My year's motoring

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The Editor looks back on the cars he drove during 1981

Two things in particular never fail to astonish and cheer me, when I consider the cars I have driven over the passing years. One is how quickly motor fashions change. so that what one rates as a simply delightful car when it is first introduced and one is permitted to drive it, very quickly becomes out-dated and surpassed, either by a later version of the same make and model or by similar class cars of other manufacturers. The other satisfactory piece of automotive progression concerns the many in-built improvements, the driver and passenger conveniences as it were, which were once lacking in so many cars, or only available as extras, but which are now commonplace on many of the cars I try, so that to make references to them in road-test reports now seems superfluous, to which I would add that in the sort of mileages I usually contrive to cover in road-test cars little or no oil is now consumed.

Certainly we have come a long way from the days when our aged Austin Sevens and the like drank almost as much oil (fortunately it was a damn sight less expensive then) than petrol. Another heartening thing is that fuel consumption is continually improving, the m.p.g. figures obtained from some high-performance cars of 2-litres and over are thus very encouraging, while quite spacious economy-cars , which themselves possess very adequate performance levels, these days) tend to give the sort of fuel-saving which was expected only from the most pedestrian of baby-cars in the past.

Those are some of the reflections I have in mind as I sit down to review another year’s motoring. Because of meeting colour-photographic sessions, Press dead-lines, the need for trackk assessment of certain mad-burners, can collection overlaps, etc., I did not drive by any means all the cars submitted to Motor Sport for road-test in 1981. What follows is a personal report only and not representative of our entire test programme for last year.

I kicked off in 1981 with a Mazda 323 Hatchback 1500GT, that attractive front-drive proposition aimed at the toughest, popular sector of the market which accounts for 44%, of total British sales, with Mazda aiming for an 8,000 sales figure by the end of the year — a figure exceeded by the end of August. This rival to Ford’s FWD New Escort was impressive, good to drive and represented a formidable value challenge, especially in its lower-priced, smaller-engined forms. Full equipment was matched by impressive performance despite high gearing, but somewhat dead steering and a rather harsh ride (shared with the Escort, prevented this 323 from being the complete small-car paragon. The lamps made night driving a pleasure, however, and there were many small but well-contrived items about the car; for instance, the driver could open the Hatchback with a floor-level lever. After enjoying similar well-made minor controls and such convenient fittings on a Mazda RX-7 we had for long-duration appraisal, I would willingly have a Mazda saloon as a personal possession.

Not having experienced for a very long time that very special kind of motoring which a BMW provides. I was happy to go off in a BMW 628 CSi coupe and I found it much to my liking. Detuned from the road-devouring 635 Csi, there was still enough punch from this 2,788 c.c. fuel-injection six-cylinder motor-carriage from Munich for some very fast motoring. With expensive touches of luxury, such as a sliding roof, air-conditioning, and a limited-slip differential etc., the cost was high, over £16,600 when tested. But to someone partially brought up on BMWs. there was no mistaking certain “house” features of this 1981 model, including poor lighting on dipped-beam, a hand-brake requiring a firm pull to make it effective on steep hills, a driver’s door which would have preferred to remain ajar, a dangerous catch inside the glove locker, and a good gear-change to a gearbox in which the 5th speed was a true fast-cruising ratio. The very powerful brakes, too, had the BMW lag, and while it was most reassuring to have a computer-panel telling you that all was well for moving off, even that the screen-washer bottle was charged and the rear lamps functioning, it was still possible to garage the car with its side lamps alight. Equipment was very much in the generous BMW idiom, including an inspection-lamp and that nicely-fitted tool-kit on the inside of the boot-lid, but the air-conditioning drove me to near-distraction. Yet, when all was said and done, it was splendid to drive a BMW again, lively suspension and hard seats notwithstanding.

Michael Cotton then arranged for my neglected Porsche education to be extended, with a Porsche 924 Turbo, of which 100,000 had by then left the Stuttgart factory. This was a quality car rather in the BMW category with essentials such as easily-read instruments, etc. The finish, construction and general turn-out are put of a Porsche’s instant appeal, even if the appearance of the 924 was a bit suspect and the rear seats only suitable for the keenest kiddies. As was to be expected, there was quite a lot of individuality about the 924 Turbo, such as being able to inadvertently engage reverse gear if you weren’t concentrating (as with the old Ford Popular) and a right-hand, but well-placed, hand-brake. The steering was manual but very light and quick, except on acute corners, the 2-litre supercharged acceleration was highly impressive, with no turbo lag, but a flat acceleration curve below about 3,000 r.p.m., and winter starting, as admittedly with most other modern cars, was first time, every time. I rated this 140 m.p.h. front-engined, water-cooled Porsche a thoroughbred, like almost all of its breed.

As a contrast, I drove the ageing Editorial Rover 3500 to Canley to take away on trial the latest Rover Vanden Plas saloon. This was executive luxury motoring to a lofty degree, an old man’s car if you like, although, in fact, on a long run to Norfolk and hack via the Industrial Midlands on urgent business, this old lady from Solihull (then still a Rover manufactory) lifted up her skirts and rushed along the Motorways and main roads most indecently quickly. And remembering that these Rovers, of any h.p. denomination, are commendable hatchback load-carriers into the Spen King bargain, I just refuse to believe that BL are finding them hard to sell. The Vanden Plas vee-eight has about all the up-market amenities any gentleman or executive could seek — they are listed on page 627 of last year’s May issue, and the 1982 revised versions are described elsewhere in this issue, no I can save space here. Moreover, a top pace of around 125 m.p.h. and a 70 mph.-cruise at only 2,500 r.p.m. is surely mere than adequate for this class of car? The finish, ride, and reduced wind noise (remember how the late Raymond Mays likened this on his Rover to sitting in an air-liner?) were improved, over the earlier Rover I know more intimately, but I thought the wet-road cornering and the response to the accelerator the Vanden Plas is heavier, of course, fractionally less good — but then, the beast you know… As ever, the vee-eight smoothness remains one of the Rover 3500’s foremost delights — if you can afford the fuel thirst.

With turbocharging now as much a topic of news and conversation as mechanical-boosting was in my youth, it was interesting to put a Renault 18 Turbo through its paces. Here was a car of divided character, a docile family saloon that could be turned into a fascinating playcar, by just using the throttle. I rate it very highly, as a car interesting to drive and very flexible in fifth gear (another advantage of forced induction) even if 0 mph.-onwards acceleration was near the average mark. Against this, the 18 Turbo was quite sparing of petrol, even when driven energetically. It possesses Gallic individuality, too, from the inclined push-rod-prodded oh-valves of the 1,565 c.c. engine to a fascia gauge which, scorning to tell you about oil pressure, is in fact a sump-level dial.

Easter 1981 was rendered pleasant by using an Audi 80 coupe to cover the MCC Land’s End Trial, after going up to Dolton Park to watch some saloon-car racing, finishing off with a visit to Loton Park hill-climb on the Bank Holiday. I do not ever remember being anything but enthusiastic about the various Audis I have sampled. It is a handsome car, crisply styled, it possesses most of the more sensible modern amenities, including central door-locking, it is commendably economical, and the engine, good for 6,500 r.p.m. and giving 113 m.p.h., as excellent as the gear change, does not merit cheap jokes about not running on six cylinders — its 1.9-litres being, of course, divided between five cylinders. Individuality was met again, too, in such items as a warning light to show normal water temperature hadn’t been attained, and an “Econ” gauge for those who are able to forgo the full performance of which this very acceptable coupe is capable.

The next test car was a Renault 20TX, which was a line may of being cosseted on a run to North Wales for a Fiat new-model pre-view. This big Renault had a few very minor annoyances, fully offset by the expected comfortable ride and seating. There is a good deal of French “character” about the 20TX, and it somehow conveys a whiff of the luxury cars of old, as distinct from similar, but more dashing, kinds of car such as the Renault 18 Turbo. Much more in this latter category was the Alfa Romeo Alfetta 2000 in which, among other things, my wife and I went to a captivating evening at the Midland Motor Museum in Bridgnorth to see Kay Petrie, that slight but so brave Brooklands lady driver, unveil the frieze Sammy Davis did years ago to decorate the MAC headquarters, and later to Oulton Park for the VSCC races. The Alfetta combines that classic twin-cam engine configuration with a de Dion rear axle. With 130 b.h.p. developed at only 5,400 r.p.m. it performed extremely well, with all the desirable Alfa characteristics sin lively engine emitting that pleasing snarl as it was opened-up, supple springing that in no way undermines excellent road-holding and fast cornering, and good instrumentation which possesses a few idiosyncrasies of its own. The all-round disc braking was acceptable but I didn’t altogether like the imitation wood-decor or the baulky bottom gear, in a boxful of well-spaced ratios.

However, any Alfa Romeo is a welcome change after most other cars and realising, as a great ‘Sud admirer, that I had not tried the fastest of this range, the Alfetta was followed by a 1.5 Alfasud Sprint Veloce. It was a little charmer, endowed with splendid performance, yes quiet for such a small-engined (flat-four) confection and almost as roomy as the hatchback ‘Sud. If she transmission was the least-acceptable aspect of this very-oversquare cylindered 95 b.h.p. edition of the ‘Sad, there was no denying its continuing appeal, promoted by its “different” specification, its celebrated cornering power from well-contrived f.w.d., and even the back seat, I am told, is comfortable, while 0-60 m.p.h. in 10 sec. from 1,490 c.c. isn’t bad!

Something very different came up for test in June, in the form of a Subaru 1.8GL Estate-Car, in which you could not only select drive to all four-wheels when conditions made this desirable, but had in addition a high and a low set of gear ratios. If the high driving-seat and other aspects of this clever Japanese car were of the old-fashioned kind, nevertheless it was quite nice to drive and I would give anything to have it at home as I write this annual summary at a time of much snow and ice which the Rover doesn’t care to negotiate, so that it has all too frequently to be abandoned at the bottom of the drive, a long, slippery foot slog to warmth and comfort. I am more than ever convinced that putting a practical 4WD transmission in an outwardly normal-looking saloon or estate-car is going to appeal to more and more car owners, especially if Arctic winters become the British norm. We took this Subaru down to some West Country trials-hills, where it convinced me that this combination two-and-four-wheel-drive functioned sensibly and could be the greatest boon to many people even though they may not wish to emulate farmers or cross-country fanatics. Quick acceleration may not be the 79 bhp. Subaru’s best feature, but it is a comfortable, well-contrived car, which gave better than 30 m.p.g. of 2-star petrol on a long haul from mid-Wales to the Brooklands Reunion, and which ran quietly unless one was truly thrusting it along.

Remembering how we at Motor Sport used to enthuse about Peugeots, I went off full of anticipation in the Peugeot 305S which arrived for appraisal in July. Unhappily, although the S-version of the 305 has 89 b.h.p. at its disposal, it is more a car for leisurely runs than for pressing on, even though the light-alloy, oh-camshaft 1½-litre engine runs up to 6,500 r.p.m. It is, in fact, somewhat under-geared in its four forward speeds, some of the styling and decor was disliked, and the FWD gear-train tended to whine. Instrumentation was uninspiring, and the under-bonnet clutter would hardly appeal to DIY-ers. It was also too expensive, but comfort, much luggage and passenger space, some generous equipment, a nice gearshift and very powerful brakes were among this Peugeot’s plus points, and it is an undemanding vehicle to drive.

A car I had long wanted to try, the Alfa Romeo GTV6 Coupe, proved well worth waiting for, a car obviously eager to go, and combining all the former Alfa delights within a good-looking bodyshell. With its 160 b.h.p. Bosch-injected smoothly functioning engine. De Dion rear-end, Pirelli P6 tyres, and four very effective disc brakes. I was quickly aware if the security inbuilt into such a car, with its 0-60 m.p.h. pick-up in 8½ sec, for example which could be used so effectively, safely and enjoyably for defeating traffic-mimsers. The suspension soaks up road irregularities in that subtle Alfa Romeo fashion without promoting soggy handling and the interior is plushly fitted-out, but electric window, and a sunroof to augment the sluggish cool-air flow would have been appreciated, features we understand will be fitted in the 1982 cars at little or no extra cost. The manual steering was heavy for parking, the wheel’s rim too slippery for ungloved hands, but the flexible performance of this latest V6 product from Milan was extremely enjoyable.

Standard House has become so Alta Romeo-orientated that I am told we qualify for Alfa Romeo’s Fleet-Users scheme, whereby, in the unlikely event of a breakdown you simply dial a Freephone number and help arrives, including loan of another car. The only reason I have not availed myself of this excellent service is the notchy, ponderous 5-speed gearbox, with low first and second gears, and the long-travel, too-sudden clutch of this otherwise enchanting GTV6 coupe. This does not matter much on the “open” road. But when commuting across London it is a weighty disadvantage, anyway to tine spoilt by long acquaintance with the Borg-Warner automatic transmission in the Rover. This is a form of “lazy” driving to which I was firmly opposed, until I inadvertently became acclimatised. The difficulty I face is that this kind of self-change gearbox ill-accords with the sporting GTV6, and anyway, even if one conceded it auto-transmission, this is only available tin the Alfa-6 saloon; anyway, Motor Sport’s MD has one of these to supplement his 450 SEL Mercedes and I am not sure one should have exactly the same car as the Gu’vnor…

Back to road-testing, the likeable Mazda RX-7, which was so commendably reliable over a big mileage, is the subject of lull coverage elsewhere in this issue, so we can move it immediately to the Talbot Tagora 2.2GLS, which I discovered to be a very restful large saloon, with an unexpected fuel-conservation advantage. It is one of those cars which don’t seem to call continually for skilled driving in an endeavour to keep lesser cars at bay which one senses a Alfa Romeo or a Jaguar expects. This Talbot out of Chrysler Peugeot, however, in spite of rather lackadaisical performance, got along well enough, on somewhat stiff suspension, and made light of a long day chasing motoring-ghosts – a very reasonable, economical and, I thought quite an enjoyable, family car. The Renault Fuego 2-litre GTX proved just slightly quicker than the Renault 18 Turbo, just that much more accelerative, yet it costs £750 less. It is a fine family conveyance, with the insulation from road shocks expected of a Renault, with many modcons for the 1980s, and good brakes, an excellent all-round roomy, two-door hatchback with effective anchors. The Volkswagen Passat GLS5 I have commented on quite recently, as being a well-made, nicely-finished little car in the best Eurobox format, and one fully in keeping with the great VW reputation. The Colt Lancer 2000 Turbo, offers supercharged urge which is truly impressive (I’ll say!) with no complications or throttle-lag, acceleration being in the “drag” category, yet this little rear-drive salloon can be unexpectedly docile, which was a relief when tackling ice-bound roads when handing it over to a colleague who was attending a VW Press party at the top of Fish Hill, Broadway, in mid-winter. This Colt also has some very likeable Oriental features. But it is the terrifically useable pick-up, that traffic safety factor, one remembers most. It is otherwise Escort-like, even to choppy rear springing, and I wish then had filled the screen-washer with anti-freeze before the Ice-Age set in – ironically there is even a warning light if the bottle is getting empty but not to say it will freeze up. The ergonomically excelling, impeccably engineered, load absorbing Mercedes-Benz 230TE Estate-Car was also reviewed last month. You have to drive the “little” 2.3-litre Merc, to believe its abilities. It was difficult to remember that this so beautifully-made and with everything so well to hand, estate-car is one of the lowest forms of current Mercedes life, as it is priced at £11,150 — not far off the level at which Ford of Britain’s prices stop! That seems to have completed my 1981 road test schedule although, as I have emphasised, many of the more speedy, more exotic, and more unusual cars came within Motor Sport’s scope in 1981 — I like to think the ones I tried are those more likely to be bought in appreciable numbers — if you want to read full reports, back issues or photostats should be available.

Apart from full test-sessions I had sufficient experience of the new 5.3-litre Lagonda to know that, magnificent as it undeniably is in “futuristic” formulae and top-car, prestige-making build, the Newport Pagnell £53,499-worth is not my kind of everyday car, and of the Audi Quattro (£14,500) to know that it easily could be. I also drove the commanding 4WD Mercedes-Benz G-Series omnibus, but only on main roads prior to lunching with Erik Johnson and fellow members of the Guild of Motoring-Writers at Eastnor Castle. I rowed a Fiat Panda 45 over some Welsh tarmac acclivities, on the occasion of its Press pre-view. Incidentally, with the just defunct Triumph Dolomite and the Ford Fiesta (on which they are an extra this is about the only car now with openable ¼-windows in its front doors, for those who need fresh air and cannot master modern ventilatory systems, some of which are unduly complicated. The Ford Fiesta XR-2, that captivating high-performance version of a very successful little car, was likewise tried on pre-view frolics.

Last year, too. I had some fun in Terance Barnes’ immaculate 1925 30/98 Vauxhall. and his smartly rebuilt 1934 ex-TT 1½-litre Singer Six sports two-seater and with my 1924 Calthorpe light-car from the VSCC New Year’s Day celebrations onwards. I also used occasionally our low-mileage Fiat 126 (still on its original 1973 Marelli battery and Pirelli tyres) and Reliant Kitten, both 48 m.p.g. runabouts, the latter as spacious as the former is cramped, and I got Lord Montagu’s 1903 22 h.p. Daimler through the Brighton Run. During the year the R-registration Rover 3500 got more rusty, required a new petrol tank and silencer, tried to shed its driver’s door and its central door-locking played up, yet it remains a very acceptable form of transport which I am always glad to resume, even after trying other good cars of more recent design and manufacture and it remains a thirsty but now dependable staff-hack after more than 70,000 miles.

Now the chore of writing about these cars and trying to assess each one fairly has ended (driving them is another thing!) and we start all over again, another year of motoring enjoyment ahead, in what I am told is the Age of the Train. — W.B.