Motoring to a crisis?

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That was the enigmatic title given to a forum held the night before the Northern Guild of Motoring Writers annual test day at the Mintex proving ground, Sherburn in EImet, Yorkshire.

The crisis referred to was that of fuel and a pretty emotional debate resulted as the chair was unable to rule a room full of those determined to tell when they last had trouble getting petrol.

However a couple of the panellists made interesting speeches. Alan Curtis was on hand to represent Aston Martin and made the most effective set speech in one of his last public appearances before retiring later that week: his sizeable investment remains in the Newport Pagnell company.

Mr. Curtis made the point that Aston have made, in their entire rather chequered ownership history, only as many cars as the US motor industry constructs in 20 minutes. A fascinating fact on the lines of “I can prove-anything-with-figures and-I-am-jolly-well going to!”

Mr. Curtis added that it would be possible to make the current V8s return 25 m.p.g. instead of 15, but that was a waste of effort with an annual production of only 300 cars. Instead he preferred to state that the Aston might be heavy on fuel when made, but that 430 A-M workers used more elbow grease than oil-based energy in their construction!

Robert Langford represented the RAC and the former GPDA secretary stressed the role motor sports had played in the development of reliable cars and safe cars, together with the value of the role played by the racing car industry in earning overseas currency.

Drawing the parallel between motor racing and that of horses Mr. Langford said, “During the war when we had stringent fuel rationing, petrol was made available so that horse racing could survive. I trust the government will let our bloodline continue!”

Another quip concerned the fact that the Williams team with their Saudi Arabian sponsors should make sure we, “don’t go short”, but Mr. Langford was generally very cautious and obviously felt that alternative fuels were unlikely to provide motoring sport’s immediate salvation.

Labour MP Joe Ashton courageously attacked the slightly hostile meeting, clearly demonstrating that this speaker, one of three Labour men who deal with energy questions from the Opposition benches, regards prestige cars (and that seems to mean anything beyond a Granada) as the Devil’s Work for the mysterious “Them” of Them and Us feeling.

Phillip Stein of the Motor Agents Association was very persuasive (he was the VW PR not long ago) and made the chilling forecast that another 20,000 petrol sites would close in the coming years, supporting the argument with the fact that 7,000 odd sites had been shut since 1970. In fact he reckoned that half the smaller stations could go eventually.

Mark Snowden from Austin Morris engineering division promised that 0.40 would become the maximum aerodynamic drag factor across the Leyland range of the immediate future and emphasised again the company’s faith in a developed version of the A-series four cylinder (for the Mini Metro and others). He commented that many of the short stroke SOHC designs of other manufacturer’s followed the fashion for such high r.p.m. designs but did not give the m.p.g. figures that customers would demand in the age of fuel consciousness.

Road and track

Saturday offered little of the traditional rain and a low turnout of manufacturers’ vehicles compared with 1978. Leyland supported the exercise in volume and quality, so it was sad to see their Land Rovers take a body-damaging pounding on the rough test section.

Despite the absence of Ford there were some interesting cars to drive including the three cylinder Daihatsu Charade 1-litre, a rather Honda-like baby saloon that TKM will mastermind as they approach the end of their BMW concession in the UK.

I shall concentrate on the unusual cars tried rather than the Toyota Celica GT Lift back (5% better in every way with far less understeer), Opel Manta Berlinetta coupe (with a sunroof behind the driver’s head), simply superb Jaguar XJ12, or the still exciting Caterham Seven twin cam. A pushrod 1600 version of the Seven has, at last, been accepted for production sports car racing.

First there was a Total economy run in a 5-litre Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Pussyfooting with an occasional interesting brake-less tack through the tighter corner’s upon the country road course I managed a surprising. 27.74 m.p.g. in this bulbous two-door automatic. That was at an average 29.92 m.p.h. and it was good to see that was beaten by somebody averaging over 36 m.p.h. and 28 m.p.g., though the look of surprise when a representative of this organisation managed such an m.p.g. figure was worthwhile compensation!

I was also allowed to drive a Vauxhall Chevette equipped with the SOHC 2.3-litre engine, a combination that has become quite popular in British rallying up to national level, Jimmy McRae leading the title hunt in a highly developed version of such a car when this was written.

Perhaps of more interest is that Vauxhall did seriously contemplate making such a Chevette to get down amongst the club rallyists in the same way as the Escort Mexico and RS2000 originally did, but though the future of the Chevette is apparently assured well into the 1980s, the agile and robust combination of 2.3 litres and light hatchback body is likely to remain confined to the comparatively unfettered World of British national competitions.

The Chevette I drove had been developed and driven by Fred Henderson in association with DTV at Shepreth. The engine offered a claimed 170 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. and was mated to a Getrag five-speed gearbox. Even with a full roll cage and all the other accoutrements of a fully prepared stage rally car the Chevette is estimated to weigh only 17 1/2 cwt or so: even with a 6,000 r.p.m. limit the acceleration is very satisfying.

The Chevette has always handled well and, with 6″ wide wheels equipped with balding Pirelli CN36s, I enjoyed slithering my way around the test track, which had been lightly anointed by a passing shower. I am told such a car could be built for under £4,000 and there is the well-rewarded Chevette Cup bonus scheme to repay some of that outlay, should one be successful.

There are cheaper ways to go rallying, but I can see why an increasing number of hopeful drivers have switched to Vauxhall, for the car is capable of recording good overall placings in club events.

Vauxhall footnote

It may be of interest to know that Magard, the Leicester-based accessory firm who market Vauxhall Sportparts in this country, have compiled an enormous manual detailing the sporting improvements one can make to any Vauxhall.

Costing £9.95 at introduction in early September and written by engineer Andrew Duerdon this Vauxhall Sportpart Manual contains a lot of interesting inside information, especially on engine and gearbox lore. I was interested to find that the HS2300 engine could be uprated by a healthy 40 b.h.p. (a total of 145 b.h.p. at the rear wheels) by replacing the production carburetters with a pair of 48 DHLA Dellorto twin choke instruments, an appropriate inlet manifold, electric fuel pump and replacement tubular exhaust manifold.

The finished result, according to my rough calculations, would give you a road car with the same performance as used to be offered in an Escort twin cam prepared by the Ford factory department at the close of the sixties. However, instead of running out of breath at 100 m.p.h. on rallying gearing one could be bouncing along at double the UK overall limit.

The manual is solidly packed with practical information presented in clear prose and occasionally scruffy drawings. A free service with any later information inserts is offered within the purchase price.

The plastic-protected 350 large pages may be obtained from Sportpart Dealers (selected Vauxhall agents) or direct from Magard at 372 East Park Road, Leicester LES 5AY.

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