Roaming with a Hillman Estate Car


The Editor Forms a Good Opinion of the newest Rootes Group Product while visiting an ex-Brooklands Straker-Squire, a straight-eight racing F.W.D. Alvis and other vintage cars.

Finding myself in possession of the latest Hillman, in the form of the new Estate Car with o.h.v. Minx engine which combines the appearance of a saloon with the convenience of an estate-car or station-wagon, and, moreover, delighted to find that Hulton’s excellent Boys’ and Girls’ Exhibition at Olympia would solve the problem of how to dispose of the children, I set off to roam about in search of interesting machinery.

First this smart Hillman was driven over the Thames and out to the heights of Blackheath, where I had a rendezvous with H. Bateman and Tony Armato who between them own the splendidly resuscitated 1920 Straker-Squire Six that was raced with very considerable success at Brooklands and in hill-climbs of the early ‘twenties by the genial, and then slim, H. Kensington-Moir.

As I emerged from the suburbs and skirted the substantial wall encircling Greenwich Park, I was delighted to come upon this exciting long-tailed racing car standing beside the open commonland —  in startling nakedness, for it was unencumbered by mudguards and screen. There is no doubt about this being the car which Kensington-Moir raced at the track at his uncle’s request as part of Straker-Squire’s development programme, winning many races and lapping eventually at a rousing 103.76 m.p.h. What had happened to this interesting car in the meantime? It was apparently sold around 1923, when Straker-Squire closed down, to a Mr. Horne who had the Vauxhall and Straker-Squire agency in Liverpool. From there it seems that the car was sold to Mr. Maynard, a director of Maples Furnishing Co. This gentleman seems to have made a hobby of disguising the cars he owned by swapping radiators and when the Straker-Squire was discovered stored in a basement beneath the Euston Road it possessed a two-seater body with dickey and an early Vauxhall radiator. Mr. Maynard sold his cars, which included an Edwardian Straker-Squire, a big chain-drive Mercedes, a Daimler, a Buick and a vintage 20/60 Sunbeam, etc., when road-widening threatened the building under which they were stored.

The Straker-Squire was bought by Mr. Armato after a short sojourn at a dealer’s in Warren Street.

Luckily the racing body was on a shelf by the car, and some spare cylinder barrels were found with it, as well as the original radiator. Rebuilt, the old car looks much as it did when raced at Brooklands, Spread Eagle, Caerphilly and elsewhere, except that its radiator is no longer cowled and its elaborate undershield has succumbed to the passage of time. The engine is obviously one of the very early examples, because the o.h. camshaft is driven by a vertical shaft biased towards the offside front of the engine, and on the near-side water-pump, dynamo and Siemens magneto form a train, driven from the timing gears, whereas in later Straker-Squires the vertical drive-shaft was directly in front of No.1 cylinder and the water-pump was brought forward in front of the timing case.

Here is a “real” engine, based on 1914/18 aero engine practice, with six cylinders made separately to facilitate the casting process, necessitating a multitude of water connections, and o.h. rocker gear which protrudes from the cam boxes to prod exposed, inclined valves. Carburation is by a big Zenith feeding into a water-headed Y-type manifold on the off-side, the small fuel tank being located in the scuttle. The handsome radiator is of the same shape as that found on normal Straker-Squire Sixes but is devoid of shutters, suggesting that it was destined from the start for the racing car.

As soon us I had comprehended these intriguing details the engine was started and I was invited to climb into the very narrow “1½ seater” body for a brief run. If brief, the delight I experienced was unbounded, for there is nothing like the feel of a vintage engine taking hold, air pounding past one’s face and heat rising in waves in a racing cockpit to dispel middle-age! The engine has an inside exhaust system extending from a six-barrel exhaust manifold, the same, I think, that it wore at Brooklands except when, late in 1921, Moir endowed it with six long outside pipes, arranged organ-fashion, which I have been able to illustrate on Plate 27 in “The History of Brooklands Motor Course.” The engine, in spite of its exposed o.h.v. mechanism, did not strike me as unduly noisy, although Straker-Squire later adopted different camshaft driving gears in order to quieten it.

Standing beside the car, its long-tail, 820 by 120 Dunlop “herringbone” tyres, long wheelbase, cantilever back springs and outside gear and brake levers give the impression of a long, rakish racer but from the cockpit one is aware that the bonnet is relatively short and the car seems to have shrunk and become conveniently compact. It has a man-sized steering wheel with big quadrant-levers in its centre controlling throttle and ignition through bevel-gearing at the base of the steering column, the polished alloy instrument panel is set to the left and carries small rev-counter and speedometer dials, etc., and the accelerator is placed between brake and clutch levers. The brakes are on the back wheels, throw-back to the deserted roads of the ‘twenties, and the clutch is the trickiest part of the car, being inclined to drag and to slip.

Mention of the pictures of this car which are in my Brooklands tome reminds me that Moir used a striking black-and-white dazzle finish but today the body is bright red, as it was originally at Brooklands and presumably reverted to for its last hill-climb. I do not know how special is the engine but Tony Armato confirms the use of h.c. pistons. Visiting this historic racing car enlivened a dull August Saturday morning and I can see the eyebrows of George Brooks, the Australian Straker-Squire Six connoisseur, rising as he reads this account!

Glancing over my shoulder as I drove away in the Hillman the Straker-Squire was being pushed back into its shed, just as if it had completed a journey in that sterner age when it was such an outstanding motor-car.

I now set about returning to my family, first of all getting lost in the maze of the S. London streets and being convinced that London omnibuses are the main cause of traffic congestion therein. I paused to eat a frugal lunch at the summit of Streatham Common, which I knew well in pre-war days and where, to our shame, Portal houses still exist in quite extensive clusters — how many years since the war ended? They form a drab and dismal background to the open-air theatre, on this oasis in a desert of bricks and mortar and forest of television aerials.

As I drove towards the even busier parts or the Metropolis I reflected that I was driving the Hillman estate-car briskly without conscious effort, a tribute to its well laid-out and reasonably light controls. I do not propose to describe the handling characteristics in detail, because this is hardly a vehicle for enthusiasts to fling round corners, but it does handle well of its type, with adequate brakes, smooth, somewhat vague steering which is light except when manoeuvring, and a fairly reasonable gear change, permissibly on the steering column because this is a car in which three will often be accommodated on the bench front seat. For a while I got caught out over the gear positions, because on first acquaintance it is necessary to give thought to a lever of stalk type — instinct alone isn’t enough. But soon I had memorised the layout, which has the lower ratio positions downward, a sensible Rootes arrangement, while reverse is selected by pressing in the knob and going through second. Forward visibility is good, both front wings being visible, and the pendant pedals and steering wheel are well located. Wing mirrors would be an advantage when the back is loaded. The suspension is still on the soft side in spite of stiffer back springs but roll is well controlled and over-steer only noticeable if a big load is carried right at the back. Slight tail slides were not difficult to provoke on wet roads, but these were only slight.

This o.h.v. Hillman estate vehicle runs well, being capable of around 80 m.p.h. when pressed, although not a lot over 50 m.p.h. comes up in third gear and the low gear ratios of this model result in a good deal of engine noise when cruising at 60 m.p.h. A speedometer 70 m.p.h. is easily attained. The interior of the body is upholstered very tastefully in soft piped leather and appointed as well as any quality saloon car. The doors shut with a quite “expensive” noise.

Collecting my wife and three daughters, after a quick tour of Hulton’s splendidly staged Exhibition had revealed fine displays of Dinky and Corgi motor miniatures, a Cooper-E.R.A. racing car on the latter stand in which eager children were allowed to sit, and larger-scale commercial-vehicle models on the British Road Services’ stand, the useful seating accommodation of the new Hillman showed up to advantage. There are doors for each wide bench seat, lockable from within and with winding windows — a good point is that the front ones can be fully lowered with but one turn of their handles (the back ones need five turns). There is adequate instrumentation, although I did run out or petrol through being accustomed to a reserve-tap. The detachable ignition key turns one way to start the willing engine and the other to cut out the coil circuit while leaving the radio, etc., in action.

If this useful car offers comfortable accommodation for four and very fair room for six with excellent luggage space as normally rigged, by pulling on a strap the back seat can be folded to provide a very generous floor space, in every way ample, for instance, and obviously much appreciated by Lady Brinethian Diana, our smooth-haired St. Bernard.

The tail-board releases easily and is held, slightly tilted up, by white plastic ropes and the rear window, which is lockable, lifts up and is held open by automatically-releasing struts, although bad bumps bring it crashing down. Folding or raising the rear seat couldn’t be easier. Strong spring-clips prevent that irritating rear-seat rattle which mars the pleasure of riding in many utility cars and this Hillman is generally free from body noise, although some tremors are evident at low speeds. At speed the car runs smoothly and quietly. In general service, inclusive of crawling in traffic and cruising at 60 on the open road, the fuel consumption exceeds 30 m.p.g. This represents a range of approximately 220 miles. With the tail-board down the filler cap is impeded. The spare wheel lives beneath the floor, so that a puncture when the back of the car is full of luggage would be embarrassing — however, the fitting of Dunlop tubeless tyres insures against such a calamity.

Rootes obviously think first before planning the details of their cars and worthwhile features of this Hillman are a bonnet which can be opened from the front without recourse to dashboard knobs, plenty of leg room in the front compartment, at all events for driver and one passenger, a horn-ring on the thin-rimmed steering wheel, truly-efficient screen-wipers supplemented by a screen-washer, and hand-brake splendidly located on the right of the driver’s seat. Rather unfortunate, if a clot is reversing into you, is the fact that the horn only operates if the ignition is “on.” The direction-flashers are operated most conveniently by a little stalk protruding from the right of the steering column but the lamps have a pull-out facia control, All the controls and dials are centrally-grouped, flanked each side by clearly-labelled heater/de-mister controls. Even with the heater off some warmth seemed to seep into the interior of the car, but there is a ventilator to offset this. Twin vizors are standard but no vanity mirror is supplied. There are no door pockets but there is a very useful facia shelf. The interior door locks are in the form of push-down buttons on the sills. A water thermometer is provided (normal temperature is 180 deg. F.) but an ammeter is extra, as is a starting handle. The Smiths speedometer reads commendably steadily and is calibrated in k.p.h. as well as in m.p.h.; it has a total milometer but no trip. The exhaust pipe is led away to the near-side rear corner to keep exhaust gas out of the interior. Thus this Hillman has many practical features. And of course, its appearance is outstanding for an estate-car.

My appetite whetted by the encounter with the Straker-Squire, I set out on the Sunday to seek further vintage machinery. First port of call was Cleve Prior, a pleasant village of stone-built houses near Evesham, to which the Hillman took me easily and pleasantly, via Oxford and Chipping Norton, over comparatively empty roads. Here I sought out G. N. P. Davies, who has recently unearthed a very rare straight-eight front-wheel-drive racing Alvis.

His garage was surrounded by all manner of Rudge motor-cycles, Ulsters predominating, because he was “at-home” to members of this enthusiastic one-make club. In the shed, sheltering from the rain, were more Rudges, including a very early version with belt drive and genspray carburetter. Davies has around him several Alvis cars and hordes of spares — l stumbled over a green F.W.D. T.T. two-seater, a 12/50 wide two-seater, a very original 1928 blown long-chassis F.W.D. four-seater, and a modern-bodied F.W.D. Special before espying the straight-eight. This was discovered on the outskirts of Coventry, one of the only historic vehicles to escape the Coventry air raids on the Alvis factory. It is actually the chassis and body of the Alvis driven by George Duller in the 1927 J.C.C. 200-Mile Race and Davies very generously gave me for my modest private “museum” the vertical number disc, still bearing a faded “2,” from its tail.

The chassis has a thin-section upswept rear-end over which the tail of the aluminium body threads. This body is as wide as a two-seater and on “flat-iron” lines, with central aero-screen, however.

For this car Davis has the spare engine for the 1930 Ulster T.T. F.W.D. Alvis cars. Four cars and five engines were prepared for that race, in which Alvis finished a splendid one, two, three in class F. I was reminded, when looking through Davies’ photograph albums and scrap-books, that whereas the 200-Mile Race cars had one steering push-pull rod above and one below the respective king-pins, and front suspension by four ¼-elliptic transverse springs, by 1930 the T.T. cars had normal steering connections and double-radius arms in lieu of the bottom springs. Bolt-on disc wheels were used in 1927, but when rebuilding his car Davies will substitute Rudge wire wheels, as the disc wheels have vanished. In any case, by 1930 Alvis used such wheels.

The very rare straight-eight engine is in pieces, awaiting reassembly, so I was able to appreciate its fine construction. It is the type with twin o.h. camshafts actuating o.h. valves inclined at 90 deg. and is supercharged with an Alvis-made Roots blower. No fewer than 160 valves springs feature in this engine, as clusters of springs are used as on later Alvis engines, with left- and right-hand coils for good measure! Apparently this enabled Alvis to wind the springs cold, apart from defeating valve bounce before it began. The crankshaft is a fine piece of work. After employing all-roller-bearing shafts Alvis used plain mains and roller big-ends for the 1930 T.T. engines, machining the whole shaft from the solid and dispensing with a flywheel. The cylinder head is non-detachable and the camshafts are driven by a train of gears of which the beautifully cut idler pinion is about a foot in diameter! The engine was slightly offset in the chassis, to which it was attached by separate lugs, whereas in the 1927 cars the crankcase was extended to meet the side members.

Realising that I should require a day in which to digest all the F.W.D., Alvis lore at Mr. Davies’ disposal I persuaded him to set it out in the form of an article for a winter issue of Motor Sport and went on my way to see further vintage cars restored by Mr. Jim Wallace. Reverting for a moment to the four-cylinder.T.T. Alvis cars, three still exist, Davies’, Kitchen’s and one owned by Alvis Ltd.

This entailed driving to a pleasingly remote part of Worcestershire, the only access to my chosen destination apparently being over a level crossing the gates of which were opened by hand, after signals had been carefully set, only after I had hooted to request this service. On the way I was given several demonstrations of the low regard many motorists have of human life when confronted by plums for sale at 4d. a pound (the “eaters,” however, turn out to be 1s. 3d.!) — fortunately the Lockheed brakes on the Hillman are effective! Incidentally, on the run home I was delighted to see a mobile policeman who was riding fast in the rain on his Triumph, swing onto the pavement and move on a red Bond which had elected to park opposite a lay-by on that fast, straight but none too wide downhill section into Henley from Nettlebed — its the stationary vehicles that cause many accidents. In a council yard at Abbots Salford I noticed two huge traction engines, one of which seemed to have four vertical cylinders above its boiler — perhaps a reader versed in steam-lore can explain this?

Jim Wallace was able to show me his delightful flat-twin 7-h.p. Wolseley light car, rigged against gale and storm with a delightful set of early vintage side curtains and with a wooden-rimmed steering-wheel and polished wood dashboard owing something to the Edwardian era. The close proximity in time of the four-cylinder i.o.e. Stellite flat-twin, and o.h.c. Ten must have puzzled potential Wolseley customers. Wallace told me that the 7-h.p. Wolseley small car might have gone a good deal faster but for restricted breathing and a heavy flywheel, because when he rebuilt his to its present splendid condition he discovered domed-top motor-cycle type pistons with thin rings and polished ports. The engine is truly a delight to behold, giving, in spite of its modest horse-power and number of cylinders, the impression of “lots of machinery,” enhanced by an early bellows-type S.U. carburetter. This specimen of vintage small car was found in Bromyard and its owner later found a similar engine doing duty as power for a saw-bench and two spare radiators, all of which he roped in as spares. He also has an early Trojan tourer.

His present restoration job is a very stately Morris-Oxford two-seater of the sort which, in the region of its dickey, hasn’t made up its mind whether to be Edwardian or vintage in contour. Painstakingly restored, this car is also endowed with several authentic “extras,” such as a Desmo addition to the gear gate, whereby a reverse lock can be pushed over with the driver’s foot. The Vintage Morris must share with the model-T Ford a fund of amusing “extras” for which collectors can hunt. I believe that not only will Wallace get some very pleasant early-vintage motoring out of his Morris but that through it he may be encouraged to associate himself with the Bull Nose Club, which represents a very worthy cause. By now it was late afternoon and in teeming rain the Hillman took us home securely, my eldest daughter, who had accompanied me on this day of vintage exploration, able to listen to the “Barlowes of Beddington” on the excellent Ekco radio and neither of us in the least faiigued by covering over 230 miles between breakfast and dinner, with much time spent looking at historic vehicles. I was interested to encounter many foreign tourists, approaching Oxford — Frenchmen in Renaults and Peugeots and Germans in Mercedes-Benz. Alas, our weather can hardly impress them!

I did run out of petrol in a very remote part of Berkshire as we neared home but a friendly farmer kindly found a couple of gallons for us — this being low-grade fuel I found that the high-compression version of Minx engine prefers a better grade, although it started instantly from cold and cut clean on either grade.

In conclusion, Rootes have a good all-rounder in this useful new estate car and my roaming journeyings with it proved how great is the enthusiasm for and fascination of vintage-car re-building. Nor can I agree with those who pessimistically and inaccurately inform us that our roads are becoming so overcrowded that pleasure motoring has virtually ceased. Apart from about a dozen miles into Oxford along A34 and a few miles when mimsers held us back on country lanes I experienced no serious congestion—and this was on an August Sunday, mostly over main routes. — W.B.