The Sports Cars of Britain
The Editor takes stock of current productions from a country where such cars “come naturally”
“They arrived in a light, open sports car: the car of the age, the car of youth.” – From an article by Macdonald Hastings in The Sunday Express, 31st May, 1953.
Before embarking on this survey the perennial query arises, what is a sports car ? I am going to look this straight in the loudspeaker and confine myself to open two/three-seaters which give reasonable performance figures. At Show Time, by doing this I should have offended many makers of closed, high-performance cars had I omitted reference to their products. But now, at the height of summer, let us look only at open-bodied sports cars.
An open car is not such an inconvenient possession, even in our climate, as legend suggests. I speak from daily, personal experience and find that quite heavy rain blows over the screen once 50 m.p.h. it attained, and that when erected the hood and side-screens keep the weather out in traffic, and half furled the hood keeps the seats dry while the car is parked. In fine weather the advantages of driving an open car are abundant – one feels close to nature, wind on one’s cheeks, wind through one’s hair, the warmth of the sun and the smells of lilac, new mown hay, hot tar and silage . . You can see where you are going and hear the machinery. Can the term “motoring,” indeed, be honestly applied to travelling about the country behind glass windows and beneath a steel roof ? The open-air worker is, surely, the only member of the community who can fittingly use a hermetically-sealed, fume-hazed, hot-water-heated saloon or coupé. The vast majority of the population toils if not in black coats, certainly indoors and such workers should make a habit of breathing fresh air at least while they motor.
Although Britain has an appreciable annual rainfall, much of our weather is “showery”; yet I find that the number of times I get soaked because I’m out in an open car and get caught in such showers, in traffic with the hood down, or because the clouds burst so completely that I get drenched while erecting the hood, are few and far between – and in my time I have driven cars devoid altogether of hood and, in some instances, of windscreen as well. . . Incidentally, London’s traffic moves so slowly nowadays that it is feasible to get out and erect the hood during one of the many jams, if the weather turns nasty !
The craving for saloon cars I assign to the fair sex, God bless ’em ! I suppose we cannot have it both ways, and if our wives, girl friends, secretaries, sisters or acquaintances, having contrived with the aid of cosmetic science to look absolutely adorable, deem it a sensible precaution not to get wet and/or dusty, who are we to drive them about in any but closed cars ?
Yet there is nothing like a sports car, both for fun and for “getting places” ! Motor racing has “arrived” in England and very big attendances are the rule at Silverstone, Goodwood, Crystal Palace and all the worthwhile venues. Part of the enjoyment many young racegoers derive from these occasions is that of making up parties and travelling in convoy to the circuits. Putting on gay clothing appropriate to an open sports car increases this enjoyment – which could never be the same if a saloon, particularly a sluggish saloon of the sort favoured by Aunt Agatha, had to be employed. There is an answer, too, to those fogies who say, as you tell them of a satisfactorily fast run in your sports car: “Yes, old man, but what do you do with the time you save ?” Even if the saving of time is not so very great, psychologically the effect of being able to motor comparatively easily through the sort of traffic chaos which is now part and parcel of our big cities is very beneficial – or so I find it when, having put another issue of MOTOR SPORT to bed, I seek the same service for myself ! The brisk acceleration, excellent visibility, and good braking of the sports car pay dividends on occasions such as these. When it comes to long runs, I can only say that I should expect a sports car to save me rather more than hours on a main road excursion of 200 miles, compared to making the same run in a staid saloon – and if the fogies find so little in life that they have 90 minutes before lunch or dinner which they do not want, I have yet to reach such a senile state . . .
Perhaps we are agreed, then, that the open-air sports car is a GOOD THING. The sales of British sports cars in the U.S.A. since the demise of Hitler bear me out. I am quite well aware that for the most exciting of the breed we have been required to look not so much to Coventry, Abingdon and Malvern as to Milan, Modena, Bologna and Molsheim. But unless you have a very benign bank manager at your elbow and a skilled engineer under your thumb, the multi-cylindered, twin-camshaft, high-compression motor cars that emanate from these fairy-book factories had better remain just a very sednctive dream.
The Continental countries have the advantage over Britain in that for several decades past there has been motor racing in their midst, as well as tolerant laws and conditions generally, which have incubated very high-performance cars from comparatively small-output individualistic factories – hence motor cars like the 4.1-litre Ferrari “America” which averaged over 88 m.p.h. in this year’s Mille Miglia, the new 3.6 Alfa-Romeo which was second in that fantastic road race, the A6G Maserati, the covetable new 2.9-litre Lancia, and the 300SL Mercedes-Benz of recent, and the 57SC Bugatti of tender, memory.
England builds sports cars to a different pattern, although our latest Le Mans DB3 Aston Martin, Type 450 Bristol, JR Allard and XK120C Jaguar are no mean followers of the tradition-Continental.
In the main, however, we build sports cars for use on our rolling English roads by persons who do not imagine for one moment (exceptions merely prove rules !) that they have the virtuosity of an Ascari, a Villoresi, a Mazotto or a Hawthorn. Many a them even use these cars for attending weddings, if not funerals, and for popping up to the office. It’s true! I know a little lady who does her shopping in a blown 2.6 Alfa-Romeo, and we have all seen Englishmen driving Bentleys through London wearing bowler hats.
British interests lie mainly in sports cars derived from normal production models and it has been so for a long time – ever since 30/98 put it across La Buire at Shelsley Walsh, Aston Martin emerged as a sort of side-valve Bugatti, Lea-Francis won the first Ulster T.T., and since those glorious days when the Bentley-boys prevailed at Le Mans.
Today this process of making cars which combine the pleasure of high performance in the fresh air with the docility and reliability expected of a family saloon, has reached a very high standard of excellence.
We have seen some exciting competitions between some of these sports cars on the Jabbeke Motor Road. Jaguar opened with a run of 132 m.p.h. in 1949 with the XK120, Since then we have seen the Austin-Healey-Hundred record 111 m.p.h. on 2.6 litres, the 3 1/2-litre Jaguar XK120 improve to 140 m.p.h., the new 2.2-litre Sunbeam Alpine achieve 120 m.p.h., and now the remarkable Vanguard-engined Triumph has done 124 m.p.h. on 2 litres. These, and complementary one-hour high-speed demonstrations, are of considerable interest and reflect the very high speeds which sports cars derived from normal components can attain. The cars may not have been strictly as you and I would buy them, but streamlined panels and undershields, and the use of overdrive for the Triumph, have been declared; what is less easy to determine is how much more hairy were the horses that occupied the combustion chambers.
Let are wave my Coronation Union Jack and review Britain’s sports cars, as they are in production up and down this pleasant land (and it still is a pleasant land for all the determined efforts to build all over it, label it, traffic-light it, chop down its trees and hedgerows, deface it with kerbs and roundabouts, and tack colonies of council houses on to each centuries-old village). Out of 36 “approved” makes of motor car now assembled up and down the land, 13 emerge as genuine sports two/three-seaters or convertibles of equivalent seating capacity: Allard (Palm Beach, J2X), Aston Martin, Dellow, Frazer-Nash, Healey (Nash-Healey and Austin-Healey-Hundred), H.R.G. (1,100 and 1,500), Jaguar, Jowett Jupiter, Lea-Francis, M.G., Morgan, Sunbeam Alpine and Triumph. Let us look at these cars alphabetically:
The Allard is the commercial outcome of 100-per-cent.- enthusiastic, former amateur special-building on the part of popular Sydney Allard. He believes in plenty of “beef” in an engine, but has recently entered the small sports-car market with the Ford Consul and Zephyr-powered Palm Beach Allard. The V8 K3 Allard has very similar body lines, so that when Earl Howe used a K3 to open the revived Crystal Palace circuit on Whit-Monday, I and other journalists mistook this Allard for a “Palm Beach ” – although I should have known that the K3 has a divided screen to distinguish it from its smaller brother.
The J2X is really the stark sports version amongst the bigger Allards. It can be had with a 3.9-litre Mercury or 5.4-litre Cadillac or Chrysler o.h.v. V8 engine and has an exhaust note like a rather breathless pre-jet aeroplane. Its de Dion hack axle is a decided asset in keeping the car straight while all its vivid acceleration is employed on a wet road, but it is a fact that the Allard has been more successful in trials and rallies than in sports-car races.
The twin o.h. camshaft six-cylinder 2 1/2-litre Aston Martin is, perhaps, the most covetable of all British sports models and scrapes into this open-car survey in its drophead coupé form, which is the version we road-tested in 1950. I retain vivid memories of exceeding 100 m.p.h. on icy roads on that occasion and of being captivated by the DB2’s acceleration, speed, roadholding and general excellence. There is something rather delightful, too, about a car built primarily for two persons yet costing over £2,600! Since then, in DB3 form, the Aston Martin has ably carried on the great tradition of the marque, so firmly established by the late Lionel Martin and A. C. Bertelli. notably with its victory in last year’s B.A.R.C. Nine-Hour Sports-Car Race, its class victory at Silverstone this year and its high placing in the recent Mille Miglia, in which it was the highest-placed British car. On 2.9 litres the DB3 is creditably disposing of cars of greater engine size. So far as normal usage goes, so great appears to be the demand for DB2s from customers and managing directors alike that Alan Roberts, P.R.O. to the Car Division of David Brown. Ltd., the sponsors, has never since had one to lend us, so our impressions of an early drophead coupé with steering column gearchange must suffice.
The Dellow Mark II is a sensible car, using the dependable and effective Ford Ten engine and intended mainly for rallies and trials. in which spheres it has gained many notable successes. Acceleration rather than sheer speed is its aim, although a blown version is available. A Dellow is the answer to those who crave a Ford-base sports car without wishing to build one up on the Meccano principle. Moreover, it is Britain’s least expensive sports car.
The Frazer-Nash, like the Aston Martin, keeps its high reputation in the sports-car field, although it is beginning to find the Cooper-Bristol a match for it. In Le Mans Replica Mark II, Targa Florio Gran Sport and Mille Miglia form it is one of our most potent sports cars, relying on the well-proven Bristol engine and a notably low weight for its excellent acceleration and really high speed. These are outstanding machines, as well they might be, at prices of upwards of £2,700.
The Healey comes in Anglo-American Nash-Healey form, but it is the Austin-Healey-Hundred with Austin A90 power-unit which attracts our full attention. It is capable of about 106 m.p.h. and in slightly specialised form has exceeded 111 m.p.h. on the Jabbeke Motor Road, yet it costs a mere £1,205.
The H.R.G. is every inch a modern sports car in the vintage tradition with emphasis, over pavé, of its vintage aspect. It will soon be rejuvenated by having the Singer 1,500 power-unit, with twin o.h.c. head if required, as announced elsewhere in this issue. This is an enthusiast’s car par excellence, built individually under the supervision of great little H. R. Godfrey himself, for the delectation of enthusiasts who know what they require and who thereafter remain friends of everyone in the works and benefit from an efficient spares service.
Jaguar, from humble beginnings, has risen to fame indeed. The XK120 will be remembered always as the first car to offer performance akin to that of a G.P. racing car of the late nineteen-twenties allied to the smoothness, silence and docility of a high-grade town carriage. Chief Engineer Haynes recently read a very honest sounding paper before the I.Mech.E. detailing how the present twin o.h.c. 3 1/2-litre six-cylinder engine was developed from some dreams of a war-time fire-watcher to do what it so capably does. This enhances one’s appreciation of a car which has put up some splendid performances, including the remarkable feat of averaging over 100 m.p.h. round and round the far-from-smooth Montlhéry track continuously for seven days and nights, in coupé form. The Jaguar Company sensibly provide the means for obtaining various degrees of “tune,” resulting in speeds from the XK120 of anything from 110 to 140 m.p.h. I cherish as a personal memory the remarkable surge of smooth acceleration with which this sleek car wafts its driver from a crawl to the full ton. There are rather a lot of these Jaguars about the place nowadays, which at their competitive price of under £1,700 is scarcely surprising. The XK120C competition version is sold only to the rich and privileged, so is outside present scope; so far it has not fulfilled its early promise and at the time of writing is not able to defeat the bigger Ferrari or the smaller Aston Martin cars. At Le Mans ?
The Jowett Jupiter Mark IA with Series III engine is a comfortable car, able to close up like a coupé when required and capable, if not of any very sensational top speed, of very good averages on main roads or “across country,” particularly for a comparatively heavy 1 1/2-litre car.
Lea-Francis still offer a sports model, in their rugged 2 1/2-litre, but I must plead personal ignorance of it.
The M.G. TD Midget remains a very excellent and comfortable fast two-seater. Moreover, we must remember that the TD, more than any other car, opened the American market to the British sports car and that if a certain amount of silence and docility can be sacrificed this 1,250-c.c. push-rod o.h.v. motor car can be made to go really rapidly by employing one of the many stages of “hottingup” painstakingly made available by the Abingdon engineers. With a few exceptions I detest the pre-war M.G.s as undistinguished, cart-sprung cars which steer abominably, at all events after wear has taken place, but I have a very warm feeling for the willing, well-finished TD Midget, incidentally the least expensive of all our quantity-produced sports models at just below £752.
I have said enough in recent times about the Morgan Plus Four to be excused from singing its praises or labouring its defects on this occasion. It remains a brisk, rather crudely-built, purely-sporting two-seater, using the dependable four-cylinder o.h.v. nearly “square” Vanguard engine in absolutely standard form. When the new sports Triumph, similarly powered, did 124 m.p.h. I heard someone remark “Tell it not in Malvern,” and I confess I seldom cruise my Plus Four at much over 60 and have never made it exceed 80 m.p.h. Yet I believe the Plus Four may be lighter by about one hundred-weight than the Triumph in its latest form, so it will be interesting, especially as the Morgan is lower geared, to see which gives the better acceleration.
The recently-announced Sunbeam Alpine is very evidently a true sports model, which has exceeded 120 m.p.h. (driven by a girl) and has covered over 110 miles in an hour round Montlhéry, performances which make me exceedingly anxious to drive it. It is scarcely a Sunbeam in anything but the imagination of the Rootes’ publicity boys, and might more correctly be called a Commer or Humber “Alpine” ; after all, a rose by any other name …
So we come to Sir John Black’s exceedingly exciting new Triumph sports model. As you all know, it went out to Jabbeke and a speed of over 124 m.p.h. is claimed for it over the two-way f.s. mile. I was not invited to see this performance, so I can be excused if I suppose it was done with the aid of mirrors ! Even allowing for good streamlining and an overdrive, this speed from a 2-litre push-rod o.h.v. sports model, selling at a basic price of £555, is unbelievable. The engineering team – Grinham-Dawtrey-Belgrove – which evolved this amazing car in a very brief space of time has every reason to be enormously elated, and I am confident that this Triumph will start selling like very delicious hot cakes when it is released for export this month. It is certainly the Sports Car of the Moment. It has the speed -108 m.p.h., hood up and sans overdrive in its Jabbeke form; 110 m.p.h claimed by Triumph in 100 per cent. standard trim. And its Vanguard engine should be dependable – I have had no trouble beyond two blown gaskets with that in the Editorial Morgan Plus Four, and such confidence have they in this power unit at Malvern that, after repairing my car following an accident, they reported it to me as like a new car,” although the plugs had not been changed and no one had so much as started the engine until the day on which I was due to collect the car; when, alas, they discovered the second blown gasket and a defect in the Moss gearbox ! Good “pit-work” enabled me to leave nearly to schedule and I make this digression merely to indicate the dependability of the Vanguard unit. Although it “runs-on” abominably as soon as a little carbon forms on the head, it is quite “pink-free” on National Benzole mixture and, in my case, used the same set of Champion plugs for over eighteen months without a misfire (and a 3s. 6d. Wipac plug just as successfully after I broke one of the Champions while removing it from its deep hidey-hole). I now get equally good results from a set of Lodge NC plugs which I put in recently during a fit of belated spring-cleaning. The engine is a prompt starter, is only just beginning to use the Castrol oil I feed it, and has all its original components.
This Vanguard engine, then, with 8.5 to 1 compression ratio, new exhaust manifold and camshaft, and twin S.U.s, which result in 90 b.h.p. at 4,750 r.p.m. (they claim 68 at 4,200 for the Morgan), is entirely suitable for this new Triumph. And the Triumph is one of the most interesting new cars we have seen for a long time, which cannot fail, I think, to take world markets by storm. Whether it does 110 or only 95 m.p.h., I should dearly like to own one. Which seems a fitting note on which to close this survey of Britain’s production 2/3-seater open sports ears. They represent a range of fast cars of which we may well be proud, and the ready sales they find in America and throughout the world contribute materially to our well-being.
In addition, there are various very potent British sports cars in small production and intended especially for sports-car racing, like the Cooper, Kieft and Tojeiro, photographs of which, together with those of some of the competition versions of the makes dealt with above, complete this resumé: – W.B. (For table of specifications; see page 366.)
RAMSGATE SPEED TRIALS
On Sunday, July 19th, the Herts County Automobile and Aero Club, in conjunction with the North London Enthusiasts C.C., will hold the annual Speed Trials on the Western Undercliff Drive, at Ramsgate. The event commences at 11.30 a.m. There will be classes for racing, sports and saloon cars, and the following clubs have accepted invitations to take part :
B.A.R.C., Berkhamsted M.C. & C.C., Bugatti Owners Club, Falcon M.C., Half-Litre Club, Maidstone & Mid-Kent M.C. and West Essex C.C.
There are challenge trophies for best time of the day, for 500-c.c. cars, sports cars, saloon cars, lady drivers, 100-per-cent.- foreign cars and members of the promoting clubs. Cars will run two at a time over the quarter-mile course. Cars will return to the paddock via the clifftop road, thus speeding up the running of the event.
Full details from the Secretary of the meeting : D. A. Wilcocks, The Cottage. Faircross Way, St. Albans, Herts. Entries close on July 13th.
The sales of Castrol during 1952 were considerably in excess of the average gallonage sold during the previous three years. This also applies to total Group sales throughout the world. In the United Kingdom in 1953, more Castrol has so far been sold than ever before.
We are well aware that Norman Garrard is, and has been for many years, Competition Manager to the Rootes Group. He has organised many successful entries for them, including the splendid performances of Sunbeam-Talbot 90s in recent Alpine Rallies. But Stirling Moss is employed by Rootes as a competition driver and this, coupled with the fact that he had the use at Silverstone of the elaborate Rootes competition service van, led us so far astray as to suggest Moss is Rootes’ Competition Manager. Apologies to all concerned, you especially, Norman! Incidentally, many have remarked on Rootes’ generosity to Moss in letting him use their workshop van on an occasion when he was not driving their products.