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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NOT A CAR, BUT NEAR

The idea of owning something extraordinary in the field of two-wheeled transport had long been nagging. From the deeper and dustier recesses of my brain, memories a strange device haunted me. As a small boy, one of my favourite excursions was to the intriguing motorcycle collection ofMr Spearman, toy shop proprietor and sometime garagiste in Bishop’s Stortford.  Amongst the many treasures within said garage lurked a Ner-A-Car. In its heyday, the Ner-A-Car was one of several strange two-wheelers produced commercially as an answer to the believed desire for a ‘civilised motorcycle’, and it must rank as one of the strangest.

Specifications are remarkably futuristic – no frame, merely a pressed steel chassis, bulbous front mudguard, hub-centre steering and friction drive, oh, and two individually operated drum brakes on the rear wheel only. It worked! -  provided you weren’t a speed demon or didn’t mind young lads laughing as they whizzed past on their pushbikes.

Whilst being wheeled around, it feels like a jelly with a hinge in the middle, but once ridden it all comes together as one of the most stable and beautifully handling machines I’ve ever ridden. Carl Neracher designed and built these motorcycles in Syracuse, New York, and licensed Messrs. Sheffield Simplex of Kingston-on-Thames to manufacture them in the U.K. Mine is one of the latter and of 1922 vintage. I was tipped off as to its whereabouts (an old fish packing shed in Essex) by a fellow enthusiast.

When I bought it the owner generously gave me the rare square format handbook too – full of useful hints and tips – quite necessary when a good decoke, amongst other vital maintenance, was recommended every 300 miles or so. Advertised widely, Ner-A-Cars found favour with district nurses and the clergy, probably due not only to the cassock-protection they offered from road filth, but also to their parsimonious running costs. One unlikely but satisfied owner was the celebrated crime-writer Dorothy L. Sayers. My machine, when purchased, had somewhere lost its friction drive and two-stroke engine to a side-valve motor and conventional gearbox; for me it also lost much of its individuality.

 The Ner-A-Car in its purest form is what I now have – dual acetylene and electric lighting, underpowered and friction-driven, the thing is a hoot! I have no desire to restore or even clean it. It faithfully passes an MOT examination every year and runs at breathtaking speeds of some 30mph on its beaded edge tyres.

- Jon Dudley

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WAVING THE OILY RAG

What, one may ask, is Oily Rag? To us, Oily Rag means the gentle art of leaving well alone. Whatever it may be – a bike, a car, a house, a painting, a piece of furniture or clothing – it is only original once. To restore it, no matter how skilfully or accurately, is in our view to destroy the evidence of use that is a major part of the appeal of an antique or vintage object, as opposed to even a careful reproduction.

Of course, there are instances where an element of replacement is inevitable. An antique table may have lost a leg. A priceless Old Master painting may have been damaged or inexpertly restored in the past [or have a hole knocked by a billionaire’s elbow – Ed.]. A period house, perhaps hundreds of years old, may have been superficially ‘modernised’. An old car or motorcycle may have had inappropriate new components substituted for old. But does this mean full blown restoration is the only solution?

No. Our mission here at Oily Rag is to promulgate the opposite view, even to the extent of encouraging de-storation rather than restoration. In the UK in the 19th century, the ‘restoration’ of ancient buildings, particularly churches, had become a mania. To many architects of that time, the term meant destroying the original structure and rebuilding it in a style more ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ in the light of contemporary theory. That academic evidence would no doubt have mystified its original builders, who may well have been simple, uneducated local tradesmen whose only training had consisted of apprenticeships served decades beforehand in the time honoured methods of their forebears.

The 'smoking room'...although with no electricity, both the lights and the heating 'smoked'...

Very often it is these long forgotten misunderstandings, the makeshift solutions, the crudities even, that make an old object unique and give it a charm no textbook replica can possess. William Morris (1834-1896), the great Arts and Crafts theorist and practitioner, argued passionately for repair rather than restoration. His belief was that any new work necessary to ensure the survival of an old building should be left looking new, rather than artificially patinated. His philosophy survives today in the manifesto of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings – a UK organisation which he founded and which is still consulted on such matters.

We wouldn’t go quite that far. At the risk of upsetting devotees of Mr Morris, if an otherwise untouched old vehicle came into our possession that had been marred by the inappropriate replacement of a worn seat cushion or a crumpled fender, we wouldn’t hesitate to seek out sufficient well-worn leather to make good the deficiency, or to match the old paint on the rest of the bodywork. In both cases we would even patinate it artificially, rather than leave these alterations to spoil the effect of a venerable artefact that had in other respects stood the test of time.

Are we alone in these beliefs? To judge from the prices fetched at auction by unrestored, well provenanced original antique furniture, pictures, rugs, clocks, pottery and almost anything else we can think of, the answer is no. Collectors in these fields have learned to appreciate the fact that, by favouring objects in untouched condition, they are protecting themselves against secret enhancement or fraudulent alteration as well as preserving a rare survival from the distant past with a particular history of human use and even misuse.

Our aim here is to document finds and discoveries in all fields of collecting which embody these ideals. Likewise, we shall not hesitate to draw attention to what we regard as acts of vintage vandalism. If you share our (possibly eccentric) tastes and preferences, or even if you don’t, your participation in this crusade is invited…

- Douglas Blain

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