Tuesday 20 August 2019

Recycled: Vintage wheels that will always keep their appeal


The Model T which has been repainted a bright red
The Model T which has been repainted a bright red
The Humber

Eleanor Flegg

In 1880s Britain, the tricycle was the vehicle of choice. Early bicycles were fast but unstable and the terrifying penny farthing convinced a generation of Victorians that riding a two wheeler was an act of derring-do. Women, who wore long dresses, and men without a death wish much preferred to ride a tricycle. The craze for tricycles swept through the British aristocracy and any Irish wealthy enough to join them: the trikes were more expensive than bikes and therefore considered a more genteel form of transport. Even Queen Victoria had one, although there is no evidence that she actually rode it. By 1844, more than 120 different models had been produced by 20 manufacturers. Some were pedalled, others were propelled by levers or hand cranks.

The ladies' tricycle (Lot 357: est. €4,000 to €6,000) coming up for auction at Victor Mee on Sunday is even earlier than 1880s models. It pre-dates factory construction and was hand-crafted from beaten metal and carved wood, probably by a maker of horse-drawn carriages. From the craftsmanship and comparison with other historic examples, the auctioneers date it to the 1850s. "It was definitely made in Ireland and would have been a very cool thing to have at the time," says auctioneer Bryan Mee. The tricycle has provenance as part of the Nixon Estate in Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh, but the identity of the Victorian lady who pedalled it around her country estate has been lost in time.

In fact between 1881 and 1886, more tricycles were built than bicycles in Britain (of which Ireland was then still part), many of them around Coventry in England. One of the foremost manufacturers was Humber, which had been formed by Thomas Humber around 1868 to make penny farthings. The factory went on to manufacture cars, but the legacy of the tricycle died hard. So perhaps not surprisingly the first Humber car, made in 1898, was a three-wheeler.

A 1927 Humber 9/20 tourer (Lot 234: est. €12,000 to €18,000) is included in the sale. It's a car with an interesting history. It spent the first 50 years of its life in Scotland where it was requisitioned by the Renfrewshire Territorial Army during the Second World War and, at some stage, came over to Ireland. It has been used for weddings, touring exhibitions, and had a cameo role in Ken Loach's 2006 film, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, starring Cillian Murphy.

The Humber is a convertible, with a folding hood, and removable side panels. "In those days, all cars were luxury items," Mee explains. "The seats are like an early 20th-century Chesterfield in black button-back leather. It had all mod cons, including a windscreen wiper, hand operated from a little knob inside the window. It wouldn't be very effective in a heavy shower."

The car is in full working order and arrived at the auction house under its own steam. "Once you get used to its quirks it's very a pleasurable car to drive," its current owner explains. "But it's nothing like a modern car. The foot pedals are very close together - people at the time must have had very small feet - and there's no door on the driver's side. That's where the gears are."

A 1970s article, published in a Scottish newspaper, tells the story of one of the car's previous owners who kept it in his garage for 16 years, apparently because he couldn't start it. That owner, and his mechanic, were unfamiliar with the magneto system, the precursor of the distributor. The Humber was then sold to someone who understood that all that was required was an adjustment to the timing. As its current owner explains, a car like this is not for everyone. "They take a lot of maintenance and nursing along. It's like a marriage - when you have a wife you have to take care of her - it's the same with a car like this. It becomes part of the family."

Part of the charm of the car is that it is still in factory condition. The interior and paintwork, "mole" coloured according to the registration documents, are untouched and only essential repairs have been carried out. "There have been many occasions that I've been tempted to strip it down," says the owner. "But something has always held me back. It's like an old coat that you feel comfortable in. That's what the car does for me." The old car has an element of audio that new vehicles lack: a loud but comforting engine and a raucous klaxon horn.

As well as the Humber, the same vendor is selling a 1926 Ford Model T (Lot 304: est. €15,000 to €25,000). This is a two-seater American coupe, left-hand drive, and also in running order. "They were made to go in rail, hail, sleet and snow," its owner explains. "And they do! But it's a far more difficult car to drive than the Humber." Unlike the Humber, the Model T has undergone essential restoration including a paint job in brilliant red. Henry Ford, who once said that "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black", will be turning in his grave.

The Vintage Car, Motorcycle and Collectables Sale takes place at Victor Mee Auctions, Cloverhill, Belturbet, Co Cavan, on Sunday at 2pm.

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