Veteran Edwardian Vintage, May 1982

A section devoted to old-car matters

Motoring as it was

A Look-Back to the 1920s

(Continued from the April issue)

IN continuing these motoring cameos from the past, based on the observations and papers of “Owen John”, we left him praising the Humber Ten which he sampled during the drought in June 1921. The amateur motor-noter was very impressed with the new Humber light-car. But it may amuse the Humber Register to know that “O.J.” thought the firm had had an odd and curious enemy to overcome. After its well-known bicycles there came around 1902, he said, the elegant Humberette incorporating the most fearfully involved and intricate concentration of machinery that ever happened. I will willingly leave that to members of the VCC and pass to the next Humber predicament as seen by “O.J.”, their introduction, which startled and staggered everyone, of the first cheap four-cylinder car available at that date, so that one didn’t know whether it was good because it was cheap or cheap because it was good. This was before the advent of the Model-T Ford and it gave Humber’s rather a reputation for building cheap cars. Now that was all behind them and the 1921 Ten was seen as a delightful little car.

In those times, “speed-changing” was still regarded with awe by many drivers, especially beginners and more particularly by female beginners, but “O.J.” found himself changing up or down with no more noise or trouble in the Humber than clicking over a key in a well-oiled lock. This Humber Ten was seen as an aristocrat of small cars and even as a rival to larger ones in all except for transporting large parties (in numbers rather than girth, presumably) for long distances — which can be advanced today for Golfs, Fiestas, Polos, Alfasuds, Escorts, Astras, Acclaims and the like. In that long-ago summer “O.J.” took this Humber to Staffordshire, where people were fishing lumps of coal out of the canals to combat the coal-strike, to Chester, quiet for the same depressing reason, to the Runcorn and Ellesmere wharves, dead on a Sunday afternoon, to “comic-looking and out-of-the-perpendicular” Northwich, and down the Welsh border under the mountain ramparts by Llangollen to Oswestry, held up here by motor-coaches in the road centre, a passenger’s seat on the chara driver’s right often preventing him from looking behind, even had he wanted to.

That is something we do not have to contend with today, but the next “O.J.” item that catches my eye does have a “nothing new” ring to it. He was trying out a 1921 25 h.p. Nash, an American car selling here for £595, and remarked that he didn’t know whether this was the true price, or represented over-production and “unloading” here, which was a foretaste of the coming McKenna Duties (MOTOR SPORT, March ’81). Cars are now, in 1982, being purchased abroad at substantially reduced prices, which may have a different connotation, but gives a similar advantage to the customer . . . The Nash is now to be regarded in this country as a rare car, of which I do not think one exists in VSCC circles. It was reported as being well-sprung, when the weight was properly distributed, the acceleration swift and smooth, the six-cylinder engine sweeping the car along at 55 m.p.h. with extreme sweetness. Its starter was quiet, its lamps gave plenty of light and, a period note here, did not rattle. It had run 13,000 miles according to its mileometer (“which the wear on the cushions backs up”) and old “O.J.” was to see how much further it would go without his intervention, except for feeding it oil, petrol (on which it did 18-20 m.p.g.) and water. Which sounds like one of the long-duration road-tests I, too, have occasionally been fortunate enough to experience.

An interesting point was that the engine was praised for its external neatness, with only distributor, starter, etc., protruding, which is a quality I would have attributed to Continental cars, such as the Hispano Suiza and later Fiat Forty. But as far as elegance, to English eyes, and leg-room were concerned, British cars scored, thought this critic. Presumably because in those early 1920s we used coachbuilding methods of body construction, whereas American cars were beginning to resemble pressed-steel tubs, and whereas in the USA they had discovered how to make good engines largely of cast-iron and pressed-tin, here steel and aluminium still prevailed. “O.J.” wished he were in Dartmoor, so good was this big Nash on hills. Instead, on a fine hot day he took it to the latest type of roadside hostelry, the “Ham Manor Country House Club” outside Newbury, run by a Mr. Haden Tebb. The idea was that you joined the club and obtained the special facilities, the first such house having been opened in Clarges Street, London, with another planned at Tewkesbury-on-theSevern. I wonder what became of them and Mr. Tebb?

When not trying manufacturers’ proffered cars “O.J.” drove his faithful Crossley, on which, in 1921, he was experimenting with Rapson tyres. These were alleged to be good for 10,000 miles even on a 1 1/2-ton car. In these days of much longer tyre life from far faster cars and dire penalties for letting the treads wear too thin or for using mixtures of cross-ply and radial-ply covers, it is difficult to remember the freedom which allowed “O.J.” to have a “somewhat smooth” Palmer tyre and a newish Rapson on the back wheels; he was dubious of trying unknown makes of tyre on the front wheels, presumably in case a burst upset the steering — a prejudice to which front-wheel brakes would be soon subjected. Oil was another 1920 matter for caution, and at the start by Shell-Mex of selling oil as well as petrol, “O.J.” remarked that all good oils were good but all oils were not good, advising a supply of the favourite blend carried in a spare-can when on tour. He had seen a garage boy filling a variety of cans of various well-known makes of oil from a common barrel — which is why within much more recent times Castrol had an independent survey conducted in an endeavour to discover how often a motorist asking for Castrol got something else — out of a Castrol container. I have almost always pinned my faith to Castrol, used for so many historic racing and record-breaking exploits, but I see that “O.J. had for a year or two by 1921 used BMT oil exclusively, of which I have never previously heard . . .

With computer panels beginning to appear on some cars as standard equipment, to inform driver that all is well with the mechanism, it is amusing to find that over 60 years ago “O.J.” had fitted a “Telecator” to the dashboard of his Crossley, consisting of a shiny box containing spark-gaps, one for each sparking-plug in the engine, across which sparks danced as the plugs were fired. The owner derived infinite pleasure from it and it amused children, especially at night when its fireworks display was at its best — and we complain sometimes that an over-bright warning-light is distracting, I bet very few if any, of our readers remember the “Telecator”. W.B.

(To be resumed as space permits)