The Editor Looks Back on the Cars He Drove During 1953
Another year over, a few more grey hairs, several thousand more miles of enjoyable motoring completed, in a variety of motor cars. When I came to sum up my year’s motoring on New Year’s Eve I was discomfited to discover that the score, so far as proper road-test cars were concerned, was merely — nine. Yet on reflection perhaps this isn’t so bad, compared with the three-times-as-many tests which our weekly contemporaries — with 52 issues to fill to Motor Sport’s twelve, and a complete staff of road-testers — manage to encompass in the course of twelve months.
These nine different cars ranged in engine size from the 750 c.c. of a rear-engined Renault to the. 2 1/4 litres of a Vauxhall Velox and in price from the £355 of the Austin A30 to the £82O of the Renault Frégate.
If some of the very quick, very exciting, entirely intriguing sports cars and high-performance vehicles have eluded me, I can only remark that it wasn’t for want of trying.
Some manufacturers may not take kindly to outspoken, completely unbiased testing, while many have post-war difficulties which limit their “generosity” in respect of placing test cars at the motoring writer’s disposal. For instance, where once there were fleets of Press cars — as manufacturer’s road-test vehicles are termed — often only one car is available today and, particularly in the higher price categories, this has to be shared between eager Pressmen and dealers who clamour loudly for a sight of the new model they are supposed to be selling. Then some scribes keep the cars longer than they are expected to, others thrash them so soundly that several days are required for servicing before the manufacturer dares to let them go out again in the hands of the critics. Moreover, there can be crashes. It looked as if I was at last about to get the Bentley Continental, when it was driven into a suburban milk-float by a motoring journalist of high repute and put out of action. I am waiting at the moment for the Type 300 Mercédès-Benz for a similar reason.
So you see, it isn’t quite all honey and roses, this acquiring for oneself a nice, shiny all-but-brand-new car for test. Normally, such tests are arranged at the beginning of each year and after the agreed date has arrived and departed there is the somewhat tedious task of compiling the test report itself. On occasion the scribe has a bright idea, thinks up a special stunt, or merely feels a sudden desire to drive something other than his own vehicle on a long journey, perhaps to a motor-racing venue. Then a series of optimistic telephone calls will be made in the course of which the hopeful scribe tries to sound quite non-commital as he enquires casually whether the publicity tycoons would like the undoubted benefit of a “mention” of their products in his all-powerful journal. It is truly surprising the prompt excuses which the just-aforesaid p.ts. think up on these occasions. The regular Press car is booked up, it is being repaired, it has had a small incident or the entire Press fleet has been sold pending the arrival of next year’s models. “Otherwise, we’d have been absolutely delighted, old boy…”
Joking apart, the manufacturers’ representatives are normally extremely generous and co-operative, but is it my imagination that concessionaires for Continental makes are more co-operative than their English counterparts?
It would he stupid to pretend that road-testing is not a very enjoyable undertaking, for the proffered car, usually in pretty well perfect condition, can be driven as far as the driver wishes during the time at his disposal, route and crew to taste. Against that there is a measure of responsibility, to return the car intact and, more exhausting, to set down accurately one’s findings, sans impartiality or bias. Of recent years, somewhat influenced, it can be admitted, by the sad demise of Brooklands Track, I have placed less emphasis on figures and more on analysing the performance and handling characteristics of the car being tested — Motor Sport perhaps introduced the detailed analysis of the many aspects and characteristics of a car in modern road-testing technique. After which ponderous explanation let us touch on some humour in road-testing. It has been said, unkindly, that those who keep Press cars longest drive them least, but I recall only one journalist who found the park gates locked and had to climb the railings, leaving car and lady passenger within. Getting out of the works is sometimes a bit of a problem. I recall being asked on more than one occasion for my pass-out ticket on arriving at the gates of the works and once, when I had braved a blizzard to keep a rendezvous with a Coventry Press car, the publicity staff (who had left their cars at home and journeyed to the factory by train, thinking the roads impassable) only handed over the car after dire warnings, after which they reached for their homburgs and rolled umbrellas, donned their spats and goloshes and left for the station. I got into the car and drove through the swirling snowflakes to the exit, there to be greeted with a gruff “Can’t yer give yer works number? Where yer going to?” “The North Pole” I yelled through the lowered window, as the back wheels spun and we took to the London road.
One choice story concerns a concessionaire for a famous British car who so muddled things when handing over a Press car to a paper’s representative that they gave him, instead, a customer’s car. Shortly after they frantically telephoned the Editor to explain the dreadful error, requesting urgently that his scribe be contacted at once and told to return. The Editor, sensing their panic and realising that the car was probably in as good hands as those of its owner, couldn’t resist retorting, “My dear fellow, how can I find him? At this very moment he is probably engaged in our test of the vehicle’s prolonged high-speed durability.” “What,” came the faint reply, “but our customer will be here in half an hour. HE WANTS TO DRIVE DOWN TO BRIGHTON.” This is a true story and the wily editor went round and collected the Press car himself before telephoning his colleague to tell him he had better return the mistaken vehicle.
However, road-tests usually go off smoothly and during 1953 not once has a Press car let me down, if you discount occasions when I have run out of fuel, with a view to checking the fuel consumption, and have only then realised that the spare can is either empty or has been left behind! Under such circumstances, whatever they did in 1913, 1923, and possibly will do in 1954, one’s fellow motorists of 1953 seemed quite content to let one walk.
The first car I drove in 1953, as distinct from well-worn examples of Frazer-Nash-B.M.W., Fiat 500 and Standard 14/6 in which I rode because of an incident which had laid-up my normal transport, was a rear-engined Renault 750. It proved fun to drive, safe to corner, obviously it was very pleasantly economical, and I returned it to Renault’s Acton factory with real reluctance — even if we did fail to get any warmth into the interior and consequently nearly froze during a “small hours” start to see a January trial in the Bournemouth area. Fortunately, perhaps, “we” consisted of two well-clad sportsmen and a tough, betrousered sportsgirl, and not monkeys of a notable metallic brand.
The baby Renault is small, yet was sufficiently roomy for as, on the day preceding this trial, to pack all the family in and go off on a “Godmother Saturday,” which is simply a series of visits to the Godmothers of each of our three young daughters. I remember, too, that the Renault went through continuous torrential rain without letting a drop come inside, although its lights made the long drive from Bournemouth to London in the darkness and rain a pretty trying experience.
Two more tests followed in quick succession, those of a Series YB 1 1/4-litre M.G. saloon and a Vauxhall Velox. The M.G., collected from a Reading Nuffield agent who made us pay garage on the car that had been waiting there but an hour or two, appealed to us as a blend of vintage-characteristics with all “mod, cons.” and a dapper appearance. It took corners in its stride, was pleasant to drive, the M.G. gear-lever being particularly pleasant. This model has been replaced by the new M.G. Magnette which has a high reputation to maintain. This 1 1/4-litre was a comfortable, sensible, compact little saloon, with luxury appointments, such as a walnut facia, Pytchley sliding roof and a very high-class finish.
We took the M.G. on a carefree ” toorlet ” of Sussex and in the course of it something rather wonderful and “out of this world” took place. We were motoring aimlessly along when a Ford Zephyr came up behind, hooted at us, and indicated that we were to pull in. The occupant proved to be Peter Hampton, Bugatti fancier and great connoisseur of good motor cars.
We followed Peter’s Zephyr to his house and went into his spacious garage. There, each in its place, spotlessly clean, faultlessly upholstered and on new tyres, were the motor cars of his remarkable collection. Bugattis from the pre-1914 eight-Valve model to his exotic Type 57SC Corsica coupé, a big Hispano-Suiza saloon with unpainted aluminium bonnet, the Emmett-like Baby Peugeot coupé and a veteran de Dion Bouton. On the bench which runs the length of this astonishing, neon-lit motor-house were several tiny model c.i. engines, the reason for their presence later becoming obvious when Hampton took us to see his fantastic nearly-completed rail-track for model-car racing, with its steep bankings and long cross-over straights. If I have besprinkled the preceding sentences with superlatives, the unexpected glimpse of this private “stable” in the heart of Sussex was quite “out-of-this-world,” I do not think the young enthusiast who happened to be with us will over forget that visit, the more impressive because it was unpremeditated.
Very soon after the M.G. had been returned to its rightful owners, a six-cylinder “over-square” 2 /41-litre Vauxhall Velox came along for trial. It was, obviously, not outwardly a car to inspire those accustomed and favourable to sports cars, yet serve this rather trans-Atlantic-style saloon most certainly did. We used it for purely “domestic” journeys, making a number of calls both in and out of the Metropolis, and it proved comfortable and incapable of putting a “foot” wrong. Indeed, the faster it went the more comfortable this Velox became, although its overall suspension characteristics prompted me to head this particular test report “Afloat in a Velox.” Even so, this very roomy seven-seater-in-an-emergency saloon cornered not at all badly, and it had the merit of doing a very decent mileage per gallon, from 24-27 according to how it was motored, which I consider excellent for a 2 1/4-litre six. I think it is to the credit of the Velox that, besides offering the writer easy, anxiety-free transport, he was able to coax the Continental Correspondent, who normally looks down his heard at any car not made abroad, to travel an appreciable mileage in it, and “Baladeur” also condescended to accept a ride home, although perhaps he had anticipated a 30/98 when he accepted.
Austins were so cross with me in 1952 because we published what thought was a true and unbiased account of their A70 and A90 models that I expected never to set hands on the wheel of an Austin Press car again! But — whether because their Mr. Harriman has forgiven me or due to an oversight I never discovered — during March an Austin A30 came along for test. I remember that I had to collect it from Austin’s Westbourne Park depot on foot because my personal transport was constructed further west than Longbridge and only cars of Austin manufacture are allowed to be kept there. But, once collected, the A30 proved to be a surprisingly willing baby, its speedometer indicating “sixty” far more frequently than I had expected from an 800-c.c. saloon. This very vivid performance in relation to its capacity was the outstanding impression I gained of the new Seven, because although it is a well-appointed, well-equipped “big car in miniature” it is not so roomy as some other small cars, and while its fuel consumption is not in any way excessive, it does not approach the 50 mpg. — at all events as we drove it — that would like to experience from present-day baby vehicles.
The A30 covered nearly 600 miles in my hands, quite trouble-free – (if you do not count a knob front the radio which “came away in me ‘and”), and in that mileage went down to Goodwood for the R.A.C. Rally, up to Silverstone, and down to Firle on the Sunday for a very wet B.D.C. Speed Hill-Climb.
In that distance I decided that although the little car felt soggy in the modern manner it really clung to the road and went round corners very well, although obviously not up to the standard of its incredible brother, the modern Morris Minor, in this respect. It was interesting to discover a distinct “family likeness” to the old Seven in respect of the circular pedals, gear-lever and characteristics of the gear-change. Yes, the Austin A30 was returned with regret that, we couldn’t keep it, for it is a very good all-rounder (I write as one who does not stand 6 ft. 2 in. in his socks), although not, I thought, a car which quite justified the publicity boys’ slogan for it: “The greatest achievement in post-war motoring.” — I imagine that in this I shall at least have the support of the other “Big Four”!
From the well-thumbed pages of my Autocar diary I see that the next bit of other-than-Plus Four motoring that I did was in a Type R1100 Renault Frégate. This shapely saloon, with its white-walled tyres and independent suspension front and back, interested me very much because a fleet of them had not long before been used to take luckier-than-I representatives of the Press for decidedly harried tours round Europe in the grip of winter, and the ensuing accounts suggested that here was my ideal amongst 2-litre family saloons.
Whether it was the magic of those journalists’ pens or whether, as I suspect, the Frégate is better suited to Continental than to English conditions, the fact is that I was somewhat disappointed. The handling qualities and controls were suggestive of American rather than French practice and the gear-change, with its overdrive, was unduly awkward when needed frequently on congested English roads.
Nevertheless, as with other cars before and since, the more I drove the Frégate the more I came to realise that these items were not particularly distressing and that this four-cylinder 2-litre Renault went very well, was notably comfortable, even for six persons, and gave-24 m.p.g., with the added attractions of the aforementioned independent suspension (by coil spring and universally-jointed drive-shafts at the rear) and over-drive top gear. And it is a more handsome car, to my eyes, than its Coventry and Dagenham equivalents.
We used the Frégate to marshal at a Hants & Becks M.C. Versatility Trial, took it fast to Southampton that evening, and arrived stylishly in it for an Alvis/Humber Rally at Esso House, near Abingdon on the Sunday, where Esso are such hospitable hosts to club members and journalists.
The very next weekend I was let loose in a Series III Jowett Javelin, so that I could experience on the road those advantages of the latest Series III engine, the technical aspects of which I had written about at some length the previous winter. The roomy, suave, light-to-control Javelin saloon has been discussed too frequently in these pages to require embellishment in this article. I must say the test-car got along very effectively; so well, indeed, that I wondered if it was in Jupiter-trim, especially as the fuel consumption was so high as 24 1/2 /25 m.p.g. and it would exceed 60 m.p.h. in third gear, cruising unconcernedly at seventy. This 1 1/2-litre car was a very comfortable vehicle but it “blotted its copybook” slightly by blowing an exhaust-pipe gasket and sounding like a pre-1914 Grand Prix car.
Incidentally, it was while coming home from Silverstone in this Javelin that we came upon the then unusual sight of a 2-c.v. Citroën with English registration plates. Moreover, the little car was sans sparks due to the demise of its experimental English ignition coil (a rather special object with, if I remember correctly, a lead coming out of each end), so we were able to play “good Samaritan” and take the driver to fetch a French replacement.
Not long after this I went up in the Morgan Plus Four to collect a Jensen Intercepter for test, getting lost even more effectively on the outskirts of Birmingham than I have done on other occasions in the city itself.
I was allowed to depart from Jensen’s after I had been given a driving lesson, and a fast run home showed that here was an imposing-looking car of real performance, the gear-lever-operated overdrive top gear being very pleasant to engage or dismiss as road or traffic conditions dictated.
I handed the Jensen over to the office, with keen anticipation of putting it through its paces later and set off with my wife in her 1927 Sunbeam Sixteen to attend a Sunbeam Register Wolverhampton Weekend. In this six-cylinder Coatalen-designed touring car, original in all respects except that it had been resprayed, we progressed steadily at 40 m.p.h., via Bicester and Banbury, towards the Midlands, the Sunbeam making that intriguing sound from the intake of its Claudel-Hobson carburetter which Barry Dove has likened to froth being sucked off a glass of beer. It refused to be hurried, yet gave that comforting feeling, well known to vintage-car enthusiasts, of being capable of going on for ever. We had not left the turmoil of the Edgware Road until after 1 p.m., yet we took tea at Birmingham Airport (having, happily, avoided the city itself, and arrived in ample time for dinner at the Castlecroft Hotel at Wolverhampton. The next day, leaving my wife to conduct the first part of her rally, I undertook the long journey to Silverstone from Wolverhampton in the Morgan. where I received the sad news that the Jensen, in the hands of a colleague, had swallowed a rubber washer and lost its engine bearings during subsequent digestive ailments which assailed its lubrication system. So on the Sunday evening my wife and I had a fast run home in the Morgan and a friend was entrusted to bring the Sunbeam back for us. For some reason or other a test Jensen has eluded us since but I enjoyed my brief experience of the Interceptor so much that I hope another will come along for test this year — and may it be the Type 541.
Prior to the Wolverhampton weekend I did my only piece of aerial travel of the year, when I used the B.E.A. Northolt — Le Bourget “motor-‘bus” (a Viking in this instance) for a visit to France. At Paris the Continental Correspondent was awaiting us with his heavily-laden Fiat 1500, the interior of which was a cross between a lending library and a lumber-room, so that skilled re-loading was necessary before the photographer could be stored away. In this outwardly well-worn Italian saloon, with its smooth six-cylinder engine and notably level ride, we Britishers saw the French 24-Hour Race at Le Mans. It was a pleasant week indeed and truly memorable was our host’s greeting as we returned to his hotel after those weary but enthralling hours at the course, he and Madame and the entire kitchen staff lining up on the pavement to wring our hands in honour of a British victory, almost as if we alone had in some way made the Jaguar win possible.
On the way home we drove round the course (they all do!), looked at that historic stretch of road just outside Arpajon where Ernest Eldridge and his fabulous F.I.A.T. broke the Land Speed Record in 1924 at 145.9 m.p.h., and called in at the always-open and hospitable Montlhèry.
Arriving back at Northolt late on a raw English summer evening we were charged a stiff fee for having left the Morgan in their open parking space, got lost attempting to follow the signposts to that other airport at Heath Row (which was on our route), and, remarking to a pump boy at the garage where we stopped for petrol that we had just come back from Le Mans, received in answer: “Oh yes, sir. I go to the Speedway quite often myself.” There were no illusions. We were home.
Subsequent motoring experiences have been confined to a brief spell driving a 2-c.v. Citroën round beautiful Burnham Beeches and long journeys, west and north, in Volkswagen, Citroën Big Fifteen and Simca Aronde cars. These last three are each entirely admirable family cars, although the Aronde, in common with the Frégate mentioned earlier, had something of the supple suspension and ornate interior of a scaled-down American wheeled-drawing-room. I could, however, make very good use of any of these cars for everyday business and domestic journeys (pleasure motoring is something different again, demanding, in my view, two seats close to the fresh air). The respective road-test reports have been published so recently that I need write no more here about these willing Continental-design vehicles, each of which served me so very well for a modest expenditure of fuel.
Two more cars remain for inclusion. One is my 1922 8/18 Talbot-Darracq light-car. It is due for overhaul to restore the lost compression when hot, which proved my undoing when, on a very damp Boxing Night, I attempted to drive it over the route of the 1922 M.C.C. London-Exeter-London Trial, Boxing Night being the traditional starting time of this trial when “men were men and women were proud of them” — now your enthusiast presumably prefers his fireside television! I am in honour bound to try again this year; may I leave it at that for the present, merely adding that even in its existing condition (last rebore 70,000 miles and a pre-war R.A.C. Rally ago!) this little Coatalen-designed companion to my wife’s Sunbeam runs very willingly and its solid back axle renders it “interesting” not only technically but in fact!
The other vehicle is scarcely worth discussing, except to remark that it, a Series E Morris Eight saloon, went about its work sufficiently briskly that, at the first stop, I went round to the front half expecting to see “Ten” instead “Eight” inscribed on its radiator badge. It had been hastily hired for a journey when the Morgan, 11,200 miles after a complete overhaul, sheared the shaft connecting Vanguard engine to Moss gearbox. I really refer to this Morris because enthusiasts can often be stranded on the eve of a race meeting or other fixture they do not wish to miss, and it is on such occasions, when their own car is either not ready or is proving temperamental, that the facilities offered by “suburban” hire firms may be worth considering. Whereas the well-known hirers have, since the war, imposed a 6d. a mile charge above a mileage which most enthusiasts regard as nominal, the smaller concerns usually charge a flat-rate of about £2 a day, mileage unlimited. If a pre-race breakdown has stranded four or five enthusiasts they should consider hiring a vehicle from such a concern — it may not be too presentable but it is unlikely to present vagaries with which they cannot cope and it can make all the difference between seeing Ascari win another Silverstone or the football on T.V.
Reverting to less morbid thoughts, my mileage on the nine road cars tried during 1953 totalled over 5,000, without accident, breakdown or brush with the police. I hope to do considerably better than that this year. — W. B.