Veteran to classic -- Forgotten Journeys

A long time ago, when the Motor Sport offices were somewhat closer to the traffic-flow along the City Road than they are now, there existed a secondhand bookshop a few doors away. Browsing there, I came upon Self Portrait by Gilbert Frankau, which did not interest me until, glancing at a list of “Some of the People in the Story,” I was astonished to find the names of SCH Davis, Sir Dehane Segrave and “Reggie” and WE Rootes. That was different and I purchased the book for 2/- (10p). Another book which I found in this fascinating shop was The Defence Of London 1915-1918 by Col A Rawlinson, CMG, VBE, DSO, who had raced Darracqs and a Hudson in the 1914 loM TT and had commanded the vehicles mounted with machine-guns that rushed about London and its environs trying to shoot down Zeppelins. I got this for 1/- (5p) and was amused to discover that Rawlinson’s fleet of Daimler, Lancia and De Dion Bouton V8 vehicles had been stationed, when not out on duty, at the Moorgate Barracks, immediately opposite the bookshop. There was another, larger, book on the shelves, depicting a Renault in African settings, on fine colour-plates. But the price was in the region of 3/6d (17-1/2p), which I thought too expensive. Then, realising this was a rare motoring subject, I returned a day or two later, but it had vanished, either sold or removed to an elusive shelf, which I have ever since regretted. Incidentally, the Gilbert Frankau autobiography was published in 1941 and its different colour pages were presumably the result of the war-time paper shortage, which must surely now make it a collector’s work?

I have since found out more about the travels illustrated in the book I failed to buy. The author was Clare Sheridan and her car was a secondhand 1926 13.9hp Renault tourer, the type with the four-cylinder, side-valve, 2121cc engine, three-speed gearbox, and transverse rear springing, rated in France at 11hp. She called it Ranee. In it, accompanied by her school-age daughter and young son, she set off from Biskra to Ourgla, as far, she was told, as a normal car could go, before the Sahara closed in. Her car was too heavy for desert travel, she was informed. She was conscious that Citroën was competing with Renault in the Sahara, with the lighter Citroën claiming the last word.

The lady was unable to afford the four inner tubes, two new tyres and extra spare wheel she was recommended to take with her. She reassured herself that Ourgla was only 300 miles away and instead of the second spare wheel took an Arab mechanic, being herself quite ignorant of mechanical matters, a shovel, and two inner tubes. The first objective was Touggourt. The French Commander-in-Chief, General Neaulin, left at the same time, but by train! The Renault proceeded at about 45 mph along the good road to the oasis town of Sidi-Okba. After that, the road became an execrable track, first chalk, then sand, reducing speed to between 5 and 10 mph. Soon they were stuck in the sand and to add to the difficulties, the old Michelin on a back wheel punctured. (There were new Goodrich tyres on the front wheels, a new Dunlop on the other back wheel). Arabs from a camel train pushed, to no avail. Later another camel train was spotted, but nomads’ women were on the camels, which thus could not approach to provide a tow. However, 17 of the gun-carrying nomads pushed and out Ranee came. Then the Dunlop punctured!

Clare Sheridan let the Arab mechanic drive, after a long delay when the jack gave trouble. In the end the wheel had been changed, but the rough going, which made the bodywork “squeak and whistle and rattle and groan”, had also broken the headlamps, so they had to drive on sidelamps, the Sahara at night “so lonely, so still, so vast, so unfriendly.” It was in these conditions that the old Michelin expired again. That was mended while Clare’s son kept look-out, with his gun. They finally got to Touggourt after the festivities for the General had just ended, after a 3-1/2 hour journey. The night was spent in the Oasis Hotel, as the Transatlanique Hotel was too expensive.

Before continuing the journey visits were paid to Semail, Kaid of Touggourt, and to Hama Sghir, Kaid of OuledAmor. After much entertainment the latter arrived the following day in his 11hp sports Peugeot to escort the Renault to Hadjira. He owned two of these cars “and he swears by them.” A metal lid encased his engine to protect it from the sand and his balloon tyres, smaller than those on the Renault, gripped better. In the end both sports Peugeots and the Renault started the run to Timbuctu and they soon met another Peugeot, owned by the Kird of Temacine, the next oasis town, who was meeting the General; he was persuaded to join the cavalcade until the General’s car was met (the train had taken him as far as it went).

A night was spent at the Kaid’s house, where a shingled American girl in love with the desert, was also staying — but although the Kird liked a modicum of modernisation, his wife, who was his cousin, had never looked over the outer wall. At tea, in order that she could unrobe sufficiently to drink a cup, the Kird tactfully left the room. He smiled cynically as Mrs Sheridan drove off with her children over the open plain. By now she had got used to keeping a constant pressure on the accelerator and letting the car surge forward as it left sand dunes for hard going. “At one moment,” she said, “I took both my hands off the wheel and waved them wildly in the air and accelerated as hard as I could; it was so childish, and such fun.”

The 120-mile run was successfully accomplished and the night spent in the only hotel, very clean, very cheap, and providing the best dinner eaten since Clare had come to live in Algeria. It was owned by a French couple who had been stranded there by the fortunes of war. The Renault was garaged in the barracks, creating much interest, as tourists were few in this isolated outpost of a French colony, occupied by the officers of the garrison.

Before starting the return journey from Ourgla to Tourrourt Mrs Sheridan and her children were invited to the Kaid Adda ben Yussuf’s tent; they found room for him and his mass of bulky burnouses in the overloaded Renault. It must have seemed insignificant in comparison with his caravan of 3000 camels. Then a call upon the French Commandant, who told them that soon the El Golea piste would be open but only to cars in close company, for safety’s sake. For the return home a remote track was used, against the advice of everyone except the Kaid Hama Sghir. It was marked with triangles on posts, showing how to progress from sand-dune to sand-dune. After 20 agonising miles a good road appeared, but with it came clutch slip. This cone d’embrayage, lined with leather, was apparently apt to wear out or burn after too-frequent gearchanging, but this time it was possible to adjust up the slack and they went on, at 35 mph.

The run then became “Dreadful, dreadful monotony without end, hour after hour,” across a flat, grey, scrubby space to a distant horizon. All went well for the rest of the trip. Prior to this, however, Mrs Sheridan had set off with her daughter, to visit Dick at his school, Algiers to Biskra. They were happy to cruise at around 30 mph on the wide, smooth road when the gears jammed, in reverse. A bus-full of Arabs, unaccustomed to seeing women alone, jeered but a Jew stopped and hammered the gears into submission, leaving the girls to replace the floorboards. Lunching at Palestro, where the Renault had once broken down, they were remembered and the hotel owner gave Mrs Sheridan two cartridges for the 16-bore gun she was taking to her son as a Christmas present. Four hours of good running, then a puncture and as Mrs S had never changed a wheel, she drove on, at 8 mph, ruining both tyre and tube! Next, no third gear so in the dark they went on in second, “the engine emitting a strange smell of burning!” However, Mrs S eventually hammered things back into working order and made the Orient Hotel at Bordj-bou-Areridge safely. Next day Ramsay MacDonald was to sleep there.. . .

Continuing in the morning, camels held the Renault up and as it started off it again stuck in second gear or coincered. Spanish and French mechanics at a garage explained that a bearing had failed and that the box might have been incurably damaged. They worked on it all night, while Mrs S and daughter Margaret stayed at the Hotel Touring at Setif. A long delay while a new part was made, a bill for 500 francs, but they were assured that never again would Ranee coince. And, of course, ten miles from Barika, more camels, second gear engaged and it again refused to come out. But hammering of the gearbox internals by the girls cured it. Until, that is, a hill made another drop into second essential, and the box jammed again. Help was complicated, involving an Arab after money, the crew of a steamroller (surely an odd encounter, with its gypsy van, so close to the Sahara?), the promise of horses, and finally an American’s chauffeur of a large Renault, who got out, got under, and put matters right. Nor was that the last of it. Manouevering in a garage yard after buying petrol reverse jammed three times; but by now the girls knew the drill, took out the floorboards, and cured things by themselves.

So much for motoring in the desert in vintage times! But who was this Clare Sheridan, who professed to know nothing of cars, but who journeyed where mostly only caterpillar-track vehicles ventured, and remembered, when the going got rough, the Hartford shock-absorbers on her brother’s car?

Another presumably forgotten journey was that made in 1926 by a Willys-Knight tourer (QQ 4386) from Manchester to Calcutta, an 8000-mile trip with only one driver. I have always thought of the Willys as a very good car, but there were those who were dubious of its Knight double-sleeve-valve engine; perhaps this journey was intended to allay any doubts. “Flagged-off” by the Lord Mayor of Manchester, L Draper left on October 7th and got to Calcutta by January 3rd, 1927. Delays were incurred by the Turkish authorities, a rock which damaged the sump oil-well, terrible roads from Beirut to Baghdad, with a gallon of water drained from the crankcase, and straightening a bent front axle. Like Mrs Sheridan, Draper also had a touch of fever. There were 700 miles of desert from Tehran to Quetta. The car, which had a map of the route painted on its sides and “London-to-Calcutta” emblazoned on its front bumper, apparently gave no trouble. — WB