A vintage Christmas

November 27 2019
A vintage Christmas

Second-hand Style, with Richard Cooke

REGULAR mention of the ‘C’ word before December 1st is a sure-fire way to irritate me, and it would seem I’m not alone. Staff and customers of chain stores that pipe in music have started to rebel against November rotations of the usual 70s and 80s ‘seasonal’ dross, and not before time. I’m avoiding the Mall lest I get trapped in a Slade/Wizard/McCartney/Mariah chintz-loop.

Instead let me take you gently by the hand and lead you back to a simpler, less commercial time. The year is 1928, and Triumph have yet to find their niche as makers of small sporty convertibles. Instead, from their Coventry factory, they are trying their hand at all manner of different vehicles. This month’s car is Triumph’s Type 15, a large coach built saloon fitted with a 2.2 litre 4 cylinder side valve (‘flathead’) engine of about 60hp. Launched in 1926 and in production for just four years, the 15 was exported heavily but today only two examples survive worldwide. Coincidentally, my late father owned both of them for nearly 60 years. They are highly unlikely to ever hit the used market. So why should you care? Oh please, indulge me, it’s Christmas. Oh humbug, I said it…

The 15 is in many ways typical of the period – note the running boards, huge 22 inch wheels with a spare on the back and ‘suicide’ rear doors. But Triumph were pioneering engineers, and this was the first British production car to be fitted with hydraulic brakes on all four wheels. Triumph were so worried about lesser vehicles piling into the back of the 15 that they added a charming warning triangle with the words ‘Four Wheel Brakes’, feebly illuminated by a small red light, to the back. Today we would call it a brake light. Those brakes, imported Chrysler contracting-band drums, were hugely powerful when new, but soon became obsolete and today are problematic. They get wet in the rain, bind onto their drums when the fancy takes them and are generally a pain. The other fundamental problem with the 15 is that it is, unsurprisingly, underpowered. The body, made to order by your preferred coach builder, is far too heavy. Hills and hot days therefore equals overheating. The other surviving 15 is a two-door fabric bodied lightweight by comparison and consequently suffers no such indignity.

So far, so what – all vintage cars have their foibles. However, for me, and many others in my family, these cars embody pure nostalgia. I was driven home from the hospital as a newborn in this car. It has served at half a dozen family weddings. My brother and I used to beg my dad to take us for a ride in it on warm summer weekends. It has taken countless family members to nearly every track in England as we attended Vintage Sports Car Club race meetings. Today it still wins the cup for ‘most original car’ at Triumph club events – the immaculate leather and wood interior is completely unrestored. It looks perfect outside a country pub, and never fails to draw a crowd. Kids in particular love it, aided by the fact that you can get five or more in the back.

What is Christmas if not a time for family and gentle nostalgia? Beat the vulgar 21st century commercialisation of this time of year and start your own family tradition: Check out the Vintage (pre-1940) used car market. If you avoid the very expensive premium marques (Bentley, Rolls, Lagonda) there are some incredible bargains to be had amongst some still evocative British names. Riley in particular seems undervalued. Alvis prices have shot up. Triumph – well, I’m biased. Deep pockets are required unless you are handy with a spanner, and you will also need a garage. Actually, you might need two, so that you can store all the spare parts. And join a club straight away. Ensure you spend more time driving than polishing. Accept that oil sometimes like to escape onto the floor and elsewhere. The Government classifies these cars as ‘historic vehicles’ and for once, they’ve got it spot on. Such warm waves of happy memories…Merry Christmas, all.