The Editor’s impressions of the Chevrolet Impala Sport and the Vanden Plas Princess 1100
Two contrasting cars, the big 5.3-litre Chevrolet sedan and that luxury small car, the Princess 1100, came along for test last month.
General Motors of America established themselves in England before the first World War and their various makes of cars became better and better known here, until, in 1948, following their link-up with A.C. spark plugs, Delco-Remy accessories and Frigidaire refrigerators, they leased office premises at Catherine Place and Buckingham Gate in London, formerly occupied respectively by the National Coal Board and the Ministry of Works, connected by a one-storey reception area.
Nevertheless, until recently their concern over home-sales did not extend beyond a very occasional car submitted for press road-testing. Thus, in spite of expressing a desire to test the air-cooled, rear-engined, flat-six Chevrolet Corvair when I was a noted VW fanatic, this interesting G.M. product escaped me, while last year, although the accelerative Chevrolet Sting Ray eventually came along for appraisal, it was a hard-used specimen which broke a drive-shaft in dramatic fashion before we had really got to know it.
Recently, however, there has been a change of heart and in future we expect to be able to conduct full road-tests of G.M. cars under the helpful influence of Bob Johnson, who looks after publicity for the great American-owned network in this country.
Indeed, the first one has already been submitted, in the form of a Chevrolet Impala Sport sedan with the 250 b.h.p. (at 4,400 r.p.m.) 90º V8 Turbo-Fire 327 engine. Externally this is a stylish 4-door Fisher Saloon of pillarless construction, which enables the windows to wind down and leave the sides of the car open and unobstructed, hence the appellation “Sport.” Inside the car the upholstery is bright and cheerful in typically American-style, and the facia contains a by-no-means garish display of dials and controls. A big horizontal arc-scale speedometer going to 120 m.p.h. is flanked by a big clock with second-hand and a combination dial indicating the state of the oil-pressure and alternator charge by warning lights, whether the engine is abnormally hot or cold by more lights, and fuel contents (E, 1/2, F). There is a single milometer, reading to decimals.
The controls consist of the wipers’ switch on the extreme right, which has the washers’ press-button in its centre, a lights’ switch which also brings in the interior lighting, as on a Vauxhall, cigar lighter, and ignition key-cum-starter. The test car had an exceedingly good G.M. radio, the effective heater is controlled by horizontal quadrant levers, there is a rather shallow cubby-hole with strongly sprung lid before the front-seat passenger, and the automatic gearbox lever has simple, L, D, N, and PARK positions.
The doors have sill-interior locks, handles to adjust the 1/4-lights (4-3/4 turns) and front window winders calling for four full turns, the rear ones needing 3-1/3 turns. There is courtesy lighting from the front doors only, coat-hooks are provided, there are vizors but no vanity mirror, no seat centre armrests and press-down interior door handles ahead of elaborate armrests-cum-door-pulls. There are wing-mirrors, sensibly mounted slightly inboard, neat ashtrays in the rear-door arm-rests, good rear-window demisting with its own switch, a foot-dipper, and, in lieu of a handbrake, a foot pedal to apply the parking brake, with a release lever and a flashing warning light when the pedal is down. Two keys share the tasks of locking the doors and starting the car, there are fresh-air vents controlled by handles under the scuttle. In other words, a typical middle-class up-to-the-minute American car, which, of course, is available in many permutations.
The test car was finished in a pleasing shade of blue and shod with 7.75 x 14 six-ply Dominion Royal Safety 800 low-profile tubeless tyres. It ran effortlessly and in silence except for a few creaks from the region of the ultra-wide bench seats. The 2-speed Powerglide transmission changed up at 36 m.p.h. normally or at 65 m.p.h. under kick-down but if held in low gear could be taken to 70 m.p.h. The changes went through almost imperceptibly, unless kick-down was used to bring in the full torque of the big engine.
The power steering was literally little-finger-light for the full four turns, lock-to-lock, but very vague for fast driving on slippery roads. The power brakes, claimed to reduce effort by 1/3rd over non-servo retardation, were typical—too sudden for low-speed stops but quite effective from cruising speeds. I made no very deliberate attempt to make them fade and under reasonably kind treatment they gave rise to no anxiety, were indeed quite adequate for the Chevrolet’s weight and performance, if inclined to get a bit rough when used frequently.
The all-round coil-spring suspension gave average cornering and ride qualities, and showed no deterioration when the boot, which has the capacity of a young lorry, was so heavily loaded that the front of the Impala was noticeably up in the air.
The spacious interior, the front-seat squab angle changing automatically as the seat is adjusted, quiet running, fatigue-free steering and braking and absence of a gear-lever, coupled to the more-than-adequate acceleration, made long runs restful in this big Chevrolet. The heater was so generous that it melted the jointing compound securing the treadle of the accelerator to its rod, but no discomfort was experienced driving without it. Rather more disconcerting was a wire hanging down below the scuttle, the socket of which I inadvertently pulled out with my right foot when applying the parking brake, which caused the car to immobilise itself on a lonely road near Ross-on-Wye; because we suspected a fault in the gear selector switchgear, some considerable delay ensued. The wiring looked decidedly casual when scrutinised.
Otherwise, this imposing Chevrolet Impala Sport behaved admirably, within the limitations and advantages of its breed. On the test-track it covered a s.s. 1/4-mile in 18.0 sec., crossing the finish line at 75 m.p.h. Naturally, if more performance was required, a more powerful engine would be specified, for 300, 340 and 400 b.h.p. versions are available. There is, incidentally, little or no advantage in holding low gear to maximum revs, against remaining in D. The 250-b.h.p. 327 engine gave the following acceleration figures, checked by electric speedometer:—
0-30 m.p.h. .. 3.4 sec. (3.2 sec.)
0-40 m.p.h. .. 5.5 sec. (5.2 sec.)
0-50 m.p.h. .. 7.7 sec. (7.5 sec.)
0-60 m.p.h. .. 10.8 sec. (10.5 sec.)
0-70 m.p.h. .. 15.5 sec. (15.1 sec.)
0-80 m.p.h. .. 21.4 sec. (21.1 sec.)
0-90 m.p.h. .. 30.5 sec.
(Best one-way figures in parentheses)
Fuel consumption averaged 13.3 m.p.g., but over wet ice, on which the combination of power and American steering called for a light throttle foot, this improved by one m.p.g. No oil was required in 450 miles.
There are some interesting aspects of the Impala, unusual to English eyes. The counter-balanced bonnet opens to reveal G.M. anti-freeze fluid in its “medicine bottle,” a Delco battery with a “positive-to-positive” wiring warning charged by alternator, a single-belt drive for the auxiliaries, including the power pump, a free-wheeling fan, Delco-Remy electrics, and a long flexible dipstick difficult to re-insert in its tube. The dual headlamps are Guide T3s, and there is an imposing array of triple rear lamps, one on the body, two on the boot-lid on each side, the two outer ones acting as combined brake lamps and winkers, the centre ones being the rear lamps.
This big Chevrolet can be summed up as an admirable example of the modern G.M. product. It is handled here by Lendrum & Hartman Ltd., 26B, Albemarle Street, London, W.1, and, as tested, costs £2,314 2s. 1d., inclusive of purchase tax.
The other day I returned from Crewe to London in a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III and stepped down out of this regal car into a Vanden Plas Princess 1100. It was the only kind of small car which seemed tolerable after the Rolls-Royce and, sitting on good leather and surrounded by highly-polished walnut veneer, the transition was reasonably painless. There are other small cars with wood and leather or imitation leather internal decor, such as the Singer Chamois, Humber Sceptre, the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet, etc. I am not always enamoured of such pretension, believing that Clubland interiors should be reserved for cars of the Rolls-Royce, Daimler and Jaguar class and that the more modern a car is technically, the less suited it is to old-fashioned body decoration. The unsuitable wooden facia of the Citroën ID, a splendidly functional motor car, still lingers in the memory, although it was quickly changed.
In the case of the Vanden Plas Princess 1100 the effect is so well done, and very much in the sealed-down Rolls-Royce and Bentley tradition, that it is quite beyond such criticism.
The upholstery is in high-quality hide, slightly stiffer, perhaps, than that supplied as an extra on the normal B.M.C. 1100s. The separate front seats have squabs adjustable by winding plated handles under the occupants’ legs. These handles protrude somewhat but do not seriously endanger clothing and, if stiff to operate, they have the merit of adjusting the squab to any required angle. There are slim folding centre arm-rests for both front seats. I would have liked even more comfort in the seating department, however.
The polished walnut veneer facia is flat and unfussy. It carries two deeply-inset dials, a 100 m.p.h. Smiths speedometer with white digits and steady-reading white needle against a black face, and a combined dial containing the fuel gauge, ammeter, thermometer and oil-pressure gauge, these also having clear white markings on a black background—and if anyone scorns such combination dials, preferring a row of separate faces, I can only remark that for some years Rolls-Royce has been content with this arrangement, which is economical of space as well as cost.
On the left of the Vanden Plas facia there is a useful cubbyhole with matching lid, lockable, and closing neatly under the action of a magnetic catch. The lid has two plated recesses to hold glasses when in use as a table. On the extreme right there is a second black switch panel, the top row of small toggle switches being devoted to the two in-built fog lamps and side/ headlamps, the middle switch putting on facia illumination, flanked by the switch for rear window demister, if fitted, and the filter-clogged warning light. On the bottom row the ignition-key, which can be confused with the door-key, inserts between the wipers/washers flick-switch, which is held down to clean the screen, and the pull-out choke, which locks in position. These switches remain fumbly even after considerable acquaintance of the car although they are individually labelled. There is a foot dipper rather close to the clutch pedal, which could cause damage to the side of one’s left shoe.
Two refinements not found in this luxury small car are 2-speed wipers and two-stage rheostat control of panel lighting which is rather bright (and of green hue). But the underlaid pile carpets, roof-lining and boot-trim are in harmony with the high-grade finish and upholstery. There are three neat but effective interior lights, one on the screen rail, the other at the corners of the rear compartment where they are set too low, a poor substitute for the foam-rubber head-rests in normal 1100s. The front lamp has front-doors’ courtesy action and opening a back door puts on the appropriate corner light. The arm-rests somewhat conceal elastic-topped pockets in the front doors and the rear seat possesses a folding centre arm-rest. The side arm-rests incorporate plated grips to facilitate closing the doors. There are pull-down veneered picnic tables on the backs of the front seats. I was telling a friend how all veneers match in a Rolls-Royce, whereas those in lesser cars do not, and when we looked at these tables in the Vanden Plas, lo, the veneers had been matched, although the plated glass holders made them “handed.”
The heater controls below the full-width facia shelf are properly labelled, there is a cigar-lighter at this level, and aircraft-type swivelling fresh-air feeds are found at each end of the facia. The vizors are leather-covered and there is a vanity mirror, an accurate Smiths clock and a concealed ash-tray occupy the facia centre, and smokers in the rear compartment have a big lidded ash-tray on the prop.-shaft tunnel. Other aspects of this delightful little car include a reversing-lamp, special wheel nave plates, rubber mat for the driver, plated exhaust-pipe extension, polished plating on the valve cover (which is labelled “Princess”), lamps flasher incorporated in the winkers stalk, side-angled flasher units, better bonnet-prop release, etc., while a sliding roof is available for £48 6s. 8d. extra. The B.M.C. flashers’-stalk and interior door handles remain; the boot is unlit. One front window winder fell off, but was easily replaced and secured by its single screw. The test car had a Radiomobile radio, with front/rear speaker control, which costs £40 extra.
The external, lined finish of the Princess 1100 looks of good quality and the prominent grille, although some people think it unsuitable to the car, proclaims this to be a Vanden Plas product and enables this 1100 to be picked out easily in crowded car parks. The fuel filler can be locked; even when left unlocked petrol pump attendants invariably ask for the key!
On the road the luxury demeanour is well maintained. The oft-praised qualities of the front-drive Hydrolastically-suspended B.M.C. 1100s are enhanced by sound-damping, and the performance is somewhere between that of an Austin or Morris and a 2-carburetter M.G. 1100, 70 m.p.h. being a very happy cruising speed. This means a top speed of 82 m.p.h., 0-50 m.p.h. in 14-1/2 sec. and a s.s. 1/4-mile in under 22 sec.
There is some engine noise at speed, more noticeable in the back than in the front, and the gear train can be heard, even in top gear. On the whole, however, the Princess 1100 is a delightfully responsive and subdued little car. I thought it felt somewhat softer at the rear-end than the Editorial Morris 1100 but this may be because it is on C41 Dunlops, whereas I am now accustomed to the better road-holding provided by SP41s. Vanden Plas probably fit C41s to reduce road-noise as far as possible. The steering seems to have more castor-return action than that of the Morris.
I thoroughly enjoyed my 850 miles in this verv acceptable luxury small car. Making no attempt to drive it economically, and inclusive of London traffic, it averaged 32.4 m.p.g. of premium fuel and its tank holds sufficient for 260 miles. The highest figure was 31 m.p.g. Only a minimal amount of oil had been used after 880 miles.
This Vanden Plas Princess 1100 costs £182 more than a 4-door 1100 but is so nicely contrived that it is well worth it. The Labour government has put up the price of petrol but has not yet reduced us to penury, so there should be a considerable demand for really comfortable, quiet, luxury economy cars. I shall expect the Vanden Plas branch of the B.M.C. to do exceedingly well with this charming junior Princess, which sells for £896, however much it may be regretting the introduction of the Princess-R in its present form. If any car deserves the appellation “The Rolls-Royce of Small Cars,” this one does. And it is so much nicer than a tarted up Mini with imitation basketwork sides, although amateur handymen should be able to work up something similar from a standard M.G. 1100.—W. B.
Historic Commercial Vehicle Club
At the next social meeting of the above-mentioned Club, on Monday, February 1st, Mr. A. Parks, Manager of the Fire Engine Department of Dennis Bros. Ltd. has kindly agreed to speak. Doors open at seven and the talk will commence at approximately 7.30 p.m. The venue is the Elizabeth Room at Victoria Coach Station.