A Flying Officer describes his cars

F/O. Donald Parker recalls the motoring he has had during two-and-a-half years in the R.A.F.

Having for some time now, been reduced, like so many of us, to such modest forms of locomotion as a pedal cycle. and my own two legs, I find some comfort in looking back upon some of the happy times of the not too distant past, and I see truth in the expression that pleasures, viewed in the light of retrospect, are very often better than the actual experiences. Reflecting on some two-and-a-half years in the Royal Air Force, I recall a number of happy memories in connection with cars that I have owned—if only for a brief period.

The modest sum of six pounds paid for a 1933 water-cooled 172-c.c. S.O.S. two-stroke motor-cycle and made me a member of that “die-hard” community who extract so much noise and vibration from a gallon of petrol. The S.O.S. was, in my bands, an unreliable machine and had womanish tendencies. A stubborn resistance to starting would sap one of strength and sanity, and when on the point of breaking every pipe in its framework, all resistance would melt and abundant healthy power would be on tap and all would be forgiven. During these periods. of co-operation amazing power would be given off at the cost of very little petrol—about 90 m.p.g. was usual, and cruising at 55 m.p.h. would have proved satisfactory had it not been for seizures and a tendency for the plug to jump out. Being my first “stink wheel” I did not appreciate its possibilities and foolishly sold it for a “tenner”.

With winter approaching, I brought out my Type 130 rear-engined Mercedes-Benz of 1937 origin. There were only eight 130s in this country and a short description of such an unusual and little-known car may be of interest. The engine is a 4-cylinder side-valve, of 70 x 85 mm. (13 h.p. rated) and follows very closely the design of the Ford 14.9 unit. An overdrive is incorporated in the 3-speed gearbox and gives a road speed of 62 m.p.h. at 3,200 r.p.m. (which is quoted as maximum, from 26 b.h.p.). The gearbox, however, is both difficult and unpleasant to use. The car, being well streamlined, will hold 55 m.p.h. in luxury and silence, but it takes many seconds to reach that speed, which, due to the gutless engine, cannot be maintained up any appreciable grade. For a car weighing only 17 cwt., with a 1,300,c.c. engine, the performance is ridiculous. Very excellent Lockheed brakes are fitted and deceleration can be in sharp contrast to the acceleration! The suspension is independent all round, with two transverse springs in the front and coil-spring swing-axles at the latter end. This type of springing is most desirable provided that one can afford a heavy replacement bill for tyres. Roadholding and cornering are good normally, but if corners are taken very fast the outside wheels are inclined to judder; however, no rolling is experienced. The body finish and quality of the upholstery is poor by English standards.

I made several attempts to improve the performance without much success. The cylinder head was skimmed twice, removing, in all, 1/8 in.; this mainly increased pinking and had little effect on performance. Finally, I decided to bring brute force to bear and fit a Ford V 8 engine— a modification that would have been relatively easy. However, the project has been temporarily shelved on account of a melee with a heavy lorry, out of which the Mercedes came badly mauled. Fortunately, the body got the worst of it and the suspension and works survived. I spent many afternoons off, with another enthusiast, removing the remains of the body with a tin-opener and a hacksaw blade. On these occasions we were always tired and would sometimes arrive complete with tools and overalls, only to spend the time basking in the sun outside the stable, in which the car was kept, too lazy to get started. However, the body was eventually disposed of, allowing the springs to relax and so lift the chassis about four inches higher, which caused the rear wheels to cant-in on their swing-axles and assume a very comic attitude. When circumstances permit I intend to fit a Ford engine and build up a body of welded pipes covered with doped fabric. Such a car should be useful as a trials special.

A 1929 unsupercharged 2-litre Lagonda open 4-seater then came into my possession. I bought it for £10, as it stood, in a blitzed garage. But it takes more than some hundredweights of lath and plaster to incapacitate a Lagonda, and it started immediately after having been extricated and cleaned. It proved to be a very reliable car. Acceleration was fairly poor, but 55 m.p.h. could easily be maintained. The brakes were good and needed little attention once correctly set. Roadholding and cornering were really first class, due largely to an immensely strong chassis. Petrol consumption averaged about 20 m.p.g. (with the single. waterheated Zenith), but I believe this figure can be bettered. My only criticisms are —the noisy gearbox (which made me self-conscious about changing down when there were people about) and the ridiculous doors fitted to the Van den Plas body, which were as awkward to negotiate as man-holes.

My next car was a 1937 1.5-litre Riley “Falcon” saloon (with standard-type engine) which had only done 15,000 miles and was in excellent condition. So as to improve an already good car I immediately had the body resprayed (the paintwork on Rileys seemed to be very thin at this period) and a top overhaul undertaken on the engine. The result was very pleasing from the point of view of appearance and performance. After the Lagonda it seemed very smooth and easy to drive, which suggested that it was a “ladies’ car”—if this was the case it certainly performed very well into the bargain. The “help-yourself ” gearbox was a distinct assistance when accelerating, and the car was silent and reliable, but lacked something in appeal. I am always frightened of over-driving these smooth engines; they do not protest, and give no indication of just how happy or unhappy they are, whereas the Lagonda would always scream before it was hurt. Nevertheless, I frequently “belted” the Riley, keeping it near its top speed (about 75 m.p.h.) for long distances with no apparent harm. The Girling brakes were powerful and needed little maintenance and petrol consumption was about 20 m.p.g. The steering was delightfully light and accurate and was fairly high-geared, being of the type that requires rather pressure on the steering wheel than a turn to take a corner. I found the Luvax automatic chassis lubricator most excellent and think that it is a refinement that should be fitted to all cars. It saves much trouble and expense and also increases the life of the bearings it supplies. When I stored the car the mileage was 24,000 and there were no signs of wear.

Readers must excuse me for mentioning my next possession—an open 2-seater 1937 Morris Eight. Although not a sports car, I think that if it bore a label that savoured of castor base or was of some little-produced vintage stock, in a mildly tuned form, it would be acclaimed “une vraie voiturette sportive”, instead of regarded as just domestic hardware. With mine I merely raised the compression ratio by fitting Series E pistons (which come up 3 mm. higher than Series I or II) and milled one-tenth of an inch off the head. The ports were also slightly polished. The net result was a quite startling increase in power. A top speed of just over 60 m.p.h. was limited by valve bounce. The engine was fussy and (with most of the baffles missing from the silencer) a glorious impression of performance was gained on full throttle. Indeed, it was a very practical and well-behaved little motor car. Eventually, when a big-end went, I laid it up with the Riley and commissioned a 1934 M.G. Magna open 2-seater. From the point of view of seating position and the placing of the steering wheel and gear lever, etc., the Magna scored high marks. Clever designing along these lines has always been a strong point with M.G.s, and it means a great deal. The added joy of a snappy gearbox, of the more silent variety, together with excellent steering and brakes (if kept frequently adjusted) made the Magna a pleasure to drive. The engine “revved” like a dynamo—noisy but smooth, and it did develop horses (mostly by virtue of its high speed). However, the petrol consumption was on the heavy side, being between 20 and 24 m.p.g. Maximum speed was about 75 m.p.h., but with some mild tuning over 80 m.p.h. can be achieved. A second dynamo was the most useful spare that I carried—Magna owners will know why!

Next, I became the possessor of a 1928 open 4-seater “12/50” Alvis. I had seen this car in the district on several occasions and found that it was owned by the local vicar. He was a sportsman; he sold me the “12/50” cheap and obtained a 1939 1.5-litre M.G. to take its place. I soon found the Alvis to be in first-class order, although the untaught invariably doubted the fact when they heard the engine. But it is well known that good healthy rattles are both safe and normal with this model. The “12/50” responds considerably to the size of the carburetter main jet (in the case of the updraught Solex). This fact was borne out in some tests that I made recently on a 250-mile duty journey. The petrol consumption figures are fairly accurate as the car has a conveniently accessible fuel system utilising a tank under the dash, which has a drain tap.

I started off with a 125 main jet, which allowed poor acceleration and produced a “flat-spot” at about. 25 m.p.h. in top gear. For the first hour I kept the maximum speed at about 45 m.p.h. but, the road being sinuous and narrow. I was prevented from maintaining this all the time. However, I was very gentle on the throttle and seldom changed gear, making use, rather, of the ignition control. No towns were encountered and 35 miles were covered in the hour. During the second hour the maximum speed was increased to just over 50 m.p.h., but I still nursed the engine. The performance on hills was reasonable, a change rarely being necessary. Two small towns were encountered and for the rest the roads were fast, although somewhat hilly. In this hour 38 miles were covered. The petrol was then checked and the rate of consumption was found to be 28 m.p.g. For the rest of the journey a 140 main jet was used. This improved acceleration and hill-climbing vastly and also reduced pinking; furthermore, the flat-spot disappeared. The car was then driven as it should be. A top speed of 72 m.p.h. was recorded on the speedometer, which I believe to be correct. During this period 21 m.p.g. was the calculated rate of petrol consumption and for the whole trip 700 m.p.g. was recorded for oil. This oil figure seemed unexpectedly bad, as the car does not smoke or leak. I have since tried a 145 main jet and notice a further improvement in performance. For ordinary economical running: I think that a 130 jet would be the most suitable. The “12/50” Alvis is not a well-behaved car and possesses a very difficult gearbox. If you can drive such a car well then indeed you can drive anything . . . I understand that at 4,500 r.p.m. the flywheel is apt to disintegrate, which only goes to show that you cannot kill the engine but you may kill the driver! Nevertheless, it is cars like these that make people wonder if a decade and a half of experience and development has produced a substantially better article.

My real pride and joy is a 1929 4.5-litre unblown Bentley. It bears an open 4-seater Van den Plas body. The whole car is in excellent condition as the previous owner had it completely reconditioned before he laid it up, and subsequently sold it to me. If you were to peep under the dust sheet you would find the old stalwart immaculate and complete, just waiting for the Happy Day. All I know about the performance is what the previous owner has told me. I understand that the top speed exceeds 90 m.p.h. I was frightened to enquire about the petrol consumption: however, let’s hope that after the war this restriction will not be with us.