Motoring as it was

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A look back to the roads of the 1920s

(Continued from the July issue) 
Going on with the OJ saga of long ago, that motor-noter who wrote a weekly discourse on his chosen subject rather like Alistair Cooke’s later “Letters From America” for the BBC, with the diminishing difference that Owen John did his from Berkshire, for a specialist London journal, we find that, having enjoyed his visit to the Royal Meeting at Brooklands in the summer of 1922, he fell to musing on the beauties of Britain during a heat-wave, which they were enjoying then, as we have been 60 years later, -even if the rains have returned as I tap out this instalment.

It was the heat that directed OJ’s thoughts to the beauty and utter peacefulness of inns nestling along the sleepy banks of the River Thames. He became quite poetic about them and luckily some of them still exist, perhaps not in quite the isolation and immunity from frequent traffic as they were then. But not long ago my wife and friends took tea at the “Compleat Angler” at Marlow while I had business to attend to at Saab’s, and it was nice to discover that the 154-year-old suspension bridge adjacent to this well­known hostelry is still open, single-track though it is. I imagine most of the river ferry-crossings, at all event for cars, have long since vanished. I recall driving the 1925 15.9 hp overhead-camshaft Delaunay-­Belleville I then owned out to the Thames for a picnic, well after WW2, and parking close to a ferry, but it was for pedestrians and bicycles only. This car, by the way, now resides in the Museum at Chipping Campden, which is on my “back route” to Silverstone from Wales, but I cannot say I often stop off to look at it.

Reverting to Thames-side inns, OJ mentioned the “Beetle and Wedge” at which, for a week in September 1921, an eminent barrister worked the ferry just for the fun of it. OJ wondered what he did when offered a tip, and I wondered the same thing about the brother of a well-to-do vicar’s wife who, to avoid boredom, looked after the car-park in Knaresborough during WW2.

Looking back more on the roads of the 1920s, OJ found himself, one pleasant June evening in 1922, being driven by the winner of an important golf championship in a brand-new Metallurgique Vanden Plas tourer. They took tea in London, dined at Godalming, and then set off for dreamy Chichester. No-one knew anything about the car and checking whether the oil-pump was functioning, by undoing a union, resulted in much oil on clothing, which must have been aggravating, as they were “flagged up to the nines for the occasion”. 

Then, as it got dark, all the bulbs “blew”; being unsuited to the voltage of the dynamo. However, they arrived safely and the next day OJ, after the golfing, was driven to Bognor in a pre-1914 Hotchkiss which “age could not wither, nor war destroy”. It proved well able to overtake innumerable motor coaches before departing for Coventry, whereupon OJ and Sir James Percy came back from Chichester in a very sumptuous 25 hp Vauxhall with Barker all-weather body, described as “an apparently, perfect automobile”. The recent loM TT car races caused OJ to ask for a road race on the mainland, which reminds me that some years ago I went down to Salisbury Plain and drove round a circuit of public by-roads which 60 years ago was being quoted as a possibility for such a race, had the Government of that or any other day given permission.

Still in that warm summer of 1922 OJ made a business trip to what he called the lesser known parts of Buckinghamshire, the little Fenny and Stony villages, by way of Windsor, sleepy Buckingham, and noisy Wolverton, where I find it interesting that a Victorian “steam tram” was still in use. He was bound for Newport Pagnell, where the church bell-ringing was frequent but unpalatable and the hotel OJ stayed at not to his liking (Tennyson apparently had the same experience there, vide one of his poems). Today such a short journey would pass almost unnoticed and, even allowing for the fact that OJ says he had “not scorched”, it is a reflection on 1920’s motoring that such a trip constituted quite a distance, rather as, if you contemplate any of the more robust vintage cars -23/60 hp Vauxhall, 25/50 hp-Talbot, big Crossley – they are seen to have possessed a sort of brute-force machinery such as no sleek modern production car does. Hastily repressing such philosophy, let me say that I don’t know about the old bell-ringers of Newport Pagnell but that if there is any evidence of activity in that town, today, surely it must emanate from the good works of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd? 

Having waxed lyrical about the Cotswolds and the Chilterns -“they have nothing yet everything in common, separated only by the sluggish Cher”, OJ told of coming home through Stow-on-the-Wold back in the spring when the horse-show was there; it still happens, for I was delayed on my way to the office not long ago by it, on a run that also takes me over the Cotswolds but through the Chilterns, at the elaborate cutting on the M40. OJ was then quite carried away by the beauties of going over the hill from Oxford to Nettlebed, finding himself more than 800 feet up at Huntercombe (not yet Nuffield territory), compensation for “leagues of dull, formless ploughland” (as ugly as OJ found the roads round Taplow and parts of Middlesex) offset by the fine country around Washington and Eynsham (much later to be the scene of lnter-‘Varsity speed-trials along the new by-pass) and the cherry-laden coombes around Henley-on-Thames. He was on his way home from the one-day Eton-v-Harrow match, the. trusty Crossley laden with hat-boxes and bags and loot. 

Enough of that! Next, we find OJ going out alone in an AC light-car, which he tested over roads good and bad. He was full of praise for the roads of Cheshire, just as he was very critical of those in Warwickshire in 1922, particularly that from Southam to the main Birmingham-London highway, over which, in 1921, an ABC he was driving shed its radius rod and damaged its hood, and was only comfortable below 30 mph. This time, in an AC, there was no trouble and tea was taken at the Stonebridge Hotel and the night spent at the “George” at Lichfield. 

Next day OJ drove the AC along what was then the most motor-popular twisty route in all England, he said, that between Lichfield and Rugeley, and, passing Ingestre, thought of the only man in Staffordshire who really knew about cars, at the close of the century, the French chauffeur of the late Lord Shrewsbury – coincidence that last month in Motor Sport there was reference to His Lordship. Around Macclesfield 60 years ago the roads remained good but the view deteriorated, but the AC climbed “Cat & Fiddle” hill splendidly, easily overtaking the ‘bus that would-be passengers were huddled waiting for, at the famous inn at the 1,680 ft summit. An overnight stop was made comfortably and economically at the Grove Hotel in Buxton, the AC being garaged at Hodgkinson’s, nearby.

OJ visited Crossley’s in Manchester, where Mr. Bianchi showed him the new 19.6 hp model, which seemed to have eliminated all the defects and shortcomings of OJ’s own 25 hp Crossley, a 1920 car, especially in the improved side-curtains, mention of which alone dates this piece. Manchester then had a “motor street” of its own, like London’s Great Portland Street I assume, and Messrs Voss, who had showrooms inside Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel, were contemplating opening some in the Midland Hotel in Manchester. There OJ took a quick lunch at “Sam’s Chop House” (gone, I imagine?), before a run through the windy countryside around Leek and on through the hunting shires of Loughborough and Market Harborough, the breeze blowing the ashes from his pipe into his eyes (the joys of vintage motoring!), with the little AC racing along, and doing some 35 mpg. OJ ate a picnic beside the very busy road just outside Leicester, stayed the night at “The Cock” at Stony Stratford, and was back in London the next day, full of the “immaculate perfection” of the 1922 AC -and never can anyone have praised a car more lavishly in a couple of words!

But again one has to be surprised at the short hauls, on a trip any 1980’s 11/2-litre car would have been willing to do comfortably in a day. -WB. 
(To be continued as space permits) 

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