Now in 2012, they would be called ‘jalopies’, or ‘old crocks’, but in their epoch, some of the motorcars I have met driven were notoriously expensive, fast and comfortable. Some of the companies that made these treasures have gone bankrupt; two were swallowed by German groups which have maintained name and quality and even added some. BMW and Mercedes-Benz have full order books. Jaguar went through a shaky period owned by the Ford Motor Company, but has recovered its Englishness. The order book is full there too.
My first fabulous car was a Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn (1952) owned by Kenneth Horne, a member of the governing board at my school. This was the ‘long-boot’ version, with an enormous and powerful engine, which, like the car itself, was built by hand at Crewe. Mr Horne liked to take groups of children from the school round the grounds in this entirely silent machine, whose dashboard and inner doors were lined with walnut grown especially for Rolls-Royce, and cut and fitted by company carpenters. Safely back and parked in front of school chapel, Mr Horne would ask us if the engine was still running, or had he switched it off. No-one knew, except cleverboots me, because I looked at the rev. counter, which hovered a little at the base. Rolls replaced this model later with the first of the Silver Clouds, featuring an even longer wheelbase, a bigger engine and automatic Borg-Warner gearbox. Mr Horne’s Dawn had a manual box (because he had insisted), which was set to the right of the driver (or chauffeur). The Bentley equivalents of this RR model were (first) the Mark Six, and then the R-Type, again with the long boot design. Production (of both) finished in 1957.
While on the subject of the Rolls, I had an friend who prospered in farming. He bought a Rolls in 1929, body by Thrupp and Maberley, and still had it at his death in the middle Eighties of the last century. When people asked him why he drove such an old crock around the farm, and on his visits to market, he replied that it was not an old crock, but a Rolls–Royce, and asked why he should change it for a new car, when it was so perfect and only cost him petrol, oil and water plus the occasional change of a lamp bulb. The car had the same clutch and gearbox after fifty years ownership.
Both companiesRolls and Bentley are classic British icons. The Supermarine Spitfire, one of those winners of the Battle of Britain, was powered by a RR 12-cylinder engine. Bentleys won the El Mans race a number of years running, and a Bentley Mulliner-built Continental from 1949 recently changed hands for the biggest sum ever paid in auction for a vintage car.
I once owned a Bentley Mark Six, also built in 1949. This was the model with the colossal engine size of 41/4 litres. I ran it without any trouble of any kind for three years, but then received an offer I could not refuse from an American gent. Though now fifty-three years old, I am told the car is in perfect running order, and attracts attention everywhere. The back seat was equipped with two folding walnut picnic or cocktail trays, and between the squabs of the front seats was a glass-fronted cabinet containing two decanters with B engraved on the glass and silver-mounted tops.
My friend Cope bought a 1939 MX Overdrive Bentley he said for the ‘fun of it’, and then promptly fell in love with this extraordinary beautiful car with a bonnet that stretched to the horizon, and enough power under the bonnet (hood) to propel a light aircraft. Again, the gearbox was placed at the driver’s right hand. Huge, green leather seats ensured comfort at all speeds, and John found that his new old car was super-charged. Near the gigantic steering wheel was a little silver-plated lever. Chuntling down the newly-built MI Motorway running north/south down Britain, before the age of speed limits, John would be nicely settled at 80 mph in the middle lane. Then he would spot one of the new Jaguar Mark II 3.8 lovelies zooming up behind in his rear-view mirror. “Watch this!” said John. As the Jag crept up beside him in the fast lane (there were three), John would work the super-charge cut-in. A banshee shriek deafened us and the super-charger took over as an over-drive fifth. The Bentley jerked satisfactorily and then shot ahead of the Jag. The comfortable coachwork of the Bentley shuddered a bit with all that power unleashed, and I glanced at the saucer-like speedometer – 118 MPH – not bad for a car already thirty years old. Those, I admit, were the days.
A neighbour of ours whose company made overcoats owned a Delage. This was the last word in French elegance and sweep. It is the only car I ever knew that actually smelled super-expensive, and our neighbour told us this was because Delage impregnated the leather seats before sale with a special perfume. He used to take his family on regular holidays to France, Germany, Austria and Italy (the overcoats sold very well). He never had a breakdown, and the only irritation was the number of foreigners who, having established he owned it, would approach with flapping cheque books and a persuasive smile. He never sold it however, and it died with him in a terrible accident at a typical French crossroads. He was alone, and his family mourned him and the car for ages.
The father of some schoolfriends of mine drove a stylish tank called Armstrong-Siddeley Star Sapphire. The A.S. company deliberately designed a motorcar that could (in fading light) be mistaken for a Rolls-Royce. The cost was considerably less, however . . . inside it was all leather and wood and armchair comfort and legroom, but the engine was too small. We used to float along main roads without any apparent effort, but at a snail’s pace. In fact, I am sure my friend’s grandfather could have got out and swept ahead in a Zimmer frame.
An opera-producing American friend kept a car in a London garage for his professional visits to England. One could not have parked this phaeton in today’s miniscule underground carparks. This was a Mercedes 300 Cabriolet, and it was over 20 feet long. Not only was the bonnet long, but the open or closed cabin behind it was vast, and then, there was a long, bulbous boot. As an open convertible a huge canvas and steel canopy could be laid in layers behind the back seat – red leather like the car’s seating. If you sat in the back of this aircraft carrier zonking along the motorway the temptation was strong to raise one’s right arm. In the back seat, I felt like Rommel. The gearbox was mounted on the steering column. There were four forward gears plus an overdrive, not easy to find. Steering column gears were never easy. The father of my wife had an ancient Peugeot in which he could never find the top speed. He drove slowly around the country in third gear.
I owned for five years a jet-propelled roller-skate called Morris Cooper-Mini S. The Austin mini had been designed by Alex Issigonis for the 1960s. There were a great number of different models. If you felt rustic you could have the Traveller’s Car, with wood on the outside. If you liked the prestigious, stylishly-named Wolseley Hornet or Riley Elf, you could buy one with a tiny boot, and wood inside. If you wanted to drive around Europe in a tiny car with a two-litre engine capacity combined with unheard of horsepower, you bought a Cooper Mini S. I have never known such acceleration, though I have owned Jaguars and Austin-Healeys. Keeping the little box on the tarmac and not flying over the hedgerows were four special Michelin tyres that kept you in place like a train on rails. At the traffic lights, other young drivers would draw up in their Golfs or Ford Escorts, and issue a challenge (one is only young once). Such was the power of that tiny engine, and the lightness of the car, and the efficiency of the clutch, that I could race away from the lights from a standing start in third gear!
Wolseley, Riley, Austin and Austin Healey, Morris, Armstrong-Siddeley, Delage have vanished. RR and Bentley are German-owned. Unmentioned good cars like Humber, Singer, Hillman, Jowett and Triumph have also disappeared in the embarrassing rush towards standardization. Those were the days indeed, and they will never be repeated.