Professional fast drivers

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NOW that the war has interrupted the career of racing drivers, both amateur and so-called professional, in this country, attention is drawn to other spheres in. which men are paid to handle fast cars. They are the drivers of fire-engines, ambulances and police cars, the two first named augmented by A.R.P. services. Although drivers of such vehicles are required to drive fast and skilfully on occasion, they yet do not employ anything resembling the tactics of the competition driver, as a general rule. After due consideration, the writer believes that it is not so much a question of inferior skill, as their need to always have in mind the vital importance of arriving at the objective without untoward incident. Although they have a definite right of way, fire-engines, ambulances, and police cars must proceed without endangering other road users, and to thread smoothly through traffic is more important than clipping seconds off the journey time by hectic progression. Even although the public expects to see these vehicles going rapidly about their business, nevertheless it also expects such hustle to be accompanied by a certain dignity of handling, so that the professional fast drivers in charge develop a technique different from that of the competition driver. So little does the ordinary road and pavement user know of speed, and the abilities of the modern car, that something of an outcry might arise if fire-engines and ambulances were handled in city streets at their maximum limit of performance. Consequently, these vehicles may seem to be soberly handled to the racing enthusiast, when in actual fact, they are being skilfully driven—not forgetting the restraint of A.R.P. official speed restrictions and the comfort of patients in loaded ambulances. Maybe experienced sports-car drivers could improve on the journey-time on every occasion if put in charge of these vehicles, but we doubt if they could do so unless they resorted to fierce driving tactics, which, while undeniably not dangerous, would be greatly to the distaste of the rate-paying spectators. Experience of A.R.P. turn-outs has taught us that a rather special approach is necessary when speed is essential, in a vehicle so noticeable to the world at large that it must be driven unobtrusively and occupied by personnel whose lack of motoring enthusiasm prevents them from taking a lighthearted view of a fast ride and its morbid improbabilities. So, while fire-engine and ambulance drivers have little in common with the competition driver, they do excellent work and it is interesting to remember that they are paid to drive fast. Getting quickly through thick traffic, when momentary fierce handling must not be used to compensate for hesitancy at other points, calls for good driving of a specialised kind, especially as a bell-warning is not much guarantee that other road users, uneducated as they are to the difficulties of fast travel, will give a clear passage. A possible exception to the foregoing is the police car in pursuit of law-breakers, and police-car drivers undergo extensive training and are usually more on a par with the competition driver—only recently we observed a truly skilful piece of reversing by a police Hillman, in this case merely to apprehend some urchins who had to be scared out of tailboard-swinging. And a police car in full flight after a car load of criminals is reserved almost exclusively for the silver screen, at any rate in this country.

The London County Council is, very sagely; sending members of the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service to its Accident Stations for short spells, so that personnel have a chance to go out in the ambulances and see how real casualties are handled. Some interesting facts can be learned from such visits. The ambulances used by the L.C.C. are mostly Talbots, those we inspected being “75s,” with self-changing gearboxes and, we were told, special reduction gearing to cope with the weight of the bodies. The engine, with its neat valve cover and polished copper and steel-tube plumbing, etc., is maintained in speckless condition, which is facilitated by the cleanness of the layout of this Anglo-French design. Even the sparking plug terminals are sparklingly clean. No major overhauls are undertaken at the ambulance stations, though tappet adjusting and similar maintenance is attended to by the drivers. Although an air of typical British indifference and leisure seems to pervade these stations, ambulances are away within two minutes of an emergency call. At one local station some 300 accident calls, and about the same number of general service calls, come in on an average per month, or ten calls per ambulance in every 24 hour shift. It was very noticeable that in discussing humorous or particularly horrid cases, the station personnel nearly always referred to railway accidents. When we remarked that we seldom saw any reference to them in the papers; they smiled sardonically and said that only road accidents, however insignificant, got into the newspapers every time. If the “toll of the road” is depressing you, talk to the personnel of your local ambulance station . . .

The L.C.C. is now replacing women drivers with men, and converted vans with special ambulances, in its A.R.P. Volunteer Auxiliary Service. At one typical depot the vehicles consist of two Ford vans, a Commer “Invader” van and a Hudson box-ambulance, and two Terraplane ambulances, augmented by a fleet of cars numbering several of the biggest American saloons. The new box-ambulances are believed to cost between £50 and £70 each and are mostly quickly-overhauled American chassis, of excellent performance, if very supple suspension—in one case we came across Telecontrol, which mystified everyone, but, wound up to its full extent at the rear (100 lbs. per square inch); had some stabilising effect. Fairly modern big American Saloons are popular as communication cars for both Fire and Ambulance auxiliary services, but such makes as Sunbeam, Delage, Daimler and Rolls-Royce Twenty are also seen.

Drivers on both the ordinary and auxiliary ambulance services work alternate morning, afternoon and night shifts of approximately eight hours duration, with a day off between changed shifts, and draw £3 per week. Incidentally, H. L. Biggs, who is contributing a most interesting series of articles to MOTOR SPORT, is now closely associated with the purchase and repair of cars for the L.C.C.