On the Road

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This new feature, which will not necessarily appear every month, is intended to provide for coverage of those cars which are not entirely new models or are not sufficiently interesting to warrant a full road-test report or “road impressions” treatment and also to cover asides and items about motoring gleaned mainly while driving about the country, cars being for driving, not for parking or picnicking in or washing at the kerbside on Sunday mornings. . . . It takes the same title as the feature which Owen John, whose real name was O. J. Llewellyn, wrote every week for The Autocar from 1905 to 1930. He was a private owner who bought an already outdated Brush automobile in 1903 out of curiosity, using it on his travels as a Government Official responsible for inspecting canal tunnels and bridges. He subsequently owned such vehicles as a 2-cylinder Clement-Talbot, a 19.6-h.p. Crossley, a Ner-a-Car motorcycle and a Poppe-designed 16/50 Rover saloon, of which he once wrote that it went like a dream “and gives me so little trouble that I can never find anything to write about it.” At the same time he had a Rover “Nippy Nine” as a second car, used by his family, and later a 10-25-h.p. Rover. It is perhaps appropriate that at the time of commencing this feature I, too, am running a Rover; but then many motoring writers favour this make of car; for example, Edward Eves (until recently), John Eason-Gibson, Rab Cook, David Phipps, Michael Kemp, John Langley, Harold Dvoretsky, Dr. Keith Jollies and others.

Owen John drove big mileages on business, commenting on roads, hotels, scenery and the changing scene as he did so, and he was offered various cars and products to comment on, apart from using his own vehicles. So this feature, although it appears monthly instead of weekly, and is unlikely to run for a quarter of a century, will be following in the wheeltracks of this prolific writer whose outpourings spanned the veteran, Edwardian and vintage periods of motoring, with the proviso that I shall be less literary than O. J. but will include a bigger dosage of technicalities, as befits the changed face of motoring journalism.—Ed.

* * *

Once a confirmed Beetle fan, these days I find myself driving only occasionally one of the original-shaped Volkswagens. But my one-time fanaticism for them sticks, because I am sometimes still accused of flaunting them at the expense of British cars, although a dozen years have passed since I paid homage so avidly to Wolfsburg products.

Today I regard a Volkswagen as sound transportation, excellent value-for-outlay, rather as one regarded the Model-A Ford as the vintage years ebbed away. The original Beetle, as imported into Britain, was in many respects far ahead of contemporary cars from Birmingham, Coventry and Dagenham. The present VW is not to everyone’s taste and other cars in like categories certainly compete with it and even out-flank it. Yet so cautious is human nature that when, in my opinion, it was the only car to buy at the price, its very unusualness turned many British families away from it; now, when I am only too willing to listen to reasons why a VW will not fill a particular person’s requirements, more and more people are clamouring to purchase them.

Just look at the figures! Volkswagenwerk have been producing an average of 1.5-million vehicles a year in recent times, of which 460,000 were exported to America in 1967. They are now, by a narrow margin, second only to Fiat as the largest motor vehicle producers in Europe, with 585,000 cars sold between January and June last year and over 10½-million Beetles built between 1958 and 1967 (compared to Ford’s 1.8-million Anglias) although their output is not augmented by baby cars at one end of the spectrum or heavy commercial vehicles at the other.

The VW I tried was the two-pedal, semi-automatic 1500 Beetle. That is to say, it had no clutch pedal and the gear-change was effected by a normal lever operating a micro switch at its base. I met a somewhat similar but less smooth system on small Renaults and other cars many years ago, and didn’t much like it. But since then automation has grown in esteem among the World’s car-using population and sales suffer if two-pedallers aren’t available. So Volkswagen, ever a make to progress with current trends, had to get going with automatic transmission. They now offer this as full automation on the 1600 and in this 3-speed stick-shift form on the 1500. The latter provides for starting easily from rest without touching the gear-lever even if it is in the 4.375-to-1 top-gear position. A boon to lady drivers, novices and the nervous. . . . It also enables a “normal” driver to select the two lower gears and change out of them as he (and some shes) desires. Apart from the fact that the changes are heavy and notchy, in contrast to the excellence of VW synchromesh, there are no snags, although those capable of coping only with automation may regard as such the absence of a hill-hold. Because the “electrikery-gremlins” are at the base of the gear-lever, not in its knob, resting a hand lightly on the lever does not throw out the clutch; but a straying knee will do this. (This is an improvement on those horrible semi-automatics in which a hand laid lightly on the gear-lever throws the car out of gear, as on Fiat, N.S.U. and even the £3,500 Porsche 911L, the 911L I tried recently also stalling in the most inconvenient situations.) There is enough creep to make starting easy and the flexibility of the 83 x 69-mm. flat-four engine, aided by the torque converter, is extraordinary. One tester wrote that he had driven across London in top gear. I wasn’t quite as automated as that, but I discovered that corners could be taken at a crawl without changing down, entirely without protest, and pick-up out of them wasn’t all that sluggish. Clearly, this semi-automatic VW is the beginner’s delight.

The disadvantages are a good deal of noise, and a fuel consumption of 27 m.p.g.—but of the least-expensive 91-octane petrol. (Absolute range = 241 miles.) The advantage is that the adoption of semi- and fully-automatic transmission has forced VW to abandon swing-axle i.r.s. on these models for an ingenious trailing-link i.r.s., with a transverse torsion bar. This has further improved Beetle cornering until it is now perfectly normal. So driving the car presents no oddities. The disc/drum brakes require a fair prod but are decently powerful and progressive, once the rather badly-placed wide pedal has been mastered. The old characteristics of some steering shake and a too-lively ride have not been eliminated but then neither have the excellent finish, good interior trim and the very comfortable seats. The fuel filler is now external, covered by a flap at the front o/s of the body, and so it is no longer tamper-proof or replenishable from a normal can.

There are still reflections in the screen and rear window, the interior lamp remains on the n/s on r.h.d. models, and you either like the compact interior, simple instrumentation, and the luggage-carrying arrangements of the Beetle or you don’t. The headlamps-flasher is on that well-contrived l.h. stalk and the entire car is rugged and implies reliability, which is why this make goes on selling and selling and selling. Just as the Model-A Fords, and before that Model-T, used to do.

In this form the VW isn’t fast, being all-out at about 80 m.p.h. But this is of no moment to this Island’s law-abiding drivers and it does out-accelerate most of the small semi-automatics. The test car was apt to stall from cold as a gear was selected and automation engaged it, which was annoying, and in 375 miles the engine had consumed a quart of oil. Personally, I was happy to be in an up-to-date Beetle. If you are in the market for one, the £83 extra which semi-automatic transmission costs can be offset by the feeling that you are being nice to the wife, while gaining the benefit of that under-steer handling for yourself! I won’t argue with those who think the Beetle has dated. But at just over £841 in this country I still think it is good value and the only car which meets fully a number of specific requirements.

* * *

I found myself at a farmhouse very much in the depths of the country some time ago and lined up outside, a truly impressive sight, were a late-vintage 37.2-h.p. Hispano-Suiza Kellner coupé de ville, a 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I two-seater and a Bentley R-type Continental. Later we went for short drives in these fine cars.

I was particularly interested to compare the Hispano with the Rolls. I had driven a few Hispano-Suizas previously but never a very good one. The way in which this Kellner-bodied car picked up speed and cruised swiftly along, to a purposeful deep note from beneath its long bonnet, was most impressive. Moreover, it had servo f.w.b. which were as powerful as modern brakes. The 3-speed gearbox is sometimes quoted as the poor feature of this car but what such critics cannot have experienced is the very good top-gear flexibility and performance of the Hispano-Suiza. This completely exonerates the absence of an extra ratio; this would be especially true when driving the car between distant towns in France. The gear-change, by r.h. lever, was easy, providing a lightning movement was accomplished to get into top from the second speed.

In the Rolls-Royce you sat up very high in the unique two-seater-cum-dickey Barker body. But although the engine was noticeably quieter than the overhead camshaft one in the Hispano-Suiza; the steering was less accurate, the gear-change, with the short r.h. lever automatically centring itself in the gate, less precise, and the steering lock poor, while there was relatively little performance. Our host emphasised that the Hispano was in excellent fettle whereas the Phantom might be a bit tired. But for those who were unaccustomed to both cars, there was no question which was the superior motorcar. . . . It is amusing to reflect that at a rather earlier era than that in which these two left Bois Colombes and Derby, a furious correspondence raged in The Autocar as to which make of car was truly the World’s Best. (Indeed, it ran for more than ten months, making present-day “Letters to the Editor” seem apathetic in comparison!) Ignoring those writers who had reached no definite opinion, I make the score eight in favour of this Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, six who preferred the 46/50 Napier, four who voted for the Lanchester 40, and three for the 37.2 Hispano-Suiza, before the discussion deteriorated to include Ford, Bean and £100 Carden. But perhaps this was indecisive, because not many readers would have driven the Hispano-Suiza in 1921/22.

The Bentley Continental? A fine car, with an automatic transmission you can over-ride so easily, confidence-giving brakes and road-holding, and the highest pinnacle of luxury in the comfort of its leather-upholstered armchairs and its interior appointments. I have been told, more than once, that this is the finest used-car purchase you can contemplate. But you still have to pay around £2,000 for a Bentley Continental and, bearing in mind the cost of keeping it in tyres and fuel, and lack of a worthwhile guarantee with used cars, I wonder whether its advantages are not outweighed, price for price, by some of the current luxury cars? I expect, however, that B.D.C. members, and others, will tell me I have missed the point. . . .

* * *

The terrible rash of costly (it’s your money) road-signs which has broken out in very recent times is unhappily prevalent in N.E. Hampshire. So I was glad to see that the Candovers (Preston, Chilton and Brown) have so far been spared, for they are typical English country villages, rivalled only in this respect by the Winterbournes farther West, so far as this region is concerned.

I am all in favour of big clear signs on roads where traffic moves fast. But to clutter up every country cross-roads and side-turning with great gormless tin signs, frequently repeated to reiterate information with mileages added, is wasteful, ugly and absurd. And we pay for ’em! When they give different distances on almost adjacent signs, and when the direction to large towns is given at very minor turnings from which strangers to the area are likely to emerge only on very infrequent occasions, I say this mania for roadside signs has gone much too far and is typical of the Civil Service mentality at its worst. It is bad for map-makers and will thrust on to the back-routes and byways those who previously were frightened away from them because of their inability to read 1-in. maps. Which is, I fear, a selfish thought. . . .

But over the unsightliness of over-large signs I am in good company, for the Earl of Haddington has criticised signs in East Lothian for this reason and they were attacked last year in Country Life.

* * *

Another personal dislike—the new A.A. badge. It is so unimaginative. Why not accept tradition and leave well alone?

* * *

Before I had had it for a full eleven months, the editorial Rover 2000TC completed 10,000 miles in my hands. I had intended to make this an occasion for a special article about it. But I can say, as Owen John did over 40 years ago of his o.h.c.-cum-cross-push-rod inclined-valve 16/50 Rover (see heading) that it has given so little trouble that I cannot find anything to write about it. Or scarcely anything.

These days 100,000 miles is all too short a distance in which to appraise properly a new car, 12,000, or even 24,000 miles being the more usual figures. But I am happy to have done 10,000 in the Rover with nothing more unfortunate than a breakage of the fuel-reserve and bonnet-release linkages, because other editorial cars ran into more serious troubles before even this mileage had been reached. My first, a Morgan 4/4, had its gearbox break up, with no spare ones anywhere in the country, at 6,200 miles. The Morgan Plus-4 which replaced it broke a clutch lever at 1,350 miles and thereafter had continual steering-damper fractures which were accompanied by uncontrollable wheel wobble.

The 1955 Volkswagen which came next nearly got to 10,000 without stopping involuntarily, but burst its oil-cooler just before the target distance, and subsequently a front-wheel bearing went and the timing gears stripped. Editorial transport was next provided, noisily and uncomfortably but safely, by an early Morris Mini-Minor, and this little car gave no serious trouble in the first 10,000 miles, except for electrical failures and a neglected battery which necessitated push-starting on three occasions. This encouraged me to have a Morris 1100 “on the firm,” but at 2,500 miles it boiled away all its coolant because the sealed system hadn’t been protected with anti-freeze and at 2,742 miles the gearbox seized up, and then, just before I had done my 10,000-mile stint with it, the fuel pump packed up and left me stranded. That was apart from a great many minor electrical and bodywork troubles. . . . An M.G. 1100 gave far better service, but was not strictly an editorial car.

So, in comparison, the Rover has done very well. I wrote of it when it was acquired and in the “My Year’s Motoring,” article last February, so there is nothing much to add. The clutch is either in or out but gives no other anxiety except for dragging slightly when engaging reverse; an odd noise when depressing it has been traced to the exposed coil return spring which is attached to the pedal. The servo all-disc brakes remain absolutely first-class, no pedal-pumping ever having been required, although they cannot have been adjusted more than once. The engine tends to stall after the “choke-off” light has been obeyed, as this happens at about 65º C. whereas the working temperature is 85° C. Petrol consumption has increased with mileage from the earlier 25 to 27 m.p.g., perhaps because I now drive the car harder, but is never less than 22½ m.p.g. and recently has been averaging 23.4 m.p.g. on local short-hauls, of costly 101-octane stuff, however. No Castrol XL is needed between sump draining at 5,000-mile intervals. The Pirelli Cinturatos have never punctured; their average tread-wear has been nearly six mm. rear, nearly five mm. front, from nine mm. on a new cover, checked with a P.C.L. depth-gauge.

The engine has never failed to start, if not always instantly, cold or hot, although the big Exide battery has been topped-up very infrequently, and there has been not a single electrical failure or shortcoming, except that the tachometer cannot be read in the dark. The brake-lever required adjustment early on, and the engine idled too fast. The Smiths Radiomobile radio has functioned reliably and nothing is amiss with the body trim, but, the car having been seldom cleaned and kept about 50/50 in the open and in a garage, rust is beginning to attack the bumpers, especially the back one. The exhaust system is starting to blow.

I suppose the Rover’s ride can be described as lurchy and the de Dion back-end is sometimes a bit too lively on bumps (I am told Konis cure this) but I find the car extremely comfortable and safe, and it sits on the road very well, my only real dislike being the steering, which feels lower geared than it is at 3½-turns, lock-to-lock, of a too-big steering wheel, which, however, has useful adjustable column-rake, and rather heavy on acute corners, while there is sometimes some kick-back.

I will leave it there, because I expect to have more exciting things to write about Rovers next month; I had thought of including a picture taken of the car immediately after it had completed the personal 10,000 miles, but it would look just like any other 2000TC, only dirtier, because the MRA “Nevarust” stainless-steel exhaust tail-pipe is covered in winter mud and the new Lucas rectangular quartz-halogen F28 fog-lamp and LR8 long-range Spotlamp (which you can buy for £5 19s. 6d. each) had not then been fitted.—W. B.