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1940’s Classics

Life begins at 40. Published: 27th May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

1940’s Classics
1940’s Classics 1936 Austin Seven Ruby is small, simple and capable of cruising at 40mph
1940’s Classics Morris Minor was a better car, but nowhere as near as successful. Not to be confused with later Morris Minor
1940’s Classics British-built Ford Model A lasted into the 1930s with 3285cc engine and 40bhp
1940’s Classics 1935 Riley Nine Kestrel had lively engine and advanced fastback bodyline
1940’s Classics 1926 Morris Cowley two – seat tourer had pull-up Dickey seat for the kids
1940’s Classics 1935 Morris Eight had hydraulic brakes all round but a side-valve engine
1940’s Classics
1940’s Classics 1939 Ford Prefect was a no-frills entry in the popular 10hp class of cars

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Tired of the pace of modern living? Perhaps you need to relax and sample life in the slow lane. Simon Goldsworthy examines the pros and cons of pre and post-war classics

Logic tells you that classics built around WW2 time should be a dying breed. Given the effects of time, attrition and the dwindling number of drivers with fond memories of the era, you’d think they have little to look forward to beyond idleness and neglect. And yet even a cursory glance through the classifieds shows that there is a thriving market in these old survivors. Some people see them as anescape from the pressures of modern life, a means of transporting them back to the TV world of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ or ‘The Darling Buds of May‘. But for others it is simple curiosity that pushes them to sample life in the slow lane, to seek out a car that they may never have even seen used on the road in anger. So if you are harbouring secret desires for something with running boards and oversized headlamps, don’t worry because you are not alone. But it is a desire that needs careful managing if it is to end up in fulfilment rather than heartache and disappointment.

The first thing to accept is that as a novice testing the waters, you are not going to be looking at one of the more glamorous marques. While we can all see ourselves tearing along at 100mph wearing flying helmet and goggles, prices for something like a sporting Bentley start at £100K. But aim for something more mainstream like an Austin Ten and you could be on the road for as little as £3000. Sure, performance will be rather more leisurely, but the smile factor will still be enormous and the running costs a little more palatable.

Virtually all manufacturers had a 10hp model in their range, so this might be a good point to quickly run over one of the most misleading parts of pre-war terminology. It is, of course, the RAC rating that was introduced with the Road Traffic Act of 1921 and coloured the design of UK engine design for the best part of four decades. The thought of driving a car that has only 10bhp would probably not entice many of us to take the plunge. But this RAC rating was a purely notional figure that was derived from a formula that took into account only an engine’s bore size and its number of cylinders, which is why British engines tended to be small-bore, long-stroke sloggers that had bags of torque but were unwilling to rev. Even the no-frills Ford 8HP, a car that was cheap-as-chips basic and sold for just £100 in 1935, managed to put out 22bhp from its 933cc side-valve engine.

The slow lane

It is important not to get too hung up on the issue of performance, though. A post-war economy car such as the Fiat 500 shook itself to exhaustion by 54mph and the evergreen Morris Minor 1000 was still taking over 30seconds to crack 60mph after nine years of post-war development. Compared to those, figures of 71mph and 0-60mph in37.8seconds for the 1935 Hillman Aero Minx are none too shoddy. Even a more staid performer such as the 1937 Austin Ten Cambridgecould manage 60mph and 0-50mph in a spine-tingling 36 seconds. OK, that’s twice now we have used a late-model Austin Ten as an example, and with good reason. Cars from the 1930 and 40s provide the best pre-war balance of style and driveability on a reasonable budget. Plus, even after some 70 years of potential decay, there is still a healthy supply of good cars. Having said that, it would be wrong to lump all of these cars together as there wasconsiderable progress through the decade. Among other improvements, mechanical brakes gradually gave way to the more efficient hydraulic variety and monocoque construction started to appear by the end of the decade. Not all manufacturers rushedto embrace these new ideas, and it is important to research any particular model that may be of interest to you. Take the legendary Austin Seven as an example. Many people think that this most famous of British cars is the epitome of the pre-war style. But could you live with the first cars’ top speed of 38mph? By 1933 this had been boosted to 50mph. The following year the new four-speed gearbox gained synchromesh and the body was modernised to be slightly less upright, while for 1938 a new Big Seven got a 60mph 900cc engine and a much roomier body (and so rode much more smoothly). The brakes were still pretty crummy, though. Some competitors to the Seven proved rather more capable. The Morris Minor was introduced in 1928 with a powerful OHC engine inherited from Wolseley that provided double the power of the contemporary Austin. But the pedal layout with the accelerator in the middle and the brake on the right takes a bit of concentration to master. By the end of Minor production in 1934, the baby Morris had regressed to a comparatively sluggish side-valve engine but gained a four-speed gearbox and hydraulic brakes.That latter point is significant as a contemporary road test found that the hydraulic system cut to 37 feet the distance needed to stop from 30mph, as opposed to 56 feetfor the cables. But perhaps the pressed-steel Morris Eight that succeeded it with a bigger body, 23bhp engine, hydraulic brakes and four-speed gearbox with synchromesh would be both cheaper and easier to cut your teeth on?

On cars as old as these though, the existence or not of synchromesh might be hard to detect. You will still need to master the art of double de-clutching to effect smooth gear changes. This simply requires you to let the clutch pedal up momentarily with the gearstick paused in neutral on its way up through the box, and to do the same on the way back down through the ratios only this time with a slight blip on the throttle. Not as tricky as it sounds, this is a world away from the skill needed for crunch-free changes using an old crash gearbox. There is another gearbox alternative too, in the form of the preselect system. Often reserved for upmarket vehicles, both Lanchester and BSA benefited from their corporate links with Daimler to offer this revolution in more walletfriendlypackages. Basically a semiautomatic system with a fluid flywheel instead of a conventional clutch, it makes smooth starts and silent gear changes simplicity itself. Go for a BSA and you can even have the technical novelty of frontwheel drive as well. And if it is technical innovation on a budget that you are interested in, try seeking out one of the lesscommon models from the likes of Standard or Wolseley. Standard started fitting independent front suspension to some of its models in 1938, while as early as 1926 Riley were building a gorgeous and very tuneable overhead valve enginewith two camshafts mounted high up in the block and hemi-spherical combustion chambers in the head. At the opposite extreme of innovation, Jowett’s 907cc flat twin dated back to 1910, although it produced a credible 16bhp by 1930 and was well engineered.

Other mechanical improvements through the 1930s were the gradual adoption of 12 volt electrics and the spread of electric starters. Turning a starting handle might be part of the charm of a pre-war car and firing up the typically small low-compression engines used in family cars is not too difficult to achieve, but you will need to ensure that everything is in top condition to avoid it becoming a sweaty chore. That is particularly true of earlier cars that were still fitted with a magneto instead of a coil: magnetos tend to produce a weak spark at low revs and can be particularly recalcitrant in the wet. There is another developmentthrough the 1930s that can make a big difference to your driving pleasure. At the start of the decade, most cars had a lever to manually move the ignition timing. As well as the normal tasks associated with driving, this lever needs to be moved to ‘full retard’ for starting, to ‘advance’ for cruising and then slightly to ‘retard’ again on steep hills. By the outbreak of WW2, they had largely moved over to the automatic control that most of us grew up with. For some people, such extra manual control enhances the prehistoric pleasure while for others it is a complication they can live without.

Style counsel

Bodies also changed a lot through the decade. The majority will have a separate chassis and either metal or fabric bodies on an ash frame. These chassis tended to flex a lot, making the wooden frames prone to rattles and squeaks. The monocoque pressed steel bodies that
started coming onto the UK market from the likes of Vauxhall with its 10/4 of 1938 were undoubtedly quieter, but many have since rusted away and survivors tend to be more of a restoration challenge. One that has survived in greater numbers is Morris’s successor to the eight, the Morris E. This also typifies the subtle changes that make late 1930s cars look a generation younger than those that ushered in the decade: no running boards, a sloped and curving grille and headlights integratedinto the front wings make a big difference to the look. These styling modifications accelerated when civilian production resumed after the war, although many late-1940s cars were little more than warmed-over prewar designs. Even those such as theAustin A40 Devon introduced as an all-new design in 1948 still had that kind of upright charm that earns them a place in the consideration of any search for pre-war style. Ford stretched the appeal even further by continuing the Popular right up to 1959 as a poverty-spec entry to new car ownership: buy one of the last cars produced and most casual observers will think it is a pre-war car. To be quite fair, the driving experience will probably back up this assessment with its rather heavy and vague steering, brakes that need plenty of planning and lack of visible indicators.
There are other cars that carried pre-war styling into the post-war era. The most obvious of these is, of course, Morgan. But don’t forget that MG took the tallyho spirit up to 1955 with its MGF, the same year that Citroen produced the last of those very capable Traction Avants. Newer doesn’t always mean better though, and it is a quirk of construction that the older the car, the less rusty it is likely to be. Separate chassis, wooden floorboards that drain out and a never-ending supply of oil mist and leaks are really good for longevity. Cars with steel floorpans rust out from inside and monocoques rust out from inside box-sections - box-sections did not exist until unit-construction.

When it comes to ownership, a basic rule of thumb is that cars from 1900 to 1914 require a steep learning curve, continuous maintenance and are an acquired taste. 1918-1930 cars offer strength and reliability with high maintenance but will (to this day) take you around the world if treated right. From 1930 onwards it all comes together with comfort, lower maintenance and longer distances to cover. Post-WW2, complexity and serious volume production compromises start to reduce owner input but give speed and distance to the normal man. But they are all a far cry from the minimal maintenance, maximum gizmo cars of today. And that surely contributes to making unassuming, slow, 1930s humdrum seem so appealing. You don’t get nicked for speeding and it (literally) smells of those bygone days. Just remember that all these cars will, for the most part, require prewar levels of servicing. Take that Austin Devon for example. The company claimed that it had made great strides with the design to reduce maintenance requirements to a minimum, yet the service manual lists no fewer than 40 points that need to be lubricated on a regular basis. Perhaps that is why pre war cars worm their way so deeply into owners’ affections. After all, it is easier to forgive your loved one their shortcomings when you are on such intimate terms!

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