Cars I have owned

John Garden, of Inverurie, recalls the cars and motor-cycles – many of rare conception – which have given him 20 years’ motoring, terminating in a distinct enthusiasm for the Riley. – Ed.

My first taste of motoring or, rather, motor-cycling, started in 1919, when I managed to get an old Sun-Villiers 2-stroke running after it had been stored “for the duration.” This experience made me determined to become a motorist, and in 1921 I became the proud owner of a 2 1/4-h.p. 2-stroke Enfield for the sum of something over £70. Petrol at this time cost over 3s. 6d. a gallon.

Even at that time, as now, I always liked to have something to tinker with and something else in 100 per cent. condition that needed no tinkering, so a succession of machines came and went, including a Lincoln-Elk, Premier, a Peugeot big-twin with automatic inlet valves, Calthorpe, Scott, A.B.C., Quadrant, Indian, etc. I ran the Enfield two years, then the craving for something faster got me and I bought my father’s 8-h.p. Enfield when he bought his first car in 1923. This was the model with the “Vickers” engine which was famous at that time for smooth running and silence. The “family” side-car was removed and a new lightweight sports built. Sports bars with twist grips fitted, footrests, “George Dance” knee-grips, etc., completed the conversion and I had a really fast and sweet-running machine, giving over 70 m.p.g. with fast driving. By the spring of 1926 I had saved enough to buy something new, so I started to look around. I had practically settled on another make when the Enfield distributor offered to get something special for me. This he did in the shape of an 8-h.p. “Competition” machine at the list price of the standard model. This machine had many non-standard fittings, including for that time huge hub brakes, foot-operated back and front, and special gearbox, and above all, a very special engine, with marvellous hill-climbing powers. Incidentally, the rear tyre of this machine never lasted 1,000 miles. At that time I was also running a 3 1/2-h.p. Norton O.H.V., which was an actual T.T. machine and was capable of showing a clean pair of “heels” to almost anything on the road.

About this time I built my first machine; this was a motor-scooter complete with seat, which gave endless fun for young and old, as many had their first taste of motoring on it. My next attempt was more ambitious and involved a considerable amount of work in its construction. This machine consisted of a Scott frame lowered 6″ with two straight tubes running from the head to rear axle a la Cotton, a twin-port 2-stroke Enfield engine with Enfield gearbox and wheels were fitted. I had to convert the front hub to take a knock-out spindle to suit Scott forks and a special shaped tank had to be made up. The completed machine was given the name “Nulli Secundus,” and licensed as such. It proved very satisfactory on the road and cornered as on rails. Among other machines which I used sometimes to ride at this time was an o.h.c. Clutter Lea 2 3/4-h.p., which, when its high-compression piston was fitted and running on Discol, was really fast.

Early in 1928 I was trying to have a deal with my Enfield for a T.T. Scott and side-car, when my thoughts turned to a motor-car and my Enfield went in exchange for a 1926 Austin Seven. Needless to say, this car did not prove very satisfactory after the urge of a big twin, so I bought my father’s Sports 2-seater Airedale when he bought his first Riley Nine. Incidentally, this was the first Riley Nine in Aberdeenshire.

To my knowledge very few of these Airedales were built, but it really was an excellent car in every respect, and although it was not fitted with shock-absorbers, it held the road very well at speed. Geared at 4 to 1, it gave an effortless cruising speed of 60 m.p.h. with 60 m.p.h. on third gear and a petrol consumption of 35 m.p.g. The engine had twin camshafts with outside hollow tappets actuating inclined overhead valves. The cylinder block was aluminium with wet liners. The crankshaft was counter-balanced and ran on two bearings, the front an enormous roller race and the rear a plain bearing 5″ in length. Bigends were enormous and never needed adjustment during the whole life of the car. After I sold it it was run by a garage proprietor, a police inspector and, finally, after he had an argument with a bus, it was cobbled up and used as a fruit lorry, but the gearbox gave out and I bought her back for old times’ sake and I still have the engine. After about 100,000 miles everything in the engine except valve springs is original, including pistons (cast iron) and rings. Cylinder boxes are in perfect condition, surely a tribute to the makers, Messrs. Dorman, of Stafford. The back axle is now incorporated in a small tractor I built some years ago and looks like lasting indefinitely at this job, although it is given some pretty hefty work to do.

About this time a friend of mine in the Trade telephoned me that he had procured a G.N. and he thought it would suit me, so I asked him to deliver it. He declined, but offered to come for me and take me to his garage to collect it. His reason for this was soon apparent when we arrived there, as nothing was right, and lights were practically non-existent, the accumulator was flat and, the dynamo being driven off a shaft, no light was available until you really got going; to crown all, the cut-out was rather erratic. By the time my friend and I were ready to set out it was quite dark, but we decided to risk it. After innumerable stops, including one to remove framework from under the seat cushion so that we could look through the wind-screen instead of over it, we arrived home with no lights at all, fortunately meeting no policemen. After some titivating, this machine provided lots of fun and used to corner well at speed; most of the running was done sitting on the floor boards, as with the cushion in the driving position was far too high. One incident I will always remember was when climbing our local test hill with nothing in hand on a rather high bottom gear and landing at the worst bend among a large herd of cattle coming down, forcing me to stop. With brakes that were unable to keep me from running back and the high gear ratio, I do not know how I managed to re-start, but it was managed somehow and no damage was done.

After this came a Belsize Bradshaw 9-h.p., oil-cooled. This was a marvellous little car. The engine was very powerful and she used to climb hills with a rush. The design of this car was really good, the engine having detachable aluminium heads. A very sweet clutch and gearbox were fitted, but the back axle had straightcut teeth and was inclined to be noisy. Even at the present day a car on these lines should prove very satisfactory as the big twin engine gives plenty of punch. I regret now that I scrapped the car, as it could have been re-built as an economy car for wartime use. Some running was also done at this time with a Rover Eight twin, and apart from cracking exhaust valve seats if the heads were carelessly fitted, these cars were quite good. A 7-h.p. Citroen came next, giving very cheap running, and although not fast it was quite pleasant to handle. In passing, how many present-day cars have adjustment for meshing camshaft drive pinions, as fitted to the small Citroen?

About 1930 I thought I would like a 4-seater, and exchanged the Airedale for a Peugeot Twelve, about which the less said the better, as I only kept this car a week and then bought a Riley Twelve Special tourer, a really beautiful car with lines somewhat similar to a Bentley. After a short time oil consumption proved to be very heavy and I decided to have the engine re-bored and fitted with Laystall lightweight cast-iron pistons. The firm who did the job for me delivered the car with the warning that she was very stiff and would have to be very carefully driven. However, after covering a considerable mileage the engine had never eased off and I decided to dismantle it. In these engines the front and rear pistons were off-set to overhang the front and rear main bearings and the second and third pistons to overhang centre bearing. All pistons had been fitted the same way round, so the condition of Nos. 2 and 4 pistons and cylinder bores can well be imagined. She was again bored-out, but as I could not afford Laystall pistons again she was fitted with “Covmos,” and after running in, gave many trouble-free miles’ running. The driving position of this car was, I think, the most comfortable I have ever tried. Genuine Marks steering was also fitted. During the time I had the Riley Twelve I also had a Salmson 2-seater with the four tappets. This car was quite lively, but I did not run much with it. An “Amilcar” was then offered in a local paper, so I immediately set out to see it. She looked hideous, as a body had been put on that “fitted where it touched,” so to speak, and the bonnet sloped at an alarming angle to meet the scuttle. However, the engine and chassis looked interesting, so the deal was closed and the car delivered to me for the sum of £4. The first job was to hack off the existing body, leaving a very pretty little chassis. The engine was stripped and the only new parts found necessary to put it in perfect order were a set of valve springs; these were made up by Terry. Ball races in the front hubs were replaced and new 7.00 x 80 tyres fitted all round. A light 2-seater body with no doors was fitted and the car was ready for the road. It was really fast and never gave any trouble. I sold it and the new owner stated that he covered the distance of 15 miles between his garage in Stonehaven and another garage in Aberdeen in exactly 17 minutes. Later, when demonstrating the cornering capabilities of the car he removed both back tyres from the rims and did not overturn. After he sold it it caught fire and was again re-built. The last time I saw it a Citroen radiator was fitted as the original one was ruined in the fire. I then tried a D’Yrsan 3-wheeler with 4-cylinder engine offered at £7. This was an actual machine which had been used for records and was fitted with extra large petrol tanks low down at each side of the engine. The rear wheel protruded through the streamlined tail and was covered with a cowl; when a bump was hit the tyre used to send this cover spinning skywards! The gear ratios of this machine proved far too high for road use and I did not buy it.

A 1929 Riley Nine then took the place of my Riley Twelve and it proved so satisfactory that I became a confirmed Riley Nine enthusiast. The first was a “Monaco” saloon, followed by a “Gamecock.” In all, my father and I between us have had 14 Rileys. After the “Gamecock” I tried to get a “Brooklands” model, but have never managed to do so. I started to build an underslung chassis, and after two years’ work the car was put on the road in 1936. It was a good deal lighter than the “Gamecock” and had a much better all-round performance and could be cornered fast with safety, although the wheelbase was rather long. I have another chassis practically finished with a 7′ 6″ wheelbase on which I intend fitting a very light body, but pressure of work meantime has stopped this. The chassis is underslung at the rear and the front dumb-irons lie between the front springs. The top of the chassis is 10″ from the ground and it is made from a mixture of Bugatti and Riley. All holes have been bored by breast drill and H.T. steel bolts and spring washers used. The Bugatti chassis mentioned is from a 1926 model I had and intended to re-condition; I gave up the idea as the gearbox pinions were rather the worse for wear and a half-tooth was missing from the crown wheel. I have still got the engine, which is in good condition and, in my opinion, would make an excellent unit for a Frazer-Nash. I have also a pair of beautiful Zeiss headlamps from this car which I intend fitting to my Riley when I can find time to finish it.

The fastest Riley saloon I had was an early 1928-29 fabric model with triple diffuser Zenith carburetters, and it certainly had something the others had not got. It is still running in the district and appears to be going as well as ever. At present we are running an “Alpine” Riley Six, which my father took delivery of in 1931 at the Works, and it looks as if it is going to last for ever. When a Riley Twelve “Adelphi” was bought, the “Alpine” was set aside for the use of our business and gets all the donkey work to do. Just before war broke out we had occasion to go down to Coggeshall in Essex to buy a motor cultivator. A start was made on a Thursday night with no previous preparation except for filling up with petrol. Driving through the night, together with two passengers, on an entirely strange road, we arrived at our destination on Friday forenoon, and after having lunch, saw the machine working and decided to dismantle it and take it home with us. Weighing well over 3 cwts. the various parts were packed into the car and we set out for home just before dark on the Friday evening, arriving home on Saturday afternoon, taking only 44 hours for the journey of 1,080 miles – good going for an old car. Oil consumption worked out at over 2,000 miles per gallon, and the car has still original rings, etc. Petrol consumption worked out at 25 m.p.g., but since then the car has been de-carbonised and new valve springs fitted, also a “Cox Atmos” atomiser, and it now does 28 m.p.g. on a decent run on “Pool.”

The “Adelphi,” together with a new Standard Eight, both belonging to my father, are on blocks for the duration. The Standard was just run in and had promise of being a very good small car. I myself have also a Standard Ten, bought new in 1934, and I maintain this was one of the best Standards ever produced. It is fitted with a free-wheel and with an engine which runs with turbine-like smoothness, and it is very pleasant to drive. Colloidal graphite has been used in the engine since new, and it has proved its worth as the engine is still in perfect condition in spite of some really long and fast runs at an average speed of over 40 m.p.h. Petrol consumption with a Cox atomiser is 32 m.p.g. on “Pool.” Incidentally, the original Lucas battery is still in use and at present my friend is using it in his Sunbeam Talbot, his own one having given out.

Recently I managed to procure an M.G.750 c.c. “Montlhèry Midget” in excellent condition, having done a very small mileage. Three of the original Dunlop “Forts” are still in use and two new B.T.R.s have just been fitted to rear wheels. Actually, this car has only been licensed for 27 months and has never been raced. I do not know the actual mileage as no speedometer was fitted to these cars, although a drive is provided. The car is blown and runs very well on “Pool,” and it is quite reasonable on petrol if speed is kept down to 65-70. All-out speed is about 90 and she handles very well. A windscreen has been fitted in place of the wiremesh affair fitted as standard. With extras this car cost over £600. Since buying the car I have managed to procure a spare cylinder block with Laystall hardened liners and special “Diatherm” pistons, but there is no sign of these being required, as the engine, etc., is in 100 per cent. condition.

I have also a Morris “Minor” saloon which I am overhauling when time permits and fitting with an “M”-type M.G. engine which I have stripped and am completely re-building with new bearings, pistons, valves, guides, etc. This engine has an overlap camshaft and should provide an interesting turn of speed when finished. M.G. brakes are also to be fitted.

I have owned various other cars not mentioned above, including Singer and Lanchester Ten, and just before the war I bought an F. W.B. Alvis which I intended converting to a rear-engined car. Plans were complete, but as things turned out I sold it and it is now being run by an R.A.F. officer.

Summing up my motoring for the last twenty years I have come to the conclusion that speeds of cars have not improved to a great extent, and certainly the average car is not so economical as 15 years ago; both my Airedale and the heavy 12-h.p. Riley 4-seater gave over 35 m.p.g., driving fast. How many twelves of the present day can do this? Engine speeds have certainly gone up, but gear ratios have gone down, hence the loss of economy and shorter life of engines. Perhaps after this present bother has been settled manufacturers will give us lighter cars with higher axle ratios. My ideal car would be a Riley Nine weighing not more than 15 cwt. Before this car was discontinued it was certainly over-bodied, which did not give its excellent engine a chance.

In conclusion, I hope that cars of this type will be produced again so that we will not be compelled to use the high-revving, slim-built cars coming into favour recently; surely there will be enough enthusiasts left to warrant their production, failing which we will just have to stick to the “old ‘uns” and try to keep them in 100 per cent. condition.

Some considerable time has elapsed since I wrote the above, and I have reluctantly sold My M.G. “Montlhèry” to an enthusiast from St. Bees in Cumberland, who came up to see the car and later came back to drive it home during a severe snowstorm, but was forced to take it by train. Car is at present on the road and motoring very fast. I intend concentrating on my Riley special, and when time permits I am slowly rebuilding the engine from as many new parts as I can procure. I have had the block sleeved and am fitting h.c. solid-skirt B.H.B. pistons, together with new rods, timing pinions, etc., so that it should be in good trim when things return to normal.

A word of praise to Riley (Coventry), Ltd., for their prompt attention to orders for spares in these times, especially to their deputy service manager, Mr. A. Farrar, who is always ready to assist in any way he can. And, thanks to those who are responsible for the publishing of Motor Sport under the present difficulties, and may they continue to manage to do so; it is a special treat when I get home from work and find it awaiting me.

I would always be very pleased to have letters from any other Riley enthusiasts as no doubt there are a great many who read Motor Sport especially from anyone who is building or has re-built one of these cars, as perhaps we could exchange views and ideas and, better still, spares, etc. My address is: Old Station Road, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire.