Matters of moment, January 1976

The trend of design

As another year commences it behoves us to take a look at how engineering is developing in the motoring world. It is remarkable how many, and indeed in many instances exciting, new cars have been released in the past twelvemonth, considering the financial depression prevailing, the uncertain future, and the difficulty that manufacturers experience in getting highly-paid workers to make cars at all, if they feel disposed not to do so and have the slightest excuse for calling a halt.

This, however, is the case, with design far from stagnating, although it can be said to have stabilised, in general terms. The four-cylinder in-line engine is by far the MOSE widely used, its numbers increased by reason of the fact that it is from the lower echelons of the mass-produced model ranges that the biggest numbers of this common theme are to be found. Even so, it is interesting that whereas before the war the multi-cylinder power unit was creeping up in popularity, with the six-cylinder available even in swept-volume areas as low as 1 1/2-litres, and the straight-eight gaining ground in that era of whippy crankshafts, casual mixture distribution, rigid engine-mountings and often poor low-speed torque, as soon as such problems were capable of solution by the protagonists of even the most uninspired cast-iron power packs, the need for more than four “pots” rapidly diminished. Although, even after the advent of ‘”floating-power” flexible engine-mounts, these at first bedded-down and smoothed-out six-cylinder motors. Since those times techniques have so far improved that the employment of more than four cylinders is more a matter of handling the bigger engine capacities than a means to smoother running and better crawl-pace pulling, except in the luxury-car category.

The eight-cylinder engine has survived only in vee formation, mainly for American wheeled drawing rooms, although Rolls-Royce favour it and British Leyland use it to provide the velvet glove to their otherwise sporting and potent Triumph Stag and MG-B offerings, and have borrowed a light and compact GM design to allow Auntie Rover to lift up her skirts. Jaguar remain the only producers in this country of motor cars boasting as many as a dozen cylinders, but the 12-cylinder in less velvet-glove form remains a Ferrari hall-mark, which Lamborghini also use for their 3.9-litre models.

The in-line six-cylinder engine might be said to be heading for extinction, were it not for the fact that the magnificent Haynes’ twin-cam Jaguar unit is far too good to be rendered obsolescent and BMW make engines of this type perform no nicely. But Mercedes-Benz have already gone to the V8 for engines of 3 1/2-litres upwards and the vee-six is coming along nicely, as gardeners remark of their favourite plants. Ford’s lead in this direction for quantity-produced vehicles has been followed by the Peugeot/Renault/Volvo communal light-alloy V6, with Maserati for the Merak and Fiat for their Tipo 130 top-model endorsing the sense of this compact installation. One wonders whether Ford-of-Britain will use a vee-four set transversely in the forthcoming “Bobcat” bombshell, because their Cologne engineering division has knowledge of this couldbe-dodgy balancing act and for a small front-drive confection such a cylinder disposition would save space on the East-West front. What is the betting, however, that “Bobcat” will use in-line iron? A bombshell that has already exploded is Porsche’s adoption of the water-cooled front-engined formula, in their endeavour to move into a lower-price bracket, with the new Porsche 924. For some time this high-performance, high-quality make has represented about the sole remaining car built to the most exacting standards and exuding quality and individuality in about equal proportions. So this move will no doubt shatter a number of Zuffenhausen’s more avid supporters. The 924 drives through the rear wheels, using a transaxle, it is true, but the changed concept, following closely on Volkswagen’s firm kick-in-the-mechanically-busy-boot of the Beetle, this eschewing of air-fanned cylinders and rear-engine/rear-drive for their latest car, will shake many Porsche people, just as it troubled Beetle fanciers. Not only has the Type 924 Porsche adopted a Volkswagen engine but this is the new 2-litre pack that has been installed in some of VW’s light commercial vehicles—so if we were a trifle snide about Ford adapting their universal vee-six for the Granada, they now find themselves in very select company The droll thing is that to some observers the arrival of this front-engined Porsche is an indication that much-boosted advantages of the mid-engined layout are now all a myth, while other experts are propounding on the excellence of the recently-introduced mid-motor Lancia Monte Carlo …!

There remains plenty of variety in engine concepts, although the twin-cylinder aircooled arrangement persists only as a continuance of age-old designs, as does the triple-cylinder two-stroke, nor does the rotary engine appear to maintain its early promise. But Motor Sport is pleased, having advocated it some time ago, to see that Volkswagenwerk are tagging along with Mercedes-Benz, Opel and Peugeot in a strong belief in the private-car diesel engine, of which Mercedes-Benz have a refined five-cylinder version and VW are thinking in terms of quite small-capacity c.i. units. Here again, the paper experts have numerous arguments against the diesel. But, with respect, we wonder whether it is the function of the journalist to question the engineer, unless there is more than intellectual proof that the latter has swerved off the rails (or the road), any more than we would dream of redesigning in print existing popular cars about which those who have to make them and sell them probably know more of the limitations and problems of making changes than a writer is likely to be able to glean, unless the opportunity has been taken of living and working for a reasonable time in the factories concerned. Criticism of the products presented to us for test and appraisal is, naturally, quite a different trawler-full of fish . . .

The side-valve engine, mourned as it may be by lovers of vintage Austin Sevens, perpendicular Pops, and Morris Eights, has departed for good, and with silent and simple cogged-belt drive facilitating putting the camshaft in the attic, push-rods may soon go the same way. Yet there is far less ingenuity in valve gears than was once the case, if inspiration applied to details, and the Triumph Dolomite Sprint’s ingenious actuation of four-valves-per-cylinder, are excepted. Automobile engineers of the 1970s seem to be taking a bold step, however, in respect of the larger concepts, such as the use of horizontally-opposed cylinders by Alfasud, Citroen, Porsche (pre-924), and by Ferrari for the 12-cylinder Berlinetta Boxer; to employ overhead-camshafts with such a layout, as Alfasud and Porsche do, shows no shirking of complexity and, of course, the Ferrari aforementioned boxer with twin o.h.c. Yet where did this boxer-motor originate but in the VW Beetle, in terms of comparatively-recent, entirely-practical engineering?

Notwithstanding earlier remarks, credit goes to NSU and to Mazda for persevering with different detail concepts of the basic Wankel rotary engine. It is also a step forward, if you agree that fuel-injection gives a lower fuel consumption, better cold starting, greater efficiency and quicker throttle response than carburetters collectively provide, that this is now available from Alfa Romeo (but only on the elusive V8 Montreal), BMW, Mercedes-Benz, on the Opel Commodore GS/E, and from Porsche and Saab, as well as on one Cadillac model and that it has at last been applied to the great 5.3-litre Daimler/Jaguar “Double-Six”. Apart from diesel engines, of course. Bosch have a decided monopoly here over the Bosch/Lucas, Kugelfischer, Spica and Bendix systems. BMW use both Bosch and Kugelfischer injection.

Nevertheless, carburation, about which authorities like Brewster and Fisher used to propound in our youth, has improved notably, With effective automatic chokes in many cases, and we may expect fresh moves to secure greater fuel conservation without inherent drawbacks from normal carburetters, perhaps by this time next year. Albeit, we seem about as far as ever from Motor Sport’s desire to have a “60/60” small car, by which we mean one that after averaging a genuine 60 m.p.g. of two-star petrol for a week’s everyday, give-and-take driving, will record a timed speed of 60 m.p.h. In this context, we agree with a weekly contemporary that fuel consumption is very difficult to measure accurately and that unless the precious, expensive fluid that costs us so much in Government tax is correctly metered and a vehicle’s mileometer properly checked, some very odd ideas relating to personal m.p.g. accomplishments can result. This notwithstanding, we note that Reliant are advertising a remarkable 70 m.p.g. from their 850 c.c. Robin tricycle—more, if you hold it to a constant 40 m.p.h. It rather surprises us, too, that the Tamworth manufactury has the monopoly of the three-wheeler market. For those to whom thrift is paramount such vehicles continue to give the advantages of reduced tax and insurance and lower tyre bills, etc. What we want is a sporting version and it is disappointing that, with the BL Mini transverse power-pack so adaptable to a front-drive three-wheeler, such has not so far reached a sustained market. Or what about a 1970s Morganstyle job, perhaps using,a flat-twin air-cooled engine in the nose, say a DAF twin, with transmission to the single rear wheel that might well he vie the very excellent DAF automatic belt-drive, or by a motorcycle gearbox and single chain? Alas, it seems that while motorcyclists are prepared to pay fourfigure sums for superbikes of great weight and complexity, a decently sporting threewheeler is only possible from Morgan, who since H.F.S. died, won’t play.

Reverting to design as it in fact exists, you may not remember the days when engines had to be frequently decarbonised, properly by lifting the cylinder head or block and industriously applying scrapers, or else casually by using mysterious chemicals in the petrol or oxy-acetylene blow-torches thrust daringly through the plug holes; or into the valve apertures if screw-out valve-caps were fitted. But you will presumably recall a time when compression-ratios of around 6 to 1 were normal and anything approaching 7 to 1 or 7 1/2 to 1 was regarded as hitting it up. Today only the mediocre economy cars use the latter ratios and 9 to 1 has become quite commonplace, although Rolls-Royce favour a cr. of 8 to 1. But 10 to 1 compression-ratios are used in some instances, the light-alloy engine of Chrysler’s Hillman Imp/Sunbeam Imp Sport encouraging this, for instance, and Lamborghini go as high as 10.7 to 1. Car diesel engines more than double these pressures, incidentally.

Continual advances in combustion chamber shapes, aided by breathing wizardry of the calibre of Weslake’s, and the high-octane petrols road-going cars now burn, have made this use of high compression-ratios possible, ratios of an order not found before the war outside the race tracks. It will be most unfortunate if the clean-air pundits bring about lead-less fuels, for then compressionratios, and with them maximum efficiency, will suddenly drop, although it has to be agreed that research compelled by the emission regulations has increased the efficiency of combustion. As to the chassis, which has really ceased to exist in this age of unitary construction, independent-rear-suspension has multiplied less rapidly than we hoped it might, although employed by such enlightened makers of reardrive cars as AC, Bentley, BMW, Daimler, on some Datsuns, Ferrari, for Fiat’s moresophisticated models, and on the Imp, jaguar, Lamborghini, Lotus, Maserati, NSU Ro80, Peugeot, Porsche, Rolls-Royce, certain Simcas, Skoda, Triumph Spitfire, De Tomaso, TVR and the VW Beetle, etc., the last-named falling into line with or leading normal rear-engined practice. Coil springs have proved well suited to modern soft suspension systems with large road-wheel movements, being almost universal for i.r.s. layouts and generally used for rear springing, the once-favourably-regarded torsion-bars persisting only on Bristols, the older Renault models, rear-engined Porsches, several Simcas, at the front of the small Volvos, and on the 12001, VW Beetle. The employment of donkey-cart springing still offers an inexpensive suspension and axle-locating medium, which is not likely to vanish for some time, with the return by Morris, Fiat and others to simplified family cars. Having the best of both worlds, those of i.r.s. characteristics with 3 rigid back axle, is provided by the De Dion rear-.end. But only the Alfa Romeo Alfetta, the V8 Aston Martin, Rover (apart from the rigid-axled Range Rover V8), and the smaller Volvos go for it. Perhaps if it works out for Ferrari in this year’s Formula One racing, more private cars will adopt it? The next big suspension breakthrough must surely be the employment on lower-priced cars of a selflevelling ride, along with the elimination of metal springing material, whether on the lines of Alex Moulton’s simple Hydrolam: and Hydragas or the Rolls-Royce, Citroen and Mercedes-Benz pressurised hydraulic pneumatic sophistication.

Brakes can be taken for granted these days, even if all-disc retardation is by no means universal, although vacuum-servo assistance is becoming so. It is over fifty years since front-wheel-brakes made their appearance on production cars from Austin Seven upwards and we should be thankful that all the experimental methods of operating them— exposed cable, enclosed cable, rods, metal strips and even chains-and-sprockets—have given over to hydraulics; as pioneered by Chrysler and Triumph. Only Rolls-Royce, influenced by Citroen, have seen the need for highly-pressurised hydraulic retardation.

Tyre advances join simple but effective brakes as the most outstanding post-war automotive improvement, sired by motor racing. Radial-ply tyres, in sizes as compact as 10 in. to 15 in. diameters, have revolutionised road-holding and safety concepts, led by the highly-renowned Michelin Company, which pioneered the trend with the immortal “X”. Now we are moving on to complicated anti-blow-out safety wheels, .from Dunlop and Avon, with a simplified solution on the way from Rubery Owen.

Progress has indeed been stimulating, all down the years, and it has certainly not decelerated in the last decade. Fast drivers will probably applaud the steady if cautious onslaught of the mid-engined concept, by AC, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lotus, Maserati, Lancia and De Tomaso; the innings is over, for rear-located power packs. The steep. rise in favour of pulling instead of pushing, especially for small cars, is another notable post-war happening; 24% of the makes and variants thereof available today on the British market are pulled along by their front wheels, many of these designs inspired by Sir Alec lssigonis, although not every engineering team has used the East-West layout so simply and courageously. What a long way we have come, though, since the early fumblings in this direction, by Alvis, BSA, Tracta and others, and its successful pre-war commercialisation by Citroen. Another notable technical breakthrough is the automatic gearbox, until the perfecting of which the Daimler fluid-fly-wheel/Wilson pre-selector gearbox was nearly as good but needing effort from hand and foot. Today there are some cars one would wish to have were they not available only with this foolproof transmission, however. There is so much pleasure to be gained from a good martini gearbox, available on cars as popular as the Ford Escort and Hillman Avenger, etc., that we are not surprised no-one has revealed the subtle technique that differentiates between a box as excellent as those on modern Fords and the notchy, baulking, long-travel gear-changes of some other manufacturers, who shall be nameless! Too often overdrive is provided to mask badly chosen gear-ratio spacing but it is satisfactory to note that 18 makes of car available in Britain now have 5-speed gearboxes, although these are not always universal throughout such makers’ model-ranges.

Finally, those who think the twin-overhead-camshaft engine to he the finest under-bonnet possession of all, allied as it is to history (Peugeot having used it first, for racing, in 1912) and sheer efficiency, can congratulate themselves that Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Ferrari, Fiat, Ford RS, Jensen-Healey, Lamborghini, Lancia, Lotus, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota Celica GT —the very names of motor racing—continue to list twin-cam cars.

The war against the car-owner

It seems incredible, in the midst of the current tragic bombings, shootings and general onslaught of crime, that Polite and Magistrates can spend any time on the more trivial, non-criminal, purely technical motoring lapses. But take note that such is the case! Two examples should suffice. A lady driver with a clean record was brought to Court in Bristol for driving a car on which the licence was displayed too high on the windscreen. This lapse Of a few inches in the sticking-on Of the costly disc, under a Law which we suspect not one motorist in 10,000 or one pOliceman in a thousand could quote correctly, if aware of it at all, resulted in a £2 fine.

Then there was the case of fines totalling £10 being imposed by a Whitchurch, Salop, Court in the case of a vehicle which was using a cloth-bung instead of a Metal-cap on the fuel tank filler; more serious, we suppose, but what do you do when, as happened to us near Oxford recently, a petrol-station attendant fails to replace the cap after serving you with fuel?

It really is time the heavily-taxed motorist rebelled against such absurd and savage treatment.