Cars I Have Owned

Dermot P. Johnston, the well-known Irish photographer and enthusiast, writes of cars which have served him well — and not so well.

A photograph the February issue of Motor Sport under the heading of “Register of the Unique,” which I took to be of an 8-h.p. Darracq of about 1922 vintage, reminded me of an intention I have had for some time to contribute to “Cars I Have Owned.”

My earliest motoring experience was with the 8-h.p. Talbot,which was, of course, the English version of the Darracq, and the first car I ever owned was a two-seater Talbot Eight of 1921 vintage, which I bought in 1929 for £8. Imagine in these days buying an eight-year-old car for such a sum!

At that time my family’s car was a 1928 14-h.p. Talbot tourer. It was quite a nice car to handle in its way, but the brakes were poor and the design of these was modified the following year. This particular car had a most delightful whine out of the gearbox on third gear; I never quite knew why. But it was too reliable to teach me much about cars. Most of the groundwork of what I subsequently learned was gleaned from the original little 8-h.p. Talbot and its successors.

For the last year or so I had been at school, my interest in mechanical conveyances had been aroused by reading the Motoring Press of the day, and gazing whenever possible at the Amilcars, “14/40” M.G.s, Salmsons and other sports cars of that period which abounded in the university city where my school was situate.

All this, as I have said, led up to my becoming the proud owner of a Talbot Eight. In their day they were quite surprising performers, and, although virtually unstoppable, they had a very smooth little engine, and it was possible to achieve regularly some 40 to 50 miles per hour on second gear of the three-speed gearbox. They had a solid rear axle. The sump and lower half of the crankcase and gearbox was a one-piece aluminium casting, and, if my memory serves me, the block and head were bolted down on to this. It had a three-bearing shaft and coil ignition. From this ignition system I learned how coil ignition worked, through being forced to know about it from time to time in order to get myself home under power.

I well remember being about 80 miles from home when an ominous click appeared in the back axle, once every rev, of the rear wheels. With great circumspection I managed to get home and found a missing tooth in the crown wheel.

By this time I had acquired another car; this time a Darracq Eight vhich I was rebuilding, and as I had the body off it I put the Darracq back axle on to the Talbot and had on the road very shortly.

Very soon after this the car started missing on one cylinder. Investigation proved that there was no compression in No. 3 and I erroneously assumed that one of the valves had broken. If I had known as much then as I do now I would not have diagnosed it as such; however, I was learning. I had to complete a journey I was on, so continued that day and did the business I had to do in several country towns. In the evening I started to come home. Power had been dropping off steadily throughout the day, and with great difficulty I got the car started, but only got about one mile outside the village before everything finally folded up, and it was impossible to go further. There was nothing for it but to plod ignominiously back to the village I had just left and get the local garage to tow the car in on the end of a rope, which they did. I asked the mechanic to take the head off and see what the matter was, and I would ring him up next day. Investigation of the Talbot engine proved that No. 3 piston was not going up or down, so the following Saturday the Talbot was brought out to tow the Eight the 40-odd miles home. Subsequent dismantling showed that a piece of No.3 con.-rod, where it had broken off, had whaled lumps out of the ends of the cylinder. These lumps had evidently been chucked around in the crankcase by striking the crankshaft and had knocked lumps off all the other cylinders, and, in fact, practically everything inside the engine. There was no part, except I think one big-end bolt, which did not show signs of having been knocked about hy hits of metal. I never saw such a mess.

By this time the engine of the Darracq had been overhauled, so I ripped the old engine out of the chassis and put the Darracq engine in instead. Subsequent work on this car entailed scrapping the original Talbot body and putting on the Darracq body, which was in better condition. Still later, a crack appeared in the chassis and as the Darracq chassis had then been butchered, I had to take the 14-h.p. Talbot up to Dublin (where there were lots of Talbot Eights) and buy a chassis frame in a scrap yard there. There weren’t any in any of the scrap yards in Belfast. The frame was tucked into the back of the Talbot Fourteen with the rear springs sticking out of the back seat, ancl the car was finally built on to the new chassis. I do not think the Customs men would be so amenable nowadays to somebody trying to import an unidentifiable chassis frame in the raw!

For a short while I had a 7.5 Citroen with a drop-head coupé clover-leaf body. It was just a two-seater, but you could put quite a lot of luggage and odds and ends into the tail, either from behind the seat or through a trap door on the outside. I do not think I have ever in all my puff driven a vehicle which had such a negation of performance, although it was quite satisfactory and reliable for the short daily run it had to do.

A 1921 Morgan with air-cooled engine followed, purchased for the princely sum of £4, and as delivered it had huge front wings, making it look rather like a bat. I modified its appearance somewhat by fitting it with motor-cycle type mudguards which turned with the wheels. The inevitable happened, of course — a stay came unstuck and the off-side guard wrapped itself round the wheel, locking it and causing me to head towards a stone wall to the accompaniment of a strong smell of rubber. The high-geared steering of the Morgan did not make it any easier to avoid hitting the wall, but fortunately I stopped before making contact.

On a later occasion I was returning from Derry to Belfast late one afternoon, and at the top of Glenshane Pass, through the Sperrin Mountains, the Morgan began to fire very erratically. I was able to coast most of the way down into Maghera with an occasional short bout of firing, and as it was now dusk I got the car into the light of a garage. There was nobody there who knew anything about timing engines but I found, on investigation, that the timing wheel on the mag. had slipped round and when this was suitably retimed the thing fired again. It was only held on to its shaft by the taper; there was no key-way. At this stage the Morgan had no headlights, so I bought a bicycle lamp and was able to get home somewhat slowly in the dark with its aid.

Some time about then I had seen on the road an elderly Frazer-Nash of 1925; vintage, and had spoken to its owner. This car was now, about 1931, for sale and I bought it. It had, of course, an old Anzani engine, very primitive front wheel brakes, and a vee-shaped screen which was too far away from the occupants. The body I had built back further aft and fitted a single-piece screen which modernised the appearance appreciably, and some friends with machining facilities made up for me a tubular axle using Morris brakes of about 10-in. diameter. The Rudge hubs were married to the Morris hubs so that the original wire wheels fitted. At the same time a new brake cross shaft — a copy of the then ‘Nash arrangement — was made up, brake adjustment being taken care of by aeroplane strainers. All this improved the braking tremendously. Sundry trials had, of course, been indulged, in from time to time, and I entered the ‘Nash for a hill climb at Croft Hill in 1932. At this time it had the old beaded-edge tyres and one came off the rim on each of the three runs I made. So I had the wheels rebuilt with wellbase rims. The following year I had obtained and fitted one of the high-efficiency Anzani engines and entered for Ballybannon Hill Climb. Then in 1934 came the first “tough” trial organised by the Ulster Automobile Club, in which the old ‘Nash was one out of two cars to climb all the hills clean. Marriage, and the need for economy, caused its sale towards the end of 1934, and I parted with considerable regret.

It was followed by one of the o.h.v. Morris Minor two-seaters with fabric body, which was rather like the early 8-h.p. M.G.s, and this, in turn, gave place to a B.S.A. three-wheeler. This was a most uncontrollable vehicle in the wet, which turned over with me once and then turned round and shot through a hedge backwards with me on a second occasion. I did not give it a chance to have a third shot, but parted with it forthwith.

After this there was a “12/40” Lea-Francis two-seater with Rudge wheels, which was quite a pleasant vintage type, and when sold it it was bought by a police inspector who has a 3-litre Bentley and was at that time a constable.

The next car was a 1931 fabric-bodied 2/4-seater Wolseley Hornet, brought home on the end of a tow rope, completely dismantled and rebuilt, including re-bore. It turned out to be a very nice motor. Its steering as standard was unpleasant, but a longer drop-arm off some breed of Morris and slight modifications to the steering to make it fit, gave about 1 3/4 turns from lock to lock and it was then possible to control the car. Wife, self and dog had a camping holiday in the South of Ireland in this car in 1935 and did a tour of Germany in 1936, and, coupled with sundry trials, I could not regard it as anything but having been a very satisfactory little vehicle. It weighed under 15 cwt. Why must modern 12-h.p. cars be so heavy?

The year 1937 saw the acquisition of a 1936 Ford Ten tourer which had covered about 15,000 miles and was in grand condition. After modifying the brakes so that it would stop adequately, this proved an excellent car for general use and trials. Its acceleration from to 50 m.p.h. was just under 16 sec. and although, of course, roadholding was nothing to write home about, I liked it very well.

Following this, family responsibility caused me to part with the Ford and I acquired my first saloon. It was a 1935 1 1/2-litre Riley “Kestrel,” which had belonged to R. H. Wright, the international time-keeper. I enjoyed this car quite a lot, even though it was a saloon, and only parted with it to take over a 1937 “Monaco” Riley Nine which had belonged to my father. I drove this car during most of the war and, concurrently for a short while, a 1985 Morris Eight and a 1932 Riley “Gamecock.” The “Gamecock” I much preferred to the “Monaco” as it was lighter and had a better performance. I ultimately sold the “Monaco” in preference for an old 1934 Riley “Kestrel” which had the crash box, as by this time I had come to loathe and detest the self-change gearbox. After I had been tempted by an excessive amount of filthy lucre to part with the old “Kestrel,” I bought a 1938 Ford Ten saloon, but it was not a good example, and I sold it again as soon as I could.

During the years when I had all these cars, I also, from time to time, drove family cars — comprising a Gwynne Eight, vintage unknown; a Vauxhall Twelve, 1934; a Riley, 1935; an old 1925 Lancia “Lambda ” which my father-in-law drove for nearly twenty years, and a 17-h.p. Lancia two-seater which he had for a short while, and which he lent me for a tour in Scotland and England in 1934.

Early in 1940 I had the good fortune to buy in England a 1934 1,750-c.c. blown Alfa-Romeo with two-seater Zagato body. I was only able to drive this car a short mileage in 1940 before laying it up, but I kept it carefully during the war. Since basic rationing returned I have been getting a lot of pleasure out of it. When I bought it I had really intended to acquire another Frazer-Nash and went to England for the express purpose of buying one, but I have not regretted changing my mind because when I saw the Alfa at close quarters I realised that this was the “daddy” of them all. I have never driven anything which you could so “place to a T” with the utmost confidence under all circumstances, wet or dry. The steering is very light but direct. The brakes are good and as a fast touring car — which is what I use it for — it is most satisfactory. Petrol consumption at reasonable speeds (60 to 70) is 20 m.p.g. and it holds about three average-sized suitcases comfortably in the back compartment, which also contains the hood.

As a family conveyance I have a 1937 1,500-c.c. Fiat, with a four-seater, drophead coupé body by Viotti of Turin. A Fiat “Mouse” completes the current stable.

This list of vehicles would not be complete without mention of a most enjoyable few years during the war when delved into the hitherto unexplored realms of motor-cycling. I started with a 150-c.c. Coventry Eagle, and very quickly swopped this for a 250 o.h.v. Ariel, and after about a year of this machine I acquired a delightful bicycle in the shape of a 1940 500-c.c. “Speed Twin” Triumph. It was silent, swift, and quite delightful to handle.