The Roads of the 1920s

We left Owen John, the motoring diarist whose recollections we have been recalling, enthusing over a 1925 20/60 hp Sunbeam and pondering on the new road numbering that was then beginning to make an appearance on the sign-posts.

Another matter that was being aired by O.J. in 1925 was the comparatively small number of accidents considering the density of the traffic (even more than sixty years ago!) and this caught a feeling of sympathy from me, because I have long felt that too much criticism is made of driving abilities, when these are really of a universally quite high standard having regard to the vast volume of moving vehicles, anything from bicycle to monster-truck, on roads often scarcely adequate for such traffic; a little praise of drivers would not come amiss from official bodies and might even have an effect on reducing rather than increasing the accident rate. Back in the vintage days old O.J. confessed to a bump on the very narrow arterial road between Slough and Windsor when a young fellow rammed the back of his car, putting out its rear lamp. Twice other people’s poor brakes had done this to him, and split what he called the petrol container as well.  With ABS braking gaining ground, come the winter there may well be a return of these mild bumps!

 It’s interesting, in the accident context, that in the summer of 1925 he was advocating compulsory third-party insurance for road users. He insured with the Autocar Insurance Co., and as he had had but two very minor claims, in 1904 and 1912, he felt he was about £200 down at 1925 values by paying the premiums, but it was worth it, he said, for the immunity from worry that such insurance gave him. In 1923, for example, he had another claim, when a back tyre burst on a strange car he was driving, a nasty skid resulted, and they ended up on the pavement, knocking down a lady on the way. The insurance people paid up without any comment. Yet it was not until January 1931 that third-party cover became legally compulsory. I remember that when driving my Gwynne Eight coupé or my distinctly “secondhand” A7 Chummy, the new Mobile Police would stop one, not because the red rubber inner-tubes were to be seen through holes in the worn tyres, not because one’s brakes were almost non-existent, not to see whether the glass in the windscreen was really of safety type, but to ask for the Certificate of Insurance, so easily obtained at cut-price insurance brokers (it cost less than £4 to insure an old A7 for a year).  Whereas today, with a long no-claims bonus, a clean licence, and driving experience going back some fifty years and more, there is endless “ho-ha” over covering a vintage-car for few hundred miles useage a year, with long inquisitions on one’s life-style, the car’s colour, and all manner of details that appear to have little bearing on how safely the thing is likely to be driven…

Anyway, the next car O.J. tried was the new 14 hp Morris Oxford, which he took on a Welsh tour. From his home near Newbury it was “over the jolly Cotswolds” from Oxford, down into Gloucester, on a hot day in June. Resisting the temptation to turn off to loaf in the delightful Cotswold villages, which are as pleasing now as they were then, even if O.J. warned of advertising doing its worst, in 1925 the Morris went on over “the empty white Cotswold roads”, on its way to Lydney and Newnharn at an ambling pace suited to the twistiness of the otherwise good road running through rural and orchard-studded countryside — after, that was, negotiation of Gloucester City where the pedestrians and drivers were “conscientiously suicidal”, but the streets in places some of the best-made— now, unless you have business in the town itself, Gloucester is well provided with ring-roads that are ever being added to.

The sight of Chepstow was saddened for O.J. because of much modern and ancient unused war material in an otherwise beautiful town, although the parking of many motorcoaches all sideways on in a big square appealed to O.J.’s sensed neatness. Coming to crowded Newport, Mon., O.J. touched on what’s now a topical note, when he said a new bridge over the Severn was being built at Lydney and reflected on how odd it was that for so long it had been necessary to drive all round by Gloucester to get to Wales from England, unless one cared to put one’s car on the train through the Severn tunnel. The time people had in those far-away days! Now we fret if there is single-lane traffic over the Severn Bridge and sanction has just been given for a second bridge into Wales, at a cost of £200,000,000.  Just after WW2  I remember having to use the Aust Ferry if the long loop to Gloucester was to be avoided, the Citroën Big Fifteen haying difficulty getting a grip up the boat’s gangplank, with its front-wheel-drive; that was on a trip when we took the children to see “the poor Welsh miners” in their mining villages one Sunday morning, but instead of poverty and bare-footed children the men were out cleaning their new Ford Zephyrs and similar cars…!

In 1925 a fine new road took O.J. and the Morris Oxford quickly through Cardiff to Aberavan, although most of the traffic was turning off for Porthcawl, where O.J. stayed the night.  I well recall, then or a little earlier, being taken, on holiday from London, to bathing-parties there, in the Chevrolet and Willys-Overland open tourers of the time, we children urging the driver to extend the car, our eyes on the ribbon-type speedometer, an indulgence that usually resulted in one or more burst tyres on the gritty roads of those days. O.J. found the sea at Porthcawl cleaner-looking than that on the Somerset shore (is it still?) and he enthused over the high white mountains of sand that take the place of the mud that is supposed to make Weston-super-Mare so bracing!  Never mind, they once had speed trials at the latter place, although those on the Porthcawl sands were far better known;  I suppose it was those sands that made a 50-mile run seem worthwhile in those 1920s touring-cars when our bathing parties were being organised…

O.J. likened Wales to Spain, a soup plate turned upside down, with a narrow edge of overcrowded shore and, on the plateau, fewer people than anywhere else in the British Isles, (except in the mining villages), apart from the Highlands of Scotland. Taking the Morris Oxford on to Swansea O.J. thought the bay looked as blue and as beautiful as the Bay of Naples, and he recalled that Llanelly was the place where the Stepney spare-wheel was invented.  Kidwelly, where Christopher Jennings, the Editor of Motor, used to reside and play with his model paddle-steamers on his lake, marked the end of the mining area, and climbing over the hills to Carmarthen “was to come into old-fashioned peace”, where Welsh was still spoken — and still is.  Up to that point hotels had not been good but O.J. was content with the “Ivy Bush” there.

There was a good road through Llandilo, Llandovery, Builth and Beulah.  O.J, seems to have got these two in the wrong order, and he clearly did not know of the short cut to Newbridge-on-Wye used for the 1924 RAC Six-Day Small-Car Trials (which Chinery won in a Gwynne Eight) to Llandrindod Wells, from which town I have just returned. This road was in excellent condition in 1925 and “when the tar has dried up a bit can hardly be improved upon”, said O.J. — nothing really changes!  O.J. stayed in Llandrindod Wells, calling on Tom Norton at his fine garage (still there) and praising the place as the nearest British approach to a Continental Spa, the golf delightful, the air wonderful, with just that feeling of spaciousness that a tired man requires — and so say I!

Next morning it was on by Cross Gates (now marked by a roundabout but then the sort of blind cross-roads where you braked, blew the bulb-horn, and looked right and left) and over the mountains to Newtown and back into England at Welshpool. Of the Morris Oxford, nothing happened to it, it went off at the first push (I hope O.J. meant on the dynamotor button!), climbed well, did not boil, had delightful brakes, its economy was a joy, and when in a hurry it rose to the occasion. So wrote O.J.; I wish l could get away with as brief a road-test report after such a long assessment…!