My Year's Motoring

The Editor Looks Back On The Cars He Drove During 1956

It is both seasonal and traditional for motoring writers, at this period of the year, to fill several pages of the journals they represent with reminiscences of the motoring they enjoyed over the preceding twelve months. As a traditionalist I am only too pleased to oblige.

This will not be an account of long-distance journeys at high speed on the Continent, because I leave that to a bearded colleague, nor will you find luscious menus inserted at every other paragraph, because I am still largely confined to roast beef and Yorkshire. Yet, totting up the cars and mileage which constitutes my motoring in 1956, I am not dissatisfied, for I find that I road-tested 21 different cars of 16 different makes over distances ranging from 81 to 1,150 miles, besides sampling half-a-dozen others more briefly. Compared with the testing undertaken by teams of technical journalists on contemporary weeklies I appear to have had “fair shares” in the exciting vehicles which come the way of motoring Editors. Indeed, last season’s personal test-mileage totalled over 10,000, again, let me say, hastily crossing fingers, without so much as a brush with the police. In addition, I covered about the same distance in my Volkswagen, up to the advent of petrol rationing, as I had in 1955, bringing my 1956 total to approximately 28,500 miles.

I learnt two outstanding lessons in 1956. One is that I mustn’t contemplate motor racing on Sundays(!) and the other is that, taken all round, the Volkswagen is such an excellent little car that certain Englishmen become extremely cross if I so much as refer to it! So far as the former is concerned, Nasser is looking after it temporarily. Regarding the VW, I had intended to set down a fairly detailed account of how it behaved during its second year of ownership but, instead, I will content myself by saying that the early troubles experienced in 1955 did not re-occur. No other car has given me quite so much confidence, regarded as dependable, economical transport, and because of its light steering, quick gear-change and high-geared “unburstableness” I wouldn’t change the VW for any other little saloon. There is, too, the absence of H2O, and it was fun last winter to leave the VW outside a factory while testing another make of car, return some days later armed with a kitchen brush with which to brush the snow off it, and start up, knowing that its fantastic-looking but reliable flat-four engine had suffered neither from frost nor anti-freeze. Moreover, the quality of the bodywork pleases me and after nearly two years it polishes up like new; the chromium on the back bumper hasn’t lasted too well but that is largely my own fault because the car has been parked frequently with its rear exposed to rain and snow— and that no water ever penetrates through the cooling louvres to the engine is a constant, but pleasant, mystery. And the engine still consumes very little Castrolite between sump drainings.

“Enough,” they are screaming, “of your VW,” so I will leave it at that, confident from the numbers on British roads that many others agree with me. As I thumb through my Quinn diary to refresh my memory about other cars I do see that on the very first day of 1956 I missed some flying in a D.H. Tiger Moth because, en route to the pleasant grass aerodrome at Fairoaks, the fan-belt of the VW broke— but that was my fault entirely, as I purposely ran it to destruction without practising fitting another. It lasted 16,067 miles, by the way, and the replacement did much better.

Three days later a Bristol 405 presented itself for test and it was easy to persuade the photographer that he, too, hadn’t seen enough of the English Lakes. So thither we went, arriving in the dark to find Windermere in January all but deserted, although in the end the Old England Hotel ministered to our needs.

In this Bristol we enjoyed motoring in a beautiful hand-built motor car, capable of very real performance from an engine of only 1,971 c.c. in a saloon weighing more than 25 cwt. The extremely nice gear-change, effected with a short, central remote lever, added to our pleasure, and there was overdrive, raising the 4.22-to-1 top gear if brought in by operating a flick-switch.

The luxury of the Bristol’s interior appointments, in conjunction with an engine ready to achieve a smooth 5,000 r.p.m. and propel this quite big car at over 100 m.p.h., made our winter excursion to the Lake District memorable, nor did the famous Passes of Kirkstone, Honister, Hard Knott, Wrynose and Whinlatter lose anything in impressiveness on those dull January days, while the lakes could be admired without the distractions of trippers and litter. Alas, the run back to London proved an anti-climax, for thick fog prevailed down A5 and after crawling to Brentford to weigh the Bristol on the usual weighbridge the run to my home in Hampshire was the worst nightmare of 1956.

The fog had scarcely cleared before it was time to present myself at Acton to collect the little Renault 750, in which I proposed to cover the M.C.C. Exeter Trial and V.S.C.C. Measham Rally. The real object of the exercise was to sample the Frelec automatic clutch, then a unique transmission feature on a small car. Suffice it to say that this Renault provided the usual lively, if noisy, performance, at the useful petrol consumption of about 42 m.p.g. in spite of cruising it mercilessly at over 60 m.p.h., and that the embrayage automatique stood up satisfactorily to a variety of conditions. The run back to Measham was enlivened by taking a look at what was once the Donington Park circuit, both the Continental Correspondent and your Editor recalling clearly the racing which took place there before the war.

French Logic—While Britain raises the petrol tax, rations fuel and threatens to introduce compulsory examinations of old cars, in France tax on the older vehicles has been lightened and those built in 1932 or before are exempt from tax. Thus will vintage cars survive for many more years across the Channel–like this 5 c.v. Citroen we photographed near Nice on our way back from the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally. It had drawn up outside a new block of workers’ flats and from it had emerged a stout French lady in voluminous skirt and black stockings, carrying yards of bread and the morning’s purchase of vegetables!

The following week the Continental Correspondent called for me in his Porsche and we crossed the Channel per Silver City Airways to chase after the Monte Carlo Rally. Take-off from Lydd was delayed for some hours on account of fog, what-time we were amused at the protestations of a fellow passenger, who stormed about pointing to the runways as they appeared more clearly, only to sink into the mist again, shouting that everyone must be mad, as there was ample visibility, etc., etc. When the Bristol Freighter, sounding delightfully primitive, did rumble out I noticed that he and his wife made a scramble for the “backs-to-engines” safe seats and hastily did up their belts! Naturally, Silver City know best and it is the prudence they display, while delaying passengers as little as possible, that has undoubtedly resulted in their splendid record of safe flying.

I must say following the Rally was not a very stern task, for all but one night we managed to spend in bed and even the exception provided a few hours’ sleep, in our clothes, in a rather dubious but very welcome hotel at Digne. Otherwise my memories are all of comfortable hotels, exquisite food, exquisite wine at night (and English tea at breakfast), sensible roads with by-passes round even quite small towns, sunshine in Monte Carlo so warm you didn’t require a jacket, sunshine nearly as warm at Le Touquet before we embarked for the return flight on January 25th, and the excitement of the “pocket Mille Miglia” in which competitors participated over the snow-covered Col de Braus.

After we had seen the Rally report safely en-planed we spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon with the French motoring journalist Bernard Cahier at his charming villa on the Moyen Corniche at Cote d’Azur, overlooking the deep blue bay of Monaco. Sun streamed in at the huge window of the lounge, from where traffic could be seen crawling like ants round the hairpins of the Lower Corniche, and Bernard took whimsical delight in anticipating the “near misses” between approaching vehicles. When that palled we sat in the garden, surrounded by enormous cactus plants, picked oranges from the trees, and viewed the shipping in the bay and Prince Rainier’s Palace through a giant telescope, after which Cahier took me for a hair-raising run in his Citroen 2 c.v., not happy until the rims scraped the road on corners. Quite a holiday!

We covered 2,000 miles in the Porsche and for two people and their luggage a better car could hardly be found for a journey of this kind, unless you are the sort of person who must cruise at over 100 m.p.h. and for whom foreign currency comes in such dollops that 32 m.p.g. has no charms. The enthusiasm of the French for high-speed rallies was as heart-warming as the congested roads, hedged, fenced or kerbed-in, were chilling on our eventual return home. I take it on myself to remark that I was an ideal passenger, because that is a compliment to the driver, in whom I had complete faith—yes, even when we passed RaIly competitors down mountain corners and after I had seen just how smooth were the Porsche’s front tyres.

The satisfaction of having to work in France in January was equalled by the anticipation of testing a Mercedes-Benz 300SL, in Scotland in February. We had waited a long time to get our hands on one of these fabulous cars and when the time came anticipation had mounted to a climax. Nor were we disappointed! Although the plan of driving from Land’s End to John o’ Groats failed to materialise on account of traffic delays, I shall long remember being driven really fast by a young colleague from Glasgow to Fort William in pouring rain in the dark, the Mercedes’ 190 h.p. being used to full effect over that deserted, very winding and decidedly eerie road. In those conditions, with the lower gears almost constantly in use, we averaged 54 m.p.h., and on main roads, although traffic congestion was ever against us, we satisfied ourselves that averages of well over 60 m.p.h. were perfectly practical.

Arriving at the Alexandra Hotel on this pouring-wet night, we found ourselves enthusing not only over the immense performance of the 300SL but about its impeccable engineering, the complex power unit with its imposing petrol-injection system displaying not a trace of temperament save for a short bout of misfiring when a combination of Glasgow traffic and torrential rain displeased it. Along a suitably straight piece of road we reached a comfortable maximum of over 135 m.p.h. on the 3.64-to-1 axle that was in use and satisfied ourselves that 100 m.p.h. could be reached from a standstill in a shade over 16 sec. The 300SL thus proved itself in everyway a worthy successor to the 33/180, 36/220 and 38/250 Mercedes-Benz sports models of earlier times. Nor was its fuel consumption of nearly 16 m.p.g. of Esso Extra anything but praiseworthy in view of the hard driving and frequent employment of the engine’s maximum of 5,750 r.p.m. in which we indulged over a distance of 1,348 miles. Today, of course, that wouldn’t seem so good, as we were reminded on seeing a young man climbing into a 300SL through those gull-wing doors after the B.R.S.C.C. Festival of Speed and Sport last month. The appearance and reputation of the Mercedes-Benz caused people to collect whenever we stopped, but much more do I remember this outstanding motor car for its phenomenal acceleration and the unfaltering hard output of immense power from its beautiful 3-litre engine. If there was disappointment, it was that the brakes didn’t seem quite adequate to the car’s performance, so that the gearbox had to be called to their aid for quick deceleration from 100 m.p.h. and over, and the fact that the characteristics of the soft suspension included a tendency to wander which took some time to control. Perhaps it was this that caused the Continental Correspondent to invert the thing at a quite impossible angle up a bank at a corner after he had departed for a joyful midnight “Giro de Hampshire,” thereby providing his passenger with much the same sensations as Moss caused him to experience later, in the Mille Miglia! But the 300SL is a great motor car, long to be remembered.

Early in April there was the pleasure of a long day’s motoring to Wales and back in a Renault Dauphine, during which we investigated the one-time speed hill-climb venue at Caerphilly but missed the opportunity of inspecting a one-time Brooklands racing car interned in Cardiff—and it looks like being a long time before I shall motor that far again. The Dauphine seemed rather crudely finished but earned full marks during a 640-mile test for its combination of 65 m.p.h. cruising speed and better-than-45-m.p.g. consumption of petrol from its rear-placed 845-c.c. engine, which had no tendency to wag the tail of this beautifully-proportioned saloon or to induce oversteer. Before April evaporated the opportunity was taken of sampling the very satisfactory Ford Squire station-wagon over a four-figure mileage, in the course of another journey to Wales to thrash an uncomplaining Citroen 2 c.v. up and down BwIch-y-Groes. The “back-of-beyond” aspect of the Welsh roads I chose purposely on the way home, a route untouched by subtopia, was so pleasing that I vowed I would return, but having grown out of the habit of regular holidays I fear I never got round to it.

From my diary I see that next on the list was a Borgward Isabella TS saloon, supplied for test by Metcalfe and Mundy. How this very roomy, softly-sprung saloon contrives to achieve a maximum speed in excess of 100 m.p.h., over 70 m.p.h. in third gear, and good acceleration, all in outstanding comfort and for a modest fuel thirst of a gallon per 27½ wide-throttle miles is a mystery. But that is how the Borgward motored, and if some details of its handling were not quite to my personal taste, the fact remains that, when contemplating the performance of 2-litre sportsman’s saloons, it is as well to remember that this well-finished and generously-equipped Isabella TS has an engine of only 1,493 c.c. It is remembered as a six-seater saloon of quite deceptive performance which draws warm praise from those who drove it.

By way of contrast came a Singer Hunter, unique in having a single o.h. camshaft 1½-litre engine in a dignified “old English” saloon. I covered a mileage of well over 800 in this de luxe, twin-carburetter version and from thinking it a decidedly odd combination of vintage and modern when I took it over from Barlby Road, I came to respect and like it before returning it. The Hunter needed a good deal of effort to drive and weighed nearly as much as the 300SL but got along well enough for those who demand dignity and don’t mind heavy, low-geared steering and supple springing. Whether the new Gazelle version of Singer lives up to its name I don’t know, because we haven’t had one to try. However, Rootes provided another of their big range of cars the following month in the form of a Humber Super Snipe saloon and, at its price, I summed this up as not at all a bad car, providing you didn’t attempt to go too fast in it. The details seem to have been planned by motorists instead of stylists and it is certainly a car with which you can look the neighbours in the eye. When I first took it over, however, the four-turns-lock-to-lock steering, allied to the “squigy” i.f.s., caused me acute embarrassment, particularly as “Jackie” Masters of Rootes, not then retired, had come with me to show me the back-cuts from Acton to Piccadilly.

Returning the Super Snipe I was taken to Reims for the French Grand Prix in a colleague’s Austin-Healey 100M, which made as light work of some 450 miles of French roads as we did of the champagne which flows so freely at this time in this entrancing city. Air Charter conveyed us to and fro across the wet bit with notable efficiency, and we stayed comfortably at the Hotel de l’Univers, where we had paused for the first night of the Monte Carlo Rally.

The next road test invoked the 1,390-c.c. Sunbeam Rapier, and I had to have two of them because the first one developed some minor defects. I haven’t had the opportunity of testing the latest version of the Rapier, which they have endowed with two carburetters to give it more steam.

Just before trying the Sunbeam and perhaps as a reward for showing off its paces in the aforesaid Bwlch-y-Groes test, I had prolonged loan of a Citroen 2 c.v., with the enlarged 425-c.c. engine and automatic clutch. Just to do things the hard way I took it up to Oulton Park for the V.S.C.C. meeting, and if you are in it hurry driving a 2 c.v. can be quite hard labour. Indeed, the virtually non-stop journey from Slough to Oulton occupied 5¾ hours! For local motoring, however, it is just about ideal, and those who paid the duty-laden high price because they were captivated by the Citroen’s comfortable suspension, incredibly spacious accommodation and its many ingenious and endearing features, must now be very pleased with themselves, for the 2 c.v. can easily be persuaded to give considerably over 50 m.p.g. on the least-costly-petrol. I enjoy any car whose designer has contrived to cool his cylinders by air and keep them cool, so it isn’t surprising that I didn’t return the car until I had driven it 666 miles. Superfluous to add that it never faltered, even the automatic clutch engagement functioning perfectly.

In July I was able to enjoy an improved version of the Renault Fregate and to drive a very dignified British car in the form of a Rover 90. The Renault is an excellent example of the larger family car, eminently useful, sufficiently fast and yet economical, and I am glad to learn that the somewhat oddly-arranged steering-column gear change has since been simplified. The Rover is a car l feel I would very much like to have when, if ever, I retire! It is a little too much of a “gentleman’s carriage” for one who prefers crash-hats to bowlers and sometimes threatens to buy another Clyno, but perhaps, later on … This Rover is delightful in several ways. It offers the essence of luxury with a very decent performance, it performs with that indefinable but undeniably charming smooth unobtrusiveness, and it has plenty of sensible, appealing features that render it as interesting in the showroom as on the road. Therefore, if I am ever engulfed by thoughts of bowlers, spats and the old-age pension, I shall link a Rover with them, because I like the idea of an i.o.e. 2.6-litre engine that gives over 90 b.h.p. on a quite modest compression-ratio and with but one S.U. carburetter. I wrote in the September Motor Sport, in our test report on the Rover 90, that I do not know how Rover’s contrive to sell such a fine car for so little money and I adhere to that view as firmly as ever. To me it seems unnecessary to spend more than £1,500, or £1,600 if you want the fast 105 version, when you buy a dignified luxury motor car—you just go along to Rover. Although, when I retire I shall probably seek a used gas-turbine machine!

In September I found myself on a Pan-American Douglas Clipper DC7b, taking off from London Airport bound at 15,000 feet for Frankfurt, where, a much less luxurious Douglas DC4 Skymaster, with oxygen sockets to remind us that it had once served as a troop transport and, like a local train, occupied by only a handful of passengers, took us on, at a mere 4,500 feet, to Stuttgart, where at the airport overlooked by those remarkable television/restaurant towers, we disembarked for some extensive and exciting testing of Porsche and B.M.W. cars. Those tests were fully written-up in our November issue, so no further reference is required.

We were away for only five days, during which we motored some 2,000 miles in borrowed cars, of which the most exciting were the Porsche Carrera and the B.M.W. 507. During this time we were extremely comfortable in the Hotel Rauh in Stuttgart and the Germainia at Munich. The former is typical of the new hotels found in the bigger German towns and lingers in the memory, with the Waterloo in Hanover, as truly delightful places at which to stay. The return flight was made at 20,000 feet in a B.E.A. Vickers Viscount which was bringing home the first families to quit Cairo.

Four days after my return from Germany Rolls-Royce Ltd. put a Bentley S-series at our disposal, in which we covered over 1,360 luxurious miles, in a car which is near-perfection, although I am sorry we have reached that stage in the progress of the motor car when the former delightful right-hand Bentley gear-change has had to be replaced by American-devised automatic transmission—and, with this, I am not sure that I want to be bothered with over-ride control. Yet for all that, this Bentley is a magnificent example of British quality engineering and the manner in which this vast S-series turns itself into a seemingly small car as it cuts through traffic, setting up average speeds which before the war would have been reasonable for a sports car on congestion-free roads, constitutes a hallmark of its all-round excellence. I find myself wondering, nevertheless, what “W. O.” would have said had he, as I did, hurt a knee on a pull-out hand-brake which pulled out too far because it was linked to the brake mechanism by cable instead of by rods! The automatic transmission certainly functions almost impeccably but the brakes, while retaining the famous mechanical servo of the kind introduced by Rolls-Royce in 1925 and Hispano-Suiza in 1919 and thus being extremely effective, can be too effective on slippery roads because they all too readily lock the back wheels. The petrol tank, too, provides a range which must be irritatingly small when Continental touring. Yet a Bentley is a Bentley all the world over and I left this one at Conduit Street suitably awed and respectful.

About the same time I tried the 3-litre Lagonda saloon, and this seemed an excellent motor car for those with heavy responsibilities but who are still sportsmen—H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh drives one. The independent rear suspension which renders the Lagonda, almost alone amongst British cars, conventional in Continental company, is more impressive for the comfort it imparts to rear-seat passengers than for its effect on roadholding, although, even when its 140-b.h.p. twin-ram engine is opened-up on grease, the car is commendably stable. The test-car possessed some individual faults and when I took it to Coventry to consult Mr. Sutton about an article he wrote for our Show Number it ran out of petrol in the thickest of the lunch-hour traffic because its reserve fuel system is nonsense. But, all in all, I liked the Lagonda, especially as this one had a “real” gear-lever and the race-developed Bentley-inspired engine delivered high performance with commendable smoothness. If I had 5¼ thousand pounds to spare I’m hanged if I know whether I’d buy a Bentley S-series or save £1,250 by having a Lagonda. Maybe I’d have a Lotus and spend the balance on old-timers, instead …

After driving these fabulous cars it was something of a relief to follow the M.C.C. Rally as far as the Lake District in a Ford Zephyr and to run down to Dorset in a Standard Vanguard Sportsman just as petrol was becoming embarrassing to buy. The test of the Zephyr was published last month and that relating to the Vanguard Sportsman appears in this issue, so there is little need to enlarge on these two cars, except to remark that they represent excellent medium-size family cars of no mean performance, both of which are capable of exceeding 26 m.p.g. The Ford Zephyr is truly remarkable value-for-money at a basic price of £580. But, you know, on my return to Dagenham with it I couldn’t persuade anyone in that vast plant to bring the oil-level back to “full” in order to confirm absolutely and accurately the Ford’s very small thirst for Castrolite. They were “at lunch”—but under similar circumstances I think my request would have been met at Stuttgart or Munich or Wolfsberg, in which, maybe, there is a moral!

Then, right at the end of the season, just as December 1955 was enlivened by a Lotus, I was able, before the petrol famine stopped play, to borrow another of Colin Chapman’s little motor cars. This time it was a yellow Lotus-Ford Sports, a full road-test report on which is due to appear in the next issue. So 1956 ended on a note of fresh air, exhilaration and damp clothes.

In all this testing we have never been stranded on the road, although a faulty condenser in the Ford Squire nearly blotted this good record. The first Sunbeam Rapier developed an oil leak and a sticking throttle but otherwise the Press cars were beyond criticism on the score of trouble, although we did hear that one of the more expensive cars had seized its back axle at 80 m.p.h. just as we were due to receive it, and we were obliged to wait a few days while it was repaired. Tyres enjoyed the same praiseworthy immunity from trouble, the only puncture occurring in a Firestone tubeless cover, while the first and only deflation of the Michelins on my Volkswagen didn’t happen until the car had covered over 32,000 miles! Incidentally, I see that of the cars submitted for full road-test in this country, six had Dunlop, five Michelin, three Firestone, and two had Goodyear tyres.

Besides the cars already referred to, I was able to take brief runs last year in a Ford Popular with L.M.B. i.f.s., in the much-discussed two-stroke front-drive Berkeley 322-c.c. sports mini-car, in a third Sunbeam Rapier, in the experimental four-wheel-drive Ferguson jeep, and in several cars tuned by Alexander Laystall. The year really didn’t plan out too badly, because, although sports cars, the Lotus apart, were conspicuous by their absence, we were able to test high-performance cars like the Bristol 405, Mercedes-Benz 300SL, Porsche Carrera and 1600 Super, B.M.W. 503 and 507, Borgward Isabella TS, Bentley S-series and 3-litre Lagonda. It is satisfactory, too, that of the “Big Five” manufacturers Ford, Standard and Rootes submitted their fast models. Vauxhall abstain by mutual consent, because they do not make sports cars, and it is not my wish that all B.M.C. vehicles should still be withheld from us. I would have welcomed an opportunity to do some long-duration investigation of the new mini-cars but the opportunities never materialised. I nearly got my hands on an Astra but in the end it proved evasive, but I did cover a few miles in a prototype Berkeley. Certainly the present situation directs attention to good petrol economy, and it does not strike me as very good progress that whereas in my youth I used to get 45 m.p.g. from a series of Austin Sevens, in 1956 the only car I drove which equalled this was the Renault Dauphine and the only one to better it was the Citroen 2 c.v., which accomplished just over 53 m.p.g. Surely it should be possible to get 55-60 m.p.g. with today’s efficient small engines and improved fuels?

Vintage motoring almost escaped me during 1956 due to inability to find time to get my 1922 Talbot-Darracq into running order, but at least I attended the official opening of the Montagu Motor Museum, rode in Douglas Fitzpatrick’s fabulous 1907 Metallurgique-Maybach, went as passenger in the Brighton Run in a 1902 Wolseley, drove a 1925 F.N. which I owned for a time for some 250 enjoyable miles, and, perhaps most enthralling experience of the lot, went for a ride in a Foden steam-wagon, which shows, I hope, that I have by no means lost interest in the vintage and veteran aspects of motoring.

Thus, 1956 and very satisfactory it was. As for 1957, I prefer not to contemplate it . . .—W. B.