A Flashback to One of the Last of the Cyclecars
With another spate of Motor Shows looming up, it is not a bad thing to look at some of the lesser motor vehicles of the past, a habit which enhances one’s respect for the products of today, especially when it comes to spending hard-earned money on a small car.
Cyclecars had a brief boom from roughly 1912 to the very early ‘twenties. After this, big-cars-in-miniature, led by Sir Herbert Austin’s remarkable prodigy, put constructors of wire-and-wood devices out of business, unless they were sage enough not to venture beyond three wheels per vehicle. Even then, only low running costs and reduced tax rates kept the three-wheeler alive, and of these only the Morgan really flourished, if that is the right word!
Consequently, it is all the more astonishing that as late as 1926 some optimists still attempted to sell cyclecars. They were, it is true, very few in number and mostly hailed from France. But at least one new cyclecar came into being in London late that year. It was known as the Gnome and later, perhaps at the suggestion of some publicity-minded member of the organisation that had created it, or to avoid confusion with a pre-war French cyclecar, as the Nomad.
The Nomad had two claims to uniqueness—it dispensed with both chassis frame and springs. One-piece construction was hardly the vogue in 1926; it had been pioneered by Lagonda and Lancia but had yet to be adopted universally. Yet the little Nomad had no separate chassis frame. It dispensed with this by using a two-seater body made of steel-armoured plywood edged with channel-section steel, which also sufficed as the chassis. In this it was not entirely unique, because a few very small and primitive cyclecars had been made on similar lines, notably the fibre-board Tamplin. But by 1926 this was an unusual form of construction, to say the least.
To this simple body-cum-frame the power pack was attached at the rear, this being a one-piece assembly comprising a 350 c.c. Villiers single-cylinder two-stroke engine driving by friction discs to a solid back axle. Two pipes ran from the twin exhaust ports of this lusty Villiers to a typical two-stroke muffler and flattened tail-pipe beside the o/s rear wheel. A dynamo was driven from the engine and as the chosen power unit was intended for a motorcycle and was air-cooled, a small belt-driven fan was mounted in front of the cylinder.
This compact power pack was buried optimistically in the totally-enclosed boot. It was attached to the body without the intervention of springs, as was the front axle, an omission which the provision of low-pressure 27 in. x 4.4 in. Dunlop Cord balloon tyres was intended to off-set.
Because the engine and transmission were in the boot it was possible to carry luggage in the dummy bonnet, access to which was obtained by removing an imitation radiator, which had something of the outline of a Rolls-Royce radiator with shutters.
A Gnome or Nomad was prepared in time to buzz about Madise Road during the period of the 1926 Olympia Motor Show, in the hope that it would attract the attention of visitors arriving by train to see the products of those manufacturers who could afford stands within the hall. It certainly attracted the attention of Motor Sport, who set about borrowing one for test, rather as we have recently been driving a Honda N360.
The Nomad was made at the Elysium Works in Fulham and was announced with a considerable flourish. It was referred to as “British Throughout”, ready for immediate delivery, and rather drolly as having withstood the test of time. Less disputable were the claims that it was the cheapest and most economical car on the market, if by “economical” they meant fuel economy and not maintenance costs. But the venture was optimistic in the extreme.
Nomad Cars Ltd. opened offices at 130 and 132, New King’s Road, S.W.6, obtained “Nomadikar” as their telegraphic address (not unaware, perhaps, that customers might need to wire them from remote places) and hoped to succeed on the strength of an £85 car costing £6 to insure, when an Austin Seven Chummy cost £149, a Renault 9/15 £155, a solid-tyred Trojan £125 and a Jowett two-seater £150. You had to pay £111 for a Family Morgan but the basic Morgan three-wheeler was priced at £89 and I still regard the Nomad’s sponsors as incurable optimists. Indeed, they lasted, not years, but mere months . . .
This did not prevent the then Assistant Editor of Motor Sport becoming wildly enthusiastic about the Nomad. He was either very gullible or was on the payroll of the company which built it, unless two half-page advertisements were sufficient motivation—what a long road we have travelled since then, even to dispensing with Ass. Eds.! At all events, he was provided with a Nomad which had not been so much as run-in, and which was on Trade licence plates. It was a Mk. VI de luxe model, with electric starter, dynamo lighting with dimmer, a hood and a bulb horn. The £85 slogan wasn’t applicable to this version, which was listed at a cunning £99 9s. 9d. It was the spartan Mk. III which cost £85, and had as equipment just a mechanical starter, a thing Austin had discarded on the Seven nearly three years earlier. Then there was a Mk. IV Nomad, with the mechanical starter and accumulator lighting, at £89, the Mk. V model which had the same starter but the dynamo lighting, at £92, and a fully-quipped coupé, or Mk. VII version, priced at £107, its coupé top interchangeable with the hood of other, lesser Nomads. All of them, said a proud announcement (reading more like something written in 1920 than late-1926) had screen, horn, licence-holder, number plates, grease-gun lubrication and upholstered seat and squab. The makers were less loud about performance, just claiming a top speed of 40 m.p.h. and running costs of ¾d.-a-mile. You could take one away on payment of £20 and the balance over 12 months.
To revert to the Motor Sport test, our man set off from Fulham, in a de luxe Nomad presumably finished in the standard “Rich Heather Purple with Black Wheels and Wings” (the front wings pivoted with the wheels) and, brave lad, made for Berkhamsted, where he had intended to meet the route-markers for a forthcoming Inter-Varsity trial. In spite of a stiff engine he arrived first and set off to meet his friends, climbing two steep but little-known hills at the second attempt, as he became more familiar with the strange device he had chosen for this worthy pilgrimage. (The Nomad seems to have had a foot accelerator but the footbrake was worked by the last half of the clutch pedal’s movement, and there was a drip-feed in lieu of an oil-gauge.) After clearing the worst of the boulders off Tunnel Slide at Nettleden the Nomad went up easily, nor had it any difficulty in climbing the Duncombe Farm track on to the Common. Thus the route was marked (no submission of the route to the R.A.C. months beforehand, for Police approval or disapproval, in those days!) by machines and men plastered in mud and blue dye, an accompanying three-wheeler boiling on Dunscombe and shedding its dynamo later in the day.
But the Nomad did well and we are told that when darkness came down “the powerful electric lamps” enabled route-marking to be continued without much difficulty and that they proved “ample” for a “fast” run home—as the car had a three-lamp set with small headlamps on the scuttle, the Ass. Ed. must have had excellent night vision! He certainly lost no chance of praising the Nomad. Rain was welcome as demonstrating the snugness of the hood, “erected in one second”. It must have cut off most of the driver’s view. The dashboard lamp was mentioned; it was trained on the drip-feed. In spite of almost direct steering with little self-centring action, cornering was “easy and safe”, the springless ride, although giving a feeling like a car sprung for racing on rough roads at low speeds, was “absolutely forgotten” at higher speeds, and the “gears” worked admirably, using ratios between the four notches provided when required. The unique body never rattled or squeaked, although it distorted violently and visibly over “colonial-sections”, this causing no trouble because “the body is riveted throughout”. The tiny rear-wheel brakes “proved the equal of any and superior to most systems employing only the rear wheels”, and our tester concluded by commenting that the little car gave “thoroughly reliable, economical and comfortable motoring for two”, and that “even the more blase sportsman will find that for anything except sheer racing, the Nomad will prove remarkably efficient and decidedly exhilarating”.
He had “a little trouble” with an unsuitable plug. He disliked the “horrible noise” of the Bendix starter, and he barked his knuckles on the body when applying the hand-brake. Otherwise, he found the Nomad just splendid and averaged about 28 m.p.h. on the 20-mile run to his home, from Dunstable, in sheets of rain and inky darkness, after making several ascents of Duncombe Hill on the day of the trial, carrying a 12-stone passenger.
You might think from the foregoing that the Nomad was just what everyone wanted, in 1926, in spite of the face that when a team of them, driven by G. C. Formilli, B. H. Morgan and L. A. Hutchings, ran in chat year’s “London-Gloucester” Trial none completed the course, and when A. T. Clark drove a Nomad in the “London-Exeter” Trial that year he likewise retired. But there is another side to the story. . . .
Not only did the friction-drive of these comic two-stroke cars prove very difficult to adjust but it was apt to ease itself every few moments into the top-speed notch just when the overheated engine would scarcely pull the thing along in the lowest available ratio. This caused thought to be devoted to incorporating a locking device in the sliding disc (the flywheel acted as driving disc) and no two Nomads went out from the works with quite the same solution to this pressing problem. Another endearing foible of the Nomad was its ability to rid itself noisily of the four blades on its cooling fan. The fan ran on a length of wire bent down and secured by two nuts to a piece of strip steel. As these nuts worked loose the fan rotated until the blades were wiped off by the flywheel, the resultant clatter lasting either until the last blade succumbed or the fan-belt broke.
Another happy little fault which frequently stranded owners of Nomads developed when, with the idea of producing just one quiet-running part, a fibre dynamo-driving pinion was fitted. If they had coil ignition instead of the Villiers flywheel magneto it wasn’t long before the owners failed to return home, as the flimsy sheet-metal bracket of the dynamo distorted and the teeth of the driving gears rode over each other, demolishing the fibre pinion in one pathetic shriek. As no air was encouraged to enter the Nomad’s boot, the overstressed 350-c.c. engine needed no excuse to overheat. Changing its piston by the roadside became a frequent servicing chore.
Trials work made the friction drive slip excessively, especially in re-start tests. When a stronger spring was introduced to entice more grip, the engine could hardly turn its own crankshaft. A minor improvement was made to “competition” Nomads by drilling a multitude of small holes round the centre of the driving disc, where bottom-speed operated; it was not unusual to see a car being tested in the works by setting it to try to climb over a baulk of timber, its engine screaming round in clouds of blue smoke and a filthy smell of burnt cork emanating from the friction drive.
Even at under £100, it is hardly surprising that the Nomad was not a commercial success. It has gone on record that it would have died sooner, had not a member of the staff taken one on holiday to Devon and contrived to return to London, even towing a customer’s stricken model back the final 50 miles, with no more trouble than the occasional seized piston. This so encouraged the Power-behind-the-Idea that a further period of production was embarked on. What the Power did not know was that on this epic journey the “radiator” of the towing Nomad had fallen off, due to a bump in the road, and had been run over both by the car which had shed it and the car, steered by the wife of the staffman, that was being towed. At the time it seemed no great problem to straighten the thing out and make it remain in place by stuffing it with newspapers. But came the day when a prospective buyer was being shown over-the works. The Power approached the guilty Nomad and, talking of the excellent amount of stowage space beneath the bonnet (but omitting to say that there was nothing to prevent loose suitcases from entangling with the pedals), ordered that the “radiator” be removed. It was some time before the wrestling match was over, revealing a boot full of rolled up and torn newspapers. . . .
At the time when the Nomad burst upon the World some 14,000 Austin Sevens had been made. I do not know how many Nomads were put together but I should doubt whether there were 14; maybe only four? We are apt to look back nostalgically to “the years of freedom” but perhaps it is just as well that those who are shopping for small cars will be doing so at Earls Court in 1968 and not in Elysium Place in 1926. . . . It would, however, be interesting to know if any Motor Sport readers remember the Nomad, or ever owned one.—W. B.