Rare Encounters

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There is no doubt that on the quieter, less-congested roads that existed in this country in the 1920s many unusual cars were still in use, cars which would raise the eyebrows of today’s vintage enthusiasts. What was taken for granted then would have seemed exciting today. Lots of pre-war vehicles continued to serve their faithful owners or plied for hire, some with quite large engines, to which the tax reduction for a pre-1913 power-unit made concessions. Old racing cars might be encountered, in this age when MoT examinations were unthought of and mudguards were not compulsory.

Even I am not old enough to have enjoyed such encounters, although I used to enter in a notebook the more unusual cars seen on the roads in the early 1930s. It has long since vanished and all I recall is an elderly Piccard-Pictet I used to watch being cranked-up in a tree-lined, grass-verged road in Clapham. However, with the post-Armistice motor boom in full spate, others were talking and writing of the less common cars, which we would now regard as distinctly rare birds. In an age when many were keen to enjoy the open road but less was known about the mysteries of a car’s mechanism, owners would speak of their cars to one another, acting as motoring Marjorie Proops in the wisdom they conveyed.

It is to this vanished age that I now propose to return briefly, an age when weird and wonderful cars and lorries would sooner rather than later be encountered in the towns and on country roads, when most railway stations had their quota of aged landaulettes plying as taxis, and when once-famous racing cars were serving as ordinary transport for the more intrepid drivers. It came to an end around 1930, killed by the greedy horse-power tax, the curtailment of that 25% tax bonus for pre-1913 engines, anno domini taking its toll of the vehicles themselves, and because the new-fangled four-wheel-brakes made things hazardous for fast cars endowed merely with rear-wheel anchors, especially on wet and slippery surfaces, as more people began to motor faster about their everyday business.

Before this, what might one have seen, when out and about on our ever-fascinating roads? Even in those 1920s, the older racing cars were regarded as antiques, so of more than passing interest. Apart from those which were still being raced at Brooklands, on the sands of Southport and Skegness, or driven in the then-frequent public-road sprint contests, a number were to be seen on the road. Thus the 2-litre DFP that WO Bentley had run in the 1914 TT and on Brooklands was given a touring body and gas lighting after the war and, over in France, the 1913 GP Delage that had finished third in the 1914 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis had returned to its native land, to be given a lower axle-ratio and three-seater body, its enormous exhaust pipe still protruding from the top of the bonnet, however. In this guise it was said to have changed hands around 1920 for an improbable £3,000. Also across the Channel, one of the 1912 15-litre GP Fiats had likewise been give a three-seater body and this chain-drive monster, still on detachable wheel-rims, was also used for touring. At home you might have come upon RJ Scully, of HE fame, in his 1907 GP Germaine fitted with a rakish two-seater body of his own devising, or have met Lt-Col Henderson in his 14-litre Rolls-Royce Falcon aero-engined Napier Forty, in which he claimed to be able to cruise at 50 to 60 mph on a mere whiff of throttle, the clutch slipping (and thus protecting the transmission) should more power be applied. Nor was this the only aero-engined car devouring English roads at this period. . . .

Two of the victorious 1914 GP Mercedes were in use in this country as touring cars well into the 1920s, and both survive, returned to racing trim, to this day, as long-standing readers of Motor Sport well know. In 1925 you might have come upon CD Wellbank driving a twin-cam pre-war racing car, which he thought was a Peugeot, from Folkestone, where he had just bought it, to Brooklands, where he proposed to race it, and where he discovered that it was, in fact, a 1914 TT Humber. The 1908 Napier Sixty now owned by Ron Barker wasn’t laid up until the aforesaid four-wheel-brakes made its then-owner garage it permanently, around 1930. Those who felt the urge to own “something different”, which their neighbours would not immediately recognise, had plenty of excuses then, for even in 1925 you could have bought a 1920 Lyons tourer for £45, a Cole-bodied SAVA three years younger for rather more, a Hewlett for a mere £75, assuming you knew what this was, or a Varley-Woods, for example, at a 10th of its new price. Variety was the spice of motoring, in those times!

Apart from the oldsters that continued to roam the roads and render them of continual interest to people like you and me, what of the more unusual brand-new cars you might encounter? There were a myriad of different makes on offer, but even after this passage of time one is surprised that some of them found satisfied buyers. As I ventured to remark in the article on “Bogus Sports Cars” recently, the KRC seemed a bit of a gamble. Yet in 1925 someone was using a two-seater of this make for weekend runs, sometimes taking two more in the dicky-seat, and after getting its Vici carburetter changed for a Cox-Atmos, was getting 38 to 44 mpg when averaging 20 to 22 mph. But no instruction book had been issued, only a few type-written instructions! Light-cars were not expected to go fast in the 1920s; the owner of a Belsize-Bradshaw thought 40 mph was its maximum and, as the works had closed down, the spares outlook was bleak. However, the driver of a Powerplus Frazer Nash said he changed into second at that speed … It is interesting to see how those petrol-Proopsers got together when help was needed. One might not have expected five owners of the rather improbably 12 hp sleeve-valve Argylle, for instance, to come up with data about their cars, Lord Waleran included, or even more for the 2-litre Ansaldo.

Listening to their tales of praise and woe, one notes that a Frazer Nash owner who had not so far had his car flat-out but found it “as steady at 75 mph as at 40 mph on most other makes”, recommended security bolts if the acceleration was not to wrench off the tyres. Another enthusiast had taken delivery of a new 40 hp Fiat at the works, had driven it over the Alps to England, and was so pleased with it he “was taking it back to Australia”, and an 18-year-old Cumberland boy was full of praise for his first car, a 60 mph 14/45 Rover tourer, run on 50 x 50 Blayton Benzole and petrol. One learnt that the road springs of a Hands needed properly securing to the chassis and that its Dorman engine was fairly oil-thirsty and that if you had your Austin Twenty converted to sports-trim -one tooth higher axle-ratio, a new induction pipe, exhaust silencer, and a BZP Claudel-Hobson carburetter, 78 mph was then possible, under good conditions, at 16-20 mpg but that the car rolled on the corners (the 1922 chassis being higher than the 1925 version) the upward gear-shifts took too long, and the engine trays rumbled unless well secured, in this otherwise quiet car. Thinking in terms of real rarae aves, an owner of a 1913 Hurtu which had not even required its big-ends to be taken-up in 10 year’s motoring, had bought the latest 2-litre model in 1923 and was warmly praising its fine four-wheel-brakes and its good cantilever springing, and someone who, pre-dated the formation of the VCC in his ownership of pre-1905 vehicles had, that year, got hold of a circa 1904 two-cylinder 7 hp Panhard (A-700) for £4, fitted it out with a new scuttle and windscreen, and found he could average 171/2 mph in it from London to Bath, at 30 mpg. Apart from that oddity, you might have met the famous sporting farmer, Tom Cook, driving his new six-cylinder vee-radiator Fiat, bodied by Watson’s of Lowestoft, or the lady whose sister, over from Honolulu, wanted to see Scotland, but whose car was destroyed by fire before the planned start. Undaunted, her husband collected a new 10 hp Lea-Francis at 5 pm from the works the day before, drove it 175 miles to Manchester by midnight, and it then covered 1,500 miles in the next 10 days, at over 35 mpg and 250 mpp of oil, the road springs it broke afterwards being replaced free of charge. Or what of a Bleriot Whippet, the 700 x 80 tyres of which were due for retreading after 3,000 miles, the John Bull belts on which lasted for 1,500 to 2,000 miles, and the top speed of which was up to 43 mph? The Calthorpe, now so rare, was a frequent encounter on the roads in the early 1920s, one owner, who had four, having ordered a fifth, and when did you last see a Waverley, one of which was performing well on Cotswold roads, its owner finding it simple to service and proud of it being all-British. On the motor-auction front, a lady had had a 1909 110 x 140 mm Panhard knocked down to her for £2, in good running order … Alfonso Hispano Suizas were still about, as were a couple of Altos-engined Nardinis and a 17/50 Bignan-powered Gregoire­Campbell, another one sans instruction book. An NP from Newport Pagnell no less, could have been seen, giving a new lease of life with the £25-extra “sports” en­gine, and a Meadows gearbox after consider­able problems with the first gearboxes, and the SLIM wasn’t uncommon, one 12 hp model, purchased at the 1922 Show proving so pleasing that a 15 hp had been bought at Olympia in 1923.

Space precludes a longer look at the cars one might have encountered on the roads when keen youngsters took censuses of the makes going by, some 60 years ago. It must have been a good time to be behind a steer­ing wheel. The nearest we can get to recap­turing it is to attend a VSCC meeting, such as the big celebratory ones which are planned for 1984.