The road-test round

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Or finding out how the other half motors

The heading does not infer that Motor Sport has been testing a Dynasphere, that remarkable rolling cage with the driver slung within it, which was demonstrated to an incredulous public at Brooklands in 1932; it refers simply to the routine of sampling new motorcars; which is one of the nicer aspects of the motoring writer’s life.

I am sometimes asked why a paper with such an all-embracing sporting title reports on what enthusiasts and sports-car fanatics are apt to dismiss as “bread-and-margarine” vehicles. The answer is two-fold, if not even more diverse. In the first place, the dividing line between sporting and less-sporting cars is growing narrower all the time, so that if one were to exclude from the road-test round those cars which, on paper, appear to be dreary saloons for Mr. and Madam Average-Citizen, one might miss some very salutary experiences – ranging, maybe, from driving the pre-war Lancia Aprilia to enjoying the recent Fiat 124. Then it should be obvious that any journal confining itself to the most expensive, fastest and most exotic cars in the world would have a very small circulation, thus practically no advertising, and therefore would be priced but of reach of even those who wish only to read about Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamborghinis and nothing else. Apart from which, I find it hard to refuse any motor car which is offered to me, if only for the mercenary reason that while using it I am wearing out someone else’s tyres. Anyhow, unless you try them all you are not qualified to pontificate on how the other half motors. . . .

Which is why I found myself driving a Vauxhall VX 4/90 last month – the re-introduced Luton model of this designation. We can dismiss the way it handles, because this is very much a car for the other half. I had occasion to drive rapidly for 200 miles one Sunday in the Editorial Rover 2000TC and to return the same day in an even greater hurry over the same route in this smart, low-roof-line, spacious Vauxhall. The Rover is not necessarily the finest example of handling there is but at the end of that day I had no illusions as to which was the nicer, safer, faster car of the two.

What this big Vauxhall with the well-established 2-litre overhead-camshaft four-cylinder engine such as you find in the current Victor and the well-liked Viva GT offer the Other Man (and Woman) is a smooth flow of power – you could have kidded me the engine had six cylinders and it is quiet running save for a very slight rattle (from the camshaft-drive belt?). The passing ability in direct third gear is impressive, in spite of a standing-start time of 19.3 sec. There is an overdrive, selected from a slide switch on the gear-lever knob, which operates in third and top, but this has a wide gap of some 1,000 r.p.m. from direct drive in top and as the box does not revert automatically to direct drive after second has been engaged, as Rootes used to contrive, this wide gap in the gear ratios is all the more apparent. Judicious use of o/d enabled me to get 25.4 mpg. of premium fuel, the engine consuming 500 m.p.p. of oil, as the extremely accessible, tube-encased hand-engraved dip-stick told me. An alternator makes possible a quite small Exide Supreme battery.

The VX 4/90 catalogue says this car “matches luxury with performance”, so I was disappointed to find no vanity mirror (for my wife), no clock, seats which, although they had lever-adjusted reclining squabs, felt uncomfortably hard after that 200-mile stint and the Ambla upholstery of which made me sweat (which I don’t do on the Rover’s hide-covered seats), and too-weak coil springs for the first stage of the door “keeps”. The flick switches down on the central console are convenient and out of harm’s way but their symbol illumination casts most irritating magnified blobs of reflected light, which accompany you in the n/s door window until you have discovered how to dim this unwanted light. The o/s control stalk is just too far from the steering-wheel rim for the lights to be effortlessly dipped by a flick of a finger, the starter key has no safety baulk, and of the four small dials that for oil-pressure is on the extreme left, where it is the least easily read by the driver.

The steering had a slight semblance of that stickiness which spoiled the Viva GT, which makes me wonder if this is an inherent failing of Vauxhall steering and not a case of lack of servicing? The “squiginess” of the steering under braking bears out this suspicion. Otherwise the proud owner of a VX 4/90 gets just better than 100 m.p.h., lots of room, good visibility, and his (or her) route after dark is well picked out by the Lucas headlamps and Butlers auxiliary lamps. There are good carpets, a lockable cubby hole, a tachometer which reminds one that at an indicated 70 m.p.h. the engine is lazing round at only just over 3,000 r.p.m., and the price is £1,269.

So it is possible that this VX 4/90 is going to be welcomed by many car purchasers. But if I were Vauxhall (or General Motors) I would be worried by adverse reports on the reliability of the Ventora which have appeared in the motoring Press recently, all the more so in view of the careful inspection and the painstaking finish to the cars which is routine in the Luton factory, as we have informed you from time to time.

The next car on the road-test agenda was a DAF. This was arranged through the enthusiasm of my good friend Dudley Steynor, who sells these unique Dutch cars in Buckinghamshire. I tried a DAF many years ago, a twin-cylinder version which came to no harm after a belt-slipping expedition to some West Country trials hills. I like cycle-cars and I love the idea of a 1970 car driven by belts, I am aware that the clever DAF variomatic transmission stands up to the harsh punishment meted out in Formula Three racing and trials, and I am told that it is a very carefully put together, precision piece of mechanism. It certainly constitutes the only truly efficient form of transmission, because a gearbox merely provides a series of steps to something approximating to the desirable ratio at any given time and an automatic transmission is simply (or complexedly) the same, but with gremlins to engage anything from two to four such gappy steps. The DAF Variomatic drive is at all times in virtually the correct ratio for prevailing gradient and throttle loadings, and that this is accomplished in conjunction with a simple belt drive is all the more credit to the Nederlandic brain which conceived it.

Not that there is anything new about an infinitely-variable transmission achieved by means of expanding pulleys. You had it on the old Zenith Gradua motorcycle (which was so effective in hill-climbs that it was barred from competing, hence the maker’s famous trade-mark of a five-barred gate) and on the Rudge Multi and in the early Bleriot-Whippet cyclecars, only you had to do the varying yourself, by hand, whereas in the DAF it is done for you, precisely and smoothly, by an ingenious combination of centrifugal force and engine suction. Moreover, this is a pure automatic transmission, presenting none of the indecision which can confront a driver when several “hold” positions are provided. A button on the DAF’s dash gives a low-ratio hold, for use on ice, with warning light on the rare occasion when it will be made use of.

The DAF I tried was a Type 55 coupe of an eye-catching blood-orange hue (DAF call it Nationa). You can still buy a DAF with their own air-cooled flat-twin engine (a 1970 cyclecar), but the Type 55 uses the Renault four-in-line water-cooled 50 (SAE) b.h.p. power unit of 1,108 c.c., an excellent engine of proven dependability, with five-bearing crankshaft, light-alloy head and push-rod overhead valves,

The stylish body of the coupe provides good room for two occupants (but rear headroom is very restricted with the rear window dangerously close to an adult’s head) and is luxury appointed in the style of an NSU or Mercedes-Benz. The front seats have fully reclining, knob-adjusted squabs and upholstery is in rather clinging cloth/vinyl.

The first impression was that this is a car, like a Fiat 850 coupe, which looks faster than it is and that it needs a certain amount of rowing along, hut with the right foot instead of a gear-lever in the case of the DAF. I had to get used to tyre squeal on corners, too, not because I was spinning the back wheels but due to the action of the DAF self-locking differential, accomplished by the twin-belt drive, which is, I suppose, a trifle tough on the 14 in. Michelin “X” tyres, and to the hum of the ingenious transmission. The centrifugal clutch, which engages at 2,250 to 2,400 r.p.m., makes the DAF a true two-pedal car, a joy to learner-drivers, and the aforesaid infinitely-variable transmission with ratios from 14.87 to 1 to 3.73 to 1 must, being always in the ideal ratio, surely assist the little Renault engine to give a good fuel consumption?

So here I was, like a middle-aged midwife, in possession of a handsome little two-pedal car. For a while I felt a craving for the Alfa Romeo, but it wasn’t long before I was accepting DAF-style motoring. The Type 55 will cruise very happily at an indicated 75 m.p.h. , (in fact, it is fully extended at 80) and it is simplicity personified to drive. I suspect, from the pedals’ location, that the good people of Holland are expected to brake with their left feet, accelerate with their right feet, otherwise, if you prefer the one-foot method, the pedals seem unduly off-set to the left. Unlike an orthodox automatic car, the DAF has no hill-hold, but it has an important attribute to offset this in that, as you lift-off or brake to reduce speed, the Variomatic senses this and lowers the drive ratio, so that you get engine-braking much as you would had you changed down on a normal gearbox. There is also no transmission creep.

Allowing for the transmission hum, the Variomatic has no vices. You can leave the central selector lever in froward drive, ignoring the neutral location,, and with the central hand-brake applied the car will not move until the brake is released. The only other transmission operation is that of pulling the selector lever to the reverse position – it goes forward for forward, back for reversing – how could that midwife make a mistake?

The acceleration isn’t exhilarating but neither is it in the pathetic category. I found that although I hadn’t enough pick-up to pass a determinedly-driven Ford Anglia 1200, I was faster in the corners, and I liked the taut, smooth and light DAF steering (3 1/4 turns, lock-to-lock) almost devoid of lost-motion, as a rack-and-pinion should be. There is an oversteer tendency to the cornering but it is not at all pronounced, nor is the driver conscious of roll. Suspension is choppy, but otherwise comfortable, by coil springs at the back, torsion bars at the front with anti-roll bar, giving a good ride for a small car. The brakes, disc/drum, require a good deal of pressure. The DAF’s interior has neat wood-trim on the facia, simple but sensible instrumentation and controls, push tumblers for two-speed wipers and lamps, a lockable boot of excellent capacity, two non-lockable cubby holes, the lid of the larger one apt to open on bumpy roads (the driver’s door window was stiff to wind up, too, but the car was very new), a useful oddments’ tray between the front seats, a fuel filler concealed behind the rear number plate, very effective facia fresh-air vents, and extractor vents in the body. Convenient knobs on the sides of the front-seat squabs enable these seats to be lifted for access to the back compartment. The spare wheel and jack are mounted beside the engine, left- and right-hand control stalks, apart from other functions, enable you to give a polite visual, or less polite aural, warning of approach. The DAF has stainless steel window frames, hub caps and bumpers, Cibie lamps, Securit safety glass, an AFA Kema Keur Instant Power 12-volt battery, Ducellier electrics, an AC fuel pump, a DAF radiator, and Kleber Columbes hoses. The front-hinged bonnet pops up, the rear side windows open as vents, the test car had a Javelin radio and its Michelin tyres were made in N. Ireland. The driver’s door could have been a better fit and the paint lining on the doors was not consistent n/s to o/s.

Press deadlines prevent me from saying more about the DAF 55 at present, but apart from being a very excellent car for the novice driver and one which is well-nigh ideal for a learner, it will appeal to a more experienced and discerning public by reason of its technical ingenuity and the fact that it is quite different, transmission-wise, from any other make of car. It also comes in the luxury small-car category.

I got a disappointing 30.3 m.p.g. from it, oil consumption was negligible after 500 miles and the makers claim that the belts normally last as long as the tyres. Incidentally, without consulting the reference books, can you name any other four-cylinder car that had belt drive ?

The Type 55 coupe is the top DAF model, priced here at a startling £999. But if you feel you are likely to become an addict it is comforting to know that at the other end of the scale the DAF 33 saloon de luxe sells for £300 less. – W.B.

Pubs named after cars

The ploy of naming public houses after well-known cars is growing. We do not mean the many ‘Talbot Arms”, “Bentley Inns” and “Cross Hands’ pubs (the Hands small car, you remember) you encounter in this country but those specifically called after famous makes of cars by the brewers. There is the “Jaguar” in Coventry, the “Bull-Nose Morris” at Cowley, The Vauxhall Inn at Cheltenham, and we seem to remember one with a Model-T Ford as its inn sign.

On July 8th Mitchells and Butlers opened a spacious new public house situated close to the centre of Wolverhampton on the Penn Road. Designed by Stan Jones for the brewers and supervised by Norman Smart, assistant architect of Scott and Clark, this new Bass/Charrington house has been named “The Sunbeam” in honour of the Sunbeam cars once made in the town. The lounge is named after Segrave and big pictures of Sunbeam racing and record-breaking cars, the Sunbeam-powered airship R33, and production Sunbeams of the vintage era grace the walls of this and the public bar. There are also wall plaques commemorating Sunbeam racing victories and one devoted to the late Sir Henry Segrave and his racing career. The opening was performed by Mrs. W. Boddy, President of the Sunbeam STD Register, who pulled the first pint, in front of the TV cameras. Outside were assembled a 1904 15.6 h.p. tourer from the Rootes collection, a 1921 24h.p. limousine, a 1923 Fourteen tourer, a 1928 Sixteen fabric saloon, and a 1930 Sixteen estate car, all Wolverhampton Sunbeams, supported by a 1928 long-stroke Sunbeam motorcycle with “the little chain bath” and a 1947 Sunbeam S7 motorcycle. There were also several small rear-engined and larger front-engined Chrysler UK products bearing the name of Sunbeam. On this happy occasion old employees from the Moorfield works chatted to those who still drive the cars they made.

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