Vintage postbag, September 1974

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Top Cars

Sir,

A major advantage of having been born well before the 1914-18 War is that one could motor at a time when motoring was a real pleasure rather than, for the most part, a necessary chore. Petrol was just over a shilling (five new pence) per gallon, I paid my chauffeur three pounds, fifteen shillings per week, and one could buy the most interesting and exciting motor cars secondhand, for the price of a rust ridden banger of today. If present day readers think £3 15s. sweated labour, let me assure them that this was about 20% above average, because, not only was he a splendid person, but he doubled as valet, occasional groom and houseman.

I am, therefore, able to comment with some authority, on your Editor’s erudite article on top cars in the early nineteen twenties. I owned, at different times, a number of Hispano-Suizas as well as the other he mentions. I even possessed for a short glorious period, the late David Tennant’s Leyland Eight which I sold to a friend called Lionel Phillips. This I place as very definitely top, with Hispano-Suiza second, the 8-litre “Boulogne Hispano” quite a close second. I am not certain if I can write objectively, as I was in my twenties and at that age one craves for performance, about the others, as they were rather sedate carriages. I am open to correction, but I would place them in this order. After the Leyland and the Hispano, the Silver Ghost, not only because of its superb workmanship, but because it was such a challenge to drive. If one could go through a whole day and feel, at the end, that an imaginary Rolls-Royce test driver sitting beside one had not given a single “tut-tut”, then one was walking on rosy clouds. Some very wise words were said to me by a man a quarter of a century senior, who had driven in the Paris-Madrid, “You will not really appreciate a Rolls-Royce until you are over forty years old.” I suppose the forty horsepower Lanchester comes next because one never stopped finding unexpected and highly unusual features. Lanchester, like the Czech Ledwinka (it’s time somebody wrote a book about this brilliant and highly unorthodox designer), never bothered about what anybody else was doing. These two great men just designed motor cars the way they thought they should be built.

I have owned a couple of 40 h.p Napiers, built circa 1924. One, an open fronted limousine by Cunard, I bought for twenty five pounds “straight out of private service” and resold almost immediately for a hundred per cent profit to a country undertaker. The other, a tourer with occasional seats, I bought for twenty pounds with a recorded mileage of eight thousand. I had the hell of a job to sell this, so I ran it for a bit. Its two best points were the excellent quality of its engineering and outstanding mechanical silence. I finally disposed of it, after a lot of haggling, for a grudging thirty pounds to a preparatory school master for taking his cricket team to away matches. I must say, quite honestly, that although I appreciated the fine quality of those Napiers, I was never in the least thrilled or excited by them.

Finally we come to the Isotta-Fraschini, a long way behind the others, bottom of the class by a long way. There are only two things that one can, in charity, say in its favour. It was beautifully built and finished, and it was the vehicle for more beautiful coachwork than any other car of its era. Oreste Fraschini died in the early nineteen twenties, and Cataneo carried on with this same design with small modifications for at least a decade. The steering, except for the early models with narrow beaded edge tyres, was quite unacceptably heavy. The clutch and brakes needed a strong man to operate them, and the performance, except for the rare “Tipo-Spinto”, can only be compared to a suet pudding being towed by a Trojan. I think the best epitaph on the Isotta was spoken by a millionaire chum to whom I sold the gorgeous 1935 show model drophead coupe by Hooper, when I suggested he should buy a Rolls with a similar coachwork: “I don’t drive myself. Why should I pay several hundred pounds extra to make things a bit easier for my chauffeur?”

With due respect to your Editor, there is a car I feel should be included fairly high up in this list, the short chassis sports sleeve-valve Minerva, born around 1924. In most aspects it compares well with the cars we have dealt with and its performance in a straight line was almost as good as the Speed Six Bentley. Its worst fault was a tendency, when driven fast on corners, to lie down on its door handles. I never actually inverted one, but I had some fairly traumatic moments.

Finally, why has the Leyland Eight, well restored by Leyland apprentices, been painted white? It was to the best of my knowledge always black. It certainly was when David Tennant had it, and when Lionel Phillips had it.

Leek — DAVID SCOTT- MONCRIEFF

***

That Bentley Motors’ Moth

Sir,

Weil, there is nothing quite like as nice as answering one’s own letters, so I will do just that, after publication of my letter about the DH60G Moth G-ABAG in the May issue. It transpires that this Moth was not the only aircraft registered to Bentley Motors Ltd., for in 1929, DH60G Moth Coupe G-AAGT was also thus registered, but we now know that the actual owner of this latter aircraft, was the Marquis de Casa Maury, who was a joint Managing Director of Bentley Motors Ltd. It is thus more than likely that the later Moth too was owned by the Marquis, and that the passengers were more likely to have been “bright young things” rather than Bentley mechanics.

This correspondence brought about quite a remarkable sequel, in that G-ABAG is now owned by VSCC Secretary Peter Hull and his brother Douglas, the aircraft having been completely rebuilt over the past six years and now airworthy again and based at Finmere, not far from Silverstone. There seems to be an ever-increasing interest now between vintage cars and vintage aeroplanes, which is no bad thing. I’m sure that you’ll agree. [Indeed, yes!—ED.]

Freeland — PETER WRIGHT

***

The Peacey Steam Car

Sir,

With respect to Mr. R. S. Peacey I doubt whether the engine his father used in his steam waggon, and later transferred to a Darracq car, can have come from a Locomobile if it was as described, a triple-expansion unit. All Locomobile steam cars, which were designed by the Stanley twins, and the later Stanleys made after the brothers had bought the business back from the Locomobile and Mobile companies, had two-cylinder, double-acting, single-expansion or “simple” engines. Whites used compound engines but, again, a two-cylinder, double-acting type so this could not be described as triple-expansion. The only triple-expansion engine I know of in connection with road vehicles is the line unit designed in the 1930s by Abner Doble for the Sentinel Steam Waggon Company: it was never put into production.

Perhaps there is some confusion between triple-expansion and three-cylinder? Three-cylinder, single-acting engines were favoured for some applications as, with their 120 degree cranks, they could not stop on dead-centre and were therefore reliably self-starting. To give equal self-starting reliability a two-cylinder engine for all practical purposes had to be double-acting, and had to have the cranks at 90 degrees which made for an appalling balancing problem unless the engine speed was very low.

Both Miesse (and Turner-Miesse) and Pearson-Cox steam cars had three-cylinder single-acting engines, and as Mr. Peacey’s original waggon was of such early date a Miesse engine seems likely, because this marque was in existence before the twentieth century.

The photograph of the splendid Edwardian Rolls-Royce on p.695 need not have been taken during the war, as I think the head and side lamps are sporting canvas dust-covers rather than black-out masks.

Potbridge — ANTHONY BIRD

***

The Gerard Delage

Sir,

Rather belatedly to Mr. Anthony Blight’s “Where Are They Now?”, it was indeed the ex Gerard TT-winning Delage which was driven by the late Peter Aitken in the invitation “Fastest Road Car Race”, Brooklands, 1939. This car originally sported a very smart streamlined orange coupe body, later acquired by Mme. Roualt for her Delahaye. It appeared open-bodied in the TT and how it was ever accepted by the RAC as a production model remains a mystery. I never saw a similar model in France, nor was such a car ever offered for sale as far as I know.

I remember being regularly passed by Gerard in the orange car, in a “Paris-Nice”, only to find him pulled up in front of the next pub; intrigued I asked him what was going on and he said he was busy selling cognac, combining sport with a little business!

Peter Aitken swopped his Maserati for Gerard’s Delage later on and a very amusing story it was. To come back to the “Road Car Race”, I am at a loss why Mr. Blight uses the prefix “so-called”? Perhaps he refers to the omission of a 328, I don’t think a German win would have been popular at the time! Having been invited I toyed with the idea of appearing with a works 328 instead of my Darlmat Peugeot—but I thought better of it. By the way, Hunter’s Alfa Romeo fell by the wayside during the Mountain race. [Gearbox trouble—ED].

Downpatrick, N.I. — RAINER DORNDORF

[It can all be checked from pp. 334/335 of “The History of Brooklands Motor Course”, which saves space and advertises the book at one and the same time! Our correspondent entered Miss Patten’s 2-litre Peugeot—ED.]

***

An Arrol Johnston in the Sudan

Sir,

I enclose a photograph of an Arrol Johnston car which is claimed to be the first car in the Sudan. It is kept in the Khalifa’s House Museum which is next to the tomb of the Mahdi in Omdurman. Although it does not seem to have been restored in any way and is outside under cover, I doubt whether it has deteriorated much due to the very dry climate.

An interesting fact about motoring in the Sudan is the vast numbers (comparatively) of Rootes Group cars and trucks. This, as elsewhere in the world, is now losing ground to the Japanese efforts.

London, W4.– R. H. STRACEY

***

The Jowett and the Tramp

Sir,

It was with great interest that I read the article about Frank Gray’s crossing of the Sahara Desert in two Jowett cars in 1926. This reminded me of the following incident:

In the early 1920s my sister’s husband, while driving an open two-seater car in the vicinity of Oxford, noticed a tramp by the side of the road. He offered him a lift, directing him to ride in the dickey seat of his car. The tramp travelled as far as a nearby town where there was a workhouse in which he intended spending the night. Before parting company my brother-in-law handed him half-a-crown, which was gratefully received.

In 1926 while this brother-in-law was a junior administrative officer in Nigeria he received by mail a package which contained a half-crown mounted in a gold surround and inscribed to A. A. Cullen with the compliments of Frank Gray, M.P. in appreciation of the lift to the workhouse. The “tramp” turned out to be Frank Gray, M.P. who, disguised as a tramp, was inspecting workhouses in England. He had noted the name and address of his benefactor on the luggage in the dickey seat!

Newtonabbey, N.Ireland –W. M. DESMOND MONTGOMERY

***

Lubricating Oils

Sir,

I was very interested to read the Editor’s article on lubricating oils in the April issue, but I was a little surprised that he did not mention Speedwell “Sans Egal” and “White Ideal” which were so popular in the early 1920s.

“Sans Egal” had an unforgettable odour of “frying sardines” and my father used it regularly in his Matchless “H” combination with 996 c.c. Mag o/inlet twin engine.

I well remember being taken to the 1921 speed trials on Westcliff promenade and Dad talking to O. De Lissa, the Motasacouche ace (who also made Mag engines). I know I was “cock-a-hoop” on that day as I was patted on the head by the great Herbert Le Vack who sprinted against the 90 h.p. Wolseley Viper car on his 994 c.c. Indian bike—and won!

Anyway, back to Speedwell. Father and I came away intoxicated with the perfume of “castor” and straight away refilled the Matchless with “White Ideal” which had a castor base.

For the next week or so, we paraded round the town leaving behind a lovely perfume until the cool-running Mag cried “enough” as it was really “gummed up” and cost Dad quite a mint to have it dismantled and cleaned out.

So it was back to “sardines and sanity”!!

I have, of course, no connection with Speedwell’s and really do not know whether they still exist.

I have been reading Motor Sport for the past thirty years and hope I shall be doing so for the next 30. Hang on, I shall be 92 by then.

Finally, sincere congratulations to “W.B.” for the monumental task of turning (I nearly said “churning”) out MS’s for what seems to be a lifetime! I believe in the early days, he did it practically single handed. The publisher must look upon him as the “goose, etc. etc.”

Westcliff, Essex — DERRY PRESTON COBB

***

The Henry Affair

Sir,

The “Henry Affair” is surely subject to a logical solution. First of all, no Birkigt design for a twin-cam engine ever existed and nobody has ever seen such an animal or even drawings or sketches.

Remember that Peugeot had been enormously successful with racing voiturettes having four, five, and even six valves per cylinder. It would be natural for them to build a larger engine with multiple valves. Many engines had been made with inclined valves operated from twin camshafts in the crank-case, such as the 1910 Prince Henry Benz. This had the disadvantage of using pushrods and Peugeot were already far past that stage in their voiturettes. Most engineers stuck to the side-valve engine because the camshafts were close to the valves they were operating; the tendency was to incline the side-valves inwards to get a more compact combustion chamber, such as the Delaunay-Belleville.

Let us take the T-head side-valve Hispano that Zuccarelli had been racing, then incline the valves more and more to make the combustion chambers as compact as possible. First of all you get the clerestory combustion chamber (Delage, Sizaire), with opposed valves, and if you go on squeezing you get the inclined-valve head like the Benz, but with operation from side-valve camshafts, now almost upside down. Peugeot had already used twin overhead camshafts in the 1910 Michaux-designed engines, but they were not symmetrically placed because they were operating a huge vertical inlet valve and radial exhaust.

The 1912 Grand Prix Peugeot was thus a logical development of previous Peugeots. Having already used twin overhead-camshafts, though one was vertical and one horizontal, there was nothing alarming about driving them to the Peugeot engineers. That the Peugeot valve gear is really inverted side-valve is obvious, and here the influence of Zuccarelli and his T-head Hispano may have been felt, but there was no need to consult Birkigt. Michaux had all the makings long before and it would be interesting to know whether or not Henry had worked under him in the voiturette days. If Henry’s work was less daring than that of his predecessor, it certainly bore his stamp.

Birkigt’s single overhead-camshaft engine might be called a copy of the 1905 Mercedes, but that’s another story. Henry was certainly influenced by the very experienced racing drivers with whom he was working and if any of Birkigt’s ideas were employed, they came through Zuccarelli. No doubt many designers were thinking along the same lines, but Peugeot already had twin-cam experience in their voiturette racing.

Edenbridge — JOHN V. BOLSTER

[ So far all the “voting” is in Henry’s favour—ED.]

***

McMinnies Won’t Lie Down!

Approaching 88 years of age, W. G. McMinnies refuses to become senile! In 1938 he drove round Britain without a co-driver, in a Bentley. Recently he challenged a car to a day’s journey, which he undertook by British Rail. The car this time was a Morgan, driven by the grandson of H. F. S. Morgan and a friend. The exploit wasn’t a race, just an attempt to see which could go the greater distance in a day, rail passenger or motorist. McMinnies covered 1,200 miles, at 50 m.p.h. including changing trains and all stops, on the route Euston, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Birmingham, Newton Abbot, Paddington and Bristol. The Morgan did 1,350 miles, an overall average speed of 56 m.p.h., inclusive of all stops. McMinnies, you will recall, dominated the Cyclecar GP at Amiens in a Morgan 3-wheeler in 1913.

— W.B.

***

A Land Rover Frolic

During July the Rover Company allowed motoring writers to drive diesel and petrol Land Rovers over some very tough, safari-like going in the grounds of Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury. The Castle grounds flank both sides of the road from Ledbury, after turning off the Malvern road, to Tewkesbury, where some of the finest Cotswold scenery is to be seen. After some expert tuition and three attempts, I got a petrol Land Rover up a long 1 in 3 hill that most of the other models funked, although it was a second-gear climb for a Range Rover. The demonstration was a reminder, if one were needed, of the fine cross-country, mudplugging abilities of this versatile British vehicle. An amusing finale was the presentation to each driver of a Certificate saying that he had successfully passed a Course in Driving Instruction on Land Rovers—given even to one person who did not do any driving! An effective piece of publicity, well put over by Keith Kent.—W.B.