by K. N. HUTCHISON
ELUSIVE indeed are ideals–particularly ideals connected with motor cars. The main trouble is that we enthusiasts are so fussy, and thus rarely find the ready-made car any use to us.
Personally I have been searching for my ideal car for 20 years and I have not found it yet, but I have got fairly close to it, with two very different yet, in character, strangely similar machines. Having owned something approaching 100 cars over the years and having driven many hundreds more of all shapes and sizes, good, bad and indifferent, one becomes rather critical in one’s appreciation or otherwise of wheeled transport! In recent years I have motored many thousands of miles over the Continent of Europe and that sort of motoring requires qualities in a car that are not so necessary if one motors only in the British Isles. Also, the present-day economic and political difficulties, such as limited foreign currency allowances, and expensive and rationed fuel, inevitably have their effect upon one’s “ideal” specification. Some time ago, after a long but rapid trip abroad by car, I started to try to get down my specification for an ideal touring car for home and abroad.
Incidentally, one finds oneself doing this after every trip abroad but so far I have not found the answer to the long-distance expert motorist’s prayer. I felt the need for a car which should be utterly reliable, have superb roadholding, cornering and braking characteristics, with a maximum speed of 90-100 m.p.h., but with an effortless (to car and driver) cruising speed of 80-85 m.p.h., if needed, a car with a tankage range of some 500 miles at a time, with consumption not worse than 15 m.p.g. The gear ratio should be intelligently selected so that one’s high cruising speed of, say, 80 m.p.h. could be indulged in without running at astronomical engine revs., but also should be such that when on the Swiss and Italian passes, one did not have to alternate between a first gear with a maximum speed of a tortoise and a second gear that had not the power to pull the car along. An engine of any size was acceptable in order to obtain these desirable qualities.
As regards bodywork, it was to be practical rather than eye-catching (or decorative, according to one’s opinion), roomy enough for two people and a real lot ot luggage, it preferably should open and close easily at will–a good Continental-style cabriolet sort of body–but comfort was extremely important; no draughts or rattles, and easy to see out of, especially in mountain districts. General requirements included the need for an excellent lock, easy starting and above all perfect reliability when used hard under the conditions hinted at. Journeys of 500 miles a day were to leave the car, driver and passenger ready for the same again the following day.
Well that is what I wanted, but so far I have not found it or even one basically capable of supplying it, but I am still looking.
Two cars that I have driven extensively at home and abroad and of which I at present possess a splendid specimen of each, get pretty near to the ultimate goal, though both tackle the problem very differently.
One is a 1938 Lancia Aprilia and the other is a Continental Phantom II 40-50-h.p. Rolls-Royce. In my opinion these two cars are the two masterpieces of the century. The Aprilia is a perfectly standard saloon, four-door, four-seater and pillarless. It must have done much over 100,000 miles and, in the last 38,000 miles that I have driven it, the head has been off once for decarbonizing, but it has not yet started to reveal any appreciable bore wear. It is a car that demands good and regular maintenance, and the various bits and pieces of accessories, especially those made in England and put on to replace the originals (which were unobtainable) are always giving petty troubles; but fundamentally the car is so outstanding that nothing (certainly nothing in its size category) can get anywhere near it. Admittedly I Iove to grind off the mark on its high first gear and delicate clutch, but from 10 m.p.h. to 80 m.p.h. it is king of the road, and the worse the road the more supreme it is over all other vehicles. Trips of 400 miles and more at a stretch are commonplace. From Farnham in Surrey to the R.S.A.C.’s “Rest and Be Thankful” in Scotland, or Dunkerque to Neuchatel, are reeled off equally easily at a running average of more then 45 m.p.h. I consistently get 25 m.p.g. cruising at 65-70 m.p.h. with a heavy load, and more modest speeds put the consumption down to 30 m.p.g. On the mountain passes the only thing that slows one is the presence of some yawning post-war American Hydromatic-smooth-power something or other, rheumatically lurching and rolling itself to the summit. You can follow the inside hairpin contours on the Stelvie to an inch all the way roundup or down–and all the time the occupants are conscious of the body being attached to the axles by something more robust than pieces of elastic-or whatever they use for springs across the Atlantic. Everyone knows that some of the roads in Northern France are very bad, but on a recent trip we were horrified to watch the contortions of some of our own famous post-war models on the pavé at 40 m.p.h. prior to sweeping past in the Aprilia at 60 m.p.h. and more, and this does not mean maltreatment of the car— it is designed to do this naturally and thinks nothing of it.
We once chased a tail light for 20 miles on the way to Scotland to eventually discover it was owned by an Allard occupied by Peter Walker, and this is probably the only British car made that can hold the road like an Aprilia. Disadvantages of the Lancia seem to be its flimsy construction in detail work, and the fact that it could do with another 10-13 m.p.h. on the speed range.
The other car, the Phantom II, for which I have such admiration and regard, has none of the flimsiness of the Lancia and the incidentals never give any trouble. The one I have at the moment is an Owen Sedanca coupé by Gurney Nutting. It is huge, tremendously heavy (over 2 1/4 tons empty) and virtually unwear-outable. They say a rebore is usually needed at 100,000 miles and as my car has only done 17,000 since new, I think it will be some time before that overhaul takes place. It is, of course, tireless to itself and driver. I have done my longest single day’s motoring in England (apart from Rally motoring) in one of these cars, 654 miles in 16 hours, including all stops for meals. But that is by the way, the real point being that this model and type of car, although old-fashioned, still, to my way of thinking, is supreme as a road vehicle. My first one did 10,000 miles and cost NIL in maintenance. Once in a year’s motoring I cleaned the fuel line filter. It averaged 10.4 m.p.g. over the whole period, a figure being repeated with my present coupé of this type. The maximum speed when tuned for economy is approximately 85 m.p.h., but a little extravagance on carburation and ignition settings will put this up nearly 10 m.p.h., without impairing smoothness or efficiency in any way. Every control on the car down to the smallest switch works with the smoothness and exactitude of a high-class watch and about the whole machine there is that indefinable “something” which can only be described as good breeding. I think the truest test of quality in a car is whether it gives the driver continuous pleasure merely to drive it, whether it be slow or fast, or over a long or short journey. To me the Phantom is far more than a vehicle–it is a friend whose company and manners I enjoy, and what is more, enjoy a good deal more than the company of some people. A recent trip to the Riviera and Italy in the car brought home to me most vividly the sad fact that such cars as these have no modern counterpart. If only some magician could take an Aprilia and Phantom and mix them thoroughly together, mutter a few magic words and produce a car combining the best of both, what a car that would be! Until then it seems as thought the ideal all-rounder can exist only in the minds of enthusiasts.