River Wissey Lovell Fuller

The Joys of Motoring

February 2005

Ron re-lives his own driving experiences for the benefit of our readers.

Modern cars are incredibly reliable and mechanically durable but, of course it was not always thus. It is surprising how, in the early days of motoring, enthusiasts would endure frustrations and hardships just to be able to undertake journeys which we make today without a second thought. My own driving experience started with cars that were made in the 1930s. By this time they had already achieved a reasonable degree of durability and reliability provided the owner pursued a proper maintenance schedule. Such a schedule would include oiling and/or greasing numerous suspension and steering joints, topping up the engine oil, topping up the radiator and cleaning spark plugs on a more or less weekly basis. Cleaning contact breaker points and cleaning out carburetters was more of a monthly chore. Removal of the cylinder head and 'decoking' and grinding valves would be an annual task if the car was doing a reasonable mileage. Largely as a result of the inferior nature of the oils that were available at the time, big-end bearings would 'go' at any time, which would require the removal of the offending piston and con-rod and having molten white metal poured into the bearing housing which was subsequently machined to the appropriate size for the journal.

Despite these demands of the motor-car, to own one was the aim of almost everyone. Given that these maintenance matters were attended to, however, cars from 1930 onwards were reliable. In almost sixty years of driving over many hundreds of thousands of miles, by virtue of good maintenance and good luck, I have always finished the journey in the car that I started off in and never had to call for roadside assistance, although I have had occasions for d.i.y repairs en route. Life was not so easy for the very early pioneers, however, as is clear from the following account by the Hon. John Scott Montagu M.P., heir to the first Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, recalling his first motor car:

"I cannot describe the joy that this first Daimler gave me when it was delivered to my country house at the end of the summer of 1898. I began to realise at once that the mechanical vehicle was going, in time, to produce a wonderful revolution in our transport methods. Often I waxed eloquent before older men about its possibilities, but of course was generally laughed at and severely snubbed. Later on, when some of my prophecies became true, I became much disliked especially by my horsey friends. Such is the fate of most prophets.

The 6hp engine was two-cylindered with tube ignition, that is there were two platinum tubes heated by a forced draught petrol flame, and by this means the mixture of air and petrol vapour in the cylinder was exploded. The body consisted of a six-seater yellow wooden wagonette, the hind seat being sideways as in horse drawn vehicles.

The car had tiller steering, was chain driven and the gear change was by the front seat on a metal pillar, on which there were two levers and dials. One of these moved the bevel gear in or out of its connection with the drive, while the other lever operated four speeds in the gearbox. The gear rings were made of ordinary steel, which, as they were not case hardened, after a few hundred miles began to show many signs of wear.

There was no radiator, but a tank containing about twelve gallons of water was carried at the back, the water being pumped through the cylinder block by a semi-rotary pump, and as soon as it had boiled away the tank had to be refilled. One tankful generally lasted about 20 or 30 miles. The brake consisted of a foot brake operating a wood lined metal band on the countershaft while the hand brake was merely a metal shoe that could be applied to the tread on the hind wheels.

One of the anxieties of those early cars was that if there was a strong wind, the ignition lamps generally blew out. When they had to be relit, it was a risky job sometimes, for the petrol which had not been consumed after the lamp had blown out occasionally exploded. As to steering, if one struck even a small obstacle on the road the tiller was nearly wrenched out of one's hand. The springing was primitive and the bumping severe on any except a really good road.

And the press of those days was by no means kind. All kinds of abusive terms were used 'rattling, stinking vehicles', 'juggernauts', 'dread engines of death', 'destroyers of the peace of the countryside'......... Parliament was urged, by horse interests and others, to re-enact the Red Flag Act, and some opponents went so far as to declare that there would be a revolution among the people of England if the 'rich' - a term of abuse then as now - were seen going at any speed that was not possible for the poor.

The result of this abuse was seen in various directions. Stones were often thrown at passing motorists, and many persons would hardly speak to a well known motorist like myself. Indeed, I was considered by some of my relations to be a dangerous revolutionary. Hotel keepers generally regarded us as people not to be admitted, and I remember being rudely treated in two hotels one day and being told that we were not wanted. One irate proprietor said he was not going to have any of these contraptions near his place, for they might blow up at any time. It was no use arguing, one had to submit, and cherish the thought that pioneers have a hard life."

Ron Watts

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