Cars I Have Owned
My first motor car was a 1933 J2 M.G. Midget, bought in 1950, and my chief impression of the car is what a troublesome piece of machinery it was. It was the model with the swept front wings, and was a very compact and well-balanced little car. I think the most delightful feature of the car, and in fact of all the overhead-camshaft M.G.s, was the superb crash gearbox, which is fashionable wear when attached to contemporary Coventry-Climax engines. I had the engine rebuilt on this car by a man who turned out to be a bit of a “bush mechanic.” After 300 miles had been covered a slight swish under the bonnet turned into a most expensive-sounding bang, and-examination showed that no split pins had been put in the big-end bolts and a connecting-rod had detached itself from the crankshaft and scored the bore! However, the garage put it all together again, and it worked very well, but the sequel was that when the engine was stripped about six months later I found that the cylinder with the score had been bored out and was fitted with a larger piston than the other three!
I entered this car for several rallies and driving tests, and found that it could hold its own very well in special test meetings with cars that were current in 1950. I was very pleased with the roadholding and “fun-to-drive” appeal of the J2, but I could never get the brakes to work properly. The genuine maximum speed was 70 m.p.h. with a bit of coaxing, and whilst doing this in a duel with a friend’s Singer Le Mans, the two-bearing crankshaft broke and deposited small pieces of the engine for some distance up the Great West Road. I bought another crankshaft and rebuilt the engine, but in the middle of a herd of cows on Dorney Common, at 10 m.p.h. in second gear, the crankshaft broke again. I had it rebuilt yet again, and decided to sell it, but found this rather difficult and so was very relieved when the problem was solved neatly for me. I was stationary at a halt sign in Tring when a brand new Triumph Mayflower came up the road sideways on black ice and completely demolished the M.G. I was fortunate to get away with bruised ribs from the Triumph’s radiator badge, and was in good enough trim to persuade the owner’s insurance company that as the M.G. had won the Windsor Car Club’s Concours d’Elegance in the summer it was worth £250, which they paid.
I decided that I would take plenty of time over choosing the next car, and wait until I could find exactly what I wanted, so it was necessary to find a cheap hack until I did, for everyday transport. I went to a mews garage in Paddington which used to specialise in pre-war Alvis cars, and bought a 1931 Alvis 12/50 saloon. As I drove up the steep slope out of the mews into the main road I applied the brakes, and slipped gracefully backwards. Panicking slightly, I absolutely stood up on the brake pedal, but the Alvis started to rush backwards down the slope and into the car-crowded mews at ever-increasing speed, and I desperately gave an impromptu impression of Laurel and Hardy, as I steered hopelessly backwards through the maze of exclusive machinery parked there. My progress was watched in awed silence by a dozen people who flattened themselves against the walls and were transfixed with horror at my wild progress. As I stepped limply out, I found my score was only a bucket of water, and I rallied sufficiently to demand some brakes from the garage. When the brakes were relined and correctly adjusted I found them very satisfactory, and quite up to the speed of the car, which was about 65 m.p.h. The steering was delightful, and roadholding as good as the M.G. Midget. It was fitted with a saloon body of steel, with a fabric roof, an interior of good quality leather, and bolt-on wire wheels. The engine was a very clean unit, with a lot of alloy in it, and when highly polished was a very pleasant looking piece of machinery. I experimented with twin S. U. carburetters, but found it responded better to a large single instrument fed by the standard Autovac. The gear-change, aided by a clutch stop and a short right-hand lever, was very fast. I think it was the essentially vintage character of this Alvis that converted me to the vintage cult. It served me very well, and in rallies, going to the City every day, and shopping, I did not have any trouble at all. I think it is a remarkable tribute to the work and material that went into these cars, because I am ashamed to say that I really drove the 12/50 into the ground for exactly a year and did not even have a puncture. I originally meant to keep it for a few weeks, but couldn’t bear to part with it
A business acquaintance bought a motor car which I regarded as rather a white elephant, a 1932 Lanchester limousine, which had had one owner from new and was in really perfect condition inside and out. For some rather obscure reason we decided to do a straight swap. It had a six-cylinder 2½-litre push-rod engine, coupled to a Daimler fluid transmission. The brakes were really good, being 14-in. hydraulics assisted by a servo motor, and in crash stops the vast body would move forward independently of the chassis in quite an alarming manner! The spacious interior had room for seven people sitting down and four standing. It was fitted out in a beautiful manner, with brown leather upholstery and mahogany fittings. This is the only car I know in which the clock keeps the right time. The performance can be summed up in one word — stodgy. It was sluggish, rolled easily, and oversteered markedly. It was heavy to steer, and at the expense of 10 m.p.g. would do an indicated 70 m.p.h.; for this reason I used to drive it at about 35 m.p.h., when it would do 18 m.p.g. There was one curious thing about it that gave this otherwise characterless vehicle some vestige of personality — it wouldn’t go backwards in cold weather.
After selling the Lanchester late in 1954, I acquired a new 1955 Morris Minor drophead coupe. Here I must regrettably join the current criticism of British cars. Within a week the speedometer and petrol gauge ceased to function, the rubber lining of the boot came off, the rubber cup at the root of the gear-lever came adrift, the lining of the door pillar came away, and one wheel was observed to be wobbling! I was surprised when the dealer said the wheel was certainly wobbling but that it was within “makers’ tolerance”; he would mend the speedometer, but I would have to pay the labour charge; and it wasn’t worth fixing the rubber fittings because they would only come off again after about a month anyway! I have seen 1950 models with the door pillar trimmings off, and I cannot see why a small fault like that should still be apparent in a 1955 model.
Apart from ridiculous gear ratios it is a wonderful little car. The high-speed roadholding and steering are beyond praise, and help in making it a very useful all-purpose car for our crowded roads. My car is the de luxe version with leather upholstery, an efficient heater and some nasty little overriders. The engine was run-in very carefully for 2,000 miles, but nothing was done to enhance the performance, and the only non-standard things on the car are balanced wheels; the balancing was found to improve the already excellent steering and make the ride smoother. The tyres are only half worn after 14,000 very hard miles, but I am not sure if this is normal on Morris Minors or can be attributed to wheel balancing and tyres run at 8 lb. above recommended pressure.
When I married it was decided that we would have a motoring honeymoon to Venice and back. We flew the Minor to Le Touquet in a Silver City transport, and from there motored to Paris. We were pleasantly surprised in Paris to find that although there was a lot of traffic there were no jams; this we attribute to the “press-on” attitude of the average French driver. As we drove down the poplar-lined Route Nationale from Paris to Nice I couldn’t help imagining the sky-blue Bugatti coupe that always rasps along it in novels. When we reached the Riviera we saw several interesting vintage cars, and in Juan les Pins four delightful little “cloverleaf” Citroens. When we left Monte Carlo and entered Italy a change of attitude was immediately apparent in the motorists. They were aggressive and wanted to race everybody! As a result we had some wonderful duels, and after a fight for 80 miles along the Corniche road with a souped-up Fiat “Topolino” driven by a priest and two Fiat 1,000s we were all stopped by a closed level-crossing gate, whereupon everybody leapt out of their cars and came up to shake hands and look at the Minor. Latin temperament was evident in their belligerent attitude towards the hold-up, because as more cars arrived on the end of the queue they refused to believe anything was holding us up and drove to see for themselves, until cars were six abreast both sides of the crossing. Then one of them made the exciting discovery that the roof of his “Topolino” was just below the level of the single pole of the gate, so as the train appeared in the distance he drove under the pole, across the line, under the other pole, and on his way, accompanied by abuse and fist shaking from jealous Italian motorists with high roof lines!
In San Remo we witnessed the remarkable effectiveness of gun law. In the main street lounged an Italian policeman watching the traffic, when through it, at what must have been about the eighty mark, came a beautiful Lancia Spyder followed by an English Triumph TR2. For no reason the policeman held up his hand and blew his whistle, but nobody took any notice. So he drew his pistol and every vehicle in sight screamed to an immediate stop — with the exception of the Englishman in the TR2, who obviously didn’t know what it was all about and rushed off into the distance!
We were impressed by the respect Italian pedestrians have for cars, and by the way they refuse to step in the road if a car is any-where near. We were also impressed by the traffic speed in towns; whilst travelling through Genoa at 60 m.p.h. in the rush hour, we were blasted out of the way by a huge bus crammed with people.
As my wife shares my interest in racing and vintage sports cars, we decided to buy as a second car something we could race as well as tour in; as she also shares my enthusiasm for “Chain-Gang” Frazer-Nashes, it wasn’t difficult to decide on a Frazer-Nash Colmore tourer. We bought a really frightful Frazer-Nash in what can only be described as scrapheap condition. It was a long-chassis car fitted with a Colmore four-seater touring body, but the rear seats were only an upholstered luggage compartment suitable for pigmies with no legs. The chassis was fitted with 12-in, alloy brake drums and 4.50 by 19 tyres at the front, and 600 by 16 at the back. The shock-absorbers were Andre-Hartford friction-type, those at the front also acting as radius-rods. The engine proved to be the Boulogne version of the Meadows 4ED, with a charming bird’s nest resting between the twin S.U. carburetters! The Boulogne version of the Meadows engine is fitted with a “cooking” camshaft, low compression pistons, and is supposed to produce 55 b.h.p. at 4,000 r.p.m. We discovered to our dismay that the block and bronze head were cracked, the valve gear was useless, the bearings and big-ends were worn, and the magneto was burnt out. The whole car was such an appalling sight that we decided it would help our morale if we painted the body first. We began by throwing away all the interior trimmings, carpets, seats and hood, and painting the interior of the cockpit black. The next step was the most unpleasant of all, stripping the paint down to the bare metal. We gave the body and chassis four coats of black Valspar, and painted the wheels and brake drums red. My wife covered the seats in beige whipcord, and made a fitted carpet to match, and by the time a full-length tonneau cover and aero-screens had been fitted it looked very smart in a stark sort of way. The instruments were reconditioned and fitted to a french-polished panel.
The engine was rebuilt and fitted with a new cylinder head and valve gear, Martlet pistons, Cromard liners, new carburetters and a platinum-point Lucas magneto. All the alloy parts were highly polished, and the engine certainly looked most efficient. Much to the surprise of the Freeman brothers, who assembled the engine in their mother’s library, the car started almost at once. Four of us hopped in for the first ride, and just as we were congratulating ourselves on how well we had put the engine together the propeller-shaft appeared between the front seats! However, when it was put back we were very pleased with the wonderful steering and roadholding, and the very fast gear-change, which has been likened to “pulling a hot knife through good quality butter.” I expect Stephen Potter would call it “the art of snatchmanship.” The Frazer-Nash held the road magnificently, with never a slide in the wet but only a well-mannered wriggle, immediately straightened by the high-geared steering. I think the charm of a ‘Nash is not so much what it does but the way that it does it.
We decided to enter the car for the April V.S.C.C. Race Meeting of 1955, and at 4 o’clock the day before discovered that the wheel bearings and king-pins were hopelessly worn. We pressed-on through the rush hour to the Frazer-Nash factory at Isleworth, in a supercharged Hillman coupe that got us there just as the factory was closing. The very helpful Mr. Morris sold as the new pieces and wished us the best of luck! By 10 o’clock the car was ready for the road. I had entered for two five-lap handicap races at Silverstone, and was suitably subdued when I was travelling flat-out in top gear down the straight and was passed by an E.R.A. going about 50 m.p.h. faster!
At the second Vintage Silverstone Meeting in August I was rather proud as I turned out for practice, because the ‘Nash had been greatly admired for its appearance, but secretly I wished it had gone as fast as it looked! As I came into the corner before the pits I braked and changed into third (I never use the clutch) and felt the chain go, so I flicked the outside lever into top and that went also, and it was quite a fight getting it round the corner without the drive engaged. When I arrived at the pits my friends poured onto the track demanding “What have you done this time?” but just then a marshal appeared walking down the track with an armful of chains, much to the delight of the peasants lining the top of the pits. This was the only chain trouble I have ever experienced. In the race I had a most enjoyable dice with Thirlby in his Anzani-Nash when we were limit men in the Frazer-Nash and G.N. race.
I had never seen a hill-climb, and decided to watch the Vintage Prescott Meeting. A friend who was also going suggested that I might as well compete while I was there, so I did. After frightening myself to death at Allard’s Gap, I found that speed hill-climbing was tremendous fun, but more dangerous than circuit racing. With a slightly slipping clutch I got up in 61 sec. The slip was fixed in the Paddock by banging the coil-spring on the propeller-shaft with a large copper hammer.
At the end of the season we decided to sell the ‘Nash, and buy either a single-seater A.C.-engined Frazer-Nash, which could be towed behind the Minor, or a quick 4½-litre Bentley. However, we succumbed to the charms of the “Chain Gang,” and with Robin Tubbs bought John Nunn’s Frazer-Nash with which he came second in the Motor Sport Club Trophy last season.
As this Frazer-Nash is interesting technically it may be worth while to describe it in detail. In 1932 five “Alpine” chassis were made, replicas of the car with which, I believe, Mr. Aldington won the Alpine Rally. This car is one of the Replicas, and the only difference between it and the normal short-chassis ‘Nashes is that it is underslung at the rear. It has four forward speeds and reverse, operated by an outside lever. The brakes are hydraulic, 2LS at the front, working in normal Frazer-Nash drums at the back, and Triumph at the front, of 12 in. diameter. Braking torque is so great that the standard front-end broke up, and the car is now fitted with a straight front axle and steel torque-arms also acting as radius-rods. the shock-absorbers do this job normally, but on this car they are mounted over the springs and are Andre telecontrols. The tyres are 450 by 19 at the front and 4.75 by 19 at the back. We bought the car minus the fitted engine. This was a very special version of the 4ED Meadows, with four inlet ports, four Amal carburetters, 14-lb. flywheel, and an extremely high compression-ratio. I think it must have produced about 75 b.h.p. The weight of the car is 13½ cwt., and when Nunn took me out in it with this engine fitted it was certainly an exhilarating experience, and I timed the 0-50 acceleration by stopwatch as 8 sec. It was a much more thrilling 8 sec. than the 0-50 time of a TR2, which is about the same.
We have fitted a standard Brooklands 4ED Meadows. The difference between the Brooklands version fitted to many T.T. Replicas and the Boulogne as fitted to Colmores is that the Brooklands version has a high-compression head, high-lift camshaft and different valve timing, and is supposed to develop 65 b.h.p. at 4,500 r.p.m. The exhaust system on the car is a very efficient and fierce-looking arrangement with two of the outside pipes joining, and the other one running parallel alongside the body into a double silencer, and terminating in two short pipes flicking out in front of the back wheel. The body is a standard two-seater T.T. Replica, with one door on the passenger’s side, the unique bath-tub tail, and abbreviated cycle-type wings. The headlamps are by Marchal. The instrument panel is comprehensive, with rev.-counter, speedometer, oil and water-temperature gauges, oil pressure and telecontrol gauges and an ammeter. The starter button is encased in a little brass box with a hinged lid to prevent the passenger touching it by accident. The knob for the telecontrols is just to the left of the rubber-mounted steering column. The ignition lever is mounted outside the body as there isn’t any more room inside. There is a hollowed sorbo pad for the driver’s right knee, and a little iron frame alongside the clutch for his left foot to rest against.
This is a most exciting motor car to drive, and the noise of machinery through the bonnet louvres mingling with the exhaust provides a wonderful accompaniment to the rocket-like acceleration, with wheelspin eliminated by the solid back axle. The cornering power is noticeably better than that of the longer Colmore model, and I am not sure whether this is because of, or in spite of, the crab track and solid back axle. I’ll stick my neck out and say that I think the Frazer-Nash can outcorner any other vintage or post-vintage thoroughbred, and most moderns, on tight corners of the Prescott type.
Vintage sports-car owners have been criticised in the motoring Press recently as hypocrites for also owning modern cars. Personally, I own a modern car, and have driven Jaguar XK120, Triumph TR2 and M.G. TD cars for considerable mileages, but nowhere can I find the excitement, fun, personality, character and indefinable feel of the thoroughbred that is apparent in my 1932 “Chain-Gang” Frazer-Nash.