Cars in books, October 1970

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I was able to borrow recently, from a reader, Mr. G, K. Mirylees, of Cobham, a travel book I had heard of but had never read. It is “To Venice and Back in a Two-Seater”, by E. Halford Ross (Cassell, 1924). It is about a man and his wife—”My wife drives better than I do; she changes gear better”—who bought a car in 1921 and after a summer vacation roaming Britain in it, decided in 1923 to take it on a Continental holiday. They were advised against this, as Shackleton, Slocum and Mark Twain had been. But they ignored this advice and had a trouble-free journey, the 2,400 miles or more on Continental roads being accomplished with nothing worse than punctures, for an expenditure of £120. The result was this 235-page book, illustrated by the author’s own sketches.

The make of two-seater used for this vintage tour is not disclosed but no doubt some of our readers may recognise it from the technical details which are given—if so, I will publish their names next month, if they drop a p.c. to this column. The author publishes a page from the car’s catalogue or Instruction sheet. It reads : “TWO-SEATER, Ready for the Road. This is the standard Two-Seater Car complete ready for the road, delivered at our works. The body is an open two-seater fitted with a comfortable double dickey seat, adjustable windscreen, one-man hood, tool kit, jack and pump, dynamo lighting and starting set, five lamps, and spare wheel with tyre. Dimensions of chassis: Wheelbase, 10 ft. 6 in.; Track, 4 ft. 6-1/4-in.; Overall length of chassis, 14 ft. 1 in.; Width over axle caps, 5 ft. 3 in.; Width of frame, 2 ft. 2 in.; Body building space, 8 ft. 1-1/2 in.; Ground clearance, 10-1/4 in.” That may not provide sufficient clues but on the reverse of the page, says Mr. Halford Ross, it was stated that “there is a 16-20 h.p. chassis, a four-cylinder monobloc engine casting with detachable head, bore and stroke 80 by 140 mm., 2,815 c.c., dynamo lighting and starting set (Rotax), Smith single-jet carburetter, and four forward speeds and reverse.” So there you are.

It was in this 1921/22 car that the pair set off, to immediately encounter two difficulties. The maker’s leaflet did not say where the engine number was, or disclose the weight of what the author describes rather oddly as “the instrument”. A telephone call to them elicited the information that there was a brass plate inside the bonnet but the weight “was found to be considerably short” when tested at Southampton—as it is still often underquoted today. When asked what spares they should take the makers answered: “Take our telegraphic address, and our best wishes. Good luck.” So the toolbox went empty and the dickey was filled with luggage. Michelin provided a useful list of hotels …

Much of the book is touring material but I have endeavoured to sort out the items of motoring interest. There is a description of driving through London and down to Southampton, fascinating to one who knows the same terrain today—the Zeppelin bomb that fell near Swan and Edgar’s in 1917 is remembered, Sackville Street is referred to as “the longest in London that has no turning, and is devoid of lamp-posts” and the junction where St. James’ Street and Albemarle Street cross Piccadilly as “notorious for the number of motor engines which used to stop inadvertently and block the crossing traffic, and the many swearing and perspiring men, heavily coated, who were wont to wind and grind at starting-handles, while their lady companions tried to look unconcerned from the body of the car”. There is mention of a hill in Piccadilly “which causes many cars, cabs and ‘buses to change gear, which is often done grindingly”. The trams began at the top of Kingston Hill but ended at Long Ditton; 1923 seems a long time ago …

Presumably the owner of the two-seater had been to Brooklands, for he describes the stance of the stevedore who sat in the car as it was pushed alongside the S.S. Normannia “as if he were about to start a race at Brooklands”. He also refers to Calshot as a place of motor-boat racing and flying-boat excitements. In those days petrol had to be drained from cars being shipped across the Channel; they were replenished from cans, at the same price as in England. French roads were bad in 1923 and the speed along GC8 I was down to 17 m.p.h. and less. A steam band was playing in Chartres, at Varennes-sur-Allier petrol was obtained from a grocer’s, and the car was lubricated with mobiloil (with a small “m”)-1923 is a long time ago !

However, Paris was accomplished from London in 48 hours, most enjoyably, and at Amboise, where three young Englishmen on motorcycles (makes not disclosed) had also arrived, the author stayed at the Hotel de France et du Cheval Blanc and dined in the open, which prompted him to ask : “Have you tasted the trout fresh from the river cooked lightly in paper as Barrie suggests ? Does cold asparagus served in a sauce made of vinegar, melted butter, oil, French mustard and pepper appeal to you ? Does the idea of a gigot with new potatoes and peas boiled in cream touch your heart? If so, go to Amboise. Coffee followed and a glass of Vielle Cure, a liqueur which an old man of France knew and loved. Upstairs your bedroom window is open, the linen is spotless, the floor polished, carpetless, clean. Below stands the car which has so faithfully carried you . . .” It seems different now, when you can get from coast to coast in a short day, in a constant stream of traffic.

Chenonceau, whose proprietor was M. Meunier, the chocolate king (his son had a 1913 GP Peugeot before the war), produced a Ford containing a party of French people heavily dressed for motoring despite the heat, even to goggles, which Ross and his wife found quite unnecessary, and “a new bright yellow six-cylinder Hispano-Suiza, driven by a Spanish beauty on her way to Paris. Attached to this car was a trailer consisting of a large cupboard in which the lady’s frocks were hanging upright”. That must have curbed the speed of what must have been a 37.2 Hispano-Suiza rather frustratingly, one would think. RN 7 had ASC/USA plaques on its telegraph poles and a poor surface. It was avoided but the car went well, third gear being needed for the first time on a hill, out of St. Etienne, and the 1-in-10 Mont de Lyon was taken at 25 m.p.h. At Teil by the cement works roads were so had speed was 10 m.p.h., at Nimes much aviation was in evidence, and so the tour progressed, the car obviously having a good top-gear performance and proving very reliable. Daily runs now averaged about 70 miles, to allow for sightseeing, but eventually the Mediterranean was reached, a Daimler being raced on to the Promenade des Anglais at Nice, to its chauffeur’s amusement. At Monte Carlo the faithful car was worked on at a Delaunay-Belleville agency, the engine being decarbonised, the valves reground and the oil replenished. Here may lie a clue as to its identity, for the efficient French and Italian mechanics “were lost in admiration for its revolving valves….” a feature which, curiously, was the subject of an obtuse article in a weekly motoring paper only the other day.

In 1923 a speed of “20, 25, 30, 35 m.p.h.” was thought worth mentioning and “43, a great speed for us”. But they made Venice and went on through Italy, noting the wreck of an aeroplane near a bridge at Sesto (perhaps the pilot had tried to fly under it, as Harry Hawker did at the Byfleet bridge at Brooklands ?), and by train, the passes being closed, into Switzerland, where had petrol caused pre-ignition. A 150-mile drive brought the tourists to Geneva. At the French Customs there was an argument as to whether the car was a two- or a four-seater (won by the Britishers, of course, thus saving 50 francs duty), but the tour went on with the first mishap to the car on the incline down to Pont de l’Arche when nearly home—two tyres puncturing. But two spare wheels were carried, so all was well. In something like a month’s holiday, that was, if the book is to be believed, as I am sure it is, the only trouble experienced. Send Motor Sport a p.c. if you have discovered the make of this reliable vintage two-seater and I will publish the names of the knowledgeable next month.

Another reader recommended “In My Time”, by Anthony Gibbs (Peter Davies, 1969), which, apart from its motoring references, is one of the most enjoyable and entertaining autobiographies I have read for a long time. And there are a great many cars which the author, son of Sir Philip Gibbs (whose patriotic novels enthralled me in my early ‘teens but soon afterwards made me sick), recalls.

There is the AV monocar he had while up at Oxford, which evinces the sentiment “A really fast single-seater is something everybody ought to have, and I cannot imagine why somebody doesn’t manufacture the thing today and sell it in millions”. Gibbs refers to doing over 60 m.p.h. in this crude AV so it must have been a fast one. He attributes it to the aviation pioneer, A. V. Roe, whereas it was actually related to Sir John Carden’s original cyclecar, although Roe did introduce a sort of monotrack cyclecar and his company later brought out an Avro car.

The author makes the interesting point that in spite of the nostalgia of the Brighton Run and the Genevieve film, “there were no really good cars in the early days”. He is thinking of the London of little Renault taxis, National, Vanguard and General omnibuses, and of Sir Thomas Lipton’s pair of gigantic Mercedes, in which he used to set out from his house in Southgate to distribute Lipton’s chocolates to poor children, but which suffered from constantly collapsing tyres and stretched driving chains. He recalls his future father-in-law’s Panhard, which could only get from Grosvenor Gardens into Hyde Park by reversing up the hill, and of an uncle who had a single-cylinder wicker-bodied forecar, and another uncle, a rather close relative of the Duke of Richmond, who owned a “very gentlemanly, not to say ducal, carriage called an Argyll”. Even this is portrayed as very unreliable.

He is rude about the contemporary Delaunay-Bellevilles, and the Sheffield-Simplex which “imitated them exactly”. The war-time Vauxhalls are remembered but, continues Gibbs, “only the Rolls and the Daimler and the dead Napier had in them the seeds of the exquisite, fleet, lean and lovely things for which the world had to wait until the ‘thirties, and which in turn it will never see again”. (He is not strictly correct about the dead Napier, which was made down to 1925, but one understands what he means.) The after-war cars are recalled as the Rolls with aluminium bonnet, “which was immediately copied by Albert here, and Roamer and Moon in the United States”. There is mention of an Oxford friend, “who was rather rich”, dashing about in an all-aluminium AC, and later in an all-aluminium Vauxhall Velox. And some amusing remarks about his parents’ vast Daimler, which was driven by a tiny chauffeur and did 6 m.p.g., ascended the steepest hill in top at 7 m.p.h., its 7-litre engine moving it in complete silence, and which did 50 m.p.h. all-out, achieved on one occasion …

I like especially Gibbs’ description of 1921 American cars as “revolting black hunks of shapeless tin with flapping side curtains”, for I, too, recall the days when a Chevrolet looked just like a Dort, a Dodge or a Durant. Around this period Sir Basil Zaharoff’s brother is depicted as using in Monte Carlo a very splendid Minerva coupe-de-ville, driven by a chauffeur in pale grey with a strap under his chin. At about this time Gibbs had an Amilcar. There is a graphic and amusing description of flying the Channel in an Imperial Airways airliner with one engine on fire and of how Alexander Korda’s peasant parents knew he had made good when he returned home to Hungary in a very big Mercedes.

In those nineteen-twenties Gibbs apparently changed his Amilcar for a yellow Renault he ran in London and, moving to Tite Street, acquired “a Daimler. One of the old sleeve-valve Daimlers. What a good car that was, as silent as a tomb. I cannot understand why they stopped making them”. He had this car (“I threw away my cigarette, started up the Daimler, and set off in a cloud of smoke”) in the 1930s, by which time electric pylons had appeared on the Croydon horizon, he says. This particular journey was to a nudists’ camp, where Gibbs meets a red-headed woman racing motorist, who drives Bentleys— “short chassis. Six-litre. Double o.h.c. with eccentrics”. We know he means 6-1/2-litre and single o.h.c. but work out, if you can, who the lady was—when small boys climbed the pylon to peep she dashed away to put on black lace panties. She had “the most beautiful red curly hair. And her breasts were pointed”.

Just before war again engulfed Europe Gibbs went to Germany with his father in a grey Delage, in which he later returned from Munich to Paris in a day and drove slap into a small Fiat full of nuns at the gates of the Hotel du Cap. Just before another war broke out Gibbs met several influential Germans at Shamley Green, including Prince Friedrich von Hohenzollern, who had a job with Ford of Dagenham. Incidentally, Gibbs says that a few days before we declared war on Germany the roads out of London were closed to incoming traffic to permit cars to leave, very fast and sometimes four abreast. “For the first time in over 850 years there were refugees on the roads of England.” I do not know about that, except that on the Saturday night before war came I got into London from North Wales, where three of us had been on holiday in an Austin 7 Ruby, being stopped only to be told we must cover our lamps with paper. All was blacked-out, so that vivid blue flashes from the trams were mistaken for aerial bombardment; but the roads, as I remember them, were quite open.

About a book so comparatively recently published—and it is one you must certainly read, its popularity such that I had to wait seven months to obtain a copy from the local library—it would be improper to quote too freely. Suffice it to say that Gibbs’ extraordinary adventures, in publishing, the war and travel, are delightfully and amusingly recounted, even if his flippant concluding chapter, about a close friend who committed suicide, seems to me to be in poor taste. Cars continue to figure—the largest sort of Chrysler used as a taxi in Holland during the war, Princess Marie Louise’s “ancient sleeve-valve Daimler” of the same period, which would leave Kensington Palace in a cloud of blue smoke, and the author’s old Rolls-Royce which took part in a ludicrous pursuit by police concerned with the author trying to release Guy Burgess from Moscow. During this chase the Rolls was aided on one occasion by “the lithest and quietest leap from a standstill, probably in the history of motoring”, which foxed the two police Wolseleys, Fords, Morris and a police vehicle disguised as a laundry van, which were following it. But all this never did lead to the armoured Opel Kapitan garaged in Nice.

There are even references to flying, from early cross-Channel attempts (but I thought Bleriot used an Anzani, not a Gnome, engine ?) to the Farnborough Air Displays, to one of which the author went on the pillion of his son’s motorcycle from Peaslake, on the occasion of John Derry’s fatal crash in the sonic DH 110.

Finally, don’t forget to send us a postcard if you know the make of that two-seater which went to Venice and back.—W. B.

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