River Wissey Lovell Fuller

More Motoring Memories

April 2015


Winter motoring memories

My memories as a driver started in the early post war years, motoring memories go back to the 1930s.  In the 30s and 40s winter time brought with it particular problems. One particular journey I remember was in the winter of 1945, I was a passenger in our old Triumph Gloria going from London to Salisbury, a particular treat for me because of petrol rationing. Like almost all pre-war cars it had no heater, the day was cold with a mixture of rain, sleet and wet snow.  The wipers, operated by a motor at the top of the screen that was almost standard equipment on British cars of the period, were working almost continuously.  I was dressed warmly, as was the driver, and additionally, I had a large warm rug around my legs and my feet, I was snug as the proverbial bug.  I actually greatly enjoyed that journey, looking out, through windows that had to be wiped every so often, at the towns and countryside in the appalling weather whilst feeling so snug.  In those days the A30 went through almost every town and village.  I very much regretted the end of the journey when we had to get out.  That was a fairly typical experience in those days, a hangover from the days of travel in horse drawn vehicles.  (As an aside, I am not sure why but, in the immediate post war period rugs were almost unobtainable.)

On practically all cars before 1950, clutch and brake pedals operated through the floor.  The holes should normally be covered when the pedal was not in use, but the sealing arrangement on old cars was often not very effective resulting in some cold draughts up the trouser leg.

One memory is that of winter mornings when people could be seen (and heard) preparing to, and trying to, start their cars.  Filling the radiator with hot water, to replace the water drained the previous evening to avoid frost damage.  Many people drained their radiators overnight in icy conditions, anti-freeze was in short supply and fairly expensive.  The long term consequences of frequent draining were corrosion and, in hard water areas, a build up of salts in the cooling system.  A combination of rust particles and scale would block radiators and cooling passages.  Old cars boiling was a frequent sight.  The next move was pulling on the starter knob as the starter motor turned progressively more slowly until it ground to a halt.  Then inserting the starting handle and exhausting themselves trying to make up for their feeble starter.   Difficult starting was common place, worst were the old side valve fords with their 6volt batteries.

Starting difficulties were attributable to a variety of causes.  There were no multi-grade oils, people should have changed to a thinner winter grade but many did not.  Summer grade, usually SAE30, got very thick in sub-zero temperatures.  This put a heavy load on the battery when the starter was trying to turn over the stiff engine and that led to a big drop in voltage which, in turn, resulted in a drop in the voltage at the spark plugs and a weaker spark.  Clean plugs and clean contact breaker points were essential for a good spark but this maintenance work was often neglected.

These days petrol companies adjust the composition of petrol for summer and winter conditions to give better vaporisation in cold conditions, in the immediate post war years we only had Pool petrol, very much inferior to today’s premium grade.  (Pool petrol also appeared to lead to burning of valves and valve seats, reducing compression and also making starting more difficult, ‘decokes’ were required quite frequently).  People used the choke to pour in excess petrol in the hope that a sufficient amount would vaporize to enable the spark to ignite the air-vapour mixture.  Getting it right was a matter of experience and judgement.  Too much petrol and the mixture would be too rich and the plugs might get wet greatly reducing the chance of a good spark.  After a few goes at trying to start a decision had to be made as to whether or not to open the throttle and let more air in to compensate for the over rich air-vapour mixture.  Matters were made worse if a sudden change from cold to mild damp weather occurred, condensation in the distributor and on plug leads reduced the chance of a good spark.

Various tactics were employed to overcome cold starting problems, filling the radiator with near  boiling water was one, (although this could crack the cylinder block) trying to keep the engine warm was another.  Many cars were kept in garages in those days when those who could afford a car often lived in a house with a garage.  Paraffin heaters placed under the engine, or hung under the bonnet, were used.  It all sounds rather risky nowadays.  Hot water bottles and rugs were sometimes used to help delay Ice formation, (they were also used to keep passengers warm).  Because many engines used a thermo-siphon cooling system circulation rates were slow and, with a thermostat fitted, even slower when cold, without antifreeze the water in the radiator could freeze in the early part of a journey. Occasionally thermostats would be removed to help overcome the problem.  Radiator muffs were marketed for most cars, many folk just blanked off the lower part of the radiator with a piece of card.

Once the car was going (if it did) there were the usual winter hazards of fog and ice, and in those days winters were generally more severe than those recently.  Icy and snowy roads were treated with grit rather than salt - we still refer to gritting lorries.  The grit was of limited benefit on ice, in packed snow it did embed itself making the surface less slippery.   Snow chains were sometimes used in rural areas.  Windscreens misted up from the breath of the occupants and demisting was by a leather or cloth, on a cold morning one could scrape the ice off the outside but, after starting the journey, the condensation on the inside often turned to ice and on occasions it would re-freeze as fast as one could remove it.  In freezing fog conditions life was very difficult and many drivers drove when they couldn’t see well enough.  Car heaters did exist at this time, but not until the genuine post war models started to appear did manufacturers fit them as an option, and retrofits were difficult and expensive.  Little electric heaters elements were marketed to attach at the bottom of the windscreen with rubber suckers.  These acted as demisters, but were rather feeble.  Alternative means of keeping the windscreen clear included rubbing the glass with a cut potato or with glycerine.  Of course a number of models had windscreens that could be opened, thereby removing the problem.  It is worth mentioning also that windscreen washers were, as far as I know, extremely rare, if not non existent, in pre-war days.

As windscreen and rear window demisters, became available, and car radios increased in popularity, the load on car batteries increased.  (Radios used thermionic valves, of course, and put a significant load on the battery.  On the Wolseley 4/44 that we had the working part of the radio was sited under the driver’s seat and one could easily feel the heat generated.)  Driving in town with dipped headlights, wipers, demisters and radio going, could result in a situation where the battery was being run down whilst driving along.  Dynamos could not operate safely above a limiting rotational speed for fear that the commutator would disintegrate.  Manufacturers had to choose the pulley diameters of the belt drive such that the dynamo was safe at maximum engine speed, this greatly limited the dynamo output at low engine speeds.  Not until advances enabled the use of alternators was the problem fully overcome.

Young motorists just don’t realize, their cooling system is filled with anti-freeze and anti corrosion coolant.  They get in and the engine management system ensures that conditions are set right for the engine to start, they may have heated windscreens that rapidly demist and/or de-ice, if they wait a short while the heater system will also clear the screen, they may even have heated seats.  Not to mention all the other accessories.

Ron Watts

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