The cars of Maurice Falkner
Described to the Editor in a recent interview
On a perfect April evening, with spring sunshine lighting up the flat fields, I drove into Cheshire, past the fringes of OuIton Park, with which he is intimately associated, to talk at his beautiful house in Cheshire parkland to Maurice Falkner, the well-known amateur enthusiast, who has driven in pre-war Mille Miglia and Le Mans races.
The young Maurice received no encouragement from his parents to become a motorist. They were adverse to cars, especially his father. However, after making his own early radio sets, the boy developed an interest in motor cars which has never forsaken him. In 1927 his parent purchased for him a new Riley Nine Monaco saloon, one of the first, with high waistline and a small square trunk on the back which held very little. “A good car,” Maurice Falkner recalls, “able to do about 60 m.p.h.” But, as youth will, he drove it unmercifully, having to stop and adjust the tappets twice between Cheshire and London.
Finally, after a cross-roads collision near the house of an aunt, in which all the twelve-dozen eggs and the cook, which the Riley was carrying at the time, were shattered, he grew bored with the car and, being sent to Leipzig to continue his education, Falkner took to Germany with him a secondhand M.G. Midget. The roads of the Continent in the early ‘thirties did not exactly humour the little car and its fabric and plywood dashboard soon fell off. But as it was an ex-Press car, written up by the contemporary motor papers, it went very reasonably. But another M.G. Midget, bought new from the M.G. works at Abingdon, having a wooden dashboard, survived better.
Back home, and at Cambridge; Falkner bought a 12/50 Alvis beetleback from Norman Black in Gt. Portland Street, which Michael McEvoy fitted with twin R.A.G. carburetters. Just before this, a straight-eight G.P. Modifé Bugatti with short-tailed body and road-equipment, including a full-width screen, was acquired, which was “enormous fun” but so unpredictable that Falkner’s father bade him send it back from whence it had come, after about a couple of months, and certainly Andrew Fairtlough, then Secretary of the C.U.A.C., could always depend on getting there first in his tuned Austin 7 Chummy when he and Falkner set out on a journey. The Alvis proved a far better car, which was kept for some two years.
An Aston Martin International was substituted for the Alvis, bought secondhand. It was a car with “lots of charm, a difficult gear-change – it didn’t really go but was very comfortable and,” says the subject of this interview, “converted me to Astons.” Meanwhile, for more sedate motoring, a Talbot 90 saloon, “the one with the tail,” had been bought, also a used car; “a charming car, beautifully made and finished, with a very smooth, neat single-carburetter engine.” But it was so dangerous on wet roads that it went out mostly on dry days and wasn’t kept for very long.
Maurice Falkner’s next acquisition was, or should have been, distinctly exciting, for he bought from Brian Twist, whom he knew at Cambridge, an Amilcar Six. This had mudguards gummed onto it and “was tremendous fun, running it in up Watling Street – it made rings round everything else and could do, perhaps, 120 m.p.h.” Alas, it had a twisted crankshaft and after being driven in a few Brooklands races it was sold to Vernon Balls for spare parts. It did, however, entice Falkner’s sister to Brooklands, although she was not very partial to racing cars, and it discovered the Track for Maurice, “who didn’t like it very much,” the surface being very hard on one’s personal motor car and on one’s person, as Falkner discovered when he rode as passenger in Thomas Fotheringham’s Bugatti for half of the B.R.D.C. 500-Mile Race and couldn’t sit down for two days thereafter!
For road motoring at this time Falkner possessed a supercharged 2-litre Lagonda coachbuilt 4-seater, which, contrary to popular opinion, he remembers for “a delightful gear-change.” Top speed was impossible to assess, “as the speedometer was terribly fast” and the head gasket blew continually, because the owner omitted to use benzole in the fuel.
As the Lagonda had to go, Falkner went to the Olympia Show of 1934 and ordered an Ulster Aston Martin, a replica of the successful team racers from Feltham. This he found “a very good car; I was very fond of it.” He had done the 1934 Le Mans race with Reggie Tongue, in one of these Aston Martins, finishing 10th, which is why he ordered one for himself that autumn. Falkner is extremely modest about this then very formidable undertaking, merely recalling that he and Tongue finished 10th in the race.
While the Aston Martin was being prepared for racing a Silver Eagle Alvis beetleback, bought for £125, served as hack transport. It had a bent chassis, so was lethal in the wet, but gave “swift acceleration and was a very good car.”
For the following year’s racing, Falkner’s Cambridge friend, T. G. Clarke, teamed up with him in racing the Aston Martin. This sporting pair ran the car in the Mille Miglia and at Le Mans. They did splendidly in the 1935 Mille Miglia, winning their class at 54.68 m.p.h., taking the Amateur Class as well, and a special prize for the first foreign car to finish. At Le Mans they finished an excellent eighth out of 28 cars to complete the distance, and then went to Pescara, where neither foot- nor hand-brake would retard the car on the downhill section of the circuit, and ignition maladies held it back. But it was the greatest fun “and we felt quite grown-up.” It is necessary to explain to present-day competitors that the Aston Martin was driven out from England and home again and, although the works gave a bit of support, Clarke and Falkner had merely one Italian mechanic to help them prepare, and for transport a hired Fiat Balilla saloon while in Brescia, where they lived at the Vittoria Hotel, “in overalls, filthy dirty.” Clarke did put in a fair amount of practice, staying on the scene of the Mille Miglia for several weeks, but business commitments kept Falkner in England until a few days before the race, to which he travelled by boat and train.
Thus encouraged, Clarke bought the latest Ulster Aston Martin. In 1936 he and Falkner drove this car (CML 721) in the Mille Miglia. They were leading their class at Rome but at Fano on the Adriatic Coast fuel-feed trouble intervened.
The factory lent Falkner and Clarke the car again and Falkner drove it in the Spa 24-hour race in 1937. It finished slowly, with only top gear left, being a bit aged by this time! He then bought a Mk. V Aston Martin “2+0” 4-seater! It is recalled as a reliable, excellent motor car.
Eventually the Aston Martin was sold to Jim Elwes of Cresta Motors at Worthing and a straight-eight Railton saloon replaced it – “a very good car, but one day there were no brakes, so it was sold.” A pale green 2-litre M.G. d/h. coupé replaced it, “which wasn’t very thrilling but it did have hydraulic brakes.” A 1938 Wolseley 25 coupé was taken on a long Continental tour but was “rather horrid,” especially when all the big-ends ran at Dijon and Maurice was stranded there for a week while they were remetalled—”it rained the whole time.” Seeking solace, on his return he bought a Lancia Aprilia saloon, just on the eve of the war. It was a bit tinny in construction but is recalled as “one of the best cars I’ve ever had.” This lasted to mid-way through the war. It was succeeded by a 2.3-litre M.G. coupé, and when no more petrol was available Falkner put a charcoal burner on the back. “You had to do dreadfully intimate things to make it go at all, and top speed was down to 25 m.p.h.” So Falkner sold the car, giving the surplus coke to an aunt who said she was cold because of the fuel shortage…
A secondhand Ariel Square Four motorcycle was pressed into service after this but “the cylinder head didn’t stay very square when it was hot, the valves refusing to seat properly.” Another petrol economiser was a V-twin Morgan 3-wheeler, purchased from Tony Darbishire, which “would go up the side of a house in top speed ” and the front wheels of which lost adhesion first if “one over-egged it on corners.” Falkner had no great affection for the Morgan and never discovered how to put on the spare wheel, so it was fortunate that a passing motorcyclist did this for him when the outfit punctured in wild, wet Wales. “I was quite a good mechanic, too!”
Falkner spent six years in the Army but after the war had two foreign saloons, an 1100 Fiat Balilla and another Lancia Aprilia. The Fiat was “a very good little car,” the Lancia “ghastly.” The trouble with the latter was that the motor-shop in London where it had been bought had had an accident in it – when Falkner took it back to remonstrate, the vendors had absconded. So it was back to the Fiat, using replacement door handles (which had a habit of breaking off) from a Balilla found derelict at the roadside in Holland. Eventually, all the big-ends ran in Bicester, “which was terribly inconvenient, for Bicester does not have a good train service.”
Post-war motoring was celebrated with a 3-1/2-litre Bentley Park Ward saloon, bought from Chip Peters and “quite a good car,” until “a slight madness intervened” and an Aston Martin DB2 was purchased. “Not a very nice car, but a very safe car,” an entry was put in for Le Mans and the T.T. It was ninth reserve for the French race, 60 starters being allowed, and was driven to the circuit bearing the racing No. 69, which merely ruined the paintwork! But it never got into the race and after it had run all its big-ends in the T.T., Falkner turned his back on this make.
Considerable amusement ensued when a Fiat 500 body was gummed onto a Fiat 1100 chassis and a blower added, the effect being “quite like a bomb,” Bentleys and such-like being passed with ease, until the flexibility of the frame, unbraced by its correct body, caused it to be sold. It had two subsequent owners, both solicitors, and lasted to my knowledge another three and a half years, continuing to give much fun.
What next? There was an Austin A90 saloon which proved unsafe above 70 m.p.h., and had awful brakes – “dreadful, but it had the most wonderful driving position.” A 2-carburetter Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire was kept for longer than most, in spite of brake-lining renewal costing £65 a year. The throttle linkage had to be sorted out by George Mangoletzi but the car was still going strong at 35,000 miles.
Three Jaguar XK140 fixed-head coupés followed, one with normal 4-speed gearbox, one with overdrive, the last one a prototype with automatic transmission and disc brakes, “both rather troublesome.” By this time Jaguar had learnt to make them steer but not to hold the road, but on the whole these XK140s were “quite good cars,” although one day the last of them lost all its brakes.
Needing something more commodious, Maurice Falkner invested in a couple of Volvo saloons. The first one he found “extremely good – I liked it very much indeed.” He ran it until coming home from the theatre in Manchester one night it ran into a Rover which emerged without warning from a private drive and stalled its engine in the path of the Volvo. The Mangoletzi-tuned head was transferred to another Volvo but this was “nowhere near so good” and when warm the valves refused to seat correctly, as on the Ariel Square Four bicycle.
This drove Falkner to a secondhand Porsche 356B. He liked it so much that he now has a Porsche 356C, which is just as good at 38,000 miles as it was when I bought it with 12,000 miles on the odometer.” From this Porsche he gets 28/30 m.p.g. (“it should do more”) – and finds that you don’t have to get used to its handling characteristics in the way you had to on the earlier Porsches. It still has “that ghastly habit of locking its back wheels on a wet road, however.”
Before buying his present Porsche Falkner ordered one of the first Jaguar E-types at the Geneva Show, where the car was first announced. It was a hard-top. “It had brakes that were only fair, but the seats were not very comfortable and I thought it too big for just a 2-seater. “But in Switzerland its owner had “wonderful fun on snow and ice, on which it was very safe.” “And,” he reflects, ”the small snags I experienced have since been ironed out.”
To keep the Porsche company and round off three and a half decades of amateur motoring, Maurice Falkner drives a Fiat 2300S coupé, “a delightful car, with no bad habits, not even those hinted at in the motor papers!” The proud owner has no idea of the Fiat’s top speed because the speedometer is so optimistic, but it is probably about 120 m.p.h.; he gets about 20 m.p.g. and has cured heavy steering at low speeds by substituting Pirelli for the former German Dunlop SC tyres. – W. B.