For the second year in succession the French owned Total Oil Products (G.B.) Ltd. petrol company held their Foreign Car test day at Silverstone. Total supplied the petrol, the Concessionaires of most of the foreign car firms supplied the cars and members of the British motoring Press supplied the drivers.
Naturally most interest centred on the faster cars as the slower cars tend to become somewhat lost on the vastness of the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit, and there were various interesting cars lined up in the paddock waiting to be unleashed. The most impressive sight was a row of Ferraris, a bright red GTO, a 2+2 and a 250GT. These had been brought along by Maranello Concessionaires, but inquiries elicited the information that journalists could sit beside the driver but not touch the steering wheel. As the object of this test day is presumably to allow journalists to gain driving experience on cars they do not often drive, the presence of the Ferraris seemed pointless, especially as the Maranello Concessionaires drivers appeared to be treating the day as a free day out on a circuit. One could almost have forgiven them this, but those journalists who did sit in the cars reported that they were driven terribly slowly. Maybe, with nearly £6,000 of motor car that is the only way to drive.
Alfa Romeo were more amenable to letting journalists drive although they liked one of their men to sit in the passenger seat. I picked the 2600 saloon with right-hand drive and a floor mounted lever for the 5-speed gearbox. The Editor and another passenger reclined in the back seat while ex-racing driver Richard Shepherd-Barron, who is now with Alfa Romeo, sat in the front seat, so that my natural enthusiasm was curbed somewhat. Even with this load the car accelerated well with a very quiet engine and very little wind noise round the body. The gearbox was a delight to use, the four lower gears being in the normal H-pattern with 5th to the right and forward of 4th. As the lever is spring-loaded towards the 3rd/4th gear position, downward changes from 5th were easily accomplished. Fifth could be engaged on Hangar Straight at which point over 100 m.p.h. was showing on the speedometer and again at Abbey curve and through Woodcote which was taken at around 90 m.p.h. Fourth was used for all other corners except Becketts which requires 3rd. The Alfa rolls a fair amount and the Pirelli tyres squeal but refuse to break away and the car exhibits very pleasant understeer characteristics. A lot more will be heard of Alfa in this country in the future, as right-hand drive cars are now available and an intensive sales campaign is getting under way.
With all the fast machinery circulating rapidly, I next turned to the N.S.U. Prinz 4 which proved to be rather lost on this circuit. The little twin cylinder overhead camshaft unit got up to 60 m.p.h. in 3rd then went on to around 70 m.p.h. in top and after a couple of laps I found that it could be driven round flat out in top gear with the throttle nailed to the floor if necessary. Beketts is a bit frightening at first but speed is quickly scrubbed off by the tyres and little of the expected rear engined oversteer became apparent.
The Mercedes 220S came along next, this one having the floor change conversion which can be fitted by Mercedes in England for around £60. The lever is nicely positioned and works very well so that we should not be at all surprised if Mercedes do not go over to this layout on the whole range. The car felt well balanced but the front end tended to plow on the corners with excessive understeer calling for hard work on the steering. My suggestion to the German mechanic who accompanied me that some more air in the front tyres might improve things was greected politely but he gave me to understand that “Mercedes know best.”
I had been led by advertisements in American magazines to expect the Dodge 440 to be something like a GTO Ferrari only slightly quicker. Naturally, I was disappointed, but I can see some merit in the American way of motoring for the automatic transmission was very smooth and the acceleration both rapid and silent. It handles reasonably well for such a large car, but after about 50 laps at Silverstone the brakes were completely shot. And if you are unfortunate enough to be hit by that awful grille you would be sliced up into very small pieces.
The Simca 1000 seemed a lot better on the track than it did on the road, for it was not susceptible to the slightest breath of wind, and when hurled into a corner it understeered initially, then changed very gradually and predictably to oversteer. The very fine five-bearing engine was incredibly smooth for such a small 4-cylinder and would reach an indicated 80 m.p.h. in 3rd if pressed without showing signs of distress. The Simca personnel did not seem to think that anymModifications had been made to the car since our road test, but this one was certainly more impressive.
The squat, low Mercedes 230SL had been attracting a lot of attention and eventually I was able to take it round. It has the 6-cylinder engine developed front the 220 range and gives very useful power, but the battleship construction and luxury trimmings make this a heavy car, so that although it is a worthy successor to the 190SL, many people must regret that it also replaces the 300SL. Having a very wide track the 230SL corners very well and the power steering of the example tried was very light but gave enough feel to give the driver confidence. All the same, a big sports car should not need power steering as Jaguar have proved. The floor gear change worked extremely well and I saw 85 m.p.h. in 3rd and 110 m.p.h. in top on Hangar Straight.
The B.M.W.700 Luxus came next, this being a full 4-seater with the B.M.W.700 coupe engine. However, with three up it felt sluggish, the little flat twin engine having a lot of weight to propel. It cruised round the circuit at between 65 and 70 m.p.h. and handled well as do all the B.M.W. 700 range. To confirm this I took out the 700 coupé immediately on returning the Luxus and this proved to be a very pleasant car on the circuit having virtually no sign of the expected oversteer. The gear lever is a little woolly as is the case with many rear engined cars but synchromesh is good and the car will better 80 m.p.h. quite easily on the straight.
Another American car, the Rambler, came along next. This suffered from a garish interior and a fair amount of roll which lifted the inside rear wheel off the ground on the faster bends. As this model only had the 6-cylinder engine, acceleration wasn’t impressive, but it could reach 90 m.p.h. without strain. The brakes were prone to fade if worked hard.
The Volkswagen 1500 accelerated rather sluggishly, rolled on the corners, exhibited oversteer tendencies if pressed hard and seemed generally unimpressive, but as a road car it is obviously an entirely different proposition.
Total and Hodgkinson Partners who organised the Test Day are to be congratulated on this interesting day of driving diversity and to be commiserated with where necessary.—M.L.T.