My year's motoring
The Editor looks back on the cars he drove during 1976
This is the time of year when one looks back at the previous twelve-months’ testing and sums up which were the outstanding, the good, or the merely indifferent cars driven during that period, for there are no downright bad cars nowadays, are there? Before embarking on this annual look-back, I thought I would briefly review my road-test reports of past years in respect of cars whose manufacturers or concessionaires lent them to me for far longer than normal periods of testing. I thought that last December, in writing of the enjoyable Chrysler Alpine-S that was lent to a number of motoring Editors for a month or more, I had been somewhat unfair to other makers and agents who in the past had showed sufficient faith in their products and confections to let me try them over prolonged test periods. Looking back to past road-testing would enable me to include those long-duration tests I omitted to refer to in the report on the Chrysler. But I had rather a jolt when I discovered that I commenced this yearly series in 1953, so that they form a survey of 25 years’ road-test reporting for Motor Sport. However, I promise to be as brief as possible and write mainly of those longer tests.
I suppose that in the course of all this happy motoring activity for this paper I have tried well over 1,000 motor cars, of many makes, types and nationalities. Not being an expert with figures (as I tell the Inland Revenue) I have not done a close count, but up to the end of last year it looks as if the most prolific make I have been lent down the years has been Ford (93), followed in diminishing numbers by Austin Morris (including Minis) and Vauxhall, VW, MG, Renault, Fiat and Jaguar, which indicates the generosity (or sagacity?) of certain manufacturers, and of some owners…
To my younger colleagues who never seem to be out of the driving seat of a car or able to leave the more exciting ones alone for more than a minute or two, my total of test cars is probably unimpressive, and would, I expect, be chicken-feed to most of those in the Motor Trade. But I have enjoyed most of the miles I have covered in the pursuit of finding out about cars. I suppose the distance covered in this quarter-of-a-century must be in the region of a million miles. So perhaps I should he grateful for the fact that in that distance I have suffered only two serious accidents in that time. Both resulted in written-off cars, and I spent a night in Hereford hospital, but really to have dinner on the Health Service rather than due to disability, for the only thing I have to show for these two impacts is an o/s index finger which doesn’t quite stow away—and which hurt far less than my pride—and no-one else was injured. In this long period of messing about in motors I have also been reasonably free of those vicious Driving Licence Endorsements which any driver, careful or careless, experienced or neophytic, can so easily tot up.
When reporting on my month-long appraisal of Chrysler UK’s brand-new Alpine-S I said that such tests are a measure of the faith the lender has in the car hut that they also may mask shortcomings, which, apparent in a short test, tend to be overlooked by a tester who becomes acclimatised to them over a bigger mileage. Be that as it may, let us take a look at some of those long-duration loans I have enjoyed in the past, with perhaps just a brief glance at one or two other cars along the way….
The first 12-months of testing twenty-five years ago did not embrace any “keep-it-for-weeks” stuff but I note that I had that first big prang, when the Morgan Plus-Four I was using as the Editorial car (after a Morgan 414 had chewed up its irreplaceable gearbox internals) hit a van after skidding on black ice memory still reminds me of how decently the Gloucestershire Constabulary treated me). I went to Spa, where they held a Grand Prix in those days, in a Transair Avro Anson, followed London’s last tram in my 1926 DelaunayBelleville, and drove the venerable 1908 GP Bala. I also sampled Colbourne-Baber’s VW Beetle and liked it so much that the Plus Four was replaced in 1953 by the Editorial black-Beetle and I had an instance indicating why a long-term test pays off, for the Renault 4 cv seemed a horrid little boot at first but was regarded as a most enjoyable infant on longer acquaintance….
The first of the extended tests seems to have occurred in 1954, the year I indulged in such diverse entertainment as competing in a 750 MC All-Comers’ Trial in a Ford “Perpendicular Pop” and sampling the as-yet-unraced over Oulton Park circuit at the wheel of a Frazer Nash Targa Florio Turismo. The subject of the car I used for 11 months and 7,693 miles was the indomitable Citroen 2 c-. In fact, I drove three other 2 cvs during the year, including doing 83.7 m.p.g. in the Cheltenham MC’s Fuel Economy Trial, with the late Holland Birkett doing the Grand Prix bits in neutral. In 10,680 miles I see reported the only serious mechanical trouble to have been a broken clutch cable, yet I did the route or the 1924 RAC Small Car Trial in one of these willing Deux Chevaux—and found it difficult to maintain the average speed demanded from the light cars of 30 years earlier.
The following year, apart from some very mild “motor racing” round Goodwood in a Ford Anglia, runs from Land’s End to John O’Groats in an Austin A50 and Bristol 404, and being flown over the Brooklands Railway Straight in a DH Tiger Moth at 1,800 r.p.m. (has G-AKGE aborted or does she still aviate?), the tests were of normal duration. So were those of 1956, when I tried BMWs abroad, had exhilarating experience of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, and took part in the flogging of yet another Citroen 2 cv up BwIchy-Groes Pass, etc.
Nor was there any change in 1957, when petrol rationing restricted things, although the repertoire ran from Fiat 500 to Jaguar Mk. VIII Automatic. The next year, however, there was a long spell with a Citroen DS19, in which I covered 2,800 miles and shared it with other drivers, which dues not mean that I didn’t notch up four-figure mileages in other cars. Citroen’s Mr. Ridout, who believed that you cannot properly assess a good Car in just a “jaunt-round-the-houses”, then let us have extended testing of the ID19. Although serviced at Slough, the vital hydraulic fluids eventually exhausted themselves at an awkward moment, I see. A year’s test of the then-new Morris Mini-Minor was concluded in 1960, with a mileage of 16,626, after which Motor Sport bought this particular “Minibric” and presented it to me as the Editorial car—all I can say, after this passage of time, is that you can have too much of a good thing….
However, the next extended road-test, of a Morris 1100, which commenced in 1962 with 519 miles on the odometer and ended at more than 10,000, gave far more trouble than the Mini’s, from fuel-pump failure, overheating (not the engine’s fault), dangerous front-drive universal joints, etc., though the Mini had become tired-out after its 50,000 miles. In 1963 I see I had a very-much-liked Ford Cortina GT for a 13,148-mile test. and I still remember certain detailed items about it that imparted a nice sense of refinement not continued in later models. Some of the aforesaid Morris 1100 troubles, I see, occurred when I had taken it on as Editorial transport (it expired finally, in unsatisfactory condition, at 28,332 miles), in 1965) when the good Alfred Woolf, whom St. Christopher preserve, suggested the first of many long-range road-tests I was to enjoy. The first one concerned a Fiat 500D, which returned over 55 m.p.g. of cooking fuel on long runs, in a year when I see I also tested a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III and a Mercedes-Benz 600 (but I note that I rated one of my best cars that year to he the Sunbeam Tiger with Type 260 Ford V8 engine and that I rode in the 1924 GP Sunbeam in Wolverhampton).
An MG 1100, much better behaved than the Morris 1100, came for extended 10,000 miles testing in 1966 after Ford had found me a later, but this time well-used, Cortina GT with their then-innovative Aeroflow ventilation, used for over 5,800 miles.
These longer-duration tests which I set out to tell you of seem to have become quite a common cult by 1967, for I had a three-month trial of a very covetable twin-cam Ford Cortina-Lotus which had nothing go wrong with it in nearly 4,000 miles apart from a faulty constant-voltage regulator, and was amused by an Austin Healey Mk. VI Sprite whenever I could prize it away from my young daughters. I see that ice (on the road) got that one too, after a test lasting 5,182 miles, but this time when in female hands. I went further in a Rover 2000 TC, but this was a car bought by Motor Sport for my use; and very reliably, comfortably and enjoyably it served me. This happy state of affairs does not appear to have continued into 1968, but there was compensation in doing normal tests of such diverse motor cars as Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, Jensen FF, and Morgan Plus-Eight.
Normal testing continued for 1969, if you can call driving the twin-cam Escort and the Wankel-Ro80 NSU normal, and I see I rated the Alfa Romeo 1750 GTV my personal “car of the year”, as I had the BMW 2002 in 1968. Which reminds me that the Wankel was not the only pistonless engine I drove behind, for in 1963 I was introduced by Chrysler to both the turbine car and the Instarnatic camera. Extended testing returned in 1970, with the Ford RS1600, in which a seized exhaust camshaft broke the timing belt of the BDA engine, and a most delectable Alfa Romeo 1750 saloon. That year, too, I did quite a distance in a Fiat 128, sampled the raid-engined VW-Porsche 914, gulped cold fresh air in a Lotus Seven Mk. IV after being flown up to Hethel in a rading Piper Twin Commanche, and had brief “goes” in a single-cylinder 1899 Benz and the 24-cylinder Brooklands’ lap-record Napier-Railton. The longer tests were becoming the thing by 1971, when John Rowe let me use a Chrysler 180 for live weeks and I commenced prolonged acquaintance with that very sound and amusing motor car, the Ford Mexico. This only ended because I crashed it pretty effectively, this time with only bad road signs and dazzle from the setting sun as an excuse. Ford rebuilt it to reduce my embarrassment and generously lent it to me again but I was so fearful of blotting my copybook a second time that I practically got out and pushed it over every cross-roads! Incidentally, the old Morgan Plus-Four was also rebuilt and used again by me after the other prang spectacular—I wonder who has KAB 303 now? I wouldn’t mind driving it again, for old-time’s sake—hut not into the front of a stationary van….
In 1971 I persuaded a Range Rover almost to the summit of Cadet Idris; I am still waiting for Autocar to challenge us to a higher turning point. A BMW 2500 completed a 17,500-mile test in my hands in 1972, arid proved to be virtually trouble-free and an extremely nice car in almost every way, confirming the promise shown On an earlier briefer road-test of a BMW 2800. It was daily use of this six-poi BMW that led to my asking for a 520i as an Editorial car, which L-registered BMW I am still using. It began to play up a bit after 40,000 miles, endorsing my opinion that the lesser vehicles tend to lose their edge after 10,000 miles (I don’t say lose dependability, hut begin to give annoying symptoms of pending trouble) and the better cars after some 40,000 miles. (My MD will come in here to tell me that his Mercedes-Benz 2110SE 3.5 has done more than 100,000 botherless miles.)
Ford came up trumps again with a long-duration Consul 3000GT test car in 1973, which was 100’s reliable in 10,350 miles apart from a blown fuse and provided a pleasant contrast to the BMW. The year was notable for a drive (on the road) in Russ Turner’s ex-Birkin blower Bentley single-seater and it was now that clairvoyant Alfred Woolf lent me a Fiat 126, just before petrol was so difficult to obtain. I was horrified to find I had kept it for over two years (the ultimate long-duration test?) when Alfred suggested I might like to purchase it. I hadn’t the face to refuse and have it still—a splendid standby cyclecar, the air-cooled verticle-twin engine of which is an instant starter but does not give quite the fuel thrift of the old Fiat 500D. I seem to remember having a Hillman Avenger for a decently long time and in 1975 Ford’s Press Department enabled me to try an economy Escort Popular for more than 2,300 miles—I see it gave 35 m.p.g. That about completes this summary of the longer appraisals and I hope I have not left anyone out, as it was intended to enlarge on the cars in this category that I rather churlishly dismissed with an “etc.” in that Alpine report.
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Coming now, to the road-test cars of 1976, I can only say that it was a thin time, partly. Perhaps, due to the sad state of this country and its industry, maybe because other members of the writing staff got away in a number of cars I would once have driven myself, but mainly because of unaccountable apathy. For instance, all the Ford generosity of the past evaporated and requests for Dagenham-based products to test resulted in negative results, apart from a four-door Cortina 1.3 saloon which practically stopped on the M40 because the plugs pre-ignited. Ravenhill of Hereford jumped to its succour, efficiently and pleasantly, as when they had cured a water leak on an early V6 Ford engine, and the rest of the car gave adequate evidence of why the modern Cortinas out-sell all their rivals. But I would willingly have slung out that supersonic, or whatever, carburation, especially as it only contnved to return an average 31 m.p.g.
That was the only Ford of 1976—it was wise of them to hold back the Fiesta until these “Fordettes” were available in the UK but the delay has taken the sharp edge off trying this controversial little ‘un, especially as a motoring weekly contrived to publish a full report on a I.h.d. Fiesta more than three months ago. And I had only one Fiat to test last year, the Fiat 128 3P saloon. This sporting little 3-door hatchback takes goods like a little lorry and amazingly will still exceed 100 m.p.h., at the expense of an eager power-roar, body rattles and fuel slopping about in the 11-gallon tank, which exhausts at the thrifty rate of over 40 m.p.g.
Then there was only one single, solitary Mercedes-Benz for me to sample in 1976, the revised Reliant Scimitar evaded us, in spite of factory visit, and I didn’t drive any Japanese cars last year—not that I mind that. I suppose I have had my fair share of test-cars and I mind these omissions less than I did. But I find it difficult to understand the mentality of PROs and other publicity-persons who, knowing that column inches of editorial are worth far more than paid advertising, turn down requests for test-cars, especially with Motor Sport’s monthly circulation standing at 123,317 against the last available ABC circulation-figures (which those concerned with magazine readership recognise as the most infallible guide), compared with figures from the same source for the oldest British weekly motor magazine of 70,693, for its sister weekly of 79,490, for a newish monthly with a similar but shorter name 48,5:33 and with the once-top-circulation “DlY” motor papers down to almost half their former sales. After such a long innings as a road-test reporter I can afford to shrug off this recent dearth of test-cars as the PROs’ loss, not mine.
It would have been an even thinner year had the Triumph Stag test not run over into 1976. What an excellent, effortless motor car this V8 Leyland is! Two members of the staff have them and the test car is remembered for a sharp emergency night-journey, under-taken at a moments notice in teeming rain, when nearly 200 miles were disposed of very quickly in maximum comfort, and for the handiness of the Stag while covering the VSCC Measham Rally on the night of the notorious January gale. Before 1976 road-testing really commenced, and in between times, I was always very glad to be driving the Editorial BMW 520i, now Goodyear G800-shod, and Raymond Playfoot was exceedingly helpful over having it serviced. Notwithstanding which, it made me walk home after the VSCC Oulton Park racing, when its fuel-injection pump’s cogged driving-belt broke at 38,775 miles (but a service was overdue) and it twice lost its brakes, the first time at 39,300 miles—something to do with Hygroscopic brake fluid?
1976 testing commenced with three Vauxhalls. Derek Goatman is a most understanding and obliging PRO, who likes Pressmen to ask him for the cars they wish to sample. I had first a Vauxhall Chevette GL, which gave nearly 40 m.p.g., was rather keen on consuming oil, seemed to fall into no definite load-swallowing category, but was nevertheless a quite charming little 3-door coupe, with light steering, a compact turning-circle and good instrumentation. It was followed by an Opel Manta pretending to be a Vauxhall Cavalier 1900 GT coupe, which I thought dated in some important respects. But it was an economical, pleasant, well-behaved car on long runs. Derek also lent me a Vauxhall Victor 2300 Estate, which I did not get my hands on at all, but which served as an admirable tow-car when members of the family brought my 1922 Talbot-Darracq from Scotland to Wales on its trailer, the old T-D having evaded a drive down by ingeniously and conveniently cracking its cylinder head (since welded up, it seems effectively by Sosby of Leicester).
A Saab 99GL Combi coupe was collected from Slough in March. It proved much better than the previous Saab I had sampled; indeed, a car full of good works. And, in the modern idiom, a big and economical load-carrier. But I would have liked rather more forward vision. A twin-cam Mercedes-Benz 280SE was, in a way, a mistake, because it reminded me of all the precision, refinement and absolute control I am missing by not always driving behind the, Triple-Star of Stuttgart! Top-quality sums it up, priced, in this case, at £8,350 at the time of the test.
Next there was the satisfaction of doing a decent stint in a Princess 1800 HL. I found I could easily live with this wedge-shaped British Leyland product. for it is a good car, which deserves to succeed, although somewhat soggy Hydragas, a noisy long-stroke engine and an indifferent gear-change had to be got used to. I followed this, encouraged in a childish whim by Pam Wearing, of the British Leyland Press Department, with an MG Midget 1500. It felt very small as I took it past the “heavies” on the M1 and as the drought hadn’t then arrived, the effective hood was up as much as down. But it is an amusing small sports car and, I thought, here is the fun-car for my old age. Until, that is, I enquired the price-£1,799. A pity, however, if they phase opt this last of the MG Midgets. Another great Leyland Eight that occupied some of the 1976 test days was the new Rover 3500. A colleague and I have written enough about it to show you, we hope, that Britain now makes a really good, five-door, vee-eight, high-performance saloon of ingenious conception at a most competitive price. It is my hope that we shall encounter more and more of these Spen King masterpieces on the road during 1977.
Thinking in terms of vee engines, I got in a short spell in a Peugeot 604 V6 SL with the power-pack it shares with Renault and Volvo. Very nice, very quick for its size, and with the expected excellent Peugeot ride and cornering powers. An essentially comfortable car, too, this V6 Peugeot, with enough “character” to endear it to many enthusiasts, but not, I thought, as quiet as a Peugeot should be. This was another firm that was unco-operative, so this was the only one of these renowned French cars tried last year.
The month-long test of the new Chrysler Alpine S was published too recently to require embellishment, except to say that the car covered eventually 3,411 miles, with no troubles apart from those mentioned in the December 1976 issue, and I was sorry to see it go. The Renault 20TL, an inspiring all-rounder, was dealt with only last month and there remain only the very satisfactory two additional Renault models with which I completed the 1976 road-test curriculum, of which more in a moment.
There were a few compensations for a disappointing test-session. The little Talbot-Darracq recovered from its cranium crevices, and ran again. Philip Stein of VW let me take a VW Polo, that very delectable small car, on his Economy frolic, in which I won third prize, getting 78.6 m.p.g. I had a very brief go in the latest Reliant Scimitar, took Robert Wyse’s much-travelled (200,000 miles) Audi 80GL and a 1928 Rolls-Royce 20 Park Ward saloon “up the road” (variety is the spice of motoring), and in November Tom Lightfoot let me drive his 1902 Beaufort in the RAC Veteran Car Run, while in April my wife and I had been delighted to again entertain the VSCC Light Car Section to tea and trials hills.
During the record summer heat-wave young Alan Hodge of Leyland’s PR Department chauffeured me in hushed dignity round part of England to look at far older Daimlers. Britain’s pioneer motor-carriages, in the comfort of a V12 Daimler Double-Six saloon. The air-conditioning was absolutely appropriate to the torrid weather and, remembering the esteem in which I regard the lesser 3.4 Jaguar driven in 1975, it is quite definite that British Leyland, in the new Rover 3500; the Jaguars, and this fine, value for-outlay Double-Six Daimler, have cars which are leaders of their respective classes and which should go a long way to improving our prosperity, if Politicians and Trades Union Leaders will give them the green (not a red) light….
Finally, Renault Limited came up trumps with two more cars for test at the close of 1976, from the efficient Press service run by Geoffrey Charles, Tony Ronald, and Yvette D’Arcy. The first model I picked up from the enlarged Acton premises was a Renault 12TL Estate. It turned out to be an admirable work-horse, in the snows and slush of December. The alloy-head 1,289 c.c. 54 b.h.p. engine is an instant starter after a freezing night in the open. Screen-wiping and washing are firstclass. The conventional gear lever, as distinct from the former Renault umbrellahandle, which always seemed quite convenient to me, functions very well, with good synchromesh on all forward gears if not hurried, and reverse easy to engage. Vision is good, front and hack, the seats notably comfortable, and with the back seat folded this estate-car offers a most extensive luggage platform, easily loaded through a lift-up rear door that is self-supporting. The floor is sensibly lined with simple matting—and who wants a fitted carpet in the back of an Estate? The Renault’s performance is adequate, the noise level at 70 m.p.h. not excessive and there are ample stowages, including a lidded facia bin, which locks. The Kleber V12 tyres give a surprisingly capable grip on wet and snowy roads. Indeed, the Renault 12 clawed its way up my drive under snow-conditions that would have defeated many other cars and under these highly-adverse circumstances of cold weather, much choke, short runs and a good deal of starting and stopping. I got 35.2 m.p.g, of 4-star. Ground clearance is another strong recommendation of the 12TL as country transport. A doctor and a daughter, who both use Renaults, regarded the latest 12TL as an excellent proposion it sells for £2,601 as tested and over 905 rather trying miles it gave not an iota of anxiety and used no oil. It possesses good disc/drum brakes, excellent heating and de-misting, and there is the luxury of variable lamps dipping from a facia knob.
My Christmas car was a Renault 17TS coupe. This is the model which was introduced in 1971 and became available here in 1972, so it was scarcely a new concept. However, it has recently had revised styling. So, after forming a high opinion of the more utilitarian Renaults, it was interesting to assess a more sporting kind of car from Billancourt. The 17TS is rather too gimmicky for my liking, although not taking this as. far as the new Lagonda Gimmic. But decorative plastic slats on the rear side-windows and contracting side pads to hold you in Your seat, adjusted by turning a knob, fun as these would have been in my courting days, are quite unnecessary items in an already individualistic sporting car. The two-door body is now dating, style-wise, and the rear compartment must he one Of the most restricted in the business, especially as the front seat-squabs are extended into tulip-shaped integral headrests. The front seats themselves are more ingenious than comfortable, at all events for male persons, and I did not take kindly to the furry vinyl upholstery. I also found the stalk controls confusing.
The 17TS has the 1,647 c.c. engine, driving the front wheels. It develops 98(DIN) b.h.p. at 5,750 r.p.m. but although it has a 5-bearing crankshaft it vibrates the steering wheel at idling revs. and its automatic choke is too eager to keep the revs too high for rather too long from a cold-start, although starting was always immediate in freezing conditions. The gear-change for the 5-speed gearbox is quite acceptable although notchy in action, I suppose the great point about this Renault 17TS is that it has rather slow-moving electric windows, controlled by buttons on the facia, in conjunction with an electrically-operated sun-roof as an optional extra, and the price is still only £4,010.63, which includes hard-top and tinted windows. Super-gloss paint and cloth upholstery cost another £60.37, hut without these luxuries the price drops to £3,555.63. Top speed is over 105 m.p.h. and the engine gives quiet cruising, at 20.2 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. in top and 3,200 r.p.m. at an indicated 70 m.p.h. in 5th gear. The engine, although it does not “go into the red” until 6,000 r.p.m., will run down to under 1,500 r.p.m. in 5th. The cornering characteristic is understeer, followed by roll oversteer from somewhat-lurchy coilspring rear suspension of the dead back axle. The rack-and-pinion steering has mild caster return action, as on the 12TL, and both Renaults had good radios, RE510 on the 17TS.
I headed out of London into Essex on Christmas Eve in the Renault 17TS and returned to Wales on the Sunday, at first in normal, crawling Sunday traffic, which cleared just before Aylesbury, allowing the Renault to cruise like a proper little sporting car. Under these conditions a tankful of 4-star took me 370 miles. Overall an excellent 33.3 m.p.g. was obtained. Allowing for no motoring on Christmas Day, a good deal of Imperialbashing, and difficult weather conditions after Christmas, the week’s total was a mere 680 miles. A useful feature of this unusual little car is a good boot, easily loaded through the big lift-up rear window. It also has a powerful if ridiculously over-sensitive heater, with a very noisy fan operated by a vertical thumbwheel in the nicely-contrived facia. With Renault hoping, to win Le Mans this summer a more sporting image from the great French Company would he appropriate and this 17TS is consequently a move in somewhat the right direction—why, it even sports a “power bulge” on the bonnet panel, to accommodate the 32DARA Weber. Like those on the 12TL, wipers and washers functioned well.
And that was it, for another year. It was a year in which I tested but one Ford, no Alfa Romeo, Citroen, Lancia or Opel cars. This is not to imply that Motor Sport readers suffered a paucity of interesting test-reports; rather that my colleagues were quicker on the draw. It only remains to remark that, of the cars that were submitted for test. six were on Michelin tyres, two each were on Avon, Ceat and Pirelli. and one each was on Uniroyal, Goodrich, Goodyear, Kleber and Dunlop Denovo tyres.—W.B.