Lieut. B. Gordon Graham, R.I.N.V.R., recalls the cars he used before the war in Ceylon, and on home leave in England.
I regret that I cannot lay claim to having begun my motoring career at some phenomenally early age, although the interest and keenness has always been there. Nor can I claim to having owned any very extraordinary motor-cars – except my own home-built “special”! So this is just the chronicle of an everyday enthusiast who has, at various times, owned and driven some two dozen different makes of motor-cycles and cars since 1919. I graduated to the usual Morris – my first car – in the usual way, i.e., from two wheels, a belt-driven 2 1/2-h.p. F.N. being the first of several motorcycles of mediocre performance. However, the F.N. and its successor, a 2 1/2-h.p. Crescent-Villiers, taught me what could and could not be done on a clutchless, single-geared bicycle. I must have used several gallons of petrol in innumerable attempts to climb Gambles Lane and Bushcombe hills near Cheltenham, and actually got to within eight yards of the top of “Gambles” on one never-to-be forgotten Sunday afternoon. My next machine was a 2 3/4-h.p. New Imperial-Jap with 3-speed box and a huge copper exhaust – which got me into frequent trouble with neighbours. This was a grand little machine and served me well for 18 months, until I took up a tea appointment in Ceylon.
A flat twin Harley-Davidson next took my fancy and proved a complete failure. I sold it as soon as I could. Then came perhaps the most fascinating machine of all, in the form of a 3 1/2 twin Zenith-Gradua-Jap. The engine readily responded to some mild tuning, and both in road-holding and general performance she could beat up machines of twice her capacity, helped, of course, by that fascinating infinitely-variable gear. The one snag was rain, for nothing I could do, or improvise, really overcame the appalling belt-slip which immediately set in during wet weather.
Largely for the sake of change I next tried a succession of makes, including Indian “Scout,” Francis-Barnett and 16H Norton – the latter specially tuned and shipped out to me by Leslie Paynter, of Cheltenham. The Norton proved to be “tops” in every way, and crowned a successful career by breaking the (unofficial) record from Colombo to Kitulgala, previously held by a Scott “Flying Squirrel.” She covered some 12,000 miles in my hands, and at the end of it would still reach her 73-75 m.p.h. against the watch. Surely one of the best machines ever turned out by Norton’s, apart from the later “T.T. Replicas” and “Internationals.” Early in 1928 came my first home leave, and, arriving in England early in May, what more natural than “Shelsley” becoming the first appointment of major importance? In between my arrival and the last Saturday in May I bought the Morris – a 1925 4-seater tourer of perfectly standard specification. I am afraid that car was unmercifully caned, and, until the Shelsley pilgrimage, she took it with a smile. Her maximum was about 50, and as the Cotswold roads – apart from the “trials country” – provided my usual stamping ground, this was her usual gait when going places. She gave up the unequal struggle on the way to Shelsley and developed some horribly expensive noises when running down through Cranham Woods just outside the town. A hasty examination confirmed our fears – “Three big-ends gone, sir”; but to Shelsley we went, nevertheless, and, what’s more, she brought us back again the same evening! I shall never forget the look of horror on the face of the garage mechanic when I told him I was going to carry on and would bring the car in the following morning!
While the Morris was undergoing her operation I did a round of the Cheltenham showrooms, and in Ebdon’s Garage found an extremely smart and well-conditioned Talbot-Darracq sports 3-seater for £135. It was a case of love at first sight, and, saying good-bye to the Morris (and paying the bill, which shook me considerably!) the Talbot became mine within the week. As far as I remember she was the “12/40” model built in France, and she carried a very pretty clover-leaf body with long, pointed steel wings. The body was finished in racing green, the wings in grey and the wheels in black, and, although rather high by modern standards, she was very definitely a good-looker. Her manners were perfect, and the seating position, behind the well-raked Vee screen, just what it should be, with all controls comfortably to hand and a large rev. counter in front of the wheel. The dashboard carried, in addition, a speedometer, clock, oil pressure and temperature gauges, thermometer, petrol gauge and ammeter, as well as an impressive array of lights and switches. On the steering column was a lever for the exhaust cutout, and with this open she had the burble of a 3-litre Bentley at low speed. Gear-change (3-speed close-ratio box), headlamp dipping levers and hand-brake were all on the right, and it took a little practice to seize the correct one at the right moment! I ran this car for the remainder of my leave and in several thousand miles she never once let me down, giving battle to all and sundry on the slightest provocation – not always with success, I must admit, for a genuine 75 m.p.h. was the most I ever coaxed out of her. During this time I met only one similar model and that was rather late one evening when returning from Brooklands. The other car appeared to be identical to mine in every way, except that the driver was a remarkably pretty girl. I have since wondered whether Cupid muttered a soft “damn” when neither of us stopped.
All good things end some time, and home leave is no exception. I had hoped to take the car back to Ceylon with me, but an examination of my finances soon knocked that idea on the head and, to cut a long and sorrowful story short, I finally hawked her round Great Portland Street to obtain a miserable £65 from an unwilling salesman. I have often wondered what became of her afterwards. Unfortunately, I cannot remember her registration number off hand. Back in Ceylon, and almost “broke,” I perforce had to return to two wheels, this time to a very hot 3 1/2 Douglas, which I stripped and tuned until she blew up. However, prior to this sad climax she served me well and covered most of the island, including several jungle trips over “Scott Scramble” type of country. Rigorous economy had its reward, and in due course I again became the owner of a car, this time a Fiat Nine 2-seater. This was only a stop-gap, for once having owned a sports car nothing in the way of ordinary transport would satisfy. This little Fiat was a gentlemanly machine, but far too low-geared and too prone to ignition failure – notably when I was on my honeymoon on a little-used jungle road at night! She had her good points, all the same, particularly the steering, which was well-nigh perfect, and a lovely gearchange. I believe this model was known as the “509” and became quite popular in England, where her incredibly low bottom gear should have been useful for trials work.
We hung on to the Fiat until our next home leave in 1933. Previous to sailing from Ceylon I had booked a “little-used (sic!) demonstration model” McEvoy-Special Morris Minor from a Derby firm. A record of this car’s condition is, or was, on the A.A.’s files, so I will say no more except that I had to spend a small fortune to make the car into what I had expected to obtain. The moral for overseas buyers is obvious! In the end we had a very satisfactory and smart little motor, which took us all over England and over many of the West Country trials routes. With standard “boots” we made clean climbs of “Fingle” (in a snow storm), “The Roost,” “Blue Hills,” “Bushcombe,” “Gambles,” “Ferris Court” and other well-known hills, but met our Waterloo on “Iles Lane,” possibly because, by then, our rear tyres were nearly bald. She had a maximum – with aluminium head, double valve springs, and polished ports – of about 63, but would cruise all day at 50, and the remote-control gear-change was perfect, although it did “come away in me ‘and” once, in the middle of Bath traffic. We shipped the little car back to Ceylon when we returned, but soon after she developed the most chronic thirst for oil and petrol, so, after a conference, and on being offered considerably more than we had paid for her, we took delivery, in part exchange, of a really grand little motor – an Austin “65.”
By this time the Ceylon Motor Sports Club was really on its feet, and as secretary, with my wife a most enthusiastic assistant and competitor, we got down to serious tuning and preparation, at the same time using the car for everyday work and play. To begin with, we ran her in with the utmost care, using colloidal graphite throughout. I took 1/16 in. off the head, polished the ports and everything else that I could get at with my limited outfit of tools and equipment, did some drilling and lightening wherever possible, and, after balancing the wheels and checking over the brakes for freedom, and other routine jobs, very carefully reassembled her. While this was being done I had the windscreen altered to fold fiat on the scuttle and had the position of the spare wheel changed so that it stood vertically behind the seats, thus making sufficient space for an “occasional” seat in the dickey, or for extra luggage.
We entered for the next hill climb and as far as I can remember – my records being in Ceylon and myself in India at time of writing – came away with third fastest time of the day, a second, and a win in the ladies’ class. Each successive hill climb the competition became keener, as more sports cars found their way to Ceylon. They were grand fun, those hill climbs, and we kept the Austin flag nobly flying with a place or two each time, and “ladies’ records” for the two hills we used, “Mahagastotte” and “Leangawella.” I had to sell the little car when an additional member joined the family, for nursing home charges are high, and the Austin was somewhat cramped when the whole “team” was aboard at the same time. I last saw her going well in Colombo some two years ago. May she still be in good hands!
Now followed a period of acute “impecuniosity,” when our sole means of transport was a succession of ancient and ill-treated Austin Sevens, a terrible old Lea-Francis which my wife found so tiring to drive that we sold it within a month, and a wreck of a Morris Minor which had been “over the Khud” umpteen times, to judge by its appearance! No amount of loving care or expenditure could have done much for these motors, and we certainly could not afford the latter!
The year 1937 brought a brain-wave. Why not build our own car from the wreckage of one “written off” by an insurance company ? Not exactly a “special,” and yet capable of being entered for the C.M.S.C. hill climbs and of being used for daily work on the estate. Grand idea! All began well, a wrecked Ford Eight saloon being bought for a song and stripped down to the bare frame. From this we gradually worked up, lowering the chassis three inches and welding in another cross-member amidships. Ford Ten wheels, an Austin Seven fan assembly, a Chevrolet radiator, Morris Eight seats and cut-down folding screen, transversely-mounted Hartford “shockers” all round, an outside straight-through exhaust and a body made up of aluminium panels bent to shape, and the result was definitely not so bad, for did not “Bira” himself remark, when I met him in Colombo, “I say, that looks hot.” Very gratifying! I tuned the engine to the best of my ability, again limited by tools and equipment, of course, and as the all-in weight was only 9 cwt., the performance was, up to her limit of 70 m.p.h., quite startling. We had her cellulosed black with red wings and wheels, and, somewhat naturally, she became known as “Rouge et Noir” (with apologies to Raymond May’s famous car of that name).
She soon made her mark, largely due to her excellent acceleration, and although we collected no firsts we gave some of the other entrants a fright, and put a few seconds and thirds into the bag, while my wife succeeded in lowering her own records for both hills, and collected the M.G.C.C. Members’ Cup at the Mahagastotte event.
When our time for home leave again came round we gave “Rouge et Noir ” into a friend’s keeping, and ordered a 1937 open Ford Ten tourer from V.W. Derrington, who was asked to tune and fit her out according to our own ideas, having her ready for collection when we landed. Right well did he carry out our wishes, and I take this opportunity of thanking him for having “done us proud.” This car was used throughout the winter of 1938-9 both in England and Ireland, covering over 9,000 miles in six months of particularly severe weather. She collected a second-class award for me in the 1939 J.C.C. Rally at Brooklands, went through a half-day trial in Hampshire, climbed most of the West Country trials hills at one time or another, including a fast, clean ascent of “Nailsworth Ladder” (en route to the May “Shelsley”) and, later, back in Ceylon, won her class and a second in the last pre-war hill climb. With over 40,000 miles to her credit, I said “good-bye” only when my chance came to go overseas, and I can but hope that she has found a good home. I take my hat off to Henry Ford and Derrington for having given me much pleasant motoring. And now I come to my last and most perfect car of all, one that I am thankful to say is still “sleeping peacefully,” as Davies puts it, alongside his ex-Dobbs Riley in Colombo, awaiting the return of happier days – my Type 328 B.M.W. Left to me by a very great friend and sportsman, who has since been killed while serving with the R.A.F., it is my most treasured possession, and is a type too well known to all enthusiasts to need any eulogy or description from me. Suffice it to say that those more qualified than I place it amongst the twelve best sports cars in the world. Hurry on the day when we can renew our companionship, and the freedom of the roads is ours again!