Cars I Have Owned

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This time Vivian-Brann, director-cameraman for “Pathe News and Pictorial,” tells us how he regarded many cars he owned for more than mere transport. His last paragraph makes especially good reading. — Ed.

First, I write as a biased person. Secondly, I am not, and have never pretended to be, a real mechanic. My bias is against small engines and heavy bodies — to my mind the downfall of so many English cars, sports models included.

I have owned 27 cars in 12 years, but of these less than half were kept for longer than a year. Like most others, I had one motor-cycle, first. I bought it because it looked pretty — a 250-c.c. Ivory Calthorpe. For three months it ran reasonably (maximum about 47 m.p.h.) and then seized up. The excuse was too good to miss and motor car No. 1 was purchased when I was 18. This was a 1926 14-h.p. M.G.- bull-nosed. It was dead reliable, damnably noisy, would cruise interminably at 40-45, and did 27 m.p.g. The wheels were affixed with three nuts; two of mine had one thread of each stripped, but no wheel ever left the car. Unfortunately, I then fell for the foxy prattle of a “sports-car specialist” and exchanged my old bull-nose for a 1927 2-seater M.G. which was simply worn out, but to the everlasting credit of the grand old car it, likewise, never let me down. Its maximum was about 47 m.p.h., and I drove it for ever with my foot flat down. At this time — after about two years in English studios — I landed my first newsreel job, and bought my one and only Bugatti Straight Eight Grand Prix (Type 30?). Plain bearings, real Bugatti wheels, and the rest. The car was an odd mixture — it came from Bachelier’s and obviously had been thoroughly gone over — but would the thing ever fire long on eight cylinders? Everything was checked, plugs changed interminably, and Bachelier gave it another “once-over.” The handling was, without doubt, a real pleasure, but too much of a good thing can go too far. I loved it for its performance during the few miles when all went well — its appearance (sneer, if you like — I love the aesthetic fierceness of high-powered motor cars) was without par, and the exhaust growl was sweet music, but the utter lack of baggage (camera in my case) space, the perpetual film of oil in the cockpit and, most of all, the missing, finally decided me, and I said good-bye. Next came a Mark 1 M.G., which someone had adorned with outside exhausts, and this seemed like a slow Rolls after the Bugatti. Its weakness was half-shafts (three sets in five months) and everyone just said, “Always a fault with that model.” So encouraging, but after the third lot had gone in I did about 15,000 more trouble-free miles before selling. As a sports car it failed — oot heavy, and cornering was always tedious; but as a fastish tourer it was comfortable and — back-axle apart — never went wrong.

And now to incur the wrath of the mighty. From a garage in Surrey a 3-litre Van den Plas “Red Label” Bentley. The engine looked and sounded the real thing. It used no oil and, to do it justice, ran for the eight months I used it without requiring a spanner or penny. But what else? As far as performance was concerned I know the acceleration on these cars was nothing, but mine must surely have hit a new low. True it would do 50-60 for hours on end, but only after minutes on end waiting for it. As an engineering job, with all their toughness, they are real battleships, but, seemingly, with most of their weight and consequent sluggishness. I still like to see them — they are monuments to a great period but so hopelessly out of date, and I don’t mean simply conventionally. I sold it to a real 3-litre enthusiast who wrote a charming letter saying it was all a Bentley should be — maybe I couldn’t drive?

After this I went haywire and had, as No. 5, a Talbot “14/45,” No. 6 an Avon Standard 16-h.p., No. 7, M.G. Mark II, No. 8, Rally 9-h.p. “Competition” 2-seater, No. 9, Morris “Cunard” “10/6” Special (undoubtedly for a nearly-new car the worst performer I have ever known), No. 10, M.G. J2, No. 11, Rover Ten, No. 12, Alvis “12/50” (about 1927), No. 13, “Brooklands” Riley Nine, No. 14, Talbot 95, No. 15, O.M. 16-h.p., No. 16, Ford Ten (ugh!), No. 17, Singer “Le Mans” — and so on, but each for such a short time that a detailed account would be unfair. Then came 1936, and my newsreel company sent me to France. So I looked around for something with a little power; at this time the Singer Nine was in my possession, and one of my many objections to it was its minute engine that necessitated such astronomical revs, to get going. I found a 1929 f.w.d. Alvis (unblown). It had a fabric body, but had only done about 20,000 miles. The owner worked at Kew Gardens and, wondering whether the cheque book would go to £100 or so, I said, “How much?” He said £20, and I tried to look normal. I never regretted that purchase, and soon got used to the transmission noise. It was not especially fast but solid, and felt very much one-piece. From Paris it tootled between Marseilles, Cannes and Monaco almost daily for weeks, costing me not a penny. Then came bombshell No. 1. “Off to Spain” to cover the Civil War, and memories of snipers shooting up a magnificent Hispano tourer, scraping out the occupants and driving off with the motor (part of this I filmed, together with most other Spanish Government material I and others took, it never survived the censor).

Meanwhile, my wife, who was in France, arranged that the Alvis be returned to England and, to be brief, I endeavoured to leave Madrid — but that is another story. When the war arrived I was in the T.A. and suddenly found my newsreel job exchanged for 2s. a day. The Alvis adored petrol — her one greed — and I finally bought a 1935 Morris Eight. This is the one Morris job I have always admired, especially the pre-1939 model without the chocolate-box adornments. It took me miles, day and night, winter of ’39, summer of ’40, and winter of ’41. When petrol ceased I used it for only a few months and was then posted and, like so many others, hastily sold it and made a will.

Finally, at the end of 1943 a small bomb and I fell out — and I awoke some days later. In 1944 I was discharged and went back to a quiet life, making the newsreels of flying bombs, etc. While making “The Second Battle of London” I again “went out” — not flying bombs, but brake failure on a tin-box of 10 h.p. But to sit in Rye Hospital watching the aforesaid bombs falling like ninepins to the A.A. fire was almost worth it. My first motor was an Austin Ten 2-seater (1934) — no sports car, to be sure, but it served me reliably and well until I could find something better. This turned out to be an old fabric-bodied 2-litre twin o.h.c. Lagonda. With the solidity of a London ‘bus, it proved reliable, and happiest on longish runs at about 50 m.p.h. all the way. The chassis had split at some time or another, but had been fairly efficiently repaired. A Scintilla magneto had also been supplied and all the wiring (such as it was) was Halifax or Spitfire. These cars were typical of the old power-to-weight bogey, and the acceleration was painfully slow, partly, of course, due to a non-functioning clutch stop. I should imagine my Lagonda had already covered anything around the 150,000 mark, but it still felt like a real motor car, and with a little money and labour would no doubt be capable of many more miles. A pointer to the shortage of, and desire for, good sports cars was the fact that I advertised it in a local paper, and was immediately offered £20 more than I had asked for it by a dealer. However, I preferred it to go to a fellow-enthusiast and sold it for a lot less to a R.A. captain who proceeded to run on leave petrol to Northumberland with, I think, five up, and his only trouble was difficult starting. This was cured by a little magneto adjusting and/or retiming. Personally I cannot stand the so-obvious dealer who grudgingly offers you £150 for “the old wreck” and then hand-paints the body and tyres and “sacrifices” the whole for £300. There are, no doubt, many who do not indulge in such methods but, especially at present with the price-inflation, it is all too common.

My next purchase was a November, 1932, Riley “Gamecock,” whose engine possessed a badly-worn gudgeon pin, but which, nevertheless, functioned well and seemed not to mind. The best points of this car were the cornering, steering, starting and economy. The worst were the springs (I believe always a weakness on the older Rileys) and the weight, which was basically chassis, axles, brakes, etc. This last was, of course, a credit to the solidity of the model, but had a very adverse effect on performance. Her ideal cruising speed was a steady 45 m.p.h., and I should put her maximum at about 63 m.p.h. My best run on this was on a job at a remote Welsh mine, with Mr. Shinwell. The return journey was made at night, and the 160 miles covered in pouring rain in five and a half hours with quite a weighty load of equipment. The body and trimmings of the car had had a lot of time and work spent on them and the appearance was very pleasing. I think the line of this model was, at any rate aesthetically, very well designed. Then my job required the carrying of more and more lights and a 4-seater was indicated. After seeing many and different models I finally come upon a 1938 open sports Vauxhall with the well-tried “14/6” engine. At first I was dubious. Independent suspension which had, in the early days (1933, 4 and 5?) given some trouble, typically American design, but, thank heavens, a 4-speed gearbox. A test run showed first-rate getaway and a smoothness that made the Riley seem like a bag of nails. The body (I am not sure who made it; they are very unusual and rather on the “Greyhound” lines, but the name of the firm is not to be seen) is low and smart. Finally, while trying to make up my mind, other people began to arrive and I knew I must decide on the spot. Of all the cars I have owned this has been the most satisfactory. It is dead silent (yes, I love exhaust note, but not for its own sake), as smooth as chocolate, the acceleration is the real thing, and its worst-and only serious-disadvantage is difficulty of maintenance. The answer being, I suppose, that such common work is entrusted to a garage. I have never been flat out, but had 72 m.p.h. on the speedometer several times. Petrol consumption works out at 24 in town and about 28 in the country.

The result of all this is that the bias I originally had against small engines is stronger than ever, but the bias against American design is at a new low.

I would end on a different note. The company for which I work had several real enthusiasts (particularly one P.B. M.G. owner) and wherever and whenever we can we are going to feature motor racing, trials, hill climbs and the like in our newsreels. If we have our way, very much more so than was ever the case before the war. [We hope you do get your way, Mr. Vivian-Brann, because this would be some of the best publicity motor-racing could have. And one day you yourself might be indirectly rewarded, by being able to buy a British car able to give you what at present you seem to find only in ears of vintage type or of American conception. – Ed.]

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