The Roads of the 1920s

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We left Owen John enthusing over the 9/20 Rover, which resided with his own 16/50 Rover saloon, and which recalled summer Sunday runs from London to the seaside, to Brighton and Eastbourne chiefly, which were a feature of motoring in vintage times. I still remember, long before I had a driving licence or a car, how jealous I felt of a friend taken only as far as Burnham Beeches, but in a twin-cam 3-litre Sunbeam. . .

OJ was off next, in the big Rover with its unusual valve-gear, to Stoke-on-Trent. In August 1926 the middle of England was as empty as the central plain of France, or so he found as he drove over the excellent Cheshire roads. Not quite the same these days perhaps, and I notice the trickle of cars on the A44 which can usually just be seen from my house becomes noticeably more bunched in summer, when the cars are laden with holiday packs on the roof-racks.

OJ found that man had ruined Cannock Chase, but praised Watling Street as running straight from Shrewsbury to London, whereas in 1906 it had been a mere track. He liked the Chasemen (as he referred to them) mainly because, having lost his wallet near the canal on a Saturday, he went looking for it on the Sunday and a small boy told him he had picked it up and his mother was awaiting its owner. I hope OJ proffered a suitable reward, especially as the coal strike was going on and on, and coal boats were idle on this very canal.

In 1926 Lichfield was being provided with a new road network, so that soon “the never-ending block and jostle outside the George Hotel may be ended, and once more peace shall reign in its ancient ways”. OJ did not like Lichfield cathedral as much as others, and thought the statue to King Edward VII should be abolished (or at least cleaned) as being a shameful libel on a “great and good man” — which will make one cast an eye, when next one has to negotiate this old town.

North of Lichfield OJ admired the beautiful and comparatively lonely land of ups and downs and hidden houses stretching away to the stream of Dove (with Derbyshire beyond) at its best all the way to Ashbourne. The Rover, with its good brakes, was being driven quickly here — though now I suppose it would impede the Escorts and Fiestas.

The tall wireless masts had just recently come to Daventry, and here the Watling Street surface was so bad that OJ diverted towards Northampton and came home by way of Towcester to Buckingham — happy little Buckingham which could once have had a big railway through it, but in 1926 “hardly sees a motor-lorry”, a lone and forlorn town too lazy to dredge its canal. Aylesbury, however, was rapidly becoming “such a home for factories that it stands a chance of losing altogether its earlier claims to fame”, such as what OJ called one of the finest examples of an old English inn.

Just before reading this part of OJ’s diary, I had occasion to drive through Aylesbury en route to meet a very active lady who regards me as a mere stripling, who still drives her Metro all over the place, and who had just returned on Concorde from a cruise to America in the QE2, which was “not like the ship I remembered before it became a cruise-liner”. At her house in Wendover she showed me a photograph of herself as a young girl in the 1914 TT Humber and the No 2 experimental 3-litre Bentley with Clive Gallop in 1919, and recalled Gallop and Zborowski calling on her in the south of France in a fine Hispano Suiza. I found Aylesbury horrid, all vast roundabouts and too much traffic, although I was glad to go through Halton, home of the RAF staff college.

It had also been just possible to discern the grass verge beside the now busy A41, where, as a boy, I used to sit with notebook and pencil to take a census of passing cars, becoming impatient when there were long gaps before anything passed! That was at the time when a clockmaker still drove out from Aylesbury to Waddesdon in his 1914 Standard two-seater to wind the many clocks on Lord Rothschild’s estate and mansion; when a 1914 Singer Ten was used to take the servants to the station; when my aunt was allowed to play golf on the Waddesdon course if the Rothschild family was not using it; when I found a 1902 De Dion Bouton under a pile of rubbish outside the little garage at the Aylesbury end of the village, but hadn’t the few pounds they wanted for it; and when the local bus service consisted of either a rattly Model T Ford or a larger Lancia, which would wait for regular fares, pick up anywhere along the deserted road, and whose time of return was determined by discussion between passengers and the driver in Aylesbury market-place.

Incidentally, although Frank Lanchester would call on Lord Rothschild with the latest Lanchester Forty, His Lordship remained faithful to his 40/50hp Rolls-Royces. As I drove through Waddesdon last month, saw the entrance gates to the estate and passed the boundary at the crossroads further on, it seemed like yesterday, when I knew, if others had forgotten, that the dairy building on the left as we came into Aylesbury was where Cubitt cars had once been made. . .

However, it is OJ who is supposed to be taking us on a look-back to the roads of the 1920s! By 1926 he was bemoaning the fact that cars had made the world so small that only an aeroplane could make it smaller, for a modern car could cover the length of England in a day and think nothing of it; and that in his little inland tour of some 1100 miles in the 16/50hp Rover “nothing ever happened on the road all the long way south and west and north and south again”. Well, it is even more so in 1980s cars; a friend and I decided years ago, however, that it is anticipation of what might be round the next corner that makes driving so fascinating, and I continue to enjoy most long cross-country journeys.

One point OJ was making all those years ago was that there were too many heavy lorries about, his complaint being that they broke up road surfaces; while this may not apply so much now they all run on pneumatic tyres, few, I think, will disagree with his sentiment that heavy loads were for the railway. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” quoted OJ, meaning render to the railways the things no other form of road is capable of carrying.

OJ’s diary dates itself when beholds forth against trams, in spite of saying he was not a “tramcaroclast”. They still ran in London — indeed, it was not until some years after WW2 that the last London tram ran its last run, followed, in the cause of nostalgia, by enthusiasts, pretty girls, the 1911 Coupe de l’Auto racing Delage, John Bolster’s 1911 Rolls-Royce and my own 1926 Delaunay-Belleville landaulette.

By 1926 they had gone from Oxford and Cambridge, along with their tracks, yet remained in London and in Birmingham; in the latter OJ praised the way they did not interfere with the road which ran from the Austin factory almost as far as the joint railway stations, except that there was bad congestion outside George Heath’s showrooms until somewhere near Gosta Green, where a wide street took one into more or less open country. I wonder if this makes any sense to today’s inhabitants of Brum?

OJ turned from trams to noisy cars. He made the interesting point that when motoring started the mechanism was often noisier than the exhaust, whereas by 1926 the opposite was true, and motorcycles had noisy exhausts when the rest of their mechanism had been rendered quiet.

I think this applies to some machines to this day — not that it is always objectionable. When I hear occasionally the yowl of what I take to be a high-revving two-stroke opened up along a nearby half-mile of straight road, it reminds me of somebody practising down the Railway Straight at Brooklands before a BMCRC meeting . . . WB

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