Cars I Have Owned

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Brian Shawe-Taylor needs absolutely no introduction. He is best remembered as a very successful and worth-watching E.R.A. exponent, first with his B-type, later with the ex-Harrison B/C type. He is recovering splendidly from his nasty accident at Goodwood last year. That he has had fun with other cars besides his E.R.A.s, this contribution clearly indicates.—Ed.

As readers will probably be aware, the cars referred to in this series do not include racing cars, otherwise I should certainly have included a few words on the two E.R.A.s which I have owned, as the marque is, in my opinion, a very wonderful one. The E.R.A. was certainly the most reliable racing car ever built or likely to be built and bears great tribute to the skill of Peter Berthon and the late Murray Jamieson who designed it, and the generosity of Humphrey Cook who made it possible.

The vehicle on which I taught myself to drive was a 9/20 Humber of 30’ish vintage popularly called the Humber Light Car. These cars were extraordinarily solidly built and would run all day at their maximum of 50 m.p.h. without any ill-effects. A curious feature for an English car was that the steering was very low-geared, but George Bainbridge, who covered many miles in this old car, and I evolved a sure technique of overcoming this defect. When a hefty sideslip was encountered, either voluntarily or involuntarily, we used to spin the steering wheel to the required amount of lock and catch it at the appropriate moment. This early training has stood me in good stead, as I have since done precisely the same thing with the E.R.A., whose steering (for a racing car) is definitely on the low-geared side.

The first car I owned, at the age of 22 or 23, was a 12/22 Lea-Francis. This had a two-seater open body with an upholstered dickey for two. The body was, I believe, the same as that of the first 12/40 two-seaters, and was like the later models but somewhat higher. The engine was also very similar, being a push-rod 1½-litre Meadows, but differing from the 12/40 (speaking from memory) in having a two-bearing crankshaft, steel connecting-rods, and a less lively camshaft. The performance with this engine was not very great and, in fact, the car was hard put to it to do 60 m.p.h. and vibrated considerably at this speed.

I learnt that a 12/40 engine would fit into the 12/22 chassis without modification, so I kept a sharp look out for one in local scrap dealers’ and breakers’ yards. Sure enough, in due course I ran across one in Stratford-on-Avon. The car, a 12/40, had been involved in a shunt with a Fisher & Ludlow’s lorry and was a write-off, but the engine was unharmed and in good condition. I bought the lot for £5 and George and I proceeded to install the 12/40 engine on my mother’s lawn (much to her annoyance), this being a particularly convenient place for lying on one’s back underneath the car.

With the new engine the Lea-Francis was transformed. The weight, again speaking from memory, was about 17 cwt. and the b.h.p. presumably 40, so that even by modern standards the power-to-weight ratio was good. The car could now do a genuine 70 m.p.h. and was very lively. It had no particular vices except a tendency to develop front wheel patter or tramp on sharp slow bends. It was altogether a delightful car and I would not mind owning it today. Incidentally, while in 12/22 trim, I took it to Hamburg for a Continental tour with my brother, minus any form of tool—not even a jack. We had one puncture somewhere in Germany and, nothing daunted, I got some locals to lift the car up bodily while I changed the wheel. After a year or two I traded the Leaf (or “Perrins” as it was always called by George and I, c.f. the well-known sauce) for a blown Ulster Austin Seven. On its last trip to London with a local garagiste and enthusiast Bernard Thorpe, the Leaf unaccountably threw a rod on the Great West Road. This time we had a bag of tools, so we pushed the car into the Tecalemit Factory and proceeded to drop the sump and remove the broken rod and piston. We taped up the big-end and oil hole, refitted the sump, and proceeded merrily on three cylinders. Unfortunately, we omitted to remove the plug-lead from the idle cylinder, the sump gradually filled with petrol and air mixture, and sure enough the inevitable occurred. There was a sudden and violent explosion, followed by a cloud of blue smoke and a large dent on top of the bonnet. We stopped to investigate and found that the mixture in the crankcase had exploded and blown off the oil filler cap, which accounted for the dent in the bonnet. Otherwise the car was unharmed and we proceeded on our journey.

The blown Ulster was a charming little car, but very prone to shed bits and pieces and it had a nasty habit of not starting. It was useless trying to start it on a slope as its light weight (7 cwt.) meant that it gathered no speed unless the hill was very steep. When I first had the car it used to develop a most appalling wheel patter at 60 m.p.h. and above. I tried in vain to find the cause of this without success. Eventually I discovered that the plate rivetted to the chassis which held the ball on which the front axle radius arms swivelled was loose. We rivetted it and and the cure was complete. The car, with screen lowered, would do a genuine 80/85 m.p.h., and 6,000 r.p.m., which were safe and easily attainable, gave 40 in first, 60 in second and a theoretical 94 in top. The brakes, although I relined them, followed usual Austin Seven practice of that date, being practically non-existent; but as the weight was so low, wind-resistance rapidly brought the speed down to reasonable proportions. I did quite a lot of work on this car and bored and sleeved the engine, etc., and eventually sold it for a song after a minor shunt in the village where I lived.

My next acquisition was a “T.T. Replica” Meadows-engined Frazer-Nash. This car had an excellent performance and sound brakes and road-holding. It was, in fact, quicker from point to point than anything I have since owned, bearing in mind the increased traffic since those days. It had a rough engine owing, I imagine, to the high-compression and somewhat primitive unbalanced crankshaft. It had the two-carburetter head and reasonable ratios; by that I mean that it was not quicker in third speed than in top, as I believe many “Frashes” were. The steering was good, but definitely too high-geared. You merely leant on the wheel to go round corners and it was a job to keep straight on a bumpy road. The acceleration was excellent, it had a marvellous lighting and starting equipment (Bosch) and a top speed of about 90 m.p.h. One day I was innocently entering a built-up area at about 35 m.p.h. when there was a very expensive noise and the engine locked solid. On investigation I found that the crankshaft had snapped and put paid to the engine. I realised that the Meadows engine was almost exactly the same as that fitted to the 12/40 Lea-Francis so I resolved to look out for one. Sure enough, in due course, I found one, again for £5. I proceeded to install it, fitting the twin-carb. head and changing all cover plates, etc., that were inscribed with the magic words “Frazer-Nash.” With the new engine the car went as well as ever, possibly with a little less snap, but much more smoothly, due, I imagine, to the fact that the 12/40 engine had alloy connecting-rods and the original engine steel rods.

Shortly afterwards I swopped the car with Jack Bartlett for a blown twin-cam 1,500-c.c. Zagato two-seater Alfa-Romeo. I had always loved Alfas and had determined one day to own one. In appearance both car and engine were practically indistinguishable from those of a 1,750 c.c. model. For its date (1928 I believe) it was a classic and most beautiful design, and it was unbelievably smooth, rather like a dynamo. I remember when getting it I was a bit worried about unreliability and lack of spare parts. Jack Bartlett merely said “never exceed 4,700 r.p.m on this model and you should never have any serious trouble.” I never did.

The brakes were good and steering and road-holding proverbial. Maximum speed was about 85 m.p.h. and acceleration very good, and it did 18-20 m.p.g., driven hard. I used this car on Active Service in England until petrol rationing came to an end, without ever putting a spanner to it, and it stood out in the open in all weathers and usually started on the self-starter. This Alfa-Romeo was, I believe, one of three monoblock 1,500 c.c. models imported into England and run in the Phoenix Park race of 1927 or thereabouts. All this gen I got from A. W. K. Von der Becke, who lives near me, and who, funnily enough, once owned the car. He it was who fitted it with an S.U. carburetter instead of the original twin-choke Memini carburetter. On the day petrol rationing ended I was returning home after a week’s leave with friends in Bristol to lay the car up for the “duration,” when I ran into the back of a parked taxi on the triple-lane road entering Cheltenham from Gloucester. To this day it mystifies me how this happened. I was very short of petrol and economising by running at about 40 m.p.h. and that was my undoing. I remember seeing an Anson coming in low over the road to land, and seeing that the road was clear I proceeded to watch the plane. Suddenly there was a terrible rending noise and I found myself upright in the ditch. I had overlapped the stationary taxi by about four inches. The Alfa was indeed a sorry sight and I was desolate and could spare little sympathy for the justifiably irate taxi driver in his Lanchester. Eventually the police were summoned, but meanwhile a worried captain emerged from the War Office (where the crash occurred) demanding his taxi. I said “I am very sorry, but I have just run into it.” “Damn bad luck, old man,” he replied, and eventually we all piled into the taxi, which was a runner, and proceeded to Cheltenham. A curious incident eventually followed. I was sent abroad and asked my bank to pay a Cheltenham garage so much quarterly for the keep of the wreck. This letter apparently never arrived and the garage was never paid. When I came home to be demobbed some three or four years later, Bill Becke rang me up to say that he had seen an announcement in the Birmingham Post that an Alfa, the property of the late Mr. B. N. Shawe-Taylor, was being offered for sale to cover the cost of unpaid garaging. I hastened to Cheltenham to reclaim my property and found that the car had been pretty thoroughly stripped. Soldiers (it was stored in a Dutch barn shared by them) had even chiselled off the Alfa badge, stolen the cushions and removed the spare wheel and plugs. Luckily the engine needed reboring so that the rust in the bores did not matter. I brought the wreck back to George Bainbridge’s garage at Shipston-on-Stour, where I then worked, and vowed one day when things were quiet to rebuild it. This I eventually did, with the aid of several bits and pieces from Thompson and Taylor. The chassis and front axle were effectively straightened by Rubery Owen. The crankcase was welded-up by Barimar and I rebored the engine. The bodywork was knocked out and eventually the car was ready for the road. By this time I had a garage of my own in Cheltenham, to which I brought the car and resprayed it Alfa red.

I ran it in carefully and eventually sold it to a local enthusiast who still runs it. The new owner had a great deal of ill-luck with the car; first a valve stem broke and dropped in, then the crank broke; luckily he had some warning and stopped the engine. All these mishaps were, I think, attributable to old age and metal fatigue. Happily the present owner has acquired a secondhand crankshaft and the car is now motoring as happily as ever. After rebuilding it I took it one day to Silverstone where I was running with the E.R.A. and where the Alfa team was also present. On leaving, or trying to leave, the Paddock after the meeting I got next to one of the Alfa lorries in the traffic jam. The Alfa mechanics crowded around the car and were full of enthusiasm. They called me one of cliente nostri (which I liked) and were particularly impressed by the tick over—Comme une montre were the words used.

After the Alfa-Romeo I had a very cheap Riley Nine saloon for a time. It was an excellent single carburetter car with no startling performance, but excellent steering and road-holding. Eventually the clutch thrust-race disintegrated and I sold it to a breaker in Bristol. My present mount, and likely to be so for some time, is a Lancia Aprilia, which I think Ken Hutchison said was one of the most perfect cars ever built. Small maddening things often happen. such as jamming doors, rattles, leaking water-pump, etc., but, these aside, the car is completely reliable and gives an outstanding performance. The all-up weight is 16 cwt., the b.h.p. 47, so that performance is above average. What is so desirable is that, driven hard, the petrol consumption is 28-30 m.p.g. The Lancia will cruise comfortably all day at an indicated speed of 70 m.p.h. on about half-throttle and even at that speed does 28 m.p.g. Verily this design was 10-15 years ahead of its time. I believe like all independently-rear-sprung cars, it will, if “diced” round a bend at racing speeds, do a sudden sideways hop at the rear, but at all normal speeds the road-holding is perfect and it is virtually impossible to make it slide in the dry, so large is the tyre section in relation to the weight.

There is only one car which I would swop the Aprilia for and that is a DB2 Aston-Martin, and even that is limited by having no room for a proper rear seat. The road-holding of the DB2 is, in my opinion, unbeatable. A great deal of talk goes on these days about over and understeer. The DB2 does neither. The front and rear (at racing speed) break away equally, so that the whole car shifts bodily across the road according to the speed at which a bend is taken. The steering wheel can be turned to a fixed amount and then left alone. Perfect!

The Lancia Aprilia is one of the few cars I know into which one can get and, without dicing or taking any risk, know that you will be 45 miles away in one hour’s running on today’s roads  — truly a very fine performance. A last thought—if I could obtain a “Grand Tourismo” Lancia Aurelia (but I can’t afford it!) I would certainly do so. 

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