A most absorbing account, by the well-known racing driver, of the cars which have served him both in races and on the road.
My first real, interest in motor cars began at a time when my father used to recount stories to me of the Bentley Boys at Le Mans. A time when British motor racing was supreme. How I admired, as a boy, the stories of Birkin, Sammy Davis, Woolf Barnato, Benjafield, Duller, Duff, Clements, Chassagne, Bernard Rubin, and the memorable victory after the White House crash, in 1927, of Davis and Benjatield.
Prior to this time, though, my appetite had been whetted by my father’s ownership of a “12/15” Fiat, about the year 1921, and a “20/70” Crossley about the year 1923. The “12/15” Fiat, although I never drove it, had an excellent performance and was the first car in which I travelled at 60 m.p.h. This car was also the first car, I think, to fit pistons with cast-iron tops and aluminium skirts. These pistons, however, were very prone to burning and wear, and everywhere my father always carried a spare set of pistons which were fitted on the spot if any trouble was experienced. The “20/70” Crossley was a very different proposition. It was remarkably fast and very reliable. It was built like a ship and was driven over the Yorkshire Fells (actually on the Fell as the clearance was so very good) and up and down moorland water courses, dug out of bogs, brought home, washed and polished and then driven down to Brooklands at an average of over 40 m.p.h.; and we tend to forget that roads then were not of the quality they are today.
It was about this time, 1925, when I was still at school and my father had a 3-litre Bentley and a 1924 “10/23” Talbot 2-seater, that my full interest in motoring sport really began. The latter was a beautiful little car, capable of at least 50 m.p.h. and built like a watch. It was almost the first car I drove, the previous ones having been a Standard Nine and “chummy“-bodied Morris. I remember so well driving the “10/28” Talbot round the lawn at home (whilst my father was in Ireland), flat out in second and even then, in spite of its small radiator it did not boil. This car had a solid rear axle, which was unusual [normally the “8/18” had the solid axle, while the “10/23” used a differential. — Ed.], and after my gyrations, it looked as if the circus had pitched their tent on the lawn. I returned to school without seeing my father, and forgot about it until later I wrote for pocket rnoney, when I duly received a reply to the effect that I would be paying off damage to the lawn until long after my school days were over. This was really my first effort at driving, and on what finer car could I have begun? Even now I remember so well what a beautiful gearbox, what a sweet engine, what excellent steering, how well all the switches on the dashboard operated, and the fine quality of the accessories and instruments which make the fittings of cars today “jerry-built” in comparison.
Shortly afterwards my father died and my trustees decided to sell the Bentley as being unsuitable for a young man of my years, but retain my father’s 1926 “14/40” Mk. IV featherweight fabric saloon. This was one of the early cars made when M.G.s were still at Cowley and Abingdon was not in existence. At that time the performance was excellent and with the exception of the heavy wear on the cylinders the car was mechanically sound. The performance was quite good, and the car was capable of 60 m.p.h., but the body left everything to be desired. The ventilators dripped water on your legs, the bonnet catches, when undone, chipped the paint off the wings and the handle of the rear door used to puncture a hole in the fabric of the front door when this was fully open. Finally, when I sold the car to my cousin he fitted a very strong strap and connected the front doors to pins through the chassis to restrict their opening. The wind blew, however, the door opened, the strap held, but unfortunately all the hinges were pulled out of the very flimsy structure. Still the car had a lovely healthy exhaust, was nippy and definitely looked good.
I was mad keen on cars by now and fortunately an aunt with whom I now lived, and who had a 1928 2-litre Ballot drophead coupé (which was built like a lorry but had an excellent performance, in spite of its weight handicap) and which I often drove to her complete satisfaction, persuaded my trustees that a saloon car was no ideal for a young man of eighteen years, and talked of an open sports car. It was a toss-up ,between a 1 1/2-litre T.T. Lea-Francis and a “Brooklands” Riley (VM 4723). Fortunately, the latter won. It was waiting for me on my return from school at the end of term. What a marvellous car that was and how well did Thomson & Taylor, Ltd., and the Riley Co. develop it. I was not allowed to race it, but decided to enter it for one of the M.C.C. trials. At this time Sammy Davis was also driving one. At the start at Virginia Water everyone looked askance at the small radiator and low ground clearance, and we could hear mumblings of “Well, he won’t climb any of them.” Sure enough, they were right, so we came home and made some drastic alterations. We obtained a special crown wheel and pinion and a special gearbox made by Pickups. It meant removing the engine to put in the gearbox before each trial and our maximum speed became sadly limited, but much to everyone’s surprise we were winning 1st Class awards in the “Land’s End,” “Exeter,” etc.
How reliable and fast that car was! It left nothing to be desired and never once did we have a major failure, except when going down from Newcastle to London, in heavy snow, to compete in the “Exeter,” when a skid and subsequent blow against the kerb near Scotch Corner with the rear wheel resulted in the fracture of the banjo casing so that the wheel and half-shaft very nearly came completely out together. One memorable run this car did was when a friend and I, holidaying in Cornwall, decided that we disliked the weather at Land’s End, and immediately set off for John o’ Groats without any preparation except to wire the family to tell them of our changed plans. We were in John o’ Groats from Land’s End in twenty-six hours, non-stop, which included going sixty miles out of our way near Inverness. We did 2,000 miles in all on that holiday, and never even removed a plug. With full equipment, the maximum speed was not so high as that claimed, but the road-holding, braking, and steering, and general performance were a long way ahead of other cars at the time. There was a tendency to skid in the wet, and if you did there was not much you could do about it. This was, I think, due to the very low c.-of-g.
Now, however, I was getting really bitten with competition work, and decided to enter for the Alpine Trial in 1933. For this I managed to purchase a most beautiful blue 2-seater Aston-Martin (GX 72), which is now in South Wales, I believe. I had thought of using the Riley, but decided that the cooling was not adequate, as radiators were to be sealed. Donald Healey, however, put up a brilliant show with his “Brooklands Nine,” as he also did in the Monte Carlo. Later I wished I had competed with the Riley as, although the A.M. was superbly reliable it was too heavy, also the lock was not always adequate and we lost a few marks.
The Aston-Martin (chassis LM 10) was, however, so good that after seeing the Nice “G.P.” I decided to enter for a road-race with one and settled upon Le Mans. The car easily qualified for the Rudge Whitworth cup. It was the most reliable racing car I ever owned and did what was required of it in every race in which it was entered. Strange to say, I saw it advertised the other day for almost the identical price I paid for it in 1934.
I not only drove the Aston-Martin already referred to but also several others, and even on one occasion a Long Chassis model (AMG 490). Very few of these cars were built. They were much smoother than the Le Mans car and had a large amount of room even for a four-seater. The performance was ample for the type of car.
I once ran one of these cars in the “Land’s End.” On one hill we charged the bank and a few miles further on the wing developed a serious and pathetic droop. Fortunately, some men repairing the telephone service gave us about a mile of wire. We used what we required and threw the rest into the foot well of the passenger’s seat. Returning through Camberley during the dead of the night the air was suddenly heavy with the smell of burning — obviously from the cockpit. We pulled up with great rapidity, threw out the seats and floor boards, expecting the see the first flicker of flame as the smoke was pretty thick. Then we discovered that the end of the wire had been caught up by the prop. shaft and the whole lot wound round. It took about an hour to free it all.
After Le Mans, however, I decided that in the following year I must have a proper racing car. In the meantime I purchased a “Le Mans” 2-seater Singer Nine (AVM 894) and entered the car for the “Alpine.” This car was most unsatisfactory from my point of view, and I had it only a few months, competing in one or two events. It had nowhere near enough power in the “Alpine.” It was quite incapable of maintaining even the standard time on the passes, and consequently many marks were lost. It was also very easy to over-rev, the engine, and when this did happen the crankshaft invariably broke. The steering was none too good, and, in fact, it was a purchase which sadly disillusioned me. It did, however, run through the “Alpine” without any mechanical failure and won a first-class award in the Inter-Varsity Trial.
About this time I began my first efforts at journalism by doing road tests of popular cars for the Oxford University paper The Isis. How well I remember reporting on the first “J2” M.G. The makers had claimed 80 m.p.h. for the car, but the earlier cars were quite incapable of this speed. The reader will well imagine the predicament in which I was placed. The alternatives were either to break faith with the reader or the manufacturer. I took the car to the top of the hill on the Benson bye-pass, and dived down into the straight, to clock 65 m.p.h. Truth won the day and I awaited the wrath of the late Cecil Kimber, who was a friend of mine. It never came, but later models were much improved. For its size and type, the “J2” M.G. had a lot to commend it, particularly its lines and finish, which gave it the character of an independently and well-constructed car against other sports cars which had all the appearance of mass-production — although they were not so produced — and cheap construction with pressed-“tin” predominating in the bodies.
At the beginning of 1935 I managed to purchase from the late Dick Seaman the Whitney Straight “K3” M.G. “Magnette,” with which they had both had so much success. Unfortunately, by the time I obtained the car the best had been taken out of it, and although it was very fast, due to the high boost and light weight, its reliability left much to be desired. After one or two Brooklands’ races and speed trials I decided to sell it, and purchased one of the M.G. “R”-type cars from Sir Malcolm Campbell. This car was a big advance in design, being a monoposto and also independently sprung on all four wheels. The car was well made but did not have quite enough power in relation to its weight. The carburation was difficult to get right and a great deal of trouble was experienced with the supercharger. The suspension also was too independent and going round a corner at speed gave one the impression of being in an aeroplane and banking steeply, due to the torsion bars being too resilient. This was later modified and I did have one excellent success with the car before parting with it to Charlie Manders. In the Inter-‘Varsity Speed Trials of 1936 the car made fastest-time-of-the-day, and a new record for the course which stood for several years. In long-distance races, however, the type never really lived up to the reputation gained through M.G.’s successes, chiefly due to not being consistent enough.
About this time I was using a Ford V8 (ALT 600), one of the early 2-seater drophead-coupés. I purchased this car, secondhand, for about £85 and did almost 40,000 miles of cheap, reliable, trouble-free motoring. The front end was a bit prone to wander if you went into a corner too fast, when the car usually took charge, but that was the only fault the car had. I motored to race meetings all over Europe and had one spot of trouble, in the back-axle; due to the excellent service for Fords in almost any reasonably-sized town, I was able to have the axle replaced in three hours at a cost of less than 25s. During the time I had the car it was left in the open at night yet the paintwork remained excellent, and the car was always certain of doing well if one should suddenly decide to enter for a reliability trial. In the same year I drove a saloon Ford V8 (BGW 239) in the R.A.C. Rally with Roy Percival. and had the usual no-trouble run. I give these cars 100 per cent. marks for speed, reliability and comfort at the price. They were a marvellous all-purpose car. Dick Seaman had one about the same time and he always swore by his.
In 1936 I took delivery of a new E.R.A. (chassis RB 11), with engines 5017 and 5019, one of which was to he used as a spare. There is little I can say about the E.R.A. which has not already been said in the motoring Press and which will cause its name to live with other immortals — Bentley, Sunbeam, Alfa-Romeo, Delage and Rolls-Royce. This chassis was a marvellous design, I believe partly, if not entirely, due to the genius of Reid Railton. It was, like most things British, a little too heavy, but it did its job admirably.
The engine having been based on the Riley, to which I have referred earlier, it was obvious that the car would be a success. My own car gave me endless encouragement and several successes, such as being first at Cork, first in the 1,500-c.c. Class at Freiburg in the Hill-Climbing Championship of Germany, first in the 1,500-c.c. Class DeVelier Les Rangiers, third in the Prix de Berne and at Albi, to mention just a few. The only real troubles we encountered were with the supercharger and cylinder head. In the former the driving gears sheared on occasion, due to overloading, I fear, and cracked heads were far too common, due to incorrect mixture. It was always very difficult to obtain the correct mixture with the S.U. carburetter, and particularly with continental fuels. This is something in which the Continentals always seem a long way ahead of us. With the Alfa-Romeo, and particularly the Maserati, it was always almost invariably possible to retain the same jets for any fuel and climatic conditions. In fact, it was possible, with the Maserati I ran later, to drive up for fuel in the Paddock at Brooklands on hard plugs and restart on the handle much more easily than on most 10-h.p. touring cars, leave the engine ticking over, get in, and then do a flat-out lap.
One point on which I would like to air my views is the much vexed question of the pre-selector gearbox for racing. I personally believe that the loss in power and increase in weight due to this type of box are far outweighed by the disadvantage with a “crash-type” box of a driver having to pay too much attention to gear-changing, particularly when approaching a corner at speed and where the change must be left until the last possible moment. In a long race I am sure the advantage of pre-selection is very great, in removing strain and allowing a driver to devote all his attention to the road and the corners, because even motor racing, although the greatest of pleasures, can be very tiring. After the E.R.A. I was always a little apprehensive about my changes on the Maserati, and at Donington, in practice for the 1939 Nuffield Trophy race, I broke the crown-wheel and pinion, due to using the Maserati gearbox as a brake, which I had been prone to do successfully with the Wilson gearbox on the E.R.A. when wanting to put in a particularly fast lap. The Maserati gear-change was always difficult, especially if the change-down from third to second had to be left to the last available moment.
The only really serious failure which occurred on the E.R.A. was on the Campbell Circuit, when the plunger between the brake shoes split and became wedged between shoe and drum just after crossing Howe Bridge, with the result that the off-side front wheel locked on. Hideous moment . . .!
Whilst in France in 1986 I drove a 1 1/2-litre Riley with Arthur Dobson in the French G.P. at Montlhèry, in which Rileys finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th in their class. This result alone I consider speaks volumes for the performance and reliability of the marque. I was delighted with the car, although I was of the opinion that the suspension was much too hard. This, of course, may have been due to the shock-absorbers being too tight, but it was definitely a car in which a tummy belt was necessary, as always worn by the late Pat Fairfield, Cyril Paul and Freddie Dixon.
During 1937 I purchased a 2-seater Railton drophead coupé of 28.8 h.p. (FBP 274) and used it until early this year. As a reliable, comfortable and fast means of travel on which it was possible to average 50 m.p.h. on long runs, due to the exceptional acceleration, it was in a class by itself at the price. On the Continent, however, where I used it a great deal, it suffered from one serious fault which rather outweighed its 100 per cent. reliability. It was prone to boil at altitude on the passes and particularly at height the power would fail completely, due to the petrol boiling in the pump and producing an air-lock. Even in this country, however, the water pump was prone to leak. Taken all in all, though, my 50,000 miles were very cheap, to say nothing of being enjoyable.
In the winter of 1937 I managed to borrow from a highly-reputable firm a “T.T.” M.G. “Magnette” (the development of the “N”-type and not supercharged). The car had just been sold, but as the new owner was in France and not likely to return for some time no one was averse to my running the car in the Inter-‘Varsity Reliability Trial. I duly set off, feeling like a thief and boosting my morale by thinking that no damage could occur to the car, any-way. I had it for a day or two and was not terribly impressed. After the cars I had been used to it seemed short of power, heavy, very rough, with a poor seating position, and not even up to the standard of the “N”-types run as a team in trials by the Evans family, and one of whose cars I had occasionally driven. All went well until the first hill, when I noticed that the oil pressure had dropped to zero, we were suddenly boiling, and all the power had gone. It transpired that a large boulder had fallen down the bank after the officials had inspected the course and we had driven over it, knocking a hole in the sump. Fortunately, the new owner, who returned earlier than anticipated, to find his engine in small pieces, did not object when he was told that he was having a complete overhaul free of charge. I wonder if he ever understood why the firm in question was so generous?
In 1938 I drove an ordinary standard Allard belonging to Adlard Motors Ltd. [This firm is now The Allard Motor Co., Ltd.—Ed.]
What a different proposition this car was! It was designed for the job, and did it. I have never had more confidence in a car to succeed, in my long and varied experience. I didn’t have to drive the car. The car drove me, and climbed one hill no one else attempted and one hill on which all the other competitors failed. The Allard at one point even passed a tractor stuck in the mud — and we were not using competition tyres! On the ordinary road the car was also delightful, with good acceleration, excellent cornering, and a high maximum speed which it was possible to attain in complete comfort, the car being fitted with full touring equipment.
During the years described, I was, on occasion, without a touring car and relied entirely on motorcycles, although I did once buy a bull-nosed Morris tourer for £12. The mechanics of the latter were highly satisfactory, but the tyres and electrics left much to be desired and it was sold on the latter score. I expect someone, though, got many miles of reliable motoring from the old car. At the time it seemed to have little character, although, today, I think you would describe it as having “that certain something,” with its peculiar “motor-boat” exhaust note, etc.
The motorcycles ranged from the first saddle-tank 2 1/2-h.p. Matchless, via a 490-c.c. Norton, to an “R.51 ” B.M.W. I consider the latter, in the motorcycle world, to be further ahead of its nearest rival, by a mile, than an Alfa-Romeo is over its nearest competitor, and I consider the “2.9” Alfa-Romeo “Spider ” road car to be in a class by itself.
In 1939 I went out to America with John Cobb on his successful attempt on the World’s Land Speed Record on Bonneville Salt Flats. Whilst there, I used a small Chevrolet. I can remember so well motoring the sixty odd miles along that almost dead straight road between Salt Lake City and Wendover and ruminating on the character of motor cars. This struck me most forcibly at this time, as the Chevrolet was comfortable and economical, although not very fast — the maximum was only 65 m.p.h. indicated. As for having any character, however, it had as much individuality as a telephone instrument; it did its job, which was all that was expected of it. I used to think of the character and personality of cars which I had driven and which, if not almost human, were definitely alive; the “2.3” Alfa-Romeo, Frazer-Nash, Rolls-Bentley, Atalanta, and the 12-cylinder Lagonda, to mention just a few of the others had owned, begged, borrowed or obtained in the same manner as I obtained the “T.T.” M.G. “Magnette.”
How well I can remember being in another country — Switzerland to be precise — in 1938, and using a Mercédès 14-h.p. saloon, and on one memorable day taking a run over the Furka, Grimsel and Klausen Passes from Lucerne. That car was nippy, cornered beautifully, and, above all, lived. It was part of me, on that never-to-be-forgotten lone day’s drive.
However, for really fast averages on the Continent, my Surrey Dodge van (ex Whitney Straight equipe) took a lot of beating. It had a forward-drive cab and so was excellent for cornering on winding Continental roads. Its best run ever was from Naples to Grimaldi between Mentone and Monte Carlo. I raced one morning at Naples, packed the E.R.A. into the van, and with my mechanic left Naples at 5 p/m. on the Sunday afternoon. We drove through the night and all the next day, with stops for meals and a half-hour’s sleep by the roadside, arriving at the Italian Customs prior to entering France at 9 p.m. in the evening. Anyone who knows that road will fully appreciate the achievement with a fully-laden van containing racing car and spare engine, and multitudinous spares and pit equipment. That van was easily capable of 60 m.p.h.
The opportunity to drive the 2.3-litre Alfa-Romeo (actual Mille Miglia car) came to me through the kind offer of the late C. Penn-Hughes. It was a beautiful example of the type and superbly maintained. I think it gave me more pleasure in a shorter time than any other car I have ever driven. Only today, a friend who drives a B.M.W. in most events, suddenly said: “Yes, the B.M.W. is marvellous, but fast motoring in it over long distances becomes too easy, and consequently, boring; the Alfa-Romeo may not have the same effortless performance but at least with the Alfa motoring never lacks interest.”
I drove several of the old Frazer-Nash cars, both on the road and in competitions. Provided the owner enjoyed fresh air and repairing and adjusting on most days of the week, this was definitely the job for anyone wanting a car of character. I well remember mending chains (plural) without a chain-link extractor (ever tried it?) on a hill in the dark, on one memorable “Gloucester.” The owner told me this was always happening if the chains were not running in line. It certainly seemed to happen easily, due to worn keyways on the back-axle and sprockets. Anyway, this car was designed for the enthusiast, as exemplified by one owner who said to me, “Oh, it is all good fun replacing chains, particularly if you don’t have to move too much gear to lift the floor-boards.”
Now the Rolls-Bentley was a complete contrast, but I never fell in love with it as I did with the Alla-Romeo, Frazer-Nash, or Allard. Everything operated beautifully, and the switches for the igaition, lights, etc., had that typical R.-R. actuation (such as being able to start a warm engine merely by switching on and flicking the magneto advance and retard lever on the steering colonm), but, like some human beings, the car was too refined to have any character. I recall, on a long straight downhill stretch, between Cheltenham and Chippenham, doing over 100 m.p.h. in a 3 1/2-litre. It wasn’t very long before the crankshaft broke. This car used to have a terrible front-wheel patter and at speed left much to he desired in respect of road-holding. I have driven many different types and recently had a run on a prototype 8-cylinder Bentley. All the old troubles of the front suspension have been ironed out. Up in the Derbyshire hills I had the speedometer hovering round the 100 m.p.h. mark in the first mile. The car is, however, sluggish, in my opinion, between 0-30 and 75-100 m.p.h. It seems too big and, to me, to be without that nippiness and character so essential to the real enthusiast. Today there is too much pressed-steel, and too many fairings about, to produce individuality.
The V12 Lagonda is similar, and ideal for the man who wants fast motoring, but who wishes to keep clean, and not to have to know very much about why the wheels go round. I consider this car, like the 8-cylinder Bentley, too large for this country with its winding roads and heavy traffic, but ideal for America or the Continent, where straight fast roads are more plentiful.
In 1938 I took delivery of a 4-cylinder, 16-valve, 78 by 78-mm. 1 1/2-litre Maserati, to which I have already referred. [This car is now owned by R. E. Ansell. — Ee.] At the time this represented a great advance in the design of 1 1/2-litre racing cars. The Alfa-Romeo has now left it behind, from a point of view of b.h.p./litre, but even now there is still obviously the skilled craftsman’s touch about it. It was a beautiful little car and never gave the slightest trouble, at the same time doing all that was asked of it. The Maserati was obviously built for a purpose, and fulfilled its object. It was designed for long-distance road racing, and, before the advent of the 1 1/2-litre Alfas and Mercs., it was top of the tree. Consequently, it galls me considerably to see people using these cars today for short sprints and hill-climbs. The car is long for its size and type, and has a poor steering lock, while the steering is very high-geared for the long straights used in most Continental races (which can be taken at 150 m.p.h.), and is totally unsuited, in my opinion, for the type of event referred to, and for which it was not designed. I will neither comment upon the performance, of which the results achieved should be sufficient proof, nor compare it with the E.R.A.. as such a comparison would be unjust and odious. I would, however. like to comment upon three essentials to the racing driver – road-holding. braking and steering. All these points were par excellence. The steering at the higher speeds was minutely accurate and, due to the independent suspension, was entirely free from shock transmission. It was, however, poor and heavy on sharp corners at low speeds. Of course, you cannot have it both ways.
The braking was as good as could possibly be obtained, particularly when slowing down from high speeds, with a smoothness which imparted great confidence to the driver. There was never any tendency for the brakes to grab on, as on many racing cars I have known.
The suspension was excellent and gave the driver the most comfortable ride possible, which is a great help in a long race. The gear-change, however, as I have already said, was difficult, with the lever between the driver’s legs and tucked under the steering wheel, where it was rather inaccessible. The rest of the car, however, was beautifully laid out, the oil tank acting as a stiffener to the chassis, the fuel tank being the tail complete, and the seating position most excellently placed — the last-named I mention, in passing, to show how the car was planned from the word go. If I remember rightly, the Maserati weighed about 12 cwt.
When the war came I patriotically purchased a Fiat “500.” This, car had the shortest life of any car I have ever owned. For mother to use for shopping it may be satisfactory, but for long runs I consider such a car quite useless. It is much too easy to overdrive the engine. The result was that, in my case, the car was soon a sorry mess. The cornering also left a great deal to be desired, as the front-end had a tendency to go straight on at speed when the steering wheel had turned the road wheels.
After this came a 1938 Vauxhall Ten. What a different proposition! It has now done 80,000 miles of excellent service and I still have it. I purchased it second hand in 1940 for £160. I have recently been offered £300 for it and it is still capable of reaching the outskirts of London from the Midlands at an average of 40 m.p.h. Definitely very cheap motoring.
I wonder what the future will bring — cars with rear engines of the turbo-compressor type, and lots of fairings of pressed-steel, with fitted wireless, air-conditioning, armchair seats — in fact, a home from home. I expect so, and readers of Motor Sport, as well as myself, will always be compelled to live just a little behind the times in order to obtain real character in their cars, except, of course, in respect of the pure racing car and one or two sports cars built for the enthusiast. [N.B. — I wonder if any reader has owned any of the cars specifically mentioned?]