How fast did they go?

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It is depressing to consider how pre-war cars went, because most of the better ones were so very slow. Some years ago a Farnham dental surgeon who was moving house very generously gave me his comprehensive files of road-test data torn from the two leading pre-war weekly motor magazines. Browsing through this remarkable collection of performance figures prompted the foregoing remark. (Incidentally, this talented dentist used to sift all these figures before buying his own cars. I wish I could recall how this worked out. Unfortunately, all I remember is that he commenced motoring in a primitive Morgan three-wheeler, in which he made the then-current excursions to Brooklands, and that at the time of his move he was running a pre-war Derby Bentley.)

Anyway, with grateful acknowledgement to the two motor journals concerned, let us see how performance has improved down the years. So far as maximum speed is concerned, 100 m.p.h. was a rarity from pre-war production cars. I believe the first closed car timed by The Autocar at over “the ton” was an 8-litre Bentley, which exceeded the then-magic speed in one direction only by a little more than one m.p.h.; a 9 1/2-litre V12 Hispano-Suiza did exactly 100 m.p.h. by 1934.

However, out of 77 cars reported on by The Autocar in 1935 only two managed to exceed 100 m.p.h. and then only on the fastest one-way run and by less than a clear m.p.h. and both were open cars, a 4 1/2-litre Lagonda Rapide and a 28.8-h.p. Railton sports. But if you count the summary of 141 recent road-test reports which appears at the back of a similar journal in 1971 you will find that 66 cars exceeded 100 m.p.h., the Chevrolet Sting Ray by a clear 45.7 m.p.h. Indeed, the once-magic “ton” is obtainable today from fairly ordinary cars such as Ford Capri 1600GT, Cortina 2000 GTX, Executive Zodiac, 1 1/2-litre Opel Manta, Peugeot 504FI, Renault 16TS, etc., and an Austin/ Morris 1300 will exceed 90 m.p.h. It was rather different 36 years ago, when Britain’s fastest closed car, the Ford V8, could only manage a timed 82.38 m.p.h., 4-litres of Hupmobile saloon 78.26 m.p.h., the Renault’s Big Six 76.92 m.p.h. and an Austin 18 York saloon a mere 65.22 m.p.h. A Paris-Nice Hotchkiss saloon clocked 95.74 m.p.h., a Chrysler Airflow saloon 92.78 m.p.h., on one-way runs. These were big and costly cars 36 years ago; today cars such as the Morris 1800S, Simca 1501W, Vauxhall VX 4/90 and VW 411LE are quicker…

What about acceleration? The target for a modern high-performance car should be to 60 m.p.h. in 10 sec., although you often have to allow another second and some fractions and 12 sec. is acceptable. In 1971 you get it from Alfa Romeo 1750, Audi 1000LS, BMW 2000, Bond Equipe, Chrysler Valient, Citroën DS21 Pallais, Fiat 124 1600 coupé, Fiat 125 Special, Ford Escort Mexico, Cortina 2000 GT, Capri 2000GT, Jaguar XJ6, Mini Cooper S and Reliant Scimitar GTE, without invoking sports cars or exotic makes.

Before the War about the only car to break the 0 to 60 in 10 sec. barrier was the Railton. A 1935 Light Sports tourer clocked 9.8 sec. (with 100.56 m.p.h. top speed), or 8.8 sec. and 107.14 m.p.h. stripped for racing. A 1934 Railton-Terraplane tourer did 9.2 sec. (top speed, 88.24 mph.). So maybe the VSCC is justified in including Railtons in its p.v.t. category. In 1934 the 9 1/2-litre Hispano-Suiza coupé achieved 12.0 sec.

Other pre-war cars were much slower. A 1934 six-cylinder Frazer Nash Colmore needed 14.0 sec. and the 1933 TT Replica took 18.0 sec. The much-vaunted 1931 4 1/2-litre Invicta low-chassis tourer and an Alpine Trial Talbot 105 needed 14.4 sec. and the aforesaid Lagonda Rapide 14.6 sec. The Type 49 3.3-litre Bugatti tourer took 20.2 sec. from 0 to 60, and the legendary 38/250 Mercedes-Benz tourer as much as 21 sec. from 10 to 60 m.p.h., although the blower apparently served its purpose, getting this heavy car from rest to 90 m.p.h. in 45 sec. A 1931 Frazer Nash Boulogne 2-seater recorded 0 to 70 m.p.h. in 26 sec.

Mostly, however, the cars of 1935, representative of mid-way p.v.t. and 30/40 cars, were notoriously pedestrian, but some of the later pre-war cars had bucked up a bit. A 1936 4 1/4-litre Bentley saloon took 14.8 sec. from 0 to 60 (the 3 1/2-litre needed 20.4 sec. or 18.0 as a tourer), a Type 55 Frazer Nash-BMW 15.2 sec., but a blown Brough-Superior Alpine Grand Sport did 9.8 sec. in the wet in 1936, the later Lagonda Rapide 13.2 sec., the first V12 4.3-litre Lincoln Zephyr 14.0 sec. and the Type 500 s/c Mercedes-Benz cabriolet 14.8 sec.—The Motor usually pressed harder than the Stamford Street scribes and it is their figures I have quoted here. A 1931 12/60 Alvis two-seater clocked 10 to 60 in 20 sec.-whereas a Spridget does rest to 60 in 14.8 sec.

A Siddeley Special tourer occupied 18.4 sec. going from a standstill to 60 m.p.h. in 1934. The Rolls-Royce P.II took 23 sec., but a 1937 4.3 Alvis tourer got down to 15.3 sec. Later Ford V8s were slower, the 1937 30-h.p. saloon taking 15.4 sec. Note, however, that the 1937 328 Frazer Nash-BMW clocked 9.5 sec. from 0 to 60 m.p.h., the 1938 Lagonda V12 saloon 12.9 sec. and the Rolls-Royce Phantom III 16.8 sec. The 3 1/2-litre SS-Jaguar saloon could get from 0 to 50 in 9.0 sec. and the sports Meadows-HRG took 9.8 sec. from 0 to 50, although I only achieved this figure from a 10-m.p.h. step-off when I tested the red works car in 1937.

Comparison with vintage cars is less easy to obtain, because the early road-test reports quote only 10 to 30-m.p.h. times although later 50 m.p.h. was the norm. Some cars were so breathless as this pace that acceleration wasn’t recorded. The 1935 Austin Ruby saloon, for example, was harry-flatters at under 51 m.p.h. These 0 to 50s underline how gently pre-war cars picked up. The Austin 10/4 of that year took 40 sec. although an earlier model clocked 36 sec., a later Austin Ruby Seven 31 sec., while a 1931 Austin 12/6 ran out of steam at 48 m.p.h., after 43 sec., although the Austin 16/6 Burnham saloon got to the full 50 m.p.h. in 34 sec. The 1937 baby cars offered the following 0 to 50 pick-up: Austin Ruby, 58.0 sec.; Fiat 500, 63.6 sec. A 1935 Morris 8 2-seater did this in 32.6 sec.; the 1934 model in 26.0 sec., but a 1934 Ford 8 saloon required 34.6 sec. whereas a 1935 Ford Ten saloon managed 18.2 sec. You see what I mean about pedestrian! Why, the 7-h.p. Jowett didn’t even get timed to 50 m.p.h. its top speed as a 1935 saloon being 54 1/2 m.p.h. Compare with 18.3 sec. for a 1963 Mini 850, 14.9 for a modern Imp, 33.6 for a Fiat 500L, 15.9 for a Hondamatic. And how about the 1934 Citroën Ten taking 34 sec. from 0 to 50 m.p.h., and their Big Twelve 43 sec?

However, fierce acceleration and high top speed are not necessarily any part of the charm of old-car motoring. Old cars are enjoyable when progressing at “representative” speeds, those of which they were capable when new. Indeed, one of my objections to imitation-ancients constructed from modern mechanicals is that when undertaking such chicanery it is hard to resist an appreciable uplift in performance.—W.B.

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