My Year's Motoring
The Editor Looks Back On The Cars He Drove During 1979
This annual feature has become something of a habit, extending back more than quarter of a century, although it no longer purports to be a complete survey of all the cars road-tested by Motor Sport in the year, as once it was, because others were driven by C.R., and these will be summarised in the March issue. The projected book about my 25 years of road-testing for this magazine, mentioned last February, has yet to appear, but that is no reason for failing to touch briefly on my motoring experiences for yet another twelve-month.
I see that before I got into doing this, last year, I was sounding-off about a number of developments which I felt were detrimental to the full enjoyment of driving by enthusiasts, such as the continual straightening of roads over which it was once a pleasure to steer a fast car. This still goes on, in spite of the intention of the present Government to curb the spending of (our) money in the Public Sector. Such road works are, no doubt, widespread but are more noticeable in one’s own territory. For instance, hardly had an expensive road-cutting, considered unnecessary by the police, I am told, and wasting good agricultural-land in the view of local farmers, been completed on the A44 than they are at it again, a mile or so away, altering the same road at a blind brow. Trees and hedges are being sacrificed, presumably in the name of road safety. But if drivers are foolish enough to overtake on a completely blind brow they will do so round blind bends, so logically every bend on this and all other roads should be eradicated. . . .
As if costly road alterations like this are not enough, a great new bridge has been in process of building, for a long time now, crossing the River Wye by the A427 road, to connect it with the little village of Llanwrthwl. Now this leads almost nowhere, apart from the village, except by very narrow lanes eventually to the Elan Valley. Few towists go much further than the name-plate to the village, which they like to photograph, as a name unique because of its single vowel. So even if the old bridge was in need of repair, how can an expensive new one be justified? Then them is another scheme, involving complicated bridging, to bypass a narrow hill between Llandrindod Wells and Rhayader, although there is a clear view for anyone driving up this hill — and just above it ugly kerbs mark the turn to Newbridge-on-Wye and have made it more dangerous than it was previously, by forcing those coming in the opposite direction to a position where the view of traffic is now restricted. In Newbridge itself, this once-pleasant village is being slowly eroded by changes, including a costly new piece of road to take traffic off a bridge on the way from Beaulah, the whole of this road (once the route of the RAC Six-Days Small Car Trials incidentally) having been drastically widened, except in the dangerous spots(!), for no apparent reason. Soon tourists will find none of the old roads, the country lanes, left to enjoy. But why? It would be interesting to know whether these escalating “improvements” are done simply to keep Council machinery in employment or as a sop to the ever-bigger commercial vehicles that will soon be let loose on British roads under EEC regulations?
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Having got that off my chest, let us look at what I drove last year. The first car sampled was a Ford 2.8i GLS Estate, that very impressive combination of safe-handling fast car and admirably useful load-swallower. Its desirability goes further than that, however, for this Ford is an impressive-looking car to own, and in spite of its size and carrying capacity, it can be driven round corners not only quickly but with much pleasure, on those admirable Michelin TRX tyres. I was not in the least ashamed of driving to Coventry to see the latest in exotic Jaguars, in this splendid German-built Ford. In spite of the impressive handling, enhanced by good power-steering and effective servo disc/drum brakes, this sporting estate use also had a smooth ride. Indeed, there was practically nothing to fault, about a Ford I was willing to term the estate car with all the good qualities of a GT saloon. The one tested had air-conditioning, and with central door-locking and so on, it was indeed a very covetable possession. I was later told that, as direct result of our road-test report unit, a reader had purchased one, which was nearly as nice as when the same thing happened after my report on a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. . . . I have tried quite a number of diesel-engined cars but none so impressive, so nearly akin to it petrol-burning car, as the Volkswagen Golf LD. So much praise has been bestowed on this heavy-oil VW for its smooth-running once the crankshaft speed mounts, allied to a notable economy of diesel-fuel, that I need say little more here, except that all this praise is very well deserved. The ten-second or thereabouts spell-of-patience necessary before the engine will fire-up is a very small penalty to set against the money-saving aspects of this Diesel-Golf, and if the uninformed regard jeans taxi or as having run a big-end, by the sound it makes when idling, so what? I enjoyed this clever application of c.i.-engine, that endows the Golf LD with adequate acceleration and a top speed of over 80 m.p.h., without rendering it much more, if any more cacophonous than a Petrol-Golf at a cruising 70 m.p.h. The only criticism in the report is about a baulky bottom gear, which should speak highly for this version of the always-likeable VW Golf. The LD met snow down in Wales, which its torque, f.w.d..traction, and Michelin ZX tyres combined, coped with very well.
Another German car came next, in the form of the Audi 100GL 5S. This turned out to be a good all-rounder but a somewhat too-gimmicky car for me, but it was comfortable, with a good heater and clear-to-read instruments and was quick about the place. Perhaps its handling should not have been assessed so soon after I had been driving the sure-footed Ford Granada and Opel Senator! Anyway, I was grateful to the VW/Audi folk for allowing me to sample a car with five cylinders, because in the past I have driven those with from one to 16 of them.. . . For most of this time it had been more or less a precarious business obtaining a fill-up of petrol, and as the cost of this essential fluid was rising, I decided that we ought next to take a look at some true economy cars — I am told I am by nature something of a motoring-masochist!
Ford-of-Britain, a company that has for so long fully understood the exacting requirements of those to whom motoring is primarily transportation, besides contriving to win the big rallies and other competitions and give enthusiasts some very acceptable sports saloons, were quick to provide me with a 53 b.h.p. Ford Fiesta 1.1S, this model providing the best economy (36 m.p.g.) combination, combined with the stiffer sports-suspension for enhancing handling. I have a high regard for the little, unobtrusive, but so useful, Ford Fiesta, which caused almost as great a sensation at its debut and its production in the fine new factory in Spain, as did the Model-A Ford when it replaced the immortal Model-T in 1927, or when Henry Ford emphasised his dislike of six-cylinder engines by introducing his lively Ford V8 not long after the Model-A had been born. I took the Fiesta to see some far-older small cars tackling Welsh gradients during the VSCC Light Car Section’s annual trial, and then used it for all manner of ordinary errands. It died when a cable between the starter-motor and starter-solenoid severed, which I do not think is endemic of the model, and it had a fierce clutch, which is common to too many Fiestas. But it was waterproof in torrential rain, had Ford’s famed heating and ventilation, nice seats, and a usable Hatchback. So I stand by the heading of the report I wrote at the time, namely, “The Car We Shall All Soon Be Wanting” — and petrol then cost only just over 1 a gallon.
There are now so many small cars for the economy-minded or economy-necessitated and the fuel conservationists to choose from that I am glad my wife solved the problem some time back, by buying a Reliant Kitten with its non-rust estate body, a British 50 m.p.g. package that is more durable and less under-rated than some people suggest. With small cars, mostly otherwise all of the transverse-engine, FWD layout, from Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan to weigh up, the task of deciding what to invest in is astonishingly difficult. The Ford Fiesta stole a considerable march, timewise, on General Motors’ new Opel Kadett, which Vauxhall are to sell, rebadged, as the German Vauxhall Vesta. My impressions of the FWD Kadett appear in this issue, so no more need be said here, except that this GM World-Car is notably roomy (a “large-small” car), just fails to be a scaled-down Senator in its handling qualities, and is perhaps noisy at Motorway speeds, when the aforesaid Fiesta begins to quieten out. Your “winner” in the small-car sales-stakes may depend on how much store you set on having a Hatchback and of course on comparative prices. But it seems certain that this sector of the market will expand rapidly under prevailing and future economic conditions, no matter that the Motor Industry claims to make no profit worth having by manufacturing the smallest of cars.
Continuing this theme, the Ford Fiesta was followed in my 1979 small-car sequence by an Alfasud 1.5 Super. I have liked all the Alfasuds I have driven. But they all lacked the power from their flat-four o.h.c. engines that the outstanding Alfa Romeo roadholding and cornering factors could have handled. This had been put right in the 84 b.h.p. 1½-liter edition which enthusiastic Barry Needham now provided for me. You really shouldn’t nurse the charming little Alfasud, to save fuel. It is essentially a car to drive hard! But, in my case, I had to, because for most of the test, the stuff was almost unobtainable! Using the fifth speed to good effect from this viewpoint, I achieved petrol-consumption figures within less than 2 m.p.g. of those I had got from the Fiesta. The Alfasud’s price at the time was £12 less than that of the 1.1-litre Fiesta-S, but the Italian car had a number of minor inconveniences and it wasn’t a Hatchback. However, for its precise steering, the comfort of its seats, its outstanding small-car performance, fine roadholding, and its low 70-80 m.p.h. noise level, I suppose, had I been in the market-place, l would have bought the ‘Sud. However, as I have said, the choice is very difficult when you are shopping for an economy car and early in 1980 I am to see what I think of an unrated 1.3-litre Ford Fiesta, which may or may not add to the confusion. . . .
The covetable Alfasud was used to see part of the Bugatti OC International Rally and to attend the memorable BOC dinner in Cheltenham on that occasion. Then later, in the stately luxury of a Vauxhall Royale A, I drove away from Luton, went in it to the Midland Motor Museum (always a worthwhile expedition, highly recommended), and attended the luncheon Rolls-Royce gave in Manchester to commemorate the historic meeting there between Henry Royce and the Hon. Charlie Rolls. Having been enormously impressed with the Opel Senator we tried in 1978, especially from the point-of-view of its impeccable handling and roadholding, there is little to say about the very similar Vauxhall which Derek Goatman produced for us as expeditiously as Ken Moyes had earlier allowed us to test the two new Opels, Senator and Monza. The Vauxhall Royale has a 2.8-litre, instead of a 3-litre, overhead-camshaft engine but is nevertheless endowed with a top pace of 116 m.p.h. and is able to reach 60 m.p.h. from rest in 11.4 seconds. For comprehensive equipment, a handsome appearance, and a fuel thirst that was at times as low as 22.8 m.p.g., this biggest and most luxurious model in the Vauxhall range is worthy of very high marks.
I then got back on the economy-car bandwagon, by trying the intriguing Renault
5GTL. I had been very interested in this successful attempt to get good fuel-saving by putting a 1,289 c.c. (five-bearing, push-rod o.h.v.) engine into “Le Car”. It works very well indeed! I got a “best” of over 48 m.p.g. of three-star from it, the overall m.p.g. figure being 46, including driving from Wales to a crowded and wet Brooklands Re-Union. Yet this amusing and very accommodating little Renault, which has such a renowned bad road ride, can be motored up to some 80 or more m.p.h. I do not propose to say more about “Le Car”, because it is well known to most of us as a really outstanding little package. Nor do I intend to confess, were I at the cheque-writing stage, whether I would go for this or the more conventional Ford/Volkswagen/ Fiat/Opel formula, although the fact that the Regie” Renault is active in Fl racing might well be an influencing factor. . . .
I had been patriotic by confining myself to trying only European cars, for some time, until C.R.’s praise, after long-term appraisals of them, of the Mazda 1300DL Hatchback and the Wankel-powered Mazda RX-7, wore me down. I then accepted some summer driving in a Mazda Montrose 2000 GLS coupé, lent by the ever-obliging David Palmer. And was impressed! This 2-litre o.h.c. two-door Hatchback coupe was good-looking, developed 90 b.h.p. at a modest 4,800 r.p.m., and its engine was inaudible when idling. It was a car possessed of all the items modern Japanese cars seem to encompass. The low-drag body no doubt contributed to a top speed of almost 110 m.p.h., and 0-60 mph. acceleration in 10.8 seconds, and the road-clinging and braking had none of those once-mediocre Japanese qualities. Apart from some lateral sway, the ride was good, too. With care this quick sports-coupe gave some 34 m.p.g., of two-star, its five-speed gearbox functioned quite nicely, and for not much over £5,000 I can see why they sell.
What next? Well, I took out a new (1980) Ford 2.0 Cortina Ghia to try to discover why the Cortina has for so long led the British sales-race. It was easy to see why, and why this success-trend is almost certainly going to be maintained, unless Ford has any set-backs that affect production. It is simply because a Cortina does everything well and some things (like looking after the well-being of its occupants, steering and riding properly, having the excellent Ford gear-change, and vet, complete equipment including washed headlamps, etc.), very well indeed. The model I tried had the four-in-line, o.h.c., 102 b.h.p. power-unit, and would do over 100 m.p.h and 0-60 m.p.h. in an impressive 9.8 seconds. What is more, with a little persuasion, it gave me almost 32 m.p.g. from its twin-choke sequential Weber. The Cortina, in its way, counts as one of the World’s great cars. . . .
The next new car to be tested was the controversial Fiat Strada 1.3 65CL five-door, five-speed saloon. Another small car, but a small car with a difference, and you can say that again! The Strada may be dubbed an ugly-duckling, some may even detest it; but for its sheer individuality and several very practical features, I liked what Seth-Smith had provided for me! It was more spacious within than a car of this engine capacity might be expected to be. It gave just over 37 m.p.g. And it will motor better in 75CL guise, with the bigger engine. The noise-level was pleasantly low but something a little unwanted happened to the “dead” back-axle on its transverse spring, on occasions. This Fiat Strada, of the clever TV advertising and advanced assembly-methods, may be a modern funny-car to some degree. But it is nothing like so funny, in a pleasantly peculiar manner, as the Citroën Dyane 6 I tried later. In a way this wasn’t intended. After a very long absence of road-test Citroëns I was trying to re-establish contact and that was when John Atkinson came up with. I didn’t mind, because I have long been a staunch believer in the 2cv theme, ever since, in fact, that marvellously-devised little car first came to these shores. The air-fanned twin pots of the V-Registration Dyane gave 50+ m.p.g., it strode easily over the worst of rotted lanes, and was one-upmanship personified, but equally a practical peasants’ all-rounder, depending on the way you regard it. A nasty-functioning facia gear-shift turned the daughter who drove it back to London for me against it, and I admit that by then I had had enough. . .
A Citroën Visa Club was provided, however, to act as my tender-car for the Brighton Veteran Car Run; I had expected the four-cylinder version after the Dyane but it turned out to be another twin. This recently-updated “cyclecar” power-unit in a modernised bodyshell appealed to me but others again rated it as too sluggish, even against the aforesaid Reliant Kitten, and it is expensive in comparison with others in its class. One day I hope to try more powerful Citroëns.
The greatest fun in 1979 was provided by Renault Gordini 5, a little vehicle having most usable high performance, but the power tempered by unexpectedly good low-speed torque, and with none of the notable Renault Five’s qualities built-out. A maximum speed of 110 m.p.h., pick-up the equal of that of many much larger cars, 37/38 m.p.g., a five-speed transmission, and all the cheek on the road, marked this Renault Gordini as a little ‘un for most buyers’ “short-lists”. Just-adequate instrumentation and inadequate internal stowage space and rather inferior ventilation scarcely detracted from the fun provided by this 93 b.h.p. 1.4-litre version of “Le Car”; what nearly did were some nasty moments in the rain on the M4 Motorway when the Gordini’s engine kept cutting out.
Of the two BL products tasted last year, neither was very palatable. The Morris Mini Minor 1100 Special had the intended urge and retained the Mini’s famed “dodgeability” and “glued-to-the-road” feel, but if you wanted to go at all fast it became quite astonishingly noisy, by present-day standards. An Austin Allegro Equipe was, I suppose, a nice-enough, family car for a run to Brooklands on a summer day, which is one of the tasks I gave it — we also looked at some interesting old photographs of a Panhard-Levassor used, I think, in the building of the Track, and some of their one-time Sentinel steam waggons, in Ebineza Mears’ office in Byfleet. The Equipe twin-SU-carburetter engine endows this Allegro with new life, and in 5th speed it is quite restful, at 70 m.p.h. But it is a car that has dated, and I most certainly did not like the paint-job used to vividly distinguish the Equipe model from less-active Allegros. I had to use it when I addressed the Classic Car Club of America one evening, but fortunately no-one saw those coloured stripes in the car park. . . . Of the revised Series III 4.2 Jaguar and X112 Jaguar, I had but a “run up the road” in each. Even no both were seen to be enormously-impressive British cars; some would say the XJ12 is the best there is.
The long-duration road-test Rover 3500A continued to fill-in when other cars were not being used. I have written previously much in praise of the Solihull V8, referring to it, in all seriousness, as “The Thrifty Executive’s Silver Shadow”. I stand by that. It is a restful, yet vividly-accelerative very safe car, of exciting appearance. It was given new Michelin XVS tyres after 32,000 miles. Since I took it over there have been troubles, with the fuel-pump, a leaking back-axle and faulty shock-absorbers, and just when petrol was almost unobtainable but its tank had born filled for a business journey it developed the playful trick of ejecting fuel, incurably, from its carburetters, at 31,639 miles. I had to make the trip in the willing Kitten aforesaid, while BL once more repaired the Rover, since when, in the hands of several different drivers, we have had no trouble for over 7,000 miles. It is not a cheap car to run, for although it once gave 22.4 m.p.g., mostly it does between 20 and 22 m.p.g., which however, compared with some smaller-engined, less-capable, cars isn’t as poor as it looks at first. I see that it took me to most of the 1979 VSCC race-meetings, including the long haul to and from Cadwell Park, in the greatest of comfort, driving ease, and speed.
Before the year was out two more Japanese cars came up for appraisal. The Honda Prelude coupé was a very good car indeed, especially if you like the electronic extras that are now a feature of cars of this nationality. A 1.6-litre FWD model in the accepted form, the Prelude had revised Accord suspension that makes it cling moderately well to the road although the ride is still lurchy and somewhat old-fashioned. But this was a seemingly really well-made car, judging by its trim and finish, with a quiet-idling, flexible engine, a fine-speed gearbox, and everything very nicely laid out. It gives about 100 m.p.h. and 0-60 m.p.h. in 11.3 seconds on two-star fuel, which it will burn at the rate of some 40 m.p.g. if you are light-footed. At under £5,000 I thought this coupé from Tokio quite impressive. My feelings about the Daihatsu Charade XTE appears this issue; I was amused to have experience of a 3-cylinder power-unit to add to my “collection” of types of engine and I have been propelled by, this being the first four-stroke three cylinder car have tried. It seems to me such cars are now so good that it behoves European manufacturers to bring out new models aimed at Bashing The Japs, unless they are prepared to lose the sales-race to cars from the Orient. . .
My Christmas-Car last year was an Alfa Giulietta 1.8, used mostly over flooded, icy or snowy roads, when its absence of aquaplaning on its Pirelli Cinturato P3 165XSR13 tyres was noticeable. However, it was splendid to drive a real Alfa Romeo again, although there is no point in saying very much about it, because C.R. dealt fully with the 1.6-litre Giulietta model early in 1979. At Christmas 1978 I used a Mercedes-Benz 280E as my holiday car, which I regard as one of the best-mannered and best-engineered cars in the World. In much the same context, all Alfa Romeos have that astonishing combination of supple suspension yet impeccable roadholding — a very “chuckable” car— those spirited twin-cam Milanese regions with the exciting rasp, and an air of being sports saloons clothed in luxury. The new Giulietta has all this, and is a very fine way of putting the miles behind, if its excellent five-speed gearbox is used in a manner complementary to that powerful power-unit, which is safe to 6,500 r.p.m. or more. The barrel-type oil, heat and petrol gauges are uncalibrated, you get used to the push-in exterior door-handles, Alfa Romeo don’t bother about door “keeps”, and choke and hand-throttle are now awkward plastic pull-outs. The Giulietta’s appearance is now more purposeful than good-looking, with that longish nose and small ugly air-dam on its boot-lid. For a car of such zest and character with disc brakes all round, inboard-mounted at the back, the rear-end having a transaxle, this Alfa Romeo Giulietta is a sound bargain at £5,165 for connoisseurs. I was sorry to return the car to Barry Needham, but when its speedometer ceased to work, the heater was ridiculously insensitive, the screen-washers remained frozen for long periods and the barrel-type boot-lid-lock remained frozen all day, trapping the contents of the boot, I began to wonder how well the car (mileage 10,000) had been serviced. The instruction book says less than it used to about warming-up before driving off, to preserve the second gear synchromesh.
That’s about it, apart from our Fiat 126, now in its seventh year, with 17,450 miles on its odometer, which was thrifty fun on short runs, at some 48 m.p.g. of 3-star. When it mysteriously developed chronic clutch-shy immediately after it had passed its DoE test, the Builth Wells’ Fiat Dealer lent me a later 126 in which to return home, from which it became evident that there have been progressive improvements made to even this basic car. All that remains to be done now, is to ask Motor Sport’s Photographic Department to provide some of their very best portraits of some of these 1979 road-test cars.
During the year I had both my restored vintage light-cars, the 1924 12/20 Calthorpe (which has the audacity to possess exactly the same engine-dimensions as an Anzani Frazer Nash but gives nothing like the performance) and the 1922 8 h.p. Talbot-Darracq, back on the road, the latter making the STD Register’s Wolverhampton Rally and, for the sake of the run, not the cup, the vintage-car gathering at the Royal Welsh Show. I was also able to drive Bill Lake’s delectable 1922 Grand Prix Sunbeam, and a 1923 23/60 Vauxhall “Kingston”, that so-desirable vintage touring car kept in fine fettle by Vauxhall Motors Ltd. at Luton. Later on the Brighton Run was done in the 1904 20 h.p. Thornycroft of BL Heritage Ltd., whose very impressive veteran this is and who looked after me very hospitably during that November week-end. From the same stable came the big and venerable early poppet-valve Daimler that I drove up Shelsley Walsh, and these old-car occasions ended with trying a 1931 Star “Comet” saloon belonging to Jeremy Collins.
A satisfactory, if not outstanding, year, and I am quite happy contemplating my clean driving licence at the end of it — clean more by luck than circumstance, though, as for us all in the new Radar-Age, although last year did go by without an accident, parking-tickets, or police-interest. Incidentally, I see from my Waterloo Desk Diary that of the road-test cars I drove in 1979 ten were on Michelin, three on Dunlop, two each or Goodyear and Bridgestone, and one each on Continental, Japariese-Dunlop, Firestone and Pirelli tyres. — W.B.