Cars I Have Owned

This most interesting contribution to this series by Francis Kay recalls, in particular, those other gay if grim days just after the 1914-18 war. — Ed.

Act one of the war with Germany finished in November, 1918, whereupon that form of business was suspended for 21 years. I selected a well-fitting bowler and, leaving the Air Force, went back to school for a time, i.e.. finished my apprenticeship. During this period the long-cherished desire to own a car was defeated by a severe dearth of currency. Compensation was sought by the abandoned use of motor-cycles, which we bought and invariably sold at a profit after being made to sound faster.

The voice of inexperience affirmed that the building of a monoposto “Special” was the only way to reach the goal of being a car owner. Misguidedly I bought a beautiful o.h.v. air-cooled “twin,” and proceeded to make the “fastest 500 c.c. in the world.” That was yesterday’s funny story. By the time mid-1920 arrived, so also did an opportunity of voyaging East (of which more anon), in consequence of which the “Special” was never completed. At this stage my “schooling” was finished, and motoring experience confined to mere joy riding (from school days onwards) on a variety of highly interesting vehicles, and the golden day when (in 1919) I was lent a large “Overland” upon which to wreak my vengeance. I survived that day, learnt a great deal, and returned the car to its stable wholly undamaged by my ministrations.

Contemporaneous with this motoring adolescence, a number of friends were engaged upon strange prospects. Guy Warwick (later killed flying) installed an Hispano-Suiza aero-engine into an aged Napier chassis. Another fellow obtained an 8-cylinder air-cooled J.A.P. aeroplane engine of 1910 vintage, which was duly installed into a wooden G.N. chassis, with horrific results. A single-cylinder Globe with the final drive by 6-in, flat belt and a Mercédès of doubtful age (probably 1909) completed the series. When not working on my own “record breaker” (joke over), a visit to one or other of these enthusiasts, to Great Portland Street or the Euston Road, or to Brooklands, combined to fill life very pleasantly. But most uneconomically.

Wholly unexpectedly, and with no justification whatever, I then obtained an appointment with a firm of automobile engineers and agents in India. After a delightful journey I found myself in the Empire’s Second City, faced with responsibilities which were so far beyond my limited experiences as to leave me stunned and dazed beyond measure. There were a few new cars about the premises, but absolutely hordes of pre-1915 vehicles of all varieties crowded the bays of the vast covered yards. I was given a squad of “mistri’s” and a bay to control. Having decided to put on the act of my life it was necessary to let the show go on, so I selected a 2-seater Vinot as the car most needing a test. It was intricate driving out of the yard and into the street. Once on the highway there were bullock carts, tramways and every other known hazard to be faced. Whilst preserving an appearance of professional nonchalance, those early drives, in fact, produced considerable terror, but avoidance continued to be phenomenal, until experience and judgment made them certain. And then I drove anything within sight.

To be dealt with in the daily round there were many cars of a type now extinct. The Clement-Bayard, Lyons, Moon, Maxwell, Saxon, Calcott, Calthorpe, Deemster, Ruston-Hornby, Eric-Campbell, Cubitt, Turcat-Mery, Perry, Swift, Metallurgique, Hurtu and Delaunay-Belleville are representative of the many breeds demanding attention in those halcyon days; in fact, almost every known type made in the era 1910-1922 offered itself for my experimentation. Never was there a better school in which to assimilate the niceties of motoring technique, especially when it is appreciated that the process was accompanied by adequate payment! The fact that I indulged in a modicum of “back-door” aviation (my rightful sphere) whilst all this was happening is beyond the point of the narrative.

Travelling home after two years of joyous pursuit, the attainment of still further worldly knowledge aided a rapid return to the normal condition of impecuniosity, at which state I found myself carless. By some occult means I then acquired a 3-ply coffin, on to which odd pieces of ironmongery were attached and into which was fitted a twin-cylinder J.A.P. and a Sturmey-Archer gearbox, the ensemble being so contrived as to permit of auto-progression. A speed of 40 m.p.h. rapidly was attainable, after which the battle for survival became a whole-time job. Whereas it was better known as a Carden, I had other and far more descriptive names for it. I disposed of it before it rearranged my physiognomy. The next acquisition I obtained from the late Major Percy Bishop, who lost his life on the R.101 when she crashed in France. This unique car was an Isotta-Fraschini of 1913 vintage, and is probably the one mentioned in Motor Sport as having been seen in Southampton, where I parted with it many years ago. Of 11.9-h.p., the 4-cylinder engine was of T-cyLinder form, with an overhead camshaft operating, through fingers, fiat-faced valves situated in detachable seats. Atomisation was by Zenith and kindling via outsize Bosch. A 4-speed box was provided, from which will be appreciated the fact that the specification was adequate for 1913. The design precluded performance exceeding, to any marked degree, push-bike standards, and wide throttle apertures for extended periods (necessary to complete short journeys on the same day) frequently warped the exhaust valves. Fitting a straight through “silencer” assisted in this regard. By and large, the car was an infallible starter and completely reliable, excepting for the peculiarity referred to.

This was followed by a push-rod o.h.v. G.N. Frazer-Nash, which in turn gave place to the genus “Mowgli.” These delightful little cars were absolutely unique in the whole motoring world. They were most invigorating to drive, they handled perfectly and their manifold vices were at once their virtues. The fact that they were genuinely quick and almost devoid of brakes stimulated driving judgment and skill. However, so much has already been said in these pages concerning these astounding vehicles that it is superfluous further to enlarge upon their qualities. Their demise is the toll of progress.

Incidentally, both of my ‘Nash’s were fitted with racing type bodies of polished aluminium, Avro windscreens, and lacked any form of weather protection, whilst the “wings” were of the quick detachable “cycle” design. They looked good. They were good.

Variety being the spice of life, a full measure of flavour was afforded by the next purchase, which was labelled as being a 1912-13 3-litre Grand Prix Gregoire. In this description the only approximation to correctness was the date and the maker’s name. The engine was a 4-cylinder side-valve affair of two separately cast pairs, and the gearbox provided four ill-assorted ratios, whilst the rear suspension was designed on coach lines, being of the 3/4-elliptical species. On to the chassis had been fitted a quite impressive “racing” body, but its appearance was the only thing about the ensemble that resembled speed. It was rated at 16-h.p., possessed the agility of a steamroller and handled very like one of these useful creations, but had a little more speed, in that its maxima was in the vicinity of 55 m.p.h. Herculean endeavours failed to obtain any marked improvement in performance, the achievement of which would have necessitated the expenditure of vast wealth, in consequence of which it was traded in part exchange for a push-rod Salmson.

The new possession covered approximately 20,000 miles under my ownership. Invariably it was motored at full throttle for so long as the roads remained dry. On wet surfaces it either contrived or defied every combination of Newton’s Laws of Motion, and, in these circumstances was about as dangerous a means of transport (of whatever kind) as I have experienced. The Canton-Unne valve actuation placed a limitation on performance, but the engine was quite brisk within this limitation. Its one misdemeanour was occasioned by the throwing of a rod during a dry road journey (i.e., flat out) between Coventry and Southampton, an event which forcibly indicated the advantages of Free Trade. From which will be understood that only new spare parts were available — payment on delivery.

During the period of Salmson ownership much of my time was spent at a Warwickshire aerodrome, at which was operating a Reserve School. I remember finding one interesting car on the tarmac one morning, the property of a new arrival named Richardson. It had been contrived to his special order by a (then) well-known agent and racing driver, whose identity was betrayed by the licence, for it was registered as a “V.B. Special.” In essence, the chassis and engine were Amilcar, whilst the gearbox and back-axle had seen service on the Eldridge Special. The parts were well married and the car had potency. Unhappily, the owner sustained fatal injuries in a flying crash before he had completed the course, and some time afterwards the V.B. Special was collected by his brother, since when it has utterly disappeared. During my term of duty at this aerodrome the C.F.I. (Campbell-Orde) bought Hugh Eaton’s 3-litre “Red Label” Bentley which was an excellent example of the type.

On leave in the South, the Salmson was parked in order to adopt an alternative means of transport, and that’s the last I saw of it. The “alternative transport” demonstrated the irrefutability of Newton’s Laws of Motion with much greater emphasis than had the Salmson, with the result that the latter was disposed of during the ensuing period of 12 months’ convalescence. If all good things come to an end, equally so the bad things, so that in due season I was once again fully mobile, but minus the “auto.” The somewhat elaborate repairs to my personal framework had caused such repercussion that red ink entries in the pass-book were predominant. Thus, for a mere £7, I obtained a six-year old (1926) 2-seater Cowley — the last of the bull-nosed, the first of the f.w.b. For six months it served me faithfully and well, was given no attention whatsoever, and when traded in part-exchange for a 2-seater “14/40” M.G. I was allowed £5 for it. What could be fairer?

The “14/40” motored well, covered quite a fair mileage, and no profound alterations were made to its internal economy. The standard cast-iron and the Ricardo alloy head gave exactly the same results, except that the latter was prone to warp, thus permitting gaskets to blow or internal waterways to develop in unorthodox position. One such leak necessitated the removal of the head, when it was decided to “loose” the sump and drop the big-ends, if only to verify their condition. This revealed that each of the pistons had cracks through both gudgeon pin bosses, an example of inertia failure, resulting (no doubt) from a surfeit of peak r.p.m. A set of Hepolites took their place. The only compulsory stop with this pleasant car was occasioned by a torsional failure of a half-shaft at the wheel end, a replacement shaft being obtained “over the counter” for 7s. 6d. net.

This car was No. DR2781, and I left her in Manchester when Nemesis decreed that I should again travel to lands “where there ain’t no ten commandments and a man can get a thirst.” These two wholly desirable conditions were complied with for a year, during which period contact with “breed” cars was extremely limited. In Calcutta, one of Braithwaite’s engineers had a very fine “30/98” Vauxhall and Thornyeroft’s local manager used a Talbot “105,” in both of which I motored. In Colombo I found an M.G. “Tiger,” in Bombay a 2-litre Lagonda in showroom condition, and in Karachi, Flight Lieutenant (now Air Commodore) Geoffrey Tuttle used a very good Le Mans 3-litre, which he had rebuilt from the ill-conditioned Bentley purchased from one of the Princes. Incidentally, on stripping the engine he found the big-end nuts “split-pinned” with French nails, which represents “anti-British” expression in an original manner.

The last car to be bought before warfare was re-opened was a Wolseley “Hornet.” I used it a great deal for 21 years; I cannot imagine why, for I never liked it. However, it took me many thousands of miles, and conveyed me to Lewes, Brooklands, Shelsley, or wherever I wished to go, and never failed to arrive, albeit it limped home on one or two occasions. This car gave place to CHY 298, an Avon-Standard drop-head coupé, which has served as an “official-use-only” hack from mid-1940 until the present day. What it will be replaced by is a matter of conjecture, as the supply position threatens to remain difficult for an indefinite period. In the meantime, it now serves to transport me other than “officially,” and should any reader note its presence outside an hostelry, it is suggested that he, too, pauses awhile and joins the writer in a few moments of conversation, suitably aided by such amenities as may prevail. From the foregoing it will be. quite clear that ownership has not included cars of great rapidity or spectacular character, but they have all possessed a degree of individuality and have afforded pleasure quite disproportionate to their very low cost. If it were intended to discourse upon the cars which one has not owned, but which one has driven or ridden in, then an unending vista of colourful reminiscences is provoked. The Fiat cabriolet in which a smash experienced as long ago as 1913 open the list, for I was a willing passenger when it uprooted a substantial lighting fixture. In the same era, principal memories are of frequent rides in Darracq, Sunbeam, Little Greg and Peugeot, the latter being yellow bodied and very fast.

The 1914-18 war period carries the memory of many, and oft-times lurid, journeys in the R.F.C. Crossley tenders so inexorably associated with that Service. The kaleidoscopic picture of motoring history in the years between is coloured by the personalities of those who were a part of it. Of these, I knew Lou Zborowski, Moller Le Champion, Ernest Eldridge, Parry Thomas, Chris Staniland, Dick Shuttleworth, and met in passing a host more of the greater or lesser lights in the bright firmament of the motoring world.