Veteran to classic

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The roads of the 1920s

For some time now we have been quite decently treated in the matter of tax charged on a car. But back in 1927 Owen John was wondering what the Budget would bring, bemoaning that the Road Fund had been raided for purposes other than the building and repair of roads, and wondering whether existing routes were not adequate, anyway.

Nothing much changes; as I wrote this there was widespread speculation about Mr Lawson’s Budget, one of whose eventual features was an increase in company-car tax even though there was no change in annual duty.

OJ was prompted to think new roads a poor deal by the hideous one which had just been opened running eastwards from Dorking to Reigate, a “ring-straked concrete abomination”. He had even said he was glad not to live in that part of Britain, after encountering “many wicked, ignorant, stupid motor-drivers half of them absolute beginners, the remainder out for nothing but a joy ride.” Maybe driving was more of an individual art then, but with the increase in motoring around 1927 and the close proximity of Box Hill to this new road, no doubt that is exactly what most of these drivers who frightened OJ were!

A private road and a floating-ferry had been built by a private company to connect Sandbanks with the mainland at Poole in Dorset, and OJ was loud in his praise of this enterprise and of the excellence of the Haven Hotel which it was presumably intended to benefit. Prior to this it had been a smaller, less pretentious place at a dead-end, and drivers had to go all round the harbour to get to the coast; but from 1927 the Isle of Purbeck lay opposite its very door.

This pleased OJ, who found the hotel very comfortable and thought the golf courses surrounding the “enormous town of Bournemouth” some of the most sporting to be found anywhere, especially Broadstone. However, he appreciated that, with the opening of this new ferry, the privacy of the low-lying Studland Heath immediately opposite the Haven Hotel was over, and it would not be long before a new bungalow-town would arise along the length of its sandy beaches. Still, the new Heath road was said to save 30 miles to those bound for Swanage, on which those who drive that way today might care to ponder.

OJ noted that many inhabitants of Sandbanks lived on houseboats moored among the multitude of arriving and departing yachts just off the shore, not far from Brownsea Island, where aged cars were discovered some years ago. Watching the dinner-dances at the admittedly expensive Haven Hotel (has it survived, one wonders?) OJ decided that when its price fell he would buy a five-valve Panatrope gramophone; he thought this would be cheaper than having a wireless or paying jazz bands, which nicely dates the period.

Incidentally, I recall this as an age of grown-up bridge parties (remembering the embarrassment of being told to make a “fourth” at the age of 14 because someone was absent) and of classical music played on a cabinet gramophone whose speed could be adjusted without leaving one’s chair by means of a discreet Bowden-cable!

OJ observed that every bungalow had its own garage, and feared that in losing its former tranquillity Dorset was reaping the consequences of its own verbose publicity – and to think that last year the British Transport Association received £22,000,000 of public money without making a proper assessment of how this is being spent, according to The Spectator, which calls it an “aristocratic quango”! Though grieving for Dorset (in 1927, not 1987!) OJ thought peace might perhaps still be found amid the Berkshire and Wiltshire Downs, where there were still square leagues of pure country, devoid of cars and left to immemorial tranquillity. But this was a long time ago, and even then, in 1927, OJ had to admit that the waterways of the Norfolk Broads were becoming overcrowded…

He was difficult to satisfy. “A glorious May day, a cloudlessly blue sky, the New Forest at its best, and an open 3-litre Sunbeam that can do – and wants to do – its 80 mph, are things not entirely compatible,” he said. So beautiful was the Hampshire greenery that he would have preferred a slow car from which to inspect it more fully.

However, the Sunbeam – “Britain’s fastest touring car (doubtless I shall be corrected if I am wrong)” – was being driven on test by a friend, so had to be extended.

OJ said that, on this whisk from Poole Haven to his Berkshire home, driver and car came through with flying colours. Curiously, he made no other praise of this sports-car (maybe because he did not drive it) except to remark that “the Sunbeam racing experience has been well worth it, since it has brought the science of springing to something akin to perfection”. The reasoning might be hard to follow, but OJ thought this should be noted by makers of other cars, especially expensive American ones!

On another occasion, OJ spotted the famous AC of his friend, the motoring-writer Filson Young, and gave chase across the Hog’s Back in Surrey in his 16/50hp Rover saloon. Both drove furiously over this empty road – Filson Young not wanting a Rover to overtake him, but OJ wishing to see him.

Only traffic delays in “the funny old town of Farnham” allowed the meeting to take place; Filson Young departed on his bi-weekly run to the West Country. After conducting business in Odiham, OJ returned home “through as perfect a bit of early-summer scenery and neglected lovely roads as can be found anywhere between Hampshire and Berkshire.”

We next find OJ about to give an unblushing plug to his book The Autocar-biography of Owen Jones (which was about to be published by Iliffe & Sons Ltd), when he was disturbed by the Savoy Opheians being interrupted on his two-year-old Gecophone (it was in 1924, remember, that amateurs all over the country were constructing crystal wireless sets in cigar-boxes, so this was an early valve set) by attempts to get a nightingale to sing into the microphone. OJ mused that these birds needed no persuasion to sing in every wood around his quiet Thames-side home, and after the Savoy orchestra returned to the air, he resumed his most blatant advertisement for his new book.

I remember it well. In the days when we children made lists of the Christmas presents we hoped for, I included this book – and to my delight was duly given it by a lady-friend of my mother’s who remarked that she hoped I knew what I wanted, as to her it seemed much too obstruse for a fourteen-year-old! It was an odd book, certainly; and now I suppose a collectors’ item… I still have my copy.

As for OJ’s own very long blurb for it, this reminds me of a function I attended at which Donald Campbell was also present. Hearing that I was the Editor of Motor Sport, someone said to me rudely: “I suppose you review your own books?” Before I had thought of an appropriate reply, Campbell butted in decisively: “He would be a bloody fool if he didn’t wouldn’t he?” I have thought very well of him ever since.

OJ’s remarks on the ugliness of the new road from Dorking to Reigate remind me that in 1927 the soon-to-be notorious Kingston Bypass had been opened. Before any traffic was allowed upon this new wonder-road, I had walked its length, eating sandwiches on one of its high embankments with my boyhood friend Ivor Hobbs (youngest son of the great English batsman John Berry Hobbs) then continuing to see Brooklands, in the fading light of a winter afternoon.

Soon this new road was dubbed a dangerous speedway, but in 1927 such fine new arteries were in the news and The Autocar, perhaps conscious of OJ’s criticism, photographed some of them. I find it remarkable now to see how free of traffic they were. There are seven cars and a lorry in one daylight picture of the Great West Road, but only two cars on the Staines extension, just a lone saloon on the new Maidstone Road, and only a 16.8hp Erskine Six using the Kingston Bypass near Robinhood Gate…

The man who drove OJ in the 3-litre Sunbeam (obviously a twin-cam 3-litre) is unnamed. Could it have been AH Pass, or even the great Sir Henry Seagrave himself? We shall never know.
WB

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