London, November 20th.
For the first time in living memory, and I have been here quite a long time, the banks are shut without prior warning. On this day, as Motor Sport goes to Press, the first repercussions of Britain’s dire financial predicament are being discussed and the full effect of three years of Socialist rule are sinking in.
I cannot remember anything like this happening before. But then so many things have changed in this once peaceful and prosperous little Island. As a boy I recall the disquiet I experienced when I heard that the strikers of 1926 had overturned an omnibus—but that had happened up in London and I felt fairly safe out in the S.W. suburbs. In those days gentlemen drivers raced for fun at Brooklands without any haggle over financial gain and there was proper road racing over the excellent Ards T.T. circuit and a very good imitation of it in the mid-1930s at Castle Donington.
It was at Donington that we were jolted by the approach of Nazi Germany to motor racing and those of us who saw those titanic Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union cars in full cry felt some anxiety when war broke out. But the Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires-, powered by Merlin engines developed from the earlier Rolls-Royce Schneider Trophy racing aero-engine’s, won the Battle of Britain, giving rise to my couplet :—
If the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, The Battle of Britain was resolved over Calshot Water.
Rolls-Royce were supreme in the skies over Great Britain and Europe, and our collective skins were saved.
Now those glorious times, and the first flush of victory, are a long way behind. We are very much on our own, and in a considerable financial mess. With petrol prices likely very soon to approach an all-time high, and the £, worth nearly 3s. less than it was yesterday, it is time to contemplate smaller and more economical motor cars. Before the first world war, there was the Bugatti-inspired o.h.c. Baby Peugeot, about which historians now drool, pedestrian though it was. After the war Peugeot sold a great number of a rather different 7-h.p. small cars, the valves of which were so minute that there seemed little point in putting heads on their stems. Citroen found it well worth while to market the cheeky 5 c.v. two-seater and cloverleaf models, although they could demolish only the soggiest of rice puddings. Even before this the cyclecar brigade had shown how the very cheapest and crudest vehicles, while they continued to function, which usually wasn’t for very long, would give considerable pick-up and speed for a minimum expenditure of petrol. Out of these wire-and-wood contraptions emerged those sporting G.N.s and Aero Morgans, of hallowed memory. Then, in 1922, came the immortal Austin Seven, with four water-cooled cylinders each of 187 c.c., four-wheel brakes and electric starter. It immediately started building up record-breaking and racing successes, and remained the leading baby car until just before the outbreak of another world war, although hampered after 1933 by such weighty items as a 4-speed gearbox, rear petrol tank and steel saloon bodywork.
In more prosperous times such cars were despised, unless in sporting form, by most enthusiasts. From being a bit of a cult, something to buy your daughter when she attained her 21st birthday, or for taking your clubs up to the golf-course, the Austin 7 was soon regarded as a rather pathetic, badly sprung, feebly-braked car-of-the-masses. The smaller Peugeots and Citroëns and the little Mathis, etc.., faded away. Ambitious schemes like the 5 c.v. Constantinesco with its two-stroke engine, the single-cylinder two-stroke 350 c.c. Nomad sprung only on its Dunlop balloons, and fully-automatic, torque-converter transmission, the one-off, one-man town-commuter built by the late Humphrey Symons using a water-cooled Scott engine to power a single-seater coupe, the many permutations of tricycle, and £100 cars like the Morris Minor, flat-twin friction-drive Waverley, the Triumph Super Seven, the Gillette, the Clyno Century and the staunch little flattwin 7:17 Jowett which never quite achieved such a low selling price, either came to nought or went out with the war. The baby cars which did last a bit longer, like the Morris Minor, Swift Cadet, Clyno Nine and Singer Junior grew-up until 55 m.p.h./40 m.p.g. was about their limit.
Now it seems that we may again need the smallest and most economical cars, and I must once again record the fact that there is nothing on the market which will do a genuine day-in, day-out. 60 m.p.h., with 60 m.p.g. of cooking petrol. But in the compact Fiat 500F, and the former spacious and comfortable 375-c.c. Citroën 2 c.v. we have the sort of vehicle which we may all be running in five or ten years’ time, if Mr. Wilson’s last-night promise to put Britain back on the financial rails does not come about. Today, apart from the Mini in its most basic form, the Reliant Rebel and the Honda N.360 and N.600, the purely economy car has been sadly neglected on the British Market. Yet, if sufficient simplicity and low weight is achieved, performance need not-be all that pathetic. After all, a 500-c.c. “combo,” even with a side-valve engine, can propel two human adults not too sluggishly. It is when you add full mudguards, running-boards, or their equivalent in today’s constructional terms, a full-width windscreen, or a closed body, that weight enters into the transaction and the motor car becomes something scarcely more attractive as a means of transport than the more brisk of the pre-1905 veterans. As things are, we may have to accept such motoring, for m.p.g must now rank as more important than m.p.h., in the minds of the majority of motorists. So, while it may be an odd thing to put on record in the pages of Motor Sport, let the pioneers who founded the Cycle Car Club in 1912, those Frenchmen who built numbers of quite practical small cars in the 1920s, and moreover raced them round the forest roads outside Paris in endurance contests like the Bols d’Or, etc., and those who sought to achieve 100 m.p.h. contests, 750-c.c. engines in the field of record-breaking and motor racing in the 1930s, be applauded, at this moment when the £Bill has lost any semblance of stability, depression, financial and mental, prevails and motor cars, petrol, food, holidays, and all the pleasurable things that we used to be able to afford, are unquestionably going to rise and rise and rise in price.—W. B.