Cars I have owned

From I50/-Vintage Light Car to a Lotus Mk. IX, Described by G. B. Hewitt of Farnham

My first car was an impecunious enthusiast’s purchase (in 1933, at £7 10s.) of an Arid of forgotten year (a four-wheel car!) on which the salesman had to hold second gear in during a demonstration run. I then bought it, but it would only go in jerks in second, making most horrible noises. The second gear on the layshaft had had it, and an hour spent on the phone to most of the London car-breakers failed to produce a spare. So, at the end of about 1 1/4 hours’ ownership, I found the additional £4 10s. for a 1927 Clyno two-seater.

This was a staid old car which gave yeoman service when I was a college student, in spite of an argument with a tram at one stage of its career. The tram won but the Clyno was repairable. College came to an end and I started to earn my own living, the car being laid up for a while in an open yard to attract leaves and birds, and lose its paint. It was subsequently renovated and a new hood fitted, but it also had second-gear trouble, although in this case I was able to obtain a secondhand gearbox in apparently good condition. Although I prided myself on my use of a crash box, having learnt to drive on a bull-nose Cowley, this box also began jumping out of second gear. On its last journey from London to Manchester second gear became useless and a continuous racket emanated from the gearbox. The teeth were so badly worn on the layshaft second-gear wheel that they were actually jumping the constant-mesh reverse-gear idler. Then, like the “one hoss chaise” it very nearly wore out everywhere at once :second gear had gone, the tyres were smooth, the steering developed wheel wobble, the dickey seat got stove in, the battery had given up and so I scrapped it and proceeded in joint ownership of a 1923 8/18 Talbot with home-made pointed-tail body.

The Talbot, then eleven years old, was originally bought by my brother for 4 10s, and, as such, needed considerable work doing to it. It was therefore treated to a rebore, new kingpin bushes, brake linings, air cushion seats and battery and the spring leaves were separated, wire brushed, graphite-greased and the front ones bound in the absence of dampers. It then turned out to be a grand little car: 40 m.p.h.- plus in second, around 50/55 in top, with 50 cruising, but near-zero brakes. And yet, in some 20,000 miles I only did one minor shunt and even that only because the bloke in front jammed on his brakes when the lights went to yellow!

When purchased, the water-pump driving key was non-existent so we made a new one and then discovered why it had previously been removed. The radiator was so scaled up that in ten miles all the water was pumped out of the overflow. The key was therefore again removed and a tour of Devon, including “Roads Impassable To Motorists,” did not cause boiling. During my three years’ ownership this car had other troubles, notably breakage of the main bolts securing the quarter-elliptic springs. If a front one went a groove was cut in the tyre by a mudguard securing bolt. If a rear one went it was possible to drive home, if not too far, with the chassis sitting direct on the axle. This trouble was cured by fitting additional ” U ” bolts all round. It had no differential, there being a solid shaft with a wheel hub on a cone at each end. Once a wheel-bearing collapsed, but not badly enough to prevent me getting home some 100 miles to fit a row bearing. However, this had caused the axle shaft to run out of line, fatiguing the shaft, which eventually broke. Hence the wheel fell off, luckily at 5 m.p.h. A nearby garage was available, with a lock-up where I was able to leave the car and replace the axle two nights later, after a search of the breakers’ yards! Then the teeth began to fall off the pinion (why do the reports of “Trials” always say “someone’s crown-wheel failed” when, in my experience, it is invariably the pinion?). Someone put me on to a welder who said he could build up the teeth. He did, but it was not any good and next time it meant a tow home. I then discovered a straight-cut c.w. and p, for £3 which “would be noisy but stronger,” or pinion only, with helical teeth, for 30s. from Elephant Motors. I had the thirty-bob’s worth and in spite of the usual tale that pinions must be repaired and lapped on to their crown-wheels, I chanced it, fitted it and it ran quietly and was still perfect when I sold the car several thousand miles later.

The next big snag was tyres, which were beaded-edge type. The corroded rims, in spite of cleaning and painting, would cut the tyre in the base of the beaded-edge, leading to the inevitable burst, luckily never with serious consequences. The best bet was to fit new tyres or secondhand ones with no rust in the base of the beaded edge and keep the pressures up, otherwise burst they would.

On one occasion, late at night, we failed to get round a corner and finished up on the grass verge with the front wheels at 90 degrees, having hit a drainage gulley, Still, being impecunious, my brother and I slept in the car and in the morning a local garage towed us in and then lent us their tackle to do a jury-rig repair on the broken kingpin, which was integral with the stub-axle forging. We drilled and tapped the broken portions and screwed them together by means of a fully-threaded stud, brazed up the joint, straightened the track rod and were on our way again. Later the brazing gave way, but we were able to find a replacement stub axle assembly.

But all good things come to an end and again tyres were troublesome, the hood wore out, the engine was again beginning to use oil and I had seen a desirable four seater, open, fabric 1930 Riley Nine going cheap – £24, with £5 allowed me on the Talbot. At the same time I had seen a Vernon-Derby with a “nose like an aeroplane,” to quote the vendor, 10-in, fishtail, twist aero-screens, Marchal headlights, in Italian red, but I was “sensible ” and bought the Riley.

That car was a dead loss and has prejudiced me against them ever since. It would do 40 in third and 43 or thereabouts in top. It taught me one thing, however, and that was how to snatch second gear, it being virtually impossible to get a quiet change from first to second unless you did. Not that a snatch change is difficult. as any racing driver knows, but even quite experienced rally drivers have asked me how it’s done and it’s very desirable in many rally tests.

I very soon got rid of the Riley and bought the Vernon-Derby. That was even more of a dead loss. The clutch was impossible: wether it was in or out and juddered most horribly when taking up the drive. Gaskets would burn out between no 2 and 3 cylinders and when it rained one just got soaked. I arrived home on one occasion literally sitting in a pool of water. That car was sold for a song when I went abroad and had the use of the firm’s cars until my return to England a few months after the outbreak of war.

Then for a short time I owned a 1937 Standard Flying Nine, an excellent little car which I sold at a good profit a year later.

At the same time I bought a dismantled 1929 blown “Ulster” Austin Seven, converted to natural aspiration, and with a well-made, but heavy, two-seater ash holly frame…… Four long no-motoring years later, when a basic petrol ration was restored in 1945, I had rebuilt the car with a 1932 long chassis but narrowed to take the original 1929 narrow back axle, so it was now roadworthy. I taxed it and put it on the road, now fitted with an engine from a 1932 car which I had bought at scrap price. It went amazingly well, although I have not even had the head off this “scrap” engine. This car probably gave me as much pleasure as any I have owned and I kept doing mods. to it, such as fitting Bowdenex front brakes, wide brake shoes, a light-alloy head, large downdraught Solex, three-branch exhaust system, but retaining the standard valves and porting, lower back’ axle ratio. etc., until the first Eight Clubs Meeting at Silverstone, when one Colin Chapman, racing a Ford-engined Austin Seven, beat a Bugatti. He won his race and I just managed second place, in the 750 Formula race, behind Birkett’s ancient “Ulster” model, driven by Bulmer. 750 Formula tuning has progressed a long way since then!

At this time I was getting interested in trials and I had been amassing spares, so that I now had three engines, an ‘Ulster’ close-ratio three-speed gearbox, a standard-ratio four-speed box and a ‘Nippy’ close-ratio, synchromesh four-speed box, five 19-in. wheels, four 16-in. wheels, spare front axle, back axle, chassis frame, etc. In due course I built up an Austin Seven trials special from these spares, with the addition of a Cambridge body and no hood, two small perspex aero-screens and a total weight of about 7½ cwt. This won me a few awards with the able bouncing of my lady passenger, now my wife. On one famous occasion we climbed a hill after Ken Wharton and having turned the corner past the ‘Observed Section Ends’ notice at the top, both completely exhausted from bouncing and the radiator boiling like a kettle, we found Wharton in a most embarrassing situation. He certainly had not expected a mere Austin Seven to climb that particular hill in the tracks of KHA 1! It won us a first-class award in that trial, the Clee Hill.

The Austin Seven certainly has been the special-builder’s joy for many years, and the reason is not far to seek: availability of parts, cheapness, lightness – a very important factor to the boy with only a shed in which to build, and no facilities except his own strength for lifting engines, axles and bodies. It stands abuse and runs almost for ever with suitable care. Even if a half-shaft breaks, he can still drive home: just remove the broken bit from the hub, push the rest of the broken shaft inwards to lock the differential, insert a piece of wood or bolt so that the wheel-hub holds it there, and drive home with one-wheel drive, like a kiddy’s tricycle! It works. I drove home 90 miles that way. Snag is, the axle has to be dismantled to insert a new half-shaft!

Once again I went abroad, to America this time, and the Austin machinery was all sold at practically the prices I advertised in Motor Sport. After scraping together enough dollars for a down payment, I bought a 1949 TC M.G., which is still in my possession with over 70,000 miles on the ‘clock’.

My first ‘episode’ with the M.G. was to be backed into at some traffic lights, whilst I was taking my American driving test. Luckily I was not failed for this, and the car was only superficially damaged. I entered one or two minor rallies in it, and was almost a founder member of the now flourishing M.G.C.C., Washington D.C. Centre. In due course I entered it for an under-1,500-c.c. race in 1950 at Bridgehampton, but mistook someone else’s pit signal for the black flag and stopped. I had committed the unpardonable offence of overtaking in a no-overtake zone, because I just had not got such good brakes as the car in front, and the pit signal I saw was shown on a black board and implied ’11 sec. behind, go faster’, and actually read ’11 F’ – my number! Just a coincidence, I had not been black-flagged and so continued but was, of course, unplaced.

Previous to departing from Washington for this race, I had asked the M.G. agent for a spare half-shaft, as a school friend of mine, who subsequently raced a Magnette at Donington, used to break them regularly. The storekeeper said: “Half-shafts never break on M.G’s, and we haven’t got one anyway.” Sure enough it broke in the middle of New York! But, the AAA get-you-home service got me to a garage and the next morning the New York M.G. agent provided me with two half-shafts, so we got to Bridgehampton in time. I have not yet broken a second one, but I carry it permanently in the car just in case.

It was on the way home from this race that I was stopped for speeding. We were not in a hurry, having all day to get home, but according to the Speed Cop he had followed us for 20 miles, and I was doing “30 in the 25 limits, 45 in the 35 limits, 60 in the 50 limits.” So it cost me $5. The cop at least had the decency to say I was not driving dangerously and told us an amusing tale of when he stopped an XK120 (fairly new cars at that date). “Just a small car not much bigger than your M.G,” the cop told me, “and when I said, ‘You were doing 70’, the owner replied, ‘What, in this? Say officer, it will only do 50.’ However, he paid up and then admitted: ‘Well, officer, the makers guarantee these babies to do 132!’.”

The next race was Watkins Glen in 1951, and by this time I had a higher-compression head with bigger valves and cycle wings. This time I was lying fifth in the up-to-1,500-c.c. race, the original ex-Jim Mayers’ Lester-M.G. being somewhat up front, when a big-end went and I finished sixth. I discovered later that nearly all my piston rings had broken, and I had pumped the oil out of the breather – what an oily mess there was under the bonnet! Luckily the M.G. Chicago agent, Arnott, was in attendance, and he had spare big-ends, so I spent the Sunday on my back replacing all four pairs. Number three crankpin was scored, so I subsequently had this pin ground in situ by an M.G. agent in Washington, but later it went again during a 25-lap M.G. Handicap race at Silverstone when I was going well and lying second or third. One Geoff Greenhalgh offered me a tow home behind his TD M.G. but both tower and towee were not experienced at that game, and on one downhill bend the tow rope wrapped itself round the axle, track-rod and brake pipe, bending the track-rod and breaking the pipe. Hence, with no brakes and no steerage, I drove smartly into the hedge. The brakes were fixed by inserting a wood screw into the broken pipe, doubling the pipe back on itself and binding it up. We continued for the next 70 miles with three-wheel brakes! Subsequently, I fitted a new crankshaft.

But to revert to America, the next year I was again at Bridgehampton, and thought I had gained third place in the up-to-1,500-c.c. unmodified race, the standard cylinder head having been refitted, but a car which was not on the programme was credited third. However, the New York Times did credit me with this place, but I have received no award to confirm it! Sometimes American lap-scoring seems a little rough and ready, as witness last year’s argument over Sebring. Then there was a most enjoyable weekend at Reading, Pennsylvania, with a super two-mile, all-hairpin hill climb where I was third fastest M.G. behind David Ash’s Special and a Mark II TD M.G.

That was about all the competition motoring I did in America, but I did thousands of road miles, including a trip to Canada, and so home to England in 1952 in time for the last Silverstone club meeting of that year. The following two years saw me at Silverstone and Goodwood, getting the odd win or place at club events. Even the minor form of trail was attempted, unsuccessfully, but one or two rallies, and Autocross, brought home the odd tankard.

At this time I needed a car for business and my wife liked to have the M.G. for shopping, she had learnt to drive and passed her test on it. Also, we thought a saloon was desirable as a second car. In the end a very pretty blue Healey-Elliott was selected. Although, as a previous scribe said, most people who had Healeys could not speak too highly of them. I never really liked the car. The steering, expect at speed, was atrociously heavy, and my wife could not manage it. It never felt very stable on corners, and the drumming from the engine was most unpleasant. Additionally, I never got the reputed economical petrol consumption, when I first got it, it did about 18 m.p.g., but by careful checking of carburetters, brakes, tyre pressures, blanked-off radiator, etc., I eventually got about 25. The next owner subsequently told me it had been fitted with a lower back-axle ratio, which would perhaps have accounted for this poor consumption.

Then came the fabulous Lotus Mark IX. These are supplied as kits of parts, some of which one can purchase direct from the manufacturers, such as Ford axles, M.G. gearboxes, lights, etc. But, due to non-availability when required and other snags, all the parts are not obtainable at once, and when they do arrive they do not just go together like a Meccano set, as I had fondly imagined. The result is many hours of filing, drilling, sawing, fitting and changing about before the car finally becomes roadworthy. But when it does, what a thrill! My first time out, I carried as tools, one fire-extinguisher, and one screw-driver to open the bonnet to see why it stopped, if it did. Then, with my wife as passenger, and half-a-gallon of petrol, we tried it out and came home again without trouble. A few days later I drove it to Lotus Engineering to collect various items and was advised by Colin Chapman to run it in at 4,000 r.p.m. With my car, fitted at that time with 4.125 to 1 back axle, that meant around 70 in top. As is also well known, the exhaust on these cars is not as quiet as that of a Rolls and I just daren’t do 4,000 in any gears for fear of having the Police on my tail. It is quite possible to drive it through built-up areas with a light throttle foot, reserving the heavier foot for open road and the race track, however. [Hear, hear, and would there were more Hewitts in the world. Ed.]

On one occasion when driving it on the road, a motor-bike in front of me seemed to like the crown of the road, and apparently due to his noisy exhaust did not hear my Altette horn, so I changed down. He heard that all right, and I have never seen anyone get out of the way so quickly!

My car was only completed at the beginning of August, so I have so far had only two month’s racing with it and that has been confined to club events, which had netted me one win (Oulton Park), two seconds and a third at Silverstone, and a fifth at Goodwood. However, I had made the mistake of trying to do the job too cheaply by fitting the standard Ford brakes. These would fade almost completely in about three laps of Silverstone club circuit and on examination after five club meetings, the special Ferodo linings had worn half-way through the rivets on the front leading-edge shoes. I said then I would not race it again until I had some proper brakes and around Motor Show time I ordered Girling disc brakes. Unfortunately, due to production difficulties, these did not materialise until June, and so I missed the first-half of the 1956 season.

With all my cars I have never been able to get the phenomenal petrol consumption others seem to get, even when being very light footed after a rebore. The only outstanding exception is that fantastic Lotus which gives 20 m.p.g racing, but upward of 40 m.p.g. if 60 or 70 m.p.h. is not exceeded in touring! Otherwise my Austin Sevens gave about 37, the M.G. 27, the Talbot Eight did 30, the Riley Nine less than 30, the Healey 25 m.p.g. if I was careful. May be I am too heavy footed and I certainly love to use a gearbox!