As a change from following the story of an individual component, it is proposed, this month, to deal with a number of components (in fact as much of the complete motor car as space will allow) over a limited period; that period, moreover, that Clutton once described as one “of most decadent design.” Two things happened to condition what the designer was to do during that period, especially during the earlier part of it. First, a world slump (or financial depression if you prefer it) seriously curtailed the spending power of the British public on luxuries in general, and quality motor cars in particular, and secondly, the government removed the 20-mile speed limit. Much ink has flowed on the subject of the pros and cons of vintage motor cars, and the author has no intention whatever of adding anything argumentative, but it is absolutely essential to the proper taking of either side in that argument that these two conditioning factors be firmly borne in mind from the very beginning. With this as a background let us examine what did happen technically to a well-known 16-h.p. car between 1929 and 1932. First, a new design team took over, due to the financial reorganisation of the company, and this, too, happened in many other cases. Quite what this meant in esprit de corps in the technical department depended on the common sense of those taking over, and the present writer most certainly would not presume to judge what happened in the case he has in mind. No doubt there were the usual “sore heads,” human nature being what it is, but it is the result by which we must judge. In this particular example, the new people kept the bulk of the engine, but made fairly extensive alterations to the pattern equipment to accommodate a bell housing and a unit gearbox, and to do away with the separate inlet manifold plate that certainly was one of the crowning glories of the earlier car (secured by dozens of cheese-headed bolts). The chassis was also kept, with minor modifications, as well as the springs, rear anxle and other attachments, but later they added substantial cross-bracing. New servo brakes, hydraulic shock-absorbers and cam steering replaced the three-leading-shoe, friction and worm devices on the 1929 car. The power unit sat upon rubber cushions in 1932, had a new American-type carburetter with a choke, a pressed-tin rocker cover, had grown some radiator shutters and a cam-type petrol pump to replace the Autovac, but apart front some general cheapening and rearranging of the starter, there was very little to see or feel in the difference. The new instruments had gone all “square” in place of the more logical round shape, and the body was, of course, a pressed-steel affair in place of coachbuilt. The overall price had dropped from about £600 to £400, and at once the car started to sell and the vicious downward spiral of cost was stopped.
Obviously, the financial ability to install new machinery together with a really live publicity department between them produced the bulk of this reduction, although it still must have meant a good deal of pruning in the design department, but it is nevertheless astonishing, if we are fair, that a car could be so transformed price-wise, and the vintage-minded should remember that, whatever they may feel about the comparative merits of the two cars in retrospect today, there was this substantial difference in the initial price.
Now it happens that the writer has had the opportunity recently of comparing the two cars on the road, and, for what they are worth, the following are a few, it is hoped, unbiased impressions. The new car is undoubtedly faster and livelier, due, chiefly, to the reduction of some 10 cwt. in weight. It is also quieter and generally smoother. The earlier car, being designed to run under the speed limit, gives a sense of strain above 40 m.p.h., although it will go up to 60, which is also about the maximum of the newer car. It has however that charming characteristic of “bowling, steadily along” which is proper to the quality touring car of 1929, and there appears to be little to chose between the point-to-point averages that are put up over short “business” journeys. At the other end of the speed scale, the newer car loses every time; indeed traffic driving is almost a pleasure in the 1929 version, so flexible and sweet are its manners below 30. Even its heavy, exposed flywheel seems no hindrance to a smooth and steady pickup from a literal crawl, but against that, it is very apt to “run out of third” once the towns are passed, and for passing or hill-climbing on the main road, the “twin top” box of the 1932 car is very much better. Starting is worse with the newer car, especially as “joggling” the throttle swamps the whole outfit, but, to be fair, it is necessary to flood the older “triple diffuser” to be certain of a “first push” start. Petrol consumption is about the same, which is surprising, and although both cars only do about 18 or 20 to the gallon, the newer car tends to drop more in traffic or when “pressing on,” perhaps due to the presence of the pump jet, or to the fact that the older car has a weak mixture control that can be helpful if intelligently used. In the matter of braking, 1932 has it every time; the pedal pressure is lighter, and one can at least lock the wheels, whereas you have to be very wide awake indeed on this score in the earlier car. They will stop you, those 1929 brakes, but the pressure required is enormous, and the only offsetting feature that the writer can see is that they stay adjusted much longer than their more modern counterparts. As regards general roadholding and handling, there is not a great deal to choose, although again, the newer car can he worse if the shock-absorbers fall to pieces as these early hydraulics were rather apt to do. Against this, there is an awful feeling of “having a lot of weight moving quite quickly” with the 1929 affair which is psychologically bad front the driver’s point of view. The newer car definitely feels to he more “in one piece,” too, which tends to he comforting, but again, its steering is spongy and feels rather vague against the crisper engineering of the older mechanism. ”Much of a muchness,” as the saying is.
Comfort is good in both cases, with ease of ingress in favour of the centre gear lever, but when it comes to mental comfort, particularly as regards rattles, then the old car wins. Its body noises are at least consistent down the years, and you get used to them, whereas the newer car was probably quieter to begin with and basically remained so, but the door handles, window winders and incidental fittings are poorly executed and their rattles tend to irritate more than the basic body noises of the older car. When it comes to the smaller details like drain taps and starting handles, comment is superfluous.
Now it may be pointed out that to compare two cars many years after they were first made is hardly fair, but it is quite impossible to find two that are in identical condition, and after all, it is only alterations in character that we are looking for for the present purpose. If one were asked whether there had been technical progress over the period, the fair answer must he in the affirmative, more especially as there is another psychological factor that is always forgotten in comparing vintage and post-vintage cars and that is the urge they are capable of inspiring in their average owners to look after them. If £600 was paid for a car of quality in 1929, no one but a fool would do other than see that he or his chauffeur paid attention to the maintenance manual as if it were his very prayer book; but, human nature being what it is, there was not the same degree of careful attention if the motor car cost half the price, and was equipped with chromium plating and other labour-saving dodges.
Even today, it is popular to point with derision to the finish of modern cars, forgetting that the vast majority of motorists look upon their cars rather in the same way as their refrigerators, something that should work for ever with no attention except that which is essential. During the period between 1930 and the war, motor cars doubled in number on the roads of our island, the average price dropping very considerably, and this in large measure accounts for the dilapidated condition of some of the remnants that are seen on the roads today, which remnants are sometimes wrongly laughed to scorn by the vintage-minded. But that is not to say that the right-minded vintage enthusiast may not point to some pretty ghastly things which did happen during the “decadent” period. For example, some of the. so-called “sports” cars of the era, Wolseley Hornets, already under-powered, laden down with cowls, stoneguards, 8-in. instruments (speedometer going up to 120 m.p.h., of course), bonnet straps and quick-lift filler caps.
Or what price a “specially-tuned” side-valve Morris Minor, with polished head and “streamlined” exhaust manifold, which ensemble was pleased to style itself “Le Mans”? At £295 we were offered a hilarious Crossley sports, whose performance graph in Motor Sport barely tops 50 m.p.h. (not yet fully run-in, presumably!), but the runner-up for the “horror stakes” was probably a “Little Demon” M.G. that even had streamlined headrests for its intrepid driver and passenger! The prize-winner was probably the Vale Special, a car that, complete with all the pseudo-racing paraphernalia, would shame Jane Russell, and with a performance that would just put an Austin “Twelve Six” behind it. Really, we ought to have been ashamed of ourselves, especially when you think that an “Ulster” Austin Seven cost quite a lot less than some of the Hornets. Oh yes, there was much to support the vintage point of view, but it is against the useless and the purely decorative which add to the cost or detract from the performance that the real criticism should be directed.
Fashion, therefore, dictated much of what the motor-car people put on the market in the post-vintage era, but there was also much muddled technical progress as well, and oddly enough, the period even proved “the dark hour before the dawn” in some respects. The old concept of the car as a separate chassis onto which a body was mounted was gradually dying, and although the first attempts to produce the successor were often pathetic, in one case at least something absolutely classic resulted. In the author’s opinion. Model T, “Baby Austin” and Morris Cowley found a worthy successor in the “traction avant” Citroën.
Here, from the somewhat drab surroundings of its competitors, and in the middle of a dull period of contemporary design, arose a perfect example of the new conception of a motor car for the quickening traffic conditions. Like all classics, it has hardly had to be altered since, and probably will not be required to be altered until an even newer motoring era dawns. A further first-Class design that arrived during the period under review was the 8-h.p. Ford and its derivatives, which carried on the “poor” man’s motoring tradition where the Austin dropped it. These two are perhaps the best examples of the good that came out of a seemingly dull and uninteresting period, but all the while most other manufacturers were groping along the same lines in search of the new ideal of the “all-in-one-piece” vehicle. The idea was not, of course, new, for Lancia had the germ of the idea in the very early ‘twenties. Most British manufacturers took some years to reach the same target, with frames gradually becoming deeper and deeper and cross-bracing becoming more and more robust, but gradually, even between 1929 and 1932, the difference in feel was noticeable, and the motor car became more the precise instrument for carrying out its driver’s will, as opposed to the “carriage for going along the road,” however splendidly that carriage might have gone previously. The change had not been completed by 1939 by any means; but the foundations bad been laid during the “decadent” period with much toil and sweat, each manufacturer having his own individual approach, some good and some bad, but always with a wary eye cocked to fashion, fashion which let some sadly stray front the true path of progress. As good an example of this as any was probably the small Austin, which reached its peak in 1933, and thereafter merely became heavier and more hideous. The “Ruby” that finally went out of production in 1937 offered no advantage over the 1933 model, except an enclosed spare wheel, and a mass of unreliable electrical equipment quite uncalled for on a purely utility vehicle. It ceased, in fact, to be a “forthright” motor car.
The real improvements during the period were undoubtedly brakes, gearboxes, price reduction and the aforesaid “all-in-one-piece” feel, and many accessory people helped towards these ends. Consider one small item, the endless V-belt. That alone must have saved thousands of pounds on water pump, dynamo and fan drives, and although they look shoddy, no one can deny that they really do work in practice. Against this, fashion dictated many needless things. One year it was all free-wheels, then battery master-switches, then “one-shot” chassis lubrication that often did not, and sometimes even additional bearings were cobbled onto existing crankshafts that had been perfectly satisfactory for years past, merely to find a selling point in the hard struggle for existence. Pity the poor designer through it all, for often his task was a hard one.
But we are through the period now, and there are many good signs of a return to the functional, but at the same time we have lost much that is of value. The demise of the small individual quality car firm, now spreading sadly through the land, had its beginnings daring the period under review.
Enormous tooling outlays were required to produce one-piece “body-cum-chassis” layouts, and often the smaller man could not compete. This in its turn started the falling off in the specialist coachbuilding business, a traditional trade that was one of our greatest assets. There were other similar cases.
The writer apologises for drifting from the technical angle somewhat in this article, but for a full appreciation of the technical history of the motor car such thoughts are sometimes necessary to get it all into focus.
Automobile engineering, after the vintage period, became so much a question of close co-operation between the designer, the publicity man and the costing department. It is likely to become even more so in the future, with politics and religion thrown in too, to judge by the dwindling list of names of large-stale manufacturers in the motor-car field. The responsibility for mucch of the present state-of full employment now rests with the Motor Industry, and alas, the day of the “master designer known by name” is gone, whether we like it or not. As someone said to the writer not long-ago,”What the hell is a thermodynamic?” — and he sold motor cars, too! — “A. B. C.”