The Roads of the 1920s

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Just to serve as a reminder of how far we have come in sixty years, yet how little has really changed, Owen John was on in 1925 about the AA and RAC still being separate organisations, as they are to this day: but then many of their road-scouts had taken over from the Police the task of traffic control at road junctions and crossroads, which today is almost unnecessary, because of the efficiency and prolification of electric traffic signals.  O.J. did not see how the growing traffic of the 1920s would have progressed without this AA and RAC non-Police traffic duty, even if this implied that some drivers were getting the benefit for services to which they did not contribute. He was of the opinion that the two great motoring organisations would benefit by merging, which over 60 years later they have not done.

O.J. was also on about drivers having to pass examinations in motor driving, and when he went on to observe that he did not see, however, how it could be done, he was overlooking Governmental determination! When he expressed the view that he hoped if this did come about it would embrace horse-drivers, it does make 1925 seem rather a long time ago . . . At that time O.J. was still running his faithful Crossley, but it gave him a shock one day, when he had left it at the usual garage to be oiled and greased all round, while he went on to London. On his return he was told that the near-side back-axle casing was cracked all round its circumference and that he should not drive the car. Taking his courage in both hands he proceeded cautiously to Reading, where he asked Vincent’s to repair the trouble. A telephone call to Crossley’s brought a new axle casing in two hours but meanwhile Vincent’s had dismantled the thing, only to find that the axle had not broken at alI, simply having a loose internal bolt! One wonders what the Manchester manufacturer thought of it, and whether O.J. ever went back to the original garage?

He had had happier experiences with some of the accessories he used. He rode in comfort on Moseley “Float-on-Air” seat cushions and noticed how effective Houdaille hydraulic shock-absorbers were when a bolt broke and detached one of them. The Rapson tyres on the Crossley had lasted from 1923 and looked like being in use until 1927, astonishingly good going in 1925, tube trouble having caused O.J. to put on his spare a year earlier, in 1924. The “wireless” habit being by then in vogue, O.J. remarked that it taught a lot about accumulators that one didn’t understand before, and he was well-satisfied with the two-volt Exide and six-volt Oldham that kept his set going. As for his Crossley’s accumulator, he had to take a look to discover its make, so dependable had it been — it turned out to be a Rotax…

O.J. ended that discourse by saying that the car had become part of the World’s furniture and that it should now try to become beautiful, this involving, in his opinion, getting rid of the spare petrol-can that rode externally on the running-board, as big cars with Autovacs had no need of it and a two-way tap was all that was required with gravity fuel feed to remind one it was soon time to re-fuel — well, now it is the running boards that have gone, as well!  One thing that O.J. wanted to see diminish was six-course hotel meals, which many of the newer motorists couldn’t afford and which remained an absurd throwback, he felt, to the order of public dinners, the speciallty of hotel tables d’hôte and banquets. By 1925 it was unusual to have more than five courses at a private-house dinner-party and the custom of offering soup and fish had become almost extinct. Yet hotels insisted on providing a cuirass of knives and forks and at least three different kinds and colours ot wine-glass, when so many travellers just wanted a quick, simple meal. Perhaps we should say thank you for today’s restaurants intended for motorists, of which the growing number of “Little Chefs” serve so many with what they want.

After which, it was back on road-test, with a new 14/45 hp Rover, which he took on a 400-mile run to Lincolnshire and back. It started from Coventry, the Motor City, which then had some of the worst tramways that O.J. knew. He also found the road from Coventry to Nuneaton one of the worst, but that from there through Hinckley and Loughborough (where they built carrillons for all the World) very good, although Leicester in 1925, in spite of wider ways, was about as tram-infested as Coventry, its traffic controlled by white-robed policemen standing on white boxes. In Nottingham our diarist was innocently eating sandwiches out of a paper bag in a deserted square on early-closing day when a policeman told him he couldn’t, as only ‘buses were allowed to stop there. So it was onto the Fosse Way and at a good but safe speed for the new Rover, up to Lincoln, which made O.J. venture to think that the fine Cathedral there was better worth repairing than even St. Paul’s. Last month, no doubt, many VSCC members passed it on their way to Cadwell Park and may have been glad that, after repair work that was going on as the 14/45 hp Rover went by in 1925, the Cathedral is still standing in 1986…

Then it was on along the Roman road leading to Brigg, then almost deserted on that August day, and perhaps the safest and fastest in all England; O.J. said he might not be believed if he told of the speed the Rover attained along it. The night was spent, alone, for tourists in motor coaches merely passed through on their way to the coastal resorts, at the  “Angel Inn” at Brigg, where chops and ale were served at pre-war prices by “mine host”, who dressed and lived up to that name; and how many come like that, in this sophisticated age? The char-a-bancs were encountered next day, on the way to Grimsby, where the Rover turned south-west and ran through Caistor to Gainsborough, some 40 miles on another deserted and splendid road, on which the Rover was fully extended — but could you do that in a modern Rovonda on a summer’s day in 1986? Years before, O.J. had gone to Gainsborough to see the three cylinder National and wondered what had become of engines with that number of cylinders? — he was writing well before the days of “three-pot” DKWs and today would find the Suzuki Alto entirely acceptable; I confess I was all agog to sample the new twin-cam three-cylinder twelve-valve 550cc Suzuki Alto small car, but now learn that it will not be available in the UK or even in Europe.

Back to 1925, O.J. was very angry at having to pay a 1/8d. (8.3p.) toll to cross the Trent Bridge, when the Keadby bridge lower down the river was free, and he called upon the then new MoT to do something about it.  From Retford, once the most anti-motoring of towns, judged by its hotel, but where in 1925 they were waxing fat on catering for car-loads of all kinds, the Rover returned by way of the Great North Road — and what a nightmare you would have considered that, much less than 60 years ago— amid streams of other cars, to Barnby Moor, Worksop, on through the dull Dunkeries, and among colleries by way of Ilkeston to Derby, to rest the night. Burton, Ashby, and Watling Street brought it home next day.

O.J. did not profess to be a professional automobile critic but in his opinion the new 14/45 hp Rover, in respect of sweetness of running and swiftness of handling on top gear, stood no whit behind any existing car, no matter what its hp or mpg might be. It was a car that added glory even to the City of Coventry, and he recommended you try it (O.J. himself was to replace his Crossley with one). Yet perhaps he was more discerning than it seems, because he observed that although Mr. Poppe, who had been given a free hand by the Rover Company, seemed to have found out something new, not until he had incorporated in its details a few very minor alterations that would be entirely subsidiary to its main endeavour, would the car achieve a success that could not but make almost every other designer pause and think .  Well this new Rover engine, with oh-camshaft and cross-push-rods, was very complicated, and it didn’t really go until given a larger capacity engine, never mind what the orange single-seater Rover “Odin” achieved on Brooklands Track! — W. B.