Cars I have owned

C.R. Farquharson recalls his motoring experiences and enthuses over the Bugatti and Aston-Martin. Further contributions under this heading, amateur and “professional” are cordially invited. – Ed.

With some temerity I set forth the experiences which I have enjoyed – frequently suffered – since I owned my first car, the inevitable Morris-Cowley 2-seater, incidentally of late vintage, being a 1929 Model.

Previously I had graduated from two wheels, starting with a 172-c.c. Francis-Barnett super sports, later re-engined with the Villiers “Brooklands” motor and used for grass-track racing with moderate success. A 350-c.c. o.h.v. Douglas, a Velocette K.S.S., a 350-c.c. Big Port A.J.S. (a very fine machine), and, finally, a 500-c.c. o.h.c. A.J.S. followed, from all of which a tremendous amount of fun, trouble, knowledge and genuine comradeship were obtained on grass, on the cinders and on club runs.

The Morris was bought at a time when there seemed to be quantities of wild oats clamouring to be sown, and was therefore caned everywhere with no thought for the morrow or the mechanism. Naturally, it did not last very long and was finally exchanged for an Austin Seven “Chummy,” which gave admirable service for a time, until it was found that both chassis side-members were broken at the centre cross-member. After a little deliberation, I decided to rebuild this Austin with a body of my own, and a new frame was bought from a convenient breaker’s. As no doubt better men than I have ruefully discovered, the Austin chassis does not lend itself to coachbuilding, and after struggling and redesigning for a period, I laid the work aside and purchased a 1927 Talbot Fourteen (Model “A.C.”). Yes, the one with the diabolical cylinder head studs inside the induction ports! This car was extremely heavy and used incredible quantities of petrol, but handled and rode beautifully, although lacking any real performance. However, during more sowing of oats, the crankshaft chucked it during enthusiastic second gear work one night and the car was sold for scrap.

Having now been deprived of transport, work on the Austin was perforce recommenced and eventually completed. The chassis was not lowered at all, but the radiator was attached by plates in an inclined position slightly further forward, the body being built of aluminium sheet and metal-faced plywood in M.G. “J2” fashion, so easy to carry out. Engine modifications were made with a view to getting more urge, and a rev.-counter drive fitted to the timing case, engaging the camshaft nose, which was slotted to suit. The rev.-counter was a large-dial aircraft instrument reading to 2,600 r.p.m., so that by repainting the readings exactly double the original figures, and running at half engine speed, a satisfactory arrangement obtained.

I never could stop this Austin from boiling when it was put into commission, probably due to the fact that the fan was too far away from the honeycomb, and the new valve timing and other modifications probably caused greater heat flow to the cooling water, but it went magnificently and a “Brooklands” exhaust system gave a truly inspiring note at high engine speeds and on the over-run; 5,000 r.p.m. was obtained in top gear on one or two occasions under favourable conditions, and I would say that the maximum speed was something in excess of 70 m.p.h. Somehow, after all the body difficulties had been overcome and the painting had been executed to give a beautiful finish, I lost interest and had no inclination to tackle the boiling trouble. Whoever got that car bought an Austin that would stop, however, as I scrapped the old brake cross-shaft and fitted a heavier one in solid bearings on the underside of the frame members, having forged levers to pick up the rear cables and put a compensating bar on the centre lever, coupled to the front wheels by rods, and not cables. Finally, a hand-brake lever from a 3-litre Bentley was fitted to the offside end of the crossshaft (I know it was sacrilege), and the car stopped so well that one could almost feel the chassis arch its back as the two axles were drawn towards each other!

A twin camshaft Grand Sport Salmson followed, but was not in good condition. This car must have had the world’s fiercest clutch and the getaway was a succession of hops. A three-speed gearbox rather spoilt the performance, but, taken by and large, it was a good little car, having no end of character, holding the road well and having high-geared steering, Which gave good control at any speed up to its maximum of about 72 m.p.h. Cornering was very satisfactory and the solid rear axle rendered sliding very easy and pleasurable. Like so many light Continental sports cars, it had all the qualities which vintage enthusiasts appreciate, yet withal selling at a very reasonable price. The Salmson was also remarkable for its low speed torque and would climb most hills in top gear with the loss of very few r.p.m.

Then a friend offered me an Armstrong Siddeley fabric coupé for £8, and I bought it as the Salmson was getting too far gone for good service. This Armstrong had no top speed beyond about 50 m.p.h., but would whine along at this speed for hours and was quite economically minded towards petrol. No shock absorbers were fitted and cornering was rather frightening to the uninitiated, due to the not inconsiderable roll.

About this time I had the opportunity of obtaining a unique car which had not been used since 1928, only four years after its construction. The North-Lucas Radial was designed by Mr. O.D. North, now the well-known and brilliant engineer who has been responsible for the many unconventional and successful designs incorporated in Scammell lorries of recent years and under whom I was privileged to serve for some time. (My poor imagination boggles at the thought of Bugatti-North collaboration in design, but we would be sure at least of a practical lubrication system!) The car in question had a radial engine mounted horizontally in the rear end, driving through the unit clutch-gearbox-differential assembly, and thence by universally jointed shafts to the independently sprung rear wheels. All four wheels were independently sprung and were carried on arms mounted on special suspension cylinders, which were in turn attached to the body structure. These suspension cylinders were about the size and shape of a Dewandre servo unit as fitted to a medium-sized lorry and each was a self-contained unit. There was no chassis and the car was probably the first chassisless car made. The suspension was phenomenal and I have never experienced its like, either before or since. Never having been developed, the North-Lucas had certain weaknesses which made it unsuitable for regular use, and I sold it for scrap eventually. I regret this course, as I would like to have the car now to demonstrate some of its sterling qualities to certain gentry who have drivelled in the popular Press, at the same time emphasising its year of construction. [1921-22? – Ed.]

A 1932 Rover “10/25” followed and this was a very pleasant little car, with limitations; it served very well for a year until the old urge for hairy horses re-asserted itself, coincident with the discovery that the gears in the Rover were finished. The car that I had dreamed of for years was then found in London in the form of a very late Type 40 Bugatti, with the hip-bath 2/3-seater body. After suitable (prolonged) negotiations with the parental financiers, I became a member of the Bugattisti.

Never since my first right and left at snipe have I had a greater kick out or life than from the run home in this Bugatti. Such steering as seemed hitherto fanciful, lightning cog-sorting and a wonderful taut feeling about the whole car was truly magnificent. The first job seemed to be a thorough study of the construction, and I recall the question very soon asked with reference to the engine: “How does it come to pieces?” Which question was, alas, soon to be answered, willy nilly. One evening not long after I bought her she dropped an exhaust valve most inconsiderately into the moving parts, to the great detriment of the latter. However, after I had located a second-hand block and had new exhaust valves made in KE965 steel, during which time I had incautiously enquired the price of new valves ex-Brixton, a new piston was fitted and the engine reassembled.

By this time the wild oats had become almost exhausted and, strangely enough, from this seed began to spring a deeper appreciation of a good car. Many long runs followed, with no particular objectives in view, and I seem to have developed an outlook rather like Mr. Lycett’s on king-distance motoring for pleasure only. Naturally, Prescot and Donington were regular ports of call (and how my mouth watered to see Types 43s and 55s carelessly littered about at the former venue!) The Type 40 properly tuned and left alone was a most reliable car worthy of the label “Molsheim Morris Cowley,” giving quite a lively performance, a cruising speed of 65 m.p.h., and consumption never worse than 28 m.p.g., frequently better. Probably the reliability of this old car was ensured by a vivid memory of Bugatti spare parts prices (someone had to pay racing expenses, I suppose), and a natural abhorrence of any form of “pasting” as applied to a mechanical contrivance.

One run from Watford to Prescot was done in 2 hours 40 minutes, including a stop for ale, yet never was 70 m.p.h. exceeded nor any absurd engine speed indulged in. There are other runs more or less incidental, but one stands out which proves the Bugatti, in my estimation, the most stable car ever.

Returning from the 1938 Grand Prix at Donington with two friends along the Hinkley-Weedon Road, we were being pursued by a “Red Label” 3-litre Bentley, but the Bugatti seemed to have the legs of the larger car. A railway bridge hove in sight and we surmounted this at about 65 m.p.h., only to be petrified by the discovery that the road fell away on the other side, quite deeply. We took off…. A telegraph pole on the nearside loomed like Nelson’s column and the steering wheel seemed to be quite an unnecessary attachment. After a seeming eternity, we landed squarely and solidly, but a fearful clatter ensued during the stopping process. On dismounting, we found that the rear axle under such stress had ascended and struck the floorboards of the tail, thereby overturning the battery and smashing the toolbox. The rear wheels had hit the cycle wings so hard as to shear the stay bolts in the frame. It needs some load to deflect Bugatti rear Springs 6″, but the whole incident shows the marvellous stability of the car and its robust construction.

The 4.50″ x 19″ rear tyres wore out very quickly on this car and were replaced by 5.50″ x 19″, which did much better.

Owners of Type 40s are advised to see that the rockers receive their fair share of oil and, providing decently fitting valve guides are fitted, no oiling-up need be anticipated. Suitable plugs were Champion 16, but, for harder driving, I found Bosch DMT295 very good, although liable to oiling in my own engine in traffic. Incidentally, always replace the aluminium plate between the cambox and cylinder block every time the engine is decarbonised, otherwise a water leak either into the sump or down the valve guides will result and the latter may give rise to the mistaken diagnosis of a cracked block.

Another interesting car followed, in the shape of a 2.3-litre six-cylinder H.E., first registered in 1932. I have reason to believe it was the last chassis ever built. Certainly it was the cheapest car I ever bought, being in absolutely showroom condition, and a gift at £12 10s. It resembled very closely the 3-litre Bentley with fabric Van-den-Plas body, being about the same size generally. The large side-valve engine had an aluminium head to Whatmough design. The cylinder block was quite shallow, but the skirts of the bores, like the “Silver Eagle” Alvis, extended deep into the crankcase; a beastly thing to replace without heavy ring casualties. A really nice four-bearing crankshaft was fitted, machined all over, and duralumin con.-rods transmitted the tramplings of the not too hairy legs. Three S.U. carburetters fed into Siamesed inlet ports. The clutch was externally almost identical with the old multi-plate Bugatti, but Caversham had out-contrived Molsheim so well that one could engage gears quietly from standstill without the usual firm movement on the gear lever usually associated with the latter car. Gearbox layout similarly resembled the Type 40 and changes were absolutely lightning-fast, of necessity – otherwise the gear was missed. Maximum speed seemed to be just under 80 m.p.h., with an indefinite cruising speed of 70-73 m.p.h. Braking was Westinghouse servo-assisted via mechanical operation, with a peculiar skew-gear drive to the front brake cams, operated by cables transverse to the chassis. Here lay the main weakness of the whole car, heavy braking from any speed over 50 m.p.h. causing her to swing badly, due, I think, to insufficient rigidity at the front end of the frame.

Very soon after buying the H.E. it was borne upon me that the petrol consumption was rather heavy, and a run from Liverpool to Watford showed that the car’s thirst for petrol rivalled its owner’s thirst for ale. This was the reason for my parting with her, as by no means could I get the m.p.g. above 15, and the instability under braking also helped to sever us. If anyone has this car, GY1567, I would like to hear from them. With modifications to the chassis and another engine of greater potency, the H.E. would have been a really excellent motor-car.

I was next tempted to revert to the respectable, and a 1934 Austin Ten was acquired, which soon proved to be a glutton for oil and quite lacking in performance. If, after winding itself up to 50 m.p.h., there was room, it would cruise at this speed quite nicely and long distances were covered quite quickly, but to the accompaniment of a screaming engine. When rationing started the Austin was laid up and only recently recommissioned; it is now to be sold.

After being car-less for some months, I heard of an Aston-Martin “International” for sale, and after visiting the owner, a well-known Northern enthusiast, I bought it reasonably cheap, to find later that the car was far from being in good condition. Only a few days after collecting it I used it for a journey to Watford, and soon found that the engine was very rough, so that I limited the r.p.m. to 3,000. On the return run the water pump gland packed up, allowing water to enter the sump. This was emulsified with the oil and hoisted by the scavenge pump into the tank, which soon filled, until the pressure lifted the filler cap off and the nearside of the car was literally plastered in black sludge on arrival in Manchester.

The engine was promptly removed and completely overhauled, with new bearings and reground crankshaft and rebored block. A thoroughly cleaned and painted chassis assisted it to look really distinguished with its drophead coupé body by Bertelli (brother to the better-known Bertelli). A painful grinding sound on the overrun was traced to a wormshaft thrust bearing of the “square-ball” variety, so this was replaced, together with universal joint parts, and the Aston was then in first-class mechanical order. Aston-Martin, Ltd., though rather stiff at first, soon thawed out and wrote me some very kind and helpful letters, and most of their suggestions were carried out. Having in mind the weight of the “gin-palace” body, I removed the heavy front wings and running boards and fitted very light and rigid cycle-type wings, as befits an Aston-Martin. Later I fashioned an outside exhaust manifold (with no little difficulty when it came to pipe bending). The car was originally fitted with close-ratio gears, but seems to have had wide-ratios substituted, and I am now trying to obtain the close-ratio type. Two 1 1/2″ S.U. carburetters, ex-4 1/2-litre Bentley, have recently been obtained, and I hope to fit these for trial when the car is brought into service again. With these various modifications I hope to exceed 80 m.p.h. fairly comfortably. Incidentally, a Simms automatic advance was fitted to the magneto and has proved very convenient for low speed traffic work, although not quite correctly calibrated. With this the car is very flexible at low speeds. I shall be very grateful to receive advice from anyone who can offer any on “International” Aston-Martins.

After overhaul, with engine and exhaust standard, my example had a maximum of about 74 m.p.h. (the engine is still rather tight) and it cruises at 3,600 r.p.m. indefinitely (63-65 m.p.h.). A run of 180 miles has been regularly covered in four hours, door to door, and the car runs with the regularity of a pre-war train. Petrol consumption, with standard E.4 needles, is about 27 m.p.g. on a long run, and with the economy-80 (fatter) needles 30 m.p.g. is easily returned, although accompanied by a marked decrease in power. Steering and road-holding are excellent, but the former is rather heavy at low speed, due, I think, to the fact that 5.25″ x 18″ wheels were fitted by a previous owner, in place of the original 4.50″ x 21″, which may upset the swivel and castor arrangements. A low speed wheel wobble also obtrudes occasionally, for which no cure has yet been found, except tightening the front shock absorbers. The cause has not been traced.

I intend to remove the present heavy body and build a new one of great lightness, which will no doubt give the car much more lively characteristics, as the present acceleration is by no means bright. Any previous owner of GN4897 is invited to recount his experiences.

Whilst I am still an incurable Bugattisti, the Aston-Martin comes nearest to Le Patron’s creations and will serve me well until my ultimate ambition, can be achieved. I have recently met, through the good offices of Motor Sport, a fortunate owner of two side-valve Aston-Martins and entertain hopes that he may one day part with one of them.

On this note of optimism I will close. This effusion may not prove sufficiently technical for some of your readers, but this strain was intentionally adopted to give, if possible, some idea of the characters of the cars mentioned, rather than a bald catalogue of their specifications.