The Roads of the 1920s

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We have seen that in 1927 Owen John’s diary was enthusing over the Cecil Kimber MG Super Sports, if not its name. This led him to remark that cars had become so reliable that owners, especially the young, took them for granted.

His own big Rover saloon and Rover Nippy Nine were paragons of reliable running, but when a bright young thing of feminine gender left her car in OJ’s coachhouse he took a look at its batteries and found them seriously deficient in distilled water, telling her that here was the cause of her poor-starting complaints. Now we even tend to take batteries for granted. . .

The weather had been about as fine as that which we have been enjoying in 1988, basis did not last in 1927 (will it this year?). OJ had an easy time; although he went early to Wales to see the eclipse, got to Henley later that morning to see his son compete in his first heat, and then attended a wedding that afternoon in London, it was all done most comfortably in a Rolls-Royce.

And, topically, OJ was looking forward to the opening of the channel tunnel! He was, of course, writing long before the advent of the Silver Cities Channel Air Bridge which Motor Sport found so useful and expeditious when covering continental motor races, and longer still before hovercraft services, but OJ thought motorists owed the railways nothing — contrary to what had been promised just after the war, they had become a monopoly, so that it cost as much to take a car to France on a railways’ ferry as it once had for a return sailing.

So old OJ was all in favour of a tunnel and could not understand the objections of naval and military personnel that there was danger in this link with the Continent; if war broke out it would be easy enough to destroy the tunnel, after all. As OJ put it, “comparatively tiny steamers rock us across the turbid Straits of Dover”, which was one reason why he advocated what we now call the “fixed link”. London had been honeycombed with the longest tunnels in the world, piercing every kind of soil and formation, and their engineers had taken no notice even of such things as Old Father Thames, so surely there could be no problems?

Naturally, OJ was not sure what form the Channel Tunnel might take, whether cars would be permitted to drive through it or proceed on flat railway trucks as they did through the Severn Tunnel which had been started as long ago as 1873. He thought it possible that you might remain in your car, hitched to the one in front, while the whole train of cars was pulled through with the engines switched off; and he let his imagination run away with him, in thinking that the tunnel might be formed of toughened glass so that the occupants of the cavalcade would have a quite wonderful view of marine life overhead!

Anyway, said OJ, it would do a very great deal to ease the problem of unemployment, since much of the toil would be in the field of labour, a view with which Mrs Thatcher would no doubt agree. Once he got started, OJ waxed keen indeed, even considering the idea of a tunnel between Stranraer and Larne to connect Scotland to Ireland.

Having previously commented on how few accidents he had seen that year, later in 1927 OJ was involved in two himself! On holiday in Petworth he was driving at a comfortable pace when a horse and cart emerged from a gap in a hedge, saw the car braking hard, and bolted. That all ended well, for a Ford van had arrived with spanners (Model Ts were in frequent use then) and the cart was dismantled to release the uninjured horse. As OJ reflects: “No police, no scouts, no patrols, and nobody a penny worse.”

Later he was driving down the undulating hill from Stonebridge to Lichfield, passing a truck and trailer at about 40 mph; ahead the road was blocked by two vans which had collided. It was then that OJ realised that the vehicles he had overtaken were out of control, the brakes having failed — which is not perhaps so unknown today. He managed to stop, as the runaways tore past on the opposite grass verge into the existing pile-up. Again, no-one was hurt, and OJ reported to the AA scout at Wall Road junction, which sounds a typically vintage note. . .

The Daily Sketch having organised the first of the “Old Crocks’ Runs” which developed into the present world-famous RAC Brighton Run, OJ went to see iris the latest AC Six fitted with a free wheel — a device he feared at first but soon became accustomed to, especially as it could be locked out with a special lever. His only complaint was that the AC’s brake pedal was too close to the “steering-pillar”, so that his big foot applied it together with the accelerator, but on telling this to the AC people at Thames Ditton he was told, of course, that this had been rectified on later cars.

After the run OJ met up with Mr Stephens, whose Clevedon-built veteran had been entered by his sons — this was the very Stephens, with its ifs, which OJ had hired to drive over the Mendips in 1899 to the Bath Horse Show (to which it was refused admission) and which has appeared on much more recent Brighton runs. WB

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