Cars I have owned, by Alex Tulloch
Major Alex Tulloch, grey-haired, slightly-built, camera-carrier with an eye for a good picture, and possessing a fund of reminiscences, was a fearless driver of his very potent Hudson Special in competitions of all kinds not so long ago. In contributing to this series he describes interesting motoring in many parts of the world and tells some choice stories—which remind us of other anecdotes of his concerning the early-‘twenties at Brooklands for which—and perhaps it is just as well !— there is no room in the present article—Ed.
I was very lucky in having a father who was a keen motorist from the earliest days. I believe his first car was a Mors of nineteenth-century manufacture—a doubtful four and a half horses and hot tube ignition. Unfortunately, I was still of very tender years when this was sold, and my first real memories were of our 1906 15-hp Coventry-Humber. This handsome equipage had a fine dash-ful of drip lubricators, buzzer coils, and other delights, and was equipped with a remarkable single-spoked, pigskin-covered steering wheel. It also had a “sprag” designed to arrest involuntary sternway on too steep hills. My mother tried this device after missing a gear change near Stoke Poges but, unfortunately had allowed the vehicle to gain too many knots backwards before dropping it. The Humber became airborne tail first and smartly vaulted a bank, finally coming to rest in a cottage garden well and truly embroiled in runner beans and Monday’s washing. There was quite a bit of rivalry in those days between owners of “Coventry” and “Beeston” Humbers. The former were generally painted green and the latter red, and we had many a delirious dice up to at least 33-mph against a local “red” rival.
In 1912 my father bought a 25-hp Mercedes chassis and had fitted what I believe was the first proper saloon body ever built. It was partly designed by himself and had such modern ideas as aluminium panelling, frameless windows, manually-operated direction indicators, a skylight, etc. Quite a crowd used to collect whenever we stopped, whicn was embarrassing on one occasion, when I had overfilled myself with chocolate eclairs and wanted to be sick. Nineteen fourteen saw one of the first White and Poppe-engined Morrises and a 75-hp Mercedes in the garage, and it was on the Merc that I was taught to drive, my father having given way to almost continuous pesterings. Oxford Street during the rush hour was chosen as the scene of my debut, the idea being that as I was almost bound to hit something I might as well get it over as soon as possible. It was quite hard work driving this heavy car in London ; gear changing was almost continuous and one seldom got into top. The brake drums had small radiators which boiled furiously on long hills, but the car was very reliable except for the tyres, which didn’t like being hurried on a hot day. The Kaiser War saw a succession of small Overlands, which were amongst the first cars to be fitted with Bendix drive electric starters as standard.
Meanwhile, in 1914, I became the proud possessor of my first motor bicycle, an ABC. This was an amazing machine and the specification would not sound too bad in 1951 : 500-cc flat-twin, steel cylinders machined from solid, cast-iron detachable heads, ohv push-rod valves, single lever carburetter, twin magnetos, spring frame, all-chain drive, etc. The snag was the Sturmey-Archer hub gear positioned where gearboxes are today. This box ran at far too many revs, for its liking and used to seize up solid about once a fortnight, otherwise it was a wonderful machine. I took it down to Devonshire and it hardly noticed the well-known hills which in those days caused much bating of breath. My next mount was a large Zenith Gradua-JAP, complete with “coffee-grinder” handle, a forward. mounted countershaft clutch and about five miles of belt. I learnt a lot about belts slipping, breaking and winding themselves affectionately round everything, but when all was well it was a very sweet form of transmission. Petrol was getting scarce, so my next mount was a 23/4-hp Douglas, one of the nicest and most handy machines ever made, though rather slow after the other two. How it fired on the odd mixtures of paraffin, alcohol, etc, that went into the tank I don’t know, but one had to keep going somehow and the petrol ration was nearly as small as “basic” of evil memory. Next came a very plain but puissant BRS Norton, complete with Brooklands certificate for a lap at 75-mph. No clutch, gearbox or anything pansy like that, and progression at minimum speed of about 10 mph over wet tram-lines and with a nugget of nonsense (yes, I had reached that age) perched sideways on the carrier was quite something. (For the information of those of more tender years, damsels did not sit astride in those days !) Starting this machine with the aforesaid encumbrance already in situ was a most acrobatic display. I rashly lent this Norton to a friend, who bent it so badly that it wasn’t worth mending.
My next love was a 500-cc single-speed BSA, which would fire incredibly slowly, though too much of this caused a malfaisance of belts. Believing in the higher the better, I then bought a single-cylinder 750-cc Midge Multi which somebody had fitted with discs on the wheels. My first trip across a blasted (Yorkshire) moor with a strong side wind can better be imagined than described. The cylinder was so long that a neat little piece of tank was removed to accommodate the overhead inlet rocker gear. Occasionally the long push-rod fell off but the engine continued to fire in a halfhearted way. This somewhat puzzling phenomenon was traced to the inlet valve spring being so weak that the valve converted itself into an automatic suction-operated valve.
As the war was now over, and my Colonel not regarding motor-bikes with any great enthusiasm, I bought my first “car,” a GP Morgan, of about 1916 vintage. This likeable vehicle had only two disadvantages, lack of reverse gear and unwillingness to start in cold weather. The first was partly overcome by carrying a shortened boy scout’s pole in the folds of the hood which on a flat road could be used in the manner of a punt pole, and the second didn’t matter as there were always plenty of the “brutal and licentious soldiery” available to give a good push.
Until the “B and I” got used to it I was not so popular as, when the engine did fire, they invariably tripped over their own or each other’s spurs and fell flat on their faces in an unsoldierlike manner. However, I was determined to achieve four wheels and a twin-cylinder Perry brought relief to the troops. Unfortunately, I over-hurried this contraption too much going down A1 on leave. The engine disintegrated into a myriad pieces of jagged metal and at the same moment the header tank burst, whereupon a small boy asked if I had any cigarette cards. Luckily, this happened just outside a garage, and I was able, to sell the Smoking remains to the proprietor, offering a large discount if he would murder the small boy. My father having soon got tired of me continually absconding with the family transport, I was sternly bidden to go and look for a car of my own, and he would sign the cheque.
In the first showroom I passed was a brand new 1920 AC two-seater, then rightly considered the smartest small car obtainable. Luckily, father fell for it as much as I did and paid up. As a matter of interest, this car was bought “off the peg” just over a year after the war but the price, without self-starter or dickey-seat (£20 extra each), was £520, so it makes one think that this is where we came in. This Anzani-engined AC was a grand little car and, apart from a somewhat fierce clutch and a tendency to boil, had no vices. For some unremembered reason I also purchased an early GN, with which I had great fun, and on one occasion drove the last quarter-mile home in reverse—all the other chains having departed to other spheres. Nostalgic memories of the Norton’s speed caused the departure of the AC and GN and the purchase of a 1914 reputedly Coupe des Voiturettes SAVA. This 3-litre car had an engine of the same dimensions as a Bentley but with inlet over exhaust valves. The four-speed box was direct on third and overdrive in fourth ; very pleasant and economical, it was a fastish car, the best Brooklands lap being about 85 mph, and curiously reliable.
I used to go to Brooklands for every meeting and was lucky enough to do a good deal of “passengering” in a variety of cars, particularly WD Hawkes’ 15-litre Lorraine and eight-valve Anzani Morgan. I once nearly fell out of the former when using both hands to make rude gestures at Clements in the original 3-litre Bentley, whom we just pipped on the last lap. I was also privileged to circulate quite fast with Ernest Eldridge, Parry Thomas, Le Champion and others. Passengering varied quite a bit from car to car. On some it was just a question of keeping a good look out astern and warning the driver if anyone wanted to pass. On others one was very much the mechanic. One well-known car had to be held in gear and have its pressure pumped all the time, in addition to four instruments to watch ; the driver was much too busy to look at these while trying to keep the car on the Track.
I had regretfully to sell the SAVA in 1922 as I was going out to a roadless part of Africa. I heard the old car finished in a blaze, though not of glory. Somehow it got loose on Portsdown Hill and, after colliding with a milk float, burst into flames and incarcerated itself and its victim. Luckily no one, nor the horse, was hurt, but the streams of milk and blazing petrol running down the hill presented a picture of poignant beauty.
Africa at first saw a series of motorbikes of which two loop-frame New Imperials, which defied all attempts to bend them, a Humber, a Matchless, and a gigantic four-cylinder Henderson were the best. The latter had an engine of about 1,300-cc and a reverse gear operated by separate lever. A great deal of fun was had with this on unsuspecting friends. It was terribly heavy and, if one fell off with the machine on top one just remained there in an atmosphere of frying limbs until someone removed the machine with its red-hot back cylinders. Having got a bit nearer civilisation I had a number of American cars, mostly rather uninteresting, except a Chrysler or two which were quite peppish, and a Morris Oxford which, I believe, was the original Colonial model. Although purchased with about 100,000 miles on the “clock” it went excellently though somewhat slowly, as our motoring was all done between five and eleven thousand feet altitude. However, top gear was quite useful going down hill. About this time a friend asked us to help break the Nairobi Juija “record,” about 650 miles of tracks, including several ferries. We achieved this in a big Studebaker at an average speed of 15.6-mph, but were quite satisfied as the previous record was at the resounding speed of 11.4-mph ! To achieve even this phenomenal average we had to go as fast as we dared all the time and were quite sore and stiff for days afterwards. I also did some interesting trips right through to the Sudan and down to the coast.
One day a friend and I were out shooting and saw what looked like a back wheel sticking out of a thorn bush. Investigation proved it to be a four-cylinder Dodge with the remains of a Red Cross ambulance body. Further searches produced tires, battery and a new distributor, plus half-a-day’s work, and we had a perfectly good chassis. The body, of course, was completely white-ant eaten but luckily they had not attacked the wooden wheels. This Dodge was quite the toughest thing I’ve ever met. We used it for years as a light “safari” truck, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it was chuffing along still, somewhere in the back blocks. It must have been a relic of the 1914-18 war, but how it got into the bush miles from any road will for ever remain a mystery. One unusual car I used a good deal was a Moon ; the designer must have had an urge towards octagons, because everything on that car which could be octagonal was, even the steering wheel. One could imagine him weeping bitterly that he had to make the road wheels round.
On returning to England, in 1929, I indulged in rather an indecent orgy of cars which nowadays would have gladdened the hearts of the VSCC, but which then were pretty numerous. The list included 14/40 and 30/98 Vauxhalls, Bentley, Lancia Lambda, Hyper-Leaf, AC Six, Talbot, Sunbeam, etc, but most of these models have been so written and argued about that I feel further conmment superfluous. More unusual was a 2-litre single-cam Bugatti on which some previous owner must have spent a fortune in having every single bit of brightwork copper plated. After a damp day there were hours and hours of toil getting the copper bright again, and, if it rained, one just retired into a pub and submerged with hatches open. Another unusual purchase was a 14/70 Hadfield Bean, very different from the ordinary model and really quite fast. It suffered, however, from nearly red hot pedals and, even on a cold day, one progressed looking for streams or duck ponds in which to immerse one’s toasted extremities. A trip to France discovered an ex-Le Mans SARA (Societe Anonyme Refroidissement par L’Air, I believe). This 1,800-cc six-cylinder was quite a pleasant though not terribly quick car. Its roadholding was marvellous for those days— no radiator, long narrow petrol tanks alongside the prop-shaft, and the engine set well back made it a joy, especially on icy roads. If the engine got warmish in traffic a quarter of a mile fairly Ilat out in low gear and the big sirocco fan had brought everything back to normal ; besides, one could laugh like a row of radiators at the anti-freeze adverts. About this time a friend asked me to come over to Montlhery to help in a 24-hour record attempt on a 5-litre, straight-eight Graham Paige. I believe this car had done some thousands of miles as a saloon before being converted to a two-seater and having its compression raised. Tyres not being the girls they are now, we had to make our attempt in the winter, and it was some 10 days before Christmas when I set out from London about 6 pm on a bitterly cold evening to catch the night ferry. I did have an aero-screen, but the poor mechanic was completely frozen by the time we got to Paris, where we were arrested for having no number plates, Which we had forgotten. Montlhery was ice-bound and it wasn’t until about three days before Christmas that we could have a go. All went well for some hours but in the middle of the night we had frost, fog, and then a gale with sleet which blew the jolly little red lamps marking the inner edge of the track all over the place. We had been lapping at about 110 mph but at times during the night it fell to about 70. One steered mostly by the feel of the car on the banking. Things got better in the morning and a very brave man offered to come as company with me during one of my spells. Going in to refuel he had to be forcibly restrained from getting out at 60 which goes to show something or other. Plug and carburation troubles slowed us during the last hours, so we averaged 86 instead of 95 mph which we had hoped for, but that didn’t stop a large French mechanic from kissing me. Formidable !
Shortly after returning to England a friend who had just resuscitated an AV monocar asked me if I would like to try it. Being a bit shy of the starting arrangements, which consisted of a diabolical rope and pulley affair, I said he had better come along too. As the cognoscenti will remember, this was possible as between the seat and the JAP engine there was a small platform intended for the apportioning of luggage. All went merrily until we hit a rather bad bump. The proud owner let out what I took to be shouts of encouragement, and I hurried on. The howls, however, definitely became more and more anguished and I hastily arrested movement. It was then borne upon me that, not only had my friend forced landed after the bump on top of the very hot front cylinder, but that the sparking plug had penetrated quite deeply into his inner consciousness. I think the magneto was a Bosch, renowned for its fat healthy spark . . .
On going abroad again, I was determined to take something amazing with me and bought a new Boyd-Carpenter Austin Seven. It had a special engine with lots of bits from a fast single-seater car which had done very well at the Track. The whole thing was most satisfactory and on tne hilly, twisty roads of Palestine and Syria, the little car walked away from predominant American cars. The only snag was that it was such an unusual vehicle crowds used to surge round it whenever I stopped, and everyone knew exactly where I had been the night before —quite embarrassing at times. One evening I was bidden to a small party at the Jerusalem Consulate of a friendly power and, the evening growing somewhat damp, it was there and then decided to drive to Cairo across the Sinai desert. This was a matter of some hundred miles of sand tracks, there being no road in those days. Two cars, a Dodge and a Ford, started, and, as a precaution, we took a case of whisky, seven gallons of water and some baked beans. We got to Suez all right with a bottle still in hand and still seven gallons of water. Every time someone suggested drinking some water we thought of the radiators and didn’t. The party, buying clothes, etc, as necessary, moved on to Cairo and finally to Alexandria. Consisting as it did of two Britons and two nationals of the friendly power it developed into an international competition as to who could last out the somewhat cork-strewn course. After about three weeks of this we remembered there were businesses to attend to some hundreds of miles away and so called it a night. Before leaving Alex we organised a Grand Prix de Fiat Taxis, 12 laps round the hotel block. About 15 taxis competed and a very dicey contest ensued. It became still more dicey after in media res we threw a lot of hotel furniture into the middle of the “straight” to form a “chicane.” I will draw a veil over the hotel bill but we got home safely though the front axle of one car snapped in two 20 yards from the aforesaid Consulate.
During a sojourn in England I bought a twin-cam San Sebastian Salmson with, for those days, quite a streamline fabric saloon body and a very long tail. Someone, doubtless of indeterminable sex, had “decorated” it with silk curtains with bobbles, flower vases, dangling policemen, dolls, etc. I felt quite nervous driving it home lest I should be molested, but after these monstrosities had been removed it was quite a pleasant and fast little car. The steering was tricky with a strong side wind, owing, I suppose, to the enormous tail. About this time a bit more “passengering” at Brooklands was enjoyed, particularly in Joan Richmond’s 3-litre Ballot, which increased my respect for the stalwarts who drove this sort of car in Continental road races. I also had a drive in this and other quickish cars in various small events.
Returning to England in 1933, I managed to realise one of my great ambitions—a “Monte Carlo” from one of the stickier places, to wit, Athens. The team of two Triumphs included Donald Healey, Tommy Wisdom, Jack Ridley, etc, and we had a most enioyable run from Coventry to Venice via Switzerland in order to try the cars on snow. We, and the cars, were then shipped to Athens, where we had about 10 days for final preparation. This was the longest route and about 23 competitors started, among them being a half-track Citreon and a Czech two-stroke which seemed to be entirely welded together but which went like a fire-frightened feline. Its driver nearly got arrested by the Greek police as he got too excited trying to describe the size of the holes in the Bulgarian roads. The waiting time passed only too quickly eating what Jack Ridley called ” fretwork cheese” and sampling other local produce. To the best of my memory the cars were a combination of Southern Cross and Gloria models, with 1,267-cc engines and open four-seater bodies. They gave no trouble at all though pushed pretty hard all the time. The first 48 hours of the Rally itself was just a blur of pot holes, mud, and frights of getting lost. However, we had picked up enough time for an hour or so’s sleep in Buda-Pest, and, apart from a bit of ice and snow and getting lost in Munich, all went well. One could really get a move on through German towns escorted by motor-cycle police with wailing syrens and the populace leaping madly out of the way, Heiling Hitler at the same time. The last stretch was a bit tricky with the increased average stipulated, fog, and the ever-increasing desire for a nice full-sized and stationary bed. During one of my driving spells I passed the time by eating some very concentrated food tablets provided by kindly manufacturers. Imagine my horror when an examination of the now empty bottles, and a little arithmetic, proved that I had consumed the equivalent of 22 lb of steak and 34 gallons of milk in a couple of hours. However, I didn’t explode as I don’t drink water. Donald Healey’s car was third in the whole Rally and won the under 1,500-cc class, which was pretty good, and I think our car was sixth. Anyhow it was a grand trip.
My own transport about thia time was a Riley Gamecock, on which some previous owner had raised the axle ratio to such an extent that it was 2 mph faster on a Brooklands lap in third than in top—otherwise a likeable car. I also had a very battered 8-hp 1932 Ford saloon, on which a friend and I did much tuning. The result, though somewhat expensive in con-rods, etc, was quite startling, especially in second gear, and was used mainly to infuriate the local MG and Singer owners. Once, after working out the rpm achieved in bottom on a certain hill, we had to drink a bottle of Scotch very quickly in order to forget them.
I was, by this time, in the motor trade and one day, just before the Show, found myself in the happy position of having sold every car new and secondhand in the place, including my own. As it was so undignified to walk, I bought a magnificent straight-eight Ballot drophead coupe, completely smothered in lamps and spare wheels, for £30 ! It went beautifully and could not be faulted except that the rows of carburetters all down one side of the 4-litre engine proved terribly thirsty. A complete voite face from this was a Morris Eight tourer which wouldn’t use any petrol at all. Various, not so interesting, cars brought us to World War Part II, shortly after the commencement of which I found myself rushing about Northern France on an Army Norton. This was a bit chilly so I managed to wangle a very large Lincoln saloon. Its great disadvantage was that one was continually returning salutes as the military population was firmly convinced that so magnificent an equipage must contain at least a General. Arriving at Dunkirk on my rather breathless feet I was lucky enough to find a very large Renault saloon abandoned by the French army and, to add to the joy, the boot was full of choice “wines, Spirits, cigars and cigarettes.” It was a real pang to put a pick through the tank and chuck a match on to it when we had to say au ‘voir to France.
Some grand motoring in South Africa was enjoyed in an old Ford V8 bought for a song in Durban and used while recruiting natives in the back blocks of Basutoland. On arriving in Egypt, I was told to pick 50 of my most intelligent Basuto, and have them driving within a week. Half of them literally did not know a clutch from a cauliflower, but it was remarkable how quickly they picked it up, and, within a day or so, the local desert was the scene of more hair-raising near-accidents per second per square yard. than one can possibly imagine. While up in Syria I came by an ex-Vichy light Renault pick-up. A most delectable little vehicle this, not civilian enough to get stopped by the civil police and not military enough for the MPs to make a fuss when it was parked where it shouldn’t have been in the evenings.
Invalided home in 1944 and having accumulated some not so good legs, I was allowed quite a bit of petrol and purchased a 1939 Standard Eight which did very well and 50 mpg if used with great discretion. Next came an elderly, but very lovely, Rolls-Royce drophead coupe, which was only sold because I was offered such an enormous profit on it that my Scottish soul wouldn’t say no to the offer. Then followed a 21/2-litre Jaguar coupe which, when you think of its pre-war price, was jolly good value for money and which was very pleasant if driven reasonably. These cars were looked after by an Italian POW who said he had been an Alfa racing mechanic before the war. I must say they were all kept faultless, speckless, and in perfect tune, and any job was done in a tenth of the time usually considered necessary in England. “Demoralisation” from the Army and a venture into farming saw a Jeep with a very good and neat station-wagon body made by two German POW cabinet-makers. A chance meeting with Paul Emery at Great Auchlum and a run in the ex-Spikins Hudson Special produced a longing for something fast again, and this car reposes in the garage at the moment of writing. The car was damaged by an incendiary bomb during the war, which was not such an ill-bomb since the tax is now £10 and the weight reduced to exactly one ton ready to drive ! Although normally used with small jets which give 18-20 mpg, it will still do a standing quarter-mile in approximately 17 seconds and a standing kilometer in 33. It is also quite useful for shopping, with 8 mph in top gear and a good lock. Its present stable companion is a 1951 Morris Minor saloon, and this is equally pleasant in its entirely different manner. Its main fault, a certain lack of chevaux, has been partly rectified, and it is hoped that further researches will produce, if not Clydesdales, a few more strong ponies.
After years of much lighthearted motoring and its kindred pastimes, one’s memory is not quite “the girl it used to be.” Even now I suddenly remember once possessing a vast and ancient Reo tourer which hid a combined clutch and brake, requiering some most peculiar footwork when arriving at a corner too fast. To any reader who has had the perseverance to wade through this effusion, I would crave to be forgiven for E and OE, not so much with regard to Vauxhalls but to errors and ommisions.