My 1934 Wolseley Nine was born into a very different world from today and drivers of that decade had vastly different expectations from their cars. While we might think that the country was hugely prosperous and everything was fine up until WW2 – and it all went wrong in the 1950s – the reality was somewhat different. The country was in a considerable mess leading up to the war.
Anyone who caught the recent ITV programme dealing with 1949 will have got an insight into the harsh but very realistic facts of sensible welfare-state management. During the 1930s though, the harshness was far more brutal and sometimes quite unrealistic. For example, if it was deemed that an employed father could support an unemployed son or daughter, his or her benefit would be stopped. This meant that a family unfortunate enough to have one (or more) members of the family unemployed was to expect a lower standard of living across the board – to carry the passengers. In some cases the unemployed son or daughter would be thrown out of the house – made homeless – because the father would not support them.
Alongside such hardship, the era was one of expansion and great technological development. For some, home ownership was a real possibility for the first time; there was massive growth of light industries; the consumer society was born; the Baby Austin appeared in thousands of garages; every town began to have its Woolworth’s – and football pools, greyhound racing and cinemas were becoming ever popular.
…the consumer society was born; the Baby Austin appeared in thousands of garages; every town began to have its Woolworth’s – and football pools, greyhound racing and cinemas were becoming ever popular.
Dreams of the determined became realities. Huge progress in airship development with the R100 and R101, Henry Segrave pushing the Land Speed Record to 231mph at Daytona Beach, Sir Gilbert Scott designing the new Battersea Power Station and pylons beginning to thread there way across the South Down – all happened in this decade.
The period began with extremely cold weather followed by a superb summer – both of which caused the motorcars of the day (or at least the drivers) something of a problem. Today’s cars would be totally unaffected by such things but let’s have a look at just what this would have meant for the 1930s driver.
Anti-freeze had been around for some time (discovered, some believe, by a waste product melting the ice on a lake in the USA – certainly in time for use in the early Model T Fords). However, many drivers in the UK could not afford it and my father, even into the 1960s was putting an oil-fired stove under the sump at night. Indeed, I struggled to afford the stuff when a youth in the 1960s and popped every core plug in the engine one cold night on my Ashley Sportiva special!
The 1930s driver often had a problem even before he got in the car. Door locks would freeze up easily as there was less attempt at keeping the moisture out than on our current cars. We then had to clear the screen (pre-credit card or aerosol screen sprays remember – and there were certainly no heated screens). Later, Woolworth’s and other retailers sold a very useful electric screen heater – a bright metal bar affixed to inside of the screen with two rubber suckers.
The exposed element hid behind the bar (just) and, at around five shillings, they were very good value. In 1930 though, such things were not around and many cars had no heater at all. Getting the screen clear of ice and getting it to stay that way often resulted in a lot of wiping – with our sleeves, handkerchiefs or whatever we had to hand. There were no screen washers and wipers were single blade – but not made of the sophisticated stuff we use today. In cold weather they became as hard as steel – and pretty useless. There was a way to gain one hundred percent visibility, of course – and that was to open the screen. Some screens opened to allow a gap of 6 inches or so but some would open fully – and were useful in these extreme conditions. Of course, the downside was that your eyes, ears, hands and mouth got icicles dangling from them! 1930s man was made of tough stuff, though!
The routine then was to take a kettle of warm (not hot) water with you and liberally poor the stuff over the and into the door locks and then trickle it over the screen and side windows – if it was too hot, the glass would crack of course.
Smart drivers never left the handbrake on – usually relying on chocks and first gear. Frozen brake shoes welding themselves to the drum tended to slow initial progress somewhat!
Often, of course, the winter brought proper snow – a foot or so over the road and drifts of serious proportions. Newspapers of the day were fond of catching the ‘Stop sign picture’ with just the triangle visible – and the 6ft pole in a drift. There were no grit or salt spreaders – yet, for the most part, the country battled on. Others will have memories far older than mine but even in the 1960s (I think it was 1963), I well remember my parents and I leaving Bristol at about midnight and setting off on the 60 mile journey home – through virgin snow mostly about six inches deep but sometimes more. The thin tyres of the Vauxhall Ten bit through well and we arrived home around four hours later. It has to be said most of our ordinary modern cars would falter after a few meters – with such wide tyres and so little ground clearance.
There was no ABS, stability control, limited slip diff (in most cases) or any wizardry to help. Your driving skill was all-important – you had to avoid spinning the wheels unless you actually wanted to! You leant opposite locking and four wheel drifting very fast – and used them to your advantage.
There was no ABS, stability control, limited slip diff (in most cases) or any wizardry to help. Your driving skill was all-important – you had to avoid spinning the wheels unless you actually wanted to!
The lighting performance of those days would surely shock a modern driver. This is one area where the quality of the 1930s vehicle showed up enormously. A Bentley or a Jaguar may have had Lucas P100 lights but your little ten horsepower Austin or six volt Ford 8 would be less than perfect. Before the MoT, many drivers used lights with very discoloured reflectors – and some used ‘tin foil’ to re-line the bowls. Our 1938 Jowett 8 had a top speed of 48mph – definitely too fast for night driving in the wet.
The ‘2013 Man’ might be surprised by the low noise of some 1930s cars though. A quality car with a separate steel chassis, a very nice straight six engine and cross ply tyres – could be exceptionally quiet. Certainly progress was not accompanied by the constant humming of tyre noise that we live with today.
Modern man might have some issues with general braking performance. I took our 1939 SS One and Half Litre saloon for its MoT in about 1968. The Tester failed the car because he said it took far too long to stop from 40 miles an hour. I had to show him the handbook, which clearly stated that the car was actually stopping ten foot shorter than the expected figure!
In most cases, performance would not impress modern man either. Where as the naught to sixty dash is now around 10 seconds for ordinary family cars – 30 seconds was nearer the mark for a thirties something saloon. There were some quite quick cars – but not for the ordinary ‘chap’.
One area where progress might not be quite so advanced is fuel consumption. My little Wolseley gives me around 33 to the gallon – a Mini Cooper in petrol form might give us 45 (ish). Ignoring actual performance – that’s not a revelation for 70 years of progress. The modern diesel of course can do really impressive figures and nothing pre-1950 could compete!
The big difference for our current driver, though, would be in the area of handling and roadholding. The average 2013 modern driver might approach a roundabout in a 1930s popular small car – at what he might think is a sensible speed – and would probably come to grief! Stopping quickly on a wet road as he approached a hazard on a blind bend might cause a lot of drama too. The 1930s drivers (and those of us who use the cars today) know this of course and drive accordingly.
Disappointment might set in for the modern DIY fan going to the ‘boot’ of many 1930s cars (and many had no boot at all). The Wolseley has a spare wheel compartment but the only way to carry a lawn mower home would be by using the leather straps provided – and sit the machine on the bootlid.
On hot sunny days, cars often over-heated. Water temperature indicators were often confined to a dial on the radiator top – visible from the driver’s seat. The Wolseley and many other popular cars had no thermostat and no water pump.
What the 1930s car does have, of course, is oodles of character and charm. Many young drivers today have never experienced a car that you can actually have a relationship with. Modern cars do just about everything we ask of them and the technology gets the driver out of so many scrapes. With sophisticated traction controls, car stability systems, braking performance enhancers and modern tyre technology, we are so divorced from what is actually going on between the car and the road that it takes idiocy to lose control of a car and have an RTA – and when we do it’s often because we have pushed the boundaries of technology just a little too far.
There are many (and I meet a lot of them on a Tuesday night at our Vintage Car Meeting in the local pub) who say that no good car was ever made after June 1930. They say that it was an era of mass production and the beginning of the ‘bean-counter’ mentality. In the twenties, things were built properly and mostly bespoke. Cars were only just past their first twenty years of development – and many were hand built and using totally different technology to everyone else.
We had front engines, rear engines, prop-driven, chain-driven, electric power, propeller power, wooden wheels, steel wheels, wire wheels, fabric bodies, steel bodies, wooden bodies – this eclectic mix of core values was extreme. I can’t argue with the purists – the 1930s did bring ‘conformity’ to many ordinary saloon cars. However, driving a Morris 8 was still so different to driving a Ford 8 that it was akin to that between driving a Lexus and Kia Picanto. Engines were so distinctive in their running – and the sound of their exhaust. Cable brakes, hydro-mechanical brakes, rod brakes and fully hydraulic brakes – all these things gave a car such a different character. Umpteen different steering systems – worm and peg, cam and peg, Burman etc. – all providing a totally different experience.
Yes, the 1920s was probably the era of the ‘proper car’ – but the 1930s allowed thousands to enjoy the experience.
While some enjoyed their new Ford, the extremes of the decade continued with forty percent of miners in the UK unemployed and total unemployment in Wales exceeded 39%. Yet the ‘art-deco’ movement thrived and fashion in most things became more of a way of life than ever before.
Amy Johnson the renowned amateur pilot became the heroin of the age with most young girls rating her second after Edith Cavell and above Joan of Arc, as a role model. Fred Perry won the Men’s Singles at Wimbledon in 1935 and 1936 and Oxford won the Boat Race in 1937 – the first time since 1923 – but the biggest sports news in the 1930s was undoubtedly the start of Greyhound Racing. This was the sports phenomena for the UK that employed thousands of people and affected the lives of hundreds of thousands more – both positively and negatively.
On the roads, deaths hovered around 4000 per annum with injuries recorded at just under a quarter of a million. To try and educate our drivers, a trial was set up using ‘courtesy cops’ who rode around on bikes and ‘advised’ motorists to slow down. A huge divide was forming between those that have and those that have not – the Rolls Royce gained its Spirit of Ecstasy and, along with Bugattis, Sunbeams, Vauxhalls, Bentleys and some Daimlers, started the ‘streamlined’ look – leaving the everyday car (by Ford, Austin, Morris, Jowett and the like) looking as archaic ‘as your grandmother’s hat’ to quote a term of the time.
No consideration of the 1930s would be complete without mentioning two aspects very dear to my heart – Brooklands and Bluebird. The decade was the height of activity for both but Brooklands (in terms of history for this country) deserves its own article and I’m not going to attempt to do it justice in this piece.
Bluebird, of course, driven by our man Malcolm Campbell took the Land Speed Record away from Ray Keech and Henry Segrave though King George did ask him what was the point of it all! Undaunted by the King’s remark, Campbell went on to take the record up to 301mph on 7 March 1935. Just at the end of the decade Campbell took the water speed record to over 140mph in another Bluebird. In this same year – 1939 – cars raced at Brooklands for the last time.
And so to the end our decade and with the war looming and shadow factories taking up aeroplane construction, ‘plane components or armaments – we lost car production across the board with a few exceptions, notably Austin due to Leonard Lord’s clever thinking. He continued to produce the Ten under the banner of it being an army vehicle!
All these things discussed here shaped the 1930s motorcar of course – whether with art-deco streamlining for the upper echelons of society or the price conscious approach by Ford, Austin and Morris to beat each other into pulp – with the £100 car.
What we are left with as enthusiasts of the period is cars that still have enormous character, are cheap to run and fun to drive. Apart from a brief and disastrous blip in the 1990s, though, anyone considering buying a popular 1930s car to run and sell on at a profit will mostly be disappointed. If the thing goes wrong, even a humble little nine-horse power can set you back fifteen hundred quid for ‘white metalling’ (pre-shell bearings) and that’s before you start any sort of strip down and re-build.
That said, if you have more greenbacks to spend – say, £50K upwards – then, with careful purchasing and knowing all the right people, you could make a buck or two while, if your finances run to Bugs, Lancias and Alfa Romeos with competition history, then you’re in the £250,000 to £2 million mark.
For me though, the joy of 1930s cars is in the ownership and the driving!
Even my humble little Wolseley…
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.