Small cars of yesterday by B. H. Davies
(An extract from an article which appeared in The Autocar of 28th December, 1923.)


  As much ridicule as interest was probably excited by the exhibition of the original 10 h.p. Singer in 1913. Destined to sire an enormous and distinguished family, its Lilliputian dimensions made everybody laugh. It was variously likened to a perambulator and a roller skate. I remember standing over it with a trio of eminent engineers, after a group of jeering laymen had disposed of it in a few sneers. One of my companions laid a finger on a rod connection - the rod swung in the vertical plane and had a horizontal yoke and pinjoint. "Alter that, and this baby should make good!"

I did not buy one for another year, largely because one of them uttered a little dry cough outside my house and disgorged most of the contents of its bulgy back axle into the road; but I still remember the thrills of the little 1914 10 h.p. Morris Oxford, which I bought in its stead. It felt so fragile beneath one that we left the then modest little Cowley factory in momentary expectation of the chassis dissolving into spillikins under us. But when we got to the open road and gave the little White and Poppe engine its head, timidity gradually merged into glee. On the homeward run we chased, raced, and passed many leviathans of the road.


The tiny chassis, not yet burdened with the lavish equipment of today, probably scaled well under half a ton; and if small engines had not then attained their present efficiency, they had less load to pull. Fifty-five miles an hour was well within the compass of this small projectile, supposing one could keep its bounding hare-like leaps within the compass of the road.

Changing down to second enabled hills to be shot up in a long crescendo scream. We provoked the laughter of beholders along the route, and not less so at the front door when we displayed the new purchase to the family. But, like the man who invented the first umbrella, we felt those laughed best who laughed last. The first trip taught us the best of the 1914 small car.

'Ere long we were to learn the worst of it. The water spaces round the exhaust valves were somewhat throttled. Result, the sparking plugs were always rather too hot. The design of pistons and rings in 1914 was far below present levels, and oil could not be kept in its place. Plugs, blue with heat and intermittently drenched in oil, gave incessant trouble. Balance and r.p.m. being the fundamentals of the engine, as soon as one plug commenced to soot up inside its barrel, the road performance dropped to a kind of three-legged crawl. In an air test the guilty plug would probably fire at the official gap, only to misbehave on replacement.

After a few experiences I never took the road without a dozen plugs, preferably a brand new dozen. Seldom did a long run finish without plug changing, and it was always difficult to spot the culprit; shorting each plug in turn afforded little definite information, seeing that a large carburettor of a very sensitive and 'gulpy' type did not furnish too smooth a tick-over at the best of times. Sundry petty fakings of the piston rings, coupled with a superior plug, eliminated this trouble.


A second result of the same imperfection only became serious when the wind was astern. Relieved of wind pressure, the tiny Morris would race along like a scalded cat. 'Ere long the film of water round the exhaust valves flashed into steam, and seeking an exit would blow much fairly cool water out of the radiator safety vent. The entire radiator could empty itself in less than a mile under these circumstances.

Experience soon made us revert to the customs of our motoring ancestors, and carry canvas buckets, wherewith to fetch water from adjacent ponds or streams. But until this counter was adopted, pathetic scenes were witnessed, such as two smart men scooping water out of potholes with their hats. Winter introduced us to yet another failing. The lubrication was simplicity itself. An enclosed flywheel picked oil out of a sump, and flung it into bell mouthed passages, whereby it flowed into engine, clutch and gears.

The clutch was of the multiple disc type. Take the thick oil on which a tiny, high-speed engine throve best ten years ago; flood a multi-disc clutch with it; freeze the lot; and then try to get the clutch disengaged on a December morning. One soon grew desperate. Finally, one revved up the engine, seized the gear lever in a firm grasp, and remorselessly forced in bottom gear with the clutch still solid. With a frenzied leap and a hideous clash the car shot out of garage, the driver clinging in terror to the wheel as he negotiated the circuitous paths of his back garden at speed, and dived out at the front gate into the traffic knowing that it would be impossible to declutch for at least five miles. After a few stunts of this kind, wisdom dawned, and at night the clutch pedal was chocked 'out' with a baulk of timber. Then the outraged clutch spring protested by taking a set. And so on.


Starting up was a tricky business. Neither carburettor nor inlet pipe was designed for rational gas velocity at a low crankshaft speed, and the induction system contained one or two little traps in which pools of condensed petrol collected when at last juice began to quit the jet.

With a modern car, the first explosion on a December morning sounds as music in the ears; it marks the close approach of continuous firing, the end of yanking and sweating at the crank handle. Not so with the 1914 Morris. The first explosion probably implied that a large pool of petrol had just formed in one of the traps of the induction system. The final successful start was possibly more remote than ever. Still, one always triumphed in the end; and when once warmed up the little car was most joyful to drive, provided that the wind was not astern, and that sufficient plugs were aboard.

Her equipment was modest to a degree. No starter, no valances. Gas headlamps. Oil side and tail lamps. The minimum of tools. Single panel windscreen. No side curtains of any kind. But the lack of weight entailed by such additions endowed her with a performance which some of her descendants cannot reproduce. Like our first loves, she retains a tender niche in the memories of all those who are fortunate enough to have known her; and time has cast its healing gloss over her many faults.