Memories of the Nineteen-Twenties

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I suppose there never was a car that demanded more careful gear-changing than the first one I ever drove. It was a 1916 six-cylinder Studebaker with a Salmon body. When you crashed a gear in that you couldn’t just press on, you had to get out and replace the back axle spline — which you had just broken — with the spare that you always carried with you.

The reason for this rather vicious reaction on the part of the car was that its gearbox was mounted directly in front of the back axle.

Of course, by then I was an experienced motorist. I was 16 years of age and had been driving for 2½ years. I’d learned to drive in Exmoor and Dunster (where I spent a great deal of my childhood) on a French two-seater, a La Licorne.

This 10-h.p. (I think) job was owned by an easy-going friend of the family’s who had no qualms whatsoever about letting an eager 13-year-old chug about the moors in it. The local policemen also got quite used to the sight of me driving with steadily increasing skill around the district and, far from objecting, they would usually greet me with a cheery wave of the hand — which goes to show how much the Law, as well as the motor car, has changed with the years!

After the French car, another family friend who used to stay with us for long periods kindly furthered my education by putting at my disposal his 1909 horizontally opposed two-cylinder Riley. The only way you could start it was to turn on the petrol and then set fire to the carburetter in order to heat up the induction system.

But to get back to that Studebaker: that particular model, which had a top speed of about 55-60, was known as the Flanders. Father didn’t like cars at all, but everyone kept telling him that as a petroleum engineer he really ought to have one, and, eventually, he yielded to the pressure. That’s how we got the Studebaker. With the first World War not long over, cars were regarded in much the same way as unfurnished flats are today, so although the Flanders’ price was really about £300, it cost father more than £600. As I was the only person in the family able to drive, the car gradually came to be regarded as my property.

That Studebaker has a special place in my memory also because of an incident that occurred one Sunday morning in Hampstead, where we were then living. I was taking my mother to church in it, as usual, when I cornered rather sharply and hit a lamp-post. The top of the lamp-post crashed to the pavement but we didn’t loiter because in those days getting one’s mother to church on time was far more important than a motoring mishap. Not, apparently, a very noteworthy incident, but it happened to be my first and last accident in 41 years of driving.

Nineteen twenty-two found me in the United States, the proud owner of a Stanley steamer. During my nine months’ stay in America I did 3-4,000 miles driving in the Catskill Mountains, the home of the legendary Rip Van Winkle. If the old gentleman had still been sleeping there my Stanley steamer wouldn’t have disturbed him because it was absolutely silent.

I’ve always maintained that the steam car could have had a really great future if someone had bothered to develop it. Apart from the absence of noise, it required no gear-changing, no clutch, and it was always very easy to start. Moreover, if the tyres of those days had permitted, it would have been capable of some impressive speeds.

True, it was best to know something about the working of the Stanley steamer if you didn’t want to land in trouble. There was always the danger of the tubes burning out. But these snags could have been overcome without much difficulty in time.

Back in Britain the idea of earning any kind of a living that was unconnected with cars was quite unthinkable to me — I was then 20 — and I managed to acquire the agency of the French firm of Delahaye, who at that time made a 10-h.p. four-seater. I established myself in a small showroom in Pall Mall and shortly after opening added to my business the agency of the Fabrique Nationale D’Armes de Guerre — better known as F.N. Ltd. They manufactured a saloon and an open four-seater, too.

Motor cars and the Continent have always been two great loves of mine and in 1924 I combined them very nicely by going to France and Belgium to sell cars for Hispano, George Irat and Voisin (who built a car with a small four-cylinder 8-h.p. sleeve-valve engine, and a big one whose engine was a powerful four-cylinder 25-h.p. sleeve-valve). For the next four years I lived on and off in one or other of the two countries.

In those days if you wanted a really high-class car you didn’t go to a motor dealer to choose one. Instead, you first obtained your chassis and engine and then took them to a coach-builder who made you a car to measure. In France, there was a particularly big demand for high-quality coachwork. There was no cellulose spraying; everything was hand-painted and some customers even insisted upon fittings of real gold.

Meanwhile, I was enjoying myself with roving commissions, selling cars to all sorts of people, many of them celebrities of the day. Two of my first customers were Douglas Fairbanks, senior, and Mary Pickford. Eventually, I felt that I had done sufficiently well to merit a “tailor-made” for myself, so I went to M. & C. Snutsel Fils, a Brussels firm who built about 10 bodies a year and boasted that they never made two bodies alike.

Long before the arrival of the internal combustion engine, the Snutsel family had become famous throughout Europe as builders of carriages, one of their earliest customers having been Marie Antoinette. The twentieth-century Snutsels had inherited the family craftsmanship in full measure and the 85-year-old head of the house personally supervised the construction to my own design of my car’s body.

The car was a 35-h.p. Excelsior, the model being known as the Albert Premier. Designed by the great Belgian motor engineer, De Conick, it was, to the best of my knowledge, the only car ever to have a royal crest on its radiator (it bore the crest of the Belgian king). It was also probably the first car ever to be fitted with an anti-roll torsion device. Attached to the back axle, the device operated on the principle of a pair of scissors. It was both very ingenious and extremely effective, but it did put a terrific strain on the tyres.

As was to be expected, the coachwork was a near masterpiece. The body could be completely detached from the chassis merely by undoing about eight bolts and then just as easily be replaced by a racing body. All the fittings — door-handles, lamps, etc. — were made with infinite care and skill in the Snutsel workshops.

Quite soon, the “mysterious yellow-and-black coupe” became a well-known participant in the many races in which I drove her. These included the Coupe des Alpes and the Route Pavee at Lille, in both of which the Excelsior came first in her class.

This was the car in which a friend and I decided, just for the heck of it, to drive from Calais to Constantinople. The trip created something of a sensation and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves even though it could hardly be described as a successful international goodwill tour. Antagonism towards motor cars in the remoter parts of Europe was considerable and we found that the natives were hostile for much of the 1,200 miles of roads, which were, incidentally, mostly rough tracks.

Our route from France lay through Germany, Austria and the Balkans, then back home via Rumania. Poland and Germany. We had plenty of time so we chugged happily along for about eight weeks. Being summer, the nights were mild and we slept in the car, feeling snug and secure behind the Excelsior’s bullet-proof windows.

From the mechanical point of view we did not have a moment’s trouble. Our tyres naturally took heavy punishment but we changed all of them in Austria, where we had arranged to have a brand new set awaiting us. It was the Balkan peasantry who provided the only real difficulties. Very few cars indeed must have come their way but, obviously, from the peasants’ point of view that was already far too many. They made no attempt to get themselves, or their goats, out of our way.

At first we tried sounding the hooter but we soon discovered that if there was one thing that made a Balkan peasant angrier than the sight of a motor car it was the sight of a motor car accompanied by the sound of a motor car hooter. At the first blast they would rush at us waving enormous sticks and we would then produce the revolver with which we had thoughtfully provided ourselves and fire it into the air. This always gave us a clear road but it did not help to create a friendly atmosphere and I was especially thankful on those occasions that I had such a reliable car. I would also have hated to have been in any revolverless car that might have followed in our tracks.

My cars have included at least one Rolls-Royce. I bought it in 1925 or thereabouts from Lady Seaforth, who had used it for visiting her friend the Czaritsa in Russia. I believe the Rolls was a 1906 model; it had a Roi de Belge touring body and, although it had done about 250,000 miles when I acquired it, it was still running magnificently.

I had the Rolls converted into a landaulette for my mother, who had fallen in love with its stately lines at first sight. She used it a great deal for about a year, and I then sold it to a dealer who, in turn, sold it in 1930 to a man who ran a car-hire business in Bournemouth. I last heard of it in 1938. It was still going strong, and for all I know it is somewhere in the world today continuing its majestic, trouble-free career.

Not long before I disposed of the Rolls, I bought another Excelsior —  again an Albert Premier model. If all the people who had ever been shipwrecked in a car ever decided to form a club it would be a distinctly select affair. Nevertheless, I would be eligible for membership.

I was bringing the Excelsior back home from the Continent one very wintry day (it developed into Dover’s coldest night for half-a-century) on the Belgian cross-Channel steamer Ville de Liege. I’ve never been a very good sailor and my usual mode of travel on the many similar trips I had made with cars of all shapes and sizes was to get into the back of the car, which was secured to the open deck, curl up on the seat and sleep my way to the White Cliffs.

Even when we left Ostend well behind schedule at 3 o’clock that afternoon, the weather was already exceptionally bad — freezing gales, thick driving show and all the rest of it. I lost no time in snuggling down on the back seat.

I was awakened by the ship’s violent lurching, a hefty jolting as if a giant battering ram was hitting the deck, and a loud booming sound. It was pitch black outside and I thought I had better get out if the car and investigate.

There was one small snag. I couldn’t get the door open!

I discovered later that the seas had been coming right over the car and had sealed the doors by freezing on them. I shoved madly away and between shoves I shouted, But no one came to my assistance.

Because she had sailed late, the ship had arrived off Dover at low tide and had run aground just outside the harbour entrance. Everyone — everyone, that is, except me — had been taken off as the heavy seas pounded the vessel and she looked as if she might soon break up. Nobody had thought that anyone might be in the back of the car.

After several of the most unpleasant minutes of my life, one of the doors yielded. I staggered out on to the deserted, heaving deck and managed to get to the rail just as a boat was circling the vessel on a last check. Soaked and freezing I was taken off. If I had been only a few minutes longer escaping from the car I would certainly have been drowned when the water closed over the vessel a few hours later. However, it was not long before I was asleep again — in a warm bed at a Dover hotel.

But my peaceful slumber was soon interrupted. The Press had got on to the story, and at about 3 a.m. there was a loud knocking on my bedroom door. Two reporters wanted me to make a statement then and there. I made several statements, but none of them were printable.

For about the next five days the ship stayed fast aground and back in London I mournfully pictured it and my car constantly appearing from and disappearing below the waves, When some 10 tides had washed completely over her she was successfully salvaged and my car was returned to me.

And the damage to the Excelsior? Absolutely none at all. The ice had sealed the whole of the car’s interior so that it was bone dry. I was a little worried about the crankcase, which was made of aluminium and which salt water might be expected to damage. Nevertheless, there seemed to be nothing wrong, and after I sold the car 15 months later I never heard of the new owners having any trouble.

My present car is an ordinary reliable product of the modern Motor Industry. As General Sales Manager of one of the world’s best-known firms of motor accessory manufacturers, Romac Industries Ltd., my daily life is still very much concerned with the world of motoring. It is a world that has changed almost out of recognition since I first entered it, but I find it as fascinating as ever.

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