The Editor chats with Capt. S. M. Townsend
A rising out of the notes we published about the 1904 Gordon Bennett Weir Darracq with the “?” on its hub caps in the June issue, I drove down the notoriously congested A31, along which Army tank transporters added to the creeping and crawling, and through trolley-bus infested Bournemouth last month to talk, at his charming house overlooking Sandbanks harbour, to Capt. S. M. Townsend. who owned the car before the First World War.
A family friend discovered this 11.25-litre Darracq somewhere in London in 1910 after it had faded from contemporary memory and bought it for a joke. The then youthful Townsend and his friend Oscar Morris were asked to drive it down to Brighton. It repaid their enthusiasm by stalling on Brixton Hill, but restarted— the only time it ever did!.—on the handle. The noise of the car’s approach was awe-inspiring and to this was added a report like gun-fire when a tyre burst in Croydon. A friendly garage agreed to find and fit another tyre and, after spending the night locally, Townsend and Morris were back at 6 a.m, the next morning. After a slight fire the Darracq got away but began to overheat a few miles from its destination, so the family chauffeur was telephoned to come out and tow the monster home.
Investigation showed one of the four enormous cylinders to be cracked, so young Townsend was asked to accept the Darracq as a present. At this time the Daimler Company, having gone over to sleeve valves, were selling off surplus poppet-valve engines. Townsend bought an 8-litre Daimler engine of this type for £97 and had it installed in the old Darracq by Thornycroft’s for a further £100. He then had a unique car, able to do 80 m.p.h. at 1,100 r.p.m. On getting married he sold the hybrid to his friend Oscar Morris who, as recounted, did extremely well with it on Brooklands Track.
Looking through Capt. Townsend’s old photograph albums for pictures of the Darracq, I came upon other cars. For instance, there was his father’s first automobile, a 3-cylinder 8/11 h.p. Panhard-Levassor, bought in 1905, when its underpowered engine with automatic inlet valves and friction-driven water-pump and its chain-drive were already out of date. It had a top speed of only 25 m.p.h. but was taken in a crate to Malaga and used for an ambitious tour of Spain, driven by young Townsend with the help of a French chauffeur-mechanic, his mother the passenger.
His father then bought a 30 h.p. Thornycroft, delivered as a chassis— “I felt very sporty, driving this”—so that the Thorn Rin des Belges body with detachable canopy top from the Panhard could be put on it.
This big Thornycroft proved a thoroughly reliable car, although a set of ordinary tyres lasted only 2,000 miles and Palmer Cords at £60 a set, 5,000 miles. A high axle ratio had been specified, which ruined the top-gear performance, but the Thornycroft performed well on a Continental tour in 1908/9. except for trouble with the acetylene headlamps. It was in use up to the outbreak of the 1914/18 war.
There were pictures of a 12 h.p. Clegg-Rover which Capt. Townsend received as a wedding present. another extremely reliable car, which had a Lawton Goodman coupe body and also undertook a tour of France. There were clear “snaps” of two A.C. light cars, a war-time model with very sudden clutch, bought just after the 1914/18 war, and the new model which replaced it soon afterwards. Capt. Townsend wished to re-visit the French battlefields and, regarding the A.C. as too frail for the shell-pocked roads, he bought another Clegg-Rover, a tourer, selling it afterwards at a profit, aided by the time-honoured sales gimmick of a fresh coat of paint.
These cars were followed by a Fiat 501 with a crude Avro saloon body, very sparcely upholstered. Costing £800, this Fiat was very satisfactory except for harsh springing and noisy timing gears, the latter cured by putting in a fibre pinion.
One interesting picture showed a very modern-looking wire-wheeled 18-h.p. Adler all-weather. Capt. Townsend brought this to England as a speculation but the anti-German feeling then prevailing killed the project stone dead.
Very handsome was a Delahaye coupe de ville, bought at Aldridges’ auction for around £250 but disposed of because it suffered from incurable if occasional clutch slip. It was replaced by an immense 1925 Fiat Forty, With that very clean engine, all the components hidden under valences in the crankcase. The brakes were enormous in size and as powerful as they looked, calling for considerable care but serving their purpose when a train suddenly appeared at a blind level-crossing in Switzerland.
Very high praise is accorded a couple of Panhard-Levassors, a 1929 16/45 and a 1930 18 h.p., although the former sustained repeated seizures of its sleeve valves. “The control, steering and road-holding were excellent,” recalls Capt. Townsend, ” and the gear-change likewise—they invented the sliding pinion box, So I suppose it should have been!” Not all Capt. Townsend’s cars are portrayed in his albums (see however, MOTOR SPORT for July 1945). but I was fascinated by a picture of a box-like 12 h.p. Berliet saloon, with wire wheels and a big trunk on the back. This one was bought merely for getting home from the Riviera. It was secondhand and these Berliets had a poor reputation in France at the time, being described by garage hands as mauvais marchandise. Apparently the valve steel was too soft, resulting in hammering over of the stems or suchlike, but this one got the family home, although there was a delay of 36 hours at the works in Lyon for repairs, the Townsends living very well in ancient plush-upholstered restaurants Meanwhile !
Looking at this old “snap” reminded Capt. Townsend that the car had occasional seats, enabling a nanny and a manservant to travel comfortably with the family, and called forth a tirade against modern cars with their low roofs, cramped interiors, lack of occasional seats but enormous luggage-boots!
In 1927— “I had reached the age of 40, when a man likes to get out of the rut”—Capt. Townsend initiated the now-famous Townsend Cross-Channel Ferry Service, by chartering a small coaster, the 386-ton Artificer, which he put into service in July 1928. This ship carried 15 cars but had no passenger licence, so passengers were taken by motor coach—one of them a 1928 18 h.p. Delage coupe de ville, rebodied for the purpose after servicing its owner until 1938—to another part of the harbour and transported by mail boat. Fares were £2 single, £3 15s, return for cars under 8 ft. 6 in. wheelbase, compared with the Southern Railway tariff of £5 15s. single. The Artificer took 2.5 hours on the crossing, and was permitted a dozen passengers on deck, who were charged 10s. each! The Royal Firth replaced this first chartered ship and after the company had made a profit of £80 in its first year, the Forde, an ex-warship, was bought for £5,000 and converted into a ferry boat able to carry 200 passengers and 30 cars at 13 knots, under the command of Capt. Louis Brady, a seaman of the old school. In 1950. the Forde was replaced by the frigate Halladale, bought from the Admiralty for £15,000 and converted by the Cork Dockyard Company. She is still in service and is of 1,370 tons, driven by twin-screw turbines of 6,500 h.p., and carries 368 passengers and 55 cars.
To revert to cars, one of the most interesting owned by Capt. Townsend was a straight-eight Bugatti, a Type 44 I think, equipped with a most unusual 2-seater doorless body—doors were unnecessary, because behind the front seats the body was hinged and the whole superstructure lifted up and back, you stepped onto the floor, sat down, and lowered the body down again! It was purchased from the Secretary of the Bains de Mer at Monte Carlo in 1924 and sold only because of the noisy gears and difficult gearbox. It was supremely safe and great fun.
I asked Capt. Townsend about his more recent cars. There was a 4-seater Fiat Topolino, which served extremely well— “nice controls, light steering, good lock, comfortable springing”. When an illness caused Mrs. Townsend to crave really comfortable cars two Ford V8s were bought, the one made in Detroit being superior to the Dagenham product. But both served very well— this was in 1936/37. A salesman pointed out the superiority of the V12 Lincoln Zephyr and a snop-soiled 1937 example replaced the second Ford V8 but both it and the first Ford V8 required back-axle repairs after 10,000 miles. Another Fiat,. A drophead coupe, was still in use concurrently with the Zephyr, but was passed on to Capt. Townsend’s son. A Dodge also did well, in use Overseas.
As a Company car after the war there was an R-type Bentley, the last of its type, with automatic gearbox. The springing was not as good as it should have been— “I wasn’t enamoured of it.” In 1956 Townsend Ferries became a public company and the Bentley had to go. It was replaced by a 1948 Lanchester Ten, which was a popular car in Bournemouth just after the war, amongst those used to quality cars but wanting compact and economical vehicles. The Daimler/Lanchester O.C. will be interested to know that, bought secondhand in Dover, this little Lanchester is still in use and has done 91,000 miles without overhaul. Capt. Townsend prefers its Daimler transmission to full automation. The luggage boot, although compact, has been found quite adequate.
To keep the Lanchester Ten company there is a Humber Super Snipe, bought new” and in nearly every way superior to the Bentley.” At first the springing was not good enough for Mrs. Townsend but a change of rear shock-absorbers put that right and high praise is accorded to this rather American-style, roomy, British car.—W. B.
Some final words about that Fiat 500
The time has come to dismiss in words the Fiat 500D about which I have made two interim reports, not because we have grown tired of it but because it gives no trouble, is so unobtrusive, that there is very little to say about it. It has run a total of 6,350 miles in my possession and has been serviced once. The only fault requiring the attention of a Fiat agent has been that broken throttle cable—compare with the many faults described in most long-duration road tests of far more costly cars. . . . In August the little car undertook a holiday tour of Scotland, driven by my 18-year-old daughter who passed her driving test the previous winter. Accompanied by a non-driving friend from St. Jean de Luz and much luggage, she enjoyed 2,260 miles of modern-Topolino motoring, doing the main-road bits of the journey with the speedometer needle habitually around the 70 mark. A careful check was made of the consumption of the 4s. 11d.-per-gallon petrol on which the Fiat thrives. It did 55.2 m.p.g. A pint of Castrolite was put in about mid-way and a further pint was required after the return home; a little oil was lost because the garage hand who replenished it did not push the dip-stick right in.
The tourists elected to return to Hampshire, from north of Edinburgh, on August Bank Holiday but, in spite of severe traffic hold-ups, especially in the vicinity of London, the 465 miles were accomplished in a normal day’s driving and after arriving home at around 10 p.m. the driver showed no inclination for bed until the early hours of the following day, which disposes of the theory that these little 0.5-litre twins are fatiguing to use on long runs.
Snags are few. The dip-stick is rather too close to the exhaust pipe for clumsy manipulators and the extreme o/s, of the windscreen isn’t swept by the wiper, although the n/s. is—a penalty, like the remote bonnet-release of conversion to r.h.d., one supposes,. That’s about all I can fault.
The latest version of the 500D, I am told, is quieter, has a smoother clutch, and better door catches, with proper push-button exterior door handles. It has a bigger windscreen giving proper visibility to tall occupants and the doors are hinged from the front.
These Fiat 500Ds seem popular with those connected with motoring papers — Charles Bulmer, Mike Twite, Courtney Edwards, Michael Tee and myself, for instance, using them as auxiliary transport. The newest edition of the Nuova 500 should make many friends among those seeking a truly reliable and economical sun-roof 4-wheeler when it appears on the Fiat stand at Earls Court this month.—W. B.