In the Alps with the M.G.-A 1600 and the Austin Healey 3000
On a cold and wet morning in June a party of journalists assembled at the R.A.C. in Pall Mall at the invitation of the British Motor Corporation to take part in a trip to the South of France to test the Austin-Healey 3000 which was announced in July and the M.G.-A 1600 which is announced today.
From the R.A.C. we were driven to Gatwick Airport where a chartered Transair Viscount waited to transport us in silence and comfort to Lyon where six M.G.s and six Healeys awaited our attention. There was little time to examine the cars as the 300-mile drive to Cap d’Antibes near Cannes had to be completed in time for dinner. I selected a red M.G.-A and like everyone else spent some time trying to open the boot to stow some luggage, but once the hidden catch behind the seats had been located the boot opened easily enough. A route had been selected by B.M.C. avoiding the N.7 and going via Grenoble, Gap, Digne, and Grasse along the N.85 known as the Route des Alpes but as much of this would have to be covered in darkness I decided to head the M.G. along the almost deserted N.7 in company with Gregor Grant of Autosport who had selected an Austin-Healey.
At the first of several stops for liquid refreshment we examined the specifications of the new cars and found that the major changes occurred in the engine and braking departments. On the M.G.-A 1600 the “B” Series engine has been bored out to a capacity of 1,588 c.c. (the same as the Twin-cam) and with an 8.3:1 compression ratio now gives 79.5 b.h.p. at 5,600 r.p.m. as compared with the 72 b.h.p. of the previous model. Following the general trend the M.G. 1600 is fitted with disc brakes on the front wheels combined with drums at the rear. Lockheed discs have been chosen for the M.G. while improved linings are used at the rear. Externally the only differences are the use of sliding sidescreens as standard equipment and a slight re-styling of the rear lights to accommodate separate flasher lamps.
Turning to the Healey we found that the “C” type engine has been enlarged to 2,912 c.c. and now develops 130 b.h.p. (gross), 124 b.h.p. net at 4,600 r.p.m., on a compression ratio of 9.03:1. This increase in capacity has been obtained by the use of a new cylinder block casting having a bore of 83.36 mm. and a stroke of 89 mm. The torque has gone up to 175 lb./ft. at 3,000 r.p.m. from its previous 149 lb./ft. and a strengthened gear cluster has been designed to cope with the increased power. The 3000 is the first model to be equipped with Girling disc brakes on the front wheels as standard equipment. The rear drums brakes have dimensions of 11 in. x 2¼-in.
This then is the sum total of noticeable changes to these two cars. The pleasing note for potential M.G.-A buyers is that prices remain the same — £940 7s. 6d. for the open model and £1,026 15s. 10d. for the coupe. The Healey 3000 is only a matter of £10 dearer than the 100-Six at £1,168 9s. 2d. for the two-seater and £1,175 10s. 10d. for the occasional four-seater. Having discovered these differences we headed the cars out on to the N.7 once more. All the cars were French-registered left-hand drive models destined for the Paris distributor and were brand new, some of them not having been fully run-in owing to the short notice given for the trip. Nevertheless the M.G.-A 1600 had a smooth flow of power and lost surprisingly little ground to the Healey on acceleration. The orange band on the rev.-counter runs from 5,500 to 6,000 r.p.m. and the red band from 6,000 to 7,000 r.p.m. In the lower gears the needle could be pushed well into the orange section without trouble but in top gear the engine could not be made to exceed 5,000 r.p.m., but since this showed exactly 160 k.p.h. (99 m.p.h.) on the speedometer no great trouble was found in keeping the Healey in sight. The steering of the M.G. is commendably light whilst gear changes can be made almost as quickly as the hand can move, although the synchromesh can be beaten if very fast changes are made.
The run to Cannes was uneventful, stops being made in Montelimar for the inevitable Nougat and at Avignon for petrol. The route from Aix-en-Provence to Cannes runs over some bumpy roads with enough mountain corners to test the suspension and roadholding of any car.
The M.G. survived the test with flying colours. If a corner was taken too ambitiously the rear end would slide out most controllably and could always be corrected with ease while the disc brakes could be relied on in an emergency and no trace of fade was noticed at any time. The pedal pressure required was higher than that needed for drum brakes but this was amply compensated for by the complete lack of fade which would have certainly been apparent with drums all round.
Next day a gastronomic expedition was planned to Vence which included some more mountain driving and for this trip I selected an occasional four-seater Healey fitted with overdrive. The transition from the fleet M.G. to the rather ponderous Healey is rather startling at first as all controls are much heavier than those fitted to the M.G. Owing apparently to carburation difficulties the car proved rather difficult to start at times, the engine having to be “caught” with the throttle. The throttle pedal itself was not above criticism as on all cars at least two inches of lost motion was apparent before the revs. began to rise. It was also placed higher than the brake pedal making heel-and-toe gear changes out of the question, but this fault should be merely a matter of adjustment. The gear-lever is bent sharply backwards about 2 inches from its base in order to bring the knob near the driver’s hand and combined with a gearbox which was still rather stiff gear changing was nothing like as easy as on the M.G. This spoilt the otherwise excellent characteristics of the car because on mountain roads one had to be sure that the car was in gear before taking a bend at any speed and very often the gearbox would find neutral instead of the required gear. I arrived at a compromise by using third and overdrive third for much of the journey. Overdrive third was useful for the few straights encountered and by flicking the dashboard-mounted switch third gear was easily obtained. On corners up to around 50 m.p.h. the Healey could be slid quite comfortably and appeared to be very stable. The 3-litre engine of the Healey is of course given a much easier time than that of the M.G. and this aspect undoubtedly appeals to a great number of sports car buyers. In overdrive top at 4,000 r.p.m. the theoretical speed is 92.4 m.p.h., going up to 115.5 m.p.h. at 5,000 r.p.m. Owing to the stiffness of the gearbox we felt it unfair to take performance figures but the manufacturers claim that the car will reach 60 m.p.h. from a standstill in under 11 seconds and 100 m.p.h. in 31 seconds.
In the two days which followed we were able to thrash the cars about in the mountains or on shopping expeditions at will and most of the cars stood up to the test very well. Pottering through towns one’s leg becomes rather weary if the brakes have to be used much because of the traditional reluctance of disc brakes to operate at low speeds.
Just as several journalists were becoming proficient at waterskiing the time came for us to return to England and leave the sunshine of the Riviera. The cars were driven to Nice Airport for the last time and we embarked on an Air France flight for London having a healthy respect for the latest versions of the M.G. and Austin-Healey. Full marks to the manufacturers for organising this rigorous test. — M.L.T.