“At Kingsclere, we turned down the lanes, well-surfaced, flanked by gracious country-houses standing in orderly grounds, and seemingly quite devoid of traffic. . . . We fell to reflecting what a lot of motoring must still remain to be chronicled, considering how the motor car must have been adopted cautiously in these parts. . . . Perhaps some day someone will recall all these happenings . . .”
The quotation is from page 197 of the September issue of Motor Sport, and, as far as I know, that last “perhaps” may have been a pretty large “perhaps” in the mind of the writer, as he recorded his impressions of a “sunny, sleepy afternoon” drive in the summer of 1096. But it so happens that there has fallen into my possession a stoutly bound octavo notebook which formerly belonged to the chatelaine of a house that looks across the few miles of rolling intervening country to the high ground which flanks Kingsclere on the south, and in it there is recorded in contemporary style the earliest motoring experiences of its original possessor. Unlike so many early motorists, her husband was in no way connected with the motor industry, he belonged to no motoring club, he would hardly have regarded himself as an expert automobilist; but he drove his own car instead of relying on the doubtful skill of a professional chauffeur, and the contents of the notebook are probably as faithful a chronicle of the experiences of the “average owner” when motoring was yet young as you could well have. I propose, accordingly, to transcribe them; and if his readers find the result exceedingly boring, well, in my opinion, the Editor has, frankly, nobody but himself to blame!
The notebook, then, is entitled “Log Book of Motor Car purchased September, 1903: 6-h.p. De Dion, Panhard gear. Carriage built to order,” and it starts off with:
“TOUR TO SCOTLAND, 1904.
“Saturday, August 20th. — Fine day. Left home 8.30 a.m. Arrived Oxford 10.50. Delayed by exhausted accumulator. Arrived Northampton 4 p.m. Running about 6 hours. Distance 80 miles. Burnt 4 gallons petrol.
“Sunday, August 2Ist. — Fine day. Left Northampton 8.25.” — at which point I must comment that they had pre sumably spent the night in Northampton at an hotel and nevertheless succeeded in starting after an earlier breakfast than it would be easy to achieve in 1946; a fact which, if one were not acquainted with Continental standards in such matters, would seem to belie the epic comment on this country made by that famous early motorist, the Baron Pierre de Crawhez : ” People get up late, and everything is closed on Sundays, particularly in Scotland.” (On se leve en tard, et tout est ferme le dimanehe, surtout en Ecosse.) But to return to the log book.
“Went via Stamford and Grantham. At Newark, delayed by punctured tyre. Had to put on new one. Arrived Retford 5.50. Running about 6 1/2 hours. Distance 92 miles. Burnt 5 gallons petrol.
“Monday, August 22nd. — Pouring wet day. Left Retford 9.30 a.m. Arrived York 2.15. Running 4 1/2 hours. Distance 55 miles. Burnt 8 gallons petrol.
“Tuesday, August 23rd. — Wet morning. Left off raining about 11.30″ — by which time, one fears, there must have been a nasty puddle in each seat. — “Left York 9.15. Arrived Thirsk 11 a.m. Waited there 1 1/2 hours to adjust brake. Arrived Durham 4.30. Running 5 3/4 hours. Burnt 4 1/2 gallons. Distance 67 miles.
“Wednesday, August 24th. — Showery morning. Fine afternoon. Left Durham 8.30. Left Newcastle 9.45. Lunched Felton 12.30. Running 7 hours. Distance 79 miles. Arrived Berwick-on-Tweed 4.30. Petrol 5 1/2 gallons. Very hilly, especially at Alnwick and Belford.
“Thursday, August 25th. — Fine morning. Left Berwick-on-Tweed 8.30. No petrol in town. Purchased some at blacksmith’s at Cockburnspath. Reached East Linton 12 noon. Discovered ball race of right-hand hand wheel was unsoldered. Repaired by local blacksmith. Started again 3.30. Rain storms. Took wrong turn and went round by Dalkeith. Reached Edinburgh 6 p.m. Running 6 hours. Petrol 4 gallons. Distance about 67 miles.
“Friday, August 26th. — Left Edinburgh 3.30. Went to ferry at Granton. Crossed to Burntisland on steamer. Stayed night at Kinross. Distance without crossing about 16 miles.
“Saturday, August 27th. Left Kinross 9.30. Stayed at Bridge of Earn 1/2 an hour. Bought petrol in Perth. Arrived Dunkeld 12.30. Lunched there. Started again 1.15. Stopped at Pitlochry to buy petrol. Arrived Blair Atholl 3.30. Running about 4 1/2 hours. Petrol about 4 gallons. Distance 52 miles.
“Sunday, August 28th. — Started 9 am. Drove till 1.15 over the Grampians, through Aviemore and Moy. Lunched at road-side. Started again 1.50. Reached Inverness 4.25. Running 6 1/2 hours. Distance 83 miles. Petrol 5 gallons.”
They had now covered some 600 miles, and it was clearly time for a rest. From August 29th until September 17th they were evidently staying with friends near Inverness, and then, after a break of three weeks, the log book is resumed.
“INVERNESS TO ABERDEEN.”
“Left Inverness Saturday, September 17th, about 11. Two miles from Nairn discovered differential screw was broken. Had to be dragged in by horse. Took all day to mend.
“Sunday, September 18th. — Left Nairn 8.45 am. Went via Keith and Huntly. After Huntly, crossed the Ochill Hills. Stopped for lunch at road-side shortly after Keith. Accumulator, which had run all the way from Oxford (about 800 miles), showing signs of weakness, put in new one charged at Northampton. After Huntly, in a desolate part of the mountains, second accumulator ran out. Replaced old one and reached Inverurie about 5 p.m. Gale in our teeth all the way.
Monday, September 19th. — Left Inverurie 10 a.m. Accumulator recharged. Just enough petrol to reach Aberdeen. Car sent from there by sea to London.”
Well, the equinoxes were approaching, and perhaps they had had enough of gales, whether in their teeth or not, because I do not expect that they enjoyed much protection from them in the “carriage built to order.” And that is all that the notebook has to say about the “6-h.p. De Dion, Panhard gear,” except for a sort of foot-note which records that the “car ran continually until April, 1913, nearly 10 years, when it was sold.” But from the record of its performance on that trip to Scotland, which is preserved in the log-boak, two salient features seem to me to stand out — the remarkable reliability of the single-cylinder De Dion engine, and its equally remarkable extravagance. Not once is there any reference even to any starting difficulties, and, apart from faulty accumulators, whose misbehaviour can hardly be lald at the door of Messrs. De Dion Banton, the engine does not -seem to have given a moment’s trouble.
But its extravagance was positively shocking. According to the figures given in the log-book, the total distance to their stopping place near Inverness was 623 miles, which were covered at an average speed of 12 1/2 m.p.h. and at the cost of 35 gallons of petrol, or at the rate of approximately 18 m.p.g. The road in places was admittedly hilly and I expect that they had to use second and first speed a good deal; but even allowing for this factor, the figure of petrol consumption just shows what happens if you run an engine with an automatic inlet valve at 1,600 r.p.m. This subject of thermal efficiency is one which has for long had a certain fascination for me; I have threatened before now to enlarge upon it; perhaps one day I shall actually do so. You have been warned!
But having disposed of its first automobile, the log-book was far from having finished. On the contrary, the next page announces progress to bigger if not better motor cars, with the entry: Argyll Car, 12/14-h.p., 2-cylinder. Tonneau back to seat 5 persons in all. Purchased July, 1905, through Farman Automobile Co., Long Acre.”
It had been selected. I fancy, with considerable care, for in the companyof the log-book there was a large limp-covered folio volume, entitled “Peach’s Motor Annual, 1905,” which listed a whole range of automobiles which could be supplied by Frank Peach & Company, from the 4-h.p. Orient-Buckboard, which cost £90, to the 110-h.p. Napier, for which they asked a cool three thousand — and a pound was a pound in 1905, remember. (By contrast, the most expensive Rolls-Royce came out at only a third of the price, while you could have one of their little 10-h.p. “twins” for a mere £385.) In fact, the task of selection finished, as far as I can see, by confusing the keeper of the log-book, because according to Mr. Peach, and he seems to be borne out by other contemporary evidence, the 12/14-h.p. Argyll was a 3-cylinder, and the only twin marketed by the company was the 10/12-h.p. fitted with an Aster engine. Mr. Peach even shows a picture of it, and it is rather a stylish-looking turn-out, with a separate lever to engage reverse and a curly bulb horn on the steering wheel. But — it cost £350, and if they had only sprung an extra 10 per cent., they could have had a Rolls!
However, the accuracy with which its log was kept doubtless reflects the pride of its owners in the new car. “July 10th,” it starts off, “Brought from London, 47 miles; short distances, 12 miles. July 11th — Station and trial runs, 15. July 13th — Trial runs, 7″; and so on. August came and they were off to Scotland again. Two days were now sufficient for the 270 miles to Durham, which had taken twice as long to reach the year before in the 6-h.p. But if the Argyll was faster, it suffered perhaps from the defects of its qualities. At Durham, on the way south, “coil was discovered to be damaged and we had to stop. August 18th. — New coil had to be adjusted. Started at 10. Had to stop at Darlington to have switch put on. Drove without stopping to Doncaster. 15 minutes for tea. Started again at 5. 10 miles from Nottingham tyre punctured, had to put on spare one in Sherwood Forest. Drove in the dark. Arrived Nottingham at 8.30.
“August 19th. — Started at 9. About 3 miles from Nottingham tyre burst. Put on two, one after the other. Started again at 11 o’clock. Reached Loughborough. Had both inner tubes vulcanised. Started again at 1 o’clock. At Leicester one cylinder stopped sparking. Adjusted it in garage. Started again. 3 miles out tyre punctured. Put on vulcanised spare inner tube. Punctured again. Returned to Leicester on flat tyre.
“August 20th. — Started 9 a.m. Coil had to be adjusted all the way. 8 miles from Banbury tyre burst, crawled into Banbury. No new ones to be had, left car there, home by train.
“August 21st. — Fetched car from Banbury. Two new inner tubes burst inside new cover. Came home on one tied up with string and new one bought in Oxford.”
But it would be unfair to judge the performance of the Argyll by the trials and tribulations of the return journey from its first trip to Scotland. For the most part the bald record of mileage covered as it trundled round the still deserted roads of the Hampshire-Berkshire border, as it was taken to London and the north, or as far east as Dover, or as far west as the Lizard, is a measure of its reliable serviceability. Of course it had its tyre troubles, like all cars of the period. At 1,500 miles, the log-book records, “two secondhand covers bought, one proved a failure”; at 2,000 miles, “2 new tyres, 2 tyres banded with leather non-skids”; at 3,000 miles, “two new Dunlop tyres”; at 7,000 miles, “two new banded tyres put on. One bulged almost at once. Gaiters put inside.” And I do not pretend that it was wholly free from mechanical troubles, although in 1906 and 1907, once, that is, that it had been properly run in, it seems to have had a remarkably good record. In 1908, “top speed gear and reverse had to be renewed.” In 1909, “taxi cab ran into motor at Paddington. Had to have front axle and steering rods mended”; and, some months later, it had “new spring put in.” Towards the end of 1910 there was further trouble. “Differential had to be taken down, new pins put” and not, apparently “put” very successfully, because in February, 1911, on the way to St. Albans, “Differential and brake broke on Elstree hill. Pushed into Edgware.” There followed a run of gearbox trouble. In April, “gears went wrong”; in May, “gears went wrong at Hurlingham”; and in June, “gears went wrong at Hampton.” Finally, on October 9th, “Piece flew out of the cylinder. Went to station after that”! Which is a good deal more than a good many of your moderns would do.
But the Argyll, clearly, was getting a bit long in the tooth, and in March, 1912, the faithful chariot was sold, after having covered, according to the log-book, the useful total of 25,563 miles. I should think that the owner was well satisfied that he had had his money’s worth out of the £350, which his Argyll had cost him. All the same, she was outlived, be it noted, by the “6-h.p. De Dion, Panhard gear.” Of course the extravagance of the latter would be a serious matter nowadays. I incline to doubt whether there are many Regional Petroleum Officers who would know what you were talking about if you asked for supplementary petrol coupons because your car had a high-speed engine and automatic inlet valves. Not, of course, but what there are not means of overcoming these difficulties if you are willing not to count the financial cost too closely.
“Do you remember my old M.G.,” he asked me, “which had a difference of opinion with a traction-engine one night before the war, just outside Exeter?”
“I do,” I replied, “and having seen the wreckage, I can never understand how you survived to be a menace to poor harmless traction-engines in the future.” “Oh!” he said, “that’s the extraordinary thing, really, about motor accidents. You can have crashes that make the most frightful, terrifying noises of crumpling metal, but it’s very seldom that you get crumpled much yourself. However, after that one, the secondhand market not being what, it is to-day, it was held that very little value attached to what was left of the poor old M.G., and I sold it to a breaker for a ‘fiver.'”
“I see,” I said, not quite understanding what all this was leading up to, “and did he succeed in straightening it out or something?”
“Oh, no,” he replied, “he took it to little tiny bits — ‘ took it abroad’ is the phrase they use for it in Devonshire — and melted them down for scrap metal. I more or less watched the process myself, as I used to visit his yard periodically in the hope that he might have dug up something in the antique motor-car line. But the point of all this is that, as he never had any other intention than to break the M.G. up, he did not ask me for its registration book. I found it in a drawer the other day and, of course, promptly renewed the licence. Something like licensing a ghost, you know.”
“I see,” I said, “and do you find the car much use in spectral form?”
“Much use!” he replied, “why, of course I do. With the help of its coupons, the Bentley’s petrol problem is nothing like as acute as it was. I am sure the poor old M.G. could have wished for no better memorial.”