The Four cylinder
By Micheal Worthington-Williams
The Rolls Royce Twenty, well cared for and sensibly bodied is, despite all the rubbish that has been talked and written about it, an excellent vehicle. At the risk of raising the temperature around Tunbridge Wells a degree or two, however, I can honestly say that if I was offered a good one in a straight sway for my 1929 Austin Twenty Carlton saloon then it would not only be a case of " no deal ", but of " no contest " as well.
It wouldn't be the first time that a car of American inpiration has licked the pants off (and thus enraged) the purists. I can still remember the trouble that Anthony Hide-East used to have in convincing the V.S.C.C. that the Railton ( which would out accelerate and out perform many vintage cars) was a suitable candidate for V.S.C.C. events.
Because, make no mistake, the Austin Twenty while being uncomprisingly British in many ways, nevertheless had its roots firmly in Detroit- in spirit if not in fact. Remember the car, cut down into a truck, which took the Joad family from the dustbowl of Oaklahoma to the fruit farms of California in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath? Yes, it was a Hudson Super Six, the same model which had successfully completed the first two-way transcontinental trip from New York to San Fransisco and back, in 1916, and which formed the backbone of New Zealands service car network in the 1920's.
In 1918, Hudsons advertisements for the Super Six were saying " Farmers, Listen! You wont have any time to spend on repairing automobiles this year. Buy a Huson Super Six and be free of the annoyances of a car that won't run unless it is under constant attention" In the latter years of the war Herbert Austin had bought one, excusing himself by saying that. since his own company was not making cars because of the war effort, the Hudson Super Six was the only satisfactory vehicle which could be bought
Whilst, therefore, the Austin Twenty was not a copy of the Hudson, it is no accident that both cars share a great deal in general arrangement and in the philosophy behind their construction. Both Chassis were similar, both engines were of monoblock construction with the in-unit gearbox and center change, both employed a sheet metal radiator cowl around the core, and ( on the prototype Twenty) coil ignition. Even the Austin hand throttle control was designed to carry the word 'gas'.
The chassis erecting shop saw the first prototype Twenty laid down at Longbridge in 1917, and customers had a sneek preview in an abridged specification published in The Austin Advocate in September that year. By 1918 the press were sampling a tourer, OB6912, at which time a price of 400 pounds was projected, and the landaulette had also been built. These two prototypes were called P1's and the 'P' suffix ( denoting post-war) subsequently identifies all the four cylinder Twenty chassis numbers.
Edgar Wren, the firms test driver, took the tourer on a nation-wide trip drumming up sales while another sales organiser Alfred Dupuis, armed with nothing more that photos and specifications, went off to woo the Commowealth. So successful were these overtures that by July 1919 some 6 million pounds worth of orders had been recieved and no further orders were being accepted where delivery was requied in 1920.
What, then was the specification that made the Twenty such an attractive proposition? The first thing to remember was that the market was starved, so it was very much a sellers market anyway, and the Twenty was in most respects entirely conventional. The engine was a side valve unit of 95mm x 127mm bore and stroke and 3510cc allied by a single dry plate clutch to a 4 speed gate change box and shaft and helical bevel final drive.
Springing was semi-elliptic all around (underslung at rear) magneto ignition was adopted for the production models and autovac fed petrol from a centally mounted fuel tank holding sixteen gallons and mounted to the cross member in the center of the frame.Access to this was gained by tipping the drivers seat. Initiallly fitted with metal to metal expanding brakes on the rear wheels only, with a contracting transmission handbrake, wheels on the early production models were wooden spoked 820 x 120 detactable artillery type. Top gear gave direct drive at 3.93 to 1 and such was the flexablity of the engine that the 6.2 to 1 third gear was good for all but the steepest hills.
Aimed at the bespoke maker too, the chassis only was listed at 395 pounds, the tourer cost 100 pounds more and another 100 pounds would secure the coupe. The laundaulette cost 625 pounds, but the trouble was that all these prices were based on a annual production estimate of something like 25000 cars per year. Even assuming that there had been no post war material shortages, a lack of skilled labour following the carnage at the Western Front, and industrial unrest, the company hadn't a hope in hell of meeting that target. Production was organised for a maximum of about 7500 car a year, and whilst wartime expansion of the works meant that, theoretically, the capacity was there, in practice the tax on excess war profits meant that Austin hadn't the capital to fully equip his factories
It wasn't long before the company was in a pickle, and in October 1919- safe in the knowledge that they were losing money on each car and could not meet delivery dates- a " temporary" surcharge of 100 pounds was placed on each complete car ( 75 pounds on each chassis) and customers were given the option of cancelling their orders. It was a clever move, since many exercised their option, thus letting the company off the hook. as a result of all this only 534 Twenties left the works between July 1919 and July 1920.
Apart from a handful of 10hp types built up from surplus parts left over in the works, the company persued a one model policy at this time, but although the Twenty was well received, it never acheive the kind of volume sale that Herbert Austin had planned for it, which would have enabled him to peg prices at the original levels, and eventually to have taken advantage of the mass production facilities which Longbridge could accommodate.
Because of the resulting financial problems-exacerbated by the world slump at the end of 1920 which lasted into 1921 - and the Recievership and the subsequent Scheme of Arrangements with Creditors into which Austin were forced to enter in December 1921, historians have tended to dismis the Austin Twenty as a bad car. It was absolutely nothing of the sort. It's unfortunate, but history always seems to associate financial failure with product failure, and the two by no means go hand in hand.It was simply that the Austin Twenty was the wrong car upon which to have launched a one model policy at that time, and in the light of subsequent events- particulaly the intoduction of the Heavy Twelve and the Austin Seven- one can question, in retrospect, the wisdom of the one model policy itself. The story of Austin's spectacular recovery, and the success of the Twelve and the Seven, again tends to eclipse the merits of the Twenty It is worth remembering, therefore, that not only did both the smaller models derive a good deal in the way of design from their larger brother, but that the Twenty continued to sell steadily( and virtually unchanged )until September 1929( nearly three whole seasons after the introduction of the six cylinder Twenty at Olympia in 1926)
When the vintage "movement" first started in the UK in 1934 with the formation of the V.S.S.C. there was no doubt that those that concidered it basicly non-sporting and, with its central controls, too advanced to be concidered in the idiom. I do not concider that to be the main reason, however, for the almost universal neglect that the Austin Tweny enjoyed then ( and still enjoys) at the hands of the vintage car establishment. The fact is that the Twenty wouldn't wear out. Its derivative the Heavy Twelve, has been described as " one of the hardest wearing machines of all time." If that is true, then I would assert that the Twenty is the hardest-wearing.
Where many less worthy, less robust cars owe their survival to the fact that they broke in the thirties, proved unsalable, and were stuck away in some shed or barn and forgotten, the Twenty went steadily and unendingly about its business, never breaking a bloody thing. Spares stood around on garage shelves until they were thrown away, and the cars continued in service-as hire cars,station taxis,and hearses- without the need of them.
Many ended their days with their bodies trunkated and the Harvey-Frost crane attached at the rear doing stirling service as breakdown tenders at country garages, and more than a few saw service during the war, rebodied as ambulances, A.R.P. support vehicles and mobile canteens.When, eventually, even they sucumbed to anno domini and, togeter with all the hire cars( some which clocked up between 700000 to 1000000 miles in sevice) began to need the odd repair, no spares remained on the shelves, all having been scrapped years before. Most of those cars that survived, were all equally worn, so cannibilisation wasn't the answer.
Thus we have a situation today where, even within the Vintage Austin Register, only a handful of survivers remain in preservation, and of these probably less that a dozen are rallied. I am proud to say that my Twenty,"Arthur", is one of that latter, happily transporting seven or eight of us to Beaulieu Autojumble every year without protest, and frequently returning with several hundredweight of spares, books and accessories, on running boards and luggage carrier.
You may have gained the impression that the Twenty isn't rapid. Whilst it's true that many of the Twenty's customers did not demand speed, let me hasten to diabuse you of any misconceptions. Even in "clapped out" condition the Twenty is fast, and in good fettle will turn on speeds in excess of sixty miles per hour. Thats not bad for a vehicle turning the scales at a couple of tons or more, with a full family on board.
Back in 1920, however, a Bradford businessman named Felix Scriven ordered a new P3 Twenty, approaching the company at Showtime to enquire if they could provide a tuned up version capable of 70 mile per hour.Although reticent upon leaning that Scriven wished to incorporate some of his own ideas, they eventually agreed, on the understanding that no guarantees could be given.
Delivered in March 1921, the car produced 70 miles per hour at Brooklands, developing about 80bhp at 3500 rpm,but Scriven was able to improve this to 100bhp at 3700rpm for short bursts, and even, 4000 rpm was possible. The Easter Monday Meeting at Brooklands saw Scriven's car entered in two races. The Handicappers, having no previous experences of the model, were too generous, and he walked away with first place in the Twelth 75 mph Short Handicap, the two laps being completed at 70.56mph and 75.30mph respectively. Despite a stiffer handicap in the second race the car was placed third against a Marlborough and an A.C. - both regular Brookland contenders- at a final lap average speed of 83.5mph!
At this stage Scriven christened the car Felix the Cat after the cartoon character, and carried an appropriate mascot, but the car latter gained fame from 1924 onwards as Sergent Murphy, always being driven down from Bradford under its own steam. It made Longbridge sit up and take notice, since they were also planning a works Twenty racer.This emerged in May 1921, fielded by Captain Arthur Waite, Herbert Austins's son-in-law , by which time Scriven was extracting 85.57mph (lap speed ) from his car.
The works car was officially timed at 98.04mph in the Easter 1922 90mph Long Handicap at Brooklands, and another works car originally prepared for sand racing laped at over 91 mph in a similar race.After 1923, Waite concentrated on Austin seven racing and by 1924, Scriven was extracting lap averages of up to 93.97 mph, and increaded this to 94.86mph at Whitsun 1925-ats last win in a B.A.R.C. event. In order to achieve these averages, the car "always exceeded 100mph on Railway Straight, and at one occasion was timed at 104mph....."
The car was christened after Mrs Sandford's horse of the same name which won the Grand National at 100 to 6 in 1923,and after its' retirement' to the role of sports tourer, Scriven added, beneath the name, "in mufti". Inspired by this car, Austin produced about fifty sports tourers in 1921 and in 1922 ioncorporating Scrivens "improvements". These consisted mainly of careful assembly, lightening the flywheel,balancing and tuning,machining 1/8 inch from the head and fitting a 32mm Claudel Hobson carburettor in place of the Zenith, a polished aluminium water heated inlet manifold and Rudge Whitworth wire wheels.
In this guise an extra 20-30mph could be extracted out of the 3.6 litre engine, and it has always been a mystery to my why the sports Twenty was not more popular and made in larger numbers. Austins themselves, and Waite in particular, appear to have seen more sporting potential in the Seven and concentrated their efforts upon it,but that doesnt explain the lack of interest elsewhere. As it is, probably only one sports Twenty now survives.
Apart from wooden artillary wheels being repaced by steel artillaries,the abandonment of the "well" on tourers for the stowage of the hood ,steel flywheels,in place of cast iron, and the provision of an oil dip stick ( all modifications in the life of the early Twenty) very little was done ( or needed doing) to alter the original specification. Later versions aquired four wheel brakes- and vey good they are, too- and eventually the petrol filler was moved outside the body.
Although a number of chassis were sold to be bodied elsewhere, the majority of Twenties were bodied at Longbridge and the quatity of the coachwork is, in my opinion, the equal of any make of the so-called "names". after upwards of 700000 miles ( incuding hire work throughout the war years) "Arthur" is devoid of squeeks and rattles, no doors have dropped,and the upholstery and interior trim are( admittedly shabby) original.
One couldn't call the car pretty, its true, but like most of what Herbert Austin offered, it represents solid value and quality allied to what was then advanced engineering. Prices in 1921 leaped to over 800 pounds, but by 1925 a chassis cost only 395 pounds and a Carlton like "Arthur" cost just 675 pounds complete ( against 1000 pounds for a Rolls-Twenty chassis)
The trouble was that the Austin name ( particularly after the introduction of the Twelve and the Seven ) had the wrong image for the carriage trade, and history has repeated itself in the complete lack of interest nowadays in the excellent Sheerline and Princess limousines made by the company after the war. Apart from the funerral and hire trades and the odd Labour-controlled council, these - like the Twenty- were largely ignored by the nouveau riche and the gentry
As a result of this ridiculous prejudice I was able to purchase "Arthur" as a going concern for just 2100 pounds at a time when a tired Rolls-Twenty, overbodied and with suspect cylinder head, would have cost three times as much. He'll see me out, of that I am certain, but we shall continue to use him as a familly car all the year around and with utrter confidance.Those of you harbouring Twenties but not running them, take heed! You dont know what you are missing.
Once you have mastered that slow gear change, ( time to light your pipe between gears) and adjust to the car's long legged gait you'll come to appreciate a flexablity and quietness in top gear which is a revelation, and a hill climing ability which makes long distance work a pleasure.Add driving position , the equal of any Rolls, excellent brakes, light steering on the move, and utter dependablity and you'll know why it is that I am converted. I only wish that more would follow my example.