Matters of moment, January 1975

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The trend of design

At the commencement of another year it is encouraging to discover that some of the past pessimism is dispersing. The flow of oil which we were told would soon cease to come from beneath the surface of this exhausted planet has refused to dry-up, no doubt to the disgust of the Media and other Jeremiahs, so, if you can afford it, there is plenty of petrol to burn. The emission rulings that were going to burden every i.e. engine with so much power-consuming extra machinery that they would scarcely be able to pull along the vehicles into which they were installed have not yet proved to be that crippling.

So, although the cost of personal road transport has risen astronomically and you cannot buy so much as a basic 850 Mini for leis than £1,000, it is still possible to motor and to do so in some luxury, because most of the one-time items of de luxe equipment, like a good heater, adequate ventilation, two-speed screen wipers, anti-dazzle mirrors, the heated rear-window, reclining front seat squabs, courtesy interior lighting, sill door-locks and so on, are now commonplace, and even the more specialised advances such as automatic transmission, power steering, dual q.i. headlamps, five-speed manual gearboxes, disc servo brakes, etc., have become available on the more ordinary, comparatively less-expensive, cars. Moreover, further advances, such as inexpensive air-conditioning, wiped headlamp glasses, safety-wheels, fuel-injection, the Wankel engine, electric window-lifts and other developments are coming along steadily or will soon be found on the less-costly cars.

That cars show continual improvement in spite of political discouragement and the financial crisis must be evident to those who read road-test reports and now find that many items which not all that long ago called for special mention are now accepted as near-essentials on most cars. Performance, too, has vastly improved over the years, so that the big-engined, fuel-thirsty, top-bracket makes are hard put to it to leave behind the more humble family saloons and need more than ever before to offer extra attractions in terms of quietness, spaciousness, refinement and a level ride, as some compensation for their elevated price.

The technical outlook is far from bleak, ranging as it does from fresh investigation into conserving fuel and reducing toxic exhaust emissions to improving the chances of the occupants’ survival in an accident for those who are in such awe of the motor car that, having strapped one to themselves, they go in constant fear of a crash. There are even engineers of logic, epitomised by the inimitable Alec Issigonis, who believe that it is equally or more important to design into a car such excellent road-grip and response that the driver has at least a sporting chance of steering clear of incipient calamities. This ideal has been made easier to achieve by the widespread acceptance of front-wheel drive for the smaller cars, which the transverse-mounted power unit has made practical with a short wheelbase. Now we must look to lock-free brakes, four-wheel-drive, and new computations of weight distribution to expand this safety-bid. Meanwhile, we commend those manufacturers who fit laminated windscreens, rear fog-warning lamps, slim window pillars, “quick” steering and safety bodywork, while deploring the totally defeatist attitude of those who advocate the compulsory use of safety-belts, equipment which, akin to the proverbial clerical egg, is good for some people and some shunts but has by no means been proved the universal safeguard for all situations.

The past year has seen the vee-six-cylinder engine configuration which Ford-of-Britain introduced so long ago and uses so effectively both for its commercial vehicles and its bigger private cars adopted for the Peugeot-Volvo-Renault joint exercise, after its recent use by Fiat for their top luxury-model. Citroen and Alfa Romeo have opted for the fiat-four-cylinder layout in their small cars and that the “cyclecar” conception of air-cooled twin, whether in vertical or horizontally-opposed form, is far from finished is evident from the popularity of the evergreen and sturdily dependable Fiat 126 and the re-introduction to Britain of the Citroen 2cv. Another trend that, as MOTOR SPORT predicted a year ago, should combat the dual bogies of rising fuel prices and poisonous exhaust gases is the return to the diesel engine, which Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot, Opel, Fiat and some Japanese companies clearly endorse. While British Leyland continue to cold-shoulder the c.i. engine for private-car installation, Opel have demonstrated its potentialities with a record-breaking sortie.

Whatever the future holds for us, we can expect some interesting new small cars from Ford, Volkswagen and perhaps Vauxhall, to woo the car-owner who has now to dip so deeply into bank balance and pocket to purchase and run a car, with no help from a Government which is so determined to get us all into public-transport vehicles, no matter whether these are inadequate or absent altogether in rural districts, that it offers no concessions in respect of petrol tax or that affecting car prices, while promptly putting up rail and ‘bus fares at frequent intervals. Another way in which the World monetary recession is likely to affect automotive technology is that it may drive mass-production manufacturers away from technical progress and advancement, back to that basic sort of car which historians remind us is the original Panhard-Levassor way of making a carriage without-horses. We have seen the brilliant British Leyland small cars with front-wheel drive, overhead camshafts and ingenious springless suspension systems succeeded by the front-engined/rear-drive Morris Marina. Now Fiat has trumped this trend with the new, simplified Tipo 131. Both these great companies continue to make more exciting cars, with specifications perhaps more acceptable to hard-driving enthusiasts. But the writing is on the wall, with such cars appearing on important drawing-boards and the bestseller-stakes of this country pasting from the Issigonis-conceived British Leyland 1100s to the Ford Cortina, which has now lost this sales-battle to the Vauxhall Viva; it is a trend which the ordinary car-owner and fleet users apparently find highly acceptable.