Matters of moment, April 1986

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5,000,000 Minis

There was a party at Longbridge the other day, to celebrate the five-millionth Mini, which we were unable to attend. No regrets, as we do not like champagne or Noel Edmonds, and would have seen no point In proving that 53 persons can get into, or on, a Mini. However, the continued production of Sir Alec lssigonis’s brilliant concept puts the British Motor Industry into some sort of perspective. It took 27 years or so for those five-million “minibrics” to emerge, against Ford’s over-15-million Model-T’s in less than 18 years, at a time of less-Intense autornobilism, and more than 20-million VW Beetles since the war.

That does not detract from the brilliance of the lssigonis baby car — soon all the World was copying his ingenious layout and had he been able to collect royalties he would have become the richest man on earth… We were at the launch of the Mini in 1959 and remember vividly our excitement at seeing such an innovative, in fact unique, new British car — transverse engine, gears in the sump, FWD, rubber suspension, and those 10 in tyres, giving maximum interior space in this tiny car. Next came an invitation to see the Mini-Cooper, that was to gain so many successes in racing and International rallies. In fact, the remarkable road-clinging qualities of the Mini had soon had it in races, even though at first the wheels flew off frequently, in spectacular fashion, and do you recall the occasion at Silverstone when the drivers in a Mini race, egged-on by lnnes Ireland, put the gear levers into reverse, not first, and at the fall of the flag all shot backwards?

The Mini was a fun-car, but also a very practical one. That it is still in production reflects the time when Britain had some great designers, like Sir Alec Issigonis, William Heynes who engineered the finest of the production twin-cam engines tor Jaguar, and Harry Grylls, who made the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow such an advanced successor to the Clouds. We need more designers of this calibre, and men like Sir Leonard Lord who backed the Mini, if the British Motor Industry is to recover from the mess in which it currently finds itself, with the Government trying to sell it off, starting with Land Rover, a World-beater, to an American colossus. Jaguar has made a creditable recovery but what of the other once-great British makes? The former Royal Daimler has long been a fluted-Jaguar. Bentley is only just emerging from being a Rolls-Royce for flat-hats. Rovers have become largely Rovondas, and soon Nissan will be making cars here. The Oriental interference is a European disease as well as a British one and that marque individuality the enthusiast sets so much store by is fast being eroded away. The proud Peugeot Lion is now a denizen of Coventry, a common vee-six engine has long been shared by two French makes and a Swedish manufacturer, Fiat controls Ferrari, VW wants to swallow Seat, and the Wankel rolary-engine that once showed so much promise in the NSU Ro-80 is now a Mazda exclusive, in the excellent RX-7. One time British-made cars like Ford and Vauxhall are now largely built in Germany. Belgium and Spain. The biggest-selling car In Global terms is the Toyota Corolla, a sort of modern ModelT, and though the Jensen Interceptor FF pioneered 4WD and anti-lock braking, it was left to the likes of Audi and Ford to offer these systems on mass-produced cars, with Ford offering the latter in the lower priced fwd class. Last month we told of how Daimler-Benz. who make the best-engineered cars in the World, is looking to its next 100 years with some great technical breakthroughs, although the Rolls-Royce is the greater status symbol.

It is high time the British Motor Industry pulled itself together and came up with some innovative new cars, before Mrs Thatcher, reminding us how much of our money it has absorbed, sells the lot. The Mini was, in its day, an outstanding British achievement, the most exciting car since the traction avant and 2cv Citroens and the VW Beetle, the last named innovative on account of its air-cooled, light alloy, flat-four rear engine and torsion-bar springing. But it is Issigonis’s East-West engine layout with FWD that has become the first universal change in motor-car design since the Panhard horseless-carriage arrangement. Unusual cars may not always be able to compete with things like Corollas. But they stimulate the Industry and Britain urgently needs more new cars that, like the Mini, will become best-sellers.

Congestion

There should be a sort of “That’s Lite” gold-cap award for the worst exit from the centre of London. Unless other suggestions are received, we suggest it should go to the route leading to the commuter areas of Hillingdon and Ruislip, and the Oxford plain beyond — where the once “dreaming spires” are scarcely permitted to dream nowadays, although Oxford is endowed with good ring-roads. Every evening, on this route, congestion builds up from the end of the flyover, along Westway and Western Avenue, until cars, coaches, and commercial loads are either at a standstill or progressing at a crawl, speedometer needles at zero, a few yards at a time, on this three-lane carriageway. Light-controlled crossings instead of underpasses, roundabouts in place of overpasses, are to blame, impeding the traffic-flow, so that it is customary for a journey from the City to the commencement of the M40 to take 1 1/2-hours or more, a pathetic average speed even by Urban standards. It has now come to light that guests on the BBC’s Wogan Show have been delayed by London’s traffic snarl-up on this route, and we cannot have that, can we?

Mrs Thatcher is very keen on the Channel Tunnel. This may constitute a great asset to Europe But holiday-makers who will only use It about twice or four times a year may wonder at the cost of building it, have claustrophobic doubts about using it, and some may regret the passing of a sea-crossing that can be part of the holiday fun. If all those hundreds of frustrated users of Westway and Western Avenue who have to endure the nightly misery of the traffic congestion there were to send Mrs Thatcher a postcard saying “Never mind the Tunnel, what about Westway?” something might, just might, get done about relieving this scandalous homeward crawl…

Club News

Sporting Vauxhalls are to be admitted to the Opel Drivers Club, which will now be known as the Opel Vauxhall Drivers Club. Cavalier Coupe and Hatch, and the Chevelle HS2300 are the variants most likely to be involved in this decision, which is the result of the “blending” of the two marques over recent years. In addition, a register of the older fwd Kadett Coupe model is being formed, and owners should contact the club at Borrow Hall Studios, Dumpling Green, East Dereham, Norfolk Tel 0362 4459.

Also in Dereham (In fact on the same telephone number), is Club Lotus, who plan a European Rally in Perigord, France on May 9-11th, and whose National Rally and Speed Test Day will take place at Castle Combe, Wiltshire, on May 31st. Those not going to the rally can join a club convoy to Le Mans, starting on May 30th. The postal address of Club Lotus is PO Box 8. Dereham, Norfolk,

A Charity promotion on behalf of the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Research Fund has been organised by Motor Heritage Racing. This is a Test Day at Goodwood on Saturday May 17th, to which owners of pre 64 Lotuses, Coopers, Elvas, and other sports-racing cars are invited, interestingly, replicas of the cars of the appropriate period will also be accepted. The limit is 30 cars, at a fee of £20 each: contact Motor Heritage, Charlwood House Estate, PO Box 7, Horley, Surrey.

Porsche Club Great Britain celebrates its 25th Anniversary this year with a three-day gathering in the Cambridge area on 6th, 7th and 8th June. The club caters for owners of all Porsches from the 356 to the very latest 959 models, with individual Registers for the various models. There is now a permanent Club HQ at Aylon House, West End, Northleach, Glos. GL54 3RD from where everything is organised.