A dangerous subject

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OF late, it has been fashionable for certain daily, weekly and monthly papers, magazines, digests and whatnot, to publish distinctly risky articles and pictures, to the extreme delight of one section of readers, and the undisguised horror of others. As a respectable motor paper we cannot move with the times in this respect, so we will content ourselves with some observations on that most risky motoring topic— Average Speed. Once upon a time, when seventy m.p.h. was very fast indeed, and utility cars mostly had but two pots, letters used quite frequently to creep into the motoring Press to the effect that “Father of Ten” had got from A to B in his family vehicle in X hours and V mins, and nobody seemed to mind. Usually, when the sum was worked out, you found that if the average speed was good, it was not startling in point of suggestive maximum velocities, or else no one really knew if it represented anything very much anyway; it all depended on the distance between A and B, luck, the condition of this especial route, and what sort of car “Father of Ten” did his dice in. Anyhow, the roads were pretty empty then, and sooner or later, the driver would probably be hauled up for exceeding the then prevailing 20 m.p.h. speed limit somewhere or other, as likely as not on a dead straight, particularly secure road. However, as cars became faster, certain, we won’t actually say misguided, gentlemen, commenced to attempt to beat crack trains, and to establish records between the Metropolis and the University cities, and generally to indulge in orgies of speed, and our conservative motoring weeklies shut down on any and all references to average speeds set up along our rolling English (and Scotch and Welsh) roads. This was a disappointment to the writer, who, when not chasing his tail round Brooklands or climbing slimy hills or staying out on the road all night, to please the R.A.C. and various Seaside Town Committees, could obtain a lot of fun, just playing with a stopwatch and mileometer in co-operation. The fundamental of this vexed average speed question is that any figure recorded can have only a personal, and not a general significance.

The length of time taken between two points depends on so many factors— time of day, type of car, amount of traffic encountered, luck in avoiding chance hold-ups, the kind of roads traversed, the skill and restraint of the driver, weather conditions and so on— not forgetting the factor of very considerable error that can result from placing a touching faith in speedometer mileage readings and the accuracy of a dashboard clock or worn wristwatch. Those with lots of time on their hands in unpalatable places, incidentally, may care to sort the above factors into some sort of order of importance—and the result will still be an entirely personal judgment. Which only goes to emphasise that other drivers’ averages are just of interest and nothing more, in the vast majority of cases where average speed is quoted. Jack Cox may proudly tell us that he has averaged 45 m.p.h. from Puddle-by-the-Bridge to Greater Dishwater, on a day when the roads were slimy, and there was quite a lot of traffic about. The question is, how slimy and how much traffic? Maybe John Box doesn’t know the road at all, and, from thinking that this is at least a good show, if not something worthy of Arthur Dobson, he may suddenly decide that Jack Cox is an idle boaster, because when he does come to do this run, in his family car, he manages 43 m.p.h.—forgetting that the road is mostly level and in the early morning you need hardly ease your foot the whole way . . . Alas, someone not knowing the full facts of either case, will then preach about dangerous driving, as people told of good averages usually do. I think it is most unfair to take this attitude. If a driver deliberately goes flat out over a blind cross road, carves up overtaken vehicles without a warning hoot, and narrowly misses unstable objects like pedestrians and animals by a hairsbreadth, he is dangerous and is a fool—but nearly always because he cannot drive, and not because he is going places with his mind warped by average speeds. But if a driver, not doing any of these criminal things, appears to leave a very small margin when passing vehicles aware of his presence, if he takes open bends extremely fast, approaches light-controlled crossings at high speeds, and uses dashing tactics in crowded places, no one in this world, no matter how fine a driver, can fairly pass judgment on whether such driving is, or is not, safe. Only the man at the wheel, having a conscience, really knows—a clean “accident record” serves to confirm his own faith in his abilities before sceptical eyes. Some people say that however safe a driver is when he is only casually noting the average speed of a journey, he is almost certain to overstep the bounds of safe and decent driving if he deliberately attempts to set up a personal “record” for a given run. Well, I can only say that often I have tried to see how fast I can persuade a particular car to go from one place to another, and I am certain I have caused no inconvenience to anyone, far less endangered human or animal life, and done nothing detrimental to our interests, unless some unknowledgeable pedestrian or fug-box motorist has observed my passage and imagined and exaggerated non-existent risks. There has never been any gain beyond the interest of noting the speed, and certainly nothing that could make me forget the horror of killing or maiming other road and pavement users, apart from the fact that existence would be much the poorer for even a temporary parting from the friends who usually accompany me on such occasions; and that it’s usually someone else’s motor. It is purely a matter of individual temperament how often, and on what excuse, a man will take definite risks, just as some racing drivers can drive faster and faster when being chased, or urged by their pit to chase, and stay on the course, while others, after lap upon lap at great speed without trouble, find such fresh excitement too much and spin at a corner, or go off the road. Unfortunately, folk such as those who support the Pedestrians’ Association cannot be expected to consider these matters and would doubtless have had my licence suspended long ago, after observing the passing of some of the cars I have timed on road journeys. So the motor papers have until recently ignored average speed claims on the grounds, I suppose, that they cannot then be blamed for any “records” which may be discussed in indiscreet places. However, I feel that we are apt to forget that the high performance car only justifies itself by being able to complete a given journey faster than a utility vehicle, with equal or greater comfort, ease and security, much as we enjoy driving such cars fast for no given reason. It is only by carefully noting average speeds attained when handling a variety of cars that one truly appreciates the ability of the high-performance car in general, and of individual examples in particular. I have heard people aver that to attempt to put up a good time must induce dangerous risks. When I ask why, they point out that a driver is invariably found to be slower on a particular journey when the times are noted privately and the average worked out afterwards, than on an occasion when someone says “See how quickly you can get there!” as the car moves off. Surely the answer is simply that driving a fast car fast over public roads safely demands intense mental concentration and rapid physical action, and a driver skilful enough to bring such qualities into play when called upon, subconsciously drives more quietly unless expressly anxious about his journey time—always excepting those scatterbrains who set no risk in anything and are unsafe in charge of even a Lloyd cyclecar. So I take a great interest in my personal averages, when I remember to record them. It is possible to say very roughly what different types of cars should be capable of, over main road runs under normal conditions, over a reasonable distance. A baby saloon averages 25-30 m.p.h., a modern family saloon 35, a good medium size saloon or a sports-car 40, or 45 if conditions are really favourable; but anything over 45 takes some getting, and averages of 50 and upwards require extremely high qualities. Now, by basing the average attained by any given car on those figures, and taking the divers factors that govern average speed into consideration as they presented themselves in the instance concerned, you can form a very reasonable idea of how good or how bad is a car’s “road-ability.” It is just because these divers complex factors matter so much that, as I expressly emphasised at the beginning of this outpouring, other people’s average speed data means little or nothing, whereas one’s own findings can teach a lot. For example, I have averaged approximately 45 m.p.h., from Staines Bridge to Winterborne Abbas in a rather special 3-litre Bentley, and from Hanger Hill to Stanway Hill in an unstreamlined 1,100 c.c. Fiat Balilla saloon. To the casual observer, it would seem that the Bentley put up a poor show, as the bigger machine, and a sports-car at that. This is where the governing factors come in. I know that the Bentley had the longer run, which helps, but that I wasn’t used to a car which takes more getting used to than the Fiat, and that snow seriously hampered the latter part of the journey; while we took every limit at exactly 30; traffic encountered was about equal. So, without working to any formula or exact system, I know that while the Fiat put up an exceptional show, the old Bentley also did an excellent run. The findings are further enhanced because the same time-keeper and map-checker got out the figures on both occasions. That is but one example of how personal average speed figures can be a valuable guide in assessing a car’s “road-ability ” when outsider’s figures can seriously mislead. I may make a certain journey in a small, quite unsensational saloon and average a very satisfactory speed on a clear night over dry roads. Later I may go over the same ground again in a similar sized car of reputed higher performance, but in daylight fully loaded, encountering much traffic and wet roads. It will not be necessarily essential for this car to even equal the former average to be pronounced the “faster” of the two, because I can assess all the factors involved as those not present on both occasions can never hope to do.

I have explained why my own averages interest me immensely and other people’s only very superficially, but an exception can be made in the case of those quoted by reliable writers in the motoring Press, when the conditions are usually quoted in some detail and certainly time and mileage calculations can be taken as reliable. In spite of former avoidance of this dangerous topic, “The Autocar ” has of recent times published some average speed figures for runs undertaken by Michael Brown and H. S. Linfield, which I find of the greatest interest.

In January of last year, they had a remarkably informative article showing how road conditions in this country penalise average speed, data being obtained by timing three vastly different type cars between Staines Bridge and Bridport, a distance of 120 miles, under reasonably identical conditions. That article was called “Penalising Performance,” and every enthusiast should have read and digested it. A small saloon of medium performance, an Anglo-American saloon, and a 2-litre British sports-car were credited with potential averages of 56, 68 and 72 m.p.h. respectively, supposing that it would be reasonable to run them at 8/10ths maximum speed for 120 miles, if road conditions permitted. Michael Brown then goes to considerable pains to explain how British roads penalised these cars by 12, 19 and 24½m.p.h. respectively, in point of running time speed. He gives his estimates for the individual penalisation to each type imposed by overtaking and meeting traffic, speed limits, corners, and gradients. He raises the interesting point that on a busy road a high-performance car gains very little over a family car because its advantage in accelerating out of limits is offset by slowing at other times, so as not to embarrass approaching drivers. In the matter of overtaking, the high-performance car’s advantage either in point of good top-gear acceleration, or a high maximum on the indirect ratios is nicely emphasised. When it comes to cornering, the author shows that the true sports-car actually gains over its potential average on a bend of the 50 m.p.h. order, whereas the less stable cars lose. He makes the extremely interesting suggestion that our twisting roads may have been responsible for the very introduction of the real motor-car, and that modern cars in all categories owe a very great deal to the sports-cars of old. He also suggests that British main roads so penalise performance as to make the successful sale of high-performance cars very creditable, especially if of “sports” as distinct from “comfort” types. But I feel he is a bit conservative in stating that where a driver will slide open bends in a sports-car he will take weeks if not months before using the same tactics with a saloon designed mainly for comfort—I have slid bends in several quite comfortable saloons within a very short time of making their acquaintance; it all depends on the saloon. Leaving out the speed limit, the author put the penalty effects of the incalculable factors in this order:— junctions, gradients, overtaking, bends, and meeting traffic. The gain in time of the sports-car over the 10 h.p. saloon on this run, when conditions were very reasonably similar, was 17 mins. Remember, however, that 120 miles of very fast road was involved; over a run of double the distance, including, as is likely, more corners and deserted going, the difference would be likely to be much greater—even so, most of us can recall occasions when the day’s pleasure or profit would have been greater if it had been possible to terminate a 120 mile journey a quarter of an hour sooner than we did. These three runs were made to collect data rather than test the cars used, but it is interesting to see what speeds they made. They were a Talbot Ten saloon, a straight-eight Jensen saloon, and a 2-litre open Aston-Martin. The Talbot averaged 43.9 m.p.h., the Jensen 47.37 m.p.h. and the Aston-Martin 48.98 m.p.h. When I tried the same route, equally observant of built-up areas, with Peter Clark’s trials 3-litre Bentley, heavy snow made it necessary to stop the watch at Winterborne Abbas after snowbound roads had slowed us appreciably. We clocked 44.9 m.p.h. Here is yet another instance where quoting the average without consideration of the factors involved can be misleading, because to improve on the Talbot’s figure by only 1 m.p.h. sounds as if either the car or the driver was mediocre, yet the difference is better than it seems if you allow that really bad weather is as adverse a factor as any other of the incalculables. Usually, the longer the run, the higher the average, but on a really lengthy journey, varied road conditions and driver fatigue rather reverse this rule. Perhaps, therefore, I may be forgiven for mentioning, on behalf of a very fine car, that my own fastest drive of any distance was at 50.5 m.p.h. for 702 miles, with a closed 4¼-litre Bentley. Actually, it got from Westminster to John o’Groats at an average within 1½ m.p.h. of Michael Brown’s 120 mile dash with the Jensen, including all our stops, which embraced three refuels and a leisurely breakfast. But I have yet to return a timed road average of 66.6 m.p.h. as did Brown for the 11.1 miles from Grim’s Dyke Cafe to Tarrant Hinton, both with the Jensen and the Aston, where you are unhampered by villages, junctions or bends, but have to cope with long rises and drops in gradient. I have clocked 62 m.p.h. with the Bentley and 60 with Peter Clark’s Le Mans H.R.G., but both were taken over 30 mile stretches—I cannot remember how much we were checked on the former, but should say the H.R.G. was penalised as much by junctions, roundabouts and occasional overtaken traffic (and by the driver being absolutely new to the car) as the other cars were by gradients. Yet again, you see how unfair it would be to call the Jensen and A.-M. “much faster over favourable going” and leave it at that, on account of these “flash” average readings. That is the very devil of average speed statements. After the John o’Groats run, one person practically suggested it could not be done in the time, another said it could be done just as quickly in an S.S. costing about one-third the price of the Bentley, and H. E. Symons claimed to have done the same run in an early 14/56 Wolseley saloon, checking and. observing every 30 m.p.h. limit (92 miles of it), taking unhurried breakfast, lunch, tea, and fuel stops, and never exceeding 63 m.p.h., to get within 6 or 7 m.p.h. of our gross time average–and I should be the last person to doubt Humfrey’s figures.

Mr. Linfield also did some research on the average speed question with a Rolls-Royce “Phantom III,” interesting as yet another distinct type from the other three cars used for such a purpose by the same driver. From Northumberland to London, including a detour, comparatively slow sections, and negotiation of the Metropolis, the running time average came out at 46 m.p.h., which, I believe, was quoted as about the fastest average speed possible in safety on this particular highway, in a high-performance car—and the “Phantom III” accelerated from rest to 60 m.p.h. in 18½ seconds and achieved over 92 m.p.h. If this limit to speed on our A.1 highway seems conservative, it must not be forgotten that built-up areas would be properly observed and that this can reduce the average quite a lot—in his later tests Mr. Linfield found that a mere 12.8 miles of built-up area in 120 miles dropped the average by approximately 3 m.p.h.

Two more instances of Press-reported average speed may be mentioned. In 1938—seemingly a good year for methodical fast drivers—W. G. McMinnies persuaded G. H. Stancer, secretary of the C.T.C., to come with him on a fast long-distance run, to see how cyclists and motorists react to each other.

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