The Early Days of the Motor Car around Norwood

The motor car had arrived. There was a high advertising propaganda programme by BP in the late 20’s and early 30’s: half pages of the main newspapers of cartoons, popular song parodies and so on, extolling the virtues of BP motor fuel, and showing the little man in his little car. Only a minority could afford one of course, but those who could were also discovering the unspoilt joys of the bluebell country. With a precautionary two-gallon can of petrol clamped to the running board (the what?), as supply points were few and far between, and no white lines on the road, there were fresh fields that few who are young now could imagine. Even to be driven, then, down familiar streets, at a speed that seemed dizzying to a pedestrian, was a great thrill. In the long streets of smaller houses in Upper Norwood a car was a comparatively rare sight. We went to look around it – check it out, as they would say today – we knew the makes, some long forgotten now: could recognize all the features, with greater variations then – even the screw-on hub caps were individual – and wonder whose it was and why it was there.

Although their basic layout was much as today – engine, gearbox, transmission, differential etc, - cars were in respects still rather primitive, especially in the braking system. A development could be seen when some started to carry a red triangular plaque on the back marked Four Wheel Brakes: the technique when stopping on a hill (one would say today parking) was to turn the front wheels abruptly into the kerb in case of brake failure. One driver once did not take this precaution, with disastrous results. He had left his car on the steep part of Salters Hill, below Wheatley Road. Perhaps through brake expansion in the heat of the day the car moved off, gathering speed as it went. It ran straight through the railway arch at the bottom of the hill, crossed Gipsy Road and demolished the doors of the Two Towers pub opposite, killing outright an unfortunate woman customer or passer-by. I remember a boy, who had been to survey the scene, telling me with ghoulish relish: “You can see the blood all over the step!”

On a pleasanter note, there was an elderly doctor named Whitmarsh who had a large four-square house at the end of Gipsy Road where it meets Croxted Road; perhaps it is still there. He must have had a very pleasant outlook over the triangle on the long-rising cow pasture I have mentioned. His car, which stood outside, was a stately conveyance such as one sees now in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. Open, with high-built coachwork, mudguards in graceful arabesques over the thick-spoked wheels, and magnificent brass headlamps, converted to electricity no doubt. Perhaps a De Dion-Bouton, or a Talbot Darraq; I have forgotten the make. It was really not so remarkable then; rather like somebody today driving a 1960’s vintage car, which might merit a glance without being extraordinary.

But as the 1930’s progressed traffic was increasing. I must have seen traffic lights on bus journeys into London, but the first system I saw actually installed was at the Gipsy Hill/Westow Street cross-roads. Out of town, the authorities were still unsure as to how motorists would react, and whether they would obey coloured lights like conditioned rats in a Russian laboratory. When Upper Norwood’s lights came into operation there was a friendly constable to advise people - ”Stop there at the white line, sir. Thank you” “Proceed when the light shows green.” etc. Later on at the same location rubber sensor strips were let into the road to regulate the flow of traffic.

Then came the first traffic roundabout I ever saw. It was at the wide intersection of Crystal Palace Parade, Church Road, Westow Street and Anerley Hill. All at once appeared a wide circle of brightly-painted oil drums, joined by beams or planks. Most thought that some central excavation was to take place, and were unsure as to what to do. It took some time to conform to the gyratory direction until it was built as a permanency.

Looking down on these changes from above was the Crystal Palace South Tower, with a strange framework construction protruding from the Gallery. Part of the early television experiments of – I believe – the John Logie Baird system, which was not adopted anyway. But technology was with us. The war came, and quiet, sleepy, leafy Upper Norwood was never the same again. What else is, anyway?

Michael Sisley

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