The Editor looks back on the cars he drove during 1971
The time—how it flies!—has come to review briefly the motoring experiences of last year. I am not sure who instituted this idea of an annual road-test survey. I think it may have been H. S. Linfield, who did this in a fascinating manner in The Autocar before the war, a practice copied by Motor Sport in the post-war period and since followed by other journals. Indeed, the-road-test business is, maybe, a bit overdone these days, what, with Two-Car Comparison Tests, Group Tests, the summing-up of Group Tests, subsidiary road-tests, and Used Car Tests; with the weeklies cramming several appraisals into each issue! Impact is surely lost with too much repetition and it could be that, once the splendidly analytical performance figures for a new car have been digested, an account of how it performs on an interesting journey or how it serves during an appreciable mileage are of more interest than a mass of minor details and conflicting opinions.
At all events, Motor Sport has in recent times tended to publish shorter road-test reports of the more mundane cars. As we are a monthly review rather than a newspaper, I am not particularly concerned that we do not always get the first crack at testing new cars. I do not, however, understand the mentality of PROs who promise cars which fail to materialise on the agreed date (to which printing schedules may be geared) and from whom one does not hear another peep. Free editorial column-inches are still regarded by the Industry as the best possible means of publicising new models, and as Motor Sport has, vide a statement in the SMM & T’s London Motor Show Catalogue, “the highest net sale of any motoring journal in the country, certified by the ABC”, it seems folly for publicity experts to ignore us. So if there are obvious omissions in the 1971 road-teat curriculum you know whom to blame!
Road-test reporting has developed into quite a science since before the First World War, when it was mostly pretty brief stuff, mainly full of praise. It wasn’t until the post-1930s that performance figures came to be regularly included. This is not to suggest, however, that road-testers did not work hard long before the days of stop-watch clicking. I was reminded of this when glancing through a 1927 copy of The Autocar, for in that issue there was a report on the new Singer junior saloon which S. C. H. Davis, in between racing at Le Mans and other exciting competition engagements, had driven 575 miles to Wales and back to London in a couple of days, and an account by the late W. F. Bradley concerning another new car, the 2 1/2-litre Delage saloon, in which he covered 1,604 miles in five days, on the Continent, including following part of the Tour de France bicycle race as an official for some of the time. The Singer test occupied nearly six pages and included ten pictures; the Delage test, which opens with a delightful piece of typical Bradley dialogue, 5 1/2 pages, with 13 pictures. I mention these things, just in case we who conduct Press road-tests today should become complacent….
In casting back over the cars I drove last year I am aware that in some ways this sort of personal printed diary is more fun for the writer than the reader. Nevertheless, I hope I can hold your interest and remind you of how the cars I tried in 1971 impressed me, or otherwise, regarding them as personal transport rather than in the context of clinical performance-assessing data. If certain notes on matters of route and anecdote are included, this is because motoring involves roads and routes and meals and scenes and people as well as cars. In fact, it is customary to remember certain cars on account of small incidents associated with them and to fit particular tasks to suitable models—you wouldn’t, if you had the choice, use a Citroën 2 c.v. for a long fast run on a Motorway; you would take a Range Rover in preference to a conventional saloon on a sticky cross-country or off-the-road journey….
Anyway, last year I drove some 35,000 personal miles. I have to confess that a 19-years’ accident-free driving record came to an end one July evening, when I wrapped a Ford Escort Mexico into a very crumpled ball. This was an error of judgement about which I am still very angry, even though there were extenuating circumstances. I now have an index finger on my right hand which will never be quite the same again but I was happy to settle for this insignificant memento of nearly 40 years’ motoring, after stepping out of a car which seemed a total write-off. Descriptions of personal accidents are as boring as air-raid stories, so I will just add my thanks to Hereford General Hospital and to the local police for making an unhappy episode as painless as possible. I would also remark that if you must have an accident I thoroughly recommend a Ford Mexico in which to have it! I was not belted-in but the Contour rally seat held me firmly in place as the car spun, and the strength of the bodywork afterwards enabled the doors to be opened, nor did any glass break. In fact, Alf Belsen’s chaps eventually put this tough Ford back on the road and I drove it again before the year was out.
Although I still had the long-term Ford RS1600 and a Hillman Avenger GT at the beginning of 1971, the test year appropriately began and ended with British Leyland products. Appropriately because BL are Britain’s largest car producers, and it is only right that their products should be given ample publicity, apart from which the flow of BL cars has been pretty regular since Lord Stokes granted Motor Sport interview, especially since “Uncle” Ivor Greening has been in charge of the Longbridge test-fleets. Indeed, British Leyland, with certain lapses, now operate a very efficient road-test service. For example, if Ivor Greening hasn’t the model you require, he will fill-in with something else, meanwhile hastening the advent of the car requested. Moreover, delivery is simplified within the great BL complex. For instance, I was able to leave a Morris Marina for collection at the Jaguar factory at Allesley when I took away a V12 Jaguar and on my return there was a spotless, fuelled-up MG-B awaiting me. This was duly exchanged in Wales for an Austin 1300 GT, so you cannot complain of any lack of appreciation for the free publicity they are about to receive on the part of BL’s Longbridge/Abingdon/Cowley division!
First, then, the Range Rover. The esteem in which I hold this very fast four-wheel-drive all-purpose vehicle should by now be well known. It represents a splendid swan-song for engineer Peter Wilks and, although I understand that a certain test-unit had so much transmission failure that it feels it cannot recommend the vehicle, I am glad to see that Range Rovers are now frequently encountered, so are presumably proving satisfactory to many of the better-off farming fraternity. The weight of the bonnet, the heaviness of the steering when parking, and the whine of the indirect gears are shortcomings which light alloy, hydraulics and sound-damping would presumably cure. My admiration for this versatile Solihull 4WD V8 was further enhanced when we used one to climb Cader Idris, later in the year. I was able to take the road-test Range Rover over the tank-testing ground on Salisbury Plain, penetrating as far as the lost village of Imber, now used by the military for invasion and artillery exercises. All this slippery going was easily negotiated, mostly without recourse to the low-ratio gears or locking the centre differential. On the public roads leading to this wilderness we amused ourselves, where Sunday afternoon commuters had blocked the lanes, by nonchalantly driving up the banks and down again, to get past them, thus giving them convincing proof of the Royce’s climbing ability! Afterwards the tenacious Wiltshire mud was washed off where the Army hoses down its mobile armour and cross-country vehicles. Clean again, this all-purpose Rover took me comfortably into Hampshire at a very respectable cruising speed.
One of my normal means of getting acquainted with road-test cars is to leave the London offices of Motor Sport and drive non-stop the 170 miles home. I find this no particular hardship, whether I depart at mid-day, 4 p.m., 6 p.m. or at midnight, for although the A40 is tedious as far as the Burford roundabout and heavy traffic is often encountered until beyond Hereford, the last hour, even after joining the A44, can be highly enjoyable. The Range Rover made light of this journey in spite of fog and ice. But the young photographer I had with me (for the purpose of taking pictures of what this astonishing vehicle could do on my land, where the Welsh “dirt” is notoriously glue-like and was then nicely frost-covered) seemed incredulous that this was my normal “commute”, especially when, enquiring “how far now?” as we turned away from Malvern, I told him “Oh, only about another 1 1/2 hours”. In fact, when I telephoned my wife to say we would be home for dinner, she told me there was no water, due to frozen pipes (large, ancient houses, like large, ancient cars, can pose problems!) so on this occasion we spent the night at “The Feathers” at Ledbury, where they make you comfortable and where an Alvis atmosphere can be detected….
When the impatient young cameraman was ready to leave, next day, he was foiled by three immobile vehicles—The Range Rover’s very thief-proof fuel-filler cap resisted all efforts to remove it, with about a pint of petrol in the tank, the editorial Rover 2000TC which I had intended him to take to London for servicing temporarily decided not to fire, and the Ford RS1600 which I had used that morning developed a defunct starter the moment before the photographer got into it (I believe it turned out to be merely a faulty fuse), the sort of tricks mechanical things tend to contrive at difficult times!
The year closed with an Austin 1300 GT Mk. 3, from BL’s best-selling range, which is written-up elsewhere in this issue.
Various methods have been used to determine in which order the year’s test-cars shall be dealt with (my friend Joe Lowrey was an expert at this) but perhaps the fairest way is to take them in order of diminishing mileage covered, inasmuch as those who arranged the longer tests showed confidence in their cars and therefore deserve some priority. I see from my much-thumbed Dunlop and Bosch diaries that I covered more than 3,800miles in a Chrysler 180 which John Rowe persuaded me to keep for more than five weeks last summer. Colleagues showed no great jealousy about this, being unenthusiastic over this curious Anglo-French car with American sponsorship. The 180 is, however, technically inspiring, with light-alloy o.h.c. cross-flow inclined-valve Weber-fed engine, all-round disc brakes, and a well-located coil-sprung back axle; it is also very comprehensively equipped. The first impression of being shut-in, within the low-roofed body, didn’t persist, even for one who finds lifts the most unacceptable form of modern transportation, and this four-door saloon, which did some of the test mileage towing a big four-wheeled Piggy-Back trailer, proved a very acceptable family saloon, inexpensive to buy, to fuel, to lubricate and presumably to service. We should hear a good deal more of Chrysler UK’s 1.8-litre European, the first of their offerings to bear the famous American name.
This Chrysler 180 was as near as I got to an American automobile in 1971 and the 180 isn’t much like the American “compacts”. This I regretted, because I am aware that automobiles from the USA have many merits, longevity, comfort and ease-of-driving amongst them, and now that their creators are beginning to build-in European standards of handling and are thinking about disc instead of their instant-fade drum brakes, they could soon become quite competitive in Europe. Stanley Sedgwick, President of the Bentley DC, subscribes to this view; indeed, goes further in saying those who do not own the better American curs do not know what they are missing! He is able to drive across France a little faster in his 1966 Lincoln Continental than in his 1953 Bentley R-type Continental. (What I want to know is how, driving solo and very fast, he manages to keep meticulous notes of times and distances ?—it is as much a mystery as how D.S.J. signalled to Moss on their winning drive for Mercedes-Benz in the 1955 Mille Miglia, which the Continental Correspondent doesn’t quite tell us„ even in his latest account of that memorable ride, written for the “Castro! Guide to Motoring Sport”. . .1.
The next biggest mileage I did was in a Morris Marina 1.8 coupé, more than 2.300 miles in five weeks, although as it was a recap, following my expressed disappointment with an earlier Morris Marina 1.8 TC coupé, my total mileage in these new BL confections exceeded 3,500. The initial disillusionment with Marina was due partly to mediocre design, partly to a badly-prepared car. The second dose was better, the car understeering far less and accelerating quite strongly with its single-carburetter engine. Marina is for the masses but I feel sorrowful that enlightenment proffered along the years by enthusiasts has gone almost unheeded. I did not attend the farewell party to Sir Alec Issigonis on his retirement—it must have been sad beyond words….
It may well be that Lord Stokes was right to launch Marina, that the public will love it, buy it in millions, and thereby make much money for BL and this neck of the European land mass. I remember being uninspired when the Austin A30 was announced as the proud successor to the original Austin 7. But as a commercial proposition it succeeded—and, even now, in A35 form, it might be termed the National Hack of the Welsh, for in mid-Wales you see them everywhere. The other day I counted well over a dozen of these 800-c.c. vehicles, in various forms, some very well preserved, others battered workhorses, without walking beyond the main and adjacent side streets of one small town, and by the time we had driven the seven miles home the score exceeded 20…. Standard 8s and 10s, the one-time A35 rivals, still roam these remote roads, too, but in small numbers. So the Marina may well follow suit. But it does seem under-tyred and badly sprung for all but the smoothest roads. However, Morris did let me have a second bite at their cherry, whereas, after similar disillusionment over Stag, I was never offered another….
Next highest in the personal mileage stakes was the latest MG-B, an excellent and enjoyable “vintage” sports car, which was referred to last month. After I had written that account a few other short-comings became apparent—like the water thermometer ceasing to work, the passenger’s fresh-air vent refusing to shut off, and the doors being a bad fit and difficult to shut, with the driver’s tending to jam. Also, the faulty screen-washers defied the attention of a knowledgeable “B” man and immediately went on the blink again, causing me some nasty moments on the M40. This did not spoil the sheer fun of MG-B motoring, for the car is crisp, brisk, and very controllable, with absolutely positive but light rack-and-pinion steering. I used it hood-down quite frequently, commencing on the morning of the VSCC Silverstone Driving Tests, although not feeling over-bright, my previous night’s sleep having been disturbed by a Friday discotheque, the noise of which penetrated to the comfortable sleeping annex (once a barn) of the “White Lion” at Banbury, an unfortunate follow-up to an excellent dinner attentively served in the hotel’s dignified dining-room—a guest spending £5.65 on an overnight stay surely has the right to expect better?
This opened-up MG gave me one of the most memorable day’s motoring of 1971, when we went, in thin sunshine under a cloudless winter sky, from Rhayader up the Devil’s Bridge Road via Ysbtyty Ystwyth and Pontrhydfendigaid to Tregaron, and along that winding scenic pass to Abergwesyn. Scarcely another vehicle was encountered and the hood-down visibility really came into its own in the hilly country. Incidentally, these latest MG-Bs have the five-bearing 18GB engine, with oil-cooler. There are few better ways of enjoying rugged fresh-air motoring, for a modest outlay. In this climate, however, a rather more quickly erectable hood is desirable, something after the fashion of a Ford Mustang’s power-operated top, or a resuscitated Jowett Jupiter, perhaps?
A Michelin ZX-shod Renault 12TL proved notably comfortable over a big distance and consequently is an excellent complement to Renault’s outstandingly restful 16s. The Twelve was a small car I could hardly find any serious fault with, which no doubt explains the great numbers of these excellent French cars now encountered on British roads. The wet-liner, alloy-head, 5-bearing power unit drives the leading wheels through yet another permutation of front-drive mechanics.
I went nearly as far in the exciting new Citroën GS, in fact nearly twice as far if the combined experience of both the cars submitted, one a tired l.h.d., the other a more up-to-date r.h.d., is counted. I had waited almost too patiently for this little Citroën, but the delay was justified, or would have been if the brighter of the two “Gee-Esses” had possessed more power. If there is a typical example of an underpowered small car of the ’70s, the GS is IT. Granted that the self-levelling, all-independent, height adjustable hydropneumatic suspension works admirably, making BL’s Hydromatic system seem somewhat choppy and out-dated, that the stability from traction avant and a Michelin-shod wheel propping up each corner of the car is all that you expect from a Citroën, and that the power disc-braking which the GS shares with the bigger Citroëns (and the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow!) is most acceptable, as are a conventional gear-lever and brake-pedal and a surprisingly good heater, the fact remains that the air-cooled, flat-four o.h.c. engine, in spite of its elevated revving propensity, requires more than 1,015 c.c. and a single Solex carburetter, to give the sort of performance people now demand, even from one-litre cars. I know the argument is that the otherwise brilliant GS should not be evaluated outside its capacity-class. But 18 seconds to get to the mile-a-minute gait is depressing, even if you can go on to over 70 m.p.h. in 3rd gear, while not much over 30 m.p.g. isn’t too good, either—and it does cost nearly £1,137 in this country. So, much as I like the behaviour, safety, long fuel range and comfort of the GS, I wouldn’t own one until there is a larger or more powerful engine under its individualistic bonnet—it is a car which deserves more than its present 55 1/2 b.h.p….
Next, in the mileage stakes of the shorter-term test cars, comes the Fiat 124 1600 Sport coupé. This was the only Fiat sampled in 1971, which was a pity, because I am a considerable enthusiast for the prolific cars from Turin. The outstanding impression of this most acceptable 124 Sport, compact but a true four-seater, was its dual character. It could be used as a docile “shopping car” or a quick means of stylish transport, depending on mood and requirements. It has a most up-to-date specification, with 5-bearing, twin-cam engine, a very pleasant 5-speed gearbox, and disc brakes on all wheels. It alarmed me at first by showing zero oil pressure in traffic (but used no oil in 1,150 miles) and the tread had almost gone from the Pirelli Cinturatos, which was a black for Fiat’s Press department. But I enjoyed going to Silverstone in it for the British GP, and on handling, appearance, performance and comfort I found this Fiat a charming car, albeit rather more softly sprung and not a lot quicker than the 1.4-litre version.
Next, a couple of Opels, the Opel Ascona 16S and the Opel Manta SR. Cars from the German branch of General Motors have so greatly improved in the last few years that a ‘phone call from Mr. Kenneth Moyes offering a new model for test is now quite an event. The Ascona came in yellow four-door guise and turned out to be a nice, sensible family car, a German Vauxhall if you like, with that undefinable sense of dependability which some cars have, but in this case at the expense of “character”. The Manta was rather more exciting, being a fastback Rallye coupé. It held the road well, having a torque tube and trailing lower links to restrain its coil-sprung back axle, and was notable for economy of petrol and light controls, but had a less-than-pleasant steering wheel and indifferent heater. I would have liked a heated back window (but a Holt’s anti-mist cloth came to the rescue) and a better throttle linkage, but the Firestone radials gripped well, even on snow. This Opel Manta was a fast 110-m.p.h. car, able to reach 60 in 12 seconds. Not quite in the Capri class, I thought, but a good car nevertheless….
To give me a taste of true sports-car motoring I drove a four-figure mileage in a Triumph TR6. This was great fun, for there is nothing effeminate about the six-cylinder TR. It was a really rapid car and in traffic, before clear roads were reached, it proved stimulating by reason of a fierce clutch, the loud burble from the exhaust tail-pipe, and the whine of its fuel-injection pump. Rather undergeared unless overdrive was frequently resorted to, when the Triumph ran at over 26 m.p.h./1,000 r.p.m., it could get to 60 m.p.h. in less than nine seconds and run up to 120 m.p.h., without consuming petrol or oil too drastically. Trying for top speed along a narrow road proved distinctly exciting, which is another way of saying that in spite of its new trailing-arm i.r.s. the big TR is not such a scientifically-contrived car as, say, an Elan, a Porsche, or the new race of mid-engined coupés. But it is a great car in the older tradition and when you look at its p.i. power unit, is not expensive. at £1,453. It may possibly represent the last phase of the TR and certainly it is a motor car not to be denied, for those who like sports cars.
Another of the make I drove was a Triumph 2.5 PI Mk. II saloon. This nearly converted me in my preference for Rover over Triumph, although it was impossible to overlook its obsession for oil, a petrol thirst of under 21 m.p.g., and some minor but irritating shortcomings. The long-stroke engine, too, gets a bit rough towards its modest peak speed of 5,500 r.p.m. and an idiosyncrasy of the gear-change caused me to use 3rd almost as frequently as top, which endorses the quietness of the gearbox. But on the whole this yellow saloon went extremely well and I would have been happy to own one. It was used for an old-car foray to Northampton, from Hampshire, and as time ran out I thought that once on the M1 Motorway all would be well. But this was having one of its bouts of accident hold-ups, so that we were directed off it at a bridge and back onto it the other side, crawling for miles….
Last year, after a very long gap, I again motored in a Saab. I had hoped for an o.h.c. 99 but found myself in a Ford V4-powered Saab 96. Once accustomed to the highly individual aspects of the little car I felt very safe in it and liked it very much, the steering-column gearchange notwithstanding. It is a car which is “different” and somehow seems so “honest”, and is therefore difficult to beat (as RAC Rally competitors know!). So I hope the keen chaps at Slough won’t be too long digging out a 99 for me to try. The high scuttle line and hard-prod brakes of the two-stroke Saabs didn’t trouble me in the 96.
For reasons I need not reiterate here, I had to wait years before assessing the Jaguar XJ6. Lord Stokes, when he became aware of this, tried to rectify things immediately, by offering us a lift in his personal Daimler Sovereign—if you follow me! Unfortunately, unknown to him his chauffeur had gone off in it, so a taxi had to suffice. But Andrew Whyte of Jaguar’s soon rustled up a road-test XJ6. Unfortunately this was a manual gearbox car and I cannot abide Jaguar’s notchy long-travel gear-change and heavy long-travel clutch. Moreover, the weighty rear-view mirror had a nasty habit of falling from the roof unexpectedly and clouting various parts of me, a failing the Weybridge Jaguar agent couldn’t cure, although replacing a blown fuse which had had me without trafficators. This marred the grace, pace and space of this different kind of motoring, although it gave me some idea of how alluring the automatic XJ6 must be, for those who do not mind self-changing three-speeders.
It was good, however, to find Jaguar’s enthusiastically welcoming enthusiasts again, as they did when wanting publicity for-the long-awaited V12 Jaguar Series 3 E-type. D.S.J. and I spent a day at Coventry trying both manual-gearbox and automatic versions and later took a manual-change 2+2 coupé for a long run in this country. My detailed impressions appeared last month, so all I need add is that our winter tour of some 2,300 miles was rendered very restful by the smooth-running engine of this 12-cylinder high-speed touring car. It was well-used, going down to Wales, up to Donington for a “stage” of the RAC Rally (during the course of which we looked at Torn Wheatcroft’s remarkable collection of recent racing cars, each one in as-new condition, having previously looked over some very fascinating older things at the Coventry Museum) and we then went up to the Western Highlands of Scotland, visiting Lord Doune’s pleasant Motor Museum and speed hill-climb course on the way. D.S.J. had never previously been to Scotland, so I was persuaded upon to spend three days there.
The roads of the Highlands were devoid of traffic, and for some of the time we, and an American party in their new export Citroën Safari, had them almost to ourselves. It was disappointing, however, never to quite get away from signs of civilisation—signposts, garages, or Forestry Commission fencing were usually in evidence and we were sorry to see so many facilities for tourists, such as ice-cream parlours, hair-tinting salons, caravan parks and so on, which suggest that in the summer Scotland must be murder! The Military, too, has refused to leave things alone, one off-shore island being out-of-bounds because poisonous anthrax is grown on it….
We dined well in Stirling, that useful gateway to Scotland, at the Golden Lion Hotel on the run up (overnight stop for two = £11.60) and spent the following night at the Garve Hotel in Ross-shire, which appropriately, as D.S.J. didn’t know Scotland, was a veritable museum of Scottish items (overnight stop for two = £9.91). We then returned to Stirling, but the “Golden Lion” warned us that their Saturday night discotheque might disturb our slumbers. So we crossed the road to the very different hotel (overnight stop for two = £6.70). I mention this as showing how easy it is to pick the type of accommodation you require, without motoring far afield in this useful stepping-off town.
The Jaguar proved more accelerative and effortless than a six-cylinder E-type and gave no trouble, apart from a sticky throttle and failure of the thermostats which cut off the twin electric cooling fans. Topping up with petrol at something like a fiver a time remains in the memory, however, and there was the episode of the ferry, when I disgraced myself as a navigator by hustling D.S.J. onto what I thought was the familiar Ballachulish Ferry, only to find on disembarking in the dusk that we were on an island from which the only quick escape was by the return ferry, a little unintended boating that cost me £1.30 and an admonition from D.S.J.!
Everywhere these days one hears “motor talk” and encounters keenness for cars. I had an example of this when, parking the V12 Jaguar in Burford to buy some household provisions, my wife being on holiday in Singapore, I returned to the car to be confronted by a gentleman holding a copy of a weekly contemporary, on the cover of which was a picture of another V12 E-type, its Reg. No. a few figures removed from that of the test car, which naturally intrigued him. He was obviously going home to read about the latest Jaguar and I hope by now he has also read our account of it….
Most of the Maserati Indy road-test was done by D.S.J. but I drove far enough to decide that, fine long-distance Motorway car that the Indy undoubtedly is, and unexpectedly quiet and refined as is its four-cam V8 engine, this big, wide four-seater coupé lacks character and has some surprising faults which any keen driver could have deleted before it got into a showroom. This was the more surprising, in view of the price of nearly £10,000….
I was unable, alas, to drive the Dino Ferrari but D.S.J. and all who did said that it was a motor car of the highest order, with roadholding and response which only the mid-engined coupé can be expected to give. It was, I suppose, our car-of-the-year.
A Peugeot 304 estate was another small-car which I couldn’t fault, although I gave it a gruelling time, at first by loading it very heavily and then by belting it over rough going while following the second Senior Service Hill-Rally. It never complained, its lift-up tailgate was just the job for quick loading of bulky objects, and this nicely-made little car with all-alloy overhead-camshaft 1,288-c.c. engine and all-independent suspension lives up fully to Peugeot’s much-envied reputation. If you do not need an estate-car—and so many people do!—five-door saloons must surely soon oust the four-door type from the market? Anyway, I found an Austin Maxi very acceptable, both from this viewpoint and by reason of its excellent safe-handling qualities and its exhilarating performance, for it was tuned to Group I standards by BLST of Abingdon. The transverse engine still tried to release itself from the car if the throttles of the twin SUs were opened violently, there was considerable noise, and the means of changing the five forward gears, or even quickly getting reverse, needs a bit more ironing-out. That apart, I enjoyed every one of the 730 Motor Show-period miles I did in this little Maxi. The bigger Marinas and the Mk. III Austin 1300 GT are, in my opinion, not a patch on it.
A lone Vauxhall Firenza 2000SL was the only Luton product to come into my hands last year, which I regret, not because the more recent Vauxhalls have necessarily inspired me but because I have always had the nicest possible treatment from Michael Marr and Derek Goatman, who dole test cars out on request. This so-called Capri crusher didn’t have quite the road-holding or the performance required to stamp out the quicker Fords, and its back axle was somewhat lively. But it was a comfortable car and an interesting hybrid of Luton-made components, quite nice to drive, if apt to be deflected by side winds. I referred to the long bonnet of the Capri being something which gives this Ford its Mustang-like sporting lines. I have since wondered whether the Firenza’s bonnet is all that much shorter?—but no-one at Vauxhalls has ever told me! I also said that to use the Firenza’s brake pedal “involves lifting one’s leg like a puppy”, whereupon a reader took me to task, telling me that only fully-grown dogs do this! Which at least shows what knowledgeable and versatile readers Motor Sport has….
My comments about the Mercedes-Benz 280SE 3.5 appeared too recently to require embellishing. The fact is that the sage engineers at Mercedes-Benz, led by Herr Uhlenhaut, do not alter their cars for the sake of fashion or the whims of the sales-staff. So this very fine 220SE was much as other fine cars from Stuttgart, and it is the V8 3.5-litre o.h.c. engine with “computerised” petrol injection, transistorised ignition, and oil-cooler, which transforms it from a stately closed carriage into a very distinguished sporting saloon. With about the best power steering and automatic transmission to be had, and its unique vacuum central-locking system for the doors and other orifices, and the electrically-operated windows, this V8 Mercedes-Benz ranks as not only one of the World’s best cars but as very good value for money at its UK price of £5,158. That, incidentally if you like, is £4,719 less than the price of the least-expensive Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow—we got our arithmetic wrong in the report, to Crewe’s advantage!
That concludes this recall of the 1971 road-tests, except for the Ford Escort Mexico which I drove 3,650 miles. I found the effective performance, the quick gear-change, the cornering power and the general sporting appeal of this clever AVO Escort most enchanting. Noisy for long-distance driving, but essentially dependable, economical and above all FUN, with its responsive steering, excellent pick-up and rally front seats in the strengthened Type 49 bodywork, I commend the Mexico highly, even, if you must, to have your shunt in! I took “mine” to Llandow on Whit Monday to see other Ford Mexicos locked in combat in one of those popular and exciting series of Castrol/Mexico Challenge races, shared it at times with my equally enthusiastic youngest daughter (she has since had a go at the Thruxton Saloon Car Racing School run by Mike Dashwood), and used it for some of my fastest journeys between London and Radnorshire, when not testing other cars. It always proved satisfying and called for a minimum of servicing by genial Alf Belsen, at Ford’s Press Car Depot at Brentford, although it did discard unconcernedly the drum part of its air-cleaner, early on. Fuel consumption exceeded 30 m.p.g. even when pressing hard. What you might term a Good Buy, at £1,218. And now there is the less expensive Ford Escort 1300 Sport, at £971, one of which my assistant threatens to race regularly this season in Group 1 races—and I hope he does.
In terms of tyres, seven of the test cars were on Dunlop, six on Michelin, five on Goodyear, three on Pirelli and one each were shod with Continental and Firestone.
The Editorial Rover 2000 TC served for another 8,666 miles last year, although not always as personal transport. Approaching a total of 53,000 miles, it remains a dignified means of fast travel. It has often been grossly neglected, but the paint, brightwork and (Connolly leather) upholstery clean up exceptionally well. The original Exide Quick-Fil battery, now some 4 1/2 years old, loses its charge if the car is left standing for too long but is still serviceable, given a tickle up. The car itself continues to display its famed prompt-starting, if the battery is “up”, even after being unused for a dozen weeks or so and left in the open, frost and snow included. Rover gave it their special 40,000-miles’ service which includes replacing the brake and other seals and about the only sign of mechanical wear perceptible is the free-play in the De Dion universals as the clutch engages; the gearbox remains commendably quiet. The heater controls have again become a bit vague and the warning light for the heated rear window is kaput— but I highly commend Triplex for having given us the greatest safety factor of recent times, with their mist-dispersing back windows. This Rover only failed its second MoT inspection because of the odd wear-pattern from which the front tyres suffer; this in spite of regular servicing by Rover’s themselves, who presumably changed the Dunlop SPs round at the prescribed intervals—what, by the way, has happened to the revised front suspension on which the Solihull engineers were rumoured to be working some years ago and which was to both eradicate this tread wear on the outer edge of the front tyres and endow Rover saloons with the quite exceptionally tenacious road-clinging of the late-lamented Rover BS mid-engined experiment? Anyway, the old Rover went on motoring, a well-liked stand-by for a family which always seems to be out in cars. Incidentally, the o.h.c. engine’s non-appetite for Castrol GTX, the oil I use in all my engines, constitutes, in my view, a minor engineering miracle.
Apart from this “official” motoring, I enjoyed some satisfyingly cobweb-dispersing miles in my 1930 Riley “Thruxton”, until D.S.J. took it away to replace a half-shaft (still serviceable but disliked by race-scrutineers) before driving it in the VSCC Riley Handicap, where it was unplaced but again completed the course. I was allowed to drive Robbie Hewitt’s very smart 1928 Amilcar to that meeting, an interesting glimpse backwards at all of 45/50 m.p.h., although I gather the car’s owner has since had this little sports car up to nearer the speed expected of Amilcars when they were new. Then, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Ronald of Renault Ltd. my wife and I took their two-cylinder 1911 AX Renault on the Rallye Renault to Penshurst Place. We even got there, in spite of shellac trouble in the magneto and the car’s pedestrian up-hill pace…. I also did a few miles in a rare Renault straight-eight Nervastella two-seater and at the controls of Neve’s controversial but very beautiful 1911 London-Edinburgh Rolls-Royce fast-tourer, commuted in a Morris Minor Traveller, and borrowed a Ford Transit 90 Custom van from Ford’s to help when moving house, the noise from this hard-used van’s gearbox making us wonder how much further it would go. But Britain’s best-selling medium-size commercial was a notably comfortable and quick vehicle.
The 1949 2 1/2-litre Riley RMB which I acquired as a joke, buying it untried from the roadside, was used for local journeys, and has just passed its latest MoT test without any trouble. If the car were used frequently the GT battery that came with it would be perfectly usable and this Riley has not had any attention since I bought it. All it needs now is a new dynamo belt, the short link belt driving the fan, which anyway could probably be dispensed with, being in much better fettle. The radiator, which appears to have been repaired at some time by Rad-Reps of Hounslow, never sheds a tear and I get about 17 1/2 m.p.g. of 2-star petrol. When an NSU 1000C owned by one of my daughters developed piston trouble (caused, it seems, by overheating occasioned by the former lady owner attempting to improve the efficiency of the heater by stuffing newspaper in the air-intake vents!) she drove my 22-year-old Riley to Lancashire, where it proved a capable substitute. The Riley RM Club very decently elected me a member when they heard I had the car (Secretary: D. J. Morris, 37a Tudor Drive, Gidea Park, Rornford, Essex) and I can recommend this active organisation to other owners of these cars who have technical problems or crave some social life. It was nice, too, to hear of the good service a previous owner had had from this car.
That was it, except for brief excursions in a Renault Ten 1300 and the aforesaid NSU. It has been the greatest possible fun and already I am engaged on yet another year’s motoring which promises to sustain all the interest and enjoyment I derive from this particular (some might say peculiar) way of life.—W.B.