The roads of the 1920s

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Following his tour of Lincolnshire in a 14/45 hp Rover in the early part of 1925, Owen John, whose diaries we have been studying, got back to the topic of compulsory insurance for car-owners, which had been mooted at this time in a bill read to the House of Lords by Earl Russell, and to what garments it was fitting to wear in the motor-car. O.J’s recommendation of the Burbury slip-on that had gone to France with him in 1915, grey flannels, a “nobby” suit, a “smoking”, and a pair of whites, dates the thing for a start. Evening garments, too, were thought desirable for restoring self-respect when touring…

But some things are as topical today as they were those sixty-three years ago. For example, O.J. was bothered then by letters bombarding him with suggestions for investing money he did not possess, just as we are now, and this, and the arrival of bills he had no intention of settling until he returned home, made him adverse to having letters forwarded to him when he was on tour. If letters had to be sent on, O.J. suggested wiring addresses three days ahead to a trusted friend back home, who would know which to forward and which letters to retain — how astonished O.J. would have been to learn that now those then-cheap telegrams have been abolished and that the postal service has deteriorated to the extent that relying on three days’ notice in this country would very likely be insufficient, let along for places abroad.

One item that does date these O.J. dairies is his statement that he did not take a wireless with him in the car on his foreign travels because in France he could always borrow a set that would pick up 5XX at 10 am to find out if anyone at home was broadcasting an S.O.S. for him. Back to clothes, O.J. praised the motor-car for changing the former intolerably uncomfortable garments (except that they were tolerated) worn by men and women and for shortening the skirts of the latter.

At the time when he was writing this, many taxis were owned by their drivers, who if an expensive claim was made against them would have to get rid of their vehicle to pay the fine, another recommendation, said O.J., for compulsory insurance, which could be incorporated with the car licence (I have never understood why this was not done) or issued to the individual, he didn’t much mind which. He brushed aside the silly suggestion that if a driver knew he or she was covered by such insurance they would drive more dangerously, the very argument advanced when the fight against compulsory seat-belts was on. On the matter of taxicabs, at this time, aged 12, I used to beg my mother to to hang about the London cab-ranks so that we could ride in a “new” make, should an usual Unic be first in the line-up: those were the days when I had the pick of Beardmore, Citroën, W & G, Napier, Fiat, Vinot, Panhard, Argyll, Belsize and Hayes, even perhaps still an ancient Renault, as recalled in that first of all books on the subject, and quite the best — “Taxi” by Anthony Armstrong of Punch (Hodder & Stoughton, 1930). That is another pleasant thing that has vanished, waiting for the cab you fancied, I mean, although I doubt whether my mother would have agreed, tolerant war-widow that she was…

Now, with the standardisation of London’s cabs it is almost always a ride in an Austin. But back in 1925 Frank Hallam of Birmingham (presumbably the same Hallam who raced a 12/50 Alvis at Brooklands) was making two-seater taxis on Clyno chassis that were permitted to ply for hire in that city at sidecar-taxi rates.

Reverting to the subject of motor insurance, O.J. thought it absurd to think that the introduction of compulsory insurance would increase the cost of premiums, because competition between the different companies would look after that, albeit he confessed that in all his dealing with insurance people the results had always been very much against him. To which I would add that nothing much has changed, in my experience.  An aside to all this is that in 1925 one car-maker was trying to make the stealing of cars less easy, for the Bean Fourteen was being fitted with a steering-column lock — was it the first make to have this? — using a different key for every such lock, for which duplicate ones could only be obtained against the Bean owner’s signature, A. Harper and Bean Ltd. of Dudley keeping a record of all the keys they issued. And in 1986 we have special locks on the much-publicised new Rovonda 800.

O.J, went off in the summer of 1925 on a long Continental tour using for it the same 14/45 hp Rover that he had tried out previously in England. I think it was an open tourer, O.J. saying that a modern hood and screen kept a cars occupants quite warm enough in summer-time. Rather remarkably, he asserts that the Rover Company that was “brave enough to launch this very original engine”, had never really tried it out over the long roads and the high mountains of the Continent. (This is probably true and there are some very interesting cornments about the shortcomings of this Rover in the late Dudley Noble’s enjoyable book “Milestones In A Motoring Life (Queen Anne Press, 1969), including how he enabled it to win the coveted Dewar Trophy).

Anyway, O.J. set off in this new and undeveloped car, remarking that he did not nurse it, simply contenting himself with filling the petrol tank, dosing the engine with enough oil to satisfy the oil-gauge, winding up the clock (a period touch, that!) and occasionally noting whether the tyres looked too flabby. Living 50 miles west of London they left early for the 11 am boat at Dover, finding SE London surprisingly busy at 7 am and also shrouded, in August, in a real London fog. But the docks were reached in plenty of time, helped by the then new road running almost to Maidstone. They had a calm crossing on the Maid of Thanet, helped with the paperwork by the AA, and by about 2.30 pm were in “dirty, dusty, dull Calais”.

The French roads were terrible, especially in the war zones, which O.J. avoided by turning due east from Verdun, a town of bricks and mortar and postcards, although en route the barracks and bridges were being repaired. I will not bore you with a blow-by-blow re-telling of this 1925 tour, in which the travellers looked at Strasbourg’s clock and walked the Rhone bridge so that the Owen John family could say it has been to Germany, great thunderstorms being encountered by the Rover, causing O.J. to perpetrate the myth (?) that you are safe in them, providing it rains. Suffice it to say that war devastation was encountered again, until they left Belfort, village churches only just being rebuilt.

In Paris, where the monster Citroën advertisement was up on the Eiffel Tower, O.J funked driving, using instead the taxis, at 2p per kilometre. It was at Abbeville that O.J. experienced the only puncture of the tour, one of the back Dunlop balloon tyres which he had praised so warmly being found to be flat. That apart, and a camion damaging the edge of one of the Rover’s front wings (I see O.J. used that expression for what were then usually referred to as mudguards), no trouble was experienced in nearly 2,000 miles, which, especially in view of the fearful state of the roads over which it had been driven, was regarded as a long way, back in 1925. No water had been added to the radiator and O.J. was full of praise for its springing and its silence. (Presumably it was this satisfactory experience which decided O.J. to change his Crossley for one of these Rovers, although not until the larger engine had been introduced and the car had become the 16/50 hp model, and it is interesting that, after his enthusiasm for touring cars, he choose to buy a Rover saloon). They re-crossed the Channel in a gale which was reported in the evening papers, and the cost of this tour, petrol and oil apart, worked out at the equivalent of 10/- (50p) a head per day, and that embraced food, drinks and hotels, No wonder motoring was on the increase! — W.B.