The men behind the cars

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Features such as “Fragments On Forgotten Makes” and “Factory Methods Of The Vintage Era”, etc., which appear in these pages from time to time, are dependent on talking to those who were closely associated with the makes of cars concerned when these were new vehicles. Sometimes such knowledgeable persons are encountered by a fortunate chance or coincidence, at other times through contacts or clues provided by Motor Sport readers.

This has led me to think about those persons who were intimately associated with manufacturers or concessionaires, or the sales or publicity side of the business, in the later years of what we now refer to as the vintage era. In those times there were far fewer motoring writers than is the case today, so that not only were separate Press departments and fleets of cars virtually unnecessary and therefore unknown, demonstration or other factory-owned cars being provided when requested by the Pressmen, but it was customary for the scribes to encounter, and come to know, the Sales Managers, who filled the role of today’s PRO’s and Press Officers as well as their own task of selling cars. It may now be hard to believe, but it was then the custom of Col. Sorel, who sold Bugattis from Kennington Oval, to send out a uniformed chauffeur with a test car, which the journalist for whom it was destined might or might not elect to drive himself before compiling his report!

Alas, most of these worthy gentlemen have probably passed away, to a place where they are untroubled by endorsements, speed-traps and demanding journalists. If any remain, contact with them could well be beneficial to the continuance of the articles aforesaid. Anyway, I thought it might he nice to recall those days.

It was a period when, perhaps surprisingly in view of the horsepower tax, Empire-ism and kindred things of that kind, American cars were selling well in this then-conservative and slump-conditioned country. Indeed, Charles Joyce and Harry Pass had added the Marmon to their well-established British car agencies and claimed that in the first year they sold less than a dozen of these straight-eight, thereafter two or three thousand. They handled these big Marmon-Roosevelts from Orchard Street near Marble Arch and Mr. Frederick Greenhouse, an Englishman incidentally, looked after this side of the Pass & Joyce business. The air-cooled Franklin Six was administered to in this country by Regent Motors of New Burlington Street, who sold one to Gilbert Frankau the novelist, their Sales Director being Mr. A. H. Clarke. These concessionaires ran a Castrol-lubricated Franklin up to Glasgow in bottom gear all the way (it took 40 hours), under RAC observation, and ran one, locked in that gear, at full-throttle round Brooklands for a day, to endorse the effectiveness of the air-cooling. Dick Watney himself, of Warwick Weight Ltd., used to demonstrate the Stutz Black Hawk Weymann saloons.

Mr. William Lowe looked after the interests of the Scottish Aster and Arrol-Aster cars, the London agents for which were Leverett-Kearton of Dering House in Dering Street, W. 1. Mr. Ernest Leverett used to send one of his young salesmen out with inquisitive Pressmen, one of the gambits being ascents of Fitzjohn’s Avenue and Heath Street without coming off the 4 1/2 to 1 top gear of the 2.3-litre single-sleeve valve six-cylinder 17/50 Arrol-Aster with Dumfries-built saloon body.

If you wanted to road-test a Triumph and lived in or near London you contacted Col. A. C. Benson, the London Manager. He had a good sales line when he explained away the gutless performance of a new Triumph Super Seven by saying that after 30 years of working to fine limits on cars and motorcycle engines the Coventry works staff had a rather exaggerated idea of decent bearing fits, so that unless the car had done 1,000 to 1,500 miles it wasn’t run in. If you asked to test a Panhard-Levassor at this time, one of Henri Ramoisy’s three bilingual sons would drive it to Brooklands for you, if you preferred it that way. About the time when the Standard Nine was something of a new sensation Mr. A. E. Hennessy, who had been with the Company since about 1920, looked after the interests of the Press in this and the 14-28, 15 and 18-42-h.p. Standard models. Crossley, when publicising the T. D. Wishart-designed 15.7 and 20.9-h.p. models used to have their tall Mr. Erick Smith of their London depot, where Major E. G. A. Lefrère had been the Manager since before the First World War, deliver the cars to the pen-pushers.

Col. Cole Was the power behind Humber publicity in the late ‘twenties. Reverting to those American cars which were making inroads in the home market at that time, the Gardner was an imposing automobile, especially in straight-eight Lycoming-engined Series 125 form. The British concessionaire was Mr. H. H. Vaughan-Knight who was earlier associated with such “home-grown” products as the ABC, Bean and GWK. He got Wimbush & Co., who were established as coachbuilders in 1760, to handle the American concession and at Halkin Street they had not only their garage but body-building and machine shops, service depot, etc. One writer who made use of their Press facilities remarked, after sampling a straight-eight Gardner, that M. Lago, then associated with Isotta-Fraschini, should be made to drive a 25-h.p. Gardner for a week-end! The remark, moreover, appeared in print, but I wonder how many Gardners Wimbush sold in that first year of their 1928 concessionaireship, or where you would find one in running order today?

There was much competition in those days to get motoring writers to write-up these Transatlantic invaders, many of which were offered for road-test with scarcely more than a two-digit mileage on their odometers. If you wanted to try an Erskine Six you contacted Mr. C. N. Galer and he would deputise one of the Studebaker field service representatives, maybe Mr. G. A. W. Laird, to demonstrate or hand-over the latest of the Erskine line, together with an informative album-catalogue about it. Mr. Galer was a great believer in showing off the cars he was responsible for publicising at Brooklands, where a just run-in Erskine Royal sedan averaged 58 m.p.h. for 500 miles at a time when 77% of American constructors were using L-head engines with laterally located valves, like Erskine, and many were drifting back to wire wheels, unlike the Erskine, which, I remember, had timber-spoked ones. Mr. Galer was keen on the Brooklands Certificates as properly endorsing a car’s performance and perhaps it was he who contrived the Studebaker entry in the 1929 JCC Double-Twelve-hour race.

The sleeve-valve Minervas were always turned out for the Press in impeccable order, at the instigation of the kindly Mr. S. C. Holloway of Minerva Motors (England) Ltd., with appropriately-named premises at Minerva House in Chenies Street, W1. If Minervas came from Minerva House, Crossleys were to be found in Conduit Street, where Rolls-Royce Ltd. still reside. Major E. G. A. Lefrère sold them for Arthur W. Hubble who looked alter the manufacturing side up at Gorton. Singers kept a service depot at Lancelot Road, Wembley, where Mr. Newman held sway, the head man, of course, being W. E. Bullock.

In contrast to the avid American concessionaires, Mercedes-Benz in this country were content to use for Press demonstrations a straight-eight 32/90-h.p. Type 460 which had been in use ever since the 1928 Motor Show, without head or block having been lifted in the interim. Frank Seddon sent it out and if the scribe was too timid to drive it, as some of them were, a handsome young man from Aberdeen, named Kellaway, would do this for them, even to tests at the Track, which this 4 1/2-litre s.v. saloon lapped at considerably under 70 m.p.h. Press affairs at Austin’s, before the era of Hess, Revis, Baxter and Llewellyn, were in the hands of Edgar Wren, and in charge of the Press fleet was a chap called Barrett. They would then, as now, deliver cars to home or office if you couldn’t pick them up from Oxford Street’s North Row.

Bean in the late twenties had no special staff to administer to the Press but if you wanted to try a Hadfield-Bean Mr. A. S. Osborne, London Manager of the private-car division, would send a driver out with one, but not a man who could influence or inform the writer to any degree. In contrast, an Invicta for Press purposes would be in the care of L. Arnold Cushman, who a few years before raced Crossleys at the Track. Incidentally, Invictas claimed that nearly 75% of buyers of their then-new 4 1/2-litre had been 3-litre owners.

In the days when Swift export sales were the concern of Hubert Price, Mr. E. S. Ward doled out test cars and young Mr. Swift looked after publicity. A Mr. Smith coped with Wolseley publicity after Lord Nuffield, then Sir William Morris, had taken over that long-established company. Remember the Essex Six, about which no fewer than 76 talking points were listed in the 1930 brochure? They were marketed here by Shaw & Kilburn of Wardour Street, under Mr. Stuart Tolkren, who had as a demonstrator W. J. Gregory, who had joined the firm from the start and knew intimately all the Essex models, from the o.h.v. four-cylinder “coaches” onwards.

Enough of this names-dropping! But if any of those mentioned are still alive and would care to reminisce, I would like to hear from them.—W.B.

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