In Praise of Pre-War Cars

In Praise of Pre-War Cars Blog

At the time of writing, the Classic Motor Hub’s showroom covers almost 100 years of automotive history, from a 1909 Benz 25/45 all the way up to a 2007 Aston Martin Vanquish. Even if you were to focus solely on those built before the Second World War, you’d have a selection that included sporting road cars from household names such as Bentley and Aston Martin, a racing two-seater from Maserati, and elegant touring cars from great marques that are no longer with us, such as Alvis, Talbot and Packard.

As LP Hartley famously wrote in The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ And while there’s little doubt that pre-war cars do offer a very different driving experience from those that came later, therein lies a great part of their charm. Once mastered, they’re able to give a unique feeling of satisfaction and sheer involvement that you rarely get from later cars.

A great deal of that satisfaction comes from simply changing gear, a process that modern technology has either eliminated completely or reduced to an act that’s done without conscious input. Not so in a pre-war car with a crash gearbox that requires the driver to learn the art of double-declutching, matching the revs with a well-timed blip of the throttle when changing down.

In Praise of Pre-War Cars Blog - Maserati 4CS
Automotive history befitting of the beautiful Cotswold scenery that surrounds The Hub

In period, manufacturers looked for ways to make this process less demanding. One popular solution was the adoption of a pre-selector gearbox, as used by Talbot, among many others. All the driver had to do was move the lever into the next gear that they wanted to select, then press the gearchange pedal when they were ready to do so. Easy – even if the technology was soon overtaken by the addition of synchromesh to manual gearboxes.

During the 1930s, Alvis introduced a number of features that not only improved its cars, but also made them easier to drive as it sought to move upmarket. Along with General Motors, it was a pioneering force in the design of synchromesh gearboxes, and its all-synchro four-speeder – a world first – was fitted to the Speed 20 from the 1933 SB model onwards. In a further sign of Alvis innovation, the SB also gained independent front suspension.

In Praise of Pre-War Cars Blog - Alvis Speed 20
The advanced (for its day) 1933 Alvis Speed 20 SA Cross & Ellis Long-Wing Tourer

It was certainly a period of rapid progress in automotive design, with many manufacturers putting their cars to the test in the rigorous world of motor racing. Not only did competition help to ‘improve the breed’, it also gave them the chance to publicise their successes. In the case of Bentley during the 1920s, it even established a legend on which the company continues to trade.

Drive any of its cars from the 1921-31 ‘Cricklewood era’ and it’s easy to evoke the famous Bentley Boys and their numerous victories in the Le Mans 24 Hours. It’s little wonder that vintage Bentleys – with their own unique brand of robust, heavy-duty performance – still inspire such a strong following.

In Praise of Pre-War Cars Blog - Bentley SpecialA 1923 Bentley Special that was successfully campaigned in historic motorsport

In Praise of Pre-War Cars Blog - Aston Martin Sidevalve
A rare survivor from the Bamford & Martin era – a 1924 Aston Martin Long-Chassis Tourer

Competition was also central to the development of Aston Martin and Maserati. Aston Martin built only a handful of cars in the first 10 years of its existence, and they were all either prototypes or intended for motorsport and record-breaking. By the time it did get around to a proper production run of road cars with its 1.5-litre sidevalve models, the motoring public not only knew the name, it knew the ethos behind the company.

Likewise Maserati, which didn’t start producing true road cars until after World War Two, by which time it had long since established a reputation as a builder of superbly engineered and highly successful racing cars, such as the 4CS.

In Praise of Pre-War Cars Blog - Maserati Racing CarThe 1934 Maserati 4CS currently offered for sale at The Classic Motor Hub

But the appeal of pre-war cars lies in more than just their mechanical specification. The 1930s, in particular, were a golden age for coachbuilders. Car companies would often supply just a rolling chassis, to which could be added a variety of bodies, from saloons and sedancas to drophead coupés and tourers. Even when created in-house, these often reflected the pursuit of streamlining in all forms of transport at that time, as well as the popularity of design movements such as Art Deco.

It is no coincidence that the idea of a motoring concours d’elegance really started to take hold during the 1930s. Cars could now be admired for their beauty and elegance, rather than simply for the engineering expertise that lay within – and that appeal has proven to be timeless. Only once has the Best in Show award at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance gone to a post-war car.

In Praise of Pre-War Cars Blog - Bugatti Type 57 The One-off Bugatti Type 57 Atalante with coachwork by Gangloff sold by us in 2020

Even at a distance of almost 100 years, though, where pre-war cars – from basic two-seaters to extravagant grand routiers – really score is in their sheer usability. There’s a thriving calendar of events for which they’re eligible, from local VSCC trials to blue-riband fixtures such as the Mille Miglia. Coming from an age well before complex electronics, they are also mechanically simple and straightforward to maintain.

So, while it can seem from the outside that pre-war cars are, as LP Hartley might have said, ‘a foreign country in which they do things differently’, that difference is something to be embraced and enjoyed.


Words by James Page
All Photos copyright The Classic Motor Hub 2020 – 2022

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