Rumblings, January 1961

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76

What is Vanden Plas?

The other day MOTOR SPORT was due to road-test an Austin A55 Countryman but because it had suffered a gearbox calamity at the hands of a previous scribe a Vanden Plas was substituted. Consequently, there in the office car park was a 3-litre Vanden Plas Princess, nothing at all like those 3-litres they used to call Vanden Plas tourers in vintage times, and the query arose, what is a Vanden Plas?

To find out we drove this luxury saloon for more than 750 miles. In appearance it looks as if Farina has done something naughty with a Rover; inside there are those areas of fine woodwork and the arm-rests and club-leather associated with the Daimler Majestic and late-lamented Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire. Also, good deep carpets; that by the driver’s left foot had come a bit unstuck, however.

The Editor wanted to check the route of his ” Boxing Night Exeter ” and the passenger had said “Bring something comfortable,” so this Vanden Plas seemed just the job, Unfortunately the passenger didn’t care for it, saying he had never sat in a harder, more shapeless seat, the beading which cut into him in such a way, that it was a relief to get out and sit on a nice kitchen chair in a quick-snack cafe at which we stopped.

The Editor found that this solid saloon took the corners better than he had expected and the servo brakes (disc at the front) gave him great confidence, these being so powerful that they tended to fierceness. Incidentally, Vanden Plas rightly attach considerable importance to the vacuum-servo, because there is a light on the facia which comes on if this assistance ceases to function. It Certainly makes for light pedal pressures, with some lag when braking gently from low speeds. There is a well-placed handbrake down on the right, where it is out of the way.

The test car had Borg-Warner automatic transmission which clonked and whirred “something awful ” and with which a smooth but, fast getaway was impossible to achieve. Unfortunately, in this case there was no warning light to tell us whether it was in correct adjustment. It is possible that the B.M.C. six-cylinder twin-carburetter engine has a torque curve unsuited to this form of transmission. The usual P, N, D, L, R, quadrant is controlled by a solid left-hand steering-column lever with press-button for engaging P, L or R. Although rheostat control of panel lighting is provided, this quadrant remained illuminated at night to distract a tired driver. There is a pull-out lever centrally under the facia which enables intermediate gear to be held up to 69/72 m.p.h. There is also the usual kick-down engagement, but this doesn’t function above 52 m.p.h.

The burr walnut facia contains a commendably roomy, lockable cubby-hole, supplemented by under-shelves for driver and frontseat passenger and pockets in the n/s front door, both rear doors and on the backs of the separate front seats. There is a fine collection of minor controls but as these are arranged two rows below the facia, where the panel lighting does not penetrate. they are tiresomely ” fumbly ” in the dark, especially as the screen washers’ button might be expected to be directly below the two-speed wiper control, but isn’t. Another unhappy feature is three tiny flick switches very conveniently placed for the driver’s right hand, which control side-cum-headlamps and the two fog lamps—it is all too easy to flick off the sidelamps switch and drive about unlit, thinking a fog-lamp has been doused.

There is crash-padding above and below the facia but two very lethal vizors; apparently Vanden Plas consider that if your chest is intact it doesn’t matter if your head is severed, which could apply we suppose to certain shapely but empty-headed females. The speedometer is very clear to read, rather in the pre-war Bentley tradition, except that the needle blanks the trip odometer, and it is deeply embedded in the wooden panel, but it is matched by a rather poor companion, in the form of a ” four-in-one ” oil, fuel, amps and temperature gauge—why is it that oil-pressure gauges now all seem to read 50 lb. sq. in. ? The petrol gauge is immensely pessimistic, which is an insurance, as no reserve supply is provided. Vanden Plas are to be congratulated on providing an absolute fuel range of 300 miles—and this included driving westwards out of London in the rush-hour, when you can only cover 12 miles in the first hour, which is heavy on petrol. A subsequent check revealed a consumption of 19.2 m.p.g., which is good for a powerful 3-litre grinding away at that fussy Borg-Warner transmission and propelling a car weighing 31 cwt. unladen. At the end of this 750-mile test no oil was required.

This is a quiet car once it is in top gear, apart from an occasional whistle from the front brakes, and there is ample acceleration once the gremlins have selected the appropriate gear, but the engine then emits a rather amazing ” power-roar,” and some noise on the over-run. The ample tubeless Dunlop ” Gold Seal ” tyres are commendably silent when cornering quickly.

Visibility is somewhat impaired by thick, well-raked side pillars and a rather high-set wheel, although both front wings are fully in view. The view forward is reminiscent of that over the bonnet of a Bristol. Reversing is rendered easy on account of an automatically-selected ” go-backwards” lamp and tail fins.

The ride is good, with little up-and-down float and some lack of damping over abrupt bumps, but there is roll on corners, and an occasional desire on the part of the cart-sprung back axle to steer the car. The steering is geared low (four turns, lock-to-lock), possesses sponge, is heavy for parking and not very precise in steering the car close to kerbs, etc. There is useful castor-return action and no kick-back, but this is not particularly nice steering. A cutaway horn ring gives a good view of the two instrument dials but is quite lethal in the way it can chop off a finger tip which protrudes too far over the direction-flasher’s switch on the wheel centre—do designers ever drive the cars they conceive ? On the test car there was no indication as to whether or not the flashers were winking. Less serious than losing a finger was the irritation caused by having two identical keys, of which one would insert in the ignition/starter switch but wouldn’t operate it, and a third key the purpose of which we didn’t discover. It is necessary to unlock the petrol tiller flap before refuelling.

There is a complicated heating system which either gave lots of very warm air or too little but demisted nicely, quiet wipers, and openable ¼-lights front and hack. We didn’t try for top speed—this Princess felt fast enough at 70.

The headlamps’ beam scarcely did justice to the car but there is ample light when dimmed. Equipment includes clock, cigarlighter, two interior lamps, and map-lamp behind the cubby-hole; a clever item is a stowage tray on top of the broad transmission tunnel. In fact, this is a luxury car of some vitality, inexpensively priced at £1396½ inclusive of p.t. Unfortunately we lost enthusiasm for it when the lid of the enormous 18 cu. ft. boot had to be secured with string because the exceedingly crude catch had become bent on its impossibly flimsy mounting—as it must be as heavy luggage contacts it. This, from a company that once made coachwork for cars such as Rolls-Royce and Bentley, was a sorry disillusionment and we handed it back sadly, reflecting that verily fine craftsmanship has become a lost art.

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A MAN-SIZE SPORTS CAR

Last month we had for test that famous sports car, the Austin Healey 3000—how nice to find sports cars with big effortless, engines still being made in this country, and what excellent value the big Austin Healey is. The car we had was the so called four-seater with disc front brakes, wearing on its boot the proud ” Liege-Rome-Liege Winner ” plaque. The two back well-type seats are for very small children only, because leg-room is limited and the hard-top seriously restricts headroom. Otherwise, for winter sports motoring this hard-top is splendid, giving good rearward visibility through the big back window, having sliding Perspex side windows and being virtually rattlefree.

The Austin Healey makes no pretence to interior refinement and the separate front seats could be somewhat more comfortable, but every necessary instrument and control is provided and an under-facia shelf on the passenger’s side (obstructed, however, by the washers’ bottle) and big door pockets give all the stowage anyone should need. The boot, too, in spite of housing the spare wheel, has ample capacity.

The rev.-counter or tachometer and speedometer are calibrated only vaguely but are adequate and possess very steady needles. In contrast, Austin still fit that stupid fuel gauge which swings from zero to half-full even with 4 gallons in the tank, to the accompaniment of clicks from the astonished petrol pump (and its not a big tank, either), while the small, close-set pedals could hardly be more off-set to the right, “heeling and toeing” isn’t possible, and the handbrake, which nestles very close to the transmission tunnel when off, pulls up to an absurd height in order to hold the car. Smoother “takeoff” would be possible if the throttle linkage could be cured of initial lost-motion. The bonnet release toggle is very hard to find, up under the facia, and a combined dial serves for indicating oil pressure and water temperature, while there is a common-or-garden lights switch with no provision for headlamp flashing. The bonnet panel is topped by an air-intake which feeds cold air to the engine compartment, and dirt as well, but somewhat cuts off visibility—as we found in fog, on a car turned out without fog lamps.

On the whole, however, the modern 3-litre Austin Healey is well contrived and really comes into its own when driven hard. The former shortcoming of severe scuttle float has been entirely overcome and the steering wheel kicks in the driver’s hands only over abnormal bumps. The ride is excellent for a road-clinging sports car (the test car was on Dunlop Road Speed RS5 tyres) and although the gear lever, cranked across from the left of the transmission tunnel, looks clumsy, its action is good, although a quick change from top to third can crunch a little if the clutch, the pedal of which has a long travel, isn’t fully depressed. The flick-switch overdrive control (which wanted to fall off) is quicker than any gear change and provides for instant acceleration when used in third or top gears. In o/d top the Austin Healey glides along in innocent silence, sucking at its twin S.U.s.

The 124-b.h.p. six-cylinder engine provides very high performance—acceleration of 0-60 m.p.h. in 11.8 see., a s.s. ¼-mile in under 18 sec., and a top speed under M1 conditions of 117 m.p.h. In the gears there are effortless maxima Of 33, 48, 75, 92 and 98 m.p.h. to command, although the engine begins to roar as it warms to its work.

The steering, if not outstanding, is satisfactory, being light, quick, with very little castor-return movement, but some freeplay, although no sponge. The disc brakes call for high pedal pressures and, although not fierce, are extremely reassuring and entirely foolproof. During the test this attractive Austin Healey, which can be yours for £1,327 with overdrive and hard-top, gave 15.9 m.p.g. of petrol (range about 190 miles) gave no trouble and proved able to negotiate deep floods in the Chertsey area. This best-selling B.M.C. product, which uses the same fine six-port power unit as the Vanden Plas saloon referred to on page 15, is a sports car of which Britain can be very proud.

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B.R.S.C.C. MIDNIGHT MATINEE

On December 2nd the go-ahead racing club organised a filmshow in the Warner Cinema, Leicester Square in London and showed eight new and interesting films, among them Bill Mason’s brilliantly reconstructed film of the ” Heroic Days ” of the beginnings of motor racing in the early part of the century, made up from his collected Newsreel and Museum films. Sponsored by Shell Petroleum this film was a popular favourite, though the B.P. Petroleum sponsored Italian film ” Giuseppina ” depicting life at an Italian wayside petrol station brought forth roars of approval from the B.R.S.C.C. members and friends.

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Those who wish to embellish the exterior of their cars with badges bearing their initials—I can’t think why they should!— or better, to fit such monograms inside their cars will find a wide selection, supplied with their crests or initials, etc., on a jet or mother-of-pearl background in the range of Armax Trading Co. 27, Clerkenwell Road, E.C.1. Prices range from 8s. 6d. each.

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The excellent B.M. electric torch to which we made reference last month—the most dependable and satisfactory of many torches we have owned—is now available in 2-cell form, an indispensable adjunct to winter motoring. Ask your stockist to show you one of these ingenious and practical British torches.