On The Road

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Having had a “Fiat Easter”, I spent Whitsun, or the Spring Bank Holiday, driving an Alfa Romeo. Re-acquaintance with the Milan make was pleasing because, although the version used on this occasion was a saloon, an Alfa Romeo, in whatever form, I always associate with motor racing. I know you can say the same of Ford, these days. But whereas the owner of a Twin-Cam Cortina or Escort has an affinity with those drivers who hurl saloons round Brands Hatch or tackle long-distance rallies, it is all quite recent. Whereas a Twin-Cam Alfa Romeo reminds one of Villoresi, Ascari, and the great races of before and just after the war. Even in a saloon Alfa, the glamour is there and extreme optimists may even imagine themselves as emulators of Galli or Giunti. . . . For now Alfa Romeo are racing again, and the Targa Florio was a very close-fought race with Porsche.

The Giulia Super I tried was smart, compact and beautifully finished and appointed, being in effect the 1300TI body shell with the 78 x 82 mm. 1,570 c.c. 112 (S.A.E.) b.h.p. engine. In some ways it has dated, being high off the ground, with back windows which wind only half down, no door “keeps”, a not-very-sophisticated instrument layout (although the dials of the Veglia-Borletti S.p.a. speedometer and tachometer are very large, with enormous, easily read white digits, and there is an accurate Veglia clock between them) and a back seat in close proximity to the front seats, while the wipers leave large side areas of the curved windscreen unwiped.

Alfa Romeo realise this and have introduced the new, roomier 1750 saloon, with revised Giulia 1600 power unit. But it costs some £300 more and the older model is more sporting, in respect of dimensions, and has reasonable performance, assuring a top speed of 108 m.p.h. and 0-50 m.p h. in 8.2 seconds sufficient for you. It has a worthwhile specification, not in respect of things like roof-grabs, coat-hooks, self-supporting bonnet, anti-dazzle mirror, reclining front-seat squabs that adjust to make beds, two vanity mirrors, rubber-tipped bumpers, etc. (although it has all these), but featuring a twin-overhead-camshaft, Weber-fed, 5-bearing engine with four-branch dual-pipe exhaust system and impressive alloy sump, a five-speed gearbox, a properly located, coil-sprung, lightweight back axle, and ATE servo brakes all round.

After last month’s observations about automatic transmission, it was only right that the next car I tested should have a 5-speed manually-operated gearbox! The Alfa Romeo box gives a ratio for every occasion, with the highest of ’em eminently usable and not put in purely for Autostrada occasions. I would like it better, however, if it did not, as on the 1300TI I tried some time ago, jump out of this fifth speed, and if the change were lighter and less notchy. Just as tennis players speak of “tennis elbow”, so Alfa drivers tend to suffer from “Alfa elbow”. It is not a bad gearbox to handle, the rigid, clumsily-gaitered central lever being where the left hand drops easily on to it in r.h.d. cars, and there is synchromesh on all ratios, so that first is very easily engaged. It is the length of movement across the gate, the strong spring-loading to the central position, and, as I have remarked previously, the odd action of having to pull the lever towards you, instead of push away from you, to get fifth-speed, which happens only on r.h.d. cars, that somewhat spoils the effect of having all those gears and occasionally left me in top when I wanted second, or starting off in third, because I do not have the ability to concentrate like Graham Hill.

Once mastered, this quiet, 5-speed box is fun, for all but lazy drivers. Other aspects of driving this Alfa Romeo met with approval. The old-style, rather wobbly, pull-out hand brake has minimal movement, the steering at 3½ turns lock to lock, apart from some free movement, is smooth rather than light and is extremely accurate and very responsive, with powerful castor return and no kick-back, the driving position is excellent, with a well set-up steering wheel that has horn-pushes in its three metal spokes. The brakes need a prod to reassure a driver fresh to the car, and the pad of the floor-pivoted pedal is not 100 per cent comfortable, although all three pedals are level. The suspension permits quite an amount of roll on corners and the typical, very faint, lurching, yet the wheels glue themselves to the road, following the undulations, so that it wasn’t long before I had the 15 in. Pirelli Cinturatos protesting a bit on the more interesting open bends. Perhaps it is because of these things, or perhaps it is because this was an Alfa Romeo from Milano which conjured up motor racing memories, but it was very seldom that the car was not driven with verve, concentration and much enjoyment.

The Giulia Super it not noisy, but it conveys a sense that high-quality, high-performance machinery is in motion and that other road-users expect every Alfa Romeo to get a move on. The p.v.c. driving seat is too spongy for my taste, but reasonably acceptable, the suspension is soft enough for passenger comfort yet well-damped, and visibility over the short bonnet is good. I liked the unfussy internal stowage, consisting of a very small, unlockable drop-tray and beneath it a compact, well-lipped shelf, neither of which, however, will accommodate a Rolleiflex camera. There are no door pockets. Also under the facia is a pull-down ash-tray with inbuilt lighter. The boot is deep but commodious. The Carello four-headlamp lighting is fine, until dipped, and is controlled from a r.h. stalk, with a shorter (too short) l.h. stalk working the rather too eager-to-cancel turn-indicators. The tachometer says you can rev. the smooth engine habitually to 6,250 r.p.m. without damage, and the dials incorporate an oil-gauge (normally reading 85 lb./sq. in), water-heat indicator (which sat at approx. 110º F.) and a vague fuel-gauge, supplemented by a warning light.

The angular external appearance of a Giulia Super is neat but hardly elegant. The type-name appears on bonnet and boot-lid and is repeated on the dark-grained facia-trim, presumably in case you have forgotten which Alfa Romeo you have taken out, or to prevent the passengers having to ask! The famous badge appears in several places and, reminder of how we used to look at the hub caps of a car to ascertain its make, the name Alfa Romeo appears on the wheel nave-plates. Awkward turn-keys open and shut the front ¼-lights, the window-winders are mounted high up, and the interior door-handles are not only old-fashioned, but have sharp edges. A German Neiman steering-column lock is provided.

To digress from the car to the organisation, at one time you ordered an Alfa Romeo from Sloane Street but had to have it serviced in Surrey. Right-hand drive conversions were done in Sussex. All this is in the past. Alfa Romeo (Great Britain) Ltd., have in recent times been making great efforts to increase sales in this country. They now do their own r.h.d. conversions and I think the future may see not only a new range of less-expensive models but the co-ordination of offices, showrooms and workshops in fine new premises at a strategic part of the Metropolis.

The test Alfa Romeo had Bosch electrics with an accessible labelled fuse-box, containing ten fuses, a SAFA 6SF84 battery, and a Fispa air-cleaner the big-bore pipe for which crossed over the engine and obstructed No. 4 plug. Its meticulously assembled engine was protected with Agip anti-freeze. The screen was both wiped and washed by depressing a large foot-knob, the fluid being contained in a Foredit plastic container. The oil-filler cap became too hot to remove with the bare hand, and the exhaust system warmed the floor of the boot.

On reflection, I felt that my plan to leave London and motor to Wales on the evening of the Friday preceding the Whitson weekend, or Spring Bank Holiday, was unwise. Leaving Clapham at 4 p.m. we almost immediately ran into the normal crawl over Battersea Bridge, before filtering left. After this the traffic, although formidable, flowed quite well, until it became badly snarled up at the many roundabouts on Western Avenue and the A40. Indeed, the evening congestion was such that London to Cheltenham Spa took 3½ hours, a bad hold-up happening at Witney and along the approaches to and exits from the Oxford ring road. But after leaving Cheltenham all was normal and the Giulia Super was able to get motoring, with a break for tea and sandwiches served willingly for 3s. 1½d. a head at the Trust House hotel in Ledbury.

The more I drove this Alfa Romeo the more I liked it, apart from the rather tediously heavy gear change. It steered and cornered with precision and the 3.6 to 1 fifth-speed meant that at our legal maximum the engine was doing a lazy 3,250 or so r.p.m., for some 800 r.p.m. is saved by changing up out of fourth (in which 4.5 to 1 ratio, 85 m.p.h. is available), yet ample acceleration remains in this geared-up top. The brakes are light but very efficient, and the whole car taut and full of life, with a pleasantly “hard” exhaust note. There is a foot-rest for the driver’s left foot after it has used the somewhat insensitive clutch. The Giulia Super is indeed a car which enjoys itself in direct proportion to the driver’s enjoyment! Yet it is so docile that, when later that weekend we came up with the traditional Welsh pony-trekkers, and when following two horse-drawn caravans of the Welsh Romany Caravan Co. Ltd. (!), in lanes too narrow to pass, it idled along at 10 m.p.h. in bottom gear without a trace of anxiety and so quietly that I could hear the fairly noisy clock ticking. The entire car is beautifully put together and finished, and Alfa Romeos are still rarely encountered here, so that this one caused obvious interest—the only other Alfa I saw, until I got back to London, when I saw two in a morning, was a two-seater driven by a girl in Weybridge, with a ladder sticking out of its n/s, a sort of symbol that even exotic cars can perform useful down-to-earth (or should I say up-the-wall?) chores.

I used this Giulia for enjoyable holiday transport, taking no performance figures. So all I say about its ability to go is that at a cruising speed of 70-80 m.p.h. it is well within itself and that an indicated 100 m.p.h. comes up with no apparent extra effort—yet this is not considered a fast example of this illustrious make. As for fuel consumption, with all the aforesaid holiday traffic hold-ups and quick driving thereafter, this came out at 27.4 m.p.g. of four-star petrol, the tank giving a range of 275 miles, full to bone-dry. As for the twin-cam power unit asking for oil, after 800 miles just over a pint had gone from the 5.1-quart sump.

Three neat little flick-switches on the right of the facia control two-speed wipers, heater-fan and instrument lighting. (Wipers and horn function separately from the ignition.) Under the facia are pendant hand-throttle and choke controls. The latter was never used, the engine starting from cold without choke; I put this and its excellent response and economy down to the twin Weber 40DC0E33 carburetters.

In total, I did 850 miles in a week in this very enjoyable car. Of these the Friday-Monday holiday accounted for nearly 550, and in that distance we saw not a single accident, and only one case of rather rash cutting-in—though who am I to question another driver’s skill in this respect? And, leaving Radnorshire at 10 a.m. on the Bank Holiday, there wasn’t an atom of traffic congestion all the way to Hampshire.

I now have Alfa Romeo back on my “short list”. You can have a Giulia Super for £1,599.

* * *

Perhaps Wiltshire is a very law-abiding county? At all events, the Wiltshire police do not seem to have all that much to do. Because the other day I saw them waving the older cars into a lay-by near Cricklade for tyre inspection. They were at it again on the Sunday of the Whitsun holiday weekend. I know unsafe tyres are dangerous, to state the obvious. A check at the start of a motorway might well be justified. But the new tyre laws have not long been with us and new tyres have been in short supply. So one might be justified in thinking that roadside checks are a bit premature and that on busy days of slow-moving traffic our police would be better employed in controlling junctions or moving on stupidly-parked vehicles, than in searching for cuts and imminent blow-outs. There is also the slightly uncomfortable feeling that whereas, in cases of real crime, a person is not detained unless a reasonable suspicion that he or she may be guilty has been established, in the case of motorists all are suspect until the police, of Wiltshire at any rate, have satisfied themselves to the contrary.

* * *

In this feature in May I commented on a sound like imminent clutch slip when using the clutch pedal of a Ford Escort GT. I have since been told that this is not imminent clutch slip but emanates from the thrust race, and that a change of material has reduced if not eliminated the sound. I am glad to know this, because the clutch of the Twin-Cam Escort, a car now very much in the news, although I have yet to try it, has to transmit 38½ more b.h.p. than that of the Escort GT.

Oh, and that bit about a reader saying that the Ford Escort uses Japanese wheel bearings is confirmed by the sales manager of Ronald V. Henderson (Bearings) Ltd., of Southampton, who are agents for Kayo taper roller bearings, the use of which by Ford has been advertised in The Financial Times and in Ford Times. Koyo Bearings are a division of Marubeni-lida Co. Ltd., which has a factory in Leeds.

* * *

The weekend following my Whitsun with an Alfa Romeo I had occasion to make a very similar journey, over mostly the same route, in a vastly different car, namely, a Vauxhall Ventora. Apart from the type name of this big Vauxhall, which I couldn’t disassociate from beef-suet, General Motors’ Luton branch has obviously followed a sensible dictum with it, namely, that there is no substitute for cubic inches. Because a Ventora is, in effect, the new, low-roofline Victor powered, not by the single o.h.c. 2000 engine but the bigger, pushrod o.h.v. Cresta power unit of 3,294 c.c.

This gives the car plenty of easy urge, in terms of instant acceleration, and a top speed just exceeding “the ton”. Compared to the Alfa Romeo, naturally, it feels soggy, unresponsive, and completely lacking in character. But there is no denying that it wafts along very effortlessly, and, as it has extremely good forward visibility due to very slim screen pillars and is very spacious, it should be a very restful car on long journeys. I say “should be”, for excessive wind noise at cruising speeds of over 50 m.p.h. detracts from the otherwise quiet running. Some luxury aspects are missing, there being no clock, for instance, or vanity mirror in the n/s vizor, while reclining squabs to the separate front seats are not yet available.

However, the interior decor is unusually subdued for a car of Anglo-American conception, the matt black finish being almost sombre and the instrumentation, with recessed and inclined black-faced dials with clear white figures, very acceptable, especially as it includes a tachometer. An unusual item is the placing of the switches for wipers/washers, side lamps and headlamps on the central console between the seats. This is obviously to give the driver access to these controls when he or she is strapped, like a stunt-pilot, to the driving seat, but it does render these switches accessible to small straying hands! Moreover, at night three too-bright indicators light up to identify these switches, and as these reflect in the screen and the n/s window the whole effect is gimmicky and horrid, although the facia-lighting rheostat control does dim these little pin-points of unwanted light.

In spite of this matt-black interior, some unpleasant screen reflections have not been obviated thereby. Another rather odd aspect of the Ventora is the big area of blank black facia wall before the front-seat passenger, which could be an enormous cubby-hole, but isn’t. A rather crude box-like storage bin with an awkward lockable lid is provided above the central console, however, and this just passed my test of taking a Rolleiflex camera. The radio and heater controls are neatly fitted, and a cigarette lighter is located ahead of the central gear lever. The big central pull-up handbrake has a recess in which to park, and the Ventora inherits the Victor’s Rootes-style facia air-vents and flow-ventilation system and the inbuilt safety features of the smaller-engined Vauxhall. There are no ¼-lights and as opening the specially-shaped front windows induces draughts, it is disappointing that the cold-air supply to the car’s interior seems inadequate—even using the two-speed fan continually . . .

The test car had a rather vague, long-travel floor gear lever, and was shod with Goodyear G800 13 in. tyres, which cling well with their pronounced tread pattern. Its luxury demeanour was emphasised by lining on the body sides and a vinyl-covered roof (to keep you warm?). The latter, like the reversing lamps, Butler 450 spot lamps and the wing-mirrors, are extras. The Ventora’s appearance, with four Lucas headlamps, twin exhaust-pipes, “harmonica”-style radiator grille and long, low build, is impressive, even to the extent of being showy, with the special motifs, Victor-trim wheels, etc. Incidentally, having remarked that the name “Alfa Romeo” appears on the hub-centres of the Giulia Super’s wheels, I find that “Vauxhall Motors Limited” is inscribed on those of the Ventora. Perhaps this is becoming usual again, with the disappearance of unimaginative, dish-like plain nave-plates? The fuel filler cap is crude and its neck apparently deliberately designed to resist refuelling from a common can. But ammeter, thermometer and oil-gauge are provided, the last two normally reading just over 70° C and just over 40 lb./sq. in. respectively, and the fuel-gauge, although not possessed of an entirely steady needle, means empty when this gets exactly on “E”which, because I have become accustomed to very considerable pessimism in most modern petrol gauges, cost me a two-mile hike with a can near New Radnor, past Innes Ireland’s country estate, rather as when I failed to heed the fuel-warning light in the Fiat 125, and on almost the same bit of the A44 road—but I suppose it’s good, healthy exercise! Arriving at our eventual destination, we discovered, quite by chance, that on the following day the 750 M.C. Austin 7 Register was starting its two-day Welsh Rally. So the Ventora was pressed into service to follow 14 pre-war Sevens up the mountain road to Devil’s Bridge, where their occupants entrained on the narrow-gauge railway, drawn by the tank loco “The Prince of Wales”, to Aberystwyth, returning on a ‘bus specially laid on, at short notice, by British Railways, for this 30-strong party of motorists temporarily turned railway enthusiasts. Their cars ranged from three Ruby saloons, through a rare Ruby tourer, to a 1927 Chummy, which came all the way from Sussex and took home most of the prizes, and included an immaculate 1930 Mulliner fabric saloon with dummy dumb-irons, a Type 65 sports model, a 1934 Opel two-seater, a 1935 military scout car with those special winching hubs, and joint-organiser Seymour Price in his very smart 1933 saloon. During the following day’s Concours d’Elegance a very rare 1924 coach built coupé joined in, and a vintage 14/40 Humber saloon and a local used-regularly 12/25 Humber tourer spectated—and not far away was that very exciting mid-engined Rover V8 GT coupé Sir Donald Stokes won’t put on the market— mores the pity.

This pleasant Austin 7 weekend was based on the “Vulcan Arms” Motel, where excellent meals to Postgate’s “Good Food Guide” standards are served in the restaurant, to travellers on the A279 Rhayader-Builth Wells road. While on this subject, meals of a different sort, in the form of generous helpings of bacon and eggs and tea, etc., can be had at the Crown Inn at Walton, on A44, not far from New Radnor, for what I regard as very fair charges.

To return to the Ventora. Vauxhall managed to retain manual steering when putting a 3.3-litre engine into their 2-litre car, about as successfully as Royer in the case of the Three-Thousand-Five, for the Ventora has passably light steering considering that front-end weight has gone up by 180 lb. It is by rack-and-pinion, geared 4¼-turns, lock-to-lock. The disc/drum servo brakes are effective but I thought the ride too lively over bad roads, with some shudder and lurching, and the handling only average for a car of this class (the coil-sprung back axle is located by four pendant links and a Panhard rod, but there is excessive understeer). I was also disappointed at the low ground clearance of the car, when heavily laden, the twin exhaust pipes and fuel tank being too vulnerable.

As I have hinted, indirect selector mechanism of a 4-speed gearbox adapted to floor from steering-column lever does not make for an ideal gear change; the action is light, but of long movements. But, for its purpose, this Vauxhall Ventora has most of the amenities, including sill door-locks, a huge boot, alternative “Powerglide” automatic transmission, alternator to feed the Exide battery, a pre-engaged starter, and a 123 (net) b.h.p. six-cylinder engine, protected with Vauxhall anti-freeze, which encourages the driver to go straight from second gear into the 3.45 to 1 top gear. Even driving like this, a very useful surge of quiet acceleration is on tap—the Ventora is certainly a splendid wafter. A tankful of four-star petrol takes the Vauxhall Ventora some 230 miles, fuel consumption coming out at 23.9 m.p.g. As for oil, the Ventora used 1 pint in 650 miles. The heavy bonnet needs propping open, the seats are rather hard and shapeless, and the horn-button not exactly instantly accessible, being on the extremity of the r.h. stalk control.

For those who like this kind of car, the Ventora is a car they will like—and can buy for £1,148.—W. B.

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