For me, a huge part of the joy of old vehicles are the sounds that they make. This is something that appears to be true for many fans of all types of motor vehicles, what with the burgeoning exhaust note design industry (something of a dead-end regarding motor vehicles, perhaps) and the like.
The latter is designed to appeal not only to the occupants of the vehicles themselves, but to make a sonic statement wherever the machine may be.
It might well be the case that a 12 cylinder engine in a Ferrari is recognisable from a country mile, but nowadays more mundane vehicles hardly advertise their presence at all, especially if they are electrically powered. But that wasn’t the case many years ago.
As a boy, when dozing off in my bed at the front of our house on the Walsall Road in Four Oaks, Sutton Coldfield, I could easily hear the cars, lorries and buses motoring up and down the hill on which the house was situated. By day, when out and about, the sonic soundscape was easy to decipher, coming as it did with visual backup, but at night there was no such assistance… unless I was up to no good, looking longingly out of the window at the other kids still out playing and enjoying long summer evenings.
Rather than counting sheep, I drifted off to sleep listening to the noises made by the vehicles of the day. Every hour, a Daimler Fleetline or Bristol VR bus would accelerate away from the bus stop outside The Crown pub and descend the hill. The former type made a soft dual-tone whine as it hit third gear, before the pitch hit a single note crescendo in fourth gear as it disappeared towards Walsall. Only the smaller engine, ex-Walsall Corporation types showed any difference; their puny 8.4L, normally aspirated Gardner 6LW engines had a fan fitted at the No1 end of the power plant and this added the sound of a fan heater on steroids into the mix. The Bristols featured a distinct rising and loud, single tone whine in third and fourth gear, quite different to the Daimlers.
Various car types emitted tell-tale idiosyncratic sounds, although very few were instantly when bowling along in top gear. The exceptions to this rule were the Ford Cortina Mk1, with its barrel-round, sonorous exhaust note vibrating through the tinny car, Morris Minors crackling and farting their way downhill on overrun, MGBs growling up the hill as right feet pressed harder on accelerator pedals and, of course, early Austin Allegros whistling tunelessly in design-flaw ecstasy. Of course, small chassis Triumph types were announced by their first gear whine, but such a low ratio was rarely heard on the fast stretch of road adjacent to our house.
But perhaps the most delicious sounds are heard from within a vehicle; the ‘whoop’ of a pre-select gearbox as first gear is selected, or the mellifluous whines of pre-war cars’ straight cut gears in the ratio below top. Though these sonic delights have disappeared from daily life, they should be enjoyed whenever and wherever possible, just as a fine wine as an accompaniment to an excellent dish.
They are soundtracks to lives past and clues as to what excited previous generations of transport nuts. These sounds are the future of the classic car world but are very much from the past. The internal combustion engine era is almost at a close. Let us savour these cacophonous and great soundscapes.
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