Motoring As It Was – A Look Back to the Roads of the 1920s
(Continued from the January issue)
In the summer of 1924 Owen John, whose “diary” we are following, had taken a holiday in France, to what he called ”Brandyland”, by which he meant to the Cognac country, using a Wolseley 14 tourer with those balloon tyres about which up to then he had been unconvinced. But after a completely troublefree and punctureproof holiday tour of 1,200 miles he found the car very much to his liking and that these big Dunlops smoothed out not only pot-holes but French level-crossings very effectively. He found this Wolseley a delightful car to drive. It was presumably the side-valve job that was soon to have a monobloc engine instead of one with paired cylinder blocks and he restyled the 16/35 hp and the only faults mentioned were that it could do with improved brakes, these having to be adjusted during the tour, and that on wet mornings the magneto’s rocker-spindle had to be eased, which is something we do not have to do on our modern cars.
Otherwise, O.J. did not have to use a tool or the pump or pressure, gauge in all those 1,200 miles. Mark you, having now done well over 10,000 miles in a Ford Sierra XR 4X4 with no bother of any sort, I suppose we must regard troublefree as a relative term! What is perhaps more interesting is how inexpensive holidays on the Continent were in those days. Having travelled down by the “dull”, straight, ugly road through Dreux, Evreux, Chartres, Tours (where the previous year Segrave had won the French GP for Britain and Sunbeam), Poitiers and almost to Angouterne, turning off this badly surfaced highway with dreary country flanking it (relieved only by the fine cathedrals in almost every town) due west at the little town of Ruffec, where there were “motor-signs and petrol-pumps and apparently nothing else”
The travellers than entered what O.J. called a land of oxen and vineyards, and which in 1924 was pretty unknown country to tourists — but is it, any more? Cognac itself was regarded as elegant but somewhat dull, so the O.J. party drove on to stop the night at Saintes. This is where the cost-comparison comes in, because four people were charged a total of less than £1, or actually 11 francs less than the equivalent.
The bathing centre in those days was Royan, with its five beaches and Casino, and a funny little tram-train running along the esplanade. O.J. observed that the ladies “wore their summer dresses and very fragile some of them seemed to be and that there was a lack of dignity about the men’s garb,” from which it might seem that the gentleman from Berkshire was not amused . .. In fact, he preferred Les Sables, but can anyone tell me whether the bathing at Royan is as good as it was over 40 years ago? The Wolseley went on to Marennes, where the oysters were cheap, and on to Le Chapus, where it was put in a shed while the party explored by ship.
At Rochefort they used the high transporter, reminding them of the one at Runcorn, and that night stayed at Chatelaillon, where the bathing was safe and the Casino sufficiently high-class for stockings to be en regle at balls. In those far-off times La Rochelle and St Nazaire were “quiet, deserted and lovely” but O.J. said they were beginning to be discovered and one day would be noisier — how is it, in 1986. I wonder? In 1924 M Clernenceau was entertaining a house party in his villa looking down on the sea from the woods… On the homeward journey the Wolseley had to take to the pontoon at Nantes, the bridge over the Loire being down, O.J. noting with some apprehension that the pontoon-skippers were all wearing cork Iifebelts… One more example of hotel charges then prevailing will suffice — the Hotel de l’Ouest at Laval charged the party of four the equal of 23 6d (117 1/2p) for a night’s stay with dinner wine, and breakfast — which some economist of a travel-agent might well translate into 1986 terms.
The Wolseley went on without incident and the thing ends on a topical note, for O.J. wrote: “…I wish they would hurry up with that Channel Tunnel — the sea is about the only thing that Dunlop balloon tyres and the AA cannot make smooth.”
Incidentally, the Wolseley seems to have had only rear-wheel brakes, and those quarter-elliptic front springs and straight I-section front axle-beam of its kind and for 1925 the brake drums were stiffened up and the brake compensating-gear deleted so perhaps O.Js remarks bore fruit — the tourer cost £435 at the 1924 Show, but front brakes were extra, as were the low-pressure tyres.
O.J. returned at about the time motoring folk were flocking to Olympia but he was determined to eschew the Show and concentrated instead on a rather feeble discourse on the evolution of the carriage drive. Until the coming of the car, he said, these were drives for carriages and horses from the road to the front door of the house and occasionally round to the stables, and whether the house be Victorian or Tudor the odds were that this was how the approach to the house was arranged; it is so where I now abide with a mounting-block or what remains of one, by the front garden gate. O.J. had an odd theory that in the horse-age the action of hoofs distributed the wear on the drive surface so that it remained as originally laid, whereas cars destroy the drive surface. Also, thought old O.J.. as horses went comparatively slowly it was necesssary to have a drive wide enough for one carriage to overtake another, and wide gravel sweeps before the house where carriages could turn — this latter for some reason I cannot fathorn, O.J. thought “a monstrosity”.
He went on to say that his own wide, straight drive was about 150 yards long, of what was once gravel, bordered by turf and a lavender hedge with rambler roses. But the passage of countless cars, including O.J’s own heavy Crossley had worn two rain-collecting ruts along it, broadening into pools, and where it was supposed to sweep proudly up to the house the corner by the lily pond now “sloped quite the wrong way, inviting visitors to a watery grave”. The solution, O.J. said, seemed to be the expensive one of construction a real imitation of the Byfleet banking there—my mind flies at once to Neil Gardner’s estate at Burghfield Common near Reading, where just such a section of banking at a right-hand turn in the long carriage drive rendered those pleasant of Great Auclum speed hill-climbs organised there after the war by the Hants & Berks MC all the more interesting… (Incidentally, motor racing owes something to carriage drives, along which many speed-trials have been held, and that to Prescott House turned into the Bugatti OC’s own pleasant playground.)
O.J.’s solution to the problem of wear on carriage drives was to have tram-like slots accommodate the vehicles wheels but the remainder of his solution is so wild as to make one wonder whether he was still suffering from an overdose of sun during his holiday with the Wolseley. Nevertheless, one appreciates the problem. My own drive is longer and every so often bad pot-holes form, so that it constitutes the suspension-test, a “Colonial-section”. for any car I happen to have on road-test! The grass grows green between the rain-filled holes and ruts but so far no car with low ground clearance has been defeated by it, although special care had to be taken with two, a Lotus Elan and a Maserati, and some of my wife’s more timid friends prefer to walk up. The sharp, climbing right-hand bend just beyond the gate is, they tell me, just as it was when a certain poetic young curate with an eye for the lasses rode his horse up the drive, before staying at the house over 100 years ago On 1870 to be exact), which delights the present Kilvert Society; but when the ice forms here beneath the trees it defeats the best cars, even using trials tactics, and few ordinary cars can then get up, hence my conversion to Ford’s four-wheel-drive…. To round this off, may I say, with the usual disclaimer, that we have found IPRC used to repair aerodrome runways, a durable and effective means of dealing with those pot holes, if an expensive one…
After his worries about his drive, O.J. did go to the Motor Show, which led him to think about accessories in that vintage year — he got a rocket for saying he had nowhere to mount, on the radiator cap of the Crossley both his Boyce motometer and an AA badge being told there was a device available to make this possible, as he didn’t dare he said fasten the latter through the radiator cells, which I have risked doing with the VSCC badge, and never produced any leaks. O.J. was also gratified to find that an old idea of his had at last been adopted, that of “having a fair female figure sitting down on the radiator cap instead of being endlessly poised on one toe in the most exposed position imaginable”. From which one concludes that old O.J did not take Olympia 1924 all that seriously. . .
His recent experiences in France had made him conscious of the good and bad in English hotels; he was full of praise tor the “Talbot” in Oundle, “a town of modern conditions in every way with a picturesque antiquity that ought to be better known”, and the “White Lion” at Cobham. and he reminded us that the late, great Harry Preston was then still “mine host” at the “Royal York” in Brighton (I mention this because it is sometimes fun to see whether such hotels have changed much, in 60 years.)
With the coming of winter, O.J. was on about the hazards of skidding, dazzle, and dangerously-sited telegraph poles. There was then a very bad siting of such poles at Woolhampton on the Bath Road between Reading and Newbury, causing accidents innumerable. And driving on that road at night, he had seen a fatal accident caused by one driver following another too closely, from which one still suffers. Four-wheelbrakes would accentuate the danger, and today so will ABS brakes. But nowadays, if this danger spot exists at all the incidents there will have been overshadowed by higher-speed prangs on the M4.
It is always interesting to know how things originated and in an age when almost every village is identified for those who do not possess maps or cannot read them by metal name-plates, it is amusing to know that in 1924 Barkway in Hertfordshire had its name emblazoned in large white letters on a house in that village. The year 1924 ended with O.J. praising the four-wheel-brakes of a Studebaker Special 30 that he had been driving in the particularly “wet and greasy traffic of London”, and with which he had honestly never felt such a careless (did he mean ”carefree”?) sense of absolute security in all his motoring life”, apart from some apprehension that someone would end up sitting on his petrol tank. I know how very impressive tour-wheel-brakes seemed at this time, having as a schoolboy had them demonstrated to me on a Buick. But not all cars had them, by a long chalk, in 1924, and O.J. was averse to those who drove on their brakes. (To be continued as space permits)