Impressions of Two British Estate Cars
A 3-litre Humber Super Snipe and the New Standard Vanguard Vignale Six Used to Follow the R.A.C. Rally
When it had been decided that I should take a photographer to Scotland to cover last year’s R.A.C. International Rally, an event which promised to be exciting but which, as it happened, rather fizzled out although fully endorsing the remarkable qualities of the Swedish Saab, with which MOTOR SPORT’S readers are already well acquainted, I was determined to go in comfort. So a call was put through to John Rowe, of the Rootes Group, who agreed readily to lend us the latest Humber Super Snipe Estate Car with four headlamps and the 3-litre version of that cross-push-rod engine which had impressed me so greatly when I tested the 2.6-litre saloon version In 1959.
The car should have been awaiting me at the historic Talbot factory at Barlby Road, Kensington, on the Friday before the Rally commenced, but it wasn’t. However, I duly collected it on the Saturday evening and sank gratefully into its deep foam-rubber leather-upholstered seat, surrounded by dignified burr walnut, my feet resting on pile carpets over resilient rubber underlays. There was room to spare in this big Humber and it seemed a pity we were not taking any back-seat passengers, who would have found flush-folding full-length tables and their own ash-trays and cigar-lighter in the back compartment. This silent, smooth Humber was relaxation personified as I threaded my way out of London to Hampshire, and quite a contrast to Mini-motoring in the theatre rush-hour.
On the Sunday morning, getting away reluctantly to a 9 a.m. start, I was less impressed, for when I switched on the screenwipers their blades remained neatly parked. In the wettest year on record, with much night motoring and the long drive to Scotland ahead of us, this was near-disaster, and I thought nostalgically of the older Simcas which were provided with little crank-handles as insurance against just such an emergency, and very dirty thoughts about Rootes !
The photographer had to be picked up in Oxford, so I pressed on, driving in the inevitable rainstorm proving little short of hazardous, for, although in dry weather the view through the big, slightly wrap-round windscreen of the Humber is good, except that the steering wheel is set rather high, wiperless in the wet it was hopeless. At Oxford I found the cameraman garaging the 1955 Volkswagen I formerly employed on Editorial duties—it now has approaching 100,000 miles to its credit on the original engine and its present user complains that occasionally it needs Castrol!
Having explained about the wipers necessitating a call at Coventry instead of a direct run via Rugby to Newcastle, where we were spending the night, we set off in more or less fine weather. First at Ryton, then at the home of Humber in Stoke, they could do nothing for us, the factory haying one of the habitual strikes on its hands and a local Routes agent telling us regretfully that although we were in the heart of the British Motor Industry he couldn’t get mechanics to work on Sundays. There was no alternative but to proceed, but beyond Leicester the rain became so heavy that I felt I owed it to any cyclists or pedestrians who might wish to share the road with me to pull off it as quickly as. possible. Fortune now smiled on us, for I had happened quite by chance on the North Hill Garage on the Fosse Road at Thrussington. Working cheerfully in the rain, the proprietor discovered that the wipers never had been wired up— presumably the person working on a replacement motor had gone off and left the job unfinished. However, a length of wire did the trick. and we were blessed with visibility in rain—even if the blades didn’t wipe the corners of the glass—and for a distinctly modest charge, far less, we suspected, than the extra money the strikers back in Coventry were hoping to induce into their pay packets !
Now, however, our thoughts were diverted to another failing of this Humber. It exuded petrol fumes. No leaks were apparent yet the fumes were there, pungent and sick-making, a poor start to six days’ hard motoring. For the rest of the trip we felt unwell, and debating whether the smell got worse when the overdrive was used frequently or whether the heater was to blame, so that we could have cold feet and faint fumes or warm feet but vomit, did very little to appease our anger . . .
A miserable Sunday terminated in the discovery that although A1 will one day be a fine twin-carriageway, much still remains to be done, which made for slow travel, especially as a thick fog blanket had descended. On this run we noticed so much flagrant disregard for central white lines, both single flanked by a dotted line, and double, that it seems a sheer waste of money to go on etching them on our roads unless something is done to enforce their observance. The Crown Hotel in Newcastle made up for drab decor and a mediocre dinner with comfortable beds provided with hot-water bottles.
Incidentally, that afternoon I had run out of petrol on purpose, in order to estimate the absolute fuel-range of the Humber (result : 250 miles), and we now encountered Snag No. 3—the filler which masquerades as the off-side rear reflector conceals a small orifice and an upsloping pipe which resolutely refused to accept petrol from the “Eversure Fillacan ” can which is my boon-companion on road-test journeys. This styling gimmick is crazy anyway, even if you shouldn’t fill a Super Snipe other than at the pump. Inevitably the petrol attendant cannot find it or, if he or she is familiar with Rootes’ modesty in respect to such an innocent thing as a petrol filler, it isn’t long before their competence is rewarded by a deluge of petrol over their feet as the absurdly ” slow ” filler disgorges. The next morning I attended to business connected with the vintage section of this journal (discovering, too, a well-kept 1922 model-T Ford one-tonner lorry on the premises of a driving school), and we made some humble purchases in canny Newcastle —a pair of shoe-laces, new batteries for my excellent B.M. torch and gloves for the photographer, who had forgotten to bring any. It’s the tourist trade that counts . . !
The next job was to drive to Inverness. On this journey we began to take stock of the 3-litre Humber, and as so far I have been forced to be critical, let me now give praise where it is due. This latest Super Snipe is quite a nice car. There is more than ample performance from the outstandingly smooth and quiet six-cylinder engine with its ingenious valve gear and its willingness to ” rev.” The 120-m.p.h. speedometer easily swept round to 70 in third gear, and flicking in overdrive without changing up gave immediate acceleration to 80 m.p.h. In overdrive top there was more speed than we cared to use, and in normal driving a flick into normal top gear gave all the pick-up required, without the need to change down with the somewhat ponderous left-hand steering-column gear-lever. Second gear provides an effortless indicated 60 m.p.h. I am not enamoured of three-speed boxes, however, even when supplemented by overdrive.
As to control, as we gained experience we both realised that we were going through corners very quickly in this heavily-laden, commodious Estate Car, although the pleasure of doing so was marred by a feeling that in the wet the car was never far from flying off the road (the Dunlop Gold Seal tyres never protested but felt to be reaching the limit of adhesion), a feeling accentuated because of Rootes sponge in the steering, which is geared four turns, lock-to-lock, not counting the free-play. A pity, because this big Humber doesn’t roll when cornering and the Girling vacuum-servo disc brakes on the front wheels lend confidence and keep cool when the back brakes exude a very evident smell of frying.
The Rootes Group obviously thinks before arranging the controls and equipment of its cars. The Humber Super Snipe is an excellent example of this. The bench front seat with wide folding centre arm-rest is comfortable without being memorably so; the brake lever nestles conveniently on its right-hand side. The big beefy steering wheel carries a full horn ring, the speedometer includes trip and total mileage recorders and metric as well as English symbols are marked on the instrument dials, which include separate clock and fuel gauge and a multiple dial for ammeter, oil pressure and water temperature—the last named keeping close to 190° F.
Two neat controls look after the effective heating and demisting requirements but as the lamps-switch is similar, care must be taken not to mistake these controls in the dark. Flick levers actuate overdrive and indicators; there was a lag in overdrive engagement which made it difficult to obviate shock to the transmission. The driver also has conveniently spaced knobs for rheostat facia lighting, the two-speed wipers and screen-washers. Each end of the facia there are fresh-air ventilators, à la Citroen, while the greatest praise must be accorded the stowage provided, for the lockable cubby-hole is immense, there is a central dashboard cubby-box, in our case occupied by an excellent H.M.V. radio. and in addition the front doors have deep map-wells. Cold starts are looked after by a choke lever in a lateral quadrant, guarded by a warning light, and the full-beam warning light is sensibly subdued. The cubby incorporates a useful hooded map-lamp, and all four doors control the courtesy action of the roof lamp. A single Lucas spotlamp proved invaluable in fog, and there are twin, inbuilt reversing lamps. The new dual headlamps throw a splendidly wide beam but could be slightly more penetrating. Enough has been written, I hope, to stamp the 3-litre Humber as a notable luxury car. It crossed the border and swept towards Inverness, past Loch Ness where courageous John Cobb lost his life, in silent luxury. The steering was of manual type on the test car but commendably light once the car was on the move; the cornering characteristic is towards considerable understeer. The steering is devoid of kick-back and endowed with sensibly subdued castor-return. The ride is comfortable but could be better damped; the body developed a rattle in the near-side front door and as the miles piled up the front seat became insecure on its, mountings, to the accompaniment of some metallic twangings. As this is the kind of car in which the occasional cigar will he smoked there is ample provision for ash disposal, and an electric lighter is fitted, front and hack. And the doors shut ” expensively.”
At Inverness fog had again closed in; the Caledonian Hotel proved comfortable in all save its beds, which went hot-bottle-less the first night. After dinner we went round to the Station Hotel to meet Pat Gregory of the R.A.C., who had just arrived by train looking distinctly the worse for wear—he had damaged his back playing golf at Woodcote, which goes to show that motor racing isn’t the only hazardous sport.
The hotel staff contrived to let us sleep on next morning, although a call had been booked, and when we descended for breakfast at 10.30 a.m. a chicken-size seagull was gently tapping on the window with its beak.
Another visit to the R.A.C. Headquarters produced a Route Book but not much else, because foot and mouth disease (not amongst the competitors) had occasioned some re-routing and news of the Rally was sparse, although the retirement of Trautmann’s Citroen and consequent withdrawal of the team of European Rally Championship Mercedes-Benz cars had filtered through.
A glance at the Route Book showed that the R.A.C. was playing cautious and using only A and B-class roads at a 30-mph. average, so that competitors were already drooling about the excitement of a mere two miles of special timed section over rough ground. We set off to intercept the rally cars and found ourselves on the wrong road, making for Perth, and to rectify the error we turned off at Newtonmore and took A 86 to Spean Bridge. This road was in process of modernisation, which meant that it was ankle-deep in liquid mud for hundreds of yards and rock-like for miles. Why couldn’t the R.A.C. have routed the cars this way, to a stiff time-schedule, instead of letting them complete the day’s run to Inverness along A 82 ? Perhaps one day we shall have a really tough rally in Scotland or Wales run mainly over roads that will truly test the skill of drivers and the reliability of the cars. From Spean Bridge we skirted Fort William to photograph the rally cars near Ballachulish. It was all very dull, but when Sydney Allard pulled up in his Ford Zephyr for a brief chat (leaving odd marks on the road with his French Studded tyres which had already survived the Monte Carlo Rally) his eyes lit up wistfully when we said : “Sydney, you ought to turn left onto A 86 and enjoy some real rough stuff ! ” Much later we heard Jerry Burgess, last year’s winner, say that the road part of the route was too easy, cissy stuff, the sort tourists use, exciting only because of fog in Yorkshire. But as we waited for the cars to stream though I appreciated the splendid carillon of bells from the church in the tiny hamlet of Callart … !
Back to Inverness, and after dinner we went out to the parc fermé to get flash-light shots of the competitors coming in for their only night’s rest. We were able to drive Erik Carlsson and Stuart Turner and Seigle-Morris and Elford—pundits of front-wheel-drive—to their hotel, outside which an unfriendly policeman forbade us to stop even a few minutes, although this was Rally Headquarters, and refused to reply when we enquired where we could park the Humber.
We heard later that the Editor of another motor journal was pinched for parking, so the message from R. Wotherspoon, Provost of Inverness, in the Rally Programme, which read : ” We, in this Royal and Ancient Burgh, are looking forward with tremendous interest to your arrival in our Highland Capital. A very warm and hearty welcome awaits each one of you. We want you really to feel that not only do the Provost, Magistrates and Town Councillors welcome you, but that every citizen in our midst welcomes you and wants you to be extremely happy and contented while you are here. It is a rare experience for us to have such a Rally as yours, and we are all looking forward to your visit,” ranks as one of the most insincere ever published . . . Tourists, please digest !
Over cocoa with Stuart Turner we learnt that although it was the smallest-engined competitor, the remarkable Saab was leading the Rally, which ultimately it won convincingly without loss of a single mark on the road section. This in spite of Carlsson having broken two ribs when the Morris Minor in which he practised had to be ground-looped to avoid a lorry on the lonely Highland roads.
Going back to our own hotel we encountered a film unit’s Ford Zephyr Estate Car in the car park and beside it our Humber looked lofty and square-rigged, as it did subsequently when parked close to Vauxhall Friary Estate Cars.
The next day—I think it is now Wednesday—the route was all wrong for us. The difficult part would be round the coast near Gairloch, but the photographer wanted daylight pictures and the competitors did not get there until dusk. So we compromised by driving as far as Rosehill on A 837, still good tarmac, and parking by a tricky right-hand bridge over a stream, which the cars would come upon after many miles along a narrow, no-passing section. The photographer anticipated excitement but I have spent so many nights perched in similar places in Wales and the Lake District and seen nothing, the spectacular brushes with the scenery always happening somewhere else, that I was sceptical. The sun came out to warm us, then clouded over and a raw cold struck upwards through our bodies from the damp, misty ground. When the cars did arrive one and all treated the bridge with the greatest respect—anyway, led by the Morley brothers’ Austin Healey 3000, they were ahead of time and not hurrying.
When it became too dark for photography we gratefully returned to the penetrating warmth of the Humber and, feeling very fit and wideawake on several days’ diet of fruit and raisins, I announced that I would drive non-stop to London—a little matter of about 650 miles.
There was a lot of late afternoon traffic on the way back to Inverness but, once clear of that city, where urgent repairs to the bridge are in progress, we motored splendidly along the interesting road to Perth, filling up with petrol at a lonely garage where a cheerful and helpful girl of about 13, wearing a kilt, was the only person in charge. A late ferry was caught across the Firth of Forth and we got out of Edinburgh in fine style. The splendid A 68, fast and deserted, led us towards Newcastle. Alas, approaching Otterburn, I noticed that the Snipe’s petrol gauge showed just two gallons—and the can was empty following our abortive attempts with the Humber’s stupid filler. Both garages in Otterburn were shut but my B.P. book of 24-hour garages showed two in Newcastle, so I drove on. The Humber chose the loneliest spot imaginable in which to run out-25 miles from Newcastle. As it did so the clock indicated Midnight.
This was unfortunate but we needed sleep and I was now able to check the Humber’s petrol consumption over a considerable mileage—it came out at 20.8 m.p.g. We continued at 8.30 a.m, the next morning and were able to complete some photography in Newcastle which would otherwise have been impossible—but what a useful item of specification is a reserve petrol tap !
The travel-stained Humber Super Snipe made a detour to ascertain whether a certain 1921 T.T. B.S.A. motorcycle I discovered during the war is still in existence (it is, but as it is not for sale, there is no point in disclosing its whereabouts), and then came onto A 1 through the heaviest rain I have ever driven through—full marks that not a drop came in. Checking the accessible dip-stick at an obliging Shell Service Station near Retford showed that in 1,400 miles practically no oil had been consumed. This set the seal to my admiration for the Humber engine; it would be nice to see it in a sort of inflated Sunbeam Alpine—what a fine 3-litre G.T. car that should make.
You don’t need to walk fast to beat a car through Doncaster, where the by-pass is as overdue as the Staines by-pass, and it was a relief, after refuelling at Ranby, to turn off A 1 onto the excellent A 46 that takes you easily to Rugby. So we came home, to Oxford and ultimately to Hampshire.
On the following day I attended the office, where a Standard Vanguard Vignale Six in Estate Car form was awaiting me, one of the few new models to appear at Earls Court last year. Having prefaced my remarks about the excellent little Morris Mini-Traveller (page 996 lastmonth) with a diatribe in favour of estate cars in general, it seemed fitting that the subsequent couple of test-cars should both have this useful utility bodywork.
The Humber Super Snipe was pressed into service (without any servicing) by another member of the staff who had to photograph the closing stages of the R.A.C. Rally, and I went off, also rally-chasing, in the Standard. When I finally returned the Humber to Rootes it had covered nearly 2,000 miles in ten days with no further troubles than those referred to earlier—a very nice motor car, even if the absence of wipers and those petrol fumes do not give one much confidence in Rootes’ system of inspection. Perhaps I shall make re-acquaintance with this powerful 3-litre under happier circumstances; it served us so well I sincerely hope so.
The Standard proved by many degrees less luxurious—but it costs over £600 less. I was only able to cover 424 miles in it, but in that distance it proved a very willing, entirely dependable and essentially serviceable shooting brake—and its wipers functioned particularly well, while no fumes disturbed the occupants! On initial acquaintance the Lockheed brakes seemed poor, in contrast to the retarding ability of the heavier Humber’s discs, because firm pressure on a pedal that went down a long way was called for, but on further acquaintance the Vignale Six proved to have quite good brakes. Another early disappointment related to the gear-lever, a long, slender, flexible central affair cranked to clear the facia. It was so indecisive that considerable force had to be used in order to engage third gear from top and sometimes the lever fouled the side of the gate and wouldn’t go through until brought back into top. Moreover, its knob was uncomfortable to hold and threatened to mark the palm of the hand with its 1, 2, 3, 4, R inscription. As the miles piled up the change became easier, although still stiff, while to engage reverse entails lifting the lever in a way that might defeat a rally driver doing timed tests. However, the TR3 box has well-chosen, high gear-ratios, permitting indicated maxima of 37, 60 and 85 m.p.h. in the indirect gears, top cog taking this roomy station-wagon to over 90 m.p.h. – quite astonishing. This is accomplished by a 2-litre six-cylinder engine of commendable smoothness, so silent as to be inaudible when idling but possessing such a distressing carburation flat-spot that at around 10-15 m.p.h. in any gear it is necessary to slip the clutch in order to accelerate. Thereafter pick-up is extremely useful, however, and soon your Vignale Six is cruising at speeds in the region of 80 m.p.h. The driving position is good, the steering very light and possessed of strong castor return action, while kick-back is not excessive, but there is some roll and tyre noise when cornering fast. The new instrument panel with separate dials for fuel contents, water temperature, oil pressure and ammeter grouped around the speedometer is well contrived, although the red needles are difficult to read against black faces and the heater controls are not illuminated by the panel lighting. The petrol gauge needle rises slowly from zero, being one of those commendably accurate electric recorders, unaffected by movements of the car. The pull-up hand-brake is well placed beneath the facia and this Standard has truly generous stowage for oddments, for the lockable but ” tinny ” cubby-hole is fairly large, there is a well in the centre of the facia and map cavities on each side of the scuttle.
I was pleased with the arrangement of the rear loading window and panel, which have useful handles for pulling them closed, and I prefer this system to side-hinged back doors. The lighting controls are Fiat-like, a switch on the facia putting on the sidelamps and a right-hand stalk selecting full or dipped headlamps— but this goes from sidelamps to full beam and on down for the dipped beam, which I found confusing, while the turn indicators are actuated by the old-fashioned steering-wheel control with which you have to be careful not to pinch the fingers. A rather crude interior lamp lives over the somewhat restricted rear-view mirror and there is another lamp for the luggage compartment.
The engine started extremely well in a heavy frost but petrol consumption, at 21 m.p.g., was heavier than anticipated. There is a reserve fuel tap and if the maker’s figure for tank capacity is correct the Vignale Six has a range of approximately 295 miles. With a little refining the new six-cylinder Standard is going to be a good car.
We attended the Brands Hatch races which concluded the R.A.C. Rally in the Standard and found them as difficult to follow as a game of chess. Mainly they were interesting because we saw two Morris Mini-Minors beat the Saab, confirming our opinion that these little cars just out-corner the Swedish car on good surfaces, both Volvos beat the Sunbeam Rapiers, and Sears really wind-up his 3.8 Jaguar.
But the incredible Saab had already won the Rally and although its achievement in getting through the road section without loss of marks is largely due to Stuart Turner’s impeccable navigation, let it not be overlooked that on the first tough timed section, where Morley’s Austin Healey lost its two marks, this 850-c.c. saloon was faster than the 3-litre sports car, proof, if any is needed, of the Saab’s intrinsic merit.
Incidentally, at Brands Hatch many rumours were circulating about the Mercedes-Benz withdrawal. One heard that the drivers were annoyed at the inferior accommodation booked for them, that their cars were giving trouble, that they did not like the altered route, and so on. But the general opinion was that theirs was an act of bad sportsmanship; I feel jealous of those who share this view, for they are under the happy misapprehension that motor racing and rallying is still a sport, which ceased to be so some years before war was declared in 1939.—W. B.