The Editor Looks Back on the Cars He Drove in 1959
It is customary for motoring journalists to sum up their road-test findings at the end of every twelve-month period and, although this may be misconstrued in some quarters as mere flattery to the writer’s ego, it surely serves as a useful survey of a number of vehicles, which can be read easily by those who have not yet narrowed their choice of a car down sufficiently to justify wading through full road-test reports ?
The motor car is a complex piece of mechanism and consequently a road-test report which deals with the arrangement of controls, the car’s performance, and how it handles, becomes a pretty lengthy and detailed document. That such test reports constitute one of the best-liked, most sought-after features of a motor journal is evident from the demand which MOTOR SPORT receives for back numbers and reprints of its out-spoken and unbiased road-test articles. But these are read with avidity by persons contemplating purchase of a given car or who are basking in the glory of having taken delivery of it and who wish to compare their findings with those in a road-test report. This annual survey of the cars I was fortunate enough to drive during the past twelve months is a more light-hearted summing-up, which tries to put each car in clear perspective.
My friend Joseph Lowrey is in the habit of using a different method each year of deciding in what order he will describe the cars he has tested for The Motor. This involves him in all manner of ingenious schemes, such as arranging the cars in order of wheelbase, or weight, or cost, and so forth. I had contemplated taking mine in diminishing order of mileage driven, but have decided that, after all, chronological sequence is the best method. However, either way I find I start off with the Vauxhall Victor estate car, because with one of these commodious and useful vehicles I started my 1959 road-test season and in it covered the highest mileage of the year, namely 1,190. This reminds me of the very considerable mileages MOTOR SPORT contrives to cover in the course of carrying out these road-tests. By the time the photographer and other members of the staff have “had a go” a car has often been driven for 2,500, or even 3,000 miles, before being returned to its maker. Certainly, I do not consider that proper assessment can be made in a run down the road or “round the block,” and I like to do many hundreds of miles of motoring before compiling a report. As a matter of fact, last year. when I drove 30 test cars compared to 27 in 1958, I was able to drive a four-figure mileage in four of them, these being the aforesaid Vauxhall Victor, a Triumph Herald coupé, a Ford New Anglia saloon and a jolly little N.S.U. Prinz. And another five miles would have put the Sunbeam Rapier into the same category.
In previous years I have been able to claim immunity from a brush with the police during road-testing, but last year, while driving 16,500 miles on test and a further 15,700 miles in personal vehicles, this record was broken one sunny morning when I went a little faster in a Judson-supercharged Volkswagen than the law allows along a deserted straight Middlesex road and so earned a fine and endorsement. That apart, the year’s motoring was unsullied by police persecution, accidents or breakdowns, and in spite of increasing traffic congestion and the rapid spread of built-up areas I derived a great deal of enjoyment from all this driving hither and thither.
As I have said, the season opened with a Vauxhall Victor estate car, which, although it has it’s faults, I found a pleasant car to drive and one which is extremely useful for family motoring. I covered the Exeter Trial in this roomy Victor, took it to Luton to see how Vauxhall Motors look after their customers on the servicing side, snatched it away again before they could put it back into store, ran down to Brighton on a rough and stimulating winter’s day, and generally notched up the miles in this inexpensive station wagon. At the conclusion of the test I not only had implicit faith in this Victor as a car which would undertake any journey with a minimum of fuss, but I found myself wondering why we do not all own estate cars. It may be laid against the type that they do not always handle as well as a saloon, are apt to rattle, and are not too easy to heat effectively, but for sheer convenience and carrying capacity they are unbeatable.
The Victor is free from most of these shortcomings and, moreover, is very well equipped for a car selling at £858. Its three-speed gearbox is rendered tolerable due to a flexible engine and synchromesh on the lowest ratio. Altogether, I returned this car to Mr. Michael Marr, of Vauxhalls, with real reluctance; during the week in which I had “owned” it, it had become a firm friend of the family. The only set-back had been a deflating tyre but as this was of the tubeless variety we got to our destination without having to change it. I have not driven the revised Victor but if it has a more comfortable front seat, doors which shut more easily, has been silenced at 60 m.p.h., and has wipers that do a better job of keeping the screen clear, then it is a very good car indeed for the ordinary man and woman.
I am reminded from scribbled notes in my now dog-eared diary that I went in the Victor to Cowley to sample the then-new M.G. Magnette saloon by Farina out of Longbridge. I have since tried to book this car with the famous initials for a full test, without success; from brief acquaintance of it this leaves no great cause for regret …
Next to come along for trial was a Volvo 122S. Recent correspondence in this paper makes it unnecessary to further endorse the all-round excellence of this remarkable Swedish car. Like the Peugeot 403 it goes indecently fast for a car of around 1 1/2-litres and it also has real character and is beautifully finished.
I had the Volvo for all too short a period, during which the weather played up to produce the sort of conditions experienced in the car’s native country. It came through with flying colours, the only real criticism concerning heavy brakes and that pre-war American-style gear-lever when the car deserves better. But the Volvo is remembered as an outstanding motor car, which has since shown its superiority in rallies.
Another good family car came next, in the form of a Simca Aronde Montlhéry P60. I have driven nearly every four-cylinder Simca model and like these brisk French cars very much. With “Flash Special” engine, how this four-door saloon motors on a mere 1,290 c.c.! Now that Chrysler Motors are handling it at Kew, and a floor gear-lever is available, I shall expect the Simca Aronde to become one of the best-selling enthusiasts’ saloons.
After the Simca, I sampled a Karmann Ghia VW. This has all the well-known advantages of the saloon with extremely eye-catching lines, and the car I tried had been converted in this country to r.h. steering. Unfortunately, there is not much more performance than the saloon provides, nor is this coupé much of a proposition for a man with a family, and as the factory-conversion to r.h.d. is still not available here I decided to go on using the trusty 1955 saloon, this being, in my opinion, the “mint” year for a VW.
The next diversion was a journey through France and Germany to look at the Peugeot. Mercedes-Benz and Borgward factories. For this winter trip we used a Sunbeam Rapier. Suffice it to say that it served us admirably and uncomplainingly. A road-test report on the latest version, which is a much improved car with the alloy-head engine and disc front brakes, is in hand, so it is but necessary to remark that the Sunbeam Rapier is in a class of its own and that it does not surprise me at all that it is in great demand as a fast, safe family sporting car. Those who are not afraid of fresh air particularly appreciate the convertible model.
In Germany it was possible to cover many kilometres, including rapid motoring along the autobahn, in a Mercedes-Benz 190SL. This is a car quite in a class of its own, very rugged, very nicely finished and possessing real speed and acceleration, which it delivers in an unobtrusive manner. Just the motor car, in fact, for the Mercedes-Benz follower who does not want anything quite so blatant as a 300SL. While at Stuttgart I was able to visit the fascinating Mercedes-Benz museum and to discover for myself just what advantages fuel injection has conferred on that splendid luxury high-performance car, the 220SE. And all the while we were entertained so royally by Artur Kaiser and Prince von Urach of Daimler-Benz that I fail to see how this great German concern makes a profit!
In England I was able to cover a very big mileage in a VW with the Rally Equipment two-carburetter conversion. This proved the reliability of the outfit, while performance is considerably enhanced.
The improved Renault Dauphine came along next and I upset some readers by saying that if I like this pretty little French car I like the Volkswagen better. Since then I have tried the Dauphine Gordini version, which is vastly improved by the four-speed gearbox and enough extra “steam” to liven up the performance without spoiling reliability or petrol economy. The Dauphine is one of the world’s very best sellers, so the dire consequences of cornering it too fast on a race track cannot count for much with the citizens.
I have got out of step chronologically with the two Renaults but return to this sequence to remark that two very different cars were next on the road-test list. These were the Daimler Majestic saloon and the tiny N.S.U. Prinz. The Daimler impressed me considerably as a worthy successor to a long line of royal cars. It had real speed when extended the disc brakes rendered it supremely safe, and the fully-automatic transmission suited the big car admirably. It was the sort of dignified vehicle in which I was able to hustle down to glorious Sussex on a summer’s day with two elderly people in the back and they just did not for a moment realise how quickly they were being driven. The N.S.U. was enormous fun, because it went quite quickly for a 583-c.c. baby car, because it rushed round corners with commendable stability, and because a car with a rear-placed air-cooled overhead-camshaft two-cylinder engine cannot be anything other than fun. Giving from 45 to 51.3 m.p.g. there was real economy to go with the unexpected urge, and it wasn’t until I drove a B.M.C. mini-car that I realised that you work rather hard at the gear-lever and put up with too much noise in this otherwise quite delightful N.S.U. I await avidly a trial of the sports version.
A Judson-blown VW was driven for a mileage virtually identical to that covered in the Rally Equipment Volkswagen. Again, reliability was unimpaired and the supercharger was commendably quiet. It also improved performance but just as much, in the glorious summer of 1959, did I appreciate the VW’s folding roof.
Now it was time to turn to sports cars and the keenly-awaited Twin-Cam M.G. came along to City Road in the merry month of May. The first one dropped a valve before I got near it but a subsequent model provided plenty of exhilarating performance and the noted “safety-fast” by reason of disc brakes all round. With an engine willing to run up to 7,000 r.p.m., giving 88 m.p.h. in third gear, this M.G. really did get a move on, at the expense of considerable noise, rather heavy petrol thirst and a quite alarming consumption of oil. Since then the new 1,600-c.c. M.G.-A has been introduced, which could be a better car for all-round road motoring.
From bags of fresh air in the M.G. I went to the opposite extreme, the much-discussed Triumph Herald coupé causing my claustrophobia tendencies to increase when the car contrived to pressurise its roof lining, which pressed me firmly down onto the seat! From this it will be gathered that the test car had certain shortcomings but it left me in no doubt of how well it handled and cornered. The ease of getting into restricted parking space was valuable, visibility good, and the gear-change enjoyable. It was a heart-warming experience to drive this refreshingly “different” British car at a time when it was a rarity on our roads, which it isn’t any longer. I took over the Herald from a colleague in a memorable traffic jam on the outskirts of London at the start of the Whitsun week-end and it aroused much interest at Goodwood on the Bank Holiday. With care in assembly and given rather more urge, this all-independently-sprung little car with separate body and chassis should repay its ambitious makers for the enormous sum they have laid down to produce it. But that dreadful reserve petrol tap, and in the boot, too . . !
After the Herald I went motoring in a vivacious Fiat Gran Luce saloon, which with a mere 1,200 c.c. slaughtered many cumbersome 1 1/2-litre cars not conceived under the Italian sun. Handled as the natives drive them these Fiats are the greatest fun, which caused a friend who tried the test car to ask, “Which came first, the Italian driver or the Italian car ?”
Another Simca Aronde Montlhéry was enjoyed and then I pottered about Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in the latest Ford Zephyr, a good if undistinguished car with that very smooth six-cylinder engine, its three-speed gearbox augmented by a useful overdrive, and praiseworthy control of any craving it might have for oil.
Now the British Grand Prix was looming up and it became necessary to go to Liverpool, which otherwise there would be no desire to do. This long journey to the depressing Aintree circuit was rendered tolerable by the comfort and effortless performance provided by a Jaguar Mk. 9. As the transmission was fully automatic there was nothing to do but steer, and the miles fell away easily behind us.
The same can hardly be said of a lurid Dodge Kingsway Custom sedan, which lost its brakes at speed, although its 5.2-litre V8 engine certainly gave plenty of effortless performance, and the push-button automatic transmission worked with notable smoothness.
The Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire appealed very greatly as a stupendously easy car to drive, on account of a combination of excellent forward visibility from a high-set front seat, power steering, disc front brakes and Borg Warner automatic transmission which functioned impeccably and had a useful hold control. Lacking a trifle in competitive performance and rather thirsty, this Star Sapphire will nevertheless be bought by those accustomed to riding behind the wise Sphinx and who, maybe, celebrated the Armistice of 1918 by placing an order for the rugged Armstrong Siddeley Thirty of those times. As the year rolled by there came the excitement of trying two more new British small cars, the Morris Mini-Minor and the Ford New Anglia. Reports have been published recently in these pages on both, so suffice it here to say that the road-test Mini-Minor which took me to an old-fashioned kind of speed trial at Weston-super-Mare and then on along the fine road through Newport and Cardiff into Welsh Wales, was terribly noisy, a fault already cured, and had an abnormally heavy oil consumption, a shortcoming I hope not common to all these babies. The Ford has a fine engine of astonishing dimensions and a nice four-speed gearbox, and will be a very good family car indeed when they have given it rather better brakes – if only to please the rally boys – and made it less porous. If I seem to have harped unfairly on the ingress of rain, how does such a serious defect get past the Dagenham inspectors ?
There was a fast run up to Oulton Park in a smart Sunbeam Alpine hard-top. This is a car which will have a great following, because it is a fine all-round sporting machine. The steering is a bit disappointing and the controls are heavy after driving certain other cars, but there is adequate performance (almost 100 m.p.h.), a nice gearchange, those stylish lines and the reassuring feel of disc front brakes. A small point, but I particularly liked the business-like metal facia of this acceptable Rootes Group model. That almost concludes my memories of the year’s test cars but in addition I was interested to sample a Morris-Oxford with the foolproof Hobbs fully-automatic transmission and a Hillman Minx with the fantastically indestructible Perkins “Four-99” diesel engine which gives surprising economy of fuel with little sacrifice of performance, so that in some countries the saving by using heavy oil instead of petrol is as high as 83 per cent. I was also able to try some modified cars, such as a VW with the Adams A.V.C. conversion, which proved reliable over more than 570 miles except for the anxiety of an electrical “short” but which returned performance figures which were so disappointing that Mr. Adams asked us to withhold them. There was also an Austin A40 with Alexander conversion which produced plenty of extra urge, and an amusing Austin Healey Sprite hard-top with Shorrock supercharger which went moderately well after a seized-up blower had been replaced, but at the expense of heavy petrol consumption. I was also able to assess the worth of the Murray overdrive on a side-valve Ford Anglia.
The year’s road-testing concluded with a memorable few days in a Jaguar XK150S covering the R.A.C. Rally. The run up M1 in this fine twin-cam 3.4-litre car, with the speedometer seldom below 120 m.p.h., will long be remembered, as will the pleasure of using the enormous powers of acceleration and the excellence of the Dunlop disc brakes. For sheer performance and value-for-money this Jaguar has no peers … which prompts me to remark that the Peerless still eludes us !
It is also a fact that B.M.C. cars, apart from the Mini-Minor, have been entirely elusive, although repeated requests have been made to Austin for the latest Austin models. I was sorry, too, that the year closed without a Dyna-Panhard being made available to us, while in this country Mercedes-Benz and D.K.W. are not for the Press, and Colin Chapman also seems loath to let us reveal to the world what driving a Lotus Elite is like. Jensen refused us a test-car so rudely as to make us wonder if they have something to conceal. Rolls-Royce didn’t provide a car either, although their comment is that orders for the new V8 are so prolific’ that they can afford to scorn free publicity – they are lucky people ! And for some unknown reason the 3-litre Rover didn’t come within reach. I mention this by way of an explanation to the many readers at home and overseas who write, telephone and even cable MOTOR SPORT asking what we have against those cars test reports on which do not appear in these pages.
Apart from these cars I drove 14 others during the Goodwood Test Day and played around the Crystal Palace and Chobham tracks with the new Fords and B.M.C. mini-cars. In addition I continued to drive the Editorial VW between times and, although it was out of action early in the year with stripped timing gears, it was soon put right and continues to exhibit the reliability, economy and smoothness of control about which I have no need to enlarge. In spite of having passed 80,000 miles, it is only just beginning to consume oil.
I am now engaged on a year’s test of that interesting and inexpensive little package, the Morris Mini-Minor, a car which must appeal to the family man by reason of the unexpected roominess within, to the keen driver by the way it holds the road as it rushes round corners, and to engineers on account of the many ingenious technical features found within its hull. It may seem rather unkind of the B.M.C. to ask journalists who would otherwise be at the wheel of more expensive cars to test their little vehicles for such a long period, but duty comes before pleasure and luckily I am partial to the smallest cars. I must confess, however, that when I jokingly said to Issigonis that a brief test proves nothing except how bad a car is, I was a bit overwhelmed when he told me I could have a Mini-Minor for a year. This certainly shows faith in his brain child! So far I have only had “my” car for just over a month and have covered only 2,075 miles, during which only minor troubles have arisen. Petrol consumption in everyday conditions is working out at 42.25 m.p.g. and it has consumed three pints of Castrolite. I think perhaps we will publish an interim report on this advanced small car in April.
With so many modern cars to drive, not much time was left in which to enjoy vintage motoring. However, during 1959 I did manage a little of this. I took my 1924 12/20 Calthorpe light car to a V.S.C.C. Heston Rally and through the “Boxing Night Exeter.” I went also, as a passenger (half-dead with influenza), on the Vintage Land’s End Trial in Tim Nicholson’s 9/20 Humber. And I got the Montagu Motor Museum’s 1903 Brushmobile through the Veteran Car Run to Brighton. In addition I went with the Continental Correspondent to collect his 1924 G.P. Sunbeam (now with a Rolls-Royce Twenty three-speed power unit) and later rode in and drove this individualistic motor car. I also drove a Siddeley Special and an immense Isotta-Fraschini for short distances, and spectated at many V.S.C.C. race meetings, the V.C.C. Prescott Hill-Climb, the Andover Traction Engine Rally and several Beaulieu rallies, etc.
To complete the picture of cars with which MOTOR SPORT is associated, the Managing Director retains his B.M.W. 502 and D.K.W. 1000, the paper-supplier has a Jensen 541R, he who provides our printing blocks a 3.4 Jaguar, the photographer an Austin Healey 100, and the Continental Correspondent a Porsche 1600 Super. while the Editor is committed to a Morris Mini-Minor. So, on to 1960. – W. B.