What Has Happened, Queries the Editor, to the Under-1,100-c.c., Lightweight, Inexpensive Cars in this Category?
It is an astonishing fact that in spite of the enthusiasm for motor sport prevailing all over the globe, including this country, the class of car which best meets the growing demand has practically disappeared from the British market. I refer to the small sports car, relatively inexpensive to purchase and to operate, which was once freely available to youth and beauty between the ages of 18 and 80. Look at the cars offered today and you will find that the least-expensive “off the peg” sports car is the Mk. II Dellow, at £148 plus p.t., compared with the lowest-priced non-sports car, the Ford Popular, at £275 plus p.t., both, incidentally, using the same 1,172-c.c, side-valve power unit. Moreover, apart from price, the selection of small sports cars available on the British market today can only be termed pathetic. Taking 1 1/2 litres as the top capacity limit we find only six basic sports models by five different manufacturers. Come down to a capacity limit of 1,100 c.c., once so popular, and the representation is reduced to one. Of under-850-cc. sports cars the score is nil, in spite of the one-time popularity of Austin, M.G., Triumph and Vale cars of this engine size and the attention which Continental manufacturers are devoting to the smallest sports cars through the medium of Dyna-Panhard, Renault, D.B., D.K.W., Fiat, etc.
The rising cost of existence in this green and pleasant land, the burning desire to motor interestingly, and the defence of the old Vale sports model by Motor Sport readers (see the correspondence pages last month and this*), indicate with clarity that there should be an appreciable demand for small two-seater and occasional four-seater sports cars of under 1,100 c.c.
In this country the former capacity classes in competition events of up to 850 c.c., 851-1,100 c.c. and 1,101-1,500 c.c. are used less frequently than they used to be, but on the Continent these, or near, distinctions are made. So it seems droll that the Allard Palm Beach is 8 c.c. above the 1,500-c.c. limit, the Dellow 72 c.c. above the 1,100-c.c. limit and the TF M.G. Midget isn’t really a midget at all, being 150 c.c. too large for the 1,100-c.c. class but giving away 250 c.c. to 1 1/2-litre cars.
It is naturally possible to modify these engines to attain the required reduction or increase in capacity, but I am concerned here with “ready-to-wear” sports models. It is significant that the once-popular 1,100-c.c. class is in 1954 — with enthusiasm for motor sport at its zenith — reduced to a single representative, the rather staid Singer Roadster. The under-850-c.c., as I have observed, is deader than the dodo.
In view of Britain’s long association with small sports cars and the latent market for such attractive little high-performance cars, this is a sad state of affairs indeed.
Even before World War I, small sports cars like the eight-valve Bugatti and Calthorpe Minor were finding favour amongst the young bloods of that era. After the Armistice of 1918, firms like Hillman, Singer, Bugatti, Silver Hawk, Calthorpe, Morgan, A.C. and others catered for the small-sports-car market. By the mid-‘twenties such jolly little cars were firmly established in popular favour.
Looking through the files of Motor Sport for this period, it seems that if the Editor was not donning his leather coat and fur-edged flying helmet to test a Grand Prix Salmson he was doing so to try a Grand Sport Amilcar or to sample a sports Senechal, later to be joined by the Vernon-Derby and Mathis Six, etc, Alfa-Romeo, Bugatti and O.M. offered 1 1/2-litre fast cars in a more elevated price-class. British manufacturers responded strongly, with the Anzani-Frazer-Nash, 12/50 Brooklands Lea-Francis, Super Sports A.B.C.. the fast version of the 1 1/2-litre four-cylinder A.C., the Redwing Riley, the very excellent big-port, short-stroke 12/50 “duck’s bottom” Alvis, the beautifully made side-valve Aston Martin, the sports Gwynne, the 60-m.p.h. Jowett, the “Aero” Morgan three-wheeler, the stylish 11.9-b.p. M.G. (actually just outside the 1 1/2-litre limit) which stemmed front Cecil Kimber’s No. 1 M.G. of 1924, a car which today would be too spartan to appeal to most enthusiasts and the police,# and other lesser cars, while other manufacturers, such as Clyno, Windsor, Rover, Bayliss Thomas and Morris, etc., put sports bodies on their bread-and-butter chassis.
It was, indeed, the age of small sports cars! The “three esses” from France — Salmson, Surbaisse Amilcar and Senechal — were typical, having narrow two-seater bodies, sometimes with staggered seats, pointed tails like a Grand Prix racing car, and quite good four-wheel brakes. They had, respectively, twin-overhead-camshaft, side-valve and proprietary push-rod-o.h.v. engines, were capable of 70 m.p.h. or more, and sold for appreciably less than £300 from London-based concessionaires. In the 1930s we had a good range of small sports cars on the market. Cecil Kimber had introduced the fatuous M-type M.G. Midget, virtually a standard o.h.c. Morris Minor chassis with sports pointed-tail fabric body, offering brisk motoring more by reason of light weight than anything drastic under the bonnet. It is nice to sometimes encounter an unspoiled version on the road today, beside which a TF Midget looks like a growing young giant. The M-Type was available in “Double Twelve” form. The Austin Seven was offered as a mild sports two-seater by its makers as early as 1924, and Gordon England soon provided the fabric “Cup” two-seater and the “real racing” pointed-tail, staggered two-seater “Brooklands” model. By 1930 the “Ulster” in both blown and normally aspirated form, was an exceedingly attractive small sports car with a racing pedigree. Triumph offered the Coventry-Climax-powered 850-c.c, Super Seven in sports form, Vic Horsman racing two versions at Brooklands, and the Vale Special used this engine in a special, low-hung chassis. Singer had earlier introduced the sports-bodied “Porlock ” version of the o.h.c. “Junior.”
In the 1,100-c.c. class Geoffrey Taylor had launched his alluring low-chassis Alta and the Brooklands Riley Nine had been sponsored by Parry Thomas and Reid Railton.
From 1930 up to the outbreak of World War II can be regarded as the heyday of the British small sports car. The Singer Junior was soon to blossom out as the famous o.h.c. sports Nine, and Swift, Standard and others floated with the stream in offering sports bodies on their economy-car chassis. The M.G. Midget was developed via the two-carburetter J2 and P-types into the 939-c.c. PB model, the o.h.c. engine finally being replaced by the still-bigger T-type push-rod o.h.v. power unit. Blown and unblown 750-c.c. Montlhèry and J4 versions of the M-type were offered as true competition cars. The M.G. Magna and Wolseley Hornet six-cylinder o.h.c. cars came out as very popular sports models of “betwixt and between” 1,271-c.c. capacity, and the K-type M.G. Magnettes were pukka sports/racing 1,100-c.c. models, of which the blown K3 was in the higher price bracket. Riley introduced several excellent sports models, such as the Sprite and Ulster, which gained prestige because their engines formed the basis of the E.R.A. racing car. The o.h.c. Aston Martin and later “chain-gang” Meadows, Blackburn and Gough-engined Frazer-Nash cars were peers in the 1 1/2-litre sports-car category, to be joined by the then-comparatively-low-priced Meadows-engined 1 1/2-litre H.R.G., which in due course took on a Singer o.h.c. engine and was also offered in 1,100-c.c. form.
What a very different state of affairs exists today! Although the Continental manufacturers are developing some very potent and noteworthy small sports models, these are, not available in the ordinary course of business from concessionaires in this country. The range of British under-1,500-c.c. sports models available in 1954 can be written down thus:—
This is not a very big selection, but if the quality is present it may be argued that this is of no moment. How, then, do these cars compare with those of the mid-‘twenties? They develop far more power, even the Singer, which as a four-seater roadster is not really a sports model at all, giving nearly the equal of the 1,100-c.c. sports models of 1925. But the excellent output of vigorous horses is offset by increased weight. A sports light car of 1925 weighed, ready for action, about 12 cwt. or less, whereas such a figure is today achieved only by the tubular chassis Dellow with its comparatively sober side-valve power unit. The glass-fibre-bodied Jowett Jupiter R4, most exciting of our under-1 1/2-litre sports cars, scales 14 c.wt. dry. It has been a complaint of some of our correspondents that the TF M.G. is too heavy — it weighs over 17 cwt. dry — and although its performance has been maintained or improved by using the Stage Two tune for the engine, this involves a peak speed as high as 5,500 r.p.m. and is likely to produce an overall fuel consumption of less than 30 m.p.g. The small sports cars of three decades or so ago were notable for simplicity and high gear ratios, yet light weight and low drag endowed them with quite “interesting” performance without excessive consumption of the then far less expensive fuel. Let me demonstrate this with another table:
For once I am not riding my favourite hobby-horse by suggesting that the small-capacity sports cars of 1927 were in any way superior to those of 1954 (although if progress is to be measured, let us remember that a big-port 12/50 Super Sports Alvis was considered to give rather more than 50 very real horses and to weigh about 17 1/2 cwt. fully equipped; Alvis Ltd. guaranteed 70 m.p.h. and many “duck’s bottoms” would do 80 or more). I merely imply that this class of car has been disgracefully neglected for many years and that a firm demand exists for simple, economical high-performance motor cars of 1,100 c.c. and smaller. They should have simple power units of comparatively low output to woo reliability, long mileage between servicing and fuel economy, the required performance being achieved by keeping the weight in the region of 12 cwt., preferably considerably less.
How The Sports M.G. Midget Grew Up
I visualise such cars as adjuncts to the family saloon for the middle-aged young, as well as the obvious choice of the rising generation. Although I have reached the age when I am supposed to have one foot in the grave and to be ready for putting out to grass in a nice quiet field within a year or two, I have never felt fitter in my life. I drove a sports two-seater on business and pleasure journeys in 1951, 1952 and 1953 without finding the absence of roof and wind-up windows a major inconvenience and, as keen as ever on motor sport, I can still drive 400 miles in a day without excessive fatigue and without speed or pleasure diminishing as such a journey nears its end. But I am aware that the sports two-seater is not everyone’s everyday motor car. Some people complain of the nuisance of raising the hood every time it rains in this wet country, only to lower it again as the sun re-emerges because driving visibility and ventilation are badly impaired, of being unable to lock the vehicle and render it secure against today’s crime-wave, of it being unsuitable for business and social (as distinct from sporting) occasions, of it causing too much nylon to be displayed during entry and egress, and of a small two-seater not allowing for even a planned family. In the 1920s, because saloons were sluggish, costly and not equipped with mod, cons., the gap between sports car and normal mode of transport was less marked.
The present price of sports cars precludes ownership of two cars in most cases, whereas the re-introduction of low-priced 1,100-c.c. sports models would open up a further market amongst those who would like to take a saloon instead of an umbrella on wet days, an open sports two-seater in place of golf-clubs at week-ends.
It cannot be denied that, however well established and excellent is the present range of under-1 1/2-litre sports cars, it is nevertheless a restricted one. Only Singer and Dellow offer four-seaters, and the latter, developed from a trials car, is not intended to perform at much above 65 m.p.h. The H.R.G. has become relatively costly and is harshly cart-sprung, although admirable for the truly enthusiastic and competition-minded. The Mk. 1A Jowett Jupiter is luxurious rather than inexpensively sporting and I have had no experience of the R4, which for all I know may never have gone into production, although on paper it seems about the best of them all in this category. The M.G. has a big following and we have read recently in these pages arguments for and against, but it is of an unfortunate capacity for competition work. And I cannot give a personal opinion of the TF, because the Nuffield Organisation’s General Publicity Manager, Mr. R. A. Bishop, has informed me that this and other Nuffield cars are not available for road-test by Motor Sport; no reason was given but perhaps they themselves no longer consider the TF a sports car?
When you recollect the excellent sports cars of modest dimensions trade in the past by the small concerns, the big combines should be able to build some really excellent models today — incidentally, what nostalgia is aroused by retailing those small constructors, not to mention the many small coachbuilders who specialised in sports bodywork on popular chassis but which, alas, have passed on.
In view of what is achieved today with engines of 800 c.c. and under in the saloon-car field (right down to the 375-c.c. engine of the Citroën 2 c.v.), I cannot see why a modern 80/85-m.p.h. sports car should need an engine exceeding 1,100 cc. From production sports models of this kind might develop more specialised sports racing small-capacity cars able to defend British prestige in International races and rallies in which, at present, the Continental manufacturers have a monopoly of the honours.
It will be argued that the answer is to build your own sports car from some of the excellent kits of parts now available, such as the remarkably effective Lotus, the Cooper, the Tojeiro, the Buckler or the Lister, etc. Such chassis frames and components, using a Ford Ten engine reduced to under 1,100 c.c. or a Ford Consul similarly brought below 1 1/2 litres or a “hotted-up” M.G. engine increased to the latter capacity, provide just what I have in mind, especially as good roadholding and handling qualities generally are so essential to the enjoyment of sports motoring — some of us remember how we longed for an Ulster Austin Seven instead of a Chummy, even if it had to have a “cooking engine,” because of the greater safety and control it offered even at modest speeds.
Not everyone, however, even with memories of their Meccano days still clear, wants to build a sports car. For this reason I think a return on the part of our manufacturers to under-1,100-c.c. sports cars is overdue. They would represent attractive vehicles both for home consumption and export. Shall we see some new small sports cars in this category at the next Earls Court Motor Exhibition?
*This is particularly interesting, because before these letters were received I should have agreed with “A. B. C.” in his comments on this particular sports car . —Ed.
# I drove this excellent “early morning” car about three years ago and enjoyed the experience enormously. — Ed.