My year's motoring

The Editor looks back on the cars he drove during 1972

ANOTHER year has passed and not a brush with the Law until the very last month when, driving calmly through a country town I was confronted by a Police Cadet trying his best to retain his hat in a gale of wind who informed me that I had just driven through a radar-trap, at, he said, a furious 39 m.p.h. I had no means of checking this and, as he moved to the front of the BMW to read its number, how he knew he had apprehended the correct car I know not. Nor do I understand what my date of birth and occupation had to do with this heinous crime. This seemed an unfortunate but topical note on which to end an interesting spell of motoring. How did it begin?

I find, looking in my Dunlop diary, that the first car I drove last year was an Austin 1300 GT but as this was a continuation of a 1971 road-test it was dealt with last year. The 1972 programme opened with a Triumph Dolomite, although I continued to use the Ford Mexico re-vamped since I had pranged it well and truly the previous summer. I did another 1,000 miles in this eager, “sticktion”-endowed Ford and, apart from dreading another mishap with the embarrassment of having to `phone Warley and say “I’ve done it again!”. I enjoyed every mile of it. The Mexico is one of the best-tempered and most rugged funcars I can think of. It should be on everyone’s second-string-list for a two-car stable.

The Dolomite reminds me of the attitude the Rootes Group used to take in supplying cars which were a cut above other middle-class family saloons. I assume this is what Lord Stokes intends the Triumph branch of BL to do. I found the car comfortable, but it did not give exactly a sports-saloon performance from the rugged 1.8-litre o.h.c. engine. Easy to park, high-geared, and possessed of good, sensibly-ratio-ed rack-and-pinion steering; the Dolomite and I got along quite well and it was the driver’s, or rather the navigator’s, fault that we got hopelessly lost in it during the night of the VSCC Measham Rally. When the President of that august Club says your lamps are dazzling him you naturally drop well astern, although mine were dipped and I was not all that close to the Bentley’s tail! On side-lamps only, we had soon had our Measham, although we found it again at the half-way halt. It wasn’t until afterwards that I thought of the appropriate retort: if the Bentley had not been going so slowly, we should not have troubled it . . . The Dolomite is certainly selling well. But where is that entirely new BL model?

The Triumph was followed by a Datsun 240Z. It promised to be interesting, so I swopped cars in Ledbury with a sense of keen anticipation. People still ask my opinion of this Japanese copy of a European GT car, perhaps because Datsun’s rallying keeps the make in the public eye. The six-in-line o.h.c. 2.4-litre engine is no doubt excellent in a spacious saloon but was too gutless for this exciting-looking coupé. It was an effort to overtake the heavies on a ghastly run to Huddersfield in torrential rain, no matter how much I stirred about in the far-from-foolproof five-speed gearbox. The seats were hard, the de-misting ineffective, and the wiper blades rasped on the glass. However, the steering was acceptable and this Datsun had the R-R affinity of a Jeco clock you could hear with the engine running, at all events at tick-over. Perhaps they had deliberately given it a loud tick-tick . . . A colleague was more impressed with this 240Z than I was, although I grant that it has the makings of a very good motorcar, which in rally trim it probably already is. I remember it more for a phenomenal avoidance I had while driving it than as a car for my “short list”. This happened on the still wet road when a woman driver of a BL 1100 paused before driving out of a sideroad, then came right on, while I was approaching at a considerable lick. It wasn’t so much Datsun road-holding that enabled me to avoid her as deciding whether to aim ahead or behind, deciding on the latter, and not touching the brakes. We just missed. But in the interesting town of Shrewsbury, some five miles on, my toes curled up with delayed reaction . . . changed this racy Datsun at the office for a modest Datsun 1200 coupé, in which I set off for Hove to interview ex-Brooklands driver Harvey Noble. It served, but there are better small cars. For it was noisy and it had heavy brakes and a too-lively ride on its rear leaf springs. We had 39 m.p.g. economy on our side, however, and very light controls and gear change, so the pleasing cross-country run home to Wales from the S.Coast, fortified by George’s generous idea of hospitality, made up for the kind of shortcomings that Japan has not yet quite ironed out of some of her cars. My wife navigated on the homeward journey, which was more than I deserved, because I had delivered her to friends that morning without making a note of their name or address so could only retrieve her, in the growing dusk, by methods known to Interpol, if not to Sherlock Holmes.

The next road-test car was a Fiat 124ST. This looked outwardly like a normal family conveyance from Turin but had under the bonnet a twim-cam, alloy-head, 80 b.h.p. power unit of notable refinement but very effective urge. Apart from having to learn again how to use the complicated Fiat stalk controls I had almost nothing but praise for this fast yet docile, fully-equipped Fiat with its truly excellent engine that was happy to jog along in top at well below 1,800 r.p.m. or revolve at nearly 7.000 r.p.m. at the opposite extreme. The suspension seemed soggy compared with Ford Mexico’s taut ride but it would be difficult to choose between them. A black mark, though, for the Fiat’s speedometer, which packed up. I took this covetable Fiat back to the impressive Brentwood headquarters of the Company and drove away in a Fiat 127. This should have come as an anti-climax after using far faster and bigger cars. I had, for instance, tried briefly the new big Fords, up to Granada GXL standard, while I was testing the 124ST; one of Ford’s chaps, bringing the Fiat from one hotel to another for me (Ford parties involve more than a couple of five-star hostelries!) had remarked on the good low-speed torque or the twin-cam 124’s engine and it certainly felt lively, splendidly controllable and easy-to-see-out-of, after the enormous expanse of the Fords. Now I was in a 127 and as impatient as ever to leave the pollution and congestion of the City of London for the freedom and fresh air of Radnorshire. Yet so well did the little Fiat motor that I condescended to pay a call in Uxbridge en route. The small size of this boxy saloon was no deterrent to loading it with many items of luggage and I found its performance surprisingly good. On longer acquaintance I had to admit that the engine hums rather too strident a tune and that the ride can be choppy. But if I was tied to motoring at this level I should say a prayer to Fiat for making it as painless as possible.

I had waited far too long with what I thought was commendable patience to try the Rover 3500S, which at the time I had in mind as probably my next Editorial car. I knew from very satisfactory experience of the fourcylinder 2000TC how likeable the modern Rover is and I had tried the automatic V8 3500 and knew it to be a car endowed with extremely usable acceleration and a high topspeed, obtained smoothly and unobtrusively. If the manual gear-change V8 matched up, here, I thought, is my next car. Unfortunately the suspension of the road-test 3500S behaved most oddly and by the time I had got used to passengers who felt sick in it and who were sick in it, I was pretty sick myself. Feeling that the dampers or the springs or the tracking or the de Dion back-end must be to blame. I lost no time in telling Rover’s PR department of my opinion. To this day I have heard nothing, and have not been given another 3500S to try. I believe much the same happened with the latest Lotus Europa D.S.J. was testing. He reacted in the same way, but with the difference that a further test was immediately arranged. Since Rover became part of BL, and closed their much-appreciated Seagrave Road London depot they presumably are selling so many cars that they can afford to ignore criticism. Certainly they do not appear to want our help in selling them . . .

I took this admittedly quick Rover back to the office, to find I was not the only driver who was upset by its handling. With relief, I drove away in the comfort of a BMW. For the next road-test I went to Ford’s Brentford Press Depot, where a Ford Cortina 1600 GT awaited me. I took it over in a thunderstorm and one of London’s worst traffic tangles (Mr. Heath knows what I mean!) and at first thought it terrible. Vulgar within, blatant without, difficult to see out of, and nasty to drive. That is what BMW motoring does for you. All that was happening was that I was mentally comparing a £3,000 car, fresh from the M4, with £1,147 one in the worst kind of introductory conditions. It wasn’t long before I began to like the newest Cortina, with its willing o.h.c. engine, excellent gear change, and the expected feeling of Ford dependability. The last quality was confirmed over a mileage of more than 2,700. I cannot say I thought much of the traction from the Goodyear GP tyres on mud, but I can’t understand why these cars have become Britain’s Best-Sellers. There followed a Saab 99 but the test, hurriedly arranged and of short duration, hardly allowed me to get to know this highly individual Swedish car. It seemed to lack upper-end acceleration but I loved its washed and wiped headlamps. I know enough of Saab’s good qualities to avidly await the larger-engined fuel-injection Model.

From one pleasingly unusual car to another, for the next to be tested was the Wolseley Six, with a transverse six-cylinder engine of no less than 2,200 c.c. to drive the front wheels. On my customary 180-mile run home from the office I was delighted with this so spacious, so comfortable big car, which cornered almost ridiculously quickly without any drama, except for the power steering being too lowgeared to catch up with it. Alas, what could be a simply splendid car is spoilt by whine from the transmission, stupidly placed switches, casual attention to details, a snatchy take-off, and a horrid plastic cross-spoke for the steering wheel. And why did the test car pull to the left? I went to a terribly wet vintage Shelsley-Walsh hill climb in an Opel Rekord II 1600 coupé. Road-test cars go in cycles maybe, because this was another that did not impress me very favourably. It was fast and fully-equipped but, even allowing for a too-fierce clutch on the aforesaid Ford, I think a Cortina 2000GXL out-does this rubbery-riding Opel on almost all counts except sheer top pace and pick-up. It was deflected by side winds. It wouldn’t de-mist properly. It had no oilgauge, tachometer or ammeter. Rough roads made themselves felt and I could make the back-axle tramp. As Opels have been getting better and better, I think Mr. Moyes was unwise to add the Rekord II to his test fleet.

A year without an Alfa Romeo is unthinkable. Last year I was able to drive the Alfa Romeo 2000. It was as delightful as one expects the Milanese cars to be, handling impeccably, having a nice if heavy five-speed gearbox, and so on. It is not only an extremely safe car but it feels safe, even now that the enlarged twin-cam engine gives 150. b.h.p. at a modest 5.500 r.p.m. and propels the slabshaped saloon at 115 m.p.h., with acceleration to match, which means 0-60 m.p.h. in nine seconds. But I felt this out-dated car to be insufficient of an advance over the delightful 1750 to justify its UK price, and that the Alfetta must be expected to out-pace it. Naturally the Daimler Double-Six was eagerly awaited, as another definitely for the “short list”. The strikers put paid to a full road-test but Andrew Whyte of Jaguar’s prised one away from them and I was able, to have a summer afternoon’s drive in S. Wales in this top-bracket luxury saloon. Its comfort, quietness, speed, acceleration from 100 m.p.h. onwards, its road-grip on those great chunky special Dunlop tyres, and the turbine smoothness of twelve 435 c.c. cylinders combine to make this a quite irresistible car in most motorists’ views, although not one, perhaps, that gives the driver anything particularly enthralling to do. At the price-tag Sir William Lyons has affixed to it, this V12 British Leyland, behind whichever radiator grille, is the best thing Britain has made for several decades. Which is why I was, and still am, so very disappointed that a Continental publicity stunt I thought up for it at the time of the Earls Court Show misfired, as you will have read on another page.

Obviously the Fiat 128SL coupé was a very different kind of experience from driving the Daimler, but Fiat make very few undistinguished cars and except for hard seats, springy brakes, not much rearward visibility, and an engine which hunted in traffic, there was much fun in driving, this safe-handling, front-drive 1300, with its leather-rimmed steering wheel and stubby gear lever. A brand new car of great potential was now on the agenda, the Jensen-Healey sports two-seater. It was so new that the twin-cam, sixteen-valve engine snuffed out in London while a colleague was driving it. When I got my hands on it I found the cornering most impressive. That the engine has far to go was indicated by its ability to burn low-octane fuel, or perhaps this shows how clever Colin Chapman has overcome pollution problems. Disappointment stemmed from factors which a rallyman of Donald Healer’s calibre would surely never have tolerated, had he tested the car himself? Rain flooding the interior and a hood so difficult to erect will not do the cause of open cars an iota of good. But this Healey has a gear change, ride, steering and engine of high quality, spoiled by noise, a poor fuel range and many minor points which need cleaning up.

To get back expeditiously from Jensen’s factory I relied on the ever-helpful Ivor Greening of BL and was driven over to the Longbridge Austin factory (where later those memorable Austin 7 Jubilee celebrations took place) to find, as promised, an MG Midget Mk. III waiting for me. I was soon ashamed that I had regarded this latest version of a very famous small sports-car as merely a convenient way of going home, for it turned out to be a most amusing little thing to use. It had just the right amount of engine noise, gear whine and hard ride to remind one of the older sports-cars but it was otherwise entirely practical in the 1970s context. I expected it to be squashed by today’s enormous lorries but the all-round visibility, even hood-up, obviated this and the adequate road-clinging and effective brakes got us along fast, in an exhilirating fashion.

Even in this light-weight car the 1,275 c.c. push-rod engine does not produce fireworks. But this does not detract from the charm of this fresh-air Midget, which has kept pace with present-day developments without noticeably changing its purpose in life. It is a significant second-car for the enthusiast’s stable. But the price! If I enjoyed the MG Midget it was impossible to enjoy the Vauxhall Firenza Sport SL except as a convenient means of closed-car transport possessed of a lazy top-gear performance. I was put off the moment I got into it by the curious colours which met my eyes and thereafter I found too many shortcomings to want to own a Firenza. But it did give the impression that Vauxhall’s may be climbing out of a rut and that this year’s specimens could well be comparable with Opels and Fords.

A car which did impress me, in a year of mostly mediocre test cars, was the new Ford Granada GXL. It is a big car and perhaps a rather blatantly Americanised one; I have heard people-say they would not be seen dead in it, without being aware that no hearseversion yet exists! In my view it is a handsome chunk of motor-car which provides its occupants with lots of hush, corners well including through ess-bends and covers a lot of ground effortlessly in a short space of time. The power steering is good, the automatic transmission less acceptable to me, because I prefer to change gear myself. The ventilated disc brakes are one of the big Ford’s many excellent features and the ride, too, is good. So I rate this and the Consuls as a notable Dagenham break-through. They are an object-lesson to those who think any independent rear suspension is better than a rigid back-axle, because it was a poor design of irs which helped to damn the former biggest Dagenhamobiles. If I had to use a Granada or one of the quicker Consuls daily, I could motor quite contentedly. Providing, that is, that Ford can assure me that the total loss of coolant I experienced with their top model would not be likely to happen with a 1973 Granada . . .

Another top model I tried last year was the Fiat 130 coupé. It was a most interesting experience, proving that Fiat’s gigantic mass production plant can still make motors for millionaires. Here was a truly beautiful car, in the older tradition of craftsman-made automobiles. Like the Ford it had a V6 engine, but rather larger and with o.h.c. valve gear. Like the Ford, this power unit became unexceptably audible when accelerating hard. Otherwise Fiat 130 motoring was very lush. But I felt that those who can afford £5,500 might prefer the greater performance which a BMW, a Jaguar V12 or a Citroen SM would provide. It could be that I have missed the point. If so, I expect Alfred Woolf will be writing . A not wildly exciting .year was concluded by sampling a Datsun 160B, which was only acceptable to a degree, and by brief acquaintance with the Citroen SM, which coincided with heavy rain, Hampshire traffic and the Lasham hunt—but D.S.J. has informed you of what a truly great motor-car this is. Christmas was made agreeable from the transport aspect with a Mercedes-Benz 280E, reported on elsewhere in this issue. The thrash round Europe in a BMW 3.0CSI. coupé with which the PM (no, no, the Production Manager) and I greeted Britain’s imminent entry into the Common Market appeared too recently, to call for further comment, except to remark that the creditable sustained high-speed running of this remarkable motor car lingers in the memory.

From February to December I drove a BMW 2500, the “Munich Small-Six” when I was not using road-test cars, trying to do 20,000 miles in a twelve-month in it. By the year’s end I was some 2.500 miles short of this target but in that mileage the car had been virtually trouble-free and proved itself one of the nicest I had driven.

Too much praise is worse than too little, but the BMW’s commanding driving position, its quick cold-weather starting and defrosting, the pleasant driving characteristics and the quality of the paint and brightwork after nearly a year in the open, are credit items which deserve enumerating. Fuel consumption, though, is heavier in local driving than at 4,000 r.p.m. motorway cruising, being in the region of 20 m.p.g. of 99-octane petrol overall, falling to around 17 m.p.g. in traffic.

Enjoyable as road tests are, they are rivalled by one’s personal motoring, and last year I did a few hundred satisfactory miles in my 1924 12/20 Calthorpe, including a trouble-free run from Hampshire to my place in Wales, some 160 miles in the short light of a winter’s day. I also experienced the friendliness of a Humber Register Rally, enhanced by the comfort of a 1927 14/40 Humber tourer and went out in the regal splendour of the Coventry Museum’s 1910 25/30 o.h.c. Maudslay. I was driven through the Brighton Run in a 1904 Darracq. I was also able to drive briefly two examples of the very first car I owned, the flat-twin ABC, and there were further short jaunts in vehicles as varied as a Volvo 144 with the latest Borg-Warner self-sorting gearbox, a 1953 VW, a 1949 2 1/2-litre RM Riley, and an aged Thames van.

Not a very auspicious year, but an interesting one. It was the year in which I gave up using the serviceable and well-liked Editorial Rover 2000TC, which in new ownership, has I am glad to hear survived getting stolen and has towed a caravan over the Alps. Incidentally those manufacturers who submitted cars for me to test favoured tyres in the following proportion: Dunlop 8, Michelin 7, Pirelli 5, Goodyear 4 and Continental one.—W.B.