[In this variant of our “Cars I have owned” series, RMV Sutton, Chief Tester of Alvis Ltd, recalls his motoring experiences and reveals some hitherto unpublished facts relating to Alvis, Lea Francis, Jaguar and other cars.—Ed]
In the course of 40 years’ motoring, mostly in the capacity of a works tester, a vocation I still follow, many and diverse types, ranging from touring and racing cars to public service and armoured vehicles, have passed through my hands.
My introduction to motoring came about in 1915 when a friend occasionally lent me his Argyll, which even at that time was ancient, for shopping expeditions. Time, the Great Healer, has mellowed my recollections of this contraption, but I can remember that it was notoriously unreliable if driven over 15 mph, and the gear-change left much to be desired, this operation being rendered all the more difficult because a separate lever was provided for reverse and, under certain conditions of “ham-handiness” both forward and reverse could be engaged at the same time, when progress in either direction became impossible. Two essential items of equipment were a bicycle and a dog, the former as a means of transport on which to seek aid, the latter to stand guard. “Angel Face,” who, like the car, belonged to my friend, was a large shaggy dog of most repulsive appearance, but nevertheless a faithful hound, and anyone who approached the derelict did so at their peril. If my shopping list included any edibles they had to be transferred to the bicycle, and sometimes when I returned with some spare, which if lucky might slightly resemble the original, I found that the dog, possibly due to advancing years, had forgotten me, and it was necessary to placate him with the odd chop or two before he would allow repairs to commence.
It was in the same year that my father decided the family should forsake horses and become mechanised. We went into conference and, after turning down a Baby Peugeot as too small, he purchased a brand new 10-hp Alldays, manufactured by Alldays and Onions, of Birmingham.
This car proved to be robust, stolid and simple, and ever ready to respond to the first swing of the handle, a very necessary attribute as the specifications of those days did not include starters. Simplicity and accessibility were the keynotes of the design, and in the latter respect it would give points to many modern productions. The engine, a four-cylinder side-valve, relied on the splash system for lubrication, but the oil was evidently splashed into the right places as I never experienced bearing trouble or piston seizure. The gearbox gave a choice of three forward ratios, and the grease with which it was lubricated had the consisteney of butter when cold. The rear-axle oil resembled treacle, and consequently these units were remarkably quiet. The brakes, on the rear wheels only, were smooth and quite capable of coping with a maximum speed of 40 mph. This speed may not appear very exciting but to me, who had never experienced anything faster than the Argyll or a push cycle, it was indeed a thrill. When petrol became unobtainable I designed a very crude paraffin vapouriser, never expecting it to work, but the little engine took this change of diet in its stride and appeared to be quite happy on it.
At the end of the 1914-18 war we naturally reverted to petrol, and the car continued to give good service for another three years, when it came to a sudden and untimely end. The lighting system had hitherto given no trouble, but on this fateful occasion a defect developed in the tail-lamp and I decided to improvise with one borrowed from a cycle. A match carelessly struck too close to a leaking scuttle-tank union started a fire which quickly developed into a conflagration of the first magnitude, and the car was completely burnt out.
My thoughts now turned to something faster which would he suitable for entering in speed trials and hill-climbs. I had been much impressed with George Bedford’s performances on the single seater Hillman, and when the sports Hillman was introduced in 1921 I decided that this was the car for me. It was, I think, the first serious attempt, in this country at any rate, to design a sports car from scratch, as distinct from a touring model with enlarged main jet and straight-through exhaust. It is strange that for many years I have never come across anyone who has even heard of the sports Hillman of that date, and I do not think that many could have been built as I only saw one or two at the time I was running mine, and none appear to have survived. Although rated at only 9.7 hp, the car was capable of a genuine 65 mph in standard condition, which was quite good in those days for an engine of such small capacity.
This side-valve engine, based on the unit, installed in the single-seater, incorporated drilled H-section connecting-rods machined all over, polished ports and other refinements. The price (£620) was certainly very high for a primitive two-seater of that period with no starter, screen-wiper or other amenities; which we take for granted today, and this probably accounts for the small number in circulation. The polished aluminium body, V-radiator, and large external copper exhaust pipe gave the car a very attractive appearance, but this was rather spoilt by a somewhat stubby tail. The clutch withdrawal consisted of a circular fibre block which wore very rapidly indeed and had to be turned at frequent intervals, becoming square, octagonal, hexagisnal, and finally polygonal before it was discarded !
The ratios of the three-speed gearbox were quite suitable for sprint events and I entered for several speed trials and hillclimbs with some success, when the opposition was not too strong. It was at a speed trial that I first met Raymond Mays, who commenced his racing career in an identical car, aptly named “Quicksilver.” When I say identical I mean externally, but judging by the difference in performance its innards must have been modified.
The 12/50 Alvis was now making a name for itself in the hands of the late Major CM Harvey, the works driver; who invariably won his class and frequently recorded fastest time in speed trials and hill-climbs. Incidentally, the prototype is still in existence, and it was only the other day that I had an opportunity to drive it.
It will be recalled that Harvey created a sensation by winning the 1923 200-Mile Race at Brooklands on a racing version of the 12/50. I was again impressed, sold the Hillman, and took delivery of the 12/50 exhibited at that year’s Motor Show. The four-cylinder overhead-valve engine was a revelation to me, as was everything else about the car for that matter, and for the first time I realised the advantages of a four-speed gearbox.
The car as delivered, after careful running-in, was capable of 75 mph, which, for a time, was all I desired or could cope with, put up a fairly good show at the Aston Clinton hill-climb, this performanee being duly tested by Major Harvey, who later became a very great friend. I took my car to the works, and the first of many modifications, spread over a period of three years, commenced. First of all the Hardy disc propeller-shaft was scrapped and replaced by an experimental one having spherical universals, this in turn being superseded by the needle-roller type, which later became standard. A cone clutch is never conducive to rapid standing starts, and a single-plate unit was substituted. Front-wheel brakes were added, and it was a proud day when I displayed a little red triangle on the rear wing, indicating to all and sundry that my powers of retardation were greater than theirs.
Alvis presented me with a higher-ratio solid axle complete with a set of Rudge-Whitworth wheels, but this was not an unmixed blessing, as although eminently suitable for Brooklands, appreciably increasing my lap speeds, it was ruinous on tyres, and I preferred a differential for hill-climbs. Lighter connecting-rods, higher-compression head and other modifications followed, and although no phenomenal increase in speed was achieved at one fell swoop, little by little performance improved until eventually the car was timed at 92 mph over a mile at Brooklands.
All the modifications were carried out at the Alvis works, but my pre-race preparations were simple in the extreme, consisting of a decoke at home and removal of wings and windsereen at the track. It says much for the car’s reliability that on one occasion I drove it straight down from Leeds, arriving too late to put in more than one practice lap, but in spite of this managed to win the Essex 100-Mile Handicap.
I now decided to become really ambitious and risk blowing up my beloved car by entering fur the 1926 Coupe Boillot at Boulogne. This was a real road race for sports cars run over a distance of 374 miles, and we were up against the French manufacturers works entries. Two cars were allowed to constitute a team that year, and Harvey also entered a 12/50. The regulations stipulated that cars of 11/2-litres and over should have four-seater bodies, a fact which we discovered very late in the day, but, thanks to the cooperation of the coachbuilders, they were finished on time. Space will not permit me to give an account of this race, and it will suffice to say that both cars ran faultlesly, our only trouble being a puncture in one of my tyres. Much to our surprise, and that of everyone else, we won the Team Award. On returning to the works my engine was stripped down and found to be in perfect condition, with the exception of one broken valve spring. Alvis had entered Harvey and Cattenham with front-wheel-drive cars for the 1926 200-Mile Race, and much to my delight, catered me a works 12/50 with dry-sump lubrication and other modifications for this race. This was a very pleasant car to handle. and the first one on which I attained the figure of 100 mph. Mechanical trouble supervened at half distance, but until then I had a most enjoyable drive and was lying sixth.
My own car continued to give trouble-free service, and on two occasions Alvis sent us to Ireland for hill-climbs when Harvey had commitments elsewhere. I had not been doing too badly as a Professional Scrounger, in other words a private owner who thrives on works assistance, my racing was becoming too expensive, and although I had been extremely fortunate in the help I received from the Alvis Co (who, incidentally, are now my employers) and having such a reliable car, I realised that participation in worthwhile events was becoming beyond my means. However, it is a far, far, better thing to be paid for driving and have the backing of an organisation who will bear the entire cost of a season’s racing, providing they agree to hand over any perquisites which may be forthcoming, either in cash or kind. It was with very real regret that I parted with my 12/50, that most reliable of cars, which had enabled me to gain sufficient experience to qualify as a works driver,
I was appointed competition driver to Lea-Francis in 1927, but had other and more menial tasks to perform besides racing, the principal sideline being testing and occasionally driving a Lea-Francis lorry of ancient lineage, known from its registration number as DU 40. The majority of Lea-Francis cars were, at that time, powered by a comprehensive range of Meadows four-cylinder engines having push-rod-operated overhead valves, namely a Ten, 12/22 and 12/40 for the tourers, 12/50 sports, and the 11/2-litre supercharged sports, the last named being supplied either as a competition model or tourer. It was, in fact, the first British supercharged production car. There were also the 14/40 and 14/60 six-cylinder twin-overhead-camshaft engines built by Vulcan of Southport, a subsidiary company, in addition to our own “Ace of Spades,” the latter being a 2-litre six-cylinder single-overhead-camshaft unit. It is impossible to give a detailed description of all these models, and I will therefore confine myself to the sports and racing types.
The 12/50 engine, very similar to the 12/40 with the exception of higher compression-ratio, high-lift camshaft, and two Solex carburetters, was installed in a chassis of conventional design, having springs at the front and 1/4-elliptic at the rear. This car, known as the Brooklands model, had a maximum in standard trim of approximately 73 mph, the performance being comparable with that of the Alvis, but one entered by the works in sports-car races was capable of 90 mph. Early in 1927 our Chief Engineer, Mr Van Eugen, decided to supercharge the 12/40, this engine being more suitable for the purpose than the 12/50. At that time we knew little or nothing about supercharging and prior to laying out the scheme a 1,100 cc supercharged SCAP was imported direct from the Paris Motor Show. This interesting little vehicle, the only one I have come across, featured a vane-type Cozette supercharger driven off the front end of the crankshaft. On the rare occasions when all four cylinders fired in their correct sequence, I clocked 85 mph but the car must have been rushed for the Show without adequate test, as performance was unpredictable and we learnt little from it, apart from the fact that the Cozette could be adapted to our design. A No 8 Cozette supercharger had the effect of doubling the bhp at peak rpm and needless to say we were highly delighted.
After an all too-short bench test the engine was installed in a short-wheelbase racing chassis and the first run on the road certainly surprised me, the top-gear acceleration being so amazing that I, unaccustumed to all this urge, could hardly believe that I was not in third gear ! However our jubilation was premature, and we went through many trials and tribulations before achieving any degree of reliability. We were very much indebted to the Baer crankshaft, a German design, consisting of a built-up shaft, incorporating tubular steel connecting-rods and needle-roller big-ends, but with plain journals. The prototype blown Lea-Francis proved rather difficult to hold by reason of the fact that the aerodynamic properties of the body a slight tendency to lift at the rear when travelling at over 100 mph, and the weight distribution was not quite right unless additional unwanted weight in the shape of a mechanic or ballast was carried. A No 9 Cozette blower gave us an additional 10 hp, and two more cars with better streamlined bodies and improved roadholding were built, the original one also being brought up to date in these respects. We were now able to lap Brooklands at 105 mph, and occasionally, with the wind in the right direction, 110 mph was recorded on the Railway Straight, which was not too bad for a 11/2-litre twenty-eight years ago.
The cars were raced only in Brooklands events, handled by Kaye Don, myself and one or two others. They never came into the hands of the public and must not be confused with the Brooklands sports model. The engine had now proved itself and formed the basis of a new sports car known as the Hyper. The chassis was entirely redesigned, embodying a stiffer frame and semi-elliptic rear springs, among other modifications. This model came into prominence when Kaye Don, driving a magnificent race, won the Tourist Trophy on the Ards circuit. Later that year Frank Hallam and I made a successful attack on the Class F Twelve-Hour record, which we took at 80.06 mph. Very light aluminium bodies replaced the fabric-cum-wood construction for the works cars entered at Dublin and Belfast in 1930, but unfortunitely we were afflicted with mechanical troubles in both events.
No description of Lea-Francis cars would be complete without mention of the “Ace of Spades” (so named from the shape of the timing cover), particularly as the design was all our own work. The power unit consisted of a sturdy 2-litre six-cylinder overhead-camshaft engine fitted with a single Zenith or Stromberg carburetter. I found it fast, smooth and reliable, but one bad failing predominated, namely a disinclination to start from cold unless the hand-throttle was set exactly one-quarter open, and if the engine failed to fire in the first few seconds one had “had it,” the only remedy being to remove all plugs and dry them, or enlist a tow. I still cannot recall without a shudder the opening day of a Scottish Show when a taxi engaged for starting purposes took an unexpected turning and towed me past the Grand Central Hotel entrance just as everyone was leaving for Kelvin Hall ! The twin-top “duo” gearbox, although rather tricky when operated for the first time, enabled amazingly quick changes to be made when the knack had been acquired.
I next transferred my allegiance to Morris Motors (Engines Branch) for a short time in order to carry out road and track tests on the little-know MG Tigress, of which only five, inclusive of two prototypes, were built. The engine, based on the Isis, had a capacity of 2.6 litres and included many modifications, such as dry-sump lubrication and a high-compression head with two sparking plugs per cylinder. The brakes could be taken up from the driver’s seat, and another desirable feature was the provision of an anti-thief device which locked the gear-lever. On the first test run the front brake drums could be seen slowly but surely working their way off and, pointing to the adjuster I innocently asked the designer whether this control was provided for the purpose of screwing the drums back into position, a remark which appeared to annoy him ! The engine was remarkably smooth, and I once surprised a visitor to the works by taking him to a test-bench where an endurance run was being carried out at full throttle, and balancing a pencil on the valve cover. This feat amazed him: I do not think he noticed the blob of plasticine. Unfortunately this car did not come up to expectations. We confidently expected to attain 100 mph but were never able to exceed 93 mph, and although very pleasant to drive it was not fast enough to hold its own with more potent machinery in the 21/2 or 3-litre classes and at £850 the price was considered too high, so very reluctantly the management decided to scrap this promising design.
It was about this time that I invested £350 in a new Type 40 Bugatti. The Type 40, although only a poor relation in the Bugatti family, had many features in common with its very much more expensive brethren. The four-cylinder 11/2-litre engine with geardriven overhead camshaft operating two small inlet valves and one large exhaust valve per ylinder was a sound engineering job in every way. No paper gaskets were used, all joints being metal to metal, and shouldered nuts made locking washers superfluous. Incidentally, when dismantling, I never found a nut that was either slack or difficult to remove. Maximum speed did not exceed 70 mph, but the car could be driven hard indefinitely without showing signs of distress and the steering, although very high-geared, judged by present-day touring-car standards, was light and accurate. There were, however, several not so desirable features, the principal one, to my mind, being the necessity to remove the camshaft before adjusting the tappet clearances with “Hell’s confetti,” otherwise commonly known as shims, and then having to replace it to ascertain whether the said clearances were correct, which they never were at the first attempt. Brake adjustment, too, left much to be desired. as one had the choice of either shortening the cables or removing the drums and fitting packing pieces between the actuating cams and shoes. Silent gear-changes were a matter of some difficulty and the noise in the indirect ratios appalling. Nevertheless, it, was a car of character, if not refinement.
The Brooklands Riley pleased me immensely, but my association with this most attractive car was all too short, being confined to the JCC 1,000-Mile two-day race at Brooklands, in which the Riley Company invited me to drive, partnered by Major Harvey. I was much impressed with the handling qualities of these low little cars and their ability to hold 5,000 rpm all day without a murmur. For this race a scuttle oil tank was fitted and the sump replenished at regular intervals by means of a hand pump. Succumbing to the entreaties of one of the inevitable “hangers-on,” an immaculately garbed gentleman. I took him on an extended test in the practice car, stressing beforehand the importance of operating the manual oil pump twice every two laps. He obeyed this instroction to the letter. However, unknown to us, a pipe had fractured and, on returning to the depot, it was found that the passenger had been religiously lubricating his trousers !
Our car ran consistently on the first day and was leading at an average of 81.9 mph, but the clutch packed up on the following morning. However, Mrs Wisdom with Joan Richmond on another works car, ably stepped into the breach and won, averaging 84.1 mph for the total distance.
Morgan is another marque with which I had a very brief acquaintance. I borrowed a three-wheeler for a week, and found it quite amusing when once accustomed to the very direct steering, but the correct technique for driving on wet tramlines eluded me. It was unfortunate that just as I was beginning to enjoy myself the frame broke and I shed the near-side wheel. The four-wheelers are in a different category altogether and I had the good fortune to drive one during the practice period for the TT at Donington in the capacity of spare driver to the late Henry Laird, who had been entered by the works. This car, to the best of my recollection, was powered by an Anzani engine and exceeded 90 mph down the back leg. The practice car had a Ford unit and, although not quite so fast, put up some creditable lap times, thanks to its steadiness on corners and excellent brakes. It was certainly a car which inspired me with confidence and I should very much like to try out one of their latest products.
Sleeve-valve engines were on their way out when I joined Daimlers, but I had the opportunity to test a few. These units were doubtless very smooth and quite lively when run-in, a process which takes time, but as I never drove one farther than its initial hundred miles I was disappointed, considering them rough and sluggish. However, it would be unfair to pass judgment under these circumstances, and as Daimlers persevered with them for so long, they must have been satisfactory. I consider the Daimler fluid-flywheel in conjunction with a Wilson preselector gearbox the ideal form of transmission, and I prefer this arrangement to a fully-automatic gearbox.
I tested a Newton centrifugal clutch fitted to a Lanchester for experimental purposes and it took up the drive just as smoothly as a fluid-flywheel, but the latter has the advantage that it requires no adjustment. The Daimler range in the early 1930s was what might be termed rather “stodgy.” There were 10 and 18-hp Lanchesters, 15, 26 and 36-hp Daimlers, all living up to the firm’s tradition as regards workmanship but, in my opinion, they were far too heavy and consequently not very exciting to drive. In the years immediately prior to the war considerable changes took place. Independent coil-spring front suspension was in and applied to a completely new range of models comprising 10-hp four-cylinder and 14-hp six-cylinder Lanchesters, 18-hp and 26-hp six-cylinder and 36-hp straight-eight Daimlers. All these engines were of rather similar basic design, incorporating push-rod-operated overhead valves. The little Lanchester I thought very attractive, but at about £900 it could hardly be considered good value for the man whose finances compel the use of a small car. It was the 18-hp Daimler which appealed to me most and the sports edition of this chassis with high-compression head and overdrive had a very good performance indeed. Roadholding was equally good on all models, the Lanchesters being as steady as the straight-eight, and the latter just as easy to handle, except in confined spaces. It was a most imposing machine, weighing 31/2 tons and seating eight in comfort. On one occasion with one of these carriages fitted with an overdrive and loaded with pig iron to the full complement of passengers I attained 103 mph on a down-hill stretch. Shortly after the outbreak of war, when no one knew what emergency might arise, we supplied two armoured limousines on this chassis, VIPs for the use of. To all appearances they were perfectly normal and very handsome cars, but between the panels and trimming armour plate ensured that a .303 bullet would not penetrate, even if fired at close range. The windscreen and windows were of five-ply Triplex about 11/2-in thick, and these too were bullet-proof. I am unable to recollect the weight, but was surprised at the performance when I drove one down to London. In addition to their car output Daimlers manufacture a very considerable number of buses. They were originally powered by Gardner or AEC diesel engines but shortly after I joined them they commenced to fit their own six-cylinder unit. Diesels are most reliable, always start at the first push of the button, and identical performance figures can he reproduced day after day irrespective of weather conditions, but fuel oil has a nasty smell and tastes even worse, as those who have attempted to syphon it out of a barrel know full well.
Of all the awkward, unco-operative vehicles I think a doubledecker bus takes a lot of beating and I never felt really at home on one, possibly beeause I only had occasion to drive them at infrequent intervals. First of all the length has to be taken into consideration and it does not necessarily follow that, just because the front has negotiated a corner safely, the rear will not leave a trail of devastation in its wake. I continually found myself leaving ample room on the off-side, but cutting things too fine on the near. Perhaps sitting right on the outside edge in my little cab, I was unconsciously afraid of being winkled out by some projection on a passing vehicle. Then there is the third dimension that must not he overlooked, and this was forcibly brought to my notice when proceeding along an avenue in the works down which no double-decker had ever gone before. Although the road appeared perfectly clear a resounding crash indicated that all was not well, and I found that the top deck had come into violent contact with some overhead water pipes, necessitating the immediate attention of the maintenance department.
Throughout the war we were fully engaged in the manufacture of armaments, particularly fighting vehicles. These were of two types; a scout reconnaissance car and a much larger armoured car, the latter weighing 71/2 tons and mounting a two-pounder gun. Our 18-hp and 26-hp engines were converted to dry-sump lubrication and governed to speeds of 38 mph and 48 mph, respectively. In conjunction with the fluid flywheel and Wilson gearbox they performed satisfactorily in the armoured vehicles which gave a very good account of themselves in all theatres of war.
We also built the prototype of a 10-ton hybrid armoured car known as “The Coventry.” It was supposed to embody all that was best in armoured vehicle construction, but this view was not universally shared. Briefly, the specification consisted of a 50-hp American Hercules side-valve engine, Daimler suspension, and Commer transmission. The brakes and steering were pneumatically assisted. I have nothing against these units individually. but they did not live in harmony together.
I had now acquired an ex-works demonstrator 13-hp Triumph fitted with a six-cylinder Coventry-Climax engine. I rather favour the ioe-head, but it usually means that the inlet tappets are adjusted while the exhaust is not. This Triumph also featured a free-wheel, incidentally a fitment I detest and invariably keep locked. The Triumph, although not particularly fast, was reliable, in spite, I am ashamed to say, of being shockingly neglected. During frequent absences on fighting vehicle trials I left it in the works’ yard exposed to the elements, and one bitter winter’s night found the car completely buried under a heap of snow, but was amazed when, on a tentative turn of the starting handle, the engine burst into life and continued to run. It experienced two narrow escapes during theair raids on Coventry, when an incendiary rolled under the sump and was kicked away by a fire-watcher just in time, and, a few weeks later, when a five hundred pounder which fell alongside failed to explode. The third time, however, was lucky or unlucky depending upon which way one looks at it. I arrived back from one of my trips just in time for the November blitz, to find the is works in process of being reduced to a shambles. I had other things to think about besides my car that night, and did not look for it until the following morning. At first all I could see was the battered remnant of the spare wheel reposing in the bottom of a crater but later I discovered the remains of the chassis in the drawing office, about fifty yards away. I should perhaps explain that a previous bomb facilitated its entry into this department by removing the roof. Car prices were at rock bottom and I only received £75 compensation, but this was sufficient to buy a very secondhand Talbot fitted with a Wilson gearbox. I have previously stated that I am all in favour of preselector gearboxes, but only in conjunction with a fluid flywheel, as I do not approve of using the bottom gear bands as a clutch. Petrol restrictions because more stringent and after running the car for a few weeks I laid it up to await a purchaser. As far as I could judge from the short lime the Talbot was in my possession it was quite a nice motor car, but I should imagine most difficult to service, as apart from tappet adjustment any other attention appeared to necessitate a major strip.
I have never possessed another car of my own. the main reasons being that I have a surfeit of motoring in all its phases in working hours, a works car makes anything I could afford to run appear even worse than it is, and I am allergic to buying petrol, to say nothing of paying repair bills. I think I can claim to be among the first to drive a Volkswagen in this country, as in 1946 the Ministry of Supply lent the Daimler Co a captured Type VW82 military conversion to try out. This vehicle, very different from the Volkswagen as we know it today, was powered by a four-cylinder horizontally-opposed engine mounted in the boot of a four-seater utterly devoid of trimming, but as it was only intended for carrying military personnel, the austerity could be excused. The axle-ratio was 4.9 to I, and in the case of military conversion, the hubs incorporated reduction gears. The complete car weighed only 13 cwt and acceleration up to 40 mph was therefore quite good. I recorded a timed maximum of 56 mph, at which speed periods were much in evidence and the noise from the cooling blower obtrusive, but at 50 mph the engine smoothed out considerably, although it never ran very sweetly. Petrol consumption was not too bad, working out at 32 mpg over a distance of 70 miles fairly hard driving. Independent springing on all wheels provided a good ride over rough surfaces. but I found it rather on the hard side where the road surface was good. It was possible to indulge in fast cornering, but it was advisable to curb one’s enthusiasm, and I gained the impression that the rear might break away without warning. There was a tendency to oversteer and this, coupled with an entire absence of castor action, made the vehicle rather fatiguing to drive. After we had been running it for a few weeks I was rather disturbed to be shown a letter from the Ministry intimating that demolition charges were frequently discovered in captured vehicles, and advising us to make a thorough search before carrying out any further tests; an instruction which I obeyed to the letter. All units were most inaccessible, and as certain welding operations on the body appeared to have been carried out after their installation, any adjustments, even adjusting the tappets or removing a sparking plug, were difficult. I severely criticised the design in my report, but concluded with the words : “It is probable that a more refined version of this type might have possibilities”—and how right I was!
I have tried a few large American cars fitted with automatic gearboxes, such as the Packard, Hudson and Chrysler. They are all very fine conveyances in their way, but their ways are not mine. Possibly I am old-fashioned but I dislike featherbed suspension and low-geared steering. I like to make my own decisions, as when to change gear, even if my judgment may be at fault, and if I want to over-rev, the engine in the lower gears I think I am entitled to do so without being dictated to by a mechanical brain, which, in this case, would probably be right. I must add that automatic boxes can be designed with overriding controls, but this adds appreciably to the price of the component.
Unfortunately, I have had little experience at the wheel of Rolls-Royce products, although in the days of my youth I was employed by that company, albeit as a draughtsman, and the only representatives of this marque to pass through my hands have been a pre-war Rolls-Royce “Wraith” and a 1950 Bentley. In addition to being very fine motor cars there is an indefinable difference about anything that has emanated front Derby, and later from Crewe. I would not go so far as to say that they represent the acme of perfection (no car has or ever will deserve that tribute) and, as in every other piece of mechanism, faults can be found if one looks for them, but as an example of British engineering and craftsmanship they stand supreme. Acceleration is so smooth and rapid that one has to keep a wary eye on the speedometer, the indirect gears (with the exception of bottom) are unaudible, and the brakes something out of this world. I recorded a deceleration figure of 90 per cent efficiency from 30 mph, equal to a stopping distance of 33 ft, but there was no sign of judder or the slightest inclination to deviate from a straight line, and I can best describe the application as like driving into a silk cushion. Needless to say the “ride” was very good indeed, the self-adjusting shock-absorbers providing the correct amount of damping to suit all road conditions. Another feature which characterises Rolls-Royce products is the attention given to details. All the controls, for instance (including minor ones such as the dipper switch), function in a light and positive manner, while the doors shut with a satisfying “clunk” without any necessity to slam them. I think that Rolls-Royce are rather inclined to scratch about for “thous” where “thous” do not matter very much, but it is a policy which pays dividends when price is not of primary importance. I do not intend to convey that production costs are not considered very carefully by the company, but they can obviously afford to give the little extra time and thought to small matters, which in the aggregate means so much. Electric vehicles have to he driven to he believed, and to waft along in almost complete silence, and with no vibration whatsoever, is indeed a fascinating experience.
I was fortunate in being loaned one, together with the charging equipment by the Brush Co, and ran it for some months, at what I imagined was a negligible outlay, but received a shock of no mean voltage when my electricity bill arrived at the end of the quarter. Acceleration was fantastic up to 10 mph but beyond that it tailed off sadly, and the maximum of this particular vehicle did not exceed 20 mph. Any gradient reduced speed to a crawl, but I was surprised to find that the rate of crawl never varied, no matter whether the hill was 1 in 40 or 1 in 8.
I had to be content with very short journeys, as the range was only 40 miles and if this was exceeded by even a slight margin it was necessary to make frequent stops, on one occasion at every telegraph pole in order to allow the battery to recuperate. If this failed to restore some of the lost energy the only alternative was to enlist a tow, but fortunately the manufacturers thoughtfully provided a special attachment to cope with these contingencies.
A few years ago a car of very different character was assigned to me for test, namely a 1939 Type 328 Frazer-Nash-BMW. Admittedly this is a car which would appeal only to the enthusiast, but I found it most fascinating to drive. It was certainly more at home on the open road than in traffic, its the flexibility of the 16-hp six-cylinder engine left much to be desired, it being impossible to run at less than 15 mph in top gear without snatch, but as the car in question was running on a methanol mixture it is possible that the compression-ratio was higher than standard. The suspension, transverse-spring ifs at the front and semi-elliptics at the rear, while very hard below 40 mph, improved as the speed increased, and at 100 mph the car was rock steady. The car struck me as being eminently safe, as it was one of those benevolent vehicles which gives the driver a great deal of latitude, and it would require a very grave error of judgment indeed to “happen an accident.” The steering, although perhaps too high-geared for some people’s tastes (two turns of the wheel from lock-to-lock), proved light, positive and accurate. Unfortunately there was insufficient time to take the car to a suitable place for ascertaining the maximum speed, and the 104 mph at 5,200 rpm, which I clocked with screen lowered could have been exceeded on a longer straight.
I have always considered that Jaguars are the best value for money if considered on a price-performance-appearance basis, and I was very pleased to obtain a job with them as development-tester. At the time I joined the company they were concentrating on and 31/2-litre models, both good-lookers and performers. The specifications of the two cars were very similar. Six-cylinder engines having push-rod-operated overhead valves were installed in light but rigid chassis incorporating semi-elliptic springs, Burman steering, and hypoid rear axle. Independent front suspension now became a “must” if we were to keep pace with our competitors, and, after trying out coil-springs and torsion-bars, the latter were standardised, semi-elliptics being retained at the rear. The 31/2-litre engine was installed in the new chassis, on which was mounted a roomier and more attractive body, this model being known us the Mk V. The Mk VI, a purely experimental car, had an XK120 engine, which was later standardised for the Mk VII. The Mk VII created a sensation when it first appeared at the Motor Show, and there appears to be no sign of its popularity waning. The earlier Mk VIIa retained the push-rod engine but the twin-overhead-camshaft XK unit is now standard. However, this car and the XK120 are so well known that no detailed deseription is necessary. Some of the early development work for the XK120 was carried out on every attractive two-seater having a four-cylinder twin-overhead-camshaft engine and air-strut suspension. It was never the intention of the firm to market this car and only the one prototype was built. When the first XK120 was designed we assumed that it would be capable of 120 mph, hence the name, but it was very necessary first, to ascertain if it could do this and then let it manifestly be seen to do it.
I can now confess that I had a few secret misgivings, which I kept strictly to myself, regarding my own capabilities, bearing in mind the fact that my fastest-ever had been 110 mph on a Lea-Francis at Brooklands 21 years previously. In order to put these matters to the test, I set out alone in the very early hours of the morning to a five-mile straight situated near Coventry, and it was the car itself which put my mind at rest, as I found it delightful to handle. The first run seemed very fast indeed, but subsequent ones, although carried out at the same speed, appeared slower, and I had time to read the instruments, noting that the rev-counter was indicating 5,200 rpm, equivalent to a speed of slightly over 130 mph. I returned to the works feeling pleased with myself, but although everyone was very polite they were rather sceptical. However, later tests confirmed my findings, and I shall always be grateful to Jaguars for allowing me to drive in the official timed tests over a mile on the Jabbeke road in Belgium, where I recorded a mean speed of 132.6 mph. High speed is of little use unless it is backed up by good brakes, and I was very interested to try out the disc type which had been fitted to an XK. They really were excellent, and on a perimeter circuit I estimated that they reduced my cut-off points by at least fifty yards. I had opportunities to test the XK120C but unfortunately I had left the company by the time the much more potent D-type came into production.
It was with many regrets that I left Jaguars and I did so because Alvis offered the inducement of reunion with my old love, to wit, fighting vehicles, while still being able to test high-performance ears, for which Alvis have a world-wide reputation. It only remains for me to say that at the present time I am driving bigger, better, heavier vehicles with more road wheels than anything of the kind I have handled before, and circulating the MIRA High-Speed Circuit, which, incidentally, is faster than the late-lamented Brooklands, in our very excellent 3-litre saloons.