The vintage-modern Axis



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[Cecil Clutton’s article on Vintage Sports-Cars published last March was very well received by those who are interested in vintage sports-cars, but not a few readers made it clear that they are not. So it occurred to us to invite Mr. Clutton to write a similar screed on modern sports-cars, thereby enabling us to present a long non-vintage article in his inimitable and enjoyable style, while proving that, confirmed vintagent that he is, he is not biased and has, in fact, a definite appreciation of the better moderns. We hope modernists will appreciate this review of present-day sports-cars from a unique angle. We have not edited Mr. Clutton’s views, and would emphasise that they are not necessarily those of the Editor or Proprietor of “Motor Sport.”—Ed.]

RECENT articles in MOTOR SPORT have sung the praises of Edwardian motors and vintage sports-cars. This continues the series with a critical review of modern sports-cars, from the vintage point of view. It is the hope of the writer that it will be followed by another, from some other pen, dealing in the same way with vintage sports-cars from the viewpoint of a modernist. [We shall be delighted to give consideration to such an article if any outraged modernist will oblige; here is an opportunity for those who chide us for devoting too much space to “real motor cars” to air their grievances.—Ed.]

There are several ways of tackling such a review, but the method of individual comparative criticism does not seem particularly profitable. It is therefore proposed to sketch the transition from the principles of vintage design to those now current, and then proceed to consider how far the modern sports-car answers the requirements of the genuine connoisseur. The vintage sports-car ceased to be made after 1930, and the true modern type was not born till 1935. In the intervening five years darkness reigned, and the ethics of design were forgotten.

The object of all sports-cars is to afford good acceleration, high maximum, high cruising speed, good brakes, good road-holding, durability and reliability. The best of both vintage and modern machines fulfil all these requirements, but the vintage type was only able to do so at the expense of some personal comfort, and by the use of a low weight per c.c. ratio. Except in so far as our idiotic system of taxation is concerned, the use of small, high efficiency engines has little to recommend it, and despite all the advances of science, the modern sports engine giving 40 b.h.p. per litre at 5,000 r.p.m. is no match in point of durability for the vintage type, giving, perhaps, 25 per litre at a peak of 3,500 r.p.m. Unless, therefore, a small car is definitely desired, there is no advantage in high volumetric efficiency, except from the aspect of taxation. This form of lunacy surely cannot last for ever, and we should not allow ourselves to be unduly hypnotised by it, whatever may be the case in the “family conveyance” market.

The vintage sports-car, then, consisted of a light flexible chassis with stiff road springs and heavy shock-absorbers; relatively large, inefficient engine; a light body, unstreamlined, but with frontal area reduced to a minimum.

By 1930, the public began to demand larger, more luxurious bodies, and when they got them, these bodies soon cracked up on the whippy chassis; so the chassis were braced up, strengthened, and wonderfully cross-gartered till they weighed the earth. To stop this mass of metal larger and larger brakes were required, so that axle assemblies became heavier and heavier, and the evils of unsprung weight, not serious with the light assemblies of vintage days, became a real bogey. To cap it, the public also demanded tiny, but immensely flexible engines, and so there came about a buzzing swarm of horrible little six cylinder units, geared at anything down to 6 to 1; and as no one knew very much about aluminium, nor directional cooling, the mortality of valves, plugs and cylinder bores was quite dreadful, while petrol consumption became steadily worse and worse.

Lastly, there was a call for transatlantic style comfort at all speeds, so the monstrous chassis were fitted with road springs which would have done nicely for a perambulator, but were not conducive to road holding.

Small wonder, then, at the wave of enthusiasm for vintage motoring which reigned among genuine enthusiasts during the early and middle thirties. And because vintage cars are cheap nowadays, and the real enthusiast does not mind a little personal inconvenience, much of this enthusiasm still remains; because at the expense of personal comfort, the best vintage machines can still do practically all that the modern type can achieve.

But this must not blind the vintage enthusiast to the fact that the best modern sports-cars show a tremendous advance upon the designs of the twenties, and it is only when designers have clung to vintage principles, and fruitlessly tried to adapt them to conditions entirely beyond their capabilities that a bad modern sports-car has resulted; and there are quite a lot of them. Therefore, to conform to both modern standards of luxury and vintage standards of performance it is essential to adopt principles of design which are totally different from anything which has gone before. Nothing in the way of compromise is any good.

This has been achieved in various ways. Independent suspension has brought about lower unsprung weight than ever before, despite even the immense brake drums now necessary. This, in turn, has enabled designers to fit flexible springs which, in conjunction with rigid chassis, command road-holding which is at least as good, and sometimes better, than anything of vintage times. Nor are these rigid chassis heavy as were those of the early thirties, for tubular construction has enabled rigidity to be combined with lightness.

So far as coachwork is concerned, much greater seating width than heretofore is permissible, entirely owing to advances in streamlining. The modern technique of body construction has also kept the weight down, and improved the inherent rigidity of the coachwork.

For what it is worth, volumetric efficiency has gone up, on an average, by about 20 per cent., but it must be conceded that advances in metallurgy and cooling have regained an astonishing degree of durability, while the various sorts of idiot-proof gearboxes no longer make top gear flexibility a sine qua non.

But not all modern sports-cars conform to this Elysian pattern; many manufacturers are still groping along on ten-year-old lines, and, more astonishing, quite a lot of them contrive to sell the things. It is, of course, true that the need for independent suspension has not been so apparent in England as elsewhere, because our inadequate roads precluded sustained high speeds, and their billiard table surface hid defects in plain suspension which soon became evident when the innocents ventured abroad. But when we return to motoring on tank-battered highways, it is unlikely that manufacturers vending the old type of suspension will meet with an enthusiastic public. Quite apart from this, with non-independent suspension that is sufficiently flexible to suit modern requirements, any violent application of the brakes merely winds up the springs like a clock, and all pretence at steering vanishes.

It is simply astonishing that a famous and expensive British sports-car retains the most homely sort of front axle layout, together with brakes which can only with caution be applied with full ferocity. This particular machine really affords a most interesting object lesson.

When it first came out, in about 1934, it was reasonably light, and although the engine bore a startling resemblance to a unit which first saw the light of day in the early ’20’s, it nevertheless managed to push along with quite a rush. But because the chassis was light and flexible, the luxurious bodies fell to pieces, and the chassis had to be strengthened quite a lot, after which the unhappy engine could no longer drag the thing along. So the manufacturers enlarged it by quite a large piece, but still used the old gear-ratios, and although they begged and implored their clients not to cruise at more than 70 m.p.h., the bearing metal continued to pour from the agonised connecting rods like molten lead from the plumber’s ladle.

So then the manufacturers made a wonderful bearing metal which did not melt any more; but even so, people who had paid all that amount of money considered that they were entitled to expect a safe cruising speed of more than 70 m.p.h., and as this represented a piston speed only a fraction under 2,500 feet per second, there was still the sound of lamentation in the land.

So the manufacturers gave up the idea of producing a fast car at all, and they provided a gear which accelerated nicely, and another on which the motor was practically unburstable; but neither of them would get the apparatus up to its potential maximum. It is interesting to note that high performance vintage cars generally gave off about 2½ h.p. per cwt. at cruising revs., and the car we have just been discussing does roughly the same. But whereas the vintage cars had very small frontal areas, the modern, equally unstreamlined machine is very wide; and this has just made all the difference, because it has been shown that with a decently streamlined body it will proceed with quite phenomenal speed and economy.

At long last, it is freely tipped that independent front suspension is nearing production, and when this becomes a fact, there is no doubt that in conjunction with reasonably streamlined coachwork, we shall have a very fine sports-car indeed.

When Mr. W. 0. Bentley set about designing the V12 Lagonda, he took for granted the fact that the wealthy connoisseur generally requires luxurious comfort, as well as 100 m.p.h. performance, and is not yet ready for advanced streamlining. This, he rightly concluded, can only be done by making no concessions to the horse-power tax.

This means to say that by using many small cylinders of short stroke it may be computed that at a piston speed of 2,500 f.p.s. (approximately 4,500 r.p.m.) the Lagonda engine is giving off about 150 h.p., whereas a normal six-cylinder unit of the same capacity would not be making much more than 100 h.p.; and this is sufficient to justify a gearing giving a cruising speed of 85-90 m.p.h.

It must, nevertheless, be admitted that there is rather a lot of the Lagonda to class it as a genuine sports-car, and the steering is very low geared; but had Le Mans taken place this year, it is believed that Lagonda would have competed with a more compact chassis. One also understands that a four-carburetter model would by now have been on the market, and this would undoubtedly have improved the all-round performance, and, in particular, flexibility at low revs.

One of the difficulties of independent front suspension is that unless the centre of gravity is much lower than was necessary with the vintage type of chassis and springing, the car is very inclined to rolling and other forms of instability. In the Lagonda, Mr. Bentley has contrived to combine reasonable head-room with remarkably low build, thus attaining exceptional stability and roadholding; but at the same time, the difficulty of achieving such conditions is considerable, and the probability is that front wheel drive will become increasingly prevalent on that account. The admirable Citroen is the outstanding example of this at the moment.

Rear independent suspension hardly seems to repay the difficulties and expense of manufacture, except on cars that are so powerful and light that wheelspin is a serious problem. With saloon coachwork, independent rear springing is a pronounced inducement to rolling, but with such cars as the open 3½-litre S.S. Jaguar four-wheel independent suspension clearly has a great deal to recommend it.

Independent suspension in itself is not a panacea for all ills. Many manufacturers having heard—albeit somewhat tardily—about the unalloyed bliss and prosperity that irresistibly enveloped every manufacturer whose motor car sported independent suspension, stepped round to the nearest junk-heap and bought a bit of independent suspension in a paper bag (before the paper shortage, that was), and nailed it (most insecurely, in many cases) to their comic chassis. This generally resulted in what may be described as the retractable undercarriage type of independent suspension, which, though useful for flying machines, is but imperfectly suited to instruments of terrestrial transport.

But, although the 4.3-litre Alvis is an up-to-date design, and Daimler’s are effectively invading the field of the “fast tourer,” it must be regretfully admitted that apart from them and Lagondas, we must look to the Continent for the outstanding sports-cars of to-day. In France, Delage, Delahaye, Talbot, Hotchkiss and Bugatti are the principal exponents. Delage and Hotchkiss, as always, tend more to the class of “fast tourers,” while Delahaye and Talbot are of more definitely sporting calibre. Bugatti, of course, stands alone and inimitable among motors.

The first four are all very similar in general layout, but particular mention must be made of the Delage’s Cotal electric gearbox, which gives as many varieties of gear change as a clash box with a clutch stop, but has the added merit that it can be operated without taking the hand off the steering wheel. It has the further advantage over preselector and synchromesh boxes that it can be worked without the clutch, so that where the accelerator is on the right, the left foot can be used to work the pedal brake, while changing down, thus avoiding the vexatious toe-and-heel business.

The Delage system of independent front springing by transverse leaf springs and radius-cum-torque arms is widely adopted, and has the merit of simplicity as well as being almost roll-proof, given a reasonably situated centre of gravity.

Straightforward, six-cylinder, push-rod engines of 3½ to 4-litre capacity give from 31 to 36 b.h.p. per litre at only 4,000 r.p.m. on compression-ratios around 6.3 to 1. An average enough make-up, in all conscience, yet the faster models can show maxima of 100 m.p.h., and acceleration figures of 9½ seconds from 0-50 m.p.h., and 13½ for 0-60. Equivalent British sports-cars are some 20 per cent. slower all round, and, on an average, weigh 5 cwt. more; yet they do not afford appreciably better accommodation.

Nor has France been idle in the matter of cheaper sports-cars, and Citroen and Peugeot are so overwhelmingly popular as to take the place of Morris and Austin in England. Yet each is a machine with which no enthusiast need be discontented (though the Citroen’s three-speed gearbox is a pity), combining the comfort, roominess, cheapness and economy of our British “family” cars with thoroughbred handling and very respectable performance. Why can’t (or won’t) our people do it too?

In all cases, high-geared steering is the order of the day—the Talbot, in particular, only needs 1½ turns from lock to lock—yet all are finger light, even with 6 inch section tyres. Why, then, should other makers require four turns to produce steering which is not as light, and utterly lacking in responsiveness or accuracy? Modern traffic conditions require high-geared steering as never before, and inferior workmanship and design are the only reasons for low-geared ratios.

The low ratios found on Grand Prix machines belong to entirely different conditions, where the fantastic speeds and powers have put heavy work on the tiller quite out of the question.

Bugatti has failed to advance with the times, yet the current types 57 and 57C remain, perhaps, the machines which still appeal more than any other to the genuine connoisseur. Despite normal suspension, the roadholding is such as none can surpass, and there is little doubt that the practice of passing the front springs through the tubular front axle, combined with the thirty-year-old system of reversed quarter elliptics behind, are largely responsible for this result. The latest models have the ingenious non-adjustable hydraulic shock-absorbers, which combine low-speed comfort with high-speed stability of the highest order.

Bugatti steering is, of course, a by-word; there never has been a Bugatti with play in the steering, and the whole thing has the sensitiveness of a good chemical balance.

The double o.h.c., straight-eight, 3.3-litre engine is now silent and smooth throughout its range of over 5,000 r.p.m., and it will pull away in top gear from 10 m.p.h. without pinking, even on inferior petrol. Alternatively, the perfectly chosen ratios (4.17, 5.37, 7.5 and 11.6 to 1) will send you soaring into the 80s as an easy cruising speed. Ninety—ninety-five m.p.h. is the limit of the unblown 57, but the Roots-blown 57C can exceed 105, and accelerate from 0-80 in less than 23 seconds, with a saloon body. The 57C is also smoother and more flexible than the 57, while the relative b.h.p. are 160 and 130, both of which are outstanding from only 3.3 litres, especially in conjunction with petrol consumption of 17 m.p.g.

The finish of a Bugatti is now second to none in the world, yet the pre-war chassis price in England was only £675 for the type 57 or £780 for the 57C. One can only hope that the war and Jean Bugatti’s tragic death on August 12th, 1939, will not stop production when the world returns to sanity once more. It is a pity that the sale of Bugattis in this country has not been more energetically handled.

In short, it may be said that the modern Bugatti is the absolute apotheosis of vintage design. What would be obsolescent in any other make, the great Ettore has raised to an individual perfection that is a thing of its own. Whatever happens in automobile design of the future, there will never be another Bugatti; he is as unique in the world of motoring as are Bach, El Greco and Jane Austen in the arts.

Italy has given us four wonderful little sports-ears in the 1,100 and 1,500 c.c. Fiats and Lancias. The Fiats may be described as like a smaller edition of current French design, and although cheaper than the Lancias, they are perhaps the better cars. The 1,100 c.c. Balilla model has also raced with great distinction, especially in the hands of Gordini, and many readers of “The Motor” will remember the stirring article which Gordon Wilkins wrote in that estimable journal about one of these cars with a streamlined saloon, and the truly staggering figures which it returned under test. The standard saloon weighs only 16½ cwt., the engine develops 32 b.h.p. at only 4,000 r.p.m., and the maximum speed is 70 m.p.h., so that at £198 it is difficult to think of better value for money.

The small Lancia has not reached this country, but it is in all essentials a miniature of the Aprilia, which is particularly interesting from a vintage point of view, since it is so similar to the old Lambda series from which it was clearly developed, via the Augusta. The body is adequately, but not excessively streamlined, and the complete car weighs 17½ cwt. Having regard to this, and an engine capacity of only 1,352 c.c., acceleration figures of 15½ seconds for 0-50 m.p.h. and 25 seconds for 0-60 are beyond praise. Coupled with this is a maximum of 80 m.p.h., petrol consumption of over 30 m.p.g., real comfort, and a cruising pace around 70 m.p.h.

Gear ratios are difficult to space on a car of this size and type. Those chosen (4.1, 6.1, 9.21 and 14.42 to 1) are good, but while they are too wide for the best effect, it is hard to see how they could have been altered without some sacrifice. The truth is that with a small, high-revving, not very flexible engine one really needs five forward speeds. On the Lancia, a series giving 4, 5, 7, 10 and 15 to I would make all the difference in the world.

The Lancia front suspension is by the well-tried tubular springs working in guides, but the rear suspension is now independent as well, with a transverse leaf spring. As .a result, the car is more subject to rolling than the old Lambda, and the universal joints gave a certain amount of trouble in the earlier models.Independent rear springing with a saloon body, too, nearly always seems to produce an annoying hammering effect, and altogether there seems little to be said in its favour under normal circumstances. The cheapest Aprilia saloon costs £495, which cannot be called cheap, but it must be conceded that the finish throughout is reasonably good.

What of Alfa-Romeo? A good car it once was, but now it is a flash, badly finished, thoroughly unreliable, undurable and unsatisfactory piece of machinery, that finds its principal market among Jew-boys to take their …….; anyway, to go down to Brighton for the weekend. Long since routed from Grand Prix racing, in the Mille Miglia this year they finally lost even such supremacy as they may have had in the sports-car field. Sic transit !

To Germany it has fallen to build the most advanced of all sports-cars, the B.M.W. Mercédès is no longer in the field; the S.S.K. was, indeed, a memorable machine, even if rather impracticable, but the Type 540K is rather a bad bodge, that is neither here nor there.

Germany, too, has a fair selection of cheaper sports-cars, relying on streamlining and quite small, inefficient engines, which give good cruising speed and economy, but poor acceleration. Adler is perhaps the best example.

The first B.M.W.s to reach this country some six years ago came as a real shock, being quite unlike anything one had met before. In particular, the “dead” feeling of the steering seemed peculiar, but later one was to get used to it as a usual feature of independent front suspension. Later models became faster and faster, culminating in the miraculous types 320 and 328. Unfortunately, the price as imported into England seemed high, having regard to the not very superior finish; nor had the clutch and transmission kept pace with the increased power; but despite this the German B.M.W. undoubtedly remains the design of the moment. The capacious four-seater saloon on the 320 weighs only 18¾cwt., and does 80 m.p.h., while the 328, whose 2-litre, 16 h.p. rated engine gives off 80 b.h.p. at 5,000 r.p.m. (and is capable of half as much again, as was shown in the Mille Miglia), weighs 14½ cwt., can easily top 100 m.p.h., and accelerates from 0-50 m.p.h. in 7 seconds, or 0-60 in 9½ ! As is only to be expected, such a machine is not particularly flexible, but it is reasonably economical, and the petrol consumption is around 20 m.p.g.

Summing up, one sees how the wheel has turned full circle in the last decade. The best vintage machines coupled high cruising rates at easy engine speeds with good acceleration and superb road holding. Now, after a period of doubt and tribulation, the sports-car of to-day has recaptured these attributes, but coupled with greater comfort and silence than ever before.

Yet no amount of logical argument can displace from one’s affection the unique and indefinable character of the leading machines of the vintage era—Frazer-Nash, Alvis, Bentley, 30/98 and others—and there are many enthusiasts who for years to come will still keep faith with some otherwise forgotten warrior of the distant twenties.