Three Small 'Uns

Author

W.B.

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A gentleman friend of mine who took to owning sports cars as a hobby rather after middle-age — he had an immaculate Type 40 Bugatti and two Bertelli Aston Martins — used to express the view that if you had the price of a good car then you had no need to go above 1 1/2-litres for your everyday motoring.

That was said to me quite a number of years ago and, although I have not driven an Alfa-Romeo Juliet, Lancia Appia or Fiat 1,100 TV, I am of the opinion that about 1,200 c.c. might be called the absolute limit today.

The cost of petrol undoubtedly makes us primarily a small-car nation, which the flat-rate tax would have prevented were it not for the shocking price of fuel. So obvious that it is apt to be over looked is the fact that the Government and not the Oil Barons are to blame. Indeed, deduct the cruel half-a-crown-per-gallon tax and the petroleum companies are seen in a very favourable light, inasmuch as a gallon of the best is sold for a mere two shillings and the lowest grade costs 1s. 8d., which represent 8d. and approximately 6 1/2d. a gallon, respectively, at pre-Hitler values. It really is about time those in power were made to realise that motorists are paying over and over again for such improvements and repairs as are made to the roads — a set of disfiguring kerb-stones here, a hardly-necessary new roundabout there, instead of the new bridges, fly-overs and entire new highways the traffic of Britain so visibly demands — and are still the most savagely-taxed and long-suffering members of the community.

While we sit down and take such raps, motoring effortlessly behind 6 or 8 litres of engine must remain a dream for the majority, who should be extremely thankful that small-car design has made such excellent progress since the air-raid sirens first wailed to herald the end of another era.

The small-engined and therefore economical motor car being the type primarily in use these days. I have been interested to sample a few just recently which have motored extremely effectively on modest consumptions of the costly spirit. These cars have been three in number, or four if we include the 2 c.v. Citroën I entered for that fascinating competition, the Cheltenham M.C.’s International Fuel Economy Contest. However, I have said more than enough about this so-excellent “people’s car,” for over-much publicity can prove detrimental to the best products, so I shall content myself by remarking merely that the figure of 83.7 m.p.g, (of Regent Benzole and Esso Mixture) which won us second place in the Experimental Category does not seem too bad considering that the little vehicle wasn’t “doctored” for economy in any way whatsoever beyond putting Q5500 in the sump and blowing up the Michelins to 28 lb./sq. in., while we drove quite hard to ensure that the required minimum average speed of 30 m.p.h. for the 600-mile route was accomplished, and actually exceeded this by several miles per hour.

After the contest I let Geoff Tapp drive home in the 2 c.v. because the class-winning Buckler he had helped to pilot had converted its engine to air-cooling and would need coaxing back to base. Our small power unit, intentionally air,cooled, seemed a better proposition and Geoff, having coaxed it with considerable effect, was, I think, like a lot of other people, somewhat astonished at what two 187 1/2-c.c. cylinders as arranged by Citroën can accomplish.

The first small car of the three to which this article is dedicated is the Mark 54 version of Renault 750. I have driven many earlier examples of this very willing and appealing little car from Billancourt and those who seek the lot should consult the appropriate back issues of Motor Sport.

Evolved in 1947, nearly half a million of these 4 c.v.s have been made. Leaving the Acton factory in a torrential downpour in the latest sunshine-roof saloon — with the roof shut! I formed first impressions of the little Renault which were bit entirely favourable. The small, round pedals that actuate clutch and brakes looked uncomfortable, the accelerator seemed too close to the considerable intrusion of the prominent wheel-arch (a penalty of a taxi-like turning circle), the transmission was rather noisy, the diminutive gear-lever selected but three forward speeds and could be felt reacting to changes from drive to overrun, and the little 747-c.c. engine seemed to fuss. Moreover, the rear location of the latter results in oversteer which calls for slight correction even on straight roads and the steering in doing this seemed unnecessarily stiff. Now, writing these words after I have covered 443 miles in the car — a comparatively modest week-end’s motoring — I am at one with the 4 c.v. and captivated by it. The fact is, this is a car which grows on you, until you wear it like a comfortable-fitting, favourite shoe.

Certain harshnesses aforementioned come to be disregarded on closer acquaintance, especially when you reflect that the French are adept at making cars which go and that they do not look for unessential refinements, as perhaps the English motoring gentleman does. What matter if the starter and choke controls protrude all too obviously from the floor and are have metal to ungloved fingers, providing they are to hand, and practical?

Citroën decided on a very big car in relation to its engine size when planning the remarkable 2 c.v. and, thus limiting performance, was able to use very soft suspension; Renault, with double the cheval vapeur, skilfully built a real scaled-down large car, a beautifully-proportioned four-door, comfortable four-seater saloon within limits of 11 ft. 9 3/4 in. by 4 ft. 8 1/4 in., and a 6 ft. 10 1/2 in. wheelbase. Next up the list after the Citroën 2 c.v. in performance, the car still does something like 47 miles on a gallon of petrol (approximately 42 rapid miles per gallon on the example tested), and calls for harder suspension, which, if this magnifies wheel-patter and minor rattles, nevertheless gives a level-keel ride and effectively kills road shocks. Incidentally, the lines of the Renault 750 are characteristically French and, to me, very attractive.

Very soon the controls all come naturally and the keen driver finds he is progressing at a rate which to those in larger vehicles must seem indecent. The 54 1/2 by 80-mm. engine sounds far more healthy towards peak revs, in second gear than any of the 56 by 76-mm. engines which enlivened my youth ever did. The absence of four speeds to a large extent passes unnoticed and the tiny gearlever, one of the endearing individualities of the 4 c.v., is so well to hand and selects ratios so readily that you find yourself beating the synchromesh.

Although the overhanging power unit, and swing-axle rear suspension contribute to oversteer, this is subdued by the taut, quick steering, while the little car whistIes round corners without vice, the action of the rack -and pinion gear proving very acceptable; the gearing is such that you can do “real Fangios” with the wheel on the sharper swerves. There is very brisk caster-return action. With 5.00-15 Michelins the car is generously shod, so that tyre howl is absent.On a wet road and in the press of modern traffic I would as soon be in a 4 c.v. Renault as in any car I know, especially as the Lockheed brakes match the urge. The 21-b..h.p. engine is well behaved in every way and uncomplainingly consumes grade two petrol in spite of a compression ratio of 7.25 to 1.

Restarts on steep gradients in the 17.1 to 1 bottom gear do not distress the clutch and the sensible central hand-brake functions well. I did not take any performance figures but the speedometer needle never seemed to be far from 60 m.p.h. whenever I glanced at it.

The 4 c.v. is a really small car, yet a surprising amount can be carried in it, as I proved to my satisfaction when I stowed a big suitcase and masses of odds and ends under the front bonnet (an operation which causes the neighbours to cast distinctly sidelong glances !), and my wife and four small girls inside the car, preparatory to a caravan week-end on the Sussex coast. Such a load has no effect on the good handling qualities. (N,B. — We did not tow the caravan with the 4 c.v.) In the Mark 54 the spare wheel sits almost vertically, which improves the under-bonnet capacity. Other improvements concern a new radiator grille, sliding front seats, better leg-room for back-seat passengers, 29.9 in. instead of 27.3 in. between the backs of the front seats and back of the back seat, better-shaped front-seat squabs, softer suspension by reason of new shock-absorber settings, waterproof deflector half-windows and improved interior-heating arrangements. The latter include hot-air delivery under the rear seat as well as to the front compartment, and also demisters. Temperature is controlled by a radiator blind set in any one of four positions by depressingly stiff wire cord on the roof by the front-seat passenger. I tried it with the idea of overcoming screen misting when cold rain fell one June evening, but although the engine soon boiled over no hot air seemed to issue from the vents — because the heater-screens round the fan had been removed for the summer. The draught-free body certainly does not call for a heater in summer.

A good feature is that both bonnet and boot (whichever way you look at it!) lock (as also does the steering column, with the ignition), and as the petrol filler is beneath the former the fuel supply is also rendered thief-proof. There is, of course, the embarrassment that the garage man will put the petrol in the radiator, the filler cap of which is no longer labelled “water,” but at least this will not prove so disastrous as when he put water in the petrol of your A.B.C. (which took on fuel through the filler cap of its very realistic dummy radiator), which only goes to prove that in unusual fuelling arrangements, as elsewhere, considerable progress has been made.

I have written more than enough to emphasise that I’m on the side of the 4 c.v., the latest Mark 54 version of which has prompted Renault to come out with a pleasing picture of four horses sitting snugly in armchairs before a blazing fire — plus de place, plus de chaleur.

In France the baby Renault is made in “Business” and ” Sport et Grand Luxe” versions and with saloon, sunshine saloon and convertible bodies, the English version being the equivalent of the Grand Luxe with or without sliding roof. Mindful of the sensational performances put up by these cars in the Mille Miglia and at Le Mans, I look forward soon to testing a hotted-up version as marketed by the Billancourt factory.

The next car of the three with which this article is concerned was a Volkawagen with specially-tuned or “hotted-up” engine. As with the 2-c.v. Citroën, so with the VW, over-much publicity can be as useless as none at all, so I will refrain from gilding refined gold, lilies or what have you and concentrate mainly on the car’s non-standard virtues.

It is a 1,192-c.c, saloon prepared by Ron Willis, of the West Essex Engineering Co., Market Square, Abridge, Essex (Tel.: Theydon Bois 2077), who has acquired the rights to supply German modified parts which materially improve the performance of the normal VW.

Outwardly the car looks like any other VW except for two intriguing chromiumed exhaust pipes protruding from under the engine compartment, balance weights on the wheels, and two Desmo wing mirrors. The engine modifications consist of larger inlet valves and ports in special cylinder heads which give an increased compression ratio, twin downdraught Solex 32PBI carburetters providing an increase of 4 mm. over the standard single. Solex, and alterations to the lubrication system, which incorporates a Type F3 P2/W Fram filter mounted approximately vertically behind the cooling ducts and an oil radiator set by the cooling fan. The carburetters, which were of accelerator-pump type, were connected to a sizeable cylindrical air-cleaner of German make by means of plated flexible piping, the choke or starting controls being inoperative. The engine was content with any premium grade fuel, but some “pinking” was evident. The K.L.G. F80 plugs gave no anxiety, nor did the engine run-on.

My first impression concerned the excellence of the acceleration, to which was added appreciation for the VW’s effortless cruising speed of an indicated 70 m.p.h. once the open road had been attained. For many miles across the Wiltshire/Berkshire downs, with a following wind, the speedometer needle went to its stop, at 80 m.p.h., and stayed there. The “wuffle” from the twin exhausts and the characteristic gearbox hum — which caused one person to ask “Is it supercharged?” — are pleasing accoutrements to the soup.

At times there was a smell of hot paint, but this may have been the brake drums frying. In fact, the brakes, fierce in traffic, were adequate to the stepped-up performance.

Just recently there have been scare-letters in certain sections of the motor Press about the VW’s vicious oversteer tendency when cornered fast and while the improved speed of NBM 300 showed this tendency to be present, it would be disconcerting only at “circuit racing” speeds to a driver unaccustomed to rear-engined cars. I can qualify what I am struggling to get over by remarking that drivers who drove the VW on private roads, having tried the behaviour of the vehicle on fast corners, announced that “it doesn’t oversteer as badly as I had expected.” No doubt the Michelins on the back wheels were properly inflated.

Coming back to the improved performance, tests over our carefully-measured 1/4-mile are of interest, as revealing the very considerable merits of this “poor man’s Porsche.” The figures we obtained can be set out as follows:—

Maximum speed over this give-and-take 1/2-mile was 65 m.p.h., but the true maximum can be written down as 70 m.p.h., rising beyond this under favourable conditions — and, remember, maximum speed in a VW is virtually cruising speed.

Although we were told that petrol consumption was unaffected by the twin carburetters, the car tested was unfortunate in this respect. We found fuel leaks at the float-chamber banjo unions, and the carburation seemed in need of tuning, as it was visibly rich at low r.p.m., starting was far from instantaneous and there was rather hesitant pick-up until about 20 m.p.h. had been attained in second gear. The overall figure, holding high cruising speeds, was 29.1 m.p.g., but rather more gentle handling gave 31 m.p.g.

A total mileage of 243 was completed, and NUM 300 faulted only once, when the throttle connection fell off; it was very soon recoupled.

There will be many Volkswagen owners anxious to improve the performance of their cars and they can obtain details of the conversion from the West Essex Engineering Co., Ltd.; I understand the cost comes to £95.

The third car to come under review is a Morris Minor with an engine “hotted-up” by the Alexander Engineering Co., Ltd. I had not driven a modern Morris Minor, that peer amongst. small cars, for a very considerable time and with the Nuffield Ban on Motor Sport road-tests it seemed unlikely that I should ever do set again. Consequently, when Michael Christie suggested that the tuned versions in which his firm specialises might be of interest I was quite honest when I replied that they certainly would be.

In concluding the Motor Sport road-test of the side-valve model in 1949, when it was a new car. I wrote: ” . . . the new Morris Minor is a thoroughly attractive little motor car and a credit to its makers. It handles as few cars, large or small, do . . .” Since then roadholding and cornering qualities have improved generally, even amongst utility cars, but if the Morris. Minor is no longer quite so outstanding in this respect as it was five years ago, after driving Michael Christie’s “souped-up” version, I think it is still ahead of all other British small cars.

I believe that Alec Issigonis, now with Alvis Ltd., seized one of those opportunities which come but once in a man’s lifetime when he put the Minor on a Nuffield drawing-board. By using a stiff body/chassis structure, he was able to give his torsion-bar i.f.s. full play, aided by a small wheel at each corner and the smallest practical size in tyres. Lockheed brakes and rack-and-pinion steering completed this excellent recipe and the minor controls were in keeping.

Unfortunately a fly can get into the best ointment, and the designer was unable to persuade his lords and masters that he had planned the modern Minor to take a flat-four power unit. He wasn’t even able to get a four-cylinder o.h. camshaft engine installed, similar to the prototype 750-c.c. unit which he used with success in his racing Lightweight Special. Instead, the Nuffield planners insisted on using what was virtually a Series E side-valve Morris Eight engine with iron head, and as this developed only 27 b.h.p. and was coupled to a gearbox haying unhappily wide ratios, the little car had a very dull sort of performance.

Now, of course, the 800-c.c. o.h.v. B.M.C. engine which figures also in the Austin A30 is used for the Series II Minor, but this only manages to produce 30 b.h.p. at 4,800 r.p.m. So Michael Christie, besides being a talented sprint-driver with E.R.A. and blown and unblown Cooper 1,100s, is obviously a shrewd businessman, because the Morris Minor, which exists in large numbers in the hands of enthusiastic drivers who appreciate its fine handling qualities, is just the car which shouts for the endowment of additional urge, and remains controllable when thus encouraged.

Apart from h.c. gaskets and two-carburetter conversions for the earlier s.v. cars, Alexander Engineering Co., Ltd., whose premises are situated close to the delightfully picturesque Buckinghamshire village of Haddenham, not far from Aylesbury, have gone the whole hog over hotting-up the o.h.v. Minor and Austin A30.

They provide a special cylinder head with streamlined inlet ports and a compression ratio of 8 or 8.5 to 1, stronger valve springs, and twin S.U. carburetters. The last-named are supplied with special alloy manifolding, so that each carburetter feeds directly to a pair of ports, connected by a large-bore rubber balance tube. The exhaust manifold hot-spot is dispensed with but the manifold is normally unaltered; a three-branch manifold is available if required, however, as are air filters for the S.U.s with a pipe enabling one carburetter to breathe from the valve cover. To prevent over-revving of the tuned engine the rear axle ratio of 1953 cars is raised front 5.286 to 1 to 4.55 to 1 and that of 1954 cars to 4.875 to 1, while a suitably modified speedometer, incorporating a trip indicator, is available.

Details of the separate prices of these modifications are available on application to Alexander Engineering Co., Ltd., Haddenham, Bucks (Tel.: Haddenham 345/6).

Suffice it to remark that the normal range of modifications to the o.h.v. Morris Minor Costs £55, converted at the works after the engine has been decarbonised, its valves ground-in, and tuned-up generally. Incidentally, the new inlet manifolds have been designed in conjunction with the S.U. technicians.

At the time of my visit three converted Minors were at the works, a 1954 two-door saloon, a 1954 “Traveller’s Car” and a 1953 black tourer. It was the latter car which I was given to test; this particular touring car has always appealed to me as very attractive, its wind-up glass windows turning it into a saloon when required.

After a good lunch in sleepy Thame, during the course of which I was told that considerable research, using the firm’s Heenan and Froud brake, had been carried out to ensure that the power output really does increase usefully when the conversion is made, and that already on an average seven conversions a week are being fitted, I was let loose to rediscover the joys of driving a modern Minor, and a very lively one at that. The car got along remarkably well, and the aforesaid Morris roadholding and steering proved fully equal to the increased urge. The firm suspension kills roll when cornering, there is neither pronounced over nor understeer, and the steering is quick, light and smooth. The gearbox has rather wide ratios and it is easy to beat the synchromesh, which results in a nasty crunch, but with the two-carburetter engine less ratio-swapping is necessary. The exhaust pipe strikes the chassis at idling r.p.m., a fault peculiar to the Minor.

I covered over 300 brisk miles in the tourer and was duly impressed, including the manner in which the hood kept out the driving rain which fell the night before the British G.P., which the car spent beside Motor Sport’s Berkeley caravan. Later I arranged with Michael Christie to take over a 1954 Morris Minor Traveller’s Car, with the two-carburetter head and the 4.875 to 1 back axle ratio. By reason of the engine modifications this is a charming little car, possessing sports-car acceleration and a cruising speed which is normally around the mile-a-minute mark but which could be worked up to 65 m.p.h. It is also notably comfortable by reason of Dunlopillo bucket front seats, and has bags of room behind for passengers or goods, the latter easily loaded through the double doors forming the back panel, while the many windows provide exceptional visibility for all occupants.

The controls are like those of the 1953 tourer, although the direction-indicatore switch is easier to use and the indicators self-cancelling. As the engine now revels in high revs., some sound-damping, as had been adopted on the tourer, would be an advantage, but the ready response to the accelerator is immensely satisfying and the usual fine roadholding and cornering qualities and excellent steering is evident, although the oversteer tendency is perhaps slightly more noticeable, as one would expect with this roomy bodywork.

Although the willing performance encourages hard driving and I came home from Haddenham to Hampshire, at night, after the British Grand Prix at a highly satisfying average speed, the fuel consumption was modest and the engine quite without temperament, the acceleration as clean as a whistle.

Little opportunity presented itself for taking performance figures, especially as the speedometer had not been recalibrated, but a standing 1/4-mile occupied 24.0 sec., and I see no reason to doubt the Alexander Engineering Company’s claim of 0-50 m.p.h. in 16 sec., 0-60 m.p.h. in 25 sec., and maxima in the three upper gears of 38, 55 and 75 m.p.h. from the lighter two-door saloon models with their conversion.

I recommend those who enthuse over the Minor’s impeccable road manners but who crave more urge from under the bonnet to let the specialists at Haddenham instal those extra horses.

I will also state that I think the Morris Minor Traveller’s Car, which sells in standard form for just under £600 with p.t., a honey of a vehicle, with a multitude of uses — although it is no credit to Nuffield’s Publicity Chief that I am able to say this!

Experience with this Renault 750 and hotted-up VW and Morris Minors has convinced me that a big car is justified only if one is a company director. T.V. producer, or other sort of millionaire! — W. B.