A Section Devoted to Old Matters
Motoring as it was
A look back to the roads of the 1920s
Continuing to study the activities of “Owen John”, the one-time motoring writer, as a good way of looking back to what the roads, and motoring, were like in the 1920s, we find that, in 1922, he was enthusiastic about the increasing reliability of tyres and the benefits deriving from the fitting of shock-absorbers, then by no means a universal part of a car’s specification. It was possible, said 0.J., for a two-ton car to do 10,000 miles without mishap on a set of good tyres (he had Rapsons in mind) and the last puncture he had to mend was 20 months ago, on a farm road, to a plain tyre still used as a spare “on the side of the car” — no fines and endorsements in those days for using treadless covers! This reminds me of how, many years closer to WW2, I used to run the tyres on my ancient light cars even after the inner tubes were practically visible through the covers and how I once suffered agonies driving a Gwynne Eight to keep a tryst with a girl-friend, because I had no spare wheel, was useless at mending punctured tubes, and had no desire to miss the appointment, to the extent that I tried to steer round every sharp-looking stone or flint that lay in my path.. . . O. J., in his advancing years (he admitted his grey hair was receding) was becoming increasingly conscious of comfort in cars, so was advocating the standardisation of shock-absorbers, and he quoted the view that well sprung cars were lighter on tyres than badly sprung ones. He noted that tyre reliability had improved, in spite of the lower pressures at which they were being run (such as 50 lb whereas O. J. remembered using 1001k or vain 1905), but thought that although there had been a notable improvement in this connection since 1918. he would not want to drive on solid tyres, which some were advocating, especially over the pot-holed Warwickshire roads, although he was aware that some cars, even small ones, were so sprung that shock-absorbers were superfluous — perhaps he had the new two-stroke Trojan in mind. O.J. was concerned that so much public money was being spent on road maintenance by authorities who believed that roads should carry the traffic, instead of making traffic conform to the roads, which was another way of condemning heavy solid-tyred lorries and iron-tyred steam-waggons and traction-engines.
Incidentally, O.J. thought that even the tyres in what we now call the veteran period would have been reasonably puncture proof had it not been that the early motor vehicles encountered the nails of a thousand years or so, put there by the animals and carts that were then the principal road users, and he remarked that the pioneer users of autocars had never been thanked for removing them! Why, he said, his first garage in Staffordshire (I presume for his Brush car) fairly bristled with nails and screws and skewers that he took out of his poor, thin, bulgy covers – presumably he meant left there after these had been picked from the tyres, not that he was too indolent to get a broom and sweep the floor. . . . After mending a puncture, it was recalled, the day would be spent with weary arms and filthy fingers. For many years it has been the practice to remove punctured tyres on their wheels and let the garage boy or apprentice repair them for us, but I know that wayside garages capable of vulcanising tubes were in being at least up to WW2, because only by making use of several of them was I able to get home from the Midlands to London in the second car I owned, a 1924 Rhode, the perished beaded-edge covers of which burst with depressing frequency. Curious, really, that the puncture-proof cover has never caught on.
Perhaps it was on account of his references to heavy lorries, or maybe he was moving house, but O.J. borrowed from the Sheffield-Simplex people (he was a Ner-a-Car owner, of which they were also the makers) a 25 hp Shefflex lorry. He explained that he greatly enjoyed driving what must have been a paragon among commercial vehicles (do any survive?) and that it enabled him to see himself through the eyes other than his — in other words, what he looked like to lorry drivers when out in his Crossley. He was told to drive this 30 cwt Shefflex at 16 mph but O.J. pressed along at a good 25 mph. He obviously found no problems and was full of praise for the new kind of vehicle he found himself in. The only worries were how to see what was following one, and which might want to overtake, because the rear window in the cab was very small, meant turning one’s head right round to see out of it, and O. J.’s chauffeur-gardener was usually inside the van leaning against this little window. All of which made O.J., tolerant of lorries that did not know he was anxious to pass them and also those that hogged the crown of the road, where it was easier to drive them. What did trouble him, after reading the instruction sheet that came with the lorry, was that after telling its owner that if all was well, to leave well alone, this sheet spoke of removing and cleaning out the silencers every 5,000 miles. O.J. had never before thought of this as necessary, that on his Crossley car having been in place for some 20,000 miles. But he decided that it must now come off and be looked at, although he felt that this would induce the garage man to find all manner of other little items that required attention — rather as with the unknowledgeable and today’s MoT tests!
After which O.J. was ready to undertake an autumn tour through some little known parts of England. By which he meant the more remote places in Essex, such as “the flat mysterious coast around Maldon”, and the creeks below Wivenhoe or Foulness or the huddled forgotten countryside in the almost unknown north-west corner, where bits of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire mix and mingle in its hidden parishes”. It almost makes me want to point the Alfa 6 in that direction, except that this was 1922 and no doubt much has since changed. Anyway, at that time O.J. was confident that the trees and houses and walls would seem almost on fire with flaming berries and creepers — which, talking of creepers, reminds me that I am now the proud possessor of some ivy plants dating right back to the Battle of Waterloo, obtained for me by a well-known owner of a veteran Mercedes when he called on Mrs Pocock, who used to drive a similar Mercedes at the age of 15, as we informed you in MOTOR SPORT last October. Planning this tour reminded O. J. that he had known the area long before as a lad and later when the Motor Volunteers tried to convince Cavalry-minded Generals that their vehicles could be of use in war. He recalled the Army Manoeuvres of 1904, when the “enemy” had landed on Clacton’s muddy foreshore and marched across ancient Coggeshall to take the city of Colchester in the night, and, said O.J., “although we did not acknowledge it, all the flower of English automobilism in addition”. The invading forces then tried to re-embark from the mud banks but, the wind rising, this proved impossible, and the soldiers had to escape on Crimea-period rafts, and return to Aldershot and London by train.
The Motor Volunteer Corps had been represented in this conflict by Private (Earl) Russell with a steam-driven brougham, which the soldiers referred to as the “baked potato-can”, O.J. with his Brush car, and the non-participating Hon C. S. Rolls who had looked in on a two-cylinder Royce. The 1922 tour began by way of Bishop Stortford and on along the most typical of Roman roads to Dunmow, Braintree, famed for its silk and Royal wedding dresses, to very ancient Coggeshall, ending at the “Red Lion” in Colchester, a town of both old and newer trams. The next day it was on to Ipswich, very depressing on a wet day and with some of the most obstructive trams O. J. had ever seen. He remarked that Mann, Egerton & Co and Botwood’s the coachbuilders had premises there but were also depressed, because they needed to enlarge them and couldn’t. O.J. had embarked on a touring story and it continued as he drove, in a gale that even drowned the Lowestoft trams, to Cambridge and beyond. But touring articles are unwanted these days, in the opinion of one motoring Editor (not me), so we will leave all this, except to remark than even in 1922 O.J. thought the Icknield Way from Norwich to Baldock and almost to Hitchin one of the best motoring roads in the country, after which, thinking back to a run he did in 1921, our motonoter found Luton dismal and very difficult to get through. Note, though, on the touring theme, that O.J. felt, especially at Motor Show time, he should write of cars for what one can do with them (no pun intended, I think!) more than of cars as they are, with a too thick cloud of technical details.
Back to cars, O.J. went out late in 1922 in a 12 hp Swift, with its four-speed gearbox in which it lived on top speed, and which he found almost too fast for him. But he thought it would be a little better with a set of shock-absobers, which seems to be the place to end, for the time being. (Their need was perhaps emphasised by a relation’s car which broke a front dumb-iron on the Yorkshire moors near Barnard Castle, which in turn damaged the radiator — reminding O.J. that the same thing happened to a Daimler they took to Spain in the pioneer days. —W.B.
(To be continued as space permits)
V-E-V Odds & Ends. — The Austin Ten DC is holding this year’s National Rally at Lyme Hall, Disley, Stockport on July 7th / 8th. We know from experience what large gatherings these are, of much interest to those who like all kinds of Austins from the Ten upwards, made between 1931 and 1939. Indeed, so keen are members of the Club that one of them is re-importing the remains of a 10/4 two-seater from South Africa. As we had expected, a reader has written, from Angus, to tell us that the “Ramsay Arms” at Fettercairn, which we referred to in the January issue as having been highly recommended to “Owen John” in 1922, is still in business, while Peter Hull tells us that his late father used to live there up to his death
The enthusiasm of our older readers is seen from a letter written to us on Christmas Day by a gentleman of over 90, who wishes to remain anonymous, recalling how he drove an LM cyclecar, made in Lancashire, in the 1913 London-Exeter-London MCC Trial, using carbide lamps, and failed on Trow Hill, gaining a silver medal. He then went to Grenoble in the French Alps to take part in the International Six-Days Trial and when war broke out he stayed on for 4 1/2 years as a dispatch rider, going back there in 1930 to win a gold medal.
The 750 MC’s National Austin Seven Rally will be held at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu on July 1st. Herve Coatalen, Louis Coatalen’s son, has returned to France for good, from this country, and has presented to the NMM a large silver cup won by Sunbeam’s at Brooklands in 1913. Next October a pilgrimage of STD Register members will drive to San Sebastian to commemorate the win there in the Spanish Grand Prix 60 years ago by Segrave in a Sunbeam and we understand that at least seven vintage Sunbeam owners have already announced their intention of going, following the same Register’s pilgrimage to Tours, where Segrave won the French GP in 1923, last year. We regret to report the death of A. J. Linnell, who in recent times campaigned the old No 1 racing 12 / 50 Alvis so enthusiastically, notably at last year’s Brooklands Re-Union. — W.B.