Road impressions of a variety of cars

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It has not been possible to mention all the cars road-tested recently, so it is now my intention to catch up while space is available. Not having tried a Saab for a very long time, I was able to borrow a 96 from the obliging people at Slough last year and was favourably impressed with this rugged, individualistic, slim Swedish saloon powered with the German Ford V4 engine. I asked that as soon as possible the later Saab 99 with the Triumph o.h.c. engine be submitted to us for appraisal. There was a slight muddle about this but it arrived in the end, although by then I was only able to drive it for some 300 miles. It was even more of a character than the well-known 96, with complex controls for its sophisticated heating and ventilation system and a most interesting refinement in the form of wipers on its headlamps. The latter were very well made and incorporated washers to free the lamps from mud all too frequently thrown up by lorries in winter. Saab are noted for their safety-first construction and longevity but I was disappointed that the 99 had a horribly notchy gear-change and steering which could get very heavy and was affected by the front-wheel-drive. The performance, too, although good, was not as good as I had expected, anything above 70 m.p.h. taking longer to attain than I liked. No doubt this is why Saab offer a fuel-injection engine and, anyway, they tell me there are even better things ahead. In carburetter form we got 27.6 m.p.g. from this Saab 99, driving pretty hard on early morning deserted roads, and an overall consumption of 4-star fuel of 28.05 m.p.g., which was a fraction more thirsty than the higher-compression Triumph Dolomite had been, with virtually the same engine.

Saab have always made interesting cars and this one had the energy absorbing front bumper which the safety pundits set great store by. I do not think it had the heated driving seat, because I did not suffer from a certain painful disease after driving it.

Shortly afterwards Ivor Greening of BL’s Longbridge Press office complied efficiently with my desire to try the Wolseley Six, one of the new range of cars with transverse six-cylinder o.h.c. engines which British Leyland offers us its very latest design, although in other countries they have known them for a long time, under different names. This is the ultimate in Issigonis-inspired motoring, a Big Min, and I was amused to have it to test in Wolseley form, because herein lay tradition, the Wolseley Six of years ago having had an overhead camshaft and its radiator badge illuminated at night (whereby you got additional warning of a trailing Police car) although it didn’t have its engine East-to-West, or front-wheel-drive.

This modern Wolseley Six is the luxury job, with lots of extra equipment and a deep dashboard of real walnut. I think this return to wooden facias can be overdone in the cars of the 1970s, for whereas in pre-war days the veneer decor was continued round the window sills and the facia was higher and thus more part of the car, today it tends to be low set and is usually the only tree-wood about the carriage. The plastic steering wheel cross-spoke on the BL Wolseley, with a badge which read either “W” or “M” depending on how much lock you were using, wasn’t very nice but the car was well appointed and had very powerful facia fresh-air vents, but all its switches were much too far away from the driver and fussily located, while the efficient screen washers had a control separate from the wipers’-switch. Lack of attention to detail, in fact, as with the cubby-hole lid, locked with a most awkwardly placed cabinet-key, so that opening the stiff lid was a task for delicate and patient fingers.

There is still that transmission-gear whine, and snatch caused by engine torque, and the gear-change is like chiselling through oak. However, the new multi-cylinder engine is very flexible, and gives an impressive 100 m.p.h.-plus performance, and the typical unstickable, smooth, almost unique cornering power makes this extremely spacious saloon a fast car on long cross-country journeys, although a Lancia Lusso driven by someone of about my age, with lady and dog passengers, proved uncatchable along the A40 road between Witney and Burford. The brakes were nicely progressive, I quite liked the cloth seats, and the power steering works well but is too low-geared and the test car needed a restraining hand all the time, otherwise it ran to the left.

Before I drove this Wolseley my assistant had acquired an Austin 2200 for his annual holiday to Monaco, with the object of combining business with pleasure, so I propose to let him tell you how the Big Min performs on a fast Continental journey. All I need add is that a friend who runs a Mini Traveller and to whom I introduced the Wolseley Six said she thought it was indeed a Big Min ! I found the locked fuel-filler flap a nuisance, but the self-propping bonnet convenient; the dip-stick is 100% accessible but the Lucas battery seemed to get rather warm, my wife huffed about the absence of a vanity mirror, and this Dunlop SP68-shod luxury car had a Triplex zone toughened screen, whereas I prefer to be behind laminated glass. But when all was said and done, it took me as quickly and as comfortably and as safely on a regular long non-stop run as any car of its price I have encountered lately, and it is splendidly individualistic, in a world of increasingly similar saloons.

In between enjoying the eager convenience of a Ford Cortina GT and the impeccable dignity, solidity and high-performance of a BMW 2500, I was offered by Mr. Moyes of General Motors the latest Opel Rekord coupé, with the 1900 engine. These days Opels are mostly all very enjoyable cars, which have done more than Vauxhall, in the last year or two, to up-grade the GM image in Europe and fend off Ford. This is true of the Opel Rekord II, although I have driven nicer Opels. It is a bit rubbery in ride and handling and was badly affected by side winds in the freak gales of early July. The engine gives the impression of a high-geared big four but the Opel Rekord out-accelerates, out-speeds and about equals in fuel thirst a Cortina 2000 GXL, although it costs £347 more. It has somewhat sleeker lines and although the gear lever is longer and, like a straw boater, could have come from Luton, it is quite acceptable, if not up to Ford’s high standard.

The Opel has all its instruments before the driver, instead of placing some down on the console as in the Cortina, but this means a heat/fuel-level dial, a speedometer, and a big clock, no oil gauge, ammeter, or tachometer being provided. The plastic-covered front seats are spongy but comfortable and the squabs adjust easily, both for rake and to let people into the back of the two-door body. At night the panel-lighting can be extinguished but the pilot lights for the heater-lever settings and around the wipers’-switch remain visible. The Opel has impressive performance (it will do nearly 110 m.p.h.) and its high-camshaft engine (now with hydraulic tappets) runs cheerfully up to 6,000 r.p.m. The latest Opel Rekord can be welcomed as a smart new edition to the growing family of medium-size higher-then-average-performance cars, it was convenient to use but I have driven more enjoyable Opels. Fuel consumption was a notable 31.2 m.p.g. in fast cruising conditions, the 15.4-gallon tank giving an excellent range of 387 miles before the gauge went into the red. There are no 1/4-windows on the doors and facia rotatable air-vents, with vertical side-levers to adjust the volume of air they admit, are extremely powerful. All the more disappointing, therefore, that in certain conditions of humidity the Opel was impossible to fully de-mist. Equipment includes heated back windows, reversing lamps, etc. but Opel use dual halogen head lamps against the Cortina’s four-lamp set. The Rekord has a normal unlockable lidded cubby-hole, stowage space around the gear lever, a substantial central hand-brake, and very big areas of glass. The test car had Goodyear 14 in. Custom G800 Rib tyres, one rear one of which deflated slowly. The wheel was no great hardship to change. On longer acquaintance I thought the gear change quite reasonable, but with long movements. The Opel’s brakes are almost too light, but very efficient, and quiet. The bad-road ride is poor, with a tendency to back axle tramp. The doors have rigid pockets, the windows tumble-home, and although there is some engine buzz at speed, 70 is a long-legged cruising gait. The steering is reasonably light except for parking. There are refinements such as intermittent screen-wiping controlled by a knob on the left-hand stalk and one of the warning lights indicates excessive clutch wear, an item the Cortina could have done with, judging by the fierceness of its clutch action; this is evidence that there is still an individual touch, even on the lower-priced cars. The Opel requires servicing every 3,000 miles, against the Cortina’s care-free 6,000-mile intervals. No oil was required in the sump after 600 miles, the dip-stick conveniently to hand when the bonnet had been propped up. — W. B.

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As related by the Editor, I made my annual pilgrimage to Monaco by an Austin 2000. Last year I chose a Renault 16TS, which proved ideal, and this year I was scratching my head a little for something that would do the job of transporting four people, and all their luggage, in maximum comfort to the South of France and back. The answer came at the press introduction for the Austin 2200 and Wolseley 6. The car was obviously roomy and had good cruising speed and sure enough Ivor Greening was able to provide a car for the appropriate period.

As a motoring journalist one has rather better access to various meetings than the general public but the journey I planned could have been undertaken by any reader with just as much enjoyment. Basically the idea was a motor racing trip with a special accent on street racing. Thus the plan was to start off in Pau for the Formula Two event and then drive across Southern France to Monaco for the Grand Prix. If I could have spent another two or three days I would have then driven back to England via the Chimay Formula Three race which is held at the little Belgian border town. Unfortunately this could not be arranged and when I visited the challenging Chimay circuit a couple of months later I realised just how exciting the racing there must be.

The Austin 2200 is a good deal of motor car for £1,325 and the extra £140 one pays for the Wolseley model is all down to a more luxurious finish both inside and out. Driving the Austin version one has little doubt that it is the cheaper version and, personally. I would say the extra money was worth while.

Mechanically the two cars are similar and thus the comments already made by the Editor apply to this car as well, but I drove it over a rather more lengthy mileage, almost 3,000 miles in total during which it proved totally reliable but it did reveal some of its less pleasant features. The main difference between the 2200 and the 1800 is under the bonnet. The faithful old 1.8-litre B series engine is replaced by the new 6-cylinder version of the Maxi overhead cam engine which has already been in production for some while for Australian markets. Because of the extra length of the unit the radiator has been moved to the front and is cooled by an electric, rather than engine-driven, fan. The front disc brakes are larger on the 2200, up from 9.28 in. to 9.7 in., although the rear drums remain the same. Another welcome addition is the change of the cable operated gear linkage to a rod system. The latest 1800s now also have this. The fuel tank capacity has been increased to 124 gallons but otherwise the car retains the 1800 specification.

What does all this mean on the road? Basically, the larger six offers a higher top speed but, more important. very much better torque characteristics. In fact the 2200 will pull in top gear smoothly front about 15 m.p.h. The speedometer was a little optimistic but we cruised four up for hours on the Autoroutes with the needle happily around 100 m.p.h. which is actually about 95 m.p.h. This did have its disadvantages for such speeds dropped the fuel consumption down to a very thirsty 18-19 m.p.g. which meant one had to stop rather too often to full up with expensive French Elf. Overall on the journey the fuel consumption worked out at around 21 m.p.g. However, on the credit side, we completed the journey from Monte Carlo to Calais in just over 12 hours without the passengers showing any undue sign of weariness. This speaks volumes for the car’s ability to carry a full family load great distances, in comfort. Obviously this is a very important factor for many drivers and this is where the appeal of the 2200 lies, for it is hardly a model for the sporting motorist.

The new engine is commendably quiet in operation but road noise is rather high in the back and there is quite a lot of wind noise from the distinctively unaerodynamic front. As we mentioned earlier the facia is rather cheap looking and, while the glove compartment has its own little mortice lock, it is very difficult to open. The air vents on our car shut of their own accord at speeds over 85 m.p.h. and did so with a resounding clonk.

There is no doubt that the 2200’s forte is as a high-speed Motorway cruiser, for it is fast and very stable, but it also can be driven quickly on country roads. The ride is excellent, as one would have expected from a hydrolastic suspended car, it corners very flatly with next to no roll and hangs on well. Unfortunately the power assisted steering is very light and sensitive and this makes it extremely difficult to hold the car on a line through a fast corner.

The 2200 is available with automatic transmission, at £54 extra, but the test car was fitted with the standard four-speed gearbox. The rod change is much of an improvement over the old system but, even so, first gear proved difficult to engage at times and often had to be attacked from second. The ratios seemed fairly well selected although second is slightly low. Perhaps the overall gearing is a little low and it is interesting to note the 2200 runs on the same ratios and tyre and wheel sizes as the 1800. Higher gearing would naturally mean a sacrifice in acceleration but the benefits of better kid consumption and slightly high-top-speed would seem to overweigh this.

For some reason we never did discover, the 2200 and subsequently the Wolseley 6 proved reluctant to start. The ambient temperature seemed to make little difference for we experienced the same problem in both London and Monaco.

As a conclusion, we would recommend the 2200 as a family car without sporting pretentions. But it does seem a shame that British Leyland have produced this new 6-cylinder car in a 1964 vintage chassis which is in need of a styling update. — A. R. M.

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