My Year's Motoring

The Editor Looks Back on the Cars he Drove During 1974

From the motoring aspect, and many others, 1974 was hardly inspiring, and the stop-go effect of fuel shortages and the imposition of pedestrian new speed-limits made it an unsatisfactory one from the road test viewpoint. In my opinion the Petrol Industry treated us very casually, in as much as it rationed supplies at the beginning of the year, so that a long journey in a car with a small fuel tank, for instance from Wales to London in a Fiat 126, was fraught with anxiety, yet it swung the opposite way just recently, withholding supplies until the next price-increase had become valid, then being pleased to sell as much as it could. For an Industry that has previously served us well on a day-and-night basis since petrol pumps replaced two-gallon cans, this is something of which the rich Oil-Barons should be heartily ashamed, especially at a time when they are chalking-up vast profits.

I was also depressed to see so many motoring writers and motoring organisations contributing to the general gloom and despondency by advocating compulsory seat-belts, lower speed limits, and so on, all morbid factors in this spineless age. But I felt a little smug that MOTOR SPORT published articles about diesel engines and free-wheels, those possible economy aids, early last year, that other papers are only just advocating. So, although this was a mediocre motoring year, I still enjoyed not only the cars I drove but much of the driving I did in them.

I continued to do long-term assessments of two diverse cars, the BMW 520i and a Fiat 126. Both are acceptable at the present time, because the little nipper from Turin does not go very fast and just cannot help being very economical, while the 2-litre from Munich, with its Kugelfischer fuel-injection, is also surprisingly sparing of fuel and is so comfortable and well-planned that it is pleasing to be in, even while observing 50-m.p.h. speed limits.

I never quite got the overall 60 m.p.g. hoped for from the smallest Fiat but around 50 m.p.g. of 3-star petrol was possible without trying, which I increased to 57 m.p.g. by judicious coasting. Under these conditions the BMW gave something approaching 30 m.p.g. of 4-star, whereas it normally returns around 28 m.p.g. on a fast run, driving frugally, but even if its very excellent performance is used, this does not fall below about 24 m.p.g. Both these cars proved supremely reliable, and prompt starters. I suppose I have driven the Fiat some 7,000 miles, with another 2,000 put in on the example that was thrashed round and round the IoM TT course day and night for a week by some sadistic policemen. Neither gave any real trouble, although the original car eventually discarded its choke control, occasionally blew its dipstick out when hard-pressed along Motorways, and has just recovered from a tired Magnet Marelli battery after standing idle for a couple of months, a calamity soon put right by my Wynall W4 battery charger and a brief tow behind a Volvo.

Because there was so much emphasis on fuel conservation I amused myself by going in for that Fiat Fuel Economy Competition which put Graham Hill among the Brighton Road dicers. I didn’t get among the top figures but after being told that my 85.23 m.p.g. was wrongly recorded, managed 75.57 m.p.g., which gives an idea of how sparing of the costly fluid the Tipo 126 is. As it is also very easily parked, is well sprung for such a lightweight, out-corners many other cars, and has an unexpectedly good heater in spite of air-cooling, I was very happy to be postponing the day when the World’s fuel reserves become exhausted, by commuting in one.

I have not much need to endorse the good qualities of the 520i, which can be listed briefly as an overall air of quality, very forgiving road adhesion, a nice gear shift, the easiest-to-read instruments possible, a commanding driving position, and that very considerable performance if the engine is opened up. However, I must not go on about this splendid car because I am told that I have become as fanatical about BMWs as I once was about the VW Beetle and later the better Mercedes-Benz models, and thanks to the vigilance of BMW Concessionaires’ PRO, Raymond Playfoot, there are other BMWs to talk about.

The first new car I sampled in 1974 was the Ford Capri 1600 Mk. II, for which purpose I actually travelled to Torquay by British Rail, a most unseemly (but very comfortable and civilised) thing for a motoring writer to do! I had but brief experience of the car, so will confine myself to saying that while the new lift-up back door and other items arc an obvious improvement, I was rather sorry to see that the original imposing lines behind that long Capri bonnet had been toned down. Then, while the 520i was having one of its infrequent servicing sessions, I was let loose in a BMW 3.0Si, taking this Big-Six to Silverstone from Wales by my rural back route. It performed impeccably, of course, with a smooth-running engine, much luxury, and excellent power steering.

So to the first real road-test of 1974, of a Vauxhall VX 4/90. This turned out to be a well-equipped saloon with nothing important to fault and a notably flexible engine. The “stupid-50s” were now in force, so on a run to Swansea to learn how modern toys are made I could enjoy its good acceleration but not its 100-m.p.h. maximum speed. Under the circumstances, which threatened then, as they do again now, to reduce most cars to a miserable common denominator, this Vauxhall was surprisingly economical.

But if the Vauxhall VX 4/90 was a very satisfactory family car, I was in for some disappointments during 1974. The first was provided by a Saab 99L. A heavy clutch and sticky gear-change detracted from any charms I had expected it to possess, it had somewhat heavy steering even for a front-drive car, was noisy when allowed to do a furious 70 on our Motorways, and the performance from the 2-litre engine was not inspiring. The equipment, admittedly, was more than complete, with wipers on the headlamps, a driver’s heated seat cushion, and adjustment for height as well as for rake and reach of that seat, a complicated set of heater controls, and many safety factors, including those massive bumpers. But one door refused to open, I did not feel “in-one” with this car as I had in earlier Saabs, and the final insult was not being able to check the dip-stick, because the bonnet wouldn’t release.

The Lancia Beta 1800 provided another disappointment, although it was a difficult car to assess. It failed to live up to the traditions of earlier famous Lancia models, yet it was in some ways a likeable, dignified car, seemingly of high quality. The specification embraced a twin-earn transverse Fiat engine, front wheel-drive, all-disc brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, a Citroen five-speed gearbox, and MacPherson suspension struts. So at its price it should have been a goad investment. But it was too low-geared and had too-sudden brakes, albeit the Beta is a car of some character, not to be entirely despised.

The next surprise, a pleasant one this time, was provided by a Mazda 1300. While it followed other Japanese cars in having choppy suspension (half-elliptic leaf-springs at the rear) and spongy (disc/drum) brakes, it took a great deal of luggage, had a distinctly sporting degree of urge from its alloy-head, single-o.h.c. engine, and clutch and gear change were respectively, light and quick. Like almost all small cars it was noisy, but was happy at 60 m.p.h. So this “Oriental Escort” was not to be denied. Another pleasant small car was the Opel Kadett 1200 coupé. It was comfortable, lively and reasonably effortless at 70 m.p.h. except for a humming back aide, although the Opel high-set camshaft engine was noisy at high revs.

By this time I had tried so many foreign cars that I asked British Leyland to allow me to drive some of their products. The ploy was to let us have a couple of Triumphs. But the British workers’ factory pickets thought otherwise, refusing to let the Press Department in Coventry release its own cars. So I had to wait several weeks for a Dolomite Sprint but received the Triumph 2500TC Mk. II to schedule. At one time a rival of the Rover, this latest 2i-litre 2500 with carburetters in place of fuel-injection was another 1974 disappointment. There were out-dated items such as wooden decor, openable quarter windows in the front doors, and so on, to please confirmed Triumph followers. But undistinguished cornering, a rather notchy gear-change, and somewhat heavy brakes did not encourage me to follow suit. I concede that this Car offers comfortable, sedate travel, and powerful heating and ventilation, but nothing more. Satisfaction returned with the delivery to Standard House of an Opel Commodore 2.8 GS. As my Assistant was anxious to compare it with a Ford Granada Ghia I did not write about it. But after 450 miles I recognised that this was a very nice motor car; a great credit to Opel of Russelheim.

Less pleasing was the Fiat 132 1800 GLS that Alfred Woolf, Fiat’s on-the-ball British PRO, persuaded me to try. I had not driven the previous unfortunate version but am told the handling has improved considerably, while I found the performance such as to make this car an “Italian Mexico”, disguised as a palatial family car. But difficult-to-read instruments, poor detail work, and much effort needed with the steering wheel when parking, were against it, and the specimen I drove had a smell of petrol within and a desire to stall in London traffic at a time when the hold-ups were particularly heavy. The twin-cam 1.7-litre engine was an unseen bonus, however, and by making very full use of the five-speed gearbox I recorded a usefully thrifty fuel consumption.

By the time I had returned this controversial Fiat, having decided that it requires still further improvement, the pickets at BL had gone away and a Triumph Dolomite Sprint became available, a car I had enthused over when it was a new model. I am reiterating what I have observed before when I say that with a top speed in the region of 112 m.p.h., and the ability to go from rest to 60 m.p.h. in 8½ sec., allied to docility, economy, compactness, and a pleasant interior with well contrived controls, this 16-valve I,998-c.c. Triumph with the ingenious valve gear, which handles so well, is a “Best Buy” at its price, to coin a nasty but expressive Consumers’ Association label. I would also commend the convenient location Triumph use for their overdrive switch, on the top of the gear-lever knob, were it not that my run home from the office in the Sprint was rendered a misery because an electrical “short” emanated from it, killing other services. The next day the Automobile Palace in Llandrindod Wells rectified the malady expeditiously and thereafter the car was all that I had remembered of it.

Another BMW 3.0Si was used to race a Messerschmitt Monsun light aeroplane from Calais to Cannes and to drop in on the Bugatti jollifications at Lyon. But, true to my earlier promise, may I just comment that it proved a wonderful high-speed motor car, of impeccable dependability ? Then, deflecting from foreigners, I drove a couple of Solihull products, a Rover 2200TC and a Rover 3500S. The former car had many of the things I remembered from the one-time Editorial Rover 2000, such as heavyish steering due to strong understeer, lost-motion in the transmission, that seductively-shutting bootlid, a reserve fuel-tap, those knee-level, padded stowage bins in the front compartment, friction-locks for the reclining front seat squabs, a slippery facia shelf, and so on. I thought the feel of the car improved and the high gearing was appreciated. Naturally the enlarged engine gave improved acceleration and yet this aged o.h.c. four-cylinder power unit was astonishingly smooth. The bigger- engined Rover of the same overall dimensions was a delightful car, with its multi-cylinder pick up, very high top speed, and none of the weavy running that had made me sceptical when first I drove one of these Buick-powered vee-eights. This time the De Dion rear-end with the specialised drive-shafts behaved normally. However, I was somewhat askance when this beautiful British car stopped suddenly in a stream of rush-hour traffic in hilly Welshpool. This was caused by the petrol pump having come adrift from the crankcase, to remain secured only by the fuel pipes! The BL agents, Vincent Grenhous, were quickly on the scene, everyone was most helpful, and we were soon on our way, but thinking dark thoughts about coarse screw threads in light alloy.

I was asked in October to try BMW’s most luxurious car, the BMW 3.3L limousine. Consequently, I was able to swan about during Motor Show time in this longer wheelbase, biggest-engined German car in distinguished comfort. It was a car with all the amenities, including a smooth automatic gearbox. With a more eager engine note than a similar proposition from Crewe and very fine step-off if the chauffeur could be persuaded to operate the lower-gear “holds”, I thought of this BMW as a sports-limousine. It did not have quite such precise handling as the smaller BMWs but it. proved very acceptable when I had to take my influenza to the VSCC “Old-Fogies” dinner, because it was so easy and restful to drive. A palatial car indeed, as I suppose you should expect, at £8,442.65 in this country.

I am now coming to the end of this account of driving cars of from 594 c.c. to 9,123 c.c. and in value from the then – £583 to the inestimable. I was able to take the great little Alfasud Ti to the Lake District for the annual VSCC trial but the test report appeared too recently to require further comment here, except to remark that many people, Stirling Moss among them, have told me that this seems to be the car they would like in the prevailing conditions. My opinions about the unusual droop-snoot Vauxhall Firenza appeared last month and my road-test report on the commendable Toyota Corolla is in this issue, so again no further comment is called for.

Before the year was out I drove two more, very diverse, cars. The DAF 66 1300 Marathon saloon was in a class of its own. Pioneer motorcyclists have proclaimed the smoothness of belt drive and this applies, with some reservations, when it is united with the clever DAF Variomatic infinitely-variable transmission. Once those accustomed to ordinary cars have ceased to move the control lever backwards to go forwards, because they are thinking in terms of finding a bottom gear, which is against all Dutch logic, the DAF is absolute simplicity to drive. With the 1.2-litre engine there is quite a lot of urge, but the noise which accompanies the task of the expanding pulleys in maintaining exactly the right ratio between Renault motor and de Dion back axle for a given situation can be rather tiring. Nor could I read the angled dials—small tachometer, with yellow warning at 5,000 r.p.m., oil-gauge reading 90 lb./sq. in., and clock, set low down on the console. The 110-m.p.h. Vdo speedometer, incorporating a clear-reading fuel gauge, and the matching warning-lights’ dial before the driver are, however, easily seen. The two pedals are somewhat off-set, enabling a loud-speaker to be accommodated outboard of the accelerator —there’s individuality for you!—and while the two doors had effective “keeps”, water drained in with them open. Also, my wife said her finger-nails disliked the push-in buttons of the external locks. The boot smelt of damp and its lid flew up abruptly. The simulated wood surrounds, scattered high-grade tumbler switches, and the subdued cacophony when accelerating reminded me of the old DKW 1000, although as it is a long time ago since I drove the two-stroke, I may be wrong in this comparison.

The DAF’s slow running was incredible and would have been just the job for those “crawl-tests” that were a deciding factor at the end of pre-war long-distance rallies. It had very light steering, Michelin ZX tyres, two stalk-controls, and it struck me as an ideal car for nervous ladies driving at a habitual SO m.p.h. They can buy one for £1,630.

The Ford Granada XL estate-car was handsome, low built, enormously spacious and well-appointed, with a very smooth automatic transmission, not quite such good power steering, and that welcome wind-open roof panel of these big Fords. This useful car, also Michelin-shod, was my Christmas transport. I took it down to the New Forest area to collect spares for my 1922 Talbot-Darracq. This little car has recently been resuscitated, so does not need them, but they seemed a good insurance. They came from a gentleman who bought his T-D new in 1922 and ran it until about 1930. He and his wife were keen members of the Junior Car Club of those days and both gained awards in the speed hill-climb which the JCC ran at nearby Dean Hill. On the homeward journey, this big Ford brought me to what Bureaucracy has renamed Powys, but which was formerly Radnorshire (these mad, unwanted changes!), surprisingly quickly in spite of the prevailing speed limits, behind its lazily-turning 3-litre V6 engine, in the utmost comfort. As a dual-purpose six seater or small lorry, depending on whether or not the rear seat is erect or folded away, this Ford Granada is unquestionably good value at £2,931. The test-car had developed a startling amount of axle clonk, although it had but 9i-thousand miles on the “clock”. The external door-locks remain finger-muscle developers, the instruments are still deeply buried, and the back window needs Scimitar wipers, but on the whole I liked this effortless load-carrier. The fuel range was better than 300 miles and, with economy-driving, this great hulk of motor car was very sparing of petrol—see table.

That concluded a year’s personal road testing, apart from brief drives in the VW Golf in both 1100 and 1500 forms, about which you will find some comments elsewhere.. It was annoying that the more effortless running of the bigger-engined Golf compared to that of the 1100 led me to drive through a Cheltenham radar speed-trap operated by Rosalind, a seemingly very inexperienced young Woman Police Constable. She concluded her interview brightly with “That’s all right, then”— hut I felt I could have done without Ros. But at least she provided material for this month’s Editorial!

Of the cars I tested, ten were on Michelin tyres, Dunlop and Pirelli were on five cars each, Continental on three, and Firestone and Bridgestone scored one each. I was interested, or would have been had one deflated, to try the Rover 3500S on the new Dunlop Denovo Safety Tyres (absence of a spare wheel being very desirable with this car’s ridiculously restricted luggage boot), and I found it droll (and perhaps significant) that the Vauxhall Firenza was on Avon Safety Wheels but was shod with Michelin tyres. . . .

If 1974 was somewhat mediocre from my point of view there was plenty of interest. I see from my Dunlop diary that I went to Donington for the Twin-Cam Austin party, got very wet at the same venue during the VSCC Driving Tests, and attended most of the remaining events of that club. Highlights of the year included the evocative Castrol Extravaganza and the British Leyland pre-show luncheon. I prepared myself for the latter by leaving the Rover V8 in Hyde Park and walking across Kensington Gardens, past the Round Pond, to the Royal Garden Hotel, thus proving that I can still use my legs for short distances and that parking in the Metropolis is not as difficult as is sometimes suggested. Moreover, apart from the cars I drove myself, MOTOR SPORT was able, during the year, to publish test-reports on the Aston Martin V8, Vauxhall Magnum 2300, Jensen Interceptor III, Iso Lele Sport, Maserati Bora, Datsun 260Z, Mercedes-Benz 450SL, Alfa Romeo Alfetta, 2.7-litre Porsche 911, Ford Granada Ghia, Ford Capri Ghia, Reliant Scimitar GTE, Ginetta G21S, Ferrari Dino 308-GT4, etc., which shows how generous I am (or distant or remote, depending on the point of view) to other members of the staff! There were other cars we had intended to sample but they got hung up on the way, for some reason. Peugeot, Renault and Citroen were among those missed last year, BL were unable to offer anything other than Rovers and Triumphs, and Toyotas, apart from a hastily provided Corolla (see page 139), and the saloon Datsuns never materialised. I hope those PROs involved will do more to encourage our love of road-testing, this year.

Nor were the older cars neglected, even if last year was hardly a vintage one. I used my 1924 Calthorpe for watching part of the VSCC Presteigne Rally, took it to Usk for an old-car meeting and had fresh-air runs in it on Christmas Day and Boxing Day afternoon. After its jets had been cleaned, it never missed a beat. My 1930 Riley Nine “boy-racer” was unserviceable last year because D.S.J. was using its engine in the ex-Joyce AC for Prescott and up the Brooklands Test Hill, but you could have fooled me, especially as it ran in the 1½-litre class, not the up-to-11l00-c.c. category.

Ted Woolley’s 1923 open Renault 45 and Johnny Thomas’ 1925 35-h.p. sleeve-valve Daimler motor-carriage were subjected to the “White Elephant” treatment and going to lunch after being shown round the new Stratford-on-Avon Motor Museum I was allowed to drive Meredith Owen’s magnificent 37.2-h.p. Hispano-Suiza coupé. Derek Goatman of Vauxhall Motors’ Public Relations Department arranged, with his usual enthusiasm and efficiency, for me to take a pleasing expedition along the country roads near Luton in that Company’s splendidly-rebuilt 1918 25-h.p. D-type Vauxhall Staff-car and it was the thoughtfulness of “Rusty” Russ-Turner, Captain of the Bentley DC, that took me to that Club’s Silverstone Test Day, to drive on the track his Birkin blower-4½ single-seater Bentley that I had already driven on the road. It was most unfortunate for him that before I could do this the cylinder block had become porous again, but fortunate for me that I had managed to persuade him to go out for some preliminary lappery, for otherwise how could I have convinced even my best friends that I had not over-revved ? As it was, I was able to sample “Rusty’s”supercharged 4¼-litre DerbyBentley Special and the Competition Secretary’s Ford 1600-engined Morgan 4/4.

I got wet judging at the Mercedes-Benz sponsored Yeovil Concours d’Elegance, drove briefly a 1932 Morris Minor, found myself during the year in possession of a 1952 Lanchester Ten which had been abandoned in Kent and was brought all the way to Wales by courtesy of the Car Recovery Service Club on a trailer behind one of their Range Rovers, and attended the memorable Frazer Nash party at Isleworth and the Brooklands Re-Union. The last-named occasion was enlivened by taking a trip up the runway beside Owen Wyn-Owen, clinging onto “Babs”, with the driving chains rattling below and 27-litres of uncovered Liberty aero engine ahead of us. Something of a contrast, at the 750 MC’s Press Day I re-made acquaintance with Chummy, Nippy and Ulster Austin Sevens.

That’s about it, except for a short drive in an aged MG 1100 and trying out some Land-Rovers over appropriate terrain in the beautiful country surrounding Eastnor Castle, between Ledbury and Tewkesbury. Despite everything, not too bad a twelvemonth! Now we must face up to 1975.—W.B.