Backs to the engine

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80

Reviewing the Volkswagen 1600TL Fastback, Steyr-Puch 650TR II, Sunbeam Imp Sport

Three rear-engined cars came along in succession for recent appraisal. I used to be a confirmed rear-engine enthusiast, believing that those who preferred sitting with their backs to the engine not only put sound and smell behind them but enjoyed superb traction over slippery surfaces and a floor unbroken by a prop-shaft tunnel. Issigonis and his brilliant front-wheel-drive compacts converted me to the handling advantages of this other method of dispensing with the propeller shaft but I retain considerable affection for rear-engined cars. The popularity of f.w.d. has brought about sophistication of the rear suspension arrangements of the better engine-at-the-back cars, so that they now corner in a manner not noticeably inferior to the f.w.d. fraternity.

The VW 1600TI was rather late in arriving for test and is now so well known that not a great deal need be said about it. The body is unusual rather than attractive, but provides plenty of interior space. It is nice to find an honest car, the interior of which does not present veneered woods and leather upholstery to driver and occupants to lull them into a false sense of values and security. This is a typical Volkswagen, well finished but simply equipped, durable, unburstable and all the rest of it. The pedals are still too far from the floor but the gear change, with central lever possessing a giant knob, delightful. High gearing restricts acceleration to the advantage of effortless cruising speed and the air-cooled 85-1/2 x 69 mm. flat-four engine was an instant starter. Handling is old-fashioned, the brakes could have been a bit more convincing with advantage, but all the old VW charm is there, allied to a top speed of 88 m.p.h., a third gear maximum of 67 m.p.h. and cruising at the legal limit in this country at an engine speed of only 3,500 r.p.m.

The r.h.d. 1600s still have things like the bonnet release and rear-boot catches on the near-side, but this slight inconvenience is off-set by the excellence of the Mercedes-like interior door handles, provision of coat-hooks and the finger-tip lamps dipper or flasher on the turn-indicators stalk. The seats are of the expected generous size and comfort is ensured by the 15 in. tyres, Michelin on the test car.

The front luggage boot is rather shallow but there is more space behind the back seat. The squab of the front passenger’s seat locks as a safety move until the door is opened, the seat-sliding adjustment works smoothly and the flexible-glass rear side windows open as ventilation vents. The heating system proved difficult to adjust for de-misting allied to sufficient cool air to comfort the occupants. The fuel tank holds 8.8 gallons, and the overall consumption was 24.4 m.p.g. of premium, which included negotiating very heavy traffic while the VW was tendering the 1903 Cadillac I drove on the Brighton Run. Being unaccustomed to adding oil to the sump of a VW between refills, I forgot to check the oil consumption of the 1600. It is an honest, roomy, well-mannered car but expensive in England, at £967.

The cheeky little Steyr-Puch looks like a Fiat 500 but is considerably modified and claims to have won ten International rallies out of 58 in 1965 and to have gained class wins in 46 of these. It was at Earls Court last year, the first time Steyr had exhibited in London since 1929, when they exhibited the massive 37-100 straight-eight models, also with i.r.s. Just as the original Fiat Mouse was called a 500 but had a capacity of 570 c.c. so the Steyr-Puch 650 actually has a 660 c.c. vertical-twin air-cooled engine tuned to give 39.5 b.h.p. (36 DIN.) at 5,800 r.p.m. by virtue of a Zenith 32NDIX twin-choke carburetter, hollow inlet valves, sodium-filled exhaust valves, high-lift camshaft and lightened cam followers, lightened flywheel, and special exhaust system. The o.h. valves are indirect in aluminium heads and 7,000 r.p.m. is safe. The gearbox is Steyr-Puch, the front suspension has been stiffened, the rear suspension is Steyr-Puch swing-axle with wishbone action, and there is a 12-volt Bosch electrical system. Puch-Teves brakes are used. The engine is apparently sensitive to the type of exhaust system fitted and it is claimed that the “Monte Carlo” exhaust system and a c.r. of 11.5 to 1 knocks three seconds off the 0-50 m.p.h. acceleration time and two seconds off the 0-60 m.p.h. figure. An oil cooler and sump shield are fitted as standard.

The British concessionaires are Ryders Autoservice (GB) Ltd. of Liverpool. Their publicity leaflet provides a little light reading in suggesting that the doors are hinged at the rear for safety, when Fiat recently altered the 500 so that it has front-hinged doors, and in describing the Steyr-Puch as “creating the impression of something that is a cross between a kite and a toboggan.”

When presented with this little Austrian rally car for test I decided to unleash it over a route in Surrey used from 1919 by the now defunct Light Car & Cyclecar for doing their road tests, not because I thought the hills would give the Puch an atom of trouble but because the terrain, although now tarmac and concrete instead of ruts and mud, is nostalgic, especially as many sports cars, like Salmsons, Senechals and Amilcars tested by Motor Sport, were taken over this ground in the mid-twenties.

The start is from the Burford Bridge Hotel below Box Hill, where I had to ask a policeman in a big Ford how to find the turning off the double carriageway to Ranmore Common. Past Box Hill Station then up and round the hairpin onto Ranmore is still fun; it was once the haunt of the Bugatti O.C. with supercharged G.P. Bugattis and suchlike. Over the common, deserted on this week-day morning we drove, and it was left for White Downs hill. This one-in-five descent must have been exciting in the extreme when negotiated on leaf mould in a Tamplin cyclecar or a 1920 Morgan three-wheeler but in the Puch it was so tame that I thought we were on a more recent road. So we retraced our wheel tracks and tried a muddy lane, which made me glad the little car had a sump shield and which showed how power, lightweight and a rear engine defeat deep slime — I think the Steyr-Puch would be just the job for an M.C.C. Trial for instance.

In Shere we had difficulty in finding Coombe Bottom hill, because the bypass now bisects the 1919 road after the village but an aged shop-keeper put us right and the Steyr-Puch sailed strongly up this hill, which had proved so testing to the belt-driven vehicles of long ago, although we needed bottom gear on the hairpin. The climb up to Newlands Corner was easy, and after exercising the Motoring Dog we retraced our route and at Betchworth turned left for one-in-five Pebblecombe hill. This is virtually a main road these days, which the Puch stormed at 5,000 r.p.m. in second gear. All that remained was to descend Box Hill, but I doubt whether the Light Car testers had to follow a gigantic coal lorry round the hairpins and down to the main road!

The circuit finishes back at the Burford Bridge Hotel and we had got round it much more quickly and with infinitely less anxiety than they did in the early-twenties, such is the diminution of the sporting element in motoring!

Yes this Steyr-Puch is quite a sports-car, with noisy exhaust, positive gear change, rather weak brakes, and astonishing acceleration for a 600 c.c. 2-cylinder car. The suspension is the equal of the performance, there is a Fiat fold-back sun roof, and an extra panel below the facia carries a Smiths tachometer reading to 8,000 r.p.m., a Vdo oil gauge that said 60 lb/sq. in. and a Vdo oil thermometer that read 60 deg. F. The normal instruments comprise a 100 m.p.h anti-clockwise speedometer and an A.C. petrol gauge that still indicated between quarter-full and empty after the tank was bone dry! I liked the term “Blink” for the turn-indicators warning light. The test car was shod with Semperit PR4 Favont 135 x 12 tyres and its three-spoke steering wheel had a leather gaiter round its rim. The battery was a Baren.

No performance figures were taken but the urge is very evident and the top speed claim of 90 m.p.h. is not unreasonable. Those who love to live with a big-twin on full song will find the Puch irresistible; others will just call it outrageously noisy. It blows off the hot Minis of the Cooper variety (s.s. quarter-mile in under 20 sec.), and driven pretty hard returned 40 m.p.g. of premium petrol. A demonstration car is kept in Surrey and those who appreciate the worth of the excellent little Fiat 500 but would like more performance would do well to investigate. Especially as the equivalent of Import Duty has just been removed by Steyr, so that the price of the Puch 650 TR II is now £698 18s. 2d., inclusive of purchase tax.

Soon after the London Motor Show had closed I was able to sample the new Sunbeam Imp Sport. Being partial to the Hillman Imp and aware of the circuit speeds put up by tuned versions last season, I was interested to see how Rootes had succeeded with this 55 b.h.p. model of their well-established light-alloy o.h.c rear-engine car. The Sunbeam was a smart little package and if the interior was somewhat sombre, this meant that there was an absence of bogus woodwork and that matt-black facia trim was not going to dazzle the driver. Again, no opportunity presented itself to time the car, but the acceleration is indeed outstanding for an 875 c.c. car. The creditable aspect of the Sunbeam Sport is that this excellent performance, from the twin Zenith/Stromberg 10 to 1 c.r. engine, if it has increased the buzz level, has not affected low-speed tractability, while fuel consumption of premium averaged a very useful 40.7 m.p.g. The engine likes high revs but had consumed only half-a-pint of oil in 570 miles. The seating position I found too low for my liking and the floor choke-control very stiff, so that it soon shed its bakelite cover. A fair amount of choke was needed to keep the light-alloy engine running from cold.

The Imp had always had a very likeable gear change and the Sunbeam version is no exception. The brakes are adequate but by no means outstanding and pressing the pedal firmly is not facilitated by the close proximity of the steering column. During the test the turn-indicators warning light became erratic. The overall impression is of a nicely-made, very effective if somewhat fussy small car. It should sell strongly, at £665. — W.B.