Cars in Books, December 1968
In "Octave 6" (1923-1930) of "My Life and Times", by Compton Mackenzie (Chatto & Windus,…
[Here is another article of this popular series, this time by peter clark, a truly versatile amateur, well known for his le mans successes with the h.r.g., his trials exploits and his interest in edwardians.—ed.]
My first velocipede was a B.S.A. three-wheeler sports, chiefly notable in that it was bought (secondhand) from H. M. Bentley and Partners. It was not very fast, about 65 flat out, but had quite brisk acceleration. I think it was a good school in which to learn, for its brakes were none too good and the road-holding, if they were applied when cornering, absolutely non-existent. I ran out of road many times but escaped serious damage to machine or man. Perhaps my most vivid memory is of the crashing blow administered by the dashboard to the back of the hand whenever second gear was engaged.
Vou will remember that on these machines the chassis ends under the driver’s seat, and the rear part of the car is held on by divine providence only. Thus when two or more passengers were carried on the prettily plated luggage grid, the body came out rather a different shape from what it was before. This necessitated abandoning the doors and strapping the tail with flat iron direct to the main scuttle pillars, a repair which was carried out by Mann Egerton’s of Norwich in two hours amid protestations of injured professional coachbuilders dignity.
Of course, I was very young in those days arid insisted upon using Castrol “R.” As a result, the B.S.A. was excessively difficult to start. After grinding the battery flat, one ground oneself flat on the handle and then went in search of a push gang. However, the car always had the last word by catching fire. This coupled with the complete impossibility of knowing for certain whether one was travelling to or from work when negotiating the wet tramlines in the Commercial Road, E.1, led to my deciding to sell her. I was too long making up my mind, however, for one day while ascending Wrotham Hill under full sail she virtually disintegrated. This led to one of those expensive rebuilds free of charge under guarantee, seven and six for parts, and seven pounds ten for labour, but I was still determined to sell her and did so, thanks to the rebuild, for more than I paid originally. I did just on 10,000 miles in her, and apart from the snags enumerated (some of them my fault) she had her points: she used enormous quantities of oil, but did well over 40 m.p.g. on petrol and cruised nicely at 45 to 50. The tappets needed setting every two or three hundred miles. If any reader has her, she is OK 7575.
Next I had an old 1927 Morgan “Super-Aero,” with the 1,100 c.c. J .A.P. engine. I chiefly remember it because in it I drove my mother to the Isle of Wight just after she had had an operation for what they used to describe on the packet (but no longer do, alas) as that “distressing and almost universal complaint.” Poor woman! One or other (or both) of the silencers were for ever falling off, and this led to some altercations with the constabulary in Cowes High Street. Otherwise, she never gave one moment’s trouble all the time I had her, and never had a rear wheel puncture. Of course, a Morgan is terrific: there is no other word for it and nothing quite like it. I never took mine over 75, but there seemed to be a good deal in hand: the handbrake worked on the front, one wheel or other, but never quite together, and the footbrake made a nice hissing noise behind. Absolutely instantaneous starting on the handle at off side rear, with valve lifter alongside. Many plug changes through forgetting to cut down the oil supply on entering a town or the frantic driving faster and faster and faster to keep both cylinders going when one nearly oiled. Truly a lovable car and full of personality—OY100 (I think). The vendor bought her back and was quite glad to see her again.
Next came a M.G. Magna of the early ”F” type, GX 717. She had, alack the days, a sleek-looking special body which shall be absolutely nameless. I spent a miserable first year with panels splitting and paint peeling, during which time nobody showed the slightest sympathy or interest except Mr. M.G., who was kindness itself. I mention this in marked contrast to some manufacturers, who simply wash their hands of you if you allow aliens to finger the mechanism. After a year I abandoned the contest and allowed her to split and rattle and rust—and enjoyed the “F” Magna for the jolly good car it was. Barring a Scintilla Vertex magneto, which was fitted for reliability but did improve the performance, I made no attempt to have this car specially tuned and contented myself with its normal maximum of a little over 70. Possibly as a result, I did over 48,000 miles on her without a rebore, and cannot ever remember being let down on the road. I believe efforts to go really fast led to difficulties with the cooling, among other things, on this particular model, but Guy Robins, later to be the R of H.R.G., put 84 miles into an M.C.C. “Hour Blind,” so they had possibilities. Also, of course, the engine was almost identical with the contemporary Wolseley Hornet, a 1930 specimen of which, as the McEvoy Special, was timed at, I think, 97 m.p.h. in the hands of Guy Bochaton, unblown and with the normal four-seater body.
Perhaps I may digress here to mention a car which I did not own but which I did drive for at least half the 60,000 miles it covered in “the family.” I refer to my father’s 1930 Morris-Oxford saloon. This was the six-cylinder 16 h.p. side-valve model, known I believe as the type “LA,” with four-door fabric body. I think it was a car somewhat ahead of its time, for the body had quite pleasing lines and was very light, giving the car a performance a good deal brisker than the 16 h.p. Austin and other comparable cars of the period. This Morris had a cruising speed nearest to maximum of any car I have driven: 60 m.p.h. was about the limit, but between 55 and 60 seemed the natural speed to hold all day long. She was unfortunately written right off in a crash about 1936, thus illustrating one of the disadvantages of fabric coachwork.
I was not, at this time, particularly interested in motoring sport, although I drove my M.G. up Alms Hill and up a watercourse in the Esterelles near Cannes, also I went to Brooklands occasionally with a blonde person who was surprisingly unmoved when her “face” ran down her face in the rain. It was rather in this vein that I bought my next car, a 30 h.p. V8 Jensen-Ford—-a great, big, slinky Anglo-Yank, I thought it was. Since then, of course, Jensens have forged ahead more and more on their own, and to-day they are motorcar makers in as full a sense as most firms in the business. They still use a proprietary engine, but so did, Lea-Francis, Invicta, Frazer-Nash and Lagonda (before the V12) to name but a few famous names. There was a lot to be said for the original Ford-engined job. Its braking, steering and road-holding were terrific, wringing unstinted praise even from a confirmed Bentley enthusiast like Marcus Chambers. Mine had a Vertex magneto, and, with the standard axle ratio, would do its 90 any time. After negotiating the Col d’Allos and the Col d’Izoard (French Alps) in darkness and finding that on 6-volts the twin 36-watt stoplights virtually extinguished the headlights on every downhill hairpin bend, I had her converted to 12-volt (constant voltage system) by Scintilla, an expensive alternative, you may say, to chucking the stoplights into the nearest ravine. I am a confirmed Scintilla fan, and do most sincerely congratulate them upon showing a degree of civility and interest in out-of-the-ordinary private enquiries which is almost unique in the motor trade.
In 1936, when my Jensen had done nearly 30,000 miles, I took her on the J.C.C. Canadian-American Rally. We had no trouble really, except when, after driving absolutely flat for some hours towards Toronto I had a flap at suddenly losing all oil pressure. I feared the worst, for all the oil over there seems to be about viscosity 2, and. we had been using about half a gallon in 100 miles. It. was only the lead fallen off the electrical potentiometer which serves as a pressure gauge. Later, in the States, some palooka (infectious language, theirs!) swiped my gasoline and cunningly nipped the gauge pipeline, so that I, never suspecting petrol shortage since the gauge showed eight gallons and had always like all Ford instruments been pretty accurate, half dismantled the car before I found out.
That Rally got me bitten with the sporting bug, and from then on I was never out of it. In an M.C.C. “Edinburgh” I fell in with Marcus Chambers driving the Windrum and Garstin Special 4½-litre Bentley, and Anthony Heal with his now famous “30/98” Vauxhall and others. By mid-winter the Jensen had taken a terrific bashing in every conceivable trial in the country, and I began to realise that for 100 per cent. participation in trials, as opposed to just the occasional M.C.C. event, it is very desirable to have a separate car which “doesn’t matter.” This led to my first attempt at building a car and my first experience of the motor trade term “needs completion.” For a very modest fee I bought an Alvis “12/50” to which this description most certainly applied, and it took several months, working perhaps two hours a day in the evening, to get her on the road. The chassis and body were very early “12/50,” the tail being of the old upswept point variety with spare wheel beneath it, and the engine was from a saloon some years younger. Petrol was drawn by an Autopulse front an Austin Seven tank in (on) the dickey seat. Ignition was by Bosch magneto, an excellent device except that it did not fit the platform very well and was excessively difficult to line up accurately. Thus I had almost a running contract with Messrs. Sports Spares for the fibre vernier couplings! Nothing whatever was done to the engine except to tighten up a few external loose-nesses, and it is a great tribute to Mr. Alvis and to my good fortune that she covered nearly 10,000 miles, almost entirely in trials, with no major troubles at all. The oil pressure never exceeded 4 lbs. per square inch with castor oil, and was nil with any other. The handbrake would lock the back wheels, but the footbrake didn’t do very much really, owing to the amazing contortions through which the front springs hurled themselves at the slightest provocation.
As you will have gathered, I was full of enthusiasm, but still woefully ignorant of what is really needed in a trials car. You see, given a little dexterity at the wheel, the Jensen could be hurled up pretty nearly anywhere by sheer brute force and adjectival ignorance. Thus my Alvis was not a very well planned trials car, being far too light at the back, and far too long in the wheelbase. Nevertheless, it got up some difficult hills even though it failed on many easy ones, and was good experience. It would do its 70 on the flat, used virtually no oil, and about 30 m.p.g. on petrol. I hope the present owner of GT 2202 has retained all her good points and cleaned up the many rough spots.
Talking of weight at the back reminds me that I used to put 3 cwt. in the back locker of the Jensen for trials, thinking the floor was corrugated metal, which it appeared to be. Later, when I inadvertently put my finger through it, I found it was only 3-ply gone crinkly owing to being rained on. Apparently the petrol tank below was pretty strong, however. At 45,000 miles my Jensen went to Alan Whiddington, who changed the engine at 50,000 and then did at least another 50,000 before selling her quite recently. Perhaps the fact that she did 100,000 miles in five years and at the end was still a darned fine car lends colour to my assertion that there was a “good deal to be said” for Mr. Jensen’s first effort. Alan fitted a high axle ratio and tuned the engine somewhat, for in addition to trials and rallies he raced her not unsuccessfully at Brooklands and I believe put in some lappery at over 100 m.p.h. If any reader has her (BYU 951) I hope he will not (a) remove the radiator, otherwise the war will be over before he gets it back, or (b) try to stop the funny little sympathetic chatter on the gear lever.
Next came my Meadows-H.R.G., on which, after some months of trials, I graduated to speed trials and then, via club meetings, to a little of the genuine thing. An H.R.G. is a terrific trials car, as the results achieved by Michael Lawson surely prove: he is, for example, one of the few people who have got a four-wheeled machine up that Gloucestershire impossibility, Breakheart. That the collective results were not more consistently successful is due, not to the cars, but to the human element. The team was rarely of the same composition twice running, and all of them were amateurs: Anthony Curtis, for example, is managing director of H.R.G.’s, but as a driver, just an enthusiastic amateur like myself. Thus it was, perhaps, that on the ’38 Colmore, for example, with Louise Redfern, Curtis and myself, we all drove abominably and could get up nothing: yet on another occasion, the Sunbeam trial on War Office ground, with Louise, Ken Farley and myself, everything went marvellously, and we all sailed up Red Road as if it were a pimple.
While my H.R.G. was being prepared for its first Le Mans, I joined the ranks of Fiat “Mouse” owners, and covered 15,000 pleasant miles with no major troubles and not even a decoke. My specimen did some but not all of the funny things they are alleged to do: the gear lever fell off once, and the clutch thrust race made nasty noises but never actually burst. What I do think is so remarkable about Fiats, and many other Continental cars, is that the defects, if any, are promptly and invariably rectified in subsequent batches, without necessarily waiting for a new “model” to be due. The vane-type oil pump of the ’37 Mice was replaced by a gear pump on the ’38’s: the clutch has undergone several progressive stages of improvement, and so on. I have just been rebuilding a very early 1937 model, with nearly 40,000 miles to its credit, and have been able to incorporate almost all of the subsequent improvements. I shall be using this next winter, if we are spared, when the H.R.G. is at last given a rest after many, many miles on puddle petrol.
My 3-litre trials Bentley you know something about, from the description in the December, 1938, MOTOR SPORT. She began as a joke, when my wife insisted upon resuming trials for the 1938-39 season: Marcus Chambers and I talked it over, got really interested, and decided to apply all our joint knowledge with a view to making a real job of it. I do not for one instant regret that the cost rather ran away from what was originally visualised, for the car is a delight and, when I really learn how to handle it, capable of surprising results in trials work. Of course, the handicap of its considerable weight and bulk cannot ever be entirely overcome.
That is about the lot. They say one’s sports-car education is not complete until one has owned a Bentley and a Bugatti. I have not done the latter but hope to, and should also dearly love one of the original, modern-series Delahayes, like Walker’s car which he and Ian Connell drove at Le Mans in ’39. As for racing cars, my education has not begun at all, and I only hope I shall not be too old as well as too poor to start this “afterwards.”
In "Octave 6" (1923-1930) of "My Life and Times", by Compton Mackenzie (Chatto & Windus,…
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