A few random thoughts on Putney Piddleboms and other classic British cars

I have never understood how it was that, back in the 1930s, Americans built proper cars with decent motors and cool names like Packard Super 8, or Lincoln LeBaron v12 convertible. Whereas the British insisted on constructing vehicles out of Meccano and four-cylinder biscuit tins, with brand names like the Chumley Chinless Mk I or the Dribley Allegretto.

All of which then pootled about the countryside at half the speed of an asthmatic ant, trailing loose bolts and breaking down, which meant the hapless driver was usually stranded with only the Times crossword to while away the hours.

A couple of pre-war Brit cars in action. Well, things with wheels on them anyway...
Photo I took of a couple of immaculately restored pre-war Brit cars.

Honestly, it was enough to make the average Self Respecting Englishman want to write a Letter to the Editor. I did hear it was something to do with tax laws that meant no vehicle could have an engine larger than 142 cc and a chassis width of 32.2 cm. But it might have been something else.

Apart from the SS Mk IV Jaguar my father used to own (which also used to break down a lot) the Brits didn’t produce anything decent car-wise, as far as I am concerned, until the 1961 PA Vauxhall Velox. This looked like the Adam West-era Batmobile, apparently because the styling was based on the same 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car. It also had an uber-cool ‘magic ribbon’ strip speedometer that changed colour from green to orange to red as you accelerated.

As a teenager, around 1980, I occasionally drove the 1964 PB model with 2.6 litre motor, which had the same speedo and was a good car as long as you could do your own mechanical repairs and didn’t want to stop in a hurry or turn a corner. You can see a Vauxhall above, in cream, but it’s not quite the same.

And yes, I know about Sir Alec Issigonis’ 1959 Mini, which certainly helped define the ‘look’ of swinging 1960s Britain. But it also introduced the worst idea anybody ever had for a car. Why? Ask me.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


14 thoughts on “A few random thoughts on Putney Piddleboms and other classic British cars

  1. But British cars have such style Matthew, and good British cars never go out of fashion. My significant other has a 1937 Austin Cambridge 10hp and we love going for excursions. So far (fingers crossed) we’ve not broken down, and it is the most amazing conversation starter ever. Better than kids.

    1. No question about the style. I would love to own a 1938 Lagonda drop-head coupe for instance. It’s more the maintainence issues. I did own a Mk V Cortina for years and it was robust enough – I miss its rwd manual. Had to sell it owing to a persistent windscreen leak that turned the passenger footwell into a swamp…

  2. I heard a British comedian remark one time that Brits liked cars that needed a lot of maintenance. If it wasn’t leaking oil, they weren’t sure what to make of it.

    1. That’s pretty much it. The cars were stylish, the engineering concepts often genius. But something seemed to happen in the execution of it. Part of the problem was scale of production – British cars were often ‘crafted’, which had plusses in some ways but in others made them a maintenance nightmare.

      1. British sports cars are a dream for me. I’ve wanted a TR.6 for I don’t know how long. But being not interested in car maintenance, it wouldn’t be a good buy for me. I’m still dreaming of owning an Aston-Martin DB.9. It’s a fantasy of mine.

  3. I must admit what I’ve known of British cars did make me wonder if the industry was developed mostly as a prank. It’s a long way to go for a laugh, admittedly, but what else was there to do?

    1. I’ve been frequently pranked by British cars. Until recently the only vehicle that ever left me broken down on the roadside was a British one – a 1972 Vauxhall Viva (just saying). The other one wasn’t British – it was my 1990 Toyota Corona, which snapped the No.3 con rod. That’s unheard of in a Toyota motor, but unfortunately Mr Toyoda didn’t seem inclined to make good on his factory’s repute by sending me a new con rod, pre-fitted inside a new car. Possibly my message didn’t reach him.

  4. Hi Matthew
    I’m almost certainly the least car-oriented person reading your blog, but I have fond memories of learning to drive in an 1100-cc Mini Clubman, painted in politically incorrect ‘tobacco road’ (i.e. orange) in Oamaru the early 1970s. Oh, and by the way, GG Lord Bledisloe wrote privately to the the King in the 1930s complaining about UK town cars not being up to NZ rural conditions…. OK, the Leyland P76, the Morris Marina and things like the vile Princess sank UK cars’ reputations, but let’s not forget the Mini and the indestructibly Morrie Thou….
    Gavin

    1. Seventies orange! Yes, the main problem with Brit cars here, as Bledisloe pointed out, is that they were never designed for our roads. That was largely why my father’s Jaguar kept breaking down – it wasn’t even dust-tight. Yes, the Brits dropped the ball big-time in the seventies – the Austin Allegro (ecch), Princess (aiyeeeee) and Marina among them. I confess the Morrie Thou was pretty good (I learned how to drive in a Morrie 850). Never have forgiven Issigonis for inventing the transverse engine FWD system, though. Sure, it made the Mini practical, but it’s hard to find a car without it today, and for someone brought up on RWD, FWD just isn’t the same…

  5. “Apart from the SS Mk IV Jaguar my father used to own (which also used to break down a lot) the Brits didn’t produce anything decent car-wise, as far as I am concerned, until the 1961 PA Vauxhall Velox.”

    Wasn’t mechanical breakdowns sort of the hallmark of British vehicles for a long time? For example, the Land Rover was a great vehicle in the 50s and 60s, if you cold afford to maintain it?

    1. Yes, they weren’t exactly reliable. I still have a distinct recollection of a family friend from another district arriving one time with his Range Rover (about a 1983 model, I think), while on trip, and having to effectively field-strip the gearbox and rebuild it before he could get going again – the only plus side is that it was fairly easy to get at. It only took him a couple of days, so his trip wasn’t too badly delayed.

  6. Is that a Morris 8 in the photo? My father had a 1937 model that he used to hand-crank on cold mornings. How can you discount the sheer lovability of the Morrie Thou’ (1948-72)? What about the Baby Austin (1922-39)? I remember seeing a photo of one ploughing through axle-deep mud in the far North. They built ’em tough in those days! And what about Harry Potter’s Anglia 105E? Now there’s a car!

    1. I learned how to drive in a 1952 Morrie 850 with the same motor and crank start option as the 1937 Eight. Old car by the time I drove it, but a great learning tool. After learning how to change gear without synchromesh I’ve never had a problem gear changing since on any vehicle.

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