Random Renault Recollections

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The Editor talks with “Tug” Wilson, who has been with Renault in England for 55 years

Those who have had occasion to take their Renaults to the fine modern headquarters of Renault Limited, on London’s Western Avenue, for servicing will very likely have encountered “Tug” Wilson. He knows a great deal about Renaults of all ages, having started with the British Company in 1920. That was at the Seagrave Road depot, where in those days Rolls-Royce and Rover also had premises. It seems likely that Renault constructed their own; they also had showrooms and offices in Pall Mall.

Tug remembers that just after the Armistice, repairs to war-weary pre-1914 Renaults were in hand, and new cars still had the tube radiators protruding wider than the scuttle, as on these older models. One Renault from those days was the 1906 14/20 used as a West End shopping car by Queen Alexandra and later by King George V, before passing on to Major Sir Henry Stretfield. Its purchase had been recommended to the Royal Family by Major Stoner. Originally this Type X, Series B Renault had had artillery wheels beneath the patent leather mud-valences, but these were later changed, at the express wish of Queen Alexandra, to Michelin disc wheels. In recent times this historic car has been in the Henry Pilkington collection and may well be the only Edwardian car in the Royal colours. Tug learnt to drive on one of these Renaults in 1917. He recalls the tumbler gears of these early models, whereby the gears engaged sideways instead of sliding into mesh.

These and the bigger Edwardian Renaults were beautifully constructed and rivalled the Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce in quietness and quality. But the little two-cylinder Renaults were just as frequently encountered in the early 1920s. Many doctors used them and the works van was an ex-taxi chassis; it towed bigger cars with impunity. Famous users of the big Edwardian-type of Renaults included the Rothschilds, their car kept at their palatial London house in Park Lane. The Colmans Mustard family were also Renault owners.

Around 1926 the Hangar Lane factory was opened, close to the old war-time aeroplane works of Waring & Gillow, which is why you sometimes saw Press pictures of the latest Renault model with an Avro 504 in the background. Successive Managing Directors were Messrs. Forsythe, Ireland and de Wilde. The last-named’s father held an important position with Renault in Paris but was killed in a 45.

It was now that these great Renault 45s began to arrive in this country. The radiator was now flush with the scuttle sides, which made it difficult to remove. Tug remembers the first one, a blue tourer, that came over for Mr. Ireland and how they went for a test run to Portsmouth and back. Segrave had one, a black Weymann fabric saloon with eggshell white waistlining, in which he once drove Tug and two other passengers at 104 m.p.h. on Brooklands Track. There is a story that he sold this car to a Guardsman, who was warned that it was dangerous and who was subsequently killed in it. Tug says this isn’t true, as Segrave didn’t sell his 45 to a Guardsman, nor does he think these cars had any suicidal tendencies, if they were properly serviced. He wonders whether the rumoured accident has been confused with that in which the Hon. Edward Greenhall of the brewery family was killed while he was serving in the Guards. His 45 ran into a gate-post coming out of Windsor Great Park and he was thrown onto the control cluster in the centre of the steering wheel, which pierced his skull. That was in his open 45. But he also had a 45 saloon, in which two beds could be made up, in the spacious back compartment. He was a friend of the Prince of Wales when HRH was a brother Officer, and used his closed Renault for late-night parties. Tug recalls a very frightening ride with Greenhall. The young Officer had brought the car to the works, complaining that he couldn’t get the speedometer to go above 90 m.p.h. Tug checked the car over and returned it to Windsor. Greenhall had to get to Olympia in a hurry, as his wife was riding in a horse-show there. He offered Tug a lift back and they made it in just under thirty minutes – Tug says his hands still tremble whenever he thinks of it!

At that time he was Chief Tester and Demonstration Driver and he saw a lot of Segrave, who had an 8.3 Renault coupe for his wife Doris, apart from the 45. The great racing driver once demonstrated a Renault charabanc to the Press, for a bit of fun; he had no business associations with Renault but was on the Cement Marketing Board at the time, so they may have provided the cars for him. Other famous owners of 45s included Betty Carstairs, the motor-boat racer, and Gwen Farrar, the actress, both of whom had the sporting skiff-bodied cars, and Comdr. Burney of airship fame. Dick Tubb, the comedian, had an open tourer, while Mr. de Wilde used a saloon. There was also a noble Duke who was obliged to sell his to his chauffeur! At one time the 9-litre 45 could be had with Skiff, Sports Torpedo, or English Torpedo open bodywork, with front and rear windscreens.

Tug spoke of the occasional tendency of these cars to catch fire if run-up too quickly with a cold engine. This happened to a chauffeur who had just taken delivery of his master’s new 45—they had to “grease his palm” before he drove away! Oil and petrol collecting in the long undertrays increased the chance of a conflagration but these were necessary to assist the flow of cooling air induced by the fan-blades on the flywheel. More alarming, if the front-axle clips of a 45 were not kept tight the holding bolts would shear and then the axle could move back, with alarming results!

Tug Wilson says that when the entire Renault Demonstration Fleet was assembled in the hall at Seagrave Road it was a real picture, this line-up of red Renaults with chrome beading on their open bodywork. He used to be sent off round England and Wales on sales-tours, which lasted for some six months. If you were lucky you might get a train home for a week-end, but it was a strenuous job. They took seven Renaults, with an 11.9 van full of tools, etc. The fleet was in the charge of Mr. Doherty.

At this time new chassis, from 8.3 to 45 h.p. were driven from the docks to Acton and bodies were supplied for them by Vickers of Crayford, Shorts of Rochester and coupés by Loves of Walton-on-Thames. I asked Tug about these smaller Renaults. How slow was the little Renault 8.3? “It did 40”, said Tug, laconically, remembering how the Company entered him for an MCC Trial in the later, but scarcely quicker, 9/15 model. Four of them crewed this tourer on a filthy Boxing night, but it crept up the hills all right. Sometimes there were Continental delivery trips. Tug once drove an 8.3 fabric saloon to Lugano, for the son of an English Judge who went there for his honeymoon and had preferred to travel out by train. Not surprisingly, because the journey by car occupied three days, including grinding over the St. Gotthard Pass in bottom gear. After which it was Tug’s turn to go by train, home via Paris – he hastens to say he was accompanied by his wife. On another occasion he took a Monastella to Milan and Turin. He also remembers setting out to deliver a 13.9 Renault to a doctor in Torquay. At Hartley Wintney he collided with the projecting hub-cap of a Model T Ford and went into the ditch. He had to return to Acton for some retouching and was sent to Cambridge on another delivery job in order that he could “regain his nerve”. I asked about eccentric customers. Tug smiles to himself and nods. “Like the psychoanalyst from Oxshott who paid in cash for a red 45 and later 13.9 Renault”. Garage hands were a bit eccentric, too, he says, sometimes putting water in the petrol tank, as the two scuttle fillers were close together.

Renault did no racing at this time. But I was interested that Tug took the KZ-type 13.9 h.p. cars to Brooklands for testing, where they had to do 60 m.p.h. and would sometimes be good for 75. He felt that the later 14/45 was “a horrid car” but described the big straight-eight Renaults as “nice, heavy old cars”. Not many were sold here but a Naval Commander living in Weybridge and the Salmon family of Lyons catering were amongst those who had them. Tug drove his Managing Director at 80 m.p.h. in a Reinastella, confident of the servo brakes, but drawing forth the plaintive question “How are we going to stop?” Another time Mr. de Wilde was even more apprehensive. It was the occasion of the works’ outing, with a fleet of Renaults from 8.3 to 45 in discreet line astern, taking the staff to Folkestone – until after the pubs had opened. “We never had another”, concluded Tug, sadly.

Of all the Renaults Tug Wilson remembers, it is the big 45s that are the most vivid. “We used to test the chassis across Wimbledon Common”, he says. “We sold them to Woolworth’s for the use of their buyers”, Tug continues, “these cars being in walnut-grained paintwork, even to the mudguards, with pink brocade upholstery. Very different from a dirty 45 saloon owned by a fish-and-chip merchant, who carried his ovens and cooking vats inside it”. They then supplied a very special 45 to an Indian Maharajah who insisted that his Maharanee must have a 26.9 Renault, so that she shouldn’t look as important as her husband.

Tug remembers the 8.3-engined railway platform trolleys and the Renault farm tractors, some of which were used here. Then there were the Renault commercial vehicles, ranging from 7-ton Renault tipper-trucks working in a sand and gravel quarry near Heathrow, to the little 8.3 vans of Galeries La Fayette. The latter had no roof over the driver’s compartment, presumably because they looked more chic without them. This reminded Tug of a lady who had a similar Renault Coupe de Ville. He asked the chauffeur why he didn’t persuade his mistress to let them fit a hood to the driver’s compartment. “It doesn’t matter”, was the reply, “you see my Lady never goes out in the rain”. In later times, Tug remembers, a big film company here was using Nervastellas, and the Sports Editor of the Daily Herald having a p.v.t. six-cylinder Renault saloon, which was handed over to him by the head from the body-shop, who had been at great pains to eliminate any rattles.

This chat with the old Renault employee was arranged for me by Mr. A. R. Ronald, the PRO, whom Renault are so fortunate to have. He has a great interest in motoring history and has made himself responsible for saving many valuable Renault documents and photographs at Acton and painstakingly indexing them. Rather belatedly the parent Company at Billancourt began to form its own museum, which now occupies premises at 53, Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris. Here you can see Renaults ranging from 1898 and 1901 voiturettes to the 1956 Etoile Filante turbine-car and a 1966 Renault-Alpine Le Mans coupe, including most of the Renault models I have mentioned above. Mr. Ronald, moreover, is likely to organise another rally for vintage and veteran Renaults later this year. – W.B.