Motoring variety

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ONE SURE way of keeping your motoring life interesting is to indulge in as much variety as possible, though not to the extreme of some Road Test Specialists, who have no car of their own and never keep a borrowed one long enough to learn to live with it. The ideal, to my way of thinking, is to have one good car for the major part of one’s motoring life, others for fun and amusement, and then to fill in the gaps with as big a variety of cars as possible. That way you can develop a pretty balanced outlook on motoring and can assess why some forms of motoring are enjoyed more than others. If you only drive small family boxes, you get an unbalanced shock when you are let loose with two or three hundred horsepower.

Equally, if you only drive powerful, fast eats, your shock is just as unbalanced when you drive a family box or slow vintage car. I don’t mind admitting that my tastes fluctuate from the super-fast to the bog-slow, without pausing too long on the way with mundane bread-and-butter cars. I can change from the E-type Jaguar to my hack Rover 90, dropping from 110 m.p.h. to a sedate 35 m.p.h. with a heavy load on the modified back of the Rover, without any anguish, but to change to a family tin-box, that lacks real performance and is not a “commercial-type” load carrier, I find irritating. On the other hand I get equal enjoyment from lying nearly horizontal in a Lotus Europa, or sitting upright in a vintage tourer. Bad seats or bad driving positions in modern cars I cannot tolerate, like the seats in a well-known editorial car that have a line of piping across them which cuts into the backs of my thighs, or some of the “mini” seats in small family boxes, made small either to save money or make the interior look bigger!

The other part of my motoring variety that I indulge in regularly is motorcycling, principally because I like motorcycles, but also because there is nothing quite so satisfying as riding a solo motorcycle, either on the road or on the rough-stuff. Riding a trials or scrambles machine is marvellous for keeping the reflexes sharpened and exercising one’s sense of balance. I always have a trials motorcycle by my back door, living as I do on the edge of a wood in the heart of the country, when I am in England. While motoring about Europe I am always longing to have a trials motorcycle with me, especially in Spain or Southern Italy, but I have yet to find a fast GT car that will carry a motorcycle. At present I have a trials 350 Matchless, no longer competitive in open competition, but a nice off-the-road bike nevertheless.

Throughout the accompanying pages are a selection of the cars and motorcycles I sampled during 1969, distances varying from “up-the-road-and-back”, as with the de Tomaso Mangusta, to many thousands of miles. The variety ranged in age from a 1925 side-valve Anzani-engined Frazer Nash to the Wankel-engined Mercedes-Benz C111 of the future, and in size from a tiny Hillman Imp-powered Ginetta coupe to a large Lagonda tourer the bonnet of which is nearly as long as the Ginetta. Thanks to friends I was able to have a go in a couple of Vintage Sports Car Club races, Anthony Blight lending me his famous Talbot 110, which was highly successful, and the Editor lending me his 1,000-c.c. Riley, which ended in expensive noises and a cloud of smoke! Did I say variety?

Mid-engined coupé experience was enrichened by the aforementioned Mercedes-Benz C111, which was memorable, the Mangusta which was embarrassing, the Lotus Europa which was a riot, and Rover’s old turbine coupe T3, which was fascinating. I wrote in length about the C111, and admit freely that I am completely sold on the Wankel engine. The Mangusta was like an early Ford Zephyr in which my local farmer friends carried an anvil or a sack of grain in the boot to make the thing steer. The Mangusta has Zephyr trouble in reverse, which doesn’t mean going backwards, but it needs the anvil in the front luggage compartment! It’s all a question of weight distribution. The l.h.d. Europa was dealt with fully back in the summer and even though most of the respected professional Road Testers seemed to hate it, I enjoyed it immensely, though a production r.h.d. one I tried later had just as stiff a gear-change as the one I borrowed from the Lotus Press chaps.

Among the more conventional cars I drove, a Marcos with 3-litre Ford V6 engine was nice but spoilt by poor steering and ridiculous Ford gear ratios. A rally Lancia HF Fulvia was a super little “racer” and so safe and predictable that it made me remark “Why can’t all cars handle like this?”; and the rest of the Lancia range that I tried were all pleasant, though underpowered by my standards. On the other hand a 7-litre Iso Rivolta Grifo looked overpowered, but turned out to be all litres and not much horsepower, while its “feel” and handling was ‘orrid. Many miles were covered in an MG-B open two-seater and a more unpretentious honest car giving good value for money would be hard to find. It is not modern, and certainly not in the Lotus Elan class, but for smooth English roads is all right and gives economical, trouble-free motoring without any drama. For a very-used hack car my 1954 Rover 90, now converted to a pick-up truck, has more than paid for itself, carrying machinery, materials, “goods and chattels” in silence and comfort, all for £60 off a used-car lot.

The amusing thing is that it has the “modern” refinement of a clutchless gear-change, thanks to a free-wheel, and apart from its mud-and-rust colour scheme it looks the same shape as Auntie Rovers up to the end of their life-span, and you still see an Auntie every 10 miles. Another hack transport I drove was a Volkswagen van, the only VW Model I really enjoy. This occasion was an amusing party in Italy when there were four of us in the cab so we had to share the driving, all at the same time. I had the steering wheel, the accelerator, the brake and the horn, the next chap along had the clutch-pedal, the third chap had the gear-lever and rear-view mirror, and the fourth chap, on the far left, just did the worrying. It was a case of driving to numbers, with me giving the orders! It was during this party, the Fraser Nash “Raid” to Bolzano, that I was able to try five different chain-driven Fraser Nashes. An early primitive S.V. Anzani had surprising torque, a very nice original Meadows Replica was everything that a Fraser Nash should be, and it was easy to see why they gained such a reputation around 1931-34. A Gough-engined TT Replica was the same thing with a lot beefier engine, but a six-cylinder Blackburn-engined car was so smooth it felt wrong, and was noticeably heavier and lacked the “personal” feel of the four-cylinder cars. An old friend was also driven, this being a 1932 TT Replica that I used to own and do early post-war competitions with, YG 2122. In those days it had a Meadows four-cylinder engine, but now has an AC six-cylinder engine, and it has made it the ultimate in “vintage-style” Fraser Nashes. If AFN could have amalgamated with AC Cars in about 1932 we would have had a truly memorable PVT British sports car.

The foregoing has all been “off-duty” fun, though there was some overlapping, but for serious motoring in order to report on European motor races, the 1965 E-type Jaguar 4.2-litre has had another hard season, and apart from consuming alternators (much better than dynamos while they work, but more expensive when they stop) and exhaust systems, it has done well. After four years and well over 100,000 miles it still impresses me with its performance, especially from 80 m.p.h. onwards, and represents the ultimate in “vintage-style” motoring and a high-point in the 20th century, but it is now obsolete and we must look to the cars and firms who will provide for us to the end of the 20th century, which is now only 30 years away. Thirty years back I was riding my 1924 TT Norton and getting nearly 80 m.p.h. from it lying flat on the tank! Thirty years forward I ought to be lying flat on my back and doing 180 m.p.h. in my atomic-powered computer-controlled inter-city projectile. When he was over 80 years old the late Charles Faroux, that great French motor-racing journalist, drove a fast Mercedes-Benz for his everyday transport around Europe, so why shouldn’t I?—D.S.J.