” ALPHONSE “
SOiVIE time ago I was considering the all-important question of the purchase of a car. The machine had got to be of as exciting a nature as possible, and of course, as ever, the price of it was not unlimited. So I set about thinking of what was the most stimulating motor I could rise to. I am very ready to admit that I have been vastly inspired by the modern racing car, slithering over the road it nearly touches, propelled by quantities of tiny cylinders containing pistons moving at fantastic speeds : but for all that, my real sympathies have never ceased to be with the monsters of the old days, huge high machines roaring and swaying down the road to the accompaniment of the beat of four huge
cylinders and the howl of the chains. Panhard, Mercedes, Mons, Fiat, de Dietrich, these are the names I conjure with to revive the real romance of motoring : if only I could own one of the monsters of old !
Of course a 90 h.D. Mercedes of pre-war date can be found and bought for a moderate price, but the thought of paying about £50 a year to Mr. Churchill must give one pause, and at last I compromised with something rather smaller, a 1912 Alfonso model Hispano-Suiza.
Ye gods, what changes we have seen, for my monster of old, was nothing else than a pre-war voiturette, direct descendant of the winner of the light car race of 1910. But that part had to be passed over and instead of a microscopic eng,ined modern sports car, I had a 3..t, litre machine, with four high cylinders—a stroke of 180 mm. and a bore of only 80 m.m.—enormous side valves in a T head and an enormous exhaust pipe, even if I did have to be content with shaft drive.
The first difficulty, of course, was to start the engine. It is rather much to expect an engine to start from cold with a pull-up,and early experience taught me the danger of being kicked by a long stroke engine if it was swung too slow when cold. It was some time before I discovered that some enterprising former owner had advanced the magneto one tooth on the standard setting, which if it made starting dangerous, did improve the performance quite a lot. However, much inconvenience was made up for by the pleasure of seeing several garage champion swingers thrown half across the place by one of Alphonse’s well-timed backfires. It is not a bad thing either to learn to take kicks ” without being damaged, though I must say I always used the loose wrist method, and never acquired the straight-arm, taken-through-the-shoulder style of the racing mechanic. However, once started Alphonse proved a model motor. He was very reliable and would do his ten miles in ten minutes with the best of them. It was not long, however, before 1 suffered an anxious moment. I was up at Oxford at the time, and being in my first year, was not allowed a car. However, that summer term Alphonse came up with me and was hidden away in an inn yard some little way out
of town. It was not long, however, before I decided to show him to the inhabitants of Cambridge, and thither we repaired on one of the first days of the General Strike of 1926. All went well until on our way home in a lonely piece of road somewhere near Aylesbury the clutch pedal suddenly fell down on to the floorboards and the engine began to race. We stopped the car and the engine, and in the deathly silence which always ensues began to unscrew the floor-boards. To the sole sound of our laboured breathing thoughts began to run through my head to the effect that even if it were possible ordinarily to get from Aylesbury to Oxford by train, it certainly was not that day; and if we did not get back to Oxford, how was I to explain my absence, seeing that the only method of getting away was by car; and the awful part was that if the truth did come out, I knew that I should not be allowed to have my beloved Alphonse up the next year. Investigation proved that the clutch was held in by an enormous external coil spring held in tension by complicated mechanism to provide adjustment. This had come adrift, and the pieces were lying safely in the clutch-pit, all except one threaded hook about an inch long, for which I could think of no substitute. In the fast fading light of the summer evening I began to run back down the road to look for it, knowing that in a few minutes it would be dark and the search hopeless. However, there it was lying ill the road, and in a very short time the clutch spring was coupled up and we were en route again for Oxford. But I have often thought that this was one of the best bits of luck I ever had in motoring, and the effect was such that I retired thereafter and drove a tram for the rest of the Strike. I cannot say incidentally that I and my fellow volunteers were very skilful at this occupation, for our breakdowns were legion. In consequence we were continually being rescued by an ancient Saurer breakdown van, which had a badly cracked jacket, with the result that water was pumped in a solid stream out of the exhaust pipe. The driver, however, remarked that she ran well enough, but she did lose a lot of water. Talking of clutches, by the way, which I was doing before it was water-jackets, reminds me of a performance of which I have always been rather proud. One day when I was in the country two of the plates of Alphonse’s clutch seized solid, and I decided that the quickest way to remedy the defect was to take the car up to the Hispano works in London and get two new plates fitted. The journey proved fairly simple while we were in the country, but when we reached the London traffic the fun really began. Anyone who has ever tried to drive a car along Chiswick High Street at mid-day without a clutch or self-starter
will doubtless sympathise. Whenever we were brought to a dead stop, our only method of starting was to bang in the top gear dogs, and then engage first when the car leapt forward ! However, I think we only stopped the engine three times before we reached Church Street, Kensington, in spite of all difficulties. It was in that first summer of Alphonse’s—the first as far as I was concerned, though the fourteenth of his existence–that he undertook a Scotch raid. I had promised to fetch a friend of mine from Braemar—the jcurney by train being more than he could contemplate—and had decided to do the journey straight through. All went well to begin with until at about
2 a.m., we were running down into Berwick-onTweed when I noticed steam spurting from the radiator cap. Having stopped to investigate, it was fctuad that all the water had leaked away through the pump gland. Further investigation proved that the Tweed was quite inaccessible, and as far as help m, as concerned Berwick at that hour might have been a city of the dead. At last, however, our search was rewarded, but low be it spoken where we found the water, as all 1 can say is that a petrol tin would only go into a basin sufficiently far to allow it to be filled with about three inches of water. As the source of water was at the top of a hill and Alphonse at the bottom, we got pretty sick of walking up and down before we got enough in to circulate. Having slept one night in Scotland we started down again, but during cur night fun we suffered unceasingly from tyre troubles. At last the pump broke down, and when the next puncture occurred, we sat down by the roadside somewhere on the Yorkshire moors to wait for morning. Before long, however, we saw the lights of a car, and a Talbot chassis appeared and stopped as a result of violent waving. The driver lent us his pump, and then remarked, Sorry, I can’t stop, I’m on a destruction test, arld behind schedule as it is.•• With that he shot off, but the Talbot, which was an experimental edition of the present 6-cylinder model, apparently proved indestructable, until the hum of its engine was lost in the distance. I have often envied that man his job; I should love to enter in my log-book : Test concluded; cause, traction engine. That winter, incidentally, Alphonse and I nearly got destroyed in a most ignominious manner. We were proceeding along merrily enough when suddenly the power ceased to get delivered to the driving wheels. Investigation proved that with the clutch and any gear in, the propeller shaft went round all right, and the trouble was evidently in the back axle. There was obviously nothing for it therefore, but for my companion to get a lift into the next town and get someone to tow us in. I did not have to wait long before he returned complete with a 30 cwt. Fiat, its driver and his mate. Alphonse was attached to the Fiat and we continued our way in this lugubrious style. All went well until about a mile from our destination we came to the top of a long hill which ran down between high walls which shut out the scanty remains of daylight. Now Alphonse’s best brake worked in a drum on the propeller shaft, and so was useless, and I had all I could do going down hill to hold him back with the hand-brake. The driver of the Fiat seemed to realise this, and, getting nervous, went faster and faster down the hill for fear that I should bump his back; until suddenly he
saw the road ahead blocked by traffic, and applied his Italian brakes to the full. There was no hope of my stopping, but I just had time to swing to the left and miss the Fiat by inches. There was a horrid jar as the tow-rope pulled tight, and what I took to be the end of the strap which fastened it flew high into the air and landed in the road just beside me. Investigation, however, proved that the end of strap was nothing else than Alphonse’s starting handle, which had been snapped clean off by the rope as it pulled tight and had passed my head by an uncomfortably narrow margin. The next summer Alphonse got the chance of becoming a racing car. The worst of the old sports car in this field of activity is that modern classes penalise it quite unduly. A 4-litre engine running up to 2,000 r.p.m. has every right in my opinion to be placed in the same class with a 2-litre engine running at 4,000 r.p.m:, but such apparently is not the opinion of the organisers of speed trials. However, the next summer a speed trial was held in which there was a class for
veteran cars, i.e., cars more than five years old, and this being Alphonse’s 15th summer, he got into that class quite comfortably. The course was a good one, being about I miles of winding road with a very bad surface. Alphonse acquitted himself nobly that day for he not only won the veterans’ class against an assorted collection of post-war cars, but established himself in sixth position in the general classification. Not very long after this, Alphonse and I were engaged in a yet more exciting race. It happened that I found myself one day in Newbury in company with a friend of mine who owned one of the latest Bresicia type Bugattis ever built, with four wheel brakes, and we were both journeying to Oxford. I confess that at the start, I did not think for a moment that Alphonse could keep up with the Bug., but as we started off with the latter a length ahead, I determined to do my best. It soon became obvious that as a matter of fact the cars were pretty equally matched in the matter of speed, and we settled down to a fierce battle. That road runs over the downs, and is a succession of long gradients either up or down. Now Alphonse could take all these hills in his stride on top gear without much slackening of speed, but above the rush of the wind, we could frequently hear the howl of the Bugatti on third as we tore up the grades. Alphonse kept up well enough, but try as I would, I could not pass that Bugatti. At last, however, I was forced to do what I had been unable to accomplish for so long. We were both closing up on some Morris type of car pretty rapidly, when a corner hove in sight, and the driver of the Bugatti, deciding that he could not pass before it in safety suddenly applied his four wheel brakes to the full to avoid charging the Morris. Fortunately or unfortunately, Alphonse’s brakes were not up to this standard, and the only thing to do was to go straight on. I shall never know quite how we got past both the Bug. and the Morris and took that corner, but I do know that Alphonse felt a bit lifty at one moment! However, the net result was that we led into Abingdon, although
the Bug. did get ahead again as we accelerated out of that town, and we reached Oxford as we had started, with the Bug. a length ahead. It was a great race, and I do not think that our average from Newbury to Abingdon was far short of the mile a minute mark. The next year, Alphonse made his last appearance as a racing car, this time in regulation dress, stripped
of every accessory including the seat cushions, the occasion being the inter-varsity hill-climb. The conditions did not give him much chance to distinguish himself in that event, but it is something to have run a 16-year old car in the climb. Oh yes, Alphonse, we have had many happy days together.