Cars I have owned

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76

R. E. Vinning of Ramsgate recalls thirty-three years of varied and not too expensive motoring

In the summer of 1923 £80 changed hands and a 1920 10.4-h.p. Citroën took up its residence beside the family 19.6.h.p. Crossley, of many happy memories. It was the result of much discussion but, having delivered himself of a lengthy discourse on economy, the family’s head eventually gave permission for the purchase of a second car providing it had four seats, a silencer, was of about 10 h.p., and a suitable vehicle for the writer’s mother to go about in.

The little Citroën, forerunner of the much more famous 11.4, had the usual four-cylinder, two-bearing engine, open propeller-shaft, and double 1/4-elliptic springs at the rear. The final drive was fitted with double helical teeth which, incidentally, was the origin of the famous Citroën chevron trade mark. The hand-brake operated on rear wheels, while the foot-brake worked on a drum immediately behind the gearbox and was most adequately lubricated therefrom. The application of some eleven stone to this important accessory merely resulted in a growl of protest from the rear axle, a cloud of smoke through the floor boards and no perceptible retardation whatever. Maximum speed was dictated by propeller-shaft vibration, the stoutest heart quailing at about 40 m.p.h. The body sides only extended about 9 in. above the seats and, with spare wheel, spare petrol tin and tool-box cluttering up the running-board, it was about as unprepossessing a vehicle as can now be imagined. For four years the little Citroën carried three hulking youths and sometimes an affectionately-despised young sister with a load of camping gear from Scotland to Devon at 40 m.p.h. There were few hills it didn’t climb, from Rest-and-Be-Thankful to Porlock, and it never had a single breakdown.

In 1927 the little car was changed for one of the original 12/24-h.p. Citroëns which came out in that year. This, except for one item, was the exact opposite of its predecessor. It was a most handsome vehicle, cellulosed in maroon, with a very neat rear screen, fully-instrumented, and with that then-rare accessory, a dashboard petrol gauge. One major fault was that it retained the same two-bearing crankcase that had been used on the previous models. While 52 or 53 m.p.h. was possible in the usual favourable circumstances, the general uproar at anything over 40 was unpleasant, while 22 m.p.h. in second gear was quite enough. The most interesting part of its equipment was an early type of vacuum-servo braking. On the test run the writer wished to sample this, a feat already accomplished with dignity and success by his parent, who was used to the excellent brakes of the still-robust Crossley. The writer’s right leg, however, was trained for applying the almost non-existent stopping power of the original Citroën; moreover, it was gaining some small reputation in kicking the oval ball. Depression of the brake pedal coincided with the screech of four tyres on a dry tarmac road, the demonstrator was hurled into the windscreen, the writer into the steering-wheel, while sounds of 17-stone of paternal fury from the floor of the rear compartment indicated a disaster of the greatest magnitude!

The brakes always gave trouble on that car—the servo was scrapped, as it was more trouble than it was worth, but the brake adjustment varied with the weight in the back seats. On one-occasion, having driven up the slope to the garage with two most important and weighty members of the family in the rear seat, the writer applied the hand-brake and dismounted to open the garage doors. At the same time both passengers started to dismount from either side. The Citroën, glad to be relieved of her burden, rose 3 in. on the rear springs, released her brakes, deposited her erstwhile passengers, blaspheming, in the drive and disappeared into the laurel bushes with her rear doors flapping like elephant’s ears!

On the whole, though, a good car. If her performance wasn’t quite up to that of the equivalent Morris, the finish and appearance were far better, the comfort superior, and at £190 she was, I think, better value. She lasted until 1935 as a general hack; she was never rebored and topped 40,000 miles.

In 1929, having left the family nest, a Rudge Ulster was bought for £50, which was exchanged for an Aero Morgan to gain some marks from a certain girl friend. The girl, however, took one look at the Morgan and stepped into a rival’s Morris-Cowley . . .

A lot of fun was had with this Morgan. It was a machine of glorious hazard. The rear forks were broken at the chain adjusters, the wheel being retained by the driving chains and a prayer, while the only way to stop on a wet road was to go sideways like an ice-skater. It was quite possible to reverse the steering by getting the steering arm into the upper quadrant, and with 24 b.h.p. from its Blackburn engine and no weight whatever, speeds of 75-80 m.p.h. were often obtained. She held the West-End—Forth Bridge record for many years; in fact, she probably still does as the route was built up in the early ‘thirties.

After a few months and some stern advice from those in whom the fires of youth had dimmed, the Morgan was disposed of “before something happened,” and a 1924 Morris-Cowley “Chummy” was procured for £27 10s. What fun these cars gave! They were absolutely reliable, had a cruising speed of 45 m.p.h. and a maximum downhill of about 55, which we all tried to improve on by opening up the jets, advancing the ignition and making a hole in the silencer! The Morris, in a fit of youthful exuberance, was set to climb the path up Salisbury Crags from the Holyrood end, which resulted in a well-merited blast of indignation the next day from the Edinburgh “Bailies.” Now, 30 years later, the writer would hesitate to take a Land Rover up, but the little Morris did do that climb and, moreover, carried a passenger.

By 1930 sufficient time off from motoring, sailing and other activities had been taken to pass a few exams, and the writer found himself stationed in Gibraltar. A 1925 two-seater Morris-Oxford was unearthed for £22, which heartily screamed its way up and down the 1-in-4 roads on the Rock until, attempting to avoid a half-starved gharry pony; the front axle was pushed back, and the car sold to pay for its repair. A 1926 Morris-Oxford coupé was found, started up, and bought for £15. After some renovation it proved to be the most comfortable car ever possessed by the writer. With Bedford cord upholstery and a leather hood, the body was beautifully made and even after some years of neglect was completely rattle-free. After a coat of paint it was sold for £20 before the writer embarked for India.

For the next two years your scribe’s personal transport had four wrought-iron tyres nailed to the bottom of its legs, a form of progression he heartily recommends.

Then, in Madras, another 1925 Morris-Cowley was procured which, as always, went well. It was found that timing rattle could be cured by tightening up the fan belt! Twice she went to and from the Hills, 426 miles away and 7,500 ft. high, taking 24 hours for the trip each way. The main hazard was the danger of unlighted bullock carts with sleeping drivers. One way of dealing with them was to turn them round quietly and leave them ambling contentedly back from whence they had come.

Brief possession of a Fiat Nine ended in disaster with run big-ends and, finally, a seized magneto. This was almost unheard of in England but with temperatures of 110 deg. in the shade the shellac in the magneto armature would become fluid, and after cooling would glue the latter to the magnets. A 1929 Graham-Paige then appeared, typically American, and passed on its uninteresting way. It is extraordinary how the American car has changed its character since the war. The pre-war Americans were ideal for semi-developed countries, with their absence of frills, their ability to carry seven or eight natives with reliability if not comfort, and a woolly engine of reasonable dimensions. They outnumbered European cars by 15 to 1, but it would be difficult to design a vehicle more unsuitable for such use than the modern American car.

Having a newly acquired wife and a long home leave in 1934. the prospects of being able to afford motoring of any sort seemed remote, until we landed at Southampton, having spent a very gay but foolish weekend in Dinard, without the money for our fares to Edinburgh. Our difficulties were solved by finding a 1923 Morris-Cowley, with over six months’ tax, for £10. One pound deposit was paid, the six months’ tax was surrendered and some petrol bought with the proceeds, and the Morris was driven without stopping, to Edinburgh, which was reached some 30 hours later. The Morris was kept for some time, then sold for £2 19.s. to an ice-cream merchant, and was still to be seen around Edinburgh in 1950. To do this little exploit under modern conditions one would have to be able to buy a 1947 Hillman Minx for the weekly wage of a labourer . . .

Then came £25 worth of trouble and annoyance in the, shape of a 1928 six-cylinder Lea-Francis four-seater. While its brakes, springs, steering and bodywork were superb by any standards, its motive power was the reverse. Its two overhead-camshafts poured oil onto the valves and after a spell in traffic the smoke cloud had to be seen to be believed. The tappet adjustment consisted of little discs inserted on the valve stems, which were, always flattening out. Three big-ends went in as many months and everything, including the oil pump, was driven by chains, which broke on two occasions. The car was only six months old and had obviously not been knocked about— the crankshaft, incidentally, was beautifully turned out of a solid bar, which may have caused the trouble, as the bearing surfaces were very small.

Back in India, a Morris Major gave smooth and reliable service except for suffering from vapour locks in the hot weather, but its suspension was not nearly as suitable as that of the average American.

Then home again, to a 1934 Sunbeam Dawn, which cost £280. In 2-1/2 years the car had done 12,000 miles and, with all due deference to the enthusiasts who still own beautifully-maintained models, it was a most disappointing car. The brakes would snatch, top gear would slip (it had a Wilson box), the front suspension, in spite of shock-absorbers adjusted almost solid, causing the doors and windows to rattle like a tram. Its maximum speed was about 60 m.p.h., with 35 in third gear, and finally the rear axle started to grumble. The only regret in parting was the loss of £80.

Then to Palestine and the Buick. His age was uncertain and when found he had no radiator or bonnet but he had been seen moving some weeks previously. The princely sum of £4 changed hands, his tyres were pumped up, and a tow-rope attached. The first surprise was that the motor started readily and sounded healthy. The dynamo worked, the oil-pressure registered, while the water with which the block had been filled was blown over everything by the water pump. A radiator and bonnet were unearthed, and the Buick climbed from Jaffa 3,000 ft. to Jerusalem. In the next eight months he covered most of Syria, Palestine and Transjordan. Many times he screeched his way down to the Dead Sea, 4,000 ft. below, and boiled his way up again. After such treatment his brakes would be completely non-existent for several days—then they would gradually reappear. There were three turns of backlash between the engine and rear wheels—there was a horrible noise on the over-run, while the gearbox would, without warning, give out a piercing shriek. Someone had daubed tar all over the roof; which in the hot weather dripped down on the inhabitants with the persistence of fallout from an H-bomb. But he went and kept going, trundling along with roaring exhaust, his silencer having long since disintegrated, over good roads and bad at about 35 m.p.h. On one occasion, after a party, he did 15 miles with the track-rod trailing along the ground, his lurches and wanderings being attributed to more obvious causes! Few vehicles are remembered by the writer with more affection than this derelict old Buick. He was eventually bought by a Jewish taxi firm for use as a tug, and he was occasionally seen towing a Dodge or Chrysler which had as many weeks’ service as he had years’.

Then, being again en famille, a 1932 Essex was bought for £80 –– a very sound vehicle with astonishing acceleration and, after the old Buick, the acme of luxury.

Home again in 1938, I bought a 1935 Riley Kestrel, for which £145 was paid. This was not in too good condition and was soon exchanged for a 15/6 Riley Kestrel of the same year. This proved one of the most pleasant and satisfactory cars ever owned by the writer. She had a speed of about 76 m.p.h., which was not infrequently achieved (the speedometer showing 80), while 55 in third gear was available. At the time or her manufacture there was very considerable rivalry between makers over the lavishness of the accessories they fitted to their products. All Rileys at this time had opening windscreens, permanently-fitted jacks, knock-on wheels, automatic chassis lubrication, sliding roof, pneumatic upholstery, pre-selector gearbox, centrifugal clutch, rear blind and roller sun visors, and all possible instruments were supplied except a tachometer. Someone had fitted a Scintilla magneto and a Burgess silencer but what improvement these made is not known. She had two main faults. One was a most annoying rattle in the steering-column. Which no adjustment would cure, and the other, so well known to Riley owners, the necessity of constantly strengthening the rear of the body. A delightful car to drive, even the writer’s 6 ft. 1 in. being accommodated satisfactorily. Cornering, steering and brakes were excellent. In 1942 she travelled daily from Wareham to Bovington, usually at 55-65 m.p.h. Once, on turning to the right at Wool Corner—the road has been much widened since then—the steering freed and she wandered quite slowly into the ditch. The drag-link had come off the drop-arm. There was no warning whatever and those who still own these lovely cars may wish to make an appropriate examination. This was her only misdemeanour. Decarbonising was a matter of an afternoon’s work and was done about every 3,500 miles to avoid spitting back when working hard. She was very unfortunately sold in 1945 for £280 when the writer’s family joined him overseas.

Home again in 1948 to find that anything that would move was worth more than the Riley had been sold for! Rather than pay these fantastic prices a period of ambulation ensued. Then a 1934 Wolseley Hornet saloon on three wheels was bought for £75. No paint remained, the off-side front-wheel bearings had disintegrated, while that part of the engine which would work gave forth a smoke cloud reminiscent of the Lea-Francis. However, after new piston rings, wheel bearings, two tyres, and a coat of paint, the little Wolseley went very well and would bounce along at 50-55 m.p.h., but the smoke cloud persisted—presumably from camshaft oil running down the valve guides. After some months’ use she was sold for £170.

Back in 1930 the family had disposed of the Crossley and bought an early 24-h.p. Humber Snipe, a car for which the writer acquired considerable respect. A similar chassis, but fitted with a two-seater coupé body, was discovered and bought, on the spot for £60. The hood was in tatters, most, of the upholstery was missing, someone had poured khaki paint all over everything, but the tyres and batteries were outstandingly good. The engine, while having a good deal of gudgeon-pin rattle, was free from any dangerous clanks; Twenty-five pounds was spent on rechroming and a new hood. All the wiring was replaced and a coat of grey paint applied after the removal of the efforts of the previous artist, and the Humber looked quite smart and emulated the performance of the Buick. He had a delightful right-hand change and a remarkably smooth engine and, once the correct adjustment had been found, the Bendix brakes were satisfactory, to say the least. The Jaeger speedometer would reach 75 m.p.h. but very seldom did so while an overall m.p.g. of 18 was achieved.

In an attempt to cure top-end rattle the engine was stripped and new bushes turned on a 3-1/2-in. Drummond lathe normally used for making model locomotives. Four gudgeon-pins were very slack in the pistons, while two were seized solid. In freeing one of these the composite aluminium/cast-iron piston was damaged, and all attempts to obtain a replacement failed. An aluminium piston was found and balanced against the others by turning a bolt of suitable length to a press fit in the gudgeon-pin and balancing on the kitchen scales! This was entirely successful—the old engine was as smooth as ever, although the gudgeon-pin/piston rattle was still disappointingly noticeable.

Having suffered five tamily moves in 14 months I decided to purchase a large caravan. A 22-ft. Pilot was bought, the usual connections were made, and off trundled the Humber with his owner’s home on his back. That caravan weighed 38 cwt. empty and all of 21 tons full, but the old Humber proved an absolutely ideal tug. For over 2,000 miles he heaved this enormous load over most of North Wales, up and down the Llanberis Pass, then up the West Coast of Scotland to Oban. Bottom gear was not often required. while never once was there the slightest uncertainty on a hill. Removing the exhaust-side bonnet panel stopped all tendency to boil and the gearbox was a delight to use. Then disaster—in order to quieten the top ends the block was rebored by a bodger near Nottingham and on its return the engine seized-up and even after 200 very gentle miles continued to do so. On stripping, one bore was found 20 thou, conical, the big-end broken up and a crankpin scored. Unfortunately, the bill had already been paid and since there were strong rumours of a further posting overseas, the Humber was put into a Nissen hut and the doors sorrowfully closed. Six months later the writer was still waiting to embark and thoughts returned to the old car. The erring bore was tuned up and the big-end remetalled, the crankpin rubbed up with emery paper, a new battery fitted, a coat of Belco dark grey applied, and off he started again with the caravan—this time to the Midlands and South Wales, another 670 miles.

For over four more years the old Humber proved himself to an ace amongst vintage cars. He was sold for £20 to an enthusiast and is still believed to be running.

Returning home again in 1955, a 1938 4-1/2-litre Bentley was acquired. Investigation showed this to be in pretty poor condition and after the usual haggling her price was reduced from £500 to £300. She looked magnificent—just repainted and replated. But the engine was noisy and a continuous buzz indicated universal-joint trouble. However, £300 for a fairly modern Bentley wasn’t much. The first shock was to find that a rebuilt engine would be £450, while the cost of everything else was in proportion. One hundred pounds was spent on new big-ends and a rebore but the engine and transmission still wanted attention, and it was decided to exchange her for something cheaper to run. It is impossible to over-enthuse about the pre-war Bentleys. In almost every detail they are superb, but the initial cost of such excellence must be reflected in the cost of replacements. Intending purchasers may wish to examine the propeller shaft; replacing the universal joints will cost up to £60.

My Jaguar Mk. V 1950 model, has her faults, but with a lower top gear is more lively than the Bentley, there is more room and wind noise is much less. The front suspension is excellent but, having wafted over some obstacles with torsion-bars in front, it is disappointing to be thumped in the back by cart-springs! There is, however, no roll when cornering and while at low speeds the steering may be spongy and low-geared, it is delightfully light and accurate at over 50 m.p.h. So far, in 9,000 miles, the petrol pump and water pump have required replacing at a cost of less than £5. A speedometer 90 is available and her overall fuel consumption is 18 m.p.g. Chromium and paintwork, after eight years, are almost like new. On the whole an excellent vehicle, which bears up to comparison with the Bentley better than might be expected. An overdrive would be a distinct advantage as a 4.3 top gear with 3-1/2-litres means an exceptionally lively but somewhat fussy vehicle. Some timing-chain rattle is developing but the oil pressure is never less than 60 lb. at 1,500 r.p.m.

Looking back on 33 official years of motoring, two things strike the writer. First, what extraordinary value cars are today. The 1922 Crossley cost £780 –– equivalent to about £2,500 now. It had a primitive four-cylinder side-valve engine, no front brakes, an open body, four cart-springs with no shock-absorbers, and the only instruments were a speedometer, ammeter and oil-pressure gauge, and, if memory serves, the starter, spare wheel, jack and tool-kit were extras. In 1930 the Humber Snipe for the same price had a beautifully-finished saloon body, a six-cylinder (i.o.e.) engine, front brakes, instruments, interior lights, etc., and an infinitely better performance. Today, for half the equivalent value of the 1922 Crossley, one can buy a 3.4-litre Jaguar!

The other is regret in the demise of the old type of reliability trial in which anything could compete, from a Daimler limousine to a £5 Morris-Cowley. A scrape along a wall or bank in the old type of car meant possibly a new bit of aluminium angle on the running-board and a tap with a leather hammer, then a lick of paint on a mudguard—always black in those days. Nowadays any touch whatever means a visit to a body-builder and a respray. Thus the cult of the “special”—to the delight of the few but to the regret of the many. Club rallies are not the same—they take too long and are usually unutterably boring. But to the enthusiast there is still the same joy in tuning and maintaining his car as there used to be and the same delight in driving, as he fondly hopes, just a little bit better than his acquaintance. and friends –– who, of course, hold exactly the same views on their own prowess.