My Year's Motoring

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The Editor Looks Back On The Cars He Drove During 1980

This annual feature was started more than 25 years ago in order to summarise my findings and opinions about the cars I had road-tested for Motor Sport in the preceding twelve months. In those days I was the only road-test reporter this paper had, but since then others have taken part in this exacting but usually very enjoyable pursuit and the number of cars we try in a year has consequently increased, so this summary does not comprise all the cars Motor Sport sampled in 1980. However, as that great Rolls-Royce Director, the late Lord Hives, used to say, it is always easier to start something than to stop it. So I cannot resist another look-back at the cars I was allowed to drive during the twelve months ending last December.

The first, ignoring the 1.8 Alfa Romeo Giulietta which was a hold-over from the 1979 road-test year (it had proved as enjoyable as all Alfa Romeos are remembered as being and notably sure-footed in the exceptional flooding of that December 1979 period), was a rotary-engined Mazda RX-7 on which a colleague, who has since left us, was conducting a long-duration test and which I was permitted to try for a brief period. It is recalled as a very well contrived, likeable, smooth-running sports car, about its only serious shortcoming being slightly suspect brakes. It was memorable in other ways, too. Taking a friend home to South Wales from London one winter evening we heard a noise that could have been the boot-lid flapping open, when I was doing a rate of knots along the outer lane of the crowded M4. In fact, a rear tyre had collapsed. The Mazda remained commendably stable in this predicament but by the time I had managed to edge my way over on to the hard shoulder the cover was ruined. Embarrassing, because the car was shod with special and expensive Pirellis. However, the Pirelli people proved extremely efficient in sending out a van to within a reasonable distance of my home the next day, bringing a replacement, before we set off in the Mazda to watch the MCC Exeter Trial.

I think that car must have disliked me — perhaps somehow my then-somewhat unethusiastic-attitude to Japanese imports had been conveyed to it. Because, having changed that burst tyre, we stopped to pick up my friend’s wife in Pontypool, so that he had to crouch in the restricted back compartment of this essentially 2+2-minors Mazda. I then set off to demonstrate its effective performance and good road-holding over that endearing hill road between Abergavenny and Brecon. It was a freezing cold night and dinner was calling. We had no ice on that road, fortunately, but when almost home, driving along a country lane I know very well indeed, the RX-7 hit black ice. Full lock one way, then the other, was of very little avail but again we were fortunate, because instead of overturning in the ditch, the roadside bank proved just sufficient to stop the spinning car and without stopping the engine I was able to select second gear, drive back to a turning-place I knew of, and complete the journey. “You must be cold; you look quite pale”, said my wife to our guests on arrival. . . .

Renault at Acton then allowed me to have another go in a Renault 30TX. I had tried this spacious Renault family conveyance when it was a new model and had been impressed by its size, comfort and spaciousness, but less so by some of its front-wheel-drive characteristics and is desire to be it neutral when I wanted second gear. This time the fuel-injection V6-engined top-model Renault suffered less from wheelspin on a fierce getaway, but under these conditions some judder remained and the clutch was heavy and fierce. Up-to-date and advanced mechanical aspects of the Renault’s specification did not disguise somewhat soggy cornering, a trace of lateral float about the suspension, and not particularly brisk performance. Against that, this was a luxury package all right, with many useful amenities and we had one particularly enjoyable run in it, over that bleak road via Stay-a-Little, this being part of the 1924 RAC Light Car Six Days Trial route, to Machynlleth, that Welsh town well-known to followers of the RAC Rally but almost local to me, and after lunch, on along the pleasing scenic route through Cemmaes Road to Llanwnog and home through Llanidloes.

This French experience was followed by another, when I remade acquaintance with one of the Renault’s rivals in the guise of a Citroen CX2400 GTi. It was a very long time since I had done much with one of the big Citroens and I was allowed enough mileage with this one to appreciate this highly individual and entirely logical way of travelling in much comfort. An acquired taste certainly, and it takes time to understand and employ to the greatest advantage all the Citroen’s sophisticated controls and driving ploys. But with experience one should enjoy it, with the proviso that I still consider that this ingenious car deserves better than a four-cylinder engine, even if this does have fuel-injection and electronic ignition and pokes out 128 DIN b.h.p. at very modest revs. The gearbox is not outstanding either, the clutch is heavy and its pedal masks any room for the driver’s left foot. But as a car which, because of its effective power-hydraulic brakes, good pick-up, and effortless over-the-ton cruising speed, is very fast indeed on a journey and also as relaxing to ride in as one expects of a car with all-independent, self-levelling hydro-pneumatic suspension and splendid seats, a Citroen owner’s fanaticism is easy to understand. I see that I did nearly as big a mileage in quite a brief space of time in that charming little car, the Ford Fiesta 1.3 Ghia five-door saloon, mainly because I went down to Hove in it to interview one-time racing-driver Aubrey Essen-Scott, coming back through sleepy Sussex on a fine cross-country route, to Mid-Wales, and also took it to Silverstone for the VSCC Pomeroy Trophy Meeting. Small it may be, but this little fuel-thrifty front-drive Ford is quite suited to this kind of long run when there is not too much time to spare. This Ghia version of the small Ford has many extras that are good to live with and the car’s good road-clinging and steering made an equally big contribution to driving satisfaction, apart frorn a very slight dead feel to the steering around the straight-ahead position. It is ironical that, whereas the first of the new FWD Ford Escorts (nee Erika) had too harsh rear suspension, the suspension of the Fiesta is good, better damped I thought than that of the Opel Kadett, and certainly the driving-seat comfort of this Ghia Ford deserves full marks. Small cars are very good these days — and there was nearly 100 m.p.h., 0-60 in 10.7 seconds, and an overall fuel thirst of 38.4 m.p.g., with 40.7 m.p.g. achieved for part of the test. Count me a Fiesta fan. . .

Most testers have spoken very well of the Opel Kadett, and some rave about it. Having said my words of praise about it I had a Vauxhall Astra GL 1300S to assess how the Lutonian-badged edition compares. On paper there should be an imperceptible difference, so similar are the general specifications, and this is so on the road. So here is another very good small hatchback, slightly quieter than the Kadett and just as good on road-holding, although its steering is low-geared, heavy for parking and dead in feel. Well appointed and comfortable, the Astra did not give quite the economy of petrol I had hoped to get.

Two very commendable cars came next, the VW Golf GTI Convertible and the VW Scirocco Storm. The five-speed fuel-injection Golf is about the finest small car one could wish to own, and the fast version of the low-built Scirocco is equally impressive. The Golf Convertible was great to use on a summer day for attending the dignified opening of the Rolls-Royce EC headquarters and museum at the Hunt House. Paulerspury, riding there in style with the top down. The VW Storm is notably refined and both are truly quick motor cars. I wrote sufficient about them at the time of the tests, and about Volkswagen /Audi in Britain today, to confirm my continuing VW enthusiasm.

After these two highly covetable German cars I sampled a Swede, in the form of the Volvo 244GLT. I am not keen on the ”safety-lights” and other “be careful” items that characterise a Volvo but I must say the 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine, fuel-injected like so many today, has improved effectively the performance available from this secure and comfortable large saloon, which has an air of old-fashioned honesty about it, enhanced by the rugged build that traditionally applies to this make. With excellent heating and ventilation and a sunroof, the 244GLT was just the car in which to follow part of the VCC Jubilee Rally and later to take to a rather nice and unexpectedly uncrowded S. Wales seaside resort.

Immediately after returning the Volvo I got into a Talbot Solara SX, with automatic transmission, and from the first mile or so felt absolutely confident, driving quickly. Astonishingly complete and lavish in its equipment, all for an expenditure of £6,370, this new Talbot was also conserving of fuel and in many ways is a very nice car, or would have been with better quality control of the product the (boot let in the rain) — or did I get an unlucky one? To those who seek a relaxing-to-drive, fully-equipped car, even down (or up?) to a computer and cruise control, the Solara will no doubt seem just the job.

There is no praise needed for the next on my list, the Alfasud 1.5 four-door saloon. I did say in the test report that this happy concept of flat-four o.h.c. front-drive five-speed baby-Alfa Romeo has dated to some degree. That scarcely stops it from being among the very best of the small economy-cars and one that is decently individualistic into the (very good) bargain. In some of its details the restyled ‘Sud chalked up shortcomings, but its overall charm, not to be denied. To its sporting demeanour can be added a low noise level, a spacious interior, and outstanding road-clinging. All of which enhanced the 1980 Brooklands Reunion for me. If the 1.5 went so well on 85 b.h.p. think how the 95 (DIN) b.h.p. Alfasud should appeal to sporting drivers.

Another very interesting experience was to drive the Audi 200 5T. Turbocharging is the “in-thing”, off and on the circuits, and any reservations I may have had about the “fan” spinning at such very high speeds, under the impulse of very-hot corroding gases, was certainly not in my mind as I used to the full the exceedingly impressive acceleration of this well-mannered Audi. There is some “forced induction hum”, a sniff of turbo-lag when calling on the supercharge to thrust you forward, and the power brakes needed care to stop progressively, until one was accustomed to them. Otherwise, what a motor car! The expected Audi commanding seating position and other conveniences added to the pleasure if trying turbocharging in this refined form. It was interesting, too, to try the new Lancia Delta 1500, widely proclaimed “Car of the Year”. Such labels fail to influence me and I was even slightly disappointed in this new Lancia, but perhaps unfairly, due to thinking of it in the heady context of great Turinese models of the past. In fact, it is a very likeable and commendable addition to the ranks of adequately-performing small economy-car offerings, or “Euro-boxes” as some rudely call them. I think it fair to say that, as with its outward styling, the Delta is good in most respects without excelling in many except in respect of a lack of cacophony and in possessing notable refinement. However, there are so many small-cars to compare nowadays and in general they are mostly all so worthy that perhaps we are becoming blase and too critical. After all, the sort of person who was proud of his new Austin 10/4 would presumably drool over a Delta if projected from 1935 to 1981, and this five-speed compact at a senisble price, coming with a six-year anti-corrosion warranty, must haul in the customers, surely?

I suppose you could rate the Fiat Miafiori 131 2000T Sport an out-of-date offering. But I liked this combination of twin-cam-power in a saloon somewhat in the tradition of the old BMC up-market family models. It motored nicely, as well it might with 115 (DIN) b.h.p. from an engine allied to those Abarth rally-cars, again you sit high, and there is a baulky five-speed gear change. There are touches of gimmickry about this Miafiori Sport that smack of the Strada, but on the whole I thought it a friendly, unusual, uncomplicated kind of car.

It was now time to proceed to Crewe to discover what the latest Rolls-Royce was like. I did not even know what they were going to call it when I made the expedition to this rather grim-seeming city, on a very wet day. I wondered whether I was going to be confronted with a completely new model, a V12 with revolutionary suspension perhaps, or a truly sporting Shadow, maybe? If such hopes were soon dashed, any new Rolls-Royce is an occasion, particularly when revealed to you before it has been released to the World. However, as we drove in the new, sleeker, Rolls-Royce Silver Sprite out of the factory gates I had a reminder that a new model in its earliest stages can present problems, even for this illustrious maker, because there was a rattle from somewhere on the fascia (which caused PRO David Roscoe to lean over and bang the ash-tray in an unsuccessful attempt to eradicate such an unseemly sound) and there was a faint wind-whistle from the off-side screen-pillar.

It is because of the extreme hush of almost any Rolls-Royce, and the restful “Clubland” interior which Rolls-Royce do better than anyone that such trivial things were noticed. They were soon forgotten when I drove the latest car from Crewe and sat in the back of it to experience the even greater comfort and lack of lateral movement, due to the revised i.r.s., that the Spirit exhibits against the Shadow. It was a memorable occasion, after which I went away in the V8 Rover, a car of rather similar general specification, using roads interesting because they were unfamiliar to me, until Shrewsbury was regained. I am the last person to suggest that publicity, particularly good publicity, is something motor manufacturers can do without. But I think Rolls-Royce need less of it than most. In respect of the new Silver Spirit, a colleague borrowed a Silver Shadow for a week-end before being flown by Rolls-Royce Motors Ltd. down to the South of France to sample the new model, so as to be able to compare the two cars, the new one being driven over far more testing terrain than my jaunt over the roads of Cheshire had afforded. But was it necessary? I had an example soon afterwards of what I mean. Going to a meeting of the Rolls-Royce EC in Builth Wells, I sat for lunch at the same table as a member who had arrived in his Silver Shadow. He was interested that I had driven the new Silver Spirit but not bothered that I could not disclose details about it, because it had not then been publicly released. He had had, he explained, two Shadows in succession and had already ordered a Silver Spirit, without having seen it. That is how Rolls-Royce do much of their business, with customers who trust the Company’s long tradition of top quality, steady development and integrity. Long may it continue so. . . .

I had a Maserati Merak SS, that exciting piece of mid-engined machinery that was good only in parts, over the August holiday week-end and reported very fully on it in a colour feature in the October 1980 issue. Motor Show time produced the most widely-discussed new car of 1980, so I was relieved that the Austin mini-Metro 1.3 HLS, which I tried for all too short a spell, proved so good overall and very excellent in many respects that I was not obliged to damn it with faint praise. Indeed, I was so impressed that I devoted the whole November Editorial to it, and that in a paper supposed to be biased towards the faster, more sporting cars. . . .

This was also the time when I drove a Toyota Crown 2.8 Super, a very impressive big saloon from the viewpoint of absolute comfort and a maximum of electronic mod.-cons., applied for the occupants’ benefit rather than as more “electrickery”. The six-cylinder engine of this big Jap was as quiet as that of a Royce when idling and if it had not been for too much oversteer I could have rated the Crown very highly indeed. Another test awaited with keen anticipation was that of the new Ford Escort 1.6 GL. While I was disappointed over the bounciness of the new rear suspension of this front-drive Escort and thought the noise-Ievel from the clever CVH power pack a little too obtrusive, after nearly 1,300 miles in two of these New Escorts I am convinced that they will prove as popular as the old rear-drive models. The high-performance XR-3 version, that came with such up-market items as electric windows, central-locking, retractable radio-aerial and so on, is today’s equivalent of the endearing Ford Escort Mexico or the RS2000, with the attributes of more performance at the upper end of the scale and improved fuel economy. The Lancia Gamma 2500 was pleasing as a notably individual car, a chip off the old Lancia block, but it and the impossible-to-fault Jaguar XJ-S were both reported on too recently to require further comment.

It was a year in which, between other tests, I and other drivers built up mileage on the Editorial R-registration Rover 3500. After several early faults it had settled down to being dependable transport of the most restful kind until one morning, when I was finishing a long run to London, I noticed the temperature gauge on the danger stop. Taxi drivers began pointing, so I knew water vapour was still appearing, which should have got me as far as the office. It did, but a head-gasket had blown, the trouble being caused by silting-up of the cross-flow radiator. This was duly rectified, but the head studs still had to be tightened down; I was astonished when a Welsh BL distributor charged £13.58 for this simple spanner-job and annoyed on driving away half-an-hour later to find the Rover’s brake-servo inoperative. The mechanic had knocked the vacuum-pipe off! This loose pipe was just pushed back into place. (Ever since I have intended to have a look at another Rover V8 engine, to see whether a clip or wiring-up should restrain it, but I have never got round to it.) That failing apart, new shock-absorbers have been needed and the self-levelling strut has had to be replaced; it is a surprisingly heavy member and there was difficulty in obtaining a replacement. A new exhaust was also fitted, causing slight resonance to what was before noiseless pick-up. The Rover averages 20.6 m.p.g., but uses hardly any oil. The radiator flushing was required at 45,772 miles and this ageing car has still only done just over 54,000 miles, in the hands of various drivers. It was on Goodyear tyres for some time and its second set of those wonderful Michelin XAS tyres were then fitted. The front ones had to be replaced after 21,000 miles but those on the back wheels look good for some 24,000 miles. The Sky-port glass roof remained leak-proof. This is a car I would want to replace only with another Rover, I think. . . .

To round off a modest story, our S-registration Reliant Kitten Estate, today’s Austin 7, which a daughter had been enthusing over, was swopped with her for our L-registration Fiat 126 (which I regard as a 1970s cyclecar) to enable the Labrador to become a motoring-dog again; you can fit dog-bars to the surprisingly roomy little Kitten, but not in a 126! Both these tiny cars have not only been very sparing with the expensive fuel but also reliable. The Fiat is still on its original Pirelli tyres and, more commendable, its original tiny Marelli battery, and it still starts promptly on most occasions. The Kitten is an instant-starter, and is likewise on its original Lucas battery and Goodyear “boots”.

That was about it, my motoring in 1980.I had a flash-back by driving a three-year-old Triumph 1500HL, was allowed to sample the new Jaguar-powered Lea Francis two-seater, and my “Christmas-car” this time was a British “rust-proof” fibre-glass-bodied Reliant Scimitar 2.8 GTC, very handsome in its new styling and a car possessing “character” and sporting appeal, of which a report appears in this issue.

The Scimitar’s surprising economy for a 2.8-litre high-performance car and its remarkable fuel-range removed any anxiety over petrol-stations being shut, and on Boxing Day it brought me from Hampshire to Radnorshire in its long-legged stride at an average speed of well over 50 m.p.h., in plenty of time to switch-on the Decca 803 TV and see Raymond Baxter’s Land Speed Record documentary.

It was a moderately-captivating year but this survey does not pretend to cover, by any means, all the cars Motor Sport road-tested, and reported on, in 1980. Moreover, it was a year for me of no Mercedes-Benz, through a default when a test had been planned, and I missed the new Alfa Six and other cars I would have liked to have tried. Of the cars tested, the most interesting was the Mini-Metro, the best-equipped the Toyota Crown, closely followed by the Talbot Solara, and the most satisfying the Jaguar XJ-S, while the Ford XR-3 was the most fun.

On the old-car front, too, it was a quiet year. There was, however, that great day with John Walker’s 1908 Grand Prix Panhard-Levassor, I used my 1924 Calthorpe light-car for around a three-figure mileage – shameful, compared to how a vintage car should be used, which is regularly (but one can only drive one car at a time!) – and the 1922 Talbot-Darracq light car was taken off to get another DoE test, which in spite of an Inspector being present the whole time, it did successfully, but it has since been off the road because of a back axle that leaks lubricant into the brakes. There was the 1903 16 h.p. two-cylinder Albion on which, thanks to Peter Mitchell and the BL Heritage, I had an eventful Brighton Run, and I see from my notes that I had brief excursions in a 1934 Sunbeam 25 tourer, and that we got the 1927 Family Morgan three-wheeler crackling once more, but only round the fields.

Of course, those whose sole task is road-testing for the Press, especially if they work for the weeklies or dailies, run through far more new cars than I do, in a 12-month. Nevertheless, I have had much fun and by good luck kept my driving licence clean, and I look forward to more road-testing this year, rising petrol prices, and other worries notwithstanding. Incidentally, of the road-test cars submitted to us last year, the “rubber” chosen by the car’s makers was as follows:- Michelin on nine cars, Dunlop on seven, Pirelli and Continental each on four cars, Goodyear on two, while one car was on Uniroyal, one on Avon and one on Japanese Dunlops.

W.B.

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