The Editor Looks Back on the Cars He Drove in 1957
I tested fewer cars for Motor Sport last year than I did in 1956. This had nothing to do with old age, lack of opportunity or decreasing enthusiasm. The fact is that, as you may remember, petrol rationing returned during the early part of the year, which is a pretty disgraceful thing to have to put on record, for, although no one expects to enjoy unrestricted pleasure motoring when their country is engaged in total warfare, only through the muddling and meddling of politicians can rationing of petrol become necessary in times of peace.
Not only did 1957 bring such rationing but whereas during the worst of World War II free-lance journalists were granted so many petrol coupons that many of us celebrated the outbreak of peace with a big fat wad we couldn’t afford to convert into fuel, last year Motor Sport and other journals were granted a ridiculously meagre ration. So I had to curtail appreciably my motoring in England, and consequently the number of cars I tested, during this unhappy time of partial-peace.
Personally I did not have cause to grumble, either at the time or in retrospect. You see, when coupons and the Black Market in petrol descended on this luckless isle a colleague and I flew across the channel and, using his Austin-Healey 100M and a nice little Renault Dauphine kindly laid on for us by M. Robert Sicot of Régie Renault, we motored freely, unmolested by English far and wide across the fair land of France.
It had been my intention, while on this business visit to the Continent, to try the controversial Citroën DS19 and to have a look at the old-established Peugeot factory, where they still believe in worms in the back axle. However, these plans did not materialise. When we said we wanted to sample the revolutionary new Citroën. Paris referred us to Slough and Slough politely referred us back to Paris and we formed the opinion that they didn’t take kindly to critical journalists investigating their futuristic motor car. I am still without experience of the DS19.—a pity, because on paper it seems to have left every other car about a score of years behind and there are moments when I crave one as personal transport.
Peugeot would have been willing to see us but a muddle on the part of a London agent (not Tom Knowles) sent us to sleepy Belfort when we should have been in Paris and vice versa and, unless you have a letter of authority, it is practically impossible to gain admission to motor-car factories, no matter what your purpose or which country you are in.
However, there is always a “next time” and I certainly shall not object to another drive across France to the Peugeot works, which externally, give the impression that time has stood still since “Bébés” and “Quads” used to emerge from these fascinating yellow buildings. Those who read last April’s Motor Sport will know that, Citroën and Peugeot apart, we did not waste very much of our paper’s time on this trip, in the course of which we covered the equal of nine months’ rationed motoring at home in a matter of days. The Renault Dauphine was our ever-willing slave, preying comfortable and indestructible, and less tedious on the Routes Nationale than we expected.
But, as I have said, the. petrol famine of 1957 restricted my road-test activities and I find that I drove a total of 17 cars for test-distances exceeding 50 miles, compared to the 21 different cars tested the previous year. Besides these cars of different makes, with which I covered a personal total of over 8,000 miles and rode as passenger in the hands of friends and colleagues for a considerably greater distance, I had restricted driving experience last year of another four or five cars. The vehicles tested were not such an exciting lot as those which came my way during 1956, when we road-tested the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, Porsche Carrera and S-series Bentley, etc., and took performance figures for the 503 and 507 B.M.W.s. However, I was able to try several interesting cars I had long wanted to drive and although even sporting journals are forced these days to test many ordinary cars. due to the sparsity of stark models, the 1957 “bag” of fast cars included the Triumph TR3, Austin-Healey 100-Six and M.G.-A. coupé. Besides test cars I continued to use my essentially reliable, Bosch-sparked. Michelin-shod 1955 Volkswagen saloon as daily transport, maid-of-all-work and hack, driving it more than 12,000 miles in the course of the year. So altogether I drove some 20,000 miles in 1957, again without police interference, accident, breakdown (a shattered windscreen excepted), or more than a couple of punctures—now I can uncross my fingers…!
Incidentally, I like most cars, feel indifferent towards some and detest very few. I would like to have kept all seventeen that it was my good fortune to drive last year but I calculate that to have done so would have cost me £18,500 in purchase price alone! Incidently for the statistically minded, of the cars fully road-tested during the past 12 months a dozen had Dunlop tyres, Michelin, Goodyear, Firestone and Pirelli being fitted each to one car—tubeless tyres are now frequently met with in the course of road-testing, and welcome for the prospect of immunity from trouble which they impart. These tests covered cars ranging from the Fiat 500 to the Jaguar Mk. VIII, ranging in value from £556 to £1,997. Let me flick over the pages of the Stanley Blake Reece diary I kept and see what I can recall about them.
The first test car I drove for any distance after returning from France was an M.G.-A. coupé. First of all I got tuned-in to it by swiftly taking my wife down to Poole to see how our caravan had weathered the winter. Then, after turning this very quick “all-in-one-piece,” well-braked 1½-litre coupé over to the photographer, I took it back later and used it to assist Holland Birkett in planning the route of the Mobilgas Economy gun. I gather that Birkett isn’t beyond persuading the oil barons to hire an aeroplane for this purpose when time presses but on this occasion he was content to share the little M.G. with me on a long day’s motoring which took us into the uncharted wilds of Buckinghamshire and Nottinghamshire. On the return home I diverted into the back ways of Oxfordshire to spy-out a vintage Bianchi which, alas, was ending its days as a farm-trailer. Just before we discovered this sad fact a wheel shot from an approaching car and did its best to demolish us—and it wasn’t a vintage car which shed it, either!
The M.G.-A earned full marks as a very sound Safety-Fast motorcar and for a while I toyed with the idea of having one of my own. However, I could not quite come round to the idea of doing long business journeys cooped-up in a coupé, especially as the doors called for considerable agility when entering and vacating the interior. In the end I decided I would have one if John Thornley would supply something rather special which M.G. were playing about with at the time. I promised I would never open the bonnet in front of strangers and swore myself to secrecy should anyone notice anything extra urgeful about my car’s performance. But not unnaturally Thornley’s directors said “no,” so I went on using German utility transport…
When petrol flowed freely again I went up to Abingdon to a preview of the B.M.C. record-car Ex 181 in which Stirling Moss subsequently did that rousing 245 m.p.h. at Utah. On the way I ventured into the vast Cowley plant of B.M.C. in the Volkswagen and came away at the wheel of the much-discussed Morris Minor 1000. I drove this little 950 c.c. road-burner for more than 730 miles, enjoying every one of them, and I was genuinely sorry to have to return it. I remember how very well it motored, and its pleasant handling qualities—the latter, I thought, not quite so distinguished as those of the side-valve Minor I tested in 1946 (an opinion I have heard expressed in other quarters), but I cannot decide if this is due to a change in weight distribution or suspension, or merely that standards of judgment have advanced considerably in the last decade. The new o.h.v. engine has transformed a formerly dull little car and the manner in which it responds to the accelerator, gaining r.p.m. like a racing-car when you rev-up to change gear, is as enthralling as it is unexpected. Again I wondered if a Minor should replace my unconventional air-cooled transport and only the feeling that so willingly does the Morris Minor 1000 perform that it would probably wear out in six mouths in my hands sent me back to the beetle—for some reason best known to accountants my cars have to last six times as long as that!
After handing the Morris over to colleagues to sample and photograph I went home in a very different car, in the form of a sports Triumph TR3 hard-top. I regard this as THE finest value-for-money in the sports-car field and because it is such excellent value I can readily forgive certain minor crudities and failings. The 2-litre four-cylinder engine gives the impression that it is indestructible and the gear change is about the best there is. The Girling disc brakes on the front wheels are no mere ornament and taking it all round the TR3 earned praise even from the critical. I did not drive it on a Continental tour as did the 40 U.S. Triumph enthusiasts whom I had seen taking delivery of their new TR3s at London Airport earlier in the year, immediately after they had flown across the Atlantic. In fact, I drove up to the Midlands in pursuit of motoring history, forgetting that, come lunch time, Midlands businessmen concentrate exclusively on beer and dubious anecdotes, to the detriment of the “ghosts” you hope they may recall. On my return through Kenilworth I called on the Rawlings brothers, who make a point of ensuring that there is a home for any aged Talbot that feels forlorn and unloved in the absence of Roesch. This restored my sense of well-being.
A car which, as this Triumph does, can reach 110 m.p.h. and. aided by a conveniently-operated overdrive, will return better than 24 m.p.g. driving hard, at a total cost of £1,219 with several extras, commands respect, and here was another one I would like to own, were a sports car not unsuitable for day-to-day business use.
Another fast car followed the Triumph in my road-test programme, in the form of an elegant Austin-Healey 100-Six, although its performance, bearing in mind its 2.6-litres, puts it more in the sporting than in the sports category. Consequently, I am glad to learn that a new cylinder head, which increases the b.h.p. by 15. is now available. The charm of the six-cylinder edition of this famous make is the flow of smooth power given off from the Austin power unit and as a comfortable car for covering the ground quickly and effortlessly it is a very good proposition indeed. Frankly, however, I was disappointed that scuttle-float on bad roads, pronounced on the earlier model, had not been entirely eliminated from the Six and I was annoyed, after enjoying the soothing hospitality they dispense to visitors at Fort Dunlop, to emerge into the downpour of an English summer evening and get soaked while I tore my fingers attempting to erect the hood of this modern 2/4-seater motor car.
I covered nearly as many fast miles in the Austin-Healey as I did in the Triumph TR3 before a non-sporting car came my way. This was a Hillman Minx estate car, which Rootes have very cleverly contrived so that it will carry more than the average vehicle of this type while possessing the appearance of a smart private car. This Minx estate car is an extremely sensible and useful vehicle, with the merit that it is very easy to drive and far more comfortable than estate cars and station wagons have been in the past. The family fell in love with this Hillman’s appearance and practical advantages, and beseeched me to buy one, and you may recall that even our St. Bernard bitch, Bryneithin Lady Diana, who snores at my feet as I write, found ample room within it. I strongly recommend this excellent vehicle to family motorists with less than £1,000 to spare, although its handling qualities and steering-column gear-lever are not quite the sort of thing I would want to endure day after day. The Hillman test ended on a pleasing note inasmuch as, when carelessly I ran out of petrol in a deserted part of the country on a Sunday evening, miles from a garage, a farmer at whose house we knocked not only showed no resentment at being disturbed but took a lot of trouble to find us a tin of petrol and then didn’t want to accept payment for it.
After returning the Hillman we set off for Italy and the Monza G.P. in a very willing, comfortable and beautifully-appointed Rover 105S. This typically British quality saloon carried us for 2,500 hard-driven miles in extreme comfort, and this outwardly staid and heavy saloon was timed to do all but 100 m.p.h. on the Turin-Milan motor road and displayed no lack of performance when storming mountain passes, fully laden. Because we had some trouble with the brakes, and I like to be honest in road-test reports, I have an idea that my friends at the Rover Company thought I was rather lukewarm about their car. I would like to assure them that such is not the case. I have a high opinion of the modern Rovers and find their individuality and manner of going extremely refreshing, and on numerous occasions I have commented on the stupendous value for money they offer. The present-day Rovers are beautifully constructed and amongst many excellent features they possess is that of being so contrived that chassis lubrication isn’t required except at very long intervals. Incidentally, contrary to what some people appear to think, this time-saving factor is not achieved by the employment of central chassis lubrication, the vulnerability of which causes the practical Rover engineers to eschew it. This make is as prolific as popsies in a motor-race pit in the country town in which I live, which is populated largely by staid and dignified retired army folk.
Although our Italian interlude enabled us to sample some very delectable Alfa-Romeo and Lancia machinery, we had the same warm regard for the Rover 105S on our return to England as we had when it was handed over to us some ten days before. Low oil consumption was another notable aspect of our hustlesome roving.
On the eve of the Motor Show, having disposed of my story of our experiences in Milan and Turin (which seemed to need a small book to themselves, but which we contrived to publish in the November Motor Sport), I got going with three road-tests simultaneously, also for this enlarged Show Number. The three cars concerned, a Fiat 500, Vauxhall Victor and Jaguar Mk. VIII Automatic, were so diverse in style, size and price that I decided to write them up in one article. This appeared too recently to bear reiteration, except to remark that I admire the smallest Fiat very much but would need something quicker and quieter even as “hack” transport, that I can see the point of the Victor but wouldn’t want to be seen in one and that I liked the big Jaguar very much indeed. The last-named is more appropriate to a Director than a mere Editor and if I could afford one I would prefer to specify the normal gearbox, leaving the automation to Stirling Moss, who has publicly expressed a preference for it. But the Jaguar, like the Rover, possesses individuality, is beautifully made, is essentially British and represents excellent value for the modest price they ask.
About the same time Mr. Penrice of the Standard Motor Company found me a captivating little Standard Eight “Gold Star Powerplus” four-door saloon. I took this eager utility vehicle up to Oulton Park for the rather disappointing finale of the Formula II racing season and, as Standards didn’t appear anxious for its return, used it thereafter for a great many journeys in and around London. It had overdrive on three of its four forward ratios which made it enormous fun to drive and it was very sparing of petrol, even doing 50 miles on a gallon when handled gently. This, and its comfortable seating, made me ponder on whether there is a future outside the limited enthusiasts’ market, for miniature cars in this country. Certainly the Standard Eight represents a sensible minimum motoring standard! It gets along all day at an indicated mile-a-minute and makes me surprised that small cars with but three speeds and side-by-side valves still appeal to the motoring public. I thrashed this little saloon for more than 1,000 miles and it didn’t need replenishing with oil or water and the only fault was permanent illumination of time direction-flasher’s indicator. Good going indeed!
The year was by now well on its way and during the Motor Show road-test cars are impossible to obtain. After Earls Court I spent some luxurious and comfortable days in a smart Humber Hawk saloon which will be a very nice motor-car indeed when a little more attention has been paid to closing up the gear ratios, lightening the action of the steering-column gear stalk and if oil consumption improves as the piston rings bed in. In fact, driven as Humber owners drive, I expect my criticism of the gear change and ratios passes unnoticed and I admit the new Hawk is an admirable top-gear car, with a useful overdrive. It is also outstandingly roomy, handsome in a non-flamboyant fashion, and well and sensibly appointed.
The year concluded with a series of tests devoted to five different B.M.C. products. These cars, collectively, are commented on, either in this issue or will be in a subsequent issue, so that I need not discuss them here, except to remark on the excellent performance and handling, and the distinguished interior appointments of the Wolseley 1500 and Riley One-Point-Five, and to say that the 2.6 Riley was notable for powerful vacuum-servo brakes, excellent illumination from its Lucas lamps and a pleasing right-hand gear-lever, but that I couldn’t live for long with its steering and suspension. The Wolseley I used to visit historic aerodromes on Salisbury Plain, Upavon and Netheravon recalling a romantic age that now seems far away. In the little Riley I assayed a trip to the West Country, to try it up Porlock, Lynton, Salcombe and Sheet hills, and the 2.6 Riley took us to Lichfield for the Championship Trial. Finally, an Austin A105 served as Christmastide transport.
I am unhappy to find that I enjoyed very little vintage motoring during 1957, so that I can hardly look Tim Carson straight in the eyes; for, although I have encountered the V.S.C.C. Secretary in modern cars on occasions, I have also seen him in a nice 30/98! Lack of time, not of inclination, must be blamed for this sad decline in old habits, but I did contrive to make an appearance in the very first Vintage Commercial Vehicle Rally at Beaulieu at the wheel of a 1928 Trojan R.A.F. lorry, kindly laid on for the occasion by the co-operative firm of Trojan Limited. I drove a 1922 G.N. cyclecar while visiting Basil Davenport in Macclesfield and rode in sodden state to Brighton on Lord Montagu’s 1903 Sixty Mercedes on the occasion of the very damp Veteran Car Run. I drove briefly an exciting 1911 60-h.p. Cottin et Desgouttes, and my eldest daughter later had her first experience of veteran motoring on Comdr. Woolley’s 1897 tube-ignition Daimler. My aerial venturings also had a vintage flavour, being confined to a D.H. Rapide over Wolverhampton and Bristol Freighters of Air Charter over the Channel. I attended as many V.S.C.C. and V.C.C. fixtures as I could fit in, spent one Sunday in vintage Sunbeams, and had quite a lot to do with the Brooklands Memorial occasion put on by Vickers-Armstrongs Limited.
Altogether, a year which started dismally turned out to be thoroughly satisfactory. I achieved a long-standing ambition to drive round Montlhéry—in a good-looking Simca Elysée saloon, soon to establish notable endurance records round the same bankings—I was able to look at some of those monuments to racing drivers and motoring pioneers that are so typical of the French and I saw Vanwall victorious at Aintree and Monza. If 1958 produces half as much enjoyment, here’s to the New Year!
Funny episodes? One, against myself, happened in Paris, where anything can happen. In a hurry to depart in the Dauphine I grabbed our suitcases, and, before an imposing gathering of Renault technicians and salesmen, I opened the rear boot of this rear-engined car! The other amusing happening concerned a letter I received from the Information Officer of the Mobil Oil Company Limited inviting me to take my car to a London garage for a free flush and refill with the new Permazone anti-freeze. Looking at my beetle-browed Volkswagen I feel that the last thing it needs is a perm! — W. B.