Matters of moment, December 1981

End-of-the-year soliloquy

If Motor Sport were a more trade Journal, concerned solely with the welfare of the Motor Industry and its ancillary businesses, we would have every reason to be deeply depressed as the second year of the 1980s draws to a stormy close. For 1981 saw the closure of the great Solihull Rover factory, built only a few years ago at vast expense (although it was as silent as a cathedral at the Press visit we went to, due to a sudden industrial stoppage, portent of things to come!), and then came Sir Michael Edwardes’ great gamble with the entire future of British Leyland, as the workforce weighed their 3.8, pay offer against his 38, salary increase. The gamble came off, as Trade Union secretaries gave in, but as we write production at Longbridge is at a standstill again, over a rest-period dispute. The year 1981 has also seen BL leaning heavily on Honda for its new Triumph Acclaim and announcing that it will be further involved with the Japanese Company for its new executive car planned for 1985 — a Honda-Cowley perhaps?

This, surely, is a very sad reflection on the once-proud and profitable British Motor Industry? We have lost our equally dominant British Motorcycle Industry to the Orient and it now seems likely that within the next decade or sooner our motor industry will go the same way. With BL and other companies linking up with the Japs, even patriotic customers have an excuse to buy foreign vehicles. Having cast off MG, BL have only Rover and Jaguar left as prestige makes. Meanwhile, we tax-payers see rnillions upon millions of pounds of our money being used to subsidise companies which are going to makes profit new year or the year after but which for the present remain millions “in the red”. It is a miserable aspect of the 1980s that commercial “success” is measured, not in profits, but in diminishing losses, usually of very large sums of money…

Fortunately we are not directly concerned with these sordid matters, but with the considerably brighter sporting scene. No one can deny that the 1981 F1 season was one of sustained interest due to varied fortunes among the competing teams, spectacular accidents free from fatalities, and the outcome of the Drivers’ World Championship remaining open until the final round at Las Vegas, even if Nelson Piquet only coasted to the title, the race dominated magnificently by Alan Jones in the Williams-Cosworth, marred for us only by his appearance in a Metro race shortly afterwards. Admittedly F1 racing has not been free from politics and bickering. But, generally, 1981 was a good season, although there is a growing tendency for the drivers to take precedence over the cars. Motor Sport has always emphasised that F1 racing remains essentially an exciting technical exercise, in which the cars are as important as the brave men who control them, and it should be remembered that the vital advertising labels are plastered on both.

With top racing drivers, like footballers. now commanding astronomical fees for their services, it is inevitable that the Media, on which Jimmy Savile promotes “The Train” in order to help pay for his Rolls-Royce, features the personalities rather than the technicalities of motor racing. With the rumours and counter-rumours about whether Nib, Lauda and Jackie Stewart will serum to Grand Prix racing and whether Farmer Jones has really retired for good, television and newspapers are having a great time — all credit to James Hunt for making a decision and sticking to it.

If racing in 1981 was maintained generally at a high level, with the BBC affording F1 more coverage than ever before, the veteran, vintage, historic and classic scene was equally lucrative (a Hawker Hurricane aeroplane sold during the year for £260,000 and Tom Wheatcroft paid £160,000 for a 1954 BRM). Enthusiasm for the older motor vehicles is obviously unbounded, even to the extent of misguided customers continuing to be tempted with excessively-priced mediocre cars of the 1930s to 1960s which were all too often poor things, disquieting to drive when they were brand-new, when their chief attraction was that they were inexpensive. Our advice here would be that if you cannot afford to buy and maintain a good vintage sports car (which is what the VSCC is all about), fast enough to be fun to drive and able to at least keep up with modern traffic, it is better to invest in a decently-made vintage light-car which will more thriftily reproduce for you most of the characteristics of the bigger motor cars of the period, even if it impedes in its passage all but the more overladen present-day commercial vehicles. Better that than wasting your money on some awful little tub or tin-box that represents an unfortunate throw-back to the dawning of 1930s mass-production. . .

Although the roads of the 1980s are becorning ever more congested and vehicle-ownership hedged about with more and more regulations and restrictions, including those dubious radar-traps, and by 1982 it may not be legal to take your car out unless it is firmly strapped to you — although note that the Transport Minister, the Leader of the House of Commons, and the RAC have expressed themselves against compulsory seat-belt legislation — we do not subscribe for a moment to the view that the pleasure of motoring has completely evaporated. The traffic flow in our cities and on many of our roads may be excessive — the Longbridge “tea-break” strike was said to be costing BL 900 Minis and Metros a day, and one wonders, in this impoverished Inflationary age, where all the new cars go to — but there are times and places when and in which driving can still be an enjoyable pursuit. It is really a case of adjusting to 1980s conditions.

By which we mean that top speed is now of less importance than good acceleration and that if one has mostly to follow other vehicles in a 40 to 60 m.p.h. queue emphasis is placed on ensuring that one is in a car which is comfortable and runs quietly at such speeds, has nice instrument and controls layouts, rides well at moderate pace, and has perhaps an effective radio and stereo set, with automatic-transmission a high priority. These are factors of more importance today to the average driver than are absolute cornering power, a quick gear change, and near-perfect road clinging. Which is why cars are becoming more and more alike — all those little Euroboxes about which a colleague is so scornful! Fortunately, standardised control arrangements and instrument panels have not materialised, but family cars are losing their individuality in a number of ways, leaving the enthusiast to look at things such as Super Seven, Alfasud, Vantage, Beaufighter, Tasmin, XJS, Mondial, Montecarlo, Kyalami, RX-7. Plus-8, 911 Turbo, etc., to readjust the situation — or to buy a Citroen.

However, maybe we should be grateful that so many conveniences are incorporated as a matter of course in today’s cars, equipment which once featured only as extras or called for special praise in road-test reports. Easily-adjustable seatsquabs, external rear-view mirrors, intermittent wipe wash, rear-window demisters, hazard warning lights, adjustable steering columns, reversing lamps, etc., are now largely commonplace. Efficient heaters are taken for granted and the boon of central door-lc,cking (which we would not readily forgo,, easily dipped halogen headlamps, dependable and grippy tyres, and convenient stalk-controls are likewise universal adjuncts to pleasurable 1980s motoring. Fuel economy has also improved, over a wide spectrum of engine sizes, although Motor Sport’s oft-called-for 60 m.p.g./60 m.p.h. economy-car hasn’t appeared as an everyday proposition, even though Daihatsu are playing Dominos with a mere 547 c.c. However, engines are remarkably quick- starting and flexible in most 1980s cars and Jaguar’s new “Fireball” combustion chamber. Volkswagen Audi’s high fifth gear and Economy mete, and General Motors’ idea of automatically cutting-out some of an engine’s cylinders at appropriate times, are all commendable steps towards further saving of the expensive fuel.

Another useful development lies in the adoption of 4WD for cars of outwardly normal saloon-car demeanour, as with the Subaru which impressed us favourably earlier this year. The Land-Rover and Range-Rover one-time monoplv is being challenged by new Japanese 4WD vehicles, and Mercedes-Benz, perhaps the most accomplished motor engineers in the World, are in there with their cross-country G-Wagons that are equally suited to main road and autobahn. At the time of the recently concluded London Motor Fair, automobile design shows no tendency to stagnation, and fuel-injection, disc brakes (at all events on the front wheels, and five-speed gearlmes arena longer the novelty they were but a decade or so ago. You can buy cars with two, three, four, five, six, eight and twelve cylinders and the classic twin-cam valve-gear, about which Griffith Borgeson has written an erudite book tracing its origins back to the all-conquering 1912 racing Peugeots, is still used by Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin and Lagonda, Daimler and Jaguar, Ferrari, Fiat, Lancia, Lotus, Super Seven, Talbot, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota, if not always on every model °leach of these makes.

One area for improvement is that all too many cars possess small fuel capacities, inconvenient on the long duo-hauls made possible by Continental motor roads, or at times when petrol supplies are few and far between, as when tanker-drivers strike in an attempt to hive off for themselves some of the apparently vast profits of the oil companies, reflected in the continual rise in the price of a gallon — or a litre. Presumably any losses sustained by non-distribution of their wares could be off-set for the Petrol Barons by further price rises, making the E2-gallon a distinct possibility. Political bickering can be anticipated next year over the proposed de-Nationalisation of British oil, including our North Sea oil from which vehicle-users seem to have derived very little advantageous liquid, whatever the financial liquidity of the discovery. But hopefully 1982 will be a year of more secure driving licences, under the points totting-up scheme prior to endorsement, fairer to those criminals amongst us who go at 43 m.p.h. through a deserted 40 m.p.h. speed-limit area of drive, for example, at 80 m.p.h. along a clear motorway.

Looking back, though, 1981 has not been all bad. It saw a good year’s racing and the introduction of exciting new cars like the Audi Quattro, Renault’s everyman’s turbo-charging on the 18 Turbo, the revised Mazda RX-7 with the most advanced engine-concept available in any production car, Ford’s fine new Granada and Capri 2.8i, which, with the Escort XR-3 and Fiesta XR-2, are such tempting propositions to enthusiasts, and the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit that, with the Jaguar or Daimler V12, continues to cause those who can still afford to motor in top luxury to clamour to Buy-British. These are some of the credit aspects of the year that is nearly over.

Himalayan Rally

Last year we spoke ot the Himalayan Rally as an event with the most hazardous, competitive, adventurous route to join the international calendar for many years. Alas, the organisation wilted under the strain of political demonstration and what emerged was no more than an apology for a rally. 

But the organisers did not give up and in mid-November they ran the second such event, this time far less troubled by violence and much better administered, although there were still a few cases of rock throwing, one causing a driver to be taken to hospital with a hairline skull fracture. Starting at Bombay and running on main roads for the 900-mile journey to Delhi, all the competitive distance from Tuesday to Saturday was in the mountains, and although a few sections had to be cancelled due to snowfalls, the event ran virtually for its full distance, including many 10.8 sections on cliff-edge mountain tracks which put nerves to the test as well as skill and stamina. Late commencement of the 1981 organisation resulted in far fewer entries than expected. and outright winners this year, in a Datsun 160J. were Ramesh Khoda and Aslam Khan from Kenya, a crew with considerable experience in Africa. The sole British entry, a Unipart-backed Austin Healey 3000 loaned to Philip Young and Mark I’Anson, was in second place for a while but succumbed to the pounding of the rocky tracks and eventually stopped with suspension damn!. Second place in the rally went to Ravi Kapur ia a Nissan Jonga, a Jeep-type vehicle built in India from Datsun parts. — G.P.

The Things They Say . . .

“Swedish driver Mr. Torsten in an American car — a 1903 Pope Toledo — arrived without a windscreen” — From the RAC Press Bulletins on the 1981 Veteran Car Run. But don’t we (nearly) all? — W.B.