Motoring Variety in Australia
In this absorbing article, rather on the lines of those in Motor Sport’s “Cars I Have Owned” series, G. Sandford-Morgan of Adelaide proves that to the enthusiast motoring for sport is much the same the world over. — Ed.
Even after the passage of some years, I can still remember the feeling I experienced on taking delivery of my first car. With what pride and joy I gazed at it, my eyes blind to its crude body, its decrepit tyres, and its coating of rust and dirt, all quite unimportant when one remembered that, just like a real racing car, it had to be pushed for starting purposes, and that, once started, it made a highly suitable noise, while the absence of unnecessary fripperies such as mudguards ensured that it had the essential rakish air demanded by my ideas of what was right and proper in a motor car.
After the first rapture had abated sufficiently to allow a careful inspection, the machine revealed itself as one of the late-type Rudge-Whitworth-wheeled 14/40 Vauxhalls of 1927 vintage. It had been rebuilt and modified for the 1936 Centenary Grand Prix of 250 miles, over a circuit at Victor Harbour, in South Australia, and as a fascinated schoolboy I had watched that race, thrilled to the core by the several Bugattis and blown M.G.s, and even by the old 14/40, on its few laps — I don’t think it finished. By the time I bought the Vauxhall, some years later, for the sum of £15, with a further £10 to follow as and when available, it had reached a near-ruinous state, with its home-made two-seater body in the last stages, but by dint of much towing and hard work it was persuaded to take me home, at dead of night, and quite illegally.
As time went by it was made reasonably reliable, would do an indicated 78 m.p.h., and would stay with a 30/98 up to 55 or so, the 14/40’s maximum in third. It weighed just 18 cwt., which, with slightly raised compression and unmerciful thrashing, gave it quite an exciting performance. The four-wheel brakes worked on the rear only, due, not unreasonably, to the fact that the front brakes were discovered to be devoid of shoes. In practice, the brakes had only two positions, off and on, so that braking was resorted to only in the last extremity, with the full knowledge that the result would be a fearful spin, a feat often encouraged by the cantilever rear springing and lack of shock-absorbers. On looking back, the old 14/40 must have been a remarkably safe car, with handling qualities of a fairly high order, otherwise my motoring would have finished then and there. The defective brakes were doubtless very good training for my reactions, since continued existence depended on a highly developed skill in sudden avoidances.
The only time it let me down completely was outside one of the local breweries, when my passenger happened to be the manager’s son, so even that had its advantages, and it wasn’t long before we couldn’t have cared less, anyway. It left me with a very soft spot for the 14/40 Vauxhall, with its smooth, reliable engine, excellent low-speed torque, pleasant four-speed gearbox, sprightly performance and good looks. In fact, I’ve never been able to understand why anyone bought the contemporary 23/60 model, which had very little more room in it, was extremely lorry-like, used vast quantities of fuel, and lacked the 14/40’s performance.
During this period my mother had one of the 1934 10.8-h.p. Coventry Climax-engined Gloria Triumphs. This gallant car was far too heavy for its little engine, but had good hydraulic brakes, a very robust and pleasant crash-type gearbox, and handled well even when thrown about with more enthusiasm than skill. It was on this car that I really learned to drive, a process encouraged by its need to be “Nuvolaried” energetically if you wanted to get anywhere in a reasonable time. The Coventry-Climax engine didn’t seem to mind this particularly, apart from needing to be rebored regularly every 10,000 miles; otherwise it was a nice little motor car.
By this time I was in receipt of a Naval income, with little opportunity to spend it, and my own stable was increased by the purchase of a 14/40 D.I. Delage. It was a smooth and comfortable old car, sporting such concessions to social life as a hood, and one sidescreen. Those who have driven French cars of this period will remember that many of them had a mad gear-change, in which reverse, first and second were all in line. As the reverse-stop had long since worn away, I had the car for some days before I discovered first gear, quite by chance, when manoeuvring from second (which until then had been first) to reverse. It didn’t matter much, really, since it was of the variety of motor car which seems to have three bottom gears, all equally indirect, and all of which serve equally well for moving away from rest.
The Delage achieved fame by performing the most sensational trick which any car has played on me. When keeping an appointment, to show it to an interested potential purchaser, I performed a stately sweep in the middle of the road and then headed gracefully towards the interested party. Just as I completed this evolution, however, I felt the steering suddenly become heavy, which coincided with a look of horror coming over the face of my waiting victim. On later investigation it was discovered that the front axle had broken in half, before his very eyes! He didn’t seem very keen to buy it after that. Otherwise, the Delage was a well-made and refined motor car, not very inspiring, although its identical gear and brake-levers, standing side by side, could be rather amusing.
The Delage having been eventually repaired and disposed of, it was replaced by a 7th Series Lancia Lambda in rather nice order, my first car to have its full quota of lights and instruments, and to be entirely legal. It is mainly remembered for its excellent brakes, quite delightful gearbox, with stubby remote-control lever, and its colossal length. The light and positive controls, and generally beautiful workmanship gave me a very high regard for the Italian as a maker of motor cars, a regard which has been considerably increased by subsequent encounters with vehicles of Italian origin.
About this time I bought in Sydney, on behalf of a friend, a rather stark 30/98 Vauxhall, in which I started off to drive the 1,000-odd miles from Sydney to Adelaide. Just after passing Goulburn, on the Southern Highlands, it blew up with no warning, and at moderate speed, making the most heart-rending noises and strewing its insides over half a mile of road before I recovered sufficiently to stop. I endured two hours in a snowstorm before an Army jeep appeared and towed me into Goulburn. I enlivened the waiting period by trying to keep warm, trotting up and down the road collecting the bits in a sack, having enough shrapnel to start a war museum by the time I was rescued.
Apparently, a piston had broken just above the gudgeon pin, allowing the rod to come clear of the bore and, in the ensuing flailing around, to take the side out of the block, as well as smashing the crankcase, sending tappet-blocks flying, holing the sump on both sides, and jamming two push-rods up into the rocker-box before the alloy rod gave up the unequal struggle, and broke. Incidentally, this car was OE 113 chassis, containing OE 112 engine — we afterwards acquired an OE 13 engine, which was duly installed and the car put back into commission. It has since been rebuilt, I’m glad to say, and lives not far from Adelaide. With its original engine It was very fast, but the road-springs had been fooled about with at some stage, with the result that handling was a bit odd.
Another Vauxhall featured for a short time, just before the 30/98. During a brief period when my ship was refitting in Perth, three of us bought a rather tired but well-meaning 14/40, for £28 10s., and sold it, after a breath-taking round of parties, surfing excursions, and races against time back to the ship, for £20, complete with two dead big-ends and a large hole cut in the hood to facilitate an impersonation of Hitler troop-reviewing.
Its Autovac was out of action, which necessitated carrying a regiment of petrol bottles in the back, with which to refuel. It always chose the most embarrassing moments to call for this service, usually selecting a tram-line, so that for a short time the 14/40 became well known as an additional navigational hazard for the Perth motorist. Its lighting department was also non-operational, so that when driving at night we had a set drill laid down for coping with any speed cop who stopped us. At his approach we would stop, leap out, and rush round the car with a great show of headlight-hitting and much side-play with a live wire which happened to live under the bonnet. After watching in a superior fashion for a while the speed cop would then ride off. Fortunately we didn’t encounter the same one twice!
In 1946 I was in Sydney, keeping my eyes open for a faster vintage machine, approaching, amongst others, John Crouch, Sydney’s leading dealer in interesting cars. He had, at that time, as his personal car, a superb supercharged 4½-litre Bentley, fitted with a very pretty 2/3-seater fabric body, and was achieving a number of successes in competitions with this car. I didn’t imagine for a moment that he would sell it, or that I could possibly afford it if he did, but after much discussion he finally offered it to me at a price which, though high, I could just manage. So to my great joy this magnificent car became mine, both the Lambda and the original 14/40 being rapidly disposed of to meet the cost.
The car was a 1930 standard “blower,” chassis number SM 3919, the whole vehicle being in very fine order and possessed of really exciting performance. It was a brute in traffic, with its very high gearing and dislike for slow idling, but once clear of traffic it was a glorious machine. The 1,000-mile trip from Sydney to Adelaide still lives very vividly in my memory, one of the highlights being a dice with one of the then new fluid-drive Chryslers being used by the Commonwealth Government. We finally passed it, with its load of M.P.s on their way to Canberra, at a joyous 105 or so, to the fury and awe of the Parliamentary committee.
The readily available maximum, in fully equipped form, was about 105, but it could be cruised effortlessly in the late 70s all day, the fuel consumption being a monotonous 10 m.p.g. whether driven sensibly or not, with the happy result that one never really felt guilty about not driving it sensibly.
It handled on loose or firm surfaces like a small car, and would, in feet, walk away from many a good car on sheer handling alone. The weight of 37 cwt. bluffed the brakes at times, and ruled against the car for sprints and hill-climbs, but I found it a useful trials car, since its great performance made it possible to pick up time and keep to schedule where a lesser car would have to resign itself to being late. (Our Australian trials are mostly in the “Road-race-in-all-but-name” class — though not always intentionally.) The enormous fuel bill, coupled with the necessity for travelling 40 miles to work and back each day, forced me to part with the “blower,” but with the greatest possible regret. I have mourned the passing of that car more than any other I’ve had.
After the Bentley came the first of my M.G.s. This was a 1937 TA Midget, a little car I liked, and which gave 40 m.p.g. while cruising at 60 m.p.h., coupled with good weather protection, excellent brakes, and good handling. It had just suffered a “complete rebuild” when I acquired it, a process which hadn’t improved it, so after discovering one thing after another which had been butchered beyond recall, I was not sorry to find a chance to dispose of it.
At this time there were two brothers in Adelaide, one of whom owned a Riley Imp and the other one of the rare C-type Montlhery M.G. Midgets. I had, for some time had my eye on the C-type, and when it became obvious that the car’s harsh suspension was not improving a spinal injury previously suffered by the owner, I was able to persuade him to try the softer-riding TA and let me have the C-type.
This was one of the original racing machines, actually the car in which Ford and Baumer ran sixth in the general classification and won the 750-c.c, class at Le Mans in 1933. It was brought to Australia in 1936 by Mr. John Dutton, who ran it in the Centenary G.P. at Victor Harbour in that year. It ran very well, finishing fourth or fifth, after 250 miles.
When it came into my hands it was rather far gone, but since I had entered it for a race at Woodside, only six weeks away, the job of revival had to proceed rapidly. Suffice it to say that we got it there, though having to get a previous owner out of bed at midnight on the night before the race to explain the supercharger lubrication system. This device, a Powerplus No. 8. blowing 18 lbs. at 6,500, came to me in an unassembled state and took literally weeks to assemble. It was rather like the worst sort of Chinese puzzle, in that each sub-assembly could be built-up in several different ways, only one of which would mate in with the remainder, with the result that every part had to be assembled and taken to pieces again three or four times before the correct system was discovered.
It finally went like a rocket, but due to the rev.-counter going queer and the oil pressure having been set too low it ran a big-end after passing a racing M.G. TC, while doing about 8,000 r.p.m in second. Over-revving was a thing to be watched very carefully, since, with the perfect balance of the Laystall shaft and rods it was absolutely smooth even when inadvertently taken to 8,000 r.p.m., giving none of the signs of extension displayed by the average engine.
All told, it was a delightful little car, its handling excellent, despite the usual rather poor M.G. steering, brakes very powerful (the 12-in. P-type drums had replaced the original 8-in.), and the “back-to-front” racing E.N.V. crash-type gearbox one of the nicest I have ever encountered. Maximum speed was about 95-100 in racing trim and on alcohol fuel, but, fully equipped in road form, about 85 on petrol-benzole, when, if driven with an eye on the boost-gauge, it gave about 28 m.p.g. At a later date I replaced the rather ugly and square Le Mans-type body with a pointed-tailed one, modelled on the ex-Bira K3 which was then living nearby. It was in this form when I moved to Sydney for business reasons, having a most adventurous trip, since it was mid-winter and rained most of the way. I had a lot of trouble with the vertical drive to the camshaft at this time, as it proceeded to break-up steadily, in spite of various repairs effected at wayside garages. The last 300 miles were covered at night, with the crankshaft end of the vertical drive slowly chewing its way through the keyway, so that every 20 or 30 miles I had to stop and advance the camshaft a tooth to counteract the movement down below. On reaching Sydney the camshaft was found to be a full turn ahead of its normal turning!
During this period, while all available finance was being poured into the M.G., I had a succession of assorted machinery for daily transport. First came an o.h.c. Morris Minor, bought in a fit of despair one cold wet winter’s night when I couldn’t face the thought of driving home in the acute discomfort of the unprotected M.G. This faithful little car took me several thousand miles, with no real trouble, except for the occasional shedding of a wheel and the necessity for driving with one leg hooked over the gear-lever to ensure that communication with the rear wheels was maintained. When the Morris reached a stage of decay in which the radiator was full of oil, the sump full of water, and the body apt to fall off whenever a corner was taken with any enthusiasm, it was swiftly exchanged for an Austin Seven fabric saloon, my first saloon car.
This was fun for a little while, but always felt as though it was about to turn over. It probably was. It was sold and replaced by a 1922 Hurtu tourer. This car was one of three chassis bought in Paris by a wealthy station-owner and brought out to Australia for use on his property. It was soon obvious that they had too little clearance, so that all three were sold, this particular car being fitted with a touring body by a local coachbuilder and bought by an eccentric musical old gentleman, later my choir-master, during whose ownership I had several terrifying rides in it.
It was a delightful old car, of advanced design for its day, having an o.h.v. four-cylinder engine of about 14 h.p., four-speed gearbox with right-hand gate change, and large four-wheel brakes. The whole car was beautifully made, rode, handled, and went well, had excellent Ducellier lights, and was not unlike a contemporary de Dion in appearance. Most notable piece of equipment, fitted by the aforesaid musical gentleman, was a large figurine of a London policeman, who stood on the rear number-plate bracket and put up a huge hand for the benefit of following traffic whenever the brakes were applied.
As it was essential for me to have reliable transport, immediately I reached Sydney I reluctantly part-exchanged the C-type for a spotless red TC only a few months old. On the whole the little C-type had been quite reliable, although rather moody when asked to go really fast in competition, but the glorious tearing-calico exhaust-note, the joyous yowl from the straight-cut backend and gearbox, and the scream of the blower all combining in that wonderful symphony of the factory-built racing car are things that one cannot forget quickly, nor can you forget the feeling of exhilaration to be derived from driving a car which has and does these things.
The TC gave me enjoyable “Safety Fast” motoring plus a little mild competition, until I once more fell in love with a Bentley. A 3-litre this time, and of all 3-litres probably one of the best in existence today. A short-chassis Speed Model, built in 1927, having the late-type engine, C-type gearbox, 19-in, wheels, and fitted with the classic Vanden Plas fabric four-seater body, finished in racing green. It came into my hands from a Sydney enthusiast-dealer who had heard of its whereabouts from a chance acquaintance in a pub. He had rushed straight off into the country, where he finally ran it to earth and talked the late owner’s father into parting with it. It had belonged to a Spitfire pilot shot down in the Battle of Britain.
This Bentley had been on blocks since 1939, but once started and its tyres blown up it took its proud new owner the 250 miles to Sydney in fine style. He proceeded to refurbish it, with new hood, tonneau-cover, hood-bag, and spare wheel-covers, have the wheels shot-blasted and stove-enamelled, and the brake drums plated, all to such good purpose that the car was judged the winner of a concours d’elegance held in Sydney at this time. It was just after this that I managed to talk him into parting with it. Apart from its good looks — its beautiful condition and the fact that it had scarcely been modified at all from its original specification, made it look almost too wonderful to be true — it was a very satisfactory car to own, since it performed outstandingly well and handled as well as any normally-sprung car I’ve driven, except on loose surfaces, when the tail tended to get a bit skittish.
At that time I was living in Bathurst, 130 miles from Sydney, where lived a friend who had a superb 4½-litre fabric Vanden Plas four-seater tourer, which he had rebuilt completely, even to the extent of recovering the fabric body. The sight of these two beautifully-preserved Bentleys parked side by side outside the local pub was really something, particularly in Australia. A bit shattering to the nerves of the locals pouring out at closing time, however !
While doing my normal motoring in the Bentley I was first of all lent, and later I bought, a very quick machine, which I used on the road, and with which I competed in a few sprints and hill-climbs. This was a “special,” consisting of an American “hot-rod” engine fitted into a chopped-about Type 40 Bugatti chassis. The engine was a Mercury, given all the approved treatment and fitted with a full set of “Eddie Meyer” equipment (consisting of special heads, valves, pistons, carburetters, camshaft, ignition, etc.), which Mr. Meyer advised would encourage it to produce about 220 b.h.p. at 6,500 r.p.m. on 11 to 1 compression and alcohol fuel. This, in a car weighing 18 cwt., and still retaining Bugatti handling and steering, was great fun. It was perfectly docile and very flexible, while speeds of 120 m.p.h, or more could be turned up with little effort, according to the rev.-counter, which seemed quite accurate, while incredible averages could be put up, only hampered by the rather feeble brakes, all this excitement tending to leave the Type 40 brakes a bit breathless.
The carburetter had an unnerving habit of allowing the accelerator-pump linkage to go over centre, when the throttle was opened with more than usual enthusiasm. This happened one day when the little bit of Bugatti bicycle chain, acting as a brake compensating device, had broken, thus rendering the foot-brake useless, so that I had only the very disinterested hand-brake to assist me in restraining 220 b.h.p. It was in top gear at the time and, taking no notice whatsoever of the hand-brake, set off in fine style, even the ignition-switch failing to work in this emergency. In the end I had to throw it out of gear — it seemed hours before it finally stopped and allowed me to scramble out and unstick the throttle, with the engine rising to a heart-rending scream and the rev.-counter sitting steadily on 6,800 r.p.m. I still can’t imagine why it didn’t disintegrate.
At this time the Bentley passed on, a broken piston and the need for a new set of tyres being rather more than I could cope with financially, and was replaced, firstly, by a pretty little boat-shaped Riley Nine two-seater, “Plus Ultra” Series, I seem to recall, and then by a well-preserved Baby Austin tourer. I was very fond of the Seven, but the Riley used to burn out its crankshaft-driven generator whenever it was pushed along, which became rather tiresome.
I now bought the remains of a 30/98 Vauxhall, OE 244, which a friend had had the misfortune to write off, fortunately, however, without damaging the engine or gearbox. I eventually rebuilt it, using the chassis and rear axle of OE 13, whose engine I had managed to get some years before, to enable OE 113 to be recommissioned. I drove this car very little in its rebuilt state, but the brakes, of normal 30/98 type, worked well, and its balanced crankshaft engine with high-compression pistons, combined with the special close-ratio gearbox, and road weight of 26 cwt., propelled it very satisfactorily.
About this time I made a very interesting trip to Adelaide and back from Bathurst, covering in all about 3,000 miles in just under two weeks, with virtually no trouble, in the 30/98 which replaced OE244 in the aforementioned friend’s stable. This car, OE185 I think, went very hard, was extremely quiet, smooth and flexible, and handled better than any 30/98 I’ve driven. It was quite original and unaltered, either in chassis or engine, which may or may not indicate something.
Incidentally, one of the highlights of this trip was a race with a 1939 Buick hearse, driven by a correct-looking type wearing a top-hat. I quickly got the “Thirsty” wound up to its maximum, about 80, I suppose, at which stage the hearse whistled past,doing a good 10 m.p.h. faster! It was a very straight, very flat road. At another stage, when driving through the main street of Balranald, in the early evening, some form of beastie flew in the scuttle ventilator and bit me in a most inconvenient place. Inhabitants of Balranald were immediately treated to a lightning strip-tease act by the light of the headlamps, while I hunted for my cowardly attacker.
For some time prior to this I had been very interested in the few Singer-powered H.R.G.s which had appeared in Australia after the war, and, in fact, very nearly bought a new 1,100-c.c. model at one stage. The first one I encountered was F. A. O. Gaze’s Aerodynamic 1,500, with which he competed most successfully in all types of events, its silence and excellent handling being very impressive.
[To be continued]