My Year's Motoring

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The Editor Looks Back on the Cars He Drove During 1977

Nineteen-seventy-seven was an enjoyable motoring year, even if some of the faster, better motor cars eluded me just as it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that ever-younger Policemen are being recruited these days, and that old standards are fast vanishing, so do I accept that road-testing and otherwise sampling a mere three-dozen or fewer motor cars for the biggest-circulation non-Trade motoring journal isn’t quite up to my record of the past (I write “record” advisedly why do people talk these days of “track records”, when no driving or running is involved?). Other motoring writers may scorn this 1977 achievement of mine but I am nevertheless content, and I now propose to compile my customary annual “look-back”, for the benefit of any readers who are interested and who cannot be expected to remember in detail last year’s Motor Sport road-test articles.

It was a year, on my part, without accidents or any brushes with the Constabulary. Which added, of course, to its enjoyment -especially as my one driving-licence Endorsement will (fingers crossed and eyes glued alternately to the rear-view mirror and to the pavement for first glimpse of a “black-box”, which is no way to drive 100% safely but is thrust on us by our cautious, sanctimonious Rulers) be gone by next March. I believe implicitly that speed in the right place, particularly in a modern car on today’s splendidly-safe tyres, isn’t in itself a cause of calamity, just as I have absolutely no sympathy for those who drink and try to drive. It follows that I believe most speed limits to be too low, and some wrongly applied, even to permitting too high a speed on certain roads, including 70 m.p.h. along some narrow dual-carriageways where much pulling out to overtake occurs. I hope this does not sound smug! For, you see, I have had my share of “wizard prangs”. The first, before the war, involved a borrowed Fiat 500 and was due to the brakes locking-up the wheels when applied too hard on a slippery road. The battered Topolino was driven home, and no one was hurt. The next prang centred around a friend’s Austin Seven Ruby saloon in the war-time black-out. It was run into when stationary by a London omnibus, with a crack of doom like an exploding shell. This time the car was only just driveable and there was some loss of blood from the driver’s head, necessitating a night in hospital which cost me, I think, 15s. od. London Transport paid for the Austin and in neither of these accidents was the young lady passenger hurt, although I seem to recall that one of them would only come out again on nonmobile pleasures, such as going on foot to a nice, safe cinema …. After the war I wrote off, pretty effectively (although it was in fact rebuilt by its makers), the Editorial Morgan Plus-Four, when I “lost it” on black ice. Personal damage was confined to a bruised chest and a broken tooth, and trains and ‘buses brought me home dejectedly through the fog. The last prang here I type with those crossed fingers was due to a bit of misjudgement at a country cross-roads, turned into calamity by obscured road-signs and freak sunshine that shone dustily into my eyes. The Ford Mexico I was driving rolled itself into a partial metallic-ball but I got off with a dislocated finger and had a free dinner that night on the Health Service in a Hereford hospital. No one else was hurt, the van I collided with just driving away, and even the Police “lost” the Mexico they had towed away for a few days; eventually Ford rebuilt it as new. I have recounted all this to off-set smugness; let us all be careful how we conduct our lethal weapons during this year’s motoring. As I have said, in 1977 I escaped both accidents and Radar, perhaps more by luck than good judgement, although I suppose fifty years’ driving must add up to some degree of useful experience.

* * *

Looking at my 1977 RAC Diary, I see that the first road-test of last year concerned a Ford Fiesta L two-door saloon, in which I covered more than 2,000 exploratory miles. It was a controversial little package at the time, and was thus an interesting experience. The conclusion was that the then-new Fiesta was an acceptable hatchback, endowed with a rear wash-wipe which all such cars should have, and a car the engineering ingenuities and brilliant concept of which became more apparent the further I drove it. I was in some ways sorry that the basic design followed so closely that of the “Issigonised” Fiat 127 – those Ford-engineering ingenuities are deeply buried and the suddenness of the clutch engagement wasn’t at all acceptable. The Fiesta’s spongy brakes nevertheless functioned well, the dead back axle beam promoted some choppy riding over rough surfaces, and minor irritations concerned a difficult-to-replace bayonet fuel-filler cap and a bonnet-release obviously intended for a I.h.d. model. Generally, though, this Ford Fiesta proved a fine economy car. I have long regarded the mighty Ford Motor Company as purveyors not only of extremely good modern sporting and family cars but also of sound transportation for a wide spectrum of the Motoring Community. The Fiesta in its variety of guises has materially enhanced this enviable reputation.

Before trying the small Ford I had gone in the so-well-liked Editorial BMW 520i to cover the MCC Exeter and VSCC Mcasham trials (don’t kid me the latter is a rally!), and the Fiesta had been made good use of on a journey to Devon to get the Hall Eight story and to visit Motor Sport’s one-time regular contributor, Kent Karslake. On its return I took over a road-test Volkswagen Polo LS. This not only showed up the excellent Press Service of VW (GB) Ltd. under Tony Hill but enabled me to compare Polo with Fiesta. The conclusion in this case was to the effect that the German car cornered softer, so rode better, had perhaps not quite such a comfortable driving-seat as the little Ford, but seemed a much higher-grade car in its appointments and decor, with a good if not quite so smooth gear change. The VW was the car I would have chosen, of the two, on account of its so-quiet, turbine-like, light-alloy engine which, although 136 c.c. larger than that of the Fiesta I tried, was only 0.1 of a m.p.g. inferior in fuel thirst. Before you buy, however, maybe there are other financial considerations to be assessed?

The third test-car of 1977 was an Opel Ascona 5.9 SR two-door saloon. Most Opels are excellent cars these days and this Ascona proved an untroubled, typically-German concept, running quietly if you eschewed Motorways (or the furious speed which is legal on British ones), it had excellent instrument-vision, but only a single stalk-control. It was a comfortable, nicely-unusual car, slightly marred by inferior demisting, heavy steering, and a mediocre ride and gear shift: Acceptable, however, and the interesting under-camshaft 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine gave better than 29 m.p.g. I Ascona-ed to Loton hill-climb to look at this interesting sprint venue, being driven swiftly up the twisting course by Reg Phillips in his Ferrari 308GTB (from which emerged another “looking-back” article), and I took it to the Midlands for some vintage-car diversity.

After doing the MCC Land’s End Trial in a tuned Hillman Imp (Finisher’s Award) it was soon time to add to my growing BMW experience by testing the latest BMW 528, which came in automatic-transmission form, from Raymond Playfoot’s super-efficient Press Department at BMW House on London’s Great West Road. It was, as expected, a most enjoyable way of motoring in luxury and security, made good use of over a long week-end. Ignore a stiff window-winder, an elusive but annoying noise somewhere in the bodywork, slight sponge about the braking, and not very good fresh-air ventilation (even now), and that 528 was unfaultable I had hoped for one as my next long-duration-test-cum-Editorial car but circumstances decreed otherwise, as you will learn later. A Japanese excercise was supplied by a Toyota Celica 2000GT saloon. There was much that was very nice about this lift-back two-door sporting saloon, but its appearance put me off, reversing it without adequate rearward vision likewise, and exceedingly vague steering, back-axle thump, and harsh suspension made this a dated number. What is remembered is the excellence of the economical Toyota twin-cam 1,986-c.c. engine and five-speed gearbox.

Returning from the Reg Phillips interview, I changed the ornate Toyota for a car I was very eager to try, namely the vee-six Renault 30TS. I have a great admiration for the Regie Renault, who make dependable utility cars at one end of the scale, racing cars up to its ingenious Formula One car at the other. Here was their top production-model, their newest luxury job. It was a lot of motor car – 2.6-litre, overhead-camshaft power pack, all-disc braking, from-wheel-drive, and spacious bodywork. As I hurried a son-in-law to London Airport from his Richmond flat I liked this big new Renault. It had the central door-locking which is such a boon, one of the more essential luxuries, which one finds on a number of the better-contrived cars these days. On driving it further afield, however, a modicum of disappointment set in. The versatile Renault seat-folding made this a Splendid load-swallower. Renault suspension made you very comfortable, no matter what the road surface. It was a car so easy to control, notably quiet apart from some wind-whistle and Lyre-thump, and possessing nice power-steering and it was good to gaze upon. Perhaps this handsome but unobtrusive Billancourt product should not have been hustled along quite so ambitiously. Because when it was it proved a soggy barge. It was all too easy to spin the front wheels when making a quick take-off, third gear amused itself by changing, unasked, into neutral, and until the multi-cylinder machinery was quite warm there was some hesitancy. This is not to imply that the big Renault did not sail along very majestically, and maybe I had an early example for too brief a period to really get to know it. But a sharp price increase made it look a too-expensive luxury, which I used as transport to that neverto-be-forgotten R-REC Transport Trust Windsor/Ascot Rolls-Royce Silver Jubilee Celebration and to Donington for more vintage-car investigation. I imagine this Renault 30 is very much sought-after in its native country…

 Another German confection came along in May, to the tune of an Audi 100GLS. Like BMW, Audi has a band that plays a confusingly varied tune, so that one scarcely has time to assess one theme before a more breath-taking one is heard. I had listened to such glowing reports of Audi’s “music” that I expected a great treat to be mine when I was allowed to drive the 100GLS. But it was by then already overshadowed by the five-cylinder Audi offering. So being behind a mere four cylinders was a bit daunting. The four-pot 100GLS made up for this in outstanding acceleration, cornering ability, and good looks. The gear-change, the unusual Audi “keep-straight” steering, the clutch action, and the brakes were only slightly less acceptable but, truth to tell, I found this Audi a little more “tinny” of construction that I had expected of a £5,000-plus car. Ventilation was complicated, the ride a bit lurchy, and the steering too low-geared, but what a quick place-to-place vehicle it was! It made light of the long haul from Nantmel, Powys, to Gatwick, Surrey, for my wife to catch an aeroplane for her holiday in America, in spite of unforeseen traffic hold-ups on the way.

Compensation for a lonely, uneventful Jubilee week-end came in the guise of a Vauxhall VX2300 estate, laid on by the ever-obliging Derek Goatman of the Luton PR Department. A good-looking, by-no-means-sluggish load-carrier, very relaxing to drive, I liked this sensible vehicle at the modest price more than I had anticipated,. and had it going up to Donington to make reacquaintance with W. E. Harker and his V8 Harker special, before exchanging temporarily the Editorial BMW 520i for the sheer perfection of a BMW 633CSi. This I found a magnificent way of motoring, via Shrewsbury and other pleasant places, to Oulton Park for the annual VSCC racing there. I can only describe this £14,977 (at time of test) four-seater BMW coupe as “near-perfection”. Perfection, perhaps, being this fine Bavarian car with a less “sudden” clutch action and improved cold-air ingress. It is the combination of high-performance, docility, driver-amenities (including the unique “fail-safe” panel), controllability, and BMW power-steering, of which there is nothing better, that add-up to the 633CSi being one of the World’s great motor cars.

Very different, but very good fun, was the Range Rover I tried next. It was little different from the one we coaxed almost to the summit of Caler Idris (and there planted a Motor Sport banner) some years ago. Transmission whine and the high price apart, there can be only praise for Spen King’s great vee-eight “workhorse”, which may roll rather excessively when sports-car-type driving is applied on main roads but which is the answer for off-road travel in great comfort as I found when following the Welsh Two Days International Motorcycle Trial in this £7,483 go-almost-anywhere Solihull product.

Soon after this D.S.J. nearly had a fit when he saw me at Shelsley Walsh in a Vauxhall Magnum 1800, which I had borrowed from Derek Goatman in order to compare it with the Vauxhall Magnum 2300. The former was the two-door saloon, the latter a four-door, both finished in an appealing shade of metallic amber green. For the prices asked, both were-considered very serviceable cars. The smaller of these two Vauxhalls took me to a vintage motor-cycle gathering, to the Bass Beer-Brewing Museum at Burton-on-Trent, and to the annual Shotglon Air Display, returning 34 m.p.g. from its overhead-camshaft engine. The “Big Four” version got along very well indeed, and gave 28.7 m.p.g. on runs which included some very fast Motorway driving and another VSCC Silverstone. Both these Vauxhalls were priced at less than £3,000, there being £233 between them, which I thought was really excellent value-for-expenditure. (Prices quoted in this article, unless otherwise stated, are those applying at the time the cars concerned were tested; those who may be inspired to buy should check against current, ever-inflating tendencies.)

A highlight of 1977 followed the testing of these two outwardly-the-same but different engine-size Lutonians, in the shape of a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II. Because whatever your personal taste in automobiles, whatever your political and social views and strata, few can resist the allure of any Rolls-Royce motor car. I have never been blinded by the Magic Name and in the past have criticised what I regarded as-out-dated, or odd, aspects of the old Silver Clouds. ‘fhe Silver Shadow is something different, more advanced, very sophisticated, yet reaching back to the motoring of a former age, in subtle fashion. It is one of the engineering and craftsmen-built productions of which Britain can be immensely proud. The sales-figures, the long waiting-lists, prove that whatever the motoring ideals of young tear-aways, youthful race-influenced enthusiasts, and those who think in terms of exceedingly advanced auto-technology, the modern Rolls-Royce represents the best car in the World to a great many people. That more Rolls-Royces are being sold than ever before surely indicates, too, that it is not just snob-values or status-symbolism that have put this unique motorcar at the top of the luxury-travel stakes. Otherwise its now comparatively big output would weigh against acquisition of one of these exclusive motor cars, and the continuing desire to ride in majesty behind the significant but uncaring “Spirit of Ecstasy”. No, Rolls-Royce Motors have succeeded mainly because they make cars which have something indefinable, which no others possess.

Those were my sentiments after nearly 1,000 miles in a week in the latest Shadow. Calling at Hythe Road to collect it, I thought the Rover 3500 in which I had arrived quite adequate “executive” transport. Returning. the Rolls seven days afterwards I knew that no other car can quite compare with it. There is surely no need to enlarge on this? Let me just say that my wife and I went to Monmouth in it for the R-REC’s unveiling of the Hon. Charlie Rolls’ memorial plaque and left in this big, costly car, which is so easy to handle and sumptuous to occupy, for Derby that evening. Holiday traffic congestion could now be ignored. One was isolated from such things in this lofty, luxurious, inaudible motor-carriage. Next morning we drove via the pleasantly-tree-lined Nottingham outskirts, to penetrate into Lincolnshire for the VSCC Cadwell Park Race Meeting. After it was over we slid smoothly and silently away from the Paddock, to return home to Wales. A stupid piece of non-navigation at a roundabout where I thought I had learned to turn correctly for the Motorway complex over smoky Birmingham sent us heading North instead of West, so we opted for the A5, twice circled the badly-signposted roundabout before making the M54, but successfully by-passed all but the outskirts of olde-world Shrewsbury, to continue over the pleasant back-route I use when coming down from a day at Oulton Park. I then used the Shadow as others might a Mini, for going down narrow country lanes to a dinner appointment. Every mile was enjoyable, as they would have been to all save those few who nurse some self-imposed aversion to a Rolls, and it was all done at 15 m.p.g.

What followed might have been anti-climax. In fact, it was a Colt Sigma s200GLX and I found it a great deal better than other Japanese cars I have tried. The ingenious crankshaft driven harmonic-balancer seemed to do its stuff in making the overhead-camshaft 1,995 c.c. four-cylinder engine smooth-out, even at modest speeds, but I would have liked more performance from it, nor was fuel-thrift exceptional. However, one could not deny the very full equipment provided, at a selling price of £3,944. Something very special followed, for the BMW 733i now came up for appraisal. Some colleagues feel that this is too highly-priced at £11,550, against £25,992 for a R-R Shadow, for what it delivers or how it handles or what it represents. My views about it appeared quite recently in these pages, so let it suffice that I said, after driving this Big BMW, that it ranked as one of the World’s satisfying motoring experiences.

The new Ford Granada 2.8iS came next, its German engine fuel-iniected and giving very ample urge. The handling was an interesting combination of softness, quietness, and exceptional sure-footedness, which needed some acclimatisation before one fully appreciated the great qualities of the Michelin TRX tyres which suit so well these latest, more compact, rather curiously-restyled Granacias. As the test report appeared last month I need say no more here than that Ford has done it again, in my opinion, in terms of another highly-competitive and saleable family car.

The year 1977 was by now running out. I was glad to find myself again in an Alfa Romeo, in the form of the Alfasud 1.3 ti saloon. The up-rated engine is what this entrancing little package needed and at under £3,000 this flat-four, o.h.c., front-drive, five-speed Italian car represents exceptionally good value. It is a pity its good name has been sullied of late by reports of quick-rusting; the test-car, like the Vauxhalls and BMWs, etc. was, however, labelled as having extra under-body protection.

The handy, willing Sunbeam 1600S hatchback from Chrysler UK that took me up to Glasgow for the Scottish Motor Show at the Kelvin Hall, for the purpose of a rather special, nostalgic story, was written up in the January Motor Sport, so requires no further embellishment here. The last short-term road-test I did last year was in a Porsche 924, the report on which appears elsewhere in this issue, and which I remember as a delightful car to drive, but very over-geared. The last test-car of 1977, which I am still using, was a Reliant Kitten DL estate. Rather different from those Mercedes-Benz which used to be laid-on for me over the Festive Season and which I remember as having inimitable power-steering and “feel”, and which I have described in the past as the best-engineered cars in the World; Erik Johnson didn’t produce one for me this time so it was a Kitten for Christmas! Fortunately, I like modest economy-cars as well as faster machinery. This Kitten might be likened to a modern version of the famous Austin Seven. It has a very fierce clutch, you change gear with a little cranked lever, there is the remembered faint hiss from the clutch withdrawal as you do so, but there the resemblance ends; except that the earlier Sevens had aluminium bodies and the Reliant Kitten defies rust by having a fibre-glass body. The estate version is very conveniently equipped, with excellent wipers that sweep properly to the driver’s right corner of the windscreen, unlike those of some more costly cars, easy loading of the rear compartment through a side-opening door, and there is even a rear wash-wipe. Fuel economy of the Kitten must wait until it is run-in, but it has a great reputation in this quarter and even with a stiff 848 C.C. light-alloy engine which couldn’t yet. be allowed to slog, it has returned 46 m.p.g. on the first tankful. Like our Fiat 126 it will run on three-star petrol but prefers four-star. I have already quite a liking for this odd little money-saving Kitten. The day I first took it into our local shopping-town (where the green Welsh hills still form a backdrop) I encountered another of its kind. Let us hope this is a good augury that Reliant, who pioneered the sporting-hatchback with their Scimitar and who tenaciously continue to build the Robin three-wheelers, will survive, as a British motor manufacturer who supplies cars to HRH Princess Anne.

* * *

That’s the year that was except for brief runs in the Saab 99 Turbo, a handy (in London congestion) Renault 5TL, the new Renault 20TS and a Morgan Plus Eight etc. On occasions I dug out the Fiat 126, which is terribly noisy and cramped compared to the Reliant Kitten and does not contrive to do more than about 48 m.p.g., but is an amusing, well-engineered, aircooled, vertical-twin-cylinder cyclecar. During the year, too, the greatly-esteemed Editorial BMW 520i was changed for a British -car, a Rover 3500. Blotting its copybook after 5,739 miles with fuel-pump failure, it is now running well. Its first outing in my hands was to the very wet VSCC Prescott hill-climb and later I took it to see how it had been made, at Solihull, where all the workers were on strike at British Leyland’s enormous new Rover factory! Initially there had been various troubles for the suppliers, Henly’s, to sort out and when the first service became due they were so occupied that it had to be foregone. In subsequent service visits to a different BL agent, no attempt has been made to replace a loose area of sound-damping within the boot, which I gather is also the case on another Rover.

I am reminded that in 1977 I had rather a bad time when, all at once, I became a grandfather, received my OAP papers, and discovered that this Rover had an automatic transmission and that its licence-disc had been lost how’s that for quickly ageing one? Perhaps the automatic gearbox is responsible for the Rover’s fuel consumption coming out at 20.7 m.p.g. Its mileage to date is under 8,000 but I hope to say more about it at a later date suffice it here to remark that it seems to me that this vee-eight Rover is quite a decent substitute for a R-R Silver Shadow, for thrifty executives… Whether British Leyland have been wise in bringing out 2.3 and 2.6-litre six-cylinder versions of the 3500, using the same body shell, is debatable. It is just possible that there is more snobbishness among the less-wealthy than there is among Rolls-Royce buyers (see previous comments), which might put some customers off the big Rover in case it is mistaken for one of the lesser Sixes – when Rolls-Royce brought out their small Royce as a companion for the 40/50 they were careful to adopt a somewhat different specification and dimensions, remember. That aside, a colleague who was keen to sample the smaller-engined Rovers, thinking that the new BL six-pot power-unit might be better than the latest BMW sixes, tells MC that the 2.3 Rover is a very flat performer…..

Old-car pleasures were by no means missing during 1977. Thanks to Robbie Hewitt I was able to cavort carefully about old Brooklands at the VSCC driving tests in her 1928 CGSS Amilear. I went down to Pendine in the BMW 520i to see “Babs” run again on the historic sands. I followed an R-REC social run in the BMW 528, and Lord Montagu kindly arranged for me to ride in his Rolls-Royce Phantom tourer on that great Windsor Castle Parade past HM The Queen in her Jubilee Year, a happy occasion that could only have happened in England. Later that day I was taken into the Ascot Silver Ring in John Fasal’s well-known Rolls-Royce Twenty tourer, and thanks to Tom Lightfoot’s generosity, was able next day to take part in the vintage assembly there, in his lively, hybrid sports Austin Seven, which rekindled many youthful memories. That evening we returned home from this unforgettable week-end in the soft-running comfort of the Renault 30 and whatever I have said about it previously, it was certainly a car that fitted nicely into the mood of the day, beside the dignity and ostentatiousness all around.

During the year I attended many more vintage rallies, and the over-crowded Brooklands Reunion etc. I drove the unwell Leyland Eight, Julian Goosh’s modified 30/98 Vauxhall, and followed another R-REC run in a 1949 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, which I sampled for a few miles. Then there was a splendid drive in Adrian Liddell’s accommodating racing Straker-Squire and a notably swift ride to Brighton in Roger Collings’ 1903 Sixty Mercedes.

I also had memorable runs in Mavrogordato’s 1914 GP Opel, Rolls-Royce Motors’ original 40/50 “Silver Ghost”, and Southall’s 1920 40/50 Rolls-Royce tourer. Riding from Beaulieu to Hythe Road in the 1906 “Ghost” was a drenching experience, so that I was wet most of the way home to Wales, drying out gradually thanks to the Ford Fiesta’s powerful heater. For what it is worth, or isn’t, eleven of the aforesaid test cars were on Michelin tyres, four each were shod by Dunlop and Pirelli and one each were on Metzler, Bridgestone, Kleber and Goodyear “boots”.

And, so far as last year was concerned, in the words of the immortal Julius Caesar: “That’s all there is: there isn’t any more.” –W.B.