Paul d’Orléans

FOREVER ALFA

Rakish and a bit dangerous; a well muscled fellow in a tux

When David Howard first acquired this archetypal Oily Rag exotic, an original-paint 1930s Alfa 1750, it cost him £175 ($275, back in 1956). The estimate when it goes to auction at Bonhams’ Goodwood Revival sale on 15th September is £120,000+.  In theory, he stands to make a… er, modest profit on his original investment, but the story isn’t quite that simple.

The car, a 1932 Fifth Series Alfa Romeo 1750 Gran Turismo cabriolet, was exhibited when new by the UK importers at London’s Olympia Motor Show. It was sold off Stand 66 for £995 to Miss Jane Laing, the dashing younger daughter of a Newcastle marine engineer. Jane’s elder sister already owned a similar Alfa, but they traded it for this one, which had been specially prepared for the Show with chrome plated fittings (including the brake drums) and a black and silver snakeskin interior.

Long and elegant, the Alfa 1750 was a film star in its own right

By the time David Howard, at that time a car-crazy teenager with ambitions, as he says, well beyond his station in life, caught up with the car it was on display in a very different environment – on the sales floor of a run-down used car emporium in London’s Great West Road. One short ride was enough to convince the young enthusiast that they were made for each other.

He raised the cash by selling an heirloom carriage clock his octogenarian Godmother had just given him. “Reprehensible,” he says now, “But kinder than selling the old bird herself, which I would have done if I had to.” So the Alfa was his.

The car’s appeal to a certain type of collector today is that it has been properly maintained but never restored, damaged or modified in any significant way. The lusty six-cylinder twin cam engine, four-speed manual transmission, instrumentation, lighting system and all the evocative period fixtures and fittings are pretty much as they were when Miss Laing took delivery 80 years ago. Metallic silver-grey paintwork, worn but intact, gives the car a glamorous gravitas that would make it a stand-out in the Preservation class at Pebble Beach or Villa d’Este.

A picture full of appeal; may I have a drive please?

 

But what of its history since it first came into young Howard’s hands? Well, with no income to speak of, and not even a driving licence to his name, he was in no position to become the long-term keeper of a car of such distinguished pedigree. After his 17th birthday, duly licensed, he enjoyed it to the maximum for a year or so before exchanging it with another London dealer for a 4½-litre Invicta.

Over the next half century, having established himself as one of Britain’s best known dealers in Vintage and classic machinery, David had more top quality cars through his hands than most of us have ever seen. But, somehow, the memory of that first thoroughbred lingered on until one day in 1994, browsing through some old paperwork, he came upon a photograph of it he had taken all those years ago. Whatever had happened, he wondered, to ETN 627? Had she survived?

Spare wheel included, along with a trunk for several cases of Prosecco…

A phone call to the national vehicle registration office in Swansea soon established that the Alfa did still exist. They wouldn’t reveal any details, of course, so David wrote to them asking that his letter be forwarded to the current owner. A week later a reply arrived from the very man who had bought it back in 1957 direct from the dealer Howard had sold it to. He explained that he had driven it for only a few months before a big-end failed, since when it had sat untouched in his garage awaiting an engine rebuild.

Persuading the guy to part with the car was not so straightforward, but eventually a deal was struck and David Howard became the owner, second time around, of his very first car. Since then he has enjoyed re-visiting old friends and old haunts in it during return visits to the UK from his current home in rural France, revelling in its lively performance and refined handling. But the time has now come, he feels, to look for someone younger who will drive it regularly and cherish it in the same untouched condition for another generation.

Landau top to protect milady's hat…

“If I could put a binding legal covenant on the sale to prevent that car ever being restored,” he says, “I would.” So, step forward Oily Rag aficionados. Now is your moment…

 

- Douglas Blain

 

 

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A COPPER TRADITION

The Copper Family which traces its ancestry back to 1593, has been singing its folksongs in and around Rottingdean, Sussex, since at least the end of the 18th . These old songs are maintained unchanged, unpolished and handed lovingly down from generation to generation. If that doesn’t qualify them as  being ‘Oily Rag’ I don’t know what does. For those who like to see a physical manifestation of such things then check out the Family songbooks.

Ancestor James ‘Brasser’ Copper (born 1845, into Rottingdean’s agrarian community) was encouraged to write down the words of some of his songs by his employer’s daughter, a Mrs Corrie. Until this moment, the songs had been passed down purely by the oral tradition. This method was necessitated by the fact that the labouring classes to which James and his predecessors belonged were unlettered; a legal requirement to learn the ‘three Rs’ was not enacted until 1870. If you wanted to know a song you had to learn it by heart. These people were not unintelligent however, merely uneducated. Brasser and his brother Tom were ambitious, and paid a penny a lesson to a charitable upper class lady, to receive instruction in the rudiments of literacy and numeracy.

Consequently, with that advantage they progressed a little more than their contemporaries, Brasser becoming farm bailiff (foreman) and Tom a publican. Thus it was possible, with much effort from Brasser, to write down the words to twenty-four of the Family’s songs. The spellings, although somewhat ‘freeform’ are perfectly intelligible and charming, for example, one song entitled ‘Here’s Adieu Sweet lovely Nancy’, Brasser renders as ‘Hears a Dew Sweet loveley Nancy’. Through a miracle of late 1920s technology copies were made of these writings by Mrs Corrie’s London lawyer and given to the Family. Since the original writings have disappeared, this was a most generous and fortunate act of historic significance.

In the late 1930s, Brassers’s son Jim, wrote down the words of almost the complete Family repertoire for his son and daughter in two further volumes. Written in old farm account books in a bold ‘Copperplate’ hand these are treasured items in the Copper Family archive and still used (sparingly) by them today. They will soon need conservation – but never restoration.

The Family continues to sing the songs handed down over the centuries unchanged, and uniquely for the English folk tradition, in a rough harmony style. With the arrival of grandchildren to the current senior family members, the Coppers have evidence of at least seven consecutive generations of singers. An Oily Rag tradition? Definitely.

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MERCEDES S-TYPE

Feel that fat wooden steering wheel! Smell the leather! If these joyous sensations make you itch to get your hands on this magnificent, one-family-ownership 1928 Mercedes-Benz S-type, then be there when it comes up for auction at Bonhams’ Goodwood Revival sale in the UK on 15th September. If its appeal to you is as a challenging restoration project, however, then please stay away.

Designed by Ferdinand Porsche after the Mercedes merger with Benz, the S-type was the first of a series of low slung, supercharged 6.8-litre sporting cars intended to re-establish the company’s name for ultra-high speed excitement among patrician buyers worldwide. Many were sold with rakish coachwork by in-house Sindelfingen and other German designers, but this one, imported as a chassis under order number 38130 by British Mercedes Ltd, the London agents, was bodied for their client to his precise requirements by Cadogan, a firm by that time based in Fulham, London, and well known for relatively restrained sporting bodies on Bentley, Invicta, Packard and OM chassis.

Painted in dark battleship grey with blue leather, this was not an extrovert device intended for driving in the Mr Toad tradition. The panels, like those of many a Three Litre or 4½ Bentley, were of lightweight stretched fabric, a practice borrowed after WW1 from the aircraft industry, with four doors, twin side-mounted spare wheels and full weather equipment. The spacious interior contained big, comfortable seating for four adults, the front ones having adjustable backrests. Luggage could be accommodated in a large trunk at the back, and there were commodious leather door pockets for everyday items.

This splendid old car’s condition is just as we at Oily Rag love to find ‘em. We asked a leading UK dealer if, in his view, it would be worth more or less than that if subjected to a nut-and-bolt concours restoration. “Less,” was his unhesitating response.

Kept in the same dry garage since the 1930s, and properly laid up for more than half a century, it retains its original buff logbook, original paint, original lush leather interior, elaborately stocked instrument panel and all its top quality electrical equipment. The original scuttle-mounted identification plate is still in place, informing us that the car carries chassis number 1396, engine 1395, with 26 nominal horsepower developing 120bhp.

Later examples of this prestige model went on to achieve great success in international racing. The 7.1-litre SS, SSK and SSKL triumphed in the Ulster TT in 1929, the Irish GP in 1930, the Mille Miglia and the Eifelrennen in 1931 and the Avus race in the same years. The first examples, however, of which this is one, are treasured as being the most practical and by far the most pleasant to drive. Let us pray that this magnificent gentleman’s motor carriage is never subjected to the indignity of a full-scale restoration.

- Douglas Blain


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DENNIS SEVERS; PATRON SAINT OF ‘OILY RAG’

When I first knew Dennis Severs in the 1970s, he was carting tourists ‘round West London in a decrepit, 100-year-old horsedrawn landau. Later, I sold him a house in then-slummy (now chic) inner-London Spitalfields, where he soon adopted a lifestyle no different from that of the Huguenot family he claimed had built the place in 1724.

And I do mean no different. No electricity. No central heating. No gas. Dennis relied on coal fires to warm the place, which they did to great effect. Lighting was by candle-power, literally. He heated water and cooked his meals on an old coal-fired range in the basement, and slept in a grubby four-poster bed in the attic.

Surrounding himself with suitably dilapidated 18th century furniture, pictures, rugs, cracked crockery, cutlery and glassware, he opened his new home to the public, who flocked to experience life as it was really lived 200 years ago. They paid handsomely for the experience, and still do. For when Dennis died in 2000 he left the house and all its contents to a local charity, the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, which maintains everything exactly as he left it.

Dennis was the son of a gas station proprietor in Escondido, California. He came to London to study law but had to give up because he was dyslexic. He then discovered the novels of Charles Dickens, memorising lengthy chunks of the best of them and immersing himself in London’s past.

Leading people around that incredibly atmospheric house, with each room set up to represent an incident in the lives of his fictional family, the Jervises, he was an autocrat. Only native English speakers were allowed in, in case they missed the gentle, ironic humour of his commentary. No animals, and strictly no children. Complete silence was the rule: one word and you were out.

Passing by, I would see groups of visitors at the end of their hour-long tour with tears streaming down their faces, distraught at the thought of a way of life that had gone forever.

Today, the régime is slightly less rigorous but the atmosphere just the same. See for yourself at www.dennissevershouse.co.uk

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