Motoring as it was

A look back to the roads of the 1920s 
(Continued from last month) 

We left “Owen John”, whose past motoring fortunes we are pondering, at the 1921 Motor Show. After this he visited the Motorcycle Show, but seems to have been impressed only by the Ner-a-Car and the Peters, apart from being able to tell the vendors that the Hellesen dry-battery lamp he bought the previous year was still working. He was shown an even smaller battery costing 1/- (5p) that was nearly as good — which smacks of the current advertising for those copper-ended long-life batteries, and causes one to remember that there is little new in this life. For was not O.J. saying, over 60 years ago, that Britain “is a wonderful nation, even in bad times which the winning of a war seems to entail”. He went on to remark “. . . the world has been shaken from top to bottom and hardly anything except nature is as it was. Today it is a case of ‘devil take the hindmost’ which just at present generally means us. We must not look too much to Government for help; Government just at present has no more idea collectively of the future than we have . . . Skilled mechanics and steel-workers by the thousand are out of employment and yet we use all sorts of articles made by their rivals in other countries. Is it sane, is it sound, can it lead anywhere but to National Bankruptcy? It is all due to a topsy-turvy Exchange.”

That has somehow a 1980’s ring about it! Patriotic old O.J. was hoping his readers would “Buy British” and was glad that his beloved Crossley Company had decided to build the Bugatti in this country. After his outburst of political views O.J. went on to talk of car bodywork. He informed me of something I had not realised before, namely, that in 1921/22 water was scarce, presumably as a result of the war, and that was why grey was a popular colour for bodywork, especially among owners without chauffeurs, as it did not show up mud deposits, and most American cars were black. (Red was out, it was said — a poor show for me with a red Alfa 6 and the lanes leading to my house often covered in liquid Welsh mud!)

Back to the 1920’s roads, O.J. went west for Christmas and was pleased to find that what used to be one of the twistiest lanes that as a boy he ever cycled over, that connecting Bristol with Weston-super-Mare which, because it was to carry lots of would-be seaside visitors the 20 miles to “that haunt of tripperdom”, as O.J. referred to Weston, later became a nightmare congestion of motorcycles, cars and char-a-bancs, was being improved. For 1922 a fine new road was envisaged that would bring new prosperity to Weston, so that O.J. felt it should itself pay for the improvements. (One sad recollection I have of Weston-super-Mare is of pressing my nose to a window, when on holiday there as a small boy, and just about seeing the tail-end of speed-trials on the sands, the rain having precluded the visit I so desperately wanted to make — that would have been at about the time of the building of the new road from Bristol.)

Returning from that Christmas holiday of 1921/22, O.J. was bowling along the Old Bath Road in his Crossley when, just past Newbury, a most distressing noise caused him to pull up, to find that a front hub was hot and the roller-bearings gone. That had happened in the little village of Woolhampton, close to a new tin-shed garage run by the Barnard brothers. O.J. and his family had tea, of home-made bread and jam, at the Angel Hotel, before getting home from the nearby railway station, for a total cost of 15/- (75p). He came down the next day with a new bearing, the old one having lasted for 15,000 miles, and it was fitted for the modest sum of five shillings, or 25p. Yet these young men were unable to get AA or RAC approval of their garage business. (I wonder if the garage is still there and whether today it now has such recognition?) In hammering home this point of non-recognition O.J. was pleased to say that although he had been on that busy road for eight hours in the two days before the breakdown, not an AA Scout did he see . . . By the way, just to get the garage-charge in perspective, a price of 19/- (95p) was then thought exorbitant for jacking-up a wheel and mending an inner tube.

Having recently dared to suggest in these pages that motoring is of equal importance to the car when it comes to enjoyment, I am amused to see that O.J. held just such an opinion back in 1922, saying “There is far too much attention in motoring circles given to the car itself and far too little to what we can do because of it.” So, after chiding those who used solid-tyred commercial vehicles for damaging the roads (apparently steel-tyred wheels had been banned in France from 1922; and suggesting that tyres themselves should be taxed, with an aside about how farmers were abusing tractors that had served them so well in the war years, now that wheat sold for half the price, treating them as any other roughly used farm-implement and then refusing to buy new tractors because the old ones had given trouble. O.J. drove off to Manchester. He found that city “not one of murky fog and rain and mud but bright, light, sunny, keen and clean”, with a fine display of cars in the showrooms in and around Deansgate. Manchester also seemed to have everything in the car-line, from mascots onwards.

O.J. appears to have gone there to try the 40/- (£2.00) Simpson safety starting-handle, which incorporated a free-wheel to obviate the risk of injury from back-fires when cranking-up, but he could not resist another “plug” for his Manchester-made Crossley, although admitting that it would not run for more than a couple of hours at high speed over rocky roads without the front mudguards working loose and rattling, which he cured by stuffing cotton-waste between them and the chassis. Meanwhile, Model-T Fords were pouring out of Trafford Park, you could buy a new Fordson tractor for £120, Overlands were being turned out in numbers to match Fords, and alongside the 19.6 h.p. and 25 h.p. Crossleys was “arising the British Bugatti, which some day, I am informed, the world is going to be astonished by, and invited to reconsider all its preconceived ideas of the relationship between real and reputed horse-power”. The new oil-cooled Belsize Bradshaw was another Mancunian offered to O.J. to try but he thought the weather somewhat cold for a “trial body”. — W.B.

To be continued as space permits