The Roads of the 1920s

Concluding Owen John’s 1925 diary, there was his Christmas journey described in the last instalment, over wintry roads, in a new Lanchester 21.

This reminded him of his very first ride on an “autocar”, an after-dinner jaunt from Birmingham to Stratford-on-Avon driven by Millership, the great demonstrator for the Lanchester Company, as a young man whose place was not to remark or to interfere. The only trouble had been a puncture, throughout which the engine was kept running, very smoothly, unlike those of most other veteran cars at idle.

Then, around 1910, OJ had described the Lanchester as an ideal town car. He and Walter Staner, then editor of The Autocar, were driven “all over and up and down the Cotswolds in full bloom” on seats screwed to the latest of these chassis, to disprove the town-car stigma. Staner drove very fast, apparently, and later remarked of the unconventional Lanchester engine that it was “rather like having to go to school all over again”. That day OJ had met the “Lygon Arms” in Broadway and Fish Hill for the first time.

Now, some 15 years later, his “Christmas car” was the newest Lanchester 21; and of course, he was full of praise for it —especially its springing, which was always no good on these cars. This Lanchester had a good testing, for the snow on the Cotswolds and on along by Cirencester and the Upper Thames was very deep indeed. And on the downs above Swindon, on the way to Beckhampton, it was deeper than OJ had experienced for many years.

At Devizes the snow had disappeared, but no sooner had they passed over the Frome and up the steep little hill by Farleigh Hungerford Castle (this had been handed over to the National Trust, which OJ heard had not improved it) and above Radstock than it returned, and the drifts were deep on the Mendip hills.

OJ commented on the sort of Marine Drive which had replaced the once wavy line of road across Buffington Coombe. After they turned right at Worle (with an inland lighthouse) for Woodspring Priory (founded by one of the murderers of Becket, and then one of the largest dairy farms in the west of England), OJ hoped that the proposed big road joining Clevedon to Weston and Burnham to Minehead would become a mecca for automobiles which hold four persons, not for those holding forty. He was presumably thinking of what was to become the present-day A39/A38/A370 (M5 ) route.

Incidentally, there is no mention of the return from this Christmas journey, but the Lanchester was described as being as pleasing aesthetically as mechanically, and of performing town work, country motoring, hill climbing and flat-out running equally well. OJ concluded that only its bigger sister, the Lanchester Forty, would be able to do all these things any better.

Although by 1926 our roads were becoming more congested, OJ wrote of very little of the country being spoiled by a superfluity of other cars or by roadside advertisements.

However, he was concerned about indiscriminately-sited petrol stations competing to be the first to be found at the entrance to a village or town. These new clusters of petrol pumps he regarded as unfair to garages in the villages and towns themselves, run by people who had supplied motorists for many years, and apparently the retail trade was watching such developments. Now, of course, petrol stations are everywhere, prime sites being just such as were beginning to appear sixty years ago. We take their ugliness for granted, although it is sometimes disturbing when blinding neon lights distract one on an otherwise inky-black night run.

Another matter which OJ felt obliged to air in 1926 was the increasing traffic confusion in London itself. A new artery had been opened into Piccadilly from Berkeley Square, causing unprecedented traffic jams which OJ envisaged getting worse when 4,000 people inhabited Devonshire Court. The London parks had recently been opened to taxis but buses were excluded therefrom, and OJ was full of very ambitious schemes for relieving London’s growing congestion, none of which has appeared to this day.

Incidentally, he remembered from his youth the days when the Strand would be blocked by traffic, so that even a hansom-cab whose driver preferred this route to the then almost-deserted Embankment would fail to get to the Temple on time, and he was obliged to wait until another night before eating his dinner there. So OJ had a legal upbringing, as it were . . . Many years after OJ had set down his observations, I remember how confusing it was, when driving from east London to west, to find that private cars were no longer permitted along Oxford Street, and how conspicuous I felt, having inadvertently followed a taxi along the forbidden route.

Early in 1926 OJ made a journey to the Black County, where he tried the latest Bean 14, with its four-wheel-brakes — although these were not the novelty they had been two years before. He thought the badly-driven motor lorries in this area made motoring a butterfly existence (ie, short-lived) without good brakes. Those on the Bean functioned wonderfully.

The car itself was sturdy, sound, quick and capable. Its best testimonial, said OJ, lay the fact that Australia was finding out how it could do everything any American car could do, with the added merit that it lasted three times as long and needed infinitely fewer replacements and overhauls — words which even now may make members of the Bean CC hold their heads that much higher! At this time, early in 1926, OJ was sceptical of those who claimed to have “touched 70mph”. How often, and for how long, he wondered? On most roads, anything over 50mph became a succession of blind corners and hidden crossings. Then such speed was uncomfortable, unless in cars specially constructed for it, yet there were those whose only talk was the pace they got out of their “old buses”.

OJ confessed to liking to get along, and said his family told him he was no slower than he used to be. He was seldom passed, save by cars which either cost three times as much as his or were built for no other purpose than to make a noise or to swank with. I hope he was not including Bentleys and 30/98s in that category! OJ asked where were all those swift lightnings that one heard so much about at the Olympia Shows?

Well, the roads of those 1920s were narrow and twisting, and part of the problem with high speeds was keeping a car out of the camber and finding somewhere safe to pass the many slow vehicles. I remember that, as kids, we encouraged the driver of an Overland tourer to see how far he could unwind its ribbon-reading speedometer; something on the low side of 60 was a great thrill, and that speedometer was probably “fast”. I recall a favourite sport was to wait at a certain south London blind junction to see the near-misses, accompanied by toots on bulb-horns and the squeal of brakes. Once it was more than just a near-miss, when a Morris Oxford tourer, in spite of 4WB, hit an ABC and ended on the grass verge, without injury to the occupants or more than superficial damage to the cars, but causing alarm for all concerned.

Speed was usually moderated by the majority of drivers in the 1920s, which was partly why they went down to Brooklands to see brave folk lapping at 100 mph and over. Even after World War Two the most important road out of London to the north, the A1, was narrow and tortuous, so it was difficult average much over 50 mph even when young, lead-footed, and in a car of the calibre of the new 41/2-litre Bentley.

Another topic which concerned OJ was photography, and early in 1926 he was hoping to one day have a camera which would do everything required merely by pressing the button. Well, the Canon AF35M I use these days does just that, so progress has certainly been made. WB