White elephantitis

Rare encounter — a roamer with Duesenberg engineI stalked this exceedingly rare specimen to its lair in Llanelly, a Welsh industrial town on the North shore of Carmarthen Bay. It was no chance encounter, because its enthusiastic owner, Mr. Gwynne Jones, had kindly invited me to take a run in this Roamer when we, and our respective wives, shared a table at that elaborate buffet-supper at Butlin’s Holiday Camp that concluded the Veteran and Vintage International Rally.

A 1920 touring car, this Roamer is interesting for several reasons. In the first place, although many cars can be quoted as having imitation Rolls-Royce radiators, either by design or accident, the Michigan-built Roamer is a pretty deliberate R.-R. crib, in radiator shape and detail, rivets along its bonnet, R.-R.-type centre-lock wire wheels, and a wheelbase that is the same, I believe, as that of a pre-1914 Silver Ghost. Even the radiator badge has capital “Rs” at each end of the name Roamer! The makers began production in 1916 and, seeking a quality power unit for their car, no doubt with their R.-R. imitation in mind, chose a type G3 Duesenberg engine—sometimes referred to as “The Power of the Hour,” built by Rochester after Duesenberg closed down and found also in Revere, Meteor, Mercury, Fremocar, Richelieu, Colonial, Kenworthy, Biddle, Argonne and Shadwyck cars. It is a 4-cylinder 4 in. x 6 in. 5.6-litre engine with horizontal valves set along the off-side of the head and actuated from a base-chamber camshaft by long vertical rocking levers, with tappet adjustment (4-thou., cold) between these and the valve stems.

This ingenious engine, rated at 28 h.p., developed 95 b.h.p. at 2,750 r.p.m. and was also used in 4 in. x 6 in. form in the Roamer “Speedster.” It was very similar to the earlier racing Duesenberg engines except that the camshaft drive was by gears and the in-line water pump, dynamo and Bosch magneto were on the near-side instead of the off-side. Another car to use such an engine was the Wolverine, but this had the type RD engine.

Incidentally, Roamer made a racing car of their own which, in 1921, was timed at 105 m.p.h. over a flying-mile at Daytona Beach.

Mr. Jones’ Roamer was bought in America by a Mr. Charles Lewis in 1920 and when this gentleman came to Britain in 1924, settling in Carmarthenshire, he brought it over with him. It was in use up to the late ‘twenties, then lay in the open for some quarter of a century. Its present owner discovered it just about in time, in the autumn of 1956, the engine seized solid. He worked on it until 1958, putting new rings on the alloy pistons, overhauling the magneto and radiator, and repainting the body royal blue, with carefully lining. The original hood and upholstery proved savable. Dunlop supplied a couple of new 32 in. x 4 1/2 in. tyres, another was found locally, and the remaining two are straked-tread Dunlop Trak Grips.

I have referred to this Roamer as a rare specimen. It certainly is, for it is the only one in this country and the only Duesenberg-engined touring Roamer in the World, as far as can be ascertained. Five other Roamers exist in America, but four have 6-cylinder Continental engines. Only one, owned by Art Austria of California, has the horizontal-valve “Duesey” motor, and it has a 2-seater body.

Roamer had a London agent after the Armistice, William Cole & Co., Ltd., in the Hammersmith Road, but it is doubtful if many were sold. The McKenna Duties and h.p. tax would have been against the Roamer, although in 1920 three, one a coupé, were advertised amongst the “smalls” in The Autocar. Certainly, Mr. Lewis should have found the 5.6-litre engine useful for the hilly, tortuous Welsh lanes.

Because of its unusual valve location, akin to that of the pre-1915 Coupe de l’Auto and G.P. Delage racers, although these had push-rod valve gear, the Roamer has a high-set exhaust manifold and an impressive, 2-branch aluminium inlet manifold, rising up to the horizontal valves. The carburetter was originally a Stromberg but has been replaced with a modern type 36 VEA Zenith, taking warm air from a muff round the exhaust pipe.

The valve rockers are covered by a big vertical alloy cover, inscribed with the name “Roamer-Duesenberg.” To adjust the tappets this, and the inlet manifold, have to be removed. “Lion” gaskets were supplied by James Walker for the overhaul. A row of large cups on the near-side of the head enable the valves to be ground-in. The plugs, one per cylinder, are at 45° on the nearside, fuel feed is by a large Autovac securely mounted on brackets in front of the cylinder block, there is an alloy 4-blade cooling fan, and sump and petrol tank contents are recorded on dial-type gauges. The fuel tank holds 23 U.S. gallons. The electrical system is 6-volt Westinghouse.

The crankshaft runs, rather alarmingly, in two bearings only. The drive goes via a 14-plate Brown-Lipe dry clutch to a 4-speed Duesenberg gearbox having a geared-up top speed of 1.25 to 1. This gearbox is controlled by a central ball-gate lever with the handbrake lever beside it. It has a curious action, 1st being forward left, 2nd back left, after which you go “round a corner” into 3rd speed, then forward for top gear.

Behind the gearbox is a gear drive for the Stewart-Warner ribbon speedometer and the fabric joint for the open propeller-shaft. Rear suspension is by double cantilever springs on each side, as on the Hon. Patrick Lindsay’s Napier-Railton.

There used to be a gearbox-driven tyre pump (not fitted at present) and the exhaust system incorporates a cut-out. The open decked Barley body, with steps in place of running boards, rear screen, curtain-type sidescreens, and deep valances, is typically vintage-American. The Roamer is a l.h.d. car, its big wood-rimmed steering-wheel having four dished alloy spokes with ignition and hand-throttle levers above it, Klaxon horn button in the centre. The lower pane of the screen opens outwards and the wooden dashboard carries clock and speedometer on the right, central light-switch panel, ammeter, oil-pressure gauge and combined choke-cum-air-valve control. An unusual item is a button for delivering extra oil to the timing gears while, because side-lamps were not required on American cars in the ‘twenties, the lamps-switch on the extreme right of the dash switches off the rear lamps independently of the other lamps.

I do not know the list-price of the car but in 1923 they asked 2,485 dollars for the more prosaic Continental-engined tourer. According to “Doyle,” production ceased in 1930.

A drive from Llanelly to Carmarthen to see a 1908 Alldays & Onions and a very original M.-type M.G. Midget showed that the Roamer has a long stride, so that it pulls effortlessly up hills, even if its top speed is held down to 45 m.p.h. in deference to its 2-bearing crankshaft. The gear-change is very slow and tricky, a dragging clutch making engagement of bottom cog a matter of determination allied to patience. The steering, heavy for parking, lightens up at speed but there is pronounced oversteer. The view over the bonnet is very suggestive of a pre-1914 Rolls-Royce, and a Motometer labelled “Roamer” tops the eared radiator cap. There is a deep exhaust note and enough noise from beneath the riveted bonnet to dispell any suggestion that the engine might be a sober side-valve—this is the mechanical cacaphony of complicated machinery. The long wheelbase makes for a steady ride.

Fuel consumption is around 11 m.p.g. but oil leaks call for about a pint of lubricant every 80 miles. I am glad to be able to add that this very rare Roamer is in the hands of a sympathetic keeper (who is restoring a balloon-tyred, mid-vintage sleeve-valve B.S.A. saloon) and is not for sale.—W. B.