Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sir Alfred Herbert's Motor Cars



Motor Cars by Sir Alfred Herbert. This monograph, the original of which is corrected in his own hand, was probably written in the mid 1930s. The last car he mentions owning - the Lancia Astura 27hp - was being made in about 1935. A copy has been provided to the Coventry Transport Museum

The first self propelled vehicle I can remember was a motor bicycle. The Coventry Humber Co. made some experimental machines of this kind, with two long tubular horizontal cylinders. We were called upon, at the works, to bore out the first of these cylinders as the Humber Co had no machinery that would do the job.

About the same time, a small single cylinder motor was introduced. It was clipped to the front fork of the safety bicycle and drove the front wheel by a friction roller engaging with the tyre. This was probably the precursor of the outboard motor now used for boats. I think the first motor of this type was made by Werner. Leon Bolle, a Frenchman, was among the pioneers of the motor bicycle.

One of the earliest of Coventry's motor builders was the Horseless Carriage Company which started business with great eclat in the old Coventry Cotton Mill; Iden was the manager. This was succeeded by the Daimler Motor Company, of which Colonel Manville, subsequently Member for Coventry, was chairman. Charles Martin, an engineer of great courage and confidence, with Italian and American experience, joined the Daimler Company at an early stage. He now rusticates in the Elysian Fields of Kenilworth and breeds Guernseys.

The first motor vehicle I drove was a motor-quadricycle built by the Enfield Company and owned by my old friend, WS Hubbard of Leicester
. It went extraordinarily well and I had a great thrill.

The first car I drove was a small de Dion with engine at the back and with belt transmission. This also belonged to Hubbard.

Then I had a motor tricycle and after that an American steam-driven Locomobile. A multitubular cylindrical boilier, the shell reinforced by coils of high-tensile steel wire, supplied the steam. The boiler, which was under the seat, was fired by a circular burner like an exaggerated gas ring. Before starting, a removable section of the burner was taken out and heated in the kitchen fire. It was put back into postion, the petrol was turned on and vaporized by the hot section of the burner. It was then lighted (with a great bang): in a few minutes pressure was up to 220 lbs. The blazing burner just behid the driver's legs was rather terrifying and unexpected draughts brought the flames a good deal nearer to one's calves than was pleasant.

The water tank had to be filled up every twelve miles, and a rubber bucket was part of the outfit. Naturally it was never safe to take the chance of finding a convenient ditch or pond at precisely twelve mile intervals and so every time water appeared one stopped and filled up the tank.

The engine was a tiny two-cylinder double-acting marine type with link motion for reversing. There was no gear box and the drive was always direct on top. The whole thing was extremely light and beautifully made. Steering was by tiller and was sensitive and correct. The car was almost perfectly silent and delightful to drive. At the foot of a hill you stopped and watched the hand of the pressure gauge gradually climbing up to 220 lbs, then the throttle was opened and the hill rushed, as long as the pressure lasted.

My next venture was a small single-cylinder car built by EJ West of Coventry, with a de Dion engine. Then came another West car with a two-cylinder engine made by Forman, who was, I believe, the predecessor of the present Alvis Company. This car carried two in the front and two in the back in a tonneau, a minute wagonette, with a door at the back.

I had now got the fever and bought from SF Edge a four-cylinder Gladiator built by Clement of Paris. France at the time was definitely leading in the development of the motor-car. She had been building cars successfully at a time when we were limited by the legal necessity of driving mechanically propelled vehicles at speeds not exceeding four miles an hour and preceeded by a man carrying a red flag.

The Count de Dion and Panhard Levassor were among the earliest French engineers to develop the internal combustion engine and in Germany Benz was early in the field.

This Gladiator was really first-rate judged by the standards of its time. Up to now all motor-cars had open bodies. Few of them even had wind-screens making goggles a necessity and weird and wonderful garments: in cold weather shaggy coats, and when it rained a waterproof called a poncho, reaching down to one's ankles. One sat on the cushion in a pool of water, which did not matter much until the poncho began to leak. I got a local coach builder to rig up a canopy for the Gladiator with a windscreen in front and side curtains of waterproof material running on rings - a wonderful contaption but quite useful in bad weather.

Next I got from Edge a four-cylinder 15HP Napier with an extensible hood which clipped to the top of the windscreen side curtains, and a good many elements of a modern car.

Then came a 40HP six-cylinder Napier;a big car holding seven people with an outside seat on the running board for the mechanic. When in a good mood this was a comfortable and speedy vehicle, but it suffered from crank-shaft whip.

A six-cylinder closed car built by the Standard Motor Company came next and then a 20/30 HP four-cylinder Renault. This was about 1907. It was far in advance of its time and gave wonderful service till three years ago when I fanally persuaded a loacl dealer to take it away.

Just before the war I had a 45HP Rolls with a double-purpose body built by Hamshaw's of Leicester. While the body was being built, I drove the chassis with a temporary wooden body of the soap box type and in this form it was the most delightful car I ever drove before or since, having practically no body weight. It was rare to require any gear but at the top, and from four miles and hour to fifty or sixty it was perfect. During the war it was impossible to get petrol enough for a car of this kind and I sold it and dropped back to very modest vehicles: a two-seater Standard with a dickey, followed by a Windsor.

Then the four-wheeled brake was introduced in France and as English makers were rather slow to follow this, I imported an excellent Delage; very satisfactory but badly sprung.

After that my nephew, Gerald Herbert, brought me an early Lancia to try. The independent front wheel suspension made it altogether delightful , particularly on bad surfaces and it sat on the road like a poached egg on toast. Lancia engines were good but never very silent. I have had four or five of these cars in succession. My present one - and eight-cylinder Astura of 27HP - is satisfactory and comfortable. The long chassis has always appealed to me, there is plenty of room for dogs and guns and other impedimenta and a comfortable interval between front and back passengers.

I have always been rather a fogey about speed: forty miles is the limit at which I am driven. my idea of a perfect driver is one who never causes his passengers to look up from what they are doing, whether admiring the scenery, reading, or, as is my frequent practice, dictating letters.

Motor Cars by Sir Alfred Herbert. This monograph, the original of which is corrected in his own hand, was probably written in the mid 1930s. The last car he mentions owning - the Lancia Astura 27hp - was being made in about 1935. A copy has been provided to the Coventry Transport Museum


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