Cars in books, March 1967

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The travel books dealt with recently in this feature seem to have attracted another book of a similar nature, namely, ” Round France In A Motor” by C. Neville (Cambridge, 1906), which posed an almost insoluble problem. The car used for the tour which this book describes is the subject of the frontispiece, the same picture being reproduced in colour on the front cover. There are other views of it in the book. But its make is not mentioned in the text and I was quite unable to identify it. However, it did not defeat Dennis Field of the V.C.C. whom I ‘phoned. Almost before I had confessed the nature of my problem he had a copy of this rare book in his hands and was telling me that the car Mr. Neville used for his Continental tour of, presumably, 1905 was in fact a Prosper-Lambert. This is a rare enough make to perhaps excuse my inability to identify it, for only one is now known to survive.

The book opens with short chapters on mécaniciens, whom it was recommended one should avoid as much as possible outside Paris because “he is very civil and obliging, but wants to do a great deal more than he is asked to do—unscrewing bolts in every part of the car, and ends by loosening and disorganising all the machinery.” This is contrary to the good work usually done by insignificant French garages at a later era and perhaps it is just as well that the Edwardian mécanicien enjoyed himself while there were still bolts to unscrew; he would have a thin time with modern welded-up automobiles ! Next there is a brief chapter on the déjeuner, highly recommended, especially as an omelette was regarded as the best thing to order for lunch, the author concluding: “.. meals are generally ridiculously cheap, and good wine is a compris. Avoid, however, ribs and ” bifteck” which is always presented to the English traveller.” There was an apology that romance was not woven into the story, as the author and his wife had been married for years, the car’s owner had only one love, his motor, and his black servant did not confide in the party about any such incidents he may have met with. After that the author felt ready to tell of the adventure, which consisted of a run direct from Paris to Monte Carlo and back via Marseilles, Nimes, Montpellier, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Touraine.

The start was delayed due to a strike at the carrossier’s where a body was being made for the Prosper-Lambert chassis, which, we are told, was a four-cylinder 20 h.p. model with a 20-gallon petrol tank under the front seats. It is apparent that the author was not mechanically-minded, for he adds : “There was a Magneto, a Thermo-syphon, an automatic graisseur and a live axle.” Michelin 875 x 105 tyres were fitted—” They lasted us well “—and the car was equipped with two BIeriot headlamps, two Ducillier auxiliary lamps and a number-plate lamp at the back and was painted green, with the upholstery a shade lighter. The specially-made body was a side-entrance tourer, with the back seat higher than the front seats and a hood covering them all— so much easier to enter, it was emphasised, than a two-door or worse, still, a tonneau body. Top speed was quoted as 40 m.p.h. but it was found to exceed this on a good road.

Three weeks were wasted in Paris, riding about in taximetre cabs, as yet unknown in England, before the body was finished and then the owner was enraged to find it was a Tulipe shape whereas he had specified a Roi des Beiges. Moreover, the engine now refused to respond to the efforts of a mechanic to start it. More days were lost, before the Chef d’Atelier was sent for—could it have been to their first British customer ?—and even he was baffled, until it was discovered that “one of the cogwheels had one tooth too many.” This seems a remarkable fault but it could have been that the magneto was supplied with the incorrect sprocket. Clearly, however, Prosper-Lambert did not test their finished chassis !

However, the tour commenced at last, a spare Michelin strapped on the step, the umbrellas in a wicker basket, the surplus luggage on the wide back seat and the heavy items sent on in advance to Lyons. Rather out-dated Taride maps were supplemented by a Michelin Baedeker bound in red, the colour of the Michelin garages, in contrast to those selling Continental tyres, which were blue. Soon they were recovering from crawling at 8 m.p.h. over the pave of a by-road and rushing at 40 m.p.h. along the great French highway to Melun, where they stayed for the night. Although motorists were already doing the 750 miles from Paris to Monte Carlo in two days, these tourists took it easily, averaging 90 miles a day and never having to light their fine new lamps. On the second day the car refused to climb a steep hill out of Avallon and it had to be driven up this and three more gradients in reverse, with the passengers walking behind. So that day only 80 miles were covered, to Saulieu. The next day the car again jibbed at a hill, until the ” loose ” clutch had been treated with chalk and resin. (Before the tour had started “a loose clutch, stiff starting handle and non-firing plugs had been experienced but accepted as ” ailments to which all new-born motors are liable.”)

Getting off the main Dijon/Chalon route, Mt. St. Vincent was climbed, the engine boiling on this 3,000 ft. ascent. Later, climbing up to the Abbey at Cluny the rain was praised for keeping the engine cool, but perhaps it was now freeing up as the mileage mounted ! Lyons was full of loudly-hooting trams and before Valence the graisseur gave trouble, a mounting bolt having come loose. Then, between Mondragon and Orange the engine took to stopping for no apparent reason, recovering after five minutes, a trouble that persisted for the next four days. At closed level-crossing gates before Aix the driver of a Sixty Mercedes gave a demonstration of how powerful his brakes were and, when the gates were opened, passed the Prosper-Lambert in half a mile and was soon out of sight. But it was seen broken down in Aix.

In Monte Carlo, where a garage driver hit a tram and broke one of the car’s wings, the trouble experienced en route was traced to dirt in the carburetter. The journey had been accomplished without a puncture and on the return run the car was going well, hills included, and would average better than 40 m.p.h. over good roads. Alas, the notorious caniveau at Bellegarde, taken at speed, breaking four teeth off a differential gear. A spare was sent grande vitesse by the makers, presumably from Nanterre, where the Prosper-Lambert was made and I saw Simcas being assembled some years ago. In fact, it was three days before the spare arrived.

On again, the car was now going well, covering 120 miles in one day and making light of very bad mud roads at Homps. The petrol tank was dipped by the Octroi at the bigger towns and a tax levied—1d. on one occasion, for which a receipt was given. The 120 miles from Toulouse to La Reole was done at a 30 m.p.h. average and, encouraged by roads cleared and sign-posted for a motorcycle race, some of its competitors were kept in sight for ten miles, the Prosper-Lambert holding 45 m.p.h., until the lady of the party complained and the normal 30 m.p.h. cruising speed was resumed. Apart from killing a poodle which rushed across the road the tourists had no more adventures until the car stopped on the bridge at Bordeaux. The mechanic who had cleaned it the day before was blamed for loosening bolts he should never have touched. He was sent for and got the engine started but “one of the large carden balls” had been lost and could not be found. They crawled on to Limbourne, one wheel soon making a horrible noise and the brakes having little control. It was now that racing cars on the Bordeaux-Paris road began to be encountered, as well as stripped chassis out on test. After three days the required spare arrived and the tour was resumed. At Limoges the Michelins picked up many nails from the sabots made in the local manufactory but did not puncture, but after rushing down the “mountains of Limousin” at 60 m.p.h. two punctures were experienced. At Chalus a wing was damaged while pushing the car into a stable it had to share with a horse, donkey and cow, so it now had only one good wing left. It was here that a small boy wrote his name on the new bodywork with a nail . . .

Two more punctures were experienced, the second due to a pinched tube, which blew a stone off the road so violently that it smashed a plate-glass shop window. The car’s owner just apologised and wasn’t asked to pay a cent towards the damage ! The Entente Cordial ! Incidentally, cars were by 1905 commonplace on French roads—at the Hotel de l’Univers, in Tours three mechanics were kept and the hotel had two cars of its own, used as breakdown vehicles. The most numerous makes are quoted as Panhards, Mercedes and Renaults. Some Americans arrived in a 10-seater saloon, on solid tyres. It was one of the aforesaid hotel cars that rescued the Prosper-Lambert when, after racing other cars on the road from Azay-le-Rideau to Tours to get out of their dust the magneto chain broke and refused to be mended with wire. But in due time the tour ended in London without further incident.

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Back to autobiography, a few cars figure in “The River Bank” by F. D. Ommanney (Longmans, 1966), the author of which is a self-confessed homosexual, which may or may not excuse the inclusion in full of that four-letter word. . . . Early in the book there is mention of a ” black and green striped, high-backed open Daimler of extremely ancient pattern with brass lamps and a hood” which was obviously an Edwardian model, still being used, if the author is accurate, by a Mrs. de Sinclair of Horsfield Court, Horsfield, in Kent in the ‘twenties. A Rolls-Royce owned by a millionaire in the same village also gets a passing mention. The author’s father, “greatly daring,” bought a bull-nosed Morris during the summer of 1925. He is described as driving it ” atrociously .. . for many years, without actually having an accident, though none of us could quite understand why.” Later this Morris is referred to as looking like “a tin bath with talc side-screens and its maximum speed was 42 m.p.h. But we got a lot of fun out of it and each drove it with what we believed to be more skill than the others, while father sat beside us making apprehensive noises. We wept when the garage man came to take it away.”

Later the author’s mother is revealed as giving up her pony and trap for “a small second-hand car which father drove with the lack of skill which persisted all his life, though without any serious mishap. But mother said, ‘The wretched thing is too powerful for him and runs away with him.’ This was because he always drove with the hand throttle open and nothing could persuade him not to.” The make of this car with its effective hand-throttle opening isn’t disclosed. Incidentally, this is by no means the first reference to drivers lacking in skill but being immune from accidents, thanks presumably to the deserted roads of the nineteen-twenties.—W. B.

***

Embarrassing !

.According to the Halifax Courier a Magistrate drove through a Police radar trap while it was being demonstrated to a group of people. He was charged with speeding, although he denied this, saying he was travelling behind another car which was also stopped but was allowed to proceed. He was said to have another speeding conviction; he was fined £5 but his licence was not endorsed.

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