A Letter from Matthew Understeeble

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A knowledgeable party gives some practical advice to his friend on the relative merits of various makes of car. His views are, of course, entirely his own, but most readers will find something of interest in his counsel.

Dear John,

So you have decided that a vintage sports car is the right hobby for a post-war bachelor, and that on this you will spend your war bonus. I expect the 3-litre Bentley will come to mind first, but whether it will meet your requirements or not depends, largely, on what you are prepared to spend. You see, wonderful as these old cars are, they usually need an overhaul after purchase (not surprising, as we are considering a car somewhere about 20 years old) and as reasonable “Red Labels” fetch around £150 it may not leave you much in hand. Remember, too, that a car is not fast just because it is a Bentley! I believe the original “Speed Model” “Red Labels” were guaranteed to do about 82 m.p.h., and two decades can easily have knocked off 10 m.p.h., while “Blue Labels” were’ only about 70 m.p.h. motors when new. Then the coveted type gearbox is hard to find and expensive to buy if you can get one, and that applies to most Bentley bits and pieces. But I grant that if you get a sound Bentley you will have a decently tractable, reasonably braked, everyday motor-car which behaves most satisfyingly and is essentially reliable. Of course, if you want to go really quickly you will have to install a 4 1/2-litre engine into a 3-litre, or buy a standard 4 1/2-litre, although the 14-17 m.p.g. of the latter may cripple you if we get the loudly-demanded petrol tax. Anyway, do not touch the blower 4 1/2-litre, which is not so hot unless you get a team car – and you can bet your 12-in. fantail you will not find one of these.

A “30/98” Vauxhall is very attractive to think about, but it is surprising where they have all gone. You may be lucky and find one converted to render it possible under modern traffic conditions, but a really sound one will, perhaps, involve you in several hundred pounds. There is a bit of a cult just now to acquire examples of the E-type s.v. cars, but, grand as these are, I doubt whether you would really like it for fast touring. It would want a good deal of rebuilding, and Sam Clutton has told us how they hop about at over 60-65 m.p.h. The O.E.-type, then, is your cue, and do not be depressed if folk tell you what widely spaced cogs you will get, for the top-ratio performance is excellent, and by not stirring the pudding too often you will get 20 m.p.g.,if you are lucky. But if you decide on one of these cars, either get one with somebody else’s front axle, or put on a decently-braked axle yourself. Otherwise the rear anchors, light weight and high build will land you in trouble; if there are any plate-glass windows near by when the first shower falls, you can be certain you and your Vauxhall car will sail through one of them.

The real fascination of this car is surely that it represents about the only sober-design car which really performs. Here you have a simple push-rod engine with immense tappet clearances, breathing from one water-heated gas-work, yet they used to guarantee you 85 m.p.h. equipped and 100 m.p.h. stripped, way back in 1923, when the thing was new. Any “30/98” should give you 75 m.p.h. and decent acceleration, but if you feel unhappy in a car which has not some pretence to “mod. cons.” you may not think it fun.

The twin o.h.c. 3-litre Sunbeam looks like having a fresh vogue after the war, and it is an intriguing combination of racing-type engine and touring chassis. But its engine is not the sort of thing you can work on by candlelight in a shed in the back garden, nor is it likely, at this stage of its existence, to give you some five years of very full motoring without needing to come down, as a “30/98” can well do.

The Lancia “Lambda” has been much discussed lately and maybe you are contemplating one of these. As a car which is of sufficiently unusual conception to make ownership of it a very pleasing business, while possessing such excellent road-holding, steering and braking as to make driving it a constant source of enjoyment, the “Lambda” is tops. However, you will need to find a seventh or eighth series car, otherwise you will get the small brakes, and only the eighth series really likes going at Bentley-like speeds – I imagine you have grown out of cars in which you change up from 3rd gear at 40 m.p.h.? The engine is most dependable if carefully used, but if the head has warped or the liners worked loose I would not be in your shoes for worlds, and after a score of seasons the chassis-cum-body and the suspension units are often in need of skilled rejuvenation.

Somehow I always think of the “14/40” Delage and the 2-litre Ballot after I have dwelt on the Lancia, but the snag is both are now hard to find, while the Delage is liable to have funny electrics and only go really briskly if it is the correct model for so doing, while the Ballot has a dummy radiator shell, which rather puts you off, and a “slow” gearbox. Of course, both are admirably braked and cling to the highway, and if you just wanted something inexpensive to go places without landing you in trouble, I would recommend a search for one.

The “12/50” Alvis would probably suit you very well, if you are prepared to adjust your brakes frequently and to ignore frivolous comments about “light lorries.” These cars go very well indeed and deserve complete marks for never boiling over or breaking down, but unfortunately great big gaps exist between the various gear-ratios, and the magic L201 engines with big-port heads are all too hard to come upon. As a tender to something faster a small-port “12/50” seems immensely attractive, and I would very much like to do up and re-spray one of the dear old small-radiator tourers and run it about to show synchromesh mashers how sound were the 1925 touring cars. But it’s not exactly a sports car, is it?

The “12/50” Lea-Francis is much more civilised than the Alvis, the 1928, or thereabouts, “Hyper” especially so, but it is also more delicate, and I would advise you to inspect the condition of the rear hubs from time to time if you buy one of these.

A Frazer-Nash is both immense and in a class all its own. But if, as I suspect, your pocket limits you to a really early one, get the dog-clutches in the transmission to mesh decently, otherwise you will have only one hand with which to steer most of the time, for you will be holding in the ratio-swopping handle with the other. The early s.v. Anzani cars were wonderfully reliable in their day, but can be expected to be only moderately quick and to drink oil alarmingly, now, while the substitution of a Meadows engine is only a solution if it is the right sort of Meadows, with twin port, deflector bead and steel rods, etc.

Without a doubt your thoughts, by now, have turned to a Bugatti, but Type 44s and those almost-too-perfect-to-be-true (I am not being disparaging) 1 1/2-litre G.P.s are now as rare as gas-masks. A Type 40 is a charming way of going motoring, but only if you feel like taking the engine all to pieces, cleaning the interior, and re-assembling it with extra oil filters and air cleaners and things not encompassed by Ettore. For if an engine of this type fouls its oil you have had it. But if you make no attempt to “hot-up” and if you drive with circumspection, there is no reason why this particular Bugatti should not be reliable. On the other hand, it will not exceed 65-75 m.p.h., and unless you crave a Bugatti because it is a Bugatti, it is debatable whether the care needed, before you motor it and while you are motoring it, to retain it in one piece is justified in terms of measurable performance.

The Brescia Bugatti, they do say, has a more durable engine, lending itself in no mean manner to experimentation, but the chassis is primitive in comparison, and these cars are just not about when you want to buy them. The blown “2.8” Type 43 has been described to me by an enthusiastic owner as quite the nicest and most reliable method of motoring at over 100 m.p.h., but, of course, you gamble on how long the crankshaft rollers will hold out – and to one of “30/98” leanings it’s a big gamble. Yet how true that all the best things within reach of we mere humans entails a gamble, for certainly this is motoring in one of its highest forms.

A 2-litre Lagonda is a very stately carriage, but its clever camshafts resulted in a not so clever inlet tract, so that you really want a puffer, and early puffers that have run many, many miles are usually more a liability than an asset.

Of course, old man, a vintage Italian car is usually excellent – an O.M., or Itala, or Diatto, although the top cog is usually lowish, and you do not like buzzboxes, do you? And the bore/stroke ratio of the Diatto is a little unfortunate if we still pay tax on bore x number of cylinders over 1613 after this bit of strife is over.

I think I should keep clear of the early, small French stuff because you can bet your lowest florin that a succession of exuberant English youths will have thoroughly worn-out the one you buy, although the twin-cam Samson was the goods, and if you find an Amilcar Six you may as well stop looking. If you could get over the obsession that you must be able to do something pretty close to 90 m.p.h. a s.v. Aston-Martin would be considerably up your street, although I concede that screw-in (if not out) valve caps are a bit awkward and that if you want an Edwardian, why not get one? But these cars are so pleasant to drive, and having one now is to stamp you as quite someone in vintage circles – not that you can step over to Roland Smith and buy one.

It would be nice to have an even rarer motor-car, such as a “20/70” Crossley or a “19/100” Austro-Daimler, or a “22/90” Alfa-Romeo, or a Straker-Squire six, but it’s not much use buying an isolated example because you will need almost another whole car for spares, if only for peace of mind.

Mark you, an “Ulster” Austin Seven can teach you lots about fast motoring without ever going very fast, and it’s deuced inexpensive to run. However, watch that some vandal has not changed the engine for a standard one with jet oiling and pause-between-them gears. And don’t think there is any other vintage really small car, other than the Gwynne Eight and “8/18” Talbot which are tourers of the slower order.

The M-type M.G. Midget can be excellent, providing its body has not fallen asunder and it does not get water in its dynamo; but it isn’t a vintage style of car, although it might be fun to fit a side-valve Morris Minor engine with 4-speed cog-chest.

Another car, in quite another h.p. category, which I somehow never think of as quite vintage, although I cannot decide why, is the “Silver Eagle” Alvis. They go along more than somewhat, and those who have really motored them maintain that they dispose of 3-litre Bentleys and the shortest of “Lambdas” and things; they are probably referring to the 2-litre cars, of which very few were built. If you fancy something unusual, front-wheel-drive Alvis models can still be had, but they make an infernal noise when functioning without, it seems, going terribly fast, although the engine is awfully fascinating.

Well, John, old boy, I hope that these miscellaneous remarks will be of use to you and will help you to find just the very vintage car, instead of a buzzing little modern with synchromesh, which is so much like all the other buzzing little moderns with synchromesh that you have the utmost difficulty in deciding which one to buy.

Here’s to your Castrol-R.

Sincerely,

Matthew.