Well, Owen John went off on his European tour in the latest Crossley in 1929, but he had little to say about it in his diaries, apart from calling the latest 15.7hp car from Manchester “excellent”.
The memorial to Marcel Renault, who was killed during the Paris-Madrid race of 1903, was still there, south of Poitiers, on the very spot where the crash happened in that race of many accidents. OJ was surprised that this massive granite pillar was not the cause of accidents to 1920s traffic, and I believe it was subsequently moved (and perhaps no longer exists). But what is interesting is that this memorial — and I know from seeing others in far more recent times that France preserves such things — had, even as OJ passed it, survived for 26 years. As the 1920s ran out OJ was concerned about a foolish Parliamentary Bill which wanted the pace of road vehicles curbed by open ditches across the direction of travel — a foretaste of today’s horrid “sleeping policemen” — and although the threat of these hazards came to nothing, OJ was sorry that Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (the father of the present Lord Montagu, who haste ably continued the family interest in motoring) was too ill to be in the House during the Bill’s discussion; he died later in 1929.
OJ also fussed about the car log-book, never realising how valuable these would become to vintage-car owners but discovering what a bother losing one caused, just as with today’s flimsy AS forms. And bearing in mind how ridiculously expensive are today’s “cherished” number plates, it is interesting to note that OJ recalled Earl Russell, Parliamentary Secretary to the MoT, getting “Al” when it was introduced. On his European tour OJ had noted that in the area around Biarritz very few British cars kept the Crossley company; Rolls-Royce, yes, but Daimlers and the small Morrises and Austins which dominated British roads in the late 1920s were almost non-existent. It was American cars which filled that part of France, perhaps due to the enormous number of US citizens who abided there.
In London in 1929 horse-drawn carts still contributed to traffic congestion, and OJ even thought old cars of the sort that were “cheap, half-worn out, moribund and somewhat senile,” were a further cause of street congestion, even safety risks. No friend of the later-to-be-formed VSCC, obviously! Another 1920s development which OJ was resisting was the increase in kerbs lining the roads. His reason was that if a car skidded or hit them it would very likely overturn. Cars do not roll over so readily now, unless shunted by another vehicle, but I share OJs dislike of kerbs, which are encroaching on the roadside hedgerows of Wales just as they are elsewhere. Kerbs mean houses, houses mean development and a threat to rurality.
There is not much we can do about it. Through the final 1929 entries in the evocative diary of contemporary journalist Owen John, the Editor concludes his light-hearted review of an era of unprecedented change in the development of road transport, and its contrasts and parallels with motoring today, occasionally there is an outcry that the past must be preserved, an historic site saved or left unchanged — vide the Rose Theatre in London, which the developers seem inclined to humour, even at a loss to them of some £10-million. Think what that would have done towards the retention of Brooklands, which was there to save, not waiting to be discovered, but which is now in some danger from development and encroaching buildings.
Back in England, OJ drove “an excellent Minerva”, over the Cotswolds to Worcester, beside the river to Sharpness, and back to Newbury through Gloucester, Cirencester and Wastage. He thought there were few more beautiful runs on a fine summer day, and that remains true in 1989. It was also a route, he observed, abounding in good hotels and little grey inns in the villages, a topic the new licensing laws had prompted him to explore (the question then was how many pubs there should be, not whether they should serve alcohol at all hours, but as Lord Salisbury once said, having 50 bedrooms in his house did not make him feel more tired!). OJ also tried a roomy Singer Six, whose gearlever hid up his trouser-leg.
When he wanted to get from Reading to Brackley, I notice he avoided Oxford by using a cross-country route which took him through Long Crendon, now the home of the Bentley DC (which reminds me of the marvellous run I used to take through this village, on my way to Silverstone, when I lived in Hampshire). Having circled Oxford, OJ said “If any benefactor desires his memory to be immortal, let him carve a by-pass round the city of dreaming spires, leaving it to its immemorial peace.” Now we have just that, with a 70 mph speed-limit into the bargain! But even in 1929 there was a new circular road joining Hatfield with Uxbridge. Another improvement OJ advocated was better signposting. Few of us, myself included, can have been motoring when drivers had to rely on high-mounted direction-posts, intended for those on horses but difficult to read from a car, especially at night or in fog. Now, we have enormous signs almost everywhere.
But not quite everywhere! On my way to Brooklands for the recent VSCC Driving Tests, I drove up the famous Birdlip Hill between Gloucester and Cirencester (which brings my Sierra 404 down to third gear but which my 1914 Alfonso Hispano Suiza managed easily just after the Second World War, four-up and with bottom gear out of action), only to find the way ahead along the familiar A417 closed. I got lost going, and more an coming back, finding myself in busy Cheltenham instead of on the Gloucester ringroad.
The Borough Surveyor concerned kindly sent we some maps and explanations, and the next time I journeyed that way! did spot the little signpost to Stroud which gets you back on the old road to the top of Birdlip. Bar, damn me, I missed it in the dusk the other day, and to my great annoyance! once again had to make Ledbury via Cheltenham and not via the pleasant straight run past the private airstrip to Trumpet.
Incidentally, I was once able to climb this famous hill without pause in a 1929 worm-drive Standard 9 saloon, when post-war cars had lost their grip in the snow. Don’t ask me why they had to use this route, for there is always that easy, wider, alternative route pas, the “Air Balloon” for those who flunk the ascent. Owen John’s diaries have now brought us to the end of the glorious Twenties. When they started, motoring on deserted roads could still be quite an adventure, as I was just lucky enough to experience, but they ended with car-ownership more commonplace and some of the magic already evaporating … WB