My year's motoring

The Editor looks back on the cars he drove during 1955

Looking back twelve months, I find that in 1955 my “score” of road-test cars numbered 17. The year 1953 yielded exactly the same number but, alas, once again sports cars were conspicuous by their absence, in spite of frequent applications to what are known as the right quarters, the Frazer-Nash Targa Florio Turismo and Triumph TR2 of 1954 being matched by a Bristol 404 Businessman’s Express and a sports/racing Lotus-Climax Mk. IX in 1955, with a Lancia Aurelia Gran Turismo 2,500 included for good measure.

The year opened with the need for a new Editorial Vehicle and, in an honest attempt to practise what I preach, I specified a VW de luxe saloon, which was duly ordered from VW Motors Ltd., of St. James’s Street. My Morgan Plus Four seemed to sense this coming change, for just before it was due to become an implement of part exchange it played me a curious trick. Driving it in the cold spell of the 1954/55 winter it froze its header tank for the first time since it had been in my possession, and a solenoid short-circuited, so that for some miles the starter emulated the engine and rotated at high r.p.m., the noise of the considerably worn exhaust system masking this phenomenon until I switched off under the bedroom-window of our Continental Correspondent, who had returned from summer on the Continent and was hibernating for the winter. The noise from the starter-turned-electric-motor punctuated his deep sleep but it was only when we realised it was the Morgan and not an aircraft looking for one of the many adjacent airfields which was causing the racket that we rushed for a hammer with which to tap the offending electrical component into submission. A few moments later a rustling noise announced that the car had released its never satisfactory hand-brake and was rolling away down the drive; a convenient apple tree arrested its progress towards the main road. But even then the Plus Four had something up its sleeve. I left it outside a shop on the return journey and had forgotten it until the assistant who was serving me remarked: “Hadn’t you better try to catch it?” The solenoid had engaged the starter, and as I had left a gear engaged to offset the lukewarm hand-brake the Morgan was being electrically-propelled briskly towards the local canal.

After that it had to go, and on the evening of February 25th I collected a brand-new black VW from the West End of London, the tyre paint still wet on its Michelins. Before this, however, we had had for test a Ford Prefect and a Bond Minicar. The Ford appealed from the first as a roomy little car of useful liveliness and economy. For the first few miles of London traffic jams I felt unduly conspicuous on account of the low body sides combined with generous window area, and the controls seemed rather far-disposed from the driving seat. Very soon, however, I was entirely at home in this small Ford and thought it a better car than a two-door Ford Anglia I had driven previously. Extremely good use was made of it and, needless to say, it never faltered. We used it to “cover” the M.C.C. Exeter Trial, which included the descent, at the cheerful instigation of the navigator, of a steep downhill lane which deteriorated into a quagmire enlivened with stone “steps,” which the writer would never have assayed on his own initiative. The Ford took it far more happily than the wider Bristol 403 in which the photographer was following us. The very next morning, in the winter’s early a.m. we set off in the Ford to see the finish of the V.S.C.C. Measham Rally, a dreary journey faced with a small degree of fortitude only because Mr. Hill, of Measham Motor Sales, not only generously places his grounds at the disposal of the V.S.C.C. for driving tests, but in addition lays on a generous breakfast for competitors and officials in his cheerful and clean canteen. During the five days that we had the Prefect it averaged nearly 170 miles a day, of which I drove it 680 miles, and it used about a quart of Castrol and gave 31 m.p.g. of National Benzole. I coneluded my report with the words: “There is no doubt at all that the small Fords represent a high achievement from the viewpoint of value-for-money, and those who do not like the Continental pattern of small economy car will be well advised to sample an Anglia or Prefect at the very earliest opportunity.” That remains true today.

The Bond Minicar, I regret to say, I regarded as rather an interloper on the road-test scene, and I was not exactly enthusiastic about trying it, recalling the manifold disasters I suffered with an early version some years before. However, persuasion from other members of the staff prevailed and I found myself facing up to London traffic and the long straight stretches of A30 in this diminutive two-stroke tricar. This Mk. C version proved to be infinitely better than its predecessor, for the cable-and-pulley steering which came adrift on that Bond had been changed for mechanical linkages, the rear wheels were sprung, the flywheel magneto and plug gremlins seemed to have been banished, and joy—there was an electric starter. I began to have considerable admiration for the merry buzz of the Villiers engine and to enjoy the stability of this wide-track, single-leading-wheel three-wheeler. During the week that I kept it, it captivated the children, proved ideal for home-to-office transport, and I covered altogether 464 miles. The 8 1/2-h.p. engine cruised this 5 cwt. of clever unit-construction at 40 m.p.h. and it was possible to average over 30, but I couldn’t get much better than 60 m.p.g. of second-grade petrol. Such confidence did this 1955 Bond inspire that when my wife and I set off for the B.A.R.C. Midnight Matinee we looked at the Morgan with its tattered sidescreens and took the little ‘un—very snug on a night of ice and sleet. Of course, it had to be on the homeward journey that the only spot of trouble developed—a petrol blockage, soon cured. My wife then lamented the absence of a driver’s door, which necessitated awkward ejection into the freezing night to enable me to get at the trouble; and, standing beside the upraised bonnet of the Bond, she had every reason to remark on the passing of chivalry on the road as first a sports Austin Seven and then an M.G. Midget swept us with their headlamp beams and motored away down the road.

Two days after taking delivery of the VW I attended a VW O.C. rally in it but, alas, they were not having a Concours d’Elegance on this occasion. I find from consultation of my Stanley Blake Reece diary that when I took over my new car I was instructed to return it for a cheek-over and oil-drain after I had done 300 miles and that a mere four days later I was back, with 366 miles registered—but then, a VW doesn’t have to be “run-in.” Very soon the “elegance” was removed on a snow-bound visit to the Inter-‘Varsity Speed Trials, followed by hard work “covering” the R.A.C. Rally.

About this time I had a brief spell behind the wheel of a Lancia Aprilia which emitted horrid clonks from its drive-shaft universal joints, and took two two-hour spells in a Ford Anglia on the 24-hour endurance run round and round Goodwood organised by Kenneth Best, of the National Benzole Company. This latter exercise did not turn me into a racing driver but at least it wasn’t as boring as I expected it to be; at such modest lap speeds it proved easy to maintain the consistent times which Team Manager Best wanted, there was a certain satisfaction in aiming the car through Woodcote by the reflections of the reflectors on the inside marker-posts after darkness had fallen, while every so often Cuff-Miller would sail past in his Ford Anglia with Handa overdrive, which was permitted a higher schedule-46 1/2 m.p.h., which it did at 40.58 m.p.g., against 41.7 m.p.h. (accomplished at 39.88 m.p.g. for the 1,000 miles) of the car on which I shared the driving.

The preview of the Fiat 600 was notable for an excellent luncheon at “The Bull” at Gerrards Cross rather than an opportunity to assess this new rear-engined economy car, for I was able to drive it only “round the houses,” although this deficiency was handsomely rectified later in the year.

Easter of 1955 was great fun because the always-accommodating Mr. Ronald, of Renault Ltd., allowed me to take away that jolly little Renault R1063, which I encountered again quite recently making short work of Bwlch-y-Groes in the M.C.C. Rally. This compact 747-c.c. rear-engined saloon proved capable of exceeding 76 m.p.h. and of flinging the miles behind it at a steady 60, although the consumption of petrol was up to around 33 m.p.g. In common with the many other Renault 750s I have handled, this R1063 competition version had that delightfully stubby little gear-lever to control its three-speed gearbox, and those tiny metal levers on the floor to operate choke and starter, the latter, I believe, “refined” on this year’s model. The various engine “mods.” of the R1063, including a double-choke Solex d.d. carburetter, brought no particular shortcomings in their train, except for a noisy exhaust, and it was as contented in traffic as on the open road. The clutch was rather fierce and I would have welcomed a four or five-speed gearbox, but returned this “gay-look” green saloon with real regret, after going to the Castle Combe and Goodwood races in it.

Prior to this I had undertaken my “double John o’ Groats” by sharing the driving of an Austin A50 on another National Benzole economy run, and then doing a London-John o’ Groats-London high-speed run in a Bristol 404, punctuating this with a hurried visit to the Empire Trophy Race at excellent Oulton Park in a Simca Aronde and doing a bit of passengering in Best’s Austin-Healey 100. The whole nine days, during which I covered approximately 4,332 miles, were very great fun, although when I was told that an A50 was to be our car for the Land’s End-John o’ Groats-Land’s End economy run I was fearful that the Bishop might unfrock me. I am being honest when I say that this Austin, with its very long steering-column gear-stalk, supple rear suspension of a rigid back axle, cheap door and window handles, a distinct draught from one of the (closed) windows, and a misfire which developed within 3,300 miles, didn’t impress me, although it was amply roomy and possessed adequate brakes. The Simca Aronde Grand Large served very well when I was tired and had to hurry, and although Fiats had substituted it at the last moment for a Fiat 1,100 TV, I had no regrets. For a sober 1,100-c.c. saloon it ran really fast for long periods without increasing the fatigue from which I was by then suffering and it is a nice-looking car.

The Bristol 404 was indeed a pleasant break from testing small saloons and it performed impeccably for a total of more than 2,700 miles, over which, and in view of the heavy throttle-foot with which all Motor Sport’s testers seem to have been endowed, its 21.3-m.p.g. consumption of Esso Extra and modest use of Castrol XL were particularly commendable. The comfort and good appointments of the Bristol made our night dash from Parliament Square, S.W.1, to John o’ Groats an effortless matter, although, and even when seeing it for the second time that week, the road from Inverness to the finish seemed well-nigh endless.

Whereas in the A50 we had swung round and proceeded non-stop all the way back along it, in the Bristol, after 716 miles’ fast motoring, we paused for a not very satisfactory lunch at the hotel, so that it wasn’t until we espied a brass-radiator model-T Ford near Thurso on the return journey that I recovered fully! The car had proved able to average nearly 60 m.p.h. for the more favourable sixty- minute stretches, effortlessly and securely, its splendid roadholding aided by Michelin “X” tyres and the gear-change a pleasure to employ. Although over short distances the time gained in a fast car over a mediocre vehicle is often seen to be a matter of minutes, we really travelled in this Bristol 404, so that it wasn’t until about half an hour after our arrival at John o’ Groats that a lady driving her husband and small son in an elderly Armstrong-Siddeley, which we blasted to the side of the road seemingly a few miles back, came to rest outside the hotel. Nothing of our swift passage was remarked upon, although we shared a table at lunch—reminder that, if we had left England, we were still in Britain!

Coming back I sampled the allied luxury and speed of the car and we made the Abingdon Hotel, where a little firmness was required at the modest hour of our arrival before we were able to obtain an excellent meal—verily, we were almost back in England! The car made this rapid dash northwards and back to London with no serious trouble; indeed its only failings were a broken throttle spring and, bearing out the experience of a correspondent whose letter we published in last month’s issue, an instrument failure, in this ease demise of the rev.-counter. I join with others in mourning the passing of the 404.

Incidentally, this mid-summer madness provided a reflection of the universal appeal motor-racing now makes to all classes of the community, for at one petrol stop a lorry driver approached and, admiring the car, asked if we had the 105-b.h.p. engine installed, remarking that the same unit is used in more highly-tuned form in the Lister-Bristols he had seen in action at Oulton Park. And only the other day the new rules governing this year’s Le Mans race were read out by the B.B.C….

Incidentally, again I am not able to show pictures of the hotels at which Motor Sport’s staff enjoy gastronomic gluttonies in the course of their travels, mainly because no driver cares to pause when he has got into his stride and, this writer’s journeys being confined mainly to this country, arrival at our biggest and best hotels at any slightly unconventional hour means invariably that one is forced to move on and appease one’s hunger at “Bert’s Snack-Bar” or “Fred’s Pull-In.”

Towards the end of August I was able to cover an appreciable mileage in Michael Christie’s twin-carburetter Standard Eight saloon, and I must say this little car got along in a manner which made many of the lesser sports cars look by no means fast. What is more, it gave absolutely no trouble during these 731 miles and returned the really excellent petrol consumption, under the circumstances, of 40.3 m.p.g. I have a penchant for simple economy cars and I could have enthused over the simple seats, sliding windows and lidless luggage boot of this little 803-cc. car even before sprint-exponent Christie had endowed it with the shattering maximum speed of 75/80 m.p.h. The extra performance was certainly made good use of in getting five people quickly to their beds after the midnight conclusion of the ill-fated B.A.R.C. Nine Hours’ Race.

Three months earlier I had driven the better-appointed and more luxurious Standard Ten—in normal trim—over almost the same mileage (actually 676) and I note that this willing and rugged little saloon could exceed 73 m.p.h. and returned 38.2 m.p.g. I can pay this Coventry small car no greater compliment than to repeat that I would willingly have one in the home garage if I had not discovered the more up-to-date virtues of the VW, and you can “count ’em on the road” as proof positive of their popularity in this country.

Easter having been enjoyed with a Renault R1063, Whitsun was enlivened by my use of a Fiat New 1,100 saloon. I had heard such good reports of this ordinary but outstanding little Italian car that I was eager to sample it, and deem myself fortunate to have been able to do so over the appreciable distance of just over one thousand miles. I used it to visit the wilderness of Snetterton, normally a tedious journey when attempted in the day from North Hampshire. The Fiat’s ability to cruise at any speed up to its maximum of about 75 m.p.h. made light of this, and the next day, taking the family to the S.T.D. Register Seaford Rally with equipment for a night in our caravan at Selsey on our return, the spaciousness of this 1,089-c.c. saloon was appreciated. It went to Goodwood on the Monday and did much “taxi work” in the West End, yet the fuel consumption came out to better than 39 m.p.g. overall. Yes, the Fiat 1,100 is one of the better all-rounders, its only unhappy feature being fierce brakes. Its lines were openly admired and were enhanced by the moderately-white-walled Pirelli Stelvio tyres. Alas, the gear-lever lives on the steering column.

Incidentally, one sad but convincing reminder of the prevailing popularity of motor-racing was seen from the windows of the Fiat, when, on our way home from a pleasant lunch with John Bullock, Norman Garrad and Sheila van Damm, placards in Piccadilly announced simply, “Ascari Killed.” In my youth it was always “Famous Racing Driver,” but in 1955 the newspapers knew that Ascari was a name of interest to the multitude. After our conviviality, we were subdued…

Later, acquaintance was made with the Fiat 1,100 TV, which took my wife and me late at night to Wolverhampton so that she could run one of her annual S.T.D. rallies. So many enthusiastic and experienced drivers speak to me so highly of the TV Fiat that I can only conclude that I am getting old, for to my mind, impressive as the acceleration was with the twin-choke Weber carburetter and raised compression ratio, and useful the 8 m.p.h. or so increase of speed over the normal Tipo 103 Fiat 1,100, personally I felt that I wouldn’t want to pay the higher price, although the “hotting-up” which had been done in no way rendered the car temperamental, for over 563 fast miles it behaved impeccably. It was just that the price of over £1,000 seems a lot to pay for a car which gets extra performance at the upper end of the range at the expense of appreciable engine noise and, in the case of the example tested, petrol fumes in the interior.

Soon afterwards I was off to the V.C.C. Silver Jubilee Rally, fitting in the 750 M.C. Six-Hour Relay Race at Silverstone en route, for which busy weekend we had the use of a Sunbeam Mk. Ill saloon. This rather heavy and “old-fashioned” car sprang a very pleasant surprise. It handled extremely well and, devoid of vices, felt and proved to be “unburstable,” and to be capable of averaging 60 in daylight on English roads at the expense of a rather startling rise in fuel consumption. This rugged and handsome car has a maximum speed well in excess of 90 m.p.h. and, driven more moderately than the Continental Correspondent drove it, will do better than 20 m.p.g. It is close-coupled, leaving the rear-seat occupants enough leg-room but no more. We were disappointed by the small fuel tank, which holds only 10 gallons, and no more pleased to soil a suitcase and coats through oil-mist entering the luggage boot than we had been to ruin a coat on the greasy exposed door hinges of the aforesaid Standard Ten. But the Sunbeam’s ventilation arrangements gained full marks in the heat of an exceptional summer, and the car seemed just as sound after Motor Sport’s total test-mileage of 2,050 as when I first drove it away from the office.

It was in the course of this veteran weekend that I was given a vivid demonstration of the cornering powers of Ron Barker’s diminutive 1922 Peugeot Quadrilette and was allowed to go off and play with his amusing 18 1/4 cwt. sports car derived from a cut-down and rebodied 1934 Lancia Astura—his classic “Shortastura”! This made me realise how truly excellent are the clutch action and gear-change of these pre-war Lancias and made me crave an Astura family coach, which is exactly what Barker has since bought himself.

September saw two medium-size Continental saloons come up for trial almost together, so that we switched them about among the staff. The first was a Peugeot 203, a delightfully French car with a number of unusual, and therefore endearing, technical features, including cross-push-rod o.h. valve gear and a worm-drive back axle, and impeccable handling qualities, so that, although it wasn’t particularly fast flat-out, it was a usefully rapid means of going quickly from A to B without the occupants realising you were in a hurry. I fell in love with this long, rather ordinary-looking saloon in a big way but was somewhat abashed to round a corner in 203 style one evening and come face to face with a blazing lorry covered in Nazi swastikas. As soon as it transpired that it was part of a film company’s “props” going off location, I shot the worried young director into the Peugeot and employed its excellent cornering power to such good effect along the few miles of winding country road to the nearest fire-station that we were back again some time before the fire-engine—to discover that a farm labourer had dowsed the flames with a bucket of water!

The other Continental saloon was a Borgward Isabella, resplendent with whitewall tyres and V.S.C.C. and V.C.C. badges. It was an astonishing car, for you could pack six grown-ups inside it and then motor it as if it were at least a 2-litre, yet for all its spaciousness, comfort and good stability, this was, in fact, an economical 1 1/2-litre saloon.

Because a seasonal survey of this nature rightly belongs to the January issue, I am closing before 1955 has run its full course, Press day being before Christmas. It may be that I shall have squeezed in another road-test before this appears, but in any case, the old year concluded satisfactorily with appreciable mileages covered in Mk. IX Lotus-Climax, a “Gay Look” Hillman Minx and a Fiat 600. All three cars are dealt with elsewhere in this issue, so it suffices to remark that the Lotus provided noisy fun and games, which are still the talk of the village(!), its performance being truly outstanding for a 1,100-c.c, motor car, and the roadholding and disc-braking fully complementary, while the Hillman spelt comfort and convenience at low cost, and the little Fiat was found to be commendably lively and quiet-running, and eminently practical. Incidentally, the Lotus proved capable of 95 m.p.h. at 6,000 r.p.m. and while it was in my care I achieved nearly this speed along the Railway Straight at Brooklands—but 400 feet above it, at 1,800 r.p.m., as passenger in a D.H. Tiger Moth.

Then, in the middle of December, I was able to take a fast run down to Devon and back one pouring wet day in a Lancia Aurelia Gran Turismo, the outstanding stability of this very fast Italian saloon making the slippery state of the roads of no moment at all at speeds up to nearly 100 m.p.h. Full impressions of this interesting car must wait, however, until the next issue.

Besides these fairly extensive spells in road-test cars, last year I covered a considerable mileage as passenger in the Continental Correspondent’s Porsche 1,500, which is a magic carpet indeed on our congested roads. I was able to pass a 2-litre A.C. saloon (whose driver was obviously trying) round a curve on the arterial road into Faversham when I took the wheel of a D.K.W. Sondorklasse for a while during an expedition to Kent; in January I had a very brief drive in the prototype A.C. Aceca, and there have been long runs in an Austin-Healey 100M and a snug Jowett Jupiter.

Apart from road-tests, I have covered nearly 16,000 miles to date in the Editorial Volkswagen, which has averaged around 38 m.p.g. and uses no oil between sump drainings. It has not proved entirely trouble-free, for the Bosch wiper motor failed on one of the few wet days of last summer, rendering purgatory a long drive home from Snetterton, and shortly after I returned home from my Wolfsburg visit, more VW-conscious than ever, the oil-cooler split its seams, making an oily mess of the engine. However, with such pleasant steering, gear-change and other characteristics I can forgive it that and I can think of no other small economy saloon I would rather have as a day-by-day companion. Incidentally, the Michelins exhibit small trace of wear and have never deflated, and the original cooling-fan belt is still in use, likewise the original Bosch plugs.

Nor was vintage motoring entirely neglected during 1955, for I was able to compete in the Sunbeam M.C.C. Trial in the Eastbourne area in my 1922 8/18 Talbot-Darracq, which on this occasion suffered two tyre blow-outs in the best tradition of the nineteen-twenties, this little car later taking my wife and small daughters round Goodwood on the memorable occasion of the V.S.C.C. 21st Birthday Party, at which I was deeply honoured to be a guest at the Committee’s luncheon party.

So another year rolls away, the personal “score” this time being 17 road-tests over a mileage of 10,500. In all that distance I was stopped only once by a policeman—he was a member of the Oxford Constabulary, who drove his A70 at 29 m.p.h. in built-up areas and 31 m.p.h. everywhere else—until the VW passed him, whereupon he speeded up, overtook me, and waved me to a standstill, to tell me I didn’t allow much room when passing and had I ever thought of the possibility of structural failure? “My goodness, officer,” I couldn’t help replying, “if you talk like that you’ll have us both walking home.” We parted good friends.