Veteran to Classic: The Roads of the 1920s

Owen John went off alone on his summer tour of 1926 in his 16/65hp Rover saloon, complaining that without a companion he tended to drive too quickly, and that he would have liked some weight in the back of the car to improve the ride. But he had ceased to pick up roadside “thumbers” for legal reasons. Today there are many other good reasons not to stop for them, be their legs ever more attractive, alas.

Going west for a family wedding, OJ remarked on the enormous number of cars on the Exeter road, as many as might be encountered on the Great West Road out of London on a fine Sunday morning.

Well, not all that long after this Exeter became a notorious bottleneck until the by-pass was built. And as for Sunday motoring in vintage days, I remember just after World War One that neighbours in South London whose Service gratituties had enabled them to purchase motor vehicles (mostly family motorcycles and sidecars, would vanish on summer Sunday mornings to return in the evenings, their destination almost inevitably Brighton or Eastbourne. Some of them ventured home late into the night, causing great (and, for a watching teenager, exciting) snarl-ups at the tram-infested junction where the hill levelled out into Streatham High Road.

I recall one family who graduated from their big motorcycle combination to a car, a four-seater Fiat 509, which was ideal as they had numerous children. Except that a car is controlled differently from a motorcycle, and the father made a ripe hash of it one Sabbath morning, ploughing down yards of his garden fence before he could get the Fiat to stop.

People really did do these regular seaside runs from London in those days, perhaps they still do. After the war I was offered a 1927 Aero Morgan three-wheeler, and was told the person selling it used to sit in the back beside his sister on journeys from Croydon to the coast. Noticing that the Morgan had no lamps, although possessed of lamp brackets and an ammeter on the dash, I was sceptical of this memory, and queried it . “Ah”, I was told, “if it got overcast we packed up early for the return run, some didn’t need lamps”. I have often wondered about the ammeter — did Morgan find it less expensive to fit this in the factory at Malvern than to do so later, when an agent might be presented with an order for a lighting-set?

Anyway, there was OJ and his 600-mile-old Rover setting off on a more ambitious journey through Hampshire. He enjoyed the high downs about Kingsclere (which I thought was in Berkshire), winding along the banks of the Avon, and sliding through the heather or the bracken (not literally, one hopes!) of the New Forest, but found Bournemouth hotels expensive; breakfast cost 4,6d (221/2p).

I have remarked before that today’s roads, even if overdue for repair, do not cause much comment unless taken in hard-sprung vintage cars. But back in 1926 OJ was very cross about the rough if empty stretch between Whitchurch and Andover, and found Trow Hill so poorly surfaced as to constitute a death-trap.

The other part of OJ’s tour had been to the Potteries, where there were roadside cafes in Trentham and where the North Stafford Hotel at Stoke served our traveller with too many courses, when he would have liked half as much but a little better cooked. It was rnuch the same when he stopped over in Birmingham, where eight or nine courses were served.

Stoke made OJ enthuse over Arnold Bennett, although he thought the Black Country a Garden of Eden compared to the place itself, which extended for 14 miles by five miles. It was “a more miserable, poor uninteresting, hodgepodge, ugly, endless human warren” than existed anywhere — in 1926, of course . . .

OJ went to a play by Oscar Asch, who?), and noted that as the coal strike persisted people were taking coal home in soap-boxes, prams, carts, sacks, on bicycles and even in Fords, the inevitable good old Model T of course), although why this was so urgent in hot weather was not explained.

Mention of Model Ts reminds me that just before WW2 we had a Ford Enthusiasts Club, of which Sydney Allard was President. The club badge (does anyone remember it?) was a vee with the letters FEC in what represented the two cylinder-banks and the crankcase of a Ford V8 engine (you could buy used Ford V8s then for around a “fiver”, as petrol looked like being in short supply, and what fun they were),. I suggested that the Ford EC should have as its mascot a Model T, and we discovered a brass-radiator landaulette languishing in an orchard at Heath and Reach in Buckinghamshire, where it had been the village taxi. A small sum of money would purchase it, so expeditions were mounted to repair and blow up its flat tyres. Eventually we took it away on Allard Motors’ Armstrong Siddeley ambulance, the old man who had owned it shedding a tear or two as it departed London-wards — he had never driven anything else and couldn’t use a sliding-pinion gearbox, he said.

Lack of trembler-coils prevented us from getting this taxi-like Tin Lizzie running before Hitler intervened. It was put into storage “for the duration” at Dee’s, the Croydon Ford Dealer, alongside the proprietor’s Fronty Ford-type sporting Model T. I went to retrieve it when peace had broken out, but there was no sign of it.

On his West Country drive of 1926, OJ thought the scenery much improved after getting into the Mendips, but traffic congestion still troubled him, motor coaches particularly (note that they were no longer called char-a-bancs). From Bristol to Bath and Trowbridge the traffic vanished, presumably because everyone else was at the seaside, but from Tetbury to Stroud the Rover was held back by big motor wagons (not traction engines) carrying the impedimenta of a fair — fat women, Russian dwarves, bearded ladies, acrobats, jugglers and the rest smiling on a crawling OJ, but not the clowns, who were walking.

It was not long before OJ was off to the New Forest again, this time in a 9/20hp Rover borrowed from his family. He found this little car would go amazingly well if it was allowed to rev, and the faster it was driven, the better it seemed to go. There were very few small machines of the kind known as sports cars (which OJ thought was an extraordinarily silly name) that could even live with it; presumably the OJ family had not succumbed to a sports-bodied 9/20.

This made OJ think about how too many people hung too long onto top gear in traffic and up hills, though he confessed to sometimes doing this himself and even wishing that someone had invented a gear lever with only two positions. He would have liked very much Ford’s new CTX arrangement, with which I have had further experience while my reliable Sierra XR4x4 was being serviced. WB