MOTORING AS IT WAS
A Look Back to the Roads of the 1920s
Continued from the September issue WE LEFT Owen John, that amateur motoring writer and philosopher whose way we are following so as to get a flavour of the past, enthusing over a Studebaker Six. That was in the summer of 1923, at a time when he was topical in referring to visiting the GP-winning Sunbeam in the Hanover Street showrooms of the Sunbeam Motor Car Company and when you might still find the odd Siddeley-Deasy among the later Armstrong Siddelcy cars in that maker’s Service Stations at Lisson Grove in London (presumably where I used to take a VW Beetle to be attended to, many years later), the Great Northern Garage in Manchester, or in Newcastle-on-Tyne, Glasgow and Bristol. 0.J. was surprised at the small size of the racing Sunbeam — incidentally, he wrote of these Fiat-based racers in the plural, as in the London shovvr.m after the race, although I was under the impression that only Segrave’s victorious car had been displayed there — “500 miles at 75 mph, some surprise packet for many a lordly limousine or even the old type or `racing machine’ that used to look so mightily imposing”. This set him off about how at
the wheel of his Crossley, weighing not much under a ton and carrying on its front a high, bright, imposing bonnet, he received respect from other road-users but that when trying small cars he was apt tube driven into the ditch instead of being allowed “the moiety of the road” — I quote, because the expression is new to me — that he regarded as his due.
Well, one is not often driven into 1984 ditches, perhaps because many of them have been kerbed in, although it has crossed my mind that many Welshmen tend to be middle-of-die-road drivers and the other day I had to stop and reverse the Alfa 6 in what should be a quiet twisting country lane because otherwise there was no may in which an approaching multi-wheeled, many-tonne commercial-vehicle juggernaut could have got past; but that is the fault of local planners who have permitted factories to open off this lane, hoping that by widening it where possible no delays will result. Having got that off his (and my) chest, 0.3. expressed concern for the health of the British Motor Industry, which he thought was offering far too many models as in America — he put the ratio at about 3 to 1 in
1923 — and that there was competition from the Continent unknown elsewhere. Nothing changes very much, for if you study those useful price tables published in some of the weekly motor papers you will see that today there are some 146 different Ford variants among six basic Ford models, although as Ford of Britain leads the current sales-race with its Escort and Fiesta well out in front and the Sierra in fourth place, it seems to be immune from criticism. We now face competition, however, not only from the Continent but from Japan, which might now be dubbed the “Land of the Risen Sun”, whose automobiles seem to get ever better as time rolls along. One aspect of motoring that has changed drastically in the past sixty years is parking, which 0.J.’s comments after a visit to London, in his Crossley of course, to enable his young family to enjoy the cricket, clearly underline. For in 1923 he wrote: “I desire to thank the sensible fool in authority over things automobile in the Metropolis for the very nice way in which they leave one alone. I left my car in innumerable places for many hours at all times of the day and night and no man gainsaid me at any of them, honestly, I believe I could have left it out in the street all night had I so desired but it might have been necessary to leave on my side and tail lights, and I do not like to test my ancient accumulator too severely. There are scores of places In London) where a machine may be ‘parked’, provided that public traffic is not obstructed nor private rights interfered with, and it is usually as safe as a house.” Well, since then we have been moved on by the Police, apprehended by Traffic Wardens, and now may find our cars towed away or clamped to the road if they are left stationary for even a short time in almost any London thoroughfare. It used not to be so bad in the country towns. When I first went to live permanently in Wales I stopped in our nearest large one and as there was a policeman nearby, I asked for how long I could park. “That’s all right,” he replied, “if you will just leave your lights on”. As it was 11 am and I was only wanting to do some shopping, I was puzzled, until I realised he thought such ott enquiry could only have come from a driver wanting to park until the next day. . . . But that was some 15 years ago, since when, even in this town of not many souls, the yellow-lines, the Wardens, have arrived although the side roads still provide some parking facilities, and there are large free car-parks. Be that as it may, certainly the sight of 0.3. driving after the cricket through “empty streets” in London at night, in his Crossley, wearing a top hat, would be remarked on, today. . . . Parking in London today is close to a nightmare for most people, and in this connection I think of Devonshire House, Piccadilly. once a very covetable building close lo t he huh of the holm, (the liros statue in Piccadilly (;ircus . so t hat there was much envy and comment when the Rootes
brothers acquired it as their motor-car showrooms. But in later years it seemed to be forever surrounded by occupied parking-meters, which anode business visits there so fraught one tended to make excuses for cancelling them. It was the same at the annual Earls Court Motor Show, at which all the car parks were inevitably full and no stopping was permitted during this period in any of the side streets — I always felt especially aggrieved to receive an invitation from the SMM&T to attend the opening of this important show, only tube turned away by the garage on arrival. At least the NEC outside Birmingham, where the just concluded Motor Show was held, has ample parking space; indeed, so vast are its car-absorbing areas that I once lost for many hours a Toyota Crown I had parked there, without taking note of its location . . . The underground car park in London’s Hyde Park is one solution that didn’t exist in O. J.’s day, and taxis will deliver you to your actual parking-bay, and can be ‘phoned for at the garage reception-area after leaving a car; but what a time-waster compared to the freedom existing before the war! Turning to cars sampled by O. J., in 1923 he was satin a 23/60 hp Vauxhall, which he had never previously handled. After expressing dislike of its hp designation, on the ground that he didn’t know how the “60” was arrived at as a “sure and certain” amount, 0.3. was full of praise, saying that the engine’s Lanchester Harmonic Balancer, (another thing he knew nothing about) turned the four-cylinder engine into an exact similitude of a six, to that no car in the World could bowl along the road more pleasantly or do anything required of it more easily and more efficiently. Having bestowed such almost publicity-copywriting praise on the Vauxhall, 0.1. criticised its body. He could not find the accelerator without invariably finding the brake at the same time, he barked one set of knuckles on the change-speed lever, the other set on the pressure pump, and regarded the need to use an air pump to feed the petrol from the rear tank out-of-date when Autovacs never played false. (Well, I have driven Vauxhall Motors’ own 23/60 and do not recall having such complaints and as for trouble-free Autovacs, I have had trouble with them, notably on a 15.9 hp Delaunay-Belleville, admittedly when that 1924 car was some thirty years aged.) Taking the Vauxhall to the house of a friend who owned two Rolls-Royces (could this have been Mr Ranson?), there was more criticism, of the bent shape of the Vauxhall’s brake lever and of its non-adjustable driving seat. 0.J. hastened to emphasise that he was criticising the body, not the Vauxhall chassis, which was super excellent, whereas the body was just ordinary. 0.3. had the 23/60 for some 500 miles in all weathers and found it a joy to drive; he would have enjoyed it even more had one of the back tyres been less leaky, which teas not the car’s fault but somebody’s carelessness (red faces at Luton?). His remarks about the Vauxhall’s bodywork must have been something of an embarrassment, at a time when Vauxhall advertisements in the journal Ile wrote for were expressly devoted to
praising the bodywork — or was this a counter-measure? 0.j. found the car fast, smooth and comfortable, with a gyroscopic sort of balanced feeling he thought might emanate from the Lanchester Balancer . . . Its springing, tried on the roads around Ashby-de-la-Zouch, where some of the “tank-ye-warms” encountered would have jolted the back floorboards out of many other cars, was excellent. A pity about the bodywork.
Before the summer of 1923 was over 0.1. took a tour of France titan 11.9 hp Bean, accompanied by another car of this make, in order to see if a small British car would stand up to the bad post-war going in that country. The conclusion was that it could, for his Bean required for nothing, and stopped only for petrol or because its tyres refused to stand the strain or the nails littered about the French roads punctured them — and, we are permitted to assume, when 0.j. wanted it to stop. On this tour he did not meet with any cutting-in on curses — one of the hazards, like punctures, of those 1920s — perhaps because corners and cars were far fewer than at home. He ‘did see some accidents, one involving a Ford van and another vehicle on a straight road, which must have resulted from lack of forethought. It was apparent that France bought mostly cars of its own manufacture at this time, judging by those 0.1. encountered — just a few Fords, perhaps left over from the war, here and there a Fiat, a Rolls or two at Deauville or en route for Paris, all the rest French. (To be continued as space permits) _