Family Cars

My father, Dr P. W. Mathew, qualified as a doctor in 1907, and shortly afterwards joined the Army Special Reserve of Officers. While training he was caused to learn to ride a horse. One of the “haymotors” kicked him and broke his leg. He used the money paid in compensation to buy a Scott motorcycle, in 1908, and later owned a V-twin Royal Enfield and a shaft-driven F.N, using these until 1912, when he went to practise in Ceylon.

He was once riding from Gloucester to Lechlake, and halfway up Birdlip (the Birdlip, not the modern bypass) he ran out of petrol. He had the choice of returning to Gloucester, or pushing the bike to the top of the hill to see what was there; he chose the latter course. Sweating on a dusty June day, he found to his great relief that the pub at the top stocked both BASS and SHELL!

He was in Ceylon until 1923, and during that time owned a single-cylinder Swift, a Briton (very poor lock, unsuited to Ceylon), an Adder, a 12 hp Rover with electric lighting (contrary to his expectations, the latter worked reliably) and a large Talbot; I don’t know which model. (My mother, who had been in Ceylon as a girl, remembered the first car in Colombo, a Piccolo, owned by Dr Aldo Castellani, later Mussolini’s personal physician — this must have been in 1908 or 1909.) On leave in 1922, in Devon, he had a Citroen 7.5 hp — rather underpowered, but it ascended Peak Hill with 2 adults and 2 small children.

In 1924 he returned home for good, and joined a practice in Eastbourne. At first he ran an Angus Sanderson; I never heard much about it, good or bad. His records start with the 14/30 Star, which he liked very much. Two 16/50 hp numbers followed, the first very good, but the second less enjoyed. An Austin 18 was big, heavy and sluggish; it was comfortable for the family, but tedious for the driver. My elder brother and sister, who learned to drive on it, cordially disliked it. My father, I think, was not sorry to part with it at the start of the war in 1939, when he bought one of the “new” Austin 12’s, as more economical to run. Eastbourne Corporation bought the 18, and converted it into a wartime ambulance. After the war it plodded on for years, so ECBC had a good buy for £30!

An Austin 12 which followed was an unexciting and under-powered car, but gave excellent reliable service for 13 years, was quite pleasant to drive and a thoroughly sound family car. I learned to drive on it. The Austin A70 which succeeded the 12 was absolutely awful. I tried to persuade my father to get a Jowett Javelin, unsuccessfully. The A70 was built to a specification for the Australian market, but the order having been cancelled, it was one of a batch sold on the home market. Tyres were 6.00 x 16, rather than 5.50, and there were some other minor differences from standard. Having noticed the speeds attained by new cars in the hands of delivery drivers, my father decided to collect the new baby from Longbridge, and he and I collected it from a garage alongside the factory, riding out to Longbridge from Birmingham on a tram. The A70’s shortcomings became apparent on the journey home to Eastbourne. The steering was heavy and indefinite, and there was a tendency on a cambered road for the car to steer toward the gutter. (This was partially cured by different pressures in the front tyres, but then on a level road the car tended to steer to the off-side!) The steering-column gear-change was appalling. We were stuck that first day at Henley Bridge for two or three minutes, trying to engage any forward gear. The gear-change remained a constant niggle throughout the car’s life, and that and the steering took much pleasure out of driving the A70; quite apart from a chronic, incurable flat spot, and brakes which emitted a loud squeak on initial application. Furthermore, it was curiously difficult for elderly people to get in and out of. Apart from its sound engine, it was an abomination. I remember you wrote in Motor Sport words to the effect that the A70 “might appeal to the gentlemen of England, but not to their sons”. Exactly so! My father continued to drive it till he was 83, so I suppose it had some merit.

Neither my father nor I took part in any real motorsport, but he first visited Brooklands in 1912, and used to go periodically to the Double Twelves — later he and I went quite often to Brands Hatch and Goodwood in the 1940s and 50s —and the occasional VSCC event in my Fiat 501, which I owned for 15 years and took to the Exeter event, which you organised on Boxing Day, 1954, inter alia. Sadly I sold the 501, a superb little car, when vintage cars became a rich man’s sport; not for a not-very-mechanically minded schoolmaster like me!

P.J. Mathew