[The Buick has tended to be neglected in these pages although it was one of America’s and Canada’s outstanding makes. Consequently, we are glad now to publish this article by the late Mr. Russell Johns, who joined Lendrum & Hartman, the then-London and Home Counties Concessionaires for the Buick, in 1925, at the age of 16, as a fitter-improver. Mr. Johns served with this well-known firm, which later had the Buick concession for the whole of Great Britain, from 1925 until his retirement, returning to it in 1937 after a spell of working on the Royal Daimlers and Buicks at Marlborough House and in the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately, Mr. Johns died shortly after these reminiscences were written. — Ed.]
AMONG the many long-established names in the Motor Trade which are linked with one make of car, Lendrum & Hartman and Buick are synonymous. The firm was founded by the late Captain F. W. Hartman, RNAS, as London and Home Counties Buick Distributors in 1920 with showrooms at 26, Albermarle Street, Piccadilly, London W1, and works at Old Oak Lane, Willesden junction, NW10. The word “Service Station” had not then come into use and the term “works” was much more appropriate, as every trade needed for the complete repair and servicing of a motor car was to be found on the premises. These included blacksmiths, welders, trimmers or upholsterers, machine shops, paint shops and a spare-parts department. This was a very unusual and advanced establishment for the 1920s.
The premises had been vacated by General Motors, who had occupied them since the early 1900s, and they had long been the home of the Bedford-Buicks which did service in the 1914-1918 war as ambulances. General Motors had started a Buick assembly-line in a much larger factory at the Hyde, Hendon. This operated until 1931, up to which time the writer was sent there for several Service Courses and also to collect new Buick cars and chassis.
In 1931 Lendrum & Hartman became Buick Concessionaires for Great Britain. This was for several reasons, chief among which were that General Motors had purchased Vauxhall-Bedford and had ceased to assemble Buicks at Hendon. The depression that followed World War One was then at its peak and sales had fallen off. In addition. Captain and Mrs. Hartman were on excellent personal terms with the United States principals of General Motors and Lendrum & Hartman had a very good sales and service record. Lendrum & Hartman then commenced to import Buick cars from the Canadian factory, as these qualified for “Empire Preference”. This was part of a Government scheme for helping the economy and allowed slightly lower Import Duties on products from the British Empire. A separate new car department and a modest assembly line was started and several of the General Motors staff at Hendon who did not wish to transfer to Luton were employed. During 1932 the cars were imported with the bodies as shells and in primer. These were then sprayed, upholstered, window glasses fitted, and were prepared for delivery. In the following years the cars arrived finished, needing only to be altered to comply with UK motoring regulations.
From the very early days Captain Hartman had had specialised bodies built on Buick chassis. In the 1920s the most popular were two-seater coupes with dickey seats, built by Page & Hunt of Farnborough, Surrey and limousines by Vanden Plas of Brussels. The chassis for the latter were shipped from the London docks and they returned finished to Harwich, several at a time, escorted by the Lendrum & Hartman Belgium representative. During the 1930s many Buick seven-seater limousines were built by Thrupp and Maberly and by the Mayfair Carriage Company. The Carlton Carriage Company contributed four-seater drophead coupes and Maltbys of Folkestone convertibles. Maltbys, I recall, were pioneering hydraulic hood-operation in 1937-38. The quality of the materials and workmanship of the coachbuilders was very high. As an example, the only woods used for the body frame by the Carlton Carriage Co. were ash and walnut. The customer could also choose any colour paint finish he wished, as well as the colour and type of the interior upholstery.
My position, when first employed by the company in 1925, was that of a fitters-improver. I was sixteen years of age and I recall being quite pleased with my wage of five old-pence per hour, this being a welcome increase of twopence per hour on my previous salary! Working conditions were very different from today’s. The hours of work were from 8 a.m. until 5.30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and from 8 a.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Saturday, a total of forty-seven hours. Tea-breaks were taken at your work bench and smoking was not permitted. It was the practice of some car owners to “lay-up” their cars during the winter months and this could result in a shortage of work. In those days this meant no pay for the hourly worker.
The Buick Motor Co., which celebrated its Silver Jubilee in 1929 had, from its inception, used four and six-cylinder o.h.v. engines. This gave Buicks an advantage at a time when the majority of car engines had side valves. The engines, rated at 18 h.p. for the four-cylinder and 27 h.p. for the six, were extremely flexible. When road testing or demonstrating a Buick could, in top gear, accelerate from walking pace smoothly and with stress and could also give an impressive top-gear hill-climbing performance. Advertising stunts of the 1920s included a couple dancing on the roof of a Buick saloon while it was being driven in London’s West End. (A film clip of this, taken at the time, is used to introduce the P. G. Wodehouse — Bertie Wooster TV series.) Another Buick was driven up a long flight of stairs in the grounds of the Crystal Palace.
In the Near East a fleet of Buick cars was being used for a passenger service from Damascus to Baghdad, a desert journey pioneered by the Nairn Brothers. The convoy was shot-at on its first journey. It is hard to recall in these days of easy travel how difficult it then was to journey inside many Third World countries.
Until the early 1920s the Buick’s overhead valves were exposed and the 1917 instructions regarding lubrication included squirting a few drops of oil into the two rocker-arm holes every 100 miles, If this was ignored for long, squeaks, and clatter from rapid wear, quickly followed. The valves were fitted into round “cages” which were inserted into the top of the cylinder block and were secured with round castellated nuts. It was necessary to reseat both the cage and valve seats when decarbonising. Great care had to be taken to use the grinding paste sparingly and ensure that none descended into the cylinders.
Detachable cylinder heads were introduced on all 1924 Buick engines. Until then, to decarbonise the engines it was necessary to remove the engine and the gearbox under-tray. This was a really filthy job, as the tray was large and cumbersome and secured by springs and clips so it was usually given to the fitters “mate” or improver. The trays purpose was to prevent rain and mud reaching the engine and ignition. It became thick with oil and grease on the inside and this caught any nuts, washers and “what have you” that were dropped under the bonnet. Then, having first removed the valve cages, engine sump, oil-pump, con-rods and pistons, the improver donned cap and goggles and got under the engine. With a long tool he proceeded to chip and scrape the carbon deposit from the cylinder top. Another interesting method, that was only possible on engines using cast-iron pistons, was as follows. Having removed the sparking plugs, and positioned the piston at the top of the firing stroke, i.e. with both valves closed, a smouldering piece of rag was inserted in the plug hole. Oxygen was then introduced, resulting in a spectacular shower of sparks as the burning carbon was extracted, via the plug hole.
Two ingenious units used on Buick engines prior to 1926 were a single unit starter-motor generator and a vacuum tank for transferring petrol from the rear tank to the carburetter. After starting the engine by depressing a pedal which manually engaged the starter gear, the starter-motor operated. When the engine started and the pedal was released the unit, by means of an unusual brush-switch arrangement, became a generator. This was made possible by the motor generator being driven by a shaft from the engine timing gears, through a free-wheel mechanism that automatically disconnected the drive when the unit was acting as a starter-motor. A one-way clutch, built into the starter gear ensured that no damage was caused if the starter pedal was not released immediately the engine fired. For good measure the ignition distributor was also attached to and driven by this ingenious, powerful, and reliable motor-generator. The round fuel-feed vacuum tank was approximately 6″ in diameter and 12″ high. It consisted of two chambers, the inner filling, and the outer re supply chamber. A float in the filling chamber was connected by means of a trip arrangement to two valves on the unit cover. One valve opened a connection to the inlet manifold creating a vacuum inside the filling chamber. Petrol was thus drawn into the chamber and the float rose, operating the trip mechanism. This closed the vacuum valve and opened the other valve, which vented the tank to atmosphere. This enabled the fuel to drain, via a simple flap-valve, to the lower supply chamber and thence to the carburetter. The float then descended and the sequence was repeated. It was necessary, initially, to prime the tank with petrol by means of a plug in the cover of the vacuum tank.
A Marvel updraught carburetter of simple design was used prior to 1936 and, from that year, downdraught Stromberg and Carter carburetters were fitted. 1924 saw the introduction of four-wheel brakes, replacing the two-wheel brakes previously used and the traditional method of paint and varnish for the bodywork was superseded by sprayed cellulose painting. The foot brake was of the mechanically-operated, external-contracting-band type, applied to the four wheels and the hand-brake operated an expanding hand inside both rear drums. The steel bands were lined with riveted brake linings and it was necessary to requisition three metres of brake lining if all bands required attention! Adjustment of band brakes after relining was a tricky busines. The bands had a tendency to become flattened while being removed for replacing the riveted lining. To obtain the required clearance between the band and drum around the entire circumference it was necessary, in addition to setting the several adjusting nuts, to use a feeler gauge and a “bit of force”. If the band was not circular a spoon-shaped lever was introduced between the band and the drum and, by levering and tapping with a hammer, the band on both sides of the lever was coaxed into shape! The result, if care was not taken, was over-heating and inefficient braking. Care was also required to ensure that the many rods and levers operating the brakes were correctly set. These four-wheel brakes were a great improvement but they required to be lightly applied frequently in wet conditions, if efficient braking was to be maintained. [However, I still remember, from schooldays, how impressed I was with the power of the Buick four-wheel-brakes — Ed.]
Wooden artillery-type wheels, with the tyre fitted to a demountable rim and bolted with a wedge to the wheel, were in use prior to 1930-31. Wire-spoked wheels then came into use and in 1936 the pressed-steel wheel finally arrived.
A three-speed “crash” gearbox was thankfully replaced by a syncromesh box in 1931 and this year also saw the entry of an “in line” eight-cylinder engine which continued, with many improvements, until 1949.
The Buick clutch was a very substantial dry-plate type until 1935, when it was replaced by a single-plate Borg & Beck clutch. With the advent of syncromesh gearshift an effort was made to ease the chore of gear changing. A small red pedal was placed on the toeboard next to the clutch pedal. When the pedal was depressed this operated a valve fitted below the inlet manifold and this allowed suction to operate a servo piston connected to the clutch mechanism. After selecting the gear, and accelerating, this caused the suction to the servo to be cut off and the clutch to engage at a rate that could be adjusted separately for each speed. This method was used until 1933 but was temperamental due to expansion of the alloy used in the various valves, and it also subjected the clutch-release bearing to abnormal wear. A universal joint, enclosed by a ball joint, was fitted to the rear of the gearbox and was lubricated by oil from that unit. While an excellent design, it had a weakness for, when wear developed, it allowed the gearbox oil to drain, via the torque-tube, to the rear axle. Fortunately the rate of leak was slow and usually disclosed itself before any damage was caused.
Cantilever rear and semi-elliptic front springs were used until the early 1930s and when, in 1934, front coil springs and independent front wheel suspension was introduced, the increased comfort was most evident. Shock-absorbers were not fitted as standard equipment until 1931, when hydraulic piston-type were used. A manual adjustable system was fitted to the 1932 cars, operated by a lever mounted on the steering column, but this was discontinued the following year.
1930 was the year in which brake shoes replaced bands and these continued to be mechanically operated. A vacuum-servo was added in 1934 but was superseded in 1936 by Lockheed hydraulic braking. The Buicks produced from 1934 to 1938 were all outstanding, with the 1938 models being, in my opinion, the best of the pre-World War II productions. The models remained unchanged during 1934 and 1935. Undoubtedly, in preparation for the radical change in the design of 1936 cars.
The cars for 1934/1935 were the last to have a rear folding luggage-rack, a fabric-covered roof, wooden-framed doors, cast-iron pistons and an updraught carburetter. They were robust-looking cars, and with a spare wheel on each front wing mounted in wells, with metal covers, they also had good looks. The cruciform chassis was massive, with a box-section re-designed for the new independent-front-wheel suspension. The running boards were made of steel, with a stout rubber covering moulded to the metal. Many cars had seats covered with leather, the hides being sent from England to the McLaughlin-Buick factory in Oshawa. Canada. The comfort and powerful braking, thanks to the new suspension and servo brake assistance, made the 1935 Buick an outstanding car to drive. The early convertible models were subject to front-wheel wobble when cornering at speed. This was due to chassis flexing at the front but did not occur with the more rigid saloon bodies. It was overcome by fixing a triangular frame of tube rather reminiscent of a bicycle frame its the chassis under the bonnet.
The new re-designed 1936 Buicks had alloy pistons, downdraught carburetters, all steel bodies, hydraulic brakes, pressed-steel wheels, and a rear luggage boot which made an immediate and favourable impression on the owner. The design changed little in 1937 and 1938. However, the 1938 model had re-designed pistons and all-round coil-spring suspension, with telescopic shock-absorbers.
With the approach of war, and petrol rationing, a conversion of the eight-cylinder engine to four-cylinder was offered to owners. This was effected by removing the two front and two rear pistons and connecting rods, together with the push-rods operating the o.h.v. of these cylinders. With modifications to the distributor-cap, and the rebalancing of the flywheel, this gave an acceptable performance. The result was improved petrol consumption, from approximately 16-18 m.p.g. to 25 m.p.g. Naturally, acceleration and power on hills was very much diminished, but a demonstration car resulted in some 200 owners deciding to have their engines converted. Yet around 1930 a gallon of one brand of petrol could be bought for 11 old-pence, i.e.. equivalent to the present 5p. The brand name was ROP, which stood for Russian Oil Products. [They advertised on our back cover — Ed.)
During 1934 a member of the Royal Family — Lady Patricia Ramsey, a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, ordered a Freestone & Webb limousine to be built on a Buick chassis. Her chauffeur, Fred Rix, came to the Willesden works daily to see the building of the chassis, and he went on to do the same at the coachworks. This car was used by its owner until well into the 1960s. The body had been built especially high in order that the owner, who was over 6′ tall, could enter and alight gracefully.
During the autumn of 1935, the then Prince of Wales paid a surprise visit to Buick’s Albermarle Street showrooms. Captain Hartman was hurriedly summoned from a nearby hairdressers to personally attend to this very special customer. The works manager then had an appointment with the Prince at York House to take instructions regarding the details of his special requirements and he was then sent to the Canadian factory to supervise the building of the two cars ordered. The fittings included a 2-wave radio with controls in the rear-seat armrest. The rear quarterwindows were replaced by panels, and inside mirrors with recessed lights, and folding reading lamps, were covered by sliding panels. The rear window was only five inches high and could be covered by an electrically-operated rear blind. Two batteries were fitted below the driver’s seat, with a double-pole throw switch, enabling the spare battery to be instantly used in an emergency. Marchal headlights and fog-lamps were fitted, the wiring being modified to reduce voltage-drop to a minimum. A Smith’s hydraulic “Jackall” system was also supplied, together with Goodyear “Lifeguard” inner tubes, which made a tyre blow-out unlikely.
The interior fitrnents of this Royal Buick included a pipe-rack, cocktail-shaker, drinks and glasses-cabinet, a food-container, cutlery, telephone directories, gold cigarette boxes (presented by Captain Hartman) and a holder for Swan Vesta (matches as HRH did not use any other means to light his pipe or specially made filter cigarettes). A manicure set was fitted in the rear-seat centre folding arm-rest and an interior heater, which was an uncommon fitting in pre-war cars, was fitted into the centre division-panel. The cars were delivered early in 1936, by which time HRH had become His Majesty King Edward VIII. Unlike the usual cars belonging to the Monarchy, both Buicks were registered and had the following numbers: CUL 457 and CUL 421. The second car was used by Mrs. Simpson who, after the King’s Abdication, became the Duchess of Windsor. This car was driven by a Mr. Wagstaff, who was Second Royal Chauffeur. Mr. George Ladbroke, who had been in the service of His Majesty for almost 20 years, was Head Chauffeur and invariably drove him on all occasions.
I was fortunate in being selected to service both these cars, which were first garaged at Marlborough House and later at Buckingham Palace. My instructions were to spare neither effort nor expense to maintain them. Once in every four weeks I spent a whole day at the Royal Mews, checking and servicing as was required. Captain Hartman had ordered two duplicate, but different-coloured, cars for use in an emergency but fortunately they were never required.
Some months later I was asked by Mr. Ladbroke if I would change my iob and take charge of vehicle maintenance at the Royal Mews. After several official interviews, and with the approval of Captain Hartman. I accepted the job and was first sent on a week’s instruction course to the Daimler works at Hendon. When I commenced my new job, which I found included allocating the driving jobs to the several under-chauffeurs, I missed the urgency of “works” life. The facilities and equipment were excellent, but at that time somewhat old-fashioned, but it was planned to re-equip and modernise the car department. In November 1936 the crisis between the King and the Establishment regarding Mrs. Simpson resulted in his Abdication. Both Buicks were in daily use during this critical period. One was used to convey Mrs. Simpson to her temporary home and her subsequent wedding in the South of France. The other carried the King, after his Abdication speech on the radio, from Windsor to Portsmouth, en route to Austria. This car was returned to London and prepared for the winter’s journey to its owner. The car was eventually replaced by a 1939 Buick and is now in an Italian car collection.
With the Accession of King George VI a more sedate atmosphere was noticeable and less use was made of the cars. This, together with the departure of the Buicks and Mr. Ladbroke, decided me to accept Captain Hartman’s offer to return to his employ in 1937. In that year Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, ordered a Buick limousine. This was equipped with “purdah” glass which could be wound up to obscure both rear quarter-windows. Servicing was carried out at her Belgrave Square address and her chauffeur Mr. Field and I co-operated well. While the new King used Lanchester cars for his personal use, a Buick convertible, with a lengthened chassis, was prepared at the Oshawa factory for his use during his 1939 Canadian Tour.
Among the many notable customers were the following:—
Earl Lichfield, Lady Brownlow, Lord Herbert, Hon. Mrs. Charles Greville, Earl of Lincoln, Lord Dalrymple, Lord Gage, Gracie Fields, George Formby, Firth Shepherd, Diana Dors, Mr. Raymond (Teazy Weazy). Edmundo Ros, Jack Hylton, Jack Payne, Mr. Moore (of Littlewoods), Barbara Hutton, Whitney Straight, Sir Giles Scott, Mr. Cohen (Tescos), M. Cartier (of Bond St.) and Sir John Ellerman.
With the arrival of notables and exiles during the war years a small Service Department was required in addition to the war work being carried out at Willesden. I was instructed to deliver King Peter of Yugoslavia’s Buick to a small isolated country house near Huntingdon and had some difficulty in locating the place as all direction signs had been removed “for the duration”. Soldiers in Yugoslav uniforms stopped me when some distance from the house and escorted me the last few hundred yards. King Peter came out to inspect the car. We then went into the kitchen and, after asking questions about the car, he said “I must get the garage key”, took it from a hook on the dresser, and put the car away personally. His mother Queen Marie, then purchased a Buick which I demonstrated for her in Chelsea. Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands’ Buick was brought to the works for servicing, as were those of Polish Marshal Sikorsky and Russian Ambassador, Maiskey.
Within a short time of General de Gaulle’s arrival in England a Buick limousine was presented to him by a Director of Cartiers and Captain Hartman. Whenever the car came to Willesden for service we were always amused by the chauffeur’s attire. With his coloured cloak and kepi he could well have been a member of the cast of “The Desert Song”. In contrast to his appearance, he came from North London and had a marked cockney accent! Another famous owner, Admiral Sir Max Horton VC, who was C in C Western Approaches, had his HQ in a large block of flats in North London. He was a “character” and capable of giving us, and his naval-rating chauffeur, a “broadside”, using nautical terms if all was not well with his car.
With the arrival of the American Forces the works were instructed to prepare a bullet-proof car for the use of General Eisenhower. This was done, using armour plate inside the doors, flooring, roof, etc., as well as special Triplex glass and Dunlop tyres, and I recall the great effort required to close the weighty doors. I had hoped to meet the new owner when I delivered the Buick to a house near Hampton Court but only met the General’s aide,
The General’s sergeant-driver was extremely security-minded and stayed with the car whenever it was in the works. He kept the car locked at all times, only unlocking it to permit adjustments to be made. His martial appearance was completed by a pair of revolvers, and a dagger which was inserted in one boot. Racks had been fitted to the interior of the limousine for such an assortment of weapons that it resembled a small armoury! The windows could not be opened because of the thickness of the glass, and ventilation had to be arranged for later, as this requirement had been overlooked.
The variety and scope of jobs during these years, which saw cars develop, mature and become so reliable, gave one a sense of satisfaction and a belief in Buick’s motto at that time — “WHEN BETTER CARS ARE BUILT BUICK WILL BUILD THEM”.