Cars I have owned
I am a post-war motorist without the opportunities of the older generation, but, by carefully looking through the back of this magazine, I have managed to enjoy fine and interesting cars at reasonable expense, before they have had to be unloaded onto somebody else. Not setting your sights too high also avoids a list of cars running thus : A Bentley, An Austin Seven —which is inclined to make you small-minded !
My first runner was a cheap and shoddy 1923 Alvis 12/40, a bad year for Alvises. This was in part-exchange for two halves of a Type 38 Bugatti which passed through my hands but would not go round. The Alvis was such a dreadful car that I would recommend it for all learners to practise on. The brakes worked ineffectively on two wheels, the unsprung weight was enormous, and the weight distribution all wrong. It would, however, perform all sorts of advanced manoeuvres, like drifts and spins, on Belgrave Square (alas, no longer wood blocks) without ever exceeding the speed limit; and it could get away from a policeman on a pedal cycle. I met the man who sold it to me one summer evening outside a pub in the gloom of a side street, where he was drinking (I think they wouldn't let him inside). " By jove! A 12/40, isn't it ?," spilling beer over the already filthy bonnet. "I had one once. Sold it to a mug . . . dreadful heap . . . broken this . .. broken that . . . Ha! Ha!, etc. After introducing myself, I had to explain that I was quite happy with it and buy him a beer before he would cheer up, which goes to show that some motor dealers have a little shame.
I am a firm believer in having more than one car at a time so as to avoid using the wrong sort of vehicle for the wrong sort of purpose, and to retain a sense of comparison. It is, therefore, rather difficult to remember quite in what order my cars came and when they went, but the next was almost certainly my 24-h.p. Lanchester. It was purchased for transport on a V.R. Camp, but was cherished for two satisfied years. Mr. Upton, of Camberley, supplied it and it was allegedly the last car the old firm made. It had dual ignition, six cylinders and vacuum servo brakes, and was a seven-seater limousine. I cannot praise this model enough. The performance was infinitely superior to the contemporary so-called best car in the world," but what a pity their appearance was so Victorian. My limousine was high enough to get into with a topper on. There was a hat rack in which you could lose a cloth cap, a net on the ceiling for your stick, and an electric speaking tube which sprang back into the side when let go, for instructing the chauffeur. All the fittings were ivory. Unfortunately the car was tired and succumbed to the vice of habitual oil tippling. The cure was too expensive and it was passed on.
Sometime during this period the Alvis was sold and a modified Gwynne Eight bought. The compression was raised and the flywheel lightened and it then proved to be a very quick and reliable little car, and one about which Mr. Glutton is definitely wrong. People tended to laugh at the bathtub body, but I have yet to see any other style as light and practical for a small car. It would carry three passengers and the driver in great intimacy, or incredible amounts of freight. I must have kept this car seven years and was very reluctant to part with it even when I ceased to use it. It is significant that in this nippy little motor car I was able to get to work quicker than in anything else. My best Gwynne time was 10.5 minutes. My 4.5-litre Bentley never bettered 12 minutes despite touching 70 on the way. I always meant to put this Gwynne into the Light Car Race at Silverstone but somehow it never got there.
The first Bugatti had left an impression, and it has since always been necessary to have one. But money was short and opportunity scarce. Then, early one morning in the Cromwell Road, a Type 44 caught fire and burned out its petrol tank. It was on the move at the time, and the passenger's mink coat went bald up the back before the occupants thought to stop and get out. The coat was insured. The fire was put out by a Merryweather 110-ft. turntable ladder fire-engine which had been summoned by a sleepy top-floor tenant nearby. The Bugatti was soon purchased and the receipt written on a charred cigarette packet. The back half of the car was repainted in almost the original colour, but it photographed quite differently, and so there is not a picture of it.
The Type 44 is a first-class sports tourer ideally suited to English road conditions. It is the only out-and-out touring Bugatti with the G.P. gearbox having a short stick in the middle. This stick goes in with a unique crunch if you punch it right. Oafs often snap it off.
The performance is just right, with a comfortable cruising 70 m.p.h. and some in hand, a speed seldom exceeded in far faster cars, and, as with all Bugattis, the gear ratios and torque characteristic are matched exactly to how you want to drive the car and not what you want to say about it. There is never any vulgar excess in Bugattis.
To complete the collection at this time (limousine, light car, tourer), an Edwardian was wanted. For a long time I had been watching for a chance to get a de Dion Bouton that had once belonged to a friend. Indeed. I had had some of the principal parts in my possession for some time, including the carburetter. When I got it, it had gone downhill but was soon tidied up and painted. It was a charming 7.7-h.p. of 1915, with wooden wheels that creaked and a four-cylinder side-valve engine of about 1.5-litres, with high-tension magneto ignition. It always started first or second pull and was utterly reliable.
This car caused my most serious brush with the local law. Its original horn was stolen while it stood outside the house; I searched to no avail and was very augry. A few days later I was stopped by a motor-cycle policeman for having " no audible warning of approach." I was incensed and became abusive. Then it turned out that the car's paperwork was hopelessly out of date! I thus calmed down and, realising the enormity of my crime, was composing in my head a letter of contrition to the local Magistrate, pleading my guilt and beseeching his mercy, when the 'phone began to ring. " Is that Mr. Howell ? " . . . " Yes." . . . "This is Chelsea C.I.D. We have apprehended a thief and among his effects we found an old type of motor horn. We have had all the constables on patrol look around to see if they could find a car that has lost one and we think it may belong to you. Would you be kind enough to come down to the station and identify it." It all got smoothed over in the end.
When the bits for a T.T. Sunheam began to accumulate the de Dion had to be put outside to make room. After a year outside it became apparent that I could not keep it in the manner to which it was accustomed, and it had to go. I parted with it with great regret. It was a delightful car to drive locally though tiring on trips of over ten miles. When living out it was subject to constant depredation from children. I used it a lot for shopping and miss it terribly.
After a few years with a Bugatti you get a bit snooty about Bentleys. You pass a lot of them and begin to wonder what all the fashionable young men see in them (they were fashionable a few years ago). Obviously the small ones were tiresomely slow and so a reconditioned 4.5-litre was obtained, in exchange for the Bugatti and money. It was just a normal tourer (V.D.P.), with no room and the brake outside. In fairness to "W.O" I must admit that on the one or two occasions I got it onto an open road it was fun. For instance, coming back from Norwich to London, arriving at 6 a.m., or on the Kingston Bypass after 3 a.m. But in any sort of traffic or in town it was quite loathsome. The limited range of torque. the uncomfortable gear-change, the inferior brakes and heavy steering made it a car with a performance that is thoroughly out of date, although perhaps great in its day and certainly attractive at speed. Also, all my coats wore out at the right elbow, a running cost that should be taken into consideration.
For speed I thought I would get something practical and racy and took over the Attenborough Special from a migrating friend This has a 2-litre Aston Martin engine in a Frazer-Nash chassis. It was raced after the war in Formula II events and is very quick, but flys to pieces with great regularity. I have never persevered with it myself, and I have never found anybody else who wanted to. It is a good-looking single-seater " bitzer," and rather than take it to. bits, I bought a motor-cycle mudguard which I chopped up and more or less evenly distributed round the four wheels; a piece of string to hold the brake on, and a squeaker. and now I have a sports car that won't have to be inspected for Another 9.5 years. The only trouble is that it is too fast and decidedly dangerous. It is quite capable of reaching a speed of at least 50 m.p.h., when starting from the lights, in the length of a London 'bus. This, I feel, is bound to lead to trouble in the end! Also, Aston Martin engines are very badly designed and built, and better avoided.
Another migrating friend left me with two Sunbeams. One was the bones of a 1921 T.T. straight-eight the rebuild of which never got started, and the other a 3-litre with a blower on it. The " bones" were passed on when a Maserati appeared on the scene. The 3-litre on the other hand has been a very useful car. The only trouble with it is that the back-axle ratio put on by Sunbeams is not at all suitable when a blower has been added. It has consequently been reliable enough on the road. but never seems to finish a race, due to habitual over-revving. Mr. Ford makes a convenient ratio but he doesn't make them strong enough, but I am still trying. The biggest fiasco was at Snetterton last year. The oil kept disappearing from the dry sump and I kept scratching my head and filling it up. I suppose there must have been about eight or nine gallons in there somewhere by the start of the race. It burned a lot on the warming up lap before arriving on the starting grid. What had happened was that the block had come to bits and all the lumps of iron had blocked up the scavenge-pump pipe. The oil filled up the sump and was then pumped out of the breathers in the camshaft covers. The scene on the grid was ridiculous ! Amidst clouds of smoke the Marshals were trying to push the car off the course slipping around in an enormous puddle of oil, while I kept the brake on and indicated my determination to start. It had to be towed home.
It has had to be towed front Oulton Park twice and from Silverstone twice, but has covered a lot of practice laps and been well worth the trouble. If you know a car is going to break anyhow and don't mind you can dice it much more freely, and enjoy it much more than if' you don't know and are trying to preserve it. In fact, I suppose it is like driving one that belongs to somebody else!
Back to touring, and if nothing else the Bentley had indicated that there is virtue in size. I felt sure that a good-quality luxury car was the answer, and so a 5.3-litre Bugatti was hunted down; it is so good that I expect to keep it indefinitely. An 8-litre Hispano-Suiza became vacant at about the same time and joined the row outside the house. Both these cars were two-door sports saloons with sliding roofs and leave nothing to be desired (except economy), although they are radically different in conception. The Hispatio was faster and slower revving, with fewer cylinders; 2,000 r.p.m. is not far short of 70 m.p.h. (maximum 3,500). However, it has not got the same vivid acceleration at Slow speeds in top gear that the Bugatti has. The servo brakes on the Hispano have never been bettered for touch and power, the retardation responding to pedal movement with very little increase in pressure. But the Bugatti brakes also have no equal when properly adjusted, responding to pressure with very little pedal movement. The Hispano looked big and was big, and was very effective at intimidating other traffic and pedestrians. but its general performance was so quick and it was so light to drive that it could be manoeuvred like a Gwynne. The Bugatti, on the other hand, is not quite so large and the seating position is lower, which makes it feel smaller. It only weighs 37 cwt. and is entirely a one-gear car. except for special occasions. The four positions of the gear stick can be roughly classified as follows :—
Reverse : For going backwards.
First : For the Land's End Trial.
Second : For overtaking modern sports cars on the inside.
Top : For the V.S.C.C. One-Hour High-Speed Trial, touring the Scottish Highlands and Welsh mountains, and in towns.
All these are kept out of the way in the back axle. I have been very satisfied with the performance and am convinced of its superiority to any Rolls. What Rolls-Royce saloon could get up Beggar's Roost and do 34 laps of Silverstone in the hour (with pit stops) in top gear, without going over 75 m.p.h.?
The Bugatti is a prettier car than the Hispano-Suiza and scores heavily in respect of petrol consumption. 10 m.p.g. was all that could be expected front the 8-litre, whereas the Bugatti always does more than 14 m.p.g. In judgment on the two cars I would choose the Hispano-Suiza if living in the country and coming to town, and the Bugatti for living in town and going to the country. But then, on second thoughts. I think I would have to relegate the Hispano-Suiza to second place in both cases due to its thirst. (For this reason again Rolls-Royce would come bottom.) Both Bugatti and Hispano-Suiza are superb vintage motor cars, and so adaptable to any sort of traffic and road conditions that I would not exchange either for any more modern car, not even for a VW.
The 16-cylinder Maserati is not really mine, but I am including it in the list because, although it belongs to Charles Lewis, I have put so much work into it that I reckon I own him ! I can say roughly what I like about it because nobody else has one. The photographs show the power unit after it has been put together, and give a rough idea of how the two engines are mounted in the chassis. The crankcase and oil pumps are the only common items, otherwise there are two entirely separate 2-litre engines geared together through a pinion at the back of each of the crankshafts. The engines are set well back in the chassis to get a reasonable weight distribution. One result of this layout is of particular importance and has probably contributed more than anything else to the car's evil reputation and that is that the prop-shaft rotates the wrong way round. If you do not realise this you can get curious results on corners. In a normal vintage car the back wheel on the driver's side is the one that lifts and spins, and you can hear it. This is more often than not the inside wheel on a circuit. On the Maserati, the prop-shaft rotating anti-clockwise, it is the outside wheel that lifts. Increasing the torque by putting your foot down transfers the weight to the wheel under the driver, the inside one, and you can get round the bend faster. In fact, under some circumstances it seems to be possible to spin the outside wheel on a right-hand bend. Now consider what happens when you overdo it. From flat-out round a bend you get a fright, take your foot right off, the weight all goes onto the outside wheel (from optimum conditions) and out goes the back. In fact, the control conditions are mildly unstable. It is therefore very necessary to take a corner smoothly and cut out all this sawing stuff which is such fun.
The two engines were originally meant to give about 260 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m., but I do not think that nowadays it has a hope of ever getting near that figure again. I have put heavy pistons in it, which reduces the maximum speed of the engine by about 1,000 r.p.m.. and it has proved quite impossible to get the valve timing right after the butchery practised by a so-called racing mechanic. Nearly all the moving parts have been damaged and are far too multitudinous to make up and replace, and so the present performance of the car is all that can be hoped for. This about completes my ten years of motors except for a 1903 Royal Enfield pedal-assisted motor bike, a 1924 8-h.p. B.S.A. twin, and a Bianchi in the distant past. Also a Trojan that I use for economy at the moment. [See photograph below.—Ed.] This has the engine in the back with all the other ironmongery, because it would be too unnerving to have it under the seat. It has one brake band to stop it, an ingenious friction differential and a chain drive that makes a noise like ball bearings being poured into a jade bowl. It is capable of a steady 35 and has the starting handle indoors as well as many other novel features. Also it is spacious and will accommodate long-barrelled guns crossways and sleeping bodies lengthways, but it cannot get up Porloek Hill. In fact since getting stuck in Porlock (finally reaching the crest by the alternative route, only to careen into Lynmouth and get stuck there). I carry a special 10-tooth sprocket in the tool kit.
I notice there seem to be more Trojans in Devon and Cornwall than elsewhere and would like to refute the misconception that this is because they are good hill-climbers. It is because they can't get back.
In conclusion, I would like to note that the only machinery that I have not been fully satisfied with is that most jealously protected by one-make clubs. I wonder why! Also, for those who have been waiting to find out, the overall average price paid for my cars has been £90; the overall average sale price £70; which is the right sort of balance to strike if you want to enjoy your cars, and let other people have a go, too.