My year's motoring

The Editor Looks Back on the Cars He Drove During 1954

(Continued from the January issue)

About this time Michael Christie, in between making f.t.d. at numerous sprint venues, invited me to the charming village of Haddenham, in Buckinghamshire, to see for myself the magic he instils in formerly-staid Morris Minors by fitting them with his twin-carburettor cylinder heads and higher back-axle ratios. I duly tried two, a 1953 tourer and a 1954 Traveller’s Car. They went along so nicely that I took the latter all the way up to Wolverhampton for my wife’s Sunbeam Register Rally and kept it for over a week, averaging over 100 miles a day in this borrowed “utility.” I have a slight bias against modifications to the lower-priced family-type cars, tempered by appreciation of the interest and individuality that such “hotting-up” embraces, but in the ease of this Alexander-doctored Minor no shortcomings were evident and a particularly tiring, long-distance weekend passed effortlessly in spite of a mere 800 c.c under the bonnet. The comfort of the Dunlopillo-upholstered bucket front seats was a contributory factor and the Morris Minor Traveller’s Car has such a multitude of uses that it is a vehicle I would admit very readily to the home garage. The wood-finish to the body, its twin rear doors, and low roof line make it, in my opinion, one of the most attractive small “station-wagons” on the market and I suspect that if I had time to work out its floor-space in relation to that of its rivals I should find that B.M.C. have been as generous here as they have been sparing in engine swept-volume, which, of course, is where Alexander Engineering comes in!

Motoring in my personal car, as distinct from road-test vehicles, has been an open-air affair, for I have to date retained the alternately loved and hated Morgan Plus Four. More fresh air was forthcoming when a Singer 4AD two-carburetter roadster came along for trial. It was pre-war in conception and therefore seemed costly at over £700, but it possessed practical all-weather equipment for occasions when the fresh air was laced with rain, the gear-change was in the sports-car tradition and the steering high-geared. In this red four-seater a friend and I had much fun rediscovering M.C.C. trials hills of the nineteen-thirties, including a stirring ascent of Fingle Bridge.

Came a summer weekend in the majesty of a Ford Zephyr Zodiac, a roomy drawing-room of a car, rather flexibly suspended and casually braked, but so effortless to drive and, for its size, economical on fuel that at a basic price of £600 this very comprehensively equipped vehicle represents excellent “value for lolly.”

The car which followed was in complete contrast, for the little 900cc., front-wheel-drive, two-stroke D.K.W. Sonderklasse is compact and so stimulating to drive fast that bigger cars seem an unnecessary encumbrance to garage, road-space and pocket. Here is a beautifully-appointed Continental saloon which cruises at 70 m.p.h with its three-cylinder engine revolving like a dynamo, a gear-change so pleasant that one excuses the steering-column lever, and brakes so powerful that the freewheel is used habitually. The Sonderklasse is attracting the attention of connoisseurs and a full report of it appeared in our September issue. I liked the little car from Ingolstadt enormously, yet in other moods wondered if I wouldn’t prefer poppets to pistons at the ports, wouldn’t prefer not to have to add oil to the petrol, and raised my eyebrows at the price of £948 which p.t. and import duty imposes in this country. Nor could I get better than 26 m.p.g. from the D.K.W. on fast runs, no matter how carefully I tried, and, vivid though the step-off is in bottom gear, higher up the speed range it is no better than 34 b.h.p. and 17 cwt. permit. Yet, in an age of uniformity and the mediocre, it is difficult to think of a substitute for the Sonderklasse, nor is it at all tedious on long journeys, for its natural cruising speed is 70 m.p.h. and its accurate steering and slim dimensions enable the best use to be made by the competent of gaps in the traffic.

Two Dorettis I tried did not quite attain the still-elusive ” century “under the give-and-take conditions prevailing on English roads. This newcomer from the industrial Midlands could be described as a TR2 in a party frock, possessed of very complete equipment, pleasing steering and a useful over-drive. Our test-report appeared so recently that there is no need to dwell on the details of the Doretti. It is a car in which one can have fun without need to dress up in helmet and goggles, so effective is the big windscreen, but the weather protection fell down in Welsh Wales, when the passenger became nearly as wet as if he had been hiking.

In mid-December, just after one of “my” 2 c.v. Citroens had been returned to Slough, the Triumph TR2 itself at last came along for test. If it had been long delayed, Triumph’s P.R.O. made amends by letting us keep it for a very generous stretch, so that it was sampled by the entire MOTOR SPORT staff and must, I imagine, have totalled something like 2,500 miles in our hands—my own spell at the wheel covered not far short of a four-figure mileage.

My impressions of this very vivid yet modestly-priced sports car appear elsewhere in this issue. Suffice it to say here that the TR2 stood up manfully to all we gave it, proved capable of over 90 m.p.h. on any and every sort of straight road, was pleasant and exhilarating to drive, yet docile and weatherproof when called upon to be so. A sports car in December may sound spartan but the very effective heater in the TR2, coupled with sensible side screens and a very ample windscreen, rendered the car a perfectly reasonable form of winter transport.

Although the Triumph represented our last road-test of 1954, the month of December produced an unexpectedly varied bout of motoring.

First, I volunteered to help drive for some of the distance the VW saloon which acted as tender-car to the VW Microbus on its R.A.C. observed Round Britain Tour under the captaincy of Tommy Wisdom. This entailed rising at 4.30 a.m. to propel the TR2 in fog and frost from Hampshire to Hornchurch, there to let the photographer drive me fast into Kent over slippery roads to the start of the R.A.C. Trials Championship.

After a morning spent watching the boys storm the trials-gradients in their weird-looking Ford Ten-powered Specials, I was deposited in Folkestone, to be made immediately at home at Blundell’s Garage, the local VW agents from where the Microbus was to commence its long journey. I was cheerfully provided with several amenities essential to a scribe with mud on his shoes and an urgent report to write, before experiencing the enormous alcoholic hospitality extended to we intrepid Pressmen who were to put the two Wolfsburg products through their paces.

In between sipping the near-Christmas cheer I was taken by Mr. Gascoigne to admire his very formidable 38/250 supercharged Mercedes-Benz which he drove so quickly round the Nurburgring on the occasion of last summer’s Mercedes-Benz Club Stuttgart Rally, and to inspect his rare, impeccably-restored 1911 Hupmobile roadster.

Somewhat weary by this time, I managed to follow the fully-laden ‘bus as far as Grantham before being relieved at the wheel; this ‘bus, in spite of an engine capacity of under 1,200 c.c., contrived to cruise at 40 m.p.h.. going up to 45 m.p.h. and over on occasion, and to take its corners without trace of roll. We had started from Folkestone some 90 minutes late, yet made up this loss by the time the Mill Hill refuelling stop was reached. After the Microbus had departed from Edinburgh with a fresh crew for John o’ Groats we took an omnibus to the Forth Bridge and crossed the Tay on the ferry, before returning for dinner at the North British Hotel in time to board the night-sleeper to King’s Cross.

The Microbus, now travel-stained and sans its accompanying VW (which had somehow become mislaid), I encountered again a couple of days later outside Exeter, where I had motored in the Triumph to see how the tour was faring. It gave us quite a shock as it came in sight, for at that hour it should have been leaving Bodmin, some 60 miles farther west. In other words, it was still very comfortably ahead of the proposed schedule, indeed, it was to terminate its tour with honours, as some figures published elsewhere will prove.

On sighting us in our red roadster the crew of the Microbus sportingly drew up to exchange a word or two of greeting, but before they did so we were treated to the delightful spectacle of eight grown men furiously attending to the call of nature along the grass verge of the Great West Road !

Christmas could well have been a sports-car holiday because the TR2 was still in my possession, but the dictates of family life caused me to borrow the Continental Correspondent’s Lancia Aprilia which had carried him some 30,000 feverish miles about Europe during the summer in pursuit of Grand Prix “copy.” I am glad that I did so, because the Aprilia is such an exceedingly pleasant car to drive and to use. Steering you can feel and an engine you can hear are a pleasant change after motoring in modern cars, and the willingness of the Lancia’s engine not only to rev.-up for gear-changing but in accelerating through traffic accounts for a large part of the car’s charm. There is, too, the practicability of the minor controls, consisting of diminutive yet robust switches and push-buttons, and separate levers for actuating starter, choke and hand-throttle, depression of one such button causing a previously-inert gauge to register the contents of the petrol tank in discreet illuminated figures. The man-sized 100-per-cent.-rigid gear-lever controls a veritable peer amongst gearboxes and, altogether, it seems to me inevitable that the Aprilia must join the Citroen as the obvious choice of V.S.C.C. members seeking post-vintage motor cars. When we took the children for an airing in Dulwich Park after the Christmas Day festivities the Aprilia’s efficient shape stood out amongst the parked tin-ware, and as the owners of these mediocre properties looked wide-eyed at the Italian invader and stooped to peer in bewilderment at its Monza Autodromo and Nurburgring badges I felt at peace with all the world .

Nineteen fifty-four ended with a dose of self-imposed Editorial folly, in the form of following the route of the 1922 M.C.C. London-Exeter-London Trial in my 1922 Talbot-Darracq light car, a Boxing Night adventure which is recounted elsewhere in this issue.

At times, as we progressed westwards in the chill of a winter dawn, we, Tom Lush and I, felt somewhat foolish, but this we countered with the thought that, with motor sport becoming more and more of a commercial proposition as the years roll by, it is perhaps just as well that some of us still embark on runs such as this merely because we like motoring and motor cars .

During 1954 there have, too, been other cars in use, notably a Jowett Jupiter which made reporting the M.C.C. Rally almost luxurious, so snug is this car when the easily erected hood and wind-up side windows are raised. With hood furled and windows concealed within the doors, the car’s sports-car visibility is immediately restored and it is difficult, confronted by this convenience, to understand why good convertible bodies, especially on 2/3 seaters, are such a rarity. There have been dignified miles in the solid comfort of a Rover 75 and pleasant if rather characterless motoring in a Palm Beach Allard.

Then there, was a memorable day at Silverstone being motored by Uhlenhaut in a 300SL Merced-Benz coupe, after which I was allowed to take it round myself for three laps. A distance of nine miles is too short by far in which to appraise this remarkable example of high-performance car, and I am no racing driver. But this experience was certainly an astonishing one and seemed to impress the other journalists who sampled the 300SL, one of these gentlemen confessing in print to nearly losing the silver coupe on the bend beyond the pits, while another was so impressed that he mistook this Mercedes-Benz for the sports/racing straight-eight 300SLR, perhaps the nicest compliment anyone could pay the SL ! Contrast was provided by a summer’s day’s sampling of a vintage 16/50 six-cylinder Humber and the stolid rarity of a. 1921 Austin Twenty Sports Model identifiable by its centre-lock wire wheels.

The Guild of Motoring Writers’ Test-Day at Goodwood provided chance encounters with fast cars like the Jaguar XKI40, Bentley Continental, Sunbeam Mark III and other cars for some reason denied us for proper test during the year. Because the intensity of present-day events and happenings have largely crowded out vintage items in “Motor Sport” I have been accused of having lost interest in the earlier cars. This isn’t the case at all and during last year I was able to get very wet taking my 1922 Talbot-Darracq two-seater through the Sunbeam Commemoration Rally and V.S.C.C. Light Car Trial, and to drive a very grand 1924 20/60 Sunbeam saloon at some 40 m.p.h. and 13 m.p.g. to the Sunbeam Register Driving Tests at Sandhurst. I rode through the Veteran Car Run to Brighton in Stanley Sears’ 1901 Mors and. visited “Exeter” trials hills of the nineteen-thirties in the Singer Roadster and those of the present day in a 2 c.v. Citroen. Boxing Night saw me en route for the “Exeter” hills of 1922 in the aforesaid Talbot-Darracq, as already mentioned.. The little car runs nearly as well today as it did in the 1935 R.A.C. Rally, about which I have had a letter from Commander Ivan Hill, R.N., son of the gentleman who so graciously presented me with this car, describing how he drove in that event, in which a route of more than 1,100 miles had to be covered at an overall average speed of 30 m.p.h. The T.-D. finished 15 minutes ahead of schedule in spite of fog and fatigue, “winning” the usual plaques and also a rather fine trophy in the form of a nicely-constructed lady holding what looks like a piston ring over her head, ornamented with a winged R.A.C. emblem, the whole thing standing on a plinth of something which looks like jade.

Some time which I might have devoted to motoring was spent in brief days on the Sussex coast with my wife and family in a Car light caravan, which in its own sphere has the merit of being vintage.

Well then, that is it. 20,102 miles covered in road-test vehicles, plus, I suppose, about the same mileage in staff vehicles, sans accident, breakdown or clash with the police; indeed, without so much as a puncture or oven a dead dog. And only one case of a mysteriously shattered toughened-glass windscreen. Not too bad, perhaps, although tame, probably, in the eyes of motor trader and delivery drivers. Five, I maintain, is my lucky number, so this year perhaps I shall do even better.—W. B.