axle-ratio, was a little less sluggish, but little improvement was evident when this developed into the 9/15 Renault, a highly individual car with its own make of carburetter, dynastarter, etc.

The 13.9 was listed as a Speed Model, with light tulip valves, in 1933, but Renault eschewed synchromesh until around 1934, "and even then it wasn't much good."

In those early vintage days the Renault depot was at Hanger Lane, Ealing, close to the present depot, Louis Renault having sent Renault caterpillar tractors to bull-doze a raised level site out of the prevailing marshlands. The exciting model then was the great Renault 45, with a 9-litre side-valve engine. Alas, Mr. Welham recalls that it was so heavy that it became a dangerous brute at speed and killed many of those who drove it. He used to transfer the spare wheels from the back to the sides of the car to ease the inevitable tendency to tail-wag. One owner was killed when the front axle radius arms collapsed and dug into the road and I remember hearing that Segrave warned Prince Cystria, who bought a Renault 45 from him in 1924, that it was a tricky beast. The warning went unheeded and the Prince was killed before he could race the car at Brooklands.

Later 6-cylinder Renaults, such as the Monasix and Monastella, Mr. Welham told me, were no better than other small sixes of their period, but the 40-h.p. 7-litre straight-8 Reinastella, of which only three apparently reached England, and the smaller 4.2-litre Nervastella straight-8 he described as "beautiful jobs." "Why," I inquired, "did Renault bring the radiator to the front, concealing it behind shutters, on this model?" The answer was simple. The flywheel fan on which the scuttle radiator depended for cooling air made considerable noise as it was, and when Renault wanted to increase engine speed above 2,900 r.p.m. they were forced to abandon it.

The Renault 45 had 4-wheel-brakes with gearbox-driven servo, Rolls-Royce paying royalties to the Billancourt company (and to Hispano-Suiza) for cribbing it. Front-wheel brakes were applied to all models except the 8.3 h.p. by 1924 and the MT version of this model had them by 1925. Incidentally, a cone clutch was retained up to 1927 and it persisted on some models up to 1930. Renault had a charming way of describing their cars in those days—"the Light Six-Cylinder 21-h.p. Pleasure Chassis," for example.

There are, I discovered, subtle ways of learning the date of vintage Renaults, while Edwardian models are liberally date-stamped. A star was used as part of the radiator decor from the advent of the "stella" models in 1930. An individual item on the big vintage cars was a horizontal-grip to the hand-brake lever, while a subtle instance of attention to detail can be seen in the valve-caps of the pre-1914 models, those carrying the sparking plugs being serrated, their serrations engaging locking plates so that they will not unscrew with the plugs. I remarked on the beautifully clean crankcase castings of early Renaults, which I remembered from a 1911 2-cylinder I once owned and encountered again on Mr. Welham's 1907 20/30. He told me that after rough machining the castings were left to weather for up to two years in the open, before being finally machined. The foregoing scraps of Renault lore I gleaned from Mr. Welham during this brief conversation—some day someone should write a detailed technical history of a marque that was superior to most even in veteran times and was, perhaps, at its greatest eminence prior to the Kaiser War.

Mr. Welham was a pioneer member of the Cyclecar Club (now the B.A.R.C.) and in 1910/11 he built his own cyclecar, with an 1899 402-c.c. Ariel engine and friction-cum-belt drive. He used it up to the war, achieving over 82 m.p.g. in a 1913 fuel consumption contest and winning a slow/fast hill-climb in it. His opinion of big cars of that era is that Renault and Panhard built fine cars in France and that in England the best 6-cylinder chassis were Napier, then Sheffield-Simplex, followed by Rolls-Royce.

In later years Mr. Welham became very interested in veteran cars, driving many of them in early V.C.C. events. A frieze, painted by a local signwriter called Chadwick, graces the front of his premises, above the varnished wooden doors. The automobiles depicted are a 1903 Phoenix, 1900 Benz, 1904 Cadillac, the 1911 Welham, 1904 Renault, 1911 Brenabor and 1900 Progress, with all of which Mr. Welham has been associated. He is never happier, at the age of 74, than when working on the 1904 and 1907 Renaults and his 1904 Cadillac with its detachable-top Wyndham body. Various clients' cars, such as a New Orleans, 1904 Wolseley-Siddeley and a Dennis in which an 8-h.p. de Dion engine is being installed at the request of Dennis' grandson are also kept at Surbiton.

The garage tow-car is, appropriately, a 1931 21-h.p. Renault Vivastella, its 6-cylinder 3.1-litre engine and controls redolent of American practice. It is one of the few private car chassis with insufficient overhang to interfere with a tow-crane, thanks to transverse rear suspension, and it has one-shot lubrication, radiator shutters, servo brakes, dual horns, a very accessible water-pump greaser and an instrument panel that can be easily removed for its wiring to be investigated in time of trouble by the light of the bulbs that illuminate the dials. Two other interesting vehicles are the half-scale Renaults that Mr. Welham built, in 1932 and 1933, for his grandchildren. Made almost entirely of Renault parts, these 2-seaters are driven by 12-volt Renault dynastarters, run on pneumatic tyres, have front-wheel-brakes, road springs (transverse at the rear), proper gear- and brake-levers and so on. Upholstery came from a 45, 8.3 spring leaves form the bumpers, the chassis are of wood, flitch-plated. In the days when the Law didn't frown on children driving powered models on the road these little Renaults could be seen in action near the garage. They would run for eight miles before the batteries needed a rest, reach about 18 m.p.h. and climb a 1-in-7 gradient. The larger one has a real disappearing hood and is beautifully cellulosed.

As a Renault distributor Mr. Welham received the 1925 paper-weight consisting of a fine bronze model of a very sporting 45 2-seater, attended the works outing to Folkestone in 1928 when examples of all the Renault models formed a long cavalcade, and has the mounted Renault diamond badge that marked last year's Diamond Jubilee of the Company. In the showroom he built in 1933, Dauphines and a Caravelle Stand guard over the children's cars, and the Welham workshops abound in old-car spares, beaded-edge tyres, Renault parts-lists, etc.—W. B.