Cars I have owned

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[Ralph L Aspden recalls some exciting cars he has experienced, including racing cars used on the road.—ED.]

WHEN I informed my wife that I was about to write an article on cars, I had owned, she said: “Splendid. Then I’ll write one and call it ‘Cars I Have Pushed'” Which shows how trifling incidents do tend to stick in one’s mind . . . A simple calculation shows that I have, in over 40 years of motoring, completed a third of a million miles; on a very varied assortment of horseless carriages. How many times I have run out of petrol is anybody’s guess. It all started in 1915, when I was fifteen years of age. I well remember looking longingly at a cyclecar in a Preston garage; a tinny contraption with belt-drive and bobbin-and-cable steering. My father, who knew nothing about what made ears go and cared less, took one look at it and said, “Definitely no.” A car was off, but we compromised by starting with three wheels and he bought me a 31-h.p. Sunbeam, with sidecar. The, sidecar was as big as a bath and twice as heavy. The idea was that I should take the family out at weekends. There was nothing to it, even with a war on. A little petrol to get the engine hot and then switch over to neat paraffin. There was, of course, the day when the engine refused to start until the silencer had been well printed via the exhaust pipe. It blew up like a bomb just opposite the police station, one, of the thick end-plates flying through the open door and along a tiled corridor, coming to rest with a clang under the Sergeant’s desk. An embarrassing position; but my luck was in and I was allowed to collect my hot piece of metal and go in peace. No praise will do justice to the makers of this grated old motor-cycle. A typical feat was hoisting the whole family over the “Cat and Fiddle,” with myself in the saddle, father behind, the sidecar luggage-grid piled high with suitcases, mother in the sidecar smothered in parcels, and the family canary in cage, to top the lot. But one day I took the sidecar off and after that I had no use for sidecars at all.

After the Sunbeam came a series of two-wheelers, including a Rudge Multi, NCW Imperial, and then that road demon, an early 7/9 Indian, the sort with twist-grip controls. To get mobile was simple enough in theory. You merely ran the thing until the engine fired and took a flying leap. Maybe you made it, maybe you bit the dust. Just good, clean fun.

Came the day when I left my bikes to dodge U-boats for a spell, but immediately after the war, when stationed in London, a dealer of the name of Boembeke sold me a Humber car for £9, a real veteran with one cylinder under a ridiculously small square bonnet and a gilled-tube radiator that wound like a serpent in front. There were two seats perched high in the air, a vertical steering column, and a wheel about the size of a saucer. This was fun because the engine really banged along quite well. I ran it only in London traffic, and always with a passenger who was prepared to push; when the novelty palled I sold it to a man who wanted the engine to run his small workshop. Cries of “Shame.” Yes, I know, but I can’t help it now. But if anyone cares to investigate after nearly forty years, the said workshop was in a mews near the Hotel Russell . . .

My next effort, on coining North again, was an A.C. Sociable with tiller steering, two gears, and one cylinder at the back. It was comfortable, I’ll say that for it, and as a vehicle for teaching one to drift gracefully on Manchester’s greasy sets and tramlines I rated it high. This A.C. was disposed of to a rather cautious individual who thought 25 m.p.h. on the top side, and I took to two wheels again. A “90 bore” Zenith this time, solo. It was reputed to be a killer, and after a few setbacks (which included being thrown off in Manchester and bowled along the Palatine Road in front of a tram for some distance) I began to regard this as an understatement and decided to part with the “90 bore” before it got too tough.

The Indian Scout which followed had no vices. Fitted with a Terry spring saddle, 3-in. tyres. and a car headlamp, this bike carried use many thousands of miles and the first incident of note was the last—the Indian was completely written off one day when a large clog flew out of a lane right under my wheels.

When I had recovered, the question arose, what next? I was through with two wheels, and sought an exciting car. It turned out to be a large Iris. There it lay, in the corner of a London garage, covered with dust and junk. But it appealed to me—big cars always do—for the bonnet was full of engine, a starter had been fitted, and there was a long outside exhaust pipe; and, quite as important, it was in good running order. After fitting a new battery and cleaning the car up I brought her North. Perhaps some reader will recognise this big Iris. I never came across another. The engine was a six-cylinder with the cylinders cast in pairs, and when all the copper piping was cleaned up it looked most impressive. Iris, I believe, produced a 35-h. p. model and this might have been one.

The engine was said to reduce over 70 b.h.p. and maybe it did, for the car was anything but slow. It was a source of wonder to the locals wherever we stopped—the exhaust pipe got them every time—but when I took a friend down South one holiday the Iris blotted her copybook rather badly. It came about in this way. We had stayed for the night (two nights would have broken us!) at an hotel which I shall call “Gorgeous,” in a place that ended in “quay” (that should be enough to confuse the enemy, if they are still alive), and were about to depart in style before an assembly of interested guests. The battery was on the flat side, unfortunately, but nothing was too much trouble for two of the uniformed staff. So they pushed and pushed, and then pushed some more (remember the exhaust pipe). The Iris must have been feeling sore that day but she finally decided to start with an ear-splitting bang and swept the chimney. For a cloud of soot it was superb. We looked back to wave goodbye, only to see what looked like a pair of natives from darkest Africa. I thought we ought to stop and say something but my passenger said, rather crudely I thought, “Not on your life, this is no time for explanations. Anyway, it’ll wash off. Step on it!”

The next acquisition was a Brescia Bugatti, which was temperamental and often difficult to start. It was chancy stopping in a hurry, too, for the brakes were not the best feature of the car. No plugs that I had seemed to please the engine for long, but when tuned-up and firing on all cylinders this car was really a delight to drive. However, it soon became necessary to get a roomy car and the Bugatti was changed for a 24-h.p. Buick, which was quickly replaced by something quite plushy, an Arrol-Aster limousine. I don’t know who the original owner was but this carriage was fitted out regardless. The cigar-lighter must have been built by a craftsman. The Arrol, which had a single sleeve-valve engine, was extremely silent, and remarkably good on hills. I had to chance the motor one day in a quick nut from Glasgow to Preston. The flogged engine did not complain until the following day, when she pitched an assortment of rods and bits through the crankcase onto the Blackpool road. Which I suppose served me right…

I visited Brooklands whenever there was an opportunity. Now only some old photographs remain, and nostalgic memories of Parry Thomas on the Leyland, Ellison on the Lorraine Dietrich, throwing a tyre now and then, Le Champion on the Isotta Maybach (he gave me a ride home once and tried to scare the pants off me), and all the other pilots of really big ironmongery. By this time I had also attended enough sand race meetings to wish to join in, so I purchased, in the Easton Road, one of the 1914 4 1/2-litre Grand Prix Vauxhalls. I fitted the cowl seen in the photograph, and also lamps, since the car was used daily on the road (mudguards were not compulsory in those days), but the Vauxhall was never silenced, which accounts for my appearance in court for making what the police described as “a loud throbbing noise.” How right they were! This car I also used for sprint races at Middleton sands, Wallasey sands, Blackpool and Southport, collecting an assortment of medals. But there was always a gremlin under the bonnet for the Southport 100-mile race. Ignition trouble cost me many events. I made my own plugs, with Isolantite for the insulator, which certainly worked as well as any other for a time, if no better. Then came the idea of producing a high-frequency ignition system with much urge behind it. A 2-in, spark coil from a wartime radio transmitter was used to energise the oscillatory circuit and the system was loaded to the limit set by the coil and contact-breaker. Spark energy was high and plug points burned away rapidly, but with this unit plugs would continue to function perfectly even with the insulation right down, nor could immersion in a bucket of water induce a plug to misfire. The cure was complete and the increase in power and liveliness of the engine quite marked. Later I made a unit which could be switched on at will to change the character of the spark. This would cure misfiring instantly and gave good results when tested on Service aircraft.

During the time the G.P. Vauxhall was in my possession I had, in turn, a 30/98 Vauxhall, a Delage tourer, a Delage saloon, and a minute Austin Seven coupé, much less roomy than a modern “bubble” car. Why this attracted me I still don’t know. The Austin passed away in an extraordinary manner one night in a pea-soup fog as I was groping my way slowly down a long hill. Visibility was zero feet, navigation being accomplished by watching the ghostly light of street lamps appear for a second in the murk and only, except the last one on the bend at the bottom of the hill, which had thoughtfully been erected on the opposite path. In due course a dim light appeared and, thinking I was getting off the beam, I turned, realising the horrible truth just too late. Bouncing off a brick wall, the Austin finished up more or less wrapped round the wretched lamp-post, which split halfway up. The top half containing the lamp was hanging drunkenly, the gas had ignited at the bend, and the thing was flaring up in great style. I crawled out of the heap with a lump on my forehead and left it for someone else to clear up. A hundred yards further down the road there was quite a commotion. A 5-ton lorry had ploughed through someone’s garden and come to rest against the front door. It was a very bad fog that night!

The G.P. Vauxhall went to Sir Malcolm Campbell in part exchange and I became the owner of the record-breaking 12-cylinder Sunbeam “Bluebird” (plus 18 spare wheels, etc.). I got used to the big Sunbeam by driving her on the main road for short distances. The distances had to be short since at slow speeds the water boiled almost at once. Outside exhaust pipes were fitted but these were removed and replaced by stubs. “Bluebird” was towed to Southport and I well remember certain unpleasant moments when striking soft sand at well over 100 m.p.h. Getting the big car away from a standing start on sand with the minimum of wheel-spin called for considerable effort since the clutch spring was extremely strong. It was too easy to dig in and lose valuable seconds before the car took hold. When the tyres did grip, however, one experienced a hefty kick in the back. Bluebird really shook. Nothing, I feel, can equal the exhilaration of driving behind an aero engine giving some 400 b.h.p. at quite low r.p.m.

It occurred to me that a servo-operated clutch control might be interesting and I experimented with a rather crude power-assisted device consisting essentially of a starter motor, battery, chain and drum, with foot control on the clutch pedal itself. This was definitely tricky to play properly, although with correct manipulation of the throttle a smoother and quicker getaway could be achieved on occasion. Both time and opportunity to do much more with Bluebird were lacking and ultimately I sold the car to Jack Field.

During this period I picked up something else which was really fast—the 1 1/2-litre supercharged Eldridge Special. Alongside the driver’s seat was a large extra tank, but I replaced this with a second bucket seat and also fitted the streamlined guards seen in one of the pictures. This gave me a very fast two-seater for road use, which would pass the 100-m.p.h. mark without effort and bettered 120 m.p.h. on one occasion. Talking about the Eldridge Special reminds me of the other Eldridge, the big Fiat. It was Chris Shorrock who once faceted this car in a shed in Preston and took me over to see it. The Eldridge Special won some more sprint races for me but it was eventually sold to a gentleman from Cambridge who offered in part exchange a truly fantastic car. It was claimed to be the first “Chitty-Bang-Bang” with a 300-h.p. Maybach Zeppelin engine and modified body. Since it was in perfect running order I agreed to take the car without seeing it. To pass up such a chance was unthinkable. I had heard of “Chitty” but had never actually seen the car. It was accepted and the engine assumed to be the original used by Zborowski. The engine had the normal two carburetters instead of the triple arrangement fitted by the Count. Also there was an electric starter. The Editor, however, is an expert on the modifications made to both cars during their hectic careers and may be able to identify this one from a description. [In fact, this car was not a “Chitty-Bang-Bang” but a similar car built about the same time by a Mr. Scarisbrick. The engine is Benz, not Maybach. It is now in America.—ED.

When I took the car over it was finished in red, with ” Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang” painted on the bonnet. The immense engine was certainly big enough to satisfy anybody, having six separate cylinders with four valves per cylinder, exposed push rods and valve gear, and two carburetters. Final drive was by chain from a countershaft to rear axle via large sprockets, top gear being 1 to 1. The body was fitted with wings for road use and there was no radiator cowl. Exhausts were taken through an elongated, more or less pear-shaped expansion chamber to a truly enormous exhaust pipe which was straight for the length of the car. In detail the car did not differ from the photographs of “Chitty 1,” having the streamlined oil tank, two-way pressure pump on the scuttle, identical radiator, the same sloping lines of bonnet and scuttle, and huge lever for selecting the gears.

The car was in my possession in the early ‘thirties. It was really a delight to open the bonnet and let visitors admire the engine room.

Although I never took the car to a race meeting I drove her on the road, which livened things up a bit. As someone once remarked: “Two big bangs and they’re out of sight!” No long runs were attempted, for the engine had a bad habit of blowing back and getting alight. Then it was a matter of stopping quickly and jumping out to smother the flames with rags, which were always kept at hand.

Those were undoubtedly the days. There was fun then in exotic motoring. The car with a history always appealed to me but I have little interest in mass-produced tinware. And I still prefer a crash box. I have described briefly some of my most interesting cars. Others included a Durant, a Westwood, an Austin Twelve Six, a Talbot, and a Riley Alpine. Then there was the Le Mans Alvia, supercharged and with front-wheel-drive. The Alvis was, in my opinion, one of the smartest sports cars ever made. Steering was rather heavy and very direct with the engine pulling the Alvis could really be placed on a bend. Not everybody’s car, perhaps, but I liked the front-wheel-drive and this car gave me plenty of trouble-free motoring.

My present car is the “Paris-Nice” Hotchkiss with “Grand Sport” engine, which I believe turns out 130 b.h.p. It is difficult to criticise the performance of this 23-year-old 100-m.p.h. car, which is utterly reliable, with impeccable roadholding and steering, and with brakes to match the speed and acceleration of which it is capable.

In forty-odd years I have caused the death of only one hen. Is this a record? The bird concerned flew out of a hedge and expired on contacting the headlamp of the old Sunbeam motor-bike. We stopped and considered the problem, my father and I, wondering what to do with the mangled fowl, when a yokel who had the position (and us) nicely summed up, came forward and relieved me of the remains, saying, “It’s all right, sir, I knows the farmer as owns it. Don’t worry, I’ll see it’s all right, sir, just leave it to me,” etc., etc. We weakly let a good dinner go, but it was agreed afterwards that the lad deserved the bird more than we did.

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