About W de Forte
Wilberforce de Forte was born shortly after the end of the First World War, in the village of Bales, Shropshire, where he still lives. He is the son of Gordon Bennett Cup car racer Basil de Forte, and the grandson of Sir Cecil de Forte, a gentleman farmer who owned the first car in the county.
Wilberforce de Forte was born shortly after the end of the First World War, in the village of Bales, Shropshire, where he still lives. He is the son of Gordon Bennett Cup car racer Basil de Forte, and the grandson of Sir Cecil de Forte, a gentleman farmer who owned the first car in the county.
As a young man, de Forte established himself as a successful independent motoring writer, working for a number of specialist automotive periodicals. During the Second World War, de Forte served with distinction throughout Europe in the Army Transport Corps, and he continued to write whenever his duties allowed.
Subsequently, de Forte travelled the world as a motoring journalist, and his outpourings continued unabated until a high speed prang while testing a wayward Rudge Ulster, in 2011, brought him up with a jolt.
Once back home in Bales, he removed himself to his study on a semi-permanent basis, wherein he started work on an autobiographical memoir, a work much requested over very many years, and now eagerly anticipated by friends and motoring historians alike.
Gabled lodges, tile-hung churches, catch the lights of our Lagonda
As we drive to Penny’s party, lemon curd and Christmas cake.
Rich the makes of motor whirring,
Past the pine-plantation purring
Come up, Hupmobile, Delage!
Short the way your chauffeurs travel,
Crunching over private gravel
Each from out his warm garage.
Indoor Games near Newbury – John Betjeman*
TIME OF CHANGE
IN BRITAIN THE POST-WAR 1940S and early 1950s was a time of change, as creeping socialism challenged the values and attitudes of the upper and lower classes alike. The old world order felt under threat, and nobody escaped feeling frightened and bewildered, not least landed families such as my own, and our beleaguered friends among the gentry. My parents’ generation alternatively fought the tyrannical forces of change, or else resigned themselves to them, but for this particular de Forte it was a period when, above all else, there was a happy sense of a life coming to fruition, and being lived to the full.
There was a gradual fading into the past of the wartime spirit, and a growing resentment towards rationing and austerity (and the abominable pool!). Do you realise that in 1950 almost half the houses in Britain lacked an indoor bathroom? But five years later one household in four possessed a television, and vacuum cleaners, telephones and twin-tub washing machines proliferated among the masses. Furthermore, it was an age of education and improvement, of talks on the wireless, of good music, and of Penguin Specials, and a feeling persisted that almost all things made in Britain could still be considered a source of pride, not least in the field of transportation.
Diesel trains were coming, but a new express locomotive entering a big city terminus still had soot and sparks flaring from its smokestack, and the screech of its brakes and the hot, steamy breath of its boilers remained part of the powerful symphonic soundtrack of the time. The De Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet liner, was developed at Hatfield, Herts. It first flew in July 1949, and within ten years it was flying regularly across the Atlantic (admittedly following a redesign after two catastrophic crashes in 1954). The Fairey Delta 2 became the first plane to break the 1,000mph barrier, taking the world air speed record to 1132mph in 1956, and thanks to my pal Raymond, I was thrilled to be aboard Christopher Cockerell’s hovercraft when it first crossed the channel in 1959, by which time the M1 was open to traffic, parking meters were blighting London’s streets, and police radar traps were being deployed on our rural roads.
Fully automatic transmissions arrived on the scene in the 1950s, bringing problems to motorists both here and in the USA. Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs had had them before the Yanks entered War Two, of course (they were never fans of shifting), and clutches and manual gearboxes were largely eliminated from American motoring after the war. But a powerful V8 and exiguous braking is not at all a good combination, and here in Europe our smaller, more frugal engines made insufficient power to absorb the losses. Column shift, however, was an American-inspired craze of which I did approve. Unitary construction was also on the increase, and the future would see long production runs with ever bigger outputs, and fewer fundamental changes.
ONE OF BRITAIN’S FINE IDEAS
As the British Army battled its way across northern Germany during the death throes of War Two, its Transport Corps organised the rounding up and confiscation of thousands of vehicles abandoned by the retreating sausage-eaters, and, following the German surrender, when I was attached to the Corps in an official capacity, I was able to hurtle around in bullet-proof Mercedes staff cars, big bore BMW sidecar combinations, and various kubelwagens and flugabwehrkanonenpanzers. I even drove Panzer and Tiger tanks. But the vehicle that impressed me most was the humble US Army Jeep, made by Willys Overland Inc, a number of which had temporarily fallen into the hands of the goons. In fact I liked them so much I am ashamed to say I stole one.
After the war ended, the dazed and bewildered human flotsam of a continent ravaged by five years of conflict began making its way home. I was granted leave and, amid the chaos and confusion, together with an RAF Sergeant named Passmore, and wearing my army greatcoat stained with the filth of many ditches, and with unkempt hair, unshaven chins and mud-encrusted boots, we drove the pilfered Jeep nonstop across Europe, and blagged our way onto a boat back to Blighty.
Yes, dear readers, I brought it home to Shropshire, and even before I had had time for a recuperative noggin in the Rose & Crown, Pater had put the little Willys to work on the farm (incidentally, the correct pronunciation is ‘Willis’). He found it a most useful device. A miniature truck capable of 60mph, it could climb a 40 degree slope and manage 50 degrees of sideways tilt without tipping over. Furthermore, it had an infeasibly tight turning circle and could pull 25 tons. The Jeep was not an iconic symbol of the American war effort without good reason.
When I flew back to my command in Germany I was relieved to find the Jeep had not been missed (I should have stolen Himmler’s staff car – it would have been worth millions today!) and it remained in service on the farm for many years, despite being joined by a new Land Rover in 1948, of which more anon.
Returning to journalistic duties after being demobbed in mid ’46, I called in on the Wilks brothers at Rover’s former aircraft factory, now the firm’s new Meteor Works on Lode Lane, Solihull (the Helen Street factory in Stoke Heath, Coventry having taken a severe pasting from the Luftwaffe on more than one occasion). I found the luxury car maker more than slightly moribund. Sheets of aircraft aluminium and tins of paint left over from wartime contracts lay around and car production was at barely a trickle. Although Rover was desperate to get back to producing quality motor cars for Britain’s bank managers and headmasters, the Board of Trade wanted small utilitarian runabouts and the famous old firm just couldn’t get the steel to build its silky smooth sixes.
Over libation in Maurice’s office, the younger Wilks bemoaned the exorbitant level of purchase tax applied to new cars (he would have been apoplectic if he’d known it was to double to 66% the following year!) and told me their designs for small cars were not working out well. Conversation then turned to farming and it turned out Maurice too had a Jeep, which he kept on his farm in Anglesey. ‘Why not build a British version of it for farmers?’ I suggested. ‘And it would sell well in uncivilised parts of the Empire too.’ More scotch was poured and I saw the great designer’s eyes twinkle as he warmed to the idea.
The Land Rover was launched at the Amsterdam Motor Show in April 1948. Something twixt a truck and a tractor, it was rather similar to a Jeep but with a more agricultural bent. Built on a strong steel chassis, the new four-wheel-drive Rover featured power take off points front and rear, and had undergone extensive trials on working farms including ploughing fields as well as winching, towing and traversing difficult terrain. Out of necessity and expedience its body panels were built from Birmabright aluminium and painted aircraft cockpit green. Basic in the extreme, even the roof and door tops were extras.
Shorter than a Jeep, it was also wider, heavier and faster and shared no common components with the Ohio built vehicle that inspired it, although apparently an earlier prototype had been made on a Jeep chassis with a central steering wheel. This ‘centre-steer’ device had an engine and gearbox from a pre war Rover saloon model and the driver had sat aside the gearbox tractor-style.
This miniature short wheelbase truck was intended to be manufactured for two or three years to generate cash for building quality saloon cars, but the Land Rover was to remain in production in various forms for more than 60 years.
Series I Land Rovers, as they have subsequently become known, were built until 1958. Purely functional, they have perfect proportions and have a fabulous ‘look’. Tough, simple and practical, 218,000 were built and sold around the world. A huge number survive. Driving one is an experience. The suspension is designed for the longevity of the vehicle, not the comfort of its passengers! The teeth rather rattle and the back is sometimes jarred, but it will turn on a sixpence, take terrible abuse, survive the harshest climates and, importantly, somehow keep going when seriously wounded. Rarely will a Series I let its master down.
Many of these early Land Rovers are still working on the farms and estates they were delivered to when purchased new. These vehicles are now rightly regarded as true classics and are becoming sought after by collectors. I was offered £15,000 for Pater’s 1948 model just the other week. Not bad for a near 70-year-old truck!
The Mille Miglia, for those of you not in the know, was a 1,000 mile race for sports cars held on public roads in Italy between 1927 and 1957 (12 before the Hitler war, 11 after, and one in 1940, which was won by future Porsche race supremo Huschke von Hanstein in a streamlined BMW 328). Tazio Nuvolari, aka ‘Il Montavano Volante’ (the Flying Mantuan), won the Mille Miglia in an Alfa Romeo in 1930 – his first major success on four wheels – defeating team-mate and arch-rival Achille Varzi. It was the first of his two victories in the event.
Nuvolari often operated as a freelancer throughout the 1930s, but he is most famous for his exploits driving bright red factory Alfa Romeos, despite their declining international competitiveness. In 1935 he greatly upset the sausage eaters by winning the German Grand Prix, fighting back after a botched pitstop and beating a veritable Panzerbataillon of Nazi-funded Silver Arrow Mercedes and Auto Unions (the second of these types the creation of one Ferdinand Porsche, of course). Adolf Hitler considered motor racing victories to be useful propaganda so the German authorities were most miffed. In fact, so confident were they of victory that day at the Nürburgring, no-one had thought it necessary to have a recording of the Italian national anthem to hand. Nuvolari had to supply his own.
But in 1938 the diminutive Italian finally quit Alfa Romeo and joined Auto Union mid-season. That year the regulations had changed. Supercharged engines were limited to three litres, so Mercedes had replaced its 5700cc W125 monsters with newly schemed V12s (the W154), and Auto Union had ditched Porsche’s 4360cc, V16 and built new V12s of their own (cars known as Type D).
The front-engined W154 proved the most successful grand prix racing car of 1938. Arch-toff Dick Seaman won the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, blithely saluting Hitler on the podium afterwards and becoming the first Englishman since Henry Segrave to receive the winner’s garlands in a championship race; and Rudolf Caracciola won the Swiss GP and the title. But Auto Union struggled. Their new 450bhp V12 was not ready for the start of the season, and the team was thrown into disarray by the death of its number one driver, Bernd Rosemeyer, killed during speed record attempts on the new Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn (Germany’s first inter-city autobahn had opened in 1932 between Bonn and Cologne).
But Nuvolari got the factory back on track by winning the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September, beating Rudolf Caracciola by three laps, and my pal Algy and I were set to see all these impossibly glamorous men and their magnificent machines in action at the non-championship Grand Prix at Donington Park on 8 October. But sadly, the meeting would be delayed by world events, and only Algy would be able to attend. So when he returned to Bales full of tales of thrills and spills, and of a great victory by his absolute hero, Il Montavano Volante, we sat him down in Grandpapa’s chair in the Rose & Crown, and urged him to tell us all about it.
The Germans’ sabre-rattling over Czechoslovakia brought about Chamberlain’s appeasing trips to Munich, ’Peace in Our Time’ and all that. It also meant the 80 lap British Grand Prix at Donington was postponed until October 22, and, to my chagrin, I found I could not go due to commitments at Cambridge. The Donington race, which had been won the previous year by Rosemeyer, was a non-championship event, and Caracciola, already declared champion, did not bother to attend. The Italians were all sulking, having taken a pasting all year, so of the sport’s big teams, only French champion Rene Dreyfuss tipped up with his Delahaye equipe to take the fight to four factory Mercedes W154s, one driven by Seaman, and three works Auto Unions.
While practising for the 250 mile race Nuvolari clobbered a deer, breaking some of his ribs, and he had to be strapped up under his cardy. Then, during the race he suffered more beastly luck when he had to pit for plugs (they did that sort of thing in those days), but this turned out to be a blessing because while he was safely off the circuit, an oil slick at what is now Craner Curves, brought about multiple spins, spills and retirements. When Nuvolari got back among the action he drove like a demon, carving through the field, lapping the privateer entries again and again while overhauling the leader, Mercedes’ Hermann Lang, and then stretching away to beat him by over a minute.
Miraculously unaffected by the oil that had done for Segrave and many others, Nuvolari put on an exhibition of utterly brilliant, impossibly fast opposite-lock driving. Well, Algy would say that, of course! On the subject of being ‘done for’, I’m afraid the aristocratic and dashing Dick Seaman was killed as a result of being terribly burned in an accident at Spa the following year, just months before inheriting a stupendous family fortune. He was only 26.
So what has all this got to do with the Mille Miglia, you may well ask (I was wondering – ed). Patience dear reader! When the final entry list for the 1948 event reached the offices of The Auto soon before the event, the 167 starters included not only Ascari in a Maserati, and Biondetti, Cortese, and Righetti in Ferraris (all this we had known for some time), but none other than Tazio Nuvolari, a late addition to Enzo Ferrari’s star-studded squad. On a whim I persuaded my long-suffering boss Murdo Graves I should get down there, and before he changed his mind I raced home like a stoat to grab Algy as my navigator. That afternoon we set off in a Jowett Javelin, bound for sun, sea and excitement in bella Italia (no, it didn’t overheat!).
Nuvolari was 55 by then, and in poor health both physically and mentally. He was depressed: the second of his boys had passed away two years before, aged just 18, and his first had also died young. He would finally stop racing altogether in 1950, and he would be killed by a series of strokes in 1952, but it was his lungs that brought him to the point of death, ruined from vehicle smoke and deadly fumes, and from cigarettes. Blood would often fleck his lips, and in 1946, in a race in Milan, he had steered with one hand holding a blood-stained handkerchief over his mouth.
The 1948 Mille Miglia started at midnight (in a downpour), and the drivers and their riding mechanics bored tunnels through blackness and swirling rain with their headlamps as they raced to the dawn. Rather than spend too much time on my feet in the paddock, I reported the event from a hotel on the circuit. And why not? There was live coverage of the whole race on the wireless, and I had learned long before from old hands (many of them top racing scribes), that when reporting on races such as this, or the Isle of Man TT, it was not only rarely necessary to move from one’s barstool, but that as a way of working, it could be surprisingly effective.
Those old timers talked to all the right people as they passed by, and found out all they needed to know. If you do it right you don’t have to rush around the paddock like a demented bluebottle or watch with a notepad from the side of the track to find out what’s happening at a race meeting. In fact, that is probably the least effective way of reporting a race, particularly when the riders or drivers themselves may not have a full picture. Say a leading driver comes in, his car’s running sick but he’s got no idea why. If you talk to the team mechanic or owner a little later on he’ll say, ‘Unbelievable Wilby! We got it into the garage and we found a dratted HT lead was broken. Headline: ‘A 10s plug lead cost Stirling Moss victory in today’s big race at Silverstone.’ People around the driver can sometimes give a news-hound far more information than the driver possibly could. A hard-drinking colleague of mine (most of the racing chaps were enthusiastic bon viveurs!) who had started his career as a crime reporter on a big city daily, was once asked how on earth he was going to write his TT report when he hadn’t actually left the bar long enough to have seen anything. He replied that he used to report on murders and he hadn’t witnessed any of them either!
Back to northern Italy in 1948. When we awoke from an hour or two of drunken slumber, the sun was up, the rain had cleared, and we ascertained from the staccato croaks of the hotel’s wireless (a Ducati, I recall) that the great man was in the lead. In fact, incredibly, he was half an hour to the good. Nuvolari had taken over at the front after Franco Cortese’s Ferrari 166S had expired, and the wiry Mantuan was driving like a man possessed. After a rustic luncheon, we sat in the half-light of the half-shuttered, chiaroscuro bar, sipping espresso, ignoring our free measures of the local liqueur (an unutterably foul brown compound), and listening intently to the aforementioned squawking bakelite device (not that we could understand a great deal!). Then the telephone tinkled behind the counter. The proprietario waved his arms and shouted above the radio’s frenzied racket. Eccolo! Eccolo! – he was coming. No, in fact, he was here! A disordered scramble and a small table was upturned with a heavy smash as the shadowy, fly-blown bar all but emptied into the blazing bright white sunshine of the town square.
The speakers, clamped to a pole at its corner of the piazza, blared unintelligibly, and above their distorted din we heard the reverberative wail of a Ferrari’s approach bouncing cacophonously off the crumbling village walls. Then he came. Men cheered and waved their hats, or else threw them into the air, and women fluttered their handkerchiefs. Nuvolari used tall ratios, and braked little to maintain speed. He cornered by sliding a car, fighting all the while to keep its nose in the middle of the road. He tigered, as we said in those days. Sure enough, that May lunchtime the Flying Mantuan shot through the piazza, drifting as in days of yore, all arms and elbows as he fought the wheel of his open car. A loss of control would have massacred dozens that day, and of course that’s what would finish the Mille Miglia in the end (the grizzly deaths of Spanish driver Alfonso de Portago and ten others, including five children, in a single catastrophic crimson hay-baler of a crash in 1957 would prove the final straw).
Nuvolari’s Ferrari had been built for the Paris-based Russian aristocrat and part-time racing driver Prince Igor Troubetzkoy, the fourth husband of the stupendously wealthy American socialite Barbara Hutton, and he was scheduled to take delivery of it soon after the race. But it was already considerably shot up by the time it reached us. Nuvolari was always hard on his cars, and in this race, perhaps more than any other, he was driving like a madman, fuelled by grief and a need to reconnect with meaning in his life. The fragile open sports car was literally falling to pieces underneath him. He had hit a bank, swiping a mudguard clean off, and the bonnet had become unattached and flown away over his head, narrowly avoiding killing him and his mechanic, long-time Ferrari man Sergio Scapinelli. Good, he reportedly shouted to him, that will help keep the engine cool. Next the seat had come adrift, and he had replaced it with a sack of lemons.
The telephone tinkled again. This time a friend of the landlord from near Reggio Emilia. Nuvolari had retired. Algy groaned like a wounded animal. Perhaps his brakes had let him down? No, it seemed the suspension had collapsed. Whatever, the car had slewed to a stop and had been left, sagging to one side, ticking as it cooled by the side of the road. The Mantuan had spoken briefly to a priest before going to lie down awhile in the village hospice while Scapinelli telephoned to report their retirement, and order a car to take them to Brescia. Did Signor de Forte and his friend want to go to see him? The proprietario’s friend could arrange it. No, we let him be.
Just then there was a most appalling smash and commotion outside. A back-marker had driven a Fiat Topolino Special into the tables at the front of the hotel, collapsing the awning and demolishing a small wall. Miraculously nobody was badly injured and the apologetic driver immediately produced his wallet and peeled off a fistful of notes to pay for the damage and buy drinks all round. Meanwhile in Brescia, Enzo Ferrari took Scapinelli’s call and reportedly wept. He later told Nuvolari they would win the Mille Miglia together soon, maybe even next year, but Nuvolari told him to enjoy what glory they had achieved, that at their age there would not be many more opportunities. For one of them this would be all too true.
Clemente Biondetti took the victory in his Ferrari. ‘Excuse me for having won,’ he said at the prize-giving, justifiably irritated that so much attention was being lavished on Nuvolari, one of 103 non-finishers, while he, the victor after all, was more-or-less ignored. The evening had got to the coffee and cigars stage when I grabbed a word with the wiry Mantuan. He asked after my father, then his beady eyes shone while he recalled his remarkable performance in the Far Field, reliving the event with many a chuckle and much bobbing in his chair, and then he showed great dignity in defeat, as ever, praising Biondetti, insisting he had deserved his victory, and condemning those who had all but ignored him in their speeches. Fortified by adulation, by love, and by food and fine wine, he seemed surprisingly spritely that evening, even athletic, but it was an illusion.
Underneath I could see Tazio Nuvolari was not a well man, and that he knew it too. His doctors would be angry, he said, prickly-eyed and coughing after pulling on a toasty American cigarette, but he would race again just as soon as he could. He hoped to return to England too, explaining he had been invited over to test a new Jaguar sports car for Mr Lyons. In fact, he raced in Italy just a fortnight later, but was too ill to complete the course, and when his pre-war nemesis Achille Varzi was killed at the beginning of July, he reportedly said he felt ready to join him, that it was his time too.
The following day in Brescia, Algy and I were walking down a heaving street in the centre of town when there was an urgent flurry of toots behind us. The crowds parted and an Alfa Romeo saloon crept through the throng. In the rear sat the shrunken figure of Tazio Nuvolari, and as he was driven past us, Algy called out bravo to the great man whose sad eyes sparked in recognition. The maestro raised a hand, thumbed an imaginary throttle lever, and managed half a smile.
PRIDE COMES BEFORE A FALL
The Jowett Javelin of 1947 was an impressive motor car. Capable of 80mph, it had a compact, all-new, 1.5 litre flat-four engine. It steered well, rode well on torsion bar suspension, and had plenty of room for six inside. It had a monocoque body, boasted the first curved windscreen in Britain, and its modern American fastback look (no running boards either) was radically different to the pre-war designs being put back into production elsewhere. Having been brought up in South Africa, its young designer Gerald Palmer was used to colonial roads, and this no doubt influenced him in giving the Javelin given plenty of ground clearance, and a stiff body of stiff construction. Consequently the Javelin proved comfortable on rough surfaces at high speed and was successful in the Monte Carlo Rally. So where did it all go wrong?
I had regular dealings with the Bradford engineering firm in the early years of War Two and the term professional Yorkshiremen comes strongly to mind. Fiercely proud and independent, the firm’s senior men were Victorians with Victorian values, but they would fall victim to hubris. The Jowett men did things their own way, which was generally better than that of anyone else, or at least that is what they truly believed. This delusion drove them ever onwards towards self-sufficiency, and this, together with myopic over-ambition, would bring about their downfall.
The Jowett Motor Manufacturing Co went back to 1901 when, from their original factory in Church Street, Bradford, its founders William and Benjamin Jowett began manufacturing stationary engines of various types and for various applications. They built their first car around 1905, and were subcontracted to build motorcycles. In 1907 Jowett moved to new premises where they built tough flat-twin cars and, from 1929, a light van known as penny-a-miler. In the Second War they made capstan lathes; guns and ammunition; aircraft components including coolant pumps for Merlins; flail mechanisms for Shermans, and gears and conversion drives for all manner of tanks; as well as twin-cylinder vehicles for war use.
No wonder the Jowett bods thought they could make anything, and in 1942 they advertised for a designer to scheme them a brand new car. Gerald Palmer responded and the Yorkies went down to Oxford to persuade the then MG man to bring his expertise to the north. They prevailed, and he designed them a nigh-on complete new motor car, and a very fine one it was too. The first Javelin prototypes set off on test into the Yorkshire Dales in August 1944, and I first drove one on a short trip to Ilkley in February 1946. My notes tell me a short engine made for plenty of room in the cab, and positioning the front seat essentially in the middle of the car, made for a commendably bounce-free ride over the tops and down past the Cow and Calf.
By November 1947 full Javelin production had begun. All well and good but after this the Yorkshiremen somewhat overstretched themselves. From 1946 onwards they had been building the 8bhp Bradford van (or truck). It was simple, sweet and charming, but ever so slow (I recall having to jump out and help push a fully-laden one up Chapel Hill in Huddersfield: it just couldn’t manage it!). Never mind, they returned high mileages over a long life and thousands were exported all over the world. Then came the Javelin, which was initially well received but not without teething troubles as one would expect. Solving these should have been a priority, but the firm was distracted by preparations for the introduction in 1950 of the Jupiter sports car, the pursuit of a race programme involving a Jupiter single-seater, the detailed development of other new models, and an unwise decision to begin manufacturing its own gearboxes. By this time, their star designer had returned to Oxford’s dreaming spires to pen the MG Magnette and Wolseley 4/44 (he had designed the Y-type for Nuffield pre-war).
Although the Javelin’s overheating problems were soon cured, gearbox faults further damaged the firm’s reputation and sales stalled. Meanwhile, Jowett’s body supplier, Briggs of Doncaster, kept churning out painted bodyshells and they had to be stockpiled on waste ground around Bradford. Supply was eventually halted in 1952 and never restarted. Jowett ceased trading in 1954, laying off its loyal and hard-working workforce.
(First published The Auto – January 1959)
We may have never had it so good, but a little more than a decade ago Great Britain was still a bankrupt mess. Indeed, for most citizens of these beleaguered islands, the country was in an even worse predicament than it had been when the war ended, and motorists were particularly inconvenienced. The roads were in an atrocious state, and for the first six months of 1948 no petrol was legally available for private use. A meagre ration was introduced in June, but hardly enough to take one off for a weekend jaunt through our green and pleasant land. It was frustrating indeed to be in possession of a functioning motor car, yet not have the fuel to bring it to life.
Export or Die was the government’s rallying call to industry, and steel was allocated to car and motorcycle manufacturers according to foreign contracts won. Britain owed dollars and needed dead presidents to buy American goods, and this patriotic export drive meant very few new vehicles were available for the home market. So there were very few motor cars on Britain’s roads in 1948, and almost no new ones at all, and for those that were able to obtain a new machine, purchase taxes pushed costs to astronomical levels. A few pre-war motors smokily soldiered on, and trams swayed, galleon-like, sparking in the bombed out shattered cities, passing ruined roofless buildings, piles of rubble on demolition sites, and queues on the pavements outside shops with empty shelves. Everything seemed rationed. The air people breathed. Glimpses of the sun. Hope of a better world.
In contrast to the freezing weather and omnipresent gloom, Earls Court reopened its art deco doors on October 27 1948, giving the long-suffering public a chance to see what the struggling industry had in mind for brightening up our future. More than half a million motorists and would-be motorists turned up to gawp, the vast majority, of course, arriving by rail or bus, or by the aforementioned clanking trams, or by bicycle, dodging the bombsites en route. As a consequence, for those fortunates who did have a car and a few pints of precious Mr Pratt’s, it was still possible to park within easy walking distance, with no fear of interference by those dratted wardens whose infernal new-fangled clockwork assistants were still a decade from deployment. Some manufacturers even offered test drives from the rear of the main hall, I recall. Carefree times, in some ways.
I was impressed by the Renault 4CV and the Citroën 2CV, but even without the benefit of hindsight it was immediately apparent there were two star attractions on display in the hallowed halls. Bill’s boys at Jaguars had pulled off a miracle to create their XK120 in a matter of months, although as we now know, its unveiling at the show was more of an afterthought than the result of a definite plan. No matter. Such was the rapturous response, the model had to be put into production, if only in six-cylinder form (the proposed four-pot twin-cam engined variant ending up being pushed into the background).
Meanwhile, the exhibits also featured a brand new car of more direct relevance to the average Joe Soap hoping to escape the Clapham omnibus. I am, of course, referring to the Morris Minor. Some of us preferred its development name, ‘Mosquito’, but there was no doubt that the crack Longbridge team led by Alec Issigonis had come up with a winner. Had Issi been in full control his new baby would have included independent rear suspension and a flat four engine, perhaps driving the front wheels. The powers that be in the Kremlin scotched those radical and expensive ideas, so the model emerged from Cowley with various compromises. Most disappointingly, instead of the new engine the car deserved, the first Minors were fitted with the firm’s ancient 918cc side-valve four, a dismal device rooted in antediluvian epochs when inefficient long-stroke configurations were forced upon us by a ridiculous and ill-conceived taxation system. But with the RAC HP rating having been finally usurped that year by a flat rate excise licence, penny-pinching by Len Lord was surely the primary reason something more modern was not found to propel the new Morris everyman-mobile, even if a new boxer four was deemed an extravagance (as Gerald Palmer’s lauded, but ultimately ill-fated engine in the Javelins on the nearby Jowett stand perhaps proved, although we must congratulate the Bradford men for their efforts).
Insultingly described as a ‘poached egg’ by a significant person whose name must remain unpublished here, the Minor did at least retain some of its prototype’s design features, including unitary construction, making a separate chassis anachronistic overnight. Donkey cart springs and a live axle were the order of the day abaft, and longitudinal torsion beams provided springing for the front wheels, usefully transferring the major (forgive me, dear reader) stresses to the middle of the Minor’s floorpan. Unusually, the pedal hydraulics also lived in the same area, contributing to an uncluttered appearance under the bonnet.
While the poached egg appellation must remain a matter for the beholder’s eye, one of the Minor’s notable features was its above average width. Contemporary rivals such as the Austin A30 were narrower, and thereby hangs a tail, or tale. Minor prototypes were in fact considerably less wide – four inches, to be precise – than the production version. At a late stage of development I called in on Issi one evening and he showed me the current prototype. I dared to suggest the car looked a little narrow. He gave me short shrift, but upon sleeping on the matter he decided his creation would indeed benefit from an increase in girth, and that very morning he swept into the development department, and immediately instructed his astonished assistants to saw the latest pre-production car down the middle, then move the two halves apart until it ‘looked right’! Although this last-minute madness probably accounted for some of the Minor’s success once launched, it did rather present a problem for the production chaps, as some of the tooling was already made. So now you may gather why the car had a two-piece front bumper! We can laugh about it now, but what a headache it must have been to incorporate a four-inch straight section in the middle of an otherwise curved car. It could never happen today!
As we approach the 1960s, with assurances that we will live longer and prosper, the Poached Egg is, of course, very much still with us, having survived a decade on sale with essentially minor(!) development. Externally, the main changes have been raised headlamps, a one-piece windscreen and larger rear lights. Internally, the cabin is still a minimalist affair, in keeping with its creator’s belief that cars shouldn’t be so comfortable that their drivers are unable to stay alert (‘I would have them sit on nails, Wilby old boy,’ he once told me).
Lift the bonnet, however, and it was a different story. Soon after the Nuffield/Austin merger of 1952 (for those too young to remember, the result was BMC, and Nuffield already comprised Morris, Wolseley, MG and Riley), the brand new A-series ohv four found itself playing a Minor role in a major industrial upheaval, consigning Lord Nuffield’s side-valve plodder to the Cowley scrap heap. Initially of 848cc capacity, the latest 1000 is actually only 948cc, but we can forgive BMC for this modest exaggeration. Performance is now decidedly more lively, although low gearing still limits top speed to around 70mph. For all its faults, the ancient side-valve bestowed the car with a relaxing gait. For reasons best known to BMC management, the A-series was introduced gradually to different versions of the car at different times. Whether any customers inadvertently took delivery of something they didn’t order is uncertain, but I would venture such a scenario would have been entirely possible, if not probable, such was the shortage of supply for the first half of the decade. Delivery of any new car in less than a year was an achievement until relatively recently, so one would have been unlikely to quibble about the engine.
I well remember my first Minor drive in the spring of 1949, when I set forth along largely deserted Oxfordshire roads before dallying with the Fosse and tackling some Cotswold hills. A recent chance to sample the ‘fisherman’ 1000 over a similar route, albeit in far less pleasant weather (thank goodness a heater is now standard!) was an interesting exercise in nostalgia. Within yards one can appreciate the car’s finest feature – its sublime steering. Direct, lash-free and offering wonderful feedback from the chassis and road surface, very few cars can compete in this respect. In truth, I cannot think of anything that answers the helm with such precision. The gear change apparatus is also very satisfying. Having set the beam so high it is inevitable that the Minor is less impressive in other areas. As mentioned, comfort is lacking, and, to be blunt, it is noisy and rather frenetic once clear of urban limits. Lamentably, the same applies to the brakes in some circumstances. Overall, the world has moved on while the Minor has largely stayed still.
And yet… the car has great character, seemingly inherited from its designer, and continues to blow raspberries, both metaphorical and literal, at recent rivals. We hear strong whispers that the small saloon ranks will be swelled considerably in the near future. Ford and Standard-Triumph will have new models, we gather. Will the mighty British Motor Corporation react and introduce a Minor Mark II with more chiselled lines and a cruising speed suitable for our new Motorways? See you at Earls Court in October.
(First published Classic Auto – March 2010)
There are those who think nothing about how to handle a motor car properly, anxious only to get from A to B. But these dullards are missing out on one of the true joys in life. To drive well at any speed, concentration is required; all the senses are alerted and there is co-ordination of body and brain. When I achieve this I feel part of the great whole. I fit in. Life makes sense.
New fangled driver aids such as power steering and synchro-mesh gearboxes greatly reduce the potential for such satisfaction but real joy can still be realised by the piloting of vintage and what are now called classic motor cars. They are wonderful time machines that take us back to another age when things were very different, and dare I say it, generally rather more agreeable.
One late summer morning a few years ago I was detailed to deliver a 2.5 litre Riley RMB to Raby Castle in County Durham. The early commencement of a dear friend’s daughter’s nuptuals, in which the cream coloured car had a vital role to play and would inevitably steal the show, as classic cars usually do at these occasions, necessitated a daybreak departure from its village home in Yorkshire’s West Riding.
‘As Old as the Industry, as modern as the Hour’ was once the motto of the Riley Motor Company, but JAC626 looked splendidly old fashioned as the doors of its timber motor house creaked open at sparrow croak that late August morn. That said, there could be no doubt the Riley RMB is still a powerfully attractive motor car. No trailer-borne specimen, the nearly seventy-year-old vehicle revealed in the barn was clearly a regularly used example of the marque, and on the road it would no doubt prove the better for it. The fact its tweed-jacketed and cravatted owner was none other than Riley RM Club Chairman Mr Philip Hallam also augured well.
RMs were the last thoroughbred Rileys and feature the firm’s traditional swooping radiator and a distinctive fabric roof. The lines are based on a pre-war BMW saloon owned by an employee who pranged his Bahnstormer and then rebuilt it at the works with a Riley front end. His boss Victor Riley reckoned the hybrid had a certain something so he used it as the basis of his post-war range. It was blatant plagiarism but, as he later explained to me with a chuckle, the goons were hardly in a position to complain about it at the time!
The RM’s pressed steel panels are fixed to a traditional ash frame built onto a strong box section chassis. Its torsion bar and wishbone front suspension and steering was inspired by the splendid Citroën Traction Avant, and hydraulic front and mechanical rear drum brakes were perfectly adequate in the 1940s. A pre-war engine that first saw service in the 1926 Riley Monaco saloon provided the urge. A total of 6,903 RMBs were manufactured between 1946-1953 and there were 1,050 examples of the mildly updated RMF which preceded the Pathfinder.
The RM’s somewhat ingenious four cylinder engine was originally conceived by Victor’s brilliant elder brother Percy who started building cars at 13 and was the mechanical brains behind the Coventry firm. Advanced in its day, it featured gear driven camshafts on the side of the crankcases from which short pushrods activated overhead valves. An RM engine that is out of sorts can be as rattly as a flag collector’s box on a poor day, but JAC’s well maintained unit emitted only a delightful wuffly noise as it settled to tick-over after I thumbed the bakelite starter. The car’s glorious instrument board came to life as I flicked on the panel lights and as air began to circulate in the cabin, the comfortable leather upholstery emitted a quite evocative period whiff which charmed the nostrils no end. Altogether the experience was just so right and full of quality.
After a nod from JAC’s sleepy owner, first gear was engaged without fuss and I nosed the Riley’s long and elegant bonnet out of its quarters and onto the highway. As expected, the steering was heavy at low speed but once above walking pace, the wheel became light and responsive in my hands. It was not yet 6am so town carriage driving was in order, at least to start with! Nice work with the clutch and throttle, gentle and early cog shifting and smooth braking, having foreseen the necessity for slowdown or stop, led to a smooth and quiet passage through rural villages en route to the Great North Road.
And, after pausing at a junction, by way of a test I started in top and accelerated gently to 60mph without using the low gears at all. A Royce or Bentley are the very best motors for this stunt but the Riley’s flexible engine boasts the longest stroke of any post war car, and the stupendously torquey RM performed the feat with aplomb. A passenger would have been quite unaware anything unusual had occurred.
But then, quite suddenly, the imps in me came out to play. Down went the loud pedal and I began to tear around the swervery at full chat. Cornering was not without roll, but the Riley was up for the challenge and a demonic grin soon fixed itself on the de Forte phizzog.
The rack and pinion steering was fully up to the job and the Riley’s suspension performed its task of tying the big car to the road but Blighty’s by-lanes are increasingly ill-maintained and on one appalling patchwork apology for a road I hit a series of bumps and was was rather caught out by a fourpenny one. Unplanned arm exercise followed and there was, I am ashamed to say, a squeal of tyres as the rear end hung out over the white lines upon landing after a donkey back bridge. Flushed with embarrassment as I thought of the verbal clout I would have received had JAC’s owner been on board, I knocked it off a little until I reached the A1. Upon reflection, a Riley RMB handles perfectly well, but in truth the smaller, faintly pug-like RMA is a better town and country lane car than its longer and larger-engined brother.
Where the 2.5 litre car really excels is on the open road. ‘Magnificent Motoring’ was another Riley advertising slogan and the RMB is certainly a car for those seeking adventure on the King’s Highway. Sharing the Great North Road at that early hour with just a handful of plodding merchants and an occasional modern allowed me to slip the big Riley off the leash. With a 2443cc engine producing almost 100bhp the RMB is a quite outstanding goer, and with its seven league boots fully on, a true ton can be seen on the clock. For covering long distances at speed, it is still a capital motor car.
A long run in a good car going its best on the Great North Road has a marvellous tonic effect and can change a mood of blue depression to a feeling of being one of fortune’s favourites. As the road flies towards the radiator, the strain brought about by the unseemly tempo of modern life drops away, and approaching Scotch Corner your correspondent felt such a sense of wonderful well being that I must confess I began carolling like a lark!
Those of my generation may be becoming thin on the line, dear reader, and while most of my contemporaries are reduced to mumbling incoherently through toothless gums, I am sure that somewhere in their minds they are still young and vibrant. I know that in essence I am unchanged from the teenage boy who drove his dear Uncle Bof’s Riley Gamecock on that historic road before the second war. In the RM on that summer morning in 2006 I was eighteen once again. That is the power of a fine classic motor car.
(First published Classic Auto – November 2008)
Between Wars One and Two, one of the most useful vehicles on the farm in Bales was the family’s hard-working Jennings-bodied shooting-brake. Modelled on the estate cars father had seen coming into fashion for carrying guns, rods and bods on Scottish sporting estates at the time, it sported a timbered utility body built onto an accident salvaged Rolls-Royce 20HP limousine chassis bought cheaply from a scrapyard in Stafford (its first owner, I recall, was the crash-prone pioneer motorist and aviator, Sir Roderick Cholmondeley-Ker). Part van, part bus, part car, this marvellously practical machine was used for taking us away to school, running errands in the village, carrying hay and equipment around the farm and, at various times, transporting sickly or injured creatures to Spates, the town vet. And, after a cursory clean-out, it also often did duty picking up visitors and their luggage from the railway station in Shrewsbury.
The first shooting brakes were open horse drawn carriages used to convey shooting parties into the countryside and when motorised versions followed, wood remained the principal material of manufacture. Seasoned ash was the timber of choice due to its splendidly springy properties, strength and light weight. Station wagon, of course, is an American term coined to describe hotel courtesy transport used principally to ferry guests to and from railroad stations. Station wagons of this type gained in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 1930s and became known as Woodies. Incidentally, the correct singular spelling is Woodie. A Woody is a woodpecker or an eccentric Hollywood film director, not a motor car! In time, mass produced Ford V8 Woodies imported from Canada introduced the concept to the British hoi polloi and soon even modest Morrises and wee austere Austins were being rebodied as ‘estate’ cars to provide utility motoring for the many.
In the Second War, many vans, ambulances, and suchlike conveyances were needed on the home front and the cheapness and availability of timber made Woodie conversions commonplace. Furthermore, commercial vehicles attracted a decent quantity of Mr Pratt’s petroleum. And to get hold of the precious juice, many more perfectly healthy saloons were pushed into coach-building and joinery shops by their civilian owners to have their rear portions cut off and replaced by wooden hindquarters, after which they were driven smugly home.
Most Woodies were made to order and individual customer specification, so there was a great deal of variation in design. Long-established coachbuilding firms deployed time honoured skills in the manufacture of many finely crafted creations, but crudities and bodge jobs also abounded. My good chum Algy Tomlinson commissioned a wartime Woodie on a Daimler chassis from Tom the village carpenter who, it must be said, was not a bright fellow. Left to his own devices while Algy was away fighting the goons, the lumpen nitwit made the body frame and panelling entirely from fine English oak.
The car certainly looked natty enough, but it weighed two tons and drove like a stinker! Held rigid and unable to flex at all, the once benign and accommodating Daimler chassis frame took on handling and road-holding qualities of unsurpassed dreadfulness. My sainted aunt, it was a complete deathtrap! Like all young rip-stitches home on leave, Algy drove with the loud pedal on the boards (he would have done better to have heeded the blanket 30mph speed limit applied to all ‘commercials’) and it seemed the rebodied beast would kill him more surely than the sausage eaters.
The tyres slithered and fought for grip, there were no guiding sensations through the steering wheel or seat, and the back end of the car often broke away completely without warning. Fortunately, while bouncing wildly along the track to visit me at the farm one summer’s day, the rigid body snapped the chassis clean in half. The contemptible creation was later broken for scrap, its body remaining on the farm for many years as a hen hut.
Nevertheless, as a motor car it outlived Pater’s poor 20HP which he had given to the RAF for the duration. While parked on the perimeter of a fighter aerodrome somewhere in Norfolk, having just dropped off some visiting bigwig, Jerry came low along the main runway and dropped a land-mine straight through the sunroof. The dear old thing was blown to smithereens but amazingly the mascot survived intact and was returned in the post. It sits on the mantelpiece in the dining room at Bales to this day.
Punitive post war purchase taxes, from which ‘commercials’ were made exempt, and the continuation of rationing made utilities even more attractive in peacetime and, until legislative loopholes were closed in the mid 1950s, there was a Woodie manufacturing boom. Pent up demand for new cars could not be satisfied due to steel shortages and compulsory export quotas, so to circumnavigate the rules many folk purchased rolling chassis from car manufacturers and had them bodied in wood by a coachbuilder of choice. Additionally, several established motor car manufacturers including Alvis and Lea Francis, supplied large numbers of chassis to approved bodyshops, and then listed their factory endorsed shooting-brakes alongside the saloons in their official sales blurb.
But as the 1950s wore on, better times saw the end of tax breaks for utilities and an easing of restrictions on the supply of standard cars. This, coupled with the motor industry’s move to unitary construction (no more separate chassis on which to build alternative bodies), brought an end to the Woodie story. Apart, that is, from a post script provided by the hugely popular Morris Minor Traveller. Built originally for travelling salesmen, this once ubiquitous wooden framed motor car was manufactured from 1953 to 1971 and a quarter of a million were sold.
Remaining Woodies deserve to be preserved, but very few have survived. Wood is quite possibly the worst material with which to build a motor vehicle body and in the first half of the 20th century, effective preservatives had not yet been developed. Woodies’ exposed wooden frames needed revarnishing every couple of years to stop rot taking hold. Unsurprisingly, this tedious task was rarely carried out and consequently most Woodies never saw the 1960s let alone the end of the millennium. Woodie survival rates are pitifully poor and wooden bodied utilities found slumbering in sheds and barns tend to be woodworm eaten, crumbly and semi-collapsed, with coachwork completely beyond effective restoration. And the few that have continued to be driven are often held together by myriad tie rods, screws and angle irons.
But happily there is a club keenly dedicated to restoring and recreating these characterful and individualistic motor vehicles. Formed several years ago, the Woodie Car Club has its own website, and a fine book entitled ‘British Woodies from the 1920s to the 1950s’ has been written by enthusiastic club chairman Mr Colin Peck and published by Veloce.
Reading Mr Peck’s capital little book I was astonished to discover there is only one roadworthy Austin A70 Hampshire still in existence. These sweet little utilitarian shooting-brakes were frequently used by television companies as outside broadcast support vehicles as well as by motor racing teams, and I well remember seeing several of them parked together in the paddock at big race meetings at Silverstone in the 1950s. Bread and butter jobs they may have been, but I’m sure many older readers will have similarly fond memories of these once popular commercial vehicles from a bygone age. It really would be a pity for this small but significant part of our motoring heritage to be lost forever. Good luck to Mr Peck and his friends!
JAGUAR MARK FIVE
(First published Classic Auto – September 2002)
Possession of a Jaguar motor car used to be a signal achievement and one of the most desirable things in a man’s life. As well as providing an exhilarating means of transport, a Coventry cat was a beautiful object to behold and envious looks just add to the pleasure. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a bit of showing off!
Now there have always been chaps who have considered Jaguars to be a tad vulgar, but under autocratic boss Sir William Lyons, the midlands firm built motor cars which gripped the imagination of millions of motorists by the magic of their name alone. Alas, this is no longer the case! Bill Lyons’ stylish cars were always sold at a price that would appear to invite certain bankruptcy, but in fact the man was a genius. By underselling his more mundane domestic opposition and exotic foreign rivals alike, Lyons’ oft repeated trick was to offer dramatic looks and stimulating performance at a relatively attainable price.
When the art deco style Jaguar XK120 sports car was introduced to an astonished world at the Earl’s Court Motor Show in October 1948, the firm’s other new model at the exhibition was rather put in the shade. The pretty little two seater was to become a landmark car in Jaguar’s illustrious history and it is still revered today, but in those post war years, the comparatively staid Mark V saloon which first appeared at the same time, was far more important to the Coventry firm’s immediate future and precarious bank balance.
It was hardly surprising the little XK attracted all the plaudits. Apart from its show-stopping appearance, its stupendous new double overhead camshaft engine, which was to remain in production for more than 35 years, and went on to power such Jaguar classics as the Mark II, XJ6 and E-Type, delivered mind-boggling performance. As was usually the case for us motoring scribes when writing about Jaguars, superlatives were the order of the day when I filed my copy for the show issue of The Auto.
The Earls Court bash just two years later saw the first public appearance of the gargantuan Jaguar Mark VII which spelled the end for the Mark V (there was no Mark VI, of course, there being a contemporaneous and rather successful Bentley with that particular moniker). Consequently, the Mark V was a stop-gap model made for just three years. Today it is rather a forgotten Jaguar, which is to do it an injustice.
When motor car production resumed in 1945 it was essentially revamped pre-war models that creaked off Britain’s assembly lines and modern replacements were desperately needed, not least by Jaguars of Coventry. The firm’s colossal 1950s saloons were still on the drawing board and the hairy-chested XK motor that was to propel them existed only on the test bench. There was little money in the bank and old Bill was in a bit of a bind.
His solution was to produce a modernised version of his pre-war type cars, still powered by their old fashioned six cylinder engines in 2.5 and 3.5 litre form, but with a new chassis and state of the art suspension. It was a compromise. ‘Export or die’ was the clarion call of British manufacturing in the post war years and Jaguar needed to earn US dollars to fill its coffers and help revive the near bankrupt British economy.
The new model may have looked similar to its immediate post war predecessor (the Mark IV, logically enough) but in fact it had no shared panels and boasted many newfangled features such as faired in headlamps and push button door handles. And, by virtue of its suspension design, it drove better than any Jaguar before it. But would Lyons’ instinct for style and Jaguar’s value for money policy make the car a success?
Surviving British Mark Vs are rare beasts indeed and it was with the greatest of pleasure that I learned of the availability for demonstration of a fine 2.5 litre saloon example at Kettle’s Emporium in my home village of Bales. On approach, one’s first impression of SLO 226, which was first registered in 1951, is of a baroque coach. Very 1930s in appearance rather than 1950s, this large motor car has graceful, flowing lines well suited to its well polished gunmetal grey paintwork. The Mark V is certainly an eye catcher in the 21st century.
If it is pretty on the outside, the interior is an olde worlde delight. The large cross spoked steering wheel features a charming Jaguar head on its prominent horn push, and the pretty walnut dashboard features exquisite art deco lettering on its dainty dials which are bathed in a delicate violet glow at night. There is walnut garnishing throughout the cabin, unpleated leather upholstery fore and aft, and a mohair roof lining. As in most Lyons Jaguars, occupants are made to look and feel important in such splendid surroundings.
Under the side opening bonnet (this was the last Jaguar to be so equipped), the 2.5 litre pushrod motor has Jaguar stamped on its block and it was indeed made at the Jaguar factory, but it was cast from 1930s tooling purchased by Lyons during the war from the extraordinary Captain John Black at the Standard Motor Company. The Mark V is a big car with a chassis made from two whopping great steel girders and the 2.5 litre version is a little underpowered, but SLU’s willing motor started easily, revved sweetly and performed adequately throughout the test, bowling along at 60mph without fuss. But as I recall the 3.5 litre version was not exactly a racehorse between the shafts either. Lacking the outright urge of the new XK powerplant, the old overhead valve straight six was nonetheless quite capable of a steady 70.
The Moss gearbox is slow to operate but crunch free in skilled hands and its action suits the car, the hydraulic drum brakes are out of the top-drawer and there is no need to apply a heavy boot. Besides, if anyone gets in the way, the Mark V has a horn of nautical volume and tonality! Some transmission whine is audible as the driver’s ear becomes attuned to the car and there is a little lost motion at the steering wheel, but not enough to affect control. When driving some elderly motor cars it can be difficult to ascertain whether one is enjoying a vintage experience, or merely contending with vagueness caused by old and tired components!
The Mark V rode like a battleship on any sort of decent surface and on dreadful B roads, which would be a disgrace in a third world country, the suspension soaked up bumps and floated over potholes with aplomb. Your tester was kept alert as the soft cross-ply tyres kicked on white lines and tramlined on road repairs, but a twitch of the large cross spoked steering wheel soon brought her back into line. And when I threw on the coals and began to push on through the twisty bits I was impressed how the car stuck to its line, and by the absence of pitch and roll. This is by virtue of its fine independent front suspension inspired by Citroën’s Light 15, and designed by Jaguar’s engineering chief William Heynes.
As the revolution counter swept around the dial, in my mind I found myself back in the 1951 Monte Carlo Rally when I rode with privateer Irish racer Cecil Vard in his 3.5 litre Mark V. Dubliner Vard, and his Hibernian chums finished third overall in the Monte that year, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact he swiped the car from his mother-in-law’s drive and drove it across Europe to get to the start line!
The flickering orange fuel warning light snapped me out of my reverie and it was time to find some juice and head for home. The big car’s fuel consumption clearly plummets with hard use, but then again 1950s Jaguar owners were not normally kept awake at night worrying about petrol bills! Upon returning to base I noted the test car’s working sunshine roof (a standard factory fitment) and inspected the substantial toolkit in the fold-down boot. Incidentally, the Mark V was the last Jaguar with such a feature.
In conclusion, reacquainting myself with the Mark V was a very great pleasure. This rare Jaguar has immense charm, quite gorgeous looks and offers extremely pleasant, comfortable motoring even today. But find one if you can! Only 1,661 2.5 litre saloons were ever manufactured and most were sent across the pond.
Fortunately for Jaguar the bigger-engined version sold in far greater numbers and the 1949-1950 financial year saw record profits, up 149 percent on the previous 12 months. The turnaround was mostly due to the stop-gap Mark V. Bill Lyons’ strategy had clearly worked, and his elegant blend of old and new was just the ticket. The interim car earned thousands of US dollars and underpinned the firm’s even bigger successes in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a crucial car in Jaguar’s history.
ROLLS-ROYCE SILVER CLOUD
(First published Classic Auto – January 2008)
In 1955, the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and its Bentley equivalent, the ‘S’, were launched in a new era of optimism. Rationing had finally ceased and it was once more socially acceptable to spend one’s loot on items of style and luxury. Rolls-Royces were again rightly trumpeted as the finest cars in the world and in July 1957, less than a month after our test car, Silver Cloud TRW 585, was delivered to its first owner, Harold MacMillan told us all we had never had it so good.
The new Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud succeeded the Silver Ghost, Phantom, Wraith and Dawn, and when approaching the car from any angle there are unmistakable signs of its glorious tradition and breeding. It is an evolution of pre-war styles; the handsome gothic radiator, unchanged for 50 years, and the graceful, sweeping lines of the bodywork give this splendid gentleman’s carriage great presence and majesty. Its ‘standard steel’ coachwork was finished by artisans at the Crewe factory, the body panels having been made by the Pressed Steel Co Ltd in Oxford, but no matter. Bespoke coachwork was still available from a dwindling number of specialist builders such as HJ Mulliner, James Young or Park Ward for chaps fortunate enough to be able to afford something even more exclusive, but the factory-made car is still enormously beautiful. Despite its enormous size, it is elegant, balanced and aristocratic. Time has not diminished it.
Designed to be equally suited to chauffeur or owner driving, which was itself a reflection of changing times in the 1950s, the Cloud is 20 percent longer and 5½ inches wider than the models that preceded it, dimensions which may give present-day owners problems finding adequate covered storage! It is also a high car and its interior floor is almost completely flat. As a result, entry and egress can be achieved with decorum. The passenger compartment is the epitome of comfort: the wide rear seat contains a generous centre arm rest, the upholstery is carried high to form padded headrests which envelop the occupants, and lights in the rear quarters allow reading without disturbing one’s driver. There are exquisitely polished pull-down picnic tables and an ample carpeted luggage locker accommodates the largest cases. The front bench seat sports separate front arm rests so a passenger can travel in comfort without reducing the driver’s elbow room – handy in the event of some unplanned arm exercise when ‘pushing on’!
The Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud is a hand-made motor car of extraordinary quality, with cost clearly an afterthought. The interior is trimmed in good taste, and perfection of detail is to be observed in all respects. The dial-type instruments and gauges are clearly seen and read, the dashboard and door garnish rails are furnished with well matched walnut veneers, and the pile carpet and fine English hides are of the first rank.
It had been some years since I had driven a Cloud, and I was pleased to accept an invitation from my old pal Elmley Greenidge to test drive a 1957 model he had for sale for this feature in Classic Auto. A quick shufti in the Greenidge workshops in Shrewsbury revealed all was tickety-boo with this fine example, and it was time to get cracking. Enjoying the ride in the back, and keeping a beady eye on yours truly, were Mr Greenidge himself, and my long-suffering housekeeper, Martha, whom I had taken along as a treat for the afternoon. The Royce (never a Roller) moved off smoothly without slurring its automatic gear changes, and we were soon passing through Shrewsbury, drawing admiring glances from the populace. For such a massive coach, TRW was surprisingly manageable around town and not at all difficult to drive once one has adapted to its great size. Just as well as I had to swerve around several gormless nitwits crossing the road to get to Darwin’s statue. Natural selection at work, eh! On the open road a Cloud has good acceleration despite its bulk, and mechanical quietness and lack of wind noise make it deceptively fast. So much so, it is easy to find oneself tooling along at highly illegal speeds!
Developed from that of the Bentley Continental, the 4887cc six cylinder engine in the Silver Cloud provides ample urge, although it was replaced in 1959 by a larger American-inspired V8. Until relatively recent times it was Rolls-Royce policy to be highly secretive about the performance of its engines, simply stating that power output was ‘sufficient’. However, aided by several glasses of a very fine malt, which I had brought from the cellar in Bales, I did once persuade R-R chairman Lord Hives to admit to a figure of 178bhp for the Cloud. More significantly, time has proved the over-engineered unit to be capable of a quarter of a million miles’ service if properly maintained.
The Silver Cloud has an automatic gearbox, pandering to the American fashion of the time, which changes gear itself without regard to the driver’s skill or intelligence. No bad thing in many cases! A manual gearbox option was not offered and this raised motoring scribes’ hackles at the time, including mine, but in truth, the Hydramatic system, as fitted to 1950s Cadillacs and made under licence from General Motors, goes about its work unobtrusively and is, on the whole, quite delightful. But it is possible to override the Hydramatic’s ‘brain’, holding on to first gear up to 22mph, second up to 34mph and third up to 63mph. Incidentally, with a heavy boot it is possible to spin the wheels on a V8 Silver Cloud, quite something for an automatic car, although this is not something I would attempt with the owner present! I recall leaving black lines up the road outside the Rose & Crown in Bales in a borrowed Cloud II in ‘59. Impressing some Popsy or other no doubt!
Free from vibration and bounce on good roads (soft tyres help), the rear seat passenger’s experience is of near silent wafting progression. In fact, at 70mph on the M6, the loudest sound I detected from TRW was the incessant twittering of the bods in the rear! Back in 1955 much was made of the fact the 100mph Silver Cloud was the fastest motor car to bear the Rolls-Royce name. Poppycock! Pater’s 1939 12 cylinder Phantom regularly saw the ton up on its silver plated Warner speedometer, but I will concede the Cloud may well have been the first 100mph closed Rolls-Royce motor car. Sadly, second class road surfaces, once only experienced in backward parts of Europe, are now all too commonplace here in Blighty and my rear seat passengers were sometimes made all too aware of the unsprung mass of the rear axle below them when travelling quickly on patchworked A and B roads. A two position switch on the steering column selects either ‘firm’ or ‘soft’ rear damper settings, but in reality the difference is minimal and the generous foam overlay and substantial spring case of the rear seat base can become tested to the limit.
Power steering became standard equipment on the Silver Cloud in October 1956 and Rolls-Royce’s new hydraulic system brought great joy to chauffeurs everywhere. Previously a chore, parking was made easy, yet ‘feel’ was retained when the car was on the move. In fact, above all else it was exactness of steering and stopping that put Rolls-Royce in a different class to other cars in the 1950s. A two ton car needs damned good binders and when properly set up the Silver Cloud’s huge cast iron drums are about the best that such brakes can be, boasting 240 square inches of braking surface. The firm’s venerable mechanical servo (designed in 1919!) lags at walking speeds, causing some frightening parking moments, and it is always good policy to engage gear with the handbrake safely deployed, but when it really matters the car can be hauled down from high speed without any snaking, squealing and shuddering, and attendant and unwelcome pong! Fine de-misting wires set in the rear window was an advanced feature in the 1950s and the device still works well on TRW, but the car’s over-elaborate heating and ventilation system performs poorly by modern standards. I found it hard to keep the screen clear and provide a comfortable environment for my passengers and frequent fiddling with the blasted thing is the only option, as deafening wind roar is the result of opening the windows at speed.
Frederick Henry Royce was a fine British motor engineer and it is down to him that his company became a universal synonym for excellence (and remarkably, this is still the case despite the firm’s embarrassing bankruptcy in 1980, and subsequent cataclysmic catastrophes such as the fitting of BMW engines, which eventually led to a total takeover by the dratted sausage eaters). Royce perfected convention rather than inventing the unorthodox. A driven man, he had a capacity for taking pains, carried out uniquely exhaustive tests, took great pride in craftsmanship and brought a perfectionist attitude to all that he did. The Silver Cloud was released 22 years after his death, but the exquisite line and form of the car, and its exemplary driving behaviour, are a testimony to his values, and remain so to this day.
The Silver Cloud is essentially quite simply engineered, but sophistication is not necessarily an attribute. Uncomplicated, cultured and refined, the first generation Cloud is a very fine motor car indeed. Royce’s personal motto was: ‘Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble,’ and in the 1950s the thoroughly British Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud was the most carefully made car in the world. In June 1957, TRW 585 cost Mr Godfrey Umbers, mill-owner of Huddersfield, £4,796.10s.1d inc purchase tax, the cost of a street of terraced houses in that industrial town. Today it is worth many times that. But whatever its value in the market, the huge prices paid for coach-built cars on the same chassis will make it seem a bargain. The ‘standard steel’ Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud is a quite charming motor car of extraordinary quality that satisfies the senses and easily justifies the cost of purchase. It is just a shame it is too long for most chaps’ motor houses in this modern day and age!
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