A subtle distinction – mini-car, small car, family car
In the Show Number of Motor Sport we remarked in the Editorial that “Germany goes on turning out the world’s best small car on the basis of value, durability and driver-enjoyment” and stated elsewhere that the British Motor Corporation makes “quite the best of the smaller motor cars.” Moreover, in the review of Earls Court, written by a colleague, I see he put the B.M.C. mini-cars and the Volkswagen together under the heading of economy cars.
This has confused some readers, so may I be permitted an attempt at clarification? After the Armistice of 1918, when economy cars began to assume a new importance, they were broadly divided into two types, “cyclecar” and “big-car-in-miniature.” The former, apart from some officially stipulated engine capacity and weight limitations when they dared to run in competitions, were recognised as crude vehicles with belt, friction or chain transmission and single or two-cylinder engines, sometimes cooled bv water but more often by air passing over unashamedly naked cylinder barrels. Temple Press championed these simple vehicles, so lliffe & Sons ignored them (or nearly so) in favour of the scaled-down big cars, which, naturally, had four-cylinder water-cooled engines, sliding-cog gearboxes and proper back axles with shaft final drive, so the interests of both types of vehicle were guarded by two separate weekly journals, The Cyclecar and Iliffe’s paper about “big-cars-in-miniature.”
Even in those pioneering days there were difficulties of division. The Jowett and Rover Eight had big-car transmission but flat-twin engines, the G.W.K. appeared with a car-style four-cylinder engine but retained friction drive, to quote obvious examples.
Generally, however, the cyclecar and the light car were easily distinguishable one from the other.
A decade later, however, and small-car categories were by no means so clearly defined. In 1922, following the example of Peugeot, Austin had introduced a baby car, in specification the equal of the scaled-down big car but so much smaller than the normal light car as to merit a new classification. When Morris came out, some years later, with the Minor, Singer with the Junior, and later Swift with the Cadet, the baby car, of around 850 c.c. and of compact dimensions, was established. The cyclecar, except in three-wheeler form, had virtually faded away, but, even so, you couldn’t just define the world’s small cars as baby cars and light cars. Complications existed. For instance, if you defined a baby car as a vehicle not exceeding 850 c.c. and a wheelbase of 7 ft. 6 in. and anything bigger a light car, in which category did you put the D.K.W. which had a two-cylinder power unit of 684 c.c. but a wheelbase of no less than 8 ft. 6 in., the Constantinesco with but one cylinder of a mere 494 c. c., but a wheelbase measuring 8 ft. 6 in., or the Benjamin, whose wheelbase extended to 8 ft. 8-1/2 in. but the swept volume of which was a mere 750 c.c.?
Moreover, baby cars began to acquire larger engines – you had the Clyno Nine of 951 c.c. but 7 ft. 3 in. wheelbase, the A.J.S. of more than a litre but only an inch outside our accepted baby-car wheelbase and the Standard Eight, with an engine of over a litre in an i.f.s. chassis of 6 ft. 11 in. wheelbase.
I recall pointing out in letters to the contemporary motor press, how misleading it was to define a baby car solely by engine capacity, or a small car solely by its wheelbase measurements. The Jowett remained to complicate the issue, being available with either a 7 ft. or an 8 ft. 6 in. wheelbase but, in both cases, with a flat-twin engine of 907 c.c.
The difficulty of categorising small cars has been with us down the years, and remains today. Cyclecars and baby cars have been replaced by miniature cars and these one can define as of less than 750 c.c. either two, three or four cylinder, and with a wheelbase not exceeding 6 ft. 9 in. That works alright (except for the Citroën Bijou of 425 c.c., but 7 ft. 9-1/8 in., and the 741 c.c. D.K.W. Junior which has a wheelbase of 7 ft. 1 in.), until we come to the ADO15 B.M.C. miniature cars, which are outside the top engine limit, being of 848 c.c., yet come within our wheelbase limit by one inch, except its “Countryman” and “Traveller” form. The fact that the genius of Alec Issigonis has put their four-cylinder engine across the car and by this, and ingenious attention to detail, he has endowed them with more interior space than many larger engined, longer wheelbase small cars, further complicates the problem – from the table, prepared from data published by B.M.C. themselves, which we published last month it is seen that in the matter of elbow room the Austin Se7en and Morris Mini-Minor head the six best-selling small cars (only one other of which qualifies as a miniature car) and that they come third, in company with the Triumph Herald, in respect of seating space.
It is thus exceedingly difficult to place them, but on the basis of wheelbase and relatively moderate engine capacity (and remembering their very small castors) I regard the B.M.C. twins as miniature cars. Consequently, when I referred to them as quite the best of the smaller cars, I meant as mini-cars, and when I wrote that Germany still makes the best small car I was thinking of larger small cars, the VW having an 1,192-c.c. engine and a wheelbase of 7 ft. 10-1/2 in.
In order of merit
Having referred above to the B.M.C. comparison of small cars I was interested to receive from Victor Winstone and Richard Ansdale, A.M.I.Mech.E., another of their relative appraisals of 13 light cars of nine different makes. The cars are evaluated under various headings, presumably again using performance figures published in one or other of the two leading weekly motor journals, and the best result attained under each heading is taken as the standard, percentage valuations for the remainder being based on this standard. We find that the Fiat 500 wins on minimum space occupied, the Volkswagen beats them all on passenger area, the Fiat 500 is lightest, least expensive on basic price in Switzerland and the most economical, the Ford New Anglia fastest, with the most modest piston speed at 50 m.p.h., but the Fiat 600 shows highest m.c.p. at 50 m.p.h. The side-valve Ford Old Popular climbs the steepest hill in top gear, the Ford New Anglia shows best 0-50 m.p.h. acceleration, the Austin Se7en has greatest seat width, front and back, the Fiat 500 the smallest turning circle and the most effective braking from 30 m.p.h. The overall estimate adds up to a first place for the N.S.U. Prinz 30, second-best buy being the Ford New Anglia, third-best the normal N.S.U. Prinz. That’s if you can get them at Swiss price; on the basis of price, with p.t., in Britain, the choice becomes, first the N.S.U. Prinz 30, second the Ford New Anglia, third the Austin Se7en, fourth the normal N.S.U. Prinz, fifth the VW, sixth the Fiat 500. All of which must be very satisfactory to the gentlemen who have devised this analysis; for one of their tasks is to publicise N.S.U. cars!
The Editorial Mini-Minor
So many inquiries have been received as to the progress and health of the Morris Mini-Minor de luxe which I have been subjecting to a year’s road-test, that a few brief additional remarks are implied, although I still have two weeks to go to complete the full twelve months, or rather more if the three occasions when it was in dock for repairs are taken into account.
Last August Motor Sport published my impressions of riding on rubber in this ingenious and enjoyable little car for 10,000 miles. Since then the car has run a further 5,800 mile, since it was handed over to me. As the mileage has mounted it has not been quite so trouble-free.
Its first symptom of distress was inability to start. B.M.C. kindly whisked it away to Cowley and when it was returned to me about a month later it looked very smart, with a new battery, new front tyres, a painted (as distinct from rusty) roof rack, better water-proofing and the new longer driving shafts. The engine had also been fitted with new pistons, so I began to run-in the engine again, by not exceeding 45 m.p.h. The left-hand heater pipe and the bulb which is supposed to illuminate the extra instruments were soon dangling as before, the doors now proved difficult to close unless given a hearty slam and the clutch dragged, making bottom gear beastly to engage, while although the water bottle was full the screen washers wouldn’t function, but at least some of these faults could be quickly put right by an amateur mechanic, while the radio had been cured of excess static when the tiny wheels were turning. The heater seemed to be far more efficient than before but still won’t de-mist the screen in humid conditions.
While running-in, after only 76 miles, horrid noises emanated from the off-side front wheel, which, when I arrived at Goodwood for “Guild Sunday” appeared in grave danger of corning off, the mileage after overhaul then being 181.
A local agent effected repair, and I collected the Morris from Cowley on the following Thursday. On the Saturday, 213 miles later, the brake pedal suddenly went onto the floor and I was left with only the handbrake for retardation. Needing the car urgently I drove it thus to Cowley, where I experienced the full efficiency of B.M.C.s emergency week-end and night repair service. A fluidd leak, not visible, was found on the down line from the brake reservoir, probably as a result of not being tightened sufficiently when the engine was removed for piston replacement. This was rectitied, the brakes bled, a new pair of Lockheed shoes fitted on the front off-side, and I was an my way in 1-1/2 hours. The two mechanics, who worked so willingly were not aware this was a press car and I must confess that had I had similar trouble on the Continent and been told that I merely had to get to the factory for service to be laid on I should have been considerably impressed and full of praise …
In the ensuing 600 miles there has been a slow-puncture in the near-side rear tubeless Dunlop Gold Seal, which has defeated my ambition to run for a year without changing a wheel. And I must say I prefer the old-fashioned screw-jack to the flexible affair provided with the car. In the 900 miles covered since the engine overhaul a pint of Castrolite has been consumed.
The engine now has a tendency to stall and it runs lumpily at low speeds. A window catch has broken off due to faulty material, and the driver’s door-lock has ceased to function, rendering the car thief-prone. However, I have had very good motoring in my minibric or minibox even if, at times, I have wished that it had been rather better sewn together. I stand by my statement – the B.M.C. twins to AD015 specification are the finest miniature, or very-small, cars in the world.
Impressions of the Morris Mini-Traveller
Quite why we do not all drive station wagons I do not know. At one time their extra carrying capacity was bought at the expense of poor road-holding (due to overhang), noise (due, mainly, to rattles from the back doors) and poor heating (because heaters couldn’t cope with the vast interior space). Today these objections do not apply to decently-contrived shooting brakes and even if you don’t shoot, are not landed gentry, or railway-minded, the shooting brake, estate car or station wagon seems a logical vehicle for family or business motoring.
B.M.C. do it extremely well in the Morris Mini-Traveller I have enjoyed for 570 miles. This handsome mini-brake is basically the same as the popular B.M.C. Mini-twins which now teem like ants about our roads, except for a longer wheelbase (by 4-5/32 in.) and its practical bodywork. Probably because of the extra window space there just isn’t any impression of being in a miniature vehicle, while the level of quietness has improved so much over the early minibrics that a loose beading on the off-side rear parcels well proved a source of irritation. The interior trim has improved and some but not all of the sharp edges have been eliminated, but the heater, although adequate for comfort, does not prevent the windows from misting up, which lack of visibility in such a large area of glass can be dangerous. There was a slight tendency for the driver’s door to stick and one of his windows not to slide freely. Otherwise, no complaints and much praise for this practical version of a very popular very small car.
I put almost an overload in it on Brighton Run Sunday (three adults, three ehildren) and the handling was not affected too noticeably, and the brakes remained adequate. Children like the higher back seat, but average adults find their heads in contact with the roof. Lack of a central driving mirror was a minor inconvenience and the compulsory wing mirrors resulted in bad dazzle when followed by a car with headlamps on. The provision of an interior lamp in lieu of bulbs inside the rear ash trays was appreciated, as was the enormous interior stowage space, but why two exactly similar keys, one for ignition and front doors, the other for the rear doors?
The greater weight makes the Mini-Traveller a shade sluggish, an indicated 60 m.p.h. being reluctant to come up in third gear, but for an 850-c.c. shooting brake general performance and economy cannot be faulted. I did not find any deterioration in the superb road-holding and cornering powers of these little cars due to the longer wheelbase. The two rear doors are an excellent means of loading the back compartment and, of course, the back seats fold down to give 13 sq. ft. of flat floor area. The gear lever is unchanged but the change seemed smoother than on “my” minibric and the clutch worked very well with no drag. The exterior wood trim gives the appropriate rustic touch, even if it is merely glued on and many of these cars are destined to stand in the open beside the mini-houses of suburbia.
The Morris Mini-Traveller, compared with ten European estate cars of under 1.2 litres engine capacity, is 15 in. (15%) shorter than average, has 7 in. (15%) shorter platform space, 2 sq. ft. (20%) less than average platform area, yet has equal platform width. It weighs 1,430 lb., which is 25% less than average, its engine is 26 c.c. (3-1/2%) larger than the average of these ten station wagons, and on the basis of c.c. per 1,000 lb. the Mini-Traveller is 31% better off.
What this adds up to is that although the Mini-Traveller is 15% shorter overall than its rivals, the percentage of platform length is 35% and diminished size has not increased weight per sq. ft., for this is nly 109 lb./sq. ft. against an average of 120 lb./sq. ft. Indeed, whereas the average b.h.p. per laden ton is 34, the Mini gives 41 b.h.p./laden ton. This spells liveliness, while the usefully low loading height of 18 in. is obtained (average 22 in.) and this is a car you can shake hands over, it being a mere 53-1/2 in. high. The battery is accessibly placed under the back floor and there is further stowage space beside it.
Incidentally, the smallest platform area of the ten rival estate cars quoted is 11 sq. ft. (Ford Escort), the greatest 18.9 sq. ft. (Auto-Union). The average platform area of cars ranging from the 1,240 lb. Fiat 500 to the 2,030 lb. Fiat 1100 comes to 15 sq. ft., so the 1,430 lb. Mini does well with 13 sq. ft.
This smart rubber-sprung, front-drive estate car is excellent value, at £623. I used it for nearly a week without investigating dip-stick or other internals; it confirms the opinion, expressed above, that the British Motor Corporation makes the world’s best very small cars. – W. B.
In a complex article in the New Statesman, Reyner Banham, while paying tribute to the new American “compact” cars, tilts at Volkswagen, remarking that “when you average out the hidden technical improvements in the Volks. over the 25 years of its existence, they are fewer than in most cars that have offered annual styling changes as well.” He calls for a different car but says “that is something Wolfsburg, in the grip of the worst case of industrial inertia in Europe, seems incapable of doing.”
It is perhaps VW modesty that causes ignorant people to believe that it has hardly changed down the years. Let Mr. Banham listen to Road and Track, a paper very close to the “compacts,” on the subject of VW improvements: “For 1961, Volkswagen has announced ‘more than 27 changes.’ This is an understatement if there ever was one. With a completely new engine and gearbox, there are hundreds if not more than a thousand changes. While these new mechanical units bear a superficial resemblance to the old, every single part is either changed slightly or completely re-designed. All that remains unchanged in the engine is the bore and stroke. Uninhibited by the need to make surface changes, VW engineers manage to keep their product extremely competitive. The manufacturing department keeps up its end too. The car was, and is, an outstanding ‘best buy’.” That is American authority writing about 1961 changes only. We have ourselves, studied lists of VW mods. down the years and marvelled at their value and extent, and that Wolfsburg has modestly not said very much about them.
On the subject of VW’s apathy to design change, let the New Stateman‘s contributor harken to the wisdom of Joseph Lowry, B.Sc., writing in The Motor: “I would not be in the least surprised if within the next 12 months the first ‘new’ Volkswagen since the project’s pre-war inception were to appear.” Our guess is at the next Frankfurt Show. Meanwhile, three-million users seem pretty content. What now. Mr. Banham?
The impact of the compacts
In a leading article last month we inferred that so far the new American compact cars are not stemming the Continental invasion of U.S. markets to any marked extent, although they have reduced sales of full-size automobiles. Many other journals published contrary statements, so we are pleased to be able to state that U.S. import registrations fell by only 9.8% for the period January to July last. Foreign imports are expected to exceed half-a-million next year, says Road and Track, in spite of the advent of new Americans “compact” cars.