J. B. Ashby looks back on cars he has owned and driven
I spent the early years of my life in Hitchin, and in those days the market-place was a veritable paradise for small boys. Every conceivable make and type of car seemed to collect there — cars that are now mostly only memories, such as the BeIsize-Bradshaw, Erie-Campbell, Cluley, Palladium, Charron, Phoenix, Austro-Daimler and Morriss-London, to mention only a few that I can remember. We moved in clerical circles. A neighbouring vicar was still running a tiller-steered Lanchester, another sported a Trojan, and the two curates in the parish ran a four-cylinder F.N. motorcycle and an A.B.C. light car, respectively. My father was a clergyman and he was well over 50 years old before he was able to buy his first car. One day he walked into a local garage and bought a secondhand Austin Seven Chummy for £90. He got in and drove it straight home; he had never driven before in his life. I learned to drive on this car.
My own first mechanical vehicle was a 1927 3-1/2-h.p. Model-P Triumph motorcycle. I used to ride it to work from Scole to Norwich every day. I started in mid-winter and was completely inexperienced. It was an incredibly noisy and rough machine and was fitted with sidecar gear-ratios, which was probably just as well, as at anything over 45 m.p.h. I got into a speed wobble and fell off. I do not think I covered the 20-mile journey in much less than an hour and a half during those first winter evenings. It had acetylene lighting, assisted by a red glow from the exhaust pipe. One night. seeing a rear light ahead, I was reminded of my own and, with incredible foolishness, looked round to see if it was alight. When I looked back it was too late. I careered straight into the back of a stationary Standard, much to the astonishment of two old ladies who were filling up with petrol (very fortunately under the bonnet in those days). Damage was not excessive, but the next week I belted round a corner and took a cow broadside on, and I began to think that there was not much future in motorcycling.
However, I persuaded my father that the answer was a better and faster machine, and inveigled him into buying me a 1930 350-c.c. KNS o.h.c. Velocette. This should have been first-class, and certainly the steering and road-holding were excellent. Perhaps I was unlucky, but I had continuous trouble with a slipping clutch and the engine was anything but oil-tight. Another annoying feature was that one of the securing studs holding the rocker arms in the rocker box was continually working loose and would fly out onto the road, particularly, of course, at speed. You would then have to search up and down the road for the stud and the result was either a cracked rocker-box cover or a broken piston. Altogether things became a bit tiresome, and I changed the Velocette for a 1931 350-c.c. Royal Enfield. This was reliable and trouble-free. Its only fault was that it laid down a positive smoke-screen from the twin exhausts at anything over 50 m.p.h. I sent it back to Enfields for attention, with my compliments, but it was never entirely cured.
About this time I discovered in the garden of my cousin a 1,000-c.c. vee-twin Zenith-J.A.P. with the Gradua gear. He said that I could take it away, so we towed it back behind the Enfield on a rope, from Thames Ditton to Windsor, and got it going. It was, I think, about a 1921 model and it was enormous fun to ride, winding the Gradua gear madly with one hand and steering with the other. It was never taxed or insured, but I used to ride it round the lanes when I thought the “bobby” was asleep. On one occasion he became very suspicious and called on me just after I had returned from a trip. If he had put his hand on the exhaust pipe he would have had some positive evidence. I would have liked to have made an honest motorcycle of it and put it on the road, but I could not ride two ‘bikes at once and cash, as usual, was short.
When I was about 18 a friend of my father gave me my first car. This was a Singer Ten of 1924 vintage. He had long cherished this car but as its part-exchange value was small he gave it to me as he wanted it to have a good home. He arrived one week-end to present it to me and I took it very carefully for a short run. Half way round I stopped, but when I tried to re-start, the car would not move. A half-shaft had gone. The resulting situation was most embarrassing ! I thought he would think that I had wrecked his car — he was obviously wondering if I thought he had given me a pup. This car was notable for a negligible performance and a very narrow track, which made it extremely unstable. We used to climb one local hill in reverse because the Singer would not climb it in bottom. Eventually we broke a front spring and ran a big-end, and decided to junk it. As it was by then untaxed and uninsured we collected some friends and pushed it on week-end from Loddon Bridge to Caversham, all the way through the centre of Reading, and collected 35s. from the breakers. This was one of the rare occasions when nearly every other motorist stopped to ask us if we had broken down.
My partner and I then bought a Gordon England Cup Model Austin Seven for £18. For those days this car was quite lively, in comparison with the general run of vehicles, and we improved the performance tremendously by fitting a chromium strip down the centre of the radiator. We invariably ran on Mr. Gamage’s oil and this Austin was extremely reliable. Like many another of them it eventually broke its back and the tail sagged nearer and nearer to ground. We tried to brace the rear with a miniature Forth Bridge affair but as there was virtually no chassis to which to attach it we failed miserably. It was in this car that I was driving to Maidenhead one night with my current girl-friend when I was stopped by the police, who insisted on searching the car for an escaped convict.
In those halcyon days we used to buy our cars in fields — not from garages — and quite it number of desirable grazing plots in the Reading area contained a selection of bargains. In one of these we were faced with the fascinating choice of a scarlet H.E. two-seater or a “Bullnose” M.G. — each at £12. We bought the M.G. I have never been really clear as to whether this car was an M.G. or a sports Morris-Oxford. I have always understood that the first production M.G.s did not appear until 1925, but the date of this car was 1924 and it had the 13.9-h.p. Hotchkiss engine and, I believe, a high rear-axle ratio. A light aluminium body was fitted, with an imposing dashboard on which was a small lever for admitting extra air to the engine. It had a large white steering wheel and two of those little ship’s ventilators on the scuttle, which were probably the reason why we decided to buy it. We cleaned it up and ran it for two years and it upheld the Bullnose’s reputation worthily, the only replacements being a cylinder-head gasket and a new spring leaf (price 10s.). Its performance was quite brisk but as it only had two-wheel brakes one had to be prepared to start stopping as soon as anything appeared on the horizon.
Circumstances now brought to an end our car-owning partnership, and as I could not afford to run a large car alone I fell for a converted and lowered 1926 Austin Seven. I laboriously stripped the paint off and resprayed it, and it was then rebored and the crankshaft balanced and reground (£13 in those days). After the comparative comfort of the “Bullnose” however, I could not get really enthusiastic about it.
Meanwhile the sale of the M.G. (or Morris-Oxford) brought about one of the most curious situations I have ever come across. A smooth and well-spoken salesman who had grazing rights in a field adjoining the main Bath road suggested that I should leave the car with him to sell for me. I asked £18 but the car remained unsold for several months. He pointed out that the winter was approaching and the car, being an open one, might be difficult to sell, so I dropped to £10. One day I saw that the car had gone and when I called he said that he had had an offer of £8 and had taken it. Although I was somewhat annoyed, I took his cheque for £6 10s. (30s. commission !). Two days later his cheque was returned “R.D.” At this stage I consulted my room partner, who was studying law. He pointed out, with some shrewdness, that the dealer probably only rented the field, that all the cars in it might belong to other mugs like me, and that he would have seven days in which to answer any summons which we might serve on him, and in that time he could conveniently disappear. He suggested that I should threaten to prosecute the dealer for fraudulent conversion, since he had not got my car, nor the money. On this being decided we immediately called at the local police station and were politely informed that we could not do this as it would amount to “demanding money with menaces.” We decided to neglect this piece of advice and went out the next evening to his field. Everything was deserted, but having found that his little hut was locked, we broke the door open with one of his tyre levers and used his telephone to ring up a night club which he frequented in a certain Thameside town. We got his wife, who said that he was not there. From the tone of her voice we gathered that he was and went straight over to the club, where we demanded to see him and threatened him with police action for fraudulent conversion. This gambit worked like a charm. He paled visibly, said that he was completely broke, but that he would give us another car as security until he could pay.
It was at this point that my legally-minded friend displayed his uncanny cunning. He pointed out to the dealer that I had been caused a lot of trouble, told him that his cheque should include an extra 10s. on this account, and insisted on him handing over the Registration Book for the car and a proper receipt made out to me as having purchased it for £7. We collected the car the next day and towed it back. It turned out to be a 1930 Singer coupé. We promised him that if he paid us £7 within fourteen days that we would return the car, unused and intact.
In the meantime I had grown suspicious and, through the County Council, had obtained the address of the purchaser of the M.G. I went to see him and found that he had paid £18 for the car — now less the eight-day clock and the hood, which the dealer had sold on the side. I got his permission to copy the receipt. On the thirteenth day the dealer rang me up, said that he would bring the £7 over and collect the Singer, as arranged, the next day. We met in a pub and I took the money in cash. I then produced the copy of his bill for the sale of my car, telling him he was a thug and that he could go jump in the river, and that I was not parting with the Singer. He left in high dudgeon in a Morris breakdown truck. It was at this point that we realised that the Singer must belong to another of his customers who was getting a little restive.
His next move was not, very clever. He rang the police and told them that I had stolen his car and was about to leave the district. A Police Inspector called at my office and my employer assured him that I had no intention of leaving. I produced the receipt for the car and the Registration Book. Checkmate ! Black to move . . .
A few days later his wife called to see me. “Her poor husband was on his beam ends, she had two children to bring up, and surely I could not be so cruel as to see them starve.” I must say that his wife was a smasher, even if the children were probably mythical. Well, it is very difficult to resist the blandishments of a charming lady and eventually I gave way. Undoubtedly his point this time — it just shows that you can’t beat a dealer, or you should not be sentimental, or both. I undertook to return the car, and they promised to give me another one in exchange (one, I presume, that did not belong to anyone else). You are dead right. It was another perishing Singer! This time a 1931 two-seater with dickey, bald tyres and Autovac u.s., so that I had to fill up the reservoir on the scuttle. with a pint of petrol every few miles to get the thing home. It was sold to the scrap man for £3. However, I got my £10 after all and some fun into the bargain.
About this time, my interests being diverted to the fairer sex, I bought for the first and last time a closed car. This was a 1926 Morris-Cowley fixed-head coupé with dickey. It was completely dependable, never gave me any trouble, and likewise never gave me very much fun. Its successor was another 1926 Morris-Cowley four-seater, which was much more fun and provided the same reliability. However, I felt the urge for something more sporting and bought a 1930 Riley Nine four-seater. Up to now this was the most expensive car I had ever bought and cost £45. It was the rather pretty fabric-bodied tourer with a cut-away door on the driving side and the twin carburetter engine. After my previous cars the performance, steering and road-holding were an absolute revelation, and I parted with it with great regret just before the war.
Here I must mention one other motoring experience which befell me. A fish-and-chip saloon owner advertised in the local paper for a driver for his van. Having some spare evenings but feeling that there might be some fun going, I applied for the job and duly reported for test. The van was the usual Morris-Commercial of the early ‘thirties and the owner had a country round of the villages between Reading and Maidenhead. It was mid-winter and we set off about 6.30 p.m. into the byways. We trundled sedately down the road, Charlie frying-up in the back, myself driving, while the fat proprietor perched himself precariously on the off-side running-board, alternately deafening the surrounding countryside with a large handbell and uttering eldritch cries which purported to reveal the nature of his wares. Suddenly he said “Stop here!” Anxious to display my prowess, I applied both hand and foot brakes. There was a terrible howl from the rear, where Charlie Boy, with a fish slice in one hand, had been precipitated into a vat of boiling oil. I also found that it was essential to drive in the middle of the road otherwise you would write off the chimney of the van on the branches of overhanging trees. There are doubtless techniques that even Brooks and Moss have not yet mastered!
When we steamed into the next village, handbell at full chat, an old lady rushed down her garden path. It spoilt the boss’ evening when he discovered that she had mistaken us for the fire engine. Later that night we sat down to a fish-and-chip supper in the corner of a field, but I had decided that this was not my true vocation.
It was obvious that before long we should be at war, and as I was determined not to do any more walking than strictly necessary, I volunteered for the R.A.S.C. In true Army fashion, when they found that I could drive, they pushed me as a private into the Medical Corps, where I never laid a hand on anything more exciting than it bicycle for three years.
Having spent several years learning all about poultices and enemas, it came as rather a shock when I joined my new unit as an Officer to find that I was responsible for 17 Bedford lorries, a Humber staff car, three motorcycles and two bicycles, and that I was expected to waterproof all the four-wheelers and drive them into several feet of the Channel on the sharp side and eventually take them by slow stages from Normandy to the Danish border. Fortunately I found that a Transport Sergeant who could baffle the inspecting brass hats, a Corporal who could do repairs, and my own ability to visit neighbouring units and borrow tyres and batteries off the record, sufficed to get us through.
I disliked most army vehicles, especially the 15-cwt. Dodge with its very soft springing, which would literally remove your trousers after a long drive on Belgian pavé, through bouncing you up and down against the rear-seat squab. I thought the Jeep was a menace on wet roads and preferred to do most of my travelling on a G3 Matchless. This had enormous advantages, especially on the move into Belgium. On the pretence of nursing the convoy one could tear ahead or lag right behind, and this gave you the edge on everyone else as far as exchanging fraternal greetings with the local maidens and clutching the proffered glass of wine were concerned. Riding a motorcycle also absolved one from having to navigate.
I think my diciest motoring moment was during this period. I was driving a Jeep down a narrow street in Belgium behind an unloaded tank transporter. Suddenly one of the multiple rear wheels came off the transporter and headed straight for us with considerable velocity. There was nothing we could do and I had just calculated that the next bounce would bring it straight through our windscreen when it got slightly deflected and disappeared through a shop window in front of us.
Although it was not my own car, towards the end of the war in Europe I had temporary possession of a six-cylinder Opel. The villagers were most emphatic that it had belonged to an Officer in the S.S., and as it was in perfect condition and we were short of a staff car I applied to H.Q. 12 Corps for permission to retain it. Despite the fact that the H.Q. 12 Corps convoy at that time was composed of palatial German saloons and looked rather like an outing of the complete Prussian aristocracy, permission was refused and I was ordered to take the car to a six-figure map reference. Determined to enjoy this civilian motoring to the last, I took the car down myself and duly reported at the given location, which turned out to be a pine forest about 60 miles south. Having dug out a R.E.M.E. Officer, I was told that only load-carriers were accepted. It is not often that one has to ask the age-old question: “What shall I do with it ?” with reference to a desirable touring car. So I was in the ridiculous position of driving about Germany in a nearly brand-new Opel which I just had to give away to some one. After motoring rapidly about until the tank was nearly empty I found a Civilian Government Official with a pleasant face and left it with him. I sometimes wish that I had been less conscientious.
After an absence of six years the cost of living came as a nasty shock and motoring became impossible to contemplate. However, having always cherished a desire to own a Super-Sports Morgan three-wheeler, I managed to buy a secondhand 1935 model in 1947. This had the 990-c.c. Matchless engine and provided all the performance you could want at motorcycle cost. To drive one of these little cars is certainly a memorable experience. With a big-twin engine, and weighing only about 8 cwt., the acceleration was magnificent and was an entirely new motoring sensation. The technique of driving needed some mastering, and when I first had the car and was proudly demonstrating the performance to my friends I rather spoilt things by taking off in bottom gear and changing into second with the handbrake, as I was terrified of taking my eyes off the horizon. I was never able to start the car on the so-called self-starter, and as it was often difficult to start it was promptly christened “Whittington.” It was a very practical means of transport, however, and quite a reasonable amount of luggage could be carried, one’s only terror being a rear-wheel puncture. I also found it to be extremely stable, with excellent road-holding. Eventually the front frame cracked, like that of many another “Moggy.”
At the other end of the scale, my duties at this time included driving a six-wheeled Commer articulated lorry. This was also quite fascinating, in a different way. With the extraordinary lock on the front wheels and the long body, the technique on a right-angle corner was to drive straight for the other side of the road and swing round at the last moment, which was always good for a quiet laugh if you had a strange passenger aboard. What was not such a laugh was the fact that I never mastered the art of reversing with three pairs of wheels going in different directions, and I always carried a 1-in. map to find a suitable triangle or loop at which to turn round.
My next car was a 1935 Talbot 65 drophead coupé. This was taken in part exchange by my firm and, although it looked rather scruffy, it obviously had possibilities. It cleaned up surprisingly well and although the performance was not by any means brilliant, the car had such character and such obvious good breeding, and did everything in such a gentlemanly manner, that maximum speed and acceleration seemed scarcely to matter. It had all the quality and feel of a hand-built luxury car and never gave me a moment’s trouble. When I had changed my job to one which entitled me to a “company” car, I sold the Talbot with much regret and proceeded to motor in a series of Austin Tens and A40s which gave me no joy at all.
In 1954, when I was moved to a “chairborne” job, I looked round for another car and bought a 1935 Lagonda Rapier. I had always admired this particular model and the ownership of one did nothing to change my opinion. In common with the Talbot the drophead coupé body was rather too heavy for the power unit, but so far I have never driven another car with such perfect braking, handling and cornering qualities. One could throw the car round almost any corner without hesitation, and the rod-operated brakes would pull the car up smoothly on the worst roads. I believe that when officially tested the Rapier achieved a stopping distance of less than 30 feet from 30 m.p.h. The engine had a terrific capacity to rev and the output from 1,174 c.c. was phenomenal considering the heavy drophead body. The Rapier, in some quarters, had the reputation of throwing its timing chains, but I never had any trouble on this score, nor for that matter from any other mechanical defects.
My present transport is a 1931 M.G. 18/80 Mark ll drophead coupé, a marque which has been the subject of some discussion in recent issues of Motor Sport. It had been badly neglected before I bought it and consumed large quantities of petrol, oil and water without actually moving. I am gradually trying to pull it round, and despite the fact that it has given me a number of headaches, it is, I consider, a most appealing car. The four-speed gearbox is delightful, and once the engine has been tuned it appears to need the minimum of attention for long periods. While not perhaps spectacular, the performance is deceptive and will provide reasonably high point-to-point averages in it comfortable and unassuming manner. The 18/80 had a reputation for running big-ends, but here again I am fortunately unable to substantiate this statement from my own experience. The most disappointing feature of the car at present is the braking, but doubtless this can be improved. It is a great pity that so many of these cars have been scrapped. There appear to be very few left on the road.
The astute reader may perhaps perceive a certain pattern in my motoring history. I have never really liked small cars and when I have run a small car for some time I have a hankering for a larger one, but when I have bought something bigger it does not take me very long to convince myself that I cannot afford it, so that I change back to a smaller one again. However, I have had an enormous amount of fun out of nearly all my cars and if I have never been well-breeched enough to buy my heart’s desire, I have at least always been able to fun the type of car that I like, which is probably the next best thing. Perhaps my only claim to motoring distinction is the fact that I have owned three Singers and never paid for one of them !