Recalling the road tests

No. 4. The 1928 Period of Motor Sport Road Tests

The year 1928 was not terribly brilliant for this paper, only seven issues being published, after which nothing more happened until the end of 1929. However, these troubles notwithstanding, some interesting cars passed through our hands, and it is pleasant to look back to that time, reviewing these road-tests with none of the pessimisms then suffered in ensuring that reports did appear to repay the loan of exclusive and expensive sports machinery.

First, then, was a 2-litre Lagonda “Speed Model,” belonging to that era when the great Staines firm produced cars somewhat akin to the 3-litre Bentley in outline, a trend not so observable in later examples of this type, which in blower form had a lower, wider and certainly more forward set radiator. Out of London, via Edgware, our tester took things steadily, but up Brockley Hill it is observed that a drop to third gear produced some 55 m.p.h. to the summit, the front wheel brakes affording a great sense of security when an errant motor omnibus intervened. The next day, trying for speed, a speedometer 86 m.p.h. was had, and 52 m.p.h. on the 8.25 to 1 second gear and 72 m.p.h. on the 5.28 to 1 third gear. The other way, against a slightly uphill grade, gave 70 m.p.h. in both third and top ratios. Later, three up, the clock said “80” for several miles and “82” on one occasion. The suspension at this gait over fearful going proved phenomenally good, albeit the steering box and front shock-absorbers loosened off a trifle, allowing bad wheel wobble to happen at 40-60 m.p.h., which a job of tightening things completely cured. The steering was praised as extremely light and accurate, but too low geared for twisty section dicing or skid correction on ice. The brakes were considered superb and the “M.G.-action” fly-off handlever praised. The gearbox had to be fully utilised to get good pick-up and, once barrelling, this Lagonda cruised effortlessly at 60 m.p.h., giving 20-24 m.p.g. King’s Lynn to Cambridge occupied exactly 60 min., or a neat 44 m.p.h. average over twisty going. The headlamp clipper lever was too near the gear lever, proving of little use in effecting ratio shifts, and a slight roll on corners took “the very slightest morsel of pleasure out of driving,” but otherwise – no snags. The 2-litre Lagonda cost £675 in 1928, and if you can find one now – go to it, chaps!

After the Lagonda a Vernon-Derby was tried, typically the French small car with its racing-pattern 2-seater body. It could be had with Ruby, Chapuis-Dornier or blown or unblown S.C.A.P. engine, and the car tried had a 1,100-c.c. two-bearing o.h.v. Ruby. The specification included dry-plate clutch, four-speed gearbox, solid rear axle, 1/4-elliptic rear springs and brake drums detachable with the wheels. The body had a door and belied its appearance by being quite protective and inhabitable. The gearbox had a truly easy, quite rapid change, the lever moving forwards from first to second and from third to top gear, while the ratios were the excellently chosen ones of 12.25, 8.25, 6.2 and 4.2 to 1. The little engine was apparently tuned for economy and would run down to 8 m.p.h. in the highest ratio; it also gave 25, 38 and 50 m.p.h., respectively, on the indirect gears; 62 m.p.h. was the best attained in top gear, when the plugs, an unsuitable sort, just cooked-up; the maker’s claim of approximately 70 m.p.h. seemed reasonable. The brakes showed up to perfection over winding country lanes and the steering was excellent and had a lightness associated with voitures de course. The suspension, good in town, allowed too accentuated fore-and-aft pitching at over 50 m.p.h., but no rolling, discomfort or unsteadiness was otherwise experienced. Violent acceleration round Hyde Park Corner in the dry resulted in a usefully employed 90˚ power slide, and the only trouble throughout the tests, plugs apart, was a loose push-rod and rocker, which good accessibility soon remedied. The cowlings and undershields were not too cleverly devised. By all accounts a sound little car, and the price was £275.

Came THE experience of the year – testing a “36/220” Supercharged Mercédès-Benz 4-seater. After two 6-ft. passengers had groaned their way into the tonneau we crawled easily through London traffic, almost entirely in top gear, en route for Brooklands. On the run down the improved cornering made possible by the lower chassis (over that of the “88/180”) was noted, while the gear change was found to be easier, close ratios making upward changes very rapid, especially from third to top gear and back, for which change the lever could be operated without using clutch or accelerator – the writer recalls having this demonstrated to him at about this time by a works demonstrator very vividly. The Track was dry and on the first lap the Mercédès held 2,600 r.p.m. along the Byfleet, the blower sounding its siren-wail out in front and the speedometer showing 104 m.p.h. On lap two 110 m.p.h. was attained along the Railway straight, the outstanding feature at this speed being the extreme comfort of the front seats and the extreme discomfort of the rear ones. Off to Winchester for lunch, 70 m.p.h. became a normal speed, 90 m.p.h. not uncommon and 100 m.p.h. was exceeded on two separate occasions. This last-named gait was reached with no great run and an uphill stretch made no difference to the 100 m.p.h.! The steering column juddered in Hutchings’s hands, but control remained accurate and finger-light. The brakes hardly gave the sense of security the immense performance demanded and lever-control of the blower was considered better than the accelerator actuation adopted – Stutz did just that later. But there criticism ended and that big, left-hand drive, white 4-seater, the exhaust of which was lost in the siren-wail of the blower when it really got going, could prove just as fascinating and inspiring now as it did to the Editor of 14 years ago.

Next came a Bugatti and, although this was the comparatively touring Type 44 3-litre Straight Eight, and a saloon at that, a Bugatti is always worth driving. This was, indeed, Col. Sorel’s own car. The fabric four-door body met with warm approval from the commencement, except for the unadjustable front seats, which rendered a rolled-up coat necessary before an ideal driving position could be obtained. The controls were especially notable for their lightness, in particular the clutch pedal, although, curiously, the clutch itself was somewhat fierce. The nine-bearing engine proved well able to adapt itself to the top-gear fiend, although Heaven forbid he ever got hold of such a motor-car. Corrected speeds on the indirect gears prove inspiring-30, 40 and 60 m.p.h., respectively, on first, second and third ratios. Apart from a slight period at, roughly, 55 m.p.h. in top gear, or equivalent r.p.m., the engine was delightfully free from fuss or roughness. Arrived at Brooklands, the car proved skittish at speed with four persons up until the Michelins had been further inflated. The “clock” showed 95 m.p.h. for quite a while and then the rather touring plugs began to object. After a stop to humour them a lap was timed at 77 m.p.h., although the speedometer now failed to go beyond “90.” It seemed that the first lap, before misfiring came on, was accomplished at over 80 m.p.h. A lap of the course laid out for the Essex M.C. Six Hours Race was next undertaken, and, with violent spitting still spoiling acceleration, a speed of 62 m.p.h. was timed (the race was won that year at 69.51 m.p.h. by Ramponi’s Alfa-Romeo). Altogether the Type 44, priced at £550 in chassis form, created a profound impression and fuel consumption was quoted as 25 m.p.g.

A most unusual car was taken out thereafter in the form of a Type XII 14/35-h.p. Steyr Weymann saloon. The specification embraced an articulated rear axle, with transverse leaf spring i.r.s. and an o.h.c. 61.5 x 88-mm. (1,560-c.c.) six-cylinder engine. This engine ran very silently and gave a maximum speed of some 60 m.p.h. and an easy cruising gait of 45-50 m.p.h.; 10, 25 and 40 m.p.h. were accomplished on first, second and third gears, and the impression was created that with higher ratios more would have been within compass of the willing power unit. Third gear was especially useful, nevertheless, and it was possible to start on this ratio fairly easily. The Perrot brakes squealed somewhat and needed considerable pressure, but were amply suited to the needs of the driver in emergency. Brockley Hill, near Edgware, was ascended at never less than 35 m.p.h. in top gear, which was of 5.8 to 1. First gear was a trifle too low. Roadholding and cornering were especially highly praised, and it seems that in this 1 1/2-litre Steyr Six of 1928 we had a foretaste of what B.M.W., Lancia, Fiat, D.K.W., Citroen and other Continentals were to offer us later. Apart from this, undoubtedly the most pleasing and outstanding feature of this unorthodox car was its general mechanical and body silence, allied to effortless cruising at 40-50 m.p.h. It cost £470, the chassis price being £325. Alas! where could you find one to-day?

The year 1928 concluded, from the road-test viewpoint, with a 2-litre six-cylinder open 4-seater O.M., conducted some of the time by R.F. Oats himself. The “15/60” sports model was tried, a side-valve job with Bosch coil ignition and two R.A.G. carburetters. In traffic the O.M. proved both quiet and docile, with very fine brakes, the hand-brake rather of the modern “parking-brake” order. Third gear was the nearest approach to a “silent third” we had met for a long while and could be held for long periods most effectively, the maximum on this ratio being well over 60 m.p.h. After putting some more air in the tyres and tightening the Hartfords, the car was driven round Brooklands four up to get it thoroughly warm, and then, two up, a lap was timed at 73.78 m.p.h. The speed was some 85 m.p.h. off the Byfleet, and under everyday conditions we reckoned 82 m.p.h. to be the maximum. A brake test on the finishing straight was tried with satisfactory results, and then a climb of the Test Hill was accomplished from a standing start in first gear in 12.0 sees. No criticisms could be found of a very sound and likeable car, which we considered cheap at the price – £695.

No one has yet contacted us to say that he or she is running one of the ex-demonstration cars we have driven in making these researches or that they have known them in later times, but, as a matter of interest, the cars we had out in 1928 were loaned from the following sources: Lagonda (Lagonda, Ltd. – VT 9880); Vernon-Derby (Morgan-Hastings, Ltd.); Mercédès-Benz (British Mercédès-Benz, Ltd.); Bugatti (Bugatti Automobiles, Ltd.); Steyr (A.S. Forsyth); O.M. (L.C. Rawlence & Co. – PU 1212).