Veteran to classic

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100

The roads of the 1920s

As autumn approached in 1928, diarist Owen John observed that this seemed the correct time to hold the Motor Show at Olympia, an event which dated back to 1905. How well I remember the thrill of those shows, when, as boys, we would make for the Trojan stand to obtain free bags and then rush about filling these with all the catalogues and brochures we could scrounge. The weekly motor-papers used to come out with special Show numbers, wonderfully thick (especially as they cost but the equivalent of 21/2p each), and sheer bliss to a young enthusiast, which ran for three issues with their masses of pictures, giving rise to debates as to whether a Speed Six Bentley was preferable to a 36/220hp Mercedes-Benz, and wonderment at the sheer luxury of such cars as a Phantom Rolls-Royce with special coachwork.

Shows, motor and otherwise, are still held at Olympia, and I wonder how they are all crammed into a hall which by 1937 was deemed too small for the annual SMM&T motor exhibition, so that it moved to Earls Court.

OJ was enthusiastic about how long-lived engines had become, and how punctures were diminishing in frequency as tyres improved and roads were less littered with nails and broken glass, but he felt that cars were still not economical enough.

There is a contrast here with today’s powerful and efficient power-units, which return such remarkable fuel-consumption figures in spite of a vast increase in performance. In this respect, I think the average car-owner checks mpg figures, if he checks them at all, by dividing the miles recorded on his car’s odometer by the amount of petrol he buys. I have been keeping a check on the mpg of the Ford Sierra XR 4 x 4 I am testing, and it works out at around the very creditable figure of 26-27 mpg, with occasional 30s on favourable runs. I confess that I have yet to check the accuracy of the odometer (which has usually been correct on Fords), but I hardly think it can be so far out that these figures are not close to reality. Which makes it hard to understand how another journal got, at best, only 20.4 mpg from the latest 2.9-litre version and a mere 17 mpg overall, especially as maximum power remains at 150 bhp. Performance testing (including those tyre-burning standing-start sprints) must, I suppose, put fuel-thirst up, but even if my figures should be nearer 24-25 mpg, this is surely commendable for a 125 mph fourwheel-drive full-size hatchback?

OJ noted that at this 1928 Olympia Show you could buy a British straight-eight saloon for under £450 and another car of the same configuration for not a lot more. It was then the in thing to drive behind eight cylinders in-line, and such engines were also in vogue for racing cars; I wonder whether those who enthuse over the new V10 Formula One cars will ever be able to buy ordinary cars with this cylinder formation?

OJ had recently sampled an American straight-Eight, and I think the reason he did not name it in his diary was that he found it extremely uncomfortable in respect of interior space. The inexpensive eights he was quoting were the Hillman tourer at £430, run close by the open Chandler at £510 and the Wolseley tourer at £540.

The Show kept people off the roads while they roamed the stands, but OJ was soon motoring again. I find it interesting that in the late 1920s skidding was still regarded as something to be carefully guarded against — there were no four-wheel-drive or anti-lock brakes then, and some regarded braking as too poor to trust to free-wheeling. OJ remembered when road surfaces differed from county to county. He wrote of Derbyshire grease and Staffordshire mud, Somerset limestone and Black Country slime, all notorious for promoting skids, which OJ once combated “by fitting diabolical non-skid bands, held to the tyre by some 60 clips, made by a Mr Cost, the saddler of Market Harborough”. That was, he said, before “the wonderful Stepney” had come to the aid of the early motorist …

To remind us once again that there is little new under the sun and the stars, OJ was talking about a new Motor Car Act, hoping it would include compulsory inspection of old cars — the not-all-that-effective MoT check, which is so lucrative for the test-stations empowered to inflict it upon us. OJ disliked the “Old Crocks. which he understood were apt to be given a lick of paint and dispatched to week-end hirers with balding tyres and other dangerous features, in the hope they might never return and with an insurance claim in mind!

It might sound a bit far-fetched, yet in 1936 I hired a Rover Ten fabric saloon from a Tooting garage and it broke down within two miles. They replaced it with an Essex Six which was devoid of starter-teeth, had minimal brakes and rattling big-ends, and felt generally unsafe. In the morning its battery was flat, and I was reunited with the Rover, which had a “solid” handbrake, poor footbrake, and expired with no fuel-feed by the “Ace of Spades” on the new Kingston by-pass, where I abandoned the thing. My money was refunded on the Monday and I went to Southport sand-races in a friend’s willing Morris Eight. So maybe OJ was right after all.

He was also advocating replacing the “dangerous driving” offence with that of “driving like a fool”… and only recently we heard that the police are to impose tougher checks on drivers but that the “reckless driving” charge might be dropped and more attention paid to “careless driving”. Nothing new!

This column is supposed to be about roads, and OJ was soon making good use of them again, driving “another fine American car” faster than ever he had before over “the splendid roads of Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire”. He was taking the ruler-straight Roman highway which ran from near Leicester to near Lincoln, on to Brigg (with only the town of Newark prompting a stop), then along “the best part of the Great North Road to Doncaster. and back over the “more rolling but almost as open. route from Leicester to Northampton.

In this age of motorways, we modern drivers seldom have to choose such roads, but on a fine November day in 1928 OJ enjoyed them. Again he did not name the car he was using, which, like the other American one, he found very uncomfortable because of its fixed driving seat — but in the 1950s the same could be said of the Morgan Plus 4! WB