-At the wheel of a Renault Fregate Amiral saloon
Once a year it is my pleasure—unless I can think of a convincing excuse—to accompany my wife to Wolverhampton on the occasion of her Sunbeam STD Register week-end in this not unpleasant Midlands town.
This time the occasion was rendered interesting because at the last minute my good friend Mr Ronald, who quietly but effectively looks after Renault publicity in this cotintry, was able to provide a Fregate Amiral Duotone saloon for the pilgrimage. I write “at the last minute” deliberately, for a freak storm on the Thursday evening had flooded the telephone cables, so that up to the time when I met my wile off the train at Waterloo I was unable to telephone the Western Avenue factory of the Regie Renault to enquire if the previous pressman had returned the Amiral to them.
It was on the. off-chance that it awaited us that we turned into the factory on our way north and, indeed, were able to exchange the Volkswagen for the larger and rather faster French car.
The car we were to try had the new “square” four-cylinder 88 by 88 mm (2,141 cc) Etendard engine, which gives the useful output of 77 bhp, and develops maximum torque (121 ft/lb) at a modest 2,200 rpm, or at 300 rpm lower than did the older 85 by 88 mm power unit, which in any case gave but 97 ft/lb maximum torque.
First impressions of this Renault, as we transferred our baggage and impedimenta to it, were its handsome appearance and its remarkably generous accommodation for both passengers and luggage. In spite of its full six-seater interior dimensions and a luggage boot both wide and deep. Renault claim that the body shape was evolved after wind-tunnel tests with the result that drag co-efficient works out at 0.25, comparable to that of many sports cars. To this they attribute the economical running of the Frigate Amiral and Grand Pavois cars. I had no opportunity in the course of the 520 miles I covered in the car to take an accurate fuel consumption check, for the week-end hardly proved a holiday, but certainly it was in the region of 25 mpg or better, which seems to confirm the maker’s figure of 28 mpg at a steady 50 mph, good indeed for so spacious a vehicle, powered with a willing engine of more than 2-litres capacity.
Leaving London on A40 at what would at one time have been regarded as early in the afternoon, with most people still at their desks and work-benches, we found the traffic already piling up at the notorious crossing of this road with the North circular (where a fly-over crossing is a necessity now and will be imperative within the next two years). Until Stratford-on-Avon had been negotiated the going along this two-track highway was pretty shocking, especially as we encountered “abnormal loads” proceeding happily along at anything from 10 to 25 mph without police escort—which recalled a letter received recently from a justifiably aggrieved reader who wanted to know why such flagrant departures from dimensions set down in the Use and Construction Act are allowed. (I pondered about this again on the Saturday evening, when in South London, Mr Pickford blocked a through route for mile after mile and drove calmly through the “no entry” side of a traffic island, hooting a passage against oncoming cars, when to turn normally would have proved impossible with his gigantic, overhanging load.)
Taking the route Alcester, Redditch, Bromsgrove, Stourbridge, we reached our destination for the night, the “Crown” at Bridgnorth. Along uncongested roads. The old bogy of eating in England after 7 pm reared its head when we stopped at the instigation of an appealing sign “Grills,” only to be met with blank refusal to serve food, accompanied by a stony stare, while the “heavies” I had worked so hard to pass went steaming by. However, full marks to the Foxlydiate Hotel near Redditch, which cheerfully served a good a la carte dinner at the now standard charge for this type of meal of 9s a head.
By this time I had a very high regard for the Renault Amiral, its independent suspension by coil springs of all four wheels gives a comfortable ride that is outstanding for its “level-keel” cornering. Perhaps this is rather hard suspension for over rough going some judder is transmitted through the body. but the splendid roll-free cornering is full compensation and this is a car that those with queezy stomachs should find tolerable. The steering is wheel is set well clear of the dash and although it calls for nearly 41/2 turns lock-to-lock, it is smooth and positive, so that if rather a lot of wheel twirling is necessary, the car handles nicely for its size, besides having a turning circle which would make a taxi blush. The tyres, which were 5.75 by 6.00/6.40 Goodyear Super Cushion tubeless, do not draw attention to ambitious cornering and the Bendix-Lockheed brakes are light, progressive and of more than average effectiveness, so I enjoyed my hurried weekend drive. The steering wheel transmits some judder, but little return motion, and the amount of castor-action is sensible. The handbrake lever is buried rather far under the dash on the right and can pinch the ungloved hand, but it holds reassuringly.
On English road. the Amiral has two minor disadvantages. In the first place, it appears to be over-geared, because although Renault claim a maximum speed of 85 mph with its six persons and 220 lb of luggage aboard, and Mr Ronald tells me has seen 90 mph on the speedometer, I seldom got much more than 65 mph aiong the available clear bits of road, unless I stirred matters to extremes in the lower gears. That brings me to the other shortcoming. which is that the all-indirect gearbox is virtually three-speed with an overdrive-top. Now the willing engine takes this overdrive-top from really low speeds without protest, so the driver goes into it frequently then, to get back, it is necessary to tweak the right-hand steering column lever into normal top, whereupon an upward movement into second is usually required. There is no reason why the overdrive to second change-down should not be made, except that the “round-the-bend” movement of the lever calls for concentration. The synchromesh is easy to beat, resulting in mild crunch, and first gear position is close to normal top causing further confusion. All-in-all, the big Renault has a gear shift better suited to the long straight routes of the Continent than the rolling roads of England, although this does not condemn it in the eyes of the enthusiastic driver, while its good acceleration largely offsets the aforesaid reluctance to hit the “eighties” along short straights.
The equipment and appointments of this car, which sells in England for £1,244 17s, appealed to me as practical and in good taste. There is wide arc 100 mph speedometer before the driver with trip and total mileage recorder, and dials recording water temperature (170 F), fuel contents, dynamo charge and time. This complete instrumentation is augmented by a hand ignition control amongst the buttons on the dash. The doors, all of which trail, have no pocketa but arm-rests are plentiful, the front centre one protruded somewhat when stowed, however, the bench seats are comfortable but the cubby hole is shallow and its lid “tinny:” Two circular interior lamps are provided, which turn to switch on or off, one being operated by opening a door. On the right of the steering column is a lever working the flashing direction indicators and on the left the usual convenient Renault twist-lever controlling the lamps, including off and near-side parking lamps and headlamp dipping, only no indication as to which position does what. The half horn-ring turns with the wheel but is supplemented by a centre push which had a habit of falling into the drivers lap in moments of stress. On the test car there was full ventilating, heating and demisting equipment and screen-washers etc. Twin anti-dazzle visors are provided and my wife liked the mirror fitted to her’s -incidentally, the very next car tested. a British product, was similarly equipped. The in-built headlamps have concave glass and give a good but too concentrated beam.
The unusually large slopieg screen and sloping side pillars give good visibility, slightly marred by the position of the self-cancelling wipers and some reflection from the dash, and the big rear window is pleasant to have. I will spare you the the minor details, as a previous road-test report appeared in Motor Sport in June 1953. Incidentally, on the occassion of the present test I never had time to open the bonnet, so obviously the engine required no oil or water. The front doors have ventilator windows, and the main windows call for 31/2, turns of the handles, up-to-down, the rear windows, which don’t wind fully down, 3 turns. The luggage boot houses the spare wheel vertically on the left and the jack, etc to the right, so that delicate suitcases need some protection. The lid locks automatically as it shuts ; it has an automatic stay to hold it up, which has to be manually released, and the boot is automatically lit when the lid is opened.
In this excellent French family car, then, we came to Bridgnorth, that fascinating hill-town, where you drive literally through the town hall (built in 1652) to reach your hotel, directed by polite “please” signs erected by the AA.
In the morning I noticed the two weathervanes on this aged town hall pointing in opposite directions, either because they have seized up or the atmosphere was unusually still. I perceived the sagging main beams of the “Swan,” an old hostelry flanked alas by TV aerials, and discovered that the Railton taxi of the night before, with unusually vast saloon body, had vanished, its place before our hotel now occupied by a clothes stall, at which well-dressed small boys in school caps were laying out the towels and trousers. On the Continent this would I suppose, have occasioned comment, as would the sight of a vintage small car (in this case a 9/20 Humber two-seater) labouring up the hill out of High Wycombe the evening before, or a name as unusual as “Billy Bun Lane” that I spotted later that day in Wolverhampton, yet we hadn’t crossed the Channel. I was also pleased to see on the corner of another old building in the market square, an arrow pointing to Volkswagen service. I didn’t see any similar facilities for cars of Britain’s Big Five advertised in remote Bridgnorth !
On the Saturday morning I dutifully drove to the Park Hall Hotel at Wolverhampton, which proved ideal for assembling cars for a rally, as well as serving excellent food and having a very obliging proprietor— the only reason we hadn’t stayed there was because good things are difficult to share and all the rooms were taken.
Even at the comparatively early hour at which we arrived, CA Purdy’s 1931 Sunbeam Twenty Five Saloon was there already. This fine specimen of the Wolverhampton marque had come the 220 miles from Milford Haven the previous day and was to win the Age:Distance Rally. This car was purchased new by the present owner’s grandfather, who always had a Sunbeam. buying a fresh one every five years. By the time this one was due for replacement the Sunbeam Company had ceased production. so it has remained in the family ever since ! It is in a very nice state of preservation, but the engine was rather liberally daubed with aluminium paint, which is perhaps why it didn’t get the beauty prize as well. A smart Talbot 75 and a Sunbeam Dawn were also early arrivals and gradually other rally competitors began to come in, RC Carter’s always-welcome 1921 23/60 Sunbeam, with its enormous closed body getting in just before zero-hour, whereas CF South’s 1913 12/16 Sunbeam tourer arrived a few minutes too late to qualify, as he had paused to buy a map for the afternoon’s frivolities after arriving in Wolverhampton the previous evening—bad luck indeed.
The first appearance of Sqdn Ldr Millar’s 1927 twin-cam 3-litre Sunbeam from Gainsborough was quite an event, because while others were searching for one of these rare cars, Millar saw an advertisement in a local paper and for a considerable bag of gold, acquired a delightfully original tourer, which makes all the right noises, has the original Claudel-Hobson carburetters and exuded a potent scent of burnt castor-oil.
The afternoon was devoted to a Navigational Run organised by John Coombe, who owns a 1932 Sunbeam Sixteen saloon, as is only right and proper for one whose late father was Publicity Manager to the Sunbeam Company in the nineteen-twenties, and whose mother has many fascinating mementos and memories of those days. We set off in the usefully brisk Fregate to see some of the fun but meeting Sqdn Ldr Millar at half-distance, became fearful, as organisers do, of not being back in time to clock people in, so that we retraced our route even faster. The winner proved to be FW Joyce, who thinks nothing of driving his immaculate Sunbeam Speed Twenty up to Wolverhampton each year, returning on the Saturday night to milk his cows in Gloucestershire and coming back for the Sunday’s activities. His son proved a skilful navigator, as he has done before, but C Paget, driving a rare open 1934 Sunbeam Twenty-five, ran them close, his charming wife navigating. Gordon Strauss was a competitor in his 1932 Sunbeam Twenty saloon, his navigator another South African who had arrived in England the day before !
In the evening everyone foregathered at Guy Motors’ canteen at Fallings Park, gay with Esso balloons, which had been placed at the Register’s disposel by kind permission of Mr Sydney, S Guy M I Mech E, MSAE, for a giant reunion of old Sunbeam employees and members. Guy Motors make Sunbeam trolley-buses and Mr Guy was the youngest Works Manager in England in the days when he held that position “with the Sunbeam” from 1908 to 1914, under the great Louis Coatalen. Incidentally, during that period the annual profit of the Sunbeam Company rose in rapid increment from approximately £20.000 to some £148.000, whereas previously it had never topped £7.000. Mr Guy’s predecessors had been TC Pullinger and Angus Shaw, and he was succeeded by CB Kay. He left to form his own company and evolved a novel form of inclined side-valve cylinder head in 1917 which offered the advantages of the ohv combustion chamber while retaining the simplicity of the side-valve unit. This type of head being used for Guy commercial vehicle engines up to about 1935, until diesel engines were adopted, and also for the Guy V8 private car—and if anyone knows where one of the latter is to be found today Mr Guy would like to hear from them. . . .
There was some difficulty in persuading the ex-Sunbeam employees, whose presence, representing almost every conceivable trade, was !argely due to the entliusiastic efforts of Frank Bill, to tear themselves away from looking at the Sunbeams and join in the re-union festivities, which included drinking free beer donated by Butlers, solving a Sunbeam Quiz (winner. Mr Coombes), taking part in a free raffle (winner Mrs Lund), and recalling old times. Mrs Boddy took the chair and called upon Mr Sydney Guy lo open the meeting. He kept everyone amused by his light-hearted reminiscences. He told us how he had arrived in a two-cylinder surface-carburetter Lanchester to apply for a job at Moorfield at the age of 24, conscious that he had the wrong make of car and no money. Soon he had the right car, for the firm gave him a job and lent him a Sunbeam test chassis with a box of ballast in the back. He was promoted Works Manager and left Sunbeam to form Guy Motors, with the late Mr Stan Bayliss as Chairman. In the late ‘twenties Mr Guy continued to use a black-fabric Sunbeam Sixteen Saloon with cream wheels, of which there were hundreds on the road, so that he once mistook a stranger’s for his own, coming out of Wolverhampton Station, with embarrassing results. Times became hard and Sunbeam, Briton, Clyno, Turner, Star, AJS and other local companies failed, but Guy Motors managed to continue, although a bank loan of £140,000 had to be arranged on one occasion. Algy Webb going to London to hold Mr Guy’s hand.
Mr F Howarth for many years Works Manager at Sunbeam, spoke next, recalling that he met Mr Guy in about 1905, when he w as Manager of Humber’s repair depot. Work started at 6.30 am in those days and Mr Guy expected you to be punctual. He paid tribute to Mr Bill Potten, who had come up from London to join the party, this being his birthday—he was 64. Mr Howarth said he retains a warm affection for the old cars, owning a 1904 Wolseley. It was then the turn of Mr JE Sambrook to amuse us by pulling Mr Guy’s leg in maintaining that he was a strict disciplinarian. Mr Sambrook joined the Sunbeam Company as a coach-trimmer in 1912, became Chairman of the Works Committee and was prominently associated with the bowling club, athletic and cycling branch, social club and the works military band—activities which, perhaps, explain the lack of labour disputes and disturbances in that faraway age. He recalled the sporting gun which the workmen presented to Mr Guy on his retirement as Works Manager on May 31st, 1914. Frank Bill concluded this short speech-session. Frank joined Sunbeam as a lad and was in the racing department for nearly 20 years, during which time the cars from Wolverhampton won the 1921 TT, 1923 French Grand Prix and Cobb finished third in the 1929 500 Mile Race. He rode as mechanic in many American races, experiencing Indianapolis at the age of 19, and was put in charge of experimental aero-engine testing the following year. He received severe injuries when Christaens crashed a racing Sunbeam and was killed outside the works when preparing for the 1919 Indianapolis race, and walks with a crutch to this day. He was meeting many old friends on this memorable occasion, some of whom he hadn’t seen for over 30 years and Mrs Boddy made him a presentation as a mark of appreciation of his work in bringing so many of his old Sunbeam colleagues together. Mrs Boddy then concluded this part of the reunion by thanking Mr Guy for his hospitality, remarking that surely this was the only time when so many employees belonging to a bygone age have gathered together after so long a lapse of time.
Very much later we found ourselves back in Bridgnortb, having been most hospitably entertained at his home in the early hours by Mr Guy’s son, Robin, who is responsible for the development of Guy commercial vehicle prototypes and who drives a 1938 41/2-litre Bentley with rare open bodywork.
It seems that many interesting documents had been inspected and anecdotes enjoyed by members, because when they assembled on the Sunday, tales were being exchanged of crates of elusive brand-new Sunbeam spares located somewhere in the Midlands, and of instances of the fine workmanship which went into the old Sunbeam cars, even to the rigid inspection of the threading of the rods used for the hand-brake ratchets, and so on. Mr South was delighted to be able to give short rides in his 1913 Sunbeam to Mr Hugh Rose, the well-known Sunbeam designer and Mr Sinclair Bough, the oldest of the Sunbeam executives, who had patented many of the features of this 12/16 model.
After lunch on the Sunday a police-escorted parade, led by South’s Edwardian Sunbeam and JC Pearson’s 1919 four-cylinder Sunbeam 16 tourer, took place through Wolverhampton, the long line of Sunbeams and Roesch Talbots pausing, for sentimental reasons, outside the Moorfield factory. Mrs Coombes, incidentally, had previously pointed out to us the “seaplane gate” and “packingcase lane” of 1914/18 memory. It could have been good publicity had Sir William Rootes led the parade in a Sunbeam Rapier, but he and other members of the Rootes Group were unable to accept the invitation, so the Renault made a very handsome substitute.
The Concours d’Elegance was held, as before, in West Park, where we were allowed to back the cars onto the grass verge—the close co-operation of the Chief Constable of Wolverhampton is one reason for the continued success of this happy rally and re-union. The cars were judged by a very appropriate team, composed of Mr W.Kernball, late of the Sunbeam Sales Department, Mr A Ireland, who used to be in charge of the Final Road-Test Department, Col Cozens, one-time Sales Manager, and Mr VL Nicholls. They finally awarded the first prize to RF Hudson’s splendidly original 1922 Sunbeam Fourteen tourer, which just beat CF South’s beautiful 1913 12/16 tourer which has won so many Concours d’Elegance prizes, with another previous Concours winner, FW Joyce’s 1934 Speed 20, a very close third.
It was pleasing to see Bill Perkins, so well known as an old Sunbeam racing mechanic and driver, present with his recently-acquired 1932 Sunbeam 16 saloon, while the yellow coachwork of G Hughes’ 1933 Sunbeam Speed 20, lent a welcome touch of colour.
While the judging was taking place a big crowd of interested spectators examined the cars and two fine old-school Bentleys circulated the area—I felt faintly sorry for their owners, inasmuch it the BDC should stage a return to their cars’ birthplace, they would be compelled to go only as far as Cricklewood instead of adventuring to Wolverhampton. An anonymous Sunbeam towing a caravan also put in a brief appearance.
The best parties break up eventually and so we came home; the roads unexpectedly uncongested until past Aylesbury (we were heading for London), when the 20-mph crawl from there to the Watford By-Pass defied (polite) description. Finally, the children on board, the last lap was done in good time, the comfortable riding, capacious Renault an excellent car for a task of this nature.
By the time I had returned the Renault on the Monday morning it had left the impression that this great French manufacturer offers an excellent medium-capacity family car, greatly improved in its present form, which has merits which should appeal to many motorists outside France.—WB