Veteran to classic

The roads of the 1920s

In 1927 Owen John spent a lot of time at the Olympia Show, noting in his diary that too many of the cars he inspected were equipped with spiky mascots – stags’ antlers, silver-plated warriors, absurd birds, animals, weapons, dancing girls and other ornaments – which were certain to tear the rugs or coats “that all cars, at some time or other, have to be covered up with in order to keep them warm”.

Well that dates things, because not only have cars not needed their bonnets covered over for a very long time indeed, but in later years pointed radiator-cap mascots were make illegal, because they were dangerous to pedestrians who might be hit by a car. The mascot of the Humber Super Snipe, I seem to remember, was consequently obliged to be fitted with a rather sissy rubber beak.

At that same Show, OJ was impressed by an anti-dazzle device introduced by Vincents of Reading, which could be brought down, by winding a handle, from its hiding place in the peak of the roof of a saloon body to act as a shield in bright sunlight – now we have tinted-glass windscreens.

Another notable exhibit was the Vulcan saloon in which the seats could be turned into beds for camping, at the expense of a rather wide structure. This was far better than towing a trailer caravan, thought old OJ, and I go along fully with that, regarding caravans, which take up more than the space of a car and pay no tax for the privilege, as one of the causes of present-day road congestion. Perhaps they should only be permitted to go out and about during the dark hours?

OJ also mentioned the need for good brakes, having been impressed by the vacuum-servo ones he had experienced on the MG Super Sports he had driven that summer. In the Olympia Gallery he was able to study a model of the Clayton Dewandre system and see how it worked. But he also saw some cars in which adjusting the brakes was unduly difficult – another “period” touch, whereas now we are into anti-locking brakes.

Looking at bodywork at the 1927 Show, OJ thought cars were getting more and more elegant, largely because loud, eye-catching types of saloon had gone and bright colours were reserved for open sports-cars. OJ believed that soon any open car would be of sports type, and saw this trend emphasised in a strawberry-and-cream Rover Ten, cream-and-chocolate MG and blue-and-silver AC. He said he would have seen even more of this Motor Show had he not been away for the grouse-shooting – which may or may not sound like a “period” observation…

Next, OJ turned to cyclists, and their ingratitude to motorists in cases where they rode until after dark. I am not at all sure that they were legally obliged to carry lamps in those 1920s, and even today, when a front light and a rear lamp or reflector are obligatory, it is possible to count quite a number of bicycles creeping along without any form of illumination after lighting-up time.

I feel sure that sensible cyclists, whether members of the CTC or not, are careful about their lamps; but there are still many who are not, including a long spread-out line of club or racing riders I encountered recently who appeared to have about half-a-dozen lamps between 20 or more bicycles, the lightless ones being “protected” rather ineffectively by their brethren. This is hardly the way in which to get a racing club a good name!

OJ felt that the motor car had been responsible for the much-improved roads of the 1920s, from which bicyclists benefited, and that they might at least carry proper lamps in appreciation! The roads, he said, had once been white, and a bicycle lamp could be seen reflected in such a road surface. Before the war came “to tear our peaceful life to ribbons”, every road was of chalk or gravel or hard grey stone, steam-rollers were few and far between, and thus cycling was a hard slog. The real scorcher who rode a machine without mudguards on a wet day “could be detected by the swallow’s nest that invariably clung to the back of his coat” (which would have long been observed by Sherlock Holmes, one assumes).

Then came the car and dark smooth tarmac roads, free of manure. Cyclists had the benefit of these, but unlit riders no longer showed up as once they had done. The puncture-proof new roads were largely provided by the tax motorists paid, but OJ (perhaps because he was a cyclist himself) did not object in the least to the cyclists’ exemption.

Although the experts at the show argued loud and long on the merits or otherwise of supercharging, and whether magneto ignition was superior to coil ignition or vice versa, these concerns really didn’t matter to most car-owners in 1927 and the cars went better if they were not tinkered with.

OJ did, however, express his regret that the one-time “steam versus petrol” argument had died out, for he remembered the pioneering days when a two-cylinder car had a job to prove its all-round superiority to a car with only one cylinder, or that four cylinders were better than two (three intervening), or six best of all (unless you were SF Edge) – but there was not doubt then that a steam car was infinitely more delightful than any contemporary petrol car, providing one had someone else to do all the seemingly inevitable dirty work. There were no such things in those times as straight-eights or double-sixes to enter the “how many cylinders?” arguments.

His observations on the evolution of the road led OJ to consider whether canals could profitably be converted into roads. He was in the main against the idea, but it is amusing to find that in 1927 he was referring to the Regent’s Park canal running from Paddington to the London Docks as “showing undoubted signs of life financially”, because today this is one of London’s attractions.

On the subject of canals, I was also interested to note that OJ mentioned that cosy little bit of North Wales south of Wrexham which carries on under mountains and dark woodlands and through a perfect George Moorland pastoral countryside all the way from Llangollen to Chirk, Welshpool and the “absolutely purely Welsh town of Newtown in the quaint and quiet country of Montgomery” – OJ was referring to that canal which is the joy of all longboatmen. I had occasion to drive over that route very recently in the latest Ford Sierra XR4x4 (which has some minor irritations compared to the older example I have just discarded) and very pleasant it was, apart from tourist congestion in popular Betws-y-Coed. WB