An Engineering View of the 1960 Cars

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We are indebted to our highly esteemed contemporary, The Engineer, for permitting us to reproduce the following Editorial which it published during the Motor Show period. The engineering opinions therein expressed should be of interest to our readers and to the Industry’s technicians: —

“It may occur to few visitors to Earls Court that the fortieth annual exhibition of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders was held last year in a country unexcelled in Europe for quantity of motor cars produced. At that time there was debate as to whether this pre-eminence was justified by the merits of the products. But our moderate optimism upon the point has proved unjustified. Figures show that the United Kingdom was recently only the third largest producer in Europe; and that despite an expansion in exports it was the largest exporter of cars to only three countries outside the Commonwealth — the United States of America, the Irish Republic, and the Sudan. In the two larger of these markets the British enjoy the advantage of being able to study the user’s requirements and disseminate their own submissions without the possibly corrupting influence of an interpreter. Nor can this failure to compete so effectively elsewhere come as a surprise, for the manufacturers in this country seem to have done little satisfactory technical thinking, even if they have acted fast in designing new models and restyling older ones, as was indeed essential if it was intended to continue to compete with foreign producers. A glance back over four years shows that a large investment of technical effort has been made without much apparent return. Attempts to make the synchromesh gearbox, inherently difficult to shift, compatible with two-pedal control entailed large diversions of design, development, production and sales activity on systems originating in England, Germany, and the United States, but have so far yielded little. This waste of effort appears at first sight the less justifiable when one reflects that the free-wheel, now available only on foreign cars, would have solved all the problems that gave rise to such complications as mercury inertia switches, But few drivers, curiously and unfortunately, ever took a liking to a free-wheel, although certain makers persisted for many years in offering the device. Would it, we wonder, be welcomed on a car with two-pedal control and rapidly replaceable friction elements? We cannot but doubt it! It is probably a consequence of this dissipation of effort, to some extent forced on transmission engineers in this country, that there has been widely adopted the Borg-Warner transmission, which in the United States has in many cars been superseded by transmissions more highly adapted to the individual design. Engine design also has shown little sign of interesting development. We have seen one manufacturer discard an engine established in both single and twin overhead-camshaft forms and introduce push-rod designs with bath-tub and hemispherical combustion chambers. Another maker has produced a V8 on contemporary United States lines but, following the habits formed in making aircraft engines that are serviced from below, has placed the sparking plugs where they are accessible only by jacking the vehicle. This arrangement may not trouble the service station, upon which most drivers depend today. But we note that the ignition system is not fully screened or waterproofed! The valve in-line push-rod design that is now a lowest denominator common to all the English car producers designing their own engines, save only the firms that regard racing as the proof of their products, has surely attained a nadir in a far from outstanding car in which the power unit weighs as much as the complete body shell.

“A cherished ambition of the English manufacturer, we thought, is to produce a cheaper car, and the President of the S.M.M.T. last year, it will be recalled, saw a prospect of successes in this respect. He has been even more roughly refuted by events than have we. The minimum price of a factory-built car in England has gone up from about £230 to about £290 even before multiplication by purchase tax and the cost of retailing — which means a 25 per-cent. increase in the threshold of the market! This trend to more expensive designs has deprived the exhibition of a British design, the old Ford Popular said to be suitable for under-developed countries, an abuse-resistant car with all the working parts enclosed and a body insensitive to abrasion — evocative, in fact, of a trials special with big wheels and brakes all round and a cabin added. But at the same time British manufacturers have not competed very effectively in the market for the more technically interesting cars. They continue to renounce the attractions of fuel injection for petrol engines, steplessly variable transmissions, and self-levelling or constant-rate suspensions. Although many users and buyers are eager that their cars shall look well, the makers offer neither the catalysed resin finishes popular on the Continent nor the long-lasting scratch-and-chip-resistant enamels favoured in North America. One visiting Earls Court this year for the first time might suspect that a fine summer had convinced the industry that it ‘ain’t gonna rain’ (or at least be foggy) ‘no more’: windscreens are fixed without semblance of apology and some of the latest models have such restricted side window openings that direct vision forward in fog is available only to the contortionist. But most drivers, we suspect, prefer warmth to vision, don’t drive in fog unless they absolutely must, and even then tag on to someone else’s tail! So the manufacturers may be right. There is also to be discerned a trend towards electric windscreen wipers. We find it surprising because we doubt if there exists an English overload relay capable of protecting such a delicate device in freezing conditions. But then, of course, opinions differ as to the virtues of alternatives, so that again manufacturers may be right.

“All the above disappointments the more technical and enthusiastic motorist may feel are not wholly to be blamed upon requirements staffs apparently lacking any appreciation of what technology has to offer in the second half of the twentieth century. The buyer must take some of any blame there may be. The pity is that the British buyer has so little opportunity to appreciate what is being produced elsewhere than in Britain that he is not it very satisfactory judge. In fact, engineers cannot draw much technical satisfaction from the exhibits, even though two or three interesting new cars such as the Triumph Herald, the Mini-Minor, a Daimler sports car and others have appeared this year. The largest native manufacturer has confessed, for example, inability to produce an air-cooled engine even equal, let alone superior, to those taken for granted in motorcycles and foreign cars. The stagnation in the power plant state of the art is the more regrettable when we recall that a corresponding state prevails among the smaller British aero engines, and that an engine of really high specific output and thoroughly refined design might well be able to follow the Volkswagen, Porsche, and 1172 Ford into use on aircraft. We note also that the tough task of building a true remote control for a four-speed gearbox on flexible mountings looks like being given up as too difficult.

“In formulating their own requirements for their suppliers, the engineers show themselves little more demanding than their customers in the protected home market: we have seen small cars move up and large cars move down to 7-in. diameter headlamps, presumably to reduce costs. But the glass-envelope mechanically-aimed light unit such as the world’s large-production cars use is neglected, and designers in this country tolerate axi-symmetric lenses even when their rate of manufacture is larger than that of some Continental firms which specify shapes to suit their bodies. The greater success of foreign designers of dynamotors also is conspicuous: to start an 800-c.c. twin with a compression of 9.2 without resort to the pendulum principle is a convincing demonstration of the abilities of this device, once used on some British cars but given up, if we remember aright, in the ‘thirties. Does it deserve revival? We would, more easily, return to our erstwhile optimism if it were a more regular routine to see a British motor engineer driving a product of other major motor manufacturing nations, with which he could compare his own. Perhaps, however, the major conclusion to be drawn is that while the home market remains protected so that buyers have not the knowledge to demand changes in design it seldom profits makers to put more advanced designs on the market. For they may meet sales resistance — especially if they seem more expensive — just because they are different; and be disliked by service stations for the same reason. Buyers, we fancy, are seldom conservative about styling, but often conservative about technical things.”