More light on the vintage-cult
[It is well known that enthusiasts for the vintage car are 100 per cent. dyed in the wool, and equally well known that the modernists just cannot understand or accept the vintage-cult. We have no intention of taking sides, and merely publish these observations of a confirmed vintagent as possibly throwing some light on the outlook, spirit and ideals of the old car owner. —Ed.]
I OFTEN wonder how many potential members are lost to the Vintage Sports Car Club because they had indulgent parents or a conveniently rich uncle. The most damning thing that can happen to the enthusiast in embryo is to be presented "on reaching years of discretion" with a new sports car. The chances are that it will, after its own fashion, behave well for the first twelve months and at the end of that time will be given, plus a cheque, to a loquacious dealer in exchange for the "new season's model." Thus are buzz-box owners born.
Better by far to graduate from the aged Austin Seven; tortured in the hands of many earlier owners and guaranteed to fail in some part once a week; it gives you hours of gloom, moments of pure delight and above all Experience. And Experience must be purchased; purchased partly in hard cash and partly on your back on the garage floor. In oily agony is true enthusiasm born.
I had no rich relations: I paid £2 and a motor-cycle for my first Austin Seven. Memories of it are mercifully few, but I do not think it was any better or any worse than the average Austin fitted with "cut-away" body—that sine qua non of the would-be racer.
It taught me patient resignation and the fact that I wanted more horse-power. So I bought a Senechal. The crankshaft and I became broken together and I sat back and thought things out while I saved up.
I decided on a "14/40" M.G. and never regretted the decision. The steering left a certain amount to be desired because a pre-purchase crash had shaken up the front end a bit, but with practice one learned to drive to plus or minus 2 feet of any given white line. "14/40" M.G.s are still to be found and I would recommend them to anyone of the £10 car fraternity. Morris Oxford spares for engine and chassis are legion yet and the light body gave a very fair performance with complete reliability.
I built a car next. The chassis was the front three-quarters of a Cowley turned upside-down; it had a tubular front axle and Frazer-Nash transmission was arranged on a bridge piece over the backend; the power was side-valve Anzani. It was completed on a Friday evening and run five miles on the road. On Saturday it travelled from South Wales to Kent and, apart from the acute discomfort, could be called a success. It would do 70 m.p.h., gave over 30 m.p.g., and ran many thousands of miles until it changed shape after a large lorry used it as a buffer. It was sold all crumpled up, leaving me with a further wealth of Experience and a hearty respect for chain transmission.
Since then I've owned an early Anzani Frazer-Nash, a 1932 "Nurberg" and a 1933 T.T. Replica.
I endorse all that John Bolster said in the December issue about the Anzani Frazer-Nash and do not propose to cover the same ground again, but I cannot agree that the later examples were their inferior in any point save reliability. The "Nurberg," owing to its very small body, was little more than a four-wheeled motorcycle. There was no room at all for a suit-case and even the proverbial pyjamas and toothbrush had to be wrapped in paper and stowed in odd corners around the spare wheel. One very wintry Christmas-time, journeying from Lancashire to Kent, a wheel punctured and, to the intense delight of all the rubbernecks of Rugeley, my wife's most intimate garments, not to mention my own, all having lost their paper wrappings, were strewn in the snow around us while the wheel-change was effected. The T.T. Replica is a little better in this respect. Both cars had the two-carburetter Meadows engine and, to my mind, they were livelier, handled better, and stopped more quickly than the earlier, narrower side-valve models. I'm afraid this is completely opposite to John Bolster's findings, but I am comforted by the thought that if it comes to "show down" Aldington will probably be on my side!
The "12/50" Alvis was a contemporary of the Anzani-Nash—the same horsepower, but completely different in character. I owned two, a heavy and a light 4-seater. The heavy 4-seater did things in its own comfortable time but with unfailing regularity and reliability. The smaller and lighter sports edition was an eminently sensible sports car, magnificent in the simple sanity of its design and is another of those cars that the impecunious enthusiast should grab if he gets the chance.
Ascending the horse-power scale to the "14s," I owned a shortened Lancia "Lambda" and later a D.I. Delage. The magnificent qualities of the "wop" are proved by the fact that in the hands of the previous owner it won the V.S.C.C. Buxton Trial against the opposition of such a redoubtable car as Anthony Heal's "30/98" Vauxhall. It would permit to be perpetrated the most outrageous liberties in the way of cornering; it stopped more than adequately. I feel I should have liked it more than I did; perhaps the queer custom of developing electrical bonfires at odd intervals prejudiced me, or maybe the funny habit the starter had of starting up all by itself when you were cruising quietly in a town. The bell-like ring of the Lancia flywheel will be remembered by every owner and the Bendix banging on the rotating teeth gave a life-like imitation of the police "gong" of evil memory. The prompt reduction in speed of all cars within half a mile when the starter played this trick, however, almost compensated for the trouble of getting out and waggling a wire to stop the fun.
The D.I. Delage was a baby Rolls. It dated from 1924, I think, and had been chauffeur-kept by the same owner for 14 years. I paid £5 for it and bought the most perfect piece of machinery I've ever owned. It was in no way exciting, perhaps 55 m.p.h. all out, and high-pressure tyres permitted only the most sedate swerving. Without speed or excitement complete contentment was assured by gloating over the sheer mechanical perfection of it all.
Although I owned them at widely different times, I can't help comparing my two 3-litres, Bentley and Sunbeam. The Bentley-Sunbeam relationship is as good as plum cake to chocolate eclairs. The Sunbeam was a fine machine, technically, and in many ways practically, better than the Bentley, yet somehow, if I had to drive from London to Land's End and back once a week, I'd choose the Bentley. Perhaps it depends whether you like your power delivered infrequently and in large lumps or little and often. Perhaps it is just the inexplicable indefinable magic that hovers round the "winged B" and shrouds its defects in a sentimental smokescreen. I do not know, but I think my next car will be a Bentley, unless I can find someone so clever as to make a "30/98" Vauxhall stop rapidly enough to prevent its being an agent of death and destruction to one and all.
I have owned three "30/98s." The first was a drophead coupe, a magnificent luxury motor-car on which a small fortune had been expended. As a result it was low and attractive in appearance and had a reasonably quiet third gear; but it was so bespattered with polished bits that unless I put on a clean collar every time I went out in it I felt I was letting the thing down, so it gave way to a very stark 4-seater. This had high-pressure tyres and an hydraulic braking system. At times the brakes worked magnificently, which was a whole lot worse than if they had been always bad. Sometimes the pedal went flat to the floor-boards without any result at all and then you put both hands to the handbrake and pulled and prayed together. Yet in three years neither my wife nor I did worse than bowl over one circumambient cat, in the depths of a winter night at the end of a 250-mile journey. John Prioleau wrote in "The Observer" of the "30/98" Vauxhall: "That historic car had faults, but they were so to speak the faults of genius . . ." The complete comfort of 75 m.p.h. cruising at a mere 2,500 r.p.m.—mine had the E type straight-tooth back axle—made 200-mile journeys a commonplace afternoon run, and in three years of journeying from Lancashire to Kent at least once a month, the worst that ever happened was a blown fuse. True, at other times the clutch jammed solid once—most embarrassing— and a broken valve falling downwards resulted in a bill of some £15 on new bits for the inside. But this is not a very big repair bill for some 45,000 miles of running on everything from By-pass to Blue Hills Mine. On the long run it did 18 m.p.g. and 90 m.p.h., when asked. It was capable, in spite of the brakes, of giving outstanding averages over long journeys, and yet it received nothing more than the common decencies in the way of maintenance. The third "30/98" I ran but a few miles before selling to a country home where I know it will have the company of other famous sports cars and be reasonably safe from destruction from above. If there exists a Valhalla of vehicles, the "30/98" deserves the highest throne.
A 1931 Aston-Martin coupe was run for the first year of the war. Its merit was its road-holding and pleasant practical body, but knowledgeable people told me its engine wasn't a credit to the name.
And now we are back again with a Frazer-Nash, conserving the country's fuel by doing over 30 m.p.g. when taking my wife shopping and myself five miles to work each day, and yet, in these brief journeys, because of its road-holding and "come hither" cornering, permitting a "flash back" to days gone by—or better, perhaps, a "trailer " of Things to Come. So I smile when owners of 1937-40 automobiles come glumly to enquire what they are to do now they can't get a new car, can't get a replacement engine, can't get a re-bore because they've been re-bored twice already. . . . "All that glitters is not gold" is not only a hackneyed proverb, but, of the majority of modern cars, it is also most profoundly true.