Motoring As It Was

A Look Back to the Road of the 1920s

(Continued from the March issue)

Continuing the motoring saga of Owen John, automobilist (his own term) and motoring writer, we are reminded, for he told us himself, that just after the First World War had ended he had foreseen a great motor road going from the north of England to dip under the Channel by the tunnel, which was to set the seal on the World's peace, pass through Paris and Budapest to Constantinople, slide along the fertile coast of Asia Minor, and via Egypt, run direct and wide and easy all the way to India and beyond, branching off on the way to South Africa and possibly running a branch north to China and Japan across Siberia.

Well, it was but a dream, but one that would have endeared O.J. to Mrs. Thatcher except that a rail track under the sea isn't exactly a road, and that motor traffic has increased to such an extent since Armistice year that we now go round Paris and other cities instead of through them, anyway, it is nice to find someone agreeing with the Prime Minister when so many denigrate this very remarkable lady, who has brought Britain through more than one crisis better than most.

Back to the mid-1920s, with which we are here concerned, the Channel Tunnel was then far distant, and has not happened yet, and I am reminded that there was still a toll-gate on the road between Rye and Winchelsea in 1924, at which car-drivers were charged 6d (2 1/2p), motorcycle riders 4d (2p), but where cyclists were allowed to pass without paying. Incidentally, O.J. still wrote motoring fantasies at Christmas-time, his story for 1924 revolving round a science-fiction car that could do all but think, and now, in the 1980s, we are approaching such in reality, with cars that talk to their owners and which, we are told. will soon be able to plot routes from computer-data fed into their mechanism from maps — although I find the latter incomprehensible.

So to 1925, when O.J. was on about the increase in owner-driven cars compared to those maintained and driven by chauffeurs — he recalled a remark made to him in the Wynnstay Arms in Oswestry around 1907 to the effect that any man must be an expert who takes to the road without a chauffeur — and how all that was changing rapidly, and how closed cars were another development bound to increase. "If Only because valuables you hardly dare carry in an open car could be safely locked away therein"! (The exclamation-mark is for the 1980s)

It is rather amusing to find that. as long ago as 1925, O.J. was bothered about the ever-increasing numbers of direction-posts telling drivers the way, that were being erected by the "indefatigable statistical staff of the Ministry of Transport'', now that giant Motorway-size signs are a feature of every main road and we are given white-line and "get-in-lane" instructions as to where to slow, stop or position our cars, so that driving is becoming more and more like being in charge of a railway train. You would not think on the roads as they were, open and unrestricted, over 60 years back, there would be much bother about unobtrusive signposts, unless it was about a lack of sufficient information as to which way a driver was progressing. Yet old O.J. told of how roads were measured in the beginning, and of personal milestones erected by the nobility and gentry; apparently it was possible to find examples in the Badminton country, and in Hertfordshire, and even those erected by Trinity Hall (which had been O.J.'s college), with the crescent ermine crest on them, could still be seen along the Cambridge road, in 1925. Now, however old milestones are seldom seen, yet when I drive to the nearest town I pass three at least, still in good order — but then I am writing of Wales, and even in such remote places the milestones no longer endure at one-mile spacings.

O.J. was of the opinion that reading one's way by map was more useful than to potter along by sign-post directions, likening the latter to dirty finger-nails since "unsightly incoherent numbers and initials" had been added to the ends of most of them. He was, however reckoning to travel in his Crossley "at about a mile in a couple of minutes", and conditions are so very different today, when we go faster, understand road-numbering, and have little time to check on every signpost, even if safety allowed. For all of which, I am pleased that some local milestones have survived and sad that some early road directions painted on the brickwork of the railway bridge where the line runs into Ledbury from Hereford are becoming ever fainter with the passage of time... O.J. had a bit of a dig at the AA name-and-mileage plaques that in pre-war days named almost every village, saying that the blue plaques of the little French towns were preferable to the AA's "raw mustard". Well, The Autocar once bravely ran a spirited campaign, with many pictures, of this so-called "Yellow Peril", which impaired roadside beauty, but in the 1980s it does the heart of at least one VSCC member good to discover such plaques, nearly all of which have been lost, stolen or obliterated by vandals, although they are still occasionally to be seen, reminders of the pre-war motoring age.

O.J. was also critical of finding one's way through or round London, at a time when "the subway under the Thames at Purfleet" was merely contemplated, and he thought it unnecessary to inform travellers at Maidenhead Bridge that they were passing over the Thames: an insular view, for foreign visitors might not know what came instinctively to O.J., who used the Dunlop Guides, he said, for finding his way about towns like Reading, Nottingham, Bristol and Leicester (and I would have thought Birmingham in which one has been well lost even in quite recent times).

Nineteen-twenty-four had been the year of the Empire Exhibition at Wembley, which may have been what caused O.J. to put in his bit on behalf of British cars, recalling a trouble-free tour of France he once did using two Beans and the reports of fine trans-continental runs in Central Africa by Morris and Bean cars, and that of the AC in the Monte Carlo Rally and of a Wolseley "that went all the long way to India and back inviolate", accomplishments which O.J. thought might make owners become happy-go-lucky and look to their cars to behave with as little attention as they gave to their watches. Nowadays we have 12,000-mile intervals between major servicing but in 1925 things like lifting the head to decarbonise the pistons were called for much more frequently. So, on a note that is again topical, we find O.J. remarking that we should try harder to sell British goods, "because all the rest of the World takes care to protect itself against us". It was a period when the Anglo-Persian Oil Co was advertising that by refining BP petrol at Llandarcy in South Wales it was giving employment to 20,000 British workers and when the Model-T Ford was still a threat to other inexpensive cars, the two-seater priced at £120 nett at Manchester, the Tudor saloon at £190, and the Fordor saloon at £215, with electric lighting and starting, 4-ply Cord balloon tyres, screen-wiper, dashboard lamp, a driving mirror, and a choice of Orniord lake, cobalt blue, or Empire grey paint finish.

Motoring was on the increase in 1925, and there were calls for widening the English Bridge at Shrewsbury, at a cost of at least £76,000 while preserving the old stone bulustrades and doing the same to Worcester bridge, at a cost of £27,000, although here a new bridge was called for over the river Severn to provide a one-way system, the benefits of which we can see today. O.J. was prompted to think about another growing hobby besides motoring, that of photography, and how the two might be complementary, especially as artists were few who could depict cars correctly, and he quoted Path to Rome, issued by the Sunbeam Motor Co publicity people (I wonder if the present-day STD Register has a copy?) as showing how a fine picture of a beautiful place need not be ruined by having a car in the foreground.

In February 1925 O.J. undertook a 600-mile run in his Crossley, which had by then done some 45,000 miles, going first to Cowley outside Oxford and then over the deserted Cotswolds, for cars were still very much fair-weather toys then, to lunch at Broadway and continued over the Vale of Evesham to Worcester, where at the "Hill home for Fordsons" the Crossley's foot-brake was relined in a downpour in just over an hour, after which it was on to the Black Country, traversing most of the area round Stourbridge while seeking his destination. The Sunday was spent playing golf with a set of new clubs made by Mr. Goodyear of Dudley who also supplied wheels for Bean cars and for many other makes. Under blue skies on the Monday the Crossley ran along the excellent road that joined Kidderminster to Wolverhampton without touching any other towns, and on to Stafford, Stone and Stoke-on-Trent, O.J. disagreeing with Arnold Bennett as to the beauty or romance of the last-named place. After which it was sharp left for Newcastle-under-Lyme and in error into the Potteries again by Tunstall. The Cheshire roads were as good then as any in the country, apart from humpiness in hilly Northwick, and Middlewich was more crowded if less switchbacky, but O.J. could think of no uglier place... In that judgement he included Leeds, Bilston and Tyldesley and thought that in comparison "Widnes was an Athens". Think about it, if your travels take you there, today...

The long tram-tracks still extended from Stalybridge right on to Southport but a fine new highway was being built in 1925 between Manchester and Chester. In flurries of snow the Crossley went into many Lancashire towns, crossing the transporter connecting Runcorn with Widnes and getting lost looking for short cuts over the Manchester ship canal into Trafford Park. But enough of this, except to say that so deserted and straight was the route from Uttoxeter to Mardington and Yoxall that O.J. wondered if an excellent race-circuit might not be created there. He concluded this 600-mile outing by saying that good (vintage) cars never grow old and that, with a proper hood the weather had ceased to make any difference to the enjoyment of them — which is a sentiment with which every VSCC member should agree.

Finally, for this month, the 1920s scene is set by O.J. taking over a 9/20 hp Rover with Weymann saloon body, which because of fog at night averaged only 25 mph on the run home, the worst time being when on the "new Great Western by-pass road" He liked this little car with its adjustable front seat, but found that the balloon tyres made steering rather hard until they had been pumped up a bit, so that he thought semi-balloons might be a happy mean. It all depended on what was meant by balloon tyres, for at this time the new 26 x 3.50 Dunlop well-base tyres fitted to the A7 Chummy were so described. — W.B.

VSCC Light Car Weekend

The Edwardian and Light Car Section of the Vintage SCC's Welsh Weekend, on April 5th/6th, was well up to the expected standard, in spite of snow showers. There were 67 entries, indicative of the health of the Section, and if 21 of these were the inevitable A7s, five GN and three Trojan entries, etc provided variety, and French vintage was ably represented by Georgina Kynaston's yellow 1921 Citroen 5cv, the 7/12 hp Peugeot, the Amilcars, and Painter's sporting Salmson with Brooklands' "can". Of the five Edwardians an unusual one was Teeder's 1911 Riley 12/18, and it was nice to see the massive 1918 Talbot 25/50 hp all-weather out again, even if it disliked the trial and scalded its driver.

Seymour Price's 1929 A7 Chummy easily won the Saturday driving tests and the Sunday trial was a victory for Mike Bullett's 1920 GN. Hickling's Dodge carried the maxirnurn of passengers, its supple back springs ideal for "bouncing", and the only casualties appear to have been an M-type MG that blew up on the run down and Rankin's A7 which developed magneto trouble. Organiser Susan Dowell came in her husband's 1918 24 hp Sunbeam cabriolet and a good time was seemingly had by all. — W.B

V-E-V Miscellany. — The last issue of the STD Register's Journal contained an interesting article by James Fack as to whether or not the first dozen Talbot 105s had aluminium alloy cylinder blocks, a fine piece of motor-history detective work, involving information provided by Jack Bartlett and the car AV 10, and posing the question, was this why the team 105s did so well in racing in 1931? There is also an appreciation of the now-rare 20/60 hp Sunbeam by Roger Carter, and much else besides, the Secretary of this Register, should any new owners of Wolverhampton Sunbeam, Roesch Talbot or Darracq cars wish to join, being Jeremy Grammer, 39, Broad Walk, Wilmslow, Cheshire. The Daimler & Lanchester DC continues to recruit a goodly number of new members, and not only those with post-war cars either — the Club caters for them all, up to the Jaguar-built Daimlers — for the latest edition of the Club's magazine, The Driving Member, shows 1934 BSA, 1935 Lanchester Ten, a 1931 16/20 hp Daimler, a 1937 Light 20 Daimler Wingham saloon, and a 1932 12'18 hp Lanchester hearse among the 42 recently elected newcomers The person to opply to here is J. Ridley, The Manor House, Trewyn, Abergavenny. Gwent. NP7 7PG

The Morgan Three-Wheeler Club had its Opening Run on April 5th/6th, starting from the Midland Motor Museum at Bridgnorth. Its Racing Championship will take place at about eight meetings this year, at circuits such as Silverstone, Cadwell Park. Snetterton, Brands Hatch, and Oulton Park, with a fixture at Prescott hill likely to be included. The Veteran Car Club's annual awards for last season are far too numerous to refer to in full, but we note that the Victor Ludorurn Trophy went to Miss Strong (1904 Humberette), the Single-Cylinder Trophy to A P Kingsford-Bannels 1903 De Dion Bouton. the S. F. Edge Cup to A. J. Curry's 1909 Renault, and that the best performance by a belt-driven car was that of R. A. Smith's 1899 Benz, and that the highest formula-mileage in a main event was that of W E. J. Carter's 1911 Rolls-Royce, which did 573 miles. The Humber Register holds its All-Humber Rally, based on Nye in Suffolk, on May 10th/11th. In Australia Joan Richmond, remembered here for her excellent performances with Riley, 4WD Fuzzi, etc, recently celebrated her 80th birthday with the Victorian Section of the VSCC of A.

The Riley Register will have its usual Coventry Weekend on June 21st/22nd, based on the Crest Hotel and Coombe Country Park, with navigational rally, driving-tests, dinner, Concours d'Elegance, etc and there is to be special emphasis on the vee-eight Autovia, as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the make. Anyone who can help with the latter, or requires details of the event, should contact Paul Scholes on Coventry 457593.

Michael Worthington-Williams tells us that the 1927 Austin Twenty he has was advertised long ago by "Chick — the Hire-Car Man". of South London, who used to insert amusingly worded advertisements in the weekly motor papers before the war, mostly tor landaulette-type used cars. Chick, whose receipt stated that he was a specialist in these landaulettes, hire-cars, and sparking-plugs, sold the car in 1935 for £35, to a Henley-on-Thames hire-car firm, whose pre-1914 12/16 by Sunbeam it replaced, but both cars survived with this company until the proprietor's death, when they were sold by Christie's in 1982. The Ulster Vintage CC tells as that entries for their TT Commemorative Events in August are coming in well, with a 1928 Lea-Francis, three Brooklands Rileys, a TT Riley Ulster-Imp, a Montlhery MG Midget, a 1931 Invicta and a 1936 Lagonda entered by March, but it should be noted that entries close by the last week in May, to D. A Batley. Hilltop Cottage, 33 Drumhirk Road, Comber, Newtownards, Co Down, BT23 5NN. Another Cluley light-car is in process of restoration.

The Rolls-Royce EC has its AGM at the Royal Country Hotel, Old Evet, Durham on April 27th and its Annual Rally at Courtenhall, near Northampton, by kind permission of Sir Hereward and Lady Wake, on June 29th. There is to be a rally in Turin over the weekend of June 14th/15th to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Fiat 500 or Topolino: those going from here should contact L. Humphries, on Scunthorpe 763525. The Vintage MCC's famous Banbury Run will take place on June 15th

It is very good news that John Wiliment is having the ex-Kaye Don 4.9-litre Bugatti "Tiger Two" rebuilt with its original engine by Dick Crossthwaite. I have vivid memories of being lowed in this can when it had no engine, behind Holland Birkett's 5-litre Bugatti, when it was being delivered to a new owner. At one time it had had the Vauxhall Villiers engine, and later a Mercury V8, but now it is to have the correct blown straight-eight power unit reinstalled. The Brooklands Society is hoping that many genuine Brooklands cars will attend the 1986 Reunion at the Track, on June 29th, and entry forms for those wishing to take part in the usual banking runs and timed runway sprints ate available from F. Morris, 48 Fortescue Road, Weybridge, Surrey. The Alvis DC announces that National Alvis Day will be held at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, on May 18th and that other Alvin Days will be organised at Sherborne House, Sherborne, Dorset on June 1st, at the Alvis works in Coventry on July 6th at Slowlangtoft, E Anglia on July 13th, at Harewood House for the Northern Section on September 14th and at Chessington on October 5th. The Bluebell Railway, which is hallway between E. Grinstead and Lewes off the A275, is holding a Vintage Sunday on September 7th mainly for vehicles made up to 1965. Last year over 120 entrants attracted more than 4,000 visitors: entry forms from: B Jones, 8, Sussex Drive, Walderslade, Chatham, Kent, ME5 ONJ. — W.B.