How on earth did you come to buy this one?
A Member's Story

by Arthur McComb

Arthur, Jen and co at an RROC National Rally, Perth

I was brought up in Melbourne, where my brother Ray, two years my senior, became an apprentice fitter and turner and owned a succession of cars beginning with a Fiat 501 from the early 1920s, then a 1937 Riley Falcon with a Wilson pre-selector gearbox, and a 1940s Vauxhall. The cars were often in pieces, and I imbibed experience in looking after them. And among the cars of friends and acquaintances there was a Vauxhall 30/98, Riley 9 and Imp, 1930s Sunbeam and 1927 Lancia Lambda.

Once I had a driver's licence I purchased a 1927 Armstrong Siddeley 4/14, a rather challenging car, hard to start and difficult to drive because of the sloppy steering, specially along Melbourne streets with tram tracks. But once the massive flywheel was turning the car sailed happily up hill and down dale in the top gear of its 3 speed crash gearbox, and took me, as a botany student, to many parts of Victoria. It also taught me a lot about cars, as I had to spend many a weekend fixing it up so that I could use it the following week.

The Armstrong Siddeley owned by the writer in Melbourne, 1957 AMcC changing a wheel in the Scottish highlands above Glen Coe, watched by another cold Australian, 1960. Note the discs covering the spokes of the wheels.

My only contact with a Rolls-Royce occurred when I had a Saturday morning job selling petrol at a garage in East Melbourne, and most weeks there would sweep up a massive deep-green vintage Rolls with a glittering gold radiator. (We will meet this car again later.)

I graduated from Melbourne University with a masters degree for research on plant hormones, was awarded an overseas Scholarship by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, sold the Armstrong Siddeley, and in 1959 set off in the old P&O liner Strathmore to do a Ph.D. in Cambridge, where I wouold spend 3-4 years doing research, enrolled through St John's College, in which I would live for the first year.

I would have to buy a car, and as my scholarship would be paid two quarters in advance, I had some initial working capital.

I reasoned I would be able to purchase a car which would keep going reliably during my PhD without depreciating much. Everything pointed to an over-engineered vehicle, sufficiently old to be past an initial period of rapid depreciation. Scrutiny of advertisements in Motor Sport showed that an older Rolls-Royce would be within reach, and after a month or so in Cambridge I took the train to London to find out. I reasoned I should go to the largest Rolls-Royce dealership in London to seek advice. So picture this duffle-coated 23-year-old Australian stepping through the deep-pile carpet of Jack Barclay's in Berkeley Square, and approaching a braided concierge standing behind what appeared to be a lectern.

I explained I was looking for a pre-war Rolls Royce, and wondered if his company might have such a car traded in. He asked how much sir contemplated investing, and when I replied about £400, and he said "Ah, that would be a pre-war car". He said that Mr Barclay was standing "just over there", and he would ask his advice. Jack Barclay looked across, nodded, and wrote on a card, which was passed to me. It said "Paddon Bros, Cheval Place, Knightsbridge".

Back under London by tube, to a station in easy walking distance of Paddon Bros, which was in what had been a mews associated with several shops. I explained my interest, and that Jack Barclay had suggested I call ("How very kind of him sir.)" I was taken to look at a range of delectable cars for service or sale, and was particularly attracted to a 1935 20/25 Rolls Royce. It had only 65,000 miles on the odometer, had been first owned in London but had spent most of its time in Scotland (on blocks during the war years), and tuned so lean that the exhaust valves had burned out. The head was off, so I could thoughtfully run my finger over pristine- seeming cylinder walls. It was calculated that after the car was together I could have it for £375, and a week or so later I wrote to confirm that I would like to buy it. Christmas was approaching, and I registered for a "course" in the Lake District arranged by the British Council for overseas students wanting to experience an English Christmas. So I hatched the idea of taking the train to London, visiting Paddon Brothers to arrange the paperwork, staying overnight, collecting the car next morning, and driving to the Lake District.

At Paddon Brothers I was shown how to change a wheel and not overfill the radiator, and was driven by the company representative in what was now my car, to be dropped off at a hotel. It was peak hour, and there were walls of bright red, snorting buses in a matrix of darting, knocking taxis. As we drove beside Hyde Park, the rep horrified me by pulling over and saying, "Now there’s no earthly reason why you shouldn't drive this vehicle". I could think of several, but I clambered behind the wheel and set off. The experience worked out very well and I even double-de-clutched into second gear, which from what I discovered later was some sort of miracle. That evening I read the handbook and revised the route I would to take next day. I could see that England is roughly the size of Victoria, and as I could easily drive over much of Victoria in a day, driving from London to the Lake District in a day would be no problem.

What ill-informed optimism! In this pre-motorway era I headed north on the old A1, and some distance north of London, having plenty of time (!), I decided to turn west on a B-road to see a small town I had picked out on the map. I wove through medieval streets and I found myself in a busy market square, feeding the Rolls between market barrows and pedestrians before seeing a sign for the B-road and heading off with relief to return to the A1, only to realise after some time that I had been disorientated the market place and was heading in the wrong direction. When I had regained the A1 I did not leave it until I reached Scotch corner, and swung west across the high country above the Yorkshire Dales to drop down over the divide to the Lake District.

By now it was a very dark, and as I wound into the hills I encountered small patches of fog, then sleet. Villages of grey stone cottages loomed out of the night, mostly unlit, and I mastered the car heater, the headlights and the spotlight. Keeping track of my route was quite a challenge, but at last I was welcomed to the guesthouse in Keswick, where I had a very late supper and met new friends. We had a wonderful introduction to an English Christmas, with a midnight carol service in the local medieval church, a display of hand bell ringing, a beagling meet, a visit to Wordsworth’s cottage, and fine Christmas fare. The Rolls started beautifully each morning, even when roofs and trees were glistening with hoarfrost, and I took other participants for outings into the stunning countryside, aiming the Rolls along narrow roads between stone walls and hedges. By the end of the visit I was thoroughly familiar with the car and could effortlessly change gears, even down to second and first.

Back in Cambridge I resumed life in college and laboratory, and set about finding somewhere to garage the car and, as a student, (albeit a graduate student), obtaining formal permission from the University to own a motor vehicle. So I donned the long black academic gown, which I had to wear in the town after dark, and kept an appointment with the "Proctor for Motor Vehicles". As we worked through the form I had filled in, I explained why I needed a car as an overseas student with a wish to see the UK and continent, and outlined to him, rather defensively, why I had chosen a Rolls Royce 20/2S. Signing the paperwork, he said, "I think you have made a very good choice I own a Rolls Royce 25/30 a few years younger than yours, and it certainly is a very reliable vehicle". Bemused, I walked back to college.

I found a place to keep the car at the top of Castle Hill, a 20 minute walk from college, where I serviced the car using the comprehensive set of tools I discovered secreted in various places about the vehicle. The winter closed in and snow fell converting the streets and old buildings into a fairyland; for a newly arrived Australian the experience was quite breath taking. I t was not good weather for driving, but fine for working long hours in the laboratory, where I was making a plant hormone radioactive so that I could follow it in plants. Slowly the day length increased and the temperature rose, the 'backs' behind the colleges blazed with crocuses, and I could fetch the car and begin exploring the countryside.


2: Tackling Britain and the Continent in a 20-25

Jen and Arthur McComb with the 20-25 at the start of the 2004 Maurice Brockwell Run. The 1935 20-25 Hooper bodied saloon UKT 897. A unique feature is the mechanical system for lowering the all-weather convertible top by means of a crank handle.

In Easter 1960 I made my first longish trip in the Rolls. With three other postgraduate students we set out to see something of Scotland. We took in much of the highlands and went as far afield as Ullapool. Lingering memories include changing down to first halfway around a tight hairpin bend near the top of a hill listed as a challenge in the RAC guide, improvising a patch for the muffler, when it started to sound like a truck, driving around Skye on a beautiful day, reaching 70 MPH on a long straight stretch of what had been a Roman road, and running to Inverness at night, lights blazing, along the gently-curving road beside Loch Ness.

Back to Cambridge for a period of intense work and then, during a summer long vacation, a few weeks driving on the Continent with three other Australians. With two tarpaulin-wrapped suitcases strapped on the normally hidden luggage rack that extends from the back of the car, we crossed by ferry to Calais and headed south to Paris, driving via Amiens, about which my father had reminisced on the rare occasions he could be induced to talk about his experiences during the First World War. It was quite an experience driving the Rolls in Paris, where I memorably followed the lead of French drivers in doing a U turn in the Champs Elysee during peak hour.

Then it was south across the plains of Lombardy to Spain. We crossed the border at the western edge of the Pyrenees, diverted from Spain into northern Portugal, swept south through Lisbon, re-entered Spain, and wended our way north to Madrid. It was blistering hot on the high, central plateau and driving over the shimmering, sometimes corrugated roads, radiator shutters and bonnet louvers gaping, I realised with a shock how very appropriate this car would be for Australian conditions.

As you can imagine, we visited many cathedrals and notable sites in Spain; the Altamira caves, the Alhambra Palace, Burgos, Toledo, the Prado Museum and you must visualise the Rolls parked at each of these sites. Memories of small events also crowd back; a group of gesticulating locals directing the car down a narrow back street in Lisbon, a garage man looking under the car to see if petrol was escaping as he could not believe the tank held so much, a man walking over to pat the car in a Spanish town, and in a language not well suited to pronouncing the words Rolls-Royce saying "Roths Roythee, Roths Roythee. In Espagne, only Torreros Roths Roythee!" I made it clear that I understood, and we laughed together. But what made him think we were not torreros?

Then there was the time in Madrid when I followed the lead of others and parked by the side of the road near our apartment, only to find a parking ticket under the wipers next morning. The following night I therefore parked on the other side of the road, only to find another parking ticket the next morning. Fearing I might be clapped in irons I went to the nearest police station, where it emerged that one could park on either side of the road, but only on alternate days! Hard to unravel with little language in in common but the officer laughed and tore up the parking tickets. We drove north from Madrid towards the curtain of the Pyrenees, looming ever larger on the horizon, and wound up into the mountains to the isolated principality of Andorra. Then down into France and north, visiting Chateaux in the Loir Valley before entering Switzerland.

The Rolls carried us smoothly and quickly over high passes between patches of permanent snow on roads with far fewer tunnels than there are now. Altogether a trip to remember for a lifetime, and one which made us really appreciate the reliability of the Rolls— all we had to do was keep adding petrol, oil, and water, and there were no problems.

I settled back into Cambridge life, becoming accustomed to the turning of the very different seasons, though at times the days dragged, and I was nostalgic for clear sky and hot weather. The Rolls was my escape, and took me on many trips out of town during weekends. I used often to drive over the flat fenlands, calling at little villages of thatched cottages, indulging my interest in wetlands by visiting the Nature Conservancy’s Wicken Fen, and driving up to the Isle of Ely, dominated by the magnificent Ely cathedral to which I often took visitors. Near there, in Huntingdon, I had work done on the car by the firm (well known in Rolls-Royce circles) of Adams & Oliver. After a test drive, Mr Adams reassured me by saying that from his experience the mileage on the odometer was "about right", but disconcerted me when he lifted the bonnet and said "Well look at that! An absolutely typical 20/25, right down to the hairline crack in the head!"

Consistent with a Cambridge image, the Rolls took me and friends to May balls, and along side the river Cam/Granta to witness rowing eights compete in head of the river "bump races". It also took me to vintage car races at Silverstone, where expensive, beautiful old vehicles were hurled around the track with astonishing enthusiasm.

The car had always just had a plain "town cap"on the radiator, but by about 1961 I had decided to purchase a suitable "standing lady" mascot. Even doing that turned into a memorable occasion. I contacted a dealer in London who said he had a suitable mascot, which I could have for £25. As it happened, I took the opportunity to queue all day for the cheapest "seats" for the Royal Ballet— standing at the back of the auditorium at Covent Garden. We left at the crack of dawn and secured a place near the head of the line. As would only happen in England, one of those in the queue maintained a list of those present, so that anyone who wished to could slip away for a time. (The person next to me, a barrister, kept doing so, to keep track of a court case he was involved in at the Old Bailey). I slipped away to the dealer, who opened a filing cabinet drawer crowded with a jumble of mascots of various sizes, which he rummaged through and picked out one suitable for my car. I paid up and found my way back to the lengthening queue, by now under a gentle fall of snow. But it was all worthwhile, and I watched a mesmerising performance of The Sleeping Beauty, danced by Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, one of the earliest perfomances by Nureyev after his defection from the Soviet Union. And I leaned against the wall; the pocket of my duffel coat weighed down by radiator mascot.

In 1962 the car took its place among other 20/25s at the first combined meeting of the various UK clubs concerned with Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor cars. Held in the landscaped grounds of Blenheim Palace near Oxford, the vehicles twinkled among the trees under a rare, clear sky. Slowly the years passed until, with a PhD approved and several papers published, I was delighted to learn that an application I had lodged for a lectureship in Australia had been successful. It was to be in the Botany Department of the University of Western Australia, and was accompanied by a boat passage and a grant to transport effects. When I pointed out that I already had my return passage to Australia paid for under the terms of my scholarship, and that I had few personal effects, it was readily agreed that I could instead bring a car. And so it was that I drove the Rolls to London and abandoned it into the care of stevedores at Tilbury Docks for loading onto the P&O liner Orsova. Thus began another phase of this three-part saga about the 20/25

3: A 20-25 in a Sunburnt Country

The chassis of GEH37 after dismantling and painting by Denis Pond and Adrian Birdseye. On display at a Club meeting in 1985 with David and Christine McComb


After another memorable boat trip I arrived in Fremantle in late 1962, and spent much of the day arranging paperwork about importing the car and having it stored for a time in the care of the RAC. Then I rejoined the Orsova for the final leg of the voyage to Melbourne, where I was delighted to meet up with family and friends, and to keep an appointment with a Rolls Royce.

Before I left Cambridge my brother had written to say that (presumably stimulated by my many letters home about the 20/25), he had decided to trace the Rolls with the golden radiator which we knew in East Malvern, had discovered it was part of a deceased estate, and had been able to acquire it. He took me to see it at his earthmoving equipment company, and it looked rather down at heel, the radiator not polished and the interior drab. Ray had no intention of doing it up to the sort of standard required, and as I would soon fly to Perth to reclaim my 20/25, it was not long before Ray decided sell the car on to someone who would be able to look after it.

Ray eventually presented me with a copy of ’The James Flood Book of early Motoring’, edited by HH Paynting, published in 1968 by AE Keating, North Melbourne; and there on page 180 is an excellent photograph of the car, 78/MC, its radiator once again gleaming gold, and looking as I remembered it in East Malvern. It is listed as owned by the editor of the book, to whom my brother must have sold it.

The car is described in Rolls Royce and Bentley in a Sunburnt Country (where on page 178 it is recorded as a 1925 Phantom I, rebodied in 1933. My brother’s brief ownership will be recorded further down the page.

Returning to Perth, I reclaimed the 20/25, found a flat and settled in at the University to frantically write lectures, arrange laboratory classes, meet people, and start to acquire research equipment. The Rolls continued to run beautifully, and when my parents came by train to visit me a few months later it was a real pleasure to meet them in Kalgoorlie in the Rolls, and take them on a trip around the south west. During the following year I became friendly with a senior student, Jen Chessell, who was just commencing a PhD on plant inheritance and evolution. It emerged that Jen’s former neighbours in Floreat Park had been the Markham family, and it was not long before I had been introduced to Percy Markham, who took me to see his fabulous collection of cars, housed in a large shed in Wembley. Markham explained that he and some friends were starting a RoIls Royce owners club in Western Australia, and so it was that I joined the club just after its inaugural meeting. Jen and I attended club meetings and rallies— Owen Dixon and I judged the bodywork at the first club concours— and when Jen and I married the club gave us a gold-painted spade and rake.

Ray came from Melbourne to be best man at our wedding, and drove the 20/25 through Perth from church to reception with the spotlight accidentally switched on. (He thought the waving pedestrians especially friendly). After the reception Jen and I drove in the Rolls to the Bunbury/Busselton area for a few days then abandoned it at a garage near the airport and flew to spend two weeks in Portuguese East Timor. Soon the years were speeding past, and as we became increasingly busy at work. Jen became a lecturer in plant science at Murdoch, while I eventually became Head of the Botany Department at UWA we had less and less time for club activities, we stayed involved by attending concours, dinners, and occasional general meetings. Over the subsequent 41 years the club has provided congenial company, cars to admire, publications to read, and invaluable contacts with members generous in providing advice.

As academics we have had a right and obligation to spend time at other universities, primarily to carry out research, and during periods away we have had far less difficulty in making temporary arrangements for the Rolls than for the house, dog, the cat, etc.

On our first study leave we spent a year in the United States, and Club member Andrew Brownell lived in our house and looked after the Rolls, ably assisted by another member, Tom Clarke (the Tom Clarke). What an ideal combination to look after our Rolls! They even spruced it up and entered it in the first Perth Federal Rally in Perth, and sent us photographs to Michigan, making us nostalgic as we tried to reign in a Ford Mustang charging along the tollways.

Our second study leave was in Leicester, accompanied by our then two-year-old son David. We drove an Alfetta and visited some of the places I had known as a student, even going to the Vintage car races. We returned by ship with the ultimate souvenir, a five month-old daughter, Christine. While we were away the Rolls was meticulously looked after by club member Denis Pond, who had served his apprenticeship with Rolls Royce in the UK. He enjoyed looking after the car, and took it to club events.

Now that we routinely owned a second (first?) car, we could have the Rolls off the road for longish periods with impunity, and over the years have set about a number of RR-related tasks. The first thing I tackled was the wiring, the insulation on which was becoming cracked and frayed. So I bought the necessary parts and equipment, taught myself to solder and, keeping to the colour coding depicted in the handbook that came with the car, systematically replaced each wire leaving pieces laid out around the kitchen, dining room and lounge of our home for an inordinate time. Miraculously, the car ran beautifully when it was together again.

The car has suffered many indignities over the years, not least when we shifted from Woodlands to Kalamunda, and the removalists would not transport our bee hive. So with the entrance nailed up we sat it in the back of the Rolls. On the way the comb in the hive broke, and honey leaked out and saturated the deep-pile carpet in the rear compartment Despite careful cleaning, for several months if we parked the car for a time with the windows a little down we would return to find it hosting a swarm of bees.

And before the days of the kerbside council collections, it was an ideal vehicle to take to the tip, as with hood down and the back seat out, it can carry large, bulky items of rubbish. Over the years it became increasingly obvious that the paintwork was becoming crazed and breaking off, and that it would be necessary to remove the old paintwork and have the bare metal resprayed. So in our old stable in Kalamunda, Jen and I unbolted the body and jacked it off. Then we set about stripping off the many layers of paint before transferring it to club member Roger Fry for repainting. At the same time, we had the chassis trucked to the premises of Denis Pond and Adrian Birdseye, who were to carry out repairs to the engine, chassis and exhaust system, while we went on study leave to Canberra for six months. Eventually we coJlected the by-now impressive chassis, and had it delivered-— after display at a club Concours at Guildford Grammar School— to Roger Fry, who dealt with some minor bodywork problems, re-attached it to the chassis, and resprayed it .

Our careers continued to advance and while we were in Canberra we learned that I had been appointed Professor of Environmenttal Science at Murdoch Uniiversity where Jen had been on the staff since the university started, and was well on her way to appointment as Professor of Plant Science. At last we could travel to work in the same car!

After a few more happy and busy years the Rolls was in pretty good shape, and we planned a period of leave at the University of Queensland, The arrangements were in place when I had a medical adventure— heart surgery followed by a stroke— which kept me in hospital for 5 months learning to speak and walk again. But I recovered quite well, and wrote an account of this interlude: "McComb, A.J. Lost in Space and Time: A story of Stroke Recovery. Environmental Science Report 03/2, 2003, Murdoch University, 29 pp."

One of the most irritating outcomes of this adventure was that I now have such spatial problems that I will never again hold a driving licence or drive a car. Luckily Jen is happy to drive me around in the Audi, and even to drive the Rolls! So we went on our delayed study leave to Queensland, and club member Kelvin Ferris drove the Rolls to the car Museum in Whiteman Park where it had a holiday until we returned and it rejoined us in Kalamunda. I toyed with selling the car, as it is a bit pathetic to sit behind the wheel and imagine driving it across Spain or around the fens— or even just down the street! But if you have waded through the three parts of this account, you will appreciate how firmly this car is embedded in our lives. It was made the year before I was born, and I have owned it for 45 years. And what other couple, married for almost forty years, can still rive around in the car they use during their courting days?

So we are keeping the car, enjoying it in our retirement, and can look forward to seeing it at future club functions!

Arthur McComb, 2004-2005