My Year's Motoring

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The Editor Looks Back on the Cars He Drove During 1978

I had intended giving this annual look-back a miss this time, after more than 25 years of summarising my previous year’s road-test reports, especially as I do not wish what follows to appear to be the total road-testing done by Motor Sport in 1978. However, as there is a move afoot to produce a quarter-of-a-century of these summaries of road-testing in book-form, I have been persuaded to write another article in the series. Anyway, it was not my idea in the first place. I simply copied H. S. Linfield of The Autocar and now everyone seems to do it; if quantity is a criterion, road-test reports must be the most sought-after aspect of any motor paper, for these days such reports are prolific. This being the case, it is to the credit of most of the manufacturers’ and concessionaires’ Press departments that we get such good service when it comes to borrowing new cars for assessment, although there are some unfortunate exception’s.

Looking at my 1978 Leyland diary, I see that I sampled a smaller number of cars last year than I have in the better years of the past. Nevertheless, it was a satisfactory year. It was in 1978 that I should have again had a clean driving licence because the endorsement inflicted by Cheltenham magistrates for a speeding offence expired technically in March 1978. That it is still there in 1979 and will remain on my licence until it is again due for renewal in 1983, for an offence committed in 1974, is another of the DVLC’s nasty little ways. They explain that this is in no way an extension of the punishment imposed by the justices but just a move to enable a Court to be aware of it if a driver is convicted of a further offence. It sounds very Irish to me. A term of punishment is served and the charge cleared; if it is to affect future Court procedure, how can it be said that it will never constitute an increase in the punishment, which Miss Grinnell of the Drivers Enquiry Unit at Swansea would have us believe? I have an idea that after another year I can buy myself a really clean driving licence, but as the Justices of the Peace decided that driving a small VW for a few hundred yards at 40 m.p.h. in a deserted road should cost a fine of £10, why should I be required to pay an additional fine to be rid of an endorsement which was to run for only three years anyway?

Having got that off my chest, there is something else. I note that the old bogy of trying to make all drivers use dipped-headlamps at all times, even in well-lit city streets, is being.flogged by a contemporary weekly as costers used to flog unfortunate ponies and horses. Those who retort that such headlamps cause dazzle are told that their eyesight must be faulty. But those who say they cannot see cars properly that are on sidelamps only might equally be told that they should see an optician, surely? I would feel a fool driving about in good daylight or blazing sunshine with even my sidelamps on, and have been spared this conspicuosity by not having been offered a Volvo for road-test for a very long time! But it has to be conceded that this rugged barge comes from a land where they know about had weather. Yet what does a Volvo use for its permanent, wired-to-the-ignition running-lights – sidelamps, of course, not dipped headlamps. Taken to its logical conclusion, as something which moves is usually spotted sooner than something that is stationary, ask any Army or Police sniper, if moving cars need dipped headlamps all the time, even in brightly-lit streets, parked cars must presumably need them all the more, which is clearly nonsense. So cannot a bit of common sense prevail and drivers use the right lighting for prevailing conditions, as most of them do anyway, and this silly campaign be ignored? I am speaking for car drivers; the motorcyclists must think for themselves. What a horrible thing it would be to find oneself strapped to a car with its lamps all ablaze, its fail-safe brakes working properly, its rear fog-lamps alight, and then to die from a heart attack through worrying about it all … which seems to he the way some drivers will go.

Another moan concerns the way in which local Councils who have the available manpower and mechanical diggers are forever straightening out nice bits of winding road, over which it was once a joy to drive. There.are now many Motorways and dual-carriageways for commercial vehicles and business motorists so why do we have to tolerate the widening and straightening of country lanes and by-roads? It takes all the fun from driving and soon handling qualities and the feel of the steering will count far less than formerly in the assessment of a car’s qualities. It is as if the bureaucrats would prefer that we never turned the steering-wheel at all! Even in my own, nicely-remote, part of the country, costly road-widening and straightening is the norm. The twisty little “mountain” that takes you from Llandegley to the Forest Inn, and to me represents the end of England and the entry to Wales, will soon, it appears, be gone, in favour of a straight switchback, and no longer will tourists on the A44 see anything of New Radnor village unless they look for it. In making all roads straight and the same, much of the pleasure of touring is lost, yet the nice road through the Aberdew valley is now a wide highway, “for the benefit of the tourists”, we are told. What folly, what expense… Just what tourists don’t want! These few examples can be multiplied one-hundred-fold, a thousand times. …

Another disappointment last year was the destruction of historic sheds at Brooklands, in one of which I took my first steps in writing for the motoring-press, and another disappointment the discovery that the Chairman of Bass-Charrington, whose premises will replace those old Brooklands premises, did not think it worth replying to my letter on the subject, a singular discourtesy. If I were a beer-drinker I know which brand I would avoid, from now on…

Anyway, to the cars of 1978. The first one I tested was the Volkswagen Golf GTi. This pleased me as much as the VW Beetle had done in its heyday. It performed remarkably well in this fuel-injection 1,588-c.c. guise, handled well on Pirelli tyres, and possessed a satisfying gearshift, from a lever surmounted by a golf-ball! I have perhaps never derived so much satisfaction, as I used to do in those Beetle days, from a car elegantly finished, technically interesting, and fun to use. The modern Volkswagens may not be unconventional, now that almost all small cars have gone over to front-wheel-drive and water-cooling, but they still exude much of the owner-appeal of the once-dominant Beetle. Incidentally, VWs remain in the family, as it were, a son-in-law having just taken delivery of a new Ziebarted VW Scirocco. The Golf was followed by another good product of this group, in the form of an Audi 100L Avant, which I discovered to be an exceedingly useful hatchback, capable on snowy roads, nice to drive, and again decidedly economical of fuel, which was in short supply at the time of the test due to tanker-driver strikes – how history repeats itself. A third German automobile came up for appraisal next, an Opel Rekord 2.0 Berlina. Whereas the Audi had taken me to a non-motoring pursuit in the form of a visit to Wembley Conference Centre for the Model Engineer Exhibition (which had also attracted D. S. J., Bolster and others from our world), the Opel was used to tender my 1922 Talbot-Darracq when it set off to be successfully DoE-tested. This was probably an Opel rushed through for test, because bits of interior trim fell off it, a happening not exactly in the quality tradition of post-war Opels. I thought this new droop-snoop Rekord an average sort of car, fine for family transport, its boot size increased, quiet on Motorways, comfortable, but a bit lurchy corners. After it had been returned to Mr. Ken Moyes of GM I had a Renault 20TS to try. Here was a fine example of the modern Renault, no longer over-softly-suspended, a five-door hatchback with central door locking (but not of the tailgate), rather indifferent power-steering, and the expected high degree of ride and seat comfort, a very good car indeed for those with loads to move, touring to do, and an eye for a bargain. Some expected items of equipment, such as no intermittent screen-wiping, no lock on the petrol-tiller cap, etc., may have been skimped but I thought the o.h.-camshaft Type 829 2-litre engine very well suited to the car, although the drive to the front wheels could be quieter. This Renault took us to the very interesting Welsh Folk Museum at Cardiff.

The only Fiat that came to me from Seth-Smith’s emporium last year was a Fiat 132 2000GLS but our Fiat 126 continued to be useful and cheeky on local journeys. As the top-model from the great Turin plant, this Tipo 132 was a disappointment. Although not bad value regarded as just another family conveyance. It could certainly be hustled round corners, if not very tidily, with notable adhesion, on its special Pirelli P6 tyres, and if the boxy appearance is old-fashioned, the performance from the twin-cam, five-speed, 2-litre power pack was pleasingly sporting. An even more sporting holdall arrived next, or rather was collected from Tamworth, a Reliant Scimitar GTE. It was extremely good fun to drive quickly, especially remembering how long this glassfibre-bodied, rustproofed “businessman’s-express” has been in production. I found it a car I liked, its controls sensibly laid-out, the 3-litre Ford V6 engine well suited to it, and the ride and roadholding now, in general, above criticism. Rather cramped about the elbows, like a Bristol, there is a pleasing if difficult-to-define air of “character” about a Scimitar which I found I still enjoy. The test car ran free from rattles and with the little back seats stowed there was an unexpectedly large luggage area, in which an English-setter who dislikes motoring made a comfortable enough journey, with much luggage, from London to Wales. It is to be hoped that Reliant survive, for no other car quite fulfils the function of their ingenious and nicely old-fashioned Scimitar.

During the year I also found myself using a Reliant Kitten estate, an amusingly crude but capable package, again with a non-rust body, easy to load, and very commodious. After a few unimportant teething-troubles had been rectified at first-service, this surprisingly willing little thing gave admirable results, at around 48 m.p.g. of petrol without trying for the over-50s it also returns if you drive that way. We became so captivated with it that my wife purchased this Kitten and it is now giving a daughter and her husband very good service. Indeed, at Christmas it did London, N. Wales, Edinburgh, Yorkshire, London without any anxiety. This Scottish family reunion must have involved some miles, as another daughter came up from London in a Ford Escort.

After an enjoyable day at Luton as guests of Derek Goatman of Vauxhall’s, for that make’s’ 75th anniversary party, I was allowed to drive away in the homologation-controvosial Vauxhall Chevette 2300 KS. It would be trite to say that with this 2.3-litre 16-valve engine in a Chevette shell the vehicle performed well! It proved, indeed, a most entertaining road-burner, and just one more example of Chevette versatility. A calamity now entered the Editoral existence. The Rover 3500 which was on long term appraisal and in use when other short-term road-tests were not being undertaken, had been driven happily to Prescott for the Bugatti OC’s party celebrations. It was parked on a steep downgrade in a field and on the run back into Wales the usual hush was broken by a whine from the back axle, which became progressively worse. Indeed, so bad was the cacophony that the car was pronounced undriveable by a friend who is a high-ranking BL engineer. The Rover people collected it on a transporter (at 14,560 miles from new), to avoid complete seizure of the axle, which was leaking oil – the downgrade at Prescott may have started this but I refuse to believe that the original oil-seals were allergic to grass! As a substitute I was lent a Rover 2600. Although obviously not as smoothly accelerative as its big brother, and on kick-down or in hold-two the 3500 vee-eight really does open-up most impressively, this six-cylinder relation, with the Triumph Dolomite Sprint-type valve-gear, proved an extremely acceptable substitute. I grew to like it very much indeed, on long runs to VSCC Oulton Park, the Brooklands Re-Union, etc. and I would rate it as a thoroughly good car for those who are anxious to have a Rover but do not want to fuel a big multi-cylinder engine. At the time I had a run in the new Princess 2000 with Leyland’s long-awaited overhead-camshaft engine and although the experience was too brief to form any lasting conclusions, I do not share the view of some writers that this car is a near-disaster. The Rover 3500, when I had collected it from Solihull, had been up-dated in minor ways and although it has ever since had a back-axle whine on the over-run, has been a reformed car, reliability-wise, except when the wiring loom caught fire in the Acton underpass and filled the car with acrid fumes. I said that I would report on it again when it had run perhaps 40,000/50,000 miles or so, which it has not accomplished as I write. But I must say here that few cars please me more, and many costly ones tried do not come to the Rover’s overall “enjoyability” factor. Fuel consumption was put back to 21 to 22 m.p.g. and for a time the fuel gauge’s readings actually meant something! The gauge is now as vague as ever but I must say that on the winter snow the eight-cylinder torque and the grip of Michelin XVS tyres has proved useful (the originals, after 23,000 miles). In some ways this big Rover has been at unlucky car, incurring undeserved dents and damage not its fault, and it spun through 180º on the M50 in the dark and rain one evening when I had to swerve fiercely to avoid some heavy object in my path, which destroyed one of the car’s very substantial front towing-hooks. To end up facing the wrong way in these circumstances, with fast-approaching traffic coming up, was a new experience, but some quick thinking and the Rover’s acceleration saved the day. By their antics the other drivers were more alarmed than I was. During the year the car was fitted with a Skyport roof, rendering it more easily ventilated, making the interior pleasantly light, and also making this smooth, quiet-functioning car easy to pick out in a crowded car park.

Reverting to the BOC Prescott party, Peter Garnier kindly took me up the famous hill in his Lancia Aprilia, as I had driven these cars there before the war. Indeed, I did so at the Opening Rally in 1937 and clocked a very good time, not because I was the ace-driver some people seemed to think at the time, but because no-one except me had been allowed to even walk up the then-new Prescott beforehand, whereas on behalf of Motor Sport I had made many ascents of it in a Fiat 1100 Balilla saloon, some time before this day of the timed climbs came round… I have “come clean” at last!

I went to another anniversary, the 1908 GP ltala’s birthday party at Silverstone, in a Lancia Gamma 2500 saloon and took this very complex flat-four Lancia to a gathering of the marque at VSCC Shelsley Walsh. As I did not have to buy the car I can say that I liked it, notably its low-speed torque and its good power-steering. As C. R. has commented both on the saloon and coupe Gammas, this will suffice, except to say that the Gamma is so contrived as to make me think that front-wheel-drive is maybe not the best arrangement for a car of this power. A little Peugeot 305 was another interesting car, because there is such a noticeable number of new Peugeots now to be seen on British roads. At its best in traffic, as it is so easy to drive, this 305 did not manage to rekindle the warm regard I once had for all Peugeots, of so many figure-permutation types, and it blotted its copybook early on, when its speedometer ceased to function, so no fuel consumption figures could be taken. But these days, pace Issigonis, there are so many transverse-engined, front-drive little cars about that it is difficult to distinguish one from another in enjoyment and appeal, unless concentrating on details and personal preferences.

I find with astonishment that only one Ford came to me in 1978, a Ford Cortina Ghia 2.3 V6 estate, which fully lived up to what I had expected from this best-selling Ford in its top-model guise. It is just that it does most things just that much better than its rivals. Two Renault 5s, a Renault 5TS and a Renault 5 Automatic 1300, combined fun with economy as only small Renaults can and the Automatic version was used for some long, fast runs without giving its overall size or engine capacity a thought, so comfortable is “Le Car”. The new Vauxhall Carlton is reported on elsewhere in this issue and although I have had the rare enjoyment of driving both the impeccably-behaved Porsche 928 Automatic and the new Opel Senator 3.0E, the latter one of the best-handling and most well-behaved of all big saloon cars I will leave C. R.’s comments on five-speed-versus-Automatic Porsche and saloonversus-coupe Opels to endorse my very high opinion of these outstanding motor cars.

Finally, as my Christmas treat, Erik Johnson, of Mercedes-Benz (GB) Ltd., provided a Mercedes-Benz 280SE for the journey London-Wales-Scotland-Wales-London. This made what my friends told me would be a troublesome winter haul a great pleasure. The return run from Edinburgh to Powys was done, in teeming rain and gales, in well under six hours, including a stop, and the only grumble I have is that all the adventure has gone, since you can do almost the whole thing on the dual-carriageway A74 and the M6. This enabled us to average some 55 m.p.h. overall, whereas once the run to and from Scotland was, if not high adventure, certainly fun. That wasn’t any fault of the 280SE, which, as perhaps the best-engineered saloon car made anywhere in the World, was sheer delight. I will not describe these delights one by one, for a Mercedes-Benz does not change greatly over the years and I have often written of them before. It is the small items that impress, the rear-window demister that extinguishes itself after some 30 minutes, the warning buzz, like a muted anti-thief device, to remind you that the car is being vacated with its lamps on, the splendidly progressive action of the brakes, the good power-steering, the smooth action of the DB automatic gearbox, and the very big fuel range, some 400 miles, so useful on this week-end of threatened petrol shortages. The Mercedes’ dark veneer blends well with the interior decor, the heating is so quickly set to one’s choice, the screen is top-tinted, one very substantial r.h. stalk controls the various services, there is a speed-control, central-locking of the doors also secures the fuel-filler flap, the instrument dials are easy to read but although the 2.7-litre, twin-cam, straight-six, fuel-injection engine revs. to 6,500 r.p.m., there is no tachometer to bother with, the boot-lid drains rain away from the interior, the bonnet has two simple-to-release safety-catches and rises under spring-action, and there is that neat electric sun-roof. This is a car that is always running 20 m.p.h faster than it seems to be, so effortless is it, and cruising it at around 80 m.p.h. does not reduce fuel consumption below some 22½ m.p.g. When you have tried them all, Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, the BMW range, the new big Opels, or whatever, you come to the conclusion that the technicians at Stuttgart know it all and have provided a hugely successful car in this £12,749 Mercedes-Benz 280SE.

On the old-car front I had some motoring of a very different kind, in Adrian Liddell’s racing Straker Squire, in Humphrey Milling’s 1921 3-litre GP Ballot, in the Midland Motor Museum’s 38/250 Mercedes-Benz, and on the Brighton Run in Leyland Cars’ 1901 10-h.p. Wolseley, which is a nostalgic note on which to close these comments, on which the Photographic Department is going to hang some of its pictures. – W. B.

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