SOME EXPERIENCES, COMIC AND OTHERWISE, IN LOCATING AND RUNNING A REALLY CHEAP SMALL CAR
FUN FOR A FIVER
THE start of it all was the need for a cheap hack to supplement more modern transport. Pondering on this need, we formed a theory. A car was required, economical to tax and run, reliable, and able to plod alongat 40 or so m.p.h., so that if long journeys had, perforce, to be made on it, the average would be around 30 m.p.h., given a certain gumption on the driver’s part. Moreover, the whole thing had to be really cheap. Examination of the ” bargains” displayed in the emporiums of the new class of motor-trader, who has of recent times established himself in the poorer suburbs of London (small yard, nearly always shut—half-a-dozen shabby baby cars—nothing over e12), failed dis mally to encourage the praject. These baby cars, mostly of a twelve-year vintage, were invariably well worn, to put it mildly. As there is nothing the writer likes less than a car which buzzes along in a haze of oil smoke, threatening to fall to pieces at anything over 35 m.p.h., with springs that roll horribly at every deviation from the straight, dismal brakes, and steering that fails to conceal inches of lost motion, these Austin Sevens, Singer Juniors, Triumph Super Sevens, Standard Nines, Morris Minors and Swift Tens, with prices Optimistically inscribed
in big chalk figures on their (sometimes) safety-glass screens, entirely failed to intrigue. Then it was that the theory was formed. Quite an easy-to-understand theory, it was simply that sonic of the really early Small tars, of the 1920-1925 era, might be cheaper, more amusing, and in better condition, than these hard-used baby cars marketed for less than the proverbial ” termer.” When expounded to friends running either up-to-the-minute baby cars or old sports models in really fine fettle, our idea was accorded universal and ill-disguised scorn. One and all, they attempted to dissuade us on the
grounds that things like 1920 Calcotts, Chileys, Calthorpes, or such like would be painfully slow, unreliable and horribly comic. There the matter might have rested, had the writer not been (a) several times greatly inconvenienced by finding himself without a means of transport when important racing fixtures were due to be contested ; (b) extremely fascinated by the more obscure kinds of small car which had struggled for alivelihood on the threshold of the motoring-for-the-million boom, and (e) practically fiat-broke, as they Say of Lea-Bridge dicers. These factors, in combination, started an earnest search for an unusual and elderly small car in going order. Covetous eyes were cast on a local Charron-Laycock in pristine condition and everyday service, and great was our disgust when we just missed buying an excellent Hampton coupe that
the secretary of a West Country aeroclub had acquired for the sum of £5. News of a Calcott in Bromley resulted in a Saturday afternoon and evening devoted to combing every likely hiding place in that town, with no greater discovery than a beautiful Panhard sports tourer for 1;10 (too big), a 1912 two-cylinder Swift in running order for gi (reluctantly left behind as too impractical for regular use) and a 1925 Humber with safety glass, dipping lamps, good upholstery, excellent all-weather equipment, sound tyres and battery, front brakes, and promise of an engineer’s certificate of
condition—all for £3That Humber gave us great food for thought and we very nearly had it, the only drawback being its Size–it was taxed as 12 h.p. but we swear it was a ” 15.9 “—while its fuel consumption was less than 30 m.p.g. But the splendid condition of this old warrior increased our confidence in our theory and friends even began to search for us. We would nearly fall out of what ever modern car we were driving at the sight of an old Gwynne or air-cooled Rover Eight still in action. From searching country garages we turned to combing the breakers’ yards, both known and previously unknown. On one score, however, we were adamant—nothing “
sports” should enter into the deal, on the grounds that the milder forms of sports-car were likely to be well worn and temperamental, and later animals of this ilk—” 12/50 ” Alvis, Lea-Francis, etc.—too costly, anyway, and too fatally deserving of much more expenditure to put them in reasonable fighting fettle. At least, we thought we were adamant. But it so ‘came to pass that we conveyed our theory with us. to the Brooklands Whitsun Meeting, secretly depressed at the scarcity Of old small cars, explained by some friends as due to the big demand for scrap metal and. by other friends as accounted for by the lack of demand for metal for export, which resulted in fewer comic specimens coming into the light of day. Either way, our search of junk yards and the smaller garages had been quite fruitless, though we could lay claim to a complete course of salesmanship as applied to baby Austins and small Singers and an intimate knowledge of which breakers were, and which were not, in the “inner ring” of scrap merchants, so to speak. True, a friend up North sent enthralling details of fiat-twin Wolseley coupes, two-cylinder Seaton-Petters, 8/18 Talbots (a great little job) and a war-time Briton going for 50/or so each, but our enthusings were sagely constrained by his concluding sentence (” They may not be where they were, now “) and we felt disinclined to extend our delvings so far afield. So we come to Brooklands Whitsun Meeting. Here, after the racing, we were rash enough to mention our theory to some enthusiasts who owned two very fine 3-litre Bentleys and a beautifully reconditioned and very stripped 12/40 Lea-Francis. The result was they said they thought they knew of a Calcott and of an A.B.C. Instant search for the former was fruitless, but, sure as fate, the A.B.C. was unearthed in a breaker’s yard of immense acreage, in which, however, the only other things of any intrigue were a partially wrecked Seabrook and a Fiat possessed of a sports two-seater body. We had expected a two-seater A.B.C., hut it was a red four-seater which revealed itself amongst the smashed Morrises and Austins, devoid of lamps and hood, but with safety-glass screen, and a glorious, if battered, bulbous tail reminiscent of a pre-war Hispano or Austro-Daimler. The tyres were an assortment of Dunlop, Rapson and. Avon, mostly airless, the engine was the familiar lusty air-cooled flat-twin with enclosed valve gear, a Fellows magneto, and two big Zenith gas-works hung on an exhaustjacketed manifold behind the cylinders. Much of the fun of running old cars lies in tracing the history of the particular car unearthed, as well as of the firm responsible for it, and of discovering its individual and marque characteristics. Alas, the log-book was not forthcoming in this instance, but we were fairly conversant with the A.B.C. generally and not, in consequence, unduly surprised to find that you poured the petrol into a circular tank over the engine via the filler cap of the dummy radiator, that the gearbox had a tricky four-speed vertical gate, or that the rear axle had dummy tubes of massive dimensions. Two days later we arrived with trade plates beneath our arms in the sunshine and shower of a typical English summer afternoon, and we watched the breaker’s Austin Twelve tow-start the A.B.C., now with inflated tyres on its artillery wheels. Very bravely we started off alone for London, unaware of the inflammable propensities of ancient
A.B.C. engines. Very soon the carburetters spat back so violently that it seemed expedient to short the mag. by applying the length of bared wire provided for the purpose to the steering column, which wire later tucked itself inside the driver’s shirt and nearly electrocuted him. After some experiment with the several petrol taps we plucked up courage and asked two locals to restart us. Not for long did we crackle through the darkening country-side, but eventually the trouble was traced to a loose petrol tap, and very late that night the A.B.C. entered London quite fast and certainly sensationally, tailed by a sports Austin Seven that had met it half-way, and with its makeshift lamps long since expired. Analysing the run, we concluded that the A.B.C. had plenty of punch, steered remarkably well, indeed, as well as a true sports-car, whereas we had only expected normal tiller-properties, if that, and clung very effectively to the road and could, moreover, be stopped in emergency on the hand-brake. Without more ado a mirror and bulb horn were tied on, the car taxed and, after much discussion, insured, and equipped with three 1/torches to serve as lamps, the idea being to attend a Prescott meeting on the Sun day. Incidentally, insuring these old cars is the very devil, and you must be prepared to pay almost double the rate asked for a year’s premium on an equally decrepit but more youthful baby car, and to tender an engineer’s report as to condition. We insured third party, one driver only, through Messrs. Mecca & Co., who, just as a famous aeronautical editor wisely placed his offices in Piccadilly because everyone who comes to London sooner or later walks down Piccadilly, have their offices almost opposite the County Hall and doubtless get much business in consequence from impatient folks like ourselves who wish to tax and insure the same day. In sober fact the car cost i5 and the insurance gi 9s. There was panic amongst the crew just .before the start of the Prescott pilgrimage, for we could not discover why the lubrication system wouldn’t work. On the sports engine the lubricant lived in a separate tank under the crankcase and was pumped up to twin drip-feeds on the dash by a motor-cycle pump, whence it flowed into the engine. We cleared all pipe lines but could not induce the magic and vital drips in the feeds, which finally led to the discovery that the pump drive was much the worse for wear. Arising early the next morning we wired a small funnel over the drip-feeds and armed the passenger with a tin of Castrol XL and the problem was solved, even if the very first traffic roundabout resulted in a fwmelful of lubricant in the driver’s lap. In push-starting, the carburetters back-fired and lit up most beautifully, but as we were parked beside a row of petrol pumps, the local garage did some effective work with an extinguisher. We consoled ourselves that we must have selected reverse gear, but stopped to borrow an extinguisher of our own before leaving London, nevertheless. So, well behind schedule, we left for Prescott and soon our jaded spirits revived considerably, for the A.B.C. had admirable acceleration, steered to a hair’s breadth, and was by no means slow, albeit the carburation was clearly very much all over the place. Indeed, a police car which stopped us at the end of Western Avenue, without being able to find very much fault with anything save one of the tyres, told us we were doing 55 m.p.h., when we imagined we were proceeding in the thirties, and, later, when the speedometer commenced work again for a while, we sent the needle round to 68 m.p.h. Consequently we became engrossed with struggles with the moderns, and that was to lead to eventual downfall and ruination. A saloon, which tailed us through High Wycombe, passed . on the long hill out of that town, in spite of our 40 m.p.h. in third. Gradually we. gained on it and the arrival of a derestriction sign seemed an opportune moment to pass. Alas, as we gave the A.B.C. the gun, there came a most unholy din from the mechanism and we ‘coasted to a standstill. The prop.-shaft adrift, we thought, but a ventilative aperture in the zrankcase and smoking rollers scuttling downhill into High Wycombe told a grimmer story . . . In a side road we pulled the engine out complete and placed it reverently under our coats on the back seat. Then we pushed to a garage and asked for assistance in our trouble, explaining that we lacked power to ascend the neighbouring gradient. George the head mechanic was called, and the expression of George as he told us he feared the engine must have dropped out in the highway almost made the breakdown worth while . . . I We came home by incredibly slow and inconvenient trains and buses. The A.B.C. is still in the yard where we parked it (that garage would not harbour it !) and that concludes the A.B.C. episode for the time being. The lack of any weather protection, lamps, starter, dynamo and battery, plus the hole in the crankcase, forced us to reluctantly abandon any idea of using
the car as serious transport. But the writer still feels that in the A.B.C. there is the basis of a very fast and entertaining sports-car, the sound transmission and 40 b.h.p. engine being distinct assets, and one day he may evolve something on this foundation. Incidentally, spares are not so difficult to find as you might imagine, for our local garage dug out a fan before the Prescott adventure (reminiscent of a miniature aeroplane propeller and guaranteed to kill painlessly any animal or human so unwise as to impede the A.B.C.’s passage) while we have subsequently been offered a complete 1921 two-seater for 0, the engine from S. C. H. Davis’s old car, another twoseater in running order, and have found, beneath what appears to be a bank of flowers in a B.M.C.R.C. member’s garden, another two-seater which is for sale. The Kingston Hill Motor Co., by the way, solved the riddle of the big-end failure by explaining that special high-tensile b.e. bolts are desirable for this engine— they service an immaculate A.B.C. twoseater and a Palladium four-seater for an old gentleman living in Putney. Very soon after these happenings we heard that for rather more than the proverbial ” fiver,” but still at a ” silly ” figure, we could purchase a 1922 Rhode chummy, with a 1924 o.h.c. 9.5 h.p. engine, four-speed close-ratio gearbox, and solid rear axle out of a car used in trials by C. Moss-Blundell from 1924-26. The price included a spare engine, gearbox and back axle, and hosts of other bits, and the car seemed just what we wanted. Its owner had bought it during 1930, run it for two years, put in the sports engine, run it for another year and then fallen in love with a Brescia Bugatti saloon, delightfully described on his insurance policy as a ” Bugatte.” Recently he has been quite sane and now owns a twin-carburetter Riley Six saloon, but it was the Bug. which put the Rhode into storage. Well, we went up to Dudley, Worcs., saw the animal, and found we wanted it very badly. . The engine had an o.h. camshaft driven by vertical shaft from the front of the crankshaft and operating vertical
o.h. valves via rocking levers. Set V fashion at the head of the camshaft drive, so very accessibly, were the Fellows magneto and dynamo. Lubrication was by splash-feed, the sump contents indicated (at all events on level ground) by a float. The exhaust manifold on the near side had a forward off-take (in 1924 I) and on the off side a tiny No. 24 CoxAtmos carburetter was bolted to a cast-in induction manifold, its float chamber effectively masking No. 3 sparking plug.
The single-panel screen would fold flat without taking the licence-disc with it (modern designers please copy), the rear brakes were reasonable and the transmission hand-brake really powerful, the steering asked only half a turn lock to lock, and the hood and side screens were quite effective. The rear seat offered quite a bit of accommodation and the spare tyre lived in a delightfully crude boot in the tail. Accompanied by the trusty Austin Seven (1926 frame with 1935 engine, transmission and axles my friend is a wise man) we duly collected the Rhode at 9 p.m. one Saturday evening, optimistically planning to get down to London, meet some friends and go on to—Prescott. Alas, that was not to be. The highgeared steering was soon coped with, first the side lamps and then the head lamps came into play as the dynamo did its stuff, and we achieved nearly 55 by the Austin’s speedometer, our own having fallen out early in. the proceedings, bruising the driver’s knee—it had no drive, anyway. Then, half-way home, ” Dudley ” blew his near rear tyre— he had been promptly christened ” Dudley,” having been unearthed in Dudley, Worcs., and the name has stuck. That the tyre went is hardly surprising when it is mentioned that the owner had inadvertently fitted odd size wheels to the solid rear axle, and that the tube would hardly have accommodated another patch. In the grim arrival of dawn a garage man did what he could for us with a wonderful German electric vulcaniser, which shot out a fuse most fascinatingly when the tube was cooked. We duly
attained London, we even attained the Oxford By-pass, visiting the A.B.C. en route but by then we had had so much tyre trouble that we abandoned “Dudley,” towing him to a garage on a bare rim behind a 80/98 Vauxhall later that day. On the following Friday we fetched him by train, armed with an A.C. Six wheel and 4.50″ x 19″ cover, which we bowled three miles along the Oxford By-pass—not one motorist offering a lift. This time London was attained without puncture and next day another A.C. wheel (wheel 4/-, tube 1/6, tyre 1/-=6/6) replaced the old disc. and 710″ x 90″ cover at the back, though up to now the old wheels have been kept in use on the front and as a spare. Without even changing plugs ” Dudley” has taken us to the Vintage S.C.C. I?leet ing at Lewes, to Brooklands for the Sports Car Race and on innumerable short runs. He seems low-geared, but does about 50 to 55 m.p.h., has quite excellent acceleration and gives about 80 to 35 m.p.g. He has restarted very powerfully, four up, on a 1 in 4 test-hill, on which the hand-brake held, and the gearbox has a most pleasant action, nor does the clutch slip. Incidentally, clutch withdrawal and Bendix pinion are both enclosed. Spares are obtainable from the Rhode Co., of whom H. B. Denley, who used to drive a Rhode in trials, has been most helpful with maintenance information. For a week we have needed no oil, after we overfilled the sump so that clouds of smoke of A.R.P. proportions have poured from the exhaust and into the cockpit from the breather. Under way, the noise of the valve gear and the very
healthy exhaust burble mingle to render conversation with rear-seat passengers almost impossible. ” Dudley” has his short-comings. On his radiator he displays two Club badges which rude folk say are worth more than ” Dudley ” himself. To which we reply that we value a car by the fun it gives and the transport it provides. You may ask what place this account has in MOTOR SPORT. Well, motoring sport has many aspects. There are probably many readers who can only afford a very cheap car and who hesitate to own, as enthusiasts, the cars offered by the smaller dealers, who, incidentally, can realise a profit of up to Lti on a g lOs. car. Our advice to such folk is : search for a really old small car and save it from the scrap-heap. It will be very slow, but there is more to sporting motoring than sheer speed. In the hands of a beginner such cars would be inadvisable, though no more so than the modern junk offered at like prices. But handled by enthusiasts they can be quite practical transport, given reined brakes and good tyres. You can reckon on reasonable tyres and wheels costing about 20/each, a charged battery 10/-, safety glass a few shillings to buy and three shillings or so to cut. Insurance will be about double normal rates, the policy transferable to subsequent cars. We bought ” Dudley the Rhode ” out of sheer enthusiasm for vintage cars and it is really incidental that he has upheld our theory, though for that we are grateful to him. If, however, this account turns your thoughts in -a like direction, the writer will gladly do all he can to advise.