Cars I Have Owned

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For a change, this contribution is by a lady, Mrs. Frances Allan, of Bristol, seen here riding the first motor vehicle that was really hers, a 2¾-h.p. Douglas.

Shortly after the first World War my brother and I decided to pool our savings and buy a motor-cycle. It was 1919 and machines were expensive and scarce, and the one we finally bought, even by our optimistic standards, looked pretty careworn.

It was a 1906 single-geared M.M.C. (Motor Manufacturing Company), with automatic inlet valve, sausage-shaped tank and sit-up and-beg-handlebars. At some time in its history a magneto had been added, and during our ownership we learned that it had seen life as a pacing machine on Herne Hill cycle-racing track.

Starting was by the run-and-jump method. This being impossible with someone sitting on the carrier, I always left home a few minutes in advance and waited to be picked up at the top of a nearby railway bridge. Starting off down the slope was child’s play — so long as the engine fired. On most occasions it did and we would sail away, revelling in perhaps thirty miles an hour, until we were either forced to stop in traffic or brought up short by a hill that was too steep to climb. When we petered out on a hill it was my job to nip off smartly before we came to a standstill, grab the luggage carrier and push for all I was worth, for it was imperative to get the thing as near the top as possible under its own steam.

But we had other kinds of enforced stoppages. I have not the technical knowledge for describing them all, but there was one sort I did understand — the driving belt. It did one of two things: either it drove the machine or it broke (and when it broke it was the pillion rider who took the rap — only it was more than a rap). It always broke at the fastener, which had a steel hook, and that hook always caught me in the buttocks.

So I was not sorry when my brother proposed that we try our luck with a Carden cyclecar which he had seen for sale somewhere in the back streets of Camberwell. We did a part-exchange deal: £30 plus the motor-cycle.

The Carden was only two years old, but they must have been rousing years for someone. It had a twin-cylinder two-stroke engine tucked under its tail, and a huge bonnet which contained the petrol tank. You filled up with petrol through what appeared to be the radiator cap. The front part was very light; in fact, when we wanted to turn it round we just lifted up the front axle and walked round with it. Three years with the motor-cycle had hardened our muscles. There was no reverse.

However, it would sometimes go backwards when we expected it to go forwards, all of its own free will. We would be stationary in traffic with the engine running, and when we let in the clutch, the Carden, if it happened to be in the mood, would back smartly into the car behind. The engine seemed to be able to reverse its direction without stopping and just didn’t seem to care either way.

You started it by pushing on a sort of foot-lever that sprouted from the floor. Sometimes the engine back-fired, and then the result depended on the position of the driver’s leg. If his leg was straight he was nearly shot over the back of the seat, but if his leg was bent he took it on the knee-cap against the sharp edge of the dashboard. We had a lot of fun with the Carden, but I have a feeling it never really liked us. Or perhaps it was just wayward.

My brother thought it was something quite different on the day we used it to attend a wedding. We were a bit early for the ceremony so we decided to drive round Dulwich Park. We had made two magnificent circuits and were feeling on top of the world when there came a most awful scrunch in the engine behind our backs. As we pulled up we could hear things tinkling on the road and there was lots of black oil. We were all dressed up for the ceremony and my brother saw at a glance that even he couldn’t fix it. The only thing to do was to get a garage to tow away the wreck. And that was the last I ever saw of the Carden.

I remember saying forlornly: “Couldn’t we tell the insurance people that we swerved to avoid a tram? ” But he gave me the sort of look that only an elder brother can give, and that was that.

After the Carden had died on us we were so broke that, for some weeks, we had to get about on our feet. But we had planned to spend a fortnight touring in the West Country, and by now my brother had started work in a bank. So I was not surprised when he came home one evening saying he had found just the machine for the trip. It was a 3½-h.p. T.T. Douglas and sidecar, a machine that had been raced at Brooklands by Cecil Volk (son of the founder of Volk’s Electric Railway at Brighton). When I first saw the outfit I thought it looked a bit bleak for touring. There was such a lot of engine, and a huge flywheel which spun round close beside the driver’s leg. The bulb-horn was the only homely thing about it; it had a catch in its voice and sounded like a broken-hearted bull.

We took it for a trial run on the Brighton Road and found we could overtake anything in sight. It was not so good at stopping though, and in Redhill we escaped disaster against the back of a bus only by diving into a side road, down which we careered for a good half-mile. My brother did his best to assist the brakes by scuffing one foot along the ground until his shoe was smoking. “Never mind,” said the eternal optimist, “it only needs a spot of adjustment.”

In due course we started for the West Country. We did not get so far as we had planned on the first day, but I spent an instructive couple of hours in Winchester Cathedral while he replaced a broken sidecar spring.

Next day I did Salisbury Cathedral while he mended a puncture, and Bath Abbey while he investigated a mysterious knocking in the engine.

I insisted on giving Wells Cathedral a miss, but we went to Cheddar and made record time down the Gorge. We didn’t stop for the Caves — probably because we couldn’t. And so, in bouts of high speed punctuated by roadside repairs, we journeyed through Somerset and Devon.

Once we were benighted and had to use the lamps, which were lit by acetylene gas. Every time we turned a corner the tubing came off and they went out. Then, when we tried to relight them, there would be an explosion, which finally blew pieces of glass all over the road. Well, that was one thing less to worry about.

But worse was to come. It was towards the end of the tour and the mysterious knocking, which had bothered us before, had started again. We were just beginning to descend a hill towards a church when there was a thud and the engine stopped. My brother pulled up and, a few seconds later, there sounded from far away at the bottom of the hill, a tremendous clang. We looked at each other. “That’s our flywheel,” he said.

We dismounted and hurried down to where there was a little knot of people who, we felt, were eyeing us with disapproval. And no wonder. The flywheel had raced ahead of us, hit the kerb, and bounded over their heads into the churchyard. Feeling the eyes of the world were upon us, we hunted for it among the tombstones. We found it lying harmlessly under a bush.

Walking back to the bicycle, we picked up the primary chain. My brother swears to this day that he saw it following the flywheel like a hoop. That’s as maybe. A bit of crankshaft was still stuck in the flywheel centre so roadside repairs were obviously out of the question. In due course we had a new shaft fitted but the repairs were so expensive that we had to sell the outfit to pay for them, and once more we were broke.

But not for long. There followed a brief flirtation with an 8-h.p. two-seater of 1920 vintage called a Warren-Lambert. It was a small four-cylinder job which carried a sinister-looking patch on its cylinder block, neatly attached with dozens of tiny screws. This may have had something to do with its habit of boiling after two or three miles on the road. That was in winter. Before we had a chance to see what it would do in hot weather we gave it in part exchange for a Gregoire.

The Gregoire had a short but colourful career. On its second time out the steering failed on a corner. Luckily there was a field entrance which we used as an escape road, crashing through a gate and finishing among the swedes. We had the steering repaired, and when we went to fetch it we asked the garage to drain and fill the rear axle. We were congratulating ourselves on the modest bill for the repairs (I think it was 25s.) when a mechanic came across and showed us some bits of metal. “Do you want these ? ” he asked. “They came out of your back axle.” So we got rid of that one.

We also had a 1912 Humberette for a few weeks. It was a water-cooled V-twin with the most difficult gear-change I have ever encountered (not excepting the Carden, whose two ratios were 4 to 1 and 12 to 1) and a handsome nickel-plated gasworks on its running-board also a habit of dropping its prop.-shaft—fortunately the back end. This was not nearly so serious as it sounds. We would collect the oddments from the road and my brother would crawl underneath, tinker and swear for a space and emerge oily but triumphant. The second time it happened, a lorry, following behind, ran over a vital oddment and squashed it flat. A blacksmith made us a new one but shortly afterwards a piston disintegrated, so we followed the old routine: we sold the car to pay for the repairs.

Then we had a stroke of luck. An ancient aunt died and we each inherited £50. We had become a bit disillusioned over cars and decided to return to two wheels. My brother bought a secondhand Scott and I a new 2¾-h.p. Douglas, described as an “All On” model and equipped with every mod. con.: acetylene lamps, bulb-horn and licence holder. I doubt if I have ever possessed anything that enraptured me more than my Douglas. The Scott was wonderful — in those days the makers used to talk about a “Scott Cult ” in their advertisements — and it had a lovely exhaust note like tearing calico. But the Douglas was all mine and I spent as much time polishing it as riding it.

We had a pleasant two years with these machines until one day I came off on a patch of ice and was pinned down by the footrest, being nearly run over before I could get free. This led to a stormy discussion, about the safety of motor-cycles, with our parents who, surprisingly, ended by promising a modest subsidy towards our next car. I felt like the typist who, expecting the sack, goes in to see the boss and comes out with a rise.

So we pooled our resources once more and bought a 1921 four-cylinder sports A.C. It was five years old, had a polished aluminium body with a pointed tail and a rev.-counter, which was quite something in those days. We felt this was the first real car we had owned and it served us faithfully for a long time. It could touch 70, bottom gear was inclined to scrape when starting from rest and it was heavy on back tyres — this may have been due to its tendency to slide on corners. The tyres were small by modern standards, and were the beaded-edge type, but when deflated they tended to come off.

For financial reasons we were inclined to carry on with tyres long after their safely useful life had ended. On one occasion we were burbling along at about 50 m.p.h. when there was a bang, followed by the nasty grinding of a bare rim on the road. We pulled up as quickly as we could, regretting the sacrifice of a decent inner tube, but the outer cover had clean disappeared. We found it after a search, as neat as neat, high up in the fork of a tree.

The A.C. gave us only 20 m.p.g. of petrol and 300 m.p.g. of oil (Castrol “R”), back tyres lasted about 4,000 miles and the scraping of bottom gear was becoming more acute. So we decided to go in for something economical. Distance in time, as with a widow remembering her long-deceased spouse, may have a mellowing influence, but I still believe the A.C. to have been the most pleasing car I have ever driven.

Our economy buy was a 1928 Austin Seven Cup Model. It was less than a year old and we did tremendous mileages in it. On one tour we got it to the top of Beggar’s Roost, which in those days had a surface like Brighton beach. It was remarkably tireless to drive, for so small a car, and, among other excellent features, one could raise or lower the hood, single-handed, without stopping. The doors were apt to fly open unexpectedly, probably through overloading. The bodywork was mostly cardboard and, in fairness to the car, it was not designed to carry three people, which it was often called upon to do.

The Austin was the last car we jointly owned. My brother’s bank sent him to the provinces and he took the car with him. He gave me a cash adjustment, and I realised that depreciation can do terrible things to the value of cars. Not long afterwards he arrived home for the weekend in a 1926 Sunbeam two-seater drophead coupe. There was an awful lot of it. With the dickey seat, it could accommodate six sitting and as many standing as could find room on the extensive running-boards. Its coachwork had a sort of rococo splendour that made one feel, as well as look, Edwardian.

The Sunbeam was one of those good-natured cars that seem as if they will go on for ever. This one served my brother until the outbreak of war, when, like many other old but good cars, it was left to deteriorate under a tarpaulin. By the end of the war it had become such a sorry wreck — windows and windscreen blistered and bodywork rusted through — that he sold it for a song without too much regret . . . until later when, like myself, he realised that car prices were sky-rocketing.

And in 1948 I bought a Sunbeam for myself, a 1930 18.2-h.p. fixed-head coupe. Apart from breaking a half-shaft in the middle of a holiday, its behaviour has been exemplary, and on that occasion the local West Country garage was able to get a spare shaft from Barkus’s dump in Reading, and the car was going again within four days. I am told there is wear in the bi-metal pistons and this may account for a curious noise at speed when the engine is warmed up, known to the family as “nobbling.” Our averages are not high because we try to drive below the “nobbling speed,” but, like my brother’s old car, my Sunbeam looks like going on and on and on.

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