The importance of American enthusiasm

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An article of topical interest, by Alan K Clark

To the majority of enthusiasts in this country the word “Continental” has for long been evocative of respect, admiration and the desire to emulate. Behind and supporting this notion there stands a long tradition of efficiency in the design, the construction and the driving of motor cars and in the organisation of events in which they compete. And it is true that in all these matters the Continentals are still, if not pre-eminent then at least, highly competent. But it is well at times to conduct an objective inquiry into the existence and validity of traditional beliefs and see if they are still tenable on their original or any grounds. And this I propose to do.

One may permissibly, I think, start from the premise that the object of competition is to increase sales, both directly, of the products of the victorious’ manufacturers; and indirectly, by means of elevated prestige and so forth, of the national product in general. Before the war the motoring markets of the world were to a far greater extent than today divided into watertight compartments. America satisfied her own needs and to a large extent these of the undeveloped and pioneering areas of the world, Many of which today are in what is known as the sterling area.

England also satisfied her own singularly tasteless requirements and, having no need to export, produced a singularly unimaginative and tedious type of car.

In Europe, however, demands were more exacting and consequently competition stimulated by the forced-expert policies of Germany and Italy was more evident. Naturally, to appeal to such an enthusiastic buying public it was necessary to race the products against one another, and so, amongst other advantages, there was bred a race of motor cars highly controllable and rapid. English gentlemen-enthusiasts took tremendous trouble about competing in Continental events, but as there was no economic necessity impelling the manufacturers there was no real backing. The gentlemen were unable to bear the cost alone and the efforts of Sunbeam, Bentley, ERA, and others petered out and sometimes never even really got going {in the case of Sunbeam it must be acknowledged the enthusiasm of a Frenchman, Louis Coatalen, and another article in this issue emphasises what a strong combination allied English and French participation in racing proved to be.–Ed}

English enthusiasts thus tended to gravitate more and more to the Continent, a process which was not discouraged by the motoring journalists who enjoyed having drinks with Monsieur Noghes, chatting with Herr Ullenhaut, and getting big meals on expense accounts in French restaurants.

Today however, the watertight compartments have broken down. England must export to save her life, and the race is on (in more senses than one).

And what of the Continent? The cocktails with M Noghes, the interviews with Uhlenhaut, the steaks at the Chapon Fin, these are still going on, but the market is worthless, not because the Europeans won’t buy our products, but because we don’t want them to. With the exception of Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and Sweden, European currency is worthless—worth even less than the pound—and these four countries have big Continental manufacturers right on their doorsteps, long established agencies in their cities, and are the scene of very stiff competition by manufacturers of very worthwhile motor cars who know just what their public want. To sell there on an increasing scale would be very ditlicelt, and even were it possible to increase sales a hundred per cent, these countries could still not begin to absorb the number of cars which we must export every year.

English exports have, in fact, to go to two areas, the Empire and the ogre’s den itself—the Americas. Sales inside the sterling area are helped by the dollar shortage common to the whole bloc which excludes American cars in competitive numbers, but how long this will last (ride the latest Australian import slashing regulations), and what is their true worth in terms of real financial gain to the national economy, is doubtful.

In America, however we have available a real, lasting, and expanding market, of which we must take advantage if the motor industry and, indeed, the national standard of life, is to survive on its present scale. This advantage rests on two bases, American riches and American enthusiasm. Both North and South America have one tremendous advantage over the rest of the world. You can be quite certain that for every ten people who can afford to buy a car today there will be twelve who can afford it next year. The living standard and purchasing power in these countries goes up and up each month and (up to a very distant point) the richer people get the more they want to show how rich they are. First sign of prosperity—owning a car; next stage, own a better car: next, own a better, and soon better means nicer, more distinctive—a terribly important term in America—and faster. Running parallel to this desire to be distinctive there is a very rapidly increasing enthusiasm for speed, controllability, responsiveness—qualities in a car for their own sake. The bulk of this enthusiasm resides still in the “hot rod” movement, but the real “foreign car” enthusiasts are nearly as numerous in some parts of the Country, and from my own experience I would regard the ultimate fusion of these two groups as inevitable. There is, as you have been told recently in your own correspondence columns; as yet little fraternisation between “hot rodders” and foreign-car drivers, but the fact remains that they both have something in common—the desire to go fast and the desire to “show off.” You have also been told from the same source that the average “hot rod” will out-perform all imported cars except the Jaguar XKC and the Ferrari America, and this one may take leave to doubt, although such a direct contradiction is really outside the scope of this article, Which is devoted to basic principles. The fundamental point as seen by the author. Fast, specialised motoring has come to stay in the USA, and its development from the admittedly adolescent cult of the “hot rod”—an excellent “round-the houses racer” with breath-taking acceleration and bizarre appearance—into the more sophisticated taste for something that will sit on a shallow curve at 110 mph when the “hot rod,”  feeling a little uncomfortable at 80, is simply a matter of time.

I am not suggesting that the “hot rod” will soon be extinct ; it is far too entertaining and thrilling a toy for that. But I do feel that from the main body of its devotees will be drawn a fast, increasing number of enthusiasts for cars with more reliable handling qualities, not to mention the advantages of an elegant appearance and generally enhanced “sex-appeal.” As an example of this trend one may note the remarks of Roger Huntington, one of the high priests of “hot rod” technology, who admits the superiorityof the best English power units but rules them out on the grounds of expense. His actual words in print on one occasion were:: “Let’s not pine for the Jaguar but work on the stock block and save a couple of thousand clams.” However, he hardly mentions the chassis; and his works almost totally ignore the question of keeping all four wheels on the ground while twice the designed power gushes out of the stock block, an indication of how much the Americans have still to learn about fast road cars.

This ignorance of the chassis and how good and safe it can make a car is reflected in American drivers’ technique, which, with one or two notable exceptions, like Walters, Fitch, and Hill, the old “hot rod” style : “Slam on the brakes at the last fire hydrant on 23rd Street, jerk her round the corner into Main, and then start burning rubber.” Even their race tracks are influenced by this concept, compounded of round-the-block Hop-up Races and Midget Speedway technique (one should not forget that the latter is practically the only form of competitive motoring that the majority of Americans have seen up to now), and the circuit at Sebring has no fewer than seven corners that traverse through more than ninety degrees in a lap of 5.5 miles.

What then, is the American market ? Enormous latent. ethusiasm —more people watched Watkins Glen than the total attendance at all Silverstone meetings last year !–considerable ignorance, and an amazing ingenuity and adaptive genius. Whoever thought in this country of a supertuned TC MG being cooled with dry ice ? Or of hacking 8 in out of a Jaguar XK120 frame, then winning races with it ? Or of Ford V8 engines in TD MG chassis ? Or of boring the 2.6 Alfa-Romeo out to 3-litres and then fitting a blower ? Or of putting the Jaguar XK120 engine into an SS100 ? Our market and behaviour is far too set, both by custom and by Government restrictions, for such imaginative flights. But in America the market is wide open, there they will try anything, and are immensely susceptible to the results of competition. And that means racing as well as big-talk behind plate glass.

The old adage, “If the name wins the race the factory product sells,” was never truer than here. In lay opinion the entry of factory teams in all the American sports car races is far more important to the individual manufacturers and indeed to the British Motor Industry generally than entry in any Continental event (with the exception of events like Le Mans, and the Alpine-Rally, whose results have a world-wide significance).

What, in terms of sales and foreign currency, does the result of, for example, the Targa Florio mean ? The lire is worthless and so is the franc, so prestige in Italy and France, though agreeable, has little direct relation to economic reality. The most for which one could hope would be a dozen orders from Switzerland and the same number from Belgium. Net gain—to the Treasury about $60,000 of hard currency ; to the manufacturer–a day’s output sold. But win the Reno Road Race and the whole of Nevada and the adjoining State are wide open to your salesmen. I know the car that won at Reno had an English chassis, but we have seen what little heed the majority of Americans pay to that part of the design as yet. Its the “motor” that counts, and the “motor” in this case, as in so many-others, was a Cadillac. Cadillac, Cadillac, Cadillac—” “Jeez, bud, you can’t beat a Caddie !” “No sur, you can’t beat a Caddie ; these furrin’ cars, they sure had their hides tanned off.”

So there we are. Not so.good  American “motors” finished in front of English engines in all but one, of the six major USA and two chief SA races last year. The exception occurred when the leading American “motor’s” (English) chassis packed up.

Let me close what I am afraid will be an unwelcome, though sincere expression of opinion, by reiterating my points. With very rare, and obvious, exceptions, competition in Europe has no economic and therefore no real significance. The seat of our competitive effort should be transferred to the United States, where there exists boundless enthusiasm and tremendous opportunity. This opportunity will not last for ever because both American and Italian manufacturers are alive to it and have already begun to try to take advantage of it. And for us to take real advantage of it we must have factory teams and drivers operating more or less permanently in the USA, i.e., we must introduce a fully professional touch into what is still, although decreasingly, an amateur occupation. Finally, let me say that, in my opinion, unless it is quickly repaired, the Jaguar factory’s omission to enter team of Mark VIls in the PanAmerican road race, or even one XKC at Sebring, will do us more harm than any and all of the BRM’s debacle last year. [And now ponder the news that Stirling Moss had planned to fly to America to drive a Jaguar at Sebring, but according to current reports, changed his mind in favour of some more BRM testing at Monza.–Ed.]