THE AME ICAN WAY
SOME NOTES ON MOTORING CONDITIONS IN THE U.S.A.
IN 1928, when I left England, for America, the sports car was still represented by the Old 30-98 Vauxhall and the 3-litre Bentley, while the 41-litre was just being introduced. Among lighter cars the Alvis in the 1500 c.c. class, and, such cars as the Arnilcar, Salmson and the Cup model Austin were popular.
Leaving such conditions, the American idea of motoring and, their conditions, which have only altered in detail since then„ came as a great surprise. The wide con,crete surfaces and the streams of cars made the eastern side of the United States seem like a perpetual London week-end exodus. In all this motley stream of cars, nearly all closed, there was hardly a sports car at all. A few of the old County Club Kissels, whaleback two-seaters with a wicker carrier for golf clubs, and one or two Stutz
Bearcats, not the present immaculate models, of course, but 4-cylinder machines with a couple of bucket seats and a bolster petrol tank, were the only vehicles with any suggestion of the sports car.
How, then, did the youth ” of America amuse itself in cars ? Actually, with the exception of the cars mentioned, and the Chrysler 75’s with their pale blue bodies, yellow wheels, and flat folding windscreen, all the cars I saw were staid and rather dull-looking saloons. As I got better acquainted with the country and its conditions, I began to understand why the sports car as we know it in England was not to be found. The American motorist regards his car entirely as a means of transport. He leaves his house on an icy morning—and remember, in parts of the U.S.A. you get temperature of 30* below zero—jumps into the car, and switches on. The American automobile is almost invariably a good starter, and almost before our friend has released the starter key he has engaged first gear and is off. He drives into the city, leaves the car outside the office all day, and at night, boards the car again and repeats the performance. Traffic is very heavy and the gear changing which would be required on a small sports car under such circumstances, would be most exhausting, so that a smooth running, flexible engine and a sweet clutch are essential. Finally, when, any small trouble develops, the average owner does not attend to it himself, but hands the car over to the service station which specialises in, the make of car he is driving. The English sports car is a reliable vehicle, but it does require a little consideration in, warming up and in driving, and also oeca,sional adjustments
to keep it up to its best form. The average American driver is not willing to do this, so that there is no call for the light and lively machine which delights the youth ofiEurope.
Shortly after my arrival in America new programmes were announced. Led by Chrysler, low models came into vogue and the four was altogether replaced by the six, and this in turn by the eight. The marketing of Ethyl petrol enabled a higher compression to be used without detracting from the slow mining and flexibility which the American public had learnt to expect. Lighter moving parts permitted, higher power to be produced, while the” double dropped” frame made the cars safe at the greater speeds obtainable. This sounds like a movement towards European practice, but this is only as far as European performance is concerned, as will be seen from the following facts.
There are three ways of improving performance : raising engine speed, lighten mg the chassis, or increasing the engine size. The European sports car usually combines the first two, but the first necessitates gear changing, and the second makes the car less resistant to bad road conditions unless expensive materials are employed. To obtain the higher performance, therefore, there is nothing left except to increase engine capacity.
30 h.p.–13 tax !
The tax of a car varies in different parts of the U.S. In any case, it is only about £3 on a 30 h.p. car. Petrol varies in price, from about fourpen.ce to tenpence a gallon, so one can easily see how the development of the large car has been favoured.
There is a good story about oil which shows how great is the influence of mass advertising on the American motorist. Some advertising expert suddenly decided that the sales of lubricating oil ought to be increased., so he started a coast-tocoast campaign proclaiming that oil ought to be changed every 500 miles. This was so successful that no one ever thinks of filling up their car, but religiously brings them to a service station after the allotted period to have the sumps drained.. Another firm has now gone one better by bringing out a 2,000 mile oil at a greatly increased price ! So the struggle goes on, in cars as well as accessories, each maker vowing that his frame is more ” doubledo wndropped, ” more full y equipped ,ni>re nearly a sheet of chromium plating, th:11 the next.
Engine sizes have gone up, a higher compression is possible by using” doped,” petrol or through improvement in. cylinder head design, and engine revs. have been raised, without roughness owing to the lighter moving parts of the eight-cylinder engines. To take a concrete example, the Oakland which I drove for a year, on one or two occasions reached 88 m.p.h. by speedometer, and must have been doing a genuine 75. Not bad for a £300 car !
Higher grade cars such as the Packard are capable of ninety miles an hour with a light body, all without the slightest sign of roughness. The Auburn group, which also produces the Cord and the Duesenburg, are now concentrating on one size, the” 105,” which is good for 80-85 m.p.h., while the Luesenburg is supposed to d,o anything between 90 and, 110 according to the truthfulness of its owner. We must not forget the Imperial Chrysler, a product of the company who pioneered good looks and sporting lines in America, which should also do about 85 m.p.h. Almost the only car produced specifically as a sports machine is the Stutz Bearcat, which is a straight eight, and is stated to reach 100 m.p.h.
The du Pont was a special car with overhead, camshaft specially made for this famous family, some with sports chassis, and a. few were bought by the general public.
A special cylinder head is also made for Fords, called the Police Head, with which a speed of 80 rn,.p.h. is claimed.
The United States is subject to extremes of temperature, and, in the Middle West ice ‘storms Occur in winter, with snowdrifts 12 feet deep, while in summer tropical conditions are reached. The closed -car is therefore the choice of most Americans, but in the summer a fair number of ” roadsters with nimble seats” (two-seaters with dickeys) are seen. Special “custom built” bodies are seen on Packards, and other high-grade cars, and America can claim to have found the solution of the draught-problem in the back of four-seater bodies. This is contrived by having a movable coach-built flap, complete with Windscreen, in front of the near passengers, which is supported by means of pneumatic cylinders, so that it can be raised and, lowered without effort. This fitting would add considerably to the weight of an English sporting body, but forms a very small proportion of the load, of the luxurious American chassis. Fabric bodies never caught on in
America, but it would have been interesting to see what the Packard, or the Buick could accomplish relieved of its heavy burden of steel coachwork.
In the last year or so the principal advances have been “floating power” free-wheeling, syuchro -mesh gears and ” ride-control.” The first is the two-point suspension of the engine, which is free to pivot on bearings fore and aft, being merely steadied by a leaf-spring. This system damps out a great deal of the vibrations of the four-cylinder engine, and might quite possibly be applied to sports engines. Free-wheeling and synchromesh gears are self-explanatory terms, while” ride control” means control of the shock absorbers from the dash. ‘this layout should. have important effects on the stability of American cars, and it overcomes their habit of rolling on corners at speed while preserving their suppleness when running over bad surfaces.
The importance of “ride control” has already been realised by English sports car manufacturers, and the ” Andre. telecontrol ” allows the principle to be applied to friction dampers.
The New York car show revealed, only one feature of interest other than those mentioned above, and that was the super charger action obtained on the Franklin by connecting the intake of the carburettor to the air passages round the cylinders. Value for money is still more marked, and the 8-cylinder engine fitted to last year’s 2200 Oakland is now on the £120 Pontiac. Everything is ” servo” or ” synchro,” and we seem at last on the verge of the one-pedal car.
A striking contrast.
On my return to England I Was amazed by the number of small cars, sports and otherwise, on the road. An attempt to introduce them into America failed, for apart from their ” parkability ” there was nothing to recommend them to a public which could get four-seater Fords at three dollars a time. However, in England, with our crushing horse-power and petrol taxes, I suppose they are inevitable, and all credit is due to those who have brought them to their present state of perfection.
It is evident that the sports car in England is more popular than ever, and, provides a welcome relief to one who has spent some time in the dull atmosphere of American motoring, where the only motto seems to be, ” Press the button, and. the service station does the rest.”