In these times open cars are conspicuous by their rarity, and all of a sudden it struck your Editor that the majority of his readers probably deplore this fact and expect him to champion what few genuine sports ears remain. It was his bad luck or illogicality that prompted this thought when the thermometer was falling and the first snow of winter was imminent. However, true enthusiasm should be able to surmount personal discomforts and so it came about that at 7 o’clock on a frosty December morning I climbed into No. 1 of the open “built -for-a-purpose ” high-performance cars that I was looking forward to Sampling -V. W. Derrington’s special ex-Staddon “1,100 ” FIAT.
This brief, stark, doorless two-seater was illustrated and briefly described in Motor Sport last August. Dick Staddon, after befriending, for a while, another real motor-car in the form of a Type 37 Bugatti, decided to have a ” special ” based on comparativelymodern practice. In this he may or may not have been influenced by D. G. C. Collins, who got quite surprising results from a cutdown FIAT Balilla saloon. Knowing that Derrington had been persuaded by the late Robert Arbuthnot to forsake lancias for FIATs and that he had had plenty of experience of them and spares to hand, Staddon bade him build a car to the required recipe.
Suffice it to say here that the FIAT Balilla was so basically adaptable that the main aids to urge were the featherweight Lester body, an alloy head, Laystall crankshaft, 9 to 1 compression ratio and special manifolding. The FIAT channel-section frame stiffened by the prop-shaft tunnel was deemed adequate, and short enough with its saloon wheelbase of under 8 ft. not to need abbreviation. The FIAT i.f.s. likewise fitted the scheme nicely and the standard 4.6 to 1 axle ratio and gearbox ratios were retained. The 1,080 c.c. engine had the merit of being outstandingly light and willing for its size.
When I had opened my bleary eyes sufficiently, on the aforesaid occasion, to see this car, it appealed to me at once as handsome, functionally efficient and capable of passing for a Continental product. The lack of doors made it necessary to clamber about a bit in getting behind the wheel, but personally I shouldn’t use such a car for shopping and I like the extra rigidity which absence of doors gives to a lightweight body. Within the first. hour’s driving I decided that I liked more than the appearance of this FIAT. For one thing, it very definitely performed, for another it was so very much in sympathy with its driver. When slippery roads bade us reduce speed I still liked the car enormously, better, indeed, than the last modern car I had tested beforehand.
A weight of about 11 cwt. allied to an engine that revs freely and has commendable power for its size works wonders. The rev-counter simply rushed round to indications of 4,300-5,500 r.p.m. and acceleration was, to use an overworked word, immense. A speedometer 65 was not the limit in the useful third-gear, it was the normal speed at which one changed into top. And in top 80 m.p.h. was the habitual indication on clear roads. Now I never trust speedometers and I’m suspicious of rev-counters, particularly belt-driven ones like that on this FIAT, which eventually had hysterics before passing out with nobeltitis, and I had no chance of timing the car. I can only tell you that the maxinium I achieved, fold-flat, screen erect, was 4,800 r.p.m., which, with the 5.00-15 tyres, equals 80 m.p.h. The rev-counter probably lagged a bit, for the speedometer indicated almost 90; and it felt like it. I believe Derrington reckoned on over 110, but he probably lowers the screen and lets the breezes blow. I should dispose of this very vivid performance by putting the acceleration somewhere between that of a Meadows-H.R.G. and Harry Lester’s M.G., which is no insult to Staddon’s conception of what it motor-car should be.
Over and above its performance this was such a jolly car to drive it pulled away from absurdly low speed in top gear, and accelerated to a healthy roar from its exhaust. The smooth, light accurate steering was geared absolutely as I like it and had just the right amount of castor-action—neither too much, nor too little. Road shock was not transmitted back and on straights the car ran very true. In cornering you just didn’t think about over- versus under-steer, because the FIAT went round impeccably with just the obvious amount or wrist movement for a particular corner—again, neither too much nor too little–and having fun, the tyres protested practically not at all. I never gave a thought to roll, which suggests this must be about the most roll-free car I have driven for a long time. Yet. the ride was very decently comfortable all the time.
One especial charm was to glance at the rev-counter when the m.p.h. seemed to be somewhat hectic and discover that the little o.h.v. four-cylinder 68 by 75 mm. engine was lolloping round quite soberly at not more than four-thou. A comforting thought, and one which made me believe Derrington’s claim—actually it was staddon’s, relayed–of a regular 36 m.p.g. Another feature, which December emphasised, was the snugness of the cockpit, achieved by rather crude but indubitably effective mica sidebits rivetted the windsereen frame.
There were, I must admit, few snags. The brakes, never very powerful unless you stamped on the pedal, lost fluid towards the end and made a journey through the West End an outsize nightmare. The clutch wanted to slip and the remote gear-control, if well placed, was a thought vague, at all events for the ham-handed, causing me to change: smartly into neutral at a critical moment when I was chasing a fellow-scribe in a distinct hurry and an S.M. 1,500 saloon. The saloon won. To engage reverse a separate little lever had to be felt for down by one’s feet. A faulty exhaust-joint made our eyes water, the screen wipers were sleepy and finally slept, handbrake, thermometer and horn were on strike, the pessimistic fuel gauge made us spill petrol when refueling and perhaps the minor controls—pullout knobs for ignition advance, choke and starter, and an elusive dipper switch -should be dismissed is a thought. crude. But why worry? This car will most likely pass into the hands of someone who will enjoy its company almost as much in the garage as on the road. Really good performance has to be paid for, in heavy fuel consumption, frequent routine maintenance or in other ways. This FIAT is light on fuel, so if sometimes things have to be tightened up and if the body rattles a bit and the crocodile bonnet gives a clue to the gauge of its alloy sheeting by sensuous ripples, no matter. Whoever owns the car next—when I tried it Derrington had it up for sale at £725— will be able to get through traffic very easily indeed with no fuss or bother, incidentally using mostly top and third gear. Reaching the open road he or she will enjoy impeccable handling, the company of a crisp exhaust note, perfect visibility, and performance that will dispose of most things. The FIAT engine pinks on the lesser sort of Pool petrol and thrives on ” Octol.” It isn’t oversensitive to spark-advance, doesn’t run-on, starts promptly with minimum choke, and oil goes through it at 40 lb./ sq. in. with the revs well-up. It remains smooth right up to 6,000 r.p.m., 6,500 if you will, and is admirably carburetted by a single downdmught S.U. topped by a flat air-cleaner. Altogether, this Staddon/ Derrington experiment had worked out well, and emphasises that if you can really “add lightness” high performance can be wooed without recourse to a multiplicity of camshafts and superchargers and such like complications. Derrington is likely to build another of these cars or two, to the same pattern, but with a bit more luggage room and, to the girl-friend’s relief I suppose, doors to the body, and a hood. Incidentally, these doors will be hung from the chassis to obviate stressing the tubes of the body frame. Very nice little cars they should be!
I had hoped to continue this happy story with an account of a drive in the Cooper-M.G. but it wasn’t ready when we had to close this issue early for Press on account of the Christraas vacation. Never mind, it has turned exceedingly cold again and they tell me it’s going to snow. But it is my intention to return to this pleasing subject of real sports cars in the very near future.—W.B.