THE AXIS IN AFRICA
Some interesting data about four Continental Military Vehicles
THE subjects of this article are a Fiat, a Mercedes, a Stoewer and a Lancia. The first two are civilian chassis adapted for army use, the third is a genuine
four-wheel drive military machine, and the fourth could well merit the description ” sports ” car, although ,designed as an open staff car for the Italian Army.
The Fiat was the open 4-seater model as supplied to the Italian forces, and had hm ordinary 1,100-c.c. Balilla ” chassis, complete with i.f.s. and altuniniunt cylinder head. The chassis was standard except for a low back axle ratio, and was fitted with a very neat pressed-steel 4-door touring body ; the earlier models had a fold-flat screen, although this feature was subsequently dropped, and the allweather equipment was first class.
As issued, they had solid pressed-steel wheels carrying rather thin-section highpressure tyres, but plenty of ordinary Fiat wheels were available, and these usually replaced the originals, since they took 6.00-in. by 16-in. Jeep tyres ! The bodies on these cars were rather heavyish, and the maximum speed was about 60 m.p.h. Our first example was captured from Jerry before Alamein and lasted until the end of the campaign at Tunis, during which time it ran thousands of desert miles with practically no trouble. I had many pleasant drives in this car, and the i.f.s. was a delight after the normal suspension (?) of my work-a-day Jeep. The 4-speed gearbox was silent in use, and plenty of revs, were obtainable from the extremely smooth engine. I tried fitting a higher ratio crown wheel and pinion from a civilian job, but the weight and lack of streamline combated against any great increase in speed. So much for the Fiat. After the German collapse at Alamein we moved.forward, and at Mersa Matruh I ” acquired ” a Mercedes from a B.T.A. of a sister battalion. I was very surprised when he offered me the motor—B.T.A.s, as a rule, are not fairy godmothers to each other—but found, on examination, that a big-end had run and that the brake master cylinder was missing. Like us, his regiment was moving fairly quickly in a westerly direction, and he had no time to locate the spares to repair it ; hence his generosity! However, I knew of the whereabouts of another derelict Mercedes only a few miles away, and so despatched a truck and a couple of fitters to get the engine and other necessary parts. This may seem a somewhat strange procedure when engaged in chasing a hurriedly retreating enemy, but any sort of extra transport was acceptable to an armoured regiment, who were always short of issued Jeeps ; recces. had to be done and contact kept with the following echelon—as well as higher or attached formations—and the captured utility runabouts of Axis origin were put to good use. Anyway, the other Mercedes yielded an engine in good condition and a master cylinder which were fitted to my machine ; the master cylinder at once, and the engine when a halt permitted. Despite big-end clatter the old engine served for about 200 miles before being changed. This was the 4-cylinder 1.6-litre engine—I think the capacity is correct—and was a very smooth and pleasant unit. The valves were side-by-side, and the rubber mounting was just about the most flexible
thing ever ! I.f.s. by two transverse leaf springs, one above the other, gave a comfortable ride and superb steering made the front end. of this car a dream. The rear end was not so good.; the system was the swinging half-shaft type controlled by a single coil spring and located by a radius-rod jointed to the chassis.
Whilst giving a comfortable ride, it had the disadvantage of the outside wheel tending to roll under the car if any fast cornering was attempted, and the effect on the steering was deplorable. Despite this, which was no handicap for the designed purpose of the car, the general ” feel ” of it was thoroughbred, and I enjoyed the many miles it gave me. The body was an ugly 3-seater with a huge boot—just the job for luggage—but was very light in construction and well built ; once again the all-weather equipment was excellent. Near Tripoli I came upon the remains of the very pretty 2-seater civilian model which was not unlike the later Triumph “Dolomites,” but, unfortunately, I had no time to swop bodies. This car eventually expired after a particularly bad run of about 20 miles in bottom gear through soft sand whilst trying to locate a detached squadron. At Horns we had come into possession of a Stoewer, the original occupants of which had had large holes made in them by R.A.F. bullets, but luckily the car was undamaged. This was a pukka cross-country German military vehicle and all, four wheels were independently sprung and driven ; a gearbox with five forward speeds was fitted, the lowest of which-was marked ” G ” ; this, I believe, stood for Gelande (cross-country in Aryan), but our ‘drivers always referred to it as “ghastly low “—and it was! No 9-h.p. “trials” special over had a bottom gear like that. To my mind the i.f.s. and i.r.s. were too hard and did not give such a good ride as might have been expected. However, there was no trouble about the cornering in this car. All four wheels were sprung on the same system, two swinging arms, one on top of the other, and controlled by two coil springs. The drive was by short half-shafts, with a universal at each end. The steering was positive, but rather heavy. This car was also fitted with a three-seater body, complete with boot, but was shorter and not so ugly as the Mercedes. The C.O. used this car instead of a Jeep for a long time, until I provided him with a Lancia ” Aprilia “—the ordinary (or, should I say, extra-ordinary ?) civilian saloon, whereupon he passed the Stoewer on to me. Speeds were about 60 m.p.h. in top, 40 in third, and 5 m.p.h. in gelande
The power unit was a 4-cylinder pushrod 0:h.-cf of about 1i-litre capacity. We took this car with us to Italy and it was still running well, after the fall of Rome, in the hands of another battalion to whom we had handed over our transport when leaving the country for a period of rest and overhaul.
The last car to come into my possession before I returned to a tank squadron was the Lancia, and it really was a lovely motor. I built this car up after the Axis surrender in Tunisia. I had been exploring an enemy dump and found the car stripped, but there seemed to be plenty of parts around, so I brought along a couple of fitters and we had a pleasant three days working on a real motor car once again. The body was an open 4seater—of very pleasing lines—and formed the chassis of the car. The front “axle ” was Lancia independent, but the rear axle was normal and mounted on semielliptic springs. The engine was the 4cylinder unit as fitted to the 80-m.p.h. Aprilia,” and had an aluminium crankcase and cylinder block in which were inserted steel liners. The drive went through a grand 4-speed box, and by a divided propeller-shaft to the rear axle ; the universal joints were of metal with rubber inserts, and the whole transmission was ” tight ” and smooth. The car was very low and had a most businesslike appearance, especially with the screen folded flat. The performance was good, about 70 m.p.h. in top—the low ratio again—and about 50 in third. The acceleration was terrific, and many a Jeep driver got the shock of his life when trying to compete. Steering was superb and the ” feel ” could not be bettered. The Lancia gearbox has to be used to be believed, and the change is controlled by a fairly short and extremely stiff lever. Cornering and general roadholding were beyond reproach, and after the Fiat, the Mercedes and, above all, the Lancia, I am completely sold on i.f.s. In passing, I may say that it broke my heart to see perfectly good Lancia and Fiat its. units lying around and myself not able to bring one home for use on a post-war special. Oh, well ! possibly British manufacturers will go in for i.f.s. in a big way after the war is over, that is if they have the chance, since the Chancellor of the Exchequer seems determined to do all he can to limit motoring. Personally, I think that the above-named official and the persons responsible for British tank design are just about on a par—they’re both lousy ! Fortunately, we don’t have to fight ” in ” the tax—only against it.—R. S. (Capt.)