Veteran Edwardian Vintage, March 1985

The Grand Tour — Vintage Style

Having pondered on the tour of the Dolomites described in “The Motor Mountaineer” article in the January, issue, When George Abraham accompanied Geoffrey Summers in his new 40/50 hp Rolls-Royce tourer on this 1921 adventure, I have been thinking about other motoring Grand Tours of Europe, in which fortunate motoring journalists were sometimes asked to take part. (They called themselves motoring journalists in those days, although I prefer to regard myself as a motoring enthusiast who writes rather than a journalist who motors, which is in keeping with the fact that there is now a Guild of Motoring Writers, not a GMJ…)

There is nothing particularly new about motor-touring, the petrol version of those Grand Tours without enduring which no respectable young man was considered to have completed his education, in Victorian times. Motor tours of the Continent took place about as soon as motor cars were reasonably dependable, and thus we find Owen John (whose later automotive life I have been telling you about in the “Motoring As It Was” series) setting off in a big Daimler for the sunny South with Raven Hill of Punch in 1906. He was by no means alone in this, or in any way a pioneer. That he was an enthusiastic motorist was, however, confirmed when he set off from England in 1913 in the company of an enormous has containing a pair of bucket seats, a windscreen, a hood and a horn, intended for his new 25 hp Zedel chassis, on which he proposed, after taking delivery at the Paris factory, to tour France.

Having paid overweight charges on his box-of-delights, and hired a special ‘bus in which to take it across Paris, O.J. was told by M Graf, at Zedal’s Pontarlier works, that if he waited a few more weeks a later-type Zedal would be available for him (perhaps the car ordered was not ready, or they had even forgotten that the Englishman was coming!) and that, meanwhile, he could borrow their test-car, which, they said, had done 40,000 km without trouble. O.J. fell for this and he seems to have enjoyed his tour, although the clutch slipped and required adjustment, on one occasion.

However, I digress, because exciting as these pre-19/4 Grand Tours by automobile may have been, it is on some of those undertaken in the great cars of the vintage years that I want to write. The epitome of such journeys must have been to travel in a post-war six-cylinder Rolls-Royce, or similar high-grade make, although in the 1920s this still often implied an open touring car so that being long before the advent of interior heaters, the occupants wore all the clothes they could muster, their luggage being strapped to a grid behind… It was also before drive-on ferries, the late-lamented Silver City air lift or the Hovercraft, so cars had to be lifted precariously onto the steamers. The lure of the so-recently-fought-over battlefields took many car owners across the Channel as early as 1919, perhaps to show wives or fiancees to whom they had joyfully returned (unlike my father) what the battle areas were like or to live again the horrors they had no recently experienced in the trenches.

A pre-war 16/20 hp Sunbeam tourer was being used for this purpose, 2,500 miles to the French Alps and back causing it little trouble, apart from poor petrol resulting in sooting-up, old tyres bursting, and the engine boiling on the long passes. In a different context, one member of the BEF avoided returning to “Blighty” in a troop-train by purchasing an ex-WD 12/16 hp Sunbeam at a British Disposals Board sale of surplus Army vehicles at Arquata Scrivia in 1919 and driving it back to England via Italy and France, using the Riviera route in case snow closed the Mont Cenis Pass, the car laden with 36 gallons of spare petrol, oil, tyres and 100 lb of kit. Bad roads were encountered, legacy of a motorised war, but 270 miles were put in on the fourth day, the Sunbeam averaging better than 40 kph from Avalon to Sens.

No doubt many owners postponed their holidays abroad until war-torn Continental roads had been repaired, the Cot-niche at Nice and the route of the (public-road) Gaillon hill-climb receiving such post-war attention sooner than many. Let as now contemplate some vintage Grand Tours. One such was that undertaken by Charles L. Freeston, FRGS, who like Mr Abraham was the author of books on the subject (such as “The High Roads of the Alps”) and who had indeed waited until the summer of 1921 before studying post-war conditions because of the local food and petrol shortages making this unfavourable until then. The car used was a standard 1921 40/50 hp Rolls-Royce tourer (Reg No R-3705), weighing nearly 2 tons 12 cwt with four occupants, luggage and spares on board. The lucky passengers were Mr and Mrs C. Scott-Lindsay and a mechanic named Waldron.

The object of the tour was to try 50 Alpine passes in three weeks and, in fact, 47 individual passes were crossed, but six were covered twice, giving a total of 53 ascents. At first the suitability for such work of a car with a 12 ft-wheelbase, measuring 16 ft 3 in in length, was in doubt, but the Rolls-Royce soon proved its abilities. If flew up the Grand St Bernard pass (8,110 ft) pausing only at the compulsory St Remo custom’s house. Even better, having passed through the Italian lake district, the Rolls ascended the Stelvio (9,040 ft) without a falter; at the summit the erstwhile hotel was in ruins and said to be full of dangerous gas-shells. In their travels the car’s occupants were often mistaken for Germans, as British visitors were almost unknown in Alpine districts and 80% of the cars there were high-powered German vehicles owned by German war profiteers!

The Rolls-Royce managed even the Grodner and Sella passes, the latter built by Russian prisoners-of-war in 1915 and allowed to fall into disrepair, the bad surfaces of both failing to stop the car. It was able to show its paces up the Gobera and Broccone passes and, after coming down the Aprica to Lake Como, where a day’s motor-boating was enjoyed, it went on to Turin and, after more Italian pass-storming, to the task of trying the French Alps. Eight passes were disposed of in a day, between Grenoble and Geneva. The Galibier from the Lautaret road, 7½ km rising to 2,050 ft, was covered in 14 minutes; the Cu) du Parpaillon took 12 hours to cross. The Rolls-Royce always “beat the road”, reaching 40 mph between the corners even on an 11% rise, and in this strenuous 3,150-miles tour it required no attention. It was driven “by amateurs” throughout, who much appreciated “its wonderful steering-lock on hairpin bends and its perfect steering”. Running back through France it several times exceeded 70 mph and touched 77 mph. Freeston offered the reminder that in the famous 1914 Austrian Alpine Trial, of the 16 passes included, only the Pordoi rose to 7,000 ft, whereas most of those to which he set the Rolls were higher, their total height equalling 293,296 ft…

Another long tour was made in 1921 by someone concerned with a six-days’ motorcycle trial in Switzerland, a country at last becoming friendly to visiting motorists, the car used being a big Chandler tourer, which climbed and descended passes in second gear and gave no trouble on a long run, returning through Belgium. Luggage was carried partly on the running boards, as the dust-covered spare wheel occupied much of the rear of the car. Yet another long Continental tour was essayed in an Angus-Sandeson tourer, an early model with those “crinkly” disc wheels, by “Vagrant”, a person, or at all events a non-de-plume, which become very well-known later to readers of a certain famous motoring weekly. Comfortable in England, the car, with luggage in a box on the back, was found tube undersprung for France, in spite of rubber buffers having been fitted to all its road-springs. However, it made the 800 miles from North to South of the Continent with no more bothers than splitting of new heavy rubber buffers on the front sole within 40 miles of fitting them, so bad were the roads, magneto failure at Chartres, the ammeter going off duty (after functioning perfectly for 7,000 miles in England) by Valence, and back-axle trouble, after the Dunlop Magnum tyres had proved their worth in a snowy Rhone Valley. A new tyre had also punctured.

The tribulations of this 1921 tour by Angus-Sanderson were not over. The axle having been repaired by French mechanics for about the equivalent of 15/(75p), an axle shaft snapped in Avignon. The car was towed away by a Scripps-Booth “with the fiercest clutch in the world” and the spare shaft carried installed, by the car’s owner. The adventurers reached Nice and Monte Carlo eventually, and left the Angus at the Rolls-Royce depot at Nicodemi to have an extra leaf put in each back spring, ready for the return journey, an indication of how bad were many roads in France at that time.

While the Angus was being attended to a 1917 11.9 hp Renault of rare four-speed type was made use of. It proved adept at hill-climbing. Apparently British visitors were fewer than in 1920, in the RAC man’s view, and apart from two Daimlers and an Armstrong Siddeley, it was “toujours le Rolls-Royce”, whereas French cars were numerous, with Renaults, Deluges, Roches-Schneiders and Berliets prevailing. Messrs Nicodemi in the Boulevard Gambetta having charged only £4.2. 6d for adding those extra leaves in the Angus’s cantilevers, it was off to La Turbie, where the 14.2 hp three-speed British car was hard put to keep up with the older and smaller-engined Renault and boiled a bit into the bargain, whereas the French four-speeder showed not a feather of steam (or water vapour, if you wish me to be scientific). Next, it was not the Angus but “Vagrant” who went sick, being laid up for days with gout. On starting to retrace his way to England he was delayed for hours while the Paris-Nice competitors were timed up the steepest part of La Turbie, a marshal objecting to how unsafely his car had been parked, when its owner knew it to be quite safe…

Resuming, the extra rear spring-leaves made driving over the atrocious roads much easier, and on good ones they can at a rousing 35-40 mph… Over very bad roads, the Angus-Sanderson nevertheless managed 139 miles in a day, with punctuations for meals, dodging horse and oxen carts, to Chartres. On the following day it averaged 20½ mph on the morning haul but its owner thought it quite normal to devote two hours nightly to servicing it, and after doing 145 miles the following day, arose at 6 am to give it some more loving care. (Do modern motorists realise how fortunate they are?) The Angus had slackened its dynamo belt, worn out a tyre, and needed back-axle lubricant and it had used engine oil at 700 mpp. Later “Vagrant” had to get out his blow-lamp and mend a fractured bonnet-to-radiator stay. Perhaps, though, there was ample compensation in seeing only about four cars a day on the main highways, and none on the by-roads! The tour occupied 1,982 miles by the Anigns’s accurate Smiths speedometer and, taken to Brooklands, the car’s weight, with two occupants, was recorded as 303/4 cwt. The troubles were made light of, blamed on the poor roads. So much for the lesser touring in 1921. I recall a well-known motoring writer at about the same time; praising warmly a road-test 12 hp Talbot-Darracq in spite of it having to be left behind in France with back-axle trouble…

Someone took a year-old 11.9 hp Bean coupe abroad, also in 1921, but this was considered a very small car for the purpose although it performed well giving no troubles apart from a burst oil gauge, rather as S. C. H. Davis took a Chummy A7 to the Riviera five years later, taking the mick, out of lordly Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Hispano-Suizas, etc, that were then the normal means of making the winter dash from London to Nice or Menton.

That Bean, with a crude heater rigged OP, went to Nice again in the winter of 1921, covering the 904 miles from Calais with nothing more than a nail puncture and adjustment of the new Whittle belt driving fan and dynamo, but petrol in France was thought expensive at 4/- (20p) a gallon. Incidentally, in Paris kerbside petrol pumps had appeared.

However, I digress. This is supposed to be about vintage touring in the grand manner. Like a tour undertaken, again in 1921, across France and Italy into Serbia and the Balkans, no less, in a 1920 25/30 hp Crossley tourer, of the kind that had given such good service with the RFC during the war.

The only concessions to bad-road touring were twin rear wheels, and special carriers for such spares, fitted at the Gorton factory before the car was driven down to London and handed over. With four people and luggage it weighed 16 cwt. Apart from a puncture in a front wheel at 40 mph near Nevers, caused by a broken bottle, no trouble occurred between London and Zagreb and the original Dunlops were still in use in Bucharest after the tour. In fact, that is not quite true, for the horn diaphram fractured at Moulins and a klaxon had to be substituted; the accumulators disliked the mud and wet, so that hand-cranking was needed after a night at Aix. Up cart tracks of 1 in 4 the Crossley did not even need first gear, and on the level but rough Italian roads 50 mph was the rule.

At the very beginning of 1922 what was described as “a de hum journey to the South of France” was planned, when two Rolls-Royces had to travel thereto and “Vagrant”, whom we have already met, was asked if he would like to join the party. He was told that on this winter run to the Cate d’Azur they would be travelling light. The reason for this was that one of the Rolls was a new five-seater demonstrator (Reg No XK-2100) with little space behind the driving-seat and its luggage-grid obstructed by the hood when this was furled (its rear screen produced the most awful draughts around the passengers’ anatomies) and the other Rolls-Royce was Lord Rocksavage’s 1920 sporting two-seater with two very restricted rear seats under a raisable tootle-back, protected by two aeroscreens (Reg No R-3701).

However, the cases were stowed somehow and they sailed from Boulogne in a sea-mist that accompanied the travellers as far as Beauvais. A person called “Clarence” was in charge of the operation, which included delivering Lord Rocksavage’s car to him at his villa in Cannes. His car proved able to do 80 mph; it and the white tourer were Momed at the magnificent R-R depot in the Avenue Malakoff after the muddy 170-niile Journey to Paris, where the party stayed at the Hotel St Anne, very warm as the Proprietor had large quantities of cheap German “reparation” coal, whereas in 1921 French hotels had been chilly to a degree. The road to Auxerre was bad in places but the leading car cruised over the pot-holes at 40 to 6t mph, and the journalist of the party l observed that “no cars of any but the highest class could have stood up such speeds on these roads”. The only result was a broken speedometer belt and “both cars purred into Nice as Though they had only just left the Derby works.”

From Paris the two mechanics had gone on by train to Nice and at Auxerre “Vagrant” found his suitcase, which had with difficulty been stowed in the sternsheets of the boat-bodied sporting Rolls-Royce, missing, presumably taken in error by one of the mechanics. He had tube lent a razor and hairbrush, Mrs C. contributing a small comb, and the leather lining of an overcoat had to serve in lieu of pyjamas. For him the “de luxe” aspect of the tour had somewhat diminished! On the run to Lyons “Vagrant” went in the back of the white demonstrator, finding goggles desirable. Over snow and mud the two Rolls-Royces ran, the 1920 car, on old smooth tyres, needing care in handling, and because it went astray at Macon the run ended at some 50 mph with powerful lamps alight. The Hotel Terminus was noted as having vast bedrooms, but unlavish cuisine. One of the mechanics now broke the vee-windscreen of the new tourer with his head, so there were delays waiting for a new glass, “always said to be on the tram from the station but not arriving”. This meant a night run over the mountains to Grenoble, the cold and hungry crew staying at the Grand Hotel Modeme et des Trois Dauphines. So the journey I have done easily in a day in a modern E-type Jaguar had already occupied four days, albeit the R-R persons were not in any hurry.

Further delays were caused by the Basses Alpes being closed by snow, calling for a retracing of the route, and very poor roads to Valence, and lunch at the Croix d’Or. The decision was then made to go to Le Canadel instead of direct to Nice. Mrs C. was expecting to stay at a villa she had rented baton arrival it was not ready — and it was dark. (Quite why this obviously R-R-orientated party was not received by Henry Royce at his villa, where he must surely have been in winter residence, I cannot explain.) This gives rise to speculation as to who was “Clarence”, a driver of great skill apparently, and another member of the crew, who had joined in at Paris and was described “as a cheery optimist with a profound knowledge of wireless”, unusual in 1922. Were these gentlemen top-ranking R-R personnel, perhaps? Anyway, a small hotel was found and the cars were garaged in the smart “private R-R motor house at Le Canadel”. After nearly a week, one day having been spent in Paris, the two cars arrived in Nice, after terrible roads from Beau Vallon to Frejus, to be garaged at the R-R HQ at Garage Nicodemi on the Boulevard Gambetta, but not before a gendarme had objected to the 1920 car’s steady 20 mph along the Promenade des Anglais, from its former 65 mph cruising gait. “Vagrant” was reminded of the troubles he had had when making a similar journey in his Angus-Sanderson the year before and his praise of the white demonstrator, a can capable of an easy 65-70 mph, was understandable, especially after it had been taken by him up La Turbie hill mostly in top gear, with occasional use of a third speed indistinguishable in lack of sound from the other, so that he remarked “All I can say is that to me the Rolls-Royce, up hill, down hill, or on the level, represents the true poetry of motion”. Incidentally, Lord Rocksavage tried the white Rolls in Nice; maybe it was hoped that a sale would result…

Another rather grand tour happened after the French GP at Lyons in 1924. After Percy Northey, of Rolls-Royce Ltd, and his party had watched Campari drive a P2 Alfa Romeo to victory at 71 mph, vanquishing the Deluge cars, he took a three-day run, over the Lautaret and Galibier passes, before returning to Paris by way of Chambery and Saulieu. The car used, which he invited a motoring writer to join, was the latest 40 / 50 hp tourer (Reg No XK-2100), but not equipped with four-wheel brakes. However, the large drum rear-wheel brakes proved sufficient, except for two or three emergencies on this hurried trip, as they were exceptionally smooth, progressive and efficient, and did not squeak, while the roads were mostly dry. A fourth occupant was carried with the chauffeur on the back seat, behind a windscreen.

Leaving on the Bank Holiday after the race, the Rolls cruised at 50 mph towards Grenoble, going to its limit of 72 mph on long straights, “with never a sound but the swish of the tyres on the crumbling surface and the rush of wind past our ears”. The excellence of the springing was also commented on, and it was noted that “a check for traffic, and at once the big sue-cylinder engine accelerates with ease and grace as of some noiseless and mighty power pushing the car along, no tremor beneath the floorboards to counteract that impression, as in many cases of powerful cars when the accelerator is suddenly depressed.” Up to the snow line, the Rolls climbed effortlessly, stopping at the PLM hotel at the summit of the Lautaret pass, where Lionel Martin and his wife with their Aston-Martin and Humprey Cook with his 30/98 Vauxhall, also open tourers, were encountered.

Then it was to the real test, the ascent of the 8,540 ft Col du Galibier. The car had the non-Continental cooling arrangements and began to boil, so that its radiator had to be replenished from a mountain torrent, ere the climb was completed, the exhaust cut-out now open. But so good was the steering lock that all the hairpins were negotiated without recourse to reversing. More single figure ascents and they were speeding home, and would have put 50 miles into an hour’s fast running, had not a halt been made for tea. The second day’s run disposed of 253 miles, many of them in Alpine regions, and on the last day the travellers made Saulieu to Fontainebleau in 3¼ hours, the car running into Paris after lunch in the Ghost-like silence peculiar to the Rolls-Royce, not a squeak or body rattle of any sort to denote the buffeting to which it had been subjected…

By the mid-1920s people were venturing abroad in smaller cars, one user of a two-seater 12/50 Alvis, for instance, being full of praise for his car after a 3,557-mile tour of the Dolomites that embraced 33 passes, in spite of having had to change three valve springs. The essence of the grand tour, however, was seen in 1926 when a saxe-blue Phantom I Rolls-Royce tourer (Reg No XY 2214) was driven across France to the Pyrenees and Basque country in the summer of 1926. This was another R-R inspired trip, to first see the San Sebastian GP, the crew again included a uniformed chauffeur, as on the 1924 expedition to the Lyons GP in a Silver Ghost. As before, the remarkable quietness of the big car was commented on, whether “trickling silently on top gear through old-world village streets, smoothly gliding like a phantom indeed, with that entire absence of effort that characterises a Rolls-Royce” — which remains just as true today.

As far as Bordeaux no hill brought the PI off top speed and compared to the aforesaid Silver Ghost the new overhead-valve-engined car was found to be fleeter by several mph, to accelerate far more rapidly in a veritable crescendo of noiseless speed, and to settle down to a normal cruising gait of 60 mph. With other traffic conspicuous by its absence, apart from a few horse and bullock carts, they sped, finding a very good hotel, the Richelieu, at Monte de Marsan. Running at 70 mph, amid trams, motor coaches returning from Lourdes, and dust, the Rolls-Royce sped to the Pyrenees. There were many occasions when the “immense braking reserve” of the New Phantom was appreciated.

Many Panhard-Levassor tourist coaches were encountered, as the Rolls ascended the 6,936 ft Col du Tourmalet but this time, it seems, it was others who had to replenish their radiators at mountain streams. Fearful unguarded drops marked the run to Eaux Bonnes, only two cars met with, and the tourists arrived in Biarritz two days before the very dull Grand Prix was to be held. Incidentally, the spectators thereat soon melted away (under the glaring sun!) when they found only Deluge and Bugatti competing, after Segrave’s V12 Sunbeam had retired. The race was rendered even more unsatisfactory through protests about the placings — there is nothing new under the sun! The Bugatti 1, 2 was not in doubt, Costantini winning from Goux, after 5 hr 35 min 47 sec.

After which the PI was piloted up M Igueldo by Count Velayos’s primrose, black Weymann-bodied R-R and Si Carlos Salamanca’s R-R; fine sight as made, the Britishers were told that were, in fact, some 500 Rolls-Royces Spain. The motoring journalist of the was allowed to drive on the journey ha 253 miles being covered on the second More than once the fully-laden car shown 78 mph on its speedometer and 2,000 miles was as good as when it started out, except for a rattle from the (but none from the body) and a crack pane in the rear screen. There were no leaks, brakes, clutch and fingersteering were as good as ever, the Dunlops hadn’t punctured. After two days in Paris, the PI was shipped back tin the Maid of Orleans, with only four other cars hold, in contrast to the crowded ferries that prevail today.

So much for grand touring in the vintage years. — W.B.