Motoring as it was-

A section devoted to old car matters
A look back to the Roads of the 1920s

LOOKING back at what motoring was like in the 1920s, through the eyes of motor-writer Owen John, we find him in the winter of 1922 expressing disgust at the heavy fines inflicted on motorists in Yorkshire, where one October morning 31 drivers were convicted of offences like not giving audible warning of approach, not having two independent brakes and not having their driving licences with them, the fines ranging from 10/- (50p) to £1.00. Compared to the fines inflicted in the 1980s for similar offences, inflation notwithstanding, it seems now that those motorists of 62 years ago had no real cause for much complaint. What particularly vexes me is that, in the present-day period of massive unemployment, no discrimination seems to be exercised by the Bench, so that intolerably savage fines have to be paid not only by the assumedly rich car-owners but by those who have transgressed mildly, like the chap who used a car for a few miles untaxed, after his own had refused to start, when trying for a job after months of continual unemployment, or the unemployed youth who had used the idle hours created by having no job to rebuild an old motorcycle (so much better than loafing on street corners, with possibly unhealthy temptations) and who could not resist trying it out for a mile or two on a country road. Surely, if we want co-operation with the Police from such unfortunates, warnings, not heavy fines, would be more sensible in such cases?

Getting back to 1922, O.J. made the point that cars were essential in Yorkshire, which he called a county of dreary cold and weary wilderness, with the towns and villages as remote almost as in America, and a car therefore more essential than in the South, in spite of Yorkshire’s roads then being among the worst. From criticism of Yorkshire, O.J. veered to praise for the new Trust House hotels, apart from the fact that “their stables and premises at the back” (note the period wording) were not always under the ownership of the hotels. Whether this is still the case, with the “Green Dragon” in Hereford I know not, but I was somewhat surprised to be charged 50p for use of their admittedly covered garage for the Alfa the other day, before lunching in this comfortable, spacious and relaxing hotel, and to be told that, were I a resident, the car-parking charge would have been £1.00 per day. As I got the last available slot, presumably this is not generally objected to. But I would make the point that when I enjoyed an even better lunch at the “Red Lion” in Shrewsbury, earlier this winter, I was conducted to their overflow (covered) car-park and no charge whatsoever was levied…

This piece is supposed to be reflecting the past, so let us now investigate what old O.J. was up to late in 1922. He had been to the Swift factory in Coventry, shortly after trying their 12 hp model, and Mr Lamb, the works manager, showed him the new model, although O.J. wasn’t sure whether it was an 8 hp or a 10 hp car! (it was, in fact, the new Swift Ten), O.J. thought it looked like a “most excellent proposition”, except for being under-tyred. (It had 26 in x 3 in tyres when shown at Olympia that year, and as the 12 hp Swift that O.J. had recently tried had tyres of the same dimensions, one wonders what he was carping about.) He made the point that he hoped to try this new 1,027 cc Swift in due course, and that although his tests were a little different from most of the other road-tests about which he read, what was really wanted was a sort of “Test by Neglect”, using a car hard and not letting its maker know who was conducting the investigation. In that O.J. was anticipating, by many years, the good work Motoring Which? has been doing for some considerable time, after buying its test-cars itself, although I am not inferring that the Consumers’ Association neglects normal servicing of the cars in the course of its testing.

The 1922 Motor Show at Olympia and the White City had been a small-car occasion and O.J. took it upon himself to make out a case for the bigger cars. He remarked that he had never toured very far in a small car (apart from visiting all the small battlefields of the Franco-Prussian war on a Staff tour, and going to the Pyrenees and back in a 14 hp Zedal) but for taking a full complement of passengers to such beautiful places and being able to disregard ugly dull flatlands by eating them up at 50 mph, he reckoned you needed a big car, one able to carry a decent amount of luggage, be comfortable to sit in, and a joy to get out of, and able to ignore its burden. Writing this the day before the March Budget Day speech, I am amused to note that O.J. contemplated going on another Continental tour when not deprived of mild luxuries by the prevailing overall 5/- (25p) Income Tax…

He emphasised that while a small runabout, such as the 1922 Show had popularised, might give two people great fun in Britain or when working from some centre like Arles or Avignon or St Jean de Luz in the South of France, to sweep across the whole land, to see on one journey the full length of the mighty jumbled Pyrenees, or to enjoy the innumerable beauties of Savoy, one must have power and speed and brakes and reliability, such as could not be expected from the ordinary run of 1922 small cars. Whether this outburst of Owen John’s against small cars gave S. C. H. Davis and / or the Editor of The Autocar the idea, some years later, of letting Sammy and a companion take a winter trip from England to Monte Carlo in a Chummy Austin 7, to see how it compared on such a journey with costly limousines, I do not know. Indeed, O.J. himself may have had inside knowledge of the capabilities of the Baby Austin, which had made its debut at the 1922 Show, because he was crying out for an ideal runabout at the opposite extreme from the big cars he was also advocating. He saw the “untried Trojan” as possibly helping to bridge the gap between the “Morris-Oxford-Citroën type” and the sidecar-outfit, but he felt there was still a big need for a utility motor donkey-cart, much smaller than the cheap foreign cars (he was probably thinking of the Model-T Ford and the Chevrolet) but with more room than a sidecar combination possessed.

There were times, said O.J., when you did not want to insult your chaste two-seater by using it for mundane tasks, just as he felt he was treating with disrespect his new wheel-barrow, beautifully varnished and painted, with his initials picked out in white on its immaculate sides (!) every time he filled it with dirt or ashes. “It is as foolish to go touring in an under-powered and over-crowded car as it would be to take letters to the post every evening in a 40 hp Lanchester”, said O.J. So I suppose I should have used the 0.85-litre Reliant Kitten for doing the three mile journey with this afternoon’s mail to the pillar-box closest to my house, instead of going in 2.5-litres of very thirsty Alfa Romeo… O.J. was asking for a really little car, “a sort of motor push-cart”, at a really moderate price, that would carry two or could be used as a luggage-cart or an outside porter, with no pneumatic tyres to go down, no paint or upholstery to spoil, and perhaps a foolproof transmission, like the friction-drive of the GWK (O.J. had been reminded of the latter as he had just attended a demonstration of the latest friction-drive Ner-a-Car two-wheeler, one of the earlier versions of which he used himself). His ideal small utility car need never be driven above the legal speed-limit, then 20 mph, he thought. It seems rather odd that O.J. did not refer to the sensational new Austin 7 at this juncture, unless he thought its initial price of £225 higher than he was contemplating, and that he saw the £175 solid-tyred Trojan only as an untried possible gap between motorcycle and sidecar/cyclecar and the new, enlarged small-cars. In horse-age terms, O.J. compared the original light cars with the pony-and-trap, and remarked that because the dog-car usually went faster and one horse could pull one further, it did not knock out the landau…

As he had so recently extolled the disadvantages of the new breed of small cars, it was perhaps brave of Mr Warwick Wright, who had returned to the Motor Trade, to offer O.J. one of the new 8 hp Talbots to try. O.J. didn’t remember driving any other 8 hp car since his 8/11 Brush had expired in 1905. He now gave the Talbot a “pocket-Hercules test” of some 400 miles, in all weathers in all kinds of country, including “that most remarkable range of miniature mountains called the Malvern Hills” (where in July the VSCC will base its Golden Jubilee celebrations). Nothing, reported O.J., seemed to make any difference to the little Talbot, but he liked it best on its “singing second” gear, on which it purred its way up hills better than many much bigger cars. Testing this tiny Talbot reminded O.J. that he had owned two Talbots, and that they both made him proud. He recalled how, around 1907, the famous Talbot 25 used to roar in second gear up the then almost unknown foothills of the Pyrenees and the real mountains of Savoy, and that he even now sometimes went out in the old ex-Brooklands Talbot “Bluebird” that resided near him – so it seems I was wrong when I suggested that the “Bluebird” which took O.J. to his golf-course was the bigger Malcolm Campbell Lorraine-Dietrich.

The little 8 hp Talbot did 40 mpg and 50 mph for O.J. and its lack of a differential was noticed only on tight hairpin bends or on the wet gravel drive outside his front door. O.J. summed up the Talbot Eight as a “young miracle” – I only hope I shall feel the same when, later this month, I get my Talbot-Darracq version out after its three years’ hibernation and take it to the special STD Register T-D celebrations at the old Talbot factory in London. The one O.J. sampled in 1922, the same year as mine was born, was brand-new and suffered slight clutch slip on hills, and one of the headlamps, mounted on the front mudguards, turned round and stared him straight in the face. Because the whole of the VSCC and its friends is destined for Malvern in just over two months’ time, I will add O.J.’s 1922 comments. He thought “Malvern and its vicinity ought to be regarded as a testing-house for small cars, only perhaps its quiet inhabitants would not quite appreciate the compliment”. O.J. stayed at the Colwall Park Hotel and had nothing but praise for it. “Malvern’s best”, he said, are “the views all round from its wonderful roads, something like those around Simla, if only one could imagine that the bold jagged sky-line of the Welsh mountains to the west, or the long rolling line of the Cotswolds to the east, were the mighty sky-piercing, snow-clad Himalayas”… So, now you know! O.J. concluded by saying he was of the opinion that Malvern, to which he had gone in the little Talbot, was greatly neglected by motorists, although he noticed that the 1 in 2½ “Wych” hill was out-of-bounds to them. Neglected Malvern may have been in 1922, but it won’t be long before cars of this and even earlier years, will be there, in some numbers. WB.
(To be continued as space permits)