Cars I have owned

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In which Norman D. Routledge writes mainly of war-time motoring and mostly of Riley and Alvis cars. – Ed.

My ardent love of cars and fast motoring was born in me, and fostered by my father.

In my youth I remember with pleasure many runs in an old Phoenix, a Saxon, Star and a 3-litre Vanden Plas Bentley owned by my father.

The last I myself possessed for three brief months between father’s decease and the winding-up of his business.

Although I could handle our previous car – a “20/60” Star – quite well, I must admit I found the Bentley a handful. Eventually, by much application and practice I finally mastered the gearbox, and since then no other has troubled me greatly.

The old Bentley was a superb motor. I did some 9,000 miles in her all told, including several very fast runs, one from my home in West Yorkshire to Newcastle and back inside five hours (average speed about 44 m.p.h.), but she was tiring to drive fast and not too good on corners.

After I parted with her – it nearly broke my heart – I was without a car of my own for a year or two, during which time I got married and proceeded to educate my wife to a state of motoristic lunacy.

To do this correctly and in every sense of the word, also to satisfy my own desires, I procured for a song Riley No. 1, a 1928 tourer with light fabric body (VJ1078).

With the aid of my wife, everything except the gearbox was stripped right down, and after cleaning, laid out for inspection.

The big ends were taken up, new bushes made for the con. rods, and new rings, new crown wheel and pinion, new king pins, etc., fitted. Much “spit and polish” was applied to the engine, the exhaust and inlet manifold ports were mated with those in the head (I marvelled at the overlap between these) and, finally, an old Riley trick was tried, the substitution of an exhaust camshaft for the existing inlet one to give a 30º greater valve period. With much pleasure I record that she started first swing after the two Zeniths had been flooded. 

On the road she proved quite lively and fast, but the back wheels bucked at over 55 m.p.h. A friend timed her to do 70 once, but he could not pass me with his “Inter.” Norton as I was jumping all over the road. (Incidentally, had hold of my small daughter by the neck to assist the force of gravity to keep her seated!)

Time showed, however, that this car was under-geared and I tried, by fitting very oversize tyres, to remedy this. Alas, one day during a hectic blind down A2 en route to see my mother-in-law (the run there and back being the only pleasure I got out of these trips) No. 2 rod hopped off the crankshaft and modified the block.

Now in our vicinity there lived a certain Mr. Penfold – long may he live and prosper. I hied me to his “wreckers” yard at Gravesend and bought a complete engine, less sump, for a mere “quid and a quarter.”

So once more we motored, but this time the engine was not hotted up, it was just slapped straight in. We (the wife and I) considered ourselves good at this by now.

Perhaps I would still be running this car if I had not seen an advertisement in the Motor extolling the virtues of a “Brooklands” Riley Nine with “red wheels, huge brakes.” We went, we saw, we all got in, wife, child and self, and it conquered. £40 was handed over and she was ours.

The day I collected her it rained, the battery was flat, the mudguards rattled like Sid Walker’s barrow, and the (censored) hood would not work; this last complaint was soon caught by the wiper, and by then it was dark.

We got home somehow, and during the next few weeks I took the “lid” off and tickled the valves with great due and tuned the twin S.U.s with more care than skill. The mudguards were fixed – the rear with ease; the front nearly beat me until I gave up trying to fit them on the brake back plates and stuck them on the chassis. One early morning in Ilford I stopped at the traffic lights and was horrified to see that the whole of the nearside front guard had gone – due to the exhaust. I never heard it depart. However, a search revealed it a little way back, and it was stowed inside, where it spitefully wrecked a pair of silk stockings before we got home. Later, I am happy to say, I mastered these errant guards.

During 1939 I frequently visited grass track circuits near home, at Ashford, Brands Hatch, Layhams Farm, Eastry, and also the Palace, and a desire to drive in the Imperial Plate assailed me. I made a study of Crystal Palace track and decided at the end of September to pull down the “Brooklands” and rebuild and hot her up. Then came the war, but my plans were not interfered with, only slowed down, and owing to the panic I was able to pick up Riley No. 2, a saloon (JD1545) to use as a hack.

However, to return to the “Brooklands” model (WK7162). Enquiries have proved that she belonged to Peacock and was raced by him in 1929, and her last appearance on the track that I can trace was in the Relay race at Brooklands in 1935. I am pretty certain that she had not the original engine in when I became her owner. So I started from scratch; off came the body and out came the “woiks.” Much very careful thought was given to hotting her up. The head and valves were copperised, new pistons obtained giving a compression ratio of 8.2 to 1, new camshafts fitted, giving a terrific lift very quickly, all the “insides” were polished and four Amal carburetters were fitted, using a Ki-gass injector for starting and dispensing with the air slides. I used No. 60 jets and found by experiment that the bottom-but-one slot was best for the needles.

To tune these carburetters I set them all roughly the same, and then at about 1,000 r.p.m. cut out any two plugs and made adjustments until the results were the same whichever plugs were “cut.”

The off-side door was cut away for elbow room, the near-side sealed up and the exhaust system run fairly straight through a “Brooklands” silencer and terminated just aft of the rear axle.

Meanwhile I had procured Riley No. 4 (NG1961), a black alloy-bodied saloon that had been bored out .060″ due to a gudgeon pin float ing unduly and scoring the block. This was a grand car despite a slight rear axle whine. She could beat up a local Riley “Gamecock,” she handled well, steered to a thou., and the brakes were excellent. The single Solex carburetter gave better economy than any other Riley I have had, and she started superbly on the coldest morning, despite the fact that she always slept out – the “Brooklands” had the garage. During the time I ran her she impressed me very favourably and her staid appearance certainly belied her performance. Then it happened!

I heard of a Riley “12/6” “Kestrel,” a beautiful-looking car, and so this last “Nine” and some cash changed hands for this 1934 Riley (WD6248), and work on the “Brooklands” carried on.

The “12/6” was a flop; the performance was poor after my “Nines,” she was extravagant, and a sudden throttle opening caused her to sneeze like a man with hay fever. I could not cure this annoying sneezing, whatsoever I did; hot or cold, a sudden jab produced a cough-cum-sneeze and a jet of flame through the bonnet louvres.

Then, as though I had not had enough, Jerry bombed the factory where I worked and knocked the “12/6” about a little. This was easily repaired, but it is a pity it was not a direct hit. Another playful bomb blew the garage window in and the door out, but the “Brooklands” wasn’t damaged.

I now had to move to Bedford with my employers, so September, 1940, saw the “Brooklands” hastily finished or, at least, made ready for the road.

I licensed her for the last quarter of 1940, and on the first of that month, in a blinding rainstorm, we dashed round Rochester together in ecstasy. The tuning up had been a success, she was faster, and banging the throttle open produced really good acceleration. So in October we moved lock, stock, barrel and cars.

We went via Gravesend ferry and I opened the “Brooklands” out on the Southend arterial road; a speed of 72 in third gear and 84 in top was reached.

Whilst at Bedford every Saturday afternoon was given up to the “Brooklands,” and my friend Bully, with his Norton, used to accompany me, and he took several very good snaps of the car on corners.

I attained a speedometer reading of 87-88 m.p.h. on one of these jaunts, and I have reason to believe that this is just about accurate, as the Norton was very hard put to pass me – he seemed to take an age to travel past the length of the car.

Bedford did not suit me, so at the end of October the “Brooklands” was stored and we moved to Yorkshire again, the “12/6” taking us the 142 miles from Bedford in 4 1/2 hours and with umpteen spits and sneezes. Here I was employed as outside representative with an aircraft manufacturer – I still am – and I needed a reliable fast car for my work. As finances were strained and the “12/6” was showing signs of strain, too, an epic journey was taken to Bedford to collect the “Brooklands.”

We started off from Leeds one night at 6 p.m. early in February, 1941; all told the crew was self, Bully, wife, daughter, aged five, and son, aged six weeks (we train them young), and at 6.30 it started to snow. Near Newark the wiper pillion sheared and a repair had to be effected. Luckily the wiper was on the near side, so two nuts were locked together on the spindle in place of the band lever, and these were turned by the passenger with a box spanner to provide visibility.

The rise out of Grantham nearly beat us, but we did it at last and reached Bedford after losing our way at least 100 times, at roughly 9 a.m. the next day (we had planned to get there in six or seven hours).

Nothing daunted, we had breakfast, saw a few friends who rightly thought us mad, collected the “Brooklands” and set off for home about 2 p.m., the roads still being very much under the weather.

To save fuel the “12/6” towed the “Brooklands,” and I in the latter collected all the slush. Also, any traffic we met covered me with icy water.

Time drew on and eventually it was decided to start the “Brooklands” and continue separately. The push rods were fitted (they had been removed to ease the valve springs) and soon she was proceeding under her own power. It was late now, about 8 p.m., and as I was cold and tired I set the pace and sang and slapped my face to keep myself awake. Towards 9 p.m. the roads were frozen and rutted, so progress was slow and we eventually got home about 1 a.m. on yet another day, tired, grimy and unutterably weary. By 2.30 a.m. we were in bed, and were up again at 6.30 a.m.; all for the love of a Riley!

Soon after this trip the “12/6” threw No. 3 rod which fractured the middle main bearing housing. Another motor was indicated and the “Brooklands” was forthwith used on work of national importance, so now, possibly for the first and last time, nine horses and four Amals were on war work!

Often I gave Service personnel lifts, and I wonder what they thought of her and me; they had no screen, and the rush of wind, coupled with the screaming gears and howling exhaust as we passed people in third gear, must have been nerve-racking for the uninitiated; still, they got what they thumbed for!

At last the “12/6” was ready, and as I sometimes had to take passengers about, I reluctantly laid up the “Brooklands” and once more went around the countryside in the “12/6.”

Despite all my efforts and a reconditioned engine, she was not a success, and mindful of previous experiences, I turned my thoughts to a “12/4” of some renowned make. I just missed a Riley and then I found an Alvis “Firefly” sports saloon. I did not like the engine – in theory it still appears to be far from perfection – but here was a “12/4,” and I bought it.

The first week or two I wasn’t at all impressed and then, as I got to know and understand her, I grew to cherish her as much as I did the “Brooklands.” First, registered in Glasgow, she had, I believe, been a police car (US2938) and no 1 1/2-litre saloon could touch me.

The engine still appears wrong to my idea, theoretically only; practically I regard it as extremely good and the last word in real reliability. “Alvivacity” has made another conquest.

The Alvis and I got on fine together; we wandered all over England and Scotland doing as many as 430 miles in a day, often with only one or two steps. I drove her from Leeds to well north of Inverness, some 427 miles, inside 9 1/2 hours, stopping only to refuel. I ate as I drove, and arrived very fresh – in fact, I went out shooting the same evening!

My record mileage for one month was nearly 2,500, and the first eight days realised 1,600 of this total; for sheer reliability she is unequalled. Seldom did I need to lift the bonnet, except between trips of well over 400 miles. Fuel consumption could be 26.7 m.p.g. not exceeding 3,000 r.p.m., but as I had to hurry it was, as a rule, nearer 23 m.p.g. Three things only do I criticise. The seats were too low and I had to peer over the scuttle until I fitted wood blocks to raise them – this fault is a complaint of every “Firefly” owner I have met. Next, the front wheels have a habit of fracturing round the heads of the spokes if one corners very fast; I may be wrong, but I believe a wider front track would cure this. Lastly, the running boards were swept back from the front guards and got in the way when one had to get in or out, and they “hit the deck” on the humpbacked bridges in one district of Scotland, so I hacked them off just forward of the front doors, and all was well.

After some 12,000 miles I became convinced that there is nothing like an Alvis, except another, and I got an urge for a f.w.d. model, as yet unsatisfied.

Then, in October, 1941, it happened. I was coming home on a ring road near Leeds, and I assumed he would stop at the major road sign he was approaching. He assumed he could get across before I reached the crossing, and we were both wrong. In a desperate effort to avoid him I slewed the Alvis round and slid into his Morris, making contact with the front off-side dumb-iron; this had an adverse effect on the alignment of a perfectly good Alvis chassis, and wrecked one Morris saloon.

As I had been living in a furnished house and had had to meet some heavy expenses, I had not many shekels to spare. I had parted with the “Brooklands” not two months before this. So I decided to buy an ancient Austin Seven “Swallow” saloon (WX954) and use this throughout the winter, after first checking over the power unit.

This was done and I became an “Austineer.” The “Swallow” had guts, although its radiator was too small, and boiled like the deuce when the car was driven hard. I got to know every pool, well, stream, and horse-trough between here and Stranraer, and always carried a two-gallon can of coolant as spare.

The winter of 1941-42 stands out in my memory as one of snow and ice; every trip to work was a “Monte Carlo” in itself, and a spade was added to my spares in the back.

This ancient infant Austin ploughed her way through many a foot-deep drift, even assisted by myself at the rear and a well-designed hand throttle, on a few rare occasions. Despite the fact that the starter would not work when the car was cold, I was always first away from the factory on the coldest days.

On my Scottish trip, as Bowes Moor was snowed up I had to take the coast road, and had the misfortune to collapse a wheel on the bad surface, so I continued less spare. At Perth I stopped to enquire the state of the roads through the Grampians, and had to mend a puncture on the pavement outside Perth police station.

When I reached Inverness I was bent like a bow and very tender in parts, and after completing the rest of the journey I set off back home, and succeeded in cramming 300 miles of hectic rut-hopping into one terrible day during which parts of my anatomy became even more tender, and I had to repair two more punctures en route.

On arriving home my wife asked me to take her to town. I did so, and then told her I hated the sight of the x—!=! Austin.

That Austin had a heart as big as the Ark Royal and never knew when it was beaten; it is now a sort of rotor tiller in the hands of a market gardener friend of mine.

A very rare motor succeeded. the Austin; it was a 2 L.T.S. Ballot Weymann saloon (YO9064) of about 1927 or 8 vintage. I got this more for fun than anything else and to satisfy a need for a big car after my “Austinette,” and also because I was compiling a composite Alvis, using a “Silver Eagle” chassis, Van den Plas coupé and my “Firefly” engine and gearbox, I needing a trusty hack.

The Ballot arrived by train and was delivered without running. After a de-coke (my excuse to look inside) I tried to start her and found I could not understand the carburetteur, which was very French, and that the magneto was very dead.

So I changed the gasworks in favour of a trusty S.U. and had the magneto overhauled. Apart from constant trouble due to gum scaling off the inside of the 17-gallon petrol tank and choking the pipes, she was a great success. She was a colossal structure, literally yards long, and had the most amazing top-gear performance I have ever known, despite a 4 to 1 top gear and 6.00″ x20″ wheels.

We trundled around together for some six months, and very good fun it was, too; 75 was about the maximum, and the r.p.m. limit about 3,500 to 4,000 as the stroke was 130 mm. She had a rather Bentley feel, and handled beautifully, the steering being particularly accurate and the servo brakes quite efficient.

After the initial trouble the car always started instantly, and had it been of more reasonable proportions would have been a great success. I used to tell friends, “That’s my car outside, the one 100 yards long!” However, I once gave eight people a ride and all but two were seated, and none was cramped; I believe a family of two could live in the thing.

Work on my Alvis-Special proceeded as rapidly as possible, bearing in mind the coming winter and the draughty Ballot fabric body. I had the engine sleeved and generally re-conditioned, with new valves, springs, etc., and fiddled about with the cylinder head and manifold, polishing the interiors with emery cloth to promote efficiency. I took the moquette seats out and fitted the leather ones – ex “Firefly,” also upholstered the interior in leatherette to match. The woodwork was taken out and painted, the steering raked as low as possible, wheel in your lap style, and several of my whims pandered to. The screen was modified to open fully, in the event of fog or severe icing, a large brake pedal was fitted to the clutch lever, and the self-change was altered from the steering column to normal gear lever position. The latter alteration cut out some five pivot points and reduced the amount of lost movement to the minimum. The aluminium mudguards were stiffened up at the attachment points, a very necessary job, as I like my shockers tight, and, lastly, the whole car was re-wired.

I had spent about six or seven months on the job and was very pleased with the result, although as I had used a 4.5 to 1 final drive ratio the car is rather high geared. Eventually I intend to fit a blower giving about 5-6 lb./sq. in. boost, which will improve the power output and cope with the high gear ratio to advantage. This Alvis was re-registered EWR621, being my first three-lettered car.

My present Alvis handles even better than the first, due no doubt to the wider track, which bears out my previous remarks. I still think that crab-tracking would prove even more successful and I hope to incorporate this feature in another “special” I am building.

Since Octobter 1st Alvis II and I have done some 7,000 miles with no trouble at all bar one radiator leak, which was cured with a tin of “dope.” Since the car was run-in I have never spared her, and I have a game with myself on certain corners between here and work as to just how fast I can get round them.

Experience has shown I can better the figures of Alvis I without spoke trouble, again proving my point, and I can nearly equal the “Brooklands’s” figures on one corner; this is due to the Wilson box as I had to change down on both cars, but have the “hands on” advantage with the Alvis.

I honestly believe that a really good Alvis “Firefly” is equal to any standard unblown 1 1/2-litre. I would back mine – were it possible – against my old 3-litre Bentley, the latter having the advantage only on overall speed. The Alvis would excel on corners and ease of handling, with equal reliability and acceleration. Using the Wilson box seconds could be gained on the getaway from lights or other hold-ups. No doubt this expression of my views invites criticism, but that is my opinion – the Bentley was not the “speed model” by the way.

At present I am building another “special,” and my ideals are concentrated on an unblown 1 1/2 or 2-litre job with vivid performance and high power-toweight ratio. I am using my first Alvis chassis, modified, of course (with, possibly, i.f.s. ex Alvis or Lancia “Lambda,” if I can adapt one, to give me a crab track). Engine still doubtful, but I fancy a 4-cylinder for reliability, with, if possible, a close-ratio Wilson E.N.V. gearbox. The Alvis rear axle will be used with either a 5.22 to 1, 4.77 to 1, or 4.5 to 1 axle ratio, depending upon the type, of course.

My objection to blowing is that the “blower class” are usually experts – I am not, so I must take my place with the amateurs in, I hope, the near future.