Have you ever driven in an economy contest? The kind of thing in which the winner was the person or crew using the fewest petrol globules over a given course, usually of considerable distance on public roads. The Hants & Berks MC, very active today, used to rather specialise in them, backed by the top petrol companies, over routes often planned by Holland Birkett. At first almost anything went, cars as well as engines turned out for maximum economy and coasting in neutral permitted. Later, helpful coasting was banned, front-seat observers having the boring task of making sure that no clutch pedal was depressed or a gear lever slyly moved out of cog-mesh.
Joe Lowrey was an expert at conservation of the precious globules and was it Gordon Wilkins who used to try to take every corner on the perfect radius, to reduce tyre scrub. The late Ralph Stokes specialised in personal economy bouts. The secret of success was to have loose engine bearings, the leanest carburettor settings, high tyre pressures and coast simply everywhere, uphill for as long as possible, as well as down… I remember particularly the 1954 International Road Fuel Economy Run of the Cheltenham MC, for which I entered a 375cc Citroen 2CV. Tuning and coasting was permitted, but all we did was to get Slough to put small jets in the carburettor and we blew up the tyres to twice the handbook pressures. It was an event, as was Yeovil, Towcester and Llandrindod Wells. I took Holland Birkett as co-driver.
When he took his first stint he drove as if we were in a GP. “Holly,” I said, “this is an economy run, the first prize is a substantial amount of cash and if we were to win I was going to share it.” At once his foot came off the accelerator and we coasted for much of the route, especially down the long hill into Cheltenham and that last control at a disgusting pace, horn blowing…
At 83.7mpg it seemed likely that we had won. But Derek Buckler had entered a specially prepared Buckler, its 1172cc Ford Ten engine with high compression alloy head, tiny carburettor and loose bearings. Halfway round it overheated and permission was asked to open its sealed bonnet and replenish, which we had to approve. It would have been churlish to object, so the Buckler won, at neatly 3mpg better the Citroen.
There was a sequel. At a Guild of Motoring Writer’s Goodwood Test Day you had to have an International Competition Licence to drive the fiercest of the cars present. And I had one, purchased for that Economy Run!
In 1960 I did another long run of this economical kind, with a girl friend, in a year-old Wolseley 1500, on the Press section of the Mobil Economy Run; for some reason we got lost and finished late, but the hospitality at the overnight stop compensated. The route included Porlock and Blue Hills Mine — the winning Standard Ensign did 40.39mpg, a modern A7 57.15mpg, the Riley 36.28mpg (no coasting). But what induced Jenks to take part with an ugly Singer saloon in a later Mobil Run, I cannot explain, unless the inclusion of Oulton Park and other circuits was the attraction… I thought it too boring, but my wife deputised.
However, in 1962 I was persuaded to do another Mobil Run, this time in a Vauxhall Victor saloon. My wife and I were attracted by Lakeland and Scottish scenery, although as she was, and is, a non-driver, I had to do the entire 1115 miles with relays of students with eyes glued to my clutch foot and quite fast averages called for over ice and snow-covered roads. The Vauxhall returned 31.98mpg, which would have been 33.3mpg had we kept to the official route, a reflection on how cars have improved, for today many 2-litre cars give better this figure, even hard driven.
With the present pollution scares, maybe we should coast — those who think this dangerous are in the old days of no synchromesh and poor brakes, when it might be difficult to re-engage a gear if the car got too lively downhill. And even in those times Rover and other makers offered freewheels as fuel savers and to help morons with gear-changing…