Veteran Edwardian Vintage, March 1981

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A Section Devoted To Old Car Matters

The McKenna Duties — A Piece of History with Present-Day Overtones

As the 1980s unfoId the British Motor Industry continues to be seriously threatened by the high rate of imports opposing its products. With these imports representing a new high of 56.7% of the market in 1980 the position is desperate, but so far, import controls have not been adopted as the means of stemming this flood of European and Japanese cars. The problem had a parallel in the 1920s, when import restrictions in the form of the McKenna Duties were imposed on foreign cars. This is a look-back at the situation as it was then.

In fact, this tariff wall had been introduced quite early in the Kaiser War, in 1915, when the Liberal-minded Reginald McKenna was Home Secretary of the Coalition Government. The tariff was unpopular but it got by on the argument that cars were a luxury in war-time, that those imported occupied valuable shipping space (in October 1929 alone, American vehicles and chassis totalling 2,563, valued at £309,733, came into Britain), and that this was unfair to the British Motor Industry that had ceased to manufacture private cars in favour of munitions. In America, for instance, Ford in 1917 made 751,287 Model-Ts and Chevrolet 125,004 cars, against which Napier, in spite of a taxicab-line, made a mere 550 cars between 1914 and 1918.

So the McKenna Duties were imposed on imported cars, at the rate of 33 1/3% on purchase price, and were continued after the war; and during the 1914/18 war petrol tax was doubled (purely as a temporary measure!), but the Government decided not to double licence duty on all cars up to 16 h.p. and treble it on those of higher power, because this would affect those who had bought the new small cars just prior to the outbreak of war. Incidentally, during the dark days of the war there was a 50% rebate on this petrol-tax for commercial vehicles, and for cars used by doctors and vets, although Mr. McKenna was not happy about the aid given to the medicos, saying that a doctor or vet could choose a horse if a motor car seemed too heavily taxed!

Those who want the ins and outs of the matter are referred to William Plowden’s excellent book “The Motor Car and Politics — 1896-1970” (The Bodley Head, 1971). Suffice it here to say that the levy was withdrawn by a Labour Government, relying on Liberal support, in 1923. It had been said that the demand for cars after the war had been so great that these Duties had had little curbing influence, except, perhaps in the case of the more expensive foreign cars, but it did raise revenue for the Government. Conversely, it persuaded Ford, Overland and Chrysler to make parts for, and assemble, cars in Britain. William Morris (later Lord Nuffield) had, nevertheless, become increasingly wild in his desire to see such duties retained – he had, of course, had to reduce drastically the prices of his light-cars to achieve sales – and the Duties were reintroduced in 1924 by a Conservative Government, after the Treasury had tried to convince Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, that imported cars were the cause of rising unemployment. At the same time the Road Fund (car-licence duty) was raided to aid general Government finance. In fact, it was the introduction of thc RAC h.p. Formula levied at £1 per h.p. that to some extent helped quell imports of cheap American touring cars, to the advantage of the new breed of British small cars. At all events, this is what killed off many Model-T Fords, taxed at £23 a year.

In 1920/21, however, it was undoubtedly the inexpensive American car that was feared, and which the McKenna Duties hoped to discourage. It is interesting to look back at the arguments for and against such cars in relation to British small cars. At the time of the 1920 Motor Show, when the Armistice was two years gone and the masses were avid to get out on the then-congested highways and byways of this fair Island. the least-expensive of the generally acceptable (ignoring little-known and unproved makes) light cars was the Morris-Cowley. It cost £525 at that time, and lacked a self-starter. (The body seems to have been the costly part, as the chassis was priced at £390.) In fact, those who were prepared to look elsewhere than at William Morris’ much-publicisied offerings could get a 10 h.p. Deemster for £475 or an 11.9 h.p. Phoenix or a 10 h.p. Swift for £495, or a gearbox-in-back axle Singer Ten for £500. The big 16/20 Cubat from Aylesbury cost only £442 (but would be more expensive to run) and the rather-cramped 10 h.p. Citroen tourer from France was on sale at £495, like those two aforesaid British light-cars. In the main, though, light-cars were terribly expensive at this period, so presumably badly needed tariff protection. For example, the Morris-Cowley, the 10.5 h.p. Hillman, 11.9 h.p. CaIcott, 10 h.p. Calthorpe, 10 h.p. Cluley, 11.9 h.p. Bean, 12 h.p. AC, and the slow although oh-camshaft Wolseley Ten set buyers back between £500 and £600. The 11 h.p. Riley cost £650 in October 1920, when you could have had an Oakland with 2.9-litre six-cylinder engine for the same outlay, and the Humber Ten, admittedly made like a miniature luxury car, was priced at £700.

In comparison, American cars were dirt-cheap, and remember they were mostly roomy tourers seating four or five, whereas the average small car had a two-seater body and extra passengers, if they could be accommodated at all, had to sit in an exposed dickey-seat. Cheapest Yank at the time we are prospecting was the Model-T Ford. It was down to £250, or £200 as a chassis. If this two-speed universal car seemed too crude, you could have bought a 2.8-litre Chevrolet 490 for £450 (chassis £395), a 3.1-litre Dort or a 2.3-litre Overland for £495, with the 2.3-litre Dodge Brothers, which boasted pleated upholstery, costing £610 at this time. On the other hand, although the prices of cars of all sizes were soon to come down, in 1920 the 2.9-litre Essex was comparatively expensive, at £780 (chassis £715), and a 3-litre Hupmobile cost £750. There were many superior American cars at higher prices and even the Studebaker, looking outwardly much the same as the cheaper offerings, cost £840 but, of course, that was for a 3.1-litre six-cylinder car.

It is not so surprising, therefore, that those taking up motoring as a new pastime in 1920, or the more experienced perhaps looking for a second car, often turned to cheap American tourers, which competed with the new-found small cars in spite of Reginald McKenna. It was against the growing numbers of light cars that the McKenna-loaded American tourers were competing.

As a schoolboy I well remember being driven about the roads of S. Wales in a Chevrolet 490 which was second-car to a smart blue Austin Twenty Mayfair landaulette. As it bleated about the hedge-flanked lanes, its pedestrian pace of some 30 to 35 m.p.h. recorded on a ribbon speedometer, its woolly engine mostly in top gear, it and all its fellows seemed pretty crude to this youthful observer — I never for a moment realised that it had a racing pedigree! I have never liked those cheap American cars, always excepting the inimitable Model-T. British and European chassis then displayed much aluminium about their power-units, which would have separate cylinder block and crankcase, an alloy sump, and live behind a distinctive radiator, in a chassis with mainly right-hand control levers. But these American imports had incredibly dull-looking engines, block and crankcase in one of cast-iron, their base-chambers closed by a tin pan, their carburetters having cork instead of brass floats, the gear-stick a central rod flopping in a concealed ball-gate. Instead of fascinating centre-lock wire wheels you found the inevitable detachable rim, and all the radiators of these 1920/21 American tourers looked alike, as if the Detroit designers had realised that all that was needed of a bonnet was to curve it to let the rain run away, and had made their radiators in the same mould. The touring bodies of these American cars (which seem to have cost on average around £60 to make!) were also crude. The occupants sat on rather than in them, on bench seats upholstered as likely as not in leathercloth, and the finish of mudguards. radiator and lamps was usually black, obviating brightwork that wouId need cleaning and polishing. (Henry Ford was not the only advocate of “any colour so long as it is black” — it applied to the wartime Chevvy as well.)

This comparison of cheap American cars with the better non-USA offerings is obviously not entirely unbiased. There were some very fine chassis coming here from the States, nor did light-cars possess all the aforesaid desirables. And it has to be admitted that if the sight of the ladies riding in the back of an open chauffeur-driven Chevrolet 490 tourer was a thought incongruous, it was more dignified, more practical, than a chauffeur in a two-seater light-car. rubbing elbows with the owner, with the rest of the family in the dickey . . . But it should be easy to appreciate why a schoolboy of the 1920s developed a dislike of these crude American tourers, with their dull “sameness”. For one thing, it was the age of the new “aero-engine” overhead-camshaft luxury cars, whereas most of the engines of these Detroit cars had side valves, although the Essex had its inlet valves in the head and the Chevrolet and the far more costly 4.9-litre Buick Six had all their poppets upstairs (but push-rod prodded), even if not all such o.h.v. power units had rocker-covers.

However, let us not rely on a small boy’s feelings in this matter. The motor papers of 1920/21 were full of the arguments about inexpensive Americans, versus the new light-cars.

The former inevitably had three-speed gearboxes, wooden-spoked wheels, and very often coil ignition. At first the Chevrolet even had 1/4-elliptic springs, like really small American cars (although the cyclecar and true light-car were rare in the USA), while Ford of course economised in materials by using transverse springing, which the Overland also used, in more generous proportions. There were many arguments for and against these imported touring cars. Those who disliked gear shifting would enthuse over their top-gear performance, but small-car advocates would quote the advantages of lower petrol consumption and longer tyre life from their little cars. The tax differential may have been more of a factor than it seems now, when the flat-rate tax we now all pay equals only about 45 gallons of fuel, whereas petrol was very cheap in the 1920s so that the difference between taxing an American car and a light-car would represent an extra year’s free motoring of around 5,000 miles, or morev . . . 

A doctor living in Dover started the comparisons by writing to The Autocar in 1920 about his Chevrolet 490— the model designation was cunning, being the price in dollars of the rival Ford tourer at the time of the Chevvy’s introduction, but with electrical equipment the Chevvy’s price was considerably more, for this essentially 1914 design by Buick-trained Alfred Sturt, based on the Chevrolet Model-H. The doctor was well-pleased with his. Admittedly you sat high in the car, but the divided windscreen and wide hood were superior to arrangements on the average English car, he said. He praised the honeycomb radiator and against my earlier observations thought the engine casting a much better job than on most mass-production postwar cars. Cruising speeds were astonishingly low in those days (30-35 m.p.h. was usual) but the Chevvy would exceed 45 m.p.h. The outstanding feature, thought the doctor, was its ability to climb steep hills, like Dover Castle hill, in top gear, or a 1 in 6 gradient in second. Gears and engine were admitted to be “not specially quiet”, the gear change not by any means easy, the steering was stiff, there was initial wheel wobble, due to a loose steering-box, and the front springing “was less successful than the rear”. The brakes were powerful and had not needed relining in 3,000 miles in a hilly district but they got too hot and the foot-operated parking brake and the second brake, operated by fully depressing the clutch pedal, meant that the engine could not supplement the emergency brake down steep hills. The under-seat fuel tank starved the carburetter on hills over 1 in 8 unless it was more than half-full, but the doctor was getting 27 m.p.g. 1,000 m.p.g. of oil, and the Chevrolet’s electrical equipment was “beyond reproach”.

Later a clergyman weighed in with praise of his Essex, which averaged 20 m.p.g. (against 27 m.p.g. which others were claiming his typical light-cars), would do 60 m.p.h., climb long, stiff main road hills at 35-40 m.p.h., crawl in top gear at five m.p.h. and “accelerate like a racing machine”. Its Goodyear tyres had done 3,500 miles and looked good for 6,000 to 7,000 miles each. Those who had invested in British light-cars rushed to defend them, including the owner of an 11.6 h.p. Standard who found an Essex’s front seat too cramped, two Morris-Oxford owners, Lionel Martin praising his Aston-Martin, other Standard users, and two who put up the Cubitt, one of them a lady driver. The Reverend came back with another long letter, in which he had to agree that no sane person would want to do 60 m.p.h. on public roads but it was the reserve of power that mattered! More Essex and Chevrolet owners and a Dodge driver sided with him, although the last-named had had four inferior makes of American tyres before changing to Michelin. The concensus of opinion seemed to be that unless an absolute economy was essential, the cheap car from across the Atlantic was superior, and less trouble to drive, although one participant proudly citing his 1921 £395 Singer Ten, in this correspondence from long ago, was very scathing about such Yankee automobiles, dismissing all the cheaper ones as glorified Fords, with extraordinary systems of ignition and another person writing from New York, actually said they were the sort of cars sold mostly to immigrant labourers and farmers and that one did not wish to drive the same car as one’s servants! Yet in England any car was still regarded, at all events in Governmental circles, as a heavily taxable luxury. . . .

It was all a very long time ago, in an age when many light-carists were quite happy driving at only 30 m.p.h., or even less. Then American cars became bigger, light cars improved and got cheaper and the baby car set new standards of motoring thrift. Today the imports Britain fears are not the larger-engined American cars, but the spate of little economy cars from Japan and Europe, and some of the high-performance cars from Germany, although Dr Walter Hesselkus, head of BMW (GB) Ltd thinks the threat will come from the USA within the next half decade. – W>B>

V-E-V Miscellany

We were very sorry to learn of the death at his home in Llandrindod Wells of Joe Wilkins, head mechanic to the Connaught racing team at the height of their racing appearances. In last month’s article about the car of the Summers’ family it should have been noted that Dick Summers’ 30/98 Vauxhall OE15 had engine no. OE 14. And in connection with that article, in which George Abrahams’ early ascents of difficult Lakeland passes were referred to, by an astonishing coincidence a reader who sent us some old motoring photographs, including the picture of his father’s circa-1919 Studebaker reproduced on page 290, included one of a circa-1913 15.9 Humber ascending Dunmail Raise, which had been taken by the same George Abraham, his two small daughters being in the back; as one of them, now Mrs. Enid Wilson, told us in recent correspondence, they had to get out and push when necessary. She confirmed that her father was not a staff member of The Autocar but that he contributed illustrated touring articles to that journal, as a professional photographer, using his own Daimlers and borrowed cars such as the Summers’ 30/98 Vauxhall and 40/50 Rolls-Royce and Glentworth’s Hudson Super Six, etc. He was a pioneer motorist, whose first car was a Sunbeam Mably, and with his brother a rock-climber.

The Riley Motor Club issues its journal, The Riley Record, based on the format of the old Riley magazine, bi-monthly. The front cover of that for January/February 1981 includes a drawing of the Riley 4 1/2 h.p. Tricar of 1904, which the Editor, Andrew Theobald-MacQuillan, thinks to have been the subject of the puzzle picture we published last December. He says that this tricar featured the patented mechanically-operated inlet valve first used by Percy Riley on his prototype car in 1898, the first engine to have this type of inlet valve. The Riley Tricar had a leather-faced cone clutch and a two-speed gearbox with a 5 to 1 top gear, says Mr. Theobald-MacQuillan. In view of our article last year about a pioneer monoplane flown in South Wales long before the 1914/18 war, it is interesting that the Ludlow Advertiser has been recalling a motor business run by A. Maund at Craven Arms, Shropshire, whose letter heading included the words “Aeroplanes Supplied and Repaired” and Mr. Maund building a JAP-powered monoplane which is thought to have got off the ground from a field in Stokesay but to have crashed soon afterwards, around the year 1909. The machine was apparently built in Mr. Maund’s back yard in Market Street, Craven Arms, before the family moved to Wem and besides cars, motorcycles and bicycles, Mr. Maund seems to have dealt in game and produce to commemorate the closing of the Swift factory in 1931 all Swift owners are invited to make a pilgrimage to the old place on April 26th, 50 years and five days after the end of the Swift works. Edwards the Printers who now occupy the premises have generously agreed to open them on that day and a former Swift employee will recall happenings there from 1925 to 1931. Cars will drive to the factory from Warwick Castle, leaving at 2 p.m. Interested Swift owners are asked to contact Jim Price, “Dunirie”, Kennoway, Fife or the Swift Registrar, John Harrison, 7, Oakfield Road, Ashtead immediately. Les Montgomery of 13, Hayesford Park Drive, Bromley, Kent, would like to hear from enthusiasts in his area with a view to starting a regular monthly gathering.

W.B.

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