My Year's Motoring

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The Editor Looks Back on the Cars he Drove During 1975

Last year was a particularly thin one on the personal road-test front, but then it was a pretty thin year generally. I find, after consulting my Dunlop diary, that I got behind the steering wheels of 34 cars in 1975. This is not a scintillating number, for one whose whole way of life revolves round motoring. But it can be explained partly by the indifference of certain PROs in the Motor Industry and partly because Motor Sport has a staff of younger enthusiasts with whom I share the road-testing chores and delights and whose hands are very difficult to keep away from the faster confections! Overall, we have assessed as many new and interesting cars as usual and I have no personal grumble, as I must have driven around one thousand different cars since I started to write about them.

Apart from compiling my own road-test reports, I read a great many others, in the course of duty and relaxation. There is no denying that these days anyone with money to spare for a new or used car has an enormous amount of worthwhile data at his or her disposal from which to be guided in making the final choice. Some of these reports provide a very great amount of the most valuable performance and specification figures and measurements. However, I wonder, as I wade through ever more involved comparisons of one new car with others in roughly the same class, read the experience of Pressmen with vehicles they have lived with for varying mileages, and try to dissect useful information from comparative tests and collective appraisals of cars in a given class, whether the road-test theme has not become rather too intense and overdone in recent times. It could be that readers now prefer interesting accounts of long or unusual journeys undertaken in the latest or particularly interesting cars, as a change from being blinded by too much science and too many figures and opinions.

I have in mind the brief European tour Motor Sport took in 1972, when we covered 3,789 miles in four days in a BMW 3.0CSL but dealt more with the roads and cities we traversed than about the admirable motor car involved, and the Scottish journey D.S.J. described last December, which provided an excellent opportunity for testing a Vanden Plas Daimler Double-Six which, however, was not made the primary subject of the story. Incidentally, D.S.J. told you that I was not present on that trip because I was engaged with the AGM of the Bean OC or the Bonfire Night Rally of the Calcott OC; in fact, of course, I had to attend the Concours d’Elegance of the Cluley Landaulette Society…. Anyway, I hope that Motor Sport’s outspoken road-test reports constitute the kind of concise new-car coverage that you require.

Last year was a difficult one for the Motor Industry and it was understandable that several cars we were particularly anxious to try were not available. I am, however, disappointed that such a long time has passed since we have been provided with a Peugeot for appraisal, especially as Motor Sport has been addicted to this famous French car back to the time, years ago, when we bestowed well-deserved praise on the 203, as we did to many subsequent Peugeot models. But stern words spoken to Peugeot’s UK publicity chap had not the slightest effect, for the 604 we were promised as soon as Earls Court closed its Motor Show turnstiles, failed to materialise. And you cannot write intelligently about a car you haven’t driven. Renault Limited, though, were not to blame for the fact that I did not find time to take a 5TS to one of those Renault-5 races last year, although their 17-Gordini was about the only car I have ever accepted for test and subsequently written not a word about, because it did not seem to be in a fit state for the purpose. I never got it again, but amends were made, to a colleague, who not only went on the “ladies’ day” pre-view of Renault’s new V6 30TS but was lent one for road-test before the year was out.

Fords were not very plentiful in 1975 either; I had to be content with a couple of different-type Escorts, useful, dependable, economical, but not wildly exciting… In contrast, British Leyland let me have a long weekend with one of the new “Wedges” before it had been officially announced. I was suitably impressed and a colleague later assessed the Wolseley version, since renamed Princess, as a very fine car indeed, better, in his view, than the Citroen CX2000. That was before dither of us were helping to pay, via our taxes, for the building of this up-dated and excitingly-shaped British car, and all the other Leyland vehicles. I missed trying the revived Citroen 2cv because the Assistant Editor found it so useful and fuel-thrifty, and such fun, that it would have been churlish to deprive him of it. But during the twelvemonth I did acquire the Fiat 126 I had been using for long-term appraisal for something like two years, So I now have the distinction of owning as a standby and shopping vehicle a car that a contemporary motor-journal considers too small to meet the requirements of today’s economy-car customers. It may well be right. Yet I confess to enjoying this friendly, prompt-starting, aircooled, vertical-twin modern cyclecar, even though it fails to deliver the 60 m.p.g. or thereabouts that should be the target of every tiny-car designer in this expensive age.

The first road-test car to come to me in 1975 was the Austin Allegro HL, I took it immediately to the elaborate party Ford-of-Britain had staged at the Dorchester in London’s Park Lane to announce the revised Escort models, the Popular version of which is still serving me splendidly at the time of writing. Thereafter I accumulated a reasonable test mileage in this Allegro, before a daughter drove me to Heathrow in it and I emplaned in a BA Trident for Germany and a viSit to the BMW factories, including the new plant at Dingolfing, the test track, the Competition Department, even. the Museum, symbols of the way in which quality is built into modern BMWs. The Allegro had proved to be a match for the foreign opposition in its class, but I was horrified at the price charged for it even then—£1,881—but gratified to find that it possessed a circular, not quartk, steering wheel. The 5-speed gearbox, the rack-and-pinion steering, and the Hydragas suspension were only average, oil consumption rather heavy. There is no point in saying more, because the Allegro has since been revised.

Next on my road-test curriculum came a Datsun Bluebird 130B. Another small car, this one had an overhead-camshaft engine from which 60 American horses were said to be released at 6,000 r.p.m., in spite of which it was notably sparing of petrol. It had the lively suspension one associates with Japanese tars, although on coil springs at the back, but better brakes than the Orientals usually provide. There were some unpleasant aspects, such as reluctant starting from cold, an awkwardly-placed choke control, and an inconvenient under-facia pull-and-twist handbrake. On the whole, though, an acceptable and fully-equipped job, costing at the time £1,546.

Having disposed of the Datsun and returned to BMW commuting, the next excitement was that on-the-road pre-view of Leyland’s first entirely-their-own car, the Morris 2200 version of AD071. To avoid it being seen by too many inquisitive eyes—although all the pairs that spotted it while it was in my possession seemed to know its specification by heart—Leyland’s Press Department arranged personal delivery to and collection from those motoring writers to be given this welcome premature appraisal. When they discovered that I really do live in faraway Wales there was rather a pause and the driver who eventually delivered the Wedge clearly thought he was very much out in the wilds, after having driven through so much back-of-beyond (the A44 actually) in the possession, he said, only of dozy sheep and occasional mysterious Celts. Had British Rail experienced the anxiety he displayed when I told him I would take him to our nearest rail head, front whence he could get back to the teeming Metropolis on a two coach train wandering across fields on a single-line amid pastoral delights (change at Shrewsbury and Wolverhampton), I truly believe that they would cease to prate of out-Beeching-Beeching and of cutting oil all future rail connections with Scotland and Wales!

Anyway, I had a good five days with this new product of “our” Motor Corporation, taking in en route some links with ultra light aviation. I wrote much about it at the time and others have since accorded it much praise, so I will just say that while it did not impress me as much as a totally new car should have done, I marked it down as a very worthwhile development of a model I have always liked, as an individualistic, comfortable and very quick point-to-point production.

Volkswagen (GB) Limited then allowed me to take away a VW Golf LS1500 for sufficient time to cover over 1,000 miles in it. That was enough to turn me into a VW fanatic again, however much the technical turn-around had shaken this former Beetle fan. This lack of cacophony at Motorway cruising pace, the excellent gear change, the general willingness of the Golf in its 1 1/2-litre form and its light steering, are not to be denied. Add to this the rattle-free body, the fifth-door configuration of the crisp saloon shape, the excellent heater, and the comfortable seats of this little f.w.d. VW, and the fact that I got better than 36 m.p.g. of 91-octane petrol from it, and I think you will agree with my judgement.

The only drawbacks to playing this sort of Golf were rather lively suspension, some what long gear-lever movements (although the gears are quiet and reverse is easy to engage) and the circumstance that so good was the acceleration that on an earlier preview drive I had gone through a radar-trap. I now found myself going in this other Golf to Cheltenham Magistrates’ Court to be relieved of some money and receive my, endorsement . . . .

It was then time to remake acquaintance with that popular French car in which creature comforts are a major consideration, the Renault TX16 Automatic. It was some considerable time since I had driven one of the bigger Renaults. The engine of the one I was now to sample had been enlarged in respect of swept volume and was of 1,647 c.c. This is still a modest enough capacity for the size and equipment-provision of the car it propels, but it makes up for this by being of efficient light-alloy, hemi-head type, while cleverly retaining push-rod-prodded valves. Moreover, this is a front-drive car which does not proclaim this by disadvantageous driving characteristics, it is supremely well-sprung at the expense of roll-promoting fast cornering, and it is one of the most highly individual cars you are likely to encounter, with its bonnet locked with a key, a battery master-switch, complicated controls for the effective heating system, adjustable headlamps, a “hidden” umbrella-handle fly-off handbrake, and other specialities. These extend to an unusual arrangement of control over the automatic transmission of this two-pedal Renault, which caused office colleagues untold joy when, the car having been delivered late to the office on a day when I had an urgent long-distance journey to make, I went out to it in the dark and could not find any means of engaging a gear. That apart, this proved a nice car to live with once you were acclimatised, albeit the 16TX is now dated in respect of things like mechanical noise at around 70 m.p.h. and heavy steering. But it was astonishingly comfortable, and very economical. The test was curtailed because some electrical trouble developed, but it was still a car to commend.

To visit Rolls-Royce and go round the factory at Crewe was a pleasant experience, at a time when, amid all the gloom and financial disaster, this Company was making a healthy profit. I used a Hillman Avenger 1600GT two-door saloon for the purpose. First, however, there was a call at Coventry to drive the last-ever Jaguar E-type, all decked out in black and chrome and bearing a plaque on the instrument panel as it was destined for the Jaguar foyer. While it is very creditable that Jaguar, alone among the Leyland complex, care for their cars from the past, it is so sad that the inimitable E-type is no more and that no further open sports cars will bear the proud Jaguar name, that I prefer not to dwell on this occasion, pleasantly organised as it was by Andrew Whyte.

I have always thought, well of the Avenger, second only to Ford in the excellence of its gear-change and other aspects, and it is another sadness that this once-famous make may fade away under the financial losses of Chrysler and in spite of the political rather than commonsense manifestations being made to save the ship by caulking its leaks with public money. While I had the Avenger I was more concerned with factory-reporting than road-testing and so it was a relief to have the services of this uncomplicated, straightforward car, which not only took me to R-R, where I was admirably conducted round and entertained by David Roscoe, but to Lloyds Industries paint factory in Cheshire, a visit which resulted in much leg-pulling in the office, where it was suggested that I must be painting my house, a false assumption as it happened. The Hillman, the petrol economy of which had been improved by modifications to ignition and carburation (shades of the pre-war Vauxhall Ten), got me home for Easter and covered more than 900 miles before it was returned to Chrysler’s obliging Press Department, taking in a Brooklands Society film show at Byfleet on the way, when the projector proved far less dependable than the Avenger.

At Crewe I had a few miles behind the wheels of a Rolls-Royce Camargue, not sufficient to form any very definite opinions, apart from over-awe. This was followed by sampling a Renault 17 Gordini but it was off-colour mechanically, as my Assistant agreed, so was used for less than 500 miles and no report compiled about it, although it was taken to the VSCC Light Car Section’s Welsh Weekend, when I at last realised the ambition of seeing part of the 1924 RAC Six Days Small Car Trials route covered by appropriate machinery. In between these road-tests I went on employing the Editorial BMW 520i. For instance, around this time it took me to the first 1975 VSCC Silverstone Meeting, to the City of London one Sunday to get urgent “copy” to the printers, did an interesting crosscountry journey starting from Essex and, after a rather tiring interview in Lincoln, conveyed me home through the Midlands, to Herefordshire and into Wales, after which it went down into the New Forest to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, where I had a Committee Meeting to attend, then to the bijou works of the Morgan Motor Company at Malvern Link. I do not wish to reiterate all the praise I have bestowed previously on this excellent BMW, so I will content myself with saying that it is a car to which I am always relieved to return, no matter how exotic or exciting the road-test vehicle preceding it. Too noisy at speed, and with a few irritating habits (such as needing several prods on the tip of the wiper-stalk before the wiper blades cease their otherwise appreciated intermittent action, and making a frighteningly loud sound of recirculating fuel when the ignition is left on after the engine has been cut, in order to retain the headlamps-beam), the 520i is a car I would only willingly replace with a six-cylinder BMW.

My diary reminds me that after a tedious voyage up the A44 and M4 in the Fiat 126, to have it checked over before purchasing it, I took over a Fiat 131 1600S. This “Mirafiori Marina” is remembered as a good but by no means outstanding family car, possessing horribly over-servoed brakes that it shares with others of the range, and with today’s Lancias. Well contrived and appointed, it earned good marks for fuel range and consumption. But it lacks the one-time aura of the make from Turin, so I think it high time Alfred Woolf, the ever-obliging Fiat PRO in Britain, found me an extra-special Fiat once again. Glossing over an experimental single-cylinder Collicar, greater pleasure by far was experienced when I had the BMW 528 for appraisal. I had tried the car briefly when I was in Munich in the winter and over the 1,300 miles I covered in this country it convinced me that this is the next car I would like to have for regular use. I went to Donington in it for the Moss Motor Sport Golden Jubilee issue racing-car testing, and to the VW Polo release-party at Aston Clinton and, although there are larger, faster, and ever more luxurious BMWs, I decided that this bright yellow 528 was for me the best of the range.

A pair of economy cars, the Ford Escort 1.1 L and the much-publicised Vauxhall Chevette L, came along for successive testing. The Chevette scores from the handiness viewpoint, by having a hatch-back body, but otherwise each seemed to possess shortcomings and advantages more or less in parallel. For cornering the Vauxhall had the edge but overall I thought that the Escort was just the superior car of the two. A “hot” version of the Lutonian might make me change my mind, although I am a confirmed enthusiast for “souped” Escorts.

As the right-hand-drive VW Polo was not to be available in Britain for many months I did not take all that much notice of this nice little car, with its ingeniously-designed transverse o.h.c. engine, at the time of its release, It is as good, or better, than the Golf, and I hope soon to remake its acquaintance.

A short weekend with a Bristol 411 was combined with a description of Mr. Tony Crook’s pocket-factory at Filton. He is a high-pressure salesman for the car he manufactures so conscientiously and in such very small numbers, so that even my mild criticism of a singing back-axle was somehow deleted from the test report! It was a pleasure to sit on those shiny leather seats in this rather narrow, Chrysler-powered saloon and to enjoy effortless performance and the essence of decidedly-old-fashioned luxury. During the short time the 411 was in my care we became so Bristol-orientated that we took it to see one of its forebears, but I did not go so far as taking a flip in a Bristol Fighter.

A very long gap in Volvo road-testing ended when a Volvo 244 GL was made available to Motor Sport. I did not like its outward appearance, with those enormous, protruding fenders. But it is comfortable, except for a Wray ride, has a commandingly high-seating position, and is very generously equipped, in an individualistic style. For such a hulk of car it went round corners admirably, had spongy but satisfactory brakes, and its fuel thrift for its size and performance was quite outstanding. I had no reason to think it any less well made than those carefully put-together Volvos I inspected in the factory in Sweden many years ago. Thinking of Swedish cars, I regret that after disappointment over the last Saab I sampled, another of this make did not come my way last year.

Two Triumphs, a Triumph 2500 S saloon and a Triumph Spitfire 1500, kept me au fait with this Coventry product. The former I drove about as far as I had the BMW 528 and thought it a notably comfortable car, the carburetted engine smooth and quiet, the gear shift satisfactory if not unduly hurried, the overdrive switch very nicely placed on the lever’s knob, and the general overtone that of smoothness combined with a faint vintage flavour. The Spitfire 1 enjoyed immensely, the pleasure derived from it being abetted by having the hood down, on fine days and foul. In this my wife was so enthusiastic that we debated selling our Fiat 126 and buying a sports car. I know of reasons why MG fanatics will not buy a Spitfire and vice versa. But this 1 1/2-litre Triumph two-seater, however illogical, was great fun, handled effectively, and was therefore excellent value for today’s money.

The new Reliant Kitten was tried only briefly, on its pre-view occasion, and I did not much like it; it would require longer acquaintance TO see if it lives up to the claims made for it in m.p.g. and m.p.h. terms and whether this rear-drive baby really does keep up with Issigonis Minis round the bends. Vastly different was the smooth, hushed luxury endowed by a twin-cam Jaguar XJ6 3.4 Automatic but the report on it appeared too recently to merit further embellishment, except to say again what a very fine British motor car this miser’s Jag. is. I was able to use a Ford Escort Popular for 2,350 entirely dependable miles last year but, again, comment has appeared in these columns too recently to excuse reiteration. The other mileage extreme applied to the Jaguar XJ-S and the Austin Allegro 2, so you will have to wait until these latest Leylands are submitted to the full-road-test treatment.

The year went out with the opportunity of trying the Fiat 131 Estate with 1300 engine. It has handsome body lines and goes well enough for a small-engined load-carrier. But it has a far-too-noisy way of doing it. I found the triple control stalks somewhat awkward, the upright back panel to badly need the services of a wiper/washer to augment the demister, the fuel low-level light to remain on with some 31 gallons still in the screw-capped 336-miles-range tank, and the ride to become fearfully choppy over rough going. The facia warning lights are nicely contrived, the external mirror, so badly needed when the rear window gets dirty, was too shallow for maximum vision, although less vunerable than a larger one would be, the big steering wheel controls vague steering through a slippery, thick rim and again the brakes were very highly overservo-ed. Against which, the engine was always a very prompt starter in the winter cold, but a 30 m.p.g. fuel thirst was excessive for a 1300—but I still think I am overdue for a more luxurious Fiat. Incidentally, it has single Caren° headlamps, whereas the 1600 version of the 131 has a four-lamp set.

Towards the end of 1975 Ann Whitehouse, who had so willingly co-operated with me over earlier Triumph road-testing, suggested that a smart dark-green Stag lined out in gold might afford me acceptable Christmas transport. I have driven previous Stags, not liking the first one, way back in 1970, which was a great disappointment. But this unique motor car was progressively improved and I enjoyed trying it again in 1973. So I was in good heart when I drove the Fiat 131 to Coventry, where it was rested over the holiday, and later made for the office in this impressive Avon-shod Triumph Stag hard-top. It is sufficiently similar to the earlier cars not to require detailed explanation, but the power steering is now much nicer, almost indistinguishable in feel from a manual layout, especially around the straight-ahead position but taking all the fatigue out Of parking. The steering-lock is not enormous and the wind-noise is still present, as is the very insensitive but powerful heater. Road-clinging and steering were not, I thought, quite as accurate as those of a BMW 520 for instance. But it was delightful to be in charge of effortless acceleration so smoothly delivered from the eight 375 c.c. cylinders, and the Stag is very nicely appointed and equipped, from sensible controls to good floor carpets and electric window lifts, though its radio was badly suppressed. It may not step-off from rest as vigorously as sonic sports cars, but it will get to 60 m.p.h. in nine seconds or thereabouts going on to somewhere in the region of 120 m.p.h. in the 3.7 to 1 top gear under favourable conditions. Maybe it is over-geared, because when I wasn’t in a frenzy I found I could drive it almost entirely in top and o/d top, dropping into second momentarily out of corners. This did not give the claimed 334 m.p.g. at a steady 50 m.p.h. but then I may not have been on roads where to exceed this speed is unlawful! In fact, in Motorway and ordinary usage the Stag returned 23.8 m.p.g. of 4-star, very good for such a brisk 3-litre. Were this nicely-styled, compact, 2+2 sporting motor car with alloy-head vee-eight engine made in Munich, Turin, Milan, Stuttgart, Paris or some other European city, I suppose British journalists would be raving about it. As it is, I hope Leyland will long continue to make this V8 Triumph, even if in modest numbers, because it must suit very well a particular kind of customer who will find nothing comparable in the £4,500 bracket. As the GM/Rover V8 will not go under the Stag’s low bonnet. we must hope that Leyland will not stop making its custom-built power unit.

On my first stalk out of the Metropolis the Stag was stopped between Burford and Stow-on-the-Wold for a Police crime-check, whether of turkeys or terrorists I do not know. These days no-one (except the thief or the bomber) can complain of such inspections, and it is to the credit of these policemen that while they looked within the boot and took details of my driving licence, they refrained from asking my age, where I had come from, or where I was going. Later that night it scented appropriate that a real stag should loom up in the beams from the Triumph headlamps. before it jumped with the utmost grace over a high box hedge near the grounds of Eastnor Castle, on that very nice stretch of road between Tewkesbury and Ledbury. On that note my 1975 road-testing seasonably ended, although by New Year’s Day I had used this Stag for 1,157 pleasant miles. However, the perfect car does not exist and this Stag not only had its average speeds enhanced by a facia clock that ran slow before it stopped altogether, but a nasty habit of wetting the driver’s lap as he got out of it on a wet day, a fault in the roof guttering not confined to this particular Stag. It also needs rear seat-belts if the hack compartment passenger is to avoid cracking his or her cranium on the roll-over hoop in emergency braking and the adjustment of the lamps was of a very low standard, which I was horribly conscious of while covering the VSCC Measham Rally, my first reporting assignment of the New Year. But in nearly 2,000 miles this Triumph Stag was very enjoyable, gave no trouble, used scarcely any oil.

That I have been reasonably generous to other members of the staff in respect of test cars becomes clear when the interesting and exciting reports they have written are listed. Last year Motor Sport dealt with the Mumford Morris Marina convertible, Lotus Elite 503, Opel Ascona, Luxus and GS /E, Renault 30TS, Laurencetune Plymouth Barracuda, Polski-Fiat 125P, Ferrari Boxer, Lancia Fulvia 1300 and coupe S3, Lancia Beta 1600 coupe, Citroen 2CV6, Ford Escort 1300 Ghia, Samuri Toyota Celica GT, Wolseley 2200, Citroen CX2000, Lotus Seven, Chequered Flag Lancia Stratus, TVR 1600M, Leyland Mini 850 and 1275GT. Audi 80 GT, and (on the track) a Formula One Shadow-Cesworth DNS, backed up by brief impressions of new models. (All these reports are still available front the backissues or photostat department.)

Reverting to personal experiences, vintage motoring was a bit thin for me in 1975. But I attended almost all the leading VSCC meetings, including that enjoyable Cyclecar Rally, during which week-end my wife, as its President, went to the 21st Anniversary STD Register Rally. I got to the Brooklands Re-Union in the Chevette, took the Bristol to Carmarthen when judging at the Western Mail old vehicles event and employed the Volvo on the day I presented prizes at the Austin 10/4 DC rally. When my wife went to Llandow to do the same with the Motor Sport Brooklands Memorial Trophy we found the Triumph Spitfire 1500 reasonably waterproof I also got to a couple of “local” VMCC fixtures.

On the driving front I was able, for the first time since the age of 14, to go out in and this time drive, a 36/220 MercedesBenz. Peter Hampton’s magnificent specimen, and later I sampled a coupe version from Woking Motors’ collection. I found more travel in the accelerator or the littler before the blower would engage and then thought it made the louder whine, but this may have been because you hear this intriguing noise more, inside the closed body. Another splendid vintage car I drove, to Brooklands and back. was that 1924/5 3-litre Bentley used for a feature article in Motor Sport’s Golden Jubilee issue and, of course, I drove the BMW to Donington to watch Stirling Moss test tip various racing cars for a like purpose. Also thanks to the enthusiastic Tom Lightfoot and his wife’s famous 1903 Panhard-Levasor, I did not miss last year’s Veteran Car Run to Brighton, while, before 1975 was over, there was the expedition to sample John page .Rowley’s well-known 1913 Th, Schneider

Otherwise, it was a rather slack year, although I was glad that, thanks to the help of a friend, we had my 1927 Family Morgan running again. It is original, unless the flower-vase on the dashboard is an addition, but had languished too long in the barn. unused, after breaking its top-speed dog. With this repaired, we were ready to commence it after it had stood idle for many years and were surprised to find that the tyres would retain air, that there wasn’t so much as a weep from the radiator, hoses, or the jackets of the JAP engine, and that the latter started up after only three twirls on the sidehandle.

Of the modern cars tested, incidentally, eight were on Dunlop tyres, including the Denovo Rover V8, six on Michelin, three each on Avon (counting the Safety Wheels of the Bristol 411) and Pirelli, two each on Continental and Goodyear, one on Uni-royal.

Not too had a year, I suppose, considering that we were engulfed by horrors such as those fatuous 50s and 60s, the increasing use of VASCAR, rising petrol prices, personal financing of the failures of Leyland and now Chrysler, London’s bus-lanes, terrorism, more strikes, elm disease, and insipid, indecisive and cunning politicians.

W.B.

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