Driving a pre-War or a classic car, we inevitably get comments like ‘my dad had one of those’. But very occasionally we get something far more satisfying. Someone says: ‘I had one of those!’
Before the battery or hydrogen (or ‘horn of toad’ or whatever), removes the ‘suck, squeeze, bang, and blow’ of the internal combustion engine – the very heart for all ‘petrolheads’ – we might take a minute to appreciate what we could lose forever.
Yes, I know the ICE might have a new lease of life with Hydrogen, but it won’t give off gloriously erotic fumes to be savoured in the classic garage and sniffed routinely at midnight (what do you mean I need help?) But in my view, the best motoring years was for my dad’s generation. And that was a privilege that my dad appreciated all his life – it’s not just hindsight on my behalf.
‘His’ period was driving between the Wars and few drivers today will have experienced it, but of course there may be some! For others this memorable period might be any time between the 1950s and the present day. The rest of us can only dream of such adventures. GPS and the over-exercised communications of our modern world have ensured we will never again have such freedom or adventure. We will never again have such satisfaction in motoring because we are no longer engaged in the mechanics of the journey – and we can no longer get lost!
We point and squirt in whatever direction the supercilious sat-nav voice tells us to, but older cars actually needed driving and you needed a thing called a map. Today, if we leave the house without the ‘mobile’, some will drive for miles to go and get it. Others might suffer the day feeling as if their right ear had been cut off.
However, just a few decades ago, our only means of communication whilst on the road was the roadside telephone. (There were AA and RAC ‘Phone Boxes on major trunk roads if we could afford the annual fees).
My dad would set off from Mitcham in Surrey with a brother – armed with a tent and a ‘billy’ can – and head for the highlands of Scotland. The Alvis would probably need a little tinkering – if not actual repairs – several times during the trip. He told me the services of a village blacksmith had been handy on at least two occasions. They’d probably have had a puncture or two; but get there they would.
It seems motorists were generally made of sterner stuff.
No doubt when Tesla’s go ‘driverless’ they’ll book themselves in and go straight to the main dealer regardless of where the owner wants to go. Following a brief look under the bonnet of our ‘modern’ (because it had a water leak), it was booked in to our favourite garage. I detest modern cars and find no joy in grubbing around amongst umpteen black plastic covers, fruitlessly in search of something recognisable.
Hands that shrink
I’m also in awe of modern Technicians who have hands and fingers that visibly shrink under the bonnet and get in the most ridiculous places. I much prefer engine bays of the 1950s – most can accommodate at least two more engines and you’d still be able to change the plugs.
During the War, (gosh, I sound like Uncle Albert!) and when on his way to Scotland in an Army issue Austin 10 ‘pick-up’ (similar in design to the one illustrated), dad had to rebuild the gearbox on the side of the road in two feet of snow and a blizzard. It was pitch black and three in the morning. Handy that he was actually delivering a load of Austin 10 gearbox spares of course!
The only drama we experience today is if the engine management light comes on, and then the on-line handbook indicates we can carry on – but reduce our speed! (Gosh, what a worry!) Contrastingly, dad came over Kingston Bridge in one of his open-top Alvises and the young lady at his side asked if the wheel that was passing them was one of theirs! (It was
The Laughing Combination
On another occasion, he was riding pillion on a ‘combination’. His dad was the pilot and his mum was in the ‘chair’. At a ‘Y’ junction grandad left it very late making a decision and tipped the thing over. He and my dad were laughing so much they couldn’t rescue my grandmother who was trapped in the sidecar! It’s funny but, when my grandmother told me that story, it sounded totally different to granddad’s version!
Sometime in the late 1930s, dad had bought his very first Alvis – at a cost of £5. It may not have been in its prime. Yet, Bertie Wooster-style, dad used the car (and later several other Alvises) to ‘swan about’ London and indulge in what young men do. But stories of long trips and favourite locations – like Shap Hill, Porlock Hill, Hardknott Pass and the Lynmouth and Lynton hills, are stuff of legend. The reality is that a modern car passes no information to the driver as to just how steep these hills are.
However, for a 1930s driver they were a challenge – but only because whilst the car would almost certainly make it – the success of the climb was directly in proportion to the skill of the driver. There are not many of us today who could ‘change down’ on a 1 in 4 hill in a ‘crash gearbox’ car.
Woolly has a drink problem
This explains why one of my cars today is a 1934 Wolseley Nine saloon (above). Yes, she does use a drop of oil and is never too ashamed to ‘break wind’ after traversing a long downhill run – and she has a drink problem. She’ll sink a gallon of ‘super’ every 26 miles.
However, at almost 90-years old, she might have saved about 40 new cars from being built – if we assume most owners change their car every couple of years. So, we have the pollution of 40 new cars being made, versus the beautifully pungent fumes so reminiscent of ‘proper cars’ – and, for us petrolheads, that’s a no contest surely!
At the dozen or so (pre-COVID) shows we did with her annually, I enjoyed explaining that, although she might look most other 1930s saloons, she had an overhead cam engine and fully hydraulic brakes. Some of her competitors had cable brakes; some hydro-mechanical brakes and some precious little brakes at all! She also had a very modern synchromesh gearbox when many a competitor had a ‘crash’ gearbox. I defend her courageously. She is British.
Not that clever
Mind you, in reality, she is no Citroën or Lancia! Those companies produced cars that were intrinsically ‘clever’ for their period. The nearest we ever came to being that clever was probably Lanchester in the early years of the (last) century, Gerald Palmer’s brilliant Jowett Javelin and some Issigonis cars of the 1960s.
Although I’ve not experienced that golden era I spoke of, I’m at least grateful for being born in the late Forties and having experiences that seem light years away from our expectations today. Take the time I was about eight-years old and sat in the back of my dad’s Austin 10 cabriolet (BYL777).
In Southampton, we had just bought a new gas cooker and dad had loaded it onto the ‘fold-down’ boot lid of the car. Very shortly we negotiated a long downward hill to a set of traffic lights. The lights went red but dad sailed serenely over them with, in his words, ‘not a vestige of brakes’. He finally brought the car to a standstill with exuberant use of gears and handbrake. It took him a few moments to realise the cause of this horrendous breach of the Road Traffic Act.
The Austin had cable brakes. If one loaded the boot lid platform with something very heavy, the chassis would go ‘banana’ shape and the cables that are normally tightened by pressing the pedal – don’t!
Connectivity is king
Surely one of the greatest changes in modern society is our ‘expectations’ (or aspirations if talking about Audis and BMWs). Even the family going to buy their secondhand Hyundai Tucson will debate whether the car is for them or not because of its ‘connectivity’ – or its ease of using the Isofix. I was looking at a new Fiat 500 in a main dealer and the sales girl spent 20 minutes telling me all about the car’s ‘connectivity’ and showing me what information the central screen gave. She certainly knew her stuff.
When I asked what the 0-60 time was she said, ‘I have no idea!’
A couple of years ago I worked with a young lady who came out of her ‘I’ve just been promoted’ meeting and gleefully declared she would now get a white BMW 1 Series.
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Well, it’s just what you do isn’t it’ she responded.
‘But do you like the BMW 1 Series?’ I asked.
‘I expect so – I’m not actually sure which one it is!’
Another guy told me he was looking for a new car. I said, have you looked at a Vauxhall Insignia? He said he had and he really liked the shape and it was very quiet and a very nice place to be, but then added ‘I think it’s got to be a BMW though – it’s just that badge isn’t it?’
Game, set and match to BMW’s marketing! Track back a few years (well, about 60 actually) and I well remember my parents buying the replacement for the ‘banana chassis’d’ Austin 10.
Dad had seen the car previously, but we went on a Saturday afternoon in December to purchase the beast. It was a Bond MkB (above). For those not familiar with the breed, the Bond had a single eight inch front wheel with a Villiers 197cc single cylinder engine. At the rear were two eight inch wheels. The whole assembly was very ‘aircraft like’ being mainly of aluminium construction. There was no rear suspension and being a kid I had a canvas sideways facing rear seat – a ‘deckchair’ essentially.
In the ‘cockpit’ was an acutely angled steering wheel and a column change gearshift. Starting was accomplished by pulling on a mighty great lever under the dashboard. It was a ‘soft top’ of course – Bond customers had no use for silly hardtops for goodness sake! As a ten-year old, I absolutely loved the thing to bits! Although to be fair, the journey home (about 16 miles) is etched on my memory for ever. We left the garage just as dusk was settling in. The late afternoon became a black night very quickly – and, equally quickly, a thick fog descended.
It’s worth mentioning here that this country no longer has ‘fog’ – we only have ‘mist’ and it’s been like this since the 1970s. What I’m talking about here is fog where the extremities of your Jaguar bonnet were not visible from the driver’s seat! We then discovered that our ‘Mr Bond’ had something of a wicked sense of humour.
He would allow us to run the engine and the single wiper – but not with the lights on! He would allow us to have side, head and rear lights – but not if the engine was running! The resultant journey involved my dear mum walking alongside the car and giving dad clear instructions. (She was ex-Fire Service in the ‘blitz’ so giving orders came easy to her). ‘Left a little – straighten up – right a little’ etc. If mum heard a car coming up behind she would say, ‘engine off – lights on’ etc. It was rather scary if we came upon a very wide junction – even mum lost her bearings at that point! ‘I don’t know where the hell I am!’ was never a comforting sentiment.
A red traffic light simply caused a ‘sunset glow’ across a junction; the orange all but disappeared and the green could only be seen if you stood at the bottom of the pole! I was slightly concerned that some big truck might appear unexpectedly and catch mum out – and simply run over us all, including Mr Bond. So having left Eastleigh at about four in the afternoon we eventually got home just before nine.
Within a day or so dad had sorted the little Bond and we used it for a year or so. It was replaced by a 1938 Jowett Eight. Lovely though the Jowett was, it could never compete with the extreme frugality of Mr Bond who only drank about a gallon of fuel every 100 miles. But before it went, we had numerous adventures, like the time we were going down a very steep and narrow lane out of our village – and the postman in his Morris Eight Series E van was coming flat out the other way.
There was no room to pass as the lane was encased by a steep bank either side. Dad applied the brakes and we heard a ‘light-hearted’ scuffing sound. We were very used to this noise – it was the rear wheel brakes (all we had) locking those tiny eight inch tyres. The postman, (bless him), aimed for the bank and somehow clawed up it and over us. He was a jolly fellow and still smiling as he looked down on us – still with momentum thankfully. Had he been going slower, gravity would have seen our certain demise!
Amusingly, when the front tyre burst, dad tried to get a new one but none was to be had. I saw him eying up the wheel barrow tyre – I could see where he was going with that. Ply? What’s Ply?
Hot – but devoid of a heater
I’ve always been reluctant to move away from older cars and in the early 1970s we still had an ‘upright’ Ford Pop. I loved the thing to bits – it was so unstoppable and idiosyncratic. The head gasket had failed on the combustion side – on Number 4, the cylinder nearest the bulkhead. The car would start and run on three cylinders with never a complaint. Admittedly, the cabin got a bit warm ‘cos the bulkhead glowed red after a while – but I made sure the wiring was out of the way and in any case our Labrador (Prince Albert Loui the 15th) had destroyed the carpets months ago. The extra heat was nice in the winter ‘cos the dear little thing was devoid of a Smiths device.
The cable brakes on a ‘Pop’ are legendary. It’s always a lottery as to which wheel will brake first. I well remember having to stop suddenly and for some reason the nearside rear wheel locked up. My new young wife looked at me and said:
‘Was that my side rear?’
I said ‘Yes – why?’
She looked puzzled and said ‘Well, it’s not a Tuesday.’
You see, we’re never going to get memories like that driving an electric Kia!