ON BRITISH HIGH PERFORMANCE
WE in this country have a curious habit of belittling our own -efforts. ‘We Shout about the ways and achievements and productions of other countries to our own detriment. In _spite of this traditional reluctance to boost our ONVII productions before those of other nations, the fact remains that Great Britain has produced some of the finest and most successful high-performance cars
ever built. That three of the world’s most highly respected sports marquesAlfa-Romeo, Bugatti and Mercedes-Benz —hail from the Continent in no way influences this argument.
The high-performance car, or sports-car, as it has been called almost from the earliest clays of the type, is, when you consider it, one of the most curious propositions that you can market. By its very nature it is expensive and is called upon to withstand rough treatment. That it is expected to appreciably out-perform utility cars Tenders it to a greater or lesser extent a temperamental, even experimental, example of engineering practice. Vet the fact remains that when a customer pays cash for an object there arise.,s an understanding that that object will only be excused only a very few shortcomings or inconveniences in achieving the purpose for which it is intended. Go back a decade or so, to the days when extreme acceleration, high maxinium speed, and an ability to reach and maintain a high rate of revs., meant difficulties with mixture and plugs, tight shockabsorbers, a tendency to valve-burning, much noise and abbreviated carriage-work, and you will appreciate the rather unique position of the sports-car as a salable proposition to persons used to receiving excellent service from articles for which they had paid a considerable price. Little wonder that so many marques, many of them of truly ambitious specification and performance, have faded from the scheme of things after brief cavortings in the limelight of the new -car showroom. And surely a matter of congratulation is that We in this country made quite a number of really successful high-performance cars in the more difficult days of high performance and sold such cars quite seriously as reliable, satisfactory productions, on a profitable commercial basis. There was the most famous of them all, in the form of W. 0. Bentley’s four-cylinder 16valve o.h. camshaft four-cylinder Bentley, which sold in such large numbers from 1921 to 1928 or thereabouts that it is still seen on our roads, tracks, and in secondhand dealers’ showrooms all over the country, not only in open speed form, but carrying spacious closed coachwork, fitted by persons who, although they were not young bloods by any manner of means, realised that, with no price-limit to respect, only the sporting Bentley could satisfy their needs. There was the great “30/08 ” Vauxhall that the classic old Vauxhall concern put into operation in side-valve model E form just after Peace broke out, introducing the famous OE. o.h.V. version in 1923, a car which remained practically unchanged until it was pushed off the market by the acquisition of the
old-established Luton firm by General Motors in 1928. As fine a car as any that that brilliant designer, Laurence Peniteroy, sem., ever designed, the ” 30/98,” -could ‘still out-perform most sports-cars at the close of its period of production, and has certainly outlasted them. I have been told, on good authority, that some 815 of these great cars were sold between 1919 and 1928. Then the Sunbeam company, following the development of twin-camshaft racingcars for Grand Prix racing, put the well remembered twin o.h. camshaft sixcylinder 3-litre sports Sunbeam on the market in 1925, a car which, if not the
most successful car of the niarque, revertheless sold very satisfactorily until dis
continued. late in 1929. The Lagonda concern, entering on a new lease of life after years of light Car manufacture, did very useful business with the twin o.h. camshaft 2-litre cars, before transferring its affections to push-rod 3 and 4-1-litre motors. Alvis Ltd. likewise trininplied with the aluminium-bodied ” 12 30 sports model, which has ever since been succeeded by cars of distinctly sporting aspect—-incidentally, only last month I came across a side-valy ‘1’. G. John ” 12!50 ” Of fifteen summers, still going strong. The comic G. N. of Capt. ” Archie ” Prazer-Nash and H. R. Godfrey commenced as a utility animal but grew into a most sporting cyclecar so that fhe Aldington brothers saw its comimierci al possibilities and founded the Frazer-Nash sports-car factory at Isieworth, a business that did nothing but thrive until some of its thunder was transferred to the B.M.W., when the Aldingtons had the commendable foresight to negotiat e for the British
distribution rights of this remarkable German car.
In its own way the Silver Ghost ” Rolls-Royce was a most successful highperformance car and must be included, though I am not suggesting for a moment that it was regarded as a sports-car by any other than those designers whose intended-pukka-sports-jobs only saw its rear tank, and not that for very long, if the R.R. was driven by the son of the family to whom ” W.O. ” in due course very probably sold a 3-litre. So, looking back a little to what is now history, there is convincing proof that British designers, British Manufacturers and British executives and sales-staff set out to sell ears of sports-type and succeeded, in spite of the tmmarketable factors latent in even the best of the highperformanee motor-cars Of fifteen years ago, or earlier. To me it i8 rather astounding that the successful companies were as successful as they were, even granting the unrest amongst moneyed persons as the result of the Great War, and the fact that to achieve any sort of performance at all in those days—-on roads much freer of traffic than is now the case—an obvious sacrifice of reliability, comfort and silence had to be made–apropos of which, wasn’t there a specially ferocious bulldog kept at ‘Wandsworth to protect the G.N. directors from irate customers, a memory the ” G.” and ” N.” of that famous firm will, I hope, permit me ? (Certainly nothing of this sort accompanies Messrs. Godfrey, Curtis, Robins and Halford around the busy Tolworth factory to-day.) The salai,ility of our Letter sports-cars of the period I have in mind reflects great credit on the foresight and ability of the British Motor
Industry, particularly when you reflect that what were essentially touring cars had been essentially silent and reliable, at all events in the higher-priced classes, since about 1910 or 1912. Nor had we any very serious rivals in the sports-car field. France,’ whose Panhards, Renaults and Delaunays had acquired so excellent a reputation before the War, had the sixteen-valve Bugatti, the 40/50 Delage and the big six-cylinder Hispano-Suiza, favoured by the popular King Alphonso, in the high-performance field, also the majestic 9-litre Renault 45, the Voisin and the Farman. It was, and still is, said that no bad car has ever come out of Italy, and that country of sunshine and beauty had the Lancias, ” Lambda ” and V8 ” Trikappa,” the straight-eight Isotta-Fraschini and the ” 22/90 ” Alfa
Romeo. But Continental cars have waned and. to-day, of the former French grandes marques, only the Delage is widely represented in this country, distributed alongside renowned British makes by University Motors Ltd., although M. Ettore Bugatti’s Type 57, successor to a line of eights, has a notable vogue amongst the very rich. It is the same with Italy. To-day, the Alfa-Romeo—twin o.h. camshaft eight, for Milan went over to overhead camshafts after the “22/90 “sells here in small numbers to wealthy Alfa enthusiasts, and the other great marques hardly at all, though I must digress to observe, as I have done before, that the present Lancia Aprilia, a mere touring car, makes many of our sportscars look stupid.
All over the world there is a universal tendency to proauce low-priced economical utility cars, a thing we do so very well ourselves and in which most of the great car manufacturing houses of France, Italy and Germany have followed suit. The American invasion, however, is a different matter. Before the War I do not think America made any very exceptional automobiles, always excepting the immortal model T Ford, which still works untiringly in the back-o’-beyond in America and Canada, and which is still seen occasionally in as much back-o’beyond as we possess in England—though, considering how the model T sold over here up to 1927 it is surprising where they have all gone. I suppose the high h.p. rating kills them while early Austin and. Morris models survive. But in the early 1920s things took on a very different aspect— the U.S.A. wanted our markets. An uncle, Panhard owner before the WS”, bought British just afterwards, in the form of an Austin Twenty landaulette. But when he wanted a snialler car, which he did regularly once a year, he bought foreign-1 1.4 Citroen, Chevrolet, Overland and British-Willys-Overland consecutively —until the Austin Twelve changed all that. As a small boy I used to ride about in these cars along the narrow lanes of the South Wales countryside (I am. not Welsh) and consequently I clearly remember that these early Yanks had big woolly four or six-cylinder motors, big touring bodies with lots of flappy side-screens, central levers, and external contracting brakes. They bleated along at 35 to 45 m.p.h., indicated by a rolling-ribbon speedometer, and they were all very de pressingly much the same. The Chev. was very like a Dodge or a Durant or a Studebaker. Not that this has any real bearing on the high-performance market. That trouble began a few years back. Sports-type cars had become much more closely related to ordinary cars. They did their desirable stuff without need of frequent servicing, in silence, even with closed bodywork, and, most significant of all, they became easy to drive. All of which was most beneficial to the British high-performance car manufacturers, because the market wherein we were so soundly established opened out and additionally an excellent demand grew up for cars which were in a category between the utility vehicle and the out and-out sports job. But this rather changed outlook also gave the American automobile its chance, because by this time the big fluffy-motored Yank was a very respectable performer. On top of which, it was easy to drive and looked, at all events to the uninitiated, a truly palatial possession. In 1933 a typical American car cost around L400 in closed form, did about 75 m.p.h., acclerated from to 50 m.p.h. in something like 16 secs. and managed around 18 to 20 m.p.g. As” Punch” once said in its famous book review, for those who liked this sort of thing, this was the sort of thing they liked, and, in sober fact, car exports from U.S.A. and Canada to this country have risen from 1,486 in 1921, to 8,913 in 1937. The !-“od work of Mr. Morris and Mr. Austin abou. this time is strikingly demonstrated by the alerican import figure of 20,743 cars for 1920, against a mere 1,486 in 1921. But the figure is now up to half the 1920 total, and at V50 profit per car that is L450,000 lost annually by the British Motor Industry. This, in spite of the duty imposed in August 1924, when 3,900 cars were imported up to imposition of duty in that year, but only 2,345 thereafter, to the end of the year. The increase from 1932 to 1937 has been 6,428 cars, in spite of the fact that Ford now assembles exclusively at Dagenham for the British market and that such makes as Chrysler and Dodge are partially British-built. Moreover, British sales are falling due to a slump and this slump—sorry, “recession “must also affect the import figures. Personally, I hold very little brief for American type automobiles, and the only example I genuinely respect is the Ford V8, designed purely as a utility car, yet offering an 80 m.p.h. maximum and really vivid acceleration in glasshouse comfort, for an expenditure of a mere i1280. Its head design and oiling arrangements preclude high-speed development, unless a big bag of gold is available, but in its normal form it can be a most potent competition car, as Messrs. Soames, Crozier, and the Jabberwock gents, have so recently demonstrated, while this wonderful V8 unit is used for the Jensen, Batten, and Allard-Special sports-cars. Otherwise, I hold the view that there are British high-performance cars fully capable of rivalling the Yanks, in respect of performance, appearance, economy, finish, road-holding, first cost and almost every score on which a car is judged. Which is why I have included such ears in the
survey that closes this article along with the super-sports and sports jobs that we unquestionably build as well as any other country in the world. There is only one other country which at the moment is making a serious invasion on British sales, and that is Germany, as our scare politicians and the scaremonger Press are telling us so clearly. Certainly German imports rose from thirty-five cars (value #3,815) for the first two months of 1936, to 2,339 cars (value E200,384) for the corresponding period of 1 938 , giving rise to rumours of a National subsidy. Actually, I believe that the imports swelled only in respect of utility type cars, and largely because of the sales drive on the part of the American General Motors group with the Germanbuilt Opel. I like to think of certain cars as essentially ” chassis cars” and of others as essentially “body cars,” and it cannot be denied that Germany, along with other Continental countries, does turn out its utility type cars as ” chassiscars “—in other words, whatever their finish and appearance, they do cling to the road and go round corners better than British family coaches. If you do not believe me, try a B.M.W. or a D.K.W. And, just as the ordinary motorist was educated into thinking in terms of speed and acceleration until he went off and bought a Yank, so it may be that all our serious talk about good steering and real road-holding has taught him to appreciate Continental utility cars, even to paying a higher price and putting up with plain interiors to acquire these other qualities. But I certainly cannot see that the higherclass Continentals are in any way cutting in on our market—those cars like the more expensive B.M.W.s and British-bodied Lancias and big Mercedes-Benz, which are both ” chassis-cars” and “body-cars,” at one and the same time. The Type 540K Mercedes-Benz is undeniably one of the highest performance sports-cars in the world, as well as one of the most desirable of properties, as my friend Sam Clutton would express it. But I do not think it sells in this country anything like on a par with our own 41-litre Bentleys and Phantom III Rolls-Royce cars. I believe I am right in saying that Auto-Union Sales Ltd. have yet to see one of the supercharged sports Wanderers, and that British sales of the fast-touring straight-eight 5-litre Horch do not number a dozen. If I am wrongly informed on these matters I am open to correction, but what I do wish to convey is the suggestion that, while these excellent cars sell to a certain useful market of connoisseurs, they are in no sense of the term invaders of our own high-performance market, any more than our Minxes and Minors worry the Opel and D.K.W. in
Germany. The danger of a German Invasion lies in the utility field, in which Opel and D.K.W. have already become so firmly established, and in which Adler, Hansa and Wanderer will probably take an increasing haul as they become better known.
The second part of this article ” On British High Performance” will be concluded in the July issue.