On The Road

This column, as some of the professional journalists put it, has recently been attending one-make rallies which take place mostly off the road. Some are reported elsewhere, but it is interesting that whereas vintage cars are usually encountered very infrequently these days on ordinary journeys, when I was driving to and from Wolverhampton for the annual S.T.D. Register rally we met not only a very large steam traction engine proceeding very slowly southwards between Oxford and Stratford-on-Avon, but a very sporting Aero Morgan and, before the day was out, a Lancia Lambda and a vintage Lea-Francis. Maybe the V.S.C.C. Oulton Park race meeting of the previous day had something to do with this . . .

It is nice to know that the Wolverhampton police are still as willing as ever to marshal all the visiting Sunbeams and let them parade through the town, as they have been doing this for more years, originally at my instigation, than I care to remember. They show keen interest in the old cars and it was not all that long ago that they permitted us to run the 1924 G.P. Sunbeam “The Cub”, a car recently the subject of much comment, in the parade, although it had no mudguards, silencer or other legalities. Incidentally, our “Wolverhampton Sunday” this year was not spoilt by traffic congestion, although we had to take a route involving Oxford, Stratford and the Midlands around Redditch, Lickey End and similar places. I noticed, too, that the old courtesy of giving passage to vintage cars seems to be returning. At all events, on more than one occasion drivers of modern cars, seeing the lofty 1921 Sunbeam which was leading our personal convoy, abandoned their right of way at roundabouts to wave us through. They let me proceed as well, in the 1930 Sunbeam “glasshouse”. But the 1936 Talbot 110 which had been acting as our tail-ender, until it used its superior speed to go ahead, must have looked much more modern, because it was usually chopped off and thereafter had to use its greater acceleration to catch us up.

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I was much cheered to meet a reader of Motor Sport who told me that our road-tests have directly influenced his choice of cars over the past decade and a half, commencing with a Volkswagen and going through three Mercedes-Benz to a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, with a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow on order, as a result of reading my remarks about this car in the May issue. It is nice to know that road-test reports sometimes really do bring follow-up sales . . .

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Keeping an eye roving for unusual road signs, I came upon one which, for obvious reasons, it would not have been prudent to have stopped to photograph. It read “ESCAPE ROAD”, just like you might expect to encounter on a race circuit. It is a safeguard at one of the sharp bends going down Fish Hill into Broadway. If one had to use it, would one be subject to prosecution? Presumably, because to do so would imply lack of concentration, or inability to steer, or inadequate brakes, or careless driving, or something of this kind, surely? It was in the barren wastes of Hayes, under the shadow of London Airport, that I noticed an omnibus displaying an advertising poster which read “Have a Good Evening”. It had stopped near a store on which was the notice “400 Prams Available”.

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On The Road has been using small cars to visit off-the-road rallies and motor races. The first of these was a Morris Mini Mk. II 1000. I did not drive a road-test Mini all last year, but after re-reading the late Laurence Pomeroy’s book “The Mini Story” (Temple Press, 1964) I came under the influence of Mini nostalgia. So I was determined to enjoy this one and left home in it at 6 a.m. for Oulton Park the first day I had it, not getting back to the Oxford area, where I was spending the night, until around 9 p.m.

Perhaps that was too full a day’s motoring in one of our smallest, albeit roomiest, cars, because I was not happy with the choppy ride, the noise, mainly from the 10 in. Dunlop C41s but also from engine and gears, the rather vague steering, which was stiff for some degrees away from the straight-ahead position, making for continuous wrist movements to keep to the intended path, the sticky throttle or the very notchy, heavy gear-change. The clutch, due to the small pedal-pad, also feels heavy. Moreover, although the car had been held back a day for servicing, the brakes were not at all effective unless you pumped the pedal.

However, in this day and age, there is a great need for a small car in most garages, and this big-engined Mini, while far more docile than a Cooper version, has useful acceleration, although on ordinary roads it showed an indicated cruising speed of nearer 65 than 70 m.p.h. and cannot exceed the legal limit by much more than 7 m.p.h. It took four people in partial comfort, thanks to Issigonis’ inch-pinching, and the sure-footed cornering and firm road-holding of f.w.d. allied to Moulton rubber-cum-Hydrolastic suspension, are a decided asset to safety as well as enjoyment. The tip-up front seats of this two-door saloon are not particularly comfortable but better than they once were, and the internal stowage space needs no further praise from me, all Minis being famous for it.

The car still has sliding windows, but with improved catches, and wire-pulls to operate locks which are hardly a contribution to safety, being too easily grabbed, in an emergency, by nervous passengers. Its instrumentation is simple in the extreme, the central speedometer-binnacle incorporating a temperature-gauge, the needle of which hung satisfactorily downwards halfway between “C” and “H”, an oil-gauge which showed 50 to 75 lb./sq. in. depending on engine speed, while the speedometer-cum-odometer contains a very pessimistic fuel gauge. Two little flick-switches look after lights and wipers, a press-button between these and the steering column working the washers. The headlamps are dipped or flashed, and the turn-indicators worked from a l.h. stalk control which may be more dependable than the old type, which had an indicator-light at its tip, but which is both too short and too close to the steering-wheel rim to be easily accessible, which is serious because its tip carries the horn-push.

The heater is now very effective, but it seems untidy to have to leave a knob sticking far out from the dash rail in order to cut it off, and even then cold air issues on to the feet of those in the front of the car, even with the other control, on the heater box, set to “off”. Issigonis has said that, like me, he has no use for safety-belts, having made a very safe car in which the driver should be able to dodge the incidents. This is both true and just-as-well, for there are a number of projections within the box-like body, including a courtesy-acting roof-lamp and switch which is very near the occupants’ heads.

The severe vibration at idling speed remains, demisting with the heater on “screen-cold” was not effective, and I was reminded of the thin-gauge steel used for the body shell because the front passenger could easily depress the floor with his or her feet.

The aforesaid run to Oulton Park was on V.S.C.C. Saturday, when the heavy rain encountered proved to me that 1968 Minis do not suffer from sparking plugs which are vulnerable to moisture. But faint traces of petrol fumes were noticed, which seemed to come from the heater.

The back seat has a considerable angle to its cushion, which is apt to be appreciated more by canine than human passengers. But some creature comforts are there, like ash-trays front and back, hinged rear side-windows, a conventional but convenient central hand-brake, and dual anti-dazzle vizors. All-round visibility is excellent and there is a useful back-shelf to augment all those stowage bins and the full-width front shelf. There are metric calibrations of speed and oil-pressure and warning lights for blocked oil-filter and low oil-pressure, supplementing the oil-gauge.

For short runs, lane exploration and shopping, the Mini really excels, and, once accustomed to this rather course little car, I confess I much enjoyed it—on short runs. Even with the acceptable extra pickup of the 998 c.c. engine, we got 42.6 m.p.g. of four-star petrol, mainly on fast main-road running, which is distinctly useful. No troubles developed, although this Mini had done more than 10,000 miles. Oil consumption came out at approx. 750 m.p.p. At the price of £635 this Mini holds its own in the small-car field, especially amongst those who see this unique front-drive vehicle as today’s version of the pre-war Austin Seven.

I like small cars which have practical, ingenious aspects which are individual to them. The Citroën 2 c.v. had these in generous measure, and so does the Renault 4 and the Fiats 500 and 600. The B.M.C.-conceived Minis lack nothing in this respect, and are either respected for it or disliked. If I seem to have been unduly critical of this Mk. II Mini it is because in this country we use little cars for long journeys. The French are, maybe, more logical, inasmuch as they regard their 2 C.V.s of the last decade, as they did their Citroën 5 C.V.s and Peugeot Quads of the vintage years, as very useful for local runs but do not enthuse over them in other way’s, or regard them as potential racing cars. With the present more-savage-than-ever tax on petrol the under-1,000 c.c. cars are in great demand. Incidentally, because they are small their windscreens are extra vulnerable to stones dropped from the back of moving grit lorries. Now that we are required by law to have safe tyres, safe lamps, safety-belts, drive comparatively slowly, and soon will not be permitted to make a noise, it is time for something drastic to be done to stop this shedding of the load by trucks, which can be lethal to following cars.

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Hearing someone say how tired the Wimbledon tennis-players must be, as they had been playing for nearly two hours, reminded me of the driver, I think it was Brian Lewis (now Lord Essendon), who, when a lady asked him at Brooklands why he had taken up motor racing, replied that it was the only sport he could enjoy sitting down . . .

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The next small car to submit itself for test was a Sunbeam Stiletto (what odd names they give cars, these days!), which was more refined than the Mk. II 998 c.c. Mini, as it should be, for it costs £178 more. This Stiletto is Rootes’ latest Imp permutation, with the Californian body-shell having a fastback roofline, the Imp Sport engine which gives 51 (net) b.h.p. at 6,100 r.p.m. using twin Zenith-Stromberg 125CDS carburetters and a 10 to 1 c.r., with such nicities as a vacuum-servo for the Girling drum brakes and new facia, leather-covered steering wheel, and the inevitable vinyl-covered roof.

The black upholstered interior is very nicely finished and the rather embarrassing external gold finish toned down after that Sahara dust from the freak storm which carried it into London last month had settled on it. I thought this Sunbeam Stiletto great fun to drive, and quite civilised into the bargain. There is much engine noise as the tachometer-needle sweeps towards the red sector at 6,500 r.p.m., and some gear train whine, but otherwise the car is quiet for a “hot” 875 c.c. and is more akin, both in this respect and from the driver’s outlook, to an 1100.

The recessed instrumentation is tastefully done, with decimal trip mileometer in the 110 m.p.h. speedometer, but there is no oil-gauge or ammeter and the temperature-gauge needle normally sat centrally on an uncalibrated dial—modern thermometers seem to be insensitive to anything except enormous changes in temperature. The cranked stalks on the facia to left and right of the steering column provide for convenient manipulation of lights, turn-indicators and horn and represent good ergonomics; thumb and second finger of the right hand can simultaneously work washers’ button and wipers switch.

This little Sunbeam covers the ground remarkably well, having a top gait of over 88 m.p.h. and getting noisily to 60 m.p.h. from rest in 17½ seconds. The gear change is splendid, but likes full depression of the clutch, the hand-brake is conventional, on the floor, the steering quick and responsive (2.6 turns, lock-to-lock). There is some body-shake and the suspension, being firm, responds to bad surface’s a little wildly, throwing the car’s occupants about. But generally the comfort factor, for the front-seat occupants, is high, except that the spongy front-seat cushion was not acceptable and made it awkward to depress the off-set pedals, and the patterned plastic upholstery of the cushions didn’t increase comfort on a hot day—I still prefer real leather. However, there are good adjustable squabs, properly shaped.

For the back-seat sufferers, it is a different matter. The back bench seat is shaped for two, and they are restricted in leg and head room. I prefer to regard the Stiletto as a two-seater mini-GT car, with accommodation for a single cross-wise-sitting adult when the backs of the back seats are lifted up—they fold down flat to give a very useful luggage platform, but access to this has to be via the side doors, as by going “fastback” the Imp’s very acceptable lift-up back window has been sacrificed. The rear side windows are fixed, but the doors have quarter-lights.

Although rear-engined, this little Sunbeam corners exceedingly well. It goes round fast bends in a beautifully balanced fashion, although I think the Mini was just that much quicker. The brakes were good for normal motoring, until they became a bit tired in London, and only seemed slightly lacking when harsh stops were needed from high speed; they are still on the heavy side, in spite of the servo. The clutch needs care for sudden starts.

The front boot, which has to be propped open, will not take a large suitcase, but if only two people travel in the Stiletto this is no criticism because then that excellent luggage platform can be used. There is a lockable cubby, which refused to accept a Rolleiflex camera, and front and back metal side-wells, cribbed from Issigonis, but less roomy than those in the Mini.

It is fun to have a light-alloy overhead-camshaft engine up behind. It takes a little time to warm up from cold but starts promptly if the choke control, ahead of the central gear lever, is used and usually at the second attempt at other times. It idled fast, at 1,000 r.p.m., and does 4,500 r.p.m. at an indicated 70 m.p.h. It is charmingly economical, the accurate petrol gauge, calibrated in litres as well as in gallons, sinking very slowly. In fact, I got 37.1 m.p.g. of 97-octane petrol, inclusive of traffic work and local journeys. The tank holds 6 gallons, or 27 litres. It is filled from the front after opening the boot lid, as are the brake-fluid reservoir and the washers’ bottle. The boot also houses the spare wheel. At the back, lifting the “piano lid” reveals a fine collection of machinery, the engine canted over to the o/s, its radiator with coaled fan on the n/s. There is an oil-cooler, and the dip-stick is reasonably accessible and shows a quart between the high and low marks, which on the Mini represent one pint. In 700 miles the oil-level had fallen by less than half-a-pint.

The Sunbeam Stiletto has dual Lucas headlamps, and is shod with 12 in. Dunlop SP41 tyres. The screen is a Triplex toughened “Zebrazone” and the test car had external mirrors and a Smith’s Radiomobile radio. The black vinyl finish of the facia and black, drilled, metal steering-wheel spokes give a touch of the competition cockpit and obviate dazzle. The driving position, off-set pedals apart, is excellent and the steering pleasantly light, with the Imp’s tight turning circle at the expense of front-tyre scrub on full lock. A brake stop-light was inoperative on the test car, and the driver’s window-winder was loose.

Altogether, I thought this Sunbeam a nice little thing. But its price is against it, unless you are shopping for a truly small-engined car, because it costs more than the B.M.C. 1100s and 1300s and the ordinary Ford Escorts, nearly as much as an Escort 1300GT, 4-door Cortina 1300 or Fiat 124 saloon. But a Super Imp is a different proposition and the de luxe Mk. II Imp is less costly than the 998 c.c. Mk. II Mini by £9 (although a basic 850 c.c. Mini undercuts this Imp by no less than £110). So I think I might prefer the Hillman version of these nice little motor cars from Scotland.W. B.