Faith in the Cyclecar

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THE HEADING does not refer to a bobbed-haired “flapper” in her sporting GN or Morgan, as well it might, but to a rather courageous journey undertaken in 1922 in one of the crudest examples of the cyclecar breed. Special endurance runs done for publicity purposes or to break records apart, I think that, of long runs by ordinary mortals, the journey I am about to describe must rank as one of the more optimistic; even if everything went far better than a pessimist would have been justified in expecting.

The vehicle in which this Continental run was essayed was the tiny Xtra cyclecar, made in London Road, Chertsey. Crude is surely the permissible, operative word! For bodywork the Xtra had a sort of motorcycle sidecar, to accommodate the driver only. It was made of ash, covered with three-ply. Duplicated transverse leaf springs supported the two front wheels, dispensing with a front axle. The power-pack lived in the tail, engine and transmission being mounted on a forked sub-frame which was hinged to the main frame and its movement controlled by coil springs, one taking the load, the other any rebound. The engine was mounted at the front of this sub-frame. It was a 2 1/4 h.p. Villiers two-stroke, with that single-cylinder air-cooled engine’s well-known flywheel-magneto. Two speeds forward were provided on the Xtra by an ingenious friction-drive, consisting of two wheels of compressed-cork, of different diameters. A single chain from the engine passed over two sprockets that drove these friction wheels. By moving a lever, one or other of the friction wheels could be made to engage a flat rim riveted to the single rear road-wheel. This was a better way of using friction to drive a car than sliding discs across one another, as on the GWK, Unit No. 1, etc. The front wheels of the Xtra were turned by rack-and-pinion and a contracting brake worked on a rear-wheel drum. The “sidecar” was painted grey, lighting was by diminutive acetylene lamps beside the single-pane windscreen, and the fuel tank held three gallons.

The Xtra ran on what looked suspiciously like bicycle wheels, but as these took 26″ x 2 1/4″ Avon tyres, perhaps they were borrowed from a carrier-cycle! (These days, the smallest tyres you see at vintage events, on properly-shod old cars, are Dunlop’s 26 x 3 or 710 x 90 beaded-edge covers, and these wear out quickly enough, so that I swallow every time my 1922 Talbot-Darracq with its “solid” back axle takes an acute corner! But I believe the original tyre-size for it was 700 x 60, over which the Xtra’s Avons were perhaps a marginal improvement!) The makers listed the contraption at 95 guineas but, even so, it is surprising that anyone fell for it; however, a few did, and a number of years ago MOTOR SPORT had a letter from a reader who had owned one. By 1923 there was the option of the 3 1/2 h.p. Villiers engine and by 1924 the price had been reduced to 70 gns. for the 2 1/4 h.p. model, 75 gns. for the more powerful version. The Xtra wasn’t a vehicle, I would have thought, in which you would want to go down to the post or even as far as the local! Yet, and this is the point, one of these tiny cyclecars was delivered to a customer in Switzerland in 1922 — by road.

This monstrosity of a cyclecar — or so it must have seemed to many who saw the driver setting off in the little machine, which was only 4′ 6″ wide — was shipped from Newhaven to Dieppe one Sunday night. Admittedly, at about the same time a GN had done a Scottish tour at 48.5 m.p.g. and 1,000 m.p.g. of oil and a Tamplin cyclecar had covered 500 miles in 24 hours in this country, up the Great North Road and back, at 45 m.p.g. of petrol and 1,000 m.p.g. of oil, the only trouble experienced being three breakages of the driving-belt fasteners. But that was with a JAP-engined two-seater, not with a two-stroke engine of only 269 c.c. which was not so much as fan-cooled.

However, the Xtra got to Paris without trouble. In Paris the Michelin establishment provided maps of the rest of the route, mostly over by-roads of untarred macadam. Through the beautiful Fontainebleau forest, where the Bol d’Or cyclecar races were held, the little Xtra hummed, but some 40 miles out the engine stopped. The magneto rocker-arm had broken. A spare arm was in the spares-kit (all spares were packed in hard grease to prevent damage from vibration, offered as a useful tip!) but it had no platinum point. After unsuccessful attempts to fit that from the broken arm the engine ran satisfactorily without the point. At a village near Sens a blacksmith was found who actually had a spare platinum point, which he filed down and riveted to the new rocker arm. The driver still had 200 miles to cover to Lyons, where he was due the next morning — he had spent a day in Paris on business and was, maybe, a salesman for the oddity he was driving. The hills at Avallon brought the Xtra off top speed but it pulled up them at half-throttle, on the other speed. The ascending was slow, but sure. Until, that is, the engine stopped again. This time it was for want of petrol, whereupon the driver discovered that the spare tins of fuel and oil that he had packed had apparently been stolen. The solution was drastic. He coasted three miles downhill, to a grocer’s shop. Alas, the grocer, although a French grocer who stocked petrol, was temporarily out of it. So three litres of paraffin was purchased and on this, using a double dose of engine oil, the Xtra functioned contentedly enough! The hills got worse but the Xtra, on its unusual fuel, made light of them, even that of the seven-mile climb at Chamelot. Darkness then overtook the traveller, so he stopped at Lozanne for the night. Next day he ran round Lyons to keep his appointment, quite a feat, from what I remember of naviating across the complex city.

Then it was on towards Geneva, the mountains commencing at Merionat but the Xtra climbing the gradients without faltering, although one suspects at a crawl. A short distance after re-making acquaintance with the Rhone and crossing its bridge, the Frontier was reached, where courteous officials showed much interest in the manifestation from England. It was still not lunch time.

Who, one wonders, had fallen for the idea of using an Xtra in mountainous Switzerland: and what fun if an Xtra should turn up at the next VSCC Cyclecar Rally! — W.B.

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