Cars in books, March 1965

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I still continue to come upon references to cars in the most unlikely places, even in that book about the theatre “What I Have Had,” by Harold Bridgehouse (Harrap, 1953). Writing of the jazz age of the nineteen-twenties, the author observes “I was, and am, prejudiced against cars,” but condescendingly observes that they have their uses, remarking “For instance, to note in Wales tyre-tracks on improbable roads leading to hill-farms was to realise how greatly a car, usually a Ford, had eased the harsh loneliness of the sheep-farmer’s life.”

This is not the only reference to the ubiquitous Model-T I have read recently. For instance, there are some amusing episodes concerning a 1920 Ford sedan, obviously a Model-T, which some grateful American parishioners bought their vicar, in “The Shape of Sunday,” by the Misses V. D. Dawson and B. D. Wilson (Peter Davies, 1953).

Some very intriguing motoring history is contained in “Sky Fever,” the autobiography of Sir Geoffrey De Havilland, C.B.E. (Hamish Hamilton, 1961). Sir Geoffrey’s first contact with cars came when he and a friend hired, with driver, a 3-1/2-h.p, Benz from a cycle shop in Gloucester which had two such Benz, and was driven on it to Newbury—it required assistance up Birdlip Hill when the belts slipped. This led to the young enthusiasts buying an 1897 6-h.p. 2-cylinder Panhard-Levassor (spelt “Levasseur” in the book), already two years old, and, surprisingly, endowed with a tall saloon top over the rear seats, which made it very unstable. Indeed, when being driven from London to the De Havilland’s home at Crux Easton in Hampshire by a driver supplied by the agents, it overturned after swerving to avoid a pony which crossed the road in the dusk. Repairs were put in hand by Hamilton of Highclere.

Both Sir Geoffrey’s mother and sister drove this primitive Panhard, the chassis of which was eventually lengthened and its ignition converted from hot-tube to electric. Then, becoming interested in the Gordon Bennett race, De Havilland and his brother Ivon decided to build a steam-car and enter. They first purchased a Locomobile, before turning the stables at Crux Easton into a workshop and commencing construction of a 3-cylinder racing steamer. Lack of funds caused the project to be abandoned and the brothers attended the 1903 G.B. race in Ireland as spectators.

Later, however, Sir Geoffrey, in 1902, while training at the Crystal Palace Engineering School, built his own motorcycle, to plans published in The English Mechanic. On it he travelled frequently between his home and London. While serving a student apprenticeship with Willans and Robinson at Rugby, De Havilland built his own 450-c.c. outside-flywheel motorcycle engine, which gave good service in a special frame for many years— he makes it clear that he would like to discover its present whereabouts.

In 1905 he joined the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company as a 30s.-a-week draughtsman; his brother Ivon went to Daimler as designer and engineer, before helping to form the firm of Legros and Knowles, where he designed the first Iris car in 1905.

In 1907 De Havilland and his friend Frank Hearle built their first aeroplanes, the second of which the former eventually flew from Seven Barrows near Crux Easton, from a field easily identified today, although I think that the sheds on Lord Caernarvon’s estate, where the machine was built, have been dismantled. The engine was a 50-h.p. flat-four designed by De Havilland and built by the Iris Car Company for £250. Some of the work of building the second aeroplane was done at Fulham, a lorry being hired to bring it down to Seven Barrows in the summer of 1910. It is interesting that when Mrs. De Havilland came over to be taken up in the machine, she arrived at the field in a pony and trap, although for longer journeys a 4-cylinder 12-h.p. “much-used Panhard car, ancient and worn” was available, bought from a friend for £45. Incidentally, for those who like to look for places of historical significance on their motoring perambulations, the De Havillands stayed during these pioneer flying experiments at “a comfortable country inn” at the village of Whitway, about three miles from the field they were operating from. The remainder of this fascinating book is naturally devoted to aviation, but Frank Halford, “a brilliant engineer who turned his hand to a wide variety of engine work, including racing cars at Brooklands,” and “Clement Gresswell, who later became aerodrome manager [at Stag Lane], and W. Birchenough, a good pilot and, like Gresswell, a motor-car enthusiast,” figure in its pages.

From this detailed autobiography we are reminded that B. C. Hucks invented the Hucks Starter, using a standard Model-T Ford chassis, and that pilots flew seaplanes off Fleet Pond, near Farnborough, before De Havilland did so in 1911 with an F.E.2 mounted on a single plywood float—”The small islands and the swans had to be avoided and made take-off and landing hazardous.”

When D. H. went to live in Edgware to work with Airco, he rode to work on a bicycle but bought a Model-T Ford, “our first new car,” for use at week-ends. Later, in 1915, he sold the Ford “and bought a big 6-cylinder Buick.” Naturally, there is much interesting material about the advent of the D.H. Moth, record-breaking flights, the King’s Cup race, and so on. Incidentally, for fifteen years the De Havilland family used Gipsy Moths, Puss and Leopard Moths for travelling between Stag Lane or Hatfield and Crux Easton, which reduced the time of going by car from 2-1/4 to less than half-an-hour. On the first flight down in a Puss Moth landing in the available space proved difficult until the landing struts were arranged to rotate through 90° to form air brakes.

Motoring likewise figures prominently in “Out On a Wing,” by Sir Miles Thomas (Michael Joseph, 1964). This is not surprising, because the author had a second-hand 3-1/4-h.p. Rex motorcycle, which cost his mother £25, while still at school, when he contributed to the motorcycle press of those days. He went to Bellis & Morcom as a premium pupil, took a holiday in N. Wales with his mother in a new Rudge-Multi combination, and taught himself to drive a car on his uncle’s 12-h.p. Star without leaving the garage.

War in 1914 found him a member of Mr. Geoffrey Smith’s Midland Motor Volunteer Corps, astride a “great Zenith Gradua-J.A.P. of nearly 10 h.p.” This led to enlistment as a Rolls-Royce Armoured Car Driver, driving instruction being given at Grove Park, near Osterley, on Napier lorries. There were also Scott motorcycles with Vickers guns on the sidecars, while for personal transport Thomas exchanged his Zenith for a “very fast T.T. Norton,” and later had a 4/5-h.p. Zenith, “the best motorcycle ever produced.” He also drove Model-T Fords before being transferred to the R.F.C.

Demobilisation saw Thomas taken on the staff of The Motor as a junior reporter at £350 a year. To celebrate this he spent £150 on a pre-war R.M.C. Seabrook car. The pages devoted to these early days as a motoring journalist are fascinating in the extreme, but unfortunately contain a few rather unhappy errors. For instance, Zborowski’s name is wrongly spelt twice, nor did any spectator die in the Kop hill-climb crash. Chitty-Bang-Bang I is credited with a Benz engine when it was actually Maybach-powered, Segrave’s name is twice rendered as “Seagrave,” the famous Brooklands bookie is referred to as “Long John” when Long Tom is obviously intended.

That part of “Out On a Wing” devoted to Thomas’ time with Morris Motors is also of absorbing interest. Did you know, for instance, that experiments were made with a view to using a Cotal electric gearbox on the Wolseley in 1937 (this box was never used on a car Thomas refers to as a de la Haye and we know as a Delahaye) but that his wife’s lack of patience with it killed the project stone dead? Incidentally, It was the late H.E. Symons, not “Symonds,” who attacked the London-Cape Town record in a Wolseley 18 with 25-h. p. engine.

There is interesting data about the war-time Morris Minor prototypes, one of which, the Mosquito, had a flat-four engine and swing-axle i.r.s., and i.f.s, using torsion-bars. It was Lord Nuffield’s desire to continue production of the Morris Eight, and his refusal to agree to Thomas’ proposal to launch the Morris Minor that nearly sent Sir Miles to Austin’s. Incidentally, when he did sever his connections with the Nuffield Organisation he “had been drawing a salary of £20,000 per annum for several years” and “had been properly recompensed for expenses necessarily incurred on behalf of the business,” so perhaps he had no cause to regret discarding journalism for industry!

The story of the introduction of the original Morris Minor, “a troublesome baby,” with its o.h.c. engine of Hispano-Suiza/lWolseley aero-engine layout, is fascinating, as is Sir Miles Thomas’ suggestion that the later side-valve Morris Minor engine of the early nineteen-thirties, “produced so quickly by Len Lord at the Wolseley factory,” had “a remarkable resemblance” to the Ford Eight engine of the late nineteen-twenties. (Someone has pointed out that the s.v. Morris Minor came out some years before the Ford Eight, so perhaps Sir Miles Thomas meant the later Morris Eight—perhaps someone will compare the series-E Morris Eight and model-V Ford Eight and tell us how similar they look.) There follows the equally fascinating account of how the £100 Morris Minor came into being and was made to do over 100 m.p.h. and 100 m.p.g. at Brooklands. And I was interested to learn that the i.f.s. of the post-war 2-1/2-litre Riley was copied from that of the pre-war Citroën.

Indeed, all through, this is a tremendous book. And the author achieved such industrial eminence that I was not in the least surprised to find that two pages are indexed—”ulcers, duodenal.” — W.B.