Matters of Moment, April 1981

• “April Fool” Cars

As this issue of Motor Sport is due to appear on April Fool’s Day we can perhaps be excused for thinking about those cars which, because they have fooled their owners and drivers by developing defects, often all too early in their life-span, might be called “April Fool’s” cars, or at least be described as cars apparently designed and/or made by fools.

Those addicted to motor-racing history will probably recall the habitual non-starters in important races, cars that were hailed as new and exciting but which never made the starting grids — which is the reason why we tend not to publicise too liberally new cars, whether racing cars or catalogue models, until they have been proved on circuit or road. Apart from the classic non-arrivals on the race starting-lines — do you remember among others the Sefac, of which it used to be said that you went to see it race but saw nothing at all? — there were sad cars that broke things almost before they were run-in. The straight-eight GP Talbots, Coatalen’s pride in 1926, that broke their three-piece front axles, the complex Grand Prix Delage team of the same year that roasted the feet of their drivers until drastically modified, the 1 1/2-litre Maserati that literally broke in the middle during the 1927 Targa Florio, and so on.

I have seen the complete engine of a racing car drop out, at Brooklands, and I have been in a car in which the same not immediately remediable defect happened — but in these cases the reasons were metal fatigue and fibre-board fatigue, respectively. In racing anything can happen, but until I had read John Wyatt’s new book about the Austin Motor Company (see page 418) I wasn’t aware that as talented an engineer as Mr. (later Lord) Herbert Austin could have had the cast-iron flywheels of the first Austin Twenty cars burst at the modest 2,000 r.p.m. these engines attained. That was a very long time ago, of course. The disturbing thing is that these fool’s cars are still with us.

Indeed, for more than a year Big Brother, apart from demanding that cars more than three years old are given official good-condition certificates and imposing random Police checks for the same purpose, has, in the guise of the SMMT/Department of Transport’s Code-of-Practice, been busy looking at defects in newer vehicles and insisting that the manufacturers thereof try to call such vehicles in, until the defects found have been eradicated. Norman Fowler, the Secretary-of-State for Transport, is now thinking of extending this investigation to motorcycles, caravans, trailers, and what he calls “components in the after-market”.

All this mechanical mayhem seems rather astonishing, in an age when men have been successfully landed on the Moon, when most of us take for granted the tremendous modern miracle of TV pictures transmitted by Satellite, and when nothing whatsoever is thought of our being able to watch moving colour-films in our homes without visible connections with the studios from which they are broadcast – it was the Motoring Scientist Prof. A. M. Low, a prominent figure in Junior Car Club circles in the 1920s, who forecast that one day we would all be able to have adequate entertainment brought to us without any need to emerge from our “caves”, to the ultimate detriment of human legs and arms. And I believe that the “feelies” as an extension of cinema (and TV) viewing, predicted by Aldous Huxley, is now possible, as an additional dimension to the entertainment of picture and sound from the no-longer-silent screen.( The only reservation here seems to be the use of the term “entertainment”, which so many of today’s TV programmes are not, so that in this Year-of-the-Disabled someone might well enquire what is being done for TV Script-writers, Producers and Directors with obviously disabled minds who think continual “porn” and filth constitutes entertainment from the small screen, as in a recent BBC play that was called, ironically, “Sorry”. . . .)

To return to the motoring world, these mechanical defects still prevalent in AD1980 are numerically startling. According to the D.o.T., a total of 685,794 vehicles were found to be defective in the 18 months since the recalls started in July 1979. All this sounds pretty depressing, considering how expensive cars are and how such defects might well endanger lives. So we looked a little more closely at the details released. Leaving out commercial vehicles, the makes of car which upset the D.o.T. in the period under review were Jaguar, Rolls-Royce, Ford, Fiat, Reliant, Toyota, Talbot, Peugeot, Audi/NSU, Porsche, VW, Saab, Volvo, Lotus and Mercedes-Benz. In several cases more than one model was involved. Another potentially disturbing factor in the report is the number of defective vehicles untraced, in spite of the efforts made by the manufacturers and the DVLC at Swansea.

For example, at the time of the report over 10,000 Reliant Robins — the low-tax three-wheeler which we may all find ourselves using if motoring and car-owing costs continue to increase at the prevailing rate — with a possible weak steering-box bracket were untraced, and at the opposite extreme more than 100 Daimler/Jaguar XJs were likely to set themselves on fire as their seats were being electrically-raised or lowered. Against which, there is said to have been complete recall (and repair) in the case of 675 VW Polos/Derbys with potential starter-cable short-circuiting. Incidentally, mobile-cranes are not exempt, because 25 Coles cranes had left the factory with potentially-defective track-rod ball-pins; these were replaced, says the D.o.T. report, by Kirkstall Forge Ltd., but these, too, were defective, requiring a second recall. We are relieved to learn that this recall has also been fully completed!

If all this suggests a bleak engineering achievement by the World’s Motor Industry, we have to say that, on detailed investigation, not all of the alleged defects sound all that serious. Rolls-Royce’s recall of 84 Shadow Wraith Camargue/Bentley T2 cars was merely because some of these had left Crewe on a batch of contaminated Avon 235/70 BR15 white-sidewall tyres. Jaguar had let slip 83 Series-3 saloons in which the throttle-spring might fail — which most motoring enthusiasts have had happen on one vehicle or another and have lived to tell the tale. The Toyota Celica problem was merely too-big rear-brake operating-cylinders on a possible 85 cars, nor does omitting a suspension circlip on 91 Reliant Kittens seem necessarily to be a safety hazard. The chance of 428 Talbot-Sunbeam Tis losing rear wheels is more alarming, maybe, than a possible 29,220 Ford Escorts having doors fly open. Quite worrying is the thought of 916 Peugeot 504 Estates boiling away their brake-fluid, but it seems unduly kind of Big Brother to care about 18,413 owners of Triumph TR7s whose headlamps may not lift, due to water affecting the lift-motors, as does concern in that quarter over 729 Jaguar/Daimler 4.2s in which the ignition amplifier may foul the fuel-filter. Alarming, though, to hear that 26,770 Ford Cortina/Granada cars might have inferior steering-coupling clamp-bolts (20,029 recalled within eight months of the cars’ release date) but interesting that Dagenham, Cork, Genk, Langley and Cologne factories shared the blame. Saab had 871 suspect Turbo 900s in which the turbo-charger might get so hot as to melt electrical insulation near it, but Mercedes-Benz and Porsche came onto the recall list only on account of possible seat-belts defects and the latter with only 140 924/928/911s involved, and 120 of these found for checking. Even Lotus did not escape bureaucratic Big Brother surveillance, 460 Series 2 Esprits being suspected as likely to lose their night vision after the headlamps-beams had been dipped once too often.

The D.o.T. considers it a good thing for this tale of woe to be publicised, for it issues Vehicles Recalls Notices to the Press, at quarterly intervals. Safety-first at all costs, of course, although recalls must cost the Motor Industry much money and anxiety. It may or may not be significant that in this July-September 1980 survey from which we have quoted, only one Japanese make is listed, even when commercial and public-service vehicles are included. The danger in studying these reports lies in snide or panic assessments, without taking into account the total number of cars sold against the suspect equivalents, and how many of the cars recalled were actually defective. If lives are saved, well and good; but there does seem an overtone of “1984” in the Recall Scheme. Japanese cars come out of the M.o.T.’s July-September 1980 survey with credit, as they have been doing in the TV “That’s Life” programme. But here again, unless one knows the full facts, in the latter case how many and reliable are the checks made with viewers about their defective cars, can the results be regarded as dependable?

• Henry or Verdet?

Racing-car history going back to before the First World War may seem as dull as the proverbial ditch-water to those who favour modern racing, but to many historians it is as the spice-of-life, and in the case of the 1912 Grand Prix Peugeot “Who dunnit” there is the significance of the twin-cam, multi-valve engine of that victorious Peugeot with which Georges Boillot won the prestigious French Grand Prix at 68.45 m.p.h. being the forerunner of subsequent twin-cam racing engines, as used in F1 racing today.

Although the creation of these Peugeot racing cars is shrouded in mystery, it has been commonly held, since historians delved into the matter between the wars, that it owed its design to the Swiss engineer, Ernest Henry. Doubts have been cast on this, by those who hold the curious view that the engine drawings had been victims of an industrial theft from Hispano Suiza; but for this there is no clear substantiation. We discussed all this in Motor Sport and would not now retum to it except for the bombshell of a theory advanced by Edward Eves in Autocar last February that it may have been Louis Verdet and not Ernest Henry who influenced the advanced specification of those epoch-making 1912 GP Peugeots. Eves bases his assumption on the fact that no previous engine-design has been ascribed to Henry or to the racing drivers Zuccarelli, Goux and Boillot who worked on the GP Peugeot design with him. Eves also throws in the thought that little is known about Louis Pilleverdier who was the driver engineer at Hispano Suiza’s and team-mate Zuccarelli, before he joined Peugeot in 1911.

The suggested Verdet link with this revolutionary Peugeot twin-cam racing engine is based by Eves on what seems, however, to be a false assumption. He uses drawings of the Peugeot’s valve-gear in an endeavour to prove that these cars had desmodromique valve operation, that is, positively opened and closed valves, and says that Verdet designed some of the multi-valve Peugeot voiturette racers and a number of Peugeot rotary aero-engines, of which his celebrated Verdet rotary used four-valves-per-cylinder and desmodromic valve actuation. Ipso facto, Verdet might well have designed the Grand Prix Peugeot engines, implies Eves.

The point that dissolves the whole argument is that, so far as we know, no report in the British or French motoring papers ever referred to desmodromic valve-gear being used by Peugeots in the 1912 GP. Eves publishes two drawings purporting to be of the valve-gear of those cars. One is similar to that used by Laurence Pomeroy in his book “The Grand Prix Car” and it weakens Eves argument as the screw arrangement at the bottom of the stirrup-shaped tappet looks far more like a conventional clearance adjustrnent than a practical connection between tappet and valve. When Pomeroy wrote of the 1912 Peugeots he said that all the drawings had been destroyed but that photographic records existed, from which his artist Cresswell presumably prepared new drawings for Pomeroy. The other drawing used by Eves must therefore presumably be a modern one and while it shows the Peugeot tappets acting desmodromically, it looks to be nothing more than an explanation of Eves’ text, unless he can state its source.

Admittedly the tappets ascribed by most historians to Henry are of curious formation, encircling the cams and having their own springs to lift them. They could have been intended for positive opening and closing of the o.h. valves. But where is the evidence that this was used in the race? None, I suggest! We know that desmodromic valve-gear was being thought about at this period of engine development, when valve springs were prone to break. Henry may well have planned his tappets for adaptation to the desmodromique system at a later date. This is not to imply that he used it for the 1912 Grand Prix. If he had, with such resounding success, why should he not have used it for his equally successful 1913 GP and Coupe de L’Auto Peugeot racing engines? He didn’t; even Eves admits it. Much more likely is that this curious shaped cam-follower was designed to reduce the load on the valve springs. At the time this engine was designed, bucket tappets had not been invented, thus the camshaft had either to act directly on the slender valve stem, with consequent risk of damaging the profile of the cam and bending valves, or more substantial, guided, tappets had to be used, in which case the valve springs would have a much greater mass than that of a simple valve to lift. Surely it was to get round this problem that Henry used this quite ingenious combination of the desmodromic principle to move the heavy cam-follower clear of the valve stem and a conventional spring to close the comparatively light valve itself.

Thus the link between Verdet, desmodromic valve-gear, and Henry is seen in its proper perspective, as far as our historical information goes. Positive valve operation, excluding normal valve springs, was tried by a number of engineers, but was never really successful until Mercedes-Benz used it in 1954. For the 1914 French Grand Prix Delage and Th. Schneider used this form of valve operation, the former badly needing something different from the horizontal valves and cumbersome valve-gear used previously. It is possible that Henry sold a patent to Delage, whose 1914 tappets apparently resembled those of the 1912 GP Peugeot. In the event, neither Delage nor Th. Schneider won the Grand Prix. In 1922 Bignan used desmodromic valve-gear and brought such an engine to the London Motor Show, only to drop it almost immediately.

So unless Edward Eves can quote the source of his astonishing statement that the winning 1912 GP Peugeot had this form of valve-gear and say where his drawings of such valve-gear, that he has used to support his theory, came from, he would appear to have merely drawn another red-herring across the Henry trail.

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VSCC Silverstone Races

The Vintage SCC 1981 racing season opens at Silverstone on April 11th, with the traditional 1908 GP Itala Trophy Meeting, the first race commencing at about 13.15 hours. There will be the usual High Speed Trial of 40 minutes duration, the 10-lap (Club circuit) scratch race for the Itala and Lanchester Trophies, open to vintage and Edwardian racing cars, two more 10-lap scratch races, for pre-war cars and all-comers, supplemented by a number of five-lap races. This will also be the first round of the 1981 Motor Sport Brooklands Memorial Trophy Contest, decided over the full season on points, for the Trophy and prizes totalling £325.

Those who enjoy the sight of a big variety of the older cars racing much as they did in former times, to the inimitable sounds, sights and scents, will no doubt with to be present. Admission costs £3.00 per person, including access to the grandstands, a Paddock transfer being £1.00 extra. Car parking is free, no dogs are allowed, and entries have closed. — W.B.