Motoring in the 1930s

Happy days remembered as the faithful Morris Cowley stands at a camping site in 1933.

Happy days remembered as the faithful Morris Cowley stands at a camping site in 1933.

PERHAPS the most significant difference between motoring 60 years ago and motoring now was the owner’s attitude towards his car. Our family owned a Morris Cowley 12hp saloon from 1930 until 1936, and it was used for pleasure only – at weekends and holiday times. It never crossed our minds to go to work in it, and both father and I cycled to work. Other neighbours with cars travelled by bus or train, and children walked to school.
Luckily we’ve forgotten most of the customary roadside troubles. Tyres wore out much more rapidly and punctures were frequent. Magneto brushes didn’t last long; sparking plugs hated oil and had to be cleaned regularly; radiators often boiled after prolonged hill climbs. Oils were usually single grade, making changes for summer and winter necessary. Frequent decarbonising of the cylinder head was also needed, generally at 10,000-mile intervals. Tyres were
much narrower then, and their pressures much higher – around 45 lb. They had to be checked for cuts or holes, and these filled in with mastic solution.

Apart from the routine checks such as water, oil, petrol, tyre pressures and battery level, it was wise to check many other things before each journey. All leads had to be watched for signs of wear, as well as the distributor, fan belt, oil and air filters, carburettor float, valve clearances and plugs.

Winter could be a problem, particularly if the car wasn’t used. Our car had a radiator muff, and in cold weather we suspended a small inspection lamp under the bonnet and left it on all night to keep the frost at bay. Some motorists kept a paraffin stove in the garage.

When cars were used for pleasure only there was often little point in getting them taxed during the winter. Road fund tax could be paid quarterly then.

In spite of the snags, touring was great fun, especially for young enthusiasts such as myself. I made a hobby of car recognition when every make had its own distinctive radiator. Ford was the most often seen, but there were also plenty of Austins and Morrises. The Wolseley emblem was unmistakable – it was illuminated!

On the road there was much camaraderie.

Drivers stopped to help those stranded at the roadside and waved when they saw cars of the same make as their own. Young people couldn’t afford cars at all. A man would usually be getting on in the world – in his late thirties or early forties – before he was able to buy his first car. I didn’t own a car -1 borrowed my father’s!

Until 1930 there had been a blanket speed limit of 20mph. It was largely ignored, and RAC and AA scouts withheld their salutes to warn that there was a speed trap down the road. The price of lifting the speed limit had been compulsory third party insurance. For the next five years there was no speed limit at all! In practice it didn’t make much difference. Ordinary cars normally travelled at no more than 40 to 45mph. Speed wasn’t important. Reliability, comfort and ease of driving were the important things, and all these improved immeasurably during the 1930s.

The 30mph ‘built-up area’ limit was imposed in 1935 and pedestrian crossings with Belisha beacons (named after the Transport Minister at that time) were introduced.

In the same year the driving test made its first appearance (before that anyone could drive). I had driven the Cowley, under my father’s tuition, for several years before I passed the test in 1936.

Our Morris Cowley was a reliable, roomy and robust car. It would go anywhere and made ideal transport for camping holidays, which we enjoyed regularly. As much luggage as possible went on the grid at the back (which folded inwards when not in use),
covered by a waterproof sheet and securely roped down. Father’s old kitbag from the Great War was filled with as many oddments as it would take and jammed behind the spare wheel on the nearside running board. The remainder had to be packed into the car somehow, just leaving enough room for me!

So off we went on our journey – but wait! We didn’t just jump into the car and drive off as would be done now. There was a starting procedure – a ritual indeed. First the engine had to be turned over by the starting handle to free the oil, then, with the switches on, a sharp upward pull (with the thumb carefully tucked out of the way in case the handle kicked back) usually started it.

The engine had to be allowed to warm up before moving off – oils were less adaptable than now. Even then, the throttie was not opened excessively until the engine was thoroughly warm. Gear changing was by double declutching, to allow the cogs to mesh without grating. Judgement and practice were needed for this.

On steep hills we’d have to stop at the top to allow the radiator to cool clown. Visible to the driver on top of the radiator cap was the Wilmot Calormeter, which measured water temperature. If the arrow passed the normal position at ‘12 o’clock’ thewaterwas too hot!

If it was foggy, the opened windscreen helped visibility, but we would have to wrap up very warmly indeed. There was no heating at all, and the driving window had to remain open in traffic for the driver to
give hand signals. In winter this was no joke for the rear passengers – a rug to cover the legs was essential and a stone hot water bottle under the feet helped a lot. The poor driver just had to put up with it!

The Cowley was quite a smart car for its time, with a two-tone finish of brown and tan, black mudguards and artillery spoked wheels. Considering that it weighed a ton, the average petrol consumption of 30mpg was quite good.

All petrol (at Is 4d per gallon) was unleaded, and ‘upper cylinder lubricant’ was available on the forecourts. By the mid-1930s lead was being added to petrol to prevent ‘pinking’ and ‘knocking’ which had been dealt with previously by the judicious use of the advance and retard lever on the steering column.

In late 1936 we decided that the Cowley would have to go, and replaced it with a Standard Ten. Engine efficiency had improved tremendously by then. The magneto had been replaced by coil ignition, more effective, although it placed more reliance on the battery. Luckily, batteries had improved too.

We retained the Standard until the end of 1939, when pleasure motoring ceased for six years.

The decade of the 1930s was a significant one for car development. Unitary construction was established as well as hydraulic braking, synchromesh gearboxes, independent suspension and full electrical systems.

By the end of the decade, the car had become an integral part of British life.

Dennis Strange